70. The Paintbrush

“Here you go.” The exemplars thrust Paul onto his bed. “Enjoy yourself now.”

Without waiting for a response, they left the room. The hatch closed and sealed. Two pairs of footfalls walked off. Their fun was over.

They’d won.

He had drawn his own glyph.

He’d done so staring into a mirror at his foreign face. All his previous bodies were destroyed, their victim owners killed. His current body hadn’t a scratch on it, and yet he trembled so badly it took him three times to draw his glyph, and the exemplars had practically carried him back. The things they’d done had seeped into his soul. No matter what body he was in, he was broken.

Paul looked at his room. It was the same one they’d kept him in before his imprisonment had taken its dark turn. His painting set up was still on the balcony. The easel still had oil paint on it, and some of the paint tubes were still open. It’d all be brittle now. The painting itself was unfinished, and always would be. It had rained during his absence, and now it was ruined. Paul would have to re-assemble everything and start over, except he just didn’t feel like painting anymore.

Paul had watched as Alex gleefully drew his own flair while looking in the very mirror that Paul had used to betray his oath. He’d wondered whether Alex would force him to explain how it’s done, but of course Alex already knew. Alex had pried around in his mind long enough to know every detail of glyph writing. They had everything they needed now. With one master glyph, they could make more, so long as they kept Paul around to model his own flair.

He got to his feet slowly like an old man on his last legs. This room was his locked and guarded retirement home. He had to remind himself that his current body was no older than twenty. The weight he felt was not actually there. One foot after another, he reached the balcony, and looked over the citadel. Steel and sky. Gray and black. And dotted lights of a city far away. He was miles away from anything green. This room was to be the peace and quiet Sakhr promised him, where he could look out over the world Sakhr owned, and Sakhr could look over him.

Cautiously, he reached over the edge. No resistance. No puff of air. The rail didn’t have any repulse guards. It made sense on a citadel where soldier’s were entrusted not to walk over the edge of the deck, but what about prisoners?

It would be cheating though. Paul had just inflicted his power upon the world once again, and now he was considering leaving before facing the consequences of his own actions. It would be a coward’s finish, but perhaps best after all. Sakhr’s promised peace would last just as long as they didn’t want anything else from him. When would they begin wondering what Paul could do for them if he just tried to evolve his power? Victoria had told him about how many self imposed restrictions he’s convinced himself he has, such as the need to look at his subject when he draws, instead of drawing from memory. It was a habit probably born from decades of painting what he saw. Paul was sure she was right, but by that time in their relationship, he was done helping her. He’d seen her for what she was, and she was not the selfless humanitarian who’d once filled him with hope of changing the world.

He’d always been a naive rebel. His high school years had been a wash of drinking and acting out. His college years were drinking and protesting, probably landing himself on a watch list or two. He’d genuinely believed in that rubbish he and his fellow hippie friends spouted. He’d idolized their group-favorite philosophy teacher, Mr. Riggs, who had taught him all he believed about society. The government had been the source of all evils back then, with its classes and armies and oil and corporate interests—a self maintaining status quo. The world would be better off if we were all equal.


Idealistic rubbish.

He’d been so sure he’d grown out of all that nonsense, and then Victoria had come along. She’d convinced him she could create a utopia out of the world, and he’d believed her. This broken war-torn world was the result of that. The government controlled the people with mind reading powers, and he had enabled it.

With Victoria’s death, he’d had a chance to undo his contribution. If he’d only held out, the world would never have to worry about people violating their minds and bodies again, but he’d caved. Alexander had been creative—cruel in ways Paul had never thought possible. But it was nothing compared to the shame of having betrayed the world again.

Sighing, he rested his head and arms against the rail. His eyes drew to his paintbrushes. A thought occurred to him. It was the kind of thought his old rebellious self would have had—a naive thought. After everything that had happened, he should know better.

Yet he kept staring at that brush.

Absently, he took it up and a rag which still rested on the paint bench. He wipe the brush clean. After days exposed to the elements, it would never be quite right again, but it could still paint.

He walked back inside. His legs had lost their tremble. At the assembler, he navigated its menus. At first he looked only at paints, but other things would work much better. For nearly an hour, he followed links and read instructions. The assembler hummed away building items all the while. Paint first, then pencils—like he used in the old days of training with Victoria. Many mediums worked: pencils, pens, brushes, finger paints. Victoria even taught him to use a rake and sand for practice, and then came her metal etcher for those plaques of hers. He’d grown wise to her soon after, before he could expand into other mediums, but in theory, he’d only scratched the surface. Flairs were about how people interpreted them. As long as a glyph was made in a way another human could comprehend and possess, it would work.

As the pencils printed, Paul took his canvas and brush into the bathroom. He propped the canvas on the sink, squeezed gray paint into a soap holder, and stared at his reflection. The face was strange to him, but it was still there, even if he couldn’t pinpoint it, like a hidden detail that made a painting seem off.

He painted that detail. Soon, he had a master glyph—an intricate mapping of geometric lines and curves that appeared nowhere in the mirror.

The next step would make him feel dirty. Paul had always scoffed at those who sketched from other pictures. It was a representation of a representation. The artist might as well lay paper over what he was copying and trace it, but Paul had already given up on his standards earlier today.

He drew another master glyph by looking at the first. It worked, as he and Victoria always knew it would. He’d been on the verge of that breakthrough for so long, but never took that last step for Victoria.

The next part was trickier. He drew his glyph again while referencing the mirror. He botched it the first time. Since his power had just changed, so had the glyph. Minutes went by as he experimented to figure out what it now was. Oddly, it was a simpler design than before.

He returned to the assembler. With the pencils in hand, he sketched out every glyph he could remember. Alex’s was easy. Paul must have practiced on him a thousand times decades ago. Christof’s was harder. Sakhr’s he couldn’t recall. Victoria had never let Paul practice on him, but it didn’t matter, not for what Paul had in mind.

Who else? Sibyl? He thought back to the last time he’d seen her. It was right after Sakhr had released him from the tortoise, but he’d hardly paid attention to her. It took Paul forty minutes of trial and error before the glyph upon the paper finally came to life.

The shield was another he wished he could draw, but he’d never actually seen Sara’s power. She always drew her own glyph using a glyph of Paul’s power. Paul prayed the girl wouldn’t give Sakhr any trouble. It wouldn’t be worth what they’d do to her.

