109. Astronomical Odds

Unknown to Winnie, Victoria was still watching. She was just preoccupied, and it wasn’t as though she could have helped, and Tan had the right idea. Victoria doubted it would work, but why not?

The marines were coming up the stairs, clearing each floor. They stormed, shot every person they saw, and moved on. From many floors up, Victoria heard screaming.

At least they were saving her the trouble after she retook her throne. The floor she was on was clear indication of the trash with which Alex had been replacing her honest exemplars. She could smell the hard drugs. There was even graffiti along the walls as though the citadel dormitory was a backstreet alley.

An alarm sounded. A robotic voice announced a citadel-wide evacuation. In all spires, civilians were getting up from their desks while asking each other what was going on. The Deck levels were already in motion from the firefight aboard the ship. Everyone headed toward the bays to evacuate. The bridge staff would remain to run the ship. The exemplars also would not evacuate, because they would soon be dead.

But they didn’t know that yet. At the sound of the siren, they turned off their blaring musics and stopped their conversations. Some wandered into the hall as Victoria hurried by. They asked each other if anyone knew what was happening. No one did. Without ever having been trained for life aboard a citadel, none had any idea what they were supposed to do. As a mass, the exemplars moved hesitantly toward the stairwell.

The marines burst in. A spray of flechettes tore through the exemplars. Screams rang out. The crowd became a riot struggling to get away. Exemplars trampled fellow exemplars. Some drew weapons and fought back, but their simple guns did little against marine battle armor. Within seconds, all exemplars near the stairwell were dead or dying. The remaining stampeded down the corridor.

Victoria took refuge in a dorm alongside several exemplars who had weapons drawn.

“What the fuck is going on out there?” one said.

Another crept up and glanced out the door. Flechettes ricocheted by.

“Fuck.” The exemplar ducked back in. “It’s the marines, man. They’re fucking wasting everyone.”

“What? What the fuck?”

“Is Alex doing this? She has to be, right?”

“What? Why?” The exemplar looked genuinely hurt at the idea.

“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust us?”

“But… but… that bitch! I was loyal to her. I was loyal as shit.”

“Fuck, guys. They’re coming. Get ready.”

The exemplars clutched their weapons. They toppled their bunks for cover while others hid on either side of the door. None cared that Victoria was huddled with them, clutching her own rifle.

The marines split up by the stairwell. One group remained to ensure no one left, smaller groups set down hallways, breaking off into dorms as they passed. Three marines came toward Victoria.

They rounded the door frame. The exemplars fired first, useless bullets against thick armor. Victoria shot blindly while holding her rifle loosely. Neck shot. One marine dropped. A second marine opened fire on the men behind the bunks. The beds did nothing to stop the flechettes. The exemplars shredded and crumpled. The exemplars by the door jumped the marine, stabbing knives at joints of his armor. They all fell in struggle. The third marine entered, shot both men stabbing his ally, then fired at the barricade.

Victoria shot back. Four flechettes pierced his shoulder and neck, dropping him. Her rifle clicked empty.

The second marine was getting to his feet. Two exemplars fired at him fruitlessly. Victoria charged and tackled the marine back down. She blindly tore and grappled, but the marine’s strength overpowered the body of the young cadet she occupied. He drew his side arm and pointed it at her gut when an exemplar kicked him hard in the head.

The marine sprawled aside. Victoria groped for a weapon. Her hand landed on the handle of a fallen knife. Swinging it around, She plunged it into the marine as hard as she could. It pierced partially through his mesh armor, hardly penetrating any skin.

But his aura bloomed to life.

Grunting, the marine shoved Victoria off him. He shot the exemplar dead, then turned his sidearm on her. She grabbed his wrist. Between his armored glove and sleeve, she touched skin.

And now she was looking out a marine HUD at a very alarmed cadet. He hardly had time to realize his situation when Victoria shot him in the head. Turning her gun at the bed barricade, she fired six more times. Her mental visualization had told her generally where to aim, Tan’s micro-movements took care of the rest. She was the only one left alive in the room.

Victoria collected a rifle and ran to join the other marines. They they were going room to room exterminating the exemplars, and she fit right in.

With her situation taken care of, she turned her mind back to Winnie and the others…

Lieutenant Lucero indicated a touch pad. “And you can make gestures on this to control the swarm, but you have to—”

Tan slapped his hand on the pad and twiddled his fingers about. Outside, the swarm of spider planes jerked and shifted away from the orbiter.

“Right. Don’t do that. If you move the swarm too much that way, they’ll fall behind. At our speed, we have to keep them moving with the orbiter or else—”

Tan rolled a handful of dice, then toggled several console switches.

“Those, uh… don’t actually control the swarm. They—”

Tan rolled more dice and hit more buttons. The swarm outside lurched.

“Stop that. You just turned off the… stop!” Lucero pushed Tan aside and undid several of Tan’s adjustments. Tan ignored him and lit a cigarette.

“There’s no smoking in here,” Captain Rivera said.

“Dice say smoke,” Tan muttered. He didn’t look away from the controls.

“Okay,” said Lucero. “Don’t touch any of these. If you want manual control, just use these two pads. You can—”

Tan rolled dice and flipped switches Lucero just forbid.

Jesus! Do you want the spiders crashing into each other? Leave the Autoform on. Look. The enemy swarm is firing at them now. Just… Leave the Goddamn Autoform on.”

“Captain?” Josephine prompted.

“Lieutenant!” said Rivera. “Let him be.”

“Fine! Just… you’re not even shooting back. Here.” The officer flipped one switch. “Do whatever! It’s only our lives.” He stepped back.

Outside the Venezia, the spider swarms were now engaging one another. Three hundred spider planes moved forward as one, firing upon a swarm of sixty drones that swerved about like drunken bees. Tan was losing planes every second. At least they fired back, but for every enemy spider that dropped, Tan lost six.

He rolled the dice, dropped his hand onto the control pad, and flopped it about like a dying fish. The swarm lurched, moving tangentially from both the opposing swarm and the Venezia. Several spider planes bumped one another. They were now out of range of the enemy swarm.

“What are you doing?” yelled Lucero.

The enemy swarm broke in two. One swarm pursued Tan’s planes, the other continued its push against wind resistance to reach the Venezia. By now, the defending swarm could never catch up in time. Nothing stood between the Venezia and over a hundred enemy spiders.

Tan rolled again, dragging hard on his cigarette. This time, he merely kept one hand laying on the touch pad. His swarm kept moving tangentially, moving up windstream of the enemy ships. The enemy swarm pursuing them moved to get in between.

Lucero had to walk away. Tan’s erratic behavior was too much for him to watch, but the mystery proved worse. He marched back.

Again, Tan rolled with his free hand. As he read the dice, he moved to lift his cigarette from his lips. It slipped into his lap. He jerked, sliding his hand across the control pad as he squirmed, snatching for his smoke.

The spider swarm veered. They hurled directly toward the enemy orbiters. No longer moving against the atmosphere, they accelerated wildly relative to the Venezia. The pursuing swarm easily took advantage of this, adjusting course to speed alongside Tan’s swarm. They synchronized completely. The enemy swarm tore Tan’s to shreds. Dozens of ships fell per second.

“No!” Lucero lunged for the controls. Tan batted him away while fishing for his cigarette. It didn’t matter.

The swarm passed the enemy orbiters. There were only eleven left at that moment, and they shot by so quickly that they didn’t have time to shoot once. Just like that, the swarm careened off into the distance, out of the fight for good.

Except Tan’s drones hadn’t had Autoform on. They had no course correction, making them nothing more than expensive meteors. The spider drones guarding the enemy orbiters easily navigated around the expensive shrapnel. However, the orbiters relied upon their deflection repulsers to push projectiles out of the way, and the spiders were traveling far too fast and had far too much mass for them to deflect them with 100% certainty. As chance would have it, two spider drones had collision courses too direct to be fully deflected.

They each glanced an orbiter. At their speeds, it was enough. Explosions of steel and pressurized gas emitted from both. The ships careened off course. One spiraled toward earth. The other crunched into another ship, causing it to explode outright. The resulting shower of shrapnel was too dense for the other ships to do anything about. One got hit on the nose with debris. It’s hull peeled like a banana skin. The remaining two ships took light damage to their wings, but it was enough for their ships to drop from their course.

The enemy spider drones were now within range of the Venezia. Any of them could have fired, but none did. Winnie saw nothing but chaos inside the surviving three ships as the crews struggled to evacuate. The confirm order for the swarm strike went ignored. Within moments, the enemy swarms drifted passed the Venezia, they would not be catching back up.

“What?” said Lucero. He stared in astonishment. “Three down and… Jesus. You actually managed to—” He checked again. “They’re gone. We’re out.”

Several men cheered. A few clapped Tan on the back.

Tan took out another cigarette, lit it with the butt of his old one, and ignored everyone.

108. The Cascade Strategy

“And when you see anyone. You must remove their shield stone,” Victoria said. “They will resist you. So you must first approach as though nothing is wrong, then jump them as a group. It’s for their own good.”

Her crowd of followers nodded. Already, the memory of Victoria telling them this was gone. All that remained were the instructions and the compelling sense to obey them.

“Then come. Everybody,” Victoria led them down the hall. In the cramped corridor, they moved in a double file line that trailed out of sight.

“Be ready,” Victoria said under her breath.

“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.

“In a moment, I’m going to swap bodies through the crowd rapidly.”

“That’s going to mix people up.”

“Exactly. Chaos. Alexander will lose track of which one I am. Will you be able to follow?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good. I’m going to order people up the stairs one at a time before I go up myself. If Alex doesn’t know which one I am, he won’t know for which person he needs to detonate his bomb. If he detonates too late, I’ll already be past him. Too early, and he’ll damage the stairwell, but then I can climb up after the fire team clears the room.”

“You’ll kill one of those people doing that.”

“Alex will be the one killing them.”

“Are you going to put these people back in their original bodies after this is done?”

“Winnie, you have eight minutes to live. Prioritize. Now play a game with Tan. How many people should I send before I go myself?”

Winnie and Tan played. “One,” Winnie said.

“Just one? I think I see how this will turn out.”

Victoria reached the stairwell. Turning to her audience, she reached, and the chaos began. Screaming started with the person in Captain Russo’s body. Without Josephine’s mind cleansing, the out-of-body realization struck. Man after man panicked. Others ran, some still in their own bodies, some not. Winnie had trouble following. As quickly as it took for Victoria to brush another, she moved. Near the back of the line, she reversed direction, oscillating between bodies until the panic spread people out of reach from one another.

Victoria was in a random sergeant. She leaned close to a private. “Run to the bridge. Get help.”

The private took off. He raced up two flights of stairs.

And the stairwell exploded. Fire and smoke flooded the first three floors of the bridge spire. Sirens blared throughout the citadel. Winnie couldn’t stop visualizing the ragged body of the guard as he incinerated in the flames.

“Captain?” Alexander said. “Are your men ready?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied Romero.

“Then begin on Deck One. Fore sector.”

“…Understood, ma’am.”

“I don’t think you can get through the stairwell,” Winnie said. “There’s just too much fire.”

“It will burn out,” replied Victoria. She was curled up in the corner of a ready room, pretending to have a panic attack like all the other soldiers around her.

“How long will that take?” asked Winnie.

“I don’t know. The fire team will be there soon. However long they take.”

“What about the other stairs?”

“He’ll just blow those charges if I try. We’ll wait for this one.”

Winnie glanced at the countdown. “The intercepters will be here in three minutes. I don’t think we can wait any longer.”

Victoria rocked in her fetal position while she thought. “Fine. I’ll do something about it.” Getting up, she jogged down the corridor. “Have Tan double check the exemplar spire for bombs.”

All the people around her calmed, going from full-blown panic to disconcerted sense that something was wrong.

“Everyone come with me. We must go to the exemplars.”

A crowd formed on her.

“What are you going to do?” Winnie asked.

“The exemplar spire has a control station that monitors all plaques. The shield stones should be hooked up to that. I’ll send a remote wipe to everyone. You and Josephine can handle the interceptors from there.”

“That’ll help you too, won’t it?”

“In theory. I’ll need Tan to start guessing two passwords for me. That console has a—”

Flechettes punched into her chest. Everyone screamed as more people fell and blood splattered others.

