81. A Cold, White Room

Josephine was in an interview room, just like the one she’d rescued Naema from weeks ago, only much smaller. A table was in the middle, with an indicator drawn across it where a repulse wall would be. Across from her was Queen Victoria.

And she was angry. It was because of something Josephine had done to her long ago, but she couldn’t remember what. And Victoria was in the wrong body.

…Because she’d swapped bodies. Sakhr had been her pet for years. Josephine knew these things, but she couldn’t remember how she knew them.

“What do you want with me?” Josephine asked.

“What I want, I’ve already got. What I’m deciding is what to do with you now.” Victoria scrutinized Josephine. “I could put you in a tortoise, just like I did Sakhr. Or maybe I should just kill you. I’ve learned keeping dangerous powers laying around can come back to haunt you.

“Or,” Victoria continued, “I could wipe from your mind every reason you’ve ever had to distrust me. I think with enough time, I could make you a loyal subject. I would make you want to serve me. I admit I’ve daydreamed about that more than once. I could betray you one day, and you’d love me the next. I could torture you mercilessly, and you’d smile when you saw me the next morning.”

“What the hell did I ever do to you?”

“You taught me an important lesson. When Sakhr broke into my home and murdered my father, I learned a hard lesson from them.”

Josephine knew this story. She was suddenly back in that house on that night she finally left. The smell, and the blood… and that girl.

But she couldn’t recall her name. She’d said it to herself a thousand times before. She’d replay that final night over and over, thinking what she could have done differently to save the girl. But the name just wouldn’t come to her.

Victoria continued. “But it was you that taught me the hardest lesson. I knew what kind of people Alexander and Sakhr were. They only cared about my power. But for you, I spent every day that week looking forward to seeing you. Not the others, just you. I actually thought you had cared about me. That last night you dropped me off, you wished me well. You told me I had my whole life ahead of me. Everything would be all right. And I believed you. Even when I sensed something was off about you, I dismissed it. I didn’t want to think that you would see me as a threat.”

“I’m sorry,” Josephine said.

“Don’t bother.”

“Please. Listen. I let you down. I didn’t realize what they were going to do. As soon as I found I… I…”

She couldn’t remember what she did. After she walked in that house. It was all blank. She could remember remembering seeing a nightmare, but she couldn’t pull it to mind. And she realized why.

Stop!” She yelled. “What are you doing? Please don’t take this away from me.”

Victoria smirked.

“Your name?” Josephine said. “You took it away. I need to know your name.”

“It’s Victoria.”

“No. Her name. Your real name. Why are you doing this?”

“Because that girl is dead. You buried her. And I want her gone. It sickens me to thin that anyone might remember that pitiful little girl you took advantage of.

“What are you talking about? I tried to help you.”

Victoria laughed. “Yes. You convinced me my life would get better. You convinced me I was safe, and left me at that house. Then they came.”

I didn’t know.”

“Don’t act so innocent. I waited for days afterward, watching the house. You never came. I went back to the hotel and the coven had moved on. How can you say you didn’t know?”

“Look in my eyes! I did come back. I did everything I could to get there in time, but I was too late. I wanted to save you. I wanted to take you away from them so they could never hurt you.”

“No. I’ve seen through all their minds. When they had their talk, no one disagreed.”

“Because I removed myself from their memories.”

“If you’d disagreed, there would have been inconsistencies.”

“No there wouldn’t be, Victoria. I’m good at what I do. You want to know how that argument went? Look for yourself.” She moved her head into Victoria’s line of sight. “As soon as I knew what they were doing, I came as fast as I could. I just wasn’t fast enough. For that, I am truly, deeply sorry.”

Victoria did finally look at her. Her eyes held frigid hatred. She had no cynical remark for Josephine.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that night,” Josephine said. “If I had known you were still alive, I would have come. I would have turned myself in and begged you to forgive me.”

Still, Victoria said nothing.

“I hate myself for that day. I wish I remembered your name. I wish you hadn’t taken it away from me, but I understand why you did. Please. Don’t take any more. I want to remember you. I want to remember how I let you down, because I don’t deserve to forget. I should remember the young girl I let die that—”

Victoria shot to her feet. Her chair clattered. Josephine thought she was about to lunge across the table, but she stormed off.

81. A Cold, White Room

Josephine was in an interview room, just like the one she’d rescued Naema from weeks ago, only much smaller. A table was in the middle, with an indicator drawn across it where a repulse wall would be. Across from her was the Lakiran queen, Victoria.

