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.”

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.”

111. Like Old Times

The citadel shifted. Victoria only noticed because the sunlight streaming in the port windows now crawled along the floor. She checked in her mind. The citadel was slowly turning toward the ocean, and it was already accelerating. She looked in the bridge, only to find the blind spot had moved there from Alex’s office. So Alex was there then. There was only one reason why the citadel would start moving before it was facing in the right direction. There was no destination. It was just getting away from where it currently was: city of Porto Maná.

Her plan had been to keep impersonating a marine until Alex was satisfied she was dead. He’d had the marines check each other’s shield, something Victoria had managed to dodge, but it seemed Alex had decided on more extreme precautionary measures. Of course Alex would do something like this.

She headed to the stairwell.

At the door, a marine stopped her. “We’re not allowed to leave.”

“A porthole has been pried open,” Victoria said. “I think someone might have jumped out. We need to tell the captain.”

“We’ll radio it in then. We can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving the spire,” Victoria said. “Just going to tell the captain downstairs.”

“No.” The marine noticed the gash in Victoria’s armor. “What happened here?”

“Someone stabbed me.”

“Did it damage your shield stone?”


“Are you sure? That looks like exactly where it would be.”

“It’s not.” Victoria pointed above the gash. “My shield is here. Isn’t yours?”

“No. Mine is right here.” The marine pointed on his own chest.

“Right there?” Victoria stabbed him with knife. The shield glyph within popped when it ruptured.

The marine yelped, but he immediately forgot why.

Downstairs, all the marines looked up. Everyone sensed an aura appear. Victora had to act quickly.

“They’re keeping us in here because they’re going to kill us just as they made us kill them,” Victoria gestured at the dead. “And now they’re coming for you. Get to the roof. Shoot anyone who comes after you. Now go.”

The marine ran into the stairwell and bolted up the stairs. Two marines in the lobby took after him. Another two stayed behind. Victoria waited for the men to pass, then slipped down two flights to the lobby floor. She took aim at the two remaining marines through the door and kicked it open.

She was emptying the rifle’s clip before the door even hit the wall. The rifle’s recoil had flechettes flying all over the lobby, but both the guarding marine and the captain collapsed.

Victoria swapped her rifle for one of theirs and escaped to the Deck floors.

The bridge spire wasn’t far. Of it’s two stairwells, one was ablaze, the other was still rigged with a bomb. However, Alex was not in his office anymore. She could see the detonator on his unattended desk.

Victoria halted.

He wasn’t in the bridge anymore either. No one was, because the bridge crew was dead. Officers lay sprawled over bridge steps. The strike room was just as gruesome.

Victoria scanned the citadel for the blindspot. It was moving toward the flight bay in the citadel’s portside aft, where a single military shuttle awaited.

She sprinted down corridors. The bay was ahead, the blindspot was nearly there.

Turning the corner, she saw them—Alex and Sibyl, in the bodies of Helena and Winnie, were dragging Naema along. Alex aimed a gun at Victoria. She stumbled. A flechette narrowly missed her as she fell behind a stack of plastic-wrapped supplies.

She scurried closer to her cover. It seemed Tan’s power had tripped her up, saving her life from walking into a flechette. That power had proved far more useful than she had anticipated. She raised her rifle over the crate and fired blindly toward Alex, trusting in Tan’s power to guide her shot.

She glanced around the corner. Nothing. Alex and Sibyl had taken cover behind a shipping crate. There had been no targets to hit. The flechettes could not penetrate the crates.

“I knew it!” Alex yelled. “I knew you were still alive.”

Victoria could see the crate they were hiding behind, but that’s it. She hadn’t realized how dependent she’d become of Winnie’s power. It was like being blind.

“I guess since you’re here,” Alex said, “you’ve probably guessed why I’m stepping out. So we get to play a game. How much time do you think I set that bomb for? I’ll give you a hint. It’s about forty seconds before the really big one is supposed to go off. Do you remember what that timer was at?”

Another bomb. What was it with this man and bombs?

“You’ve also got to remember to subtract however long it takes for this hopper to get clear,” Alex continued. “I forgot to ask Quentin how large the blast would be, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re not getting on that hopper,” Victoria yelled. “Go back and disarm the bomb.”

“Nah. You can do that. It’s in my office. I’ll even tell you the code. It’s… 18060513. I know you’re not supposed to use your birthday as a password, but I did. So go ahead, but you’ll only be letting the bigger bomb go off then.”

“Then we die together, Alexander.”

“You’d do that? I don’t think so. You might not like me very much, but you won’t sacrifice yourself just to get rid of me.”

“Why not? You told the world what I did. I might never rule again.”

“Sure you could, Katherine. The world is filled with idiots. Make up a story. Tell them I was lying. Make them forget. You love doing that! Better yet. Just find another poor girl to steal a body from and start all over. Let this bomb go off and the world will be in such chaos, it’ll be ripe for the taking. With all your new powers, it’ll be child’s play.”

Victoria glanced around the supplies crates. She glimpsed Alexander pointing a repulse pistol at her and ducked away just as a flechette punched into the crate by her head.

“What you lack is determination,” Alex said. “You had such a good start. You were taking over minds. Replacing your enemies. You blew up half the world, and it worked like a charm. But then what? Six years of shit: taking over countries one at a time, diplomacy, Humanitarian Projects. I thought you must have had an attack of nerves, as if you suddenly forgot you’re the monster, but no. You actually cared about what people think about you. You actually wanted to help them.” He scoffed. “You have no idea how to rule.”

“And you know better? You couldn’t rule without warping the minds of every last person in the world.”

“Because it works, Katherine. I brought China together in three days. Three days. No wars. No struggle. It’s the rational way. You, on the other hand, destroyed the world. Then, before you could do any good at all, a teenage girl had a hissy fit, and you lost everything. That’s pathetic. Just give up. All you’ve ever caused is pain and suffering, because that’s all you know. It’s time for the little girls to go home. Let Daddy tuck them in.”

Victoria fired a few shots toward Alex. No hits. He was still locked down behind the same crates.

“Sooner or later,” she said. “You’ll have to turn around and go back.”

“With you just around the corner waiting for the all clear? No thank you.”

“Then we wait.”

“Then we do.” Alex agreed.

For a long while, they did. Each sat behind their respective covers.

Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So, again, not wanting to spoil this for you, but we’re getting very close to zero hour.”

