114. Ignorance

A civilian shuttle landed at the Attila military base in Northern Amapá. Soldiers circled about it, and one tapped on the window. It rolled down.

The soldier peered in. “Welcome to Fort Leguan. I need all of you to step out of the shuttle.”

The door opened. Christof stepped out, then Winnie. To the soldiers, they appeared as a general and an exemplar. Christof held a briefcase by his side. Winnie cradled a tortoise.

That drew the soldier’s eyes. “What is your purpose at Leguan?”

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

“This is for security. I need you to answer our questions. What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

Christof and Winnie handed over IDs. The soldier’s didn’t react at all to Christof’s identity as General Soto, who was one of the most wanted men in the empire. Winnie wasn’t surprised. Both of the men’s aura’s were exposed.

The soldier handed the IDs back. “Come with me. We’ll get you scanned and checked out.”

“A security screening?” asked Christof. “We’re not to be scanned. There should be a note about that.”

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

“Listen,” the guard said. “There have been three attacks on the queen in the last month. You’re not getting near the queen without a scan.”

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

“It’s okay, Private.” Josephine approached from the administration building. “Let them through.”

The guard hesitated. “Minister Molyneux, I have instructions to clear everyone without exception.”

“They’ve already been cleared. They just finished passing through security.”

He frowned. He and his fellow soldiers exchanged glances. Their auras hiccuped in a way Winnie had gotten used to seeing.

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

“Wait a moment,” the guard said, then paused as though lost in thought. His partners weren’t any better.

“Just come along,” Josephine said. “They’ll be fine after we leave.” They walked to the administrative building. “Did you find it?” she asked.

Christof held up the suitcase.

Josephine sighed. “Thank God. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s been that bad, Minister,” Winnie said.

“That’s just a harmless white lie. No one will remember after I’m gone. Come on. I can’t leave him alone for long.”

They entered the administrative building. People were collected in the lobby. They flocked at the sight of Josephine. Everyone spoke at once.

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

“I have the Chinese Prime Minister on the line.”

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

“The Ministery of Aviation needs to speak with Helena.”

Winnie could hardly make out what any of them were saying.

Josephine held up a staying hand. “If everyone will be quiet. Queen Helena will be available just as soon as the medical team clears her. Now please, clear the way.” She led Winnie and Christof past guards and up a flight of stairs.

In an office at the end of a hall, Alexander was sitting at a desk covered with playing cards and a cribbage board. Winnie knew from her spying that Josephine had been his playing partner, and he was waiting for her to return. Sibyl sat nearby. She’d been in no mood to play, since unlike Alexander, she knew what was coming.

Alexander smiled. He didn’t mind that no one else did. “Hello. Ah, good. Two more. Perfect. Everyone, come in. Sit down. Do any of you know how to play cribbage? It’s an older game, but I assure you it’s aged well.” He looked from Winnie to Christof, trying to meet their eyes. “No? I guess we’re going to do something else then. I don’t suppose any of you brought anything to drink.”

Christof set the briefcase on the table and popped it open. Inside a manilla folder were sheets of line paper. They were copies of glyphs Alexander had stored in a government-controlled deposit box in Poro Maná, far away from Naema’s destructive gaze. Not even Sibyl knew exactly bank he’d gone to. Tan’s dice had shortened the search dramatically

“What?” Alex peered at the glyph. “Is that a tribal tattoo? Normally those come after drinking.”

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

Helena stared directly at him. It was looking into her eyes that Alex’s smile finally faltered. For the first time since he’d lost his memory, Alexander had an idea what was about to happen.

“No.” Winnie replied. “She’s a tortoise.”

111. Like Old Times

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.

Victoria halted.

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.

…But still.

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.

Same result.

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…”

110. Drastic Measures

“Is she? Or isn’t she?” Alexander mused. He looked at security feeds of the exemplar spire. Each one showed a horror movie massacre. Some cameras even had blood splattered across the lens. Marines patrolled through quiet halls looking for survivors.

A call came in. Captain Romero. He was in the exemplar lobby holding a radio piece to his ear. Alex could see him through a camera.

“The spire is secure, Your Majesty. Are we still in lockdown?”

“Yes. Absolutely no one leaves that spire until I give the word.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He returned to pondering the million dollar question: Was Katherine among the bodies? Or the marines?