He turned back to the assembler. His next item had finished assembling: a designer tablet. A bottom line, free-to-use device for prototyping, creating, and uploading your own ideas into the assembler network’s public library. It’s interface was overwhelming. Materials. Patterns. Temperatures. Purity levels. Compounds vs. Alloys vs. Micropatterns vs. Polymers. At first, it seemed the device expected him to describe his item in terms of mathematical formulae. Another setting would let him individually assemble items with microparts at near atomic levels, piece by piece, bond by bond. Eventually he found a toolset that allowed for for both additive and subtractive modification of solid matter. That seemed more his style, although he still could barely figure out how to use it.

Eventually he designed a simple plastic plate the size of a playing card. He didn’t bother trying to bevel the edges. With an additive brush tool, he drew glyphs upon it—mind reading, flair detection, aura sensing, and finally his own new and improved master glyph that he’d sketched in the bathroom. His power had probably evolved even more since now that he’d written glyphs from memory, but that wasn’t important for what he was doing.

As an afterthought, he scribbled a few notes beneath each one. After saving the file, he sent it to the assembler. It took a full nine minutes, but when the plate came out, he looked it over. Each glyph functioned, but would it work when someone else downloaded the file? For that, he’d just have to hope.

He filled out out a quick description and uploaded the file to the public library.

And that was that. It was in the wild.

He took his tablet and canvas and fed them into the reclamator. For a long time, he stared at the glowing light indicating disassembly. By morning, no evidence would remain, though of course Sakhr would find out eventually.

Paul returned to the assembler and checked his submission. Zero downloads. He refreshed the page, but the number didn’t change. To pass the time, he browsed through the library and picked an item to assemble. Fifteen minutes later he had in his hand a double shot of single malt scotch, whatever the hell single malt meant for an assembled drink. It certainly didn’t taste single malt, but what more could he expect for a drink made out of thin air? It would do.

As he sipped, he did the math in his head. He was a tortoise for seven years. And it was twenty-five years before that since his last drink. Or twenty-six? It didn’t matter. He’d been sober at least thirty. Somehow, it didn’t bother him to fall off the wagon now. If there was ever a time he “deserved it”, it was now.

He refreshed the page again. Three downloads, which meant somewhere in the world, three people now held forbidden power. Paul imagined a North American teenager in a basement, or a housewife in Europe using a public library machine. Maybe there was an off duty soldier in a remote corner of the world. It didn’t matter who. More would come.

As Paul returned to the balcony, he saw the table of paints, and the same dangerous thought as before came to his mind. Power to the people. It was a clichéd term his adolescent self might have yelled. He’d been naive then, and maybe he was being naive now to think he had somehow leveled the playing field.

As he climbed over the rail, he realized he would never get to know how his actions would affect the world. There’d be chaos for sure, but surely it would recover. He wasn’t deluded enough to think the world would become equal. Such a lofty ambition was a foolishness reserved for his younger self, but it might reach equilibrium, and he felt proud of that. In a single night, he’d accomplished a dream his younger self had given up on.

His whiskey glass spun from his hand.

His clothes whipped.

The world would be different tomorrow. He had hope.

62. Results

Winnie knew they were coming for her when she saw them enter the lobby and beeline for the kitchenette where she and Helena were kept. What she didn’t know was why. Her mind had been elsewhere.

They were exemplars, or someone might think that. Winnie had seen many times when Sakhr had ventured down to Alexander’s levels of the spire. A few more detainees would be waiting. A few more unwitting exemplars would be arriving from the lower decks to perform scans. Winnie had stopped watching it after seeing it a dozen times. It always went the same way: confusion, panic, struggle, death.

These “exemplars” came into the kitchenette where Winnie and Helena were kept. “There they are,” one said as he picked them up, as though fetching supplies.

“These are people?” the other asked.

The first shrugged. “Guess so.”

“What’d they do to piss Alex off?”

“Shit if I know.”

They took Winnie and Helena up the spire stairs. Third floor from the top, they knocked at the door. Winnie glanced inside with her mind. In that moment, she knew that today might be the worst day of her life.

It was a horror scene.

Blood. So much blood. Blood on the floors. Blood on the exemplar waiting inside. And especially blood on a man strapped to a chair in the center. It matted his hair and hid his features. It drenched his chest. It soaked into his prison leggings such that the bright yellow fabric was visible only in patches..

“We got em,” said the man carrying Winnie’s crate.

The exemplar in the room nodded toward a table. He was leaning against the far wall with a cigarette between his lips. There was blood on the filter. “They’ll be back in a minute.”

And so the men put Winnie and Helena down, and everyone waited. They chatted as though on a work break. It probably was for them, but how they could be so okay with this? The stench of blood and shit was overpowering. They’d actually gotten used to it. This was a job for them. And now they wanted Winnie.

She vomited. Brownish muck mixed with lettuce oozed from her mouth. Nobody noticed apart from Helena. She plodded over, nudged Winnie, and then tried to look around. She had no idea what was coming.

Alex and Sakhr arrived. When they came through the door, Sakhr recoiled and covered his nose. “Good God, Alexander. Is he even alive?”

Alex scrutinized the unconscious man. “Yes.” He motioned to an exemplars. “Get the next body. Male again.”

The exemplars who had brought Winnie left.

“I told you not to let him get this close,” Sakhr said. “This is absolutely unacceptable. How much blood has he lost? How close to death is he? Did you even listen to me last time?”

Alexander waved him off. “He’s fine.”

You. Cannot. Let him. Die.

“We’re being careful.”

This.” Sakhr waved at the blood pooled on the floor. “This is not careful. How many more times am I going to have to replace the body?”

“That’s up to him.”

“He has to be awake when I transfer bodies.” He points at the man’s many wounds. “I have to feel all this when I’m in his body.”

“Only for a moment.”

“Why can’t you just use ordinary methods? Why must you ruin the bodies? Are you even trying? I put Paul in this body… what? Six hours ago?”

“And yet he still has not complied,” said Alex. “Do you think if he hasn’t complied to this, that waterboarding would have worked? Maybe some splinters under his nails? Trust me. I’ve seen his mind. I know what it will take. I will get you results.”

Sakhr scowled.

Shortly, the exemplars returned, dragging a man from detainment between them. At the sight of the blood, the man fought back like a lion. He howled and screamed.

“No!” he stammered. “What is this? What is this?”

It took everyone combined to secure him to a second chair. Duct tape went over his mouth. They sidled him close to the bloodied man until their hands were in contact. Meanwhile, the exemplar who’d been on his smoke break administered a shot of something into the tortured man, causing him to snap awake.

“If you’ll please,” said Alex.

Sakhr glared at him one final time before resting his hands upon both tied men. A flicker later, the roles switched. Sakhr stumbled back, teeth clenched.

The new man who’d struggled so much now slumped. The terror in his eyes changed into a dead focus that stared through the floor with a vacancy that scared Winnie more than the terror had.

