64. Surveillance

“No. Not there,” Sakhr said. “The grid station. Look there.”

Winnie flew her mind’s view from the guard post in Northern England to a grid station farther south, from where swarms of shuttles were taking off and landing. The station was small though—maybe a hundred commuters and a dozen staff. Winnie quickly looked at each of the people working there. One of them was supposed to be an exemplar, but none were. And records indicated that the exemplar posted here hadn’t checked in for his flight back to Porto Maná.

Sakhr sighed. He took his hand off Sibyl’s plaque and added a note to the exemplar’s record on his computer. Tabbing back to the exemplar management software, he issued a remote wipe for that exemplar’s plaque. Remote wipe confirmed.

“Next one,” Sakhr said. “Exemplar Reynolds. Here’s his address.” Sakhr handed his tablet Winnie. It showed a map. This address was in Korea. Seeing it brought a pang of homesickness. Without thought, her mind sought out her mother in California, who was in the kitchen of their home. She was cooking. Circles of dumpling dough were laid out before her, but she wasn’t stuffing them. She just stood there, staring into nothing. It seemed like every time Winnie looked home, her mother was doing that, like a machine that was breaking down. Some day, she’d just freeze altogether, perpetually stopped in the middle of some chore. She’d gather dust.

“Focus,” Sakhr said.

Winnie zoomed in on the tablet, but her mind found the location before it finished loading. After several hours, the process of tracking down missing exemplars had become streamlined. It sped things up considerably when Sakhr, aggravated at their slow progress, had finally given Winnie a human body—Sibyl’s specifically. Meanwhile, Sibyl sat camped on top of the plaque which lay between Winnie and Sakhr. That woman took being a tortoise in stride. She didn’t flounder once or fail to use her legs correctly, nor had she complained. She slept while Sakhr frequently laid a hand on the plaque to read Winnie’s mind as she saw what Sakhr told her to see.

And she’d seen so much. All day, Sakhr had her standing by to look in one place or another. He’d had her eavesdrop on conversations between officers, diplomats, and ministers. Most had said nothing interesting, but occasionally one said something unpatriotic, sometimes about the failing empire, or sometimes about the strange rumors going around about Queen Helena. Winnie had also helped Sakhr locate over a hundred exemplars, and thereby condemn them to being hunted.

Winnie felt sick helping him like this. She’d tried slowing down, doing just enough work so that Sakhr didn’t consider her slacking, but since Sakhr was looking in her mind constantly, he saw what she was doing.

She thought of yanking the battery pack on the high exemplar plaque. It would be quick; Sakhr couldn’t possibly react fast enough to stop, but she knew if she considered the idea seriously, Sakhr would put her back in the tortoise. And what’s the point? He’d lose a single shield. And only until Paul gave in. In the meantime, Helena would suffer for it.

“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.

“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”

“Look at me.”

Winnie did so.

If Sakhr had any upset over her considered rebellions, he didn’t show it. “Look at his place of work. He’s stationed here.” He indicated an airport named “Incheon International” on his tablet.

Winnie pulled up the map. She zeroed in and began searching. The airport was a large place. It took her some time to search out all the security terminals where an exemplar might be posted, and then to check for any work logs in offices. She and Sakhr stared at each other the entire time.

During this search, there was a long moment of silence.

“Why don’t you and Alex get along?” she asked.

Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.

“I mean, it seems like you two argue all the time. Do you put up with him because of his power? Because—”

“No.”

“No? No… that’s not the only reason you—”

“No. Stop talking. Focus.”

“Oh.”

And that was that. In the many following hours, she and Sakhr didn’t say anything else that wasn’t directly related to his work. The repetition was exhausting, yet Sakhr kept her working right up to the point someone knocked on the door. Alexander.

Sakhr called him in, and Winnie was brought face to face with her own body once again. Only this time she was human too. He was within reach, and the only person in the world who could set it straight was sitting two feet from her. It was infuriating that there was nothing she could do.

Alex approached. “Your advisor is too afraid to come in here and tell you that your plane had been sitting on the landing pad for over twenty minutes.”

“Damnit.” Sakhr looked at the time. Half standing, he closed down the exemplar app.

“I’m surprised you’re okay with leaving,” said Alex.

“They’re not giving me much of a choice, are they?”

“You could just say fuck it. If the minister really needed to talk, he’d come to you.”

Sakhr grunted. He wasn’t interested in discussing it. Alex glanced at the tortoise.

“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.

“Satisfactorily. You’ll take her back to her box. You won’t persuade her in any way.”

“Gotcha.” Alex approached.

For one baffling moment, Winnie thought Sakhr was going to let Alex take Sibyl away, but Sakhr stopped him. He took Sibyl off the plaque, rousing her from her sleep, and looked to Winnie.

Winnie hadn’t been her own body, but it had still been nice being human again. Sighing, she placed a hand on the tortoise. Sakhr placed his on top of hers. Her senses yanked away.

For one brief, brief moment, she thought she was looking out of Helena’s eyes, but no. She was in the tortoise. Her mind was noticeably sluggish once again. Alex picked her up none too gently. He carried her down several floors to the spire base, and then to the kitchenette. Helena was there in the box.

Alex approached, but he didn’t put Winnie down yet. He turned her around and looked at her face to face, except Winnie didn’t have to answer to him, so into her shell she went, covering her face with her stubby little legs.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said. “Look me in the eyes.”

Winnie stayed as she was.

“Just because Sakhr is happy doesn’t mean you’re safe. Sooner or later, we’re going to have a master glyph. That means he won’t need you anymore.” Alex got closer to her. “Do you think he’ll care what happens to you then?” He said those last words slowly, as though making sure even tortoise ears could understand him. “So maybe you should be a little friendlier to me. Now open your eyes.”

Pause.

“Open your eyes for her sake.”

Of course he was playing that same trick.

Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.

He studied her eyes. “Hmm. Interesting conversation you tried to start with him. I’ll remember that.” He studied her mind until satisfied, then set her down in the box. Helena was out and watching him.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “if Sakhr wants to pull you out again, you’re going to be a good girl and do what he wants. You don’t want him to bother me again.”

Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.

“Well, look at you,” he said. “Still angry I see.”

Alex stared her down silently. Whatever Helena conveyed made him snort derisively.

“And what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

A pause.

“Is that a promise?”

Pause.

“Tall threats coming from a tiny tortoise. You really just don’t get it, do you? We’ve already won. No one can help you, and even if someone could, they wouldn’t, because no one cares about you, Helena. Not even your own mother.”

He paused. “Oh come now. Do you honestly still believe she might swoop in and rescue you? That she’ll make everything right, and you’ll go on being heir to the throne?” He patted her shell. Helena backpedaled and opened her mouth, ready to snap should his fingers get close enough. “Believe it or not, little girl, you’re actually better off. Haven’t you figured out yet why she always treated you so poorly? Your mother was just as capable of swapping bodies as we are. Victoria wasn’t her first body, and it wasn’t going to be her last. That’s what you were to her—a body—a receptacle for her when her current one got old. She never loved you. She never let herself, because you were just… a spare part.”

Helena hissed.

