87. Too Good a Stock to Put Down

Sakhr collapsed into his office chair. His hand still clutched the plaque cradled in Sibyl’s arms. Alone now, he could think. Everything else could wait.

What had he forgotten?

It had something to do with Victoria; he was sure of that. Somehow she’d taken away his memories. He hadn’t even realized she could do that. Or had he known? He couldn’t recall ever talking about it.

God damn it. His mind was such a mess.

Stay focused.

He couldn’t see Sibyl’s aura. Her shield was working.

“Do you remember?”


“Do you remember everything that just happened?”


“Stop that. Stop being so pathetic. Did you remember what we were just doing?”



“You had sent ships to destroy that orbiter, but then the soldiers forgot what their orders were.”

“What? Orbiter? Why would I want to destroy an orbiter?”

“Victoria was on board.”

“Yes. Okay.” She was, wasn’t she? He remembered something about her getting on board a ship. The Venezia sounded right. It had a captain named Marc Stephano. That’s all he could recall.

“Give me this.” Sakhr tugged at Sibyl’s plaque.

She held on. “Wait. What are you doing?”

“I need to see your mind. I need to know what just happened.”

“But she could still be watching,” she wailed. “She’d erase my memory too.”

Sakhr stopped. That was a good point. Keeping his hand on the plaque, he settled back and thought. He needed to see Sibyl’s mind, but in such a way that Victoria couldn’t first rob her of the very memories he needed. By now, she’d no doubt plundered the minds of every damn soldier in that bridge. Sibyl was the only one left who knew. Only she’d had a shielded plaque.

Then wait…

“Sibyl, how long has my shield been broken?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been with me all day. You must have seen my aura. How long have you been able to see it?”

“…All day. I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me.”

Didn’t occur to you? Give me this.” They struggled over the plaque. “Give me it now.” Sakhr shoved his shoulder into Sibyl, knocking her away.

Now the sole possessor of the plaque, Sakhr looked upon her.

Then he lunged for his desk’s security button. “Get guards in here now!”

“Nope!” Sibyl launched toward him. Her fist collided with Sakhr’s jaw. He sprawled back. The plaque clattered.

Sakhr clutched his face. Sibyl stood over him. Her docile behavior was gone. This person grinned wide as they fetched the toppled plaque.

“Alexander,” he said. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

The impostor took something from their pocket and toss it to Sakhr.

It was a taser.

Sakhr’s mind raced as to why Alexander would arm him after this treachery.

One reason came to mind.

By the time he’d realized it, Alex had already laid the plaque beside them and touched his hand to Sakhr’s stomach.

In his lifetime of swapping bodies, Sakhr had only been swapped by someone else one time before. Victoria had put him inside that tortoise. It had caused jarring motion sickness and left him stunned. He felt that same sensation now. He stared out from Sibyl’s body, looking at the grinning face of Helena, the queen.

Alexander kicked Sakhr away and shot him with the taser. Screaming, Sakhr crumpled.

“Damn,” Alex rubbed his jaw. “I clocked you hard, didn’t I?”

Soldiers burst in, weapons poised. Alexander pointed to Sakhr. “This woman is an assassin.”

The men rushed toward Sakhr.

“No!” shouted Alex. “Stay away from her. Get the exemplars.”

“Your Majesty? We need to secure her.”

“You can’t. She’s a flair. Get the exemplars.”

“Wait,” mumbled Sakhr. Pain still wracked his body from the shock. “It’s a trick.”

No one heard him.

“Go,” said Alex. “Make sure no one enters or leaves this room until the exemplars get here.”

They hesitated. All their training yelled at them not to leave their leader alone with a declared assassin.

Now,” shouted Alex.

The soldiers backed out of the room. Alex used his plaque to make a call. Two rings.


“Wyatt? It’s me, Alex. You remember that… thing we talked about?”

“Uh… yeah?”

“It’s just happened. Get the guys up here. Soldiers are on their way.”

“Got it, boss.”

Alex hung up.

“My… my power,” breathed Sakhr. “How…”

“How’d I get it? You’ve been shieldless a lot longer than you think. Funny, really. It’s your own paranoia that’s defeated you. If you’d let the soldiers have those glyph cards, any one of them could have let you know.” Alex rubbed his chin ponderously. “Or maybe not. It takes a brave little boy to tell the emperor he’s hasn’t got any clothes on.”

Sakhr got up on one knee.

“Ah ah.” Alex brandished the taser toward him. “Stay down.”

Sakhr glared at him. “Five hundred years, Alex. Five hundred years. You know how much of your bullshit I’ve put up with? How much I’ve forgiven?”

“You think I don’t know? I know your mind better than you do. What’s that little gem you’re always thinking? A poorly-trained breeding dog. Too good a stock to put down.

“It was never like that.”

Alex waved it off. “Oh, I know. We always knew where we stood with one another. Which is why we both knew this was coming.”

“Your betraying me? Why would I see this coming? I’ve shown you five hundred years of loyalty.”

“Oh please, Sakhr. Why don’t you look me in the eye and say that. …Or why don’t you tell me where Christof is right now.”

Sakhr clenched his fists. He’d gotten his broken plaque last night. How many times had he looked into Alex’s eyes since then? If he were going to get out of this, it would take luck. Sakhr hated luck.

His eyes on the ground, he asked, “Are you going to kill me?”

“Now that is a great question. I’ve been going back and forth on that all week. It would be such a waste, but on the other hand, Katherine kept you alive. Look where that got her. And why should I keep you when I’ve got this?” Alex turned the plaque toward Sakhr to show an image file. It was an ugly drawing of a glyph made using a simple painting program. Sakhr didn’t recognize it because he had never seen his own.

Four exemplars burst in the door. Alex pointed Sakhr out. Two grabbed Sakhr by his arms. Another cuffed him.

Alex held out his hand. One passed him a repulse pistol. There was no hesitation. It’s as though everyone had rehearsed this act but Sakhr.

“Alexander. I kept you alive all these years. Take it, okay? The throne is yours.”

Stepping closer, Alexander took aim.

“Alexander, please. Put me in a tortoise. Put me in anything. You can’t throw away my power. That… that drawing. Do you think it will last? There’s a girl on this ship who can destroy that with a glance.”

“I’ll make backups.”

“How many? Who will keep them? Think, Alex. You don’t know what the future holds, what flairs will show up. You might need me some day. Just put me away somewhere. Imprison me. Take the throne. I won’t fight for it. I never wanted to rule. Please, Alex. Five hundred years. Does that mean nothing?”

“Good God, Sakhr. Your a calculating man right up until the gun turns on you. You really show your true colors then, don’t you?”

“Don’t do this. My power may be the only method for immortality that will ever exist. That glyph breaking girl might just be the first of many. There may come a day you’ll regret killing me. Please, Alex. Think. You can’t take this back.”

Alex kept the gun aimed at Sakhr, dithering as though deciding an ice cream flavor. With a sigh, he lowered the gun. “I suppose so. Take him away.”

“Where to?” one asked.

Alex thought. “Fourth floor cells. And you, go fetch the tortoise in General Soto’s bathroom. I’ll come by later to swap them out.”

The exemplars started carrying Sakhr away. Despite the predicament, relief washed over him. He could lose the throne. He could lose against Victoria. He would suffer the humiliation of living as a simple animal again. It didn’t matter. He was alive, and in all his millennia of life, this would just be another second. He’d escape some day.

But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Being Victoria’s captive was one thing. She was rational, and careful. She would have let him live for centuries, but Alexander might change his mind tomorrow. As the men carried him to the door, he glanced around. Each exemplar had a gun, not something they were supposed to have, but he could work with it. They each had a plaque fastened to their belts. The men holding his arms were close enough that Sakhr might reach their plaques with his cuffed hands.

He’d wait until they were in the hall, then in one swift motion, yank the plaque’s battery. It would shatter. The man’s instincts would then act against him, and he’d grab Sakhr. In the time it’d take them to realize that Sakhr had changed bodies, he could already have shot two of them. For the last? Simple trick. Toss him the gun. His reaction will be to grab it while Sakhr knocks the man’s plaque from the holster. Then Sakhr would be in his body holding the gun.

It would be a risk, but Sakhr would have to take it. From there, he’d have a shield glyph, a gun, and a body with high rank. Getting off the citadel would be the next trick. He’d have to—

“Hold it,” said Alex. The men turned around, facing Sakhr toward him. “What’s that I smell?” Alex wandered toward Sakhr while sniffing the air. “Is that… hope I’m smelling on your aura? Maybe a hint of determination? You’re already planning your escape, aren’t you?” He frowned at Sakhr like a disappointed parent. “Oh well. Maybe I’ll regret this later, but…” He aimed the gun.

Alexander,” shouted Sakhr. “Don’t—”

He never got to finish.

86. Confirm Live Fire Command

Winnie saw the battle of the spider drones. It lasted less than a second. A firework of explosions rocked through the spider swarm as the Venezia missiles struck. Many missiles exploded a split second before hitting their target, but others hit home. Scores of drones detonated. Their shrapnel tore into their neighbors. Twisted metal plummeted toward the earth.

