48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

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

“Do you know with what?”

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

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

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

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

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then spite always was the best motivator.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…


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

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

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

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

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She can plan for that though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

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

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

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

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

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

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

“I see…” said Sakhr.

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

“Do you have one?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t trust you.”

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

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

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

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

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

“Why?”

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

46. Sems and Clems

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

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

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

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

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

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

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

She covered up again.

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

“Depends on what we find.”

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


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

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

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

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

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

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

“Why so long?”

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

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

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

“I know…”

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

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

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

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

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

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

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

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Understood.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

“I did,” Bishop said.

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

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

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

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

“Better how?”

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

“Micro-sems?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

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

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

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

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

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

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

“Then do that.”

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

No one responded.

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

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

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

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”

44. Fault Detected

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

Victoria nodded. “Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it all.

Her mind raced about.

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

The elevators.

There they were.

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

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

“In… this building, Your Majesty?”

Now!”


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

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

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

Sakhr grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But they can apprehend us.”

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

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

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

He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.

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

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

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

“Are the doors normally locked?”

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

“Can we can break this down?”

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

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

“What about any—”

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

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

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

“Why? What’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”

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

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

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

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

“How many security floors are there?”

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

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

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

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

“Will there be a ship we can use?”

“Maybe,” replied Quentin.

“Then let’s go.”


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

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

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

“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”

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

“Yes.”

“Then we should contact the police?”

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

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

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

“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”

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

“And who can grant clearance?”

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

“Is there anyway around that?”

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

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

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

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

“Bishop?”

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

“Sakhr is loose.”

What? How?”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“How are you so sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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


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

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

“You took your time,” Alex said.

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

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

“We need to get inside first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.

“Maybe not.”

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

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

“What’s telenav?”

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

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

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

“Can you hotwire it somehow?”

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

“So that’s a no…”

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

“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.

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

“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.

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

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

“It’s an assembler.”

“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.

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

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

“A lot.”

“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.

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

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

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

43. All Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

It flicked her on the face.

“Shut up, you. We’re talking.”

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

And then she understood.

She wasn’t buried underground.

She was being held by a human.

…a human that looked identical to her.

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

She was a tortoise.

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

A part of her was aware of her bladder releasing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything?”

“In the present physical world, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damnit,” the Helena impostor muttered.

Alex burst out laughing.

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

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

“Take this seriously,” impostor Helena said.

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

“We’ll have to.”

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

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

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

“Would you rather I have left you?”

I am useful. Sibyl is not.”

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

What?” Christof said.

“Of course I know that,” Alex replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to figure out how to be tortoise.

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

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

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

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

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

She shielded her eyes. “Hello?”

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

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

The others approached. Alex carried a tortoise.

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

“I did,” Christof replied.

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

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

“I don’t want to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” Christof said.

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

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

“It’s a long story,” Sakhr said.

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

“Yes. We both are.”

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

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

She could only plod onward.

The impostors turned their attention to the guard sitting down.

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

“In a matter of speaking,” replied Sakhr.

“You freed me?”

“I got you out of the tortoise, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t matter.”

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

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

“Will we get my body back?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Quentin Avery.”

“Do you have a power?”

“A what?”

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

“He has an extra sense?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? How the hell could you know?”

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

“Uh, or I’m… you know, intelligent.”

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

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

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

“Very useful,” Christof replied.

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

“Why not?”

“He’ll be a liability. Trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” he said. “They’re fighting.”

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

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

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

Back with the others, Sakhr took Helena from Sibyl.

“What about these two?” asked Christof.

“Leave them.”

“But this one has powers.”

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

“What’s the plan?” asked Alex.

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

42. In the Dark

“Helena?”

Winnie stepped closer. “Helena? Are you all right?”

Helena stood hunched over the terrarium. In her hands, Marzipan flailed about. He hissed and made strange little cries. Something about picking him up had sent him into a panic.

“I think we should leave him alone. Helena?” Winnie tapped her.

Helena looked about, as though startled that Winnie was in the room.

“Yes?” she asked. How drunk was she?

“I think we should leave Marzipan alone, and tell somebody about this. Your mom is going to find out eventually anyway. She’d be angry if we just left Marzipan alone in a broken cage.”

“No,” Helena said. “No. We’ll take care of this. We’ll put him with Victoria’s other tortoises. That way he won’t wander off.”

“Are you feeling okay? How drunk are you?”

“Drunk?” Helena seemed to take stock of herself. “Oh damn it. I am quite drunk. That does explain it.” She looked at Winnie appraisingly. “Are you drunk?”

“Yeah. I think I might throw up.”

“Well don’t. Come. Tell me. Where are Victoria’s tortoises. We must take Marzipan there.”

“You are so drunk. Why are you calling your mom by her first name?”

Helena blinked. She looked down at herself. After a pause. “Because I’m drunk.” She chuckled. It broke the tension, and Winnie laughed too.

“Now enough dallying,” Helena said. “Let’s get to the tortoises.”

Dallying? You’re talking like an english professor.” Winnie laughed more. “And listen to yourself. You’ve suddenly got an accent.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

After a pause, Helena slowly smiled. Then in unison, they both broke into peels of drunken laughter. Winnie was relieved that Helena was okay, even if she was acting strangely, and her laughter oddly manic.

Marzipan kept squirming.

“I think he’s gone out of his mind,” Winnie said.

Helena looked at him. “He’ll be fine. We just need to have a place to put him down. Come, now. To the tortoises.”

Come, now.” Winnie mimicked. She chuckled a little more, but Helena was done laughing. Winnie sobered. “We can’t. Remember? They locked us out of the garden.”

“Then how do we get in?”

“We’d have to ask one of the caretakers.”

Helena looked down at the frantic tortoise in her hands. “Very well. We’ll get the caretakers. Lead the way.”

Winnie did. The relief she felt was profound. Finally, Helena agreed to get adults involved. She and Helena would get in trouble, sure, but at least tonight’s madness would finally end.


“You what?”

“It was an accident,” Winnie said.

“What were you two doing in the queen’s office anyway?”

“We were messing around. I’m sorry. I know. We shouldn’t have been there.”

The caretaker eyed both Winnie and Helena. He’d been asleep before Winnie had knocked on his door. His eyes were bleary, and he wore a wrinkled teeshirt and boxers.

“Didn’t you two just break into the conservatory the other day with Gilles’s card?”

“We’re sorry about that too.”

“I was the one who had to clean the broken glass off the path. The reptile exhibit still smells like tequila.”

“We’re really sorry.”

The caretaker sniffed. “And you’re both drunk right now, aren’t you?”

“That is irrelevant.” Helena held up Marzipan. The tortoise still thrashed and gasped. “He needs someplace to stay for the night.”

The caretaker looked at Marzipan. The tortoise’s distress was obvious.

“I’ll have to tell the queen first,” he said.

“We can’t,” Helena said. “We mustn’t bother her right now.”

“She’s dealing with a crisis,” Winnie added.

