48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

46. Sems and Clems

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

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

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

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

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

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

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

She covered up again.

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

“Depends on what we find.”

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


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

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

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

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

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

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

“Why so long?”

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

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

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

“I know…”

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

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

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

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

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

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

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

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Understood.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

“I did,” Bishop said.

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

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

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

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

“Better how?”

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

“Micro-sems?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

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

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

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

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

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

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

“Then do that.”

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

No one responded.

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

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

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

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”

44. Fault Detected

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

Victoria nodded. “Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it all.

Her mind raced about.

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

The elevators.

There they were.

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

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

“In… this building, Your Majesty?”

Now!”


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

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

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

Sakhr grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But they can apprehend us.”

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

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

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

He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.

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

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

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

“Are the doors normally locked?”

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

“Can we can break this down?”

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

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

“What about any—”

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

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

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

“Why? What’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”

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

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

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

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

“How many security floors are there?”

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

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

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

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

“Will there be a ship we can use?”

“Maybe,” replied Quentin.

“Then let’s go.”


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

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

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

“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”

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

“Yes.”

“Then we should contact the police?”

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

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

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

“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”

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

“And who can grant clearance?”

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

“Is there anyway around that?”

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

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

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

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

“Bishop?”

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

“Sakhr is loose.”

What? How?”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“How are you so sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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


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

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

“You took your time,” Alex said.

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

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

“We need to get inside first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.

“Maybe not.”

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

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

“What’s telenav?”

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

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

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

“Can you hotwire it somehow?”

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

“So that’s a no…”

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

“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.

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

“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.

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

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

“It’s an assembler.”

“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.

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

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

“A lot.”

“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.

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

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

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

43. All Wrong

Winnie’s first thought was that she’d somehow been transported underground. She could hear voices, but they were muffled, as though something were covering her ears. Worse, something was covering her entire body—dirt, or some kind of pebbly rubble. Perhaps the ceiling had collapsed; there was something heavy resting on her back.

She could move, kind of, but it felt wrong. Her limbs felt swollen and stiff. They must be numb since she couldn’t feel her hands, fingers, or feet. Had they been crushed?

Panicked, she tried to remain motionless. Moving her crushed limbs would make them worse. Why didn’t she feel any pain? Was she in shock? Maybe. She felt cold, yet her surroundings felt warm. Was this blood loss? Was her body shutting down?

Winnie tried to scream—in distress, in pain, in fear. All that came from her mouth was a pitiful wail that sounded wrong. She couldn’t make words; her tongue felt swollen. And her teeth… were missing? Everything about her mouth was wrong. Everything about her body was wrong.

She screamed again. Again, the same raspy wail. This time, she didn’t stop.

Her inertia shifted; she was moving. Then something indistinct was before her, hardly visible in the dark. She screamed again. It came closer. It wasn’t human. Was it a ship? Someone in an armored suit? No. It was… a hand? A giant hand?

It flicked her on the face.

“Shut up, you. We’re talking.”

The hand floated away. Winnie followed it with her eyes. It was attached to a giant human, one that was holding her.

And then she understood.

She wasn’t buried underground.

She was being held by a human.

…a human that looked identical to her.

Winnie closed her eyes. Concentrating on her power, she visualized herself.

She was a tortoise.

She screamed all over again. In her mind, she saw her tortoise-self make the same little yelping gasps Marzipan had been making. It was pitiful. No one would ever know what she was trying to convey. This was a terrible dream, or a bad trip. Even her mind felt broken and sluggish.

A part of her was aware of her bladder releasing.

“Oh, hell,” her human body said. It shuffled her from hand to hand as it shook off urine. It looked her in the eye again. It’s expression was alien to Winnie, as though she’d seen the face a million times, and now it didn’t look like a face anymore. It took her time to realize it was sneering.

“Tell me we don’t have to take these shits with us.” Winnie’s tortoise ears could hardly make sense of his words. It was only through her power that she could understand him.

“No,” said Helena, or whoever was occupying her body, “We can leave them. This one though.” The Helena impostor stepped over the enclosure and picked up Marzipan, or rather the real Helena. Everything was starting to make terrible sense. “This is Victoria’s daughter. We will take her with us.”

Winnie’s body put Winnie on the ground. Winnie tried to stand, but failed.

“Hold it.” This was the caretaker. “That one has a power.”

“This one?” A foot rested on Winnie, keeping her pinned.

“Yes. It has awareness of all that it chooses to notice, at least that’s my best guess.”

“Anything?”

“In the present physical world, yes.”

“Then Victoria will no doubt consider her valuable.” Helena’s imposter faced Winnie’s imposter. “Alex, hold on to her. Christof, are there any other powers here?”

“Three that I see,” the caretaker replied. “Sibyl is over there. And there and there are two others.”

“Point them out. We’re taking them with us.”

“Why?” replied Winnie’s impostor, apparently Alex. “If we walk out of here with an armload of tortoises, we might draw some attention.”

“Victoria locked them in here just like she did us. They could be allies. And we need to know their powers. Anything they can do, she can do. Come.”

Alex picked Winnie up. They walked to the other enclosures. The one called Christof stopped before one. “Here is Sibyl.”

“Damnit,” the Helena impostor muttered.

Alex burst out laughing.

Winnie saw in her mind what was wrong. The tortoise was humongous. So much so that any one of them could climb on its shell. It’s plaque said it was a Galapagos tortoise.

Oh my God,” Alex said. “She’s still a fat-ass.” He stooped to look the tortoise in the eye. It gazed back. “Oh. Oh my. They had to put her on a diet… because she was gaining weight.”

“Take this seriously,” impostor Helena said.

“Should we swap her with one of the other tortoises?” Christof asked.

“We’ll have to.”

“Or,” Alex regained his composure, “we leave her, because she’s deadweight. Heavy deadweight.”

“We are not leaving her behind,” impostor Helena said. “Or any of the powers.”

“We can’t have much time. Any minute she could figure out we’ve escaped. We can’t go saving everyone.”

“Would you rather I have left you?”

I am useful. Sibyl is not.”

“We are not leaving anyone behind. You might not realize this, but Victoria is the queen of the world now.”

What?” Christof said.