An armored marine was at the end of the hall firing into the crowd. Winnie looked around the decks. All over, marines were moving from corridor to corridor, slaughtering air force personnel.

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted.

Victoria lay on the ground, bleeding from her chest. With each breath, bubbles of blood frothed from her mouth. A panicked cadet raced by. Her hand snapped out and brushed his ankle. The cadet continued on and ducked into a nearby room, narrowly dodging a spray of fletchettes from a pursuing marine.

“Ask Tan how I fight,” the cadet said.

“Is that you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. That marine is coming. I never talked to Tan about fighting.”

Winnie locked eyes with Tan and conveyed the question.

He was nonplussed. “I no think about it.”

“Is that all you’ve got?” asked Victoria.

“Be wild. Move more. Think less. Shoot from hip.”

There was no more time to talk. The marine came to the door. Victoria lunged. He spun his rifle around, knocking her off balance. She accidentally pulled him down with her. The rifle clattered aside. Victoria tumbled beside it. The marine clambered toward her. In a panic, Victoria grabbed the gun and fired blindly.

The second flechette just happened to punch into a weak joint between the marine’s helmet and body armor.

Clutching his neck, the marine toppled. Blood pooled on the ground.

“There you go,” said Tan.

Is that what all your fights are like?” Victoria snapped. “Just accidents and drunken stumbling?”


Grumbling, Victoria shouldered the rifle and hurried on. Her crowd was mostly dead. What few remained had scattered. She ran alone now, moving quickly and without notice.

“Will there be any surprises?” she asked hurrying to the stairs up the exemplar spire.

“No,” said Winnie. “It’s clear. Will you get there in time?”

“We’ll see.” Victoria climbed two floors to the spire lobby. Bursting in, she blindly sprayed the area with a burst of flechettes. The receptionist and three exemplars by the security station all dropped dead.

At the internal stairwell, she ran up another two flights, which brought her to the server and operations room for the Exemplar Committee. Three exemplars at computer terminals turned to look at her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” one asked.

Victoria yanked his shield stone from his neck. The other two stood abruptly. Victoria killed them both with two quickly aimed flechettes.

She turned back to the defenseless one. “You will log into the remote monitoring system for the shield stones.”

He sat and worked.

“Tan, I still need those passwords. Winnie, keep watching for marines.”

Tan rolled his dice. This game was convoluted as always. With each roll, he consulted the keyboard on Josephine’s tablet and wrote down the corresponding character. Winnie couldn’t follow.

“They’ve deployed their spiders,” said Tactical Operator Lucero in the Venezia bridge. “They’re keeping the swarms close to their ships.”

“Deploy our swarm,” Rivera said. “Calculate an optimal defense trajectory.”

Winnie looked outside the ship. The incoming orbiters had launched their spider swarms. The drones formed a cloud around the ships instead of moving toward the Venezia. The enemy ships would have such a long intercept window that they didn’t have to separate. The orbiters would soon come so close they could wave out the port windows at each other, except that the Venezia would be destroyed long before that could happen.

Rivera looked to Winnie. “How close is she?”

The exemplar in the Manakin operation’s room was loading an application on the computer. The loading icon spun round and round, and nothing seemed to happen.

“Soon,” Winnie said, “but not yet. How much time do we have?”

Rivera turned to Lucero.

Lucero replied. “Their swarm will be within sheering range of us in one hundred sixty seconds. Our swarm will have three passes at them before then.”

Winnie glanced outside the ship. The Venezia’s own swarm had already ejected and formed up. They were breaking off to pursue their vain mission.

“Did you hear that time?” Winnie asked Victoria.

Victoria didn’t answer. The exemplar she was with logged onto the system and pulled up a massive list: the shield stone database. Thousands of serial numbers corresponded to names, designations, and indicator flags for status.

“That’s odd.” The exemplar studied the list, oblivious of the bodies behind him. “There’ve been a lot of failures. Is something going on?”

“Never mind that,” said Victoria. “Access the remote manager.”

“I can’t. That needs the queen’s clearance code.”

“Go to the corner.”

Without question, the man went and stood in the corner like a punished school child. Victoria sat in his place. For Winnie, watching her work was agonizing. She checked each menu, read each onscreen button. She made a wrong click, then slowly searched for a back button.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked shrilly.

“They’ve changed the layout since I last used it.”

“But you have used this before, right?”

“About four years ago.”

“Just get that guy to find the menu!” Winnie checked the incoming ships. Fighting against the monumental wind resistance, they drifted inexorably closer. “We’re dead in two minutes.”

“I know what I’m doing, Winnie. I just… here we go.” A password prompt appeared on screen. “Tan?”

Tan had written down two passwords of random characters onto his note pad. Two plays of the game had given him the same result.

Victoria typed the password in. The system accepted it. She selected all shield plaques, then chose ‘remote wipe’ from the menu. A confirmation popped up. She accepted, and the system went to work.

A second popup appeared.

Internal Server Error: 0x05D84ED9
The process could not complete the request.
RuntimeException (/usr/bin/libexec/plaqserv_proxy:145:23)
Message: NOPE!!

Yelling, Victoria slammed the desk. She shoved the screen back, causing equipment to tumble and crash.

“I really hope this system recorded that,” Alex said.

“What are we supposed to do now?” asked Winnie.

“I’m sorry, Winnie. You’re on your own.”

Victoria snatched up her rifle and bolted toward the door. Winnie wondered why until she noticed nearly a dozen marines heading up the stairs into the exemplar spire. Of course Alex sent them that way. He was probably watching Victoria’s every move.

In the lobby, exemplars examined the dead security team Victoria shot earlier. Marines burst in, immediately gunned the men down, then took up positions to secure the area. They were preparing to come up the internal spire stairs. Confrontation was inevitable.

Winnie checked outside the Venezia again. Enemy orbiters were visible from the ship now. Their spider swarms had split into two groups. Three hundred drifted toward the Venezia. Another three hundred stayed close to their orbiters as guards.

“Is this it?” Winnie asked. “Have we lost?”

Victoria paused in the stairwell. Only a door stood between her and the marines. She ran up the stairs, past the operation room toward the sleeping quarters for the exemplars. She seemed to have a plan, but clearly it was only for herself. She never answered Winnie’s question, as though she’d already chalked Winnie and the others up for dead.

Fine then. Winnie banished Victoria from her thoughts and faced the people before her. “She can’t help.”

“Are you talking to us?” Rivera asked.

“Yeah. We’re on our own.”

There was silence on the bridge. Every shred of hope in the crew’s auras bled away.

“Very well,” Rivera replied. “Lieutenant Lucero, redirect the swarm to attack the enemy orbiters.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Lucero did so. Outside, the swarm’s parabolic trajectory changed slightly. Their course gave up any pretense of defending the Venezia, leaving the incoming swarm free reign to destroy them. It was a hopeless maneuver however. The enemies’ defensive swarms broke away to intercept. They would completely destroy the Venezia’s swarm long before it could threaten the enemy orbiters. This was Rivera’s last ditch strategy. Forfeit defense in the vain hope of destroying the enemy, but it was far too little. Winnie knew they were just going through the motions.

But she didn’t accept that. There had to be something. She just had to think.

Josephine. Her power could make people forget, but only if they weren’t shielded, and everyone aboard the intercepting orbiters was shielded. She couldn’t do anything. Same with Christof.

Tan. His power could work on shielded people since it didn’t affect their minds, but how could his micro-movements help one ship fight another? Everything was automated, but he could determine a course of action. Winnie considered every possible way they could get out of this. Fighting would fail. The deployment pods wouldn’t work at this speed. The enemy orbiters would not accept surrender, but maybe they could buy some—

Tan rolled a die. He stared at the result, then stood.

Josephine looked at him “What?”

Tan glanced at her.

“Oh,” Josephine said.

“What is is he doing?” asked Winnie. Josephine met her eye, and Winnie saw what she’d just seen in Tan’s mind.

Tan was playing a game. The object was for him to live. He started by thinking of all the things he might do:

  1. Escape via deployment tube.
  2. Contact the intercepters and make a deal.
  3. Shoot the captain and everyone else, then defect.
  4. Do something to help Victoria.
  5. Take over the controls for fighting.
  6. Take over the controls for steering.

He rolled a five.

Tan shouldered through the crowded bridge to Lucero and shooed him from his chair.

“Captain?” Lucero said.

“Let him,” Rivera ordered.

Lucero let Tan take his place.

“Now…” Tan looked over the console. “Show me controls.”

107. Security Failures

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

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

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

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

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

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

He glazed over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain, this is your queen.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.

106. The Labyrinth

An officer announced Alexander’s arrival on the bridge, and the buzz of activity halted for formalities. Alex waved people back to work. Any other day, he’d wallow in the attention, but right now it was idiotic. He stepped up to a display table beside Admiral Laughlin.

“What’s happening?” Alex asked. The display showed an overhead view of South America.

“We picked up a deployment drop twenty minutes ago, Your Majesty. It skirted in from the Atlantic side of Brazil and landed near the Guyana border. The ship that deployed it came in hot, nearly two thousand kilometers per hour. It has to be them.”

He pointed toward a single dot pinpointed under Central America, “They’re accelerating back to cruising speed. In fifty minutes, they’ll be untouchable again. Fortunately though…” He pointed to a nest of dots over Honduras. “Our squads scrambled as soon as they got the alarm, and luck was on our side. No matter their course, our boys will synchronize with them for at least six minutes before the target reaches cruising speed. After—”

The map updated. A line extending from the target dot flickered and now curved downward over the antarctic.

“They’ve changed course, sir,” said an officer behind them. “Southward arc, at two point four two meters per second per second. Predicted change.”

“And the window?”

“Six minutes twenty-seven seconds. Their course is optimal, sir.”

“Excellent.” Laughlin turned to Alex. “Any course change they make now will only benefit us.

“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.

“They can try. We’ve already made arrangements to shut down the local grid if they do. The evacuees will make one hell of a crater.”

“And just to confirm, all pilots have shield stones with them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex turned to the bridge. “And is there anyone here who is not shielded? Anyone at all?”

No one responded. He couldn’t sense any auras anyway, but he was coming down a case of Sakhr’s paranoia.

“You won’t be in trouble if you speak up now,” he said, “but you will if you don’t.”

“Everyone here is equipped, as ordered,” said Laughlin.

“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”

“We’ve sent a team to investigate. It’s touchdown area was directly next to a gridport.”

Laughlin tapped controls on the display table. A small window popped up overtop of the orbital chase. It was a topographical map of a region. An arrow indicated where the pod landed. Next to it was a dot labeled “Cantá Gridway” with lines spraying from it. They were grid chutes which led to ports all over South America.

“But there was only one pod?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many people could have been in it?”

“They’re meant for one soldier, but in a pinch, they can hold two.”

“Have we heard back from the gridport?”

“Not yet.”

“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Probably not entirely. No region is fully equipped yet.”

“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.

“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve got this under control, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then there’s no need, is there? Destroy them all and keep me posted.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Any other day, Alex would have stayed, but he knew who was in that pod. He now had preparations to make. A good host should be ready for guests.

“New trajectory confirmed.” Navigator Tremont checked his readout. “Time to optimal cruising speed: fifty-eight minutes.”

“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.

Tremont fiddled with his onscreen numbers. “Six minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”

Rivera nodded slowly. Winnie didn’t bother asking how bad it was. That window was several times larger than the one they had faced before.

“Are you sure about those ships?” Rivera asked Winnie. She too wished she were wrong. The onboard radar hadn’t yet picked up the incoming interceptors. They had only Winnie’s word, and if she was wrong, they might yet live, but it wasn’t the case.

“Yes,” she said. “The people in the Manakin came up with the same intercept window.”

“Hmm.” Rivera faced Tremont again. “How quickly can we course change over a grid?”

The officer got to work.

Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”

“Why?” Rivera asked.

“They’re going to shut off the grid wherever our pods are going to land.”

“…I see. Are you sure about th… nevermind. Of course you’re sure. Disregard my last query, Lieutenant.” Rivera returned to the display board. Dots were shown in exactly the same configuration as aboard the Manakin. Six ships were coming. Same as last time, only the crews were shielded, the attack window was minutes long, and the Venezia only had two-thirds of the spider drones it had before. Death was certain. From the auras on the bridge, everyone else knew it too.