It didn’t look like her, but it was her. Josephine didn’t know how she was so sure. The only explanation was bodyswapping.

“Sakhr?” she ask.

“Yes,” Victoria said. “Before you ask, I am not he. Sakhr and his coven spent seventeen years as my pets.”

“Pets? You put them into animals?”

“Tortoises. I had one set aside for you too, but you weren’t there. A pity too. It was fun to put Alex and Sakhr away for what they did to me, but you… you were the one I actually trusted.”

“What the hell did we ever do to you?”

“You taught me an important lesson. Sakhr broke into my home and murdered my father, and Alexander… he had his fun too. I learned a hard truth that day.”

Josephine knew this story. She was suddenly back in that house on that night she finally left. The smell, and the blood… and that girl.

“…Katherine?”

Victoria sneered. “No. You don’t get to say that name.”

81. A Cold, White Room

Josephine was in an interview room, just like the one she’d rescued Naema from weeks ago, only much smaller. A table was in the middle, with an indicator drawn across it where a repulse wall would be. Across from her was the Lakiran queen, Victoria.

What? No.

This was the exemplar who had captured Josephine and the others. Why did Josephine think she was the queen? She was just a girl.

“Ah, I’m starting to get the hang of this now,” the girl said. “We don’t have to keep repeating introductions.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about how you recognize me.”

Josephine dropped her gaze. Damn exemplars.

“I’m having amazing fun with this conversation,” the woman said. “I don’t think you appreciate how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“What?” asked Josephine. “You’re using my power against me?”

“Yes, but it’s more fun when you don’t know that.”

81. A Cold, White Room

Josephine was in an interview room, just like the one she’d rescued Naema from weeks ago, only much smaller. A table was in the middle, with an indicator drawn across it where a repulse wall would be. Across from her, the exemplar who captured them studied her with an amused smile.

“You’re power is extraordinary,” the exemplar said. “It’s very easy to overdo it, though.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out soon.”

“Who are you?” Josephine asked.

“I’m the queen. Ignore my current body. It’s only a loaner.”

It took a moment for that to sink in. “…Victoria?”

“Yes.”

Bodyswapping. That was something Josephine hadn’t thought about in years. A thought occurred to her.

“…Sakhr?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Josephine looked her over. “So you decided to rule the world after all. I guess you were right. You aren’t any good at it.”

The woman looked perplexed. “What? Oh. No. I’m not Sakhr. I just used his power.”

“So what did you do to Sakhr?”

“I trapped him and his silly coven in small animals. It was easy. All I had to do was promise him more power and he walked them all into my trap. Pity you weren’t there. I’ve had your enclosure waiting for you for seventeen years now.”

“What did I ever do to you?”

“You’ll remember soon enough.”

“The first time I even thought about you,” Josephine said, “was when your little spies broke into my house.”

“Was that really the first time we interacted?” the woman asked.

Josephine eyed her. Victoria clearly knew something she didn’t. For one, how did she even know Josephine knew who Sakhr was? And she must have met Anton if she has his power. So Victoria must have met the coven before Josephine left.

But when? Christof would have noticed another witch, unless Victoria already had her shield by then. Had they offended her somehow? Possibly. The coven had offended a lot of people. Whatever it was, this bitch had one long memory.

“We must have met at some point,” said Josephine. “I guess you don’t make much of an impression.”

Victoria’s cool grin vanished. “No? Well, you lot certainly made an impression on me. I’ve waited a long time to add you to my collection.”

Josephine still had no clue what this was about, but screw this. “I’m flattered. I don’t know what we ever did to you, but I bet you had it coming.”

81. A Cold, White Room

Josephine was in an interview room, just like the one she’d rescued Naema from weeks ago, only much smaller. A table was in the middle, with an indicator drawn across it where a repulse wall would be. Across from her, the exemplar who captured them studied her like a med student watching an autopsy.

The exemplar was the only other person, but a dozen people could be watching behind the mirrored wall.

“No one else,” said the exemplar.

Josephine dropped her gaze. Damn exemplars.

On the road, the girl took Josephine’s glyph card and put a bag over her head so she couldn’t wipe any minds. Only then did more people arrive, which meant this woman was probably the only high exemplar here. If Josephine could get out of the room, escape would be easy. Only high exemplars were shielded.