“Of course I know that,” Alex replied.

“Then you will realize that escaping is just the beginning of our problems. She will hound us to the ends of the earth. We need allies. We need to work together.”

“Hold on,” Christof said. “She’s the queen? Of the world?”

The Helena impostor hushed him. A white flashlight beam danced from behind the trees and shrubs. Winnie could see who it was long before they could. Two guards were approaching. She recognized one from the night before.

“How many?” Helena impostor peered toward the light? “Is it two?”

“Yes. Two,” answered Christof. “Do we hide?”

“No. They must know we’re here. But this is good. Alex, you can read tortoise minds, right?”

“Did you miss just now when I read Sibyl’s?”

“Go with Christof. Figure out which of the other two will most likely help us and bring them. Go. Be quick!”

Christof hid the tortoise in his hands behind the enclosure. Alex did the same with Winnie. They hurried off toward the other enclosures. As the guards approached, the Helena impostor likewise put Helena out of view with the others. Winnie knew what was about to happen, the impostor would need her hands free, because she was about to steal those guard’s bodies.

This was a nightmare. No, it was worse, because no matter how foggy or slow Winnie’s mind was working, she couldn’t wake up from this. It was reality, and it was all because of her. She had cracked Marzipan’s cage. She had invited that impostor to come down here, where all these other prisoners were. And now these guards would suffer too.

But right now, she couldn’t think about that. Her captors had put her down, and they were preoccupied with the coming guards. If there was ever a chance to escape, it was now. It wasn’t just a matter of saving herself and Helena, is was about not letting herself become a pawn.

These people had been the queen’s prisoners once. They clearly still feared her. She would have all of their powers on that necklace of hers. That meant she could swap bodies. Why had she never told anyone about that? …well, there were probably a thousand reasons why not, but Winnie didn’t ponder them right now. What was important was that Victoria had the power fix all of this.

If Winnie could get away, then she couldn’t be used against Victoria. It was all she could do, but it would help.

It was time to figure out how to be tortoise.

Winnie concentrated on her new body. Her limbs felt like stumped clubs. She tried setting them on the ground and lifting. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get her legs beneath her. It had to be possible though.

She looked at herself with her mind and saw a tortoise trying to do ballet with its legs bunched up beneath it. Of course that was wrong. Tortoises walked with their legs out to the side. She tried it. The stumps of her new limbs pressed flat against the ground. She felt like a bow-legged cowboy, but it worked. Concentrating, she put on foot in front of the other. It was progress. Up ahead, she could see the shrubs along the side of the walkway. If she disappeared into that, then maybe she could hide from her captors.

Then a tortoise cried from behind her. Glancing with her mind, she saw Helena struggling to catch up. She was doing the same ballet leg bunching Winnie was doing. Close behind her was the caretaker. He’d figured out how to stand and was looking from Winnie to Helena. He couldn’t possibly know what was going on, but he seemed more in control that Helena.

It was excruciating waiting for Helena to catch up, but Winnie did so. She kept her mental eye on the humans.

The guards came close. The one with a flashlight was potbellied. He aimed the light at the impostor.

She shielded her eyes. “Hello?”

“Your Highness? Are we going to go through this again?”

The potbellied guard heard Alex and Christof mucking about at the other enclosures. He shined his light. “Who’s over there?”

The others approached. Alex carried a tortoise.

“You’re taking them out for a stroll this time, I see.” The guard focused on Christof, who was in the caretaker’s body. “Did you let them in here?”

“I did,” Christof replied.

“This couldn’t wait until morning? This place is supposed to be off limits at this hour.”

“Nevermind that,” Alex said. “Look at this little guy. Here.” He held the tortoise out toward the guard with the flashlight.

“I don’t want to—”

Helena grabbed his hand and slapped it onto the tortoise’s back.

A shiver passed through all of them. The guard collapsed. “Wooaah,” he yelled. “Woah woah woah. What? What the fuck?”

The other guard reached for his sidearm, but Alex, Christof, and the Helena impostor swarmed him. Each grabbed an arm and wrestled him into the pen with the galapagos tortoise.

“What. Hey?” The struggling guard fought against the others, but his legs caught on the low enclosure wall and he tumbled backward next to the giant animal. The Helena impostor placed a hand on both. Another shiver.

The giant tortoise wailed and thrashed. The Helena impostor and the others quickly got out of the enclosure.

Compared to the flashlight guard. Whoever took this person’s body was much more calm. They looked about wildly, then settled their gaze on the Helena impostor. “Sakhr?”

“Yes, it’s me,” the Helena impostor said.

She looked about at the other two. “Alexander? Christof?”

“That’s right,” Christof said.

Winnie’s mind caught on that. Alex was short for Alexander? There was a man in her body? That was such a worse violation than before. What would that man do with it? If Winnie got her body back, would it ever feel clean again? She tried not to dwell on it. Helena had finally figured out how to walk like a tortoise. She caught up with Winnie, and together with the caretaker, they hiked into the shrubs. Winnie led the way.

“How did you escape,” the guard asked. They’d called him Sibyl, right? That was a woman’s name.

“It’s a long story,” Sakhr said.

“Yes,” Alex said. “And quick question. Am I drunk?”

“Yes. We both are.”

“Ah. I see.” Alexander took the sidearm from the one called Sibyl. She didn’t seem to notice. He pondered for a moment how to holster it on the dress Winnie had been wearing, then made do with tucking it down down Winnie’s cleavage. It hung out of the dress awkwardly, but stayed put.

“Excuse me!” This yell came from behind them. The guard who’d held the flashlight was still sitting on the ground. Beside him lay the tortoise Alexander had carried. In the struggle, it had dropped onto the walkway. Its shell cracked open. Red flesh glistened within. Blood seeped. The wails it made were pitiful. Winnie had only been a tortoise for minutes, but she already understood its pain—like having her nails crack and fall off, exposing the nail bed, only for her entire back. Whoever was inside that tortoise was going to die, slowly and miserably.

She could only plod onward.

The impostors turned their attention to the guard sitting down.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “I’m free?”

“In a matter of speaking,” replied Sakhr.

“You freed me?”

“I got you out of the tortoise, yes.”