“I don’t have to,” he continued. “I figured it just from what I’ve seen in your head. Why do you think she never bothered teaching you how to rule? Most heirs spend their entire childhoods learning about politics and rulership. You spent it shopping. The only thing you ever had to work for was your body. All that basketball and jogging was to keep Victoria’s future body nice and tight for her while her own ass grew bigger every day. I knew her as a child, kiddo. Your mother was obsessed with her own looks, and this is just like her. And the clever part about choosing her own daughter is that you’re already the heir. She never has to explain bodyswapping to the rest of the world.”

Alex stood. “You should be glad we killed her for you. What she did to you is more cruel than anything I could ever do. So how about you cut the attitude.”

He headed to the door. “Anyway, goodnight. Sleep tight.” He switched off the lights and left.

Helena remained staring straight at where Alex had been as though his words had petrified her. After a long pause, she rested down, and withdrew entirely into her shell.

Winnie wished she could say something, but she didn’t what she’d say. Nothing would make Alex’s words hurt less, because there was one irrefutable fact about them: they were true. Winnie saw that. Helena saw that. It explained too much too well.

There were so many times Helena had bragged to Winnie about their future together, so many times Helena talked about what she’d do once she became queen. Her entire life had been looking forward to that moment, but it wasn’t there anymore. It never had been. For the first time Helena saw her life for what it had always been: a tragic lie.

Winnie plodded over and tried to peek into Helena’s shell. She tried edging Helena’s feet out of the way of her face, but Helena resisted. Winnie only got a glance at her. Helena had pulled into her shell as far as she could. Whatever defiance—whatever fire—Helena had mustered was gone. She was just a tortoise now, defeated and helpless.

There was nothing Winnie could do. Helena simply wasn’t there.

62. Results

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

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

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

“These are people?” the other asked.

The first shrugged. “Guess so.”

“What’d they do to piss Alex off?”

“Shit if I know.”

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

It was a horror scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exemplars who had brought Winnie left.

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

Alexander waved him off. “He’s fine.”

You. Cannot. Let him. Die.

“We’re being careful.”

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

“That’s up to him.”

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

“Only for a moment.”

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

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

Sakhr scowled.

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

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

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

“If you’ll please,” said Alex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Male or female?”

Alex eyed Winnie. “…Female.”

“Sure thing, boss.” They left.

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

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

She kicked her hind legs, scratching at skin.

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

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

“I wasn’t.”

“Just hold her properly.”

“I am. Look.”

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

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

“Bring her.” Sakhr pointed to Winnie.

Alex didn’t move. “Nope.”

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

Alex jostled Winnie. “No, this is.”

“Then bring her.”

“No.”

“Alex…”

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

Sakhr eyed Alex.

“Trust me,” Alex handed Helena over.

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

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

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

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

Winnie didn’t look away from Helena.

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

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

Winnie relented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had selected a blowtorch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop.”

Everyone paused. It was Sakhr.

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

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

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

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

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

61. Impressionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul was painting again.

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

Paul kept painting as though he were alone.

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

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

“I wanted to finish our earlier conversation.”

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

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

“If you must, but nothing has changed.”

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

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

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

Paul didn’t respond.

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

“Queen.”

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

“Let them have it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How inconvenient.”

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

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

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

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

“Until she put you into a tortoise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you hoard the glyphs?”

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

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

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

“Even if it all settles down?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Would you free me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s still alive.”

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

“By someone other than your coven.”

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

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

“Likewise.”

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

“You have my word.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this your final choice?” Sakhr said.

Paul only painted.

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

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

60. Tell-all

There was a formal introduction, an image of the exemplar logo, and a string of numbers that Sakhr assumed had something to do with cryptography.

Then there were seven long paragraphs that outlined everything. Well, almost. It didn’t say anything about how Victoria was not actually Victoria but a fat little girl from Wisconsin, nor did it mention her involvement in the Collapse, but it did discuss how Sakhr was a captive of Victoria’s, how he could switch bodies, and how he had taken over Helena. It explained what he and his fellow coven members were capable of, how they could be dealt with, and what they were probably trying to do right now.

Then at the very bottom was High Exemplar Bishop’s digital signature.

Sakhr hadn’t even reached that point in the email before he wanted to scream at Alexander. When he did speak, it took remarkable will to keep his voice level. “You knew about this,” he said, “before I went to talk with the defense minister?”

“He seemed in a rush.”

“And you didn’t—” Sakhr caught himself. Alex was baiting him again, and he wouldn’t do that if this was actually as bad as it seemed. “Who received this announcement?”

“All of the exemplars.”

All of them?”

“All three hundred something.”

“And…?” He prompted Alex to get to the points he was clearly hiding.

“And I redacted the email ten minutes after it was sent out. It was a good thing I promoted myself. If I hadn’t spent the morning studying the high exemplar admin tools, I wouldn’t even have known about this.”

“You said you and Christof would deal with these high exemplars.”

“And we did. Mostly. Do you remember the marines who manhandled you on the tower roof? Apparently their sky captain swooped Bishop off his feet before we could get to him. They’re flying around the world right now.”

“Then shoot them down.”

“About that… Apparently they’re flying in a plane traveling about six times the speed of sound or some such. I’ve been informed that hitting something moving that fast is really hard, especially when it can change course and launch decoys. But don’t worry! I’ve cut them from all official channels. And the exemplar left his plaque behind, so no more damage there. When they land, we’ll be ready.”

“It’s too late, Alexander. How many people have seen that email?”

“Oh, come on. It was in their inboxes for ten minutes, and it’s a huge email. I bet most of them skimmed it and thought, ‘I’ll read this later.’ Now it’s gone.”

“Don’t be coy with me.”

“Look, we all knew we’d have to deal with the exemplars at some point. Don’t worry. I redacted the email, now I’ve shut down all the exemplars ability to contact each other, and I’ve called for widespread loyalty scanning. Every exemplar will be coming aboard this citadel.”

“They’ll what?”

“It only makes sense. We just had to terminate our high exemplars for treason. We can’t let the others go around without checking them over again. Over the next few days, every exemplar will be coming to this citadel. Those that don’t report in will be considered traitors. Their plaques will be wiped, and arrest warrants will be issued.”

Alex was doing it again, saying things to get a rise out of Sakhr. After two centuries, Sakhr would have thought the man would show some maturity regarding grave situations, but no.

Sakhr maintained his calm. “What is your plan?”

If Alex was disappointed at that reaction, he didn’t show it. “For that, come with me.”

Alexander led him down the imperial spire. From its lobby, they took considerably more cramped ladderwells below the top deck of the citadel. The people down here were not reporters or ministers, but soldiers and mechanics. Sakhr garnered startled glances and salutes.

“Where are we going, Winnie?” he said.

“Just a little farther,” Alex said.

Sibyl caught Sakhr by the arm. She leaned close. “The exemplars are ahead. We’re almost in their range.”

In response, Sakhr placed his hand upon her plaque. Information flooded his mind. Hundreds of people were within his immediate vicinity, and hundreds more blinking in and out along his Empathy’s periphery. He could not make sense of any of them, much less point out two and recognize them as the two exemplars aboard this ship he had been avoiding. Despite how meek Sibyl might be, she was helpful, even with glyphs of her power freely available. Alexander on the other hand…

“Where are you taking us?” Sakhr asked. “The exemplars are ahead.”