But this woman wasn’t a high exemplar, was she? Her uniform was unbuttoned now. More importantly, no plaque. Come to think of it, she had no plaque on the road either. She must have a shield on a glyph card.

…And also Authority.

“Who are you?” Josephine asked.

“I’m the woman you’ve been eluding for over a decade. I told you I would eventually have you. I guess if you want something done right, do it yourself.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think for a moment. You’ve always known I had access to Alexander’s and Sibyl’s power. You must have realized I had Sakhr’s as well?”

“…Victoria?”

“There you go.”

Josephine paused while her mind swallowed this knowledge. “So at the Capital bombing, you had some poor fool die in your place?”

“Something like that.”

A realization struck her. “Wait. How did you know?”

“How did I know what, dear?”

“How did you know I knew who Sakhr was?”

“A fascinating question, isn’t it?” said Victoria. “I certainly didn’t learn it from him. You scoured every last memory his coven ever had about you. So how did I know?”

Josephine didn’t answer.

“Tell me,” Victoria continued, “why did you decide to part ways with them? From their minds, I can’t even get an idea when it happened.”

Josephine kept her head down. There was too much this woman knew that she shouldn’t. No reason to give her any more information.

Victoria sighed. “You might as well talk. You can’t hide anything from me.”

“No, thank you,” answered Josephine.

80. The Escape Game

“Is this what you’re looking for?” asked the lieutenant.

Josephine squinted at the screen. Fourteen suspects detained at French border trying to violate border lockdown. Subjects released.

“No. I didn’t say border. I said Lyons. An operation in Lyons.”

The lieutenant craned to look at her. “But we don’t have any soldiers in Lyons. We evacuated the region.”

He glanced over the computer screen to where Tan lounged at a coffee desk. Tan chewed food bars he had found in a break room. Since Josephine started carrying a glyph card, it’d grown harder to get angry at him for acting so damn flippant during these excursions. He was tense. He just hid it well. The food, the cigarettes, and fidgeting were all to distract himself. They were in the heart of a Lakiran military base after all.

“What I’m looking for,” she said, “won’t be in the usual lists. This was special forces. They were using orbital pods. Would that be in here?”

“It would, but you need permission to see that? Where did you say you came from again?”

She wiped his memory. It took a few tries until all the suspicion drained from his aura. Now he was just confused. This was useless.

She wiped his mind of everything about herself. “Why are you sitting in my chair, Lieutenant?”

Startled, the lieutenant glanced up, saw the rank of Colonel on her sleeve, and hopped from the seat. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Leave.”

“Yes, sir.”

As he hurried away, she pulsed him again. He’d wander the halls with a lingering sense of having done something wrong.

Josephine tabbed through the database. The Lieutenant had been right. All she saw was a slew of arrests made during the evacuation. The only action in France now was along the border. Everyone detained for crossing illegally was released. No more arrests. They’d run out of places to hold people lately.

“Tan. You think you could help me?”

Tan tossed aside his food wrapper and meandered over. He grabbed the touch screen and laid it face up on the desk. Taking out a single cent euro, he flipped it in the air. It clinked onto the screen. He carefully plucked the coin, then tapped the screen where it had landed.

This took them to the main database menu.

He flipped again: Department list.

Again: Civil Protection Records.

That made no sense. Civil Protection wasn’t military. It protected political gatherings and oversaw places like embassies. Josephine said nothing though. That penny was landing with purpose. It’s next two flips landed on the same button: page down.

Next flip, Imperial domain. Now it made sense. Imperial domain was protection of the queen, but it might also involve assignments passed down by the queen directly—those led by exemplars.

After that, it entered a list of project code names. Most were obscure, but the last was blatantly clear.

Lyons.

Tan flipped the coin again; it landed on that project. Josephine took over, but a password screen came up as soon as she tapped it. With a sigh, she handed it back to Tan.

This time, he pulled out his bag of dice. He picked a twelve, an eight, and two six-sided ones. The system he had was complicated. Josephine had helped him form it through countless trial and error. Back when they started this, it only ever failed when the password contained characters his system couldn’t account for. Capital letters were the first stumbling block, then numbers, then special characters… It once failed them completely at a security console in India. Studying a keyboard later, Tan figured out it must have had a tilda, the corner keyboard button he’d overlooked until then. Nowadays, Tan’s system even incorporated potential unicode characters. Josephine lost track of the rules a while ago.

The password here was strong. The dice had him press a few function keys, but when he finally pressed the enter key, the filed opened.