“Then go disarm the bomb.”

“That’s not going to happen, Katherine, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to leave my wrist monitor right here. Then I’m going to get on that ship and leave. After I’m gone, you can disarm both bombs, and we’ll take a raincheck on this fight of ours.”


“Now you’re just being stubborn. Neither of us wants to die today.”

“Once you’re on the shuttle, you’ll have no reason to leave that monitor.”

“Okay. Fine. Look.”

Something slid across the floor. Victoria spared a glance. Alex’s wrist monitor now lay in open view. It was in the opposite direction from the ship for him. “There you go. You can get it once I’m gone. Remember. 18060513. Now I’m going.”

They shuffled around behind their protection. Footsteps moved cautiously toward the escape ship. Alex was clearly hoping Victoria wouldn’t hurt him in Helena’s body. He was wrong. Victoria ducked out and aimed.

Naema’s wide eyes stared at Victoria from inside her helmet. Alex was hiding behind her with the gun aimed over Naema’s shoulder, and Sibyl right behind him. Victoria aimed.

…But she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Did she really need to kill him? Alexander had done a lot of awful things in the world, and awful things to her. But he was the only telepath flair that existed.

Alex fired at her. A flechette punched into her shoulder. She fell back.

Scurrying behind her cover, she realized her shield had dropped. She hadn’t even felt it. Whatever glyph it was Alex had been using for Sympathy, he’d just used it on her.

Of course he would. Why not? She was here to kill him. He was just defending himself.

No. Those aren’t her thoughts. Alexander murdered her father. He murdered her.

…But still.

NO! No “but still”. She had to act now.

She lunged around the crate and fired wildly, aiming low. Flechettes punched into Naema. Her leg. Her neck. Her helmet. She collapsed. Alex dove for the escape ship, firing back. Victoria’s gut erupted in pain. She crumpled.

In the ship now, Alex had left Sibyl and Naema behind, The hatch was closing. He was safe. No weapons could reach him.

But that didn’t matter anymore.

Alex slammed the hatch switch with all his weight. The hydraulic motor kicked in. He dropped low and aimed out the ship. No Katherine. No flechettes. Sibyl lay toppled from where he’d shoved her. He was clear.

Then he glimpsed her. Naema had rolled to her side. She looked right at him for a single moment before disappearing behind the closing door.

“No! You bitch. Don’t look at…”

Me? That was how he was going to finish the sentence, but what sentence was that? The hatch door sealed. He looked around. It seemed he was alone.

“Huh,” he said. The word echoed off the hull.

“Huh.” He said it again. Neat echo.

It must be a military ship. The walls were steel, and it was cramped as hell. Nobody would want to be in here unless their country demanded it.

So why was he?

He thought hard, but he couldn’t recall the chain of events that led to him here. He had been on a plane, and he’d been playing with the seat controls. Sakhr had been angry at him again. Because…

Right! Because Alex had been teasing him about his fear of planes. That man was afraid of everything.

Jesus. Why did this seem so long ago? At least a month. Everything since was a blank. Was he on drugs again? Sakhr would be pissed, but fuck him. Then again, maybe Sakhr had a point.

Alex had no idea where he was.

And holy shit! He was holding a gun! And he was a woman. A hot woman. It must have been a wild night.


The voice came from outside the ship. It was strong, masculine, and angry.

“Open the hatch door.”

Ah. Authority. Alex was already climbing to his feet. Anton must really be angry if he’s using that. Alex hoped he hadn’t fucked up too badly, whatever it was he’d done.

The door lever was in the first place he looked. Strange, considering he’d never been on this ship before. The hatch eased open, revealing an interesting sight.

A bleeding black girl, an asian girl, and a hispanic space marine who must be Anton.

Sure. Why not.

For some reason, he couldn’t read anyone’s mind. That was troubling. He’d have to figure the situation out for himself. Did he shoot the black girl? Maybe. And that asian girl sure looked like someone had hurt her feelings. Was all this his fault? Was that why Anton was glaring at him?

Well, Alex couldn’t feel bad for something he couldn’t remember. Might as well own it. He put on his signature grin.

“Drop your weapon and kick it over,” Anton said.

Alex shrugged, still grinning. It must have been one hell of a drug-fueled rampage. He complied. He wanted to say something witty as he did it, but he couldn’t think of anything good.

And from the look in Anton’s eye, it didn’t look like anything would go over well anyway. He looked really pissed, so much so that Alex dropped his grin. Was this serious? Had he gone too far? He hoped this was something they could put behind them. He’d hate to lose his only friend.

Victoria pulled off Naema’s helmet. The girl flailed. Victoria settled her down and checked her wounds. A solid leg shot. It looked like it damaged the bone. The helmet deflected the head shot though, and the neck wound, despite all the blood, was just a graze.

She removed Naema’s earbuds. Music blasted from them. Between those and the blinders, her sensory awareness must have been nothing. When she removed the gag. The girl gasped for breath.

“You’re going to be fine,” Victoria said.

Naema’s eyes were wild. She struggled again.

Victoria calmed her. “Settle down. I know you’re in pain, but I need you to concentrate on me.”

“Who are you?” Naema asked.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’m working with Josephine, and I need you to do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”

Naema glanced at Alexander.

“Don’t worry about him anymore. He’s harmless.”

Harmless?” said Alex.

Victoria ignored him. “I need you to close your eyes for a moment.”

Naema did. Victoria looked at Sibyl. “Come here and look me in the eye.”

Hesitantly, Sibyl approached. Victoria pilfered her mind for everything she could. The bomb was upstairs like Alex said. Password is as he said. The timer was forty seconds before the main bomb, and—

…And Alexander broke the wrist monitor. That son of a bitch. Victoria glanced at it. Even from here, she could make out the cracks running across its blank screen.

The time had said eight minutes.

In eight minutes, that world destroyer would go off. If Alexander had left her here as he planned, she would have had let the nuclear bomb go off, or else the world-destroyer would send everyone back into the dark ages.

She looked at him. He stared back innocently, as though genuinely concerned. She yearned to switch bodies with him and kill him now, but no. He may have been the monster a minute ago. Now, he was just a man, lost and confused. To kill him now would be like putting down a dog that had bit a child in confusion. Maybe it was the effect of his Sympathy glyph on her mind, but she couldn’t do it.

