63. Video Games

“I don’t get why I’m still locked up here,” Quentin said. “You all are out there running the empire and I’m here playing video games. Not really using your assets. You know what I mean?”

“What would you want to do?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. Anything. I’m getting bored. God knows you guys could use my help. I got you all out of that tower. Remember?”

“I remember.”

“Does Sakhr remember?”

“I don’t think he’ll ever forget. I’m surprised you’d want to help him after that ultimatum he gave you. You were dead set on destroying him after that.”

“Who told you that?”

Alex looked away from the game to give Quentin a dead pan expression.

Quentin glanced sidelong back at him. “Oh yeah. Well, of course I was thinking that then. Sakhr’s a total toolbox, but I get what’s at stake here. You guys said Victoria is still around.”

“She may be.”

“Well, I fucked her the worst. It was my bomb. She’ll be coming after me, and you all got me crammed away in this shit hotel.”

Alex glanced around at the high-ceiling architecture and the antique wooden furniture. It was the VIP suite of the Al Carlton, the hotel Victoria rented in Porto Maná, before her personal tower was complete. It was the only hotel that met her standards, and Sakhr had rented out the top four floors to relocate evacuees from the Lakiran campus. Alex had personally overseen security.

And Quentin called it a shit hole.

Alex understood why Victoria put him in that tortoise. Though unlike her, Alex knew how people like Quentin worked.

He kept his attention on the game. “The problem is that Sakhr doesn’t… what’s the word?… trust you.”

“I didn’t get the idea that he trusts you either.”

“Trust isn’t the right word for what Sakhr and I have,” said Alex. “He needs me. Honestly, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“You do?”

“I’ve got a better idea. I’m better at finding solutions than he is.”

“Heey, about that. I’ve got a problem I was wondering if you could help me with.”

“Yes?”

Quentin pulled a phone from his pocket. “Sakhr gave me this doctor’s body, which sucks by the way. It’s like Brazilian Mr. Rogers, only extra out of shape. I take the elevator and I still get winded. Anyway, the first day I’m here. I get called.” He held up the phone. “This doctor guy has a wife. She’s not bad either. I had to find out where he lived from his wallet. When I get there, the wife is all worried about the bombing. She’s crying a lot. Anyway, I fucked her. She wasn’t all that into it, and afterward she gets all weird. I had to come here to get away. Now she won’t stop calling me.”

Alex laughed. “Back in our coven days, we learned that it was a bad idea to take advantage of any relationships our new bodies had. Even a telepath like myself has trouble fooling loved ones. My advice is to drop off the grid. Don’t return her calls. Don’t contact her.”

“Yeah, but I already did. And now I think the missus is suspicious. You think maybe we should swap her out with someone else too?”

“Sure. I’ll add her to the list: Random doctor’s wife, right after the exemplars in North Point asking questions about their missing superiors, or the exemplars who just showed up this morning without notice, demanding answers about neglected protocol.”

“Is that a no?”

“That’s a no. I’m running out of good replacements fast. I spent last night cruising prisons.”

“What should I do about her then? Divorce her?”

“No,” Alex sighed. “Give me the phone. I’ll have some people deal with this.”

“You know, you have me, right?”

“Have you for what?”

“If you need to replace someone, I can replace them. They’ve gotta be better than this body.”

“You’d have a job, you know?”

Quentin narrowed his eyes. “Yeah. I can handle a job. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that right now it seems like you’ve got it made. If I put you in an exemplar body, you’d need to to travel around and do exemplar things.”

“Eh, I guess you’re right. What about you though?”

“What about me?”

“Why aren’t you in the body of an exemplar? You’ve still got that girl’s body.” Quentin scrutinized Alex. “I mean, Alex is short for Alexander, right?”

“Yes. It is. Look.” He paused the game and addressed Quentin directly. “Let’s make this clear. I’ve been alive for over four hundred years. I can’t even remember how many bodies I’ve had. Sakhr is using Helena’s because it’s the queen’s body. I’m using this body because this girl was friends with Helena, thus I can be close to Sakhr. It serves a purpose. Clear?”

“Yes. Jeez. Sorry. Was just wondering.”

“Really? Look me in the eye and tell me that.”

Hesitantly, Quentin met Alex’s gaze. “I don’t care. Really.”

Alex snorted at what he saw. “It’s all about sex to you people, isn’t it? When you get to be my age, bodies are just tools. It doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.” Quentin resumed the game. “I mean, thinking about it, there’s something kind of cool about the idea. If I’d lived a hundred bodies, why wouldn’t I want to try a female one. I’d do it. I’d want to do it. Just to see, you know?”

“Sure.”

“Is that ever going to be a thing?”

“What?”

“Getting whatever bodies we want? I know you guys only take bodies to survive or whatever, but we’re at the top of the food chain now. Shouldn’t we get top pick of whatever bodies we want?”

“That would involve telling people.”

“So? We keep the power to ourselves. Why bother hiding it?”

“Sakhr doesn’t want to.”

“And it’s his call?”

“It’s his power.”

They played the game for a while.

“So,” Quentin asked. “How long until you break that glyph guy?”

Though Quentin spoke casually, Alex had seen in his mind. This question led to a dangerous topic Quentin had been meaning to address all night.

Alex played along. “Soon,” he said. “He’s starting to rationalize giving in. It’s never long after that.”

“What’s going to happen after you get the glyph?”

“Hand it over to Sakhr.”

“Do you think he’d let us get glyphs of his power first?”

Alex chuckled. “No.”

“Why not? You have to wait for him to show up every time you want to swap exemplars out. If we had a glyph of his power, then you wouldn’t have to.”

“His power is kind of… central to who he is. He’s got to be the only one.”

“Too bad. But you know. When you have that glyph-making glyph, can’t you use that to make a glyph of his power anyway?”

“I suppose I could, but that would be dishonest.”

“Sure, sure. Too bad though. Too bad he wants to keep his power a secret too. Could you imagine if we had his power? I’d have a different body every few weeks.”

“No you wouldn’t. How long did it take you to get used to the one you’re in? You haven’t even had it a week. How many aches and pains does it have? Chronic injuries? Health problems? Changing bodies is like moving to a new home. It takes time to learn its hidden flaws.”

“Okay. Sure. I’d get a good body though. And I’d maintain it. You know? Well, I wouldn’t. I’d give it to some intern to work it out, while I’m in some other body binge eating. Then I’d take it back and enjoy the runner’s high.”

Alex made himself smile. “Interesting idea. If you were public about bodyswapping, you could do that, couldn’t you? You could enjoy an olympic body and never lift a finger.”

“You could take a body from some hollywood chick and give it to your girl. Get tired of her body? Get her another one.”

“Girl?” asked Alex. “Don’t you mean harem?”

“Yeah, I guess I do. Too bad Sakhr is being a tight-ass with his power.”

“Yeah. Too bad.”

54. Sedatives

“Quentin.”

Nudge.

“Quentin.”

Quentin opened his eyes. The effort drained him. He tried lifting his head, but pain lanced through his skull. He could only roll his head along his pillow to look about.

It was the same place as all the other times he’d drifted into consciousness—a spartan infirmary. Beds lined the long room on either side. All were made except for the one directly across from Quentin, where one other patient lay. Sunlight streamed in several windows. Birds chirped distantly. Farther away was occasional yelling, or echoed bangs of what might be construction.

He tried moving, but handcuffs secured him to the bed. Looking down, he saw his hands wrapped in bandages. Angry blisters peaked out where the bandages ended near his elbows. They throbbed with each heartbeat.

Quentin didn’t know how long he’d been suffering this fever-ridden nightmare of endless sweat and vomit. It seemed like eternity, but it couldn’t be. By his estimate, he had twenty-four hours to live. For the first time, his fever was less. His mind could hold a coherent thought. Someone ignorant of the progression of radiation sickness might think they were recovering. Quentin knew better.

He finally noticed his two guests. One was an exemplar woman. She stood back near the corner of the room. The other was a young woman standing by his bed. She was sneering at the stench Quentin’s senses had long since adapted to. Her platinum blonde hair was neatly done up in a bun. Designs were embroidered on her formal sleeveless dress. It was as though she stopped here on her way to a banquet.

“Can you hear me, Quentin?” she asked.

“Sakhr?” he muttered.

“Yes.”

“…You got away?”

“Yes, amazingly.”

“Did you… sneak in here?” Talking was taking a lot out of him. With every word, his urge to vomit grew.

“No.”

“There was a guard… by the door.”

“I ordered him away.”

Quentin stared at Sakhr with the most discerning look he could muster. “You ordered?”

“Yes. I ordered. Much has happened in the few hours you’ve been asleep. Perhaps no one has explained. It seems a raving lunatic detonated a low-grade nuclear bomb inside the Capital Tower. Even now responders clamber over the ruins searching for survivors, but they doubt they’ll find any. The queen was in the building at the time. She will soon be confirmed dead.”

“Victoria? So you’re in charge?”

“Yes. I’ll be addressing the public soon, where I’ll be explaining that much of the city is being evacuated due to fallout risk. There are already over four dozen confirmed cases of radiation poisoning, but no one has a case as bad as you and the other man who was brought in with you. The military wants to know about your involvement with the explosion. They’ve brought in an exemplar to scan your mind.”

At Sakhr’s prompting, the exemplar in the corner came forward to stand at the other side of the bed. She looked down at Quentin. He avoided her gaze.

“A scanning?” Quentin asked. “Are you serious? But… they can’t, right? Sakhr?” He said the name, as though to point out the secrets he knew.

“I am serious. Exemplar Serrao was able to pull herself away from the rescue effort. We’ve just concluded her scan of the other man.” Sakhr indicated the other bedridden patient in the room who was hooked up to an IV and a monitor just the same as Quentin was. It was the body occupied by the flair named Sibyl. They were sleeping soundly.

“Unfortunately,” Sakhr continued, “they knew nothing of value, and we have since had to sedate him when his pain caused him to become unruly. Just like you, he has a severe case of radiation poisoning. It is unlikely he will wake again.”

“Ah… I get it.” Quentin craned to look at the exemplar by the bed. “Sibyl? Right?” An exemplar coming to inspect her mind was a prime opportunity for Sibyl to get that female body she’d asked for. It probably came as a hell of a shock to the exemplar.

“Did Alex survive?” Quentin asked.

“He did. Apparently, all ships will autopilot to a nearby default location if they detect they’re not safely landed. They’ll do this even if they’re locked. Was that part of your plan?”

Quentin nodded.

“Clever. I suppose that’s more sane than flying away on a makeshift plane.”

“But did… you talk to him?”

“I have.”

“Then he told you… the promise.”

“Promise?”

“The promise he made… on your behalf. You’re supposed to get me a new body because I knew I’d get radiation poisoning.”

“You and Alex came to this agreement.”

Quentin’s hoarse voice picked up. “Alex said you’d honor it.”

“I honor the promises I make. I have no obligation to unspoken exchanges between other people.”

“I couldn’t ask you because I couldn’t say it out loud. Victoria would have known what I was up to.”

“And what was it you were up to? Setting up a nuclear explosion to detonate a few hundred feet from us?”

“Nuclear fizzle.”

“A what?”

“A nuclear fizzle. If I had used that much uranium in a properly constructed bomb… there wouldn’t be a city.”

“Oh. And that makes it better?”

“I killed the queen. I made you ruler. Without me, you would be nowhere.”

Sakhr shrugged. “Perhaps so. Your plan could just as easily have killed us all too.”