“What’s the status of the queen?” Rivera asked.

Winnie brought Victoria to mind. She was still in the body of Captain Russo, sitting in a shuttle on its way to the Manakin. She was in the back, away from the other soldiers in transit. They kept glancing at her as she mumbled to herself.

“Answer me, Winnie. Pay attention,” Victoria murmured. “Look at me, Winnie. Answer me.”

“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”

“Don’t look away again. I’m about to land.”

“Have you been watching what’s happening to us?”


“Any ideas?”

“As long as I can get to Alex in time, it won’t matter. I’ll call them off.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then you’re on your own. Stephano and Rivera knew what was at stake, but those ships aren’t going to reach you for fifty minutes, and I don’t plan on failing.”

“Okay.” Winnie relayed this to Rivera. He seemed as concerned with the idea as she was. Their lives were in the queen’s hands. To live, Winnie would have to help Victoria however she could. She wondered if this had been part of Victoria’s plan, but chose not to dwell on that.

“What do you want me to do,” Winnie asked.

“Just look ahead,” murmured Victoria. “Use Tan.”

Winnie returned to the ready room and stood in the door frame, keeping her in view of the bridge crew. Tan was still cramped into his seat, and he’d finally put his tablet away, as though he’d finally decided to invest himself in this fight for their lives.

Winnie transmitted Victoria’s instructions to him, and he rolled dice to come up with locations for Winnie to search. Victoria was entering a docking bay. She would have to pass a security checkpoint—one that would require her to relinquish her “shield”. Tan’s search instructions turned up nothing of interest. His second roll even had her searching empty space outside the citadel. Winnie double-checked his mind to make sure he hadn’t changed his winning conditions to whatever will make Winnie stop bothering me the quickest.

The place Winnie really wished she could see was Alexander’s office in the bridge tower, except that it was still one enormous blind spot. He’d kept Naema in that office for days now, yet somehow his glyphs weren’t breaking when he’d come and go. Winnie tried one last time to creep her awareness inside only to have her power clench like a spasming muscle. A shame. He was there right now, and Winnie knew he was up to something.

The landing nodes aboard the Manakin snagged Victoria’s shuttle. Its invisible hand carried it in and deposited it neatly upon a landing space. Victoria and the others shuffled off. Down the landing stair, armed soldiers cordoned them toward the security bay. Like all citadels, each bay aboard the Manakin had its own dedicated section for security checks and exemplar scans, but traffic had increased since the Capital Bombing. As a result, field tents were set up at the back of the landing bay, extending the security section to twice its size. Even then, a queue had formed containing a dozen soldiers.

Tan rolled. Winnie checked. “Fourteenth,” she said. She scanned the line. “Let one more person go ahead of you.”

Victoria paused to check her pockets. Another soldier filed into the queue, and then Victoria stepped in. Thirteen people were before her. The security bay took soldiers off the queue in twos and threes. Even with the extra tents, it took Victoria twelve minutes to reach the front of the line. Winnie knew because she watched the countdown in the bridge leading to intercept time.

They called Victoria and the soldier before her. The soldier got sent to the dedicated security room while Victoria got sent to a tent. They checked her bag, sent her through a body scanner, then directed her inside.

An exemplar was sitting at the other side of a table. Unlike with the dedicated scanning rooms, there was no shield between her and him. He gestured her to take a seat.

“His shield is in his left coat pocket,” Winnie said. She had Tan throw another set of dice. “Wait eleven seconds,” she added.

The exemplar spoke. “You need to take off your shield for the duration of this interview.”

“I don’t have a shield,” Victoria said.

“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”

Victoria patted herself down. Winnie’s own count was down to five seconds.

“I swear I don’t have a shield on me.”

The exemplar pointed impatiently toward the door. “Yes, you do. Return to security.”

Winnie’s countdown reached zero. Victoria snatched the exemplar’s extended hand and lunged. Yelling, he pulled away, but he reacted too slowly. Victoria reached into his coat. Either by luck or by the help of Tan’s power, her hand slipped into his pocket and snagged his shield. She tossed it under the desk.

“Sit,” the exemplar said. “Don’t make a sound.”

The words coming from the exemplar’s mouth could not be disobeyed—Victoria’s words. An invisible hand forced the exemplar, now in Captain Russo’s body, into his seat.

A guard rushed in.

“Is everything okay in here?” the guard asked.

“I slipped.” Victoria righted her chair and sat. When the guard lingered, she looked at him again. “We’re fine.”

The guard left. Victoria turned back to the dumbfounded exemplar. Despite being in an unexpected body, he didn’t seem alarmed. Winnie had heard Victoria and Josephine discussing this tactic earlier. Victoria was erasing his immediate memory so constantly he had no time to panic.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “I passed this scan. There was nothing wrong, and you will report nothing once I’ve left. You will obey.”

Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.

Moments later, Victoria exited the tent, once again in Russo’s body. The exemplar was dazed, but not alarmed. In total, the security checkpoint took Victoria fifteen minutes, leaving thirty-five minutes on the countdown clock to intercept.

Soon, Victoria was wandering the cramped lower corridors of the Manakin.

“Play the next game,” she murmured.

“Right.” Winnie sought Tan, who turned ponderously to his dice. Through her eyes, he saw the passageways before Victoria. Ahead, a ladderwell led up and down, but the corridor kept on as well. Doors lined the sides.

He rolled, examined his results, and passed it on mentally to Winnie.

“Keep straight,” Winnie said.

Victoria did so. She arrived at a smaller bay area, where ships were kept in storage. Several doors, ladders, and elevators led from here. Tan rolled again.

“Down the ladderwell.”

“Down?” asked Victoria. “I’m trying to get to Alexander.”

“The dice say down.”

Victoria followed. This brought her to a catering room. The soldiers down here glanced at her. Captain Russo stood out. Only local personnel worked here.

“Where now?”

“Continue through the door before you.”

This brought her into a sleeping quarters.

“Go right.”


“Up a ladder well.”

“Up?” asked Victoria.

“Up, yes.”

Victoria went up. Further instructions led her past a medical ward, a line of military-supply outlets, a few commercial diners, and finally back to the very hallway she started in after leaving the security bay. The whole circuit cost them nine minutes. Twenty-six to go.

“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.

“I don’t know.”

Victoria kept walking, taking turns at random to appear busy. “Is Tan reading the dice correctly?”

“I think so.”

“Winnie. Look into his eyes. Are his goals the same as ours?”

“Yes. They are. He’s going to die too if you don’t get to Alex.”

“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.

“It’s already confirmed. I’ve been looking at his mind this whole time.”

“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.

“She’s back where she started,” Winnie replied. “Are you sure you’re doing the dice right?”

“I am doing what she say. Roll dice. Give you path.”

“But the dice aren’t doing that,” Winnie said.

Tan shrugged. “If they don’t give path, there is no path. Dice are random.”

“I don’t accept that,” Victoria said. “Alexander is in the bridge tower. There are two stairwells into there, and an elevator. What is Tan’s game specifically? I need to safely get to Alex within the time limit. I can go anywhere. I can swap bodies. I can make anyone do whatever I need so long as I can de-shield them. Is Tan considering all my options when he rolls his dice?”

Winnie locked minds with Tan.

“Yes.” Tan said. “Maybe… Alexander go to her?”

“Can you roll the dice for a yes or no answer?” asked Winnie.

Josephine answered. “It doesn’t work like that. Tan can only steer her toward a winning condition. He can’t tell her what it is.”

“Here’s an idea,” Victoria said. “Have Tan change the game. To win, I need to safely get to Alexander within five minutes. Any longer and we lose. Roll.”

So Tan rolled, Winnie issued instructions, and Victoria followed. Within a minute, the dice took her into a dead-end armory room, and then turned her right around.

“These are random steps,” Victoria said. “Why can’t we win this? What are we missing?”

Tan shrugged.

“Are you rolling the dice enough? Maybe you’re not giving your flair enough time to control your micro-movements.”

“No,” Tan said.

“Winnie,” Victoria said. “You’ve been watching Alex regularly, right? He is on board?”

“I watched him go into the office on top of the bridge spire.”

“But have you been watching closely? Could he have slipped away?”

“No. You know he hasn’t. I can’t pull him to mind, which means he has to be in that blindspot.”

“Then there’s something we’re missing,” Victoria said, “I refuse to believe I cannot get to him at all.”

“What if he knows you’re coming?” Winnie asked. “Wouldn’t that explain it? He knows a pod landed. He’s not going to do nothing about that. He must at least know we’re up to something. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”

“No,” said Victoria. “Not waiting for me. Or else I could get to him. He must be doing something to ensure I can’t reach him.”

“Like what?”

“An escape route? A warning system? He must have something hidden in that blind spot to stop me.”

“That should mean you could at least get close to the blindspot,” Winnie said.

Victoria nodded. “Have Tan set the target destination four floors below the staff bridge.”

Winnie worked with Tan again. He rolled dice. Victoria went from the corridor, down a ladderwell to an engineering room, through a break room, and into an equipment closet.

Victoria growled in frustration. “Does this game even work? Can you even get me to the stairs?”

They played. Up a ladderwell, down a hall. Through a general quarters. Then up a ladderwell twice. She arrived at the base of a stairwell leading up the bridge spire.

“So at least we know it’s working,” said Winnie.

So as not to linger, Victoria kept moving past the stairwell and walked a circuit through nearby corridors.

“But why can’t I just walk up these stairs?” asked Victoria “It would take me right to him. Look with me, Winnie. I can’t see anything in the stairwell or the spire that would stop me.”

Winnie checked. Inside the bridge spire, business was as usual. Admiral Laughlin was monitoring the intercepters on route toward the Venezia. In the operations room, officers coordinated incoming and outgoing air traffic from the citadel. The staff bridge was empty. In the other control rooms, officers weren’t even watching the door. The stairwell leading down was deserted apart from a lone sergeant walking up the stairs while fumbling with loose leaf notes. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him.

“Do you see the soldier in the stairs?” asked Winnie.

“Of course I do.”

“It looks like he’s gone up those stairs a lot today. Maybe you can just go. Maybe there’s just a locked door near the top you can’t get through.”


“We’re running out of time,” Winnie said. The countdown was now sixteen minutes.

“I’m not going to go unless the dice tell me to go.” Victoria walked another hallway. “Let’s try playing the game in parts to see where it fails. Roll the dice again. Set my destination as the deck level landing of the stairwell.”

Tan rolled again. Instructions led Victoria to the end of her current hall, and then the door on the right, which led to a bathroom.

“Okay then,” Victoria said, “How about just one floor up this floor. Can we do that?”

Dice rolled. They led her back to the stairwell, then up one floor.

Victoria stopped on the landing. “Okay. Try going up another floor.”

The dice led her back down. She descended.

“So for some reason,” Victoria said. “Tan’s flair thinks we lose if I go to the deck floor of that stairwell.

Winnie scanned the stairwell thoroughly. “Do you see the security camera?” she said.

“Yes,” Victoria said. “And have you seen the hundred other security cameras I’ve passed since coming aboard? It’s not that. Try playing the Spotting Game with Tan. Center it on that floor.”

As usual, Josephine took the first turn rolling the dice. Winnie followed the resulting instructions and viewed four floors below in a shower room. Nothing. Tan’s turn. The dice pointed Winnie about six feet away. It put her mind inside the wall, close to an air duct. She glanced inside.

“…Oh,” Winnie said. That definitely counted. Tan-1, Josephine-0. Tan wins the game.

“What is it? What do you see?” Victoria asked.

“Look in the air duct.”

“Which one— Oh, I see it.”

It was a canister. Attached to it was a device with wires leading to a small box with an antenna.

“He put a bomb in his own stairwell?” Winnie asked.

“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.

Winnie checked and found a bomb immediately. She’d missed them before because she’d never thought to check underneath the elevator.

“Couldn’t he bring his own spire down with that?”

“Maybe,” said Victoria. “I wouldn’t expect rational thought from a man who has a doomsday device on his watch.”

“Are those bombs remote controlled?”

