80. The Escape Game

“Is this what you’re looking for?” asked the lieutenant.

Josephine squinted at the screen. Fourteen suspects detained at French border trying to violate border lockdown. Subjects released.

“No. I didn’t say border. I said Lyons. An operation in Lyons.”

The lieutenant craned to look at her. “But we don’t have any soldiers in Lyons. We evacuated the region.”

He glanced over the computer screen to where Tan lounged at a coffee desk. Tan chewed food bars he had found in a break room. Since Josephine started carrying a glyph card, it’d grown harder to get angry at him for acting so damn flippant during these excursions. He was tense. He just hid it well. The food, the cigarettes, and fidgeting were all to distract himself. They were in the heart of a Lakiran military base after all.

“What I’m looking for,” she said, “won’t be in the usual lists. This was special forces. They were using orbital pods. Would that be in here?”

“It would, but you need permission to see that? Where did you say you came from again?”

She wiped his memory. It took a few tries until all the suspicion drained from his aura. Now he was just confused. This was useless.

She wiped his mind of everything about herself. “Why are you sitting in my chair, Lieutenant?”

Startled, the lieutenant glanced up, saw the rank of Colonel on her sleeve, and hopped from the seat. “I’m sorry, sir.”


“Yes, sir.”

As he hurried away, she pulsed him again. He’d wander the halls with a lingering sense of having done something wrong.

Josephine tabbed through the database. The Lieutenant had been right. All she saw was a slew of arrests made during the evacuation. The only action in France now was along the border. Everyone detained for crossing illegally was released. No more arrests. They’d run out of places to hold people lately.

“Tan. You think you could help me?”

Tan tossed aside his food wrapper and meandered over. He grabbed the touch screen and laid it face up on the desk. Taking out a single cent euro, he flipped it in the air. It clinked onto the screen. He carefully plucked the coin, then tapped the screen where it had landed.

This took them to the main database menu.

He flipped again: Department list.

Again: Civil Protection Records.

That made no sense. Civil Protection wasn’t military. It protected political gatherings and oversaw places like embassies. Josephine said nothing though. That penny was landing with purpose. It’s next two flips landed on the same button: page down.

Next flip, Imperial domain. Now it made sense. Imperial domain was protection of the queen, but it might also involve assignments passed down by the queen directly—those led by exemplars.

After that, it entered a list of project code names. Most were obscure, but the last was blatantly clear.


Tan flipped the coin again; it landed on that project. Josephine took over, but a password screen came up as soon as she tapped it. With a sigh, she handed it back to Tan.

This time, he pulled out his bag of dice. He picked a twelve, an eight, and two six-sided ones. The system he had was complicated. Josephine had helped him form it through countless trial and error. Back when they started this, it only ever failed when the password contained characters his system couldn’t account for. Capital letters were the first stumbling block, then numbers, then special characters… It once failed them completely at a security console in India. Studying a keyboard later, Tan figured out it must have had a tilda, the corner keyboard button he’d overlooked until then. Nowadays, Tan’s system even incorporated potential unicode characters. Josephine lost track of the rules a while ago.

The password here was strong. The dice had him press a few function keys, but when he finally pressed the enter key, the filed opened.

Sakhr was in a conference about the state of the empire’s transportation infrastructure when his tablet vibrated. While the minister kept talking, Sakhr opened the alert.

Someone had just accessed the Naema file. It came from a terminal in West Spain apparently. Sakhr checked a map. It was farther away from Lyons than he had expected.

Josephine must have played it safe and not gone to the nearest military installation. Wise, perhaps, but not wise enough. Sakhr had no idea how Victoria had so much trouble catching this woman. This trap would have been obvious to him: a single file in a database that’s easy to find, but not too easy. The password protection was hard, but not harder than anything that Asian had proven capable of hacking.

He closed his tablet and turned his attention back to the ministers. If he got the alert, so did the response team.

Ascension Island?” asked Oni.

“That’s what it said,” Josephine got in the car. Oni had been waiting three blocks away. He was in the driver’s seat as though he was the getaway driver, but when Tan opened the door and shooed him off, he crawled into the backseat without argument. Tan drove out of the parking lot. At the road, he flipped a coin. Heads. He turned right.

“Where is Ascension Island?” Oni asked.

“Off of Brazil, I think.”

Oni took out his phone. After some research, he spoke. “It’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

“How big is it?” asked Josephine

“Five miles long, maybe? Why did they take my family there?”

“I don’t know,” Josephine replied.

“I thought you said they’d take my sister to the capital.”

“That’s what I thought. I guess not.”

“Maybe they’re getting rid of her. Her power ruins plaques. So they’re putting her far away.”

“Maybe,” Josephine said. “Or maybe they expect us to come after them. If we go there, we’d have a tough time getting away. They might have put her on that island just to trap us.”

“But we’re still going to save them, right?” Oni asked.

“Yes. We are.”

“I will not.” Tan had his eyes on the road. Reaching an intersection, he rolled a die on the dashboard, then kept straight. He didn’t say anything else.

“Tan,” Josephine said. “You know what happens if they keep Naema.”

“They won’t make glyph of her power? Her power break glyphs.”

“We need her. You know this.”

“No. She bring us trouble. Since you find her, Lakirans no leave us alone. She is trouble. All trouble.”

“That’s because the Lakiran’s know how much of a danger she could be to them.”

“I no care about danger to Lakirans,” said Tan. “She supposed to keep us safe, but she is only danger to us. Now we go to tiny island to save her again? Second time we save her. And it is a trap. They will catch us if we go. I will not.”



“Tan. You can’t leave on your own. We need to stick together.”

“No. Not anymore. We make glyphs of our powers. You give me yours. I give you mine. We say goodbye.”

“I don’t know if that’s how these glyphs work.”

“It is possible. Glyphs come from people. That is why the queen wants us.”

“I don’t know how to copy them.”

“I see my power in a mirror. And yours. I know you do too. We figure it out. It is possible.”

“Even if we could. Even if you had my power, do you really think you’ll be any safer? If you got into trouble, no one would—”

She trailed off when Tan slowed the car. Ahead, five Lakiran deployment pods blocked the road.

“Tan?” asked Josephine. “What was your game? Roll dice to choose your route. Get out of town without running into the empire, right?”


“Why did your power bring us here?”

He didn’t answer.

“Where are the people?” Oni asked.

He was right. No one was around. No soldiers, no cars. Nothing.

“What are they doing here?” asked Oni.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe we take pods?” asked Tan.

“That can’t be right,” Josephine said. They could theoretically take the pods wherever they wished. They were in the European grid right now, but that had to be a terrible idea. Whoever’s pods these were would notice. They could contact air control have Josephine and the others put into holding patterns. Game over. But then, they were here. And they were oriented in such a way that Tan couldn’t drive past. The dice led them here for some reason.

“Flip a coin,” she said. “Heads we take them. Tails, we turn around.”

He flipped his coin. “Heads.”

Really?” Josephine asked. “We’re supposed to steal deployment pods? That’s what your power wants us to do?”

Tan made a not-my-fault motion and indicated the coin.

“Okay then. Come on everybody.”

They got out and walked toward the pods. Josephine didn’t like this at all, but if there was a way out of this city, this was it. If there wasn’t—if they couldn’t win—then they might as well walk into the trap and save everyone time. But this had to be something. If there was genuinely no way to win the “get out of town safely” game, then Tan’s power wouldn’t bother working at all. His rolls would be random, and the chance of randomly finding pods with absent occupants was infinitesimal.

Next to one, Josephine leaned to look inside without stepping in. She tapped the screen. It showed the message, Remote access key not detected. They wouldn’t be able to ride these after all.

“Back to the car,” she said.

Two pops came from the woods. Pain exploded through Josephine’s side. Screaming, she collapsed. Her head struck the asphalt, causing stars to explode in her vision. Recovering, she felt her side. A small barbed flechette was stabbed into her. She yanked it out, but the little electric capacitor on its back had already discharged its payload.

“Get down on the ground,” someone yelled. Josephine’s breath caught. For a second she thought that order was for her. Without thinking, she lay still.

An exemplar woman strode out of the woods brandishing a repulse rifle, though she was much too young to be an exemplar. She’d also shot Tan, and Oni was getting on his knees.

The woman tossed three sets of handcuffs at them. “If any of you move quickly, I will shoot you again. Take the cuffs and secure your hands behind your backs.”

Twice now Josephine had tried to wipe the woman’s memory. No effect. Nor was the girl giving off an aura. So she had to be a high exemplar.

Josephine and Tan exchanged glances. She nodded.

While Tan grabbed his handcuffs with one hand. He drew his gun with the other. It might work. He’d get shocked again, but one lucky shot would drop the exemplar, and he was good with lucky.

“Drop the gun now,” The woman ordered.

Josephine’s hand twitched as though trying to comply. Tan’s fingers opened as though of their own accord. The gun clattered.

It was Authority. Josephine had no idea how. Anton had been dead for over thirty years, long before glyphs existed, but she recognized the familiar jolt that came with the words—the one that sent shivers down your spine and caused a primitive, submissive part of your brain to kick in.

The woman faced Oni. “Cuff Josephine’s hands behind her back.”

Oni moved to do so.

“Don’t.” Josephine said. “She’s controlling you. You just have to—”

The woman shot her with three more electric flechettes. Josephine didn’t speak much after that.

“And there’s no indication of who was aboard that ship?” asked Sakhr.

“None, ma’am,” said the captain. “All we know is that the ship was already waiting nearby when the alert tripped. They had pods waiting at the road to take them the rest of the way.”

Sakhr was reclined at his desk for this phone conversation. “So it was their getaway ship?”

“It might seem like that, ma’am, except our investigation turned up discharged electric flechettes at the escape scene, and blood.”


“On the flechettes points. And some on the asphalt. When a hostile gets hit with a flechette, they often scrape their scalp on the ground.”

“So someone captured them?”

“That’s our theory, ma’am.”

If Sakhr had any doubts that Victoria was involved, that dispelled them. With the recent spur of military desertion, there were several ships equipped with deployment pods that the army couldn’t account for, but none of those would be right there. In his gut, he knew that if he could see aboard that ship, he’d find an ex-exemplar named Bishop and a captain named Stephano. They were the flies that evaded the swatter. Now they flew about the room, only to occasionally be glimpsed.