“Look.” The caretaker rubbed his eyes. “That’s the queen’s personal pet. I’m not even supposed to go near it. None of the caretakers are. I can’t go sticking him in an enclosure without at least telling her what I’m doing. I could get fired.”

“She must not be disturbed,” Helena replied. “I will accept full responsibility for this decision.”

This startled both Winnie and the caretaker. Never had Winnie heard more mature words escape Helena’s lips.

The caretaker sighed. “Let me get dressed.”


That small ship had crossed several country lines now. Nigeria was long in its wake. Victoria had contacted several aerospace districts to tell them not to shoot down the unregistered craft. It tickled Victoria each time she did this. The people aboard that ship were doing everything they could to avoid Victoria as though she were the evil queen hunting for their hearts, and yet it was she who was saving them from their own ignorance again and again.

As she watched in her mind, the ship curved gently.

“They’re shifting direction again, Your Majesty,” said a lieutenant in the control room with her.

She nodded.

“They’re heading into Algerian airspace. Shall I notify the local air traffic?”

She nodded again. Their constant change in direction must have something to do with Tan. No one else aboard that ship would pilot it so aimlessly.

Her phone chimed.

She picked it up. One notification. She started unlocking it.

“Your Majesty.” Bishop spoke over their open connection. “The orbiters with early generation wall bots have just launched. They’ll be surfing in about an hour. Their flight paths will mean any one of them will be coasting over East Europe.”

She set her phone down. “And they can launch those wall bots remotely?”

“No, but they can put them in deployment pods with marines. They configure the wall bots on the ground. From launch, they can have the wall bots up and running within three minutes.”

“And then the marines will evacuate?”

“And then the marines will leave in the pods, yes.”

“Good.”

“All we need is for Josephine to stay airborne for about the forty minutes it’ll take for the orbiters to reach their flight paths. Think that’ll happen?”

She looked at the ship again in her mind. They were over the Sahara Desert right now. There wasn’t much Lakiran presence there, plenty of places for them to land and disappear, or so they’d think. That territory was practically uninhabited after six years of nuclear winter: no crowds, no obstacles, no one to get in the way. The army could quarantine entire swaths of land with wall bots and capture only their targets. Josephine would be a fool to land there.

“They will,” Victoria said. “They’ll be airborne for another few hours at least.” France? Spain? Is that where they were going?

“That’s a few hours you could use to sleep, Your Majesty.”

“It’s a few hours I could lay in bed and wonder what’s happening,” she corrected. “You’re not getting rid of me, Bishop.”

“I didn’t think I could.”


The caretaker’s flashlight emitted a dull red light. It wasn’t much to see by, but he seemed to know his way around the conservatory as though it was his own bedroom. Winnie was carrying the light however. The caretaker had taken over holding Marzipan.

“There should be one free enclosure near the back,” the caretaker was saying. “It’s supposed to be for some iguanas, but they’re not showing up until next week. We’ll put the queen’s pet in that one, give it some water, and then you two are going to tell the queen first thing tomorrow what happened.”

“We will,” Winnie said.

“And you will tell her that this was all your idea. This way.”

He guided Winnie down a path. The familiar nitrate smell filled the air. The red light revealed the enclosures.

Helena paused to look in one. “Are all of my mother’s tortoises here?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Does she keep any others privately like she does Marzipan?”

“No. These are all of them.”

“How many are here?”

“Five.”

“How long have they been here?”

The caretaker shrugged impatiently. “I don’t know. A while.”

“Decades, would you say?”

“Sure.”

Helena asked no other questions. The caretaker led Winnie to an empty enclosure near the back. He stepped in and set Marzipan down. The tortoise did not calm down at all.

“Is he going to be okay?” Winnie asked.

“He’s scared right now,” the caretaker replied. “Crazy night. New environment. He should calm down in a bit.” He fetched a hose from nearby and filled a rubber-lined depression inside the enclosure to create a pool. Marzipan still thrashed as though in the throes of a seizure. He seemed like he was trying to crawl toward Winnie, but his legs weren’t working right.

“Jesus,” the caretaker said. “What’d you guys do to him?”

“We just—”

“Excuse me.” Helena approached. Winnie hadn’t noticed her wander off. “Could you look at these for a moment?”

She was holding two tortoises.

What are you doing?” the caretaker yelled. “Put them back immediately.”

“But there’s something you need to see about them. Look.” Helena set one at her feet, then handed the other toward the caretaker. He tried to snatch the tortoise away from her, but when he did, it was as though an electric shock hit him. He froze. His eyes became distant.

It was exactly how Helena had acted when she first touched Marzipan. Something had happened—something that changed Helena. Victoria had kept Marzipan separate for a reason.

Winnie had only just realized this when Helena thrust the other tortoise into her arms.

Then everything changed.

41. Time to be Kings

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed, Sakhr thought. Having a tower halt everything to greet him was not a pleasure he had ever had before. Money had never been a problem, but this was a life money couldn’t buy. This required fame, something Sakhr had arduously avoided until now.

A small woman approached. She was olive-skinned—a common color here.

“Greetings. My name is Melanie. I’m Victoria’s assistant coordinator. Are you Sakhr?” Her aura was nervous, self-conscious. It put Sakhr at ease.

“I am.”

“And you must be…”

“Alexander.” He bowed.

She greeted Sibyl and Christof, then turned back to Sakhr. “If you will please follow me. I will take you to Victoria.”

She led them to a conference room on the fifty-fifth floor. It had an office feel, complete with a conference phone and a projector at one end with a cable for a computer to connect to. It wasn’t quite what Sakhr was expecting. After preparing them drinks, Madeline assured them Victoria would be right with them, and she left.

They took seats and waited. After Madeline’s aura disappeared off the edge of Sakhr’s Empathy, he realized that no one else was around. No one at all. He knew the building was still under construction, but certainly there would be someone nearby. Or was this building mostly abandoned? Why meet here then?

He sensed her approach long before she entered the room. Four auras came up the elevator. One he recognized as Melanie. She split off once they were on the same floor. The other three approached. Hers was easy to identify. It bled arrogance.

He figured it would, but sensing it didn’t ease him. She would be difficult to work with. There would be many disagreements between her and Sakhr. It wouldn’t take long before one of those disagreements became an irreconcilable problem.

Two auras waited outside.

Victoria entered. She was every bit as beautiful as the news made her out to be. Sakhr didn’t know why, but that put him more ill at ease.

“I’m glad to finally meet you in person,” he said.

She settled into a chair at the head of the table. “Likewise.”

“Are those your guards outside the door?”

“They are.”

“One might think you don’t trust us,” Alex said.

Sakhr cast him a glare.

Victoria replied calmly. “If I felt threatened by you, they would be waiting inside the room with us. They’re for everyone else. In the past decade, I’ve made quite an impact on the local region through LakiraLabs. I’ve brought a lot of jobs and aid to the community. The place has been thriving like it never has before. I’m sure you’ve heard the news refer to me as the baroness of South America. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Unfortunately, not everyone sees my impact as a positive thing. Many see me as a unwelcome capitalistic influence.”