“Yes,” said Victoria. “And if the dice don’t want me going in there, it means Alexander is watching me right now, and he has his finger on the trigger.”

105. The Sovereign Citizen

When the pod dropped from the ship, Winnie had expected to see Victoria’s hair lift about her like a halo now that she was in free fall. It didn’t happen. Apart from the initial lurch and some turbulence, the gravity inside the pod remained normal, even as the pod screamed through the atmosphere, building up an aura of burning light around it as it soared. A repulse field in the pod must have been correcting the gravity. Made sense. Winnie had seen those pods touch down on the news. If there wasn’t an internal repulse field manipulating G-force in the pods, the marines would turn to paste upon landing.

“Are you having trouble following me?” Victoria yelled over the rumbling.

“No,” said Winnie from the captain’s ready room. The others glanced at her as she seemingly spoke to no one. Josephine, Christof, and Tan sat across from her, each with glyph cards—awaiting orders, although Tan was watching a show on his tablet.

Victoria’s pod plummeted like a meteor. Already she was over Brazil. The terrain and cities grew close. Seconds before she’d have struck the earth, her pod arced to skate a quarter mile above Brazilian forests. The pod jostled. A beep sound inside, and a light came on.

The grid had picked her up.

The hidden traffic nodes beneath the earth worked in tandem to slow her momentum as much as they could before she skipped past. The timer inside the pod indicated touchdown in seconds, but Winnie still had no idea where to look ahead to. The machines knew though; that’s what mattered.

The pod changed trajectory again and careened into a field. The crash echoed like thunder, sending birds into the sky. Inside, the repulse field kept the landfall down to a shudder. Victoria’s restraints popped free. Lighting came on around a prominent button on the inside of the door. A marine would punch it and immediately be thrown into whatever hostile situation they were deployed to. Victoria took a moment to adjust her clothes and pat herself down.

Satisfied, she pushed the button. The pod hatch blew open. She daintily climbed out and looked around. She was in a field beside a highway road. Of six lanes, only one each way was maintained, the rest were crumbled. A few ancient trucks lumbered along. Overhead the highway, shuttle cars soared through the air along an invisible line.

Winnie checked where Victoria was relative to where she was going. Not too bad.

Victoria saw it too and set off in a direction. About five hundred meters ahead was a border gridport. Air shuttles touched down in lots. Throngs of luggage-toting travelers came out, where guards and signs directed them to customs and border patrol. Inside, they waited in masses for workers in a long row of kiosks to call them up to check their credentials. Brazilian police and soldiers dotted the port, and a barbed wire fence surrounded the land.

“Do you see where I’m going?”

“I see it,” said Winnie.

“Look around. Find any investigators.”

Winnie’s mind swept the area. Everything seemed normal. If anyone was investigating the landed pod, they weren’t coming from there. She widened her search. There was a nearby village. Most of the buildings were dilapidated. She gave a quick glance in a dozen or so empty buildings and determined it was a ghost town. Looking further, she saw dead forests, a few new farms, and several deserted settlements. Basically, a whole lot of nothing. To be expected at the border of the empire. If it weren’t for the grid chute passing through here, this part of the world would be returning to nature.

Winnie’s next check was Alexander. He had been in his meeting with the Indian delegates when an officer interrupted him with an alert. The military picked up an unscheduled deployment drop. A ship had been detected, and a squad sent to intercept.

“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.

“I see. There’s nothing we can do about it. Tell Rivera about the squad.”

Winnie stepped onto the bridge and shared the knowledge. Rivera nodded. The squad was expected, but Winnie didn’t like the worry she sensed in the auras of the bridge crew when she shared their trajectory.

Winnie returned to the ready room. Soon, Victoria reached the edge of the woods. A few steps further and she’d be in view of the gridport security on the landing tarmac.

“It’s time to play a game,” she said. “What gets me inside? I need a time and a direction of approach.”

Winnie nudged Tan. Reproachfully, he paused his show and looked Winnie in the eyes. She mentally pushed along Victoria’s order. From dice scattered before him, he picked several, cleared the rest, and rolled.

“East south-east side. Count to one hundred thirty-two and go.” He resumed his tablet.

Victoria tramped through the woods without any attempt at stealth. After circling the property, she waited. “Play a game of Spotters.”

Winnie got Tan’s attention again, and pushed the situation. Sighing, he slid some dice to Josephine while keeping a set for himself. Josephine rolled first. She studied her results, then looked Winnie in the eye. Winnie wouldn’t have known how to interpret the dice herself, but she saw in Josephine’s mind where to look—about forty feet up in the air. It was a complete dud of a roll, but that was expected from her.

Tan’s turn. His roll had Winnie looking deep into the gridport. She followed as best she could, and ended up in a communications room. Guards waited around a desk where a man on a phone wrote instructions down. Tan’s roll couldn’t have been random. Unfortunately, the security officer was not speaking English.

Winnie got Christof’s attention. They locked eyes, and he listened to them. Part of his contribution to this was his centuries-worth of lingual skills.

“Oh, dear,” he said.

“What is it?” Victoria said as she crunched through dead foliage.

“I have no idea what they’re saying.”

“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.

“We found some guards on a phone. They look like they’re getting new orders,” said Winnie, “but they’re speaking Spanish.”

“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.

“Which is a language you knew,” said Victoria.

“I did. Once. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago. They didn’t have words for airplanes or phones or repulsers. I’m not sure if… no, hold on. Okay. They’re supposed to leave and look for something. No. Someone. People. Something fell down. Yes. They’re looking for the pod.”

“Winnie,” said Victoria. “Are they soldiers or security guards?”

“They’re just guards, I think.”

“Are they shielded?”

Winnie checked over their bodies. “I don’t think so.”

“Then I want you to—”

“On it.”

Hold on. Wait until they’re gotten their orders. Then do so.”

Winnie waited. Once the man on the phone hung up, he shared his new orders to the others. Winnie mentally linked with Josephine, and he trailed off. After studying his notes, he restarted, only to trail off again. The other guards shuffled. Eventually, the man gave up and returned to work. Everyone else trickled away as though their water cooler chitchat had ended.

“Done,” said Josephine.

Prodding Tan, Winnie returned to playing Spotters. Tan won the last round, but this time Josephine and Tan found nothing. Draw.

“The place should be safe now,” Winnie said.

Victoria finished counting down and strode toward the gridport. A barbed wire fence barred her way. With no way around, Victoria climbed. At the top, she deftly stepped over the curled razor wire, getting several slashes for her effort. A security camera was trained on Victoria. Frantically, Winnie looked for the associated security room.

It was nested inside the gridport. An army officer was on duty, but someone else had come into the room to talk with him. The motion detection feature of the security system had made Victoria prominent on his screen, but neither paid attention. When Victoria’s pants snagged, she spent nearly a minute decoupling herself, rattling the chain links with every move.

Winnie held her breath. The officer’s conversation was ending. Already he was turning back to his screen. Just a glance and she’d be spotted, and like all soldiers, this man was shielded.

“Hurry,” said Winnie. “You’re on a camera.”

“I’m fine,” Victoria muttered. Victoria cleared the razor wire and climbed down the other side. The officer turned to his desk. His eyes were on his tea. After a sip, he glanced at the screen. Victoria had moved on.

“Do you know how close you just came to getting caught?” Winnie said.

“Nonsense. Trust the dice, Winnie. They’re not telling me what to do to succeed, they’re telling me whatever I need to hear so that I succeed anyway.”

“It’s still nerve wracking. What now?”

“Just keep an eye out.”

Victoria marched across tarmac and entered the gridport through a service door. She was in a terminal. Families and commuters waited for shuttles. Flight announcements sounded over speakers. Restaurants and convenience stores lined the walls, though most were closed. This gridport had been built before the Collapse. There was more traffic then.

Victoria walked through like any other traveler, though numerous cuts marred her arms and legs. She arrived at a security checkpoint and was already on the secure side. Kneeling, Victoria took from her pocket a few dice of her own, which she rolled on the floor. Winnie didn’t know the game, but timing must have been part of it, since Victoria took a seat in a nearby bench and waited. Minutes later, she marched abruptly toward the checkpoint, dropping her dice in a waste bin as she passed. After exiting the secure terminal, she turned and got into line to get right back in. A short wait later, it was her turn at the checkpoint.

A guard with a security wand said something to her in Portuguese.

Victoria replied calmly.

“He wants her passport and ticket,” Christof said for Winnie’s benefit. “She’s refusing.”

The guard repeated himself, and so did Victoria. She held out her empty palms. His eyes widened upon seeing her bloody arms. He called others over. They surrounded her. With hands resting on holstered weapons, they barked orders.

“They’re telling her to lie down,” Christof clarified.

Victoria complied. The men searched her and took her to a holding room. They spoke among each other in the other room.

“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.

Christof still had eye contact with Winnie. “I am,” Christof said. “So far everything is going to plan.”

“Translate everything said for Winnie. Keep her up to date.”

“I will do so.”

A soldier came in and sat across from Victoria. He stared her down a while, looking over the tattoos covering her wrists and neck. Victoria kept her eyes on the table.

“He’s got a glyph card in his wallet, and a shield stone around his neck,” said Winnie. “Do you see it?”

Victoria didn’t answer.

“Hello,” the guard said in Portuguese. Christof translated his words. “I am Captain Russo. I’m going to ask you some questions. First, what is your name?”

“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.

“You are trying to cross the border without papers or ID. Where are you trying to go?”


“Where in Colombia?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It is my business. This is our gridport. You will answer my questions or you will be arrested.”

“On what charges?”

“Illegally crossing the border.”

“That’s nonsense,” Victoria said. “You can’t charge me for that.”

“You will find that we can. This is a serious matter. Now I’ll ask again. What is your name?”

She looked him in the eyes. “I’m not telling.”

He stared back and frowned. “Do you have a shield on you?”

“A what?”

“A shield stone. It is illegal for anyone accept military and security personnel to have a shield.”

“Are you trying read my mind? I never gave you permission.”

“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”

“You cretins already searched me. Did you find one?”

“This is a very serious matter,” he replied, irritated.

“You already said so.”

“I will ask you one more time. Do you have a shield?”

“Go to hell.”

The man stood and turned toward the door. He took one step when Victoria lunged and tackled him. He yelled and struggled, striking Victoria in the face. Blood streamed from her nose, but she kept clawing ferociously.

Suddenly she faltered. Russo shoved her off, took his baton, and clubbed her across the temple.

Other soldiers rushed in and apprehended her, but by then there was nothing to do. She was limp. Blood trickled down her face.

Winnie held her breath and watched. It had been hard to tell what had happened.

“What was that?” asked one of the guards. Christof still translated the conversation for Winnie.

Russo shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know.” Bending, he picked up his shield stone, which had come loose in the fight. The other men yanked the girl to her feet. She couldn’t keep her legs beneath her.

“Get her out of here,” Russo said.

The guards either ignored or didn’t notice Russo’s sudden change in accent. The girl was taken to a holding cell, and someone called for an ambulance. The blow on her head had left her unresponsive. The excitement settled down after twenty minutes. Everyone returned to their posts. Russo pulled one of the other men aside.

“Yes, sir?”

Russo reached for his neck and yanked away the man’s shield. Surprised, the man reached to catch Russo’s wrist.

“Stop,” Russo said. The word was like a force of its own.

The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.

“Good. Listen carefully. I saw something alarming when I read that girl’s mind. I need to go to the HIMS Manakin and report this to the Exemplar Committee, and I will leave immediately. Is this clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Russo handed him back his shield. By the time he’d put it back on, he didn’t remember it falling off at all. He could hardly remember the conversation he’d just had, but he got the gist of it.

Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.

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.

96. A Right to Know

“And then we look at this one?” The imperial marshal pointed to another camera feed. It showed hundreds of civilians walking through the Fortaleza grid terminal. Crowds weaved through each other as everyone headed to their destinations.

Alex recognized two who walked past the view like any other traveling pair. Christof had changed from his military uniform. The woman wore the same ratty clothes, because why bother changing? The police were looking out for her skin.