She pulled Sibyl toward Naema. “Unbind her. Get her on the ship. Keep Alexander from running off. I’ll be watching both of you.”

Sibyl nodded vigorously and snapped to work. Victoria collected the damaged monitor. It wouldn’t even turn on.

She might disarm the warhead, then find lesser explosives to destroy the world-destroyer. That depended on whether such munitions existed onboard, which she doubted.

Of course, she could just leave. Millions of lives of the still-reeling human race would snuff out. The world might blame her, or the terrorists. Either way, society would take another massive step backward. But she would still be alive. She had Alex under control now, and Helena’s body. She could drag the world back to order.

She’d just have to do everything all over again. Wage wars. Conquer. Cause suffering and death. It might be more difficult now that the world knew what Victoria had done, even if she hid in another body. And it would take years.

Years of pain.

Could she really go through it all over again? Maybe Alex was right. Or maybe it was just because she was so damn tired of being the monster. She’d always wanted to help, yet somewhere during this exile she’d started to wonder: maybe the world would have been better if she hadn’t existed at all.

Victoria fetched two fallen flechettes from the floor and moved to where Naema couldn’t see her. In her head, she formulated every plan she could think of. Her goal? She wanted to be able to look back on this moment and say, “yes. That’s what I wanted. I’m happy with how this turned out, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”

And then she tossed the flechettes into the air.

They landed and rolled to a stop. Both pointed to her left. She knew which plan that corresponded to. Somehow, she’d known they would fall that way even before she tossed the dice. Yet she had to toss them again just to make sure.

Same result.

So that was her path of least regret.

Her happy ending.

She hated so much that it was true, but she knew it was.

Victoria headed back toward the others. They’d gotten into the shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s chair, although he wasn’t taking advantage of it. Naema had limped to a passenger seat. Victoria knelt by her. 

“I need you to listen to me very carefully…”

110. Drastic Measures

“Is she? Or isn’t she?” Alexander mused. He looked at security feeds of the exemplar spire. Each one showed a horror movie massacre. Some cameras even had blood splattered across the lens. Marines patrolled through quiet halls looking for survivors.

A call came in. Captain Romero. He was in the exemplar lobby holding a radio piece to his ear. Alex could see him through a camera.

“The spire is secure, Your Majesty. Are we still in lockdown?”

“Yes. Absolutely no one leaves that spire until I give the word.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He returned to pondering the million dollar question: Was Katherine among the bodies? Or the marines?

In retrospect, weaponizing the exemplars may have been foolish. Six marines had died in the fight. That left eighteen alive. But were there eighteen shield stone still functioning? He’d call down to the exemplar operations room and have them check, but oops, they’re dead now. Not that it would be surefire anyway. Katherine might have separated a marine from his shield for a moment, but left the shield intact. That seemed incredibly unlikely given how those shields were underneath their armor, but not impossible.

What to do? What to do?

Kill them all? It was the only way to be really sure, and hundreds of people had died already. Why stop now? The citadel was mostly evacuated, so at least Alex wouldn’t have to kill everyone, but who would kill the marines? Super marines? A larger number of marines? Then who would kill them? He’d be swallowing a bird to kill the spider, and he wasn’t even sure if the spider had killed the fly yet.

He checked the dial on his wrist. Twenty-one minutes.

His path was clear.

Alex got up and crossed the room. In the corner was the second box Quentin had delivered, small enough to fit in the office. Alex pried open the lid and looked down at the slick, chrome surface of a factory-standard nuclear bomb. Beside the control panel was a PostIt note with Quentin’s scrawled instructions. Following them, Alex turn on the panel display. He typed in the security code and authenticated with a thumb print scan. The display then prompted for a time.

Alex checked his wrist dial again. 20:26 and counting.

He typed in 19:30. After several confirmation screens, a red light came on and the countdown began. Alex turned off the screen. No one looking at it would have any idea it was armed.

“Time to go, Sib. Bring the girl.”

Two flights down was the bridge floor. He nearly passed by, but changed his mind.

“How’d the strike go?” Alex asked as he stepped down to the center. Admiral Laughlin nearly spoke when he stopped to stare at Sibyl. Everyone did.

She stood silently by the door as she always had, but her arms were around a young black girl that none had seen before. Ropes bound the girl’s arms behind her. They wrapped about her torso several times. A motorcycle helmet was on her head. The visor was spray painted an opaque silver, and a brace around her neck prevented her from moving her head.

“Look at me, Admiral.” Alex snapped his fingers before Laughlin’s face. “The strike?”

“I… unfortunately, Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that our intercepters were unable to destroy the rogue orbiter before it reached maximum orbital speed. Their spiders collided with our ships. However, the enemy have no more drones at all. If they should come down into—”

“Great. Never mind. Has the citadel been fully evacuated?”

“Everyone except for vital staff and the marines, ma’am.”

“And how many ships are left on board?”


“Pods? Ships? How did people evacuate the citadel? How many more can escape?”

Laughlin gestured to an officer who brought up a list of ships. “There’s one hopper left in the hangar. It can carry six people at maximum capacity.”

“That’s it?” asked Alex.

“The citadel was over capacity, ma’am. Why do you ask? Has the situation in the exemplar spire been contained?”

Alex winced and gestured. “Sort of, but I’m going to have to blow up the citadel to be sure.”

Cries of alarm sounded around the bridge.

“Destroy the— what?” Laughlin sputtered. “There is no means to do that.”

“Don’t worry, I brought my own bomb.”

“Your Majesty! That’s insanity! We can’t destroy this ship, it’s the flagship of your empire.”

“Let me rephrase. I’ve already armed a nuclear warhead. This ship is going to explode in… eighteen minutes. We need to escape.”

Nuclear warhead? Your Majesty! We’re a mile off the coast of Porto Maná!”

“Ooh.” Alex hissed through his teeth. “That’s… unfortunate.” In hindsight, maybe Alex should have asked Quentin for a smaller bomb.

“We have to disarm it, ma’am.”

“We could, but I’d rather not. This may be our only chance to get rid of this infectious terrorist problem once and for all. So come on. Is that ship ready for flight? Do you guys have to make a flight plan?”

“Where is the bomb?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Where is the bomb, Helena?” His voice carried a warning tone. Everyone looked at Alex.