“I can imagine,” Sakhr said. “We passed through Brazil once decades ago, during the first Cold War. It was not a time to be making ripples. I can’t imagine it’s much different now.”

“South America is not as involved as it was before, but it still faces political troubles.”

“It leaves the question,” Sakhr asked. “Why relocate your company’s headquarters here? Why leave the US at all?”

“It’s certainly brought its hassles, but it’s was worth it. The burden of the United States’ latest laws and regulations had been hindering our progress. LakiraLabs already outsourced labor to Brazil and Venezuela. Moving here put us closer to our operations. And I’ve had an easier time shaping the law to my needs. The South American governments are more amenable to my money.”

“When they’re not threatening your life,” Sakhr added.

“Most of that threat actually comes from outside parties. My influence over labor laws here has negatively impacted the bottom line of many American corporations that outsource here. They pressure the US government, who in turn pressure the South American governments to put a stop to my growth. My most dangerous detractor, if you’ll believe it, has been a banana company that exports from here. I’ve caught them working with drug cartels to raise hell on my territory. So far, no government is willing to acknowledge this. Then there are the Russians denouncing me as a capitalistic exploiter. They fund rebel groups in the region. Frankly, if it weren’t for my edge, I would have failed a while ago.”

“Your edge being the powers you’ve stolen from us, right?” Alex said.

“I merely copied, but yes, with yours and others’ powers.”

“And when exactly did you copy our powers?” Alex said. “I’m sure Sakhr merely forgot to tell me.”

“Several months ago.”

“Funny. You only been in contact with us for three weeks.”

“Alexander…” Sakhr warned.

“It’s quite all right. I’m a careful woman. I observed your group as a matter of my own safety. I’ve had bad experiences when reaching out to other such flairs.”

“Others?” Christof perked up. “What other powers have you discovered?”

“A few. Years back, I found a man named Quentin Avery. He has a power which gives him a fundamental understanding of our world’s physical properties. He works with a team of my scientists out of a think tank in Virginia.”

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Hence your repulser field.”

“Hence all of our technologies which have put LakiraLabs decades ahead of its time. Not only do I have Quentin, but with my ability to write glyphs, I’ve hidden glyphs inside the ID badges of all of LakiraLabs scientists, allowing them to be better at their jobs.”

“Very clever,” Sakhr replied, “but why are you hiding the glyphs from your own people? When you first contacted me, you expressed the desire for us to come out of the shadows.”

“Which,” Alex interjected, “not all of us are on board with.”

Both Victoria and Sakhr ignored him.

“I do intend for that, but not on a wholesale level. Flairs are my edge. If I were to reveal that edge, others would try to gain it. I plan to keep both flairs and my technological advantage until I’m done expanding my domain. Only then will I reveal the powers, and only in a manner I can control.”

This constant use of the singular I bothered Sakhr, as was the way she wouldn’t look any of them in the eye. “How much do you intend expand your domain?” he asked.

“As much as possible.”

“So…” Alex said. “You want to conquer the world?”

“Yes.”

Alex laughed. “Wow. You’re for real. You actually think that, don’t you?”

“With the tactical use of your flairs, I can.”

“Of course you can. We could have done that any time we wanted. Maybe you don’t know about Sakhr’s power, but he could be president of the United States by tomorrow. Each one of us could be a world leader.”

“It’s not the same. You would be the world’s figureheads, but you wouldn’t rule it. You’d have to hide behind the bodies you puppeteer.”

“So it’s about arrogance then?”

“No. What I mean is you could not change things the way they are. You’d have the power of the presidents, but that’s it. That power if far from absolute. They have congress’s to appease and elections to run. They cannot change the world with their will, but must compromise with everything they do. Even if you surpassed that obstacle, you could only change the world so much. Your coven does not have real power, not yet.”

“We could stop the cold war resurgence tomorrow if we wanted,” Alex said.

“You could,” she agreed. “Why haven’t you?”

“Because it’s not our concern. I don’t care about saving the world. I care about living in it the way I choose.”

“Does he speak for all of you?” Victoria glanced around. “You don’t care about the world?”

“Of course we care,” Sakhr said. “We live in it, but by taking over important people, we would risk exposing ourselves.”

“And so you choose to stand by and hope that the world fixes itself? Even when you could correct it?”

“We could alleviate the situation between the world’s superpowers for a time,” Sakhr said, “but as you point out, our power would be limited. The amount of effort it would take to wrest the countries out of their own madness would be monumental.”

“Of course it would,” Victoria said, “but I haven’t failed yet, not significantly so.”

“So what then?” Alex said. “You’re going to fix the world? Listen. You’ve only been on this planet a few decades. We’ve been here for centuries. We’ve—”

“And yet you are all exactly where you have always been,” Victoria said. “A group of nomadic travelers who steal what they want and run at the first sign of trouble.”

“Do not accuse us of cowardice, Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“I’m not. I’m accusing you of wasting your potential. I, on the other hand, have worked for fifteen years toward this goal. I own countless tracts of land across South and Central America as well as other parts of the world. My control over the regional politics is near absolute. I’ve made a small business into a dominant international empire using technologies I’ve developed and brought to market—technologies that have shaped every corner of this planet.”

Sakhr was silent. This conversation was going in a direction he hadn’t predicted. She was acting different then the few other times he’d spoken to her. He wondered if Alex had been right. Answering her call may have been a mistake, regardless of any risk from ignoring her.

Alex argued on. “That’s fantastic for you. We don’t want to run businesses and governments. We’re content as we are.”

“No. You’re complacent. You’ve wasted these powerful gifts on worthless indulgence.”

“Oh right,” Alex gestured to the room. “None of this is indulgent. Your own personal tower. Making yourself baroness of the region. Perfectly frugal.”

“Unlike you, I am accomplishing something. I am using my gift to its fullest potential, as well as all other powers I encounter. I explore them, figure out out how they work, what I can make them do. And then I use those powers to accomplish great things. You are content to accept your station in life. I have never stopped asking questions.”

With that remark, Sakhr knew.

An echo of a memory flew into his mind like a key and unlocked the full picture. In one singular moment, every gap filled in. Every question was answered. He understood what she was doing, why he was here, and why none of this felt right. It all made hideous sense.

The other’s kept arguing, yet their voices came to him from miles away. Sakhr reflected on the fatal mistake he’d made. Though his features hid his revelation, he knew Victoria could see his aura. Her own swelled exultantly, even while answering another inane remark of Alex’s. She knew he knew.

What could he do? What could he possibly do that she hadn’t already considered? The trap was sprung hours ago, and the cat was playing with it’s food. If he ran, the guards were beyond the door—guards who’s bodies he knew he wouldn’t be able to steal; he was certain she’d thought of that. Could he leap to his death? He was over fifty floors up. As long as he could shatter the window, he might save himself from whatever fate she had for him, but he couldn’t. After centuries of wandering, never had he realized more than right now how much he wanted to live.