“And, here. This is where it happens.” The marshal switched to a feed showing the security checkpoint. Christof and Zauna got into a security line. Several guards looked right at Christof. A few moved closer, but all lost momentum. By the time the two were through, several guards were clustered close enough to snatch them, but half weren’t even watching. Only one seemed to notice; he raised his hand helplessly to catch them, but as though his depth perception were off, he didn’t come close. Afterward, he and the guards returned to work.

“And you’re saying all those guards had glyph cards?”

“In some form or another. A lot of agencies have been encouraging them, at least until regulation comes down from above.”

“And yet none of the guards stopped them…”

The marshal spoke casually. “Looks like a slip up with administration. This was pretty far from our search area. The guards weren’t on high alert for the fugitives.”

“No. Look, right there. Right. There.” Alex zoomed the feed in on a bulletin by the security checkpoint. The resolution was low, but Alex had seen enough of the wanted posters to recognize Christof and Zauna’s face. “Those are the alerts.”

“Yes.” The marshal shook his head as though he couldn’t believe it himself. “Terminal security claim they did alert them, but the guards all insist that they were never informed about the manhunt.”

“Of course they did,” because they all had their god damn memories erased. “What flight did they take?”

“They took the night shuttle to Lisbon Airport. We’re not sure where they went from there. We’re still trying to get footage sent over. Nobody remembers seeing them.” The marshal straightened. “We still got a good shot at catching them. Spain is on high alert now. Actually, the fugitives may have screwed themselves by going there. The grid only extends to Madrid. After that, they’re on roads, and our military presence is still strong there. All they’ve done is hopped to a much smaller haystack.”

The marshal continued listing possible ways Christof could try to escape. Car. Plane. Boat. Ferry. Even swimming. He never mentioned that damn orbiter plane that landed in Austria last night. Christof could have gotten there in time. Maybe the marshal had caught the same forgetful flu that was going around, or if he was just trying to mollify Alexander. The man had a shield now, so Alex couldn’t rely on his usual method of sensing bullshit.

The marshal continued. “We’ve got men headed out to Portugal now who should be there in few hours. We’ll know for sure how they left. Unless they took a connecting flight immediately, which we’re pretty sure they didn’t, then—”

“Get out,” Alex said.


“Just get the fuck out of my office.”

The marshal hesitated. It was disgusting how obviously the man wanted so much to stay and make this right. With as much Sympathy as Alex had basted him in, Alex could probably shoot him, and he’d thank Alex for the opportunity to make amends. It took all the fun out of it.

“Go. Now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The marshal headed for the door.

Four people remained in Alex’s office. Sibyl stood behind him, Wyatt had escorted the marshal here, and one other.

“So,” said Wyatt, “looks like that memory chick got to them.”

Alex smiled thinly. Wyatt had just come closer to dying than the marshal had.

“You think she’s with Victoria now?” Wyatt asked.

“No, Wyatt. I think the memory chick helped lead them to a holiday in the Spanish countryside.”

Wyatt frowned. He wouldn’t parse the sarcasm on his own.

Yes,” Alex snapped. “She’s with Victoria.”

He’d hoped that Christof wouldn’t stoop to making a deal with that bitch, Katherine. Everything else could have been forgivable. Trying to run away with that glyph breaker girl was typical Christof, always sentimental. Even trying to kill Alex was understandable. God knows how many times they’d all wanted to kill each other over the centuries. Alex would have still executed Christof if he ever caught him, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed it much.

“If they’re all on that one ship though,” Wyatt said, “just means they’ll all die at once.”

“Wyatt. Shut up.”

“Sorry, boss.”

Except Wyatt was right. If one ship blew up, all his problems would go away, but it just wouldn’t happen. His ministry hemmed and hawed every time he mentioned nuclear weapons. They insisted on looking into non-nuclear ways of destroying the orbiter, except such a way didn’t readily exist. Repulse-propelled rockets would suffer the same problem of catching up to an orbiter that the interceptors had, and all the older jet-fuel rockets laying around weren’t sophisticated enough to stand any chance bypassing an orbiter’s defenses, so they were no good either.

It was enough to drive Alex ballistic. He’d usurped Sakhr only three days ago, and he’d already inherited the man’s same hangups.

Alex had to calm down and think. He was in control. He owned this empire. Everyone within a square mile would give their life for him. All other problems were solving themselves. Take the threats of succession from the PRC: the Chinese leaders was visiting tomorrow. Those problems would evaporate as soon as Alex saw them face to face. Those riots in India? It just happened that key players from New Delhi were arriving next week. After Victoria was gone, he’d visit all the unstable countries, one after another. He’d stand on the deck of his citadel and look down on them all with his own eyes. How could anyone riot when they adored their world leader?

Would it be time consuming? Sure. But he would only have to do it once. Soon, crowds would come from around the world to bask in his splendor. They’d bring their children. It’d become self perpetuating after a while. No more wars. No conflicts. No rebellions. There’d only be Alexander.

And it’s not like Victoria could easily attack him. Nearly everyone was shielded now. Christof had failed to take Alex’s glyph breaker, and now no one could. He kept her close now, all bundled up like a Christmas present. Not only that, but Quentin’s little project was coming along down in the lower decks. Things were far from lost. All he needed to do was to destroy Victoria as absolutely as he could. And the army boys promised those missiles would be ready in a few days at most. Orbiters were standing by with all their pilots shielded. There was one more thing he could do though. A small thing, but every edge would count.

“Wyatt,” he said.

“Yeah, boss?”

“Who’s the guy I talk to in order to make an announcement to the world? Is it one of those ministers?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Go find out.”

All the flairs onboard had lessons with Victoria today. Christof was with her right now. Last Winnie checked, Victoria was trying to convince him that he could recognize people with glyphs just as easily as he recognized people with flairs. It was slow going.

Winnie was in the ship’s mess hall, sitting with Tan as he watched the news. Before him were dice and pads of paper. He’d squint at the screen, write numbers down, watch more, roll dice, then write down more numbers. Winnie had figured out that he was paying attention to the stock prices on the news ticker rather than the actual news. She’d asked what sort of exercises Victoria had given him. His answer had been a shrug.

Winnie was also preoccupied with her own homework. Mentally, her mind was floating above the Manakin, just over the bridge spire. She could see it in its entirety, from the doorway at its base, to the cluster of antennae at its top. She floated down until her perspective was within the cluster. It was filthy here, dust and bird droppings everywhere. An osprey had built a nest out of a mix of sticks and plastic garbage. The bird seemed as much as a fixture as the antennae. Wind ruffled its feathers as it sat guarding its eggs while staring over the citadel.

Her mind moved along an access ladder toward the top floor balcony of the bridge spire. She paused before coming into view of its windows. Doing so would force her to acknowledge its interior, which she was struggling not to do. Inside the spire was nothing, she told herself. Nothing at all. She imagined a dense, opaque fog past the glass that not even she could penetrate, then floated down to the balcony.

Her power locked up. The vision lost consistency.

“You’re doing it again,” Helena thought. She sat on the table before Winnie’s meal tray.

“Yeah, I know.”

“You’re still aware of what’s past the fog. You have to learn to not think about something at all if you’re ever going to see Alex in there.”

“I know. I know.”

“Sorry, but you’ve been messing up the same way for hours. It’s frustrating to watch.”

“You don’t have to,” thought Winnie. “You can go bug Tan again.”

Helena glanced at him, then back. “No thanks. He reeks of cigarettes. Why don’t you take a break?”

“Your mother will know.”

Helena suppressed her first thought, which was “she can go fuck herself”, and composed a more reasonable response. “If you overwork yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. Take ten minutes off. Don’t even use your power. Just relax.”

“Victoria wants me practicing as much as I can.”

“She doesn’t realize that not everyone is an unfeeling robot like she is. You need to take a break.”

“Okay, fine.”

Winnie let her mind go. Relaxing, she turned her mind back to Christof’s lesson.

“No. I said stop,” thought Helena.

“I can’t even use my power?”

“No. I am forbidding you from doing anything. Or your not going to let yourself relax. Ten minutes. Go.”

With nothing to do, Winnie resorted to using her eyes. Tan was still practicing. When marines came in for their break, one sneered at the news and changed the channel. Tan calmly took a remote from his lap and changed back. It changed back and forth several times until the marine faced Tan.

“Who the fuck watches the news? Change the channel.”

“No.” Tan shook his head. He flipped back.

Glowering, the marine stepped toward him.

“He needs the news,” Winnie said. “Victoria’s orders. It’s part of his practice.”

The marine studied both of them. Tan casually watched the television. Winnie paid attention to Helena.

The soldier muttered and rejoined his group.

The news was currently on a political story.

“…Is scheduled to give an announcement in a few minutes, she’s expected to discuss her meeting yesterday with the Chinese Premier, Guo Jié.” the news anchor was saying. “Jié has already held a press conference, where he expressed his optimism for the continued Pacific coalition. He stated that while the change in Lakiran political rule may have set their alliance onto a rocky path, he’s confident in Queen Helena’s ability to lead the coalition forward.”

Winnie found herself listening out of morbid curiosity. As the anchor spoke, the screen showed Alexander shaking hands with the Chinese Premier in a press room aboard the Manakin. During the shake, they both faced toward the audience as cameras clicked. Sensing pain from Helena, she met her eyes. Helena had heard her own name. She could tell the news was talking about her impostor.

“Do you want to leave?” Winnie asked.

“No. Keep watching,” said Helena.

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been hidden from reality too long. I’m not going to hide now just because it hurts. What are they saying?”

Winnie kept eyes with Helena while she listened.

“This news was met with mixed support from Beijing,” the anchor said. “Only last week, Guo Jié had been a leading supporter for independence. Having met with the queen, he says he now has full confidence in her abilities. Many have voiced their disapproval at Jié change in policy, saying the Chinese people would be better off if China withdrew from the Pacific coalition.”

The view shifted to a Chinese woman speaking rapid Mandarin before a green-screen image of Hong Kong. “The people want independence,” an accented voice-over said. “They’re in the streets. They’re marching on our cities. Retaking government buildings. And they are right. This coalition is nothing more than the Lakiran empire’s attempt to control us. We do not need it. The Lakiran’s know this. In the the past, they have done everything they could to increase dependence on them, but the we are stronger than that. We are proud.”

The news switched back to the anchor. “The queen will be meeting with members of the Chinese Republic later today. She hopes to convince them to move forward with restructuring the coalition, but many officials remain skeptical. We go now to the press conference, which is about to begin.” The screen panned to another display location. Winnie recognized it as being aboard the Manakin. Alexander was taking the podium as cameras flashed.

“Thank you all for coming today. As many of you know, the Chinese premier and I met yesterday to discuss where we go from here. I’m glad to say we share the same vision of a joint Chinese and South American union, but the coalition does need work. The Chinese people have taken issue with the current arrangement, saying that it unfairly benefits the Lakiran empire, and they’re right. When my mother established this alliance, she did so with her country’s future in mind, not the world’s. So we’ll work together to rebuild a fair coalition—one that paves the way for a better future for everyone, not just the Lakiran people.”

He continued. “My mother set out to unite the world, and she succeeded, until terrorist groups assassinated her. They struck not only at her, but at the world. That blow caused this empire to stumble. My goal is not only to reunite us, but to do so in a way she never could, because her motives were for herself. She made choices she should not have, more so than I ever realized until I took the throne.

“I will do better. I am not hoarding the powers used by the Exemplar Committee as my mother did, but have embraced introducing them to the world in a safe and secure fashion. And there will be no more lies or conspiracies.” Alex prepared himself. “I’ve recently learned of one such lie my mother perpetuated, and the people have the right to know the truth.”

The soldiers in the mess hall stopped talking. All eyes turned to the television.

“In the years leading up to the Collapse, most people feared the possibility of nuclear war. World leaders were working together to diffuse tensions between the West, Russia and the Middle East. My mother was among these leaders. She facilitated peace talks and worked hard to prevent South America from becoming embroiled in global tensions. But all the while she was preparing for the war. Her company had already designed food-ready assemblers, but she chose to withhold them from the public, knowing they would give her a greater advantage in the aftermath.”

Winnie split her attention to see if Victoria was aware of this. Victoria was still in lesson with Christof, but she abruptly silenced him. From the expression on her face, she was aware.

