116. Time

Oni navigated through the imperial website on his tablet. In a small window in the upper corner of the screen, Helena spoke to the press from behind a podium, but Oni had muted it. Josephine watched over his shoulder. She wished he’d unmute it, but it’s not like she couldn’t watch it herself afterward. Besides, Oni was too preoccupied getting the same thing that millions of citizens were going to that website for. A link on the site led to the assembler public library. Shield stones had gone live, without any security features. Josephine had downloaded one this morning, though it had taken her a while to find it on the website. Oni was having the same trouble. The site had been hastily designed.

Days ago, Helena had announced that she’d make shields publicly available, but it only went live this morning. The delay had a subtle effect. It showed Helena could keep them to herself, but chose to release them. It was crystal clear who the public had to thank. Josephine doubted Helena actually intended that. Everything was on the surface with that girl—no subversion. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe not. Maybe politics would change her. Her reign would be interesting to watch.

Oni found the link to the library. He hit print, and the assembler in the kitchen chimed, although it was still assembling something else.

“You might as well not bother,” Josephine said.

Oni looked at her. Josephine nodded toward Naema. The three of them were all sitting at the same breakfast table.

“But shields stop powers.”

“Not hers.”

Oni tossed the tablet onto the table. “Naema. Go away.”

Naema didn’t look up from her homework. “No.”

“I want to print this.”

“I don’t care.”

“Boy,” Zauna yelled from the kitchen, “leave your sister alone.”

“But I want one.”

“Then go somewhere else.”

Oni snatched his tablet and stormed to the stairs. Moments later, his bedroom door slammed. Neither Zauna nor Naema cared.

“What will you drink, Josephine?” Zauna asked. “We have many things. Water, milk, juice. I have fruits. The market sells hundreds of fruits. You never seen such a thing.”

“No thank you,” Josephine replied. “I can’t stay long. I just came by to see how you all are settling in.”

Zauna entered and set a plate of food before them. “Try this. They are mangos. I haven’t seen any for years. Try them, girl.”

“I’ve had mangos before, Mama,” Naema replied.

“No, you haven’t. Chop.”

Sighing, Naema set down her pencil and took a slice.

Josephine politely took one when offered. “How is school?” she asked Naema.

Naema shrugged. “They put me with a lot of white kids.”

“Her tutors say she is will catch up just fine,” Zauna said. “She is gifted.”

“They just say that, Mama.”

“It is true,” Zauna said simply. “If you are not gifted, then why did they give us all this?” she gestured to the apartment. “You are special.”

“It’s because of my flair, Mama.”

“It is also because you are special.” Zauna sat down. “Eat some peanut butter. It comes from real peanuts.”

“Mama, I’ve got to work.”

“How has that been with your power?” Josephine asked. “Has anyone given you trouble about it?”

“Besides Oni?” Naema asked. “No. People don’t know I break glyphs yet. They aren’t allowed at school though, but I must break a thousand glyphs every day when I walk there. Ms. Montes wants me to move onto the empire campus once they’ve cleaned the place.”

“Are they forcing you to do anything?”

Naema shook her head. “Not yet. That Korean girl wants me to come work for exemplars and train.”



“Is she still heading the Exemplar Committee?”


“And she’s also going to school?”

“I guess so.”

“Hmm,” Josephine said. A strange imperial cabinet. She supposed the empire was short handed as of late. Winnie, at least, was somebody Josephine trusted. She’d take care of Naema, and Tan, wherever he’d disappeared to. Without anyone on his tail, he didn’t need Josephine anymore. Neither did Naema.

Josephine rose. “I’m glad you’re doing well.”

“You’re going now?” Zauna asked.

“I must, but before I do.” She grabbed a pencil from Naema and scribbled information on a piece of notebook paper. “If you ever need me for anything. Reach out. I’ll come. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am.”

“Okay,” Naema said. “Where are you going?”

“Some place quiet.”

“Stay here,” Zauna said. “We have a spare room. I’ll print a bed.”

“Thank you, but I must leave.”

Zauna made several more protests. Josephine turned them down. Naema rose to hug Josephine, despite the cast on her leg and hand.

In the hall outside the apartment, Josephine picked up her shield stone from where she left it beside the door. Three floors down in the lobby, a doorman bid her good day. Outside there weren’t any streets, just walkways. A complex this ritzy was grid only—rooftop shuttle service.

Josephine hadn’t expected something this good when empire discussed relocating the family, but they wanted Naema close to the imperial campus as possible. From here, Josephine could see the construction platforms hovering over the Capital Tower remains.

She headed down the walkway in the other direction. Several blocks away, she sat at a bench. There, she waited as a nearby couple studied their phones together, as though looking for directions. They didn’t speak to each other, but rather glanced into each others eyes. The woman laughed, the man smiled. They tapped away at the phone together as though they were a single organism. Mind-reading. Josephine had never seen a couple like that, but there must be millions like that pair around the world now, discovering a level of intimacy never known before.

What a strange new world this was. Everything seemed the same, yet everyone’s way of life was forever different.

Minutes later, the couple found their way and headed off. Apart from a few distant pedestrians, she was alone.

A flutter, a passing shadow, and something rushed by Josephine’s head. She looked. Perched on the other end of the bench was a hawk—an osprey to be specific.

It turned its head this way and that.

“Thank you,” Josephone said. “I gave her my contact information. I told her I would come back for her if she ever needed me to. I hope that was okay.”

The osprey made no noise.

“I don’t think she’ll use it though. She’ll be fine. Look at this place. Everyone here could have died the other day, but it’s already back to normal. Good for them.”

She rested her eyes. Something prodded her shoulder. The osprey had inched over and was poking her with its talon. Sighing, Josephine took the shield stone from around her neck and placed it on the bench. She held her hand out to the bird.

Her senses yanked away. Staggering, she nearly fell off the back of the bench before buffing her wings to catch her balance. Regaining her composure, she looked at the body she’d possessed moments ago.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on them anyway,” her old body said. “Shall we?” The woman rose.

Josephine fluttered onto the woman’s arm. It was a clumsy effort.

“We’ll need to get another body,” the woman said.

Josephine tilted her head to meet the woman’s eyes. “I’m fine,” she thought. “It just takes getting used to.”

“And you will spend the rest of your life as a hawk? Nonsense. I don’t care how you feel about stealing bodies. We will not keep sharing this one, and I will not draw attention to myself with a bird forever on my shoulder.” She walked. “If we must, we will find someone comfortable with the trade. You’d be surprised how many people would give up their bodies to live as a bird.”

Josephine had to wait a while before the woman met her eye again. “And fifty years from now?” Josephine thought. “No one will want to swap bodies with a pair of old women.”

“They might for the right price.”

“Only a fool would exchange life for money, a soon-to-be regretful fool. I don’t want to live at the expense of others. I don’t want you to either. That was Sakhr’s way of life.”

“We’ll manage, Josephine. I told you I would not live as Sakhr had, and I’m good to my word.”

“You also told Winnie you would never take her memories, yet last I spoke to her, she didn’t recall your climbing up to that osprey’s nest over the bridge balcony. A strange thing to forget…”

The woman regarded Josephine. “She is with Helena now, both in their own body. I upheld the spirit of my agreement with that girl, and I will not tolerate your telling me otherwise.”

“It was still a slip in your word, no matter how justified. Over time—not weeks or months, but centuries, tiny justifications can add up. I’ve been there before. I once swore to myself that I would never live like Sakhr. I said I was only living with them for my protection, but then I justified taking one body because it came from an abhorrent person. Then I justified another, and another. It’s easy to slide with time.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to keep me in check,” the woman said, “but I will remain in this world, Josephine. I am not done.”

Josephine wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Words like that could have come straight from Sakhr’s mouth. At least this week was a victory—a major one too. Letting go of an empire was no small thing. But many more battles were yet to come. Josephine would always be there for this woman.