He didn’t need to be a telepath to see where this was going. “Hold that thought,” Alex skipped up the bridge steps to where Sibyl waited with Naema. “I’d like you all to meet my fun little friend.”

From behind, Alex reached around Naema and flipped up the spray-painted visor on her helmet. Naema’s mouth was gagged, and earbuds were in her ears blasting music. Naema blinked in the light. With bloodshot eyes, she looked back at everyone she saw.

“Move her around a little, will you,” said Alex. “Make sure she meets everyone.” Sibyl swiveled, rotating Naema to face everyone in the bridge. The crew stared back, perplexed. Alex sidestepped to remain behind Naema as she turned. He reached again and flipped the visor back down. When he returned to the admiral, Laughlin’s mind opened to him. Alexander basked everyone in Sympathy.

“Now, Admiral, do you think you guys could prep the last ship for evacuation?”

“We need to think about the people in the city,” Laughlin said. “Whatever this terrorist infection is, it can’t be worth sacrificing the capital. I’m telling you this for your own good, Your Majesty. We must find another way.”

Alex held up a stopping hand. “Do you think I want to do this? I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but you don’t understand how dangerous these terrorists are. No matter how many people I send after them, they will just infect more. They can turn entire crowds into terrorists. If I don’t stop them now, they will bring about the destruction of our civilized world, but right now—right now—I have the chance to end this. The death toll will be monumental, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life, but I must do this.”

He leaned on his Sympathy harder. Laughlin looked at him severely. “At least, let us send the citadel out as far into the ocean as we can. We might give the people a better chance.”


Laughlin turned to his flight controller. “Do it. Take us away from the city. Maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

“Now,” said Alex, “about that ship.”

“Have you considered a smaller bomb, Your Majesty?” Laughlin said. “If we contact munitions at—”

“No time. We only have for as long as Captain Romero can contain his own men, and he doesn’t understand what he’s up against. We have… fifteen minutes now.”

“Perhaps if we—”

“No! Prepare the final ship. Tell me where it is. Then we will discuss this.”

“Your Majesty, if there is any way—”

“Are you loyal to me, Admiral? Or do you want to see this empire fall like the terrorists do?”

“Of course not, ma’am. I would do anything to serve you. I would lay down my life to keep you safe, but setting off that bomb may destroy the empire. If people found out it was on your order, it doesn’t matter for what reason, they’ll—”

Then we’ll blame the terrorists. That’s what we always do. Prep the ship.”

Reluctantly, Laughlin nodded toward the flight controller, who got to work.

Moments later, the controller responded. “The ship had a flight plan coded. Bay doors are open.”

“Where is it?” asked Alex.

“Portside aft sector, Deck 1.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll need to call back another ship,” Laughlin said. “Between the bridge and the strike room, it’s not going to be enough.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alex.

“Why not?”

“Well…” Alex glanced around. Twelve people here. Six more would be downstairs. “The more ships we bring back, the more likely the terrorist agent can escape. We’ll just have the one.”

“You… want us to stay?”

“No, Admiral. If you stayed, the agent could come up here and take control of you.”

“So what then?”

“Do you remember a moment ago when you said you’d lay down your life for me? It’s funny you should say that…”

Alex drew his gun.

88. High Alert

“Sibyl, why are you here?” yelled Christof. “Why are you in that body?”

Sibyl remained on the floor, cowering from Christof’s pointed gun. Her body was Winnie’s—which had been Alex’s. That begged the question.

“Where is Alexander?” he yelled.

“Why?” she wailed.

“Where is he?”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“What do you think?”

“You can’t hurt him.”

“He’s out of control, Sibyl. Don’t you know what he’s been doing, here, in this tower alone. The man is psychotic.”

“He knew you’d do this. He knew you’d all come after him. He’s only doing what you make him do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s just trying to hold the empire together. He doesn’t deserve to die for that. It’s you and Sakhr who keep making him do the horrible things you don’t want to.”

“Why are you defending him? You hate Alex. You’ve always hated Alex.”

“No, I haven’t. Nobody ever trusts him, and it’s not his fault. It’s his power. He’s a good person, we just never—”

“Are we talking about the same Alex? Just tell me where he is. Is he in your other body? Is that it? Is he planning to do something to Sakhr? Tell me.”

“No! I can’t.” Sibyl cringed away as though expecting him to shoot her.

Christof lowered his weapon. “God, Sibyl. I’m not… did Alexander threaten you? Is that it?”

“No. I just can’t.”

“Tell me where—” He cut himself off. This was getting nowhere. Kneeling by her, he grabbed her chin. “Look at me. Look at me.

Her eyes dodged his at first, but she slipped up. He saw her mind only for a moment before she clenched her eyes. It was enough.

Sibyl was downright infatuated with Alex. She’d been feeling guilty about how she’d treated him all these years, which as far as Christof knew, was absolute indifference. Now Alex was in her every thought.

He’d done something to her. Christof didn’t know what, but it had left her obsessed, and now she’d helped him get close to Sakhr without even considering why. However, Christof was not so juvenile. Alex had a body-swapping glyph—something Sakhr would never knowingly let him have.

“God damn it, Sibyl.” He bolted from the room, over the dead exemplars, and to the stairwell. He got as far as the security checkpoint lobby when the exemplar on guard stopped him.

“Hey,” he yelled. His hand rested on his holster. It was the man who’d flipped him off before.

“I can’t,” Christof said. “The queen is in danger.”

“What happened to you?”

Christof looked down at himself. He had forgotten that blood stained his front. “I was attacked.”

“By who?”

“I need to get to the queen right now. Let me through. This is…” He thought quickly. “As General, I’m ordering you to stand down or I will have you brought up on charges for aiding an assassination attempt against our queen.” He was sure he had his terminology wrong. This imbecile wouldn’t notice.

“Chill the fuck out,” said the exemplar.

“Let me through.”

“They know. They already caught the assassin.”


“The whole citadel is on alert. The exemplars have secured the area.”

“The exemplars?”

“The queen is fine. Now what the fuck happened to you?”

“I’m fine. I… need to go.”

“Hold on there. What happened upstairs?”

“No,” Christof said distantly. He walked around the man.

“Hey,” the exemplar called. “Hey!”

Christof was already out the door. The man would certainly report him—a blood-spattered General walking around during high alert. Christof didn’t care. Either everything would be just fine, or…

Christof ducked out of view, as up ahead two exemplars on deck were carrying a body between them from the bridge spire. They’d wrapped it in plastic. Red seeped out.