The bloody man thrashed wordlessly. Pain from his new body screamed where there had been nothing a moment before. There was no room in his mind for a coherent response, only to flop against his restraints like a suffocating fish.

Alex motioned to an exemplar, who took out a gun, pointed, and shot. The click of the repulse pistol was no louder than a stapler. The bloodied man slumped. Blood poured from a new hole on his forehead.

Alex and the interrogator untied the dead body and tossed it to the corner. For the vacant man, they pulled his chair to a corner and left him facing the wall. The man stared at it as though there were nothing else worth watching.

“All right. You two,” Alex pointed to the remaining exemplars. “Another body.”

“Male or female?”

Alex eyed Winnie. “…Female.”

“Sure thing, boss.” They left.

Suddenly Winnie was hyperventilating. Torture? They were going to torture her? She vomited again. Nothing came up. She struggled to move, but her body was going numb. Staggering, she raced to the corner. Putting her stumpy feet against the wall, she rocked her weight against it, hoping to tip the box. There was no thought to where she’d go, she just had to try. Helena watched curiously. She still didn’t know.

“Looks like they figured out what’s going on,” Alex said. He scooped Winnie up.

She kicked her hind legs, scratching at skin.

“Goddamn this relentless little bitch.” Alex raised her in the air.

“Stop!” yelled Sakhr. “Do not drop her.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Just hold her properly.”

“I am. Look.”

Winnie kept struggling, but he gripped her with both hand. She gained no purchase.

The exemplars returned dragging a middle-aged woman in prison leggings and a tank top. She too fought upon seeing the room, but they strapped her to the vacated bloody chair. Duct tape came next.

“Bring her.” Sakhr pointed to Winnie.

Alex didn’t move. “Nope.”

“What? Is that Winnie?” Sakhr pointed to Helena.

Alex jostled Winnie. “No, this is.”

“Then bring her.”



“You want her cooperation, right?” Alex put Winnie on the table and grabbed Helena. “Then she is the one you want.”

Sakhr eyed Alex.

“Trust me,” Alex handed Helena over.

Cautiously, Sakhr took her. He placed the tortoise onto the lap of the prisoner, then touched the woman’s cheek. Eyes fluttered, and there was Helena.

Her reaction was explosive. If she hadn’t realized what was happening before, she did now. Helena kicked and strained with ferocity. Her binds creaked. Her chair threatened to topple. The exemplars caught her. Only once fully restrained did she finally take closer stock of her surroundings. She took in the bloody instruments, the dead body in the corner, and the people. And then her gaze settled on Sakhr, the man who ruled from her old body.

To her credit, despite everything around her, she managed to glare. If Winnie were in that chair, she’d have no strength like that.

Alex grunted when he saw Helena’s scowl, and he turned to Winnie. “Look at me. Look me in the eyes.”

Winnie didn’t look away from Helena.

Alex sighed. He picked a bloody knife off the table, stepped to Helena, and promptly slashed the blade across her face. Helena screamed into her gag. Her cheek spilled open like a broken seem. Blood streamed down her cheek.

Alex turned back to Winnie. “Now do you want to look at me?”

Winnie relented.

“Good. Now listen close, because we’re going to play a game. We need your power, but we’re currently suffering a few technical setbacks, so we need you to use your power for us. When Sakhr tells you to view somewhere, or to look for someone, you’re going to do exactly that. If you refuse, that’s going to frustrate us. And we’re going to take our frustration out on Helena. Is that understood?”

Winnie looked from him to Helena. The thought of giving these men what they wanted was repulsive beyond imagination. She’d sworn to herself that she wouldn’t, even if it came to this. Everything that had happened since Sakhr escaped had been her fault. Taking their wrath would have been her penance. But Helena? It shouldn’t make a difference, but of course it did. Condemning another to a hell, even if they were just as guilty, was not something Winnie could live with.

And yet Helena shook her head. Her eyes were narrowed. Helena had made herself the same promise: give nothing. Winnie didn’t know where she found the strength. Helena saw the instruments, the body, and the bowl of discarded parts. Yet she glared, as though out of spite more than courage. Her arrogance would not allow her to give these people what they wanted, despite everything that had happened to her. The part of her that made her insufferable was giving her strength. She was being the bitch that she was.

“Come on now,” said Alex. “Look me in the eye and agree.”

But Winnie kept her eyes on Helena. If Helena could be strong, then so would she.

“Hmm,” said Alex. “Maybe you’re not fully grasping this. Do you see that man?” Alex pointed to the person staring at the wall. He hadn’t moved once. “He’s on his third body now. Do you know how many bodies we have downstairs? Last I checked, over eighty. Do you know how many bodies are in the Trinidad detainment camp? Over four thousand. How many bodies do you think Helena will last? How long until there’s nothing left inside her? And the final question: How long do you think we can keep this up? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not hurting us more than it’s hurting her.” Alex stooped down to look Winnie squarely in the eyes. “Now why don’t you agree to cooperate while I’m still looking in your mind. If you don’t, I’m not going to look again for several hours.”

Once again, Winnie looked past him to Helena. She would do anything to be able to talk with her, just for a moment, if only to ask, or apologize.

And yet Helena shook her head again, and so Winnie shut her eyes.

“Okay then!” Alex stood straight. He skipped over to instruments lined up on a table. After looking over them as though perusing ice cream flavors, he pointed one out. “This one.”

He had selected a blowtorch.

The exemplars prepped the tank and attached tubes. With a few clicks from a spark lighter, the torch burst to life.

Helena thrashed in her chair as though they were already applying heat. Winnie wanted to look away, but she was still here. She would hear every shriek and smell the burning flesh,. Even if she looked away, she knew her flair would watch every single second. How could she not watch?

Everything Helena was about to endure was because of Winnie, even if Helena had encouraged her. And for what? Alex said he’d do this as long as it took. Either Winnie would cave after Helena suffered, or Paul would eventually give in, and they’d make a glyph of Winnie’s power. It was idiotic to resist. Alex was going to get what he wanted one way or another.

Alex scrutinized Helena. “Start with her… feet.”

The exemplars tilted Helena’s chair onto its back, putting her legs upward. Helena kicked and thrashed, but her leg bindings were solid.

Winnie couldn’t do this. Even if Helena still had courage, she didn’t. If it were her own body—her own pain—then maybe she might try to be brave, but she couldn’t have Helena suffer for her.

She wailed. The sad, tortoise noise was hardly audible over Helena’s struggles and the hissing torch. She wailed over and over, but the spectacle continued.

With Helena’s shoes removed, the exemplar adjusted the torch to a clean blue burn, then lowered the torch toward Helena’s feet. Helena sobbed into her gag and strained away.