“Their ship. Are we tracking it?”

“Yes, ma’am. The orbiter is picking up speed and altitude.”

“Can we catch it this time?”

“We’ve already redirected the intercepter team. According to the flight manager, no matter what path the target takes, we’re guaranteed an exchange window of four minutes before the orbiter becomes unreachable again.”

“An exchange window?”

“That’s when the ships are able to exchange fire, ma’am.”

“Tell me. Tell me we outnumber them.”

“Six to one, ma’am. The attack will be coordinated from the strike room in the bridge spire. Admiral Laughlin invites you to join him if you’d like.”

“Yes,” Sakhr said. “I would.”

74. Magic Tricks

And now, if one of these beautiful ladies would step forward,” said the performer. He ran along the perimeter of his small stage, which was nothing more than a portion of the street dictated by a crowd packed in a circle about him.

“He wants someone from the audience now,” Josephine said.

Naema knew what the man had said. She didn’t speak much french, but enough. Oni would be the same, and their mother certainly understood him. She’d grown up speaking more french than english. Josephine was really only translating for Tan.

From the crowd, the performer pulled a woman, who blushed and giggled. The man bantered with her for a minute, getting her name and what she did. Then he asked if she ever had dirty thoughts. She blushed. Of course she had. There’s no need to share them, he said, but has she ever been afraid that someone might pluck those dirty thoughts from her mind.

“And here we go,” Josephine said. “He’s got one too.”

After a little more flourish, this performer took out a whiteboard and her write a word down that no one, not even the audience, could see. Then he dramatically peered into her eyes as he tried to divine the answer.

That was one way to do it. The first street performer they’d seen had been more personal. Instead of trying to prove to the entire audience he could read minds, he’d just gone around looking people in the eye and listing facts about their childhood.

Of course, it had failed. The second performer they’d found had failed as well. He’d actually handed a strange totem over to an audience participant and invited them to try reading his mind. After they floundered it, he’d just about accused them of trying to make him look bad. His crowd had dispersed quickly after that.

This man too was already flailing. He made a few bad guesses, though those might have just been for humor or to build suspense, but then the bad guesses kept coming. The girl kept saying no. The performer made a few quips about how the girl’s dirty thoughts are crowding her mind, but hardly anyone laughed. He went back to peering into her eyes, but this time with serious concentration. Two more wrong guesses, and he admitted he just kept getting lost in her mind. He smiled and laughed it off, showing better humor about it than the other performers.

Finally he had the woman reveal the word on the white board. It was babouin, or baboon. Afterward, he excused himself, saying he would return as soon as his mental powers had recovered.

The crowd dispersed as he packed away his props.

“Take me to him,” Josephine said. Mama pushed Josephine’s wheelchair toward the man. She’d become Josephine’s caretaker after treating Josephine’s flechette wounds acquired during their escape last week. Josephine had been bedridden ever since, and after a week without any sign of Lakirans on their trail, she’d become antsy to get outside. Everyone had been. So after Tan stole a wheelchair, they came out as a group to explore Lyon’s famed Saône market.

Josephine reached the man. Naema, Oni, and Tan followed beside her.

“Pardon moi,” Josephine said.

The man turned.

Josephine was holding up the exact same kind of card. At first glance, it might have seemed like a credit card, as Naema had thought it was when Josephine took it from the first performer.

The man glanced at it, then looked about. He shrugged, as though to say what of it?

“So?” he said. “Good for you. You’re not going to ruin a man’s act, are you?” His french had switched to a fast local dialect that Naema had trouble understanding.

“No,” Josephine replied. “I just want to know where you got yours. We’ve met a few other people with these, but all the sites they recommend have been taken down.”

“Whatever. Just copy it.” The man took out a stack of playing cards, though instead of a number and suit, each one had a single glyph drawn on it with a marker.

So this man had had the same idea as the other performers: wow the audience with a display of mind-reading, then reveal that the powers could be anyone’s… for a price. The first was offering at twenty francs. The other went as high as one hundred. Interestingly, the cards this man possessed had only single glyphs on them, and none had the glyph that allowed copying, as described on the back of the sleek black card Josephine held.

“I would,” Josephine said, “but mine is broken.”

The man was flicking through his playing cards now. “Yes. Mine too. Can’t help you.”

“Where did you download the first one?”

“A site. I don’t remember.”

“How did you get to that site?”

“A forum. I said I don’t remember. It’s probably down now.”

“Here,” Josephine held up her tablet. “There’s a cafe just up the street. Could you show us where you got it? You’ll have to get a new one anyway. All your glyphs are broken now.”

“How do you know that?”

“Aren’t they?”

The man was still thumbing through his deck, but just holding them all in his hand answered his question. If a single glyph in that pack worked, he’d see through Josephine’s eyes just fine, but he couldn’t.

“Did you break these?” he said.

“No, but they’re broken. Just use our tablet. Come on.”

“I’ll get it on my own. Leave me be.”

“Okay then,” Josephine replied. “Show us where you got that glyph, or we’ll tell your audience that those cards you’re trying to sell are free online.”

“Fuck off.”

“Your call.”

Fuck off.”

She turned to Naema. In english, “Could you close your eyes for a second?”

Naema did so, as well as plastering her hands over her ears and humming. It actually made a difference. Eyes closed wasn’t enough anymore if she could hear that Josephine was right next to her.

A moment later, someone tapped her. Eyes open, the man was still there, but his plastic black card was in Oni’s hand. Josephine was scanning through a phone. Naema knew it was the performer’s, but the performer had returned to thumbing through his playing cards, hardly aware that the others were even there.

Josephine motioned for the group to move on. Up the street, Josephine sneered and handed the phone to Oni. “This doesn’t tell me anything. Go give it back.”

“Why?” asked Oni.

“Because she said so,” Mama replied.

“It’s not like he remembers you took it. Isn’t that your thing?”

“Oni…” Mama’s tone brooked no argument.

Oni ran back to the man. After tossing the phone into the startled man’s lap, he hurried back.

“Naema. Go home,” he said.

“No. Shut up.”

“You keep breaking them. We can’t try until you leave.”

“Boy,” said Mama. “Leave your sister alone.”

“But this is stupid. Why are we bringing her with us to find these?”

“I just want to know where they’re getting them,” Josephine said. “If these people would just tell me, we could have one for ourselves, but if we had one for ourselves, I could read their minds to find out, but then I wouldn’t need to. It’s silly. I know more about where these powers came from than anyone else, but we can’t get them because we slept through their release.”

“But Oni’s right,” Naema said. “What’s the point? Unless you get rid of me.”

“It could still be useful. If we got the file to assemble it, then we could print one out when we need it. Or just copy it somewhere safe. You could leave the room for a minute while we read whatever minds we need.”

“I just want to try it,” Oni said.

“That too,” Josephine admitted. “I’m curious what they’re like.”

“Then… what?” Naema said. “Do you want me to go home?”

“No,” replied Mama. “It is dangerous to split up.”

“The Lakirans are gone, Mama.”

“They know you are special, girl. They won’t give up.”

“It’s been a whole week,” Naema argued. “They weren’t even here in the first place. They were in Paris.”

“Look around, girl. Do you see see any other black people? I feel their eyes all day.”

“Whatever. I’ll just go home. It’s not like I’m missing much.”

Apart from a few street performers and clustered market stalls, the Saône market had been a dud. The Lakirans had been gone for a week. Food hoarding had started within an hour of their departure.

“But still,” said Josephine. “You don’t need to split up just for this. Besides, you can’t go home without me. Our generous hosts might remember that they don’t know you.”

“Then I’ll wait here.”

“No, Naema. We’re not going to leave you behind.”

“It’s no problem.”

“…Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

Josephine dropped her parental facade. “Okay then! We won’t be long. Tan, can you find us another one?”

Tan nodded. After some dice rolls out of Naema’s view, he sauntered off in a direction.

Mama pushed Josephine along. Oni followed.

“Oni. Stay with your sister.”

“But I want to come. I want to see them too.”

“Fine. I’ll stay. You go. Push.” She gestured for Oni to take over as Josephine’s wheelchair assistant. He did so happily.

“I promise we won’t be long,” Josephine called over her shoulder.

“It’s fine,” Naema said.

The others left. It was nice of Mama to stay; Naema didn’t want to be completely alone, although it seemed like she should probably get used to it. This was going to be a common occurrence.

“Come, girl,” Mama said. “I want to sit.”

They sat on a bench nearby and watched people pass. Naema realized that this was the first time she’d been alone with her mother since before Josephine had entered her life. This past last week, Josephine and Tan had always been there. While cramped together hiding out in their current home, Mama had tended to Josephine’s legs. The two had been constantly together. By the end they chatted like Saturday evening bridge players. But now Josephine wasn’t here. Naema felt like she should say something.

Yet she and her mother simply sat together.

“You cold?” Mama said.

“No,” Naema replied.

“You must get more clothes, girl, or you freeze. It is colder here than back home.”

“I’m fine. You should get clothes.”

“You and me both. I’ll ask Josephine. We go find an assembler and print them. We can do that. Amazing what they can make. We never had that in Nigeria.”

“Not in public,” Naema replied. “Josephine says they had those kind in the CivMan buildings.”

“Of course they did.” Mama watched the passing crowds. “How are you, girl?”

“What do you mean? I’m fine.”

“We haven’t been alone together since we came here. You are different. What is in your head?”


“Don’t lie to your mama, girl.”

“Nothing, I swear.”

Mama eyed her.

“There is something wrong with you if there are no worries in your head.”

Naema didn’t respond for a while. “Where are we going?”

“You mean after France?”

“I mean after all of it. We’ll be in France until the Lakirans return. Then where?”

“I don’t know. We’ll go where we go.”

“Until the Lakirans go there too.”

“The Lakirans have their own problems. The queen is dead.”

“Ya, I know. Josephine acts like we don’t have anything to worry about anymore, but we’re living in a house with strangers. We snuck out today like we’re scared dogs. She thinks we’re still being hunted.”

“Ya, but they have always hunted us. When was the last time you and Oni did not avoid the Lakirans?”