“I’m sure,” Alex said, completely oblivious, “You’re amazingly proud of yourself. I never doubted that for a minute. But you still don’t get it. We don’t care. Why bother ruling the world at all? Apart from the appeal to megalomaniacs such as yourself, that kind of power doesn’t give us anything we don’t already have.”

“It’s about making a difference.”

More auras were coming up the elevator. These ones were tense, ready for combat. The ruse would be up soon.

“Oh, so you’re a humanitarian then,” Alex replied. “You’re pretty damn naive if you think you’ll amount to any positive change in the world. I’ve been around a lot longer than you, woman. I’ve seen a dozen dictators spout words just like yours. You’re just—”

Alex,” snapped Sakhr.

Alex looked at him, already sneering for what he thought was Sakhr coming down on her side. But then he saw into Sakhr’s eyes, and it came together. He startled to his feet, his chair clattering over, as though he’d finally seen the gun pointed at his head this whole time.

“What?” Christof said. “What’s going on?”

Sibyl was frozen like a mouse.

“No, Alexander,” Victoria said. “You do not know patience. In your centuries of life, you have never spent more than a year working toward any endeavor. I, however, have been working towards a goal ever since a very singular event happened to me. You might recall when. It was around same time that all of you found a particular girl in an airport. You took her in. You told her she was special. You treated her like a friend, and when you found out that she could pose a threat to you, you broke into her home and murdered her and her father.”

“…Katherine?” The word came from Christof.

Alexander looked around wildly, frantic for a course of action. It didn’t matter. That girl wouldn’t reveal herself unless there was nothing he could do. Sakhr wanted to try, maybe get to the door, or attack the woman, but his logic told him it would only amount to an undignified struggle—a wild animal fighting against its net.

Victoria kept talking. “You might remember that girl had the ability to copy other powers once she understood them well enough. The first power she took was yours, Alex. It made discovering the secrets to the others easier for her.” She looked at Sakhr. “Do you remember what you thought before giving her to Alex to murder? What a shame. You looked her in the eye when you thought that.”

Alex charged Victoria. Something stopped him. Sakhr felt a burst of air against his face. An unseen wall divided the room—a repulse field. It was probably on even before she entered. Not a single chance taken.

Alex tried to push through it. As though pressing repulsing magnets together, his hands kept veering off to either side. Wind burst each time.

Victoria sat peacefully on her side. “That girl’s story ended that night. But there was a fly that landed on her body before she died, no doubt attracted to the blood. The story of that fly is dull. It flew about aimlessly for hours afterward, until sheer chance would have it land on the arm of a boy who watched as police carried bodies from his neighbor’s house. His story is more interesting. Days later, he ran away from home, only to turn up in a week, behaving just like a dog. Tragic.”

Everyone but Victoria and Sakhr was out of their chairs. Christof and Sibyl both wasted time testing the repulse field. Alex was trying to force open the door to the hall. There was no point. If Sakhr was going to escape, it would not come from scratching the cage’s walls. Victoria would need someone to grab him for whatever she had planned. That would be those auras coming toward the door. That might be a chance. If he could manage to swap bodies, he’d have a chance. To hell with the others.

Or perhaps he could bargain. He could capitulate to her, help her take the others while he served. God, how he would detest serving this little girl, but he could do it, for centuries if he needed. Alex might not know patience, but he did. So long as he didn’t die here.

“There are other stories like that boy’s,” Victoria said, “stories of more important people: business men and politicians. They might encounter a friendly cat or a bird, and their behavior changes wildly. They’d make make drastic changes to their finances, only to break down one day and believe themselves to be animals.” She held out her hands to present herself. “I am the victim of this pattern as well. Me, Victoria Palladino. As an adolescent. I was a bubbly, over-privileged child drifting through her education like a unmanned vessel. I was to inherit my father’s tech company, but I didn’t have shred of ambition. That all changed one day when a bird collided with my pet dog while I was walking on the Princeton campus. My dog acted most peculiarly the rest of the day. Especially that night, when it attacked me as though I were an impostor. The poor thing had to be put down, and I’ve never been the same since.”

No one was listening to her. Christof had joined Alex in breaking down the door. It might as well have been made from brick. Sibyl was weeping in the corner. Her comfort threshold had been crossed. She would be useless now.

“That was the summer I found my drive. I became a woman who deserved the company she would inherit. The only person to ever question this change was my father. He sensed I wasn’t quite the little girl he’d raised. It unfortunately caused a rift in our relationship. Not that it matters now. He had a mental break himself. He lives in Silverside Sanitorium now, though I’m sure he’d be proud of my success. You see, Sakhr, when one is as gifted as we are, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish if only we have the proper drive.”

“Will you shut up, you little bitch,” Alexander said.

The doors burst open. Men poured in, all in hazmat suits and wielding stun batons. One shocked Alex before he could react. Christof rushed them, only to drop when one buried their baton in his chest. Sibyl cowered at their approach. They stunned her anyway.

Then they turned to Sakhr, and his dignity was gone. He was poised like a feral cat. Pouncing, he pulled at masks and tore at fabric, trying desperately to expose any skin.

The batons reached him first. His body failed. On the ground now, he kicked and screamed as they piled onto him, but it was too little, and much too late. With his face pressed against the carpet, he could see the feet of the others as they dragged Alexander, Christof, and Sibyl from the room. It was just him and the people holding him down… and her.

“Put him on the table,” Victoria said. The men dragged Sakhr up where he could see her. She was still reclined in her chair, making a phone call.

Someone answered immediately.

“I’m ready for Mr. Bishop now.” She hung up without waiting for a reply.

Sakhr tried to remember anything about the name Bishop, but he’d never heard of it. “Wait,” he stammered. “Just wait. Don’t kill me. We can talk about this.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re much too valuable to waste.”

“What?” Sakhr struggled helplessly. “What are you talking about? What are you going to do?”

She got up and came around too look at him as though he were a specimen. “Where’s Josephine?”

“…What?”

“Josephine. I had expected her to be with you, but apparently not. You must have some idea where she is.”

Sakhr’s mind raced. This non-sequitur had no meaning to him. He’d never heard that name before. Was she someone close to Victoria? Did she think Sakhr had done something to someone named Josephine? Something she blamed him for?

Victoria frowned. “You really don’t know that name at all, do you? I’ll find her eventually. I have patience, and you’ll be waiting right along with me.”

The door opened again, and a woman dressed as an orderly entered, pushing along a geriatric old man in a wheelchair. He looked as frail as old parchment and had not a single hair on his gaunt body. Oxygen tubes snaked around his ears and wrapped under his nose, yet his breaths still took heaving effort. An antiseptic hospital smell wafted in with him.

This must be Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop looked at Sakhr with lively, hopeful eyes unbefitting of his dying body.

No,” Sakhr yelled. He struggled anew. “Don’t put me in that body. Please, Victoria. Katherine. I’ll do what you want. I’ll serve you if that’s what you wish. For however long. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Just please! Don’t put me in that body.”

“I won’t.” Victoria smiled at him. “I have promised Mr. Bishop your body, but I wouldn’t dare leave you in a body on death’s door.”

Sakhr looked at her with wild, confused eyes as Victoria took a box from the orderly.

From inside, she took out a tortoise and set it on Sakhr’s chest. “Meet Marzipan.”

This marks the end of Part 1. Thank you all who’ve been reading so far.

I’d love to hear from you, whatever your thoughts or critiques may be.

34. Time for a Change

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

Alexander pressed a button on his armrest. His seat moved forward. Another button, and it reversed direction. Like all seats on the airplane, it had a staggering number of buttons available. Sakhr had also enjoyed experimenting. One set of buttons had puzzled him, until he figured out it moved a lump in the lower back of his seat. Lumbar support, he supposed. How amusing. But unlike Alex, Sakhr and the others eventually settled down and behaved like adults. Alexander was still goofing around four hours into the flight.

Alexander pressed another button and watched as his chair stretched into a fully-reclined bed. “It’s the sedan of private airplanes,” he said.

No one answered.

A flight attendant entered from behind a small curtain separating the cabin from the cockpit. “We’ll be landing in a few minutes. If everyone would please fasten their seat belts.” She stepped through the cabin, checking on Sibyl, Christof, Sakhr, and finally Alexander. “Sir, You need to return your seat to its upright position.”

He looked into her eyes and grinned. “Can we can make an exception? I think I prefer the bed to the chair.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s for safety.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s regulation.”

“Very well. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.” He corrected his chair. The attendant smiled and moved on.

Alexander eyed her backside as she retreated to the curtain. His aura was saturated with a disgusting shade of lust. No, thought Sakhr. It was different than that. Lust was desire. This aura was of someone who couldn’t wait to claim a prize they’d already won. It was revolting.

Sakhr was beginning to understand how Sibyl always felt. He’d only had the power of Empathy for a week, and it had given him more insight into Alexander’s psyche than he ever wanted to know. At least he could turn the power off by removing a small card from his wallet and setting it aside. It had the look and feel of a credit card, except with no numbers or microchips, just designs on it’s surface. It reminded Sakhr of a celtic knot or a middle eastern tapestry, a meaningless cluster of lines and curves that represented nothing.

“You don’t suppose she’s included in the accommodations, do you?” Alexander said. His aura stood poised, waiting for any of them to react. “I might need her on my other flights to make sure I’m in an upright position when I need to be.”

“Will you settle down?” Sakhr said.

Alexander’s aura swelled with satisfaction. “What? She wants me.”

Sakhr ignored him, until Alex reclined his seat back into a bed. “Put your seat back and behave yourself.”

“She just said those things because its her job. This is a private flight. If we want to have a dance while the plane lands, there’s nothing she can do about it.”

“Put it back up.”

“What? For safety? What are the odds this plane is going to crash?”

Sakhr didn’t answer.

Alex leaned and peered at him. “No, honestly. What are the odds?”

The question brought numbers to Sakhr’s mind. 0.06 accidents per 100,000 traveler hours. Casualty rate was about a tenth that. With full engine failure, this jet could still coast to a rough but safe landing. Once they were over Brazil, the LakiraLabs repulse grid would pick up the plane. Apart from a few unfortunate incidences in its cutting edge days, the grid had a phenomenal safety record.

Alexander’s grin widened, and Sakhr realized he’d mistakenly made eye contact. Alexander had his answer, but thanks to the second symbol on the reverse side of that little card, Sakhr glimpsed inside Alexander’s mind too—his own power used against him.

Alex glanced away, still grinning, but his aura betrayed his annoyance. Finally, the immature mood faded.

“You’re having fun now,” he said. “but you realize this whole thing is a mistake, right?”

“It’s not a mistake. You’ll understand that soon enough.”

Alex nearly laughed. “Why can’t you, of all people, see this? You’ve spent millennia playing it safe, and now you’re throwing in with this woman? She found us before we knew about her. She’s been watching us. She copied our powers. She copied yours. You know she must have. Now you want to dine with her? She’s a threat, Sakhr.”

“Of course she’s a threat. You think I’m an imbecile?”

“Then why are we entertaining her invitation.”

“Do you think we should ignore her instead? This woman could be a dangerous enemy. And who knows, Alex, maybe she is our answer.”

“Right,” Alex said. “Our answer. To all of our nonexistent problems.”

“Are you so foolish that you can’t see the world changing around you, Alex? Our ways aren’t going to work much longer. We need to change.”

“But we don’t need some fat-assed, white woman to do that.”

“No. We don’t, but we will hear her out. It is not wise to ignore her.”

Sibyl chimed in. “I, for one, think this is a grand idea.”

“Of course you would,” Alex said. “It would mean spending the rest of our time sitting on our asses, eating, and riding horses, and all those other rich people things.”

“It’s not about that,” she replied. “It’s about how I’m sick and tired of constantly moving around. I think this woman is right. We should embrace who we are, not run and hide. The world is ready for us.”

“To be clear,” Christof said. “Victoria never said we would reveal ourselves.”

“No,” agreed Sakhr. “We’ll still be hidden… for a while. This is just about pooling our resources, building a foundation.”

“Of course she would say that,” Alex said. “She’s the one who gains the most from this. She’s the one who’ll get all our powers.”

“She already has our powers,” Christof answered.

“Oh, so then no one else wonders why she wants us then?”

“Not everyone is as selfish as you,” Sibyl said. “Maybe she wants all us witches together because she agrees that we should be in charge, not running around like rabbits.”

“She’s bringing us together,” Sakhr said, “because we can no longer afford to live the way we have, as nomads. And I agree with her. You will all stop bickering about this. We’ve already agreed we’re going to hear her out.”

The group quieted down. The plane jolted as the repulse grid picked it up. Alexander slid and bumped his head against his bed frame. Sakhr savored the comeuppance.

The rest of the flight was eerily silent with the plane’s engines off. They landed at a private pad at Boa Vista International. A swarm of security and airport staff were waiting. A red carpet led from the plane to a shuttle.

“Are you sure we’re not already famous?” Alex asked.

“Our flairs are unknown as of yet,” Sakhr clarified.

“That’s another thing,” Alex said. “Why flairs? A flair is something a child has if they’re talented at the cello. What we have are goddamn powers.”

“I agree with Victoria on this,” said Christof. “Magic powers. Super powers. If we describe ourselves in those terms, it’ll draw unflattering comparisons.”

“But flairs?”

“It’s a matter of appearances,” Sakhr replied, “something she knows about.”

” You’re going to agree with her on everything, aren’t you?”

“On many things.” When Victoria had contacted Sakhr, she had shared with him many concerns that he’d been mulling over for decades. She was suggesting changes he knew would not come easy, but were no less necessary. The others would go along with it, even if they weren’t thrilled. The woman certainly was a change of pace from how they had been living. They were nomads, living from place to place, and body to body, while this woman was on the cover of Time magazine. She was the heiress to her father’s company, and with the world-changing invention of the repulse node, she’d changed it into a multinational corporation with tendrils in governments around the world. Victoria had hinted that flairs were the cause of her success. Sakhr was curious to find out how.

Like Sakhr, she had the marvelous power of foresight. The world was changing. Countries were more connected than ever, and people kept records like never before. The coven could not run away from their problems like they used to. They couldn’t wait for time to erase their past. Mankind had grown more efficient at killing one another, meaning Sakhr could no longer trust in his power to keep him alive. Guns, bombs, even those wretched automobiles—any could kill him before he’d have a chance to swap bodies. And then he watched as the world threatened to destroy itself over utter political nonsense. He and the coven had spent the nineteen sixties sequestered in obscure corners of the world. And now, nearly a century later, the world was threatening to do it again. Watching from the sidelines was not an option anymore. Victoria understood that, and she already had a start in building a solution.

Sakhr didn’t trust this woman. She was a threat he knew too little about, but whether Sakhr liked it or not, she may be the future.

After customs and immigration, their shuttle floated them to the LakiraLabs headquarters. It stood isolated from all the other skyscrapers, half finished but glimmering proudly. This was to be their new home, from where “flairs” would rule.

It might not be that bad.

They landed inside a shuttle bay. Sakhr stepped out to a full staff of security and assistants awaiting him. Auras bubbled with curiosity. They all knew Sakhr was important, even if they didn’t know why. For the first time in his long life, Sakhr was about to live as himself, not masqueraded as a person who’s life he’d stolen.

Alexander stepped up beside him and gave a mighty sigh.

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed.

31. The Baseball Bat

2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years

Josephine swerved through traffic. Horns blared. Drivers yelled. Pedestrians dived for cover.

When she arrived, Sakhr’s sedan was already in front of Katherine’s house. The front door was open.

She drove onto the lawn and sprinted to the house. Josephine saw Katherine the moment she reached the front door.

Blood. So much blood. It was pooled beneath Katherine’s crumpled form. It had saturated into nearly every square inch of her clothes. And it was splattered all along the walls. Josephine had never seen so much before. Nor had she seen limbs twisted in that grotesque way.

She gasped for air. It was humid in the house, warm and sticky. Flies buzzed. The stench was already of rot.

Josephine turned, curled, and vomited. As she leaned against the door frame recovering, Katherine’s father emerged from the kitchen wiping his hands with a dishcloth. He looked at Katherine’s mangled body curiously, as though it were a novelty. His shirt was speckled with blood. He turned to Josephine and grinned.

“Too late, Jose.”

It was Alex.

She charged, lashing out. He caught her arms. After a struggle, he threw her down.

“She was just a child!” she yelled.

“She killed Anton.” Alex pointed behind her. “Do you even care about that?”

Anton’s body was propped against the entryway wall. His hands were folded in his lap. Despite blood oozing from a hole in his forehead, he looked peaceful. Alex had shown his body respect.

“You’re a monster…”

Alex ignored her. Josephine started climbing to her feet when she noticed a baseball bat laying near Katherine’s feet. Hair and gristle were caked on the end, but it was the handle that horrified her. It was smeared with blood up and down its length.

Nausea overtook her again. She wretched. More came out, and then more. Every way she looked was blood. She saw Alex, and there was no thought. She tore at him again. This time, he didn’t shake her off as easily. In the distance, wailing sirens approached.

Enough!”

Sakhr came down the stairs holding Katherine’s notebook and her backpack. “Josephine. I ordered you to stay at the hotel.”

“You did this!” she screeched. “You did this to her!” She stormed toward him.

“It is regretful that you disobeyed me and came here to see this. The girl posed a threat to all of us. If she had gained our powers, she could have destroyed us.”

“You murdered her! You murdered an innocent girl.”

“I regret that it came to this, Josephine. But it had to be done, for our sakes. For yours. A witch of her power cannot be allowed to exist.”

“You… you… look at what you did to her. Look.”

Sakhr did not. “I know. I told Alexander to be quick. I came back to find him… overreacting. We will—”

Overreacting?” Josephine screeched the word. “He defiled her. He tortured her.”

“I stopped him when I saw what he was doing, but what’s done is done.”

“You’re sick,” she screamed. “You’re both sick.”

“Hey!” called Alex. “She killed Anton before we laid a finger on her. Then she nearly killed me.” He pointed to his old body.

“I wish she’d killed you both!”

Sakhr snatched her chin and pulled her to face him. “You will calm down now. Do you hear those sirens? The police will be here soon. We can talk about this later.”

She yanked away from him. “No! Leave me alone. I never want to see you again.”

“Josephine.” Sakhr stepped toward her. “Now is not the time. You will come with us, or you will never get the benefit of another body again.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I’m done. I’m leaving all of you.”

“Josephine…”

She pulled. She pulled harder than she ever pulled before. Just like that, every memory, every moment, every idea Sakhr and Alexander ever had of her was torn away. She turned to run from the house when she glanced the notebooks in Sakhr’s hand. She snatched them. He had no right to those. Some little bit of Katherine should be allowed to live. Sakhr did not resist. He had already forgotten he was holding them at all.

Then Josephine ran.

At some point in the night, she found herself back at the hotel. Christof and Sibyl never awoke as their memories flittered away. She packed and left, and that was it. The only hint that a sixth member had ever been in the coven would be the hotel record of six people checking in, but even the concierge forgot that as she passed through the lobby. The record would be a minor clerical error, nothing more.

Josephine Molyneux had never existed.

30. Revolver

2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years

Katherine watched from her front door as Josephine drove off.

She should’ve felt ecstatic. Today, she’d discovered her own magical power, a powerful one at that. Tomorrow, she would leave with a coven of like-minded people. Why could she not shake the feeling that something was wrong?

Maybe it was her inner pessimist—the part of her that was certain that good things just didn’t happen to her—but she couldn’t stop replaying the million little glimpses she’d seen inside Alex’s mind.

The coven was not the cheerful family they pretended to be. They had arguments, feuds, and cliques, just like high schoolers. But for her, they put on a show, because they wanted her. She was an acquisition, but the smiles had come down today. The moment Alexander realized she was reading his mind, she’d gone from being an annoyance to him to a mortal threat. He wasn’t the only mind reader now. Josephine thought that he might behave better from now on, but Josephine had never seen inside his head.

And there was Sakhr. He’d been careful not to look at her, but she’d seen enough about him in Alex’s mind. His power defined him. He was the bodyswapper, the one who kept them all alive. If someone could ever replace him in that role, it would provoke something in him far different than better behavior.

She went inside. Her father was in the other room watching the Badgers game. When he saw her, he muted it and meandered to the kitchen.

“How was Jesse’s?” He leaned casually on the counter while Katherine pried her boots off.

“It was okay. We finished the homework and just watched some television.”

Her father nodded, his mild curiosity sated, but then Katherine met his gaze. Her mind filled with thoughts that told a different story.

He had tried to look ‘Jesse’ up in the school directory. There was one: a boy, not a girl, and he was two grades below Katherine. Her father had called the boy’s mother and confirmed that Katherine had never been there in her life. He knew Katherine was lying to him, but this week, he had seen more life in Katherine than he had since her mother died. She was happy, and it had something to do with where she was going each night. He didn’t think she was getting involved with a bad crowd. She wasn’t cutting classes, and her grades were fine; he’d called the school and checked. His hope was Katherine was seeing a boy. Oh God, did he hope that. At least he’d understand the secrecy. He hated that she would keep it secret from him, but he’d understand.

All of this was hidden behind his look of boredom. He was confused, and hurt, and desperate to know what was going on with her.

And tomorrow she would be running away.

“Thanks for letting me stay out so late,” she said.

He shrugged. “Have you eaten?”

“Yeah. I’m probably going to disappear in my room for the night. I have a little bit of work left.”

“Okay.”

She met his gaze again.

Fear.

Fear that she was slipping away from him.

It had been so long since they’d spent time together. Was she outgrowing him? Was she going to disappear one day. He wanted so much to do something with her. Anything. He’d play dolls with her again if she wanted, but she hadn’t done that since she was a child.

That memory was strong inside his head. She had been eight, and they’d been playing house. Or doctor. Katherine kept jumping from topic to topic, and he wasn’t sure. He was responsible for steering Clifford the Big Red Dog to a car accident to drop off paramedic dolls who were riding him, but Katherine kept telling him he was doing it wrong. He took the dolls off Clifford too soon, or he moved them to the site instead of walking them. With everything he did, she got fussy. He’d lost his temper and snapped at her. It only happened once, but Katherine was done. She never played with dolls again. Logically, he knew she simply outgrew them, but he still blamed himself for ruining it for her. Bit by bit, she became this girl who’s interests strayed farther away from him. No more chess. No more games. Even when he went along with things she wanted to do, such as shopping, it felt perfunctory for both of them.

He’d give anything to know what to do.

Katherine did something she hadn’t done in ages. She hugged him, and kissed his cheek.

“Goodnight, daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Immediately, she headed off. She couldn’t hold herself together if she stayed any longer.

“Goodnight,” he called after her.

In her room, she tossed her backpack against the bed and read her notebooks on witch powers. Now that she knew she could learn them for herself, she studied her notes in a different light. After every section, she’d clear her mind and concentrate on the questions.

What was it like? What’s the most you could do? How did you visualize it? She’d hold the answers in her head and see if she could get that same little click that she felt with Alexander’s power, but nothing came. Maybe she needed someone to test the powers on. With Alexander, she’d looked him right in the eyes, and it happened. Or did it happen, and that’s why she looked him in the eyes? She’d seen her own power through Christof’s memories. All week, her power had been shifting and curling about itself as though something were growing inside, but Christof had only seen her when she was around the others.

Maybe that was the secret. Learning a power was both understanding it and being close to the witch. That still left so many unanswered questions. In theory, she could figure it all out tomorrow when when they traveled together, but she knew what was in Alex’s head. She saw how skittish they all became after realizing what she was, how quickly they sent her home, how reluctant Josephine was to come inside.

They weren’t coming tomorrow morning, she realized. Or if they did come…

That thought nagged at her.

Setting aside her notebook, she crept from her room and down the upstairs hall to her father’s bedroom. In his closet on the top shelf was a shoebox. Careful not to topple the other boxes on top of it, she sidled it off the ledge. Inside was a magnum revolver in a nest of tissue paper.

That was when she got scared. By taking this action, she’d changed a silly worry into something real—an acknowledgement that she might actually be in mortal danger. And even if tomorrow came, and they arrived to pick her up for the airport, she can never take back that she kept a gun with her this night because she thought they might decide to kill her. It would always be between her and them.

She took the gun, collected the bullets, and slid the shoebox back where it belonged. Her father didn’t realize that she’d always known it was there. Tomorrow she could put it back, and he’d never realize it had gone missing. Hopefully.

In her room, she familiarized herself with the gun. Years ago, her father had taken her to a shooting range. It had been one of his father-daughter bonding attempts. At the time, it was pointlessly dull. Now, it was endearing. She’d go again with him had there been more time.

She tucked the gun under her pillow and returned to her notes, particularly on Josephine’s power. Of all the powers, that one was most likely to protect her if… something happened tonight. She read the section front to back and concentrated. It made no difference. With no one to practice upon, she couldn’t tell if she was making progress.

And then the doorbell rang.

Her hands quivered madly as she took out the gun and the ammo box from under her pillow. She could hardly fit the rounds into the chamber.

“Katherine?” It was her father. “Can you come down here a minute?”

Tucking the gun under her sweater, she walked out to the top of the stairs. Anton waited just inside the threshold with her father.

“Your guidance councilor needs to speak with you,” her father said.

She saw in her father’s mind many questions. Why was a school guidance councilor making a housecall? What could Katherine be getting into that warranted this? Her father wasn’t questioning whether Anton was who he said he was. Her father took that for granted. Anton’s Authority echoed in her father’s head.

“I would like to speak with her privately,” Anton said. More Authority.

“Of course.” No question about it. Her father headed toward the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” Katherine asked.

Sakhr stepped around from behind the door. He’d been waiting out of view of her father. “Something’s come up. We need to leave tonight.”

“Why?”

“I’ll explain on the way. Are you packed?”

“No.”

“That’s okay. Just come now. We’ll replace anything you need.”

“But why? What’s so urgent that we have to leave tonight? Where are the others? Where’s Josephine?”

“Josephine is waiting in the car. Come. We haven’t time to discuss this now.”

“If you’d look me in the eye, you could tell me everything that way. It would be quick.”

Neither did. They exchanged glances with each other. Anton stepped into the house.

Sakhr stayed at the door. “As the coven’s newest telepath, you’re going to need to follow the same rule as Alexander. No mind reading unless absolutely necessary. Respect our privacy.”

Anton was at the foot of the stairs now.

“I think I’ve decided I want to stay,” Katherine said, “I’m not sure I’m ready to leave my father alone. Maybe after I graduate you could come back. If you wanted to.”

Anton started climbing the steps.

“Or if you don’t, that’s okay too. I get it if you don’t want me in the group anymore. And that’s okay. I’ll just… I’ll just be here. I won’t learn any more powers.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. She hardly noticed.

“We don’t have time for this,” Anton said, taking one step at a time. “Come with us.”

The sound of his voice made her body tremble. Without thought, her legs moved toward him. She was down two steps before she clutched the banister. She didn’t have to obey him. He’s here to hurt her.

“Please,” she said. “Please, leave me alone. I won’t tell anyone. Please.”

A rusty squeak came from the back of the house. Someone just passed through the kitchen screen door to the yard. Her father was talking.

