The citadel shifted. Victoria only noticed because the sunlight streaming in the port windows now crawled along the floor. She checked in her mind. The citadel was slowly turning toward the ocean, and it was already accelerating. She looked in the bridge, only to find the blind spot had moved there from Alex’s office. So Alex was there then. There was only one reason why the citadel would start moving before it was facing in the right direction. There was no destination. It was just getting away from where it currently was: city of Porto Maná.
Her plan had been to keep impersonating a marine until Alex was satisfied she was dead. He’d had the marines check each other’s shield, something Victoria had managed to dodge, but it seemed Alex had decided on more extreme precautionary measures. Of course Alex would do something like this.
She headed to the stairwell.
At the door, a marine stopped her. “We’re not allowed to leave.”
“A porthole has been pried open,” Victoria said. “I think someone might have jumped out. We need to tell the captain.”
“We’ll radio it in then. We can’t leave.”
“I’m not leaving the spire,” Victoria said. “Just going to tell the captain downstairs.”
“No.” The marine noticed the gash in Victoria’s armor. “What happened here?”
“Someone stabbed me.”
“Did it damage your shield stone?”
“Are you sure? That looks like exactly where it would be.”
“It’s not.” Victoria pointed above the gash. “My shield is here. Isn’t yours?”
“No. Mine is right here.” The marine pointed on his own chest.
“Right there?” Victoria stabbed him with knife. The shield glyph within popped when it ruptured.
The marine yelped, but he immediately forgot why.
Downstairs, all the marines looked up. Everyone sensed an aura appear. Victora had to act quickly.
“They’re keeping us in here because they’re going to kill us just as they made us kill them,” Victoria gestured at the dead. “And now they’re coming for you. Get to the roof. Shoot anyone who comes after you. Now go.”
The marine ran into the stairwell and bolted up the stairs. Two marines in the lobby took after him. Another two stayed behind. Victoria waited for the men to pass, then slipped down two flights to the lobby floor. She took aim at the two remaining marines through the door and kicked it open.
She was emptying the rifle’s clip before the door even hit the wall. The rifle’s recoil had flechettes flying all over the lobby, but both the guarding marine and the captain collapsed.
Victoria swapped her rifle for one of theirs and escaped to the Deck floors.
The bridge spire wasn’t far. Of it’s two stairwells, one was ablaze, the other was still rigged with a bomb. However, Alex was not in his office anymore. She could see the detonator on his unattended desk.
He wasn’t in the bridge anymore either. No one was, because the bridge crew was dead. Officers lay sprawled over bridge steps. The strike room was just as gruesome.
Victoria scanned the citadel for the blindspot. It was moving toward the flight bay in the citadel’s portside aft, where a single military shuttle awaited.
She sprinted down corridors. The bay was ahead, the blindspot was nearly there.
Turning the corner, she saw them—Alex and Sibyl, in the bodies of Helena and Winnie, were dragging Naema along. Alex aimed a gun at Victoria. She stumbled. A flechette narrowly missed her as she fell behind a stack of plastic-wrapped supplies.
She scurried closer to her cover. It seemed Tan’s power had tripped her up, saving her life from walking into a flechette. That power had proved far more useful than she had anticipated. She raised her rifle over the crate and fired blindly toward Alex, trusting in Tan’s power to guide her shot.
She glanced around the corner. Nothing. Alex and Sibyl had taken cover behind a shipping crate. There had been no targets to hit. The flechettes could not penetrate the crates.
“I knew it!” Alex yelled. “I knew you were still alive.”
Victoria could see the crate they were hiding behind, but that’s it. She hadn’t realized how dependent she’d become of Winnie’s power. It was like being blind.
“I guess since you’re here,” Alex said, “you’ve probably guessed why I’m stepping out. So we get to play a game. How much time do you think I set that bomb for? I’ll give you a hint. It’s about forty seconds before the really big one is supposed to go off. Do you remember what that timer was at?”
Another bomb. What was it with this man and bombs?
“You’ve also got to remember to subtract however long it takes for this hopper to get clear,” Alex continued. “I forgot to ask Quentin how large the blast would be, so your guess is as good as mine.”
“You’re not getting on that hopper,” Victoria yelled. “Go back and disarm the bomb.”
“Nah. You can do that. It’s in my office. I’ll even tell you the code. It’s… 18060513. I know you’re not supposed to use your birthday as a password, but I did. So go ahead, but you’ll only be letting the bigger bomb go off then.”
“Then we die together, Alexander.”
“You’d do that? I don’t think so. You might not like me very much, but you won’t sacrifice yourself just to get rid of me.”
“Why not? You told the world what I did. I might never rule again.”
“Sure you could, Katherine. The world is filled with idiots. Make up a story. Tell them I was lying. Make them forget. You love doing that! Better yet. Just find another poor girl to steal a body from and start all over. Let this bomb go off and the world will be in such chaos, it’ll be ripe for the taking. With all your new powers, it’ll be child’s play.”