Everyone paused. It was Sakhr.

“Look,” He nodded toward Winnie. “Check her. I think she’ll cooperate now.”

“I don’t care,” said Alex. “I warned her I wouldn’t ask again for hours. I meant it.”

Sakhr sneered at Alex as though observing a crushed cockroach that wouldn’t stop twitching. “I didn’t come here to play your sick, sadistic games, Alexander. I’m here because I need to know what the hell is happening in my military right now, not in several hours. If the girl will give me what I want, then we’re done here. Now check her.”

Alex shrugged. He motioned for the exemplars to cut the torch, then moved to Winnie. Winnie met his eyes.

He sighed. “Say what you will about my methods, but I get results.”

61. Impressionism

Two security guards let Sakhr into the top floor of the imperial spire. It was spartan, like most rooms in the spire right now, but Paul had made a few additions that turned it into a bedroom. There was a mattress made of smaller pieces that fit together like a jigsaw. The pillow and sheet set were light gray. They were tossed aside and twisted. A mattress in the corner of an aluminum room should have looked pitiful, like seeing the inside of a holding cell, but it wasn’t. It was temporary, but in a positive way—like a college student crashing in a friend’s attic.

All other additions were outside on the balcony, where Paul was sitting on a stool painting at an easel. Littering a small table beside him were half-squeezed oil paint tubes. Paul painted with a brush in one hand, and a cafeteria dinner tray in the other which he used as a pallet.

Sakhr wondered why Paul would have all the painting supplies except for a true pallet. Everything in this room that wasn’t bolted down came from an assembler built into the far wall. If it could build a mattress and a table, it could build a pallet. It probably came down to a matter of time. Sakhr had noticed how agonizingly long it took for his own assembler to spit out items.

Interesting then that Paul made the items he did. He could have made a knife. He’d have been waiting for Sakhr just behind the door.

But he made painting supplies. Was it pragmatism, or resignation? It didn’t matter. Sakhr would make sure his assembler would be locked down. No sharp objects. No ingredients for explosives. Surely they had a setting for that. Maybe he should take it all away. But it might not matter depending on how this coming conversation went.

“Can I help you?” Paul spared a glance toward Sakhr.

Sakhr approached and got his first look at the canvas. The citadel spires were the only landscape Paul had to paint.

“A lot of grays and blues,” Sakhr observed.

Paul was painting again.

“Impressionism,” Sakhr said. “I remember when it became popular. The first impressionist paintings I saw were in the Chicago Institute of Art when it first opened. I don’t suppose it meant much to me then, but I remember thinking how strange they looked. At first I thought it was gimmick, just a passing phase, but as I thought that, I realized how many times I’d thought that same thought before. Every new fashion, every new style… it’s a gimmick. I even remember the first time I saw a three dimensional picture. Not a hologram or anything like that. I mean good-old basic perspective. It seems obvious now, but before it existed, it simply never occurred to people. We lived in a world of hieroglyphs and orthogonal views. Straight ahead or straight to the side. I mean, this was a long time ago, before Jesus walked earth, if he did. The first time you see a painting with perspective, your mind has to take a moment to comprehend the 3D concept upon a 2D surface. I’m probably the only person alive who wasn’t a child when that moment occurred to me. It was… a breakthrough, but even then, the first thought in my head? Gimmick. I thought it was a novelty that took away from the art itself, even as everyone around me marveled. It took me years before I accepted it. When we’re young, we can accept change. We’re still learning the world. When we see new things, we see their potential. When we’re older and we see new things, all we see is how it’s not part of the world we know, thus it’s wrong. The hardest lesson I learned was how to accept the world changing around me. New cultures form. New generations come up with their own ideas. The world moves on. We have to accept it, because it will happen regardless. Denying change only puts you in the past.”

Paul kept painting as though he were alone.

“You understand why I’m here,” Sakhr said.

“No. You haven’t told me, but you’re probably not here for painting lessons.”

“I wanted to finish our earlier conversation.”

Paul painted a few strokes before answering. “That conversation was finished.”

Sakhr cleared the paints off the stool and sat beside Paul. “Then I must readdress it.”

“If you must, but nothing has changed.”

“When I asked you before, it was because I believed that I would need your help in maintaining the empire, what’s changed is that I now know I cannot do this unless you help.”

“Thousands of civilizations throughout time have managed without my help. If you really must rule, then I’m sure you’ll find a way. Your kind always do.”

“No empire in the world has been as large as this one. No empire has had to work with the frozen remains of a nuclear holocaust.”

Paul didn’t respond.

“Listen. I’ve been the king for three days now.”


“Queen. Yes. I’ve been queen for three days now. In that time, the empire has already started to crumble. Fourteen countries are in riots. They all saw the death of Victoria as a sign to rise up, and now they’re discovering that the military presence we put forward is nothing more than a front. We’ve had to withdraw from nearly all of them, and as of this morning, China is now talking about seceding from the Pacific coalition. The same with parts of Europe and India. They want their independence back.”

“Let them have it.”

“I’m tempted to do so, but then the world plunges right back into chaos. The power vacuum we’d leave behind would attract any power hungry despot who could take it by force. What little population remains this world would suffer all the more. This is no longer about maintaining power. It’s about protecting the world from itself.”

“Is it?” Paul looked at him dubiously. “Is it really what this is about? You’re selflessly taking the reigns for the good of the people?”

“You think I want this role? These three days have been constant fire fighting. It’s only getting worse.”

“You forget, Sakhr. I know you. We’ve never met, but I learned to make my glyphs on your followers. I’ve seen in their minds the years you shepherded them. You are no altruist.”

“If you’ve seen their minds, then you know what sort of people I’ve had to work with. I did what I had to in order keep them together. I did what was best.”

“What if the best thing for this empire was to change it into a democracy—to step down from your position—would you do it?”

“That’s irrelevant. Given the current state of affairs, a democracy would fail.”

“How inconvenient.”

“I understand why you doubt me. I admit my checkered past, but I need you to look past that at what’s at stake here. If I fail, or if I even just walk away, the next world war will begin.”

“These are the same arguments Victoria used with me.”

“Victoria wanted to break the world into pieces so she could put it back together the way she wanted. I’m trying to keep that from happening again.”

“Still the same thing. You’re the hero. The world needs fixing. At least with her, I had the illusion of freedom.”

“Until she put you into a tortoise.”

“Until I threatened to tell the world what she was going to do, yes.”

“I’m never going to put you back into a tortoise.”

“Because I will never tell anyone your secrets. I learned that lesson with her. Any attempt to fight you would be fruitless.”