Anton was half way up the stairs. “Do not disobey me, Katherine.”

Again, her body moved reflexively. She clung to the banister as though her legs were dragging her down. Anton was almost in reach. Frantically, she pulled the gun from her waistband and aimed it.

He froze, eyes wide. Sakhr practically dove outside the door. All traces of his ancient air of paternalism were gone. He was a man ducking a threat.

Anton held his ground. “Put down the gun, Katherine.” She didn’t. Each time her body reacted less and less to his Authority. Her gun leveled at him.

I said put it down!” he roared.

She hardly even realized it when she fired. The bang was deafening for sure, but it was the gun’s reaction that she noticed. The kickback was as though she’d just pushed a shopping cart into a wall—hardly anything at all. Anton’s head snapped back. As though in slow motion, he fell backward down the stairs. He was airborne for an eternity. Blood streamed from a hole above his left eye. When his body hit the steps, he tumbled the rest of the way, his limbs limp and aimless. At the bottom, he came to a rest. The frozen look of surprise was still on his face.

Something crashed in the kitchen. Her father yelled. He struggled with someone. Then came the sound of a solid crack.

Moments later, Alexander emerged holding her father as a shield. Her dad’s feet dragged, and his arm flailed about for support. Alexander was holding a kitchen knife to his throat.

He’d been grinning when he entered, but upon seeing Anton, his expression turned black.

“What the fuck did you do?”

Katherine’s legs nearly buckled. She clutched the gun with cold, white knuckles.

“You cunt. Do you have any idea what I’m going to do to you now? Do you have any idea?”

“Kat?” Her father sounded groggy. “Run. Just run.”

“Oh shut up.” Alex cracked him on the head with the butt of his knife. Allen would have crumbled if Alex hadn’t been holding him up. “And you,” Alex looked at her. “Put that fucking gun down before I start filleting your old man.”

“Dad…” Katherine’s voice came out as a whimper.

“Nnn… No,” said Allen.

“Look into my eyes, bitch. I will do it. If you put that down and come down here, your daddy gets to live. Up to you.”

In his eyes, Katherine saw that he would hurt her father, but he wasn’t sold yet on letting her father live. That would depend on how he was feeling, or how much she pissed him off.

Either way, she was going to die tonight. That had been decided long before she shot Anton, but now that she had… Oh, my. The things Alexander wanted to do to her. This little bitch had just ended a friendship spanning centuries. They were a duo who understood each other like no other people could. And when they put their powers together, they were unstoppable. Alex could see clean through anyone, and his insight made Anton’s Authority work better—better for picking up women, for gambling, for doing all the things the duo loved to do. That’s because Alex saw how Authority worked. He could see in the minds of others while the Authority worked primordial parts of their brains. It would tickle the fight-or-flight response—lock down the super ego. In time, he’d learned just what memories and feeling worked best, and how best for Anton to work his magic.

He understood Anton’s power in a way Anton never did.

And now Katherine saw it too.

She took a breath and calmed herself.

“Let my father go.” Her voice wavered, but Authority was there.

Startled, Alex reared back. As though of its own mind, his hand released the knife. His grip relaxed, and her father slid to the floor.

She fired. This time however, she over anticipated the kick back. The shot merely nicked Alex’s arm. Alex moved, but Katherine fired again, and again. She didn’t stop. Bullets flew high and wide as Alex stumbled backward out of view. Plaster and dust exploded around him.

The final shot punched his chest. The gun clicked empty. Alex slumped against the wall and slid to a seat beside Allen. He glared at Katherine. Despite wheezing for dying breaths and blood bubbling from his lip, he could think only of his hate for her.

Katherine rushed down the stairs to her father. As she rounded the bottom, Sakhr lunged from the front door and grabbed her waist. He threw her at the stair banister. Her head collided with wood. Pain seared through her. She crumpled. Something warm and slick poured down her face.

Sakhr reached around the front door and reemerged with a baseball bat. He approached.

“Put… put the bat—” She never finished.

Sakhr brought it down in an overhead swing, right onto her leg.

In that moment, pain was all she knew. The scream that tore from her lungs was long and piercing. It petered into a hoarse croak. Her shin bone jutted from a massive gash. Blood poured.

Sakhr raised the bat again.

Katherine pulled herself away, but there would be no escaping it. Before Sakhr could swing, Allen collided with him from behind. They fell, into a grapple. Allen rolled on top of Sakhr and press his forearm into his neck. Sakhr struggled, but Allen’s chokehold was solid.

“Kat, get the phone,” her father yelled.

Then, they stopped fighting. Allen stood. Sakhr, in turn, screamed. He looked over his own body as though it were covered in insects. Sakhr had swapped places.

Now in her father’s body, Sakhr grabbed Allen, who was too bewildered to react. He dragged him toward Alex.

In dread, Katherine saw what was about to happen.

“No,” she yelled. “Stop!”

Her Authority caused Sakhr to pause, but the voice of a broken, bleeding girl was not enough to keep him.

“No!” she yelled again. She tried dragging herself toward them.

By now, Allen had gained control of his senses. He pieced together enough to realize the enemy was in his own body. He kicked and thrashed. Sakhr had to wrestle him the rest of the way. He grabbed Alex’s hand and placed it on the shin of Allen’s current body.

It was as though they each hiccuped within a fraction of a second of one another. And it was done. Sakhr was in his own body. Alexander was in Allen’s.

Alex straightened. He looked at his old body, and then at his new one. “Fuck!”

He felt his new gut. “Fucking fuck. Shit.”

He ran a hand through his thinning hair. Hissing, he jerked it away when his fingers touched a welt—the one Alex had inflicted on Allen when he first broke in. “God fucking damn it!” He slammed a hand against the wall.

Katherine’s father, now inside Alex’s old body, stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the man now impersonating him. His eyes turned to Katherine, and she saw his thoughts. He felt pain and confusion, but at seeing his hurt little girl, he understood one thing for sure: he’d failed. He was going to die. She would follow, and there was nothing he could do about that.

His thoughts stopped making sense. They were flashes of unrelated ideas and memories—just a random chaos of firing neurons as his brain shut down. In the end, there was no final wish for Katherine to escape, and no sentiments of love, just a muddled mess of panic and despair.

And then nothing.

He was dead at the hands of people Katherine had brought into their lives. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t change anything. He never got to understand why.

Alex snapped around to look at her. “She’s still alive,” he said. A humorless grin crept over his face. It was not a smile her father had never made. “Shall I do the honors?”

Sakhr brushed himself off and looked down at Katherine. “Fine.” He stepped over her body and headed up the stairs. “I need to find her notes. We don’t have much time. So be quick about it, will you? Don’t look her in the eye. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t touch her.”

“Sure, sure.” Alex fetched the dropped bat and stood over Katherine. Once Sakhr disappeared upstairs, he looked Katherine directly in the eyes. “Do you think I’m going to be quick about it? Look into my eyes, bitch. Take a look and see what I’m about to do to you.”

She looked.

And she saw.