“Is Victoria dead? Are you the queen now?”

“No. This is a jailbreak. I have released you because we believe you might be of help to us in getting free.”

“Free?” said the man. “What are you escaping from?”

Alex chimed in. “He thinks you’re the queen’s daughter.”

“I am not,” Sakhr corrected. “I took this body for myself, just as I gave you that body.”

The man blinked, then glanced down at himself. “What the hell? Who the hell am I? Who’s body is this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s fat. I wasn’t fat. Where’s my body?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have time to get you another body right now. We are currently inside—”

“Will we get my body back?”

“Listen. The only reason we got you out is because my friend here thinks you can help us escape,” Sakhr gestured to Alex, “but if you’re going complain, we can put you back in the tortoise and leave you. Understand?”

The man looked at the broken tortoise beside him. It didn’t move much anymore.

“Yeah. Okay. I get it,” the man said, “but we will deal with this later, right? This isn’t my body forever now. Maybe we’ll find mine?”

Sibyl spoke. “And do you think maybe I could get a woman’s body? I don’t want to be a man.”

Sakhr held his palms up. “Later, everyone. Right now, I want to know who you are.” He looked at the other man.

“I’m Quentin Avery.”

“Do you have a power?”

“A what?”

“Yes, he does,” answered Christof. “Some kind of understanding of the world around him.”

“He has an extra sense?”

Christof shook his head. “No. It’s… understanding, not knowledge or awareness. He intuits the natural world.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Quentin asked.

Sakhr studied him. “Your power. Your… flair, I suppose. You do know about it, don’t you?”

“Flairs? You mean those magic things? No. I don’t have a flair.”

Katherine never told him,” Alex said, “but he’s an inventor. This is the guy who developed repulser technology. He didn’t have to work very hard at it either. Hey,” he snapped his finger at Quentin. “Look at me.”

Quentin gave him a scrunched look. Alex gazed back as though reading small font.

He was reading Quentin’s mind, without a glyph. That made him the original mind reader, not Bishop as Victoria had let Winnie believe. All of these people were the original flairs, and they hadn’t been Victoria’s loyal exemplars, but her captives. That meant Winnie and Sara the shield girl were the only two flairs who weren’t prisoners. Winnie didn’t have time to dwell on the implications of that either. Right now, she needed to escape.

She, Helena, and the caretaker were well off the path, but they weren’t hidden yet. She’d already found a spot beneath a hedge where they could hide. Its underneath was a pocket that a human would have a hard time reaching into. If nothing else, it would stall these impostors and buy Victoria more time to find out about this. If Victoria set all this right, Winnie would never, ever, ever do anything disobedient again.

Alex was still scrutinizing Quentin’s eyes. “Yeah. Science. That’s his power, and he definitely didn’t get it from studying. Katherine kept him in the dark on purpose.”

“What the hell are you all talking about?” said Quentin. “Who’s Katherine.”

“You know her as Victoria,” Sakhr said. “You have a supernatural power. She knew about it, but she never told you.”

“What? How the hell could you know?”

“Because we too have powers. I can swap bodies with others. Alexander here can read minds. Christof can see your power directly. Sibyl is an empath. You, it seems, have a supernatural understanding of the sciences.”

“Uh, or I’m… you know, intelligent.”

“Perhaps. We’ll discuss it later. Only one question matters now. Victoria locked us into these animals and kept us like pets. I don’t know how long I’ve been her captive, but now that I’m out, I will make her pay for what she did to me, and ensure she can never threaten me again.” He stared fixedly at Quentin. “I don’t know you. I don’t know what your relationship with her was or why she locked you away like us. All I care about is this: Will you help me destroy her?”

A smile spread over Quentin’s face. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll help you. Let’s kill the bitch.”

“Excellent.” Sakhr turned to Christof. “The other tortoise. Does he have useful powers?”

“Very useful,” Christof replied.

“Unfortunately,” Alex said, “he won’t help us.”

“Why not?”

“He’ll be a liability. Trust me.”

“Hmm. Get him anyway.” He scanned the ground. Winnie could tell he was looking for her and the others. Fortunately, they were just now entering the hidden pocket beneath the shrub.

“Sibyl?” Sakhr said. “There are three people hiding from us. Where are they?”

Sibyl didn’t even have to to think. She pointed, through the leaves and bushes, directly at Winnie. “Are you talking about them over there?” she asked. “They crawled away when they thought no one was looking.”

Winnie’s heart sank. Of course the empath would see her. Winnie’s great escape amounted to nothing. The imposters reached the bush before Winnie could even consider running farther.

She wasn’t going to go peacefully though. She oriented herself toward them and prepared.

Christof and Sibyl knelt and reached for them. Winnie snapped her jaw. Christof whipped his hand away.

“Damn,” he said. “They’re fighting.”

Winnie tasted blood. It was the caretaker’s body. Hopefully he’d be okay with that once he got his body back.

Sibyl reached from the other side and snatched Helena. Helena thrashed and snapped, but it didn’t help. The caretaker had his jaw ready, but Christof caught him from behind too, giving him no chance to fight back. Only Winnie was left, but they wouldn’t sneak up on her. Her power let her see their approach. Christof got down on his belly and reached in from two sides. Winnie whipped her head back and forth to face both hands, her jaw ready to clamp.

He reached with his left, she snapped, then he latched his right onto her shell. With leverage, he kept her from turning as he got a steady hold of her and pulled her out. He peered at her at eye level. “That wasn’t nice,” he said.

Back with the others, Sakhr took Helena from Sibyl.

“What about these two?” asked Christof.

“Leave them.”

“But this one has powers.”

“Oh, right.” He considered. “Then yes. Bring it.”

“What’s the plan?” asked Alex.

“Simple,” said Sakhr. “No one knows that we’re out yet, but we’re still not free. As far as anyone else can tell, I’m the queen’s daughter and you’re all with me. We walk out the front door.”

42. In the Dark

“Helena?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” she asked. How drunk was she?

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I think I might throw up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

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

Marzipan kept squirming.

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

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

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

“Then how do we get in?”

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

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

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


“You what?”

“It was an accident,” Winnie said.

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

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

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

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

“We’re sorry about that too.”