Sakhr was in a conference about the state of the empire’s transportation infrastructure when his tablet vibrated. While the minister kept talking, Sakhr opened the alert.

Someone had just accessed the Naema file. It came from a terminal in West Spain apparently. Sakhr checked a map. It was farther away from Lyons than he had expected.

Josephine must have played it safe and not gone to the nearest military installation. Wise, perhaps, but not wise enough. Sakhr had no idea how Victoria had so much trouble catching this woman. This trap would have been obvious to him: a single file in a database that’s easy to find, but not too easy. The password protection was hard, but not harder than anything that Asian had proven capable of hacking.

He closed his tablet and turned his attention back to the ministers. If he got the alert, so did the response team.


Ascension Island?” asked Oni.

“That’s what it said,” Josephine got in the car. Oni had been waiting three blocks away. He was in the driver’s seat as though he was the getaway driver, but when Tan opened the door and shooed him off, he crawled into the backseat without argument. Tan drove out of the parking lot. At the road, he flipped a coin. Heads. He turned right.

“Where is Ascension Island?” Oni asked.

“Off of Brazil, I think.”

Oni took out his phone. After some research, he spoke. “It’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

“How big is it?” asked Josephine

“Five miles long, maybe? Why did they take my family there?”

“I don’t know,” Josephine replied.

“I thought you said they’d take my sister to the capital.”

“That’s what I thought. I guess not.”

“Maybe they’re getting rid of her. Her power ruins plaques. So they’re putting her far away.”

“Maybe,” Josephine said. “Or maybe they expect us to come after them. If we go there, we’d have a tough time getting away. They might have put her on that island just to trap us.”

“But we’re still going to save them, right?” Oni asked.

“Yes. We are.”

“I will not.” Tan had his eyes on the road. Reaching an intersection, he rolled a die on the dashboard, then kept straight. He didn’t say anything else.

“Tan,” Josephine said. “You know what happens if they keep Naema.”

“They won’t make glyph of her power? Her power break glyphs.”

“We need her. You know this.”

“No. She bring us trouble. Since you find her, Lakirans no leave us alone. She is trouble. All trouble.”

“That’s because the Lakiran’s know how much of a danger she could be to them.”

“I no care about danger to Lakirans,” said Tan. “She supposed to keep us safe, but she is only danger to us. Now we go to tiny island to save her again? Second time we save her. And it is a trap. They will catch us if we go. I will not.”

“Tan…”

“No.”

“Tan. You can’t leave on your own. We need to stick together.”

“No. Not anymore. We make glyphs of our powers. You give me yours. I give you mine. We say goodbye.”

“I don’t know if that’s how these glyphs work.”

“It is possible. Glyphs come from people. That is why the queen wants us.”

“I don’t know how to copy them.”

“I see my power in a mirror. And yours. I know you do too. We figure it out. It is possible.”

“Even if we could. Even if you had my power, do you really think you’ll be any safer? If you got into trouble, no one would—”

She trailed off when Tan slowed the car. Ahead, five Lakiran deployment pods blocked the road.

“Tan?” asked Josephine. “What was your game? Roll dice to choose your route. Get out of town without running into the empire, right?”

“Yes.”

“Why did your power bring us here?”

He didn’t answer.

“Where are the people?” Oni asked.

He was right. No one was around. No soldiers, no cars. Nothing.

“What are they doing here?” asked Oni.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe we take pods?” asked Tan.

“That can’t be right,” Josephine said. They could theoretically take the pods wherever they wished. They were in the European grid right now, but that had to be a terrible idea. Whoever’s pods these were would notice. They could contact air control have Josephine and the others put into holding patterns. Game over. But then, they were here. And they were oriented in such a way that Tan couldn’t drive past. The dice led them here for some reason.

“Flip a coin,” she said. “Heads we take them. Tails, we turn around.”

He flipped his coin. “Heads.”

Really?” Josephine asked. “We’re supposed to steal deployment pods? That’s what your power wants us to do?”

Tan made a not-my-fault motion and indicated the coin.

“Okay then. Come on everybody.”

They got out and walked toward the pods. Josephine didn’t like this at all, but if there was a way out of this city, this was it. If there wasn’t—if they couldn’t win—then they might as well walk into the trap and save everyone time. But this had to be something. If there was genuinely no way to win the “get out of town safely” game, then Tan’s power wouldn’t bother working at all. His rolls would be random, and the chance of randomly finding pods with absent occupants was infinitesimal.