It didn’t matter what body that was. What mattered was who had possessed it when it died, and it wasn’t Alex. If Sakhr had figured out what Alex was up to, the last thing he’d do is surround himself with crooked exemplars.

Which meant Sakhr was gone.

The thought felt hollow, lacking impact. Maybe in time he could think about how his oldest friend had just died. Right now, he was in mortal danger. He’d killed two men, and Sibyl could attest to what he was doing, that’s assuming Alexander didn’t already know.

All at once, he had a plan. It spanned days. There were details to fill out, but that could come later. He started with step one.

Calmly, Christof walked to the stateroom spire. Officers in the common area saluted, even as they eyed the blood on his uniform. No one questioned it. He was a general with somewhere to go.

In his quarters, he threw off his uniform and scrubbed his hands in his miniature steel sink. The faucet pressure was on par with any flying craft with limited resources. It took ages before the water stopped running red. Blood still covered his arms and chest, but he made do wiping himself with a towel. Any minute, someone would be at his door. He mustn’t be here when that happened.

After putting on a clean uniform, he reentered his bathroom. Fenced off inside his shower was Helena, where he’d been feeding and caring for her for the past week. She was sleeping, head in her shell. Poor girl. Tyrants were fighting over her body, and the worst had won. Nothing would stop Alex from getting his hands on her now. Every time a woman got the better of him, he could never let it go. This poor girl would pay the price for what Winnie had done.

Christof picked her up and tucked her into his uniform alongside his plaque, resting her on it so that it protected her aura. Poking her head out, she looked at him. He couldn’t read her mind, and her tortoise expression was as unreadable as ever.

“It’s time for us to leave,” he said. “Stay out of sight.”

After a pause, she tucked herself further into his coat. That was confirmation enough for him. He left, down the stairs to the stateroom commons. From there, a ladderwell led him into the bowels of the citadel. The corridors were cramped. The walls were metal. This was the belly of the great behemoth that civilians never saw. He got several odd glances from soldiers as he continued down the stairs.

Deck One was where grid shuttles waited by the tube bay. He should be bluffing his way aboard a supply shuttle now, but something drove him farther down into the ship. He wasn’t sure why he had to do this. Alexander would have countless victims to come, but this one was important to him.

At Deck five, his empathy winked out.

At Deck eight, he entered the brig. From there, he walked to the same wing he’d been going to for two days now. The cadet on guard saluted when Christof approached.

Christof acknowledge him. “I’m here for her again.”

“Yes, General.” The cadet fumbled for a card key while heading toward a prison cell. “Prisoner,” he yelled. “Stand and put your arms through the slot.”

Christof heard Naema climb to her feet ponderously. Stalling was her little rebellion. He had no way of telling her how little time they had. Finally her arms stuck through the slot. The guard cuffed her, unlocked the cell door, and led her out. She looked bored, and unimpressed.

Christof stopped him as he led her toward the interview room. “I’m transporting her out.”

“What?” The guard blinked. “Nothin in the logs says anything about transfer, sir.”

“Citadel is on alert,” Christof said. “Someone attacked the queen.”

“I know, sir, but I still need clearance to move a prisoner.”

“There isn’t time for clearance. The person who attacked the queen was a flair. For safety, we’re moving all flairs off the citadel.”

“A flair?” The guard glanced at Naema, then at Christof. That was something he hadn’t know about the prisoner. “I still can’t let you take her without hearing something from above.”

“She’s not a military prisoner,” Christof explained. “The Exemplar Committee brought her in, and they’ve given me clearance to transport her out.”

The cadet grew more uncomfortable. “It should still be in the logs, sir. If I could just call up and clear this, then I could let her go. And we’re supposed to have a transport team.”

“I don’t give a shit, soldier. We don’t have time to go through regulation. The queen was just attacked. I’m getting this security risk off the citadel now. If anyone gives you shit about it, tell them to talk to General Soto, but I’m taking her now. Are we going to have a problem?”

The guard hesitated. “No, sir” He handed Christof the keys to her cuffs.

Naema was staring at the tortoise in Christof’s pocket. He yanked her along before she could remark. As they walked to the stairwell, she watched Christof curiously.

“Can you climb with those cuffs?” he asked.


“Because I need you to climb the stairs.”

“What about the elevator?”

“We’re not using it.”

“Why not?”

Because the elevators had security cameras, but this wasn’t a conversation Christof wanted to have right now.

“Just trust me.”

Naema read whatever she needed in Christof’s anxious look. “You’re my only friend, huh?”

“Let’s go.” Christof pulled her.

She held her ground. “What about my mama?”

“We don’t have time.”

“You said you’d get my mama freed.”

“I don’t think I can. All I can do is get you out of here.”

He pulled again. She didn’t budge.

“I could leave without you,” he threatened.

“I’m not leaving her here.”

For one moment, he considered heading up the stairs without her. Somebody had to have found those bodies by now. By all rights, Christof was amazed he’d gotten this far already.

But the mother was only a few rooms away in the public detainment wing. If she was still here once Naema was gone, she’d be the last scapegoat for Alex’s axe. “Fine. Just follow my lead.” He guided her as though his captive.

The detainment wing was just as he’d seen it last week—filled over capacity with masses of defeated people. The smell was worse, as though none of the cells had been cleaned since then, and it seemed more crowded. Several cadets were on guard. One was stationed at a desk before rows of cells.

Christof approached. The men saluted.

“General,” said the one at the desk.

Christof passed Naema off to a cadet. “Watch this detainee for me for a second, will you?” To the man behind the desk, he said, “I need to take one of the detainees out.”

“Sure thing, General. Do you have the paperwork?”

This again.

“No. It’s in connection with the assassination. The Exemplar Committee wants them taken up.”

“Understood, sir.” The cadet came around and headed down the hall of cells. “Just point them out.”

Christof nearly startled at how easy that had been. Though following the man, it occurred to him just how many detainees the Committee must have taken away for interviews recently.

There were several hundred people crammed in here. Christof wouldn’t have bothered looking for Zauna Madaki. Except most of these detainees were from North America, where the Manakin was last stationed. Naema’s mama was the blackest person here.

“Her.” He pointed her out.

“Detainee,” the cadet yelled. “Come forward.”