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

“We’re really sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The caretaker sighed. “Let me get dressed.”


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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

Her phone chimed.

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

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

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

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

“And then the marines will evacuate?”

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t think I could.”


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

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

“We will,” Winnie said.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“No. These are all of them.”

“How many are here?”

“Five.”

“How long have they been here?”

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

“Decades, would you say?”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

“We just—”

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

She was holding two tortoises.

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

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

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

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

Then everything changed.

40. Unstoppered

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

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

“Is everyone away from the door?”

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

“How long?”

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

“Are your marines ready?”

“Standing by, ma’am.”

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

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

“Admiral.” she said.

No response.

“Admiral?”

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

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

Admiral,” she shouted.

No response.


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

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

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

“Jose,” Tan mumbled without glancing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then lift it.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bishop spoke. “I got a hold of them.”

“The bridge?”

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

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

“Bishop?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Give me a second… yes.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It smells like someone juiced a Christmas Tree.”

“Try it.”

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

“Noooo.” Winnie mopped up frantically.

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

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

“So?” Helena poured gin on its surface.

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

“Are you serious?”

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

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

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

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

“No. Stop.” She caught Helena’s hand.

“Are you going to drink that up too?”

“Do you promise to stop?”

“Okay. I’ll stop if you drink it.”

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

Helena was beside herself with laughter.

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

A loud pop sobered them both.

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

“We should go.”

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

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

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

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t do that,” Winnie yelled.

“What? The glass is already broken.”

“Are you trying to get in there?”

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

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

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

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

“Please, Helena. Stop.”

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

She reached in and grabbed Marzipan.

39. Screeching Metal

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

“Yeah,” Winnie replied.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

Helena sniffed. “What time is it?”

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

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

“I think so, yeah.”

“What are they doing?”

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

“How much did the charity make?”

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

“About fourteen million.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To your mom’s suite?”

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

“Your mom drinks?”

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

Helena got up with surprising energy.

Winnie had little choice but to follow.


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

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

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

“Admiral,” she said.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

Victoria watched on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What, sir?”

“Come upstairs.”

“We’re on post.”

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

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

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

“The admiral?”

“What?”

“What about the admiral?”

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

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

This time, they nodded and followed.

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

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

“Come back here,” she said.

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

“Who’s speaking?” he asked.

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

“The spire main door?”

“That one, yes.”

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

37. Strategies

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

“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.

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

“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold up,” he yelled.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie nodded. The window closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.

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

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

“Can you confirm that?”

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

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

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

“They’re not escaping, are they?”

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

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

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

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

“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”

“Why are you talking to his XO?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A couple hours.”

“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have them stand down.”

“Your Majesty?”

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

“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”

He barked orders in the background.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

“Are there any nearby?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s fine. We have time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”

36. Cameras

The door to the brig was locked, and it wasn’t a tumbler lock that Tan could aptly bypass. There was a keycard reader. Authorized personnel only.

“You know what this means?” Josephine asked.

“We go home?” Tan asked hopefully.

“We steal a card.”

To his credit, he didn’t look too disappointed. Together, he and Josephine wandered around the citadel like a pair of tourists. Without knowing who would have access, they aimed for as high a rank as they could find. After proceeding up several floors into the more spacious decks beneath the spires, they found a major walking down a hall while discussing with a lower ranking officer. Tan passed, bumped into him, apologized and kept going. Picking pockets came naturally to him. His power smoothed his hand’s movements.

If the major noticed his card was missing, he would not remember this encounter.

Back at the door. Josephine waved the card, and the door opened. The first area inside was a security control room. A long desk with rows of monitors bisected the area. Behind it were three men. One guard sat at the desk, and behind him were two men at a table: another guard and an exemplar.

The guard at the desk looked at Josephine attentively. “How can I help you, sir.”

Behind him, the exemplar’s eyes widened.

“Alarm!” he yelled. He lunged toward the security desk, arm outstretched.

Josephine yanked anything he might know about her, but he was already in motion. Even if he didn’t know why he was scrabbling for the panic button, he was still doing so.

Tan,” Josephine yelled.

Tan was already moving. From his uniform, he drew a revolver—an old piece which worked with bullets and gunpowder. Tan insisted on bringing it, even if such antiquated tech immediately marked him as an impostor. Josephine moved to stop him. Besides the noise, no one was supposed to get hurt.

But Tan didn’t aim the gun. He tossed it. It struck the exemplar square on the forehead.

The exemplar yelled, staggered, and clutched his head. The crisis was averted, but Tan wasn’t done. Charging, he leapt over the desk with all the grace of a drunk man cannonballing into a swimming pool. Somehow, it worked. His foot connected with the exemplar’s chin. His fist struck the guard at the desk. Together, they all fell backward toward the table, toppling into the last guard. In one move, Tan floored them all.

He stood. Around him, the others groaned and rolled. He looked so proud of himself that Josephine decided to omit how unnecessary it was. Hitting the exemplar once was enough, but Tan’s power worked better the less he thought about it. His amateur flailing left plenty of room for his unconscious movement. Josephine sometimes pondered whether he’d actually become a worse fighter if he trained professionally. Possibly, but at least he’d look like less of an idiot.

“Good work,” Josephine hopped the desk. “Are you all okay.”

“What the hell?” One guard got to his feet and looked around. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over.”

“Huh?” said the other guard.

The exemplar was still in too much pain to pay attention. His plaque had tumbled off the table. Josephine snatched it up. That got his attention. Confused as he was, no one touches an exemplar’s plaque. He lunged. She darted out of the way and wiped his memory again.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You lent it to me.”

“What?” He looked, lunged again. Another dodge.

“You told me I could hold this.” Another mind wipe. After enough times, he’ll be left with the impression that it might be true, at least long enough that his knee jerk reaction would settle down.

That was until she realized she wasn’t sensing his aura, or anyone’s. She examined the plaque. The green light was on, meaning it should be working, but nothing. She turned and addressed a guard. “Look at me.”

Rubbing his chin, the guard did. There was no stream of thought in her head besides her own.

“She was here,” Josephine told Tan. “The plaque is broken.” A shame really. Having a plaque would be crucial right now, even if it meant dragging along the exemplar. She learned long ago that the awareness granted to her by Empathy was enough for her to pull memories. Line of vision not required.