Simultaneously, the Venezia spider swarm came within combat range. Winnie noticed no exchange of fire. Just that spiders on both sides dropped from the sky in droves, like bugs gassed with poison. There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with the husks hurling back to the planet, but when she looked inside, she saw clean holes cut through their interiors, shattering circuitry. Their armored chassis had a dent at worst.

The enemy swarms passed each other. About thirty of the Venezia’s drones dropped. More than a hundred enemy drones failed. According to the displays in the Venezia strike room. The two swarms would collide once more before the enemy drones descended upon the Venezia. Without the missiles, the next strike wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Over four hundred drones would attack the Venezia in under two minutes.

The launch room was in madness when Winnie, Victoria, and Josephine arrived. Marines were cramming into pods. One would buckle into the seat. Another would practically sitting on their lap.

“Ma’am. Here,” Bishop called out. Two pods were standing by. Tan was already buckled into one. He watched the commotion with passing interest. Oni was crammed in beside him. Tan had not allowed him to sit on his lap. The other pod was empty.

Victoria stepped into the pod with Tan. To her exemplars, she pointed out Winnie and Josephine. “Put those two in the other pod. And you,” she said to Tan. “Get up. I’m sitting.”

Tan didn’t move.

Liat and Bishop pulled Winnie and Josephine along and secured them down, Winnie in Josephine’s lap. They then crammed into a remaining pod for themselves.

Victoria addressed the room. “Listen closely. Everyone.” The launch room went quiet. “They’re going to destroy our pods the moment we’ve landed. Watch your GPS. As soon as you’re one mile from land, eject. If you stay in your pod, you will die. You’ll need to swim to safety.”

One marine spoke up. “We’d be over four hundred feet up. We’d die.”

“Not if you jump out when you’re a mile away. The TransAtlantic skirts traffic just above the water. A hundred feet at most.”

“At the speeds we’ll be traveling, it’d be a bitch.”

“Your alternative is death. Do this or die.”

The words reverberated. No one spoke up after that. Victoria sat on Tan’s lap. She spoke to Winnie, who sat in another pod. “Keep an eye on me. I will say when you should jump.”

Winnie nodded. She put her mind once again outside the ship. The enemy swarm still couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, but it was only ninety seconds away. The Venezia would be over the TransAtlantic chute soon.

“All pods prepare for launch in sixty seconds.” It was the intercom voice of Lieutenant Ruiz from the bridge. By now, every pod was full. Winnie was settled in Josephine’s lap. Tan and Victoria were intimately closer than either preferred, and Oni was crammed in with them. Anyone who could be saved would have their chance.

Winnie and Victoria would be on the run again. At least they’d have company this time. Josephine and Tan might stick around, assuming Victoria didn’t treat them like enemies. But given that she now had Josephine’s power, she didn’t need Josephine anymore. And Tan… Winnie still didn’t even know what his power was.

Though once Victoria had his power, why keep him either? Winnie would have to convince her they were worth keeping around. That meant convincing Victoria they were useful. It was always about power to her. All the queen cared about was hoarding flairs, but even with all that power combined, flairs weren’t going to save this ship.

An idea occurred to Winnie. She kicked Josephine’s shin. Josephine looked, opened her mouth to speak, but upon looking into Winnie’s eyes, she stopped. She still held the glyph card she’d taken from Winnie and could see exactly what Winnie was thinking. There were six ships controlling that spider swarm from nearly two hundred miles away. That put them outside the range of all their powers, except for Winnie. She could see them. She could even see the pilots of all six ships at once.

Sight. That is how Josephine’s power worked, right? Victoria had brought her into the Venezia with a bag over her head. If Josephine saw you, your mind was hers to pilfer. So since Winnie could see the enemy ships, and Josephine could see in Winnie’s head. Why shouldn’t that be enough? It’s not as though their powers required working eyeballs, it was just about awareness. Or so Winnie hoped.

Yet the soldiers she spied continued to work. In each ship, the comms officers chattered quick confirmations with other ships. The captains oversaw their respective display tables. The strike controllers maintained focus on their swarms. Their hands flew over their controls, making micro adjustments to the spider drones’ flight paths.

Was Josephine even trying? Maybe this wasn’t how her power worked. Victoria had mentioned that Josephine could only erase memories related to her. But Josephine certainly had an intense gaze as she looked into Winnie’s mind. All Winnie could do was keep eye contact and maintain her visions.

Sakhr watched the dots on the displays. They crawled, despite the ships they represented traveling at supersonic speeds. The odds were six on one. The general was exuding an aura of calm. That’s how much he thought this fight was in the bag. Of course he didn’t know what was at stake. For Sakhr, he’d felt as though he’d bet his life savings on a turtle race. Every inching minute built upon the tight ball of stress in his stomach. Even if this succeeded, that didn’t mean it was over. Pods would launch. Missiles would follow. Then an eternity of uncertainty would follow. Did she die? Or was there another goddamn bird? He missed the days when seeing your enemy’s body was proof enough.

He watched the next stage of this glacial fight. The swarm of spider drones were about to intersect a second time. A few more would drop, and then it was on to the enemy orbiter. Sakhr found himself clenching the handrail as the dots mixed.

Then a moment later, they separated. Exactly as expected. He relaxed.

Admiral Laughlin frowned. “Hmm.”

Sakhr’s tension returned. “Is something wrong?”

“Hmm? No, ma’am. They just… hold on a moment. Lieutenant Diaz?” He addressed his comm officer. “Is there any chatter from the orbiters about that engagement?”

“No, sir.”


“No, sir. None of them are talking.”

“Contact the fleet commander. I want to know why they didn’t return fire on the enemy swarm.”

“Yes, sir.”

They didn’t return fire?” Sakhr asked.

The admiral waved it off. “The commander may have opted not to. Attacking the swarm makes no difference. It won’t swing back in time to fight again,” but the admiral’s aura was not as calm as he acted. When the comm officer got through, both he and Sakhr listened.

“Squad fourteen. This is the Manakin bridge. Report your current situation… You’re free to engage the target… Aye… The HIMS Venezia… Affirmative… Affirmative… Yes, that is your target… Hold.”

Diaz looked to the Admiral. “They’re requesting confirmation on their orders, sir.”

Laughlin frowned. “Put it on my console.”

The call transferred.

“This is Admiral Laughlin.”

“This is squad fourteen,” a tinny voice came from the speakers. “Requesting confirmation on our orders, sir.”

“You’re to destroy the rogue orbiter vessel, the HIMS Venezia.”

Pause. “That’s a Lakiran vessel, sir.”

“Yes, Captain. We know. It’s been commandeered. Take it out.”

Radio silence stretched on for moments. The spider drones continued their arc toward their target. The enemy swarm was circling back, but it would never get there in time. Everything was on course.


“Requesting a copy on our orders,” the radio voice said.

“I just told you your orders, Captain. Destroy the damn ship.”

“Yes, sir. Which ship? The… the Venezia?”

Yes, Captain. The Venezia.”

“That’s… understood, sir. Destroying the Venezia.”

The radio clicked out. The flight continued. One minute left until the spiders could open fire on the target.

The radio clicked back in. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our orders.”

“Shoot the goddamn ship!” the admiral screamed into the mic.


The admiral glared at his mic as though daring the console to click back on.

It did. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our—”

Is this some kind of joke?”

“Admiral,” Sakhr said. “It’s not them. Those blasted flairs aboard the enemy vessel are fiddling with your mens’ minds. Can you take control of the swarms?”

“What? What flairs?”

“I’ll explain later. Treat those soldiers as useless. Is there any way your men can take over?”

“There… there should be,” Laughlin turned to his flight operator. “We can remotely control those spiders, isn’t that correct?”

“We can,” the strike commander said. “If we can slave the orbiters to—”

“Don’t explain. Just do it,” Sakhr said. He didn’t know how Victoria was doing this. Records indicated that that Josephine woman needed to see her targets. Could she work over radio contact? Or…


The moment he thought it he knew it was true. It was that farseeing girl.

Damn. It.

Everyone was going to need shields now.

“I’m in, Your Majesty” the strike commander said. His console layout changed to reflect the controls aboard the orbiter flagship.

“Do you understand the mission?” Laughlin said.

“Yes, sir. Destroy the Venezia.”

“Then carry it out.”

Sakhr held his shield plaque out to the strike commander. “And keep your hand on this while you work.”

“Your Majesty?”

Humor me,” he said. This mission was not going to fail.

There was no doubt. It was working. Winnie had just watched six tactical operations officers aboard six ships stare blankly at a confirmation popup on their screen. “Confirm live fire command”. It had disappeared seconds after the opposing spider swarms made their second pass at each other. The rest of the crews weren’t much better. The comms officers backed their hands away from their controls as though their radio was an angry cat. The captains acted nonchalant, but half were secretly looking up their flight mission. The pilots and co-pilots kept glancing at each other as though too shy to talk. And now the commander aboard the main ship was having an embarrassing conversation with headquarters.