She hesitated just like her daughter, but for her, it was apprehension. She at least took this more seriously than Naema. The cadet cuffed her and took her out. At the front, Zauna spotted her daughter and moved toward her. Christof held her back.

“I’ll take them from here,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The cadets saluted. Christof escorted the two women away. Extracting them had been so easy it bothered him. He was using up his luck.

“Who are you?” Zauna asked.

“No. Don’t talk,” he muttered. “Don’t acknowledge each other. Just go up the stairs.”

Naema did so. Christof pushed Zauna to do the same. As confused as she was, she cooperated.

Coming back up took them much longer than coming down. Each deck was a nerve-clenching crawl.

“How many floors?” Naema called down.

“Just keep going.”

On they climbed. All three were panting when Christof finally called up. “Get off here. Wait for me.”

Once he dismounted, she watched him closely. Despite Christof’s warning, Zauna clutched her daughter.

“Come.” He hurried them along. The grid bay was still. No ships glided in or out. Christof could hear their own footsteps echoing off the cavernous walls.

Lock down. Damn. Of course it would happen right after an assassination attempt, but he couldn’t stop now. Hopefully the citadel grid was still coordinating with the Porto Maná. He’d learned enough about this modern world to know that adding and removing nodes from the grid was no simple thing. It involved registration and paperwork, so maybe this lockdown wasn’t hardcoded.

He hurried toward the nearest shuttle. It looked civilian. The hatch unlocked, revealing enough room inside to walk while hunched. He ushered both of them in, handed Helena to Zauna, then turned on the shuttles menu screen. The grid was online.

Thank God. He navigated the menu, trying to figure out how to start it. He’d seen others do this. It just needed a destination, but when he went to destination, it wanted him to type something in.

“God damn it,” he murmured.

“Where are we going?” Naema asked.

“We just have to get off the citadel.”

“Then just take the last destination.”

“Where do I do that?”

She leaned and tapped the screen. On the home menu, she went to Previous, then selected the first option.

“No. That’s no good,” said Christof. “That’s a military base.”

“We won’t go there.” Naema pointed at an emergency button. “After it flies, we hit this. The shuttle will land at the closest place.”


Naema confirmed the destination and set it to go. Christof climbed in.

“Hey,” someone yelled.

Two exemplars were running up to him—a men and a woman. “Hey. Stop there.” The man grabbed the shuttle door, keeping it from closing. They both rested their hands on holstered repulse pistols. “You’re coming with us.”

“No,” said Christof. “I’m escorting these prisoners to a safe holding loc—”

“Don’t fuck with us,” said the man. “Alex wants to see you.”

That eliminated any remaining doubt Christof had. “He can wait. I’ll return when I’m—”

The man backhanded Christof across the jaw, then yanked him out.

The woman drew her pistol and brandished it toward Naema and her mother. “Get out.”

Naema shuffled out of the shuttle.

“Ah fuck,” the woman said. “You’re the plaque bitch, aren’t you?” She checked herself. “Yeah, my plaque is broken.”

The man’s face twisted. “Isn’t that just great.” He shoved Christof against the shuttle and punched him. Christof crumpled.

The man kicked him in the side. “What were you doing with her, huh? Where are you going? Alex isn’t done with her yet.”

Christof rolled in pain. Slowly, his hand crept under his coat to his gun.

“Christof, right?” the exemplar said. “That’s your name? Thought you’d kill Alex? Traitor fucks like you sicken me?”

“…Traitor?” Christof was too winded to point out the irony.

The man kicked Christof again.

“Shut your fucking mouth, shithead.” He grabbed Christof and pulled him to his feet. In the same motion, Christof drew his gun. The man caught his hand. They struggled. Within the same moment, the man kneed Christof, pressed him against the shuttle, and slammed his hand against the hatch frame, causing the gun to drop. The man pressed his own gun to the back of Christof’s head.

“You think you’re faster than me? You think you’re going to shoot me?”

Naema swung her cuffed hands at the girl, and toppled her, but the girl pulled Naema down with her.

“Naema!” Zauna move to get out of the shuttle.

“Stay where you are,” the male exemplar yelled.

Christof took advantage of the distraction to swing his arm back, hooking the man’s gun off his head just as it discharged. In older days, a deafening bang would have gone off next to Christof’s head. What he heard sounded like a stapler next to his ear. Pain erupted on the side of his scalp. Blood poured. He shoved the exemplar away. The gun scattered.

From the distance, half a dozen more exemplars were rushing toward them. There was no time to fight.

Naema was struggling on the ground. With her hands cuffed, the woman had easily gotten on top of her. Christof kicked the woman off and dragged Naema toward the shuttle. Zauna caught her too and pulled, but then the man latched onto Christof, and the woman caught Naema. Both Naema and Christof kicked and fought. Christof was in the shuttle now, but Naema was still half outside.

The man punched Christof, sending him reeling into the shuttle, then backhanded Zauna. She keeled over. Helena went flying. The man now yanked Naema away from the shuttle, but she caught the edge of its door with a death grip. They couldn’t pull her away. The shuttle lurched from their strength.

Gathering his wits, Christof clambered to Naema, but it was too late. Even if he could knock the others off of her, the incoming exemplars would catch them before he could get her in.

A look passed between him and Naema, and they both understood. With all her strength, Naema yanked the shuttle door down, and the exemplars grappling her stumbled back as though the tree root they’d been tugging had finally come loose.

Christof caught the door and closed it.

“No!” Zauna yelled. She lurched toward the door. Outside. The exemplars swarmed Naema. Several tried opening the shuttle door, including Zauna, but it was locked. The flight had begun. As the shuttle lifted, Zauna could only watch as Alexander’s henchmen dragged her daughter away.

74. Magic Tricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd dispersed as he packed away his props.

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

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

“Pardon moi,” Josephine said.

The man turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you download the first one?”

“A site. I don’t remember.”

“How did you get to that site?”

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

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

“How do you know that?”

“Aren’t they?”

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

“Did you break these?” he said.

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

“I’ll get it on my own. Leave me be.”

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

“Fuck off.”

“Your call.”

Fuck off.”

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

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

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

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

“Why?” asked Oni.

“Because she said so,” Mama replied.

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

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

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

“Naema. Go home,” he said.

“No. Shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just want to try it,” Oni said.

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

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

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

“The Lakirans are gone, Mama.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I’ll wait here.”