“Where are we going?” she thought.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Some place comfortable. I’d like to establish myself again. It shouldn’t prove so tiresome this time around.”

“Will you be getting involved in politics?”

The woman thought. “I don’t think so. With my daughter in charge and the world the way it is, the less I think about politics, the more relaxed I’ll be. No. I’ll build my own corner of the world, but it will be just for me.”

“No more empires?”

“Not for now. I’m tired of empires. Maybe one day I’ll come back. Slowly this time, more subtly. I have all the time in the world.”

Josephine’s heart sank. “Why? After all the pain and struggle, was it really worth it? Don’t you have regrets?”

“I made mistakes, yes. Maybe I acted too rashly, but I still think I helped the world. People won’t see it that way today. Maybe they never will, but I think I did.” She glanced at Josephine. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan to do anything for a good while. The world will have to survive without me for the time being.”

“It survived millennia without you, Katherine. Isn’t it a little arrogant to think that it might not?”

Katherine grinned. “I never said I wasn’t arrogant.”

114. Ignorance

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

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

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

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

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

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

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

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

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

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

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

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

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

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

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

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

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

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

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

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

Christof held up the suitcase.

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

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

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

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

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

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

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

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

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

113. The Search

“There!” Lieutenant Cardoso shouted.

Captain Santos lurched from the comm bench and hurried over.

Cardoso was pointing into the distance. Nestled in a small clearing between dead trees was the missing hopper-class military shuttle.

“Take us there,” Santos barked at the pilot.

The prowler they rode arced lazily toward the distant ship. Moments ago, Santos had thought their vessel was moving too quickly; his men had too little time to search the woods below as they drifted by. Now, the ship seemed to crawl.

Every soldier, cadet, and volunteer aboard pressed precariously against the platform railing to look at the hopper. Their weight caused the platform to tilt. No one cared.

“Call it in.” Santos said.

A radio cackled behind him. His pilot spoke in english. “This is vessel two five oh four searching in Amapá. We’ve located the missing shuttle.”

“What is the condition of the vessel?” a replying voice asked. “Is there any sign of the queen?”

“It looks as though the shuttle landed safely. We’re closing in now.”

“What is your location?”

The pilot transmitted coordinate information. Santos kept his eyes on the ship. Could she be on board? God, please. Let her be on board. Let her have stayed put. Let some radio malfunction be the reason she’d gone three hours without calling for help.

“What is it doing out here?” Cardoso said.

“No idea, Lieutenant.”

No one had expected to find the ship here, nearly forty miles away from where the Manakin went down. Long range radar had shown an unexplained blip out here—a ship had come and gone from this location hours after the Manakin had gone down. Everyone expected it to be some private pilot ignoring the no-fly directive. Hardly worth checking out, but the military had been getting desperate.

The prowler drifted overhead. Santos, several soldiers, and a medical team repelled down on ropes.

And there she was. Queen Helena was sitting on the boarding ramp of the ship with others as though watching the sunset. Santos felt weight lift from his heart. His queen was okay.

Santos hit the ground and charged up. He switched to english. “Your Majesty, are you okay?”

“Me?” Helena said. “Yes. I’m fine.” She glanced side to side at her companions. A young black girl sat beside her, and sitting in the ship behind them was a white woman in her early forties. Santos had no idea who she might be, but he did recognize the girl on the queen’s other side. She was the new head of the Exemplar Committee, Cho Eun-Yeong.

The medical team inspected Helena. She chuckled and brushed them away. “Look at her, guys.” She motioned to the black girl beside her, who had multiple wounds, including a bad leg injury. Someone had tried bandaging her, but she needed a hospital.

“Ma’am, what happened aboard the Manakin?” Santos asked.

Helena puttered her lips and laughed. “I was hoping you could tell me. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Did you just call me Your Majesty?”

Santos looked her over. Had she been compromised? He couldn’t see her aura, so her shield was working. But then he couldn’t sense any aura at all, not even nearby animals. Something was off.

“Ma’am, have you had your shield stone with you at all times?”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

Santos and the medical team glanced at one another. Forgetfulness was exactly the sort of sign he’d been warned about. He looked at the queen’s companions: the black girl, the older woman. They weren’t military. Why would they have been on the Manakin? Had that radar blip been an enemy ship?

Santos had to be careful. If the queen was compromised, then she could no longer be trusted.

Trusted to… rule? Trusted to… explain what happened?

He wasn’t sure. There was something he was supposed to do now, but he couldn’t recall what. Was he supposed to report it? Everyone was looking at him now—The medical team, Helena, even that strange woman sitting behind the queen.

He was wasting time. The queen needed help. “Hold on, ma’am. These men will take care of you.”

“If you say so,” Helena said.

Santos stepped away and unfastened his belt radio. “This is Captain Santos. The queen is at the ship.”

“What is her condition?” a radio voice asked.

He paused. There was something important he needed to say. It was just on the tip of his tongue, but whatever it was would come back to him later. Right now there was more important news to share.

“The queen is unharmed. We’re bringing her home.”

109. Astronomical Odds

Unknown to Winnie, Victoria was still watching. She was just preoccupied, and it wasn’t as though she could have helped, and Tan had the right idea. Victoria doubted it would work, but why not?

The marines were coming up the stairs, clearing each floor. They stormed, shot every person they saw, and moved on. From many floors up, Victoria heard screaming.

At least they were saving her the trouble after she retook her throne. The floor she was on was clear indication of the trash with which Alex had been replacing her honest exemplars. She could smell the hard drugs. There was even graffiti along the walls as though the citadel dormitory was a backstreet alley.

An alarm sounded. A robotic voice announced a citadel-wide evacuation. In all spires, civilians were getting up from their desks while asking each other what was going on. The Deck levels were already in motion from the firefight aboard the ship. Everyone headed toward the bays to evacuate. The bridge staff would remain to run the ship. The exemplars also would not evacuate, because they would soon be dead.

But they didn’t know that yet. At the sound of the siren, they turned off their blaring musics and stopped their conversations. Some wandered into the hall as Victoria hurried by. They asked each other if anyone knew what was happening. No one did. Without ever having been trained for life aboard a citadel, none had any idea what they were supposed to do. As a mass, the exemplars moved hesitantly toward the stairwell.

The marines burst in. A spray of flechettes tore through the exemplars. Screams rang out. The crowd became a riot struggling to get away. Exemplars trampled fellow exemplars. Some drew weapons and fought back, but their simple guns did little against marine battle armor. Within seconds, all exemplars near the stairwell were dead or dying. The remaining stampeded down the corridor.

Victoria took refuge in a dorm alongside several exemplars who had weapons drawn.

“What the fuck is going on out there?” one said.

Another crept up and glanced out the door. Flechettes ricocheted by.

“Fuck.” The exemplar ducked back in. “It’s the marines, man. They’re fucking wasting everyone.”

“What? What the fuck?”

“Is Alex doing this? She has to be, right?”

“What? Why?” The exemplar looked genuinely hurt at the idea.

“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust us?”

“But… but… that bitch! I was loyal to her. I was loyal as shit.”

“Fuck, guys. They’re coming. Get ready.”

The exemplars clutched their weapons. They toppled their bunks for cover while others hid on either side of the door. None cared that Victoria was huddled with them, clutching her own rifle.

The marines split up by the stairwell. One group remained to ensure no one left, smaller groups set down hallways, breaking off into dorms as they passed. Three marines came toward Victoria.

They rounded the door frame. The exemplars fired first, useless bullets against thick armor. Victoria shot blindly while holding her rifle loosely. Neck shot. One marine dropped. A second marine opened fire on the men behind the bunks. The beds did nothing to stop the flechettes. The exemplars shredded and crumpled. The exemplars by the door jumped the marine, stabbing knives at joints of his armor. They all fell in struggle. The third marine entered, shot both men stabbing his ally, then fired at the barricade.

Victoria shot back. Four flechettes pierced his shoulder and neck, dropping him. Her rifle clicked empty.