Next to one, Josephine leaned to look inside without stepping in. She tapped the screen. It showed the message, Remote access key not detected. They wouldn’t be able to ride these after all.

“Back to the car,” she said.

Two pops came from the woods. Pain exploded through Josephine’s side. Screaming, she collapsed. Her head struck the asphalt, causing stars to explode in her vision. Recovering, she felt her side. A small barbed flechette was stabbed into her. She yanked it out, but the little electric capacitor on its back had already discharged its payload.

“Get down on the ground,” someone yelled. Josephine’s breath caught. For a second she thought that order was for her. Without thinking, she lay still.

An exemplar woman strode out of the woods brandishing a repulse rifle, though she was much too young to be an exemplar. She’d also shot Tan, and Oni was getting on his knees.

The woman tossed three sets of handcuffs at them. “If any of you move quickly, I will shoot you again. Take the cuffs and secure your hands behind your backs.”

Twice now Josephine had tried to wipe the woman’s memory. No effect. Nor was the girl giving off an aura. So she had to be a high exemplar.

Josephine and Tan exchanged glances. She nodded.

While Tan grabbed his handcuffs with one hand. He drew his gun with the other. It might work. He’d get shocked again, but one lucky shot would drop the exemplar, and he was good with lucky.

“Drop the gun now,” The woman ordered.

Josephine’s hand twitched as though trying to comply. Tan’s fingers opened as though of their own accord. The gun clattered.

It was Authority. Josephine had no idea how. Anton had been dead for over thirty years, long before glyphs existed, but she recognized the familiar jolt that came with the words—the one that sent shivers down your spine and caused a primitive, submissive part of your brain to kick in.

The woman faced Oni. “Cuff Josephine’s hands behind her back.”

Oni moved to do so.

“Don’t.” Josephine said. “She’s controlling you. You just have to—”

The woman shot her with three more electric flechettes. Josephine didn’t speak much after that.


“And there’s no indication of who was aboard that ship?” asked Sakhr.

“None, ma’am,” said the captain. “All we know is that the ship was already waiting nearby when the alert tripped. They had pods waiting at the road to take them the rest of the way.”

Sakhr was reclined at his desk for this phone conversation. “So it was their getaway ship?”

“It might seem like that, ma’am, except our investigation turned up discharged electric flechettes at the escape scene, and blood.”

“Blood?”

“On the flechettes points. And some on the asphalt. When a hostile gets hit with a flechette, they often scrape their scalp on the ground.”

“So someone captured them?”

“That’s our theory, ma’am.”

If Sakhr had any doubts that Victoria was involved, that dispelled them. With the recent spur of military desertion, there were several ships equipped with deployment pods that the army couldn’t account for, but none of those would be right there. In his gut, he knew that if he could see aboard that ship, he’d find an ex-exemplar named Bishop and a captain named Stephano. They were the flies that evaded the swatter. Now they flew about the room, only to occasionally be glimpsed.

“Their ship. Are we tracking it?”

“Yes, ma’am. The orbiter is picking up speed and altitude.”

“Can we catch it this time?”

“We’ve already redirected the intercepter team. According to the flight manager, no matter what path the target takes, we’re guaranteed an exchange window of four minutes before the orbiter becomes unreachable again.”

“An exchange window?”

“That’s when the ships are able to exchange fire, ma’am.”

“Tell me. Tell me we outnumber them.”

“Six to one, ma’am. The attack will be coordinated from the strike room in the bridge spire. Admiral Laughlin invites you to join him if you’d like.”

“Yes,” Sakhr said. “I would.”

74. Magic Tricks

And now, if one of these beautiful ladies would step forward,” said the performer. He ran along the perimeter of his small stage, which was nothing more than a portion of the street dictated by a crowd packed in a circle about him.

“He wants someone from the audience now,” Josephine said.

Naema knew what the man had said. She didn’t speak much french, but enough. Oni would be the same, and their mother certainly understood him. She’d grown up speaking more french than english. Josephine was really only translating for Tan.

From the crowd, the performer pulled a woman, who blushed and giggled. The man bantered with her for a minute, getting her name and what she did. Then he asked if she ever had dirty thoughts. She blushed. Of course she had. There’s no need to share them, he said, but has she ever been afraid that someone might pluck those dirty thoughts from her mind.

