103. Trust

Captain Stephano was a sad sight. The medic had cut away his uniform during surgery, and now he was left with tubes running from his arms and mouth. He looked old, Victoria realized. He had gray hair at the temples and bitter wrinkles about his mouth. Victoria had to check the medical tablet to confirm that he was only in his thirties. He’d served in her army for five and a half years, which meant he was one of the first people to join her army as a soldier, instead of a carried-over mercenary from her company days.

Those first few months had been the toughest times. She’d succeeded in safeguarding most of her privately owned territories. Using her food and mercenaries, she’d become the crux of the locals’ wellbeing, but no one had seen her as anything more than a prominent land owner. Her transition into official control had been the most delicate and awkward stage of her rise to power. She’d hand out currency just to collect it again for food she had given out for free just a week previous. Her men had shown up to people’s houses to collect taxes for the first time, which was always contentious, even when she bore official stamps of old governments. She could pretend to be a servant of a South American coalition as much as she wanted, but if she hadn’t owned the people bearing the guns, she’d have gotten nowhere.

And recruitment hadn’t been easy. Convincing people to join a coalition supervised by one foreign white woman had required an enormous leap of faith from the people. Stephano had been one of those who’d given her a chance. If not for people like him, she’d have failed, despite all her hidden powers. He’d believed in her.

Now here he was, an old man rotten with death. And it was because of her.

The other marines had worked out what had happened. Private Larson had been waiting in a storage housing for forty minutes. Liat, Bishop, Victoria, or anyone with a glyph card should have sensed him. His memories were gone, but Victoria suspected he’d practiced calming himself. Anyone with a glyph card could figure out how to still their aura—another reason to regret its leak.

When Victoria and the others passed, he followed. The rest Victoria knew. She was damn near omnipotent, but one unshielded man had caused so much grief because she locked up.

There was a commotion outside the stateroom door. Victoria visualized it. The guards that Executive Officer Rivera assigned to Victoria were stopping Josephine from entering.

“No one is allowed in,” the guards were saying.

“I know,” said Josephine. “Could you let her know I’m here.”

“You’ll have to come back later. Right now, ma’am, you need to leave.”

“Just. Let. Her. Know.”

“I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”

Victoria spoke loud enough to be heard through the door. “Let her in.”

They did.

Victoria didn’t rise from her post beside Stephano.

Josephine stopped before the captain’s bed. “How is he?”

“They say he’ll live.”

“Has he been awake any.”

“Earlier. Yes.”

Josephine nodded and hunkered down. There was no other seat in the stateroom. “And how about you?”

“I was not hurt. I think I have Tan’s power to thank for that. I stumbled in just the right way.”

“But are you okay?”

Victoria regarded her.

“I’m just concerned,” said Josephine. “That’s all. ”

“I’m fine.”


They sat silently a while.

“Do you know why that man attacked you?” Josephine asked. “Everyone has been talking. Some say he was talking about how you were brainwashing everyone. He’d seemed on edge.”

“Yes. Rivera told me. Though how do you know?” Victoria looked at Josephine, and the answer was in her eyes. The flairs had banded together in their own little clique. Winnie watched the soldiers and shared. When they spoke Portugues or Spanish, she’d lock eyes with Christof, who could translate. Even Tan had joined their gossip circle.

“Adorable,” Victoria said.

“They haven’t let me anywhere near the attacker,” said Josephine. “But Winnie says he’s in bad shape. The soldiers say he’s gone mad.” She paused. “How much did you take from him?”

“I wasn’t concentrating on that.”

“They’re saying he doesn’t remember anything in the last six years.”

“I took whatever I could. I guess more related to me than I would have guessed.”

“Everything relates to you now, Victoria. This army serves you. This nation is yours. Everything that happens because of you could be considered your fault.”

Victoria nodded. “You’ve managed to give your power quite a broad definition. Do you still think you couldn’t extend your power to include any possible memory?”

Josephine did not let the conversation steer away. “That man forgot the Collapse. He lost everything that came after it. That means you believe the Collapse, and everything that’s followed, is your fault.”

Victora looked at her, unamused.

“Please, wait,” said Josephine. “Don’t make me forget this. I’ve already known for a while. Winnie knew, and I’ve been in her head all week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.”

“I do not wish to discuss it. There’s no need for you to know.”

“But I want to know it all the same. Please.”


“Because you shouldn’t have to carry it all by yourself.”

“Don’t give me your therapy, Josephine. There were plenty of people who knew. My high exemplars knew.”

“But now they’re dead. Who else is left? Winnie? Has she accepted it?”

“No, but I don’t need acceptance. I know what I did. I knew the world might see me as a villain, but I still believe what I did was necessary. So did Liat, Bishop, and my other high exemplars. We were trying to make the world a better place in the long run.”

“Why did you trust them?”

“I didn’t. Trust is when you give someone the power to hurt you. My high exemplars were only allowed to know because they were forbidden to keep secrets from me. That was the life-long deal they made when I saved them from their death beds. I owned them. That’s not trust.”

“Is that the only way you’ll ever share with anyone.”

“I learned a long time ago not to trust, Josephine. You should know this.”

“Okay then.” Josephine presented herself. “Own me.”


“You have no high exemplars left. So take me. I’ll accept the role. Whatever it is you do, whatever you have planned, I’ll stand by you. You can scan my entire life if you want.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Liat killed for me. She spent two and a half years in the body of an overweight Russian diplomat disseminating my lies. She didn’t just know about the Collapse. She helped me cause it.”

“Did she know what you would have her do that when you recruited her?”

“Yes. I warned her.”

“Did you tell her why?”


“And she believed in you enough to do it. They thought you served a greater good. Every one of your high exemplars did. And I will too.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if I’m exactly what everyone now thinks I am? A monster—too twisted inside to see the ruin I’m causing.”

“Then at least you’ll have somebody to let you know.”

Victoria grunted.

“So. What’s the plan?” asked Josephine. “We’re going to retake your empire. Right?”

“If there’s anything left to salvage. And if the people will ever let me. I don’t know if the empire can ever be restored now, unless I go the same route as Alex and control the the masses, which I refuse to do. The world has crumbled again. If I want to bring it back together, it will require another war, and I’m not sure I have the will anymore.”

“Then don’t. Fixing the world is not your responsibility.”

“It’s not my responsibility, but if I don’t, who will?”

“Everyone else will just have to figure it out. It’s their world too. They’re living in it. The powers that you had are in their hands now.”

“And what would you suggest I do instead?”

“Why don’t you try living? You’ve been in such a rush to make a difference that you forgot about that. Go out and see the world you’ve tried so hard to control. Grow. Enjoy your life. Cut out your own little corner of the world for yourself. Don’t concern yourself with the wellbeing of everyone else.”

“Sounds dull.”

“It’s not. You went from being a child to a conquerer. There should have been a whole lot more in between that you missed.”

Victoria gazed upon Stephano. She was silent a long while. It was strange to her to think of a life where she wasn’t a ruler. In so many decades, she’d never considered such a thing.

“No,” she said, “I can’t do that, even if that’s what I wanted. Not with Alex where he is. Maybe the world is not my responsibility, but if I left now, I’d be leaving the world worse off because of it. He has to be stopped—him, and his mind control, and that thing he had Quentin build.”

“And this is what you want?”

“It’s what I need to do.”

Josephine nodded. “Then what do we do next?”

