The opening of the kitchenette door awoke Winnie. The lights came on. Winnie folded her feet closer over her face. In her mind, she glanced to see what was happening.
An exemplar had wandered into the kitchenette. He was opening drawers and cabinets one after another, seeing empty shelves. “Fucking hell,” he muttered. “The fuck is the point of these kitchens?”
He checked the fridge, nothing but a freezer section with an ice frost inches thick. The exemplar slammed it shut, sighed, and wandered out. Not once did he glance at the tortoise box.
Mentally, Winnie followed him long enough to see him going to other rooms on the floor looking for anything stored. Whether bored or hungry, he wasn’t finding what he wanted, only bothering the few civilians who now worked on this floor. Little by little, the spire was becoming a populated work center, but it seemed empty now. Her mind checked the sky outside. Night. The clock in her dorm read 11:23.
She tucked her feet closer until her scales pressed against her face. The man thoughtlessly left the light on.
…And the door open.
Winnie stared at it with her mind. Beyond were several halls, doors, tarmac, and a long expanse of ocean.
In her mind, Winnie plotted a path from her box. She’d have to fall off the table, then the door had a short lip she’d need to climb. Like all doors in this place, it was more of a hatch. This place may be dressed up as an office, but it was still in an aerial vessel.
But if Winnie got past that, she would then walk down the hall, past several civilians working late.
Then came several choices.
An elevator led further up the spire. Nope.
A doorway led out to the top deck. Closed, so no.
A stairwell led both up and down. Perhaps if Winnie and Helena got down to the hangar bays, they could stow away aboard a ship. Who would notice two tortoises nestled behind packages? Anywhere the ship took them would be better than here, but getting to that ship seemed damn near impossible. Multiple hallways. Endless doors. Countless soldiers coming and going in the lower levels. Anyone would stop them.
She nearly dropped the idea when someone opened the front door to the spire. It was one of the civilians. He had a wastebasket, which he used to prop it open. He circled around out of view of the door and took out a cigarette. The door was left unattended.
If the door were to close, he’d need a key card to get in. Propping it must be a minor convenience, even if it meant anyone might get in or out—even a tortoise.
Though suppose she did get out, what then? She’d be on the deck, the only place to go would be into another spire. Or down into another part of the citadel.
Winnie thought of when Alex threw Gilles overboard. It must be at least five hundred feet to the water below, yet she’d seen Gilles flapping his feet after striking the water.
Winnie and Helena were tortoises just as small as he was.
But could she survive from there? It was nearly a quarter mile to land.
A hell of a lot could go wrong, but this was the last time she’d ever have this chance. By tomorrow, either Sakhr or Alex would read her mind, and precautions would be taken. Punishments might be dolled out just for considering it.
So what the hell? If she truly wanted to stop the others from exploiting her power, escape was necessary. She tried not think about what Alex would do to her and Helena if they failed.
Winnie came out of her shell and eyed the cardboard wall of her box. Getting out was step one, and she’d need help.
She approached Helena. The girl was fully withdrawn inside her shell. Winnie nudged her front legs out of the way. Helena pulled in tighter.
Winnie wailed. No response. She nudged and nudged, but still nothing. Helena was wallowing, and she had every right to. After what Alex said, she probably wanted to crawl into a hole and die. But she could wallow in pity later. Winnie needed Helena to be brave like earlier.
Winnie bumped Helena hard. This got her to at least move her legs aside and look out. Winnie wailed, then looked to the wall. Conveying her desire to escape would be tricky.
Helena tucked back away. Winnie wailed again, loudly, causing Helena to wince. Eye to eye, they looked at one another. Helena snapped, pinching Winnie’s nose. Leave me alone it said. The bite smarted, but Winnie didn’t pull away. She wailed again and pushed against box wall. Helena seemed unimpressed, so Winnie pushed her. Helena stumbled. It caused her to bring out her legs to catch herself. This time when Winnie wailed, Helena wailed back. It was an exasperated fine.
This time, when Winnie went to the wall, Helena followed. They both climbed up against the cardboard. The box teetered, but not enough, so Winnie stepped onto Helena to push from higher up. This elicited an irritated hiss from Helena, but it worked. The box toppled. They spilled out. Winnie almost tumbled off the table preemptively.