“And here we go,” Josephine said. “He’s got one too.”

After a little more flourish, this performer took out a whiteboard and her write a word down that no one, not even the audience, could see. Then he dramatically peered into her eyes as he tried to divine the answer.

That was one way to do it. The first street performer they’d seen had been more personal. Instead of trying to prove to the entire audience he could read minds, he’d just gone around looking people in the eye and listing facts about their childhood.

Of course, it had failed. The second performer they’d found had failed as well. He’d actually handed a strange totem over to an audience participant and invited them to try reading his mind. After they floundered it, he’d just about accused them of trying to make him look bad. His crowd had dispersed quickly after that.

This man too was already flailing. He made a few bad guesses, though those might have just been for humor or to build suspense, but then the bad guesses kept coming. The girl kept saying no. The performer made a few quips about how the girl’s dirty thoughts are crowding her mind, but hardly anyone laughed. He went back to peering into her eyes, but this time with serious concentration. Two more wrong guesses, and he admitted he just kept getting lost in her mind. He smiled and laughed it off, showing better humor about it than the other performers.

Finally he had the woman reveal the word on the white board. It was babouin, or baboon. Afterward, he excused himself, saying he would return as soon as his mental powers had recovered.

The crowd dispersed as he packed away his props.

“Take me to him,” Josephine said. Mama pushed Josephine’s wheelchair toward the man. She’d become Josephine’s caretaker after treating Josephine’s flechette wounds acquired during their escape last week. Josephine had been bedridden ever since, and after a week without any sign of Lakirans on their trail, she’d become antsy to get outside. Everyone had been. So after Tan stole a wheelchair, they came out as a group to explore Lyon’s famed Saône market.

Josephine reached the man. Naema, Oni, and Tan followed beside her.

“Pardon moi,” Josephine said.

The man turned.

Josephine was holding up the exact same kind of card. At first glance, it might have seemed like a credit card, as Naema had thought it was when Josephine took it from the first performer.

The man glanced at it, then looked about. He shrugged, as though to say what of it?

“So?” he said. “Good for you. You’re not going to ruin a man’s act, are you?” His french had switched to a fast local dialect that Naema had trouble understanding.

“No,” Josephine replied. “I just want to know where you got yours. We’ve met a few other people with these, but all the sites they recommend have been taken down.”

“Whatever. Just copy it.” The man took out a stack of playing cards, though instead of a number and suit, each one had a single glyph drawn on it with a marker.

So this man had had the same idea as the other performers: wow the audience with a display of mind-reading, then reveal that the powers could be anyone’s… for a price. The first was offering at twenty francs. The other went as high as one hundred. Interestingly, the cards this man possessed had only single glyphs on them, and none had the glyph that allowed copying, as described on the back of the sleek black card Josephine held.

“I would,” Josephine said, “but mine is broken.”

The man was flicking through his playing cards now. “Yes. Mine too. Can’t help you.”

“Where did you download the first one?”

“A site. I don’t remember.”

“How did you get to that site?”

“A forum. I said I don’t remember. It’s probably down now.”

“Here,” Josephine held up her tablet. “There’s a cafe just up the street. Could you show us where you got it? You’ll have to get a new one anyway. All your glyphs are broken now.”

“How do you know that?”

“Aren’t they?”

The man was still thumbing through his deck, but just holding them all in his hand answered his question. If a single glyph in that pack worked, he’d see through Josephine’s eyes just fine, but he couldn’t.

“Did you break these?” he said.

“No, but they’re broken. Just use our tablet. Come on.”

“I’ll get it on my own. Leave me be.”

“Okay then,” Josephine replied. “Show us where you got that glyph, or we’ll tell your audience that those cards you’re trying to sell are free online.”

“Fuck off.”

“Your call.”

Fuck off.”

She turned to Naema. In english, “Could you close your eyes for a second?”

Naema did so, as well as plastering her hands over her ears and humming. It actually made a difference. Eyes closed wasn’t enough anymore if she could hear that Josephine was right next to her.

A moment later, someone tapped her. Eyes open, the man was still there, but his plastic black card was in Oni’s hand. Josephine was scanning through a phone. Naema knew it was the performer’s, but the performer had returned to thumbing through his playing cards, hardly aware that the others were even there.

Josephine motioned for the group to move on. Up the street, Josephine sneered and handed the phone to Oni. “This doesn’t tell me anything. Go give it back.”

“Why?” asked Oni.