“We weren’t running. We lived at home.”

“The Lakirans left Nigeria too. Now people there starve. Tell me, girl. Are you hungry?”


Voila. I am not hungry. Oni is not hungry. We run, but we are better for it.”

“I guess so.”

“Stop worrying, girl. Hard times may come, yes, but you can handle them.” Mama hooked an arm over Naema and pulled her in. “You are strong.”

“If you say so, Mama.”

“I do.”

They watched the crowd together. Naema no longer felt the need to fill the silence.

“Excuse moi.”

Naema looked. A young girl had approached their bench. She was very short, and couldn’t possibly be over eighteen. “May I sit here?” Despite being asian, her french was impeccable.

Naema shrugged. The girl smiled sweetly and plopped down beside them. Her ears both sported wireless earbuds.

There were several other empty benches. The girl seemed oblivious to them all. Naema and Mama kept watching the passing crowd, but it was different now. This was no longer their moment. Naema glanced about to see if the others were returning yet.

Meanwhile, the girl pulled out a tablet. It was top of the line, not assembler-made. All the while she hummed.

Both Naema and her mother watched her. She seemed just as out of place as them; it was wrong.

The girl pulled one earbud out. “Are you two enjoying Lyons?” Again in perfect french.


“It’s just you two stick out like flies in milk. You’re visiting right? Or did you come to stay?”

Naema glanced around. Flags were going up inside her head. She wanted to get up and walk off. Mama took her arm back from around Naema. She sensed it too. This girl singled them out as outsiders, and now she’s cozying up to them. Nigeria had its share of criminals and thieves.

“We are visiting,” Mama said.

“Oh, from where?”

“From down south. Excuse us. We must go.” Mama stood. Naema followed.

“Oh no, I’m sorry,” the girl said. “Please. Don’t let me drive you away. I’ll be quiet.”

“We have to go anyway,” Naema replied.

“Wait. May I show you something. Look at this.” The girl thrust her tablet toward Mama.

It showed a fullscreen image… of them, and it was live. Naema snapped around to see where the camera was. Along the top floor of the corresponding building, all windows were shuttered. No cameras, no partner in crime.

Mama was already pulling Naema away to leave when Naema spotted it, suspended before a nest of water heaters. It was a MobCam—a small sphere of tech that acted as the eyes and ears for the Lakiran military during an occupation.

Turning, Naema pushed her mother to run.

“Na ah ah,” the girl said. “Don’t move. If you move fifteen paces away, they will shoot your mother. Or was it ten? I forget what I told them. Just stay still and you’re fine.”

Mama glared at her. Naema looked around. There were multistory buildings everywhere: along the street, across the river, circling the plaza. Anyone could be watching.

“This is going to be really simple. You…” The girl pointed at Naema, “… will be coming with me. If you cooperate, your mother will get to stay and tell your friends what happened. If you don’t, your friends will have to make their own guesses when they find her body.”

Despite everything Naema had seen about the Lakirans being gone, here they were, in the middle of abandoned territory. It had been idiotic to split up. It had been idiotic just to leave the house. Had they been watching all time? Or had they just found her now? It had to be now. Tan had left the house so many times this week to filch supplies. Surely they would have taken him.

“Ten seconds.” The girl said. “Your mother sits on this bench while you and I leave.”

They wanted Naema alive. If she stayed close to her mother, whoever was watching might not take the shot. She could tackle the girl, threaten to hurt her if they hurt Mama. The girl looked like a twig; it would be easy. Or Naema could stall. Josephine would be back soon.

“Tick tock.”

“How do I know you won’t just shoot her after we’re gone?” Naema asked.

“Because I don’t care. Now come along.”

Naema kept her eyes on the girl. Whenever Josephine returned, as long as Naema didn’t look at her, she could work her magic on this girl. Finding whatever snipers there may be would require Tan.

“Let her walk away first, and then I’ll come.”

“Naema.” Mama murmured. “Just go. Run.”

“No, Mama. I’m not going.”

“I can hear you,” the girl said.

Mama grabbed Naema. “Listen, girl. Go. Now. Scream. Run. They won’t shoot you.”


“No. Now. Go.”

The girl sighed. “Ah fine.” She pulled something from her purse and aimed it. Naema got a quick glint of metal. She turned to run, and electricity exploded through her body.

That was the last thing she remembered.

72. Ripples

Osgur sat alone in his bedroom. His homework lay out before him, but his eyes were on the small card of plastic in his hands. Like every other internet savvy teenager with an assembler, he’d gotten that plaque the Sunday before school, then came in this morning for the most interesting school day.

  • Period 1: No one paid attention to class. Those who didn’t have plaques marveled at those who did. Everyone was reading everyone else’s minds, mostly the teachers’.
  • Period 2: Class was effectively canceled as faculty scurried about informing the teachers what was going on.
  • Period 3: Confiscation.
  • Period 4: Redistribution. Many of the students had the foresight to bring multiple glyphs. They handed out glyphs scrawled on notebook paper. An announcement went out stating that possessing such glyphs was grounds for suspension. No one cared.
  • Period 5: Some teachers fought back. With confiscated glyphs in hand, they took to scanning students’ minds as though exemplars themselves. Parents started arriving to take their children home.
  • Period 6: Never happened. Half the faculty were in emergency conferences. The students lounged in the halls conversing and playing with the hundreds of hand written glyphs.

All anyone knew for sure was that school was canceled tomorrow while the school board figured out what to do. It would have made this an amazing day were it not for the ride home. When his father had picked him up, his gaze was evasive, but just after his dad parked the car at home, their eyes met briefly. Everything his father was afraid of his son learning about had been right on the surface.

Osgur would have to leave home. It was the only way. How could he ever go on living in this family? It’s not like he could ever sit at the same table with his parents and act as though he didn’t know.

Those ropes in his parents closet were not for mountain climbing. The image had been right there in dad’s head. Of Mom. Tied up. And… those other things which he now knew were kept in the gun safe. Knowing that his parents even possessed such things was far more than an child should know, but to see a mental image of those things in use. On mom.

These glyphs had ruined his life.

“Pardon me, sir,” Arnaud approached a stranger standing outside a shopping mart. He was a Chinaman—had no business being in France. Probably didn’t even know french, so Auraud would open with… ugh… english. Men like these deserved to be robbed. But there was something in particular about this man that stood out to Arnaud, though he would be damned if he could put his finger on it.

The asian man glanced toward Arnaud, but made no eye contact.

“Pardon me, but could I trouble you for a cigarette? I only just got here from Marseille. My boy and I haven’t a place to stay, and I smoked my last cigarette on the shuttle ride.”

The part about a son usually got their attention a little more, just enough for eye contact. Then came credit info, or extra marital affairs, Bank PINs, or anything useful. Arnaud had only procured his hacked exemplar plaque last night, but already it had proved far more valuable than the seventy cent credits he paid to assemble it. Twice on his way from the bus station, he got two adulterers to pay him twenty francs. He fancied himself a mental pickpocket. Grab a secret here, or maybe a name or address. The rest Arnaud could bluff. One mark paid him just for asking if his wife knew about “Natalie”.

The foreigner took out a pack of cigarettes and helped himself to one. He glanced at Arnaud, then up and down the street as though looking for Arnaud’s aforementioned son. He lit his own without handing one over. Oh, how Arnaud was going to enjoy taking this foreigner’s money, the arrogant prick.

“Please, sir. I can pay you a franc if that’s what you wish.”

At a meandering pace, the asian man finally popped out a cigarette for Arnaud.

“Thank you, sir.” Still no eye contact. How rude was this man?

“You uh… come from China?” No response. “I’m from Cameroon. Came here after the war. What brings you out so far from home?”

Finally, the asian man looked Arnaud in the eye. “I do not speak good english.”

It was enough. Arnaud saw far more than he expected.

A flair? Other powers? This man could… know the future somehow, but only slightly. His power allowed his own unconscious movements to decide for him. Understanding this, Arnaud finally managed to place what strange detail led him to “Tan”. He could somehow sense this man’s power. So this was what the mystery “flair” glyph was for.

Tan hadn’t learned yet about the glyph cards flooding the world, but he certainly knew a lot about flairs. There was Josephine, a woman who could make you forget about her; and a girl, Naema, who could break glyphs. Most importantly, him and his friends were on the run from the empire.

There was too much to take in. The man, Tan was his name, hardly noticed Arnaud’s shock and kept right on smoking. Without a word, Arnaud walked away. There was profit here. Somewhere. He just had to think.

Liu Fen’s shift at the greenhouse ended at eight each night, but she never got home before ten. The glass farms in Hangzhou were nearly an hour subway ride from where she lived, then a bus ride, and she had to wait in line at the RepMarts to get her daily ration of food before getting on the subway. By the time she was home, she had less than an hour to herself if she wanted a full eight hours of sleep before starting the trip in reverse.

Despite a three hour commute to spend twelve hours a day pollenating genetically dwarfed orange blossoms, she counted her blessings that she had a job at all, much less a high paying job as a greenhouse botanist, especially considering she was a woman living on her own. Best of all, her annual review was last week. After hearing of her crippling commute, her superiors had given her a raise. Not much, but enough that she could afford to live in Hangzhou, within biking distance of work. She’d have three hours to herself every day, plus her day off.

Today, however, left her troubled. Everywhere she went, it seemed people were staring at her. On the bus, a crowd by the door kept glancing. On the subway, a man stared openly. At lunch, several coworkers collected and murmured among each other. When she wasn’t looking, they’d steal glanced at her. She’d frantically checked the mirror in the work bathroom, but nothing was wrong with her appearance.

As she approached the plaza of her apartment complex, a group of children who lived in the building were gathered at a table. They were frequently there, and always courteous when she passed. She suspected a few were attracted to her from the way they scrambled to help her move in last year. Ever since then, they always showed her their utmost manners. Their stuttered words and red faces were flattering too.

Yet today, they stared like everyone else had.

Mrs. Liu!” One waved her over, a boy named Heng.

Hesitantly, she approached.

He held up a black card, which looked like a credit card, except instead of numbers, it had four calligraphic drawings in gold on the front. “Have you seen these yet?”

“No.” Her body was pointed toward the apartment door. Hopefully the boys would get the hint. Two hours of commute and she was within a minute of being home.