Victoria glanced around the supplies crates. She glimpsed Alexander pointing a repulse pistol at her and ducked away just as a flechette punched into the crate by her head.
“What you lack is determination,” Alex said. “You had such a good start. You were taking over minds. Replacing your enemies. You blew up half the world, and it worked like a charm. But then what? Six years of shit: taking over countries one at a time, diplomacy, Humanitarian Projects. I thought you must have had an attack of nerves, as if you suddenly forgot you’re the monster, but no. You actually cared about what people think about you. You actually wanted to help them.” He scoffed. “You have no idea how to rule.”
“And you know better? You couldn’t rule without warping the minds of every last person in the world.”
“Because it works, Katherine. I brought China together in three days. Three days. No wars. No struggle. It’s the rational way. You, on the other hand, destroyed the world. Then, before you could do any good at all, a teenage girl had a hissy fit, and you lost everything. That’s pathetic. Just give up. All you’ve ever caused is pain and suffering, because that’s all you know. It’s time for the little girls to go home. Let Daddy tuck them in.”
Victoria fired a few shots toward Alex. No hits. He was still locked down behind the same crates.
“Sooner or later,” she said. “You’ll have to turn around and go back.”
“With you just around the corner waiting for the all clear? No thank you.”
“Then we wait.”
“Then we do.” Alex agreed.
For a long while, they did. Each sat behind their respective covers.
Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So, again, not wanting to spoil this for you, but we’re getting very close to zero hour.”
“Then go disarm the bomb.”
“That’s not going to happen, Katherine, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to leave my wrist monitor right here. Then I’m going to get on that ship and leave. After I’m gone, you can disarm both bombs, and we’ll take a raincheck on this fight of ours.”
“Now you’re just being stubborn. Neither of us wants to die today.”
“Once you’re on the shuttle, you’ll have no reason to leave that monitor.”
“Okay. Fine. Look.”
Something slid across the floor. Victoria spared a glance. Alex’s wrist monitor now lay in open view. It was in the opposite direction from the ship for him. “There you go. You can get it once I’m gone. Remember. 18060513. Now I’m going.”
They shuffled around behind their protection. Footsteps moved cautiously toward the escape ship. Alex was clearly hoping Victoria wouldn’t hurt him in Helena’s body. He was wrong. Victoria ducked out and aimed.
Naema’s wide eyes stared at Victoria from inside her helmet. Alex was hiding behind her with the gun aimed over Naema’s shoulder, and Sibyl right behind him. Victoria aimed.
…But she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Did she really need to kill him? Alexander had done a lot of awful things in the world, and awful things to her. But he was the only telepath flair that existed.
Alex fired at her. A flechette punched into her shoulder. She fell back.
Scurrying behind her cover, she realized her shield had dropped. She hadn’t even felt it. Whatever glyph it was Alex had been using for Sympathy, he’d just used it on her.
Of course he would. Why not? She was here to kill him. He was just defending himself.
No. Those aren’t her thoughts. Alexander murdered her father. He murdered her.
NO! No “but still”. She had to act now.
She lunged around the crate and fired wildly, aiming low. Flechettes punched into Naema. Her leg. Her neck. Her helmet. She collapsed. Alex dove for the escape ship, firing back. Victoria’s gut erupted in pain. She crumpled.
In the ship now, Alex had left Sibyl and Naema behind, The hatch was closing. He was safe. No weapons could reach him.
But that didn’t matter anymore.
Alex slammed the hatch switch with all his weight. The hydraulic motor kicked in. He dropped low and aimed out the ship. No Katherine. No flechettes. Sibyl lay toppled from where he’d shoved her. He was clear.
Then he glimpsed her. Naema had rolled to her side. She looked right at him for a single moment before disappearing behind the closing door.
“No! You bitch. Don’t look at…”
Me? That was how he was going to finish the sentence, but what sentence was that? The hatch door sealed. He looked around. It seemed he was alone.
“Huh,” he said. The word echoed off the hull.
“Huh.” He said it again. Neat echo.
It must be a military ship. The walls were steel, and it was cramped as hell. Nobody would want to be in here unless their country demanded it.
So why was he?
He thought hard, but he couldn’t recall the chain of events that led to him here. He had been on a plane, and he’d been playing with the seat controls. Sakhr had been angry at him again. Because…
Right! Because Alex had been teasing him about his fear of planes. That man was afraid of everything.
Jesus. Why did this seem so long ago? At least a month. Everything since was a blank. Was he on drugs again? Sakhr would be pissed, but fuck him. Then again, maybe Sakhr had a point.
Alex had no idea where he was.
And holy shit! He was holding a gun! And he was a woman. A hot woman. It must have been a wild night.
The voice came from outside the ship. It was strong, masculine, and angry.