“You don’t have to fight me, Paul. Work with me. I want your cooperation. If you don’t like what I’m doing, then help. Frankly, it’s been three days, and I’m overwhelmed. I would welcome it.”

“Tell me how you want me to help, and I will. But not through glyphing.”

“Why not? It’s your gift. Why wouldn’t you do the one thing God put you on this earth to do.”

“Because it shouldn’t be used at all, for anything. When I first agreed to help Victoria, it was because she convinced me she could make the world a better place. We were living in a time when governments and corporations were slowly taking control of our lives. Every year it seemed the rich gained more control over the world order. They warped it to fit their needs and ensured its perpetuity. When I was young, I fought against it along like any other naive youth, but just like everyone else, I grew up to learn that the system is too powerful to fight. Then Victoria convinced me that she could replace the system with something better. All she needed was my help, and my glyphs. And like that, I became naive all over again.”

Paul resumed painting. “I gave them to her, and she succeeded. She ruin the world doing so, but she got rid of the immortal corporations and the governments, and replaced them with something worse. This empire is no better than the governments from before. It enslaves. It controls. It spies. Only this one uses powers I gave it. I should have realized then that corruption is just a part of life. You must know something about that. Throughout history the few have always manipulated the many. Victoria was just another tyrant.”

“But I am not,” Sakhr said. “In the thousands of years I’ve lived, I have never sought to control the world. All I’m trying to do now is keep it from falling into the abyss.

Paul rested his palette in his lap and turned to look at Sakhr. “So tell me then, let’s say I agree. Would you suggest we do? Maintain her Exemplar Committee?”

“Initially, yes. We need the exemplars to keep order.”

“Would you hoard the glyphs?”

“I would keep them safe. They would be dangerous if they fell in the wrong hands.”

“But you plan to use them yourself to keep control.”

“No. I plan to use them to maintain order in the empire. I personally don’t know how long I’ll tolerate ruling. I imagine I will step down eventually.”

“Even if it all settles down?”


“And what about me? What happens to me after I give you my glyph. You’d have no reason to keep me around.”

“I would not hurt you if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“Would you free me?”

“I’d have no need to keep you imprisoned.”

“Even though I know you’re not the true queen?”

“You said yourself you plan to keep that secret.”

“And Helena. What will you do with her?”

“Leave her where she is. She’s not fit to rule, Paul. No one groomed her. You must have known Victoria was planning to steal her body when the time came.”

Paul glanced out over the citadel spires. “Yes. I knew. It doesn’t mean that’s what the girl deserves.”

“If I set her free, or any of the others, they will cause havoc. Listen. There have been many casualties the last fews day. She is just one of many.”

“She’s still alive.”

“Yes. If it gives you comfort, I will make sure she’s treated well.”

“By someone other than your coven.”

“Yes. I’ll give her to you if you wish.”

“And your other victims? Gilles? That girl?”


“You promise to do all these things? Free me? Step down after you’ve restored order?”

“You have my word.”

Paul nodded. After finishing a few more brushstrokes, he set his paintbrush aside and rolled up his sleeve. The moment Sakhr saw paint on Paul’s forearm, he already knew what Paul was about to show him.

On his skin, painted in thin strokes of blue, was a glyph. “I saw Alexander walking on the deck this morning.” He rolled his sleeve back down, took up his brush, and resumed painting. “I’ll miss Gilles,” he said to himself. “At least he’s with his wife now.”

Sakhr glared at Paul as Paul worked. He thought back to all the times in this talk Paul had deliberately looked right at him. Sakhr had looked back every time. He had been trying to act genuine during his lies.

“Here is a truth for you,” Sakhr said. “One way or another, you will give me that glyph, but after I leave this room, it will no longer be me you’re dealing with. It will be Alexander. Tell me, Paul, during your time with Victoria, did you ever have the misfortune of seeing into his mind?”

Paul rested his brush. He stared at the painting for a long while. When he resumed, it was as though he’d only been considering the next brush stroke. Sakhr might as well have not been there.

“Is this your final choice?” Sakhr said.

Paul only painted.

Without another word, Sakhr left the balcony. He headed straight to the door and left the room.

Alex was already there with two of his new “exemplars”. Sakhr walked by without glancing. He didn’t need to see Alexander’s smug face.

58. Port Hole Windows

Victoria had caused the war.

That’s what Paul had said. Winnie still wasn’t sure whether she believed him, though she couldn’t fathom why he would have lied about it. It would mean that the one woman who Winnie was hoping would rescue her was in fact responsible for every grief Winnie had ever suffered in the last six years. This revelation should have shocked her, like a splash of ice cold water, but so much else had happened to her that she was already numb. Whatever Victoria had or hadn’t done was irrelevant right now. Winnie needed to focus on her situation, and why her captors had come to claim her.

Sakhr’s soldiers put Winnie and the others inside a smaller box for carrying. A military transport was waiting for Sakhr in a landing zone outside the apartment. It was far from royal, but it was certainly secure. The ride was bumpy, making Winnie queazy.

It didn’t help that she was tucked inside her shell, but it was better than tolerating Alex’s gaze. Her flair told her that if she looked out, she’d still see him there, hovering over their box, wearing Winnie’s body like it had been his all along, peering down at them like a child watching ants toil.

Helena seemed to be recovering from the trauma of their situation. Out of her shell, she stared back at Alex. A human wouldn’t recognize her expression, but Winnie’s tortoise mind saw her defiance. Alex returned her gaze thoughtfully. Either Helena didn’t know that Alex was a telepath, or she was sharing with him a piece of her mind. Whatever he saw caused the corner of his lip—Winnie’s lip—to curl upward.

The other tortoise with them was Gilles’s, who meandered about the border of the box as though drunk. He was stuck in the frame of mind that your feet should be beneath you, and not off to the side.

Winnie traced the transport’s path in her mind. It was not headed back to the military base, but its destination was easy enough to guess. Northwest of Porto Maná, a gleaming citadel floated above the ocean. It was so massive and so still, it was hard to believe it hadn’t been there yesterday. People along the beaches and walkways of the city pointed and stared.

Alex’s interest in Helena waned. He looked at Winnie.

“Hey,” said Alex. “Come out.” He tapped her shell. Winnie ignored him.

“Come out. Come out. Come out.”

Picking her up, he shook her, causing her head to bump around inside her shell. When that didn’t work, he lifted her high and dropped her. Just before hitting the box, he caught her. He’d done this annoying tactic before. Every tortoise instinct inside her lurched. She couldn’t stop imagining the poor tortoise that had been dropped during Sakhr’s initial escape. It’s shell cracked like an egg, revealing slimy red. Winnie still managed to keep herself tucked away.