102. A Mottled Egg

“British authorities have declared a state of emergency after rioters stormed the Lakiran embassy in London last night” the reporter said. “These attacks come in the wake of Queen Helena’s announcement that her late mother, Victoria, may have instigated the nuclear war.”

The television switched to a shaky view of people outside a granite building. The windows were knocked out. Men and women ran in and out the front. Some climbed through broken windows. Police were on the scene, driving people away from the building with a phalanx of riot shields.

“The embassy building was not the only target. Rioters set fire to the aid stations in downtown Cambridge and other local establishments. Firefighters were unable to get through the crowds.”

Images showed burning remains of tents as rescue workers dug through the wreckage.

“Police are advising citizens to stay indoors, saying these attacks are only the beginning. Debates on Britain’s continued involvement with the Lakiran empire are expected to renew, with many ministers now arguing that Britain should secede.”

The images switched back to the newsroom. “Turmoil continues as people around the world demand that Helena reveal her sources implicating her mother’s involvement, saying that she should subject herself to a mental scan. Many are saying that the Lakiran empire has no right to remain as head of the Global Coalition, with many countries threatening to withdraw. In India, people took to the streets, burning effigies of the Queen Victoria, claiming that her crimes against humanity are the worst this world has ever seen. Even the capital city of Porto—”

Victoria shut off the television. She was alone in the wardroom apart from Liat, who guarded the door. Occasionally, an officer entered. Seeing Victoria, they’d salute, look around as though they might have left something in there, and leave. Victoria didn’t need her powers to sense their awkwardness. Despite her speech, nothing had gone back to normal. The soldiers didn’t trust her. She’d considered wiping the talk from everyone’s memory. It’d be simple. Call everyone back for another meeting, then hand-pick apart their memories, while scanning minds for any physical evidence onboard the ship she’d need to dispose of, but what was the point? She couldn’t hide world news from them, and she wouldn’t be aboard much longer.

Soon, the Venezia would pass over the South American grid. Thus would begin her operation. If all went well, she’d have her empire back come South American nightfall. As Helena, she could let Victoria take the rap for all past crimes. Only the people aboard this craft would know she was the same woman. They could not be allowed to remember that, but she would not forsake them. They’d be rewarded, even if they didn’t remember why. And she could get on with fixing this damn empire.

“Your Majesty,” said Liat. “The Captain.”

Victoria looked up as Stephano entered the wardroom.

He saluted. “We’ve made our final course adjustments, Your Majesty. We’ll be over the target location in five hours.”

Victoria nodded. She already knew.

“Have you picked a landing spot?” he asked.

“I have.” While Victoria dealt with all this announcement nonsense, she’d tasked Winnie with finding a landing spot for her, and Winnie had settled on an isolated outpost outside of Boa Vista, south of Porto Maná. Victoria had checked it over herself and was pleased. Winnie had done well.

“Then we should make final preparations.” Stephano motioned for her to come. She followed. That crisp conversation had lacked any acknowledgement of Victoria’s speech or its result, and he avoided her eyes. Was it that bad?

Soldiers throughout the ship carried on their duties. Before, they’d stare as she’d pass. Now she was invisible.

Up two floors, they reached the officer’s deck. Relative privacy from the rest of the crew.

“I’d like to readdress your plan, Your Majesty.”


“It’s foolish to go alone. My men will follow your orders. I’d be more comfortable if even two of them were going.”

“This is not an excursion that benefits from more people. I’ve already explained what Alexander has set up in the citadel’s lower levels. If he believes we’re closing in on him, he will allow it go off, hence why I will go alone. I can get close to him. A group cannot.”

“Ma’am. The marines aboard this ship are trained for this exact sort of procedure.”

“It’s not a matter of their training, Captain. I’m going to be swapping bodies. Do your men want to swap bodies with me?”

“My men have discussed it. Would they get their bodies back?”

“There’s no guarantee.”

The walked further.

“Your exemplars then.” Stephano motioned to Liat and Bishop, who walked paces behind them. “Bishop told me that’s not his original body.” He turned to Bishop. “You have no attachment to it do you?” To Victoria: “If you swapped your exemplars out for the marines on this ship, then the marines would be guaranteed to have their bodies safe once they returned to the ship. You could only take two men with you, but it would still make me feel a hell of a lot better.”

“No, Captain. I will go alone.”

“This is foolishness, ma’am.”

“Your men don’t trust me.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Is it?” Victoria stopped in the hall outside the bridge. “Look me in the eye and tell me your crew trusts me.”

“No. They’re afraid of you, but that’s no reason to discard them. My men will follow orders. It would be a show of faith for you to—”

“Ma’am!” It was Bishop. He was looking down the corridor at a marine whose aura was all wrong. It shone with glaring anticipation. Already Bishop was putting himself between Victoria and that man.

“This is the officer’s deck, Private,” said Stephano. He wasn’t aware yet. He didn’t have a glyph card, or he would have seen the danger. Liat was pulling Victoria back when the marine made an underhanded toss.

The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.

It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she’d seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.

But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.

“Victoria!” Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn’t correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.

For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria’s body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.

She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she’d ever had for this world would drift away.

In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.

And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?

She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.

“Stop,” she yelled.

It was as though a collar around the soldier’s neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.

His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.

Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.

Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria’s side, pulling Liat off her.

Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria’s face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn’t her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.

She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn’t they see she wasn’t hurt? Why wouldn’t they just put her on her feet? She wasn’t weak.

…She’d just froze.

The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn’t struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.

“What?” he mumbled. “What happened?” No one listened.

In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.

Yet Larson didn’t see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. “What just happened?” he asked. “Am I on a ship? What is this?”

The soldiers’ glares faltered.

“Why am I dressed like this?” He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.

“What is this?” he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.

“What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!”

99. Public Support and Land Mines

The largest room on the Venezia was the launch bay. The crew had collected there, excluding the pilots. The marines stood, arms crossed, near the back. The Air Force crew sat along the ground. A few leaned on walls and door frames. Others perched inside or on top of deployment pods. Winnie, Josephine, Tan, Zauna, and Oni collected near the bay door, separate from the crew.

The captain had announced a crew meeting. He didn’t specify what it was about, but Winnie knew. Everyone else could guess. No one was going to miss this. Even the pilots listened in through the intercom.

Victoria waited beside Stephano. Her exemplars stood to either side, putting themselves between her and the crew. It was their job, and even though the crowd showed no hostility. The spotlight was on Victoria even though she ignored everyone while she chatted with the captain.

A few more soldiers trickled in. Stephano nodded to her. She addressed the room.

“Before I founded the Lakiran empire, I was the CEO for LakiraLabs, which owned property in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Guyana, and parts of Central and North America. In order to get around US regulation, I eventually moved the company’s operations to South America at great expense and focused on importing specialists from Europe and North America. As LakiraLabs grew, so did the need to invest myself in local governments. I helped improve living conditions and combat drugs and crime in places I owned. I’d become an unofficial baroness for northern South America.

“So when tensions between the world’s superpowers escalated. I, like many others, found my corner of the world in danger. Socialist movements threatened to nationalize my lands. The US, who had previously only antagonized me, suddenly became my best friend. They encouraged me to embroil myself in the politics and prevent Socialist parties from gaining control. They offered me everything from public support to land mines. I became a part of this escalation in a way I never wanted to be.