“Not much farther,” he said.

He led them down two more levels, through a corridor. They headed into a detainment area. An unmistakable stench filled the air. Hundreds of people were crammed together in squaller. The rabble was deafening. A few yelled at guards or made nuisances of themselves by rattling the bars of their cells. Most though were huddled in the back. They hardly reacted to anything, even their queen appearing before them. It brought back memories of slave pits from centuries ago.

“Why are we here?” Sakhr asked.

“This is just on our way,” Alex said. “These people are holdovers from when the Manakin was peacekeeping in North America. We called the citadel down here on such short notice that they didn’t have time to do anything about their detainees, so here they are. The onboard exemplars have been working to get these people processed, but until you lift the flight ban, we can’t send them out.”

“I thought this citadel was secured.”

“Oh it is. These people are locked up. General Whats-his-face and I came through here ourselves yesterday. Perfectly safe… even if it is a little smelly.”

Why are we here, Winnie?

“Okay, okay! Here. This is it.” Alex led Sakhr and Sibyl through a door past the detainment facility. It led to an observation room showing into an interrogation room containing two men handcuffed to the table. Both were clearly from the detainment facility. It struck Sakhr as odd to have two people on the same side of an interrogation table.

“Meet Wyatt and Ben,” Alex said. “The citadel picked them up in Virginia.” He pointed to one, a gaunt man who stared down at his clasped hands. He was more filthy than a few days in lockup could explain, as though he were only vaguely familiar with baths. To Sakhr, everything about him spoke of drugs, from his unkempt look to his frantic rocking. “Wyatt is a suspect in several gang muggings.” Alex then pointed to the other, a larger man—just as unkempt, who stared at the viewing window with narrowed eyes, as though guessing where to look—trying intimidate whoever was behind it. He was guessing wrong. “As for Ben, Lakiran forces picked him up at a checkpoint when an exemplar noticed how nervous his aura was. A scan showed he was part of a raider gang called the Novo Puro. It gained power during the post Collapse rationings. They’re your standard rape and pillage type.”

“And I care about them why?”

“The two exemplars aboard this citadel are about to scan them to determine whether they pose any risk to the empire. If they’re found guilty, which they are, they’ll go into permanent detainment in one of the empire’s camps. Tough for Wyatt. I don’t think they have much heroine there.” Alex faced Sakhr. “Anyway, I thought you’d like to sit in on their interrogation.”

Sakhr finally saw the point.

“These two? Of all the people you could have found? These two?”

“They were in gangs. That means loyalty. And no, not just these two. We have over three hundred exemplars coming.”

“And we’re going to replace them with those refugees? This is your solution?”

“This is my temporary solution. Like I said, we don’t know how many exemplars read that email. Even if they didn’t. Do you really want a bunch of mind-reading munchkins running about?”

Sakhr was scowling.

“Look, I know you don’t like this. It’s a bad situation, but we have to do something. Ben and Wyatt will work, for a while. I vetted them myself. I can manage them. They have to play along, because if our secret is out, so are they.”

“I don’t like this.”

“Because there’s nothing about it to like, but it’s not like we’re going to replace all the exemplars. Just the ones who are suspicious. And we just have to keep this up until we get a master glyph, then we can raise our hiring standards. Until then, we’re in a fix.”

Sibyl tugged on Sakhr’s sleeves. “The exemplars are coming,” she whispered.

“Looks like it’s time to decide,” Alex said. After a pause he added, “If it helps, I’ve already talked to Wyatt and Ben about this, and they’re in. But this does mean that if we don’t swap out the exemplars, they’re going to see one hell of a conversation in Ben and Wyatt’s mind.”

Sakhr gave him a withering look. Alex shrugged innocently. A knock came at the door.

Alexander was going to be the death of him some day.

59. Ceremony

“Are you willing to take the oath?”

“I am willing,” replied Sakhr.

He stood before the Lakiran minister of Justice, Leonard Finman. The ancient man was orating his way through vows that Sakhr had okayed an hour beforehand.

Crowded around them was Sibyl, Christof, a few selected press members, and whatever of Victoria’s legislative cabinet could arrive on such short notice. The others were regional ministers from around South America, and the ministers of agriculture, public health, and defense.

No more than a dozen people were there, cramped into a tiny room in Sakhr’s new “Imperial Spire”.

“Do you solemnly swear to govern the Peoples of the Lakiran empire, the Peoples of Europe, South Africa, of the Middle Eastern Unification Party, the Peoples of…”

Finman continued listing territories. Sakhr had asked why the minister didn’t just say “the world” if Victoria had recently managed to conquer everything, to which the minister of defense clarified that her domination wasn’t as true as people believed. Telling the public that the empire owned the world was a stretched truth for the sake of appearances. However, saying so during the coronation could cause upset during an already turbulent time.

And so everyone stood silently while Finman rattled off every political entity that could safely be labeled part of the empire, substituting in political parties instead of countries when appropriate.

“I solemnly swear,” Sakhr replied when the old man finished. He held his hand upon a bible Finman held out. That had been the public health minister’s idea at the last moment, though it might as well have been a comic book for all the weight it held with Sakhr. He suspected the vows Finman read were cribbed from the internet. This entire affair was a farce. This empire had never seen a coronation before.

“Will you do your utmost to maintain the laws of God?”

“I will.”

Another religious remark. Sakhr had noted all those references earlier. But why? Had Victoria convinced the people that she was queen through divine right? Were her laws actually God’s laws? It baffled Sakhr how anyone could believe that given the corporate nature of Victoria’s rise to power. It might have made sense given how her government made use of supernatural abilities… except she had carefully hidden that fact.

Sakhr agreed to more vows, then Finman wrapped it up by declaring him queen. Cameras clicked as everyone bowed. Sakhr stood before the audience as the supreme ruler. He possessed the body of a sixteen year old girl, and these generals and admirals and politicians waited for him to tell them what to do. They expected words, and even though Sakhr hadn’t yet tracked down Victoria’s speech writers, he knew his part. He’d been in positions like this many times before.

“Citizens of the Lakiran Empire. Let’s not pretend that today is a day of celebration. It’s a day of perseverance. In the wake of this national tragedy, we must maintain hope. My mother accomplished so much during her short reign. She brought this empire together and delivered us from hard times. I promise I will finish what she started, despite what our enemies would wish. We will find the people who stole our beloved queen from us. But above all, we will show them that they cannot stagger us with their senseless acts of terrorism. We are stronger than they can possibly imagine. We persevere. Thank you.”

Sakhr unceremoniously left as the small crowd murmured. Sibyl followed. Alex was waiting for him in the back hall, sitting on a bench with his feet swinging. He somehow made a young teenager look younger. For whatever reason, he was wearing the garb of an exemplar, though it had a frill on it that Sibyl’s uniform lacked.

“Interesting speech, Your Majesty,” Alex said. “Short and to the point.”

“Interesting uniform.”

“Thanks! The queen just promoted me to high exemplar.”

“Did I now?”

“Don’t worry. Nepotism is your style. Besides, you seem to be in short supply of high exemplars now.”