In retrospect, weaponizing the exemplars may have been foolish. Six marines had died in the fight. That left eighteen alive. But were there eighteen shield stone still functioning? He’d call down to the exemplar operations room and have them check, but oops, they’re dead now. Not that it would be surefire anyway. Katherine might have separated a marine from his shield for a moment, but left the shield intact. That seemed incredibly unlikely given how those shields were underneath their armor, but not impossible.

What to do? What to do?

Kill them all? It was the only way to be really sure, and hundreds of people had died already. Why stop now? The citadel was mostly evacuated, so at least Alex wouldn’t have to kill everyone, but who would kill the marines? Super marines? A larger number of marines? Then who would kill them? He’d be swallowing a bird to kill the spider, and he wasn’t even sure if the spider had killed the fly yet.

He checked the dial on his wrist. Twenty-one minutes.

His path was clear.

Alex got up and crossed the room. In the corner was the second box Quentin had delivered, small enough to fit in the office. Alex pried open the lid and looked down at the slick, chrome surface of a factory-standard nuclear bomb. Beside the control panel was a PostIt note with Quentin’s scrawled instructions. Following them, Alex turn on the panel display. He typed in the security code and authenticated with a thumb print scan. The display then prompted for a time.

Alex checked his wrist dial again. 20:26 and counting.

He typed in 19:30. After several confirmation screens, a red light came on and the countdown began. Alex turned off the screen. No one looking at it would have any idea it was armed.

“Time to go, Sib. Bring the girl.”

Two flights down was the bridge floor. He nearly passed by, but changed his mind.

“How’d the strike go?” Alex asked as he stepped down to the center. Admiral Laughlin nearly spoke when he stopped to stare at Sibyl. Everyone did.

She stood silently by the door as she always had, but her arms were around a young black girl that none had seen before. Ropes bound the girl’s arms behind her. They wrapped about her torso several times. A motorcycle helmet was on her head. The visor was spray painted an opaque silver, and a brace around her neck prevented her from moving her head.

“Look at me, Admiral.” Alex snapped his fingers before Laughlin’s face. “The strike?”

“I… unfortunately, Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that our intercepters were unable to destroy the rogue orbiter before it reached maximum orbital speed. Their spiders collided with our ships. However, the enemy have no more drones at all. If they should come down into—”

“Great. Never mind. Has the citadel been fully evacuated?”

“Everyone except for vital staff and the marines, ma’am.”

“And how many ships are left on board?”


“Pods? Ships? How did people evacuate the citadel? How many more can escape?”

Laughlin gestured to an officer who brought up a list of ships. “There’s one hopper left in the hangar. It can carry six people at maximum capacity.”

“That’s it?” asked Alex.

“The citadel was over capacity, ma’am. Why do you ask? Has the situation in the exemplar spire been contained?”

Alex winced and gestured. “Sort of, but I’m going to have to blow up the citadel to be sure.”

Cries of alarm sounded around the bridge.

“Destroy the— what?” Laughlin sputtered. “There is no means to do that.”

“Don’t worry, I brought my own bomb.”

“Your Majesty! That’s insanity! We can’t destroy this ship, it’s the flagship of your empire.”

“Let me rephrase. I’ve already armed a nuclear warhead. This ship is going to explode in… eighteen minutes. We need to escape.”

Nuclear warhead? Your Majesty! We’re a mile off the coast of Porto Maná!”

“Ooh.” Alex hissed through his teeth. “That’s… unfortunate.” In hindsight, maybe Alex should have asked Quentin for a smaller bomb.

“We have to disarm it, ma’am.”

“We could, but I’d rather not. This may be our only chance to get rid of this infectious terrorist problem once and for all. So come on. Is that ship ready for flight? Do you guys have to make a flight plan?”

“Where is the bomb?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Where is the bomb, Helena?” His voice carried a warning tone. Everyone looked at Alex.

He didn’t need to be a telepath to see where this was going. “Hold that thought,” Alex skipped up the bridge steps to where Sibyl waited with Naema. “I’d like you all to meet my fun little friend.”

From behind, Alex reached around Naema and flipped up the spray-painted visor on her helmet. Naema’s mouth was gagged, and earbuds were in her ears blasting music. Naema blinked in the light. With bloodshot eyes, she looked back at everyone she saw.

“Move her around a little, will you,” said Alex. “Make sure she meets everyone.” Sibyl swiveled, rotating Naema to face everyone in the bridge. The crew stared back, perplexed. Alex sidestepped to remain behind Naema as she turned. He reached again and flipped the visor back down. When he returned to the admiral, Laughlin’s mind opened to him. Alexander basked everyone in Sympathy.