“It didn’t.”

“No, but I still don’t like your methods. In fact, there’s hardly anything about you that I do like. You’re arrogant. You’re rude. You show no appreciation when I risked my life to free you. And your actions were damn near suicidal.”

“I was not going back into a tortoise.”

“Of course not. None of us are.”

“Thanks to me.”

“Sure.”

“Then help me.”

Sakhr weighed the option. “No. I think not. You took control from me during our escape. You made your own plan without me and executed it without my permission. I don’t appreciate it when others forget their place around me.”

“It was the only way.” Quentin growled. The strain gave him a coughing fit.

“Perhaps. You’ve served your purpose. From here on, you’re more apt to be a liability to us than an asset, just as you were to Victoria, or so I gather.”

“You have to help me. I know who you are. I could tell people.” Though even as the words left his mouth, he realized how wrong he was. He could tattle no better than the drugged-up exemplar across the room could. This conversation would be the last thing he would ever experienced. “You can’t… you can’t fucking do that. I freed you. I got you the fuck out of there. Are you going to kill me? What are you going to do?”

“What we came here to do, Quentin,” Sakhr replied. “We’re here to scan you. Are you ready?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

Sakhr held out his hand toward Sibyl. She touched it. A shudder passed between them. Now it was the body of the exemplar who peered at Quentin. Her dark amber eyes held the same severity Helena’s body had moments ago, while the body of Helena stood mutely by.

“Look me in the eyes,” Sakhr said from the body of the exemplar. He held the exemplar plaque in both hands.

Quentin turned his head toward the window.

“Look at me, Quentin.”

Nothing.

“Look at me if you have any desire to live.”

Begrudgingly, Quentin turned and met Sakhr’s eyes.

“Let me make things perfectly clear,” Sakhr said. “I am unfamiliar with this new world. After seventeen years in captivity I have a lot to learn. But I will. The brain I have is young. So never delude yourself into thinking I still need you. I am the ruler now. Any plans or ideas you have, you will clear with me. You will show me respect. You will cease your insults and jibes. And if I ever, ever detect a hint of insurrection from you, I will not even give you a chance to explain yourself. I don’t care for you. I don’t care for your attitude, but I am choosing to tolerate you because of your gift. Push my tolerance, and I will lock you away just as Victoria had. Am I clear?”

Quentin said nothing. No matter how much he hated this, the alternative was death.

“Say it,” Sakhr said. “I want to hear it from you.”

“I agree.”

Sakhr eyed him a while longer, then held his hand out to Sibyl. Again they switched bodies.

“Go get the doctor,” Sakhr said.

Sibyl left and returned a minute later with a bespectacled doctor.

“Your Highness?”

“We’re done with the patient. Please administer something to help him sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The doctor already had a zipped up pouch with him containing a vial and a hypodermic needle. They had known these patients were terminally ill. This mercy had been prearranged.

The doctor filled a measured sample into a needle. He came so close to injecting it that Quentin wondered whether Sakhr were going to let the doctor go through with it.

But then, “Stop.”

The doctor looked at Sakhr. “Yes?”

“Put the syringe down.”

Confused, the doctor placed it on the table. The moment his hand moved away, Sakhr’s hand lashed out. The doctor yelped. Sakhr pulled his hand onto Quentin, and then came the switch.

Quentin had braced for it, and yet it still nearly floored him. The sudden relief of being in a healthy body was unbelievable, like finally taking a breath of air after minutes of suffocation.

Meanwhile, the dying man on the bed gasped as though splashed with cold water. “What? What is this?” he stammered.

Sakhr turned to Quentin. “You may finish administering the medication, doctor.”

Quentin gladly did so.

49. Glow

Victoria catapulted from her chair. “Everyone evacuate the building now!” She snatched her bird’s cage and ran to the door.

“Your Majesty?” said Captain Gandara.

Now! There’s a bomb in the building. Get moving.”

Everyone startled, but Victoria did not stick around to see who followed. If they didn’t obey her order, then too bad for them. She was out the door and headed toward the stairs. Two floors down. The military shuttle would be right there.

The very second Quentin said those words, she knew exactly what his plan was. She’d been an idiot for not seeing it earlier. Fuser assemblers. They can produce any element under the sun. Metals. Rare elements…

Fissile materials.

That was half the reason she had confiscated those machines in the first place.

She reached the stairwell and leapt from landing to landing. In her mind, she checked where Quentin was. He was on the fifty-eight floor with the second machine, already prying open the doors.

What had he made? An alloy of Thorium? Uranium? Maybe even plutonium for all she knew. No doubt Quentin’s flair told him exactly which one—or what alloy of materials—to use. Whatever fissile material he had was no doubt subcritical when distributed across three separate floors, but when they all came together at the bottom of that elevator shaft…

The notches along the poles and the conversations about gliders had just been a feint to distract her, and it had worked. Goddamn that man.

She ascended to the eighth floor and charged into the hall. The guards at the security checkpoint had already been evacuated. Good. If someone were here, they’d slow her down. She visualized upstairs as she ran. The marines were racing through her personal floor toward the service lobby. Quentin and Sibyl tossed another set of bars down the shaft. At the bottom, the fissile bars were starting to glow.

It was a race to see who reached that last assembler first. She hoped it was the marines, because she would still be in the tower when that moment came.


Quentin burst into the lobby on the sixtieth floor.

“They’re here.” Sibyl said. “They’re coming.”

“Just do the last one, damnit.” Quentin flipped the latch for the elevator and pulled the door open. Sibyl grabbed the bundled rods. These ones had the reflexors wrapped about them. As she moved toward the elevator, marines charged in.

They fired. Sibyl screamed and collapsed. The bundle rolled toward Quentin. In a mad hope, he let go of the door and dove for the rods. As the door slid closed, he tossed them. A dart struck his side, and he went down.

The bundle glided horizontally through the closing door. The reflexors caught the door and its frame as it passed, causing it to launch through like a squeezed grape. It struck the far side of the shaft, twirled, descended like a snowflake, and then caught on a steel beam.

It lingered. The reflexors kept it from sliding off immediately, but eventually it did. From there it continued its lazy decent.

The marines saw none of this as they lugged Sibyl and Quentin toward the stairs.


Victoria saw the transport shuttle ahead. A soldier stood at attention outside the door.

“Get this moving,” she yelled as she ran towards them. “We need to evacuate now.”

The soldier hopped into action, yanking open the passenger door and running around to the pilot side.

Victoria climbed in and set her bird’s cage on the seat. Others were coming, though they were far behind. No one understood the urgency. They couldn’t see the bundle of rods slowly drifting down the shaft toward the eighth floor—the very floor she was on.

She slammed the hatch closed. The other evacuees could take other ships if they had time, but they didn’t.

Victoria looked in the cockpit with her mind. The pilot was powering up the system. Was this security’s idea of “standing by”?

“Move faster,” she ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.” The system booted up. He switched into manual and put his hands on the controls. On the comm he spoke. “This is the transport in tower bay four alpha. I have the queen on board. We require immediate clearance to evacuate.”

At least the pilot did not wait to hear back. They were lifting. The craft was turning. The bundle of rods drifted closer. The ones already at the bottom glowed hot. They were scattered like a pile of matches.

There was no way Quentin could have known how they’d fall. Meaning he had no idea what the explosion’s payload would ultimately be. It might destroy this floor. It might destroy the city. There were too many variables, the largest being how desperate Quentin was.

Her shuttle moved forward. The wide open exit neared. The bundled rods began glowing like the rods beneath them.

Then, whether because of heat or radiation, the reflexors around the bundle failed. It plummeted the remaining few feet.

For a fraction of a second, all the rods merely brightened, as though their approach toward super-critical might take time.

They exploded before the new rods hit the ground.


The ship lurched. Victoria tumbled from her seat. Her head stuck something. Pain lanced through her mind. Another crash. Already on the ground, she rolled into the transport’s stern.

The cockpit was making incessant beeps. Did she smell smoke?

No.

It was dust.

She coughed, put a hand to her scalp. Her fingers came away with blood. She focused her mind on the tower. From the eighth floor and up, the building was a mess. Multiple floors were wrecked. Chunks were missing, choking black smoke billowed out. Flaming debris rained over the campus. Every window in the tower’s bottom half had shattered.

Her own ears heard a screech echoing through the shuttle bay. Metal was tearing. To her horror, the upper half of the tower was sagging like melting wax. The movement was imperceptible, but the slant was unmistakable.

The tower was collapsing.

Victoria crawled to the cockpit. The pilot sat limp, his chin against his chest. His hand was delicately touching a gushing wound where his skull struck the side window.

“Get us moving now!” she yelled.

Dazed, the pilot took seconds to respond. He grabbed the control stick. His eyes skirted the dashboard warning lights. Flipping several switches, he attempted to move the vessel. It swerved. Victoria nearly fell again.

She visualized the transporter. Chunks of concrete had fallen from the bay ceiling and struck the craft. It’s right wing had buckled. The repulse engine was running, but it was askew.

Could the ship fly? Maybe. Land? Probably not, but if this pilot could stop wasting time and just get out of the bay, the reflex grid should catch them.

And then she realized the significants of debris raining on the campus. It was falling freely. The campus grid must be down.

The city grid though. That might still catch them.

The pilot finally got the craft airborne. It drifted toward the far bay wall. He adjusted, and the ship teetered the other direction.

The pilot spoke into the comm as he steered. “This is transport in Bay area four.”

No response.

He repeated himself.

Again nothing.

The pilot gave up and focused on steering.

“Just get us out of the bay,” Victoria shouted.

“I’m trying, ma’am” he said. “The ship is damaged.”

He got the craft to drift toward the lip of the bay. The wing scraped the floor.

Victoria checked the tower again. Debris rained more freely. Floors below twenty were collapsing. The tower was descending.

“Move faster,” she shouted.

The pilot hunched over the control stick. His eyes darted from viewport to viewport. Victoria’s eyes were fixed on the wide, night sky before them.

Finally, the transport cleared the bay. The vessel dropped several feet as the right wing no longer had a floor to drag upon, but the pilot stabilized the craft, and they drifted sideways away from the tower.

They were clear.

Victoria visualized the tower again. It was fully collapsing now. Floor after floor crumbled. The top leaned more as it plummeted. The damage to the campus would be severe. She wondered vaguely whether Gandara had evacuated the campus as well.

Then she saw one particular piece of debris. By the time she acknowledged it, it was too late. She hadn’t time even to open her mouth and warn the pilot.

It slammed into the shuttle, tearing the hull open like paper. The jolt threw her into the cabin. The pilot struggled with the controls as the craft spun wildly. In seconds it would crash. It would be fatal, and Victoria could not prevent it.

With her head spinning, and with blood matted to her face, she pulled herself into the cabin. The roof was torn open. The stars in the sky spun by. There, wedged under a seat was what she needed.

She lunged, grabbed Willow’s cage, and tore open the small door. Her fingers cut open against the warping metal bars. Willow flapped wildly inside, bumping against the cage wall with each swerve the transport took.

She grabbed her bird with a bloody fist.

Moments later, transport crashed into the campus grounds. Everyone aboard died instantly.


Winnie felt like a basketball on the floor of a boat. When Christof had tossed the box onto the shuttle, the tortoises had spilled out. The others had landed upright. Winnie had not been so lucky. Once she’d stopped spinning, she tried moving her limbs, but got nowhere. So she closed her eyes, pulled into her shell, and concentrated on her flair.

