64. Surveillance

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

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

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

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

“Focus,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.

“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”

“Look at me.”

Winnie did so.

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

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

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

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

Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.

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

“No.”

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

“No. Stop talking. Focus.”

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.

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

“Gotcha.” Alex approached.

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie stayed as she was.

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

Pause.

“Open your eyes for her sake.”

Of course he was playing that same trick.

Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.

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

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

Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.

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

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

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

A pause.

“Is that a promise?”

Pause.

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

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

Helena hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

60. Tell-all

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

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

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

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

“He seemed in a rush.”

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

“All of the exemplars.”

All of them?”

“All three hundred something.”

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

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

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

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

“Then shoot them down.”

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

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

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

“Don’t be coy with me.”

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

“They’ll what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a little farther,” Alex said.

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

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

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

“Not much farther,” he said.

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

“Why are we here?” Sakhr asked.

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

“I thought this citadel was secured.”

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

Why are we here, Winnie?

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

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

“And I care about them why?”

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

Sakhr finally saw the point.

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

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

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

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

Sakhr was scowling.

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

“I don’t like this.”

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

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

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

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

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

59. Ceremony

“Are you willing to take the oath?”

“I am willing,” replied Sakhr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting uniform.”

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

“Did I now?”

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

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

“Your Majesty, something has come up.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“No ma’am, they don’t.”

“Then how can we possibly be having trouble?”

“The rioters outnumber us, ma’am.”

“How many soldiers do we have in India?”

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

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

“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“To how many locals?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Are we seeing any signs of rebellion?”

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

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

“Most likely, ma’am.”

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

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

“I see…”

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

“But it’s failing now?”

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

And Sakhr had taken the reigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then locate any crops and burn them.”

Lowden recoiled. “Ma’am? Surely not.”

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

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

“We’re helping countries plant crops?”

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

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

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

“Good. Is there anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Your Majesty.”

“What is it?”

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

57. Plantains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

The man nodded.

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

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

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

“Who’s body is this?”

“What?”

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

“Is that important?”

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

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

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

“I’m the man who freed you.”

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

“This is not my original body.”

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

“Yes.”

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

Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.

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

She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”

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

“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”

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

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

“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”

“Then six years.”

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

“So she actually did it, huh?”

“She told you about these plans?”

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

“What other things?”

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

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

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

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

“You never asked.”

Sakhr glared at him.

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

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

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

“I’m afraid so.”

“How… how bad was it?”

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

“I uh…. I see.”

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

“Where is she?”

“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”

“You think?”

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

“What accident?”

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

“You mean you killed her?”

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

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“And what became of her?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t a game.”

“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.

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

“Then you’re stuck.”

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

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

“No.”

“Then it makes no difference to me.”

Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.

“I told you…” Alex said.

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

“If you say so.”

56. Bloody Tiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just for a while.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These tortoises meant a lot to the queen.”

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

“Nah, I got em.”

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

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

This satisfied the soldier.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so she watched…


“Is this all there was?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

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

“She wearing a cream-colored dress?”

Sakhr had no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He dug through the other crates.

“Your Highness?” the major asked.

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

“Is something missing?”

“They aren’t working.”

“Ma’am?”

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

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

“Know what?” the major asked.

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

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

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

But why keep it up?

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

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

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

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

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

“We believe so, ma’am.”

“This was in the wreckage?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

“Not that I know of,” the major said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know this.”

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

“You obviously have a place in mind.”

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


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

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

Victoria.

They believed Victoria might still be alive.

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

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

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

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

54. Sedatives

“Quentin.”

Nudge.

“Quentin.”

Quentin opened his eyes. The effort drained him. He tried lifting his head, but pain lanced through his skull. He could only roll his head along his pillow to look about.

It was the same place as all the other times he’d drifted into consciousness—a spartan infirmary. Beds lined the long room on either side. All were made except for the one directly across from Quentin, where one other patient lay. Sunlight streamed in several windows. Birds chirped distantly. Farther away was occasional yelling, or echoed bangs of what might be construction.

He tried moving, but handcuffs secured him to the bed. Looking down, he saw his hands wrapped in bandages. Angry blisters peaked out where the bandages ended near his elbows. They throbbed with each heartbeat.

Quentin didn’t know how long he’d been suffering this fever-ridden nightmare of endless sweat and vomit. It seemed like eternity, but it couldn’t be. By his estimate, he had twenty-four hours to live. For the first time, his fever was less. His mind could hold a coherent thought. Someone ignorant of the progression of radiation sickness might think they were recovering. Quentin knew better.