“When peace talks came up, South America become a bargaining chip. I tried to diffuse tensions, but it never worked. The superpowers lent aid and weapons to capitalist and socialist parties in efforts to build relations. All it led to was increased instability. After years of watching tensions grow despite everything I did, I concluded that war was an inevitability. I turned my efforts from preventing it to seeing how I could make my lands survive when it came, and making sure South America would not be targeted in the case of nuclear retaliation.

“To do that, I had to sabotage foreign aid coming into the country. I intercepted shipments, undercut meetings, and even assassinated some political figures. My aim was to keep South America from falling into the pocket of any superpower, which was why when the missiles finally flew, so few targeted the region, but my actions did contribute to the instability. And in doing so, most likely hastened the coming of the war.”

She paused. “That is what Alexander is referring to. I am guilty of what every other politician was doing at the time. I looked after my own land instead of trying to fix the world as a whole. I’ve kept this information private because it would only interfere with keeping the empire together. Alexander, meanwhile, has caused instability around the world in a desperate attempt to cause unrest aboard this vessel. It only shows how little this madman cares about the empire, and seeks only to secure his own position as its ruler. I hope now we can put this rumor behind us and return to our duties. Captain Stephano and I have finalized a plan to retake the Manakin. You’ll receive orders soon. Dismissed.”

Victoria turned and walked toward the side bay door.

“Why is he a madman, Your Majesty?” The voice came from near the back of the crowd.

“Pardon?” said Victoria.

“You said Alexander is a madman. What’s he done?” It was a cadet perched in a deployment tube. The other marines weren’t looking at him, but at Victoria.

“Alexander is a con artist who has hurt many people in his long life,” said Victoria. “He, in collusion with others, detonated the dirty bomb in the Capital Tower. He’s actively mind controlling the ministry and all heads of state, and he’s also stolen the body of my daughter.”

“Where did he come from?”

“He’s been around for centuries, working with others to steal bodies to preserve their own existence.”

“Were you one of them?”

Stephano stepped forward. “That is enough. You will all return to your duties now.”

“No, Captain. It’s all right. The answer is no. I was not one of them.”

“Were you born as Victoria Palladino?”


“Have you been erasing our memories?” asked a lieutenant.


“Has the other girl?” he pointed to Josephine.

“No. I forbid her from doing so.”

“Then how come I have gaps in my memory. I can remember some talks I had recently, but I can’t remember what they were about.”

“I haven’t been erasing anyone’s memories,” said Victoria.

“I have gaps too,” said another. “How can we tell if someone is?”

“You can’t, but no one is tampering with your minds. You’re just more aware of forgetting things.”

“How do we know you’re not the one lying and Alexander is telling the truth?” This voice was much stronger than the others. It came from a marine by the door in the very back. “Alexander is promising to give more power to the people.”

“He’s promising a lot,” said Victoria. “He lies. He’s a master at it.”

“How about you let us read your mind so we know you’re not lying.”

“That’s not possible. I’m shielded permanently.”

“Then let us read their minds?” The marine pointed to Bishop and Liat.


“Why not? What are you hiding?”

“That is enough!” snapped Stephano. “Private Larson, I will speak to you privately. Everyone else is dismissed.”

The crowd broke. Victoria left. Stephano led the marine to a private room to reprimand him. The launch bay cleared within minutes. Victoria had walked a line with her story. If Winnie hadn’t already known the truth, she wouldn’t have been able to pick out the truth from the lies. It was a convincing story though. It painted her as guilty, but not as a villain. Impressive work, Winnie thought, but from the look on the soldier’s faces, it might not have been enough.

98. For the Best

Victoria wasn’t in the ready room when Stephano arrived, which meant she would still be in his stateroom—the other room aboard this ship she’d commandeered as her own. Between there and the ready room, she was out of sight from the crew. Her exemplars brought her her meals and sent for anyone she wished to speak to.

They had not sent for Stephano, which meant Victoria did not desire an audience. It had been improper for him to send Liat to inform the queen that he needed to speak with her, but this discussion had to be made, regardless of customs.

He waited for arrival. He didn’t mind. It gave him time to work out how best to phrase his questions. No approach seemed tactful, but then there isn’t an easy way to ask your superior if they’re responsible for mass murder.

He heard her footsteps long before she entered, giving him time to stop fidgeting. The door opened. Bishop leaned in and glanced about for a security check. Stephano made eye contact, and Bishop nodded his thanks for not making him ask. Though now he knew what Stephano wanted to discuss, and so would Victoria. Whatever tact he used, she’d see through it.

Nothing could be done about that.

Bishop ducked out. Victoria entered. In the cramped space, she sidled into her usual seat. “You wanted to see me, Captain.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for accepting my request.”

“What is this about?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that Alexander held a press conference where he made several allegations against you.”

“I am aware. Yes.”

“It’s my belief he leveled these allegations in order to undermine the chain of command aboard this ship.”

“That is my belief as well. It was an incredibly reckless move which will bring further instability to the empire.”

“You said he has a means of ensuring people’s loyalty now.”

“He does, but it does nothing for the many riots now breaking out over the globe. He’s made these allegations caring nothing for the damage it will cause the people in the meantime.”

“That may be the case,” Stephano said, “but it’s still an attack on the crew of this ship. The rumor mill has started turning. The men are asking questions. We need to address what damage his accusations may cause. So let me ask. Is there any truth to his allegations?”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what? Why am I asking? I need to know.”

“But why? Are you going to resign if they’re true?”


“Are you going to carry out your duties differently?”

“It would affect how we handle this matter. If Alexander’s accusations are groundless, then we can inform the crew and put this matter to rest. If they’re not groundless, and he has any way of proving they’re true, then he may use that against you. If we deny the accusations, but he later provides this evidence, it would worsen the scandal. So,” he paused. “Can Alexander provide such evidence?”

“He will provide plenty of evidence. I’m sure it would all be a fabrication.”

“But could he provide actual evidence?”


“How culpable would it make you out to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you provide any evidence in your defense?”

“I have none with me.”

“Would you allow your exemplars to be scanned in order to put these rumors to rest with the crew?”

“No. My exemplars know too much privileged information. Simply inform your men that the rumors are false. I don’t see why they need more than that.”

“Because they deserve it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Every man and woman aboard this ship is an exile from their own country. They’re alone up here because you and I decided so. They know only what we’ve told them, which isn’t much. We’ve said nothing about our enemies, or our preparation, or even the people we risked our lives fetching for you. Half of them doubt that you even are the queen. Some are even afraid of you. Yet they still fight for you—not the empire they signed up to serve, or the people they swore to protect, but you. They deserve the truth, and not just another dismissal. So is there truth behind Alexander’s accusations?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“Did you withhold Food-Ready assemblers like he says?”

“I did. I knew the war was coming. I produced as many machines as I could and hoarded them for my own people.”

“Is that all you did?”

“I also accelerated tensions between America and Russia by placing my people into the bodies of political figureheads.”


“And I ordered the first missile launch.”

“I see.” Stephano had told himself beforehand that it wouldn’t matter what her answer would be. He was wrong. “So you caused everything…”

“Alexander will paint it that way.”

“So the Collapse wasn’t your plan B. It wasn’t because of failed peace talks. It was because you set out to deliberately scorch the world…”

“The Russians, Americans, and Chinese scorched the world.”

“But you provoked them.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing. I still think I did.”

“Your Majesty. Please explain to me how it could possibly have been the right thing.”