…Which might have just gotten the fall over with. It was only three feet to carpeted floor, but just looking at it made Winnie imagine the night Sakhr escaped, when that tortoise fell and cracked open, insides like wet slop.
She ignored the thought and braced herself. One. Two. And over the edge she went. The carpet felt a lot harder than it looked. Winnie struck and tumbled. The pain was surprising, like a blow to the head which left her dazed, but amazingly, she landed right side up.
Helena was still at the top, looking down like a cat in a tree. Winnie mewled to her. Helena mewled back. Back and forth they went. The understanding was there. The problem was nerves, and the best coaching Winnie could give was to stand there and stare with her stupid tortoise face. In her mind, she checked on the smoker. He’d returned from his break. The gamble was how long he’d wait until his next one.
Helena moved… to turn away from the ledge. For a second, Winnie thought she was headed back to the box, but then she started backing up. She was trying to… what? Climb down? Her back legs dangled. She edged further. It was like watching a toddler descend stairs. Then all at once, she tipped. A fall, a tumble, a hissed gasp. She landed on her back, and her legs kicked pitifully.
Winnie rolled her over. Both now right side up, Winnie guided her to the door.
Next obstacle. The lip of the door. No problem. Winnie’s hind feet were long enough to push her over, although it was clumsy. She’d been a tortoise for almost a week, and even now she felt as though her limbs were protruding from cutout holes in a cardboard box, as if wearing a terrible robot costume.
They were in the hall now. Next step was to get to the front door, which meant passing offices. Her mind told her that they’d only have to pass one which was occupied. Unfortunately, the occupant was situated such that his open door was in his view. She wondered if it might be best just to wait until he went home… or wherever civilians went on the citadel to sleep. Unfortunately no telling when the smoker will leave either, or if another exemplar might come down from upstairs—
The exemplars were upstairs—all of them, just a few stories away. Winnie tried to recall what the range was on their aura sensing. Could they pick up the tension of two souls on the spire ground floor? Her mind went up there, where offices were being converted into bunks. There were dozens of exemplars. Most were asleep. A few were playing on their computers or talked with one another. Only two were in contact with their plaques. If they sensed her, they didn’t care.
Were there any other threats she neglected to think of? Alexander was near the top floor, but he didn’t have a plaque, because for some reason Winnie didn’t care to know, he had kept her body. Sakhr had mentioned he was leaving, taking Sibyl with him. All Winnie could do was keep calm. It seemed a futile effort.
She crept beside the door leading to the office worker. The man seemed engaged in his work.
Helena nudged her and mewed. In the silent office, the noise seemed deafening to Winnie, but the office worker didn’t notice.
Winnie turned. Helena was impatient. There was no way to convey the need to be quiet, but maybe Helena was right. Waiting wasn’t going to make this better. Resolving herself, Winnie got ready. The next time the man leaned toward his screen, she bolted by the door as fast as a tortoise could bolt.
She made it across, and then the man leaned back.
Winnie wanted to yell at Helena to stop, but it was too late. Helena was already crossing, oblivious to the man. Winnie could only watch and pray.
Motion caught the man’s eye. He glanced, leaned to look past the door, but by then Helena was past. Winnie’s heart would need days to recover.
A minute later, they reached the front door, closed at the moment. Winnie had already picked out her hiding spot: the desk where a reception might greet incomers. It would be long dash to the door from there, but it was the best she could do.
Confused, Helena pawed her. Winnie tried to convey her intentions. Staring at the door, she crouched her head low and held her mouth slightly agape, as though panting. It felt like a natural way to convey the idea: wait and get ready, even though logically it made no sense to her. Helena seemed to understand though.
And so they waited. And waited.
Winnie was worrying if a smoker would come around at all when her mind finally saw an office worker get up. Same one as before. Grabbing his cigarette pack, a jacket, and his wastebasket, he headed to the front. He propped the door and disappeared to his same smoking spot.