She watched the marines dragged Sakhr away. After he was gone, many had charged down the stairs, leaving only a few to cover the shuttle. Winnie kept her eyes on the ones traveling down.

They had raced through Victoria’s private floor to where Quentin and Sibyl were tossing more bars into the elevator. The marines stunned them and dragged them back, but just as the marines returned to the roof, an explosion rocked the tower.

Winnie’s shuttle shook, causing her to spin and slide. The cockpit beeped. Alexander clutched the pilot seat as the dashboard took on a life of its own.

The tower seemed to drift away from them, yet the hopper remained floating in the air. The marines on the roof scrabbled for their deployment pods. Despite the quaking ground, the pods remained upright.

Alarmed, Winnie focused on the tower as a whole and saw what a ruined wreck it had become.

What had caused this? Was this part of Quentin’s plan? How many people had he just killed?

The world would suffer for this, and it was all because of her—her and Helena.

Back home, Winnie’s mother would hear about this on the radio. She’d turn on the news and see the smoldering tower, and she’d try to call Winnie. She would never get through—not to the real Winnie anyway.

The hopper began flying itself. It lifted higher into the air and took a trajectory over the the campus. Winnie didn’t know where. Her mind was still watching the marines struggle. They crammed their hostages into their remaining pods just as the building quaked again.

And then the tower started collapsing.

It happened slowly, as though something so catastrophic couldn’t happen all at once. The world needed time to witness itself change. Each floor crumbled into the next. Soon, the tower fell into a bed of smoke and dust. A cloud spread outward, filling the campus like a bowl until it reached the edge of the city.

Lights were coming on throughout Porto Maná; the city was waking up.

And what about the queen? Did she make it out? Winnie hoped so. Victoria would be her best chance of fixing all of this. Though somehow Winnie knew that everything would not work itself out as she hoped it would.

This affair was a prelude to a dark, bleak future.

48. Scaffolding

“Your Majesty, the military transport has docked and is awaiting your arrival.”

Victoria didn’t bother looking up. “Have it stand by.”

“And I’ve just received confirmation that the building has been evacuated of all non-security staff.

She nodded, hardly listening.

Her mind was on Quentin. Whatever it was he had planned, Alexander found it funny, and his sense of humor made her stomach churn.

Currently, Sakhr, Sibyl, and Alex were lugging an assembler down the service stairwell. It carried like an oversized couch. They had to hold it sideways to get it through doors.

Four floors down, Alex had them set it down in the rear lobby and go up for the next.

Quentin sat cross-legged before the first assembler, so involved with the tablet that he hardly noticed the others return. Victoria frequently visualized his design: pipes, or bars. They had notches at points along the length where it looked like they might fit together with one another. Some notches allowed for more angular connections.

It was scaffolding of some kind. It was taking him a while just to make that. The assembler’s local library was so bare-bones that he’d had to waste minutes piecing together low-level molecular fuse instructions just to make the metal he needed.

Victoria checked her phone. Eighteen minutes and Stephano’s men would coast in from the stratosphere, suited up and ready to go. Maybe Quentin could print the pieces in time, but he wouldn’t have time to assemble it—whatever it was.

She could move earlier…

Quentin and Christof were alone while the others were carrying the machines. She could put a team in the elevators, bring them up, and nab those two while Sakhr was away. Christof also carried their tortoise hostages. Sakhr would lose his leverage.

But it had too much chance of failure. Even if security could get a team ready in time, Sibyl would sense people coming up the elevator. Her range was substantially farther than any exemplar, and even Victoria herself. Sakhr could be up the stairs and in the lobby before the elevator doors would open.

Of course, if Victoria herself went up there, Sibyl wouldn’t sense her coming. She could destroy Quentin’s machine and be gone before they could react.

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

She watched the others drag the second machine down the stairs. They all gasped and wheezed. Two floors down, Alex dropped his end of the machine. “Okay, forget it,” he said. “This is good enough, let’s just get it in here.” He opened the door to that floor’s lobby.

“You said this goes four floors down,” Sakhr said.

“Never mind that. We’ll just leave it here and carry the supplies down as they assemble.”

“We’re not going to be lazy. If Quentin wants these on the fifty-sixth floor, then we’ll put them there.” Sakhr lifted his end.

“I know the plan. Okay? It doesn’t need to be exactly the fifty-sixth floor. So let’s drop this off here. If Quentin says to finish, then we’ll finish, but I know he won’t.”

Sakhr frowned. “Fine.” He maneuvered his end toward the door.

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

…then when Sakhr wasn’t looking, he held his finger to his lips and shook his head at Sibyl.

She had looked like she was about to say something, but that stopped her.

So it was a ruse.

Alex wanted the machine on that floor. Sibyl could sense the falsehood of his supposed exhaustion, and he kept her from mentioning that.

Why?

What plan needed one machine on fifty-six, and another on fifty-eight?

As they navigated the doorway, Victoria’s mind jumped back to Quentin. He’d finished whatever he was designing. Now he and Christof were carrying the fuser assembler out of the room and down the hall. They dropped it off in Victoria’s servant corridor, just outside the service elevator. As they finished, Sakhr and the others returned.

Quentin looked at Alex. “You guys ready to get this one downstairs?”

Alex shook his head and rested his hands on his knees. “No. We’re done with that. We’ll just bring the materials down as they assemble.”

Quentin shrugged. “Sure. Whatever. I guess we can get them started.”

Oh, Quentin. He cannot lie, not like Alex. If Victoria had any doubts that this wasn’t exactly what Quentin wanted, Quentin dispelled them the moment he didn’t throw a fit about the others’ incompetence.

So why orient the machines like this, vertically aligned, with a floor between each?

She could only watch on…


Christof took over watching Winnie, Helena, and the other tortoise. He’d found a box to keep them in. While the jostling was nauseating, Winnie preferred Christof to Alex as a captor. He was gentle. When Helena accidentally flipped trying to peer over the lip, he righted her.

Winnie didn’t need to crane to see what was going on.

She’d watched the struggle to move the machines downstairs. Now, they stood around as Quentin hooked the tablet into the assembler and fiddled with the menu. The machine hummed.

“There we go,” he said. “Let’s go.” He headed for the stairs.

“We’re just leaving that there?” Sakhr asked.

“We’ll come back for the stuff later.”

Sakhr eyed Quentin as they descended. On the next floor, Quentin set that machine to assemble the another set of notched bars. Same with the fifty-sixth floor. Whatever he was making, he was making three of them.

Quentin led them back up to Victoria’s private suite. “All right, now the next part is a little tricky,” he said. “On the balconies, I bet we’ll find reflexors set up around the banisters.”

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

“Security. They push things away from the balcony: birds, bullets, would-be assassins. The nodes will be lining the rim of the balcony floors. We need as many as we can get.”

“I meant why do we need them?”

“Because I can’t assemble those things. I mean, I could. But they’re complicated. It would take me too long to design. No more questions.”

They found Victoria’s bedroom. It was filled with rich, dark woods and tapestries. There was a fireplace large enough to stand in. It had real ash beneath its grate, and a chute leading to a lonesome chimney on top of the tower. The bed had four posts at the corners with adjoining draperies for privacy. It redefined the term king-sized.

“Jesus…” Quentin eyed the decor. Everyone else looked about like guests in a museum. On the balcony, Quentin inspected the base of the guard rails. “Good. Here they are. You guys start on the other side.”

The others drifted closer, though only Alex helped. The nodes were strung together like Christmas lights. Once they’d detached a length, Quentin pried a node open.

“I need a… yeah.”

Before he could finish, Alex handed him a screwdriver. He tinkered with its insides, then popped it closed. Holding it at arms length, thrust it downward. Instead of smashing it against the floor, Quentin’s arm moved as though he were pushing his arm through a viscous fluid. His muscles strained.

“Perfect,” he said. He started on the next node.

Sakhr frowned at the device. “I don’t understand. You just unplugged those. How is it getting power?”

“They’re getting it from the fall. These are reflex nodes.” Seeing Sakhr’s confusion, Quentin continued. “Okay, do you know about the law of energy conservation?”

Sakhr nodded.

“That’s what this is. When a node generates a repulse field, it pushes everything inside that field away from itself. How much energy it expends is relative to how much mass is in the field. So a node projects into air, it doesn’t spend much energy. If something enters that field, then suddenly there’s more mass to push. More energy is expended. That’s how repulse nodes detect things, like with Stiller fields. You with me?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, so if the node pushes on something that’s at rest, it adds kinetic energy relative to the node. Electricity into kinetic energy, right? Energy is conserved. But when mass enters the field moving toward the node, the node pushes on the mass, slowing it down. It’s expending electric energy to reduce relative kinetic energy, so where is the energy going? Heat. Then one day I figured out how to optimize repulse nodes, like this.” He held up a node. “When this pushes on something such that it slows the mass relative to it, it converts the kinetic energy into electricity. That’s why these little things don’t need power, because pushing mass through their field toward the node collects energy. Then it uses that energy to push back.”

He pointed the node downward and dropped it. The node drifted slowly down at first, until it rotated. Then it arced and fell.

“If you have three oriented like tripod legs, they won’t tilt and fall. That’s basically how most drifting ships work. In theory, with perfect efficiency reflex nodes, they would stay floating forever once it pushed against something that doesn’t flow, like earth. Too bad nothing is ever perfect, but these are still great for gliding.”

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

“Is your plan to… are you building an aircraft?”

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

“Absolutely not. We are not flying on some cobbled-together gliding device.”

“I thought you said you trust me.”

“Not with this! I know how complicated flying machines are? You expect me to believe you can build one out of salvaged parts? I don’t care what your flair is. That can’t possibly work.”

“What if that is what I’m doing,” said Quentin. “Would you rather stay here?”

“Look, look.” Alex addressed Sakhr. “Sure, this isn’t the safest mode of travel. It probably doesn’t meet your standard ‘point zero zero one basis points‘ of acceptable risk. Quentin doesn’t have time to perform enough test flights to satisfy you. And sure, there’s a slight chance of instantaneous death. But since the alternative is to wait here until Victoria moves on us, what the hell?” He put his hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. “Tell you what. How bout I find you a helmet.”

Sakhr slapped away Alex’s hand. “Is this what you found so damn funny? There is no chance in hell I’ll fly out of here in a ramshackle machine.” He faced Quentin. “Change the plan.”

“What would you rather do?” asked Alex. “Blast our way through the security lobby? Fight all of her people? You think that’s safer? We need a head start, and we won’t get that walking out of here on foot. I’ve seen Quentin’s mind. What he’s building is risky, sure, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s got his power. Don’t you trust our powers?”

“This is insanity.”

“Just remember. My life is on the line too, and I agreed to this.”

“And you’re insane.”

“Maybe. Seventeen years as a leather pet can do that. Are you in?”

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

Surely Sakhr would know better than to go along with such a dumb plot. Surely his desperation hadn’t exceeded his aversion to risk. Quentin should know better too. He may have insight into physics, but that doesn’t make him a good pilot… unless the idiot considered his video game skills as experience.

This still didn’t explain why they bothered separating the assemblers.

She visualized what the machines were producing. Each had only made three or four bars that could latch together, hardly enough to build a glider for one, much less for all of them. Since Stephano would deploy in… (Victoria checked the time) six minutes. Quentin clearly thought he had more time than he actually had.

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“If an unregistered vehicle were to leave from the tower, would the grid be able to catch it?”