“Stop being rude.” Alex held her up to peer at her, but her eyes were sealed. He held his finger just before her face, as though to bop her nose.

Winnie shot her head out and snapped, managing to nip the tip of his finger. She tasted blood. Winnie had just bit her own body, but it was worth it.

Alex’s response was swift. Something punched her in the face. Then again. Alex was flicking her with this finger—hard. She swiftly retreated into her shell. Her face hurt now. Her head and neck ached from whiplash. Still worth it.

“That was a very bad thing you just did,” said Alex. “I think later you might come regret that. We have plans for you. I have plans for you. Pretty soon, you’re all going to learn that from now on, you’re all going to do exactly what I want. Tonight, maybe I’ll—”


Alex looked up. Sakhr was glaring at Alex from across the transport. He was holding a hand over the microphone of his head piece. It took Winnie a moment to realize he was yelling at Alex, and not at her.

“I’m on the phone,” Sakhr said.

Alex looked sheepish. His pouty expression made Winnie’s body seem ditzy and air-headed. “Sorry.”

Sakhr returned to his phone call. Sitting near to him was Paul, handcuffed and strapped down. Paul observed Alex with an expression as though watching a drunkard publicly urinating. Meanwhile, Alex eyed Winnie while sucking his finger. Whatever he was considering, he decided against it. Shrugging, he put her back in the box.

Until now, Winnie had not heard any of these impostors refer to each other by anything but their true name. It made sickening sense that when this group could be overheard by others, such as the soldiers near the front of the transport, they’d use Winnie and Helena’s names. How much of their captives’ lives did they plan to adopt? Was Alex going to contact Winnie’s mother? God, she hoped not. Her mother would know something was wrong. She’d get suspicious and become a liability, and Winnie had no doubt what Alex would do to a liability.

The light from the transport windows dimmed as the craft swooped into one of many openings along the belly of the citadel. The opening connected to a private bay where dozens of officers awaited. The craft touched down. The doors opened. A stout Admiral shouted out to all the men, and everyone saluted as Sakhr came down the ramp.

“Welcome aboard the HIMS Manakin, Your Highness,” the Admiral said. “Admiral Marc Laughlin, citadel captain.” He gestured to a man beside him. “This is my executive officer, Commander Antonio Benito.”

Benito nodded. To the other side of the admiral was army General Soto, or as Winnie knew him, Christof.

Sakhr nodded. “Glad to be aboard, Captain, Commander. Have all precautions been taken?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Laughlin replied. “Air traffic to and from the citadel is restricted. Whitelisting is in effect. All onboard staff have been scanned and accounted for. The reflex grid is set to full alert, and the citadel has been fully combed over.”

Sibyl had come off the shuttle escorting Paul. She murmured into Sakhr’s ear.

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Admiral, Exemplar Serrao has just informed me that there are birds nesting somewhere above us.

“Yes,” Laughlin replied. “That’s probably the family of osprey nested in the bridge spire peak.”

“I was told that the reflex grid on full alert was sensitive to block out birds.”

“Ah, yes. That’s the saying: It’ll turn the birds around. Just a saying, ma’am. We don’t set the sensitivity that high. Too many false positives.”

“Turn it up that high, Captain. I don’t want anything getting aboard without clearance.”

“Birds, ma’am?”

“Or devices the size of birds. We don’t know how enemies got into the Capital Tower. I will not take any risks.”

Laughlin nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“No birds.”

“Er… Understood, ma’am.”

“And my accommodations?”

“Yes. We’ve relocated all civilian personnel from one of the spires. It’s cleared and ready for you to move in, Your Highness.”

“Then let’s get a move on.”

The Admiral led everyone to an elevator large enough to lift a tank. It took them onto the surface of the citadel. From here, it was as though they were standing on the streets of a city. Chrome spires towered around them. Though unlike skyscrapers, they were curved. A cross section of them would be oval.

The admiral led them across the open area. It was paved, and from the marking on top of it, planes could land here, even the old kind that required runways. They stopped at a particularly wide spire, and a pair of accompanying officers opened the door for everyone else. Sakhr was the first to enter. It looked like the lobby of a computer tech company, albeit with aluminum walls, hatchways for doors, and port holes for windows. There was even a reception desk, though currently unmanned. Winnie glanced quickly at the spire floors. Each was bare and abandoned.

“This will work,” Sakhr said.

“Then this will be the new imperial spire,” the admiral replied. “Would you like me to show you the upper floors?”


Everyone headed in. Alex lingered outside on the deck with his box of tortoises, as did Christof.

Once they were alone, they finally acknowledged that they knew one another. They walked together. Alex led them toward the edge of the deck.

“Pretty spiffy place,” Alex said. “Had any trouble?”

“The admiral didn’t like an army general telling him what to do,” Christof replied, “but we got the job done.”

“It might make sense to get you into Laughlin’s body.”

“General is fine,” Christof said shortly.

“If you say so. It might be easier to handle the exemplars on board if we had someone in charge though.”

“The exemplars are handled. They’re remaining below deck to clear any incoming personnel. They won’t come near the imperial spire.”

“Good to hear.” Alex reached the edge. Beyond its precipice was a drop into an endless expanse of ocean far below. He set the tortoise box down.

“What are you doing?” Christof asked.

Alex scrutinized each tortoise. Winnie had her eyes closed. Helena was glaring up at him. Gilles was still figuring out his body.

Alex picked up Gilles. “I’m just…” He looked Gilles in the eye. “…Getting rid…” He stood. “…Of some dead weight.” He chucked Gilles over the edge.

Jesus.” Christof lurched as though to dive after him, but caught himself. “What in the hell, Alex?”

“Don’t need em.”

“You just threw him away?”

“Yeah. That was the caretaker.” Alex picked up the crate and headed back toward the spire. Bewildered, Christof stared after Gilles as he arced into the water far below. Winnie couldn’t help but follow in her mind, despite the gruesomeness of what was to come. Gilles struck the water with a mighty splash. The fall didn’t kill him though. His limbs thrashed as he sank into the cold, dark depths. He would drown slowly now. Winnie knew it would might take hours before death finally took a tortoise. He’d be alone and in pain, and no one he knew would ever know his fate.

Christof caught up with Alex. “Why do you even have the tortoises?”

“Sakhr’s left me in charge of them.”

Christof regarded him skeptically.

“I’m serious,” Alex said.

“And you’re just going to throw them over the edge?”

“Just that one. The others are useful.”


“Yeah. This one is the flair. This one is the princess.”

“Alex. These are just children.”

“I know.”

“They haven’t done anything to us.”

“I know.”

“It’s because of them we escaped in the first place.”