Winnie moved. After a short dash, she tried inching underneath the hatch door. Her shell caught on the top. Okay then. Moving to where the door met the wastebasket, she tried to push it open. It was like pushing a giant. With every inch of her strength, she barely managed to widen the gap. When she turned to get out, it closed, pinning her shell against the wastebasket.
She wobbled. She pushed. Nothing.
She was stuck. So much for their great escape.
And then Helena started climbing over her. It was uncomfortable, and at the top, Helena had to tilt herself sideways to avoid getting caught herself. The attempt caused her to step all over Winnie, including her head, but she did get through. After tumbling over, she turned and pushed the door, freeing Winnie. They were both through, and now outside.
Winnie led Helena away from the door in the opposite direction of the smoker. They were nearly in the shadows when, “What the hell?”
She froze. Behind her, the smoking man had his hand on the door, but he was looking right at them. Helena stopped as well.
The man stared. Winnie hoped they were hidden, but of course not. They were on a vast, featureless tarmac. He stepped up and crouched by them.
“Huh? How the hell did you get up here?” He leaned closer. “Are you the queen’s turtles?”
No, Winnie thought, we’re tortoises. And no we’re not. Go away.
The man reached. Winnie turned and snapped at his fingers. A miss, but he yelped and recoiled. Helena hissed. Together, they plodded toward him, mouth’s agape and ready to clamp.
The man stumbled away. He hurried back inside and shut the door. Now their time was limited. Winnie scanned around with her mind. The spire they’d emerged from was near the center of the citadel. Any direction would take about the same time to reach the edge, but some edges were closer to the mainland. She picked one, and they were off.
She and Helena were walking across the open deck. Even at night, the citadel had enough light that anyone looking would plainly see them, but there was no point to stealth anymore. In her mind, she saw that civilian talking to the exemplars upstairs. When Alexander heard, he lurched from his chair. He, Christof, and several exemplars raced down the stairs.
Winnie and Helena were half way to the edge once the others got outside. The smoking man pointed out the spot near the door.
“They were here,” he said. “Looks like they walked off.”
“How long ago was this?” asked Christof.
“And they were headed this way?” Alex pointed toward the direction the civilian had seen the tortoises heading. Good. It wasn’t the way Winnie had ultimately chosen.
“I guess so,” the man said. “They looked pretty lost to me.”
“But how did they get out? At all?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know. They were already out here when I stepped out.”
“But someone had to… nevermind. Look at me.” Alex peered at him.
The man looked back, confused. “What?”
Alex threw his hands up. “Oh. My. God. You goddamn imbecile.”
“Hey. Who the hell are you?” the man replied.
“You leave the door to the imperial spire cracked open? Unattended?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I will see you executed.”
“Listen, kid. I told you those tortoises were already out here. I was the one who reported them. They weren’t—”
“Arrest him now.” Alex said to an exemplar. “Take him to a cell upstairs.”
The exemplars seized him.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” the man said.
“I work directly with the queen. Arrest this man for violating security protocol.”
“I never violated anything.”
“Let him go,” Christof said.
Alex spun to him. “This man let the tortoises out.”
“He will be reprimanded. He will not be arrested.”
Alex looked like he wanted to yell something back, but instead, “Fine. Just take him back inside.” As they carried him off, Alex turned to the remaining exemplars. “Can any of you sense the tortoises?”
“What?” one asked. “You can sense them?”
Alex gave up and slapped his hand on the man’s plaque. Winnie held her breath as he concentrated. She wasn’t certain they were out of his range.
Fortunately, he didn’t detect them. “Just split up,” he said. Pointing to one exemplar, “You go to the barracks. I want everyone on the deck.”
“You want me to wake the barracks?”
“Yes. Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people? Get everyone. Find them. The rest of you split up. Search the deck.”
Everyone split off.
“Winnie,” said Christof. “I’d like to speak with you privately.”
“In a minute.” Alex looked around. He made up his mind which direction to check. Whether he followed the same logic as Winnie, or by chance, he headed straight for them.
Winnie just had to circle one last spire and the ledge was would be right ahead. Get over that, and live or die, they’d be free of Alex.
Christof was chasing after him. “We can’t wake the entire base. Those tortoises are supposed to be just tortoises.”