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

“It should, ma’am. The Lakiran campus has a sensor grid starting at the eighth floor and up. Any unregistered mass greater than twenty kilograms will be snagged and delivered to a holding area.”

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

“Can you arrange for the system to separate the objects and isolate them from one another?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Call the base. Have them stand by. Tell them that if the grid should deliver anything, that they are to isolate the target with wall bots and stand by. They are not to approach.

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

Not that Victoria could allow it to come to that. If Quentin did try to fly off, the grid would not pick up small things, like falling tortoises. That was unacceptable.

She’d capture them all and figure out their plan later. This nonsense needed to end now.


Quentin set down the string of reflexors. “There. That’s done. Time to get the supplies.”

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

“What? You need help carrying the supplies upstairs, no?”

“I do.” Quentin ripped some drapes off Victoria’s bed. “So take these and go to the roof while I get the poles. We’ll put it all together up there.”

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

Alex came came over and took the drapes. “Stop worrying, Sakhr. I’ll be with you. Quentin will meet us on the roof.”

“I do need somebody to help me,” Quentin replied.

Alex looked around. “Sibyl, you’re wearing a strong body. Help Quentin carry the poles up. Christof, get the tortoises and come with us.”

So they split up. Quentin and Sibyl headed downstairs while Alex, Christof, and Sakhr headed to the roof.


“The marines are dropping now, Your Majesty,” Stephano said.

“There are three people on the roof. One is my daughter. You need to neutralize her immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And another has a handgun, but you must not hurt her. Incapacitate, disarm, and isolate. That’s all.

“Understood.”

Victoria was micromanaging again. She couldn’t help herself. The action would start any moment, and Quentin was up to something…


Sibyl followed Quentin to the elevator lobby on Victoria’s private floor. The assembler there had produced five rods which lay in a row in the dispenser tray. Each was an arm’s length. Quentin bundled them up and wrapped the cable of reflexors around them, making sure the reflexors faced outward.

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

“You’ll see,” Quentin replied. “You’ve got to promise me that if I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Don’t hesitate. Okay?”

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

“Good.” Having bundled the bars together, he let them drop. They lowered into the dispenser tray gently, as though the rods were trying not to make a clatter. “Let’s leave this here for a minute. And get down to the others.”

He headed for the stairs. Though Sibyl frowned in confusion, she followed.


Alex was on the roof first. He went straight to Victoria’s hopper and opened the hatch.

“The craft?” Sakhr said. “I thought we couldn’t fly this.”

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

“Get inside!” Sakhr dashed for the rooftop door, but Alex caught his shirt, nearly yanking him off his feet.

The black dots expanded to become deployment pods. Each slammed onto the rooftop along the edge. Their hatches exploded outward. Marines jumped out. Each wore full covering military gear, complete with a respirator mask over their faces. They all brandished rifles.

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

“No. The ship. Get in the ship.” Alex pulled him toward the hatch.

The marines open fired. Barbed flechettes ricocheted off the hopper. One struck Sakhr in the side. Screaming, he crumpled.

Alex drew his security pistol fired wildly at the marines. They evaded.

Turning back, he grabbed Sakhr’s collar and pulled him toward the hopper. “Help me,” he yelled. Christof tossed the box of tortoises into the hopper and helped Alex with Sakhr.

Before they could pull him aboard, a marine fired electrified barbs at the hatch. Christof crumpled into the hopper. Sakhr fell to the platform concrete.

Alex returned fire. Two bullets punched into the marine’s reinforced armor, causing him to stumble back. Other marines approached. With Christof incapacitated, Alex couldn’t lift Sakhr fast enough. He pushed him out of the way and slammed the shuttle door closed. Inside, he frantically yanked a switch that looked like it might be a lock, but kept a constant pull on the door handle, just in case they could open it anyway.

Seconds passed. Tentatively, he let the hatch door go. When nothing happened, he scrabbled to the cockpit.

Out the window, he saw the marines dragging Sakhr toward their deployment capsules. They shoved him inside one and slammed the lid. The capsule lifted into the sky like a buoy released from the ocean bottom.

“Ta ta, old man. I never said there wasn’t risk.”

He fumbled with the dashboard. Once he’d turned the hopper on, he sat back and waited.


But what was Alexander waiting for?

Whatever it was, it had to do with whatever Quentin was doing. It made Victoria nervous.

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

“They’ve rescued your daughter,” he said. “We’ve sent her off in a deployment pod. Other hostages have holed up in your shuttle.”

“Good. Leave them alone for now. Have your team proceed downstairs. There are two in the service stairwell. I want them stopped.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

She nearly hit the call end button, but stopped. “And keep my daughter isolated. No one opens her pod until I say so.”


Quentin was opening the door to the fifty-sixth floor when Sibyl snapped her head up to look at the ceiling.

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

“A dozen, maybe. They’re fighting. Sakhr is panicking.”

“God fucking dammit,” Quentin growled. “I needed two more minutes. That’s all. Fuck.” He glared at the door. “Fuck it. We’re still doing this. I’m not going back in a damn lizard. Come on.”

The assembler in the lobby had produced five poles, just like the others. Quentin ran past it to the service elevator. Popping a release catch along the door frame, pried open the door. “Okay. Grab those sticks in the tray and throw them down the shaft.”

“What?” said Sibyl. “Down the elevator?”

Do it now.”

Sibyl grabbed the bars. Her hands recoiled at first, but she tried again and tossed them through the door. They clattered down the shaft.

Quentin released the elevator door and ran toward the stairs. “Come on. Next ones.”

Sibyl hurried after, cradling her hands. “Why were they so hot?”

Quentin held the stairwell door open for her. As she passed, he mumbled, “Because they’re radioactive.”

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

“Inform your men that the targets may potentially be armed.”

“Do you know with what?”

“Explosives most likely. I’ll have more details for you before your men move in.”

“Understood.” He frowned. “Are you… in the tower right now?”

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

“I see no reason why you should take any such risk remaining there. Especially if this enemy has access to explosives.”

“Thank you for your concern, Captain. I’ll take it into consideration.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

Bishop was still on the line. “He’s right, Your Majesty.”

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

“You can coordinate just as well from a shuttle.”

“I will not be run out of my own home by a few ruffians bumbling about in the upper floors. They won’t blow themselves up just to hurt me.”

“This is no time to be brave, ma’am. If anything should happen to you—”

“Fine. Hold on.” She motioned for Captain Gandara. “Have a craft prepared and ready to go in the shuttle bay.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

Victoria spoke to Bishop. “I’ll take it if the situation gets out of hand.”

“I suppose that will have to do. Thank you.”

The call ended, and Victoria pondered. Sakhr would have explosives soon. He didn’t know yet that they wouldn’t help him get out of the tower. Even if he managed to destroy some wall bots surrounding the tower, other wall bots would replace them before anyone could move through, but explosives did mean Sakhr might get in this control room.

She checked the time. Twenty-eight minutes until Stephano could deploy marines with old gen wall bots. When that moment came, the first one set up would lock the stairwell down. If Sakhr moved before then, it’s not like he could take Victoria by surprise. She’d be gone before any real threat came her way.

It all depended on what Quentin made with that fuser. She’d forgotten about those prototypes. Once again, Quentin was full of himself. He had not designed them. A team of dedicated scientists developed them using theoretical techniques Quentin once described. He did one percent of the work. At best. And he spoke of that Stiller generator as if it was his idea, as though power plants around the world weren’t already pushing hydrogen together years before she imprisoned him. And obviously they’d be restricted. The empire was already having problems with rebels using hacked Food-Ready assemblers to create everything from explosives to nerve gas.

But no, he thinks she shelved the prototypes because of her greed. It had nothing to with how those machines could build nuclear weapons.

Quentin had been out for only twenty minutes and he was already getting on her nerves. He always had. Her scouts found him in Michigan State College decades ago. To everyone else, he’d been an unremarkable student slowly dropping out, but her scouts saw his flair. When he actually tried, his engineering and science courses came effortlessly to him, but he rarely did. She’d offered him a job to the amazement of everyone—from the LakiraLabs hiring board to Quentin’s parents. Her idea was to give him a lab, a hefty paycheck, and a team of scientists and let him do what he wanted without tying him down with busywork. He might innovate any of endless ideas dormant in his skull.

It worked, barely. After four years of sick days, complaints, pointless projects, and a staggering number of excuses, he finally outlined something worthwhile: repulser fields. He’d claimed it took him all four years, but she saw in his mind that it took him only days.

It’d been worth it. Repulser fields changed LakiraLabs from an obscure private company into a household name. Unfortunately, Quentin’s next twelve years were a waste. He’d claim credit for every improvement on repulser fields LakiraLabs scientists ever developed just because he’d have doodled the idea once. The worst part was that she was stuck with him. A glyph of his flair only marginally affected other engineers.

Over time, he and Victoria argued more over compensation and results. He frequently accused her of stealing his invention, never caring that she had supported him, funded him, and managed the entire business his invention required. It’d nearly came as a relief when he tried to leave to “start his own company and get the credit he deserved.” Putting him in a tortoise was a weight off her mind.

Of course now he finds initiative, now that he was pitted against her.

But then spite always was the best motivator.

“Ma’am?” Captain Gandara approached her cautiously.

“Yes?”

“The security staff keep requesting information about our situation. They want to know if they should evacuate. What should I tell them?”

That seemed to her a timid way of asking what was going on. “How many people are in the tower?”

“Just resident staff, ma’am. Forty or fifty people.”

She considered this. “Go ahead and evacuate floors eight and below. No one above that floor.” She paused. “And send people to barricade the eighth floor stairwell door. I expect our intruders may try to use explosives on it.”

He nodded and turned back to the screen. His aura swelled with frustration, but he’d survive.

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…


Alex and Sakhr booted up the next two fuser assemblers. The workshop room was awash with packing peanuts by the time they were done. Quentin would pull himself away from his assembler designs long enough to check that the new machines were operating correctly.

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

“Something is going on outside,” Christof said. “Little things are floating around outside the tower. They’re forming a perimeter.”

“Wall bots.” Quentin spoke without looking up from his work. “They’re supposed to stop us from walking out of here, but we still can. Don’t worry. I expected this. We’ll be fine.”

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll see when we get there.”

“There’s more,” Sibyl added. “There are noises in the stairwell. Sounds like construction.”

“They’re reinforcing the doors,” said Sakhr, “buying time.”

“But surely we expected this,” said Christof. “If anything, this just proves that whatever she’s planning, we’ll at least have time to use the explosives first.”

“We can’t assume that,” said Sakhr. “She’s just being careful.”

“Doesn’t matter what they’re doing down there,” Quentin said. “Won’t work. Not against these explosives.” He looked up in thought. “Unless of course they’re fixing the doors with repulse bracers…” He chewed at his lip, then shrugged. “Hell. They can reinforce them all they want. We’ll just blow a hole in the floor somewhere on the ninth floor.”

Don’t say that out loud,” Christof said. “Now she knows.”

“What’s she going to do? Reinforce the entire ceiling?”

“She can plan for that though.”

“Yeah? So?” said Quentin. “Just get used to her knowing our plans. I’m not taking a vow of silence.”

Christof considered this. He turned to the others. “He’s right. Even if we get out of here, what are we going to do? We can’t hide. Can we outrun her?”

“We have hostages,” Sakhr said. “We have her daughter. We have many of her… flairs.” He seemed to dislike that word. “She can’t risk losing them, or she loses her damned glyphs.”