“Because she said so,” Mama replied.

“It’s not like he remembers you took it. Isn’t that your thing?”

“Oni…” Mama’s tone brooked no argument.

Oni ran back to the man. After tossing the phone into the startled man’s lap, he hurried back.

“Naema. Go home,” he said.

“No. Shut up.”

“You keep breaking them. We can’t try until you leave.”

“Boy,” said Mama. “Leave your sister alone.”

“But this is stupid. Why are we bringing her with us to find these?”

“I just want to know where they’re getting them,” Josephine said. “If these people would just tell me, we could have one for ourselves, but if we had one for ourselves, I could read their minds to find out, but then I wouldn’t need to. It’s silly. I know more about where these powers came from than anyone else, but we can’t get them because we slept through their release.”

“But Oni’s right,” Naema said. “What’s the point? Unless you get rid of me.”

“It could still be useful. If we got the file to assemble it, then we could print one out when we need it. Or just copy it somewhere safe. You could leave the room for a minute while we read whatever minds we need.”

“I just want to try it,” Oni said.

“That too,” Josephine admitted. “I’m curious what they’re like.”

“Then… what?” Naema said. “Do you want me to go home?”

“No,” replied Mama. “It is dangerous to split up.”

“The Lakirans are gone, Mama.”

“They know you are special, girl. They won’t give up.”

“It’s been a whole week,” Naema argued. “They weren’t even here in the first place. They were in Paris.”

“Look around, girl. Do you see see any other black people? I feel their eyes all day.”

“Whatever. I’ll just go home. It’s not like I’m missing much.”

Apart from a few street performers and clustered market stalls, the Saône market had been a dud. The Lakirans had been gone for a week. Food hoarding had started within an hour of their departure.

“But still,” said Josephine. “You don’t need to split up just for this. Besides, you can’t go home without me. Our generous hosts might remember that they don’t know you.”

“Then I’ll wait here.”

“No, Naema. We’re not going to leave you behind.”

“It’s no problem.”

“…Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

Josephine dropped her parental facade. “Okay then! We won’t be long. Tan, can you find us another one?”

Tan nodded. After some dice rolls out of Naema’s view, he sauntered off in a direction.

Mama pushed Josephine along. Oni followed.

“Oni. Stay with your sister.”

“But I want to come. I want to see them too.”

“Fine. I’ll stay. You go. Push.” She gestured for Oni to take over as Josephine’s wheelchair assistant. He did so happily.

“I promise we won’t be long,” Josephine called over her shoulder.

“It’s fine,” Naema said.

The others left. It was nice of Mama to stay; Naema didn’t want to be completely alone, although it seemed like she should probably get used to it. This was going to be a common occurrence.

“Come, girl,” Mama said. “I want to sit.”

They sat on a bench nearby and watched people pass. Naema realized that this was the first time she’d been alone with her mother since before Josephine had entered her life. This past last week, Josephine and Tan had always been there. While cramped together hiding out in their current home, Mama had tended to Josephine’s legs. The two had been constantly together. By the end they chatted like Saturday evening bridge players. But now Josephine wasn’t here. Naema felt like she should say something.

Yet she and her mother simply sat together.

“You cold?” Mama said.

“No,” Naema replied.

“You must get more clothes, girl, or you freeze. It is colder here than back home.”

“I’m fine. You should get clothes.”

“You and me both. I’ll ask Josephine. We go find an assembler and print them. We can do that. Amazing what they can make. We never had that in Nigeria.”

“Not in public,” Naema replied. “Josephine says they had those kind in the CivMan buildings.”

“Of course they did.” Mama watched the passing crowds. “How are you, girl?”

“What do you mean? I’m fine.”

“We haven’t been alone together since we came here. You are different. What is in your head?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to your mama, girl.”

“Nothing, I swear.”

Mama eyed her.

“There is something wrong with you if there are no worries in your head.”

Naema didn’t respond for a while. “Where are we going?”

“You mean after France?”

“I mean after all of it. We’ll be in France until the Lakirans return. Then where?”

“I don’t know. We’ll go where we go.”

“Until the Lakirans go there too.”

“The Lakirans have their own problems. The queen is dead.”

“Ya, I know. Josephine acts like we don’t have anything to worry about anymore, but we’re living in a house with strangers. We snuck out today like we’re scared dogs. She thinks we’re still being hunted.”

“Ya, but they have always hunted us. When was the last time you and Oni did not avoid the Lakirans?”