“The Collapse was inevitable. Tensions had been growing ever since the nineteen sixties. It never got better. All those years of disarmament were a farce. Time and time again we came within a single judgement call of apocalypse. I tried at first to help, but by then, the arms race had stopped being about protection. It had become an irreconcilable clash of ideals. So I jump-started it, in a controlled fashion. I went to great lengths to make sure only a limited number of missiles fired so as to ensure humanities survival.”

“For what? So you could take over? Was it just a power grab?”

“Of course not. I did it because I believed it was best for the world in the long run.”


“The world was living under the shadows of giants who brandished annihilation at one another. More than just that, Captain, society was moving backwards. Before the missiles launched, the Russians were starving from their broken government long before the winter set it. The Chinese were building dozens of new coal power plants every year while crops failed globally from runaway raising temperatures. The middle east and Africa belonged to religious extremists who reduced more and more of our civilization to a dark age. Women were nothing more than objects. Executions were vicious and public. Drug lords owned more of South America than the governments did. Slavery was reinvented under the guise of free trade. North America had devolved into a police state, controlled by its own paranoia. Its corporations were exhausting the world faster even than a world war ever could. And nearly two thirds of the worlds’ ecosystem had gone extinct. The world wasn’t just rotting, Captain, it was stuck. Society was locked in place. It’s own self-consuming machination had become self-sustaining, and every person in it either didn’t care or felt too powerless to do anything about it. Something drastic had to happen if we were to ever break course.”

“So… what? You see what you did as… tearing down the foundation to rebuild the house?”

“Essentially. I know you think what I did was wrong—”

“I think what you did was insanity. You talk like the world was a hellhole. That somehow, this constant winter starvation nightmare we’ve all been living is in some way better.”

“It’s not better yet. It’s only been six years since the Collapse. Look at how much as improved. Now that I’m in control, I can do so much more for of humanity.”

“How can you believe that? The world was not a lost cause. It had it’s problems, certainly. Thousands of them. Some got solved. Some didn’t. But what you did made everything unbelievably worse. You talk about how the ecosystem was in danger, but you destroyed it entirely. Nearly everything is extinct now. You talk about corrupt governments? The anarchy you caused paved the way for bloodthirsty warlords around the world.”

“We overthrew them.”

“And millions of innocent people suffered. Billions are dead. So what if you fix the world? There’s hardly anyone left to enjoy it.”

“I’m thinking about the endless generations to come, Captain. I know you don’t believe the world was broken, but you grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods in France. You lived in the first world everyone liked to believe in. I spent twenty years in the recesses of the world, trying to fix the problems everyone else ignored. Perhaps somewhere along the line I became jaded. Maybe it was the first time the US government tried to assassinate me because I was raising wage levels in Central America. Maybe it was when I discovered China was sending weapons to rebels in my lands just so they’d cause chaos. Or maybe it was when the drug cartels torched and butchered eight villages I helped restore, just to spite me. I saw the worst, Captain, and I saw it growing. For every piece of good I did, the world snapped back.”

“It was wrong, Victoria.”

“Maybe it was, but what’s done is done. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss where we go from here. If I don’t get my throne back from that lunatic, then all the suffering I’ve caused will be for nothing. Do you still support me?”

“If I say no, do you take this conversation out of my mind?”

“I don’t want to, Captain.”

“But you could…”

“Of course I could, but I want you to help me because you believe in me, not because I’ve programmed you. But the lunatic who sits on the throne right now wouldn’t hesitate. He is a megalomaniac who cares for nothing except himself. He’s already programming the world, but that’s not how I want to rule. I truly am trying to make this world a better place, even if I have made unforgivable mistakes. So choose, Captain. I’m not going to take your free will from you no matter how convenient that would be. Will you help me?”

No matter how earnest she was, the threat was still there. Victoria didn’t want to take Stephano’s memories, but what else could happen if he said no? It’s not like they could politely ask her to leave the ship. Certainly she wouldn’t stand to be arrested. And their lives would still be in danger from Alex all the same. His answer was clear. How he felt about it was something he would come to terms with on his time.

“I’ll help you get him off the throne.”

“I suppose that will have to do. What shall we tell your men?”

Stephano knew his crew well. Some had lost family and friends in the war. For many, their losses were what led them to join the army in the first place. They thought they were on the side that was fixing the world.

Victoria would have to tell the men something, but it couldn’t be the truth.

84. Spider Drones

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

Admiral Laughlin nodded.

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

“What are those?” Sakhr asked.

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

“But why are they falling behind?”

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

“I see.”

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

“They can’t match speeds?”

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

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

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

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

“How bad is that?”

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

“Is there no way to escape?”

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

“What can we do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To twenty-six seconds, yes.”

“Then no.”


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

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

“Are there enough pods for the crew.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why? What’s happening?”

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

“Can they?”

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



“Don’t send people. Send missiles.”

“Kill the evacuees?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cuff yourself.”

“Why?” Josephine asked.

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

“Who are you?”

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

“From what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we okay?” Winnie asked.

Josephine pulled her up. “No cuffs.”

76. Footprints in the Snow

WaferMesh. On Winnie’s website, several of her dresses used it. Living up north after the Collapse meant year-round winter, so unless people wanted to bundle in mittens and scarves for eternity, they used WaferMesh. Several version came out over the years, and each had its own variations in warmth, texture, and durability, but they all used the same general principle: instead of using thread, it was a lattice of synthetic fiber that created air pockets within waffle like layers. It was kind of like a sponge, but texturing kept it looking like fabric. The advantage was insulation without thick layering, so if anybody wanted to show off their form in the nuclear winter, they needed WaferMesh.

Winnie liked to think that was the reason her website was popular. Her clothes used WaferMesh, which wasn’t popular with designers down south, but vital for people farther north like she was. Also, she’d customized her site so that users could specify a kind of mesh before assembling, or even use standard synthetic cotton for those people in warmer climates.

Her experience also made her particularly apt at selecting outfits for herself and Victoria as their drifter car traveled farther north. She’d wanted to pick things from her own website. The sense of familiarity would be nice, but Victoria forbid it after one glance at her modeled clothes. Instead she picked a few bottom-line no-design long sleeved articles from the core library that not even a nun could complain about.

Then Victoria turned her nose up at the colors Winnie had picked.

“I asked you if you had any preferences,” Winnie said.

“I assumed you’d pick… earth colors.” Victoria held up a pair of bright yellow leggings.

“Color is in right now. We’ll look fine.”

“I suppose it will do.” Victoria peeled off her teeshirt and worked her arms through the sleeves of a green long sleeve shirt. “Change now.”

While Winnie was off collecting the clothes from an assembler station near their current rest stop, Victoria had inputted Ottawa into the car’s guidance system. It might be below freezing outside, but the guidance said they’d be spending another three toasty hours in the car.

“Why now?” Winnie asked.

“Because we’re not taking the car from here. We’re walking the rest of the way.”

Startled, Winnie looked around their vicinity with her mind. They had stopped in a community in upstate New York. It wasn’t much different than Redding—the town the Lakirans relocated Winnie and her mother to. It was large enough to reestablish a complete school and a hospital, and an assembler station where Winnie made the clothes. Also like Redding, the Lakirans had gathered all local holdouts of nuclear winter survivors and put them here to better manage law and resources. Being anywhere else in the region was against the law, at least it had been in Redding. Many people complained about that back home, but it made sense the way the Lakirans explained it. People outside of the city were outside of the empire’s thinly spread control. The empire couldn’t police them or protect them. The only people who’d realistically want that were raiders or warlords. And North America used to have plenty of both.