“But she will be watching,” replied Christof. “She’ll always be watching. Sooner or later, we’ll slip up.”

“Then we’ll find some place to go where she can’t follow.”

“Does such a place exist? You said she’s queen of the world now.”

“Nah,” said Quentin. “She just calls herself that. Half the world still fights her. There are plenty of places to go.”

Alex shook his head. “Not anymore! She owns the world now.”

“How do you know?”

He tapped his forehead. “I skimmed glimpses from our caretakers.”

“Then what do we do?” Christof said. “If she’s all powerful, do we stand a chance?”

“She’s not all powerful,” Sakhr replied. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll… keep moving. We’ll get a ship and fly. How long can a ship fly for?”

“Actually,” Quentin patted the assember, “If we get a ship with a Stiller generator, we could fly forever. ”

“Well, we can’t anymore,” Alex said, “now that you said it out loud. She’ll make sure we never get one. We need to stop talking.”

Sakhr spoke. “We can’t avoid discussing our plans.”

“We communicate in other ways. Say… how about telepathy?”

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

“Yes, but it can work. Let’s say you come up with an idea. Instead of saying it, you convey it to me mentally. I can communicate to the others by telling them stray details. They can imagine what the plan is, and I’ll adjust their thinking by saying Yes or No. They’ll figure it out eventually. Anton and I used to do this. It takes practice, but it works, and nobody except me and the person I’m reading has any idea what I’m talking about.”

“So every plan must pass through you?” Sakhr said. “I must trust you to convey our plans to everyone? No.”

Christof pointed to the unknown tortoise in Sibyl’s hand. “Maybe he can help.”

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

“He’s the man Victoria stole glyph writing from. If he can make glyphs of Alex’s power, then we can all communicate telepathically.”

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

Sakhr cut him off. “We have the original glyph maker?”

“I’m certain it’s him,” said Christof.

Sakhr looked at Alex. “And you thought he wouldn’t be helpful?”

“I never said that,” replied Alex. “I said he’d be a liability. He won’t want to help us. Not on short notice anyway.”

“I see…” said Sakhr.

“Listen,” Quentin said. He chewed at his nail thoughtfully. “What if I had a plan? Would you all trust me enough to do it?”

“Do you have one?”

“I might. It’s kind of a long shot, but it might work.”

“What is it?”

Quentin didn’t answer. Instead he stared directly at Alex. They shared eye contact.

Alex burst out laughing. “Yes! I love it. We’re doing it.”

Sakhr looked from one to the other. “What? What is the plan?”

Quentin ignored Sakhr and maintained eye contact. “But answer my questions.”

Alex stared back and answered Quentin’s unspoken queries. “Yes… Yes… No, I’m pretty sure of that…” He smiled “Yes. Sakhr can promise that.”

“Promise what?” Sakhr asked, annoyed. “What is this plan?”

Alex looked at him. “It’s a plan that will work, but it’ll work better if we keep it to ourselves. We’ll talk about the promise later, but you would agree to it.”

“And I’m supposed to be content with that? Letting you make promises on my behalf? Putting my life on the line for a plan I don’t know?

“You will if you want to get out of here. I’ve seen the plan. Trust me.”

“I don’t trust you.”

Christof spoke. “And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with any plan that makes Alex laugh like that.”

“We don’t have time to be picky,” answered Alex. “I’ve seen this plan. It’s a good one. Regardless of what you all think of me, I want to get out of here too. So for once in your lives, trust that I’m right. And if not me, trust that our new friend here knows what he’s doing. Okay?”

Sakhr’s expression was somewhere between suspicion and contemplation, but he nodded. Christof and Sibyl gave their consent.

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

After Alex and Quentin shared eye contact, Alex said, “First, we get these machines downstairs.”

“Why?”

“No questions. Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do, and no telling how much time to do it.”

46. Sems and Clems

Sakhr and the others split up to find the other assemblers, although he made sure that everyone stayed within Sibyl’s Empath range.

Alex found a pair on his own. Before heading back, he sat down in the hall with Winnie and Helena. Alone here, he held Helena up to look her in the eyes. Winnie would have tried slipping away again while he was distracted, except that Alex had set her on the floor upside down. Every time she got close to righting herself, he’d casually pushed her back over. She had just about resigned herself to this dizzying position when Alex set Helena down and picked her up. He studied her just as he had Helena.

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

“Ooh,” Alex said. “I saw that. You know what’s going on, don’t you?”

Winnie pulled into her shell and covered her face with her feet.

He shook her. “Come on. Open up. Let’s have a look at you.”

She didn’t respond. Suddenly, she was falling. Startled, she opened her eyes and jolted. Alex caught her just before she hit the ground. His gaze immediately locked onto hers.

She covered up again.

So Alex dropped her again. This time she kept her face covered, trusting her flair to see. Alex was keeping his arms poised to catch her each time, hence she was in no real danger, even if her heart leaped each time he did it.

Then the light on the assemblers changed. Their hum stopped, then started again sounding differently. Lights around the edges were pale red. Noticing this, Alex collected Helena and Winnie and returned to the others.

Quentin, who’d remained by the first machines, was swearing and stabbing his fingers on their touch screens. All but a few buttons were gone from the menu.

“Stop.” Quentin stabbed another button. A padlock symbol in the upper right flashed.

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

“They’re reclaiming assembled resources, destroying what they were making. Someone accessed the machines remotely.”

“Is there anything you can do to stop it?” asked Christof.

“Good idea. I should do that instead of banging on it uselessly. Is that what you’re saying?”

“If people are controlling this remotely,” Sakhr said, “why can’t you just disconnected it from the network?”

“Oh. My. God. You have no idea how technology works. You think the Lakiran empire would let people use these things offline? If the cloud servers disconnect you, your machine won’t even know how to assemble.”

“And you knew this could happen?” asked Sakhr.

“This is not my fault. There’s no way I could have known they’d lock the machines two minutes after we started using them.”

“You just said they have central control over them. Can’t they see what the machines are doing?”

“Yeah. If they have the server logs open and are actively looking at them. They’d have to already know we were using them first.”

Pausing, Sakhr looked along the ceiling of the hallway. “Then how did they know? I’ve seen no cameras on this floor.”

“She doesn’t need them,” Alex answered. He held up Winnie. “I took some time to look into our tiny friends. I think this little one right here is the explanation.”

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

“It’s the little Asian girl who so kindly lent me her body. She has the power to see and hear remotely. Haven’t seen how it works yet, but from what she knows,” he tapped Helena, “Victoria can see anything, anywhere, anytime she wants.”

“So she’s been watching us every step of the way?”

“Probably.”

Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something in another language. He eventually looked up. “We need another plan then. And quickly.”

“But she’ll know what it is,” said Christof.

“I know. We’ll just have to move faster than she can react.” He looked around. “Quentin. Do you think you could make explosives from something else? Maybe from things laying about?”

“Depends on what we find.”

“Then we do that. Everyone split up and search. We’re looking for chemicals, electronics, anything that might be useful.” He sighed. “Anything at all.”


Victoria was mulling through strategies. The last time she captured Sakhr, she’d had mercenaries in hazmat suits with her. She could try that again, but if it failed, it would fail spectacularly. It would be safest if she had time to wait for her high exemplars.

Unfortunately, none of them could get here in time. She had ordinary exemplars nearby, but they had no idea who Sakhr was. More importantly, they didn’t have shields.

Victoria considered waking Sara. If that girl could draw up extra shields for her… But no. Even if that was a good idea, Victoria would need to supply Sara with a master glyph, and that just wasn’t possible right now.

That left only non-glyph solutions. It had to be military.

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

“That’s a little more tricky. Their flight trajectories were set so they’d be over West Europe. They’re redirecting, but it’ll take almost two hours before they can get a reliable overhead window.”

“Why so long?”

“They’re going really quickly in one direction. Now they’ll need to go just as quickly in another. To change that much speed, they’ll need to come into the lower stratosphere. It’s almost as bad as landing and taking back off. But you will have windows before that. One orbiter will pass near the capital in thirty-five minutes. He’ll have a four minute window in which to deploy. Then there’ll be another about forty minutes after that, but that orbiter won’t have old gen wall bots. It’s just a patrolling orbiter.”

“Thirty-five minutes, and then seventy-five minutes…”

“It’s bad, Your Majesty. I know. The air force doesn’t trail orbiters over the homeland that much.”

“I know…”

“The marines won’t know anything about the situation they’re going into, will they?” she asked.

“I didn’t tell them. What would you like me to say?”

She considered. “Nothing. I want to talk with whoever is in charge of the thirty-five minute orbiter.”

“Yes, ma’am. Here is the contact info.”

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She examined the info. Captain Stephano was the CO aboard the HIMS Venezia. She called the number.

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

A pause. “How can I serve you, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve been redirected to pass over Porto Maná. I understand you’ll be ready to deploy in thirty-five minutes.”

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

“We’re to be ready to deploy onto the Capital Tower within our window, and await further instructions.”

“And here they are. There are enemy agents inside the Tower. It will be up to your men to apprehend them. Unfortunately, they have hostages, including my daughter.”

“I see.”

“High Exemplar Bishop informs me that you have nonlethal means of incapacitating targets.”

“Yes, ma’am. Our electric flechettes.”

“You’ll be using those. Under no circumstances are your men to kill anyone.”

She paused. Should she issue that order? This problem could be solved much more easily if she had a sniper shoot Sakhr before anyone came in. Then the marines wouldn’t need to do anything special. It was, after all, her refusal to kill him in the first place that allowed this to happen. Was the risk really worth the remote chance his power could be evolved further?

But then he wasn’t about to get out of Helena’s body either, and that she couldn’t kill.

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

“They took my tortoises out of their enclosures. And I don’t…” she sighed, knowing how ridiculous this sounded, “…I don’t want them hurt. They’re important to me.”

“Understood, ma’am. We’ll look out for the tortoises.” He sounded entirely professional about it too. Victoria would remember this man.

“And there’s another complication.” She thought about how to put this. “Your men cannot come into physical contact with anyone.”

“Ma’am?”

“One of the hostiles is using technology similar to that used by exemplars. They are capable of… compromising anyone they touch. Once compromised, the victim must be treated as a hostile. All of the hostages, including my daughter, have been compromised in this way.”

“If we can’t touch anyone, how are we supposed to apprehend them?”

“They require skin to skin contact. Make sure your marines are covered. Use your wall bots to section off the tower floors. Most of the hostages will not be able to compromise your men, and I can tell you which ones are dangerous and which are not, but I won’t be able to do that until the time comes. So I will need to be in contact with you and your men during the strike. Do you understand so far?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Will your deployment pods be capable of carrying away hostages after you’ve incapacitated them?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll arrange for those pods to deliver to a secure location, where everyone will be quarantined and kept separated until we can sort this out. This includes your men.”

“Understood.”

“And remember. You must treat the hostages as hostiles. Once compromised, they are effectively mind-controlled. Your men must be ready to incapacitate anyone I tell you to, even if its your own men.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Get your men ready. I’ll call you with more details soon.”

Victoria disconnected him. “Bishop? Did you get all that?”

“I did,” Bishop said.

“Then you heard about the need for quarantine. Make it happen.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop stayed on on the line as he worked.

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

“You don’t know that,” Alex said. “This is the glyph maker machine.”

They watched as Quentin worked the console to the plaque assembler. He’d opened a saved file, which displayed a glyph on the screen. The only option was to send it to the assembler, which he’d pressed. The machine hummed. A progress screen was delayed.