“They let you read minds. Look. I can read yours. You are wondering why everyone is staring at you today. Also, you’re planning to move soon. Is this true? We will miss you.”

She hadn’t told anyone about that. She’d hoped to slip away without causing a scene, as her neighbors would want to do. Ever since they discovered months ago that she was living on her own because her fiancé had died in the Collapse, she’d become the neighborhood darling. Everyone was always checking in to see how she was doing. She wished they’d just leave her alone sometimes. Now these children, who must have gone through her mail, would tell everyone.

“That’s not true. I did not look at your mail.”

The boys chittered.

Liu turned and hurried off.

Heng called out. “I’m sorry. Please. I was rude. But please, look at this.” He held out the card. Liu eyed it. She didn’t know what trick this was, but she just wanted to go home.

“Please,” he said. “Take it. It’s not a trick. I promise.”

Reluctantly, she did.

Moments passed in silence. Everyone excitement was practically palpable.

She frowned.

Their excitement was palpable. She could feel it, like their excitement was hers. More than that, there were people in the complex who didn’t care either way. It felt like wires were connecting their emotions to her own.

She could count the connections if she wanted, like counting orange blossoms on a tree. There were so many she’d lose count before she finished.

“Please,” Heng said. “Look me in the eye.”

She did so, and she knew she was seeing his thoughts, because he knew it, and his thoughts were hers. If not for that, she might not have noticed.

Then, in his mind, she saw why everyone was staring.

“Do you see, Mrs. Fen?”

She did.

Later, standing in her bathroom, she stared at her reflection like so many others had stared at her. Heng had given her his card. After their talk, she knew everything he knew, including that there was something about her—something everyone, including her, could see, but not with eyes. When she looked at her own reflection, thoughts filled her head. She had a gift, though she couldn’t explain for the world how she knew that. It somehow connected her to other people. It affected them somehow. It played on their… humanity? Their compassion? Even now she could push it out toward others in the buildings, whose auras shined through the walls. They resonated in response to her push. It tied them to her somehow, but she didn’t know how.

This all had to be impossible, yet the thoughts that flooded her mind while she held the card told her otherwise. Frustrated, she sat at her computer and opened a browser. Others had to be experiencing the same thing. Right?

The public assembler beeped. Victoria opened the dispenser tray and drew out the small card. Winnie wasn’t sure what it was. Or why Victoria had suddenly detoured their car to the nearest assembler station to create it. The menu screen had said ‘hacked exemplar plaque’, but it didn’t look anything like the massive steel plaques the exemplars used. It looked more like a credit card.

“What is it?” Winnie asked.

Victoria sneered. “It’s the end of my empire.”

And this is the end of Part 2. An updated kindle book is available, and Part 3 will begin with the next release.

Thank you once again to all who’ve kept up with the story so far.

40. Unstoppered

“Admiral, has the drilling stopped?” Victoria asked knowing full well it had. “Admiral?”

“Yes, I’m here, ma’am. The drilling has stopped.”

“Is everyone away from the door?”

“They should be, ma’am, but if they’re drilling then they’ll eventually get through.”

“How long?”

“If they know what they’re doing, a few minutes.”

“Are your marines ready?”

“Standing by, ma’am.”

Victoria was half inclined to send them right now. No cameras could see the intruders where they were, but Josephine had to be doing worse. Possibly, she’d already passed out.

If she sent marines now and Josephine hadn’t passed out, then those marines would become more than just useless. They’d become obstacles. Victoria might send only a few marines, but without their rifles, they’d be no contest to Tan’s lucky nunchucks. It would need to be all of them.

“Admiral.” she said.

No response.


She projected her mind into the bridge. There was the layout. The officers were all at their stations. The admiral was… somewhere? She didn’t see him. And now that she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure what the other officers were doing either.

She she wasn’t actually seeing the room. This was just what she imagined it looked like.

Admiral,” she shouted.

No response.

“You’re not hearing me, Major?” Admiral Medina said to Tan. “You’re not taking that woman anywhere until the medics arrive. Why did you even bring her here?”

Tan continued to Not Hear Him as he scrutinized the control panels across the bridge. The other officers watched from the side where Tan had shooed them off to, although two now worked with Naema to staunch Josephine’s bleeding. No one remembered what was going on, only what they were currently doing. And people in motion tend to stay in motion.

“Are you ignoring me, Major?” Medina said.

“Jose,” Tan mumbled without glancing up.

Josephine forced her eyes to focus. She looked at the Admiral and concentrated. The angry scowl he was directing at Tan grew distant. In a minute, he would restart the same cycle of figuring everything out. It would be the third time.

“Admiral,” she said. Words were a struggle. “You need to lift… the lockdown.”

The admiral stared sternly at her, as though wondering whether to berate a bleeding captain for forgetting her rank.

“I need to get… to a hospital,” she muttered.

“We’re taking you to the medical bay. Lieutenant Cross…” he turned to address his operations officer only to find him standing in the corner with all the other officers. He frowned at them all.

Naema took over. “The doctors can’t treat her there,” she said. “They said we have to take her to the ground, so you lift the lockdown.”

Medina studied her. “Are you a civilian? What are you doing on the bridge?”

“I’m a… doctor. With the humanitarian league. Why do you have the ship on lockdown?”

“I…” He thought, though he would not remember.

“Lift it,” Naema urged. “We need to get her on a ship.”

The admiral looked at her doubtfully. He turned to his XO. “Why is this ship in lockdown?”

“I’m not sure, sir. It may be a malfunction.”

“Then lift it.”

“Hold on, sir.” That came from the communications officer. He was still in the corner, but his hand was against the ear of his headset. “We’re getting a call request direct from the queen.”

“The queen?” The admiral looked distance, as though something about that rang a bell. “Put her on.”

The operations officer approached the radio console. He hardly touched a button before Tan yanked off his headset and pushed him away. Before the officer could protest, Tan drew his revolver and fired several shots into the radio console. Its screen went black.

The report of his gun startled everyone. Two men grabbed Tan, including the communications officer, but by then it was too late. They’d already forgotten. Tan pulled away and moved to join the rest.

Naema turned back to the Admiral. “Have you stopped the lockdown yet?”

Josephine finally appeared on a security feed in Fore Sector deck 1. It was hard to miss her. Not only was Tan and Naema’s family with her, they’d recruited several other officers along the way, including two medics. Where had they come from? Who knew? Bishop had yet to recontact the bridge, or anyone, despite there being multiple means of contacting a citadel. The most frustrating part about this was that she wouldn’t be able to yell at anyone about this failure. Everyone who’d failed her would have no idea what she was talking about. She supposed this spared her from having to deal with Admiral Medina’s knowing too much—a small silver lining.

“Of course…” she muttered as she watched them select a craft in which to fly away. It was a self piloting one, not a grid ship, which trashed the idea of trapping them in a grid holding pattern.

A pity. Josephine looked barely conscious. If Victoria could only contact the marines on board, she’d win.

Bishop spoke. “I got a hold of them.”

“The bridge?”

“No. Strike room. I’ve told them to get up to the bridge and tell them to close the bay doors.”

Victoria shook her head. Bishop must not be watching the footage. Even if all the bay doors started closing right now, it’d only serve to make Josephine’s escape more thrilling.


“Yes, ma’am?”

“Look at the cameras for Fore Sector Deck One. Do you see that ship?”

“Give me a second… yes.”

“That’s them. Get the military to track it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“When they land, I want wall bots ready to deploy.”

“That’s a C-300 Corsair. They could be in the air all day.”

“Then we have time. Make arrangements. I’m giving you whatever authority you need.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This isn’t over, Bishop. Not by a long shot.”

In Victoria’s office, the lights were off and window panels covered the missing wall. It made the place a very different room, foreign and uninviting.

Helena stumbled into the dark, feeling along the wall for a switch. She thumped something. Delicate-sounding things rattled, and Winnie waited for a crash, but none came. Finally, the lights popped on.

And it was an office again, though no less inviting to Winnie.

“Come on.” Helena motioned, and Winnie stepped in. It shouldn’t have been such a momentous step, but it was. Helena was already prancing around Victoria’s desk and searching drawers. Items rolled inside each as she’d open and slam them. Helena didn’t seem to care about how much noise she was making, but then this was Victoria’s private floor. There were no cameras, nor staff, nor security—unless summoned.

“Ah hah!” Helena ducked and reemerged with a bottle. “It was at the very back, like she thinks somebody would fire her if they find it. Did you bring the glasses?”

“I thought we were taking it back to your room?”

“Nah, we’d just have to put it back later.” She reclined over the desk like a starlet upon a piano. Unstoppering the cap, she took a swig, then coughed voraciously.

“Oh God, it’s like… What is this?” She scrutinized the bottle.

Winnie laughed despite of herself. She came over to sit on Victoria’s chair, but thought better of it and perched on the edge of the desk. “Let me try.”

Helena handed her the bottle. Winnie took a whiff. “Oh, God.”

“How the hell does she drink it, right?”

“It smells like someone juiced a Christmas Tree.”

“Try it.”

Careful not to put her lips on the bottle, she poured some into her mouth. It did not taste like a Christmas tree. She coughed, spraying gin over the desk and onto Helena. Helena cackled.

“Noooo.” Winnie mopped up frantically.

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

“No. I have to clean up. This is the queen’s desk.”

“So?” Helena poured gin on its surface.

“Stop. What are you doing?” Winnie caught her. “She’s going to know we were here?”

“Are you serious?”

Winnie realized how stupid a concern that was. Of course Victoria would know. She could read minds. “No. I mean, yeah. I know she’ll know, but let’s not ruin anything.”

“And what’s she going to do about it? You’re too important to her.”

“We can still get in more trouble.” Without anything to mop up the spill, Winnie bent and sipped the gin off the table, then buffed the remainder away with her wrist.

Helena laughed again. “Did you just slurp that up? Are you going to do that will all the spilled gin?” She poured more on the desk.

“No. Stop.” She caught Helena’s hand.

“Are you going to drink that up too?”

“Do you promise to stop?”

“Okay. I’ll stop if you drink it.”

“Okay.” Winnie sipped up the gin puddle. More spilled beside her face. “No! That’s not funny.”