“I know all this.”

“There’s no reason for them to suffer any more than they have.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Then why are you keeping them. You don’t care about them. You don’t even know how to care about them.”

“I’ll have you know I was a tortoise for seventeen years. I learned a thing or two.”

“I know you, Alex. I know what your idea of fun is. I’ve never remarked on how you spend your free time, but these children could be important. I don’t want them suffering needlessly.”

“And I agree. These tortoises will not suffer any more than necessary.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

They walked to a back room in the new imperial spire. It was a kitchenette, complete with a coffee maker and small fridge, though no supplies were stocked. Alex set the box of tortoises down and faced Christof. “It means we’ve just been tossed the keys to a crumbling empire. It’s supposed to be held together by the exemplars, but they’re going to fall apart at the seams too, unless we replace them. And the one man who could help us do that has decided to make a moral stand. We need every tool in our arsenal. That might include getting these munchkins to play nice. Especially this one.”

He tapped Winnie’s shell.

“Sakhr would not approve of this,” said Christof.

“Christof…” said Alex, amused by his friend’s naivety. “Where do you think I got the idea?” He pointed to his own eyes, and then to his temple. Think about it, the gesture said. He headed toward the spire stairs.

Christof lingered, frowning after Alex.

57. Plantains

It was breakfast time in the Gilles’s residence. Morning light from the windows flickered as hoppers silently shot along a grid chute outside Gille’s fourth floor apartment. Winnie found that more than a little annoying, but the sun would move, while the chute remained immobile, determined by whatever computer servers guided the hoppers. Gilles must put up with it every day. He certainly ignored it well enough when he emerged from his bedroom dressed in boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. Scratching his chest, he plodded into the kitchen and rinsed some flowers and weeds he’d collected after a late night walk yesterday. Kneeling over the missile crate, he tore the vegetation and distributed it among the tortoises, talking all the while.

“Now these might be a little cold still. I know how some y’all don’t like that. Just give them a minute or two.”

Winnie’s pile of collard greens remained from yesterday. She’d tried to eat. Even now she felt weak from starving, but the misery in her gut left little room for an appetite.

“Hmm,” said Gilles. He took the old greens out. “I get it. Y’all had a stressful few days. Your home’s been blown up. You’re in a strange place. It’s gone and ruin your appetites. Wish I could say things are going to settle down now.”

After replacing the food, he cleaned the crate. Winnie ignored him, until suddenly feeling gentle pressure along her back. In her mind, she saw Gilles stroking her shell. It was soothing, but she wished he’d stop. It made her feel like a pet.

She tried to cringe. From her mind’s view, her intent didn’t come across, but to her surprise, he stopped. “I’ll leave you be. Just promise you’ll eat something. You’ll feel a mighty bit better if you do.”

Oh fine. Winnie bit off a piece of dandelion. It tasted just as she expected it would: bitter and bland. She figured it might at least taste better in this body, but no. Ordinary tortoises must eat this stuff because they’ve never found anything better.

Whatever. She ate. The act was a chore. Gilles coaxed both Helena and the other tortoise into eating as well, then disappeared to the kitchen to fry up something for himself. Winnie had to admit she felt a little better, as unpleasant as the greens were.

When Gilles returned from the kitchen, he had a plate of fried plantains and a bowl of orange melon. “Don’t go telling anyone, but how about today I give y’all something special.” He placed a piece of balled melon before each of them, then settled back to eat his plantains. Winnie stepped forward to try the food when someone knocked on the door.

She visualized the outside hallway. Any hope that things couldn’t get any worse evaporated at the sight of Gilles’s visitors.

Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”

“It’s still just Your Highness,” Sakhr said.

 Flabbergasted, Gilles welcomed him. Sakhr strode into the room, followed by Alexander and Sibyl. Entirely ignoring Gilles, they scrutinized the tortoises in the missile crate. Gilles shut the door and hurried to pick loose articles around the apartment. “Please. Anywhere you’d like to sit. If I’d known you wanted to see me, I could have come to you. Might’a saved you a trip.”

Sakhr pointed at the tortoises. “You stole these.”

“Stole? No, Your Highness. I was just—”

“It took the military all day to track down who took these animals. You had no right to take them from the military base. They don’t belong to you.”

“I left my information with the private at the front. Nobody was taking care of them at the base. I was the animals’ primary caretaker in the tower, and I—”

“I know exactly who you are, Mr. Gilles. My mother hired you to feed and treat the animals. That is all. You had no authority to take these tortoises into your own home as though you have some special claim over them. These tortoises belong to me.”

“I meant no trouble, Your Majesty. I didn’t—”

“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.

“Your Highness. I’m sorry. I thought I’d just take care of them until you got some time to decide.”

“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to a couch. “Sit down.”

Gilles obliged. Sakhr nodded to the others. Sibyl studied the tortoises and pointed out the one Winnie knew nothing about. Alexander picked it up and handed it to Gilles. Winnie knew exactly what was about to happen to the poor man, but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

As soon as Gilles took the tortoise, Sakhr placed one hand on his shoulder and the other on the animal. There was that shudder. Gilles’s body jolted. The tortoise gasped and writhed.

The man now occupying Gilles’s body startled. His limbs moved in jerks, as though his body were undergoing a reset. After gaining some semblance of control, he dropped his face into his hands and shuddered.

Meanwhile, Alexander tossed the tortoise back into the missile crate. It skidded. Winnie remembered what it was like when she was first trapped inside a tortoise. All her senses had told different stories. Each felt like a lie. She could only imagine being tossed about at that moment. Winnie plodded over to Gilles. His eyes didn’t even focus on her, just darted back and forth. All she could think to do was put one foot against his and pat it as best she could. Winnie wasn’t fond of Gilles, but he didn’t deserve this.

“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.

The man nodded distractedly, as though he’d just woken up.

Alex sat to the side, noticed the dish of fried plantains, and claimed it for himself.

“Your name is Paul, is it not?” Sakhr said.

The man nodded.

“Paul. I need you to focus. I know you’re disoriented right now, but we need to have a discussion, and I don’t have much time. Understood?”

“I hear you.” Paul focused on Sakhr a moment, then returned his head to his hands.

Sakhr spoke on. “Like you, my compatriots and I have been captives of Victoria for years. Two days ago, we escaped, and as a result—”

“Who’s body is this?”


“This body.” Paul held up his dark, worn hands. “It used to belong to Gilles, didn’t it?”

“Is that important?”

“Where is Gilles? He’s not in the tortoise, is he?” Paul craned to peer into the missile crate.