“But the glyph will be useless,” Sakhr replied. “If you remember, she always had to finish the glyphs. Look.” He hit the back button, returning to the displayed glyph. Picking up the stylus, he doodled across the image. “See? It’s not done. She kept bringing us up here because she needed to see us before she finished it.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, “but it might not be entirely useless. Look at those. What the hell is going on inside there?” He peered through the glass as a robotic arm applied explosive gel to the back of the silicon glyph wafer. “There’s got to be something useful we can do with this.”

He didn’t recognize what the gel was for. Winnie would have to make sure they didn’t learn that from her. That meant not letting Alex look her in the eyes.

“What about these?” Christof was standing by three crates in the workshop room, the ones labeled as military property. “Military. Might be something good in here.”

“Let’s see.” Sakhr and Christof pried the lid of a crate. After they pulled away the side panels, packing peanuts flooded out. There was the same clunky machine Winnie had seen earlier that day. It seemed so long ago. In the light, she got a better idea of how it looked. It was like something teenagers might throw together in their garage. Its circuitry was housed inside what looked like a retrofitted footlocker. The reception pan stuck out side like an open car door. Every nut and bolt was plain to see.

“Quentin?” Sakhr asked. “Do you know what this is?”

Quentin looked it over. “It looks like an old assembler.”

“Do you know why it this would be military property?”

“No. It looks like it should be in a museum.” He tapped a tablet plugged into the device by USB. It lit. “It’s a modern tablet though, isn’t it.” He opened an app and paged through its menu.

“Is this something that can help us right now?” Sakhr asked.

“Probably not. It doesn’t look like it’s hooked up to the assembler cloud. Either it’s really old…”

He trailed off, frowning at a particular page. Then he grinned. “Oh my God. Seriously?”

“What?”

“It’s a fuser.” Excitedly, he skirted over the assembler until finding the footlocker circuit box. He popped it open and poked through.

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

“It’s something I designed before Victoria put me in the zoo. It’s like an assembler, except better.”

“Better how?”

Quentin flipped a switch inside the box back and forth. Nothing happened. He left, fetched a power cable from a lamp in the other room, and returned. “So most assemblers work with micro-sems inside of them, right? Once they’ve constructed a molecule, they pass it along to macro-assembly.”

“Micro-sems?”

“Micro Assemblers. Look. How much do you know about microfield technolog—oh, right. Grandparents.” He stripped the power cable, exposing bare copper. “Okay. Assemblers work by having billions of tiny, tiny robots that work on individual molecules. Then they push them together or tear them apart to make other molecules. Then they pass them along to bigger robots who take those molecules and make bigger chunks. Who pass them on to bigger robots, and so on, until you have robots the size of your fist that put together the final product.” He patted the assembler’s reception bin. “Got it?”

“Okay.”

“This one is a little different. It does everything that other assemblers can do, except it also has robots that are so tiny, and so precise, that they can actually push atoms together to make different atoms.”

He attached the power cable to something inside the circuit box. “It makes the assembler a thousand times more useful. Take ordinary assemblers, right? They can make all sorts of things, literally out of thin air. It pulls its carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen from CO2 and humidity. Then it puts them together to make synthetic fabrics and foods and all sorts of stuff, but that’s it. If you want something made of iron or silicon, or any metal, you need to supply those elements to the assembler with little cartridges. This thing can make all those heavier elements from the same air. It doesn’t need anything.”

He plugged the other end of the cable into the wall. “The best part is this looks like it has a Stiller generator. Assemblers use ungodly amounts of power. This thing even more so, but it should be able to reclaim the power released whenever it pushes molecules together. It basically makes power out of humidity using the same principle that microfusion plants use. But the microassemblers in this fuse a lot more than just hydrogen. All this assembler needs…” He flipped the switch inside the circuit box again. This time, lights came. Cooling fans hummed. “…Is a little jump start.”

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

“If this thing is so wonderful, why is it locked in here?” asked Alex.

“Victoria is greedy,” replied Quentin. “She likes to hoard her technology. I’ll bet that even today, no market assembler can make another assembler. Even years after the war, she kept all the food-ready assemblers under contract-only release. Unauthorized use of one was a felony. And this?” Quentin tapped the machine. “She locked all my notes on fuser assemblers away. She didn’t want anyone making these. I’m surprised she built these.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised she figured out how without me. Her scientists aren’t much better than monkeys in lab coats. I made her business empire for her.”

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

“I think so. It looks like it’s got a debug build of the designer. Shouldn’t need access to the assembler library. The downside? It doesn’t have access to the assembler library. I’ll have to design everything we use from scratch.”

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

“Sure. I can make better ones now actually.”

“Then do that.”

Quentin got to work on the tablet. He glanced at the other two crates. “Are those other ones? You guys should probably get them booted. Did you all see what I did?”

No one responded.

“Of course not,” Quentin mumbled. “Hey. Telepath girl.”

Alex had been fiddling with his stolen sidearm. “Referring to me?”

“Eye contact right?” He stared Alex in the eye. “You can get the other machines going. Do you see what I need you to do?”

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”

44. Fault Detected

“And the orbiters are in position,” Bishop said.

Victoria nodded. “Good.”

They were now more prepared to capture Josephine when she did inevitably land. The old model wall bots those orbiters carried probably wouldn’t come up. The newer models could still deploy faster and without human interaction, but it was nice to have the alternative. Wherever Josephine landed, whether in open field or a covered building complex, the military would be ready.

Between all options at Victoria’s disposal, she couldn’t think of a way that Josephine could outwit her. Even with Tan and his erratic flying, Victoria had already won.

…or Victoria just hadn’t figured out what they were doing yet. Her mind was admittedly foggy. She glanced over at Willow. The hawk was sound asleep.

She really should do the same. Even if just to lay down for an hour, it would help. Nothing else was going on. Bishop would notify her the moment Josephine’s ship started descending, that’s if Victoria wasn’t already aware through her own constant tracking. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to be drowsy.

“I think, Bishop, I might actually turn in for a bit.”

“A good choice, Your Majesty. I will watch them. You’ll have your phone on you?”

“Yes. Regardless of whether they do something, I want you to wake me in…” She brought up her phone’s screen. There was the notification. She vaguely recalled it coming up before. Unlocking her phone, she read the message.

"Office terrarium 00:12, Nov 13th 2055: Fault detected."

For a second, her mind couldn’t make sense of those words. It just puzzled them, even though she recognized it as a warning she’d typed long ago, for a threat she hadn’t considered in ages.

She snapped into focus. Her mind was in her office at the tower top. The lights were off, but she still saw the cage. The front was caved in. Marzipan was missing. Who? Who in the hell would have let him free?

The answer came immediately, and as much as she wanted to choke the life out Helena’s skinny little neck, this wasn’t the time. That notification came almost forty minutes ago. That’s a hell of a head start. Where would Sakhr go?

Her mind jumped to the conservatory reptile section. One dead tortoise was on the walkway. Several were missing from their enclosure.

Damn it all.

Her mind raced about.

The lobby. The grounds. The shuttle bay. The rooftop. The security suites. The elevators.

The elevators.

There they were.

“Your Majesty?” Bishop asked. “When should I wake you?”

She spun to Captain Gandara. “Shut down the elevators now.”

“In… this building, Your Majesty?”

Now!”


Sakhr and all his fellow escapees were in the elevator sliding down the side of the Capital Tower. It stopped, smoothly and without any jarring, and then nothing. Sibyl pressed buttons. Still nothing.

Winnie’s relief was profound. Somewhere, someone had found out. If it wasn’t Victoria, she would know soon enough.

“Well, there you go,” Alex said. “What twenty more seconds would have gotten us.”

Sakhr grunted.

“We should probably get out of the elevator,” Christof said.

“Yes. Help me.” Sakhr handed Helena to Sibyl and pried at the elevator door. Christof joined, but it wouldn’t budge. Quentin shouldered to the button panel and opened a small compartment. He flicked a switch, and the doors popped. Sakhr and Christof easily slid them open.

“Did your power tell you that?” asked Christof.

“No. My rudimentary knowledge of elevators did. How come none of you knew?”

“I don’t remember elevators having switches like that.”

“All repulse elevators do. How long were you all in tortoises?”

“Long enough,” Sakhr’s tone ended the conversation. The elevator was stopped midway between two floors. One by one, each climbed out into an office hallway.

Sakhr led them to the stairs. He started heading down.

Christof hesitated. “They’re going to have people waiting for us.”

“They may, but they won’t hurt us. Not in these bodies.”

“But they can apprehend us.”

“They won’t come near me. Victoria knows I’d just swap bodies. Therefore, they can’t come near any of us.”

Alex spoke. “Perhaps you’re forgetting about the hazmat suits they wore when they put us in tortoises in the first place.”

“I’m not forgetting,” Sakhr replied testily, “but we don’t have a choice. If we stay here, we will encounter those hazmat suits again, but they only just shut down the elevators. That means they’ve only now realized we’re loose. Our best chance of escaping is if we move right now before she organizes. Now, come along.”

He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.

Six floors down, the stairwell ended on floor eight. Sakhr tried the door. It didn’t budge.

He turned to Quentin. “Do you know this building? Is there another stairwell?”

“Yeah, but it’ll end on this floor too. It’s the security floor. Everyone coming and going gets screened here.”

“Are the doors normally locked?”

Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I never used the stairs before, but I wouldn’t think so. Seems like a fire hazard.”

“Can we can break this down?”

Quentin’s eyebrows raised. “Does it look like you can?”

A mere glance at its steel frame was enough to answer that.

“What about any—”

“Who’s there?” a voice yelled through the door.

Sakhr yelled back. “This is Princess Helena. Is this door supposed to be locked?” His accent was less pronounced.

“Tower’s just gone into lockdown, Your Highness. I can’t let anyone through.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Don’t know, but something. You should probably wait upstairs. It’ll be over soon.”

“But I need to get out now. Surely the lockdown doesn’t apply to me.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but the lockdown came from the queen herself. Nobody is passing, not even you.”

Sakhr glanced at the others. “Is my mother in the building?”

“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”

“Good to know,” Sakhr muttered. He looked at the corners of the stairwell ceiling. “Let’s assume her eyes are on us through every camera in the building.”

Winnie knew Victoria didn’t need cameras, but there was no reason to correct them.

“Quentin,” he continued, “are you sure there is no other way to the lower floors?”

“Nope. Each security floor has separate stairs and elevators. Everyone goes through the lobbies.”

“How many security floors are there?”

Quentin considered. “Just two, I think. This one, and the ground floor one.”

Christof spoke. “I remember when we first came here, we landed in some kind of garage on a higher floor.”

“The docking bay, yeah. Floor eight. That’s why security is on this floor, but now that I think about it, Victoria has a personal bay on the roof.”

“Is somebody with you?” said the voice through the door. Everyone ignored it.

“Will there be a ship we can use?”

“Maybe,” replied Quentin.

“Then let’s go.”


“Captain, is my personal hopper still on the roof?”

Victoria had already confirmed with her mind that it was, but not asking would raise questions. Winnie’s power was not public knowledge.

A guard seated at a security terminal pulled up a view of the roof. Captain Gandara peered over his shoulder. “Yes, it is, Your Majesty.”

“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure, ma’am. Are there intruders inside the building?”

“Yes.”

“Then we should contact the police?”

“Just answer my question. Can someone steal it?”