“Victoria!” Winnie turned to look looked the queen in the eyes.

Victoria shot up from Tan’s lap. “Don’t you dare stop!” She sprinted from the launch bay. Winnie glanced with her mind and saw her running back to the bridge. Thirty seconds until evacuation.

Winnie looked back at Josephine and resumed visualizing the other crafts. They were still just as befuddled.

Something changed. Their screens no longer displayed the spider drone swarms or any of its multitude of controls. All it showed was a prompt: Console disabled. System under remote access. Winnie listened to the radio chatter coming out of their ear pieces.


Someone had disabled the orbiter crews’ controls. Who?

With her eyes still locked on Josephine’s, her mind searched about. The radio chatter gave no clues. She checked the prompt again. In its corner, after a string of numbers and letters, was an address: lk-emm.manakin.strk-12.co.

Instantly, Winnie’s mind was in the Manakin. It was floating half a mile out from Porto Maná. She scoured up and down the main spire. The bridge? No one was doing anything related to this. The flag bridge? No. Flight operations? No. The strike room? …Yes. There was Sakhr leaning over an officer who worked at a console with a display identical to what the orbiters had moments ago. They were going to continue the attack from here, and the officer had a hand on Sakhr’s plaque. Josephine wouldn’t be able to touch him.

The attack was going to happen.

Winnie’s mind shot back to Victoria. She was in the Venezia bridge now, yelling at Stephano to hold the evacuation while shoving the comm officer out of the way. Didn’t she see what was happening on those ships? In twenty seconds, this ship would be destroyed. Victoria would not make it back to the bay in time.

“Go back,” Josephine said.


“Go back. Look at Sakhr again.”

Winnie did so. “Why?”

“I wasn’t done.”

“But he’s shielded.”

Without breaking eye contact, Josephine shrugged. “I’m getting them. I can feel it.”

“But…” Winnie kept her gaze. “How?”

Another shrug.

The officer worked slower since Sakhr was pressing one of the man’s hands to the plaque. It didn’t matter. The man was already resting.

“Are you done?”

“The spiders already have their flight plan, Your Majesty. I’ll just need to confirm live fire.”

“So it’s… okay?”

“Pretty much, ma’am.”

Sakhr pressed his hand down harder. One slip up and this would all be for nothing. No slip up, and everything would be better. Just fifteen more seconds. He was counting in his head along with the onscreen indicator. At ten seconds, a prompt came up.

The officer didn’t move to press it.

“Is that it?” Sakhr asked.

“Is what it, ma’am?”

“The… button.”


“The…” Sakhr wracked his mind. “The thing. You need to do that… to do something.”


Just do it!”

“Do what?”

Sakhr paused. The officer needed to do something—something to do with Victoria. Capture her? No. Kill her. She was… somewhere. And the Air Force was about to… what?

Snapping, Sakhr staggered backwards. He clutched his plaque in his hands like a lifeline. His memory was shot. Josephine was affecting him. But how? He was shielded. Shields worked against her, right? Right. She avoided high exemplars.

But how did he know that?

Did he read it somewhere?

He knew he’d read a record on Josephine, but he couldn’t remember anything in it.

She was… important.

Her name was… ‘J’ something… or something. He knew it a minute ago.

“Your Majesty?” asked the Admiral. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Sakhr distantly, but he knew he wasn’t. Something was terribly wrong. He just couldn’t put his finger on what. He couldn’t even recall why he was here. Everyone stared, expecting something from him, because something important was going on. But then something bad started happening.

His mind.

His mind was being pilfered by something.

His shield.

His shield was broken.

He dropped his plaque and lunged for Sibyl’s. Startled, she backed up a step as Sakhr stumbled into her. They both clutched her plaque. His old one clattered on the steel floor.

Sakhr’s mind raced. There were so many holes in his memory that he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He needed time to think.

“I need to go,” he said.

“Your Majesty?” Laughlin said.

“Finish up by yourself, Admiral.” …whatever it was they were doing. Sakhr stalked from the room, pulling Sibyl along with him. Between them, they cradled the plaque like a rescued child.

Winnie took her attention away long enough to watch the spider drones shoot past the Venezia. They came within a hundred meters of the ship. She’d watched as the confirmation screen in the strike room timed out, unnoticed by anyone, but it didn’t make the moment any less heart-clenching.

But it passed. The swarm would never catch up for a second attack. Winnie slumped against the wall and melted to the floor.

Victoria returned. She did not look relieved.

“How were you erasing Sakhr’s memory like that?” she asked Josephine.

“I don’t know. I just was. I hit everyone in that room.”

“Including Sibyl?”

“No. Not her.”

“So it was a shield failure. You didn’t find a way to work around shields.”

“I guess.”

Victoria frowned.

“What?” Winnie asked. “Can’t we just be happy we’re alive? We got lucky.”

“Yes,” Victoria agreed. “We got very lucky.” Troubled, she left the launch bay toward the bridge.

It left Winnie wondering.

What could be so bad about Sakhr not being shielded?

84. Spider Drones

“Sir, the squads are deploying their spiders,” said tactical officer Gray.

Admiral Laughlin nodded.

He stood over the central display table in the Manakin bridge. Around him, staff were at stations, even though the battle was thousands of miles away. Beside the admiral, Sakhr watched with hands clasped before his chin. Behind him was Sibyl, head down. On the display, there were six green dots moving toward a red dot. Clusters of tiny dots emitted from the six, and were moving away from the red.

“What are those?” Sakhr asked.

“Spider drones, Your Majesty” Laughlin answered. “Unmanned vessels equipped with repulse shears. They will be our primary weapon in this fight. All they have to do is get within range of the target for a few seconds, and they’ll tear it apart.”

“But why are they falling behind?”

“They’re not falling behind, ma’am. They’re actually getting into better position. Our ships and the target are moving at extreme velocities relative to each other. All our ships are currently accelerating away from the target in order to better synchronize with them. Think of it like bandits who ride away from the train as it approaches so they can more easily hop aboard once it’s next to them.”

“I see.”

“The spider drones are able to accelerate a little faster at this altitude. They’ll stay much closer to the target than our orbiters before their relative trajectories carry them away.”

“They can’t match speeds?”

“Not at this altitude, ma’am. Both the orbiters and the spider drones are using wide repulse fields to surf the atmosphere, but it’s so thin up there that only so much acceleration is possible, and at the speeds we’re talking about, only brief windows can happen.”

“That was our entire reason for flying this high,” Stephano said. “As long as we saw ships coming, we could change our trajectory to avoid them, or accelerate towards them and make the intercept window so small they couldn’t meaningfully attack. It was because we came down to pick up your friends that they’re catching up to us. Even then, those planes must have already been in the air.”

“They were after Josephine,” Victoria said. “They knew she would break into one of their bases.”

“Well, they’ve changed trajectories and they’re on us. We’ve already changed course to an optimal counter trajectory, but their spider drones will still be within our range for twelve seconds.”

“How bad is that?”

“It’s eleven seconds longer than they need to cut this ship to ribbons.”

“Is there no way to escape?”

“Any change in trajectory we make now, they’ll adjust to, and it will only widen their window.”

“What can we do?”

“We’ll have to knock out as many spider drones as we can before they come into range. We have our own fleet of spiders, which we’ll launch in about forty seconds. Unfortunately, their fleet vastly outnumbers ours. I don’t expect our drones to destroy more than a handful of theirs before being obliterated. We also have an onboard repulse shear with a range six times greater than the spiders. That will knock out a few before they come into range, and we have a cache of missiles, but again, not nearly enough to destroy them all. The chances of us eliminating all enemy drones before they get into range is slim.”

“Why not fire the missiles at the orbiters? Destroy those and the spider drones have no controllers.”

Stephano shook his head. “No. That won’t work for the same reason they’re not firing their missiles at us.”

“Orbiters are equipped with reflex fields,” Admiral Laughlin said. “Any missiles that come near will get knocked out of the way.”

“So this is what we’re reduced to?” Sakhr asked, “sending hundreds of spider drones to crawl toward them while hoping we don’t lose too many along the way? None of our ships have jets for faster maneuvering?”

“Orbiters were designed for artillery and rapid deployment. Aerial combat was an afterthought. Actually, this will be the first time in military history orbiters will engage each other. Don’t worry, Your Majesty, we’ll win. The strike window is too large and we have more than enough drones to get through.”

“Which is why we need to discuss evacuation, Your Majesty. If we change our course slightly, we can situation ourselves over the TransAtlantic chute. It will pick up any deployment pods we launch and carry them to safety.”

“A course change will widen the engagement window, won’t it?” Victoria asked.

“To twenty-six seconds, yes.”

“Then no.”


“No. You said a twelve second window was bad enough. A twenty-six second window will be certain death, would it not?”

“Your safety is more important than this ship, Your Majesty. If you launch from a pod, the spiders can’t catch up. The grid will catch you.”

“Are there enough pods for the crew.”