Sakhr leaned to block his view. “Look at me. Don’t worry about who’s body you have. We’re having a discussion now. My brethren and I escaped, but as a consequence we are in a difficult situation. You’re the glyph maker, are you not?”

Paul gaze settled on Sakhr. “I may be. And who are you?”

“I’m the man who freed you.”

“Man?” Paul looked Sakhr up and down, taking in Helena’s form.

“This is not my original body.”

Paul glanced from him to the others. Realization dawned on him. “Sakhr?”


He studied Alex. “So you must be Alexander.”

Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.

Paul looked at Sibyl, narrowing his eyes. “And you would be… the aura seer. I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”

She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”

“So you already know about us,” Sakhr said.

“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”

“I suppose that saves us introductions. How long were you in that tortoise?”

“I don’t know. Years? The last thing that happened was the bombing.”

“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”

“Then six years.”

“A lot has happened since then. Victoria waged a war and conquered the world, although her grasp on many nations is tenuous. She managed to maintain her power with a cadra of loyalists she called exemplars, to whom she granted glyphs created using your power. Each of them is capable of reading minds, and sensing auras, or powers. They were her eyes and ears.”

“So she actually did it, huh?”

“She told you about these plans?”

“She did. It became the wedge in our relationship that led to my imprisonment. Well, that and other things.”

“What other things?”

“We had disagreements about how she’d rule.”

Alexander piped in. “Victoria wanted to cause the Collapse. Paul didn’t agree.”

Everyone turned to look at him. Winnie’s mind jarred upon hearing those words. Her comforting of Gilles stalled as she focused entirely on the conversation.

“And you’re only telling me this now?” Sakhr said.

“You never asked.”

Sakhr glared at him.

“Honest,” Alex replied. “I wasn’t hiding this. It just never came up until now.”

Sakhr turned back to Paul. “Is this true? Was that the reason?”

“Yes…” Paul still eyed Alexander. “She came to believe the world was broken, and it couldn’t be fixed unless the existing world society first collapsed. Are you saying she succeeded?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“How… how bad was it?”

“The current world population is around four hundred million,” Sakhr replied. “That’s almost one twentieth of what it used to be.”

“I uh…. I see.”

“Yes, and in the wake she’s installed herself as world leader. Unfortunately, her power relied—”

“Where is she?”

“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”

“You think?”

“We’re very sure, but there is a chance she survived the accident.”

“What accident?”

“In our escape, we detonated a bomb in her tower. She failed to escape in time. Her body was positively identified yesterday.”

“You mean you killed her?”

“No,” Sakhr said. “The bomb was an act of desperation meant to help us escape. Her death was incidental.”

“But you’re glad, aren’t you? You tried to kill her before?”

“So you know about that too. Yes. I did. And if I had succeeded, then none of us would have been trapped for decades. The apocalypse would never have happened.”

“I suppose so.”

“But she might not be dead. And even if she is, we have other problems. All of her exemplars have the ability to recognize us for who we are. We can’t keep them at bay forever. We’ll need shield glyphs to protect ourselves. You know about the shield glyphs, right?”


“The young girl, Sara, whose power is the Shield is quite happy to draw more for us, but she needs something called a Master Glyph. Apparently, because of her power’s very nature, no one can draw it, not even Victoria. Sara needed a glyph of your power so she could draw her own.”

“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”

“Good. Then you understand my situation. Will you help us?”


Alexander grinned, his mouth full of plantain. It was the grin of a man who had just earned the right to say, I told you so.

“…No,” Sakhr repeated, confirming Paul’s word. “Why not?”

“Your body. It belonged to Helena, right? Six years. I guess she’d be… sixteen? Seventeen? Next in line for the throne, right? Why do you have her body?”

“Her body was the first available to me during my escape.”

“And what became of her?”

“What does it matter? She was Victoria’s daughter.”

“I knew her when she was younger. A tempered little firebrand, but she was innocent. She didn’t deserve to have her body taken from her.”

“I’ve seen inside her mind,” Alex said. “Trust me. We’re doing the world a favor by taking over for her.”

“So, you are taking Victoria’s place?”

“For now, yes. It’s the best hope we have of remaining undetected.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

“It’s a fact.” Sakhr’s patience was fraying. “What else am I supposed to do? If I give this body to anyone else, they’ll know we exist. They may come after us. The exemplars will come after us. If I keep this body, at least we can protect ourselves from them, but we can’t do that unless we work together. Will you help us?”


“Why not? We just freed you from the same woman who imprisoned us all. If she is still alive, we need to unite. She is literally as powerful as all of us combined.”

“Perhaps, but I cannot ignore the chance to undo a mistake I made years ago. I didn’t realize what kind of woman Victoria was when she first found me. She encouraged me to train my power, which I did. She told me about how she planned to fix the world, break down existing governments and create one where people were free. I believed her then. By the time I found out what she planned to do with my gift, it was too late to do anything about it. She had already learned the secret of my glyph writing, and now it sounds like she created a world exactly like I feared. Her government uses my power to control the will of the people and to invade their very minds. But now I can correct this. If there are no more glyphs of my power, which I assume must be the case if you’ve come to me, then all I have to do to erase my mistake is nothing. In time, all the existing glyphs will wear down.”

“The world has plunged into chaos,” Sakhr said. “Riots have broken out across Europe. The North American states are talking about seceding and rebuilding the union. Lakiran forces were spread paper thin, and now they’re having to pull out of dozens of countries due to instability. I can’t fix any of this because I have no control over the Exemplar Committee. It’s going to dissolve as soon as they find out who I am, that’s if they don’t decide to oust me, leading to a power vacuum that will only exacerbate the situation. Millions will suffer if I can’t restore order.”

“And I’m sorry to hear that, but humanity will recover. If I give you that glyph, then the world will lose a freedom it will never get back.”

“Victoria kept strict control over the glyphs. I will too. I will not allow them to be abused.”

“Even if I believed you, it’s not worth it.”

“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”

“Victoria told me about what kind of people you all are. And what you did to her out of your own fears. She had a lot to say about you in particular, Alexander.”

“I’m sure.” Alex made a small bow as though just announced. Alexander, ladies and gentlemen.

“Don’t you think her perspective of us was a little biased?” Sakhr said.

“Prove me wrong then. Return the empire to Helena.”

“This isn’t a game.”

“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.

“I’ve already explained why I can’t do that.”

“Then you’re stuck.”

Sakhr leaned back and regarded him. “Do you want to go back in the tortoise?”

“Does that mean Gilles will get his body back?”


“Then it makes no difference to me.”

Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.

“I told you…” Alex said.

“Get the guards,” Sakhr growled. “We’re leaving. And you,” He faced Paul, “are coming with us.”

“If you say so.”