He finally noticed his two guests. One was an exemplar woman. She stood back near the corner of the room. The other was a young woman standing by his bed. She was sneering at the stench Quentin’s senses had long since adapted to. Her platinum blonde hair was neatly done up in a bun. Designs were embroidered on her formal sleeveless dress. It was as though she stopped here on her way to a banquet.

“Can you hear me, Quentin?” she asked.

“Sakhr?” he muttered.

“Yes.”

“…You got away?”

“Yes, amazingly.”

“Did you… sneak in here?” Talking was taking a lot out of him. With every word, his urge to vomit grew.

“No.”

“There was a guard… by the door.”

“I ordered him away.”

Quentin stared at Sakhr with the most discerning look he could muster. “You ordered?”

“Yes. I ordered. Much has happened in the few hours you’ve been asleep. Perhaps no one has explained. It seems a raving lunatic detonated a low-grade nuclear bomb inside the Capital Tower. Even now responders clamber over the ruins searching for survivors, but they doubt they’ll find any. The queen was in the building at the time. She will soon be confirmed dead.”

“Victoria? So you’re in charge?”

“Yes. I’ll be addressing the public soon, where I’ll be explaining that much of the city is being evacuated due to fallout risk. There are already over four dozen confirmed cases of radiation poisoning, but no one has a case as bad as you and the other man who was brought in with you. The military wants to know about your involvement with the explosion. They’ve brought in an exemplar to scan your mind.”

At Sakhr’s prompting, the exemplar in the corner came forward to stand at the other side of the bed. She looked down at Quentin. He avoided her gaze.

“A scanning?” Quentin asked. “Are you serious? But… they can’t, right? Sakhr?” He said the name, as though to point out the secrets he knew.

“I am serious. Exemplar Serrao was able to pull herself away from the rescue effort. We’ve just concluded her scan of the other man.” Sakhr indicated the other bedridden patient in the room who was hooked up to an IV and a monitor just the same as Quentin was. It was the body occupied by the flair named Sibyl. They were sleeping soundly.

“Unfortunately,” Sakhr continued, “they knew nothing of value, and we have since had to sedate him when his pain caused him to become unruly. Just like you, he has a severe case of radiation poisoning. It is unlikely he will wake again.”

“Ah… I get it.” Quentin craned to look at the exemplar by the bed. “Sibyl? Right?” An exemplar coming to inspect her mind was a prime opportunity for Sibyl to get that female body she’d asked for. It probably came as a hell of a shock to the exemplar.

“Did Alex survive?” Quentin asked.

“He did. Apparently, all ships will autopilot to a nearby default location if they detect they’re not safely landed. They’ll do this even if they’re locked. Was that part of your plan?”

Quentin nodded.

“Clever. I suppose that’s more sane than flying away on a makeshift plane.”

“But did… you talk to him?”

“I have.”

“Then he told you… the promise.”

“Promise?”

“The promise he made… on your behalf. You’re supposed to get me a new body because I knew I’d get radiation poisoning.”

“You and Alex came to this agreement.”

Quentin’s hoarse voice picked up. “Alex said you’d honor it.”

“I honor the promises I make. I have no obligation to unspoken exchanges between other people.”

“I couldn’t ask you because I couldn’t say it out loud. Victoria would have known what I was up to.”

“And what was it you were up to? Setting up a nuclear explosion to detonate a few hundred feet from us?”

“Nuclear fizzle.”

“A what?”

“A nuclear fizzle. If I had used that much uranium in a properly constructed bomb… there wouldn’t be a city.”

“Oh. And that makes it better?”

“I killed the queen. I made you ruler. Without me, you would be nowhere.”

Sakhr shrugged. “Perhaps so. Your plan could just as easily have killed us all too.”

“It didn’t.”

“No, but I still don’t like your methods. In fact, there’s hardly anything about you that I do like. You’re arrogant. You’re rude. You show no appreciation when I risked my life to free you. And your actions were damn near suicidal.”

“I was not going back into a tortoise.”

“Of course not. None of us are.”

“Thanks to me.”

“Sure.”

“Then help me.”

Sakhr weighed the option. “No. I think not. You took control from me during our escape. You made your own plan without me and executed it without my permission. I don’t appreciate it when others forget their place around me.”

“It was the only way.” Quentin growled. The strain gave him a coughing fit.

“Perhaps. You’ve served your purpose. From here on, you’re more apt to be a liability to us than an asset, just as you were to Victoria, or so I gather.”