The speech continued. “There have been rumors that Victoria was actively encouraging the war. I don’t know if these are true. I know my mother was a driven woman, but to believe this is to believe that she was responsible for the five billion lives lost from the Collapse. Growing up, she taught me to think for the world first, and never for personal gain, which is why I don’t believe these rumors, but I must accept that she did firmly believe the war would occur, and prepared as such. If Victoria were around today, I would demand answers from her. If these allegations are true, then I think I speak on behalf of the world when I say that she should not be the one heading this empire.”

“He’s insane,” Victoria uttered under her breath.

“Who is?” Christof asked.

“But she’s not here,” Alex continued. “I am, and I am not my mother. Whoever she was, whatever her purpose, she did good in building this empire. It put the world back on its feet. I plan to continue on, but no longer will the empire engage in aggressive imperialism. No longer will our soldiers be where they’re not wanted.”

This was met with applause.

“No longer will we hoard food,” he continued. “It was Victoria’s means of controlling other nations. It will not be mine.

More applause.

“And no longer will we hoard glyphs. It was with those that she exacted complete control over her people through her exemplars. The glyphs will belong to everyone now.”

And even more applause. The audience seemed exuberant about that announcement, especially since Alex never released the glyphs. They were leaked, and the empire tried to cover it up.

Alexander held up his hands to quiet them. “I hope the empire will give me a chance to prove myself. Whether I am working to fix Victoria’s mistakes, or rebuilding this empire, I will do better. Thank you.”

Alex stepped off the stage. The audience applauded. The feed switched back to the anchors, who discussed what the queen had just revealed, but no one in the mess hall paid attention. They all discussed with each other.

“Is everything okay?” Christof asked.

“We’re done for now,” Victoria replied.

“I thought you said we had hours lef—”

“I said we’re done. Leave.”

It was clear that Christof was annoyed by that dismissal, especially without explanation, but Winnie knew he’d understand soon enough. The marines in the mess hall were already talking. As they returned to work, news of the announcement spread about the ship. Soon everyone would have the same questions.

What had Alexander been insinuating? What exactly did Victoria do?

91. Class in Session

The leg room situation in the captain’s ready room only accommodated one and a half people, and Victoria was not the sort who accepted anything less than a full share of anything, which left Josephine struggling for space. After some awkward squirming, she’d settled on draping her legs over her chair arms.

Victoria sketched in her notepad while glancing at Josephine. Her page was filled with partially completed glyphs.

“Is that all you brought me in here for?” asked Josephine.

Victoria held up a finger for silence.

Earlier, High Exemplar Liat had appeared in the berthing quarters and informed Josephine that Victoria required her presence. Josephine had been thrilled. After a day of Victoria ignoring her, she was ready to barge in and grapple Victoria for attention, regardless of her body guards. But instead, she got twenty minutes of this.

She was considering what Victoria would do if she just left when Victoria finally held up the pad.

“There,” Victoria pointed out the only glyph on the yellow page that wasn’t scribbled out. “Your power.”

“Who are you going to give it to?”

“No one.”

“Then why’d you make it?”

“So I know how.”

“Do you know what would happen to the world if that got out?”

“Of course I do.” Victoria darted a line through the symbol. “I like to make a glyph of my students’ power at the start of every lesson. It helps them see what progress they’ve made today.”

“This is a lesson?”

“More of an evaluation. You’ve come a long way with your power. Yesterday, those pilots forgot a lot more than just you. You could never have done that when we first met.”

“I thought you brought me here to discuss what’s going to happen next.”

“An evaluation is next.”

“With Alex. With your empire. With us being on board.”

“You and your friends are welcome to remain so long as you obey my rules and cause no trouble. As for Alex, I will deal with him.”

“And you and me? You hunted me for years over something I didn’t do.”

“Do you expect an apology?”

“No, I… Don’t you even want to talk about it?”

“What I want to talk about is your progress. Are you still convinced that your power can only erase memories related to you? Or have you moved beyond that?”

“You’re unbelievable. Can you put away the lesson and just talk to me? Human to human?”

“Josephine. I’m busy. Alexander is working around the clock devising a way to kill us. He has the advantage with resources, military, and authority. The only advantage we have is us flairs, so I must utilize that as much as possible. I don’t have time to reminisce.”

“And if I say no?”

“You can’t.”

“You’re going to force me?”

“If I must. Just because I now know you never meant me harm doesn’t mean you’re exempt from my command. You’ll do as I say for the same reason the rest of the world does. I have the power to control you. I’ve already described how I could alter your memories until you’re absolutely loyal to me. Maybe I don’t deserve this power, but I have it, and you don’t. I hope you don’t force me to exercise my power against you, but I will. The stakes are too high for me. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that our relationship is something it’s not just because we were friends for one week almost thirty years ago.”

“You’ve turned into a pleasant lady.”

“It’s how the world works.”

“It’s how your world works.”

“It’s the world I learned.” Victoria folded her hands before her. “If you want to dwell on the past, fine, but not today. Perhaps once I’m back on the throne.”

“And what will you do with my power then?”

“I will use it as little as possible. I plan to rule a world of humans, not automatons.”

“Are you going to give my power to your secret agents?”

“Unlikely. Some powers are not worth risking falling into public hands. Your power is one. Body-swapping is another. Satisfied?”

“Are you just saying this to placate me?”

“It’s no less true.”

There was no point to arguing; Josephine didn’t have a choice. She just wished Victoria wasn’t so damn cold about it. If Victoria had asked for her help nicely, Josephine would have readily agreed. She’d already been planning to offer. It had to be this though—the ultimatum. Her help had to be an act of servitude.

“Fine. I wiped those pilots minds by stretching what I consider part of myself. I’m in this orbiter. I’m part of its crew, sort of, so this ship is an extension of me. Their mission was to destroy this ship, so their mission was about me. It’s the same logic you told me when you were a child.”

“Have you made any other progress?”

“It’s been enough. I look after Tan and the others, so they’re part of my group. Therefore part of me.”

“Have you tried any other techniques?”

“Like what?”

“Like, say, you and your target have both witnessed the same event, therefore it is related to you.”

“That’s a stretch.”

“How about erasing any memory a person has ever had since first meeting you, because you’ve influenced everything they’ll do since. Causality.”

“That’s an even bigger stretch.”

“Stretching flairs is what I do. With proper guidance, you should be able to drop the necessity that a memory must relate to you.”

“I can already take so much when I try. It’s like amnesia.”

“But not total amnesia. I want you able to remove any memory you want.”

“Why? That could only be used for evil.”

“Nonsense. You could remove traumatic experiences. Or remove empire secrets from someone who either mistakenly learned them, or lost clearance to know them. Total amnesia could be used in leu of a death penalty.”

“That doesn’t outweigh the dangers.”

“No, it doesn’t. Which is why I’ll never release your power to the public, but stretching your power would also help us deal with Alexander.”

“All right. So what are we going to do? Exercises?”

“Not right now. This is an evaluation. I have something more important for you. I need to know if you’re able remove memories of us from any soldier or imperial official, even if they’re not directly involved like those pilots were yesterday?”


“Good. Then you’re going to work with Winnie to erase us from as many government minds as possible before Alexander gets them all shielded. I don’t know how much good it will do, but we need to slow Alex down as much as possible. The next squadron he sends against us will not fall for the same trick.”

“But I’m helping Winnie with Zauna and Christof.”

“You will do both. I expect you’ll only have a few days to do this before Alexander has everyone shielded.”

“Okay. I’ll do it, but only if you sit down and talk to me like a person.”

“Fine, but later. I’m much to busy to do that now. Speaking of which, on your way out, let Liat know that I’m ready for Winnie.”

Winnie’s lesson started out more as a practice in sketching than using her power. She’d copied glyphs again and again. Usually, glyphs were simple to copy. Just lay a piece of paper over a glyph and trace it.

Unfortunately, Winnie couldn’t trace the glyph she was drawing because Victoria was sitting on it. Her power was no worse than her eyes at this point, but it still meant properly sizing each line and curve, and there were so many. Again and again, she ended up cramping parts together causing the resulting glyph to look half melted.

At least her latest one was coming out all right. It was an Empathy glyph, the simplest one. After a few final pen strokes, she handed it to Victoria.

Victoria confirmed it was correct and handed it back. “Well? Does it work?”

Winnie concentrated. “No.”

“Then try again.”

“The glyph is fine. It’s not working.”

Victoria held up one of Winnie’s lopsided glyphs. “I’m not convinced your drawing skills aren’t the problem.”

“How do you even know it works when you don’t trace them. Why don’t you try it?”

“Because I’m not the one who needs to expand my power. But that does give me an idea.”

Victoria took the glyph out from under her. Setting a paper over it, she traced it. “I suppose I should have tried this earlier. My plaque replicator used to render nearly all of the glyph except for the last line. That one I would draw myself. It’s the only one that matters.” She’d finished all but one line. Tucking the aura glyph away, she handed her drawing to Winnie. “Draw that line there.”

Winnie did so.

“Does it work?” Victoria asked.


“And you do have your master glyph on you?”

Winnie took hers out and placed it on the table.

Victoria sighed. “I suppose it was a long shot. Damn Paul. That man was always so difficult. Even when he gives glyphs to the world, he only trained his power just barely enough to do so.” After a pause. “I want you to keep trying though.”

Winnie resisted her impulse to complain. If there was any chance at all that she could remotely copy glyphs, she had to try. Both her and Victoria had seen that unknown glyph strapped tight around Alexander’s neck, just as they could see the beguiling effect it had on people. Winnie wasn’t too keen on Victoria having that power as well, but if Winnie could copy glyphs, it would mean she could copy shields too. The crew would be safe from whatever Alex was doing. And Winnie would have something besides Victoria’s word to safeguard her own memories. She took another sheet of paper and started again.

“Continue on your own time,” Victoria said. “I have something else I want to cover.”


“Look at Alexander right now.”

“”I can’t.”

“Did you try trying?”

Sighing, Winnie visualized him. Nothing came up. She tried visualizing his office instead, where she knew he was, only to suffer the mental bite as something shut her power down..

“Nothing,” she said.

“Which doesn’t make sense,” Victoria replied. “He doesn’t have Naema’s power.”

“But he must have her right next to him.”

“And by now you should already know what lesson I have planned.”

“You’re going to have my narrow my focus so that I’m only looking at him and I’m not seeing her at all.”

“See? You’re learning how to learn. I wonder why you haven’t been practicing this already.”

“Because I’ve been on the run from the law.”

“Fortunately you’re perfectly safe up here. So you’ll have plenty of time to practice all your lessons. Hours.”

“You said you only wanted to see me for a few minutes.”

“I did. We’re done. You’ll practice on your own. Tell Tan to come see me.”

“This is your power.” Victoria held up her legal pad and pointed out the working glyph among a page of errors.

Tan nodded so slightly that it may have just been his breathing. All during Victoria’s sketching, he never asked why he was there or what she was doing, but merely watched, arms crossed.

“You’ve made progress on your own,” said Victoria. “It normally doesn’t take me so long to sketch one for the first time. Tell me about your power.”

Tan didn’t respond.

“I understand you use it by defining games with rules and winning conditions.”


“Is this the only way you’ve had success? Do you need to construct games around everything you do? Say… combat. Or does your power assume that the winning condition then is to survive the fight?”

More staring. Eye contact.

“Yes, I can read your mind, but wouldn’t you rather have a conversation? No? Is this because I tasered you when we first met? I would have convinced you to come with me if I could, but would any argument have worked? And you realize that you have no one to blame but yourself for being here. It was your game after all. At every intersection, you rolled your die to select which road to take. Your winning condition was to get out of town without falling into the hands of the empire. What you hadn’t known was that the empire had mobilized to capture you the moment Josephine accessed that file on Naema. No matter what path you took, they would have caught up to you eventually. If I hadn’t caught you, they would. And as it happens, you sent yourself down a road that gave me plenty of time to get in your way. You practically handed yourself over to me.”

No response.

“It’s funny, really. All these years I’ve failed to capture you, I thought it was Josephine that kept eluding me, but it was you, tossing your dice like a seer tossing chicken bones. Not even Josephine realizes how critical you were. All those little dice rolls and maps and solitaire games. You always went to the right place. I caught you now is because your goal was to avoid the empire. Only I’m not the empire anymore. I’m on the run. Just like you.”