“Now, Admiral, do you think you guys could prep the last ship for evacuation?”

“We need to think about the people in the city,” Laughlin said. “Whatever this terrorist infection is, it can’t be worth sacrificing the capital. I’m telling you this for your own good, Your Majesty. We must find another way.”

Alex held up a stopping hand. “Do you think I want to do this? I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but you don’t understand how dangerous these terrorists are. No matter how many people I send after them, they will just infect more. They can turn entire crowds into terrorists. If I don’t stop them now, they will bring about the destruction of our civilized world, but right now—right now—I have the chance to end this. The death toll will be monumental, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life, but I must do this.”

He leaned on his Sympathy harder. Laughlin looked at him severely. “At least, let us send the citadel out as far into the ocean as we can. We might give the people a better chance.”


Laughlin turned to his flight controller. “Do it. Take us away from the city. Maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

“Now,” said Alex, “about that ship.”

“Have you considered a smaller bomb, Your Majesty?” Laughlin said. “If we contact munitions at—”

“No time. We only have for as long as Captain Romero can contain his own men, and he doesn’t understand what he’s up against. We have… fifteen minutes now.”

“Perhaps if we—”

“No! Prepare the final ship. Tell me where it is. Then we will discuss this.”

“Your Majesty, if there is any way—”

“Are you loyal to me, Admiral? Or do you want to see this empire fall like the terrorists do?”

“Of course not, ma’am. I would do anything to serve you. I would lay down my life to keep you safe, but setting off that bomb may destroy the empire. If people found out it was on your order, it doesn’t matter for what reason, they’ll—”

Then we’ll blame the terrorists. That’s what we always do. Prep the ship.”

Reluctantly, Laughlin nodded toward the flight controller, who got to work.

Moments later, the controller responded. “The ship had a flight plan coded. Bay doors are open.”

“Where is it?” asked Alex.

“Portside aft sector, Deck 1.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll need to call back another ship,” Laughlin said. “Between the bridge and the strike room, it’s not going to be enough.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alex.

“Why not?”

“Well…” Alex glanced around. Twelve people here. Six more would be downstairs. “The more ships we bring back, the more likely the terrorist agent can escape. We’ll just have the one.”

“You… want us to stay?”

“No, Admiral. If you stayed, the agent could come up here and take control of you.”

“So what then?”

“Do you remember a moment ago when you said you’d lay down your life for me? It’s funny you should say that…”

Alex drew his gun.

107. Security Failures

“Do you have any idea what she’s doing?” Alexander asked.

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

Alex sighed and leaned toward his screen. He and Sibyl were seated behind his desk in the high office, watching Katherine through the security feeds, or Victoria as she liked to call herself.

So far, it had been immensely entertaining. He’d watched the altercation between an exemplar and the unremarkable Captain Russo. The struggle had been so quick, Alex could have glanced away and missed Russo’s swiping of the exemplar’s shield. What followed was clearly a memory trick, or else that exemplar was entirely too forgiving.

But after getting through security, her plan became… a little too obtuse for him to follow. She’d gone up floors and down, into closets and bunks and bathrooms.

“Is she… lost?” he asked. No. That made no sense. She must know how to get to him. Go up.

As entertaining as this was, it was also nerve wracking. He wasn’t even sure that was Katherine. She could have given glyphs to anyone, and that deployment pod could have contained more than one person.

“Maybe it’s a distraction,” he said. “Has anything happened over there?”

“Not yet.” Sibyl was watching the feeds for the security bay. “Maybe she’s looking for someone.”

Alex shook his head. “If she was, she’d already know where he was.”

He was tempted to call the onboard marines and tell them to suit up, just to have them ready. But if he did, Katherine or the Korean girl might see it. They’d know he knew.

Maybe he could have someone with a gun and a shield stone go down there alone, act like nothing was amiss right up to the point they shot her, but he’d have to bring them up to speed first. He could just imagine giving them abridged instructions: There’s a visiting soldier in the docking bay levels wandering around like he’s looking for the bathroom. Could you go down there and shoot him for me? I’ll explain later.

With a healthy dose of Sympathy, it might work, but that wasn’t great either. If it failed, he’d lose his advantage.

What he’d like is if she’d just go up the damn stairs. She’d already come so close. Alex had had his hand on the transmitter, but then she’d turned around. It’s like she knew about the bombs, but she didn’t act like it at all.