Alex didn’t slow. “We’ll say it’s for sentimental reasons.”
Only a hundred feet to go now. Winnie hurried. From the shadows of the last spire, she raced to the edge, but Helena wasn’t. She didn’t realize how little time they had left, and now Alex was in view.
Of course, Alex spotted her immediately. He sprinted. Winnie charged. He dived. She cleared the ledge.
And his hand hooked her shell.
“Hah! There.” He eased her back in. “Almost had it, didn’t you? Almost had it.” His body—Winnie’s body—was covered in scrapes from diving onto tarmac. Winnie kicked and thrashed, but her limbs reached nothing.
Alex got to his feet and secured his hold on her.
Christof walked up.
Alex held her triumphantly. “She almost got away. Almost.”
“Not quite,” Christof replied, though he didn’t seem nearly as pleased. He frowned and glanced about.
Helena had backed into the shadow of the nearest spire. At a glance, she was hidden, but one good look would spot her. If she sprinted right now…
“Where’s the other, huh?” Alex turned Winnie to look her in the eyes. She snapped them shut and pulled into her shell. Alex pinched her tail, hard. His nails dug between her scales. All she had to do was hold out long enough.
Helena must realize that the plan was. She just saw Winnie try to jump off.
While Alex pinched harder and harder, Helena crept from the shadow toward the ledge, almost into Christof’s view.
“Come on. Come on.” Alex said, pinching harder. His and Christof’s attention were on her. Helena was by their feet now. All they had to do was look down. All she had to do was take another few steps. Why wasn’t she?
“Give it up,” said Christof. “She probably already jumped.”
“No. She’s still here.” Alex even glanced up and down the edge of the deck. He neglected to look right behind his feet.
Christof didn’t. He seemed to glance right at Helena.
“Why?” Christof said. “All you need is this one. She’s the important one.”
“I need that one for this one.”
“You said yourself Paul will crack soon. It doesn’t matter. One day without farseeing won’t kill us.”
Alex spun to face him. “Because they’re mine, Christof. They belong to me. I want my things back.”
“Listen to yourself. You sound like a lunatic.”
“Don’t tell me—” Alex cut short and screamed in pain. Helena had her jaw clamped about his achilles heel. Alex let go of Winnie with one hand and grabbed Helena, yet she held on like a vice. His grip on Winnie was loose. She managed to find purchase against his arm with her back legs, and she scraped hard. Hollering, he dropped Winnie. She bounced against the railing. The world spun as she tumbled.
She could only await the crack against the tarmac. Thoughts of glistening, red mess filled her mind. But she kept falling, and spinning, and falling, and everything was dark. She must have cleared the ledge. Water waited below. She pulled into her shell and braced for impact.
Then it came. The water struck harder than any blow she’d taken yet. Her entire body jolted. Every inch of her shell felt like it had splintered.
But it all came to a stop. Though her body stung. Her limbs had pins and needles from impacting both the rail and the water, but already her senses were returning. Ice cold water seeped into her as though she were made of cloth. Her body felt stiff and numb. Winnie had been so concerned about whether she could hold her breath during this trial, she’d never even considered she might freeze to death.
Lower and lower she sank. Pressure squeezed her eyes and ears. Both her skull and her shell felt as though they might implode. Death must be certain. Tortoises were never meant to dive to these depths.
Finally, her shell hit sand. She came to a rest. Winnie couldn’t bear to open her eyes, but her mind showed she was about thirty feet deep. Surrounding her were long towers of seaweed. Small fish darted among the tendrils. It was like Porto Maná, she thought—skyscrapers with tiny hoppers drifting in between. With all of their technology, they still weren’t much different from nature.
Winnie realized she was stalling. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been resting here, but it was longer than just a few errant thoughts. Her mind had grown sluggish from the cold.
Placing her legs upon the sand, she checked the direction of the shore and started moving. With her bouyancy, each step had to be a gentle push. That made progress slow going as she waded through pillars of seaweed. It was pitch black down here. Thanks to Victoria’s lessons, her power didn’t rely on light, but she still couldn’t see well. The murky water hindered her vision. She nearly missed a chasm up ahead. If she were to fall into that, she’d never get out. With all the circuitous navigation she’d already have to do, she would be lucky escape at all.