This meant that the only thing around this settlement were miles of abandoned towns, broken down roads, and forests of dead trees. But if their destination had been in town, they wouldn’t need the clothes. The community was small enough that they could have walked there by now.

“How far are we going?” Winnie asked.

“A few miles. Did you get my other package?”

“This?” Winnie took out a small assembled radio pack. “What’s it for?”

“You’ll see. Change.”

In the warmth of the car, they donned insulating clothes. Victoria opened the door and ushered Winnie out. Before stepping out herself, she instructed the drifter car to begin its trip. Once the door was closed, the car lifted and silently glided out of the parking lot. All drifter cars were capable of driving themselves; it made returning rentals easy. But it was still a spooky sight for Winnie. The purpose was clear. If anyone tracked down the car, they’d be in the wrong country.

Thus began their hike. They climbed on hands and knees over a snowbank alongside the parking lot. Beyond that was a forest with two feet of snow encrusted with ice. With every other step, Winnie would crunch through into soft snow beneath. Powder would clump along the rim of her boots. Five minutes of walking and her red WaferMesh leggings were soaking through. Wet cold was creeping down her ankle.

“My socks are wet,” she said.

“Deal with it.”

“I wish you would have told me we were going to walk through snow.”

“These clothes will do fine. It’s not much farther.”

Or so Victoria said. Winnie scanned ahead. If Victoria was bee lining to their destination, which it seemed like she was, that put at least another three miles of snow slogging ahead of them. After that, an abandoned town.

Winnie occupied herself by darting her mind from building to building looking for wherever they may be going to. It didn’t take her long. Footprints in the snow ambled all about the abandoned town ahead. Some followed circuitous paths back to the community they’d traveled come from. Winnie traced the prints to a cellar door. Inside was a makeshift living arrangement for one: a floor mattress, piled wood, coolers full of assembled food supplies. The resident was a woman who sat on the mattress curled up in blankets. She was reading a book with an electric lantern which rested on a nearby cardboard box. By the bed was a wood stove with a belly full of ash. The woman would only use the stove at night, when no one would see the smoke coming from the chimney. Winnie knew this because this was exactly how she lived years ago when it was just her, her mother, and a handful of famine survivors.

This woman was hiding from the Lakirans.

“Who is she?” Winnie asked.

Victoria kept walking. “High Exemplar Liat.”

By the time they arrived, Winnie remembered what it was like to be truly and miserably cold. It hadn’t been so bad in the woods. The trees had sheltered the wind, but in the ghost town, it cut through every bit of exposed skin she had. Her cheekbones ached. Her boots were soaked through, and her legs felt like two dead slabs of meat.

Victoria stopped one block from the cellar door. She was poised as though stalking a prey. Winnie came up behind her, sniffling and shivering, too cold to care.

“Liat Delacroix!” Victoria yelled.

Inside the cellar, Liat startled. Dropping her book, she pulled a magnum pistol from behind the mattress and took aim at the door. Winnie now understood now why they hadn’t just walked in. Liat scurried to a ladder leading into the house. She was going to run for it.

Victoria sighed. “Stay where you are,” she murmured to Winnie, then proceeded forward. Liat clambered into the kitchen. Ducking low, she scurried through the living room of the dilapidated house, glancing about as though under fire. One peek out the back window revealed the backyard to be clear, so the woman burst out the back door and sprinted toward the woods.

Victoria was right there. The woman spun in surprise. The gun raised.

Drop your gun and kneel to me, Liat Delacroix.”

The magnum fell into the snow. Liat dropped to her knees. The words Victoria spoke had caused the hairs on Winnie’s neck to stand on end. They were the same words she’d used on Winnie’s mother; they had to be obeyed.

“…Your Majesty?” Liat asked.


Liat fell to her hands and crawled through the snow. She hugged Victoria’s ankles as though she’d never let them go, and she cried hysterically.

“Victoria, I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were dead. I couldn’t reach the others. Bishop said they were killing us, and then the army came after me.” She sobbed. “I didn’t know what to do. I just… I ran. I hid. I was going to—”

“Enough of this, Liat. Behave yourself.” Victoria shook Liat off her feet.

Liat smiled at this. “Sorry, Your Majesty.” She sat back on her haunches and took a deep solid breath, purging any emotional remnants. “I’m just really happy to see you.” Liat looked over Victoria’s teenage body. “How did you survive?”

“I ran out of bad luck at the last moment.”

“And Sakhr? Is he still…?”

“Yes. There is a buffoon on my throne.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“Of course I do.”

Liat nodded. “Good. I am yours if you’ll still have me. After taking orders for so long, I’d forgotten how exhausting life is figuring things out for yourself. Thank God you’re here.” She pressed her forehead to Victoria’s foot.

Victoria shook her off. “I said enough of that. Get up.”

Liat climbed to her feet. Snow caked her leggings. Winnie encroached on their little reunion. Both turned to face her.

“This is great and all,” Winnie said, “but can we go inside?”

The second floor of Liat’s hideout told a story. There were three bedrooms, a master, and two for children. In one, posters lined the walls, and a derelict computer sat at a wooden desk. Karate trophies filled a shelf—all junior level, meaningless accomplishments that would exist forever in attics and cellars after the child left home. The room spoke of a content childhood. The other bedroom was an infant’s, except that the crib had cardboard boxes in it. The room was used for storage. Winnie wondered if the reason for that was morbid, or simply because the infant grew up. Then why wasn’t the room converted to a bedroom? Maybe they didn’t have time before the Collapse.

“You’re procrastinating again,” Victoria said.

Winnie’s attention snapped back to the chore Victoria had given her. It was really just a flair exercise in disguise. Unfortunately, she was with Victoria in the master bedroom of the house, where Victoria and Liat were setting up the radio pack brought from town. Victoria’s aura sense let her know whenever Winnie procrastinated.

“I’m not seeing it,” Winnie said.

“Try trying.”

That was practically Victoria’s mantra.

“Have you tried?” Winnie asked. “The atmosphere is really freakin big. Try it.”

“I don’t have to. I know where they are. Show me what you’re doing.” Victoria looked at her pointedly.

Resigned, Winnie looked her in the eye and once again put her mind hundreds of miles above them. From up there, the earth’s curves were plain to see. The glowing blue sky was an aura about its surface. She once again began scouring around looking for a single ship supposedly coasting around up there. Even if there were no obstacles to block her view, it was akin to searching for a specific mote of dust on a clean floor.

“First of all,” Victoria said, “you’re looking much too far up. Their elevation is only twenty-eight kilometers, in the ozone layer.”

“I can’t see ozone.”

“Don’t try seeing anything. Sense. You already know how to ignore obstacles in your way. This is the same idea. Looking for a small thing in a big space should not hinder your power. Ignore the distance. That ship is the only thing up here. You should be able to spread your mind over the atmosphere and sense where the ship is.”

Winnie wasn’t sure what Victoria meant, but she tried something. She’d been advancing her own power to understand it wasn’t limited like a camera. It was awareness, just like her lessons had taught her. Her point of view could be omni directional. It could split up. It could read a closed book. It could both see a wall and see through it. Surely she should be able to see a single ship surrounded by miles of nothing.