“We’re still short since our loss during the Capital Bombing, but if we double up, there would be enough for you and your people and a few others. Flight crew will remain to man battle stations.”

“Flight crew meaning you and everyone else in this room.”

“Ma’am, please do this.” He looked intently at her. Eye contact was met, and Victoria saw what he wasn’t saying.

Twelve seconds or twenty-six, it wouldn’t make a difference. No matter what they did, Stephano and his crew were going to die.

She nodded to him. Stephano turned the flight officer and directed him to make the change.

“Ah!” Laughlin said. “Course change. We expected this.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

“The target has just changed course to put themselves over the TransAtlantic. They’re planning to evacuate.”

“Can they?”

“They can get deployment pods into the grid, yes, but we can redirect any intercepted pods to a secure location. We’ll send people to pick them—”



“Don’t send people. Send missiles.”

“Kill the evacuees?”

“They’re flairs, General. They’re too dangerous. They were able to walk into the Capital Tower without arousing any suspicion. My mother has spent years trying unsuccessfully to kill the people aboard that ship. We cannot risk anyone getting near them. Destroy those pods before they’re ever opened.”

Red lights were on throughout the ship. Air Force personnel rushed about the Venezia preparing for a fight Winnie knew was fruitless. Bishop and Liat weren’t letting her on the bridge, but it didn’t stop her from following everything that happened in there. She was in the corridor just outside as Victoria barged out. Striding by, Victoria motioned with her finger for Winnie and her exemplars to follow.

“We can’t use the pods,” Winnie said, scampering to keep up. “I’ve been watching the bridge on the Manakin. Sakhr wants—”

“I know what he’s planning, Winnie. I’m watching too. The pods will work. Bishop, Liat. Go to the launch bay and reserve pods for me and the flairs.”

“Yes, ma’am.” They took a ladderwell down while Victoria climbed up. Winnie followed her.

Rapid fire thunks sounded throughout the ship. Putting her mind outside, Winnie saw the Venezia ejecting spider drones like a fish spawning eggs. The drones hovered into formation, then as a single mass, they accelerated forward relative to the ship. There were a hundred in total, sending off to fight against six hundred of their own. To the human eye, there was no threat out there to fight, just the curving earth below and stars above. Only through her feeling senses could she detect the enemy ships still miles away. They wouldn’t even be specks if she looked out a port window.

She and Victoria reached the holding cells. Two marines were posted on guard. Beyond them was a tight room partitioned into six miniscule cells each no larger than a phone booth. The man Victoria had called Tan was stretched out on the floor of one, half laying, half reclining against the bars. Across from him, the small boy they brought in sat with his legs folded to his chest. Both looked up at Victoria’s approach.

“You’re not supposed to be here, ma’am,” one marine said. “This area is for military personnel—”

“Shut it,” Victoria pointed out Tan. “I want that man in the launch bay in two minutes.”

Winnie expected the marines to hop to it, but when one instead smirked at Victoria, Winnie remembered that the Captain never announced to his crew who she was. To these marines, she was just a lanky teenager in a borrowed exemplar uniform.

“I’m not sure who you think you are—” the marine said.

“I’m a high exemplar. I’m responsible for these prisoners. Under the Captain’s orders, that man is coming with me.”

“Until we hear that from the captain, he’s staying right where he is.”

Rising tall, Victoria faced the marines. “You will do as I say.” Her words carried Weight.

Startled, the marines jerked, but then their expressions glazed over. When they moved, it was haltingly, as though unsure what they were doing.

“What… are we..?” the first one asked, partly to her, partly to his partner. It’s as though they’d just awoken to find themselves standing before an audience.

Victoria was tampering with their memories, Winnie realized. Between that and the strange weight of her words, the marines couldn’t resist.

She pointed again at Tan, who watched this exchange with intrigue. “You’re taking him to the launch bay immediately.”

“…Right.” They moved to comply. Victoria spun to leave.

“And the boy,” Winnie said. The marines looked uncertain. Victoria looked at Winnie, expecting an explanation.

Winnie looked Victoria in the eyes. “The boy too.” He did not deserve to die aboard this ship because of someone else’s war. Winnie wouldn’t stand for that. Besides, what would Josephine think? Or this boy’s sister? If Victoria ever wanted either of their cooperation, she had to save the boy.

“The boy too,” Victoria said. The marines moved again. Victoria motioned for Winnie to come, and they left. Winnie expected Victoria to chide her for insubordination, but it never came. Victoria was either too rushed, or she realized Winnie was right. For her part, Winnie was glad. Maybe it didn’t mean anything, and maybe Victoria just did it because she saw the utility of keeping the boy alive, but given what Winnie had learned about Victoria in the last hour, it seemed important—like a fresh start. Though the idea that Victoria might somehow be redeemable was such a new and foreign thought to Winnie, it seemed hardly possible.

Outside, the spider drones were just specks of their own now. They raced away to meet their impending doom. Alongside the Venezia, ports opened. Inside were missiles lined up to launch. Their chemical jets would catch up in time to strike the enemy spiders just as the opposing swarms met. A coordinated attack would mean more of the enemy drones would drop. The Venezia would fight to its last resource, no matter how little difference it was going to make.

Winnie recognized the wing Victoria was leading them toward. Josephine was at the end of the hall.

“Wait here and watch,” Victoria said. “Don’t come until I say, and do not let her see you… And don’t wander off.” She strode ahead. Another two marines at guard. Victoria’s conversation with them was just as disjointed as with the others. She took a pair of their handcuffs and shooed them away.

Victoria stepped into the suspect-end of the interrogation room. She tossed the handcuffs to Josephine.

“Cuff yourself.”

“Why?” Josephine asked.

“I need to get you out of here, and I don’t have time to explain why. Right now, just take my word for it that I’m saving your life. Hurry up.”

“Who are you?”

“I will tell you later. This ship will be destroyed in three minutes.”

“From what?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Victoria snatched the cuffs and yanked Josephine from her chair. Pulling the woman’s hands behind her back, Victoria started cuffing her wrists.

Josephine snapped her head back, cracking it against Victoria’s face. Spinning, she kneed Victoria in the belly. Victoria crumpled.

“Sorry,” Josephine stammered. She bolted for the door, slamming it behind her.

“Damnit, Josephine,” Victoria roared. “The ship is under attack.” Clutching her bleeding nose, she tried the door. Locked.

Josephine glanced down both ends of the hall, judging where to go. Winnie remained out of sight. She would stop Josephine if she could. They all had to get off this ship, but if Josephine saw her, there’s no telling how befuddled she’d get.

Outside the ship, missiles fired. Two per second, they each took slightly different paths in order to arrive at the same time, giving the enemy spiders less opportunity to knock them out. The last ditch battle would begin in moments.

Josephine took off straight toward Winnie. They’d see each other in seconds, so Winnie did the first thing that came to mind. She crouched down by the wall and made herself as unthreatening as possible. When Josephine came around, she was so caught up searching the corridors that she nearly tripped over Winnie.

Winnie stammered, “Josephine please don’t I want to help.”

“Where’s the brig?” Josephine demanded. So far, Winnie could still recall what was going on. No memory erasure yet. She pulled out her glyph card and thrust it toward Josephine. “Take it take it take it.”

Confused, Josephine took the card, and Winnie looked in her eyes. She might have been expecting information on the brig, but Winnie sent so much more.

She thought of the battle outside, how the Venezia was destined to fall, how Victoria was here to save Josephine from death, how Tan was already headed to evacuation, how Sakhr was trying to kill them all. Josephine’s eyes widened. Winnie continued: The rebellion, Sakhr and Alexander, herself and her gift, her relationship to Victoria, her time as a tortoise, the conversation she overheard between Josephine and the queen, the one she had with Victoria afterward. Winnie sent everything she could to convince Josephine that Victoria wasn’t the enemy, at least not right now. There shouldn’t be a need for cuffs because they’re all in the same predicament. They should be working together.

The exchange only took seconds. Winnie hoped she’d done it correctly. She’d conveyed so quickly that she wasn’t sure it hadn’t all jumbled together. After she was done, Josephine kept her gaze on Winnie, though Winnie didn’t know why. Was Josephine erasing anything? Winnie checked her mind for gaps. It all seemed right.

Josephine reached her hand out. Winnie flinched before realizing she was offering her hand.

“Are we okay?” Winnie asked.

Josephine pulled her up. “No cuffs.”

80. The Escape Game

“Is this what you’re looking for?” asked the lieutenant.

Josephine squinted at the screen. Fourteen suspects detained at French border trying to violate border lockdown. Subjects released.

“No. I didn’t say border. I said Lyons. An operation in Lyons.”

The lieutenant craned to look at her. “But we don’t have any soldiers in Lyons. We evacuated the region.”

He glanced over the computer screen to where Tan lounged at a coffee desk. Tan chewed food bars he had found in a break room. Since Josephine started carrying a glyph card, it’d grown harder to get angry at him for acting so damn flippant during these excursions. He was tense. He just hid it well. The food, the cigarettes, and fidgeting were all to distract himself. They were in the heart of a Lakiran military base after all.