Helena was beside herself with laughter.

“No, seriously. I can’t drink any more,” She tried to be serious, but she was infected with Helena’s laughter. That only encouraged Helena, so the only recourse was the wrest the bottle away. They struggled, both laughing. With a yelp, Helena rolled off the table onto Winnie. They stumbled back together and crashed into the terrarium behind the desk.

A loud pop sobered them both.

On the front panel of the terrarium, a cluster of white cracks fanned out from where Winnie’s hip had struck it.

“Oh shit oh no oh no.” Winnie examined the glass panel. It was loose in its frame. Inside, Marzipan came out of his shell to peer around as though someone had just run his doorbell.

Helena snorted, then broke into peels of laughter. “Oh my God,” she said. “My mom is going to be so pissed.”

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


“We should go.”

“What? Why? Because we upset poor Marzipan? Don’t worry. It’s happy. Look at it.” Her voice took on a babying tone. “Look at you. You’re such a dumb little shit, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”

Winnie forced a chuckle, but her mood was gone. “Come on. We should go now.”

“You know my mom talks to it like that. Baby talk and everything. She dotes on this thing like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen it.”

“No.” Helena chortled. “You haven’t seen anything. I once saw her take this tortoise with her to the Founding Day’s Parade. She kept it in her lap, and I had to listen to her the whole time. Look at that crowd, Marzipan. All these people are here to see their queen. Isn’t that wonderful? Oh, look at that float. That’s supposed to be me. Oh, how special, Marzipan.

“That…” did not fit Winnie’s image of Victoria at all. “She actually talked like that?”

“It was disgusting. She smothers the little guy. Look. Look at this.” Helena pointed to the latch where the top of the terrarium would open. A padlock sealed it. “She’s paranoid of something happening to him, like rebels would take Marzipan hostage. Vacate Europe or the tortoise gets it.” She laughed. “She’d probably rather they took me.”

Winnie tried to think of something to say while Helena stared down Marzipan. If the conversation continued, she was going to fall into her funk again. And nothing Winnie said seemed to get her to leave.

But as Winnie was thinking, Helena banged on the broken pane with her fist. The web of cracks grew.

“Don’t do that,” Winnie yelled.

“What? The glass is already broken.”

“Are you trying to get in there?”

“Yeah. We’re going to break the little guy out.”

“No. Just leave him. Please, Helena. Let’s just go. Your mother is going to throw a fit.”

“She already will. Might as well let the little guy have a taste of freedom while it lasts.” She banged it a few more times.

Winnie kept expecting the pane to shatter, and for Helena to bleed profusely, but instead it crumpled inward like a fractured windshield. When it was loose enough in its frame, Helena pried it out.

“Please, Helena. Stop.”

“I’m not going to hurt him.” Helena set the pane aside. “We’re just going to have some fun.”

She reached in and grabbed Marzipan.

39. Screeching Metal

“Sometimes I wish I could run away.” Helena was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. Her legs dangled over the side. “But I can’t. There’s no where in the world I could go. I’m trapped here.”

“Yeah,” Winnie replied.

Winnie sat beside Helena with her legs tucked under herself as best as her body-hugging dress would allow. Her cheeks burned from the bottle of vodka Helena had stashed under her bed. She could only imagine how dizzy Helena must feel. She must have take two shots for every one of Winnie’s. At least the bottle was empty.

“She wouldn’t even care that I ran away,” Helena continued. “She’d just hunt me down like a jaguar escaped from her zoo. As soon as I was home, she’d go right back to ignoring me. Except she’s not even ignoring me. She goes out of her way to avoid me. The only times she pretends to care are when she has some politician over for dinner and she needs to act like a human being. I can’t talk to her then because I have to put on a good face for the guests. As soon as the politicians are gone, so is she.”


“And what the fuck was her problem about tonight? Almost there, then something suddenly comes up. The wars are over. My mom owns the world. What could possibly be so important that she needed to backtrack all the way home? It’s not like she’s any closer to Nigeria now. She probably just blew whatever it was out of proportion. She was probably relieved when it came up. It’s bullshit.”

“Yeah.” If Winnie weren’t as drunk, she might be a better listener.

Helena sniffed. “What time is it?”

Winnie visualized the bedside clock in her dorm. “It’s after one.”

“I guess that’s… what? Ten o’clock at the charity?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“What are they doing?”

Winnie visualized. “The music is still playing, but it looks like a lot of guests have gone.”

“How much did the charity make?”

This took Winnie some scouting. She found the raffle ledger in the organizer’s room. It was closed, but that didn’t stop her anymore.

“About fourteen million.”

“Seriously?” Helena sat up. “That’s pathetic. It probably cost that much just to host the stupid thing.”

“Do you think it would have made a difference if we had decided to come late?”

“Of course not. We would have only gotten there, like, half an hour ago, and nobody cares about the queen’s daughter. My mom probably did all this on purpose to make that abundantly clear.”

“Yeah…,” said Winnie. Victoria obviously hadn’t. Whatever had come up had clearly been important. If Winnie were allowed, she would check Victoria to no doubt find her involved with some frantic situation. “It must be tough being her daughter. I wish I could help.” After weighing the idea, Winnie placed her hand on Helena’s shoulder.

Helena leaned into her until Winnie found herself hugging Helena. Helena sniffled. She leaned to fetch the Vodka bottle. It’s emptiness was another woe for her.

“Do you want to go steal some more?” Winnie asked. Against her orders, she checked the route to the restaurant on floor fifty. “It looks like nobody would stop us. Whatever’s going on has all the guards busy.”

“No, I don’t want to go downstairs.” She said despondently, but then her head lifted. “Let’s go upstairs instead.”

“To your mom’s suite?”

“To her office. I happen to know she keeps some gin in her desk. It’s her favorite bottle.”

“Your mom drinks?”

“A lot. Let’s do this. You know, since she’s so busy.”

Helena got up with surprising energy.

Winnie had little choice but to follow.

“…Wow,” Bishop said. Victoria had forgotten he was still on the line, watching the same feed as her, but her sentiment was the same.

That was fascinating. She wished she could rewind the surveillance footage to watch again. That man had deflected every single flechette. And here she was thinking his power was some nonsense about card playing or statistically significant luck, but if his power was that blatant… Good heavens, the things he should be able to do.

The sentinel might have failed, but learning that might have made it worthwhile. Josephine would soon discover that the armory was locked away. And that’s not to say that the sentinel was for nothing. It wounded Josephine. The Nigerian family wasn’t bothering to treat her wounds, but rather hoisting her along. Her head rocked from side to side, and when they found the armory locked, Josephine hardly reacted. She was barely conscious.

“Admiral,” she said.

Admiral Medina got back on the line. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I think it’s time to get your marines ready. The woman who was shot is the one who can erase memories. If she passes out, I want your men there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re apprehending them, not hurting them. For her, all they need to do is put a bag over her head. If she can’t see someone, she can’t affect their mind. And I want the medical bay to prepare for her, because I will not have her die.

“Yes, ma’am.”

On screen, the fugitives talked with one another. The surveillance had no audio. The urge to project her mind to right where they were was tantalizing, but impossible so long as Naema was there. The group turned to leave when Josephine halfheartedly pointed toward a supply locker. They carried here there and put her down. The others searched inside. The camera couldn’t see, but they took something. Naema showed it to Josephine, and Josephine nodded. Was it a crate? A case? Victoria couldn’t tell. Whatever it was, Tan tucked it into his pack before she could get a good look at it. The group headed off once again.

“What was that, Admiral? What did they take?”

“We don’t know, ma’am, but that was an equipment hold. Cleaning supplies and such.”

“They’re not going to clean the deck, Admiral. As soon as they’re out of there, have somebody find out what’s missing.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Victoria watched on…

The way Naema and her mother finally settled on carrying Josephine was between them. While her mother held Josephine’s shoulders, Naema held her by her thighs so her bleeding calfs were elevated above Josephine’s head. It was awkward, but in order for their plan to work, they had to act now before the Lakirans realized what they were up to.

There were other soldiers’ about now, which made encountering another sentinel unlikely, yet Tan peeked about each corner as they went.

Unfortunately, soldiers kept interfering, most trying to help. They argued with Tan that they were going the wrong direction for the medical bay. It wouldn’t be a problem, except that Josephine was having a harder time staying focused enough to wipe their memories.

Their trek through the corridors was blending together for her. Her collar was wet with sweat. Her head ached more and more. Each minute she noted more symptoms. By now, she could hardly close her fists. Her breath was coming out in huffs, as though her lungs were going limp to push out the air, and she was certain she would vomit soon.

They arrived back at the door leading up the bridge spire. Naema and her mother set Josephine down and her mother tended to her wounds. Using torn strips from Josephine’s ruined uniform, she created gauze and applied pressure.

Tan glanced around for cameras, then set up the tool they’d taken next to the wall beside the door. It was an inner wall—likely steel or aluminum. Perhaps he’d ruin some drill bits, but oh well.

Tan got to work. The screech of tearing metal was deafening. Hopefully this would be quick.

Victoria’s mind had been visualizing the bridge, and the drilling was reverberating up from several floors below. She’d had to watch as the executive officer informed the Admiral, and the Admiral to finally put his earpiece back in before she could speak to him.

“They took a power drill, ma’am,” said Admiral Medina.

“Then send someone downstairs right now and get everyone away from that door.”

Even after her command, he hesitated, as though he hadn’t yet realized the intruders’ amazingly obvious plan. He finally issued the order, but not before wasting time to say, “Yes, ma’am.”

The Admiral sent down Lieutenant Harris, a soldier who’d happened to be in the bridge when the spire locked down. From the bridge floor, he had to descend past the Admiral’s bridge, the strike room, the air operations room, a VIP deck, and the first wardroom to finally reach the staging floor of the operations spire. With each passing floor, the reverberating screech of the power tool grew louder.

On the staging floor, two guards were posted by the door. He could hardly hear himself think with the noise.

He approached the men. “Orders from the Admiral,” he yelled. “You’re to come upstairs immediately.”

“What, sir?”

“Come upstairs.”

“We’re on post.”

“What? No. Admiral’s calling you off. He wants you out of this room.” He gestured for them to follow him.