A muffled grunt diverted Alex’s attention. He glanced at his trump card. She was struggling to move.

“Would you hush?” he said, not that she could hear him.

He turned back to his console. Katherine was pacing circuits again, and it looked like she was mumbling to herself? Ah. He realized the significants of that. She’s talking to the Korean. Or that wasn’t her, but someone with the Korean’s glyph. Either way, whoever was wandering around down there was in contact with the ship

Then they must know that it was about to be destroyed in… he glanced at dashboard notification on his screen… twelve minutes. He then checked his other countdown, the timer on his wrist. Forty minutes until boom. The reset button was below the numbers, but he didn’t press it.

He was setting the pace here. Not her. Whatever she was up to, she was wasting her time. The longer this went on, the more this went in his favor.

Resting his elbows on the table, he steepled his fingers before his eyes and watched. Katherine finished her circuit and headed toward Deck 1, right back toward security, as though she were about to leave.

Alex threw his hands out. “What the fuck is she doing?”

“I’m going back to the security bay,” Victoria said, “and we’re going to play a new game.”

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

“Use Tan and find any more bombs. I need to know where all of them are, and any other traps Alex set up.”

“Okay.” She and Tan got started. “What are you going to do?”

“Something more elaborate,” Victoria said. “If Alexander is watching me, then there’s no point in being subtle anymore.”

Once Victoria was two corridors away from the bay, she paused. When a marine came by, she walked toward him. Just as they passed, Victoria stumbled. As he caught her from falling, her hand slipped under his collar and yanked off a necklace with his shield stone.

He glazed over.

“Come with me,” she said. Her voice resonated with Authority. With a nod, the man followed her toward the security bay. Another man passed them. Victoria pulled the same trick. Now two soldiers followed.

There was still a line at security. Guards lazily moved packs through scanners and escorted people to rooms. Others waited by the side, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

“Distract them,” Victoria said, pointed to the supervisors. Her dumbfounded followers walked over and started a conversation with them. Meanwhile, Victoria moved toward another lingering guard. Slip, bump, swipe, and he was hers. As was the next, and the next. Some guards were noticing. They whispered to each other. Despite how normal everyone acted, unshielded aura’s were appearing. Each one would hiccup with alarm or confusion before returning to normal. Even incomers in line who had yet to relinquish their glyph cards were growing concerned.

From the scan rooms, a female exemplar emerged. She looked sternly at everyone, then called to the guards. “What’s going on?”

Victoria whispered to a converted guard near her. “The shields are malfunctioning. No reason to be alarmed. Calm everyone down. Tell them.”

The guard stepped forward, holding out a staying hand. “Everyone remain calm. It looks like we’re experiencing an issues with the shield glyphs. We’ll sort this out as soon as we can.”

“Approach the exemplar,” Victoria murmured to him, “and Winnie, I’m about to swap bodies. You and Josephine get ready to blank whoever I leave behind.”

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

“Stop.” The exemplar backed away. “Don’t come any closer! Not until we sort this out.”

“It’s just a malfunction,” the guard said. “Why are you getting your panties bunched up about it?”

“This is exactly the sort of situation we’ve been warned about,” the exemplar snapped. “Everyone stay away from each other until we contact the Committee. No one leaves. Now, everyone with a broken shield stone needs to get against the far wall there. That means you, and you, and you.” She pointed out anyone with a visible aura.

Her attention, however, was on a group of guards far from Victoria, and so the exemplar missed when Victoria lightly brushed the hand of another guard. There was the telltale spasm. Josephine immediately pried out his immediate memories, and the man now in Captain Russo’s body stood eyes wide, frequently looking down at his foreign hands, but never getting around to yelling.

As a guard, Victoria joined the others still shielded. The exemplar never considered that the threat could hide in a seemingly shielded body. Her shepherding allowed Victoria to convert others. Auras popped up as she tore shields away. Within seconds, half the group was compromised.

The exemplars from the other scanning rooms came out, looking just as upset as the first.

The female exemplar pointed to one. “You, get on the phone with the Committee. Tell them what’s happening.”

“No,” Victoria yelled out. “You said everyone is to stay right here.”

“Do not contradict me,” the woman snapped back. “I’m taking charge here. You will keep your mouth shut.”

“What? Why should we trust you?” Victoria said. “How do we know you’re not causing this?”