Before he could say anything else, Defense Minister Lowden came from the conference room and caught Sakhr’s attention.

“Your Majesty, something has come up.”


“…by now we’ve lost ground as far south as Mumbai,” the Defense minister said. He had led Sakhr and Sibyl to a private room where he already had a tablet screen showing a map of India. “At this point, the only place we have retained any presence is on the peninsula. If we lose hold there, our repulse lines will go with it. If that happens, our only connection between China and the middle east will be our ocean grid.”

“Why is this still happening?” Sakhr posed it as a simple inquiry. “Yesterday you told me we were evacuating civilian personnel from New Delhi. That’s it. Now you’re telling me we’ve lost hold over nearly all of India? It’s been forty-eight hours since my mother died. How is so much ground lost?”

“Our hold on Asia and the middle east has always been frail,” explained Lowden. “All it took was one sign of weakness like an attack on the capital. Now every rebel group across the world has taken it as a sign to strike.”

“You’ll need to pardon me, Prime minister, but I don’t have any background on our military situation.” According to Alexander, Sakhr was always safe to admit ignorance. Apparently, Princess Helena’s knowledge about the empire’s operations was famously appalling. “I thought our military is superior to anything our enemies had to offer.”

“That’s not as true as it used to be, Your Majesty. When this war started, the other nations were using ordinary explosive-propellant weaponry, no problem for our reflex shields. But they’ve caught up. For the last few years, our resistance usually matches us in technology.”

“Okay, but they don’t have flying fortresses, do they?”

“No ma’am, they don’t.”

“Then how can we possibly be having trouble?”

“The rioters outnumber us, ma’am.”

“How many soldiers do we have in India?”

“We currently have eight hundred active on the ground. Our Air Force adds another four fifty.”

“Eight… hundred? You must—must—mean eight hundred thousand.”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”

Shutting his eyes, Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose—a gesture any from his coven would recognize. He was mustering the strength to tolerate the imbeciles the world has inflicted upon him.

“We were holding onto the country of India—the entire country,” he indicated to the map, “with less people than we’d need to fill a highschool? How the hell could we possibly believe we had occupied the territory?”

“Well, we did have several thousand civilians out there.”

“To how many locals?”

“About thirty million. But again, that’s considering the entire Indian region. The country itself only exists on maps, ma’am. Like the rest of the world, it’s broken down into small splinters of self-regulated communities. We’re only policing select communities, the rest are left to their own devices.”

“Why?”

Lowden shrugged. “Because we don’t have the manpower to occupy them. Lakira’s active military population numbers near forty thousand, and we occupy land across the entire globe.”

Sakhr indicated the map on the display before them. “Are we this thinly spread everywhere?”

“Just about, ma’am. The North Americas have a stronger presence, as do Europe and South Africa. The rest are more like India.”

“Are we seeing any signs of rebellion?”

“I’m afraid so. Locals are holding rallies in China and the middle east. Those places may get worse, especially once word reaches them about our failure in India.”

“And I assume if that happens, we’ll have to pull out of those territories as well?”

“Most likely, ma’am.”

“Why? Why would we spread ourselves this thin?”

“Your mother’s goal was to unite the world. The famine caused by the nuclear winter undermined the infrastructure of most countries. In the first years, all we had to do was offer countries food and supplies in exchange for capitulation. Hardly any military presence was required since we had monopoly on Food Ready assembler technology. The only resistance we encountered was the People’s Republic of China. Because of their greenhouse initiatives, they maintained some level of independence. But now that the effects of the global winter are lessening, crops are growing again… in some places. Your mother pushed for our occupation to be complete before countries could ‘get back on their feet’, so to speak.”

“I see…”

“We’ve been getting away with it because of our technological edge. Assembler tech has allowed our few soldiers go the extra mile. With citadels and orbital deployment, we can have our troops where we need them, when we need them.”

“But it’s failing now?”

“Too many situations have come up at once. We can’t be everywhere.”

“So what it sounds like you’re saying, Minister, is that it’s all an elaborate bluff.”

“Ma’am?”

“We have ships large enough to blot out the sun, and repulse grids that float thousands of shuttles at once, but just like our boast that we own the world, it’s all for presentation. We’ve been holding these territories because we’ve created the illusion that our armies are more all-encompassing than they actually are. Now that people have seen that we can be hurt, they’re rising up, and our scary ships are flying away. The only real leverage we hold over these countries is our control over their food sources, which you’re saying won’t be for much longer.”

“That’s about the heart of it, ma’am.”

It was all coming clear for Sakhr—not just the political atmosphere, but the truth about this rulership. He spent years sitting in that cage watching Victoria work. She’d take him on trips sometimes so he could see how far she was coming. On late nights when she would personally clean his cage, she’d lament about her problems as world ruler. It was her way of gloating. She’d accomplished what he himself had dismissed as impossible centuries ago. The world was hers.

And now that chance had given him everything she’d worked to create, it had seemed too good to be true. Two days into his new life, he saw that it was. Conquering the world was still just as difficult as he had always known it would be. Victoria had destroyed everything in order to claim it, and even then—even with her supernatural advantage, her ruthless strategy, and her cunning—even with her armies and technology and her media which touted her as ruler of the free world—she had been far from done.

And Sakhr had taken the reigns.

A common daydream found its way into his head. He could escape. All he’d need to do was excuse himself from the defense minister, find some body he wanted to take over—someone who wouldn’t attract attention—and disappear. He wouldn’t even tell the other witches he was leaving. No more Christof, Sibyl, and certainly no more Alexander. They were luggage. It’d be just himself drifting the world, free to do as he pleased and be who he wanted. How many centuries had it been since he’d truly been free?

There would be complications. He’d have to avoid exemplars, and he’d have to kill Helena’s body to cover his tracks, and he’d have to find some place safe while the world sorted out the resulting political turmoil.

The more he thought about it, the more “ands” that kept popping up. Running wouldn’t work. This rulership had fallen into his lap, and now he was stuck with it. It wasn’t done, but he could finish it. He deserved this. After decades of being that woman’s hostage, he would take from her what she so longed to have, and he would make it his own. In a way, it always was his. Victoria existed because of the actions he took so long ago, and it was his power she used to instrument everything. She had accused him of never succeeding in ruling the world, but she was wrong. He had made her. And now here he was.

“We still supply them with food, don’t we?” asked Sakhr.

“Yes, we have assembler stations in all the major cities. We ship food to the less populated districts. Unfortunately, we’ve had to evacuate many of our stations along the north, but many are still operational.”

“Evacuate them all. Remove the equipment. Isn’t that something my mother would have done?”

“Cut them off? No. She’d control the food supplies and imports of luxury food items, but she never cut off the food supply entirely. Experience has shown us that food will find its way in somehow, usually they smuggle it from somewhere we’re still supplying.”

“So we shut it all down, the entire region. There won’t be an alternate supply.”

Lowden fidgeted. “You’re suggesting that we starve the riots out?”

“Yes. Exactly. It sounds to me that these people have to remember who it is that keeps them alive. We’ll give them a few weeks to remember.”

“Your mother… used the food lines as a means of earning other country’s cooperation as part of her unification, but at its heart, it is a humanitarian project. We helped people who were starving. We never intentionally starved people.”