“Who was here?” the exemplar asked. “Are you talking about the thief girl?”

Josephine faced him. “Yes. The thief girl. Where is she?”

“Who are you again?”

Josephine thrust his broken plaque into his hands and blanked his memory. Time to start over. “Are you okay?” She helped him up.

“I… I think so.” He rubbed his chin. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over. It was a stooge act.”

“Did we?” The exemplar looked at the other guards. They looked equally perplexed.

“I don’t think so…” one said.

“Here,” said Josephine. “Everybody sit down.”

They corrected chairs and fetched fallen items. All evidence of the tumble was gone. Josephine cleared their minds again.

“Exemplar?” she said, as though expecting something from him.

“What?”

“You were telling me about the thief girl.”

“I was?” He rubbed his temple where the gun had stuck him. His jaw worked left to right as though it felt loose.

“Yes. Please go on.”

“Uh… where did I leave off?”

“You were telling where she is.”

He pointed to the row of monitors on the security desk. “We’re keeping her in interview room three until the queen’s escort team gets here.”

Josephine looked at the screens. Among a grid of tiny camera feeds, one showed Naema in a plain white room. She sat across from nobody. If the queen had sent an escort team, then the Lakirans must have known exactly what she was capable of. In just a few hours, they would have taken her away, and then she might as well have been in a different world for all the good Josephine could have done for her.

“Tan, you want to get her?” she asked.

Thankfully, he didn’t argue. Holstering his weapon, he yanked a security card off a guard, who protested, but only for a second before suffering a lapse in memory. Tan disappeared down the hall. Josephine watched through the camera.

Naema looked up. She must have heard someone stop before the door. It opened. When she saw who it was, she startled to her feet. Tan gestured from the door. Come on, his motion said. Naema didn’t move, and he gestured again more impatiently. She reached over the table toward him. Her palms wobbled against an invisible force which kept her from falling any further forward. I can’t, her response seemed to be, you’re at the wrong door.

Tan gave the most elaborate gesture of exasperation. Shutting the door, he moved to the next. When he opened it, Naema rushed to hug him. He tolerated that for a moment before decoupling and pulling her along.

While waiting, Josephine worked on the minds of the people here. She couldn’t remove every trace of Naema. A lot of what happened between Naema and her captors had nothing to do with Josephine, no matter how much Josephine tried to convince herself. Hopefully they were befuddled enough to lay off any alarms until Josephine got the others out of here.

Naema and Tan appeared. Naema broke from Tan and hugged Josephine exuberantly. She was crying.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Josephine said.

“My family,” Naema said. “They have my mama and brother. We have to get them.”

Behind her, Tan drooped his head.

“Do you know where they are?” Josephine asked.

“In the big cells with everybody else.”

The detainment center. Josephine didn’t recall seeing Naema’s mother, but then she hadn’t been looking. Obviously the Lakirans must have them if they raided Naema’s home. Josephine had been too preoccupied with Naema to think about them, or about the hundreds of detainees the Lakiran’s might be shipping off to indefinite imprisonment. Naema was the only one with powers that could help Josephine.

Once again, she thought about Sakhr.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll save them.”

She led them from the brig back toward the detention center, passing once again beneath a security camera which both she and Tan had failed to notice.


The sun took a while to set this evening since the imperial shuttle had been chasing it over two time zones. They were over the Gulf of Mexico by the time it finally ducked behind the horizon. Now the world outside the windows was pitch black. Since the shuttle had a built-in repulse field nullifying turbulence in the cabin, Winnie wouldn’t even know they were moving if not for her mind showing her the little shuttle soaring along like a dot in a void.

Helena whispered her speech to herself while Victoria worked on her tablet. Winnie passed the time with her visualizations. The shuttle was nearly to Cuba, judging from her satellite-eye view. Far ahead, dots of light marked the start of the coast. Cuba a small province compared to the others in the empire, with a minuscule population, but Winnie still hadn’t located the Starlight Auditorium. 

A light tap came on the divider leading to the cockpit. It rolled down to reveal Madeline. “Your Majesty, a priority alert just came in.”

She handed a phone to Victoria.

After the queen scrolled through the messages, she looked to Melanie. “Reverse course. I need to return to the tower.”

“What? No.” Helena sat up. “We can’t go back. We’re almost there.”

“We must. This is an emergency. Melanie, turn us around.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t back out now. You promised you’d come.”

Victoria ignored her. “Inform Intermil to connect the control room at the tower with the Orinoco as soon as possible.”

“The Orinoco?” asked Helena.

Again, Victoria talked over her. “And keep me posted on any more messages coming in from Admiral…” She glanced at the phone. “…Medina. No. Call him. I want to talk to him.”

“Understood,” said Melanie.

Victoria pressed a button to raise the divider, but half way. “Oh. And Bishop. Get him on the line. No. Never mind. I’ll call him. Is this phone secure?” She held up the phone bearing the message. Melanie nodded.

“Good.” Victoria closed the divider.

“What’s going on?” asked Helena. “Is there a rebellion?”

“No.”

“What is it, then?”

Victoria tapped through the phone. “It’s classified.”

Helena erupted. “Classified? What the hell, mom? What could be so important that you have to put this off? We’ve had this planned for months. You can’t just bail out now.”

Victoria held up a silencing finger as she spoke into the phone. “Bishop? This is Victoria. Where are you?… It’s Josephine… Yes… The Orinoco?… Yes, she has… Is it nighttime there? What time is it in Nigeria?… Then yes, do it now. You’ll have clearance before you land…Right… I’m headed back now… No. Just keep your phone near you… Very good.” She hung up.

“The Orinoco?” Helena said. “The citadel? What the hell is so important in Nigeria?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“This is bullshit, mom.”

“Watch your language.” Victoria words were an automatic response. Her attention was on her phone.

“I’m supposed to host the charity.”

“As soon as we drop me off at the tower, you can head straight back.”

“That will take hours. We’re already late.”

“Then cancel it.”

“The charity? Of course we can’t cancel it. I’ve been planning this for months. It was your stupid, fucking idea. We have to go.”