Winnie never would have been able to guide Helena down here. She’d have been blind and scared. Winnie would have had to push her along.
If Winnie hadn’t left her behind, they’d both have died down here.
She visualized the citadel deck. Alex was checking his heel for damage. Christof had gotten Helena from him, and was now holding her securely. She could have gotten away. Even though she would never have made it to shore on her own, she would have escaped from Alexander, but instead she chose to bite the person who’d threatened to put a blowtorch to her feet. Maybe she did it to give Winnie a chance to escape. Or maybe it had been a glimmer of her stubborn spite.
Whatever reason, Helena sacrificed her own freedom for Winnie. Winnie wished she could get back on that deck and be with her, but Helena wouldn’t want her to. This was Helena’s parting gift.
The citadel deck was lit up. Soldiers caught up to Christof and Alex. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, right,” said Alex. “Of course, now you get here.”
“Call off the hunt,” Christof said. “The animals have been found.”
“No,” Alex shouted. “We’re not done. One of them fell over.”
The soldiers looked over the lip of the deck. From up there, it was a black void. The lights of the distant city were the only indication there was a world beyond the citadel. “You want people… to go down there?”
“No,” answered Christof. “It’s gone. Tell everyone to stand down.”
“It’s not gone,” growled Alex. “It will come up on the shore.”
One soldier winced in skepticism as he gazed over. “If the fall didn’t kill it, the crocodiles will. It’s lost.”
Winnie’s mind snapped right back to her own surroundings. Were there crocodiles down here? Her mind darted around the dark abyss around her. Even with her power, the murky water could be hiding something just paces away.
She stopped, paused, and thought. The murky water was obscuring her vision for the same reason the darkness was. It was just preventing photons from reaching her mind’s eye, which it didn’t need anyway. Just because sediment was in the water didn’t mean her omniscient power should be hindered. She visualized her surrounding. What she did next wasn’t quite peeling away the murk, but rather acknowledging it was there, and then acknowledging what was past it.
She succeeded after a few tries. It wasn’t hard since it made sense; she could already read a closed book, yet she still felt a small resistance break away as her power evolved.
More importantly. No predators were near her. She walked on. But by now the thought was in her head. Maybe there weren’t crocodiles, but what about sharks, or jellyfish, or barracudas? She was just a tortoise crawling along at a glacial pace. Apart from a few clusters of seaweed to hide in, she was defenseless. For the rest of her trek along the ocean floor, Winnie focused her mind around her surroundings. She’d look back on Helena once she was safe.
The shore before the beach had many hidden features: rocks, tires, and an amazing number of bottles, both plastic and glass. Her mind showed no dangers, but the last stretch of her trek took the longest. She finally broke the surface of the water and gasped. Even for having reptile lungs, her chest had been clenching.
The air froze her scaled skin, but she was still alive, for now. Finally on the beach, she visualized the citadel. The deck was clear, but she didn’t believe for a minute that Alexander had gone back to sleep. She navigated the beach. The tide had created a thick line of garbage and dead seaweed. Climbing past all those obstacles, she reached crab grass beside a paved road. Beyond that was a stretch of Terracotta houses with neglected yards. Mildewy stone walkways led to sliding glass doors. Laundry lines were draped with washcloths and towels.
The neighborhood stretched on for miles. This was a district on the outskirts of Porto Maná. There was no forest or jungle to hide in, just urban sprawl.
Her hopes of escape had been so slim she hadn’t thought about what to do if it worked. Now what? Blend in? Live under a house? She wasn’t even sure what tortoises in the wild ate. Plants? Bugs?
It seemed pointless now. Alexander still had Helena. Whatever twisted plans he had would still happen, only now Winnie wasn’t there to help her anymore. Helena was on her own.
Then a sick thought occurred to her. What if Alex not only tortures her anyway, but does so knowing that Winnie will be keeping an eye on her? He could force Winnie to come back.
It was just another way this whole escape was a failure. Her friend was still captive, and Winnie had no idea how to survive.