“What I’m looking for,” she said, “won’t be in the usual lists. This was special forces. They were using orbital pods. Would that be in here?”

“It would, but you need permission to see that? Where did you say you came from again?”

She wiped his memory. It took a few tries until all the suspicion drained from his aura. Now he was just confused. This was useless.

She wiped his mind of everything about herself. “Why are you sitting in my chair, Lieutenant?”

Startled, the lieutenant glanced up, saw the rank of Colonel on her sleeve, and hopped from the seat. “I’m sorry, sir.”


“Yes, sir.”

As he hurried away, she pulsed him again. He’d wander the halls with a lingering sense of having done something wrong.

Josephine tabbed through the database. The Lieutenant had been right. All she saw was a slew of arrests made during the evacuation. The only action in France now was along the border. Everyone detained for crossing illegally was released. No more arrests. They’d run out of places to hold people lately.

“Tan. You think you could help me?”

Tan tossed aside his food wrapper and meandered over. He grabbed the touch screen and laid it face up on the desk. Taking out a single cent euro, he flipped it in the air. It clinked onto the screen. He carefully plucked the coin, then tapped the screen where it had landed.

This took them to the main database menu.

He flipped again: Department list.

Again: Civil Protection Records.

That made no sense. Civil Protection wasn’t military. It protected political gatherings and oversaw places like embassies. Josephine said nothing though. That penny was landing with purpose. It’s next two flips landed on the same button: page down.

Next flip, Imperial domain. Now it made sense. Imperial domain was protection of the queen, but it might also involve assignments passed down by the queen directly—those led by exemplars.

After that, it entered a list of project code names. Most were obscure, but the last was blatantly clear.


Tan flipped the coin again; it landed on that project. Josephine took over, but a password screen came up as soon as she tapped it. With a sigh, she handed it back to Tan.

This time, he pulled out his bag of dice. He picked a twelve, an eight, and two six-sided ones. The system he had was complicated. Josephine had helped him form it through countless trial and error. Back when they started this, it only ever failed when the password contained characters his system couldn’t account for. Capital letters were the first stumbling block, then numbers, then special characters… It once failed them completely at a security console in India. Studying a keyboard later, Tan figured out it must have had a tilda, the corner keyboard button he’d overlooked until then. Nowadays, Tan’s system even incorporated potential unicode characters. Josephine lost track of the rules a while ago.

The password here was strong. The dice had him press a few function keys, but when he finally pressed the enter key, the filed opened.

Sakhr was in a conference about the state of the empire’s transportation infrastructure when his tablet vibrated. While the minister kept talking, Sakhr opened the alert.

Someone had just accessed the Naema file. It came from a terminal in West Spain apparently. Sakhr checked a map. It was farther away from Lyons than he had expected.

Josephine must have played it safe and not gone to the nearest military installation. Wise, perhaps, but not wise enough. Sakhr had no idea how Victoria had so much trouble catching this woman. This trap would have been obvious to him: a single file in a database that’s easy to find, but not too easy. The password protection was hard, but not harder than anything that Asian had proven capable of hacking.

He closed his tablet and turned his attention back to the ministers. If he got the alert, so did the response team.

Ascension Island?” asked Oni.

“That’s what it said,” Josephine got in the car. Oni had been waiting three blocks away. He was in the driver’s seat as though he was the getaway driver, but when Tan opened the door and shooed him off, he crawled into the backseat without argument. Tan drove out of the parking lot. At the road, he flipped a coin. Heads. He turned right.

“Where is Ascension Island?” Oni asked.

“Off of Brazil, I think.”

Oni took out his phone. After some research, he spoke. “It’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

“How big is it?” asked Josephine

“Five miles long, maybe? Why did they take my family there?”

“I don’t know,” Josephine replied.

“I thought you said they’d take my sister to the capital.”

“That’s what I thought. I guess not.”

“Maybe they’re getting rid of her. Her power ruins plaques. So they’re putting her far away.”

“Maybe,” Josephine said. “Or maybe they expect us to come after them. If we go there, we’d have a tough time getting away. They might have put her on that island just to trap us.”

“But we’re still going to save them, right?” Oni asked.

“Yes. We are.”

“I will not.” Tan had his eyes on the road. Reaching an intersection, he rolled a die on the dashboard, then kept straight. He didn’t say anything else.

“Tan,” Josephine said. “You know what happens if they keep Naema.”

“They won’t make glyph of her power? Her power break glyphs.”

“We need her. You know this.”

“No. She bring us trouble. Since you find her, Lakirans no leave us alone. She is trouble. All trouble.”

“That’s because the Lakiran’s know how much of a danger she could be to them.”

“I no care about danger to Lakirans,” said Tan. “She supposed to keep us safe, but she is only danger to us. Now we go to tiny island to save her again? Second time we save her. And it is a trap. They will catch us if we go. I will not.”



“Tan. You can’t leave on your own. We need to stick together.”

“No. Not anymore. We make glyphs of our powers. You give me yours. I give you mine. We say goodbye.”

“I don’t know if that’s how these glyphs work.”

“It is possible. Glyphs come from people. That is why the queen wants us.”

“I don’t know how to copy them.”

“I see my power in a mirror. And yours. I know you do too. We figure it out. It is possible.”

“Even if we could. Even if you had my power, do you really think you’ll be any safer? If you got into trouble, no one would—”

She trailed off when Tan slowed the car. Ahead, five Lakiran deployment pods blocked the road.

“Tan?” asked Josephine. “What was your game? Roll dice to choose your route. Get out of town without running into the empire, right?”


“Why did your power bring us here?”

He didn’t answer.

“Where are the people?” Oni asked.

He was right. No one was around. No soldiers, no cars. Nothing.

“What are they doing here?” asked Oni.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe we take pods?” asked Tan.

“That can’t be right,” Josephine said. They could theoretically take the pods wherever they wished. They were in the European grid right now, but that had to be a terrible idea. Whoever’s pods these were would notice. They could contact air control have Josephine and the others put into holding patterns. Game over. But then, they were here. And they were oriented in such a way that Tan couldn’t drive past. The dice led them here for some reason.

“Flip a coin,” she said. “Heads we take them. Tails, we turn around.”

He flipped his coin. “Heads.”

Really?” Josephine asked. “We’re supposed to steal deployment pods? That’s what your power wants us to do?”

Tan made a not-my-fault motion and indicated the coin.

“Okay then. Come on everybody.”

They got out and walked toward the pods. Josephine didn’t like this at all, but if there was a way out of this city, this was it. If there wasn’t—if they couldn’t win—then they might as well walk into the trap and save everyone time. But this had to be something. If there was genuinely no way to win the “get out of town safely” game, then Tan’s power wouldn’t bother working at all. His rolls would be random, and the chance of randomly finding pods with absent occupants was infinitesimal.

Next to one, Josephine leaned to look inside without stepping in. She tapped the screen. It showed the message, Remote access key not detected. They wouldn’t be able to ride these after all.

“Back to the car,” she said.

Two pops came from the woods. Pain exploded through Josephine’s side. Screaming, she collapsed. Her head struck the asphalt, causing stars to explode in her vision. Recovering, she felt her side. A small barbed flechette was stabbed into her. She yanked it out, but the little electric capacitor on its back had already discharged its payload.

“Get down on the ground,” someone yelled. Josephine’s breath caught. For a second she thought that order was for her. Without thinking, she lay still.

An exemplar woman strode out of the woods brandishing a repulse rifle, though she was much too young to be an exemplar. She’d also shot Tan, and Oni was getting on his knees.

The woman tossed three sets of handcuffs at them. “If any of you move quickly, I will shoot you again. Take the cuffs and secure your hands behind your backs.”

Twice now Josephine had tried to wipe the woman’s memory. No effect. Nor was the girl giving off an aura. So she had to be a high exemplar.

Josephine and Tan exchanged glances. She nodded.

While Tan grabbed his handcuffs with one hand. He drew his gun with the other. It might work. He’d get shocked again, but one lucky shot would drop the exemplar, and he was good with lucky.

“Drop the gun now,” The woman ordered.

Josephine’s hand twitched as though trying to comply. Tan’s fingers opened as though of their own accord. The gun clattered.

It was Authority. Josephine had no idea how. Anton had been dead for over thirty years, long before glyphs existed, but she recognized the familiar jolt that came with the words—the one that sent shivers down your spine and caused a primitive, submissive part of your brain to kick in.

The woman faced Oni. “Cuff Josephine’s hands behind her back.”

Oni moved to do so.

“Don’t.” Josephine said. “She’s controlling you. You just have to—”

The woman shot her with three more electric flechettes. Josephine didn’t speak much after that.

“And there’s no indication of who was aboard that ship?” asked Sakhr.

“None, ma’am,” said the captain. “All we know is that the ship was already waiting nearby when the alert tripped. They had pods waiting at the road to take them the rest of the way.”

Sakhr was reclined at his desk for this phone conversation. “So it was their getaway ship?”

“It might seem like that, ma’am, except our investigation turned up discharged electric flechettes at the escape scene, and blood.”


“On the flechettes points. And some on the asphalt. When a hostile gets hit with a flechette, they often scrape their scalp on the ground.”

“So someone captured them?”

“That’s our theory, ma’am.”

If Sakhr had any doubts that Victoria was involved, that dispelled them. With the recent spur of military desertion, there were several ships equipped with deployment pods that the army couldn’t account for, but none of those would be right there. In his gut, he knew that if he could see aboard that ship, he’d find an ex-exemplar named Bishop and a captain named Stephano. They were the flies that evaded the swatter. Now they flew about the room, only to occasionally be glimpsed.

“Their ship. Are we tracking it?”

“Yes, ma’am. The orbiter is picking up speed and altitude.”

“Can we catch it this time?”

“We’ve already redirected the intercepter team. According to the flight manager, no matter what path the target takes, we’re guaranteed an exchange window of four minutes before the orbiter becomes unreachable again.”

“An exchange window?”

“That’s when the ships are able to exchange fire, ma’am.”

“Tell me. Tell me we outnumber them.”

“Six to one, ma’am. The attack will be coordinated from the strike room in the bridge spire. Admiral Laughlin invites you to join him if you’d like.”

“Yes,” Sakhr said. “I would.”

78. Your Fada

When Christof first saw the display mounted behind Sakhr’s desk, he mistook it for a collection of smaller screens, though it was actually a single surface spanning from waist to ceiling and wide enough for several to stand before it. It just happened to be displaying several small windows, each either Mobile Security drone footage or an overhead map display. Christof stepped up beside Sakhr and Sibyl and studied its displays.

They showed a building complex in Lyons, France. Glowing dots on the overhead map indicated a person. Other screens showed still images of people through apartment windows: a black family, an asian man, and a white woman with black hair. She was familiar, as though Christof had passed her on the street ages ago.

“Who is she?” Christof pointed the woman out.

“A flair.” Sakhr replied. “Victoria was tracking her before we escaped. Her name is Josephine.”

“Josephine what?”

“Just Josephine. No records. The military lost track of her in all the chaos, but a few days ago someone reported her. From what I gather, the military has tried several times to bring her in.”


Sakhr offered Christof a tablet displaying the woman’s profile. It was sparse. Her physical description was the longest section. The rest was list of her known crimes, mostly break-ins of Lakiran facilities. Then there was a brief mention about her ability to manipulate minds. No one was to approach her directly.

“This is all you know?”

“A few soldiers knew more. She makes people forget about her. It limited Victoria’s knowledge base.”

“What do you want from me?”

“With her? Nothing.” Sakhr enlarged two windows. One showed a handcuffed girl waiting in a detention room somewhere else in the citadel. The other was of a woman, probably the girl’s mother, kept in a different room. They were the same family shown in the apartment photos. “Alex caught them away from the others. They arrived here last night. Apparently, the girl is some kind of glyph breaker, a major reason Victoria couldn’t catch this Josephine. And she’s possibly the answer to our prayers for these runaway glyphs.” He turned to Christof. “I want you to interrogate her?”

“Why don’t you get Alex? Isn’t he your resident thumb screw tightener?”

“Alex left last night for China to do God-knows-what. Talk to her. Look at her power if you can.”

“When you say she breaks glyphs, do you mean breaks breaks them. Do they come back?”

“No. The glyphs remain broken.”

“So you want me to risk my power—”

Sakhr turned to Sibyl. “Tell him.”

Sibyl spoke. “She’s been on the outskirts of my range all afternoon. Every time she gets within it, my power stutters. I can’t sense anyone. But it’s fine as soon as she’s out of range again.”

“Okay, but why should my power work if yours doesn’t?”

“Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t,” Sakhr said. “I’d do it myself, except I’m carrying my master glyph. So either you do this interview, or Alex does when he gets back.” Sakhr pointed out the girl, who now fiddled with her handcuffs. She was nearly the same age as Helena, the poor girl Christof kept in his shower because there was no safer place for her.

“You or Alex,” Sakhr said. “Your choice.”

Christof had an internet glyph card with him. It failed bit by bit. Empathy shut down in the elevator down to the holding area. Auras faded away like afterimages.

Flair-vision failed in the observation room adjacent to the girl’s room. He hardly noticed since his own flair-seeing ability failed simultaneously, and that one he felt. Looking at her was like biting into an apple only to discover it was a rock. It made his teeth clench. He averted his eyes and felt the comforting sense of his own power returning. The rigid, inferior mockery of his power that his glyphs provided didn’t return.

Since getting the card, it was a pleasure discovering no one else benefited from his power quite like he did.

When Christof entered the room with the girl, she looked up, and his mind reading glyph broke, though he didn’t feel that one. He was still occupied by the rock-biting sense his own power failure.

He sat. “Naema Madaki, right?”

“Ya. Who are you?”

Soldiers were watching. It took him a moment to remember his disguise. “General Soto.”

“A general?”

“Yes. Do you know why the empire has brought you here?”

“You tell me.”

“I could list the crimes you’ve committed over the past month. They just filled me in. Theft. Escaping detainment. Disruption of exemplar duties. But, I won’t pretend we actually care about any of that. You are a flair.”

“So, what? Are you going to steal my power now?”

“No. We were hoping you would like to work with us.”

“Are you serious?” She laughed. “You attacked me. That stupid girl said she would leave my mama if I came. Then she shot me with that thing.” She lifted her shirt to show a large purplish burn. “Now you took my mama anyway. Go die.”

She crossed her arms and glowered. Christof didn’t need an empathy to see what she was hiding. Her crossed arms hid trembling hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know about the circumstances of your arrest. I first heard about you thirty minutes ago, but I answer directly to the queen, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you. Okay?”

Your Fada.”

“Listen. You need my help, because no one else here is going to care what happens to you as much as I do.”

Did her smile falter? He wasn’t sure, but he hoped so. She might sense that he being genuine.

He pressed on. “Queen Victoria searched for flairs such as yourself. In return for cooperation, she provided them with citizenship, higher education, financial compensation… whatever she could do. She looked after them. Queen Helena wants to do the same.”

“Then let my mama go.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but we can do more than that. You were living in Nigeria, right? Recently occupied. Must be poor living conditions. We can help you, and your mother, and your brother gain citizenship in this country. We’d waive your past infractions. You’d have financial security. That means no more stealing food or looking over your shoulder. You and your brother would spend your time worrying about grades and college applications.”

“And I give you my power, right?”

“This isn’t a trade, Naema. We’d be on the same side. There’d be no hostages.”

“You have my mama right now. That girl threatened to kill her.”

God damnit, Alex. “I know he… she did. That’s why she’s been taken off your case. It’s me now. No more threats.”

“So I can say no? What happens to me then?”

Christof thought back two days ago. He’d spotted a crowd of airmen and medics on the top deck carting away an unrecognizable suicide victim. He’d only found out later it was Paul.

“I don’t know,” he said. “At the end of the day, you are charged with several crimes. Unless we waive those, you’d be looking at a prison sentence. But I can’t emphasize this enough. You have something we want. Use that. Bargain with us.”

“I told you, Bonga head. Let my mama go! You think you know what I want? Must be poor living conditions in Nigeria. You people showed up and took the place over. You went to each town, lining people up, dragging them away. Then you go and arrest anyone getting more food. Now you bring tiny bits of food for us to eat and tell us to be happy. We have less now. You make us fight over fake cassava. Look how you help.”

“I know. I know, truly. But I do want to help you.”

“You’re only here cause your queen girl wants my power.”

“That is why they sent me, yes, but that’s not why I’m here.” He leaned in. “I’m here because I’m afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.”

That reached her; he could tell. She seemed to recede into her chair. And she had no quip to follow up. For a first interview, that was all he needed, just to convey the direness of her situation.

Christof rose. “We’ll talk later. I’ll see what I can do about your mother. Have you eaten?”

She didn’t answer.

“I’ll have them bring you some food.” He looked around. “And better conditions.”

“That won’t make me believe you.”

“Wouldn’t have expected it to.”

Back in Sakhr’s office. Alexander’s young female face was prominent on the display. No matter what body he was in, Christof always recognized that same smirk.

“Interesting tactic.” Alex’s voice came over the speakers. “If you wanted a friend, I wish you’d have told me. We don’t spend time together anymore.”

“You watched that, did you?”

Sakhr interjected. “Alex contacted me while you were with the girl. I’ve brought him up to speed.”

“And then we watched the tail end of your scholarship program,” said Alex. “She’s too set against us. You’ll never get her to play nice. Give her to me, and I’ll get you that glyph.”

“No,” Christof said plainly. Both Sakhr and Sibyl glanced at him. His aura was betraying how strongly he felt about that. He needed a damn shield. “Just give me time with her.”

“My way is quicker,” Alex replied.

“I don’t think her power can even be made into a glyph. It’ll just break itself. If that’s the case, you need the girl’s cooperation if you ever want her help.”

“Not necessarily…” Alex mused.

“Let me do this my way. Let’s talk about her mother.”

“We’re not releasing her,” Sakhr said.

“She’s useless to us,” Christof argued. “and she’s not guilty of anything.”

“We’re not releasing her. She could come in useful.”

“We could always find her again,” Christof said. “The mother isn’t like this Josephine. She can’t hide.”

“Unless she’s with Josephine,” Alex said. “They’re not going to fall for my trick again. Frankly, I don’t see why we need this girl at all,” Alex said. “All she does is gum up glyphs. That’ll hurt us more than more than anyone else.”

“I want her for Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“You don’t need her. You really want a girl walking around that’ll break your master glyphs?”

Sakhr considered this.

“Hold on,” said Christof. “Let’s not damn this girl just yet. Give me time with her. What’s the harm?” He looked at Sakhr, knowing full well he was letting Sakhr reading his mind. “Please.”

Sakhr relented. “Fine. She’s yours. Any promises you make you’ll run by me first, understood.”


“Waste of time if you ask me,” Alex said.

“It won’t be your time wasted,” Sakhr said. “But I’ll need you to make Christof a plaque with a shield. You’ve got that plaque assembler up and running now, yes?”

“I guess I can,” said Alex, “but he’ll just break it if he’s going to interview the girl again.”

“That’s the idea. I want to confirm whether she’s a shield breaker.”

“Okay. I just got back. Christof, swing by the imperial spire. I’ll take you to see the assembler. It’s neat.”

“I’d rather not.”

“I need you to come.” Alex pointed to the back of his own neck. “You’ll need one of those exemplar microchips.”

“The plaque doesn’t need that security feature.”

“Let’s not get sloppy.”

“I’m not coming, Alex. Just have it sent to me.”

Alex frowned at Christof like an exasperated parent. “Are you still upset about Paul?”

Christof stared back at him.

Sakhr broke the silence. “Just have one of your men send it over, Alex.”

“You want those shady guys holding a shield? Very sloppy.”

Sakhr’s tolerance was waning. “Sibyl will pick it up. Is that acceptable?” He looked around at her.

She nodded.

Alex shrugged. “I still think Christof is being childish.”

“It’s fine,” Sakhr said. “And you’ll make a shield for me as well.”

“Sure, sure.”

Sakhr dismissed the call. He turned to Sibyl “Head over there. And be quick.”

She nodded and left.

Sakhr was alone with Christof now. He took a calming breath, then motioned for Christof to sit.

Christof did so. “Did you say Alex was in China?”

“He was following up on a possible lead regarding a flair.”

“Did he find one?”

“No. Says it was a hoax.”

“Do you believe him?”

Sakhr didn’t reply.

Christof continued. “I’m concerned about Alex. He’s been acting more and more on his own. Those exemplars of his are downright hostile to everyone else. He’s isolating himself.”

“I know…”

“He’s a problem, Sakhr. He never was before because he needed you to stay alive, but that might not be true anymore. You’ve let him on too loose of a leash.”

“I know.”

“And this whole business with—”

I know, Christof. I don’t need you to tell me all the ways Alexander is a growing liability.”

“Then why am I here?”

Sakhr stared Christof down. “Look at me.”

After centuries of living around Alex, doing so was against Christof’s habit, but he did so. Eye contact lasted until Sakhr satisfied himself with whatever he saw in Christof’s mind.

“I kept you here because I want to discuss what we’re going to do with this liability.”

“Ah,” said Christof. He understood now. The scan was a loyalty check. It was time for intrigue and politics.

Christof hated intrigue and politics

73. Jade

The jade figurine was handcrafted during the late Zhou dynasty by the renowned Qing Doe. It was of an elephant sitting by her young, and the level of detail was extraordinary. Miraculously, rescue workers found it in near pristine condition in the rubble of the Capital Tower. After they sent it out to a specialist in South Brazil for repairs, they returned it to its rightful place upon the desk of Queen Helena.

All of this, it seemed, so Sakhr could hurl it against the wall. It certainly was a profound way to start off what was bound to be particularly grueling lecture.

Alex stared at the tiny green pieces as Sakhr yelled. He pondered how he knew so much about the figurine. He must have scraped it from an exemplar who scanned whoever delivered it. Distantly, he wondered how easily a modern day assembler could reproduce it. Could they make jade? Would people consider it worthless? Could the machine intentionally make flaws so that people might believe it was actually valuable?

Sakhr still yelled. “How? How the hell could you allow this to happen?”

“You want specifics?” answered Alex. “He was left alone in a room with an assembler. You’d have to ask him if you want more details than that.”

“They’re still hosing his damn remains off the deck.”

“Guess he won’t be that talkative then.”

“You were with him for six goddamn days. Six days. How the hell didn’t you see this coming?”

“He didn’t think of it beforehand. I did see, however, that he was considering killing himself, which was why I said we should keep him in observation.”

You were supposed to be observing him.”

“Me? Personally? I have way too much going on to babysit an old man.”

“He was within all of your exemplars’ ranges.”

“Look. They’re new. Everything is new. We’ve only been in charge for a week and everything is moving so quickly. Let this slide. No one could have seen this coming. So let’s just look to the future and adjust.”

Adjust? Our greatest edge was just released to the entire world because your thugs couldn’t recognize an aura of someone up to no good.”

“It wasn’t our greatest edge. That’s the shield, and we’ve got it now, and it’s ours alone. The way I see it, all we have to do is spin this, and we’ll come out ahead.”

Sakhr glared. “How could this possibly be a good thing?”

“First, we make the leak our idea. Paul never identified himself in his post. So why don’t you take credit for it? Tell the world that now that Victoria is dead, you finally had access to these glyphs. Against the advice of your ministers, you decided to release it to the public. It’s wrong the government should have all the power.”

“Why in the world would anyone believe that?”

“Because we’ll have witnesses. A few ministers will recall your saying the glyphs should be released. Now you’ve gone over their heads. You are Prometheus. You have given fire to the people, and it can’t be taken back.”

“The people won’t believe it.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“No, Alex. You don’t get it. We can’t lie anymore. What if they demand these witnesses be scanned? They have that power now.”

“They can’t all scan the witnesses. We’ll delegate the scanners. They’ll say the witnesses are telling the truth. Then we can scan the scanners, and they can be verified too. Honestly, all releasing these glyphs will do is make so people feel like we must be telling the truth, because how could we possibly lie? These glyphs are just giving us another way of convincing people whatever we want.”

“These are just weak justifications to excuse your failure.”

“Doesn’t make it less true.”

Alex had that smile again, the one Sakhr perpetually wished to slap off his face. He always had that grin when he had a point. While Paul was ruining their edge, Sakhr and Alex had been with Sara, the young girl who’s flair was the shield. It had taken two hours and the help of Sara’s brother Bryan, but the girl finally signed over her power onto an ordinary piece of paper.

Sighing, Sakhr circled his desk and sat down. Sibyl stood by his side, forever the ornament.

“We do have the shield,” Alex said. “This means no accidental scannings. We can still control information.”

“We can distribute mind reading glyphs to our military and law enforcement to help quell the rebellions,” Sakhr said.

“There you go.”

“We don’t need the exemplars anymore. We could disband them.”

And Alex’s smile went away. “I mean, I guess. Why?”

“Why do we need them at all if our military can now do the same thing they could? Everyone will have plaques. Our overseas operations will no longer be tied up because of the exemplar shortage.”

“But the exemplars are the only people who actually know our situation. We can count on them to enforce our secret.”

“Can we? The last few batches you’ve replaced weren’t even detainees, were they? You’ve been pulling from prisons.”

“There weren’t any detainees left who were any good. I’m very careful about who I pick. I look for trustworthiness.”

“They’re liabilities, Alex, and we don’t need them anymore. We only got them in the first place because we couldn’t protect ourselves from the original exemplars. Now we can. You’re right. This actually solves many problems. We’ll just dispose of the Exemplar Committee entirely.”

“Let’s not get hasty. We can’t hand out the shield glyph unless we want people copying it for themselves. Trust me, I tried. You can copy a shield glyph. The piece of paper doesn’t protect itself. Our new plaque assembler won’t be done for a few more days, and even then, it takes time to make those things. We can’t just get rid of the exemplars overnight.”

“I’m not proposing we do. We’ll phase the old ones out, like we agreed. We will not surround ourselves with thieves and murderers.”

“Okay. Okay. I will.” His smile returned. He and Sakhr looked at each other across the desk. Sakhr was resting one hand on Sibyl’s glyph, but he saw nothing in Alex’s eyes. Alex was already shielded.

“But first,” Alex said, “I’d like to use the exemplars for a little side mission of mine.”

“Which is?”

“Well, it turns out releasing these glyphs had a silver lining. Do you remember those… ugh, flairs that Katherine was supposedly hunting before we escaped? The ones we’d lost all track of in the ruckus? Thanks to Christof’s glyph being everywhere, they’ve turned up. Someone reported them in France.”

“What are their powers?”