“I’m, uh…” Gandara looked at the officer seated at the console. “Do you know?”

The officer answered. “Possibly, Your Majesty. If someone got inside, they could boot up the craft’s systems, but it won’t let them fly anywhere without the key fob.”

“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”

“Possibly, but even if they found one, they’d be restricted to grid travel unless they had remote clearance to use the engines.”

“And who can grant clearance?”

“That’s us, ma’am. We register all non-grid flights with the military and the Lakiran Airspace Division.”

“Is there anyway around that?”

“No, ma’am. Clearance has to come through us—me, actually.”

“Very well.” That answered that concern. If Sakhr managed to get inside, at least they couldn’t fly anywhere, unless they were dumb enough to try grid travel. Then she could have LAD flag that craft and keep it indefinitely suspended in the air until she was ready to deal with them. Too bad Quentin would know better.

All this imperial hopper business did was buy her time—time she should be using.

She grabbed her phone and strode from the communications room. In a closed office, she put it to her ear.

“Bishop?”

“I’m here, ma’am. What’s going on over there?”

“Sakhr is loose.”

What? How?”

“I don’t know. We’ll sort it out later. This takes priority over Josephine.”

“Of course.”

“Right now they’re wasting time getting to my hopper. Where are the other high exemplars? Get them back here.”

“I’ll tell them, but they won’t get there for hours.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I checked when you asked earlier. Stone is in Argentina. Dosia left for Denver. Liat had to—”

“Forget it.” The timing of this unfortunate accident was infuriating. She envisioned Josephine’s craft floating miles above the Sahara. There might still be time for her afterward, but this came first.

“Get a swarm of wall bots surrounding the Capital Tower,” she said, “and have the orbiters change route. I want them over the tower as soon as possible.”

“For the old generation wall bots, ma’am?”

“Yes.”

“They’re already at full speed in the stratosphere. It might take time before any of them can redirect enough to get over the tower.”

“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She returned to the control room. The people there stood about.

“Captain,” she said. “The military will be deploying wall bots around the tower. No one will be coming or leaving. Inform whoever needs to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He jumped to the phone. His aura was tense and confused. She could sense how badly he wanted to ask what this was all about. Too bad for him, there was no need for him to know about Sakhr. She visualized the stairwell once again.


The group stumbled onto the roof of the Capital Tower. The sky was a dark, mud brown—polluted from city lights occupying the horizon. A steel canopy overhung the landing pad, hiding most of the sky from them. It left the roof in near shadow. Only white light from the open stairwell door outlined the hulking shadow of the queen’s personal hopper. It lay straight ahead on a raised platform. Winnie had to rely on her flair to see it in this dark. Tortoise eyes were awful.

Sakhr and Alex breathed heavily, but they were better off compared to the others. Sibyl came up clutching the handle rail with white knuckles. Quentin and Christof came moments later supporting each other. Christof had the other tortoise tucked in his shirt.

“You took your time,” Alex said.

“You’re the ones who put me in a fat-ass,” Quentin replied, wheezing, “…leave yourselves in the teenage coeds.”

“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to the ship. “Can we escape in this?”

“We need to get inside first.”

Everyone paused before the hopper. Sakhr slid his hand along the surface, feeling for something. Alex did the same farther along, so did Sibyl on the other side.

“How do you…” asked Sakhr. “Where’s the handle?”

“Are you serious?” Quentin disentangled himself from Christof, reached under the frame, and squeezed a release hatch. The shuttle yawned open. “You guys are incredible.”

It was strange for Winnie to be back here again tonight, under such incredibly different circumstances. Her own body even took the same seat as before. Only now she was sitting its lap.

Quentin and Sakhr got in the cockpit. “Are you a pilot?” Sakhr asked.

“I know the theory.” Quentin pressed a prominent button, and the cockpit lit up. A dashboard touch screen showed several options. Quentin tried to access a menuscreen named Autonav. Each time it prompted him to select a flight plan from a list, but the displayed list was empty. “Hmm.”

“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.

“Maybe not.”

“But on the other menu, it said ‘pick destination’.”

“That was Telenav. We don’t want that.”

“What’s telenav?”

“Telenav is the grid system. The repulse nodes through the city would fly us instead of the ship’s own repulse engines.”

“What’s wrong with that? We just need to get off this tower.”

Quentin took a calming breath. “Except that they know we’re escaping. If we use Telenav, they can override our destination remotely and put us anywhere they want. Including right back on this tower.”

“Can you hotwire it somehow?”

Quentin turned to him. “Does this ship look like a Ford pickup? Maybe if we pop it into neutral and push it off the tower, the momentum will get the engines started before we hit the ground.”

“So that’s a no…”

Alex called from the back. “Did we just waste our time coming up here?”

“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.

“Hey, why is this all on me? It’s not like I had time to think this out. I didn’t even know I’d be escaping today.”

“We let you out because Alex thought you could help us. Now can you, or not? We can always give your body to him.” Sakhr pointed to the mystery tortoise in Christof’s lap. “Perhaps he’ll have a better plan.”

“Jesus Christ, guys. I don’t hear any of you suggesting anything.”

Christof intervened before Sakhr could respond. “We don’t know this world like you do. Repulsers, Telenav systems… That all means nothing to us. We would have used the Telenav system if you hadn’t warned us. That’s if we weren’t still outside looking for the handle. We need you. That is why we’re turning to you.”

“Okay. Fine.” Quentin sighed. “Let’s head back down a floor. I think I’ve got an idea.”

“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.

Everyone headed downstairs. One floor down was Victoria’s personal suite. This brought them into her foyer, near the office containing the terrarium that started this whole mess. Sakhr gave it a lingering glance as they passed by.

“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.

“Yes, yes.” Quentin led them to a pair of assemblers installed in the wall outside the kitchen. “Yesss. This is what I hoped for.” He brought the first out of standby and paged through the menu. “Perfect.”

“What is this?” asked Sakhr. “Some kind of computer?”

“It’s an assembler.”

“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.

This caused Quentin to gape at him. “Good God. You’re all a bunch of grandparents, aren’t you?”

“Will you just focus?” Sakhr replied shortly. “What can you do with this?”

“A lot.”

“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.

“We can’t make a gun if that’s what your asking, but a lot of things can be weapons with a little knowhow. Maybe we can blow open those security doors.”

He queued a few chemicals from the Home Improvement section, then moved to the other assembler. Here he picked items from the Hobbies section, then navigated to a list of all connected assemblers nearby.

“All right. I’ve got these machines going. Looks like there are a few others downstairs. I’ll just send some items to those aaand… that should be it. Give it about ten minutes and we should have ourselves some decent grenades.”

43. All Wrong

Winnie’s first thought was that she’d somehow been transported underground. She could hear voices, but they were muffled, as though something were covering her ears. Worse, something was covering her entire body—dirt, or some kind of pebbly rubble. Perhaps the ceiling had collapsed; there was something heavy resting on her back.

She could move, kind of, but it felt wrong. Her limbs felt swollen and stiff. They must be numb since she couldn’t feel her hands, fingers, or feet. Had they been crushed?

Panicked, she tried to remain motionless. Moving her crushed limbs would make them worse. Why didn’t she feel any pain? Was she in shock? Maybe. She felt cold, yet her surroundings felt warm. Was this blood loss? Was her body shutting down?

Winnie tried to scream—in distress, in pain, in fear. All that came from her mouth was a pitiful wail that sounded wrong. She couldn’t make words; her tongue felt swollen. And her teeth… were missing? Everything about her mouth was wrong. Everything about her body was wrong.

She screamed again. Again, the same raspy wail. This time, she didn’t stop.

Her inertia shifted; she was moving. Then something indistinct was before her, hardly visible in the dark. She screamed again. It came closer. It wasn’t human. Was it a ship? Someone in an armored suit? No. It was… a hand? A giant hand?

It flicked her on the face.

“Shut up, you. We’re talking.”

The hand floated away. Winnie followed it with her eyes. It was attached to a giant human, one that was holding her.

And then she understood.

She wasn’t buried underground.

She was being held by a human.

…a human that looked identical to her.

Winnie closed her eyes. Concentrating on her power, she visualized herself.

She was a tortoise.

She screamed all over again. In her mind, she saw her tortoise-self make the same little yelping gasps Marzipan had been making. It was pitiful. No one would ever know what she was trying to convey. This was a terrible dream, or a bad trip. Even her mind felt broken and sluggish.

A part of her was aware of her bladder releasing.

“Oh, hell,” her human body said. It shuffled her from hand to hand as it shook off urine. It looked her in the eye again. It’s expression was alien to Winnie, as though she’d seen the face a million times, and now it didn’t look like a face anymore. It took her time to realize it was sneering.

“Tell me we don’t have to take these shits with us.” Winnie’s tortoise ears could hardly make sense of his words. It was only through her power that she could understand him.

“No,” said Helena, or whoever was occupying her body, “We can leave them. This one though.” The Helena impostor stepped over the enclosure and picked up Marzipan, or rather the real Helena. Everything was starting to make terrible sense. “This is Victoria’s daughter. We will take her with us.”

Winnie’s body put Winnie on the ground. Winnie tried to stand, but failed.

“Hold it.” This was the caretaker. “That one has a power.”

“This one?” A foot rested on Winnie, keeping her pinned.

“Yes. It has awareness of all that it chooses to notice, at least that’s my best guess.”

“Anything?”

“In the present physical world, yes.”

“Then Victoria will no doubt consider her valuable.” Helena’s imposter faced Winnie’s imposter. “Alex, hold on to her. Christof, are there any other powers here?”

“Three that I see,” the caretaker replied. “Sibyl is over there. And there and there are two others.”

“Point them out. We’re taking them with us.”

“Why?” replied Winnie’s impostor, apparently Alex. “If we walk out of here with an armload of tortoises, we might draw some attention.”

“Victoria locked them in here just like she did us. They could be allies. And we need to know their powers. Anything they can do, she can do. Come.”

Alex picked Winnie up. They walked to the other enclosures. The one called Christof stopped before one. “Here is Sibyl.”

“Damnit,” the Helena impostor muttered.

Alex burst out laughing.

Winnie saw in her mind what was wrong. The tortoise was humongous. So much so that any one of them could climb on its shell. It’s plaque said it was a Galapagos tortoise.

Oh my God,” Alex said. “She’s still a fat-ass.” He stooped to look the tortoise in the eye. It gazed back. “Oh. Oh my. They had to put her on a diet… because she was gaining weight.”

“Take this seriously,” impostor Helena said.

“Should we swap her with one of the other tortoises?” Christof asked.

“We’ll have to.”

“Or,” Alex regained his composure, “we leave her, because she’s deadweight. Heavy deadweight.”

“We are not leaving her behind,” impostor Helena said. “Or any of the powers.”

“We can’t have much time. Any minute she could figure out we’ve escaped. We can’t go saving everyone.”

“Would you rather I have left you?”

I am useful. Sibyl is not.”

“We are not leaving anyone behind. You might not realize this, but Victoria is the queen of the world now.”

What?” Christof said.

“Of course I know that,” Alex replied.

“Then you will realize that escaping is just the beginning of our problems. She will hound us to the ends of the earth. We need allies. We need to work together.”

“Hold on,” Christof said. “She’s the queen? Of the world?”

The Helena impostor hushed him. A white flashlight beam danced from behind the trees and shrubs. Winnie could see who it was long before they could. Two guards were approaching. She recognized one from the night before.

“How many?” Helena impostor peered toward the light? “Is it two?”