“You have to help me. I know who you are. I could tell people.” Though even as the words left his mouth, he realized how wrong he was. He could tattle no better than the drugged-up exemplar across the room could. This conversation would be the last thing he would ever experienced. “You can’t… you can’t fucking do that. I freed you. I got you the fuck out of there. Are you going to kill me? What are you going to do?”

“What we came here to do, Quentin,” Sakhr replied. “We’re here to scan you. Are you ready?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

Sakhr held out his hand toward Sibyl. She touched it. A shudder passed between them. Now it was the body of the exemplar who peered at Quentin. Her dark amber eyes held the same severity Helena’s body had moments ago, while the body of Helena stood mutely by.

“Look me in the eyes,” Sakhr said from the body of the exemplar. He held the exemplar plaque in both hands.

Quentin turned his head toward the window.

“Look at me, Quentin.”

Nothing.

“Look at me if you have any desire to live.”

Begrudgingly, Quentin turned and met Sakhr’s eyes.

“Let me make things perfectly clear,” Sakhr said. “I am unfamiliar with this new world. After seventeen years in captivity I have a lot to learn. But I will. The brain I have is young. So never delude yourself into thinking I still need you. I am the ruler now. Any plans or ideas you have, you will clear with me. You will show me respect. You will cease your insults and jibes. And if I ever, ever detect a hint of insurrection from you, I will not even give you a chance to explain yourself. I don’t care for you. I don’t care for your attitude, but I am choosing to tolerate you because of your gift. Push my tolerance, and I will lock you away just as Victoria had. Am I clear?”

Quentin said nothing. No matter how much he hated this, the alternative was death.

“Say it,” Sakhr said. “I want to hear it from you.”

“I agree.”

Sakhr eyed him a while longer, then held his hand out to Sibyl. Again they switched bodies.

“Go get the doctor,” Sakhr said.

Sibyl left and returned a minute later with a bespectacled doctor.

“Your Highness?”

“We’re done with the patient. Please administer something to help him sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The doctor already had a zipped up pouch with him containing a vial and a hypodermic needle. They had known these patients were terminally ill. This mercy had been prearranged.

The doctor filled a measured sample into a needle. He came so close to injecting it that Quentin wondered whether Sakhr were going to let the doctor go through with it.

But then, “Stop.”

The doctor looked at Sakhr. “Yes?”

“Put the syringe down.”

Confused, the doctor placed it on the table. The moment his hand moved away, Sakhr’s hand lashed out. The doctor yelped. Sakhr pulled his hand onto Quentin, and then came the switch.

Quentin had braced for it, and yet it still nearly floored him. The sudden relief of being in a healthy body was unbelievable, like finally taking a breath of air after minutes of suffocation.

Meanwhile, the dying man on the bed gasped as though splashed with cold water. “What? What is this?” he stammered.

Sakhr turned to Quentin. “You may finish administering the medication, doctor.”

Quentin gladly did so.

49. Glow

Victoria catapulted from her chair. “Everyone evacuate the building now!” She snatched her bird’s cage and ran to the door.

“Your Majesty?” said Captain Gandara.

Now! There’s a bomb in the building. Get moving.”

Everyone startled, but Victoria did not stick around to see who followed. If they didn’t obey her order, then too bad for them. She was out the door and headed toward the stairs. Two floors down. The military shuttle would be right there.

The very second Quentin said those words, she knew exactly what his plan was. She’d been an idiot for not seeing it earlier. Fuser assemblers. They can produce any element under the sun. Metals. Rare elements…

Fissile materials.

That was half the reason she had confiscated those machines in the first place.

She reached the stairwell and leapt from landing to landing. In her mind, she checked where Quentin was. He was on the fifty-eight floor with the second machine, already prying open the doors.

What had he made? An alloy of Thorium? Uranium? Maybe even plutonium for all she knew. No doubt Quentin’s flair told him exactly which one—or what alloy of materials—to use. Whatever fissile material he had was no doubt subcritical when distributed across three separate floors, but when they all came together at the bottom of that elevator shaft…

The notches along the poles and the conversations about gliders had just been a feint to distract her, and it had worked. Goddamn that man.

She ascended to the eighth floor and charged into the hall. The guards at the security checkpoint had already been evacuated. Good. If someone were here, they’d slow her down. She visualized upstairs as she ran. The marines were racing through her personal floor toward the service lobby. Quentin and Sibyl tossed another set of bars down the shaft. At the bottom, the fissile bars were starting to glow.