The remark nearly made Sakhr laugh. “Do you actually believe that? If Victoria were being a humanitarian, she would have made the assembler tech available to the public.”

“She was going to… in the beginning. In the aftermath of the Collapse. Her first priority was to create as many of the Food Ready assemblers as possible to feed the world, but then the world governments started collapsing. Smaller groups arose to take control. Those sorts were inevitably opportunists… warlords and despots. When we tried releasing assemblers to cooperative groups, these warlords would invade and seize the assemblers for themselves. They’d supply food to their own soldiers while letting the people they oppressed go hungry. That’s why we’ve had to police the technology. But believe me, your mother has been working from the beginning to produce as many of the machines as she can. Yes, we do use food to manage control, but it’s simply a sad reality that we haven’t the manpower to maintain order otherwise. Your mother never withdrew humanitarian aid as a means of punishing the population.”

From the urgency of Lowden’s words, Sakhr could tell that, yes, he actually did believe it. Did it never occur to him that Victoria was just another one of those despots taking advantage of the situation? How fascinating. Was her entire military cabinet this naive?

“Well perhaps, Minister, that is part of our problem. We’ve been helping all these countries for years, and they turn around and launch an attack on our capital. They kill my mother. Perhaps our reluctance to punish has made them forget that we give them our food in exchange for their loyalty.”

“We don’t know who invaded the Capital Tower, ma’am. We’re still carrying out an—”

“Who else could it have been, Minister? Locals? No. It was either a remnant of the European Democratic Alliance or some terrorist group. And now they’re taking advantage of our weakness. Withdraw the food.”

“Ma’am. That could backfire. Like I said, the land is starting to support crops again. This may force them to become independent of our supplies.”

“Then locate any crops and burn them.”

Lowden recoiled. “Ma’am? Surely not.”

Did Victoria tolerate this much backtalk? “Yes. Burn them. They’re taking advantage of us during our crisis, so we must show them that will not stand.”

“But, ma’am. That flies in the face of our restoration initiative. We’ve been helping our more settled territories to repair the environment and agriculture. What message would it send if we’re reconstructing agriculture in the Americas while burning fields in Asia?”

“We’re helping countries plant crops?”

“North America and Western Europe have been fully cooperative. Their place in the empire is secure. Your mother’s ultimate intent has always been to undo the damage of the winter.”

“If they’re cooperating, then they don’t need punishing.” Sakhr accentuated the words of that sentence. It had the desired effect. Any arguments Lowden had got lost before finding their way out his mouth.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll pass along your orders.”

“Good. Is there anything else?”

“Not at the moment, ma’am. I’ll keep you updated.”

Lowden left. Outside would be Sakhr’s security, ready to show him to whatever emergency beckoned next, but he lingered. After fiddling with the map display, he figured out how to zoom out until the entire world showed. It still only showed information about the Indian region, and Sakhr didn’t know enough about the software to change that. He’d have a lot of learning to do—seventeen years of modern technology and politics, but he’d get there. Right now, all he wanted was a satellite view of the world, and that’s what this showed.

The world was not as green as he remembered. A lot of brown and gray. And stretches of white where it had no right to be. He supposed the “environment initiatives” were a necessity; this world certainly needed fixing. But it seemed counter-intuitive to him to actively encourage farming, even if only in places not prone to protests. Victoria had been right. Controlling the food was effective. So why ruin that edge with environmentalism? If she’d actually cared, she wouldn’t have caused the winter in the first place. As far as Sakhr was concerned: the world was a mess, and it would always be a mess. The advantage must be maintained.

When the time came, Sakhr would readdress this initiative, once he knew more. There’d be time to readdress everything.

He and Sibyl left the small office. Alexander was right outside, sitting on a different bench, as though he’d wait all day. Again he smiled. This time there was no one to stop him.

“Hi, Your Majesty.”

“What is it?”

In answer, Alex looked at Sibyl, who still wore the body of an exemplar. “Have you read your email today? Someone wrote a story about us.”

58. Port Hole Windows

Victoria had caused the war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come out. Come out. Come out.”

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie.”

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

“I’m on the phone,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Birds, ma’am?”

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

Laughlin nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“No birds.”

“Er… Understood, ma’am.”

“And my accommodations?”

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

“Then let’s get a move on.”

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

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

“This will work,” Sakhr said.

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

“General is fine,” Christof said shortly.

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Christof asked.

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

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

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

“Don’t need em.”

“You just threw him away?”

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

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

“Sakhr’s left me in charge of them.”

Christof regarded him skeptically.

“I’m serious,” Alex said.

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

“Just that one. The others are useful.”

“Useful…”

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

“Alex. These are just children.”

“I know.”

“They haven’t done anything to us.”

“I know.”

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

“I know all this.”

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

“I couldn’t agree more.”

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

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

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

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

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

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

He tapped Winnie’s shell.

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

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

Christof lingered, frowning after Alex.

57. Plantains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

The man nodded.

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

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

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

“Who’s body is this?”

“What?”

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

“Is that important?”

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

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

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

“I’m the man who freed you.”

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

“This is not my original body.”

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

“Yes.”

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

Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.

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

She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”

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

“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”

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

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

“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”

“Then six years.”

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

“So she actually did it, huh?”

“She told you about these plans?”

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

“What other things?”

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

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

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

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

“You never asked.”

Sakhr glared at him.

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

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

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

“I’m afraid so.”

“How… how bad was it?”

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

“I uh…. I see.”

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

“Where is she?”

“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”

“You think?”

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

“What accident?”

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

“You mean you killed her?”

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

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“And what became of her?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t a game.”

“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.

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

“Then you’re stuck.”

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

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

“No.”

“Then it makes no difference to me.”

Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.

“I told you…” Alex said.

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

“If you say so.”

56. Bloody Tiles

Fourteen hours. That’s how long Winnie had been a tortoise. She knew because it had been near one o’clock when she and Helena had broken into that stupid terrarium, and the clock in her dorm room read three in the afternoon now. She could have checked any clock in the world, yet her mind kept going back there. Despite being so close to where the tower fell, it was empty and clean. If she were there, it would almost be as if this nightmare wasn’t happening, except for the sirens in the distance.

Instead, she was in a maintenance room. At least, she thought it was. It was a small, tiled room lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, and its walls were lined with equipment racks. A lone door led into a landing hangar, where the soldiers had arrived after detaining Christof and Alexander. She’d hoped when she saw the soldiers arresting them, that the end had finally come, but then Alex started telling all those lies. How did they buy that? Didn’t they see how intently he was looking in their eyes before each word he said?

Winnie had squawked and hissed and climbed the edge of her box, but no one had even looked at her. When the soldiers had gotten back to base, they’d taken Alex straight to their general so Alex could spread even more lies, while they stashed Winnie, Helena, and the other tortoise in this room. Cold and tired, Winnie drifted in and out of sleep. After hours, hunger had set in that not even deep seated misery could hide. The most attention anyone gave them was the occasional private who came in, glanced at the box, and asked anyone nearby, “what are these doing here?” or, “should someone do something about these animals?” But the soldiers were too preoccupied watching television in the other room to bother; the news showed the world coming apart.