“We weren’t running. We lived at home.”

“The Lakirans left Nigeria too. Now people there starve. Tell me, girl. Are you hungry?”

“No.”

Voila. I am not hungry. Oni is not hungry. We run, but we are better for it.”

“I guess so.”

“Stop worrying, girl. Hard times may come, yes, but you can handle them.” Mama hooked an arm over Naema and pulled her in. “You are strong.”

“If you say so, Mama.”

“I do.”

They watched the crowd together. Naema no longer felt the need to fill the silence.

“Excuse moi.”

Naema looked. A young girl had approached their bench. She was very short, and couldn’t possibly be over eighteen. “May I sit here?” Despite being asian, her french was impeccable.

Naema shrugged. The girl smiled sweetly and plopped down beside them. Her ears both sported wireless earbuds.

There were several other empty benches. The girl seemed oblivious to them all. Naema and Mama kept watching the passing crowd, but it was different now. This was no longer their moment. Naema glanced about to see if the others were returning yet.

Meanwhile, the girl pulled out a tablet. It was top of the line, not assembler-made. All the while she hummed.

Both Naema and her mother watched her. She seemed just as out of place as them; it was wrong.

The girl pulled one earbud out. “Are you two enjoying Lyons?” Again in perfect french.

“What?”

“It’s just you two stick out like flies in milk. You’re visiting right? Or did you come to stay?”

Naema glanced around. Flags were going up inside her head. She wanted to get up and walk off. Mama took her arm back from around Naema. She sensed it too. This girl singled them out as outsiders, and now she’s cozying up to them. Nigeria had its share of criminals and thieves.

“We are visiting,” Mama said.

“Oh, from where?”

“From down south. Excuse us. We must go.” Mama stood. Naema followed.

“Oh no, I’m sorry,” the girl said. “Please. Don’t let me drive you away. I’ll be quiet.”

“We have to go anyway,” Naema replied.

“Wait. May I show you something. Look at this.” The girl thrust her tablet toward Mama.

It showed a fullscreen image… of them, and it was live. Naema snapped around to see where the camera was. Along the top floor of the corresponding building, all windows were shuttered. No cameras, no partner in crime.

Mama was already pulling Naema away to leave when Naema spotted it, suspended before a nest of water heaters. It was a MobCam—a small sphere of tech that acted as the eyes and ears for the Lakiran military during an occupation.

Turning, Naema pushed her mother to run.

“Na ah ah,” the girl said. “Don’t move. If you move fifteen paces away, they will shoot your mother. Or was it ten? I forget what I told them. Just stay still and you’re fine.”

Mama glared at her. Naema looked around. There were multistory buildings everywhere: along the street, across the river, circling the plaza. Anyone could be watching.

“This is going to be really simple. You…” The girl pointed at Naema, “… will be coming with me. If you cooperate, your mother will get to stay and tell your friends what happened. If you don’t, your friends will have to make their own guesses when they find her body.”

Despite everything Naema had seen about the Lakirans being gone, here they were, in the middle of abandoned territory. It had been idiotic to split up. It had been idiotic just to leave the house. Had they been watching all time? Or had they just found her now? It had to be now. Tan had left the house so many times this week to filch supplies. Surely they would have taken him.

“Ten seconds.” The girl said. “Your mother sits on this bench while you and I leave.”

They wanted Naema alive. If she stayed close to her mother, whoever was watching might not take the shot. She could tackle the girl, threaten to hurt her if they hurt Mama. The girl looked like a twig; it would be easy. Or Naema could stall. Josephine would be back soon.

“Tick tock.”

“How do I know you won’t just shoot her after we’re gone?” Naema asked.

“Because I don’t care. Now come along.”

Naema kept her eyes on the girl. Whenever Josephine returned, as long as Naema didn’t look at her, she could work her magic on this girl. Finding whatever snipers there may be would require Tan.

“Let her walk away first, and then I’ll come.”

“Naema.” Mama murmured. “Just go. Run.”

“No, Mama. I’m not going.”

“I can hear you,” the girl said.

Mama grabbed Naema. “Listen, girl. Go. Now. Scream. Run. They won’t shoot you.”

“No.”

“No. Now. Go.”

The girl sighed. “Ah fine.” She pulled something from her purse and aimed it. Naema got a quick glint of metal. She turned to run, and electricity exploded through her body.

That was the last thing she remembered.

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.