It was a race to see who reached that last assembler first. She hoped it was the marines, because she would still be in the tower when that moment came.


Quentin burst into the lobby on the sixtieth floor.

“They’re here.” Sibyl said. “They’re coming.”

“Just do the last one, damnit.” Quentin flipped the latch for the elevator and pulled the door open. Sibyl grabbed the bundled rods. These ones had the reflexors wrapped about them. As she moved toward the elevator, marines charged in.

They fired. Sibyl screamed and collapsed. The bundle rolled toward Quentin. In a mad hope, he let go of the door and dove for the rods. As the door slid closed, he tossed them. A dart struck his side, and he went down.

The bundle glided horizontally through the closing door. The reflexors caught the door and its frame as it passed, causing it to launch through like a squeezed grape. It struck the far side of the shaft, twirled, descended like a snowflake, and then caught on a steel beam.

It lingered. The reflexors kept it from sliding off immediately, but eventually it did. From there it continued its lazy decent.

The marines saw none of this as they lugged Sibyl and Quentin toward the stairs.


Victoria saw the transport shuttle ahead. A soldier stood at attention outside the door.

“Get this moving,” she yelled as she ran towards them. “We need to evacuate now.”

The soldier hopped into action, yanking open the passenger door and running around to the pilot side.

Victoria climbed in and set her bird’s cage on the seat. Others were coming, though they were far behind. No one understood the urgency. They couldn’t see the bundle of rods slowly drifting down the shaft toward the eighth floor—the very floor she was on.

She slammed the hatch closed. The other evacuees could take other ships if they had time, but they didn’t.

Victoria looked in the cockpit with her mind. The pilot was powering up the system. Was this security’s idea of “standing by”?

“Move faster,” she ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.” The system booted up. He switched into manual and put his hands on the controls. On the comm he spoke. “This is the transport in tower bay four alpha. I have the queen on board. We require immediate clearance to evacuate.”

At least the pilot did not wait to hear back. They were lifting. The craft was turning. The bundle of rods drifted closer. The ones already at the bottom glowed hot. They were scattered like a pile of matches.

There was no way Quentin could have known how they’d fall. Meaning he had no idea what the explosion’s payload would ultimately be. It might destroy this floor. It might destroy the city. There were too many variables, the largest being how desperate Quentin was.

Her shuttle moved forward. The wide open exit neared. The bundled rods began glowing like the rods beneath them.

Then, whether because of heat or radiation, the reflexors around the bundle failed. It plummeted the remaining few feet.

For a fraction of a second, all the rods merely brightened, as though their approach toward super-critical might take time.

They exploded before the new rods hit the ground.


The ship lurched. Victoria tumbled from her seat. Her head stuck something. Pain lanced through her mind. Another crash. Already on the ground, she rolled into the transport’s stern.

The cockpit was making incessant beeps. Did she smell smoke?

No.

It was dust.

She coughed, put a hand to her scalp. Her fingers came away with blood. She focused her mind on the tower. From the eighth floor and up, the building was a mess. Multiple floors were wrecked. Chunks were missing, choking black smoke billowed out. Flaming debris rained over the campus. Every window in the tower’s bottom half had shattered.

Her own ears heard a screech echoing through the shuttle bay. Metal was tearing. To her horror, the upper half of the tower was sagging like melting wax. The movement was imperceptible, but the slant was unmistakable.

The tower was collapsing.

Victoria crawled to the cockpit. The pilot sat limp, his chin against his chest. His hand was delicately touching a gushing wound where his skull struck the side window.

“Get us moving now!” she yelled.

Dazed, the pilot took seconds to respond. He grabbed the control stick. His eyes skirted the dashboard warning lights. Flipping several switches, he attempted to move the vessel. It swerved. Victoria nearly fell again.

She visualized the transporter. Chunks of concrete had fallen from the bay ceiling and struck the craft. It’s right wing had buckled. The repulse engine was running, but it was askew.

Could the ship fly? Maybe. Land? Probably not, but if this pilot could stop wasting time and just get out of the bay, the reflex grid should catch them.

And then she realized the significants of debris raining on the campus. It was falling freely. The campus grid must be down.

The city grid though. That might still catch them.

The pilot finally got the craft airborne. It drifted toward the far bay wall. He adjusted, and the ship teetered the other direction.

The pilot spoke into the comm as he steered. “This is transport in Bay area four.”

No response.

He repeated himself.

Again nothing.

The pilot gave up and focused on steering.

“Just get us out of the bay,” Victoria shouted.

“I’m trying, ma’am” he said. “The ship is damaged.”