Dozens had died in the collapse. Rescue workers were being admitted to hospitals for radiation poisoning. Parts of the city were evacuating. The empire was in a state of emergency. Territories on the other side of the world saw this as the end of the Lakiran empire and were already talking about succession. Less stables countries were seeing wide scale riots. The death and destruction grew worse with every hour.

She wondered if it was easier for Helena, who was curled up in her shell at the other end of the box. Without the benefit of Winnie’s power, she couldn’t know about the hell she and Winnie had forced on the world. All she knew was cold and hunger. Time was meaningless for her.

Winnie, meanwhile, soared about with her flair, but nothing she saw made her feel better. The television in the other room had announced Victoria’s death hours ago. Winnie had already known. Her mind had been there when they’d dug her ruined body out of the twisted wreckage of her ship, just as she’d been there when Sakhr had killed General Soto, and the poor exemplar who came to scan the sick, and the doctor who’d treated Quentin. She was there every step of the way to see the ruination her actions had brought. She didn’t know why she bothered watching. What was the point? The one woman who could have fixed all this was dead.

Winnie wished so much she could take it all back that her regret seemed tangible, as though she could exert her will back to that single moment. Just a push perhaps. She could nudge herself so she fell against the birdcage instead of the terrarium, or maybe the cabinet on the other side. Maybe she could force a thought into her past self’s head. Don’t do it. Stop Helena. Stand up to her. You have no idea what hell awaits you, and how many people you’ll hurt. The tiniest change could derail all of this.

The pit in her stomach gnawed at her, but there was no food, and no one around. With nothing left to do, Winnie pulled into her shell. She just needed to shut out the world and try for a moment to forget this living nightmare.

Just for a while.


“I must say. None y’all look very happy this morning.”

The words awoke Winnie. Natural light shone just outside her shell. Using a trick she’d used many mornings while nestled in her bedsheets, she used her power to look around instead of peaking her head out.

She and Helena were still in the shipping crate in a maintenance room. It was morning, and a elderly man with a gentle smile knelt over her crate. The gray, curly fuzz on his head matched the beard outlining his white toothed smile. His limbs were thin and gnarled, like someone who’d spent his long life doing honest work under the sun.

All Winnie knew was that he wasn’t a soldier. He wore a simple pair of khakis and a faded shirt. Given that no one else was around, she wondered whether he’d just walked into the base, completely overlooked. Surely not.

“Don’t worry now,” he said. “I’m here. I haven’t forgot about you. Looks like we lost a few of our brothers and sisters, but you made it out. Y’all lucky devils.” After studying Helena, his brow furrowed. “Never seen you before.”

Helena emerged from her shell and looked back. When he picked her up, she thrashed in alarm.

“Calm down now,” the man said. “Just giving you the once over. Looks like you’re a uh… Hermann’s Tortoise? Male, hmm?” He grabbed Helena’s tail between two fingers and looked underneath. “Yep, male.”

Startling. Until now, Winnie had never considered the gender of these tortoise bodies. Everything felt foreign. Even thinking about it, she couldn’t tell what equipment she had. She concentrated, wiggled around a little, visualized her rear side. She was a… girl? Alex was a male though, right? It was his tortoise body she’d inherited. Had Victoria not bothered to match gender when putting people inside tortoises?

“You must be the upstairs tortoise,” the man said to Helena. “You’re lucky someone saved you. I heard you were kept under lock and key. Don’t matter to me. I’ll take you in. You can call me Gilles.”

He set Helena down, then examined Winnie and the other tortoise, talking soothingly all the while. “Don’t know what’s goin to happen to you two. In all this commotion, I think everybody done forgot about you lot. But here I am. Not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re okay today.”

At first, Winnie paid attention to what he said, but there wasn’t much content. Soon she let the words wash over her. It almost made her forget about her hell. The man’s touch was soothing. Given his expertise, she guessed he was one of the tower caretakers. He was lucky not to have been in the tower last night.

Gilles took up the crate and carried them to another building, into a lobby where a private was at attendance behind a desk.

“Ah, you found them,” the soldier said.

“Mmhmm,” said Gilles. “Are these all they saved? There musta been fifty animals in that tower at least.”

“These were all that were in the shuttle last night. If anymore animals survived, I don’t know about it. No offense to those things, but I’m kind of surprised anyone bothered saving them with everything that’s going on.”

“These tortoises meant a lot to the queen.”

The soldier nodded vaguely. “I talked with Major Husher. He doesn’t want them on the base. Are you able to take care of them. W could find a zoo…”

“Nah, I got em.”

“I can’t promise you’ll be reimbursed for your expense.”

Gilles waved him off. “I’ll take them. I’ll take them. Fellas need a proper home, don’t they? We can’t be sending them off to any old zoo. ”

This satisfied the soldier.

Outside in the landing lot, Gilles loaded the crate into a personal shuttle. Before closing the door, he fetched a handful of collard greens from a bag and set them in the box.


Gilles’s home was an apartment on the outskirts of Porto Maná. It only had a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom, each just large enough to serve their function. Decorations included sculptures carved of wood or the remains of animals—mementos one might bring home from a visit to the Amazon or the African homeland back when forests and indigenous tribes existed. The kitchen reeked of powerful spices. His bedroom showed the most living. Laundry littered the floor. Books and magazines buried the bedside table. He clearly lived alone, but the many pictures showing a younger Gilles with a comely woman which implied that had not always been the case.

Currently, the coffee table in his living room had been pushed to one side to make room for a packing crate which had once held a military glider missile. The army had let him take it home to use as a makeshift terrarium.

It was the tortoise’s new home. Gilles spent the afternoon preparing it. That involved reassembling the crate, lining it with a plastic tarp, then filling it with mulch and water. Winnie and Helena were inside now, camped in one corner. The other tortoise was opposite to them, exactly where Gilles first placed him. Only once had Winnie seen him move, and that was for the collard greens earlier. After eating his fill, he’d remained right where he was, too apathetic to return to his corner. How many years would it take until Winnie was like that too?

She had recovered from her emotional slump. Or rather she found she didn’t think about her predicament as much if she spent her time focusing elsewhere. Sometimes she watched the television back on the military base.

Information came out irritatingly slow. Whenever the news learned a tidbit, they would repeat it every thirty minutes while replaying their most relevant footage. They constantly recapped what had been happening, as though someone might actually tuning in now who didn’t already know that the head of the empire had been severed. When they weren’t recapping, they brought on experts to share thoughts and predictions. It was all so vacuous.

So Winnie started searching the military base instead. With the queen dead and no sign of Winnie ever being rescued, she had forgone Victoria’s golden rule of never spying on the empire. It’s not like she’d get in worse trouble.

She started first by drifting high above the base and looking down. The sun was setting, but the base was still on high alert. Soldiers drilled. Shuttles drifted along identical trajectories. Shuttles landed in lots outside offices. Larger crafts floated into hangars.