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

“It’s no problem.”

“…Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

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

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

Mama pushed Josephine along. Oni followed.

“Oni. Stay with your sister.”

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

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

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

“It’s fine,” Naema said.

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

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

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

Yet she and her mother simply sat together.

“You cold?” Mama said.

“No,” Naema replied.

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

“I’m fine. You should get clothes.”

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

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

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

“What do you mean? I’m fine.”

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


“Don’t lie to your mama, girl.”

“Nothing, I swear.”

Mama eyed her.

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

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

“You mean after France?”

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

“I don’t know. We’ll go where we go.”

“Until the Lakirans go there too.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I guess so.”

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

“If you say so, Mama.”

“I do.”

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

“Excuse moi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“We are visiting,” Mama said.

“Oh, from where?”

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

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

“We have to go anyway,” Naema replied.

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

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

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

Turning, Naema pushed her mother to run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tick tock.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Mama. I’m not going.”

“I can hear you,” the girl said.

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


“No. Now. Go.”

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

That was the last thing she remembered.

40. Unstoppered

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

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

“Is everyone away from the door?”

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

“How long?”

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

“Are your marines ready?”

“Standing by, ma’am.”

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

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

“Admiral.” she said.

No response.


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

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

Admiral,” she shouted.

No response.

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

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

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

“Jose,” Tan mumbled without glancing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then lift it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop spoke. “I got a hold of them.”

“The bridge?”

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

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


“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Give me a second… yes.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It smells like someone juiced a Christmas Tree.”

“Try it.”

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

“Noooo.” Winnie mopped up frantically.

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

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

“So?” Helena poured gin on its surface.

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

“Are you serious?”

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

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

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

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

“No. Stop.” She caught Helena’s hand.

“Are you going to drink that up too?”

“Do you promise to stop?”

“Okay. I’ll stop if you drink it.”

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

Helena was beside herself with laughter.

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

A loud pop sobered them both.

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

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

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

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


“We should go.”

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

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

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

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t do that,” Winnie yelled.

“What? The glass is already broken.”

“Are you trying to get in there?”

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

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

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

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

“Please, Helena. Stop.”

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

She reached in and grabbed Marzipan.

39. Screeching Metal

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

“Yeah,” Winnie replied.

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

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


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

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

Helena sniffed. “What time is it?”

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

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

“I think so, yeah.”

“What are they doing?”

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

“How much did the charity make?”

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

“About fourteen million.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To your mom’s suite?”

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

“Your mom drinks?”

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

Helena got up with surprising energy.

Winnie had little choice but to follow.

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

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

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

“Admiral,” she said.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

Victoria watched on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, sir?”

“Come upstairs.”

“We’re on post.”

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

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

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

“The admiral?”


“What about the admiral?”

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

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

This time, they nodded and followed.

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

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

“Come back here,” she said.

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

“Who’s speaking?” he asked.

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

“The spire main door?”

“That one, yes.”

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

38. The Gargoyle

Of course the door would be sealed, Josephine thought.

She and the others had headed straight toward the bridge as soon as they’d discovered the lockdown, but they’d only gotten as far as the door leading to the spire stairwell. All alternate doors were likewise sealed. When she waved their stolen card over the reader, it beeped angrily and a flashed a tiny red light.

“Is the card bad?” Naema asked.

“I think every card is going to be bad,” Josephine replied. She took a stairwell leading up to the top deck. All around her, spires rose like skyscrapers, but the one she was wanted into was the one right next to her. The admiral’s perch was near the top, but they couldn’t possibly climb the spire’s smooth steel surface.

“So what now?” Naema looked at her, eyes earnest, as did Naema’s mother and brother. Tan watched her flatly.

“I’m not sure,” Josephine said. “But we have to get into that bridge. Unless someone has some other idea.”

Everyone looked around.

Tan motioned behind himself as though he had something on his back. “We jump.” He moved as though ripping something off his chest.

Parachutes?” Josephine asked.

He shrugged. “It work.”

“We’re not far enough off the ground.”

Oni spoke. “It could still work. It’s called base jumping. We do it.”

“I am not jumping,” said Naema’s mother. She faced Josephine. “You have powers. You can use them, no?”

“I do, but I need to see my target.”

Naema pointed up the spire. “Look. There are windows.” Small hatches lined the bridge spire. “If you can look in those, you can make them forget to keep the door closed.”

“How am I supposed to get up there.”

Naema pointed to a spire across from the bridge. “We go up there and you look across.”

Josephine looked. None of the other spires were as tall as the bridge spire, but some came close. The distance between them made a wide enough gap for planes to fly though. The top deck had once been a runway before the Lakiran Air Force retired all non grid-compatible planes.

Even if Josephine could see in the spire windows through the bright blue sky reflecting off the pane, she’d be looking through two small hatch windows hundreds of feet apart. She could maybe spot one or two people before the crew caught on.

But the idea wasn’t meritless.

“It won’t work,” Josephine said, “but I think I know what will. Come on.”

“Where?” Tan asked.

“To wherever they keep guns.”

“I see them,” Bishop said.

“Which screen?” Victoria asked.

“Camera F-4C.”

Victoria tabbed through the list. That camera was in Fore Sector, Deck 4. They were headed down into the ship, and they clearly had a goal. This was near an auxiliary bay for shipping and supplies. Civilians were never allowed down there. The surveillance was because of the nature of what the citadel stored down there.

“Admiral? Do you see them?”

A click indicated Admiral Medina’s return. “Yes, Your Majesty. We see them. We think they’re heading toward the armory.”

“We can’t have them access the explosives. Have your men set up a sentinel on the armory main room and get out of there.”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re already doing that.”

“And if they can fully lock down any armaments, have them do so.”

“Yes, ma’am. Already done.”


Over the comm, the admiral was issuing orders that Victoria could barely hear. She was projecting her mind into the bridge when it occurred to her that she might be micromanaging the situation. The admiral and his men had more combat experience than her, and he understood the risks now. Should she back off?

Victoria chuckled.

She should. She wouldn’t.

The armory was simple to track down. The Air Force personnel around them didn’t seem to know there were intruders aboard. So even while the bridge was no doubt trying to figure how to capture Josephine, she was still able to stop others and ask for directions.

However, the crowd got thinner the closer they got to the armory. They were in the aft sector of this ship now, four floors below. This section was the general coming and going for supplies on and off the citadel—always busy, but each passing corridor was more deserted.