He got the craft to drift toward the lip of the bay. The wing scraped the floor.

Victoria checked the tower again. Debris rained more freely. Floors below twenty were collapsing. The tower was descending.

“Move faster,” she shouted.

The pilot hunched over the control stick. His eyes darted from viewport to viewport. Victoria’s eyes were fixed on the wide, night sky before them.

Finally, the transport cleared the bay. The vessel dropped several feet as the right wing no longer had a floor to drag upon, but the pilot stabilized the craft, and they drifted sideways away from the tower.

They were clear.

Victoria visualized the tower again. It was fully collapsing now. Floor after floor crumbled. The top leaned more as it plummeted. The damage to the campus would be severe. She wondered vaguely whether Gandara had evacuated the campus as well.

Then she saw one particular piece of debris. By the time she acknowledged it, it was too late. She hadn’t time even to open her mouth and warn the pilot.

It slammed into the shuttle, tearing the hull open like paper. The jolt threw her into the cabin. The pilot struggled with the controls as the craft spun wildly. In seconds it would crash. It would be fatal, and Victoria could not prevent it.

With her head spinning, and with blood matted to her face, she pulled herself into the cabin. The roof was torn open. The stars in the sky spun by. There, wedged under a seat was what she needed.

She lunged, grabbed Willow’s cage, and tore open the small door. Her fingers cut open against the warping metal bars. Willow flapped wildly inside, bumping against the cage wall with each swerve the transport took.

She grabbed her bird with a bloody fist.

Moments later, transport crashed into the campus grounds. Everyone aboard died instantly.


Winnie felt like a basketball on the floor of a boat. When Christof had tossed the box onto the shuttle, the tortoises had spilled out. The others had landed upright. Winnie had not been so lucky. Once she’d stopped spinning, she tried moving her limbs, but got nowhere. So she closed her eyes, pulled into her shell, and concentrated on her flair.

She watched the marines dragged Sakhr away. After he was gone, many had charged down the stairs, leaving only a few to cover the shuttle. Winnie kept her eyes on the ones traveling down.

They had raced through Victoria’s private floor to where Quentin and Sibyl were tossing more bars into the elevator. The marines stunned them and dragged them back, but just as the marines returned to the roof, an explosion rocked the tower.

Winnie’s shuttle shook, causing her to spin and slide. The cockpit beeped. Alexander clutched the pilot seat as the dashboard took on a life of its own.

The tower seemed to drift away from them, yet the hopper remained floating in the air. The marines on the roof scrabbled for their deployment pods. Despite the quaking ground, the pods remained upright.

Alarmed, Winnie focused on the tower as a whole and saw what a ruined wreck it had become.

What had caused this? Was this part of Quentin’s plan? How many people had he just killed?

The world would suffer for this, and it was all because of her—her and Helena.

Back home, Winnie’s mother would hear about this on the radio. She’d turn on the news and see the smoldering tower, and she’d try to call Winnie. She would never get through—not to the real Winnie anyway.

The hopper began flying itself. It lifted higher into the air and took a trajectory over the the campus. Winnie didn’t know where. Her mind was still watching the marines struggle. They crammed their hostages into their remaining pods just as the building quaked again.

And then the tower started collapsing.

It happened slowly, as though something so catastrophic couldn’t happen all at once. The world needed time to witness itself change. Each floor crumbled into the next. Soon, the tower fell into a bed of smoke and dust. A cloud spread outward, filling the campus like a bowl until it reached the edge of the city.

Lights were coming on throughout Porto Maná; the city was waking up.

And what about the queen? Did she make it out? Winnie hoped so. Victoria would be her best chance of fixing all of this. Though somehow Winnie knew that everything would not work itself out as she hoped it would.

This affair was a prelude to a dark, bleak future.

48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

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

“Do you know with what?”

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

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

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

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

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then spite always was the best motivator.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…


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

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

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

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

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She can plan for that though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

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

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

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

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

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

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

“I see…” said Sakhr.

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

“Do you have one?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t trust you.”

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

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

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

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

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

“Why?”

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

46. Sems and Clems

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

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

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

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

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

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

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

She covered up again.

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

“Depends on what we find.”

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


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

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

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

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

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

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

“Why so long?”

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

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

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

“I know…”

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

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

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

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

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

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

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

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Understood.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

“I did,” Bishop said.

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

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

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

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

“Better how?”

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

“Micro-sems?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

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

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

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

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

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

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

“Then do that.”

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

No one responded.

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

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

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

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”