“Yes. Two,” answered Christof. “Do we hide?”

“No. They must know we’re here. But this is good. Alex, you can read tortoise minds, right?”

“Did you miss just now when I read Sibyl’s?”

“Go with Christof. Figure out which of the other two will most likely help us and bring them. Go. Be quick!”

Christof hid the tortoise in his hands behind the enclosure. Alex did the same with Winnie. They hurried off toward the other enclosures. As the guards approached, the Helena impostor likewise put Helena out of view with the others. Winnie knew what was about to happen, the impostor would need her hands free, because she was about to steal those guard’s bodies.

This was a nightmare. No, it was worse, because no matter how foggy or slow Winnie’s mind was working, she couldn’t wake up from this. It was reality, and it was all because of her. She had cracked Marzipan’s cage. She had invited that impostor to come down here, where all these other prisoners were. And now these guards would suffer too.

But right now, she couldn’t think about that. Her captors had put her down, and they were preoccupied with the coming guards. If there was ever a chance to escape, it was now. It wasn’t just a matter of saving herself and Helena, is was about not letting herself become a pawn.

These people had been the queen’s prisoners once. They clearly still feared her. She would have all of their powers on that necklace of hers. That meant she could swap bodies. Why had she never told anyone about that? …well, there were probably a thousand reasons why not, but Winnie didn’t ponder them right now. What was important was that Victoria had the power fix all of this.

If Winnie could get away, then she couldn’t be used against Victoria. It was all she could do, but it would help.

It was time to figure out how to be tortoise.

Winnie concentrated on her new body. Her limbs felt like stumped clubs. She tried setting them on the ground and lifting. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get her legs beneath her. It had to be possible though.

She looked at herself with her mind and saw a tortoise trying to do ballet with its legs bunched up beneath it. Of course that was wrong. Tortoises walked with their legs out to the side. She tried it. The stumps of her new limbs pressed flat against the ground. She felt like a bow-legged cowboy, but it worked. Concentrating, she put on foot in front of the other. It was progress. Up ahead, she could see the shrubs along the side of the walkway. If she disappeared into that, then maybe she could hide from her captors.

Then a tortoise cried from behind her. Glancing with her mind, she saw Helena struggling to catch up. She was doing the same ballet leg bunching Winnie was doing. Close behind her was the caretaker. He’d figured out how to stand and was looking from Winnie to Helena. He couldn’t possibly know what was going on, but he seemed more in control that Helena.

It was excruciating waiting for Helena to catch up, but Winnie did so. She kept her mental eye on the humans.

The guards came close. The one with a flashlight was potbellied. He aimed the light at the impostor.

She shielded her eyes. “Hello?”

“Your Highness? Are we going to go through this again?”

The potbellied guard heard Alex and Christof mucking about at the other enclosures. He shined his light. “Who’s over there?”

The others approached. Alex carried a tortoise.

“You’re taking them out for a stroll this time, I see.” The guard focused on Christof, who was in the caretaker’s body. “Did you let them in here?”

“I did,” Christof replied.

“This couldn’t wait until morning? This place is supposed to be off limits at this hour.”

“Nevermind that,” Alex said. “Look at this little guy. Here.” He held the tortoise out toward the guard with the flashlight.

“I don’t want to—”

Helena grabbed his hand and slapped it onto the tortoise’s back.

A shiver passed through all of them. The guard collapsed. “Wooaah,” he yelled. “Woah woah woah. What? What the fuck?”

The other guard reached for his sidearm, but Alex, Christof, and the Helena impostor swarmed him. Each grabbed an arm and wrestled him into the pen with the galapagos tortoise.

“What. Hey?” The struggling guard fought against the others, but his legs caught on the low enclosure wall and he tumbled backward next to the giant animal. The Helena impostor placed a hand on both. Another shiver.

The giant tortoise wailed and thrashed. The Helena impostor and the others quickly got out of the enclosure.

Compared to the flashlight guard. Whoever took this person’s body was much more calm. They looked about wildly, then settled their gaze on the Helena impostor. “Sakhr?”

“Yes, it’s me,” the Helena impostor said.

She looked about at the other two. “Alexander? Christof?”

“That’s right,” Christof said.

Winnie’s mind caught on that. Alex was short for Alexander? There was a man in her body? That was such a worse violation than before. What would that man do with it? If Winnie got her body back, would it ever feel clean again? She tried not to dwell on it. Helena had finally figured out how to walk like a tortoise. She caught up with Winnie, and together with the caretaker, they hiked into the shrubs. Winnie led the way.

“How did you escape,” the guard asked. They’d called him Sibyl, right? That was a woman’s name.

“It’s a long story,” Sakhr said.

“Yes,” Alex said. “And quick question. Am I drunk?”

“Yes. We both are.”

“Ah. I see.” Alexander took the sidearm from the one called Sibyl. She didn’t seem to notice. He pondered for a moment how to holster it on the dress Winnie had been wearing, then made do with tucking it down down Winnie’s cleavage. It hung out of the dress awkwardly, but stayed put.

“Excuse me!” This yell came from behind them. The guard who’d held the flashlight was still sitting on the ground. Beside him lay the tortoise Alexander had carried. In the struggle, it had dropped onto the walkway. Its shell cracked open. Red flesh glistened within. Blood seeped. The wails it made were pitiful. Winnie had only been a tortoise for minutes, but she already understood its pain—like having her nails crack and fall off, exposing the nail bed, only for her entire back. Whoever was inside that tortoise was going to die, slowly and miserably.

She could only plod onward.

The impostors turned their attention to the guard sitting down.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “I’m free?”

“In a matter of speaking,” replied Sakhr.

“You freed me?”

“I got you out of the tortoise, yes.”

“Is Victoria dead? Are you the queen now?”

“No. This is a jailbreak. I have released you because we believe you might be of help to us in getting free.”

“Free?” said the man. “What are you escaping from?”

Alex chimed in. “He thinks you’re the queen’s daughter.”

“I am not,” Sakhr corrected. “I took this body for myself, just as I gave you that body.”

The man blinked, then glanced down at himself. “What the hell? Who the hell am I? Who’s body is this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s fat. I wasn’t fat. Where’s my body?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have time to get you another body right now. We are currently inside—”

“Will we get my body back?”

“Listen. The only reason we got you out is because my friend here thinks you can help us escape,” Sakhr gestured to Alex, “but if you’re going complain, we can put you back in the tortoise and leave you. Understand?”

The man looked at the broken tortoise beside him. It didn’t move much anymore.

“Yeah. Okay. I get it,” the man said, “but we will deal with this later, right? This isn’t my body forever now. Maybe we’ll find mine?”

Sibyl spoke. “And do you think maybe I could get a woman’s body? I don’t want to be a man.”

Sakhr held his palms up. “Later, everyone. Right now, I want to know who you are.” He looked at the other man.

“I’m Quentin Avery.”

“Do you have a power?”

“A what?”

“Yes, he does,” answered Christof. “Some kind of understanding of the world around him.”

“He has an extra sense?”

Christof shook his head. “No. It’s… understanding, not knowledge or awareness. He intuits the natural world.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Quentin asked.

Sakhr studied him. “Your power. Your… flair, I suppose. You do know about it, don’t you?”

“Flairs? You mean those magic things? No. I don’t have a flair.”

Katherine never told him,” Alex said, “but he’s an inventor. This is the guy who developed repulser technology. He didn’t have to work very hard at it either. Hey,” he snapped his finger at Quentin. “Look at me.”

Quentin gave him a scrunched look. Alex gazed back as though reading small font.

He was reading Quentin’s mind, without a glyph. That made him the original mind reader, not Bishop as Victoria had let Winnie believe. All of these people were the original flairs, and they hadn’t been Victoria’s loyal exemplars, but her captives. That meant Winnie and Sara the shield girl were the only two flairs who weren’t prisoners. Winnie didn’t have time to dwell on the implications of that either. Right now, she needed to escape.

She, Helena, and the caretaker were well off the path, but they weren’t hidden yet. She’d already found a spot beneath a hedge where they could hide. Its underneath was a pocket that a human would have a hard time reaching into. If nothing else, it would stall these impostors and buy Victoria more time to find out about this. If Victoria set all this right, Winnie would never, ever, ever do anything disobedient again.

Alex was still scrutinizing Quentin’s eyes. “Yeah. Science. That’s his power, and he definitely didn’t get it from studying. Katherine kept him in the dark on purpose.”

“What the hell are you all talking about?” said Quentin. “Who’s Katherine.”

“You know her as Victoria,” Sakhr said. “You have a supernatural power. She knew about it, but she never told you.”

“What? How the hell could you know?”

“Because we too have powers. I can swap bodies with others. Alexander here can read minds. Christof can see your power directly. Sibyl is an empath. You, it seems, have a supernatural understanding of the sciences.”

“Uh, or I’m… you know, intelligent.”

“Perhaps. We’ll discuss it later. Only one question matters now. Victoria locked us into these animals and kept us like pets. I don’t know how long I’ve been her captive, but now that I’m out, I will make her pay for what she did to me, and ensure she can never threaten me again.” He stared fixedly at Quentin. “I don’t know you. I don’t know what your relationship with her was or why she locked you away like us. All I care about is this: Will you help me destroy her?”

A smile spread over Quentin’s face. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll help you. Let’s kill the bitch.”

“Excellent.” Sakhr turned to Christof. “The other tortoise. Does he have useful powers?”

“Very useful,” Christof replied.

“Unfortunately,” Alex said, “he won’t help us.”

“Why not?”

“He’ll be a liability. Trust me.”

“Hmm. Get him anyway.” He scanned the ground. Winnie could tell he was looking for her and the others. Fortunately, they were just now entering the hidden pocket beneath the shrub.

“Sibyl?” Sakhr said. “There are three people hiding from us. Where are they?”

Sibyl didn’t even have to to think. She pointed, through the leaves and bushes, directly at Winnie. “Are you talking about them over there?” she asked. “They crawled away when they thought no one was looking.”

Winnie’s heart sank. Of course the empath would see her. Winnie’s great escape amounted to nothing. The imposters reached the bush before Winnie could even consider running farther.

She wasn’t going to go peacefully though. She oriented herself toward them and prepared.

Christof and Sibyl knelt and reached for them. Winnie snapped her jaw. Christof whipped his hand away.

“Damn,” he said. “They’re fighting.”

Winnie tasted blood. It was the caretaker’s body. Hopefully he’d be okay with that once he got his body back.

Sibyl reached from the other side and snatched Helena. Helena thrashed and snapped, but it didn’t help. The caretaker had his jaw ready, but Christof caught him from behind too, giving him no chance to fight back. Only Winnie was left, but they wouldn’t sneak up on her. Her power let her see their approach. Christof got down on his belly and reached in from two sides. Winnie whipped her head back and forth to face both hands, her jaw ready to clamp.

He reached with his left, she snapped, then he latched his right onto her shell. With leverage, he kept her from turning as he got a steady hold of her and pulled her out. He peered at her at eye level. “That wasn’t nice,” he said.

Back with the others, Sakhr took Helena from Sibyl.

“What about these two?” asked Christof.

“Leave them.”

“But this one has powers.”

“Oh, right.” He considered. “Then yes. Bring it.”

“What’s the plan?” asked Alex.

“Simple,” said Sakhr. “No one knows that we’re out yet, but we’re still not free. As far as anyone else can tell, I’m the queen’s daughter and you’re all with me. We walk out the front door.”