When they passed an empty mess hall with trays still covering the tables, Josephine knew the crew was up to something.

It could be a trap, but whatever the trap was, it couldn’t be lethal. The queen would not take a chance with killing her; she was certain of that. And every minute she hesitated was another minute the Lakirans had to put their own plans into action. If there was a trap, she’d deal with it.

The moment they rounded the corner to the armory, she regretted that choice.

She saw it. Even as she skidded to jump out of the way she knew it was too late. The machine had already spun its barrel toward her. She yelled to the others to get back. Then there was a click. It felt as though someone tugged at her pant leg. Her momentum carried her forward another step, bringing her weight down on that foot. That’s when the pain registered. Another click, and something tugged her other pant leg. She had already been shifting her weight onto it to ease the first pain. Now neither foot supported her weight. She hit the ground hard. Agony blossomed in both legs.

“Josephine!” Naema yelled.

Even in her pain, Josephine yelled, “Don’t come. Stay back.” She heard the other’s scuttling behind her. From the corner of her eye, it looked as though Tan had yanked Naema back, but she didn’t dare turn to confirm. Before Josephine was a sentinel drone. It hovered at shoulder height. Like wall bots, it was mostly spherical except for a few bulges, such as the three nodes along the bottom it used to remotely mount itself to the ground. Unlike wall bots, one end had a thin barrel pointing out which was trained on Josephine.

The Lakirans used to deploy these things in abandoned towns and other such restricted areas where they couldn’t afford manpower to patrol. Locals often had their own names for these devices: devil eyes, death eyes, gargoyles. People who stumble into one of these usually never knew what killed them. If they were lucky, the sentinels were calibrated to give a warning message first: get on the ground now or some such. People who didn’t comply were either dead or phenomenally lucky. These things didn’t miss.

This one had struck both her legs, shots to maim. Blood was soaking into her pant legs. In each calf, there would be a triangular hole where the flechettes had torn into her.

“Are you okay?” Naema asked. Josephine still didn’t turn. Motion set these things off. Or so she’d heard.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll live.” That was the idea, but, Lord, this pain was blinding. It creeped up her legs, filling her body. In her century and a half of life, she’d never been shot before. Were all gunshots this bad?

“Just stay back,” she said. “Don’t let it see you.”

“What do we do? We have to get you out of there.”

“No,” replied Josephine. “It’ll shoot you too.” Ever so slowly, she turned to look at them. They were crowded around the corner from the sentinel. Tan had moved in front of them to keep anyone from getting past him.

“We can’t leave you there,” Naema said. “We’ll find a rope.”

“No good,” Josephine said. It wasn’t that it would shoot the rope. It was that it would shoot her again if she started sliding along the ground, and she had two more limbs it could maim.

Though Josephine and Tan did have a prearranged plan.

“Tan…” Josephine looked at him. He gave her a flat look, knowing exactly what she wanted from him. He’d come on this trip because she’d forced him, and now she was asking him to go above and beyond. It would take months to make this up to him.

“We have to,” she said. “None of you can get me out of here. If we all stay, then we get caught. If you leave me, then they’ve separated us.”

“New plan,” he said. “We pull you out. You get shot more, but you live.”

He looked like he meant it.

“Tan, we still need to get into the armory. We can’t move past that sentinel unless you do it. I’m sorry, Tan. I know. I’m sorry, but you have to, or we lose.”

His response was long coming. He finally reached into his jacket—not for his gun, but for his cigarettes. As he smoked, Naema and the others grew anxious, but Josephine didn’t rush him. Even though she lay there bleeding, cigarettes come before stress.

When the cigarette was half done, he acted. From his pack, he brought out two pairs of steel nunchucks. After several preparatory breaths, he crouched low and stepped around the corner. Immediately, he started swinging the nunchucks before him with wild abandon. His cigarette was pursed between his lips. His head was leaned away. His eyes were squinted as though he were facing down a wind tunnel.

The sentinel spun and fired at him, three shots per second, each directed at one limb or another. Every single shot deflected off the flailing nunchucks.

Only once had Tan done this before, and that was against a soldier, not a perfectly aimed turret, but he and Josephine had practiced. Because of how radically the slight movements in his wrists translated to the spinning nunchucks, it gave his power plenty of room to work its magic. The nunchucks worked even better than a shield, so long as he didn’t think hard about how he was flailing them.

Step by step, Tan crept closer to the sentinel. His nunchucks spun haphazardly. Sometimes they tangled with each other. Sometimes Tan struck himself, but so far, he’d knocked every flechette away. They littered the floor.

Next to the sentinel now, Tan narrowed his flailing toward its general location. One nunchuck struck its spherical body. It physically shifted as though its invisible mounts bent. Another strike hit its underside. The shift upward was much more pronounced. Its repulsers could not pull it back toward the ground. A final strike landed across the barrel, denting it. It shot one more time. The flechette didn’t escape the end. Sensing the backfire, the sentinel emitted a low tone, and was still. Somewhere in the world, an email inbox just received an automated damage report.

“Okay, okay. Help me!” Josephine waved at the others. They rushed out and lifted her up. From the calf and down, her uniform pants were bloody. Just the act of lifting her to a seated position caused excruciating pain.

“Get me up,” she panted.

“You are bleeding bad,” Naema’s mother said. “You can’t move.”

“I’m sure not staying here. We’ll take care of me later.”

Between Naema and her mother, they hoisted her up. She cried out. For a moment, all the sounds in the room seemed like they were coming from far away. Her vision faded from the corners of her eyes inward. Someone was talking. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her.

“You with us?”

“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take me to the armory.”

They carried her along. The door to the armory wasn’t far. It was closed. Tan tried the stolen card. Angry beeps.

Of course, she thought. If they had the foresight to know she was coming here, they’d have the foresight to seal the doors. This room was just as inaccessible as the bridge.

This trip was for nothing.

37. Strategies

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

“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.

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

“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold up,” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie nodded. The window closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.

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

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

“Can you confirm that?”

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

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

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

“They’re not escaping, are they?”

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

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

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

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

“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”

“Why are you talking to his XO?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A couple hours.”

“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have them stand down.”

“Your Majesty?”

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

“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”

He barked orders in the background.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Are there any nearby?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s fine. We have time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”