They motioned that they couldn’t hear him. “Sorry, sir. We can’t leave,” the other said. “Captain wants us to guard this door. No one passes.”

“The admiral is calling you up. Hurry your asses.”

“The admiral?”


“What about the admiral?”

To Lieutenant Harris’s profound relief. The drilling stopped.

“The admiral is ordering you out of this room. Now move, soldiers.”

This time, they nodded and followed.

“Wait a moment,” someone said. “Don’t leave just yet.”

Harris glanced around for the voice. It sounded like a woman who was out of breath.

“Come back here,” she said.

Harris hesitated, as did the other guards. They were just going somewhere, but now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure where. Like walking into a room to fetch something and forgetting what it was.

“Who’s speaking?” he asked.

“I am,” the voice said. He looked, but did not see the small hole next to the door. It was no thicker than a pencil. “I’m… Captain Janice, and I need you to open the door.”

“The spire main door?”

“That one, yes.”

It was indeed closed, as was the side door by the auxiliary ladderwell. He knew they were closed, sealed too. But for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why.

38. The Gargoyle

Of course the door would be sealed, Josephine thought.

She and the others had headed straight toward the bridge as soon as they’d discovered the lockdown, but they’d only gotten as far as the door leading to the spire stairwell. All alternate doors were likewise sealed. When she waved their stolen card over the reader, it beeped angrily and a flashed a tiny red light.

“Is the card bad?” Naema asked.

“I think every card is going to be bad,” Josephine replied. She took a stairwell leading up to the top deck. All around her, spires rose like skyscrapers, but the one she was wanted into was the one right next to her. The admiral’s perch was near the top, but they couldn’t possibly climb the spire’s smooth steel surface.

“So what now?” Naema looked at her, eyes earnest, as did Naema’s mother and brother. Tan watched her flatly.

“I’m not sure,” Josephine said. “But we have to get into that bridge. Unless someone has some other idea.”

Everyone looked around.

Tan motioned behind himself as though he had something on his back. “We jump.” He moved as though ripping something off his chest.

Parachutes?” Josephine asked.

He shrugged. “It work.”

“We’re not far enough off the ground.”

Oni spoke. “It could still work. It’s called base jumping. We do it.”

“I am not jumping,” said Naema’s mother. She faced Josephine. “You have powers. You can use them, no?”

“I do, but I need to see my target.”

Naema pointed up the spire. “Look. There are windows.” Small hatches lined the bridge spire. “If you can look in those, you can make them forget to keep the door closed.”

“How am I supposed to get up there.”

Naema pointed to a spire across from the bridge. “We go up there and you look across.”

Josephine looked. None of the other spires were as tall as the bridge spire, but some came close. The distance between them made a wide enough gap for planes to fly though. The top deck had once been a runway before the Lakiran Air Force retired all non grid-compatible planes.

Even if Josephine could see in the spire windows through the bright blue sky reflecting off the pane, she’d be looking through two small hatch windows hundreds of feet apart. She could maybe spot one or two people before the crew caught on.

But the idea wasn’t meritless.

“It won’t work,” Josephine said, “but I think I know what will. Come on.”

“Where?” Tan asked.

“To wherever they keep guns.”

“I see them,” Bishop said.

“Which screen?” Victoria asked.

“Camera F-4C.”

Victoria tabbed through the list. That camera was in Fore Sector, Deck 4. They were headed down into the ship, and they clearly had a goal. This was near an auxiliary bay for shipping and supplies. Civilians were never allowed down there. The surveillance was because of the nature of what the citadel stored down there.

“Admiral? Do you see them?”

A click indicated Admiral Medina’s return. “Yes, Your Majesty. We see them. We think they’re heading toward the armory.”

“We can’t have them access the explosives. Have your men set up a sentinel on the armory main room and get out of there.”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re already doing that.”

“And if they can fully lock down any armaments, have them do so.”

“Yes, ma’am. Already done.”


Over the comm, the admiral was issuing orders that Victoria could barely hear. She was projecting her mind into the bridge when it occurred to her that she might be micromanaging the situation. The admiral and his men had more combat experience than her, and he understood the risks now. Should she back off?

Victoria chuckled.

She should. She wouldn’t.

The armory was simple to track down. The Air Force personnel around them didn’t seem to know there were intruders aboard. So even while the bridge was no doubt trying to figure how to capture Josephine, she was still able to stop others and ask for directions.

However, the crowd got thinner the closer they got to the armory. They were in the aft sector of this ship now, four floors below. This section was the general coming and going for supplies on and off the citadel—always busy, but each passing corridor was more deserted.

When they passed an empty mess hall with trays still covering the tables, Josephine knew the crew was up to something.

It could be a trap, but whatever the trap was, it couldn’t be lethal. The queen would not take a chance with killing her; she was certain of that. And every minute she hesitated was another minute the Lakirans had to put their own plans into action. If there was a trap, she’d deal with it.

The moment they rounded the corner to the armory, she regretted that choice.

She saw it. Even as she skidded to jump out of the way she knew it was too late. The machine had already spun its barrel toward her. She yelled to the others to get back. Then there was a click. It felt as though someone tugged at her pant leg. Her momentum carried her forward another step, bringing her weight down on that foot. That’s when the pain registered. Another click, and something tugged her other pant leg. She had already been shifting her weight onto it to ease the first pain. Now neither foot supported her weight. She hit the ground hard. Agony blossomed in both legs.

“Josephine!” Naema yelled.

Even in her pain, Josephine yelled, “Don’t come. Stay back.” She heard the other’s scuttling behind her. From the corner of her eye, it looked as though Tan had yanked Naema back, but she didn’t dare turn to confirm. Before Josephine was a sentinel drone. It hovered at shoulder height. Like wall bots, it was mostly spherical except for a few bulges, such as the three nodes along the bottom it used to remotely mount itself to the ground. Unlike wall bots, one end had a thin barrel pointing out which was trained on Josephine.

The Lakirans used to deploy these things in abandoned towns and other such restricted areas where they couldn’t afford manpower to patrol. Locals often had their own names for these devices: devil eyes, death eyes, gargoyles. People who stumble into one of these usually never knew what killed them. If they were lucky, the sentinels were calibrated to give a warning message first: get on the ground now or some such. People who didn’t comply were either dead or phenomenally lucky. These things didn’t miss.

This one had struck both her legs, shots to maim. Blood was soaking into her pant legs. In each calf, there would be a triangular hole where the flechettes had torn into her.

“Are you okay?” Naema asked. Josephine still didn’t turn. Motion set these things off. Or so she’d heard.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll live.” That was the idea, but, Lord, this pain was blinding. It creeped up her legs, filling her body. In her century and a half of life, she’d never been shot before. Were all gunshots this bad?

“Just stay back,” she said. “Don’t let it see you.”

“What do we do? We have to get you out of there.”

“No,” replied Josephine. “It’ll shoot you too.” Ever so slowly, she turned to look at them. They were crowded around the corner from the sentinel. Tan had moved in front of them to keep anyone from getting past him.

“We can’t leave you there,” Naema said. “We’ll find a rope.”

“No good,” Josephine said. It wasn’t that it would shoot the rope. It was that it would shoot her again if she started sliding along the ground, and she had two more limbs it could maim.

Though Josephine and Tan did have a prearranged plan.

“Tan…” Josephine looked at him. He gave her a flat look, knowing exactly what she wanted from him. He’d come on this trip because she’d forced him, and now she was asking him to go above and beyond. It would take months to make this up to him.

“We have to,” she said. “None of you can get me out of here. If we all stay, then we get caught. If you leave me, then they’ve separated us.”

“New plan,” he said. “We pull you out. You get shot more, but you live.”

He looked like he meant it.

“Tan, we still need to get into the armory. We can’t move past that sentinel unless you do it. I’m sorry, Tan. I know. I’m sorry, but you have to, or we lose.”

His response was long coming. He finally reached into his jacket—not for his gun, but for his cigarettes. As he smoked, Naema and the others grew anxious, but Josephine didn’t rush him. Even though she lay there bleeding, cigarettes come before stress.

When the cigarette was half done, he acted. From his pack, he brought out two pairs of steel nunchucks. After several preparatory breaths, he crouched low and stepped around the corner. Immediately, he started swinging the nunchucks before him with wild abandon. His cigarette was pursed between his lips. His head was leaned away. His eyes were squinted as though he were facing down a wind tunnel.

The sentinel spun and fired at him, three shots per second, each directed at one limb or another. Every single shot deflected off the flailing nunchucks.

Only once had Tan done this before, and that was against a soldier, not a perfectly aimed turret, but he and Josephine had practiced. Because of how radically the slight movements in his wrists translated to the spinning nunchucks, it gave his power plenty of room to work its magic. The nunchucks worked even better than a shield, so long as he didn’t think hard about how he was flailing them.

Step by step, Tan crept closer to the sentinel. His nunchucks spun haphazardly. Sometimes they tangled with each other. Sometimes Tan struck himself, but so far, he’d knocked every flechette away. They littered the floor.

Next to the sentinel now, Tan narrowed his flailing toward its general location. One nunchuck struck its spherical body. It physically shifted as though its invisible mounts bent. Another strike hit its underside. The shift upward was much more pronounced. Its repulsers could not pull it back toward the ground. A final strike landed across the barrel, denting it. It shot one more time. The flechette didn’t escape the end. Sensing the backfire, the sentinel emitted a low tone, and was still. Somewhere in the world, an email inbox just received an automated damage report.

“Okay, okay. Help me!” Josephine waved at the others. They rushed out and lifted her up. From the calf and down, her uniform pants were bloody. Just the act of lifting her to a seated position caused excruciating pain.

“Get me up,” she panted.

“You are bleeding bad,” Naema’s mother said. “You can’t move.”

“I’m sure not staying here. We’ll take care of me later.”

Between Naema and her mother, they hoisted her up. She cried out. For a moment, all the sounds in the room seemed like they were coming from far away. Her vision faded from the corners of her eyes inward. Someone was talking. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her.

“You with us?”

“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take me to the armory.”

They carried her along. The door to the armory wasn’t far. It was closed. Tan tried the stolen card. Angry beeps.