“Open the hatch door.”
Ah. Authority. Alex was already climbing to his feet. Anton must really be angry if he’s using that. Alex hoped he hadn’t fucked up too badly, whatever it was he’d done.
The door lever was in the first place he looked. Strange, considering he’d never been on this ship before. The hatch eased open, revealing an interesting sight.
A bleeding black girl, an asian girl, and a hispanic space marine who must be Anton.
Sure. Why not.
For some reason, he couldn’t read anyone’s mind. That was troubling. He’d have to figure the situation out for himself. Did he shoot the black girl? Maybe. And that asian girl sure looked like someone had hurt her feelings. Was all this his fault? Was that why Anton was glaring at him?
Well, Alex couldn’t feel bad for something he couldn’t remember. Might as well own it. He put on his signature grin.
“Drop your weapon and kick it over,” Anton said.
Alex shrugged, still grinning. It must have been one hell of a drug-fueled rampage. He complied. He wanted to say something witty as he did it, but he couldn’t think of anything good.
And from the look in Anton’s eye, it didn’t look like anything would go over well anyway. He looked really pissed, so much so that Alex dropped his grin. Was this serious? Had he gone too far? He hoped this was something they could put behind them. He’d hate to lose his only friend.
Victoria pulled off Naema’s helmet. The girl flailed. Victoria settled her down and checked her wounds. A solid leg shot. It looked like it damaged the bone. The helmet deflected the head shot though, and the neck wound, despite all the blood, was just a graze.
She removed Naema’s earbuds. Music blasted from them. Between those and the blinders, her sensory awareness must have been nothing. When she removed the gag. The girl gasped for breath.
“You’re going to be fine,” Victoria said.
Naema’s eyes were wild. She struggled again.
Victoria calmed her. “Settle down. I know you’re in pain, but I need you to concentrate on me.”
“Who are you?” Naema asked.
“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’m working with Josephine, and I need you to do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”
Naema glanced at Alexander.
“Don’t worry about him anymore. He’s harmless.”
“Harmless?” said Alex.
Victoria ignored him. “I need you to close your eyes for a moment.”
Naema did. Victoria looked at Sibyl. “Come here and look me in the eye.”
Hesitantly, Sibyl approached. Victoria pilfered her mind for everything she could. The bomb was upstairs like Alex said. Password is as he said. The timer was forty seconds before the main bomb, and—
…And Alexander broke the wrist monitor. That son of a bitch. Victoria glanced at it. Even from here, she could make out the cracks running across its blank screen.
The time had said eight minutes.
In eight minutes, that world destroyer would go off. If Alexander had left her here as he planned, she would have had let the nuclear bomb go off, or else the world-destroyer would send everyone back into the dark ages.
She looked at him. He stared back innocently, as though genuinely concerned. She yearned to switch bodies with him and kill him now, but no. He may have been the monster a minute ago. Now, he was just a man, lost and confused. To kill him now would be like putting down a dog that had bit a child in confusion. Maybe it was the effect of his Sympathy glyph on her mind, but she couldn’t do it.
She pulled Sibyl toward Naema. “Unbind her. Get her on the ship. Keep Alexander from running off. I’ll be watching both of you.”
Sibyl nodded vigorously and snapped to work. Victoria collected the damaged monitor. It wouldn’t even turn on.
She might disarm the warhead, then find lesser explosives to destroy the world-destroyer. That depended on whether such munitions existed onboard, which she doubted.
Of course, she could just leave. Millions of lives of the still-reeling human race would snuff out. The world might blame her, or the terrorists. Either way, society would take another massive step backward. But she would still be alive. She had Alex under control now, and Helena’s body. She could drag the world back to order.
She’d just have to do everything all over again. Wage wars. Conquer. Cause suffering and death. It might be more difficult now that the world knew what Victoria had done, even if she hid in another body. And it would take years.
Years of pain.
Could she really go through it all over again? Maybe Alex was right. Or maybe it was just because she was so damn tired of being the monster. She’d always wanted to help, yet somewhere during this exile she’d started to wonder: maybe the world would have been better if she hadn’t existed at all.
Victoria fetched two fallen flechettes from the floor and moved to where Naema couldn’t see her. In her head, she formulated every plan she could think of. Her goal? She wanted to be able to look back on this moment and say, “yes. That’s what I wanted. I’m happy with how this turned out, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”
And then she tossed the flechettes into the air.
They landed and rolled to a stop. Both pointed to her left. She knew which plan that corresponded to. Somehow, she’d known they would fall that way even before she tossed the dice. Yet she had to toss them again just to make sure.
So that was her path of least regret.
Her happy ending.
She hated so much that it was true, but she knew it was.
Victoria headed back toward the others. They’d gotten into the shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s chair, although he wasn’t taking advantage of it. Naema had limped to a passenger seat. Victoria knelt by her.
“I need you to listen to me very carefully…”