Still, Tan only stared.

“And it might even have been worth it just to meet you. Because, unlike any other power I’ve known, you can see the future… in a matter of speaking. My intuition tells me your power does not give you any knowledge, but it guides you. You’ll always be forced to let your power act through your unconscious actions, but that might be enough. You’ve already learned how games can let your power express itself, but you could do so much more. Make your games to play the stock market. Flip a coin to decide long or short. Run a company using a magic eight-ball for corporate decisions. Wage a war. Get more points for clean victories. Go for the high score. You could have been ruling this world just as easily as I have.”

Still nothing.

“But not anymore. You’ve waited too long, and now you’re here on a ship surfing the atmosphere, waiting for our enemies to destroy us. Shortly, every person working for Alexander will have a shield, and neither Josephine nor I can do anything to help. But you might turn all of this around. All you need is to expand your power, and I can help you.”

He finally moved, only to utter one word. “How?”

Victoria took many item from her case: A pack of cards, coins, her tablet, a sleeping mask, pens and index cards, and set after set of colored dice with varying sides.

Victoria looked at him. “By playing games, of course.”

89. Bargaining Chips

It took nearly an hour to get the remaining spider drones back onboard. From what Winnie could tell spying on the bridge, none of them expected that they’d have to bother. They’d optimized the spider drones’ flight path for a maximum engagement window with the enemy. The Venezia had had to slow down to get the drones back before they’d start dropping to earth with dead batteries.

Fortunately, the enemy orbiters never adjusted their course to take advantage of the Venezia’s drop in velocity. Actually they hadn’t adjusted their course at all. Onboard those ships, the crew lived out a sci-fi thriller: two dozen men were on a ship. No one knew why they were there. The disappointing ending came when ground control admitted that they didn’t know either and told them all to come home to check the mission logs.

After the spiders were aboard the Venezia, the Marines went about ship duty. The mess hall filled up. Victoria returned to the bridge. Winnie had taken to camping out in the corner of the mess hall to spy on the world while the Venezia surfed along the sky. Everything was exactly as it was before.

Though Tan was here now. He strolled in before things settled down, nodded once to Winnie as though to say, yes, we do happen to be in the same room, then settled into his own corner that gave him a good view of the break room television. He played cards with himself until the soldiers came. They all started a communal game as though Tan hadn’t spent the last few hours in the ship’s brig. Victoria must have decided he was harmless. It wasn’t as if they’d cause trouble now that they know they’re in the safest place they could possibly be.

Just an hour ago, they’d come within whispering range of death, but everything was calm now. It bothered Winnie more than the risk itself had. Marines joked while Winnie’s hands still trembled. These people were used to it. Winnie just wanted to go home.

But home was empty. The lights were off. The curtains were closed. Her mother was sitting alone at a tiki bar in Bermuda. Her colorful drink had multiple little umbrellas. Her floppy sun hat only underscored her diminutive stature. Her tropical dress matched the local fashion. Yet she couldn’t look more awkward. How could she enjoy herself when she didn’t even know the fate of her own daughter? Winnie could have died today, and her mother would never have known. She’d eventually have gone back home once her funds ran up, and she’d spend the rest of her life always wondering.

She was surrounded by beautiful beaches and happy people, and she’d never looked so lonely. Winnie wanted to call her so badly.

“Hey, You.”

Winnie looked up. Josephine stood over her.

“Hi,” said Winnie.

“We never met properly. My name is Josephine.”

“Cho Eun-Yeong, or Winnie.”

Josephine blinked. She looked over Winnie’s reddish brown hair and freckled, pale skin.

“I used to be Korean,” said Winnie.

“Oh.” Josephine sat. “Bodyswapping?”

Winnie nodded.

“You still are Korean. The body doesn’t mean much. Josephine looked herself over. “This one was Italian I think, but I’m not. Though truthfully, I’m not French anymore either. I used to have an accent. It followed me from body to body, but it faded over the years. Nowadays, everyone thinks I’m from Ohio or some place. I’m just me now. I don’t have a sense of belonging anywhere, but if you still feel that you’re Korean, then you are.”

“You knew Sakhr, then?”

“I traveled with his group for decades. Never liked them though, especially Alexander.”

“How many bodies have you had?”

Josephine counted off on her fingers. “Seven.”

“How old are you?”

“Sakhr found me in nineteen fourteen, I think. I was maybe twenty, so I’m about a hundred and fifty.”

“So you stuck with them for the immortality.”

“It was more than that. Back then, someone with a gift like ours would have been shunned, or worse. We stuck together to survive. Sakhr looked after us.”


The conversation lapsed into silence. Winnie turned her vision back to her mother.

“You’re power is to see other places, right?” asked Josephine.


“You just close your eyes and imagine it?”

“I don’t have to close my eyes, but yeah.”

“Do you think you could look into a place for me?”

Ah. This had been the classic smalltalk before the favor. “What place?”

“Sakhr captured a girl I was looking after. I think he might have taken her to a place called Ascension Island. Do you think you could see if she’s actually there?”

“I don’t know where that is.”

Josephine took out a phone. It was already showing the Atlantic ocean. “There.”

Winnie looked. “Okay, I see it,” she said.

“There’s supposed to be a military base…” she zoomed on the phone, “right there.”


“So it’s there? It’s active?”

“Yeah.” Winnie was already pouring through the buildings looking for anything like holding cells. “What does she look like?”

“She’s Nigerian. Teenager. You might have trouble seeing her though. Her power breaks glyphs when people use them near her.”

“Oh, her? She’s on the Manakin.”


“It’s the citadel where Sakhr was.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. There’s a big blindspot in the citadel’s detainment wing. She’s the only one who does that to me.”

“Can you tell if they have her mother too? She’s also Nigerian. I don’t think she’d be far.”

“I can’t really see down there that well.” Though Winnie gave it a cursory glance. She could see most of the detainment cells housing hundreds of people. No one stood out. It would take her a while to find one particular person among them, but Winnie would. She knew what it was like to have someone you care about held captive. The thought made her think of Helena.


Helena was not in that shower anymore. She was…

“I have to go.” Winnie stood and left before Josephine could reply.

Victoria had to know.

“Stop moving,” Zauna said.

“I’m trying. Egh!” Christof flinched away.

“I’m not even stitching yet. You are a child.” Zauna pulled Christof until his head was in her lap. Her grip on him was both stern yet mothering. It was a strange feeling for a five-hundred-year-old man.

Her needle broke skin on his scalp. He winced.

Her grip tightened. “Lucky man. It is only a graze. You are bleeding bad, but only blood.”


“When are these people going to call you?”

“Five minutes. Five days. No telling.”

It wasn’t the answer Zauna wanted to hear. On the flying citadel miles away, people had her daughter. From the moment that shuttle emergency landed on the beach, it was all Christof could do to convince her not to turn herself in. He’d said that Naema was better off if they didn’t have her mother to control her. Zauna hated the implication of that, and he didn’t blame her.

An hour later found them here, in the bathroom of a diner, using stolen medical supplies from a drugstore to patch up Christof’s wounds. A tortoise sat a few feet ahead of them watching their every move. Scrawled on her shell was the phone number to a prepaid assembler-produced phone Christof had procured.

His entire plan hinged on the assumption that Winnie checked back on Helena from time to time. If she didn’t, or Victoria discouraged it, then he didn’t know what to do next. The exemplars were already hunting them. They had no money and no weapons. Zauna wore the same clothes she had when she was captured, now several days overdue for a wash. Christof was obviously military, and the blood caking his hair and staining his white undershirt must be attracting attention. They’d gotten strange looks just coming into the restaurant. As soon as the news posted a bulletin on them, their problems would compound.

This is the kind of situation intrigue and politics gets you into.

The phone rang from its perch on the sink. Christof jerked. Pain seared his scalp.

“Stay still.” Zauna said

“I need to get that.”

“I finish first, then you get.”

“That phone call is our lifeline.”

“And they see us, yes? They will wait ten seconds.”

She was right that whoever it was could see them, whether Winnie or Victoria, but Zauna didn’t know what kind of woman Victoria was. Christof could imagine her hanging up the phone after two rings just because he made her wait. After all these years, he actually wasn’t sure how she would treat him. He maintained an air of urgency right up until Zauma took her hands off his head. The caller was watching after all.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hello, Christof.”

He’d never heard that voice, but he knew that tone. “Victoria.”

“What do you want?” she asked.



“Sakhr is dead. Alexander is in control.”

“I know.”

“Do you know who I have with me?”


“I want to make a deal.”


“I bring your daughter and this woman to you, and you don’t put me back in an animal, or prison, or anything like that.”

“I am not your chip!” said Zauna. “Was this your plan?”

“I see,” Victoria paused, “and you would trust me just like that.”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t?”

“No, but you don’t have a choice, do you? The hounds are coming. You’re a smart-enough fox to know they will corner you eventually, thus you are already cornered.”

Zauna was still snapping at him. “Answer me. What do you want me for?”

Christof put the phone down a moment. “You want to go to her. Trust me.”

“I want to find Josephine. I said this a thousand times. She’ll get my daughter.”

“This woman is your best chance of ever seeing your daughter again, so just hold on,” he said to her. To the phone, “Do we have a deal?”

“Hmm…” said Victoria

“Does your daughter mean that little to you?”

“I’m not saying I don’t want my daughter, or that woman. I’m just wondering why I should accept your offer at all. I could land this ship and take them from you, and neither you nor Alex could do a thing to stop me. He might shield his soldiers soon, but you’re lost and drowning. Why should I pull you up at all?” She mused upon it.

“You kept me as a pet for nearly two decades, and I wasn’t even there that night. You know damn well I tried to talk Sakhr out of it.”

“Yes. You voted no to murdering a child, but the vote passed anyway. Oh well. You did your best.”

“I could have done more. I know. I’m not innocent of what happened. But seventeen years, Victoria. Are you really not satisfied?”

“Calm down, Christof. I will give you asylum. Bring those two to me and you are forgiven.”

He gritted his teeth. It was always a goddamn power play with her. She was forgiving him. “Fine,” he said. “Where do we go from here?”

No response. It sounded as though the phone was shuffling around on their end.

“Hello?” he asked.


“Who is this?”

“It’s Winnie. I’m going to help you, but first can you put the woman on? Josephine wants to talk to her.”

86. Confirm Live Fire Command

Winnie saw the battle of the spider drones. It lasted less than a second. A firework of explosions rocked through the spider swarm as the Venezia missiles struck. Many missiles exploded a split second before hitting their target, but others hit home. Scores of drones detonated. Their shrapnel tore into their neighbors. Twisted metal plummeted toward the earth.

Simultaneously, the Venezia spider swarm came within combat range. Winnie noticed no exchange of fire. Just that spiders on both sides dropped from the sky in droves, like bugs gassed with poison. There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with the husks hurling back to the planet, but when she looked inside, she saw clean holes cut through their interiors, shattering circuitry. Their armored chassis had a dent at worst.

The enemy swarms passed each other. About thirty of the Venezia’s drones dropped. More than a hundred enemy drones failed. According to the displays in the Venezia strike room. The two swarms would collide once more before the enemy drones descended upon the Venezia. Without the missiles, the next strike wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Over four hundred drones would attack the Venezia in under two minutes.

The launch room was in madness when Winnie, Victoria, and Josephine arrived. Marines were cramming into pods. One would buckle into the seat. Another would practically sitting on their lap.

“Ma’am. Here,” Bishop called out. Two pods were standing by. Tan was already buckled into one. He watched the commotion with passing interest. Oni was crammed in beside him. Tan had not allowed him to sit on his lap. The other pod was empty.

Victoria stepped into the pod with Tan. To her exemplars, she pointed out Winnie and Josephine. “Put those two in the other pod. And you,” she said to Tan. “Get up. I’m sitting.”

Tan didn’t move.

Liat and Bishop pulled Winnie and Josephine along and secured them down, Winnie in Josephine’s lap. They then crammed into a remaining pod for themselves.

Victoria addressed the room. “Listen closely. Everyone.” The launch room went quiet. “They’re going to destroy our pods the moment we’ve landed. Watch your GPS. As soon as you’re one mile from land, eject. If you stay in your pod, you will die. You’ll need to swim to safety.”