Be quiet,” the woman yelled. She spun to the other exemplar. “Why are you still here? Go.”

“It’s them,” Victoria yelled to everyone, her voice thick with Authority. “They’re the impostors. Capture them now!”

The crowd charged as a riot. Even some who still had their shields followed along. The exemplars ran, but they didn’t get far. The crowd pinned them. Victoria caught up and wrested away their plaques. After that, the whole maneuver lost steam. A few shielded individuals asked about what to do next, but they joined the shieldless moments later. Everyone calmed down, even the exemplars. Victoria was back in Russo’s body. It was as though nothing had happened at all.

“I really wish this system had sound,” Alex said.

On screen, the occupants of the security bay were crowded together in a huddle. Whether guest or guard or exemplar, they were all equal now. Freaky. Alex had nearly forgotten about her power of Authority. She’d stolen that trick moments before shooting Anton in the head. At least he knew for certain that it was Katherine down there. A body swap and Authority. She was laying all her cards on the table, wasn’t she? Might as well. She only had ten minutes before all her friends died. Or maybe she cold enough that she’s wouldn’t let that rush her. Nah, he thought. She’s cold, but there’s still a little too much sentimentalism in her for that. She would rush.

Either way, there was no more pretending anymore. Alex tapped a call button on his screen.

“Marine deck,” said a gruff voice. “This is Captain Romero.”

“Captain, this is your queen.”

“What can I do for you, Your Majesty.”

“Suit your men up for combat. That triage scenario we discussed? It’s happening.”

Romero was silent a moment. “Understood, ma’am. What is your confirmation?”

The code. Right. “Project Cornered Falcon is a go. Get ready and await orders.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.

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?

79. Just Fifteen Seconds

Alexander and Sibyl were seated before the newly finished assembly machine. Robotic arms inside of it worked frantically to assemble security devices on frames bearing glyph wafers. One was a new plaque for Sibyl, complete with all exemplar standards and a shield. Two others were shields for Christof and Sakhr. Alexander had sketched the glyphs from a hacked plaque and his own ink-and-paper shield glyph.

The arms attached pressure sensitive bulbs, light diodes, caustic chemicals that react with oxygen, and back up explosives on a separate battery pack.

“Katherine was a paranoid woman, wasn’t she?” Alex said. “All that just to keep one little chip safe.”

“Mmhmm…,” Sibyl replied.

“Not that I blame her. I’d do the same too if it were me. It’s too bad Paul had to let the glyphs into the wild. We still have the shield glyph though,” Alex said. “That’s the one that really matters.”

She nodded.

Sibyl didn’t care much to talk with Alex. He knew damn well how she felt about him. He’d seen enough of her mind over the centuries. For her, she was here because Sakhr ordered her here. As soon as she had the plaques, she planned to be out the door.

Eventually, three plaques slid into the machine’s dispenser tray. Sibyl gathered them and turned to leave.

“Hold it,” Alex said.


He held out his hand. “Your paper glyph?”


“Your paper shield glyph. You don’t need it anymore, and keeping it around is a security risk. All someone would need is twenty seconds alone with it and the shields would be in the wild just as much as the other glyphs are.”

“Oh. Right.” Sibyl fetched a slip of paper from her coat pocket and handed it over. Alex tore it neatly in half. Sibyl again turned to leave.

“Just one last thing,” Alex said.

She paused, though she fidgeted.

Alexander walked to a lit glass cabinet and opened the lid. “Could you put the plaques in here for a second?”


“This is a plaque holding case. Exemplars are able to leave their plaques inside of these without them self-destructing. Before Katherine had shields, exemplars would have to store their plaques in these before entering her presence so they couldn’t read her mind. The case keeps them secure, and keeps them from self-destructing. Christof will need one, unless he wants to replace his plaque every every time he talks to the glyph breaker. I had my boys set this up, but I wouldn’t trust them to remember their own names, so I need to test it..” He nodded toward the plaques in her hand.

Sibyl placed Christof’s and Sakhr’s plaque inside.

“Sorry.” Alex picked up them up and set them aside. “Not those. Yours. Their’s aren’t activated yet. I need to make sure your plaque can be in here while you walk away.”

To her credit, Sibyl hesitated. Alex doubted she actually suspect anything. Perhaps her flair had picked up on something despite Alex’s shield, since he didn’t think her tiny, trusting brain would have actually notice how orchestrated their exchange was.

She placed hers inside.