The second marine was getting to his feet. Two exemplars fired at him fruitlessly. Victoria charged and tackled the marine back down. She blindly tore and grappled, but the marine’s strength overpowered the body of the young cadet she occupied. He drew his side arm and pointed it at her gut when an exemplar kicked him hard in the head.

The marine sprawled aside. Victoria groped for a weapon. Her hand landed on the handle of a fallen knife. Swinging it around, She plunged it into the marine as hard as she could. It pierced partially through his mesh armor, hardly penetrating any skin.

But his aura bloomed to life.

Grunting, the marine shoved Victoria off him. He shot the exemplar dead, then turned his sidearm on her. She grabbed his wrist. Between his armored glove and sleeve, she touched skin.

And now she was looking out a marine HUD at a very alarmed cadet. He hardly had time to realize his situation when Victoria shot him in the head. Turning her gun at the bed barricade, she fired six more times. Her mental visualization had told her generally where to aim, Tan’s micro-movements took care of the rest. She was the only one left alive in the room.

Victoria collected a rifle and ran to join the other marines. They they were going room to room exterminating the exemplars, and she fit right in.

With her situation taken care of, she turned her mind back to Winnie and the others…

Lieutenant Lucero indicated a touch pad. “And you can make gestures on this to control the swarm, but you have to—”

Tan slapped his hand on the pad and twiddled his fingers about. Outside, the swarm of spider planes jerked and shifted away from the orbiter.

“Right. Don’t do that. If you move the swarm too much that way, they’ll fall behind. At our speed, we have to keep them moving with the orbiter or else—”

Tan rolled a handful of dice, then toggled several console switches.

“Those, uh… don’t actually control the swarm. They—”

Tan rolled more dice and hit more buttons. The swarm outside lurched.

“Stop that. You just turned off the… stop!” Lucero pushed Tan aside and undid several of Tan’s adjustments. Tan ignored him and lit a cigarette.

“There’s no smoking in here,” Captain Rivera said.

“Dice say smoke,” Tan muttered. He didn’t look away from the controls.

“Okay,” said Lucero. “Don’t touch any of these. If you want manual control, just use these two pads. You can—”

Tan rolled dice and flipped switches Lucero just forbid.

Jesus! Do you want the spiders crashing into each other? Leave the Autoform on. Look. The enemy swarm is firing at them now. Just… Leave the Goddamn Autoform on.”

“Captain?” Josephine prompted.

“Lieutenant!” said Rivera. “Let him be.”

“Fine! Just… you’re not even shooting back. Here.” The officer flipped one switch. “Do whatever! It’s only our lives.” He stepped back.

Outside the Venezia, the spider swarms were now engaging one another. Three hundred spider planes moved forward as one, firing upon a swarm of sixty drones that swerved about like drunken bees. Tan was losing planes every second. At least they fired back, but for every enemy spider that dropped, Tan lost six.

He rolled the dice, dropped his hand onto the control pad, and flopped it about like a dying fish. The swarm lurched, moving tangentially from both the opposing swarm and the Venezia. Several spider planes bumped one another. They were now out of range of the enemy swarm.

“What are you doing?” yelled Lucero.

The enemy swarm broke in two. One swarm pursued Tan’s planes, the other continued its push against wind resistance to reach the Venezia. By now, the defending swarm could never catch up in time. Nothing stood between the Venezia and over a hundred enemy spiders.

Tan rolled again, dragging hard on his cigarette. This time, he merely kept one hand laying on the touch pad. His swarm kept moving tangentially, moving up windstream of the enemy ships. The enemy swarm pursuing them moved to get in between.

Lucero had to walk away. Tan’s erratic behavior was too much for him to watch, but the mystery proved worse. He marched back.

Again, Tan rolled with his free hand. As he read the dice, he moved to lift his cigarette from his lips. It slipped into his lap. He jerked, sliding his hand across the control pad as he squirmed, snatching for his smoke.

The spider swarm veered. They hurled directly toward the enemy orbiters. No longer moving against the atmosphere, they accelerated wildly relative to the Venezia. The pursuing swarm easily took advantage of this, adjusting course to speed alongside Tan’s swarm. They synchronized completely. The enemy swarm tore Tan’s to shreds. Dozens of ships fell per second.

“No!” Lucero lunged for the controls. Tan batted him away while fishing for his cigarette. It didn’t matter.

The swarm passed the enemy orbiters. There were only eleven left at that moment, and they shot by so quickly that they didn’t have time to shoot once. Just like that, the swarm careened off into the distance, out of the fight for good.

Except Tan’s drones hadn’t had Autoform on. They had no course correction, making them nothing more than expensive meteors. The spider drones guarding the enemy orbiters easily navigated around the expensive shrapnel. However, the orbiters relied upon their deflection repulsers to push projectiles out of the way, and the spiders were traveling far too fast and had far too much mass for them to deflect them with 100% certainty. As chance would have it, two spider drones had collision courses too direct to be fully deflected.

They each glanced an orbiter. At their speeds, it was enough. Explosions of steel and pressurized gas emitted from both. The ships careened off course. One spiraled toward earth. The other crunched into another ship, causing it to explode outright. The resulting shower of shrapnel was too dense for the other ships to do anything about. One got hit on the nose with debris. It’s hull peeled like a banana skin. The remaining two ships took light damage to their wings, but it was enough for their ships to drop from their course.

The enemy spider drones were now within range of the Venezia. Any of them could have fired, but none did. Winnie saw nothing but chaos inside the surviving three ships as the crews struggled to evacuate. The confirm order for the swarm strike went ignored. Within moments, the enemy swarms drifted passed the Venezia, they would not be catching back up.

“What?” said Lucero. He stared in astonishment. “Three down and… Jesus. You actually managed to—” He checked again. “They’re gone. We’re out.”

Several men cheered. A few clapped Tan on the back.

Tan took out another cigarette, lit it with the butt of his old one, and ignored everyone.

106. The Labyrinth

An officer announced Alexander’s arrival on the bridge, and the buzz of activity halted for formalities. Alex waved people back to work. Any other day, he’d wallow in the attention, but right now it was idiotic. He stepped up to a display table beside Admiral Laughlin.

“What’s happening?” Alex asked. The display showed an overhead view of South America.

“We picked up a deployment drop twenty minutes ago, Your Majesty. It skirted in from the Atlantic side of Brazil and landed near the Guyana border. The ship that deployed it came in hot, nearly two thousand kilometers per hour. It has to be them.”

He pointed toward a single dot pinpointed under Central America, “They’re accelerating back to cruising speed. In fifty minutes, they’ll be untouchable again. Fortunately though…” He pointed to a nest of dots over Honduras. “Our squads scrambled as soon as they got the alarm, and luck was on our side. No matter their course, our boys will synchronize with them for at least six minutes before the target reaches cruising speed. After—”

The map updated. A line extending from the target dot flickered and now curved downward over the antarctic.

“They’ve changed course, sir,” said an officer behind them. “Southward arc, at two point four two meters per second per second. Predicted change.”

“And the window?”

“Six minutes twenty-seven seconds. Their course is optimal, sir.”

“Excellent.” Laughlin turned to Alex. “Any course change they make now will only benefit us.

“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.

“They can try. We’ve already made arrangements to shut down the local grid if they do. The evacuees will make one hell of a crater.”

“And just to confirm, all pilots have shield stones with them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex turned to the bridge. “And is there anyone here who is not shielded? Anyone at all?”

No one responded. He couldn’t sense any auras anyway, but he was coming down a case of Sakhr’s paranoia.

“You won’t be in trouble if you speak up now,” he said, “but you will if you don’t.”

“Everyone here is equipped, as ordered,” said Laughlin.

“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”

“We’ve sent a team to investigate. It’s touchdown area was directly next to a gridport.”