She closed her eyes and tried—spread her mind, as Victoria had put it. Why not? She imagined a bubble thirty kilometers up in the air, the same size as a bubble created by a child with a bottle of soap and a bubble wand. She expanded this bubble, slowly at first as she made sure she visualized correctly. It was soon the size of a beach ball, then a house, then a stadium. All the while, she tried to sense anywhere the bubble was disturbed. She didn’t look for it. In fact, she made a point of closing off her “camera”. She felt for it like a spider sensing tremors on its web. Once it was the size of a large island, she started to sense pressure upon the bottom of the bubble. It was the thicker atmosphere, pushing on it with its winds and turbulence. Her bubble fluttered like tissue paper, so she stiffened it and expanded it farther. It became flatter as she stretched it, and it umbrellaed over much of Canada and New England before Winnie felt another disturbance. Just like a mote of dust sticking to a bubble. Something skirting the stratosphere had caught.

It was a small ship emblazoned the HIMS Venezia. Skirting through, she counted twelve airmen, and fifteen or so marines. The captain was standing in a minuscule bridge looking over a display table showing their present course. They’d be directly overhead in about twenty minutes, which would explain Victoria’s timetable.

In a cramped ready room off the bridge was High Exemplar Bishop. Winnie had met him before all of this had started. Here he was without his plaque, though he had an assembler-grade tablet and was paging through news articles about hacked glyphs.

“You’re gathering all of your exemplars,” Winnie said.

“So you found them. Show me. How did you do it?”

Winnie met her eyes.

“By touch. Interesting. That’s not what I meant for you to do.”

“It worked.”

“It certainly did. Your power has evolved just now. I can see it.”

“We’re after Bishop, right?”

“I’m after everyone aboard that ship.”

Liat looked up from her wiring work. “Bishop is alive?”

“Yes. Is the radio set up?”

“I think so.”

“Then we’ll get started.” Victoria started tuning the portable radio’s dials.

“If you’re trying to reach them,” Winnie said, “you do see that Bishop is using the internet right now, right?”

Victoria didn’t look up from the dials. “Am I to send them an email to their imperially controlled email addresses? And you expect them to believe me?”


“Put your mind in the bridge, Winnie. Do you see the communications officer?”

Having found the ship once, Winnie was able to return immediately. “Is he the one with the huge headphones?”

“And do you see the short wave receiver frame on his dashboard?”

Winnie did. Victoria set their amateur radio to the same settings.

“Hey, you,” Victoria said. The officer didn’t react.

“Officer Malcolm Ruiz. I am addressing you.”

He hardly blinked. Victoria frowned and fiddled with the scanner.

“No. You got him,” Winnie said. Through eye contact, she conveyed how she’d been listening to the officer’s headphones.

Victoria tried again. “Listen to me, Lieutenant Ruiz. Flag down Exemplar Bishop. Put him on the comm.”

After hesitating, Ruiz opened an editor on his computer and began transcribing an abridged version of Victoria’s words.

“No. Stop that,” said Victoria. “Stop typing.”

He froze.

“Good. Now turn around in your chair. Do it.”

Hesitantly, Ruiz did so.

“Now call out to Exemplar Bishop. He’s in the other room.”

He didn’t.

“Why don’t you just tell him who you are?” asked Winnie.

“They think I’m dead, and the man already thinks this is a trick, but if this idiot would just get me Bishop…” She depressed the broadcast button again. “Call out to the high exemplar now.

Winnie felt that tingle on her neck. Officer Ruiz instinctively opened his mouth to call, yet paused.

Then, “Captain. I’m picking up a strange message on shortwave.”

Victoria pinched the bridge of her nose. Apparently her mysterious command power wasn’t perfect.

Stephano and his XO moved closer. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I think someone is trying to contact High Exemplar Bishop.”

In the other room, Bishop perked up. Thin walls it seemed. He set aside his tablet and came out.

Stephano was studying the comm officer’s console. “Shortwave, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. A.M. It has to be local.”

“Is it repeating?”

“No, it’s live.”

“Let me hear it.”

“Yes, sir.” Ruiz tapped buttons. A gentle static sounded from the console.

“Was there anything more to the message?”

Victoria spoke. “No, Captain. I simply wish to speak to Bishop.”

Everyone on the bridge turned.

“Are we broadcasting, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.”

“How are they hearing us?”

Ruiz shrugged.

Bishop walked over. “It’s the far seeing glyph, Captain. Be careful. They can see and hear all of us.”

Stephano addressed the air. “Who is this?”

“If you would please put Bishop on the comm, Captain. This is a private conversation.”

Stephano turned to Bishop. “Do you know who they are?”

Bishop shook his head. “They have to be close to Sakhr. He won’t have shared that glyph with many.”

Victoria’s eyes were narrowed. “Sakhr, Bishop? Just how many imperial secrets have you been divulging?”

Bishop stared at the comm with wide eyes. “Give me the headset, Lieutenant.”

Stephano nodded to Ruiz, who passed the headphones over. A few console taps and the conversation was private.

“Who is this?” Bishop asked.

You know who this is,” said Victoria, and there was that same undertone—the one that yanked at Winnie’s attention.

Bishop couldn’t help himself. He laughed a rich, joyful laugh.

“What have you told your men?”

“We’ve told them that we landed to pick up trusted allies,” replied Stephano. “Most of them haven’t seen you or those with you.”

“You didn’t tell them who I am?”

 Stephano took his time answering this. “No, Your Majesty. To be frank, I don’t see why they would believe me. I’m still not sure what I believe myself.”

“I can swap bodies with you again if you like.”

No! No. That’s fine. All I’m saying is I’ve decided to defer to your judgement regarding what to tell my men.”

“I see,” Victoria said. She and Captain Stephano were speaking in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. It was cramped enough that those two alone had their knees bumping together. Add in Stephano’s executive officer Rivera and High Exemplar Bishop, and the meeting was practically a telephone booth stuffing. Real-estate on a supersonic high-altitude vessel was expensive, and the ready room was only meant as a place for the captain to take calls or work privately.

As such, Winnie was not invited, not that it stopped her from listening in. Victoria’s first rule went out the window the moment Winnie learned Victoria’s plans for her daughter. She listened from her assigned rack. It used to belong to one of the marines who’d died on the Capital Tower, which put Winnie sleeping in the midst of a dozen men. Uncomfortable, but the men left her alone after she showed them her exemplar ID.

“We will tell the men,” Victoria said. “Bishop tells me that even they have those blasted hacked plaques. They’ll find out sooner rather than later. Let’s not let rumor complicate things.”

“They may not believe it?” Rivera said.

“They will. Don’t you two believe I’m the queen?”

“Yes,” Stephano said, “but we’ve been working closely with High Exemplar Bishop. It was good enough for me when he vouched for you. The crew don’t know him that well.”

“We will convince them all the same. We can’t expect them to act against the empire without knowing they’re on the correct side. They need to know that the current queen is not their ruler.”

“And who is this imposter, ma’am?” Stephano asked. “Sakhr, right? Bishop tells me he was someone you kept captive in the body of a tortoise, along with others.”

Victoria leveled a gaze at Bishop.

Bishop shrugged sheepishly. “I thought you were dead, Your Majesty.”

“He didn’t tell us enough,” Stephano added. “We’ve been trying to formulate a plan against this person, but he’s a complete unknown. What can you tell us about him?”

“He’s a two thousand year old flair.”