“Now come with me.” Alex guided her. “We have to get five meters away.”

They did so.

“Is that good?” Sibyl turned to head back.

He stopped her. “We’ll know in a moment. If the case isn’t working, the plaque should beep soon. Then it would pop after another minute. If the case is working, then the plaque should be fine.”


They waited.

“Sorry you had to come down here,” said Alex. “Christof has been a little upset with me lately.”

“It’s fine.”

Alex sighed. “It’s this whole Paul thing. He thinks I went overboard.”


“I don’t know what to do. We needed that glyph. So Sakhr ordered me to do what I had to. Then around Christof, he’ll pretend what I do disgusts him. He thinks I don’t know he does this. Am I wrong? Every time I’m not around, he’s disparaging me, isn’t he?”

Sibyl shifted uncomfortably. “No. He’s just… under pressure.”

“We’re all under pressure. This empire is falling, and we’re all busting our asses to keep it upright. We’ve got Katherine out there, the military deserters, and a whole world rebelling against us. I’ve been running back and forth juggling Paul and the exemplars. I’m just trying to make this work.”

“Yes, I know.” Sibyl frowned. Confusion? Could she sense her own aura changing? He slowed down on his Sympathy flexing, but not by much.

“I just don’t think they’re being fair to me. If Sakhr had such a problem with how I do things, he should do it himself, but he doesn’t. He orders me to do whatever needs to be done, and then he and Christof hate me for it.” He shrugged. “I’m starting to feel like he’s setting me up. He’s got my power now. Pretty soon, he’s going to get rid of me and wash his hands of all the shit he’s making me do. I’m his scapegoat.”

Alex stared at the ground feeling sorry for himself. Did he overplay it? He had never complained before, especially not to someone as vapid as her. Even she might detect his odd behavior.

But then a hand was on his shoulder. He looked up to see her staring at him.

“He won’t do that to you. He’s loyal to his own. You know that.” She smiled timidly. “I could say something to him.”

That was just fifteen seconds of Sympathy. Where would two minutes get him? Where would ten?

“No,” he said meekly. “It’s just nice to talk about it.”

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.

60. Tell-all

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

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

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

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

“He seemed in a rush.”

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

“All of the exemplars.”

All of them?”

“All three hundred something.”

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

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

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

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

“Then shoot them down.”

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

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

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

“Don’t be coy with me.”

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

“They’ll what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a little farther,” Alex said.

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

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

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

“Not much farther,” he said.

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

“Why are we here?” Sakhr asked.

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

“I thought this citadel was secured.”

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

Why are we here, Winnie?

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

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

“And I care about them why?”

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

Sakhr finally saw the point.

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

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

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

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

Sakhr was scowling.

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

“I don’t like this.”

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

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

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

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

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

59. Ceremony

“Are you willing to take the oath?”

“I am willing,” replied Sakhr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting uniform.”

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

“Did I now?”

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

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

“Your Majesty, something has come up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No ma’am, they don’t.”

“Then how can we possibly be having trouble?”

“The rioters outnumber us, ma’am.”

“How many soldiers do we have in India?”

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

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

“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“To how many locals?”

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


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

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

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

“Are we seeing any signs of rebellion?”

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

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

“Most likely, ma’am.”

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

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

“I see…”

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

“But it’s failing now?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

And Sakhr had taken the reigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then locate any crops and burn them.”

Lowden recoiled. “Ma’am? Surely not.”

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

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

“We’re helping countries plant crops?”

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

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

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

“Good. Is there anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Your Majesty.”

“What is it?”

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

57. Plantains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

The man nodded.

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

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

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

“Who’s body is this?”


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

“Is that important?”

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

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

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

“I’m the man who freed you.”

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

“This is not my original body.”

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


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

Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.

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

She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”

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

“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”

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

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

“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”

“Then six years.”

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

“So she actually did it, huh?”

“She told you about these plans?”

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

“What other things?”

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

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

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

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

“You never asked.”

Sakhr glared at him.

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

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

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

“I’m afraid so.”

“How… how bad was it?”

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

“I uh…. I see.”

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

“Where is she?”

“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”

“You think?”

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

“What accident?”

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

“You mean you killed her?”

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

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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


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

“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”

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


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

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

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

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

“And what became of her?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t a game.”

“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.

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

“Then you’re stuck.”

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

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


“Then it makes no difference to me.”

Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.

“I told you…” Alex said.

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

“If you say so.”