One marine spoke up. “We’d be over four hundred feet up. We’d die.”

“Not if you jump out when you’re a mile away. The TransAtlantic skirts traffic just above the water. A hundred feet at most.”

“At the speeds we’ll be traveling, it’d be a bitch.”

“Your alternative is death. Do this or die.”

The words reverberated. No one spoke up after that. Victoria sat on Tan’s lap. She spoke to Winnie, who sat in another pod. “Keep an eye on me. I will say when you should jump.”

Winnie nodded. She put her mind once again outside the ship. The enemy swarm still couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, but it was only ninety seconds away. The Venezia would be over the TransAtlantic chute soon.

“All pods prepare for launch in sixty seconds.” It was the intercom voice of Lieutenant Ruiz from the bridge. By now, every pod was full. Winnie was settled in Josephine’s lap. Tan and Victoria were intimately closer than either preferred, and Oni was crammed in with them. Anyone who could be saved would have their chance.

Winnie and Victoria would be on the run again. At least they’d have company this time. Josephine and Tan might stick around, assuming Victoria didn’t treat them like enemies. But given that she now had Josephine’s power, she didn’t need Josephine anymore. And Tan… Winnie still didn’t even know what his power was.

Though once Victoria had his power, why keep him either? Winnie would have to convince her they were worth keeping around. That meant convincing Victoria they were useful. It was always about power to her. All the queen cared about was hoarding flairs, but even with all that power combined, flairs weren’t going to save this ship.

An idea occurred to Winnie. She kicked Josephine’s shin. Josephine looked, opened her mouth to speak, but upon looking into Winnie’s eyes, she stopped. She still held the glyph card she’d taken from Winnie and could see exactly what Winnie was thinking. There were six ships controlling that spider swarm from nearly two hundred miles away. That put them outside the range of all their powers, except for Winnie. She could see them. She could even see the pilots of all six ships at once.

Sight. That is how Josephine’s power worked, right? Victoria had brought her into the Venezia with a bag over her head. If Josephine saw you, your mind was hers to pilfer. So since Winnie could see the enemy ships, and Josephine could see in Winnie’s head. Why shouldn’t that be enough? It’s not as though their powers required working eyeballs, it was just about awareness. Or so Winnie hoped.

Yet the soldiers she spied continued to work. In each ship, the comms officers chattered quick confirmations with other ships. The captains oversaw their respective display tables. The strike controllers maintained focus on their swarms. Their hands flew over their controls, making micro adjustments to the spider drones’ flight paths.

Was Josephine even trying? Maybe this wasn’t how her power worked. Victoria had mentioned that Josephine could only erase memories related to her. But Josephine certainly had an intense gaze as she looked into Winnie’s mind. All Winnie could do was keep eye contact and maintain her visions.

Sakhr watched the dots on the displays. They crawled, despite the ships they represented traveling at supersonic speeds. The odds were six on one. The general was exuding an aura of calm. That’s how much he thought this fight was in the bag. Of course he didn’t know what was at stake. For Sakhr, he’d felt as though he’d bet his life savings on a turtle race. Every inching minute built upon the tight ball of stress in his stomach. Even if this succeeded, that didn’t mean it was over. Pods would launch. Missiles would follow. Then an eternity of uncertainty would follow. Did she die? Or was there another goddamn bird? He missed the days when seeing your enemy’s body was proof enough.

He watched the next stage of this glacial fight. The swarm of spider drones were about to intersect a second time. A few more would drop, and then it was on to the enemy orbiter. Sakhr found himself clenching the handrail as the dots mixed.

Then a moment later, they separated. Exactly as expected. He relaxed.

Admiral Laughlin frowned. “Hmm.”

Sakhr’s tension returned. “Is something wrong?”

“Hmm? No, ma’am. They just… hold on a moment. Lieutenant Diaz?” He addressed his comm officer. “Is there any chatter from the orbiters about that engagement?”

“No, sir.”


“No, sir. None of them are talking.”

“Contact the fleet commander. I want to know why they didn’t return fire on the enemy swarm.”

“Yes, sir.”

They didn’t return fire?” Sakhr asked.

The admiral waved it off. “The commander may have opted not to. Attacking the swarm makes no difference. It won’t swing back in time to fight again,” but the admiral’s aura was not as calm as he acted. When the comm officer got through, both he and Sakhr listened.

“Squad fourteen. This is the Manakin bridge. Report your current situation… You’re free to engage the target… Aye… The HIMS Venezia… Affirmative… Affirmative… Yes, that is your target… Hold.”

Diaz looked to the Admiral. “They’re requesting confirmation on their orders, sir.”

Laughlin frowned. “Put it on my console.”

The call transferred.

“This is Admiral Laughlin.”

“This is squad fourteen,” a tinny voice came from the speakers. “Requesting confirmation on our orders, sir.”

“You’re to destroy the rogue orbiter vessel, the HIMS Venezia.”

Pause. “That’s a Lakiran vessel, sir.”

“Yes, Captain. We know. It’s been commandeered. Take it out.”

Radio silence stretched on for moments. The spider drones continued their arc toward their target. The enemy swarm was circling back, but it would never get there in time. Everything was on course.


“Requesting a copy on our orders,” the radio voice said.

“I just told you your orders, Captain. Destroy the damn ship.”

“Yes, sir. Which ship? The… the Venezia?”

Yes, Captain. The Venezia.”

“That’s… understood, sir. Destroying the Venezia.”

The radio clicked out. The flight continued. One minute left until the spiders could open fire on the target.

The radio clicked back in. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our orders.”

“Shoot the goddamn ship!” the admiral screamed into the mic.


The admiral glared at his mic as though daring the console to click back on.

It did. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our—”

Is this some kind of joke?”

“Admiral,” Sakhr said. “It’s not them. Those blasted flairs aboard the enemy vessel are fiddling with your mens’ minds. Can you take control of the swarms?”

“What? What flairs?”

“I’ll explain later. Treat those soldiers as useless. Is there any way your men can take over?”

“There… there should be,” Laughlin turned to his flight operator. “We can remotely control those spiders, isn’t that correct?”

“We can,” the strike commander said. “If we can slave the orbiters to—”

“Don’t explain. Just do it,” Sakhr said. He didn’t know how Victoria was doing this. Records indicated that that Josephine woman needed to see her targets. Could she work over radio contact? Or…


The moment he thought it he knew it was true. It was that farseeing girl.

Damn. It.

Everyone was going to need shields now.

“I’m in, Your Majesty” the strike commander said. His console layout changed to reflect the controls aboard the orbiter flagship.

“Do you understand the mission?” Laughlin said.

“Yes, sir. Destroy the Venezia.”

“Then carry it out.”

Sakhr held his shield plaque out to the strike commander. “And keep your hand on this while you work.”

“Your Majesty?”

Humor me,” he said. This mission was not going to fail.

There was no doubt. It was working. Winnie had just watched six tactical operations officers aboard six ships stare blankly at a confirmation popup on their screen. “Confirm live fire command”. It had disappeared seconds after the opposing spider swarms made their second pass at each other. The rest of the crews weren’t much better. The comms officers backed their hands away from their controls as though their radio was an angry cat. The captains acted nonchalant, but half were secretly looking up their flight mission. The pilots and co-pilots kept glancing at each other as though too shy to talk. And now the commander aboard the main ship was having an embarrassing conversation with headquarters.

“Victoria!” Winnie turned to look looked the queen in the eyes.

Victoria shot up from Tan’s lap. “Don’t you dare stop!” She sprinted from the launch bay. Winnie glanced with her mind and saw her running back to the bridge. Thirty seconds until evacuation.

Winnie looked back at Josephine and resumed visualizing the other crafts. They were still just as befuddled.

Something changed. Their screens no longer displayed the spider drone swarms or any of its multitude of controls. All it showed was a prompt: Console disabled. System under remote access. Winnie listened to the radio chatter coming out of their ear pieces.


Someone had disabled the orbiter crews’ controls. Who?

With her eyes still locked on Josephine’s, her mind searched about. The radio chatter gave no clues. She checked the prompt again. In its corner, after a string of numbers and letters, was an address: lk-emm.manakin.strk-12.co.

Instantly, Winnie’s mind was in the Manakin. It was floating half a mile out from Porto Maná. She scoured up and down the main spire. The bridge? No one was doing anything related to this. The flag bridge? No. Flight operations? No. The strike room? …Yes. There was Sakhr leaning over an officer who worked at a console with a display identical to what the orbiters had moments ago. They were going to continue the attack from here, and the officer had a hand on Sakhr’s plaque. Josephine wouldn’t be able to touch him.

The attack was going to happen.

Winnie’s mind shot back to Victoria. She was in the Venezia bridge now, yelling at Stephano to hold the evacuation while shoving the comm officer out of the way. Didn’t she see what was happening on those ships? In twenty seconds, this ship would be destroyed. Victoria would not make it back to the bay in time.

“Go back,” Josephine said.


“Go back. Look at Sakhr again.”

Winnie did so. “Why?”

“I wasn’t done.”

“But he’s shielded.”

Without breaking eye contact, Josephine shrugged. “I’m getting them. I can feel it.”

“But…” Winnie kept her gaze. “How?”

Another shrug.

The officer worked slower since Sakhr was pressing one of the man’s hands to the plaque. It didn’t matter. The man was already resting.

“Are you done?”

“The spiders already have their flight plan, Your Majesty. I’ll just need to confirm live fire.”

“So it’s… okay?”

“Pretty much, ma’am.”

Sakhr pressed his hand down harder. One slip up and this would all be for nothing. No slip up, and everything would be better. Just fifteen more seconds. He was counting in his head along with the onscreen indicator. At ten seconds, a prompt came up.

The officer didn’t move to press it.

“Is that it?” Sakhr asked.

“Is what it, ma’am?”

“The… button.”


“The…” Sakhr wracked his mind. “The thing. You need to do that… to do something.”


Just do it!”

“Do what?”

Sakhr paused. The officer needed to do something—something to do with Victoria. Capture her? No. Kill her. She was… somewhere. And the Air Force was about to… what?

Snapping, Sakhr staggered backwards. He clutched his plaque in his hands like a lifeline. His memory was shot. Josephine was affecting him. But how? He was shielded. Shields worked against her, right? Right. She avoided high exemplars.

But how did he know that?

Did he read it somewhere?

He knew he’d read a record on Josephine, but he couldn’t remember anything in it.

She was… important.

Her name was… ‘J’ something… or something. He knew it a minute ago.

“Your Majesty?” asked the Admiral. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Sakhr distantly, but he knew he wasn’t. Something was terribly wrong. He just couldn’t put his finger on what. He couldn’t even recall why he was here. Everyone stared, expecting something from him, because something important was going on. But then something bad started happening.

His mind.

His mind was being pilfered by something.

His shield.

His shield was broken.

He dropped his plaque and lunged for Sibyl’s. Startled, she backed up a step as Sakhr stumbled into her. They both clutched her plaque. His old one clattered on the steel floor.

Sakhr’s mind raced. There were so many holes in his memory that he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He needed time to think.

“I need to go,” he said.

“Your Majesty?” Laughlin said.

“Finish up by yourself, Admiral.” …whatever it was they were doing. Sakhr stalked from the room, pulling Sibyl along with him. Between them, they cradled the plaque like a rescued child.

Winnie took her attention away long enough to watch the spider drones shoot past the Venezia. They came within a hundred meters of the ship. She’d watched as the confirmation screen in the strike room timed out, unnoticed by anyone, but it didn’t make the moment any less heart-clenching.

But it passed. The swarm would never catch up for a second attack. Winnie slumped against the wall and melted to the floor.

Victoria returned. She did not look relieved.

“How were you erasing Sakhr’s memory like that?” she asked Josephine.

“I don’t know. I just was. I hit everyone in that room.”

“Including Sibyl?”

“No. Not her.”

“So it was a shield failure. You didn’t find a way to work around shields.”

“I guess.”

Victoria frowned.

“What?” Winnie asked. “Can’t we just be happy we’re alive? We got lucky.”

“Yes,” Victoria agreed. “We got very lucky.” Troubled, she left the launch bay toward the bridge.

It left Winnie wondering.

What could be so bad about Sakhr not being shielded?