Laughlin tapped controls on the display table. A small window popped up overtop of the orbital chase. It was a topographical map of a region. An arrow indicated where the pod landed. Next to it was a dot labeled “Cantá Gridway” with lines spraying from it. They were grid chutes which led to ports all over South America.

“But there was only one pod?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many people could have been in it?”

“They’re meant for one soldier, but in a pinch, they can hold two.”

“Have we heard back from the gridport?”

“Not yet.”

“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Probably not entirely. No region is fully equipped yet.”

“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.

“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve got this under control, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then there’s no need, is there? Destroy them all and keep me posted.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Any other day, Alex would have stayed, but he knew who was in that pod. He now had preparations to make. A good host should be ready for guests.

“New trajectory confirmed.” Navigator Tremont checked his readout. “Time to optimal cruising speed: fifty-eight minutes.”

“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.

Tremont fiddled with his onscreen numbers. “Six minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”

Rivera nodded slowly. Winnie didn’t bother asking how bad it was. That window was several times larger than the one they had faced before.

“Are you sure about those ships?” Rivera asked Winnie. She too wished she were wrong. The onboard radar hadn’t yet picked up the incoming interceptors. They had only Winnie’s word, and if she was wrong, they might yet live, but it wasn’t the case.

“Yes,” she said. “The people in the Manakin came up with the same intercept window.”

“Hmm.” Rivera faced Tremont again. “How quickly can we course change over a grid?”

The officer got to work.

Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”

“Why?” Rivera asked.

“They’re going to shut off the grid wherever our pods are going to land.”

“…I see. Are you sure about th… nevermind. Of course you’re sure. Disregard my last query, Lieutenant.” Rivera returned to the display board. Dots were shown in exactly the same configuration as aboard the Manakin. Six ships were coming. Same as last time, only the crews were shielded, the attack window was minutes long, and the Venezia only had two-thirds of the spider drones it had before. Death was certain. From the auras on the bridge, everyone else knew it too.

“What’s the status of the queen?” Rivera asked.

Winnie brought Victoria to mind. She was still in the body of Captain Russo, sitting in a shuttle on its way to the Manakin. She was in the back, away from the other soldiers in transit. They kept glancing at her as she mumbled to herself.

“Answer me, Winnie. Pay attention,” Victoria murmured. “Look at me, Winnie. Answer me.”

“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”

“Don’t look away again. I’m about to land.”

“Have you been watching what’s happening to us?”


“Any ideas?”

“As long as I can get to Alex in time, it won’t matter. I’ll call them off.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then you’re on your own. Stephano and Rivera knew what was at stake, but those ships aren’t going to reach you for fifty minutes, and I don’t plan on failing.”

“Okay.” Winnie relayed this to Rivera. He seemed as concerned with the idea as she was. Their lives were in the queen’s hands. To live, Winnie would have to help Victoria however she could. She wondered if this had been part of Victoria’s plan, but chose not to dwell on that.

“What do you want me to do,” Winnie asked.

“Just look ahead,” murmured Victoria. “Use Tan.”

Winnie returned to the ready room and stood in the door frame, keeping her in view of the bridge crew. Tan was still cramped into his seat, and he’d finally put his tablet away, as though he’d finally decided to invest himself in this fight for their lives.

Winnie transmitted Victoria’s instructions to him, and he rolled dice to come up with locations for Winnie to search. Victoria was entering a docking bay. She would have to pass a security checkpoint—one that would require her to relinquish her “shield”. Tan’s search instructions turned up nothing of interest. His second roll even had her searching empty space outside the citadel. Winnie double-checked his mind to make sure he hadn’t changed his winning conditions to whatever will make Winnie stop bothering me the quickest.

The place Winnie really wished she could see was Alexander’s office in the bridge tower, except that it was still one enormous blind spot. He’d kept Naema in that office for days now, yet somehow his glyphs weren’t breaking when he’d come and go. Winnie tried one last time to creep her awareness inside only to have her power clench like a spasming muscle. A shame. He was there right now, and Winnie knew he was up to something.

The landing nodes aboard the Manakin snagged Victoria’s shuttle. Its invisible hand carried it in and deposited it neatly upon a landing space. Victoria and the others shuffled off. Down the landing stair, armed soldiers cordoned them toward the security bay. Like all citadels, each bay aboard the Manakin had its own dedicated section for security checks and exemplar scans, but traffic had increased since the Capital Bombing. As a result, field tents were set up at the back of the landing bay, extending the security section to twice its size. Even then, a queue had formed containing a dozen soldiers.

Tan rolled. Winnie checked. “Fourteenth,” she said. She scanned the line. “Let one more person go ahead of you.”

Victoria paused to check her pockets. Another soldier filed into the queue, and then Victoria stepped in. Thirteen people were before her. The security bay took soldiers off the queue in twos and threes. Even with the extra tents, it took Victoria twelve minutes to reach the front of the line. Winnie knew because she watched the countdown in the bridge leading to intercept time.

They called Victoria and the soldier before her. The soldier got sent to the dedicated security room while Victoria got sent to a tent. They checked her bag, sent her through a body scanner, then directed her inside.

An exemplar was sitting at the other side of a table. Unlike with the dedicated scanning rooms, there was no shield between her and him. He gestured her to take a seat.

“His shield is in his left coat pocket,” Winnie said. She had Tan throw another set of dice. “Wait eleven seconds,” she added.

The exemplar spoke. “You need to take off your shield for the duration of this interview.”

“I don’t have a shield,” Victoria said.

“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”

Victoria patted herself down. Winnie’s own count was down to five seconds.

“I swear I don’t have a shield on me.”

The exemplar pointed impatiently toward the door. “Yes, you do. Return to security.”

Winnie’s countdown reached zero. Victoria snatched the exemplar’s extended hand and lunged. Yelling, he pulled away, but he reacted too slowly. Victoria reached into his coat. Either by luck or by the help of Tan’s power, her hand slipped into his pocket and snagged his shield. She tossed it under the desk.

“Sit,” the exemplar said. “Don’t make a sound.”

The words coming from the exemplar’s mouth could not be disobeyed—Victoria’s words. An invisible hand forced the exemplar, now in Captain Russo’s body, into his seat.

A guard rushed in.

“Is everything okay in here?” the guard asked.

“I slipped.” Victoria righted her chair and sat. When the guard lingered, she looked at him again. “We’re fine.”

The guard left. Victoria turned back to the dumbfounded exemplar. Despite being in an unexpected body, he didn’t seem alarmed. Winnie had heard Victoria and Josephine discussing this tactic earlier. Victoria was erasing his immediate memory so constantly he had no time to panic.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “I passed this scan. There was nothing wrong, and you will report nothing once I’ve left. You will obey.”

Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.

Moments later, Victoria exited the tent, once again in Russo’s body. The exemplar was dazed, but not alarmed. In total, the security checkpoint took Victoria fifteen minutes, leaving thirty-five minutes on the countdown clock to intercept.

Soon, Victoria was wandering the cramped lower corridors of the Manakin.

“Play the next game,” she murmured.

“Right.” Winnie sought Tan, who turned ponderously to his dice. Through her eyes, he saw the passageways before Victoria. Ahead, a ladderwell led up and down, but the corridor kept on as well. Doors lined the sides.

He rolled, examined his results, and passed it on mentally to Winnie.

“Keep straight,” Winnie said.

Victoria did so. She arrived at a smaller bay area, where ships were kept in storage. Several doors, ladders, and elevators led from here. Tan rolled again.

“Down the ladderwell.”

“Down?” asked Victoria. “I’m trying to get to Alexander.”

“The dice say down.”

Victoria followed. This brought her to a catering room. The soldiers down here glanced at her. Captain Russo stood out. Only local personnel worked here.

“Where now?”

“Continue through the door before you.”

This brought her into a sleeping quarters.

“Go right.”


“Up a ladder well.”

“Up?” asked Victoria.

“Up, yes.”

Victoria went up. Further instructions led her past a medical ward, a line of military-supply outlets, a few commercial diners, and finally back to the very hallway she started in after leaving the security bay. The whole circuit cost them nine minutes. Twenty-six to go.

“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.

“I don’t know.”

Victoria kept walking, taking turns at random to appear busy. “Is Tan reading the dice correctly?”

“I think so.”

“Winnie. Look into his eyes. Are his goals the same as ours?”

“Yes. They are. He’s going to die too if you don’t get to Alex.”

“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.

“It’s already confirmed. I’ve been looking at his mind this whole time.”

“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.

“She’s back where she started,” Winnie replied. “Are you sure you’re doing the dice right?”

“I am doing what she say. Roll dice. Give you path.”

“But the dice aren’t doing that,” Winnie said.

Tan shrugged. “If they don’t give path, there is no path. Dice are random.”

“I don’t accept that,” Victoria said. “Alexander is in the bridge tower. There are two stairwells into there, and an elevator. What is Tan’s game specifically? I need to safely get to Alex within the time limit. I can go anywhere. I can swap bodies. I can make anyone do whatever I need so long as I can de-shield them. Is Tan considering all my options when he rolls his dice?”

Winnie locked minds with Tan.

“Yes.” Tan said. “Maybe… Alexander go to her?”

“Can you roll the dice for a yes or no answer?” asked Winnie.

Josephine answered. “It doesn’t work like that. Tan can only steer her toward a winning condition. He can’t tell her what it is.”

“Here’s an idea,” Victoria said. “Have Tan change the game. To win, I need to safely get to Alexander within five minutes. Any longer and we lose. Roll.”

So Tan rolled, Winnie issued instructions, and Victoria followed. Within a minute, the dice took her into a dead-end armory room, and then turned her right around.

“These are random steps,” Victoria said. “Why can’t we win this? What are we missing?”

Tan shrugged.

“Are you rolling the dice enough? Maybe you’re not giving your flair enough time to control your micro-movements.”

“No,” Tan said.

“Winnie,” Victoria said. “You’ve been watching Alex regularly, right? He is on board?”

“I watched him go into the office on top of the bridge spire.”

“But have you been watching closely? Could he have slipped away?”

“No. You know he hasn’t. I can’t pull him to mind, which means he has to be in that blindspot.”

“Then there’s something we’re missing,” Victoria said, “I refuse to believe I cannot get to him at all.”

“What if he knows you’re coming?” Winnie asked. “Wouldn’t that explain it? He knows a pod landed. He’s not going to do nothing about that. He must at least know we’re up to something. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”

“No,” said Victoria. “Not waiting for me. Or else I could get to him. He must be doing something to ensure I can’t reach him.”

“Like what?”

“An escape route? A warning system? He must have something hidden in that blind spot to stop me.”

“That should mean you could at least get close to the blindspot,” Winnie said.

Victoria nodded. “Have Tan set the target destination four floors below the staff bridge.”

Winnie worked with Tan again. He rolled dice. Victoria went from the corridor, down a ladderwell to an engineering room, through a break room, and into an equipment closet.

Victoria growled in frustration. “Does this game even work? Can you even get me to the stairs?”

They played. Up a ladderwell, down a hall. Through a general quarters. Then up a ladderwell twice. She arrived at the base of a stairwell leading up the bridge spire.

“So at least we know it’s working,” said Winnie.

So as not to linger, Victoria kept moving past the stairwell and walked a circuit through nearby corridors.

“But why can’t I just walk up these stairs?” asked Victoria “It would take me right to him. Look with me, Winnie. I can’t see anything in the stairwell or the spire that would stop me.”

Winnie checked. Inside the bridge spire, business was as usual. Admiral Laughlin was monitoring the intercepters on route toward the Venezia. In the operations room, officers coordinated incoming and outgoing air traffic from the citadel. The staff bridge was empty. In the other control rooms, officers weren’t even watching the door. The stairwell leading down was deserted apart from a lone sergeant walking up the stairs while fumbling with loose leaf notes. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him.

“Do you see the soldier in the stairs?” asked Winnie.

“Of course I do.”

“It looks like he’s gone up those stairs a lot today. Maybe you can just go. Maybe there’s just a locked door near the top you can’t get through.”


“We’re running out of time,” Winnie said. The countdown was now sixteen minutes.

“I’m not going to go unless the dice tell me to go.” Victoria walked another hallway. “Let’s try playing the game in parts to see where it fails. Roll the dice again. Set my destination as the deck level landing of the stairwell.”

Tan rolled again. Instructions led Victoria to the end of her current hall, and then the door on the right, which led to a bathroom.

“Okay then,” Victoria said, “How about just one floor up this floor. Can we do that?”

Dice rolled. They led her back to the stairwell, then up one floor.

Victoria stopped on the landing. “Okay. Try going up another floor.”

The dice led her back down. She descended.

“So for some reason,” Victoria said. “Tan’s flair thinks we lose if I go to the deck floor of that stairwell.

Winnie scanned the stairwell thoroughly. “Do you see the security camera?” she said.

“Yes,” Victoria said. “And have you seen the hundred other security cameras I’ve passed since coming aboard? It’s not that. Try playing the Spotting Game with Tan. Center it on that floor.”

As usual, Josephine took the first turn rolling the dice. Winnie followed the resulting instructions and viewed four floors below in a shower room. Nothing. Tan’s turn. The dice pointed Winnie about six feet away. It put her mind inside the wall, close to an air duct. She glanced inside.

“…Oh,” Winnie said. That definitely counted. Tan-1, Josephine-0. Tan wins the game.

“What is it? What do you see?” Victoria asked.

“Look in the air duct.”

“Which one— Oh, I see it.”

It was a canister. Attached to it was a device with wires leading to a small box with an antenna.

“He put a bomb in his own stairwell?” Winnie asked.

“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.

Winnie checked and found a bomb immediately. She’d missed them before because she’d never thought to check underneath the elevator.

“Couldn’t he bring his own spire down with that?”

“Maybe,” said Victoria. “I wouldn’t expect rational thought from a man who has a doomsday device on his watch.”

“Are those bombs remote controlled?”

“Yes,” said Victoria. “And if the dice don’t want me going in there, it means Alexander is watching me right now, and he has his finger on the trigger.”

105. The Sovereign Citizen

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

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

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

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

The grid had picked her up.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you see where I’m going?”

“I see it,” said Winnie.

“Look around. Find any investigators.”

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

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

“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, dear,” he said.

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

“I have no idea what they’re saying.”

“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.

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

“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.

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

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

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

“They’re just guards, I think.”

“Are they shielded?”

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

“Then I want you to—”

“On it.”

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

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

“Done,” said Josephine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just keep an eye out.”

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

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

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

Victoria replied calmly.

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

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

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

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

“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.

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

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

“I will do so.”

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

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

Victoria didn’t answer.

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

“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.

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


“Where in Colombia?”

“That’s none of your business.”

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

“On what charges?”

“Illegally crossing the border.”

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”

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

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

“You already said so.”

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

“Go to hell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get her out of here,” Russo said.

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.

103. Trust

Captain Stephano was a sad sight. The medic had cut away his uniform during surgery, and now he was left with tubes running from his arms and mouth. He looked old, Victoria realized. He had gray hair at the temples and bitter wrinkles about his mouth. Victoria had to check the medical tablet to confirm that he was only in his thirties. He’d served in her army for five and a half years, which meant he was one of the first people to join her army as a soldier, instead of a carried-over mercenary from her company days.

Those first few months had been the toughest times. She’d succeeded in safeguarding most of her privately owned territories. Using her food and mercenaries, she’d become the crux of the locals’ wellbeing, but no one had seen her as anything more than a prominent land owner. Her transition into official control had been the most delicate and awkward stage of her rise to power. She’d hand out currency just to collect it again for food she had given out for free just a week previous. Her men had shown up to people’s houses to collect taxes for the first time, which was always contentious, even when she bore official stamps of old governments. She could pretend to be a servant of a South American coalition as much as she wanted, but if she hadn’t owned the people bearing the guns, she’d have gotten nowhere.

And recruitment hadn’t been easy. Convincing people to join a coalition supervised by one foreign white woman had required an enormous leap of faith from the people. Stephano had been one of those who’d given her a chance. If not for people like him, she’d have failed, despite all her hidden powers. He’d believed in her.

Now here he was, an old man rotten with death. And it was because of her.

The other marines had worked out what had happened. Private Larson had been waiting in a storage housing for forty minutes. Liat, Bishop, Victoria, or anyone with a glyph card should have sensed him. His memories were gone, but Victoria suspected he’d practiced calming himself. Anyone with a glyph card could figure out how to still their aura—another reason to regret its leak.

When Victoria and the others passed, he followed. The rest Victoria knew. She was damn near omnipotent, but one unshielded man had caused so much grief because she locked up.

There was a commotion outside the stateroom door. Victoria visualized it. The guards that Executive Officer Rivera assigned to Victoria were stopping Josephine from entering.

“No one is allowed in,” the guards were saying.

“I know,” said Josephine. “Could you let her know I’m here.”

“You’ll have to come back later. Right now, ma’am, you need to leave.”

“Just. Let. Her. Know.”

“I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”

Victoria spoke loud enough to be heard through the door. “Let her in.”

They did.

Victoria didn’t rise from her post beside Stephano.

Josephine stopped before the captain’s bed. “How is he?”

“They say he’ll live.”

“Has he been awake any.”

“Earlier. Yes.”

Josephine nodded and hunkered down. There was no other seat in the stateroom. “And how about you?”

“I was not hurt. I think I have Tan’s power to thank for that. I stumbled in just the right way.”

“But are you okay?”

Victoria regarded her.

“I’m just concerned,” said Josephine. “That’s all. ”

“I’m fine.”


They sat silently a while.

“Do you know why that man attacked you?” Josephine asked. “Everyone has been talking. Some say he was talking about how you were brainwashing everyone. He’d seemed on edge.”

“Yes. Rivera told me. Though how do you know?” Victoria looked at Josephine, and the answer was in her eyes. The flairs had banded together in their own little clique. Winnie watched the soldiers and shared. When they spoke Portugues or Spanish, she’d lock eyes with Christof, who could translate. Even Tan had joined their gossip circle.

“Adorable,” Victoria said.

“They haven’t let me anywhere near the attacker,” said Josephine. “But Winnie says he’s in bad shape. The soldiers say he’s gone mad.” She paused. “How much did you take from him?”

“I wasn’t concentrating on that.”

“They’re saying he doesn’t remember anything in the last six years.”

“I took whatever I could. I guess more related to me than I would have guessed.”

“Everything relates to you now, Victoria. This army serves you. This nation is yours. Everything that happens because of you could be considered your fault.”

Victoria nodded. “You’ve managed to give your power quite a broad definition. Do you still think you couldn’t extend your power to include any possible memory?”

Josephine did not let the conversation steer away. “That man forgot the Collapse. He lost everything that came after it. That means you believe the Collapse, and everything that’s followed, is your fault.”

Victora looked at her, unamused.

“Please, wait,” said Josephine. “Don’t make me forget this. I’ve already known for a while. Winnie knew, and I’ve been in her head all week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.”

“I do not wish to discuss it. There’s no need for you to know.”

“But I want to know it all the same. Please.”


“Because you shouldn’t have to carry it all by yourself.”

“Don’t give me your therapy, Josephine. There were plenty of people who knew. My high exemplars knew.”

“But now they’re dead. Who else is left? Winnie? Has she accepted it?”

“No, but I don’t need acceptance. I know what I did. I knew the world might see me as a villain, but I still believe what I did was necessary. So did Liat, Bishop, and my other high exemplars. We were trying to make the world a better place in the long run.”

“Why did you trust them?”

“I didn’t. Trust is when you give someone the power to hurt you. My high exemplars were only allowed to know because they were forbidden to keep secrets from me. That was the life-long deal they made when I saved them from their death beds. I owned them. That’s not trust.”

“Is that the only way you’ll ever share with anyone.”

“I learned a long time ago not to trust, Josephine. You should know this.”

“Okay then.” Josephine presented herself. “Own me.”


“You have no high exemplars left. So take me. I’ll accept the role. Whatever it is you do, whatever you have planned, I’ll stand by you. You can scan my entire life if you want.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Liat killed for me. She spent two and a half years in the body of an overweight Russian diplomat disseminating my lies. She didn’t just know about the Collapse. She helped me cause it.”

“Did she know what you would have her do that when you recruited her?”

“Yes. I warned her.”

“Did you tell her why?”


“And she believed in you enough to do it. They thought you served a greater good. Every one of your high exemplars did. And I will too.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if I’m exactly what everyone now thinks I am? A monster—too twisted inside to see the ruin I’m causing.”

“Then at least you’ll have somebody to let you know.”

Victoria grunted.

“So. What’s the plan?” asked Josephine. “We’re going to retake your empire. Right?”

“If there’s anything left to salvage. And if the people will ever let me. I don’t know if the empire can ever be restored now, unless I go the same route as Alex and control the the masses, which I refuse to do. The world has crumbled again. If I want to bring it back together, it will require another war, and I’m not sure I have the will anymore.”

“Then don’t. Fixing the world is not your responsibility.”

“It’s not my responsibility, but if I don’t, who will?”

“Everyone else will just have to figure it out. It’s their world too. They’re living in it. The powers that you had are in their hands now.”

“And what would you suggest I do instead?”

“Why don’t you try living? You’ve been in such a rush to make a difference that you forgot about that. Go out and see the world you’ve tried so hard to control. Grow. Enjoy your life. Cut out your own little corner of the world for yourself. Don’t concern yourself with the wellbeing of everyone else.”

“Sounds dull.”

“It’s not. You went from being a child to a conquerer. There should have been a whole lot more in between that you missed.”

Victoria gazed upon Stephano. She was silent a long while. It was strange to her to think of a life where she wasn’t a ruler. In so many decades, she’d never considered such a thing.

“No,” she said, “I can’t do that, even if that’s what I wanted. Not with Alex where he is. Maybe the world is not my responsibility, but if I left now, I’d be leaving the world worse off because of it. He has to be stopped—him, and his mind control, and that thing he had Quentin build.”

“And this is what you want?”

“It’s what I need to do.”

Josephine nodded. “Then what do we do next?”

99. Public Support and Land Mines

The largest room on the Venezia was the launch bay. The crew had collected there, excluding the pilots. The marines stood, arms crossed, near the back. The Air Force crew sat along the ground. A few leaned on walls and door frames. Others perched inside or on top of deployment pods. Winnie, Josephine, Tan, Zauna, and Oni collected near the bay door, separate from the crew.

The captain had announced a crew meeting. He didn’t specify what it was about, but Winnie knew. Everyone else could guess. No one was going to miss this. Even the pilots listened in through the intercom.

Victoria waited beside Stephano. Her exemplars stood to either side, putting themselves between her and the crew. It was their job, and even though the crowd showed no hostility. The spotlight was on Victoria even though she ignored everyone while she chatted with the captain.

A few more soldiers trickled in. Stephano nodded to her. She addressed the room.

“Before I founded the Lakiran empire, I was the CEO for LakiraLabs, which owned property in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Guyana, and parts of Central and North America. In order to get around US regulation, I eventually moved the company’s operations to South America at great expense and focused on importing specialists from Europe and North America. As LakiraLabs grew, so did the need to invest myself in local governments. I helped improve living conditions and combat drugs and crime in places I owned. I’d become an unofficial baroness for northern South America.

“So when tensions between the world’s superpowers escalated. I, like many others, found my corner of the world in danger. Socialist movements threatened to nationalize my lands. The US, who had previously only antagonized me, suddenly became my best friend. They encouraged me to embroil myself in the politics and prevent Socialist parties from gaining control. They offered me everything from public support to land mines. I became a part of this escalation in a way I never wanted to be.

“When peace talks came up, South America become a bargaining chip. I tried to diffuse tensions, but it never worked. The superpowers lent aid and weapons to capitalist and socialist parties in efforts to build relations. All it led to was increased instability. After years of watching tensions grow despite everything I did, I concluded that war was an inevitability. I turned my efforts from preventing it to seeing how I could make my lands survive when it came, and making sure South America would not be targeted in the case of nuclear retaliation.

“To do that, I had to sabotage foreign aid coming into the country. I intercepted shipments, undercut meetings, and even assassinated some political figures. My aim was to keep South America from falling into the pocket of any superpower, which was why when the missiles finally flew, so few targeted the region, but my actions did contribute to the instability. And in doing so, most likely hastened the coming of the war.”

She paused. “That is what Alexander is referring to. I am guilty of what every other politician was doing at the time. I looked after my own land instead of trying to fix the world as a whole. I’ve kept this information private because it would only interfere with keeping the empire together. Alexander, meanwhile, has caused instability around the world in a desperate attempt to cause unrest aboard this vessel. It only shows how little this madman cares about the empire, and seeks only to secure his own position as its ruler. I hope now we can put this rumor behind us and return to our duties. Captain Stephano and I have finalized a plan to retake the Manakin. You’ll receive orders soon. Dismissed.”

Victoria turned and walked toward the side bay door.

“Why is he a madman, Your Majesty?” The voice came from near the back of the crowd.

“Pardon?” said Victoria.

“You said Alexander is a madman. What’s he done?” It was a cadet perched in a deployment tube. The other marines weren’t looking at him, but at Victoria.

“Alexander is a con artist who has hurt many people in his long life,” said Victoria. “He, in collusion with others, detonated the dirty bomb in the Capital Tower. He’s actively mind controlling the ministry and all heads of state, and he’s also stolen the body of my daughter.”

“Where did he come from?”

“He’s been around for centuries, working with others to steal bodies to preserve their own existence.”

“Were you one of them?”

Stephano stepped forward. “That is enough. You will all return to your duties now.”

“No, Captain. It’s all right. The answer is no. I was not one of them.”

“Were you born as Victoria Palladino?”


“Have you been erasing our memories?” asked a lieutenant.


“Has the other girl?” he pointed to Josephine.

“No. I forbid her from doing so.”

“Then how come I have gaps in my memory. I can remember some talks I had recently, but I can’t remember what they were about.”

“I haven’t been erasing anyone’s memories,” said Victoria.

“I have gaps too,” said another. “How can we tell if someone is?”

“You can’t, but no one is tampering with your minds. You’re just more aware of forgetting things.”

“How do we know you’re not the one lying and Alexander is telling the truth?” This voice was much stronger than the others. It came from a marine by the door in the very back. “Alexander is promising to give more power to the people.”

“He’s promising a lot,” said Victoria. “He lies. He’s a master at it.”

“How about you let us read your mind so we know you’re not lying.”

“That’s not possible. I’m shielded permanently.”

“Then let us read their minds?” The marine pointed to Bishop and Liat.


“Why not? What are you hiding?”

“That is enough!” snapped Stephano. “Private Larson, I will speak to you privately. Everyone else is dismissed.”

The crowd broke. Victoria left. Stephano led the marine to a private room to reprimand him. The launch bay cleared within minutes. Victoria had walked a line with her story. If Winnie hadn’t already known the truth, she wouldn’t have been able to pick out the truth from the lies. It was a convincing story though. It painted her as guilty, but not as a villain. Impressive work, Winnie thought, but from the look on the soldier’s faces, it might not have been enough.

93. Guiding Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

“Victoria wants us to do this.”

“Those soldiers don’t know anything.”

“They might.”

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

“It can’t hurt.”

“It’s starting to.”

“We’re supposed to be buying time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go. They’re already boarding.”

“Any exemplars?”

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


“You’ll be fine.”

“There are posters of us everywhere.”

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

“Okay.” Christof moved to hang up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Mama.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Satisfied?” he asked.

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


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

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

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

“Don’t you dare.”

“So you want the memories?”

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

“Good, because I’m trusting you.”

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

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

“Nor will you ask for it, it seems.”

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

“How heartfelt.”

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

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

“Winnie?” he asked.

She nodded.

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

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

91. Class in Session

The leg room situation in the captain’s ready room only accommodated one and a half people, and Victoria was not the sort who accepted anything less than a full share of anything, which left Josephine struggling for space. After some awkward squirming, she’d settled on draping her legs over her chair arms.

Victoria sketched in her notepad while glancing at Josephine. Her page was filled with partially completed glyphs.

“Is that all you brought me in here for?” asked Josephine.

Victoria held up a finger for silence.

Earlier, High Exemplar Liat had appeared in the berthing quarters and informed Josephine that Victoria required her presence. Josephine had been thrilled. After a day of Victoria ignoring her, she was ready to barge in and grapple Victoria for attention, regardless of her body guards. But instead, she got twenty minutes of this.

She was considering what Victoria would do if she just left when Victoria finally held up the pad.

“There,” Victoria pointed out the only glyph on the yellow page that wasn’t scribbled out. “Your power.”

“Who are you going to give it to?”

“No one.”

“Then why’d you make it?”

“So I know how.”

“Do you know what would happen to the world if that got out?”

“Of course I do.” Victoria darted a line through the symbol. “I like to make a glyph of my students’ power at the start of every lesson. It helps them see what progress they’ve made today.”

“This is a lesson?”

“More of an evaluation. You’ve come a long way with your power. Yesterday, those pilots forgot a lot more than just you. You could never have done that when we first met.”

“I thought you brought me here to discuss what’s going to happen next.”

“An evaluation is next.”

“With Alex. With your empire. With us being on board.”

“You and your friends are welcome to remain so long as you obey my rules and cause no trouble. As for Alex, I will deal with him.”

“And you and me? You hunted me for years over something I didn’t do.”

“Do you expect an apology?”

“No, I… Don’t you even want to talk about it?”

“What I want to talk about is your progress. Are you still convinced that your power can only erase memories related to you? Or have you moved beyond that?”

“You’re unbelievable. Can you put away the lesson and just talk to me? Human to human?”

“Josephine. I’m busy. Alexander is working around the clock devising a way to kill us. He has the advantage with resources, military, and authority. The only advantage we have is us flairs, so I must utilize that as much as possible. I don’t have time to reminisce.”

“And if I say no?”

“You can’t.”

“You’re going to force me?”

“If I must. Just because I now know you never meant me harm doesn’t mean you’re exempt from my command. You’ll do as I say for the same reason the rest of the world does. I have the power to control you. I’ve already described how I could alter your memories until you’re absolutely loyal to me. Maybe I don’t deserve this power, but I have it, and you don’t. I hope you don’t force me to exercise my power against you, but I will. The stakes are too high for me. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that our relationship is something it’s not just because we were friends for one week almost thirty years ago.”

“You’ve turned into a pleasant lady.”

“It’s how the world works.”

“It’s how your world works.”

“It’s the world I learned.” Victoria folded her hands before her. “If you want to dwell on the past, fine, but not today. Perhaps once I’m back on the throne.”

“And what will you do with my power then?”

“I will use it as little as possible. I plan to rule a world of humans, not automatons.”

“Are you going to give my power to your secret agents?”

“Unlikely. Some powers are not worth risking falling into public hands. Your power is one. Body-swapping is another. Satisfied?”

“Are you just saying this to placate me?”

“It’s no less true.”

There was no point to arguing; Josephine didn’t have a choice. She just wished Victoria wasn’t so damn cold about it. If Victoria had asked for her help nicely, Josephine would have readily agreed. She’d already been planning to offer. It had to be this though—the ultimatum. Her help had to be an act of servitude.

“Fine. I wiped those pilots minds by stretching what I consider part of myself. I’m in this orbiter. I’m part of its crew, sort of, so this ship is an extension of me. Their mission was to destroy this ship, so their mission was about me. It’s the same logic you told me when you were a child.”

“Have you made any other progress?”

“It’s been enough. I look after Tan and the others, so they’re part of my group. Therefore part of me.”

“Have you tried any other techniques?”

“Like what?”

“Like, say, you and your target have both witnessed the same event, therefore it is related to you.”

“That’s a stretch.”

“How about erasing any memory a person has ever had since first meeting you, because you’ve influenced everything they’ll do since. Causality.”

“That’s an even bigger stretch.”

“Stretching flairs is what I do. With proper guidance, you should be able to drop the necessity that a memory must relate to you.”

“I can already take so much when I try. It’s like amnesia.”

“But not total amnesia. I want you able to remove any memory you want.”

“Why? That could only be used for evil.”

“Nonsense. You could remove traumatic experiences. Or remove empire secrets from someone who either mistakenly learned them, or lost clearance to know them. Total amnesia could be used in leu of a death penalty.”

“That doesn’t outweigh the dangers.”

“No, it doesn’t. Which is why I’ll never release your power to the public, but stretching your power would also help us deal with Alexander.”

“All right. So what are we going to do? Exercises?”

“Not right now. This is an evaluation. I have something more important for you. I need to know if you’re able remove memories of us from any soldier or imperial official, even if they’re not directly involved like those pilots were yesterday?”


“Good. Then you’re going to work with Winnie to erase us from as many government minds as possible before Alexander gets them all shielded. I don’t know how much good it will do, but we need to slow Alex down as much as possible. The next squadron he sends against us will not fall for the same trick.”

“But I’m helping Winnie with Zauna and Christof.”

“You will do both. I expect you’ll only have a few days to do this before Alexander has everyone shielded.”

“Okay. I’ll do it, but only if you sit down and talk to me like a person.”

“Fine, but later. I’m much to busy to do that now. Speaking of which, on your way out, let Liat know that I’m ready for Winnie.”

Winnie’s lesson started out more as a practice in sketching than using her power. She’d copied glyphs again and again. Usually, glyphs were simple to copy. Just lay a piece of paper over a glyph and trace it.

Unfortunately, Winnie couldn’t trace the glyph she was drawing because Victoria was sitting on it. Her power was no worse than her eyes at this point, but it still meant properly sizing each line and curve, and there were so many. Again and again, she ended up cramping parts together causing the resulting glyph to look half melted.

At least her latest one was coming out all right. It was an Empathy glyph, the simplest one. After a few final pen strokes, she handed it to Victoria.

Victoria confirmed it was correct and handed it back. “Well? Does it work?”

Winnie concentrated. “No.”

“Then try again.”

“The glyph is fine. It’s not working.”

Victoria held up one of Winnie’s lopsided glyphs. “I’m not convinced your drawing skills aren’t the problem.”

“How do you even know it works when you don’t trace them. Why don’t you try it?”

“Because I’m not the one who needs to expand my power. But that does give me an idea.”

Victoria took the glyph out from under her. Setting a paper over it, she traced it. “I suppose I should have tried this earlier. My plaque replicator used to render nearly all of the glyph except for the last line. That one I would draw myself. It’s the only one that matters.” She’d finished all but one line. Tucking the aura glyph away, she handed her drawing to Winnie. “Draw that line there.”

Winnie did so.

“Does it work?” Victoria asked.


“And you do have your master glyph on you?”

Winnie took hers out and placed it on the table.

Victoria sighed. “I suppose it was a long shot. Damn Paul. That man was always so difficult. Even when he gives glyphs to the world, he only trained his power just barely enough to do so.” After a pause. “I want you to keep trying though.”

Winnie resisted her impulse to complain. If there was any chance at all that she could remotely copy glyphs, she had to try. Both her and Victoria had seen that unknown glyph strapped tight around Alexander’s neck, just as they could see the beguiling effect it had on people. Winnie wasn’t too keen on Victoria having that power as well, but if Winnie could copy glyphs, it would mean she could copy shields too. The crew would be safe from whatever Alex was doing. And Winnie would have something besides Victoria’s word to safeguard her own memories. She took another sheet of paper and started again.

“Continue on your own time,” Victoria said. “I have something else I want to cover.”


“Look at Alexander right now.”

“”I can’t.”

“Did you try trying?”

Sighing, Winnie visualized him. Nothing came up. She tried visualizing his office instead, where she knew he was, only to suffer the mental bite as something shut her power down..

“Nothing,” she said.

“Which doesn’t make sense,” Victoria replied. “He doesn’t have Naema’s power.”

“But he must have her right next to him.”

“And by now you should already know what lesson I have planned.”

“You’re going to have my narrow my focus so that I’m only looking at him and I’m not seeing her at all.”

“See? You’re learning how to learn. I wonder why you haven’t been practicing this already.”

“Because I’ve been on the run from the law.”

“Fortunately you’re perfectly safe up here. So you’ll have plenty of time to practice all your lessons. Hours.”

“You said you only wanted to see me for a few minutes.”

“I did. We’re done. You’ll practice on your own. Tell Tan to come see me.”

“This is your power.” Victoria held up her legal pad and pointed out the working glyph among a page of errors.

Tan nodded so slightly that it may have just been his breathing. All during Victoria’s sketching, he never asked why he was there or what she was doing, but merely watched, arms crossed.

“You’ve made progress on your own,” said Victoria. “It normally doesn’t take me so long to sketch one for the first time. Tell me about your power.”

Tan didn’t respond.

“I understand you use it by defining games with rules and winning conditions.”


“Is this the only way you’ve had success? Do you need to construct games around everything you do? Say… combat. Or does your power assume that the winning condition then is to survive the fight?”

More staring. Eye contact.

“Yes, I can read your mind, but wouldn’t you rather have a conversation? No? Is this because I tasered you when we first met? I would have convinced you to come with me if I could, but would any argument have worked? And you realize that you have no one to blame but yourself for being here. It was your game after all. At every intersection, you rolled your die to select which road to take. Your winning condition was to get out of town without falling into the hands of the empire. What you hadn’t known was that the empire had mobilized to capture you the moment Josephine accessed that file on Naema. No matter what path you took, they would have caught up to you eventually. If I hadn’t caught you, they would. And as it happens, you sent yourself down a road that gave me plenty of time to get in your way. You practically handed yourself over to me.”

No response.

“It’s funny, really. All these years I’ve failed to capture you, I thought it was Josephine that kept eluding me, but it was you, tossing your dice like a seer tossing chicken bones. Not even Josephine realizes how critical you were. All those little dice rolls and maps and solitaire games. You always went to the right place. I caught you now is because your goal was to avoid the empire. Only I’m not the empire anymore. I’m on the run. Just like you.”

Still, Tan only stared.

“And it might even have been worth it just to meet you. Because, unlike any other power I’ve known, you can see the future… in a matter of speaking. My intuition tells me your power does not give you any knowledge, but it guides you. You’ll always be forced to let your power act through your unconscious actions, but that might be enough. You’ve already learned how games can let your power express itself, but you could do so much more. Make your games to play the stock market. Flip a coin to decide long or short. Run a company using a magic eight-ball for corporate decisions. Wage a war. Get more points for clean victories. Go for the high score. You could have been ruling this world just as easily as I have.”

Still nothing.

“But not anymore. You’ve waited too long, and now you’re here on a ship surfing the atmosphere, waiting for our enemies to destroy us. Shortly, every person working for Alexander will have a shield, and neither Josephine nor I can do anything to help. But you might turn all of this around. All you need is to expand your power, and I can help you.”

He finally moved, only to utter one word. “How?”

Victoria took many item from her case: A pack of cards, coins, her tablet, a sleeping mask, pens and index cards, and set after set of colored dice with varying sides.

Victoria looked at him. “By playing games, of course.”