“Then we call the auditorium and tell them you’ll be late. I do this all the time. They’ll understand.”

“No they won’t. We’ll be hours late.”

Victoria’s attention was on a message she was typing.

“Why don’t we just go to the charity first,” Helena said. “We’re only twenty minutes away. You’d still have to fly for hours, anyway. It’s not going to make a difference for you.”

“No.”

“Are you trying to ruin this for me? Because you’ve won. The whole charity is ruined. People will be going home by the time I arrive, and nobody is going to donate any money if neither of us are there.”

Victoria breathed sharply through her nostrils. Her patience was running low, though her focus remained adamantly fixed on the phone. “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” she said “An emergency has come up. I had no control over this. If you want to make a fuss and let it ruin the charity for you, then go ahead. I can’t stop you.”

“I’m not ruining anything. You are. You never wanted to do this in the first place. Admit it. You don’t care at all about this charity. Do you? Do you even care about how what this event meant to me, about how much time I put into preparing it?”

The shuttle phone mounted beside Victoria rang. Before answering, Victoria looked at her daughter. “Frankly, Helena, your right. I don’t care.”

She then answered the phone.

35. Shuttles and Hoppers

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“How do I look?” Helena asked. She twirled before the mirror. Her green dress flared outward, expanding to show a gradient of blues hidden within. When she stopped, the colors folded out of view. Winnie thought of it as a blooming flower, not that she’d tell Helena that. It would only turn her off the dress.

“You look amazing,” Winnie said. “It came out just the way I imagined.”

Helena practiced her come-hither look in the mirror while running her finger along her bare shoulder. “My mom has never dressed this well, has she? She always in those pantsuits or those god-awful gowns. People will notice this.”

“How could they not?” Winnie checked the time. “It’s eight o’clock. Should we head up?”

“As soon as my mom is ready. Are you?”

“I am.” Winnie checked herself over. Winnie’s dress used the same color scheme as Helena’s, only to a lesser extent. She knew better than to wear anything that might compare to Helena. It wasn’t much different than what the charity staff would be wearing, which in turn, complimented the decor they’d selected for the Starlight auditorium.

“Maybe we should head up anyway,” Winnie said. “We’re already late.”

Helena turned to her. “First of all, no. We are never late. The fundraiser is not going to start when neither I or my mom aren’t there, so how could we ever be late? We could show up tomorrow and everyone would still be be waiting for us. Secondly, we’re not moving until my mom is ready, and she will be late. She’s always at least thirty minutes behind whatever her schedule says. If we go up now, we’ll just be waiting on the roof. Besides…” She tapped at her lower lip. “I feel like we’re forgetting something.”

“Your speech?” Winnie held up index cards.

“It’ll be there. I sent a copy to Madeline yesterday.”

“Do you want to rehearse it?”

“Why would I? It’ll be on the teleprompter.”

“I don’t know. Maybe so you don’t trip up? When I get nervous, I stumble over my words sometimes.”

Helena snorted. “Well, I’m not you. I don’t stumble, and I’m definitely not nervous. Everything is going to go fine, at least on my end. What else do we need to bring?”

“I think that’s it. Your dress looks beautiful. Your hair and makeup are perfect. I think Madeline is taking care of everything else.”

“Then I guess we just wait.” Helena sat beside Winnie on the bed. Winnie burned time on her tablet. Minutes passed.

“What’s taking my mother so long?” Helena said. “She is getting ready, isn’t she? She promised she’d come. You don’t think something came up, do you?”

“Wouldn’t Madeline have told us?”

“Yeah, she would. I guess… ugh.” She flopped back. “I guess she’s just taking forever.”

A light tap came from the door. Helena bolted up. “Yes?”

Madeline’s voice. “Your Highness. We’ll be departing from the roof pad. Your mother will be ready in five minutes.”

“About time,” Helena replied. “I’ll be up momentarily.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Footsteps retreated.

“Okay. Okay.” Helena’s checked her hair over. “I’m fine, right?”

“You’re fine.”

“Okay, let’s go.” She headed toward the door. Half way there, she paused. “You have the flashcards, right? You know… In case I get bored in the shuttle or something. Who knows? Maybe the teleprompter will break.”

Winnie kept her face neutral. “Sure.”


“Incoming shuttle. Identify.”

“This is tail number lima alpha four seven delta returning from Emohua relief, scheduled for an oh one twenty arrival. Submitting clearance now.”

The shuttle pilot dragged an image of his flight clearance onto a tower icon that had opened up. Beneath the icon were the words, “HMC Orinoco flight comm.”

Moments later, communications got back with him. “Acknowledged, lima alpha four seven delta. Flight plan transmitted. Switch to grid and proceed.”

The pilot pressed a button that slaved the shuttle to the local repulser grid. There was a bump. Then the ride smoothed out. The shuttle drifted through the air with flawless precision. The pilot was done piloting. Before the craft landed on the citadel, he would need to submit a manifest, but apparently he decided that could wait. He reclined in his seat and rubbed his temples.

The smoke was giving him a headache.

Twice now he’d had to reset the shuttle’s internal smoke alarm, and he kept coughing, as though hinting to his passengers that smoking was prohibited, though he couldn’t even recall that he had passengers.

Josephine and Tan had stowed away aboard the shuttle when it was making a supply run with a military depot in town, although stowing away was a strong word, since they both sat in plain view, strapped in like any passenger would be.

Whenever the pilot realized he wasn’t supposed to have company, Josephine would wipe his memory. She shouldn’t have to do it often, given their stolen uniforms. Unfortunately, Tan would not stop smoking aboard a smoke-free vessel.

He always smoked before doing anything nerve wracking, but he should have done so before the flight. No matter how many times Josephine motioned for him to put it out, he just kept right on smoking. She suspected it was his own little protest about this trip.

Rescuing Naema had been Josephine’s idea, not his. After the fighting had settled down at the market, she had looked around for Naema, but there was too much confusion. When the wall bots started locking the place down, she knew they had to leave. For hours, Josephine fretted. She just knew they’d captured her, but Tan had told her to wait, that Naema’s power would protect her. But then Josephine had gone to check Naema’s home. The Lakirans were there. Two prowlers drifted overhead while soldiers questioned neighbors. Naema’s shack had been torn down. That decided it.