“…I see.”

“He was Nubian, captured at a young age by slavers and sent to Egypt, where he spent years in servitude before discovering his power. Since then, he’s been wandering the earth collecting others like him. He’s careful. He’s paranoid, and he doesn’t like to take chances. At all.”

“Ah. Hmm. And he… if he’s in your daughter’s body, you’re daughter is…”

“A hostage.”

“So alive then?”


Stephano nodded. “That complicates things.” Winnie wondered if he was taking it at face value. If he dwelled on it, he’d come to the troublesome question of: why let your daughter inherit your throne if you can live forever. If he had, he wasn’t asking, just as Victoria hadn’t volunteered the part where she started the war that caused all these problems in the first place.

“What plans did you have before I contacted you?” Victoria asked.

“We didn’t have much of a plan until recently. I believe these hacked plaques represent an opportunity. If we can get our hands on them, we’d be able to communicate the truth about Sakhr to others. Because of the mind reading, there wouldn’t be any doubt as to the veracity of our claims.”

“You would have told the world about Sakhr and body swapping?” She looked at Bishop. “And you went along with this?”

I thought you were dead.”

“I take it these are not secrets you wish divulged?” Stephano asked.

“Not unless absolutely necessary.”

“I understand, ma’am. Do you have a plan?”

“Yes, but we’ll need to pick up a few more people.”

“That’ll be a risk,” Rivera said. “Every time we land this craft, the empire might intercept us. As long as we stay at maximum speed up here, they can’t touch us. Is it possible for us to contact these other parties remotely? We have access to satellite internet. It’s spotty, but it’ll work. The empire can’t take that away from us.”

“No. These people I need to see in person. It will be a long overdue meeting.”

55. The Great Remains

High Exemplar Dosia watched through the airport windows as her shuttle lifted and arced through the air as though thrown by a giant, invisible hand. It was the only plane to take off from this airport in hours, and it was supposed to be her flight from Denver back to Porto Maná—the one she’d spent so long arguing for. The flight attendants had been baffled when once the time came, she told them to send the shuttle off without her.

“There it goes,” she muttered.

Now for a long, long car ride: United States, Mexico, Central America, Columbia, and finally to that small spot against Brazil’s northern border where Victoria had laid her claim. Her last car ride that long was before the Collapse—in her first life. She and a group of her college friends from UC Berkeley had gone on a road trip around the US to see all those great western attractions that made America America: Grand Canyon. Mt. Rushmore. Yellowstone. They must have stopped at a thousand little places to take scenic group photos with their tank tops and large-lensed sunglasses, though she and her friends had hardly paid attention to the scenery except to remark to one another how awesome it was to be out in the Great Plains with each other. Secretly, the trip was mostly for Las Vegas.

Now she’d take a second road trip, across the Great Remains. Even with her current body being no more than forty, she felt too old for it.

At the car rental, she wondered whether her credit card would be rejected. It wasn’t. Of the choices, she got a luxury self-driving drifter, and not just for the pleasure of it. Colorado’s nuclear winter had phased right into old fashioned winter, and with a car that floated half a foot off the ground, she wouldn’t have to worry about the state of the roads, many of which had suffered six years of winter since their last repaving. And she might actually get some sleep while the car took its trip.

It took her embarrassingly long to find the car in the garage. She set the destination for Porto Maná. It informed her that it would require many, many recharge stops. She accepted. It took off.

Once the car was on the road, she called Bishop back.

“I’m on my way now.”

“Not in the shuttle?”

“No. This car says three days. Are you sure about this, Bishop? Three days is a long time for mischief.”

“I know…”

“We don’t even have a plan once we’re there.”

“We’ll have one,” Bishop said. “It’s… in the oven.”

“In the oven?”

“Yes. Baking. I’m sure it will be ready once we’re all there.”

“How about this for a plan,” Dosia said. “We tell people.”

“That’ll just get those people killed. Sakhr has already disposed of a general. You think he won’t dispose of others?”

“Not if we tell everyone.”

“The public?”

“Think about it, Bishop. The high exemplars announce that the princess’s body has been commandeered by an imposter. We win.”

“Meanwhile, everyone loses faith in the throne. The empire crumbles, and the world returns to ruin.”

“Other than letting Sakhr keep the throne, that may be—” She cut off when her car suddenly braked. She looked about. The road she was on was old, made more of asphalt chips frozen in a stew of ice. No other cars were about. Yet her car was pulling over to the side. A banner on the navigation screen indicated that the emergency stop button was pressed.

“What’s wrong?” Bishop asked.

“My car stopped.” She tried the navigation screen. It didn’t respond to her touch.

“It’s them. Get out.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m over a mile and a half from the nearest town. I’d freeze.”

“Dosia, you can’t stay in that car.”

“Of course I can.”

“They’re coming.”

“Of course they are, but not Sakhr. It’s been…” She checked her plaque’s time. “Forty minutes since your talk with them. It has to be a subordinate coming right now. They’ll arrest me. They’ll put their hands on my plaque, and then they’ll see into my mind. The truth is on our side, Bishop.”

“And you’ll reveal everything we’ve ever done for Victoria. Do you think those soldiers will follow you then? When they know about that?”

“I know how to control my thoughts. What else am I to do? Give up? I think not. I will wait right here.” Dosia folded her hands over her plaque and waited as though at a bus stop. There was still no sign of anyone nearby, but she knew the Lakiran military. She’d go from alone to fully surrounded in seconds.

“Your mind is made up, isn’t it?”

“It is. I think. Bishop, you would do well to tell people near you what you know. Knowledge will be our weapon in this—”

The car exploded as a missile collided into it. It launched four minutes ago from a military base in West Virginia. Her destruction was so quick, her senses hadn’t even had time to relay the message of what was happening before her mind was no more. Her last thought was war, nothing else.

“Dosia?” Bishop glanced at his plaque. Still connected. “Dosia. You cut out. What did you say?” Pause. “Can you hear me?”


He checked again. The call window still showed “connected” for another second, then switched to “connecting…”. He waited, but nothing happened. Her car wasn’t moving, so it’s not like she could have entered a dead zone. Sakhr was so obviously behind this, Bishop didn’t bother considering alternatives.

He opened an application on his plaque. It allowed him to track the location of all exemplars and their current status. He searched for Dosia.

Her plaque was unresponsive. A message warned that if a signal was not received in another four minutes, her plaque, wherever it was, would destroy its internal glyphs.

Except it wouldn’t, would it? Because it was already destroyed—by a jet, a missile, or maybe some orbital weapon Bishop was unaware of. If Sakhr had simply remotely wiped her device, this application wouldn’t be trying to ping her plaque as though it should still be reachable. Dosia was dead; he was certain.

Sakhr wasn’t bothering to arrest them. He wouldn’t take a chance like that. Bishop became hyper aware that he was in an office next to a Madrid Barajas airport lounge. Just outside the door were dozens of people crowding around televisions to see what was happening to their world. Outside that were hundreds, if not thousands of people stranded from home. Would Sakhr bomb an airport just to kill one man? Perhaps instead they were watching the GPS coordinates of his plaque, waiting for him to step outside like Dosia had done.

Bishop looked up the others on his plaque. High Exemplar Stone was also unresponsive, even though his plaque had been functioning when Bishop called him twenty minutes ago. That left only Liat. He called her.

She answered. “Yes?”

“He’s killing us.”