“Between them, they can ruin plaques, erase your memory, and… do somersaults or something. No one’s sure about the last one. Between them all, Katherine was having a hell of a time catching them.”

“Memory erasure?” Sakhr asked.

“Memory erasure,” Alex confirmed. “We know where they are. How many there are, and I’ve already got a plan to take them, but I need people for that. Do we send the military after them and have it be public knowledge that you’ve got mind erasing at your disposal? Or shall we send the lowdown no-good exemplars—the ones who’ve been keeping our secrets?”

Sakhr’s look was withering.

67. Custody

“Because they’re mine,” said Alex. “Sakhr gave them to me to make them cooperate.”

“You have nothing to gain from her,” replied Christof. “I don’t see why I should hand her over.”

They were arguing in Sakhr’s office while Sakhr was trying to work. They might as well have been arguing in a supply closet for all the interest Sakhr had in this conversation. Yet they kept turning to him to settle matters as though he was their parent. He was trying to attend to a multitude of issues that had come in, one being a staffing problem involving one of Victoria’s private estates along the Rio Jari down south. It seemed like a nice place: rustic, out of the way, private. He could leave for there and not tell anyone. Not the military. Not the ministers. Not Alex, or Christof, or Quentin, or anyone.

“There is plenty to gain,” Alex argued. “That girl is the far seeing one’s friend. If can get her back—”

“How? What are you going to do? Torture the friend and hope that the girl is looking?”

“That’s exactly it. Trust me. I’ve seen her mind. That girl will be watching Helena constantly.”

…Except disappearing wouldn’t work, Sakhr thought. Victoria was alive. He’d known in his gut that she was, but having Victoria rescue that girl just reasserted that Sakhr would never be safe. She was out there. She was watching. How else could she have known exactly when and where to be last night? In some ways, Sakhr was glad. She’d died too suddenly before. He and Victoria hadn’t… battled. Not to his satisfaction. Now she could witness him taking everything she’d worked so hard to build.

“This is not who we are,” Christof said. “We’ve been back in this world for a week and all we’ve done is prove exactly why Victoria locked us away to begin with.”

“First of all, her name is Katherine. Let’s not play into her make-believe. Secondly, nobody is asking you to do anything you don’t want to do, but Sakhr and I are trying to keep us alive.”

Of course, now Victoria had an edge, thanks to these bumbling cretins. She must have been watching all along, but now without the Korean, he could never stare back. There was no point in going after them. They could be in any place and in any body. Only exemplars could find her, and he sure as hell wouldn’t trust a task like that to the breed of stock Alex had been recruiting. Maybe once he had true loyalists of his own, except that was so far down the line he wouldn’t even waste time thinking about it.

If he could just get her coordinate location. Cruise missiles don’t ask questions.

How he did love having a military at his disposal.

“We don’t have time for your sentimentalism,” Alex said. “Sakhr gave the tortoises to me, not you, because he knew I’d get results.”

“And what do you have to show for it? Paul hasn’t given you his glyph, and now you’ve lost a tortoise.”

“Not my fault.”

“Either way,” Christof turned to Sakhr. “I’m keeping Helena.”

Alex turned to Sakhr too. “I’m not done. Give me the princess, and I can get the other one back.”

Sakhr could no longer pretend they weren’t there. Sibyl sat to his left, quiet, obedient. Why couldn’t the rest be like her? He reached his hand out, and she responded by offering her plaque.

Hundreds of auras bloomed to life. Officers in nearby spires focused on their duties. Faux exemplars in Sakhr’s own spire procrastinated—all of them handpicked by Alexander. Sakhr could even sense those damn osprey that no one had yet to remove from the bridge spire. He’d have to remember to talk to the admiral about that. With Victoria alive, Sakhr’s no birds policy was more important than ever.

What mattered right now were the two aura’s before him. Like fingerprints, they were wildly different, though both were housed behind bickering mouths. Also, both were being genuine. No hidden agendas today.

“Alex. Let Christof keep the girl.”

“Wait. How about this?” Alex replied. “I promise I won’t do anything to the girl for twenty-four hours. I’ll just put a sign above her threatening what I’ll do if she doesn’t come back.”

“No, Alex.”

“Forty-eight hours. The far seeing girl will come crawling back.”

“No, she won’t. She’s with Victoria, who won’t allow her. Ergo, there is no point.”

“The girl could escape her.”

“She won’t.”

“It’ll at least make it harder for them. Katherine will have to waste time making sure the girl doesn’t slip away. Come on, Sakhr. Since when do you pass up potential advantages?”

Sakhr’s response was delayed. It was a potential edge.

With his hand on Sibyl’s plaque, he could sense the effect his silence had on the two. Alex’s anticipation grew. The effect on Christof was more a pronounced dread. This was important to Christof.

“No,” Sakhr said finally. “Christof keeps the girl. We’re not subjecting a girl to mindless misery for minor gains. And she may come in useful later.”

“Thank you,” said Christof.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Alex. “You’re being weak.”

Enough, Alex.” He turned to Christof. “Do not lose that girl. Keep her alive. Keep her secure.”


“If there’s nothing else, you can go.”

Christof and Alex rose. Sakhr motioned to Alex. “You stay.”

Alex sat back down. Christof glanced at both of them while leaving. His face was neutral, but Sakhr sensed the suspicious shift in his aura. Nothing could be done about that. Alex had been right when he said Christof got caught up in sentimentalism. Sometimes sordid affairs were necessary. And Christof didn’t have the right mindset.

“So,” Alex said after Christof was gone. “You’re hogtying my work so Christof can sleep better?”

“He’s right. We never used to do these sorts of things.”

“We never had the world thrust on us before. We have enemies now.”

“That may be so,” said Sakhr. “Let Christof have this victory. I want to know where you stand with Paul.”


“Are you making progress?”


“Because from where I stand, it looks as though you’re just having your own fun. I gave him to you because I—”

“I know what you want, and I will get it.”

“I see. And once you have gotten this glyph, you plan to bring it straight to me?”

 Sakhr’s hand still rested on Sibyl’s plaque. His gaze was direct at Alex.

This wasn’t lost on Alexander. “Is someone having a case of the paranoids?”

“Do you?”

If not for the plaque, the delay in Alex’s response would have raised Sakhr’s suspicions, but his aura was much too playful, and when he spoke, he returned Sakhr’s burning gaze.

“Yes,” he said. “Once I have the glyph from Paul, I will bring it to you. Do you feel better now?”

“How much longer do you think it will take?”

“He’s on the brink. Twice he’s almost written it while in a daze. Give me another day or two. Is that good enough for you?”

“It will have to do.”

“Anything else?”

“No. No more.”

Alex rose and headed toward the door.

“Oh one last thing,” said Sakhr.

Alex looked back. “Yes?”

“Doesn’t the far seeing girl have a family?”

A smile crept onto Alex’s face. “Yes, she does.”

64. Surveillance

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

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

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

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

“Focus,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.

“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”

“Look at me.”

Winnie did so.

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

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

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

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

Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.

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


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

“No. Stop talking. Focus.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.

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

“Gotcha.” Alex approached.

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie stayed as she was.

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


“Open your eyes for her sake.”

Of course he was playing that same trick.

Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.

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

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

Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.

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

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

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

A pause.

“Is that a promise?”


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

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

Helena hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

62. Results

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

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

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

“These are people?” the other asked.

The first shrugged. “Guess so.”

“What’d they do to piss Alex off?”

“Shit if I know.”

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

It was a horror scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exemplars who had brought Winnie left.

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

Alexander waved him off. “He’s fine.”

You. Cannot. Let him. Die.

“We’re being careful.”

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

“That’s up to him.”

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

“Only for a moment.”

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

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

Sakhr scowled.

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

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

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

“If you’ll please,” said Alex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Male or female?”

Alex eyed Winnie. “…Female.”

“Sure thing, boss.” They left.

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

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

She kicked her hind legs, scratching at skin.

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

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

“I wasn’t.”

“Just hold her properly.”

“I am. Look.”

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

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

“Bring her.” Sakhr pointed to Winnie.

Alex didn’t move. “Nope.”

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

Alex jostled Winnie. “No, this is.”

“Then bring her.”



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

Sakhr eyed Alex.

“Trust me,” Alex handed Helena over.

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

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

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

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

Winnie didn’t look away from Helena.

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

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

Winnie relented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had selected a blowtorch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Everyone paused. It was Sakhr.

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

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

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

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

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

61. Impressionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul was painting again.

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

Paul kept painting as though he were alone.

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

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

“I wanted to finish our earlier conversation.”

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

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

“If you must, but nothing has changed.”

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

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

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

Paul didn’t respond.

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


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

“Let them have it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How inconvenient.”

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

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

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

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

“Until she put you into a tortoise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you hoard the glyphs?”

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

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

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

“Even if it all settles down?”


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

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

“Would you free me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s still alive.”

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

“By someone other than your coven.”

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

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


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

“You have my word.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this your final choice?” Sakhr said.

Paul only painted.

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

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