“We’re going,” she’d told Tan.

“No.”

“Yes. We are.”

“Too dangerous. They catch her. They catch us too.”

“You already know what it means for us if they get her power.”

“They can’t. Her power break theirs. No good for them.”

“So you want to just leave her?”

He’d shrugged so casually that she’d wanted to sock him. “We save her if we could, but she is on Citadel now. Not safe. They will see us. High exemplars will find us. Not a chance. Will.”

“That’s not for certain.”

“Every time we go onto military base, Bishop come. Every time.”

“If it was you they caught, I’d come save you. I did once.”

This silenced him.

“You can stay if you want. I’m going,” she said. “I could use your help though. If they catch me, how long do you think you’ll last on your own?”

The look he’d given her was withering, but that had settled it. Two hours later found them aboard this shuttle. Josephine tried not to dwell on the argument. Tan should have wanted to come in the first place, but threatening to withdraw her protection like that, even implying it… that was something Sakhr would have done.

A popup appeared on the pilot’s screen. He needed to submit a manifest now. Josephine unfastened her seat, stepped to the cockpit, and reached over the pilot’s shoulder to fill it out.

“Hey!” he shouted.

“I’ll do this,” she said while clearing his memory. She filled out the form. Three passengers: the pilot and the names of the officers from whom Josephine had stolen the uniforms. The rest was cargo information. She submitted it and sat down in the copilot’s seat. Whenever the pilot started to ask her a question, she pulled from his memory. Any time he glanced back to see Tan, she performed her mental exercise.

Tan and I work toward the same goal right now. We act as one.

And she’d pull.

Pretty soon, he just accepted his mysterious crew. The grid system guided the shuttle into one of many bay doors along the citadel’s hull. Like a feather, it touched down on a landing pad. The doors opened, and soldiers gathered in to unload supplies.

Josephine and Tan walked past them. She cleared the soldiers’ memories as they went. Outside the landing was a narrow corridor. Soldiers sidled by to get around them. None paid them attention.

Tan and Josephine weren’t intruders. They were just in the way.


Her Majesty the Queen was not on the roof when Winnie and Helena arrived, but their ride was. The shuttle was Victoria’s personal hopper. It looked a giant, chrome beetle. One of its wings was up, and a red carpet led into its exposed flank. Wind whipped at Winnie and Helena’s dresses. A few service men were scouring the landing pad and all the other corners of the roof for security. Other guards waited by the door. It was all a bit much for Winnie, but she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the fanfare. Tonight, she was part of the royal procession.

She and Helena boarded the hopper.

The inside was small for a royal vehicle, but it didn’t lack for luxuries. Seats lined the walls like a limousine and it had the same accommodations. The ice compartment had fresh ice. The bar bay had chilled drinks. No sign of wear and tear. At the front was a little window showing into a cockpit. This shuttle could fly on its own. The charity was in Cuba, and while Cuba had acted as a fantastic neutral ground during the war between the empire and many North American factions, it didn’t have a repulse grid.

Helena sat in the seat near the door, where she could see anyone approaching. Madeline emerged on the roof holding a box covered with a blanket. Helena rolled her eyes and scooted to make room. Madeline loaded the item in beside them. Winnie’s quick mental glance inside revealed Willow, Victoria’s pet hawk, sleeping soundly on a perch.

“Sure,” Helena said. “Let’s bring the bird. Why not?”

“Your mother will be right up,” Madeline said. “She’s just had a quick delay.”

“Figures.”

Madeline ducked out and scurried back to the roof exit.

“Why are we bringing Willow?” Winnie asked.

“Because my mother is borderline insane, and this is not a quick delay. Where the hell is she?”

Winnie remained quiet.

Helena looked square at her. “Well?”

“What?”

“Where is she? Use your power.”

“I’m never supposed to use my power on her.”

“Oh, Christ. Don’t search her bedroom. Just check the stairwell or something. Is she coming?”

“No.” Winnie hadn’t use her power, but the absence of any commotion outside the shuttle was enough to tell.

“I wonder if she’s doing this on purpose?” Helena said. “I had to remind her about this a thousand times. It’s probably a power play. She wants me to wait.”

“She’s never on time for my tutoring sessions… except when she’s really really early.”

“Yeah, but that’s different. She sees you every week, and you’re just a flair. You’d think she’d care more about her own daughter.” Helena sighed and slumped back. “She doesn’t even want to do this.”

Winnie didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Helena didn’t look to her this time.


“What now?” Tan asked. For this trip, he was placing all the burden on Josephine. Back when they were suiting up, she’d wondered whether she’d have to tie his shoelaces for him.

“We have to find Naema,” she replied. That was obvious, but she was thinking out loud. Her prearranged plan ended here. “She’s probably wherever they keep all the other prisoners.”

How to find it? Simple.

Josephine caught the next soldier hurrying by. “Do you know where they hold the prisoners?”

He looked perplexed.

“This is my first time aboard,” she explained.

“Do you mean the detention center, ma’am?”

Josephine had forgotten she’d stolen her uniform from an off-duty captain.

“Yes, that’s what I meant.”

“It’s on Deck six in the Fore Sector.” He pointed down a corridor and issued several directions. From the sound of it, Josephine would have to walk a good ten or twenty minutes. The one part of his instructions that were clear was this: go down, and go toward the front.

She thanked him. He saluted and continued on. She yanked away his memories of the conversation.

They only got lost a few times looking for the detention center. Once they got near, it was impossible to miss. The yells echoed down the corridors. The stench wafted. The center was a hallway with an L-bend in it. Along the walls on both sides were cells, each large and filled with a dozen or so people. Despite the crowding, Josephine got the sense this was a quiet hour. The refuse covering the floors was from many more people than this.

Josephine walked up and down the hall looking at each inmate. Naema wasn’t among them.

“There might be more cells,” she said. “I think there’s another block on the other side of the ship just like this.” It was infuriating how few signs there were pointing to anything.

“She not here,” Tan said.

“Not here here, but in another cell. Come on.”

“Not in cells. If they take her family, then they know her. She not here. She will be different. Eh… separate.”