“He’s what?”

“He’s not bothering to arrest us. Where are you right now?”

“I’m on a highway north of Syracuse. What’s happening?”

“I was just on the phone with Dosia when we got cut off. Her plaque is unresponsive. So is Stone’s.”

“But how do—hold on.”

“What?” Bishop said.

“Ahh. Just hold on a second. My car is stopping.”

Liat. Get out and run.


“Get out! Dosia’s car stopped too. There is something headed for you right now. Leave your plaque.”

“Bishop. I—”


A rustling came over the phone that Bishop hoped was her tossing the plaque aside. A distant beeping indicated that a car door was open when the engine was still engaged. It wasn’t fading. Good. That meant Liat left her plaque behind. Carrying those things was so second nature to exemplars that she might have taken it without thinking—

And then the call clicked. He looked. After a second, the call window switched to “connecting…”. He checked the exemplar application. Her plaque was listed as unresponsive: four minutes, fifty-two seconds until self termination.

He could only hope that she got far enough away. Now he needed to worry about himself. Should he run? Leave his plaque behind? A lot of people might die if he did that. Tragic, but an acceptable loss in the grand scheme of the empire.

His eyes fell on a microwave oven. In a moment of inspiration, he lunged to it, put his plaque inside, and closed the door.

Would that help? Who knew? Not him. He knew hardly anything about physics, just that microwaves were supposedly Faraday cages that should block radio signals.

At five meters away, a sensor on the plaque should lose connection with a microchip embedded under his collar bone. It would emit a loud beep after ten seconds. If a minute passed without the exemplar coming back into range, it would self-wipe.

No beep came, which mean that signal wasn’t cut. The next indicator would come at thirty seconds if the plaque had lost its GPS signal. That would be a good thing, assuming a missile wasn’t already locked in.

He really should just get away, except he had one last call he needed to make…

“According to her own testimony, Princess Helena was indeed mentally compromised,” General Soto said. “Although fortunately it seems the effect has worn off.”

“I see,” Stephano replied.

“The high exemplars have advised that Princess Helena and all other survivors from the attack be quarantined until the exemplars have had a chance to clear them. The princess has agreed to this as well. It seems she was aware at some level that she was being controlled. Her public appearance will wait until then.”

“And about the person controlling her?”

“We believe they died with the tower collapse. It coincides with their apparent loss of control over their hostages.”

“But surely this matter isn’t closed,” Stephano said.

“It certainly isn’t. However, the exemplars have taken over the case.”

“They have no further explanation as to what happened?”

“Not that they’re sharing with me, and seeing as how they’re handling this as an imperial secret, I don’t expect to learn anything else. They’ll be here in a few hours to supervise the cleanup and rescue operation, and to debrief everyone involved. They want to speak with you and anyone else you’ve talked to about this. You’re to land at Fort Leguan immediately. The flight crew will arrange landing clearance. In the meantime, you’re not to discuss the matter with anyone. Their orders.”

“The exemplars are giving orders now, sir?”

“On this matter, I’ll let them. Just get back here, Captain.”

“Understood, General.”

The called ended. Stephano stared at the call window on the display table. His XO, Rivera, sat across from him. They were together in Stephano’s miniature ready room aboard the Venezia.

“Well, how about that,” Rivera said. “Looks like it all worked itself out just perfectly.”

“With a nice little bow…” Stephano added.

Both knew the conundrum they faced. Compromised. That was the word Victoria had used. They can compromise your mind at a touch, and then you’re the enemy. For such a remarkable problem, compounded by such a national tragedy, this resolution seemed remarkably convenient. It neatly answered every single concern Stephano raised in the message he’d sent to all Leguan officers.

“Do we return?” Stephano asked.

Rivera sighed. “If we don’t, that’s certainly a definitive action. It would be treason.”

“Treason? No.” Stephano shook his head. “Insubordination? Maybe.”

“To what end? You’re not suggesting we live up here forever.”

“We could.” Orbiter class ships were famous for that capability. Between their Stiller power plant, their onboard Food-Ready assemblers, and enough redundancy with internal systems to allow inflight maintenance, Orbiters could theoretically cruise the stratosphere indefinitely. In practice, six months orbital patrol was a maximum. And any damage to the outside of the craft would require landing.

“We could,” Rivera confirmed. “We could live here together for the rest of our lives. I can’t think of a more dreary fate.”

“But why Leguan?” said Stephano. “The High Exemplars could have us land anywhere. Why have us land somewhere that might be… well, compromised?”

“Are you suggesting that Soto himself has been affected? Do you actually think there may be a conspiracy?”

“I don’t know. It seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? The government is being body-snatched.”

“What do you think we should do?”

Stephano stared at the call log. “I suppose we either report, or…”

“Or we condemn ourselves to seeing only each other for the rest of our lives.”

“Well… when you put it like that.” He sighed. “We’ll go.”

They left the ready room and returned to the ship’s bridge. Leguan had already sent up clearance. The flight was on display. “Take us there,” Stephano told the navigator.

“Aye, sir.”

The ship would be turning now. All movement involved using repulse fields to push against the thin atmosphere up here—not much to work with. That meant changes were not perceptible to human senses.

But there was an orbital display. A long line specified the ship’s cruising course over a world map. It disappeared, replaced by a shorter line arcing toward South America. Flight time was two hours, twenty-three minutes.

“Sir?” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “A message just came in for you. It’s flagged as priority.”

Nodding, Stephano checked his tablet. One new message had come in on the military airspace network through the ship’s systems. It originated from the private exemplar network. Encrypted, it prompted him for his credentials when he tried to open it.

He read the message, then did so again. Afterward, he passed his tablet to his XO. Rivera had just long enough to read that the sender was High Exemplar Bishop when Stephano addressed his navigation officer.

“Course change, Lieutenant.”

The orbiter spent nearly thirty minutes braking against the thin atmosphere before it lost enough speed to safely drop into the lower stratosphere.

It reached subsonic speeds just as it came over Spain. As soon as it had flight clearance, it came to a complete halt over a designated landing pad at Madrid Barajas Airport. It’s landing legs came out, and it touched down as gently as though sinking in water.

High Exemplar Bishop watched through the airport terminal, as did many others stranded by the international grounding. A military craft at a civilian airport was a rare sight. The hatch opened. Two soldiers came out to set up the landing stairs. Then came Stephano, followed by his XO and other officers. Bishop only knew Stephano by the rank on his sleeve. So far he’d been only a voice.

Bishop exited the terminal gate door and scurried toward Stephano, moving so hastily that several of the soldiers’ auras tensed. He didn’t care. Even though he was just a few yards from the airport, he felt exposed under the open sky, as though whatever asylum the airport granted him had just expired, and death was now on its way.

“High Exemplar?” Stephano said. “Here I am. You said you’d have—”

Bishop thrust his plaque into Stephano’s hands. Stephano nearly remarked, but then eye contact was made.

For eight long seconds, he looked into Bishop’s eyes.

Then Stephano spoke. “Everyone get back on the ship.”

“Captain?” Rivera asked.

“Now,” Stephano replied. “We’re leaving right now.”

He handed the plaque back to Bishop, who yanked the battery clip out. A loud pop came from within as Bishop tossed it aside. He followed the soldiers aboard.

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.


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?”


“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!”


“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.


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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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?”


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.”


“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?”


“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.”


“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?”


“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 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?”


“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.”


“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.”