48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

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

“Do you know with what?”

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

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

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

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

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then spite always was the best motivator.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…


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

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

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

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

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She can plan for that though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

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

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

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

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

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

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

“I see…” said Sakhr.

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

“Do you have one?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t trust you.”

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

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

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

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

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

“Why?”

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

46. Sems and Clems

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

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

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

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

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

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

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

She covered up again.

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

“Depends on what we find.”

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


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

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

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

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

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

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

“Why so long?”

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

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

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

“I know…”

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

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

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

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

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

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

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

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Understood.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

“I did,” Bishop said.

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

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

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

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

“Better how?”

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

“Micro-sems?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

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

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

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

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

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

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

“Then do that.”

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

No one responded.

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

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

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

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”