Of course, she thought. If they had the foresight to know she was coming here, they’d have the foresight to seal the doors. This room was just as inaccessible as the bridge.

This trip was for nothing.

37. Strategies

Fortunately for Josephine, Naema knew exactly where her family was. When they reached the right detention center, Naema sprinted ahead while Josephine frantically wiped memories.

“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.

“Girl?” Naema’s mother looked up from a crowd of closely packed prisoners. Behind her, a young boy got up from where he slept. Josephine had seen the child briefly in Naema’s tent.

“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”

The woman approached Naema. She eyed Josephine warily. “What are you saying?”

“We’re escaping,” Naema whispered. She looked to Josephine. “Do you have the keys?”

“Hold on.” Josephine said. “Look away a moment.” The other detainees were perking up. She cleansed their minds of whatever they’d heard, and they all lost interest. Only two people were going to be leaving this cell, but for a moment, Josephine imagined what would happen if she let everyone out. It would be chaos. No one would know where to go, and when the soldiers arrived, people would get hurt. It was a foolish idea, but Josephine couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if she could help them all. How many powers would she need on her side in order to stand up to the Lakirans instead of hiding from them?

She opened the cage. Two people exited. She sealed it closed. “Let’s go,” she said.

Together, they hurried to the launch bay. Naema hurriedly explained everything to her family as they went, including Josephine’s and her own power. While her mother understandably looked bewildered, she didn’t argue. She and Oni simply followed.

When they reached the nearest launch bay, something was different. The technicians weren’t preparing for incoming ships. Men weren’t loading or unloading supply shuttles. Instead people were gathered in conversational clumps as though everyone had decided to take a smoke break at once. Tan noticed this too. He made a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.

Josephine tried taking the group to a grid-ready shuttle anyway. A cadet ran up with his arm extended.

“Hold up,” he yelled.

“We’re scheduled to leave,” Josephine said. She didn’t erase his memory quite yet, since she suspected what he was about to tell her.

“Hope it wasn’t important. The citadel is on partial lockdown. Nobody is coming or going until the higher ups give the all clear.”

The moment the shuttle touched down, Victoria strode out. Soldiers were waiting at attention for her. As she passed, they followed. One reached in the shuttle and fetched Willow. As a procession, they marched off, leaving Winnie and Helena behind. The fanfare was over.

“Bye, mom,” Helena said, long after Victoria could have heard her. Then, under her breath, “God, I hate her.”

The window to the cockpit opened. Melanie looked in. “Shall we return to the charity, Your Highness? I’m certain you’d still have time to make an appearance.”

Helena sniffed and wiped her eyes in an attempt to regain composure. “No. It would be over by the time we showed up. People would be leaving.”

“Are you sure? I’m sure if we call them, they’d keep the bidding going until you arrived.”

“What’s the fucking point? My speech was supposed to start the bidding off. It won’t even make sense if I give it at the end.”

“We’ll have time to rework the speech. I know the benefactors would love to see a royal presence.”

“They can go to hell,” Helena snapped. “I said I don’t want to do it anymore. Will you go away?”

Melanie nodded. The window closed.

After they heard Melanie exit through the pilot door and walk off, Helena finally broke down.

She cried as though there were no one there to see. Winnie sat beside her, still as a deer. She too was disappointed with missing the charity. Though unlike Helena, she at least had the benefit of seeing the results of their hard work. She’d finally found the auditorium in her head. Everything was proceeding just as planned, minus any royal presence. The decorations looked great. The staff and planners wore the outfits Winnie had designed. The style had certainly come together well. Guests chattered as dinner rounded up, and the auction had already gotten underway. Soon the staff would clear the floor for the dance.

Winnie decided it would be better to tell Helena tomorrow that all her planning wasn’t for naught. The sting of missing out would be less.

“I hate her so fucking much.” Helena’s voice was ragged.

Winnie could no longer pretend she wasn’t there. “Yeah. This really sucks. Do you want me to leave?”

Helena’s response was long coming. “No. Stay.”

“It’s confirmed,” Bishop said. “They broke the girl out.”

“Mmhmm.” Victoria had just taken her seat in the communications room of the Capital Tower. She’d commandeered the desk of Captain Gandara, the head of security in the Tower. Now she was finally ready to deal with this crisis.

Before her were several monitors which already tracked the situation aboard the HIMS Orinoco. She was within speaking distance of several officers in contact with the military around the world. And resting beside her in a cage was Willow, resting peacefully on her perch with a hood over her head. Her beak rested upon her breast. Victoria considered having someone carry Willow back up to her room, but her presence provided comfort Victoria appreciated right now.

Before her was the image that had tripped the silent alert. It showed Josephine and the other one in the corridor outside the Orinoco’s brig. They both wore military uniforms, including the cap, but the camera had gotten a good enough look at her for facial recognition software to pick her up.

And it was always her that the cameras caught. Never him. Tan, if Victoria recalled. Even in this image, he was looking to his left, conveniently obscuring his face from the camera. Every image was like that. From what little she and the high exemplars had determined of his powers, he might not be aware he was doing it.

Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.

“What are they doing now?” Victoria asked into the phone.

Bishop replied. “Looks like they made a stop in the detention center to break a few people out,” Bishop replied. “Probably the girl’s family.”

“Can you confirm that?”

“Trying to. They were never processed. No photos. Names are Zauna and Oni Madaki. Looking at the footage, they match the descriptions. I’m certain it’s the girl’s family. Do you have the security feed yet?”

Victoria looked over the grid of windows on one of her screens. “Yes, but I’m not seeing them anywhere.”

“That’s because they’re in Starboard Hangar, Deck One. There’s no camera in there.”

“They’re not escaping, are they?”

“No. Lockdown. No one is coming or going.”

“Is there any way for them to get out?”

“I talked to the XO. According to him, bay doors are closed. Unless they jump off the top deck, there’s no way off.”

“XO? Who’s the Commanding officer? It’s Medina something, right?”

“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”

“Why are you talking to his XO?”

“Medina wasn’t on the bridge when I called. He should be now.”

Victoria motioned to an officer near her. In a quick exchange, she ordered the man to get Medina on the same line. As he worked, she considered what to say. There were intruders aboard his ship, and he would have no idea how much of a threat they posed. Sharing information about their flairs would be more than she’d told anyone else in the military. In theory, if Victoria succeeded in capturing Josephine, it wouldn’t matter.

Briefly, she daydreamed about her reign once she would have the ability to prune memories. So many complications would vanish. Until now, Victoria had counted on Winnie being the key to catching Josephine, but that Naema girl complicated matters.

If Josephine escaped that ship, finding her would become even more impossible. Josephine would never leave Naema’s side.

“Bishop, Stay on the line while I talk with Medina. Bishop?”

There was a clatter on his end as he hastily put back on a headset. “I’m here. I’ll be on the line.”

“Are you still in the air? How close are you to the Orinoco?”

“A couple hours.”

“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”

Victoria flapped her hand, even though no one could see. “No. Don’t bother. Not with that blasted girl.”

“We don’t know yet whether she’ll break our shields. She might not.”

“She will.” Victoria had never met the girl, but she had a good sense of her flair already.

There was a click on the line. “This is Admiral Medina.”

“Admiral, this is your queen. You have intruders aboard your citadel—very unusual, very dangerous intruders.”

“So I’ve heard, Your Majesty. The ship is in partial lockdown. Our marines are suiting up now.”

“Have them stand down.”

“Your Majesty?”

“They’ll be no use to you. No one can come near these intruders. You need to seal the doors to the bridge spire right now. Under no circumstances can anyone be allowed to enter. If any of your men come within visual range of the targets, they will be rendered useless.”

“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”

He barked orders in the background.

“The doors are being sealed now, ma’am.”

“Good. They must stay sealed until this situation is resolved.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I’m going to tell you what you need to know about your intruders. It will sound unbelievable, but it will be the truth. I am also telling you this under the strictest confidence.”


She described Josephine’s abilities, as well as what she knew of Tan’s and Naema’s. Though she did glaze over the technicals of how exactly they had such abilities. Admiral Medina never questioned her claims.

“So now you understand,” she finally said, “why it will be so difficult to capture this group.”

“I do.” The statement was simple and impossible to read. Victoria had her mind projected into the bridge room at the time, but even his expression was unreadable. She wished she could read his aura through Winnie’s power. As it was, she couldn’t tell whether the Admiral believed her without question, or whether he wondered if this was some elaborate lie. Either way, Victoria needed to capture Josephine today. This knowledge would eventually lead him to dangerous questions. He’d need to forget after this was done.

“If these people are as dangerous as you say,” the Admiral asked, “is it worth the risk of capturing them alive?”

She nearly answered yes, but paused. Did she need all of them alive? Naema’s family was of no use to her. Of course killing them would make controlling the girl difficult. If her family were alive, offering them hospitality might still sway them over, although Victoria doubted if Naema would be as simple to coerce as Winnie was. In that carrot and stick routine, the stick never had to come out for Winnie. Winnie only suspected a stick might even exist. This Naema girl wouldn’t be so naive. Her family would be crucial for her cooperation.

Then another thought occurred. Why bother with Naema at all? What could her power possibly be useful for if it broke glyphs? Maybe it couldn’t even be made into a glyph. In which case, her power was only useful for being used against Victoria. Josephine was the one she really wanted. If she had Naema killed, capturing Josephine would be simpler.


“Yes. We must capture them all alive.” Let’s not do anything irreversible. Not yet. “This means you cannot have anyone approach them directly. What kind of remote equipment do you have on board? Do you have wall bots?”

“No ma’am. We deploy those from orbiters.”

“Are there any nearby?”

“Are you suggesting we deploy wall bots into the citadel?”

“Surely that can be done, can’t it. Don’t we deploy wall bots inside buildings?”

“No ma’am. Their fields cause structural damage.”

“But that’s only if their fields intersect with walls. Actually, I remember years ago we used wall bots to lock down buildings.”

“Those were the earlier models, ma’am. They can’t be deployed remotely, we’d have to manually set them up.”

“That’s fine. We have time.”

“No, ma’am. I mean the orbitals won’t have them stocked for that reason. I’ll have my men see if we still have some in any military stockpiles nearby, but it’ll take time.”