One building was a barracks. Beds neatly lined the long walls. All were empty at this hour. In a civilian office, people in business casual attire worked in cubicles. The only military were the soldiers at guard on the ground floor. Her targets weren’t here; she moved on. It was jarring to refocus her projection instead of flying from building to building, but this was what Victoria had taught her to do. Flying was inefficient. Refocusing was faster. Winnie wasn’t sure why she kept up the practice, but somehow it felt wrong to forgo the lessons the queen had left with her.

Then Winnie found them. Sakhr was in a hangar along with Alexander and Sibyl. Soldiers were unloading crates from a shuttle while they watched. Each crate was filled with twisted, charred items from the ruins of the Capital Tower. A forensics team would take each one and pour through the contents, scanning everything with clicking radiation sensors and bagging them for later study.

Sakhr seemed interested in particular boxes. As the forensics team cleared their contents, Sakhr motioned to a supervising Major, who then directed the boxes to be taken to a private room. It was here, away from the forensics team, that Sakhr examined the contents.

The sole fact that he wanted to look at these privately was reason enough for Winnie to keep watching. Perhaps she would spend the rest of her life spying on him. As painful as it was to watch her own body masquerading around causing mayhem, she might learn crucial information she could somehow use to her advantage. She didn’t know how yet. Maybe such an opportunity would never arise, but if it did, she would be ready.

And so she watched…


“Is this all there was?” Sakhr asked.

“Everything we found near her,” said the major.

Three crates. Each item inside had their own plastic bag. Sakhr examined a few: a phone with a shattered screen, a tablet bent in the middle, and a pair of women’s dress shoes. Each item had blood on them.

“These are your mother’s possessions, aren’t they?” the major asked.

Alexander responded. “Yes. These are the queen’s affects.”

“She wearing a cream-colored dress?”

Sakhr had no idea.

“Yes, she was,” Alex answered. “We were all dressed to go to a charity auction the other day… before everything happened.”

For all Sakhr knew, the story about the charity was just another in the endless stream of lies Alexander had been telling, but the bastard certainly knew what he was doing. He was in people’s minds. He knew what they needed to hear.

At the bottom of a crate, in a bag of its own, was a bloody necklace made of small ivory tiles. Sakhr recognized it. Each little tablet had its own power inscribed upon it. Over seventeen years ago, Victoria had fingered those little tablets while telling of her collection of powers. Sakhr had dreamed of it ever since.

He snatched the bag and removed the necklace. Though blood covered many tiles, he fastened it about his neck. The major shuffled uncomfortably. Sakhr searched his mind for any change. Years ago, he’d had aura sensing. He didn’t recall much, but he remembered that it was easy to identify the sensation when he expected it, but now he felt nothing. He motioned for Sibyl to look him in the eyes. She did so. He sensed… nothing.

Sakhr studied the necklace. There were seven glyphs—one for each member of the coven, and three more. Since only two were damaged, wouldn’t that mean the other five should work?

He tried wiping away the blood and wearing it again. Nothing.

He dug through the other crates.

“Your Highness?” the major asked.

“Are you sure that these are all of her possessions?”

“Is something missing?”

“They aren’t working.”

“Ma’am?”

“The glyphs. They’re not doing anything.”

“Ah.” Alexander interjected. “It’s exemplar tech. He doesn’t know.”

“Know what?” the major asked.

“Never you mind,” Alexander said. “This is an exemplar affair.”

So glyphs were still a secret then. Exemplar-only tech. The longer Sakhr was outside of his tortoise prison, the more he realized Victoria never told people anything. She coveted secrets. It meant no one knew who Sakhr was, which played to his advantage, but it also meant Victoria probably never revealed her true power, which was to learn powers. She didn’t actually need glyphs.

Which meant the necklace was a misdirection. The tiles were fakes. Of course that damn woman wouldn’t keep real glyphs around her neck. Why would she? The only person who’d make use of them was somebody who’d stolen them from her. The fake was only to maintain the lie that she was the glyph writer.

But why keep it up?

Sakhr, Alex, Christof, and Sibyl were the only people in the world who knew she was once Katherine, or what her power actually was, and all four of them had been under her lock and key. No one else even knew who Katherine was. So why divorce Victoria and Katherine? Why pretend to be someone else for all these years?

It could have been to hide the true identity of the real glyph maker, but then he was also her prisoner. Or perhaps there was someone else who knew Katherine.

That couldn’t be it, right? Sakhr would obviously know them.

He cast the necklace aside and dug through the other boxes, but he didn’t expect to find anything of value. Another bag contained Victoria’s tattered dress. It was more red than white. Another contained a flight helmet, and a flight suit—items probably found near her body.

The third box contained a piece of twisted metal made of small metal bars. It took him a moment to identify it. “Is this a birdcage?”

“We believe so, ma’am.”

“This was in the wreckage?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ah, what?” Alex perked up. He looked the major in the eyes. “Oh right… The queen had a pet hawk. Everyone knows that.”

A look passed between Alex and Sakhr. Alex grinned sardonically, clearly coming to the same realization Sakhr was. That birdcage had been in the shuttle with Victoria. She’d had that hawk with her.

Sakhr turned to the major. “Was the hawk found?”

“Ma’am?”

“Was the hawk found dead? Did the rescuers find it’s body?”

Of course the major hesitated. It would be too easy for him to say something like, yes, dead as dead can be. It was a bit of a mess, so we left the body there. No. There had to be uncertainty.

“Not that I know of,” the major said.

Sakhr looked around. This hangar’s side room had a roof far above with plenty of beams to perch upon. And there were skylights, though they were sealed. He glanced at Sibyl. She too was looking around, but not frantically. Good. The idea occurred to her too, and she sensed nothing near.

“If you’d like,” the major said, “I can send someone to look.”

“No. Don’t bother. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.” He pushed the crates away. There were no glyphs for him to use. It seemed even in her death, Victoria would continue to hound him. “Thank you for your help, major. You may leave.”

The brusqueness startled the major. “I… Yes, Your Highness.” He left quickly. Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl were alone.

Sibyl spoke. “Do you think she actually survived?”

Sakhr let out a long sigh. Why should he answer her question when he obviously had no more information than she did? What kind of idiot would even ask?

“I don’t think so,” Alex answered. “She would have acted by now.”

“Not necessarily,” Sakir said. There could be a hundred reasons why she hadn’t struck yet. Her death was only one—a big one, and God how he hoped she was dead, but it was still only one of many reasons. He faced Sibyl. “Can you sense her coming?”

“No…” she replied. “I haven’t been able to sense her ever since she got her shield, but maybe I could know she’s coming because she won’t have an aura.”

“Not good enough,” Alex said. “Katherine could just fly in as a hawk and collide with Sakhr. She’d be in Sakhr’s body before anyone could do anything. What we need are shields of our own.”

“I know,” Sakhr growled. “That’s what this damn necklace was supposed to solve.”

Alex frowned. “Why should the necklace do anything if Katherine could use all the powers by herself?”

I know this.”

“What you need is a safer place to stay…” Alex trailed off.

“You obviously have a place in mind.”

He grinned. “Do you remember General Soto mentioning the citadels?”


As soldiers continued to test and bag more debris, Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl headed back to the building Sakhr had commandeered for his imperial work. They spoke little, but Winnie watched anyway.

She had heard their conversation. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out who “Katherine” was.

Victoria.

They believed Victoria might still be alive.