He had a good point. She felt silly for not realizing it herself. But then where was she supposed to look?

Josephine cornered another soldier.

“Is there another detention center?” she asked.

Another puzzled expression. “Sir?”

“I’m looking for a detainee. They’re not here.”

“Have you tried processing?”

“What’s that?”

“What’s processing?” he asked, as though clarifying that she was asking an obvious question.

I just transferred here.” Her words were harsher than she’d intended.

“It’s where we put civilians into the system before sending them home.”

“No. That’s not what I want. The person I’m looking for is being held, probably apart from the others.”

“Oh. Then you probably want the brig.”

The brig. Yes. That does sound like a place Lakirans would put an innocent teenaged girl.

“Where is that?” she asked.


Winnie could tell when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was about to show. Guards outside the shuttle lifted a hand to their earbuds. Their stances became rigid. Others hurried through scanning high and low for last minute threats. Some peeked into the hopper as though Helena and Winnie wouldn’t have noticed an assassin sitting with them.

“About time,” Helena said. She scooted farther into the shuttle to make room. “I bet she didn’t even try to match the color scheme we made.”

“I guess we’ll see soon.” Winnie always felt uncomfortable with Helena’s reproachful remarks toward the queen. It couldn’t be wise to talk poorly about a dictator who could read your mind.

Victoria emerged from the roof access door with Melanie at her heel. Helena was right. Victoria wore one of her own formal dresses: white blouse and a cream skirt with a matching vest. Beautiful attire, but it wouldn’t match the scheme arranged for the charity ball. She must have known; Helena reminded her endlessly, yet she chose to ignore it. Victoria may have thought Helena’s micromanaging of the scheme was childish, but even Winnie’s mother would have played along.

Victoria took the seat next to Willow. She looked her daughter up and down. Helena pretended to gaze out the window. When Victoria looked at Winnie, Winnie waved.

“Winnie,” Victoria nodded. She looked at her daughter. “Are we ready to go?”

We’ve been ready to go for a while. Just waiting on you.”

Victoria didn’t rise to it. She turned to Madeline. “Let’s go then.”

Madeline climbed into the cockpit with a pilot. A guard closed the hopper door, and they took off. The world outside the windows dropped away.

“Have you tried any of the new exercises I’ve given you?” Victoria asked. She was studying a tablet she’d brought with her, but she could only be speaking to Winnie.

“A couple,” Winnie said. “I was busy getting ready.”

“Any progress?”

“A little.”

“How so?” She looked up. Winnie stared off as though recalling. Eye contact would reveal how little “a little” was. Victoria would find out eventually, but why now?

“I was able to see in the dark without pretending there was a light,” Winnie said.

“Can you distinguish colors yet?”

“Not in the dark, no.”

“How about your point of view exercises? Can you be aware of all sides of an object?”

“Kind of.”

Victoria tilted her head. “Kind of?”

“I can see it from all sides, but it’s like I’m using a lot of cameras.”

“You could already do that.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess I mean I’m able to do it more easily now.”

“I don’t want you to do it wrong more easily. It’s a crutch. You should know what something looks like inside and out without having to look at it. Stop practicing it with your flair for now. Just try to imagine a fictional object. Practice knowing it inside and out without relying on visualizing it from different angles. Once you can do that. Then we’ll see if you’re ready to start projecting again?”

“Okay.”

“Hmm.” Victoria eyed her. “And how about locating people? Any progress on that?”

“Oh, come on,” Helena said. “Why are you doing this now? We’re going to the charity concert.”

Victoria turned her gaze to her daughter, her expression cool, but to Winnie’s surprise, she did stop. For Victoria, ruling the world came second to training flairs. This charity would fall even lower on the list. Winnie was still glad for the interruption. Otherwise the trip would become another lesson.

Helena spoke. “So I’m ready for my speech. I thought what we’d do, Mother, is enter together. For pictures. You’re not dressed in the scheme, but that’s okay. The queen should stand out. It’s supposed to be just food and drinks to start. No dancing until later. Then we give our speeches to start the auction. Madeline forgot to give me a copy of your speech, but as long as it covers—”

“I didn’t prepare one.”

“You…? Then you’re just going to say a few short words then? That’s fine. People will be tired by then, it might be—.”

“I’m not making a speech.”

“Oh. What? Oh. Are you sure? I mean, aren’t people going to expect one?”

“No.”

“But I just assumed you would. You always do. It’s on the program that you are.”

“We’ll change the program.”

Silence. Helena stared at her lap. Her jaw was clenched.

Victoria sighed and looked from her tablet. “I’m not giving a speech because this is your night, Helena. You organized it, and now you’re hosting it.”

“But it was your idea.”

“Yes. I know it was, but the audience doesn’t. The point of this charity is to build your presence. You need to stop being a nameless daughter and start being a political figure. So yes, I’m not giving a speech. You are. You’ll be meeting the guests. You’ll be posing for pictures. You’ll make connections.”

“If you don’t want to be a part of this, then why’d you even come?”

Victoria threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m coming to support you, Helena. Nobody has any idea who you are, so I’m lending credibility to your cause, but I only plan to mingle. The world needs to see that this was your initiative. Soon you’ll have enough status to draw media attention yourself.”

“Then you won’t have to deal with me anymore.”

Victoria regarded her. “Are we going to start this now? This is your night. Let’s not ruin the mood before we’re even there.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“And Helena?”

“What?”

“You should review your speech. There won’t be a teleprompter.”

I know that. I said I reviewed my speech, didn’t I?”

“If you say so. As long as you’re sure you’re not going to make a fool of yourself.”

Winnie sat still, acting as though she hadn’t even heard the conversation, but she wondered about Victoria’s mention of the teleprompter. It’s as though Victoria had been listening in to her conversation with Helena earlier using her own power, or perhaps Victoria had seen it from her head when she’d waved at the queen just now.

Either way, it was unsettling, but there wasn’t anything to do about it.

In her lap, she held the index cards prominently. She knew better than to offer them to Helena now; that would be siding with Victoria, but Helena could easily snatch them if she wanted.

She gazed out the window. Sure enough, after a minute, Helena yanked the index cards from her hand.