With lack of anywhere better to go, she crossed the road to the yard of a duplex house. As soon as she reached the crabgrass on the other side, lights shined from behind her. A shuttle just landed on the beach. It’s lights and markings denoted it as military. Two exemplars got out and hurried toward the shore. One male. One female. Both had plaques.
They were close. Winnie might already have been within range of their empathy, yet their attention remained on the river.
She hurried along a pathway which took her between two connected houses. Her mind was so fixed on the exemplars behind her that she nearly missed the girl in the shadowed alley before her. The girl was young, maybe late teens, and Brazilian judging from her look. Her many tattoos clashed with her conservative summer dress. Already the girl spotted Winnie. She walked over, knelt, and scrutinized her. Winnie didn’t have time for this, so she tried to walk around. The girl merely moved to put herself in Winnie’s way. Hopefully, this girl, who reeked of cigarette smoke, didn’t see Winnie as a potential pet. When the girl got in her way again, Winnie charged with her mouth ready to clamp.
The girl batted Winnie on the nose. “Stop that.”
While Winnie was startled, the girl lifted her up. Once again, Winnie found herself struggling in vain to scrape with her legs, but this girl knew the correct way to hold a tortoise.
“Hey, kid,” came a gruff voice.
The exemplars had approached to the edge of the yard, looking right at the girl, and Winnie. After all this effort. She was going back. It’s not as though she ever had a chance. Exemplars were up and down the coast looking for her. If they hadn’t caught her tonight, they’d probably come into the city looking for her. Maybe they’d put up signs. Have you seen this tortoise? Big reward. Call the empire.
Winnie probably should have let herself get hit by a car. It would have been it’s own kind of freedom.
“You want to hand over that turtle?” the exemplar said. He holstered his plaque and held his hands out guardedly as though dealing with feral animal. The female exemplar circled to get behind the girl.
“It’s a tortoise,” the girl replied.
“Whatever. It belongs to the queen.”
“I know. Here, you can have it back.” The girl held Winnie out to the approaching female exemplar, who reached to take her.
“Wait.” The male exemplar squinted at the girl. “Kid. Look at me.”
The girl didn’t stop approaching the female exemplar.
“I said stop. Girl, are you… shielded?”
Suddenly everything moved quickly. The girl tossed Winnie to the exemplar, who startled and grabbed her. In turn, the girl grabbed the exemplar, sandwiching Winnie between them.
Winnie’s senses yanked away. There was nothing for a second, then she was falling. The world seemed to pull her down like it never had before. She bumped her head on the earth. Her limbs flailed. They had far more freedom of movement, because her shell was gone. Her skin was hot. Her senses were once again telling different stories and none of them agreed.
“What the fuck?” someone yelled. Then came two loud cracks that seemed to shake her brain. Someone gurgled.
Her eyes showed her a night sky glowing with stars. Everything was far brighter, and much more crisp.
She was human again. She would have recognized it sooner if it hadn’t taken her by surprise. She sat up. The male exemplar was laying paces from her. His chest was soaked red with blood. The girl was past him, carrying a tortoise toward the road. It was her tortoise body she’d just been inside.
With one great heave, the girl chucked the tortoise toward the street.
“No!” Winnie yelled, but it was too late. It struck the pavement with a watermelon crack. The poor thing’s limbs waggled helplessly. It’s insides now painted the asphalt. The girl walked back.
“You killed them,” Winnie said.
“I saw their minds, Winnie. There was nothing worth saving. Now get up. Others will know they’re dead.” She pulled a plaque from a holster on Winnie’s thigh and yanked the battery clip out of it. Something inside popped, and the girl tossed it aside. Winnie was still splayed out on the grass, so the girl grabbed her by the chin and looked her in the eye. “Focus, Winnie.”
Winnie recognized the girl’s demeanor. She was someone who expected you to do as she wanted and would tolerate nothing less.
“Your Majesty?” she asked. “Victoria? You’re alive?” That was obvious. Better question: “Where have you been?”
Victoria eyed her as though Winnie had just confessed to neglecting her lessons. “Do not waste our time with questions, Winnie. Get up. It’s time to go now.”