Winnie was almost afraid to hope. Even if Victoria was, a world of things could happen between that shuttle crash and Victoria saving the day.

But Winnie already knew she could never put that thought out of her mind. Ten years from now, she’d still be hoping for Victoria’s return. Hope is all she could do. That, and watch.

Sakhr and the others split off to talk with ministers and officials. Winnie would learn no secrets from public interaction like that, but she watched anyway. Twenty years from now she’d still be spying.

One day she might get the chance to use her knowledge against them.

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.

52. An Examination Room

“Does this mean I’m in charge of the empire now?” Sakhr asked.

“The throne passes to you, yes, but not officially,” General Soto said, “not until you undergo a coronation. The ministry will have more information about that.”

“I see.”

The medics had just finished checking Sakhr over in an examination room in Fort Leguan when General Soto had come in to address him. Sakhr had managed to keep Alexander and Christof around. They were both checked alongside him.

“However,” Soto continued, “I’m afraid that your responsibilities begin now. We haven’t yet announced your mother’s passing to the press, but we will have to soon—once the forensics team positively identifies her body. You’ll need to address the public. They need to see that they still have a leader.”

“A speech?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve just told me my mother is dead.” Sakhr said. “And you expect me to go before the empire and tell them… what? That everything is going to be okay?”

“I understand, and I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I’m afraid we can’t put this off. Many rescue workers were there when they pulled her remains from the wreckage. The press is going to catch wind of this soon.”

“Of course.” Sakhr wondered whether he should be showing emotion. He knew practically nothing about the girl whose body he possessed, but surely she would be devastated. He supposed he could pass it off his emotionlessness as shock. He’d been through a traumatizing experience, though all he felt was hungover.

Alexander rested a hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. Sakhr resisted the urge to shrug him off. To an outside observer, Winnie was comforting her friend Helena in the loss of her mother.

“We’ll contact your mother’s speech writers,” Soto said. “All you’ll have to do is read a short script. Just a message of hope and how the empire will survive. That’s all.”

“What about the people responsible?” Alex asked.

Soto nodded. “We will need to say something as to that effect. Unfortunately, we don’t have answers right now. Just tell the world you’re okay, and that we’ll pull through. In the meantime, we need to discuss the matter of your personal safety.”

“What do you mean?”

“The people who orchestrated this attack are still out there. They managed to infiltrate the Capital Tower, one of the most secure places in the empire. Fort Leguan is not nearly as safe, especially given its recent surge of traffic. Even if we secured the camp and scanned all personnel, it’s not secure enough to my satisfaction for you.”

“Scanning the personnel?”

“Yes. So with your permission, I’d like to call the HIMS Manakin down to Porto Maná. That citadel could lock down air traffic and scan all onboard personnel. We’d have more fine grained control with security there.”

“Of course,” Sakhr said, though he had no idea what a citadel was. “What efforts are we making to catch the people responsible?”

“We’ll find out who they are. Rest assured, ma’am.”

“But we already know, don’t we? Bishop. You said he was a high exemplar.”

“Yes. There is a High Exemplar who’s last name is Bishop. We don’t know for sure that it’s the same person.”

“How many Bishops can there be?”

“I don’t know, but until we have more intelligence, we should not implicate the Exemplar Committee in a conspiracy against the throne. They were your mother’s most trusted subjects.”

“My mother’s,” Sakhr said. “Not mine. I want him arrested for treason and brought directly to me.”

“We don’t know that he was involved, Your Highness. We’re contacting the other High Exemplars now. In the meantime, there are two men in the ward who we plan to question. We believe they many have information about the attack.”

“What’s this?” Sakhr asked. “Who are these men?”

“Two other pods touched down beside the one we recovered you from. The occupants were two men who worked in Capital Tower security. We suspect they may have been involved.”

“They weren’t,” Alex said. “They just happened to bump into the marines during the whole mess.”

“Either way, both men are suffering from severe cases of radiation poisoning. We don’t expect them to survive the day. Our onsite exemplars will scan them in a few minutes.”

“But they weren’t involved,” Alex insisted.

“They might have information. And since time is a factor, and neither of them are particularly lucid, a scan will tell us whatever they know before they die.”

“We can’t trust the exemplars,” Sakhr said. “We already know one was involved in this event. Don’t use them to scan those men. Don’t use them to secure the citadel. Surely you must see the problem with that.”

“We suspect a high exemplar was involved, and only one. We’ll take into account that the exemplar’s testimony may be suspect, but we can’t afford to ignore them as a resource. Like I said, these men will be dead in a few hours.”

“Then I would like to be there. It’s in a few minutes, you say? In the infirmary?”

“Ma’am.” He spoke patiently, as though to a child. “You have more important things to attend to. The ministry is already trying to reach you. Let us conduct the investigation. We’ll keep you abreast of any developments. In the meantime, leave out any indictments from your speech.”

“Are you telling me what to do?” Sakhr asked. “I am the queen now. You are my general.”

“I’m only trying to help you, Your Highness.”

“Your Majesty.”

“Your title does not change until the coronation ceremony.”

He said it simply, just stating a fact, but to Sakhr, it said more. Perhaps, “you are not the queen yet.” Or maybe, “I know better.” Maybe the man was just clarifying the point for her, but Sakhr was certain that if Victoria had made the same demand, Soto would have obliged. To the general, Princess Helena was just a princess. Unfortunately, Sakhr didn’t have time to wait until Soto respected him.

He looked Alex in the eye. Alex glanced toward Christof. Christof nodded. All three understood each other.

“General,” Sakhr said, “I’ll let you conduct the interrogation your way, but you and I need to make something clear.” Sakhr hopped up from his hospital bed and approached Soto.

The general did not pull back at all when Sakhr reached to touch his hand. Their fingers brushed, and Sakhr flowed into his body like the release of a static charge. Before him now sat the body of Helena, who flailed in alarm. Calmly, Sakhr reached for Christof, who’s eyes widened, but didn’t resist. Sakhr entered his body, and then reached to flow back into Helena’s. The switch was done. Now for the nasty bit.

Alex circled around behind the body Soto now occupied. The thin, lithe arms of the teenage body Alexander occupied were already wrapped about Soto’s neck. Soto struggled madly. For someone suddenly evicted from his body, he was in far more control of his faculties than most. Sakhr held him down, yet Soto fought back ferociously. The infirmary bed was knocked aside.

Soon Soto went limp. Alex held on for good measure, but otherwise, the sordid affair was over.

Sakhr turned to Christof, who had stood aside during the fight. “General Soto?”

“I don’t know enough about him to maintain that facade,” Christof said. “We shouldn’t have killed him.”

“It’s fine,” Alex chirped. “I saw enough in his head. Come on, General. We’ve got work to do.”

“What about the body?” Christof asked.

“Shame, isn’t it?” Alex said. “Another man attacks the royal line just hours after the explosion. He must have been part of the conspiracy after all.”

“I don’t know if they’ll buy that.”

“Oh, they will,” Sakhr said. “We all saw it. Just as we heard of Bishop’s involvement.”

“Yes,” replied Alex. “Bishop will pay for what he’s done. Come on, General. We’ve got a lot to do, and so little time.”