“I don’t care if we have to ship them across the globe. Get them there.”

“Understood.” There was a pause before he came back.

“There’s something else we might try in the meantime, ma’am. We have sentinel drones onboard.”

“No good,” Victoria said. “Those are lethal.”

“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”

36. Cameras

The door to the brig was locked, and it wasn’t a tumbler lock that Tan could aptly bypass. There was a keycard reader. Authorized personnel only.

“You know what this means?” Josephine asked.

“We go home?” Tan asked hopefully.

“We steal a card.”

To his credit, he didn’t look too disappointed. Together, he and Josephine wandered around the citadel like a pair of tourists. Without knowing who would have access, they aimed for as high a rank as they could find. After proceeding up several floors into the more spacious decks beneath the spires, they found a major walking down a hall while discussing with a lower ranking officer. Tan passed, bumped into him, apologized and kept going. Picking pockets came naturally to him. His power smoothed his hand’s movements.

If the major noticed his card was missing, he would not remember this encounter.

Back at the door. Josephine waved the card, and the door opened. The first area inside was a security control room. A long desk with rows of monitors bisected the area. Behind it were three men. One guard sat at the desk, and behind him were two men at a table: another guard and an exemplar.

The guard at the desk looked at Josephine attentively. “How can I help you, sir.”

Behind him, the exemplar’s eyes widened.

“Alarm!” he yelled. He lunged toward the security desk, arm outstretched.

Josephine yanked anything he might know about her, but he was already in motion. Even if he didn’t know why he was scrabbling for the panic button, he was still doing so.

Tan,” Josephine yelled.

Tan was already moving. From his uniform, he drew a revolver—an old piece which worked with bullets and gunpowder. Tan insisted on bringing it, even if such antiquated tech immediately marked him as an impostor. Josephine moved to stop him. Besides the noise, no one was supposed to get hurt.

But Tan didn’t aim the gun. He tossed it. It struck the exemplar square on the forehead.

The exemplar yelled, staggered, and clutched his head. The crisis was averted, but Tan wasn’t done. Charging, he leapt over the desk with all the grace of a drunk man cannonballing into a swimming pool. Somehow, it worked. His foot connected with the exemplar’s chin. His fist struck the guard at the desk. Together, they all fell backward toward the table, toppling into the last guard. In one move, Tan floored them all.

He stood. Around him, the others groaned and rolled. He looked so proud of himself that Josephine decided to omit how unnecessary it was. Hitting the exemplar once was enough, but Tan’s power worked better the less he thought about it. His amateur flailing left plenty of room for his unconscious movement. Josephine sometimes pondered whether he’d actually become a worse fighter if he trained professionally. Possibly, but at least he’d look like less of an idiot.

“Good work,” Josephine hopped the desk. “Are you all okay.”

“What the hell?” One guard got to his feet and looked around. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over.”

“Huh?” said the other guard.

The exemplar was still in too much pain to pay attention. His plaque had tumbled off the table. Josephine snatched it up. That got his attention. Confused as he was, no one touches an exemplar’s plaque. He lunged. She darted out of the way and wiped his memory again.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You lent it to me.”

“What?” He looked, lunged again. Another dodge.

“You told me I could hold this.” Another mind wipe. After enough times, he’ll be left with the impression that it might be true, at least long enough that his knee jerk reaction would settle down.

That was until she realized she wasn’t sensing his aura, or anyone’s. She examined the plaque. The green light was on, meaning it should be working, but nothing. She turned and addressed a guard. “Look at me.”

Rubbing his chin, the guard did. There was no stream of thought in her head besides her own.

“She was here,” Josephine told Tan. “The plaque is broken.” A shame really. Having a plaque would be crucial right now, even if it meant dragging along the exemplar. She learned long ago that the awareness granted to her by Empathy was enough for her to pull memories. Line of vision not required.

“Who was here?” the exemplar asked. “Are you talking about the thief girl?”

Josephine faced him. “Yes. The thief girl. Where is she?”

“Who are you again?”

Josephine thrust his broken plaque into his hands and blanked his memory. Time to start over. “Are you okay?” She helped him up.

“I… I think so.” He rubbed his chin. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over. It was a stooge act.”

“Did we?” The exemplar looked at the other guards. They looked equally perplexed.

“I don’t think so…” one said.

“Here,” said Josephine. “Everybody sit down.”

They corrected chairs and fetched fallen items. All evidence of the tumble was gone. Josephine cleared their minds again.

“Exemplar?” she said, as though expecting something from him.


“You were telling me about the thief girl.”

“I was?” He rubbed his temple where the gun had stuck him. His jaw worked left to right as though it felt loose.

“Yes. Please go on.”

“Uh… where did I leave off?”

“You were telling where she is.”

He pointed to the row of monitors on the security desk. “We’re keeping her in interview room three until the queen’s escort team gets here.”

Josephine looked at the screens. Among a grid of tiny camera feeds, one showed Naema in a plain white room. She sat across from nobody. If the queen had sent an escort team, then the Lakirans must have known exactly what she was capable of. In just a few hours, they would have taken her away, and then she might as well have been in a different world for all the good Josephine could have done for her.

“Tan, you want to get her?” she asked.

Thankfully, he didn’t argue. Holstering his weapon, he yanked a security card off a guard, who protested, but only for a second before suffering a lapse in memory. Tan disappeared down the hall. Josephine watched through the camera.

Naema looked up. She must have heard someone stop before the door. It opened. When she saw who it was, she startled to her feet. Tan gestured from the door. Come on, his motion said. Naema didn’t move, and he gestured again more impatiently. She reached over the table toward him. Her palms wobbled against an invisible force which kept her from falling any further forward. I can’t, her response seemed to be, you’re at the wrong door.

Tan gave the most elaborate gesture of exasperation. Shutting the door, he moved to the next. When he opened it, Naema rushed to hug him. He tolerated that for a moment before decoupling and pulling her along.

While waiting, Josephine worked on the minds of the people here. She couldn’t remove every trace of Naema. A lot of what happened between Naema and her captors had nothing to do with Josephine, no matter how much Josephine tried to convince herself. Hopefully they were befuddled enough to lay off any alarms until Josephine got the others out of here.

Naema and Tan appeared. Naema broke from Tan and hugged Josephine exuberantly. She was crying.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Josephine said.

“My family,” Naema said. “They have my mama and brother. We have to get them.”

Behind her, Tan drooped his head.

“Do you know where they are?” Josephine asked.

“In the big cells with everybody else.”

The detainment center. Josephine didn’t recall seeing Naema’s mother, but then she hadn’t been looking. Obviously the Lakirans must have them if they raided Naema’s home. Josephine had been too preoccupied with Naema to think about them, or about the hundreds of detainees the Lakiran’s might be shipping off to indefinite imprisonment. Naema was the only one with powers that could help Josephine.

Once again, she thought about Sakhr.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll save them.”

She led them from the brig back toward the detention center, passing once again beneath a security camera which both she and Tan had failed to notice.

The sun took a while to set this evening since the imperial shuttle had been chasing it over two time zones. They were over the Gulf of Mexico by the time it finally ducked behind the horizon. Now the world outside the windows was pitch black. Since the shuttle had a built-in repulse field nullifying turbulence in the cabin, Winnie wouldn’t even know they were moving if not for her mind showing her the little shuttle soaring along like a dot in a void.

Helena whispered her speech to herself while Victoria worked on her tablet. Winnie passed the time with her visualizations. The shuttle was nearly to Cuba, judging from her satellite-eye view. Far ahead, dots of light marked the start of the coast. Cuba a small province compared to the others in the empire, with a minuscule population, but Winnie still hadn’t located the Starlight Auditorium. 

A light tap came on the divider leading to the cockpit. It rolled down to reveal Madeline. “Your Majesty, a priority alert just came in.”

She handed a phone to Victoria.

After the queen scrolled through the messages, she looked to Madeline. “Reverse course. I need to return to the tower.”

“What? No.” Helena sat up. “We can’t go back. We’re almost there.”

“We must. This is an emergency. Madeline, turn us around.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t back out now. You promised you’d come.”

Victoria ignored her. “Inform Intermil to connect the control room at the tower with the Orinoco as soon as possible.”

“The Orinoco?” asked Helena.

Again, Victoria talked over her. “And keep me posted on any more messages coming in from Admiral…” She glanced at the phone. “…Medina. No. Call him. I want to talk to him.”

“Understood,” said Madeline.

Victoria pressed a button to raise the divider, but half way. “Oh. And Bishop. Get him on the line. No. Never mind. I’ll call him. Is this phone secure?” She held up the phone bearing the message. Madeline nodded.

“Good.” Victoria closed the divider.

“What’s going on?” asked Helena. “Is there a rebellion?”


“What is it, then?”

Victoria tapped through the phone. “It’s classified.”

Helena erupted. “Classified? What the hell, mom? What could be so important that you have to put this off? We’ve had this planned for months. You can’t just bail out now.”

Victoria held up a silencing finger as she spoke into the phone. “Bishop? This is Victoria. Where are you?… It’s Josephine… Yes… The Orinoco?… Yes, she has… Is it nighttime there? What time is it in Nigeria?… Then yes, do it now. You’ll have clearance before you land…Right… I’m headed back now… No. Just keep your phone near you… Very good.” She hung up.

“The Orinoco?” Helena said. “The citadel? What the hell is so important in Nigeria?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“This is bullshit, mom.”

“Watch your language.” Victoria words were an automatic response. Her attention was on her phone.

“I’m supposed to host the charity.”

“As soon as we drop me off at the tower, you can head straight back.”

“That will take hours. We’re already late.”

“Then cancel it.”

“The charity? Of course we can’t cancel it. I’ve been planning this for months. It was your stupid, fucking idea. We have to go.”

“Then we call the auditorium and tell them you’ll be late. I do this all the time. They’ll understand.”

“No they won’t. We’ll be hours late.”

Victoria’s attention was on a message she was typing.

“Why don’t we just go to the charity first,” Helena said. “We’re only twenty minutes away. You’d still have to fly for hours, anyway. It’s not going to make a difference for you.”


“Are you trying to ruin this for me? Because you’ve won. The whole charity is ruined. People will be going home by the time I arrive, