High Exemplar Dosia watched through the airport windows as her shuttle lifted and arced through the air as though thrown by a giant, invisible hand. It was the only plane to take off from this airport in hours, and it was supposed to be her flight from Denver back to Porto Maná—the one she’d spent so long arguing for. The flight attendants had been baffled when once the time came, she told them to send the shuttle off without her.
“There it goes,” she muttered.
Now for a long, long car ride: United States, Mexico, Central America, Columbia, and finally to that small spot against Brazil’s northern border where Victoria had laid her claim. Her last car ride that long was before the Collapse—in her first life. She and a group of her college friends from UC Berkeley had gone on a road trip around the US to see all those great western attractions that made America America: Grand Canyon. Mt. Rushmore. Yellowstone. They must have stopped at a thousand little places to take scenic group photos with their tank tops and large-lensed sunglasses, though she and her friends had hardly paid attention to the scenery except to remark to one another how awesome it was to be out in the Great Plains with each other. Secretly, the trip was mostly for Las Vegas.
Now she’d take a second road trip, across the Great Remains. Even with her current body being no more than forty, she felt too old for it.
At the car rental, she wondered whether her credit card would be rejected. It wasn’t. Of the choices, she got a luxury self-driving drifter, and not just for the pleasure of it. Colorado’s nuclear winter had phased right into old fashioned winter, and with a car that floated half a foot off the ground, she wouldn’t have to worry about the state of the roads, many of which had suffered six years of winter since their last repaving. And she might actually get some sleep while the car took its trip.
It took her embarrassingly long to find the car in the garage. She set the destination for Porto Maná. It informed her that it would require many, many recharge stops. She accepted. It took off.
Once the car was on the road, she called Bishop back.
“I’m on my way now.”
“Not in the shuttle?”
“No. This car says three days. Are you sure about this, Bishop? Three days is a long time for mischief.”
“We don’t even have a plan once we’re there.”
“We’ll have one,” Bishop said. “It’s… in the oven.”
“In the oven?”
“Yes. Baking. I’m sure it will be ready once we’re all there.”
“How about this for a plan,” Dosia said. “We tell people.”
“That’ll just get those people killed. Sakhr has already disposed of a general. You think he won’t dispose of others?”
“Not if we tell everyone.”
“Think about it, Bishop. The high exemplars announce that the princess’s body has been commandeered by an imposter. We win.”
“Meanwhile, everyone loses faith in the throne. The empire crumbles, and the world returns to ruin.”
“Other than letting Sakhr keep the throne, that may be—” She cut off when her car suddenly braked. She looked about. The road she was on was old, made more of asphalt chips frozen in a stew of ice. No other cars were about. Yet her car was pulling over to the side. A banner on the navigation screen indicated that the emergency stop button was pressed.
“What’s wrong?” Bishop asked.
“My car stopped.” She tried the navigation screen. It didn’t respond to her touch.
“It’s them. Get out.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m over a mile and a half from the nearest town. I’d freeze.”
“Dosia, you can’t stay in that car.”
“Of course I can.”
“Of course they are, but not Sakhr. It’s been…” She checked her plaque’s time. “Forty minutes since your talk with them. It has to be a subordinate coming right now. They’ll arrest me. They’ll put their hands on my plaque, and then they’ll see into my mind. The truth is on our side, Bishop.”
“And you’ll reveal everything we’ve ever done for Victoria. Do you think those soldiers will follow you then? When they know about that?”
“I know how to control my thoughts. What else am I to do? Give up? I think not. I will wait right here.” Dosia folded her hands over her plaque and waited as though at a bus stop. There was still no sign of anyone nearby, but she knew the Lakiran military. She’d go from alone to fully surrounded in seconds.
“Your mind is made up, isn’t it?”
“It is. I think. Bishop, you would do well to tell people near you what you know. Knowledge will be our weapon in this—”
The car exploded as a missile collided into it. It launched four minutes ago from a military base in West Virginia. Her destruction was so quick, her senses hadn’t even had time to relay the message of what was happening before her mind was no more. Her last thought was war, nothing else.
“Dosia?” Bishop glanced at his plaque. Still connected. “Dosia. You cut out. What did you say?” Pause. “Can you hear me?”
He checked again. The call window still showed “connected” for another second, then switched to “connecting…”. He waited, but nothing happened. Her car wasn’t moving, so it’s not like she could have entered a dead zone. Sakhr was so obviously behind this, Bishop didn’t bother considering alternatives.
He opened an application on his plaque. It allowed him to track the location of all exemplars and their current status. He searched for Dosia.
Her plaque was unresponsive. A message warned that if a signal was not received in another four minutes, her plaque, wherever it was, would destroy its internal glyphs.
Except it wouldn’t, would it? Because it was already destroyed—by a jet, a missile, or maybe some orbital weapon Bishop was unaware of. If Sakhr had simply remotely wiped her device, this application wouldn’t be trying to ping her plaque as though it should still be reachable. Dosia was dead; he was certain.
Sakhr wasn’t bothering to arrest them. He wouldn’t take a chance like that. Bishop became hyper aware that he was in an office next to a Madrid Barajas airport lounge. Just outside the door were dozens of people crowding around televisions to see what was happening to their world. Outside that were hundreds, if not thousands of people stranded from home. Would Sakhr bomb an airport just to kill one man? Perhaps instead they were watching the GPS coordinates of his plaque, waiting for him to step outside like Dosia had done.
Bishop looked up the others on his plaque. High Exemplar Stone was also unresponsive, even though his plaque had been functioning when Bishop called him twenty minutes ago. That left only Liat. He called her.
She answered. “Yes?”
“He’s killing us.”
“He’s not bothering to arrest us. Where are you right now?”
“I’m on a highway north of Syracuse. What’s happening?”
“I was just on the phone with Dosia when we got cut off. Her plaque is unresponsive. So is Stone’s.”
“But how do—hold on.”
“What?” Bishop said.
“Ahh. Just hold on a second. My car is stopping.”
“Liat. Get out and run.”
“Get out! Dosia’s car stopped too. There is something headed for you right now. Leave your plaque.”
A rustling came over the phone that Bishop hoped was her tossing the plaque aside. A distant beeping indicated that a car door was open when the engine was still engaged. It wasn’t fading. Good. That meant Liat left her plaque behind. Carrying those things was so second nature to exemplars that she might have taken it without thinking—
And then the call clicked. He looked. After a second, the call window switched to “connecting…”. He checked the exemplar application. Her plaque was listed as unresponsive: four minutes, fifty-two seconds until self termination.
He could only hope that she got far enough away. Now he needed to worry about himself. Should he run? Leave his plaque behind? A lot of people might die if he did that. Tragic, but an acceptable loss in the grand scheme of the empire.
His eyes fell on a microwave oven. In a moment of inspiration, he lunged to it, put his plaque inside, and closed the door.
Would that help? Who knew? Not him. He knew hardly anything about physics, just that microwaves were supposedly Faraday cages that should block radio signals.
At five meters away, a sensor on the plaque should lose connection with a microchip embedded under his collar bone. It would emit a loud beep after ten seconds. If a minute passed without the exemplar coming back into range, it would self-wipe.
No beep came, which mean that signal wasn’t cut. The next indicator would come at thirty seconds if the plaque had lost its GPS signal. That would be a good thing, assuming a missile wasn’t already locked in.
He really should just get away, except he had one last call he needed to make…
“According to her own testimony, Princess Helena was indeed mentally compromised,” General Soto said. “Although fortunately it seems the effect has worn off.”
“I see,” Stephano replied.
“The high exemplars have advised that Princess Helena and all other survivors from the attack be quarantined until the exemplars have had a chance to clear them. The princess has agreed to this as well. It seems she was aware at some level that she was being controlled. Her public appearance will wait until then.”
“And about the person controlling her?”
“We believe they died with the tower collapse. It coincides with their apparent loss of control over their hostages.”
“But surely this matter isn’t closed,” Stephano said.
“It certainly isn’t. However, the exemplars have taken over the case.”
“They have no further explanation as to what happened?”
“Not that they’re sharing with me, and seeing as how they’re handling this as an imperial secret, I don’t expect to learn anything else. They’ll be here in a few hours to supervise the cleanup and rescue operation, and to debrief everyone involved. They want to speak with you and anyone else you’ve talked to about this. You’re to land at Fort Leguan immediately. The flight crew will arrange landing clearance. In the meantime, you’re not to discuss the matter with anyone. Their orders.”
“The exemplars are giving orders now, sir?”
“On this matter, I’ll let them. Just get back here, Captain.”
The called ended. Stephano stared at the call window on the display table. His XO, Rivera, sat across from him. They were together in Stephano’s miniature ready room aboard the Venezia.
“Well, how about that,” Rivera said. “Looks like it all worked itself out just perfectly.”
“With a nice little bow…” Stephano added.
Both knew the conundrum they faced. Compromised. That was the word Victoria had used. They can compromise your mind at a touch, and then you’re the enemy. For such a remarkable problem, compounded by such a national tragedy, this resolution seemed remarkably convenient. It neatly answered every single concern Stephano raised in the message he’d sent to all Leguan officers.
“Do we return?” Stephano asked.
Rivera sighed. “If we don’t, that’s certainly a definitive action. It would be treason.”
“Treason? No.” Stephano shook his head. “Insubordination? Maybe.”
“To what end? You’re not suggesting we live up here forever.”
“We could.” Orbiter class ships were famous for that capability. Between their Stiller power plant, their onboard Food-Ready assemblers, and enough redundancy with internal systems to allow inflight maintenance, Orbiters could theoretically cruise the stratosphere indefinitely. In practice, six months orbital patrol was a maximum. And any damage to the outside of the craft would require landing.
“We could,” Rivera confirmed. “We could live here together for the rest of our lives. I can’t think of a more dreary fate.”
“But why Leguan?” said Stephano. “The High Exemplars could have us land anywhere. Why have us land somewhere that might be… well, compromised?”
“Are you suggesting that Soto himself has been affected? Do you actually think there may be a conspiracy?”
“I don’t know. It seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? The government is being body-snatched.”
“What do you think we should do?”
Stephano stared at the call log. “I suppose we either report, or…”
“Or we condemn ourselves to seeing only each other for the rest of our lives.”
“Well… when you put it like that.” He sighed. “We’ll go.”
They left the ready room and returned to the ship’s bridge. Leguan had already sent up clearance. The flight was on display. “Take us there,” Stephano told the navigator.
The ship would be turning now. All movement involved using repulse fields to push against the thin atmosphere up here—not much to work with. That meant changes were not perceptible to human senses.
But there was an orbital display. A long line specified the ship’s cruising course over a world map. It disappeared, replaced by a shorter line arcing toward South America. Flight time was two hours, twenty-three minutes.
“Sir?” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “A message just came in for you. It’s flagged as priority.”
Nodding, Stephano checked his tablet. One new message had come in on the military airspace network through the ship’s systems. It originated from the private exemplar network. Encrypted, it prompted him for his credentials when he tried to open it.
He read the message, then did so again. Afterward, he passed his tablet to his XO. Rivera had just long enough to read that the sender was High Exemplar Bishop when Stephano addressed his navigation officer.
“Course change, Lieutenant.”
The orbiter spent nearly thirty minutes braking against the thin atmosphere before it lost enough speed to safely drop into the lower stratosphere.
It reached subsonic speeds just as it came over Spain. As soon as it had flight clearance, it came to a complete halt over a designated landing pad at Madrid Barajas Airport. It’s landing legs came out, and it touched down as gently as though sinking in water.
High Exemplar Bishop watched through the airport terminal, as did many others stranded by the international grounding. A military craft at a civilian airport was a rare sight. The hatch opened. Two soldiers came out to set up the landing stairs. Then came Stephano, followed by his XO and other officers. Bishop only knew Stephano by the rank on his sleeve. So far he’d been only a voice.
Bishop exited the terminal gate door and scurried toward Stephano, moving so hastily that several of the soldiers’ auras tensed. He didn’t care. Even though he was just a few yards from the airport, he felt exposed under the open sky, as though whatever asylum the airport granted him had just expired, and death was now on its way.
“High Exemplar?” Stephano said. “Here I am. You said you’d have—”
Bishop thrust his plaque into Stephano’s hands. Stephano nearly remarked, but then eye contact was made.
For eight long seconds, he looked into Bishop’s eyes.
Then Stephano spoke. “Everyone get back on the ship.”
“Captain?” Rivera asked.
“Now,” Stephano replied. “We’re leaving right now.”
He handed the plaque back to Bishop, who yanked the battery clip out. A loud pop came from within as Bishop tossed it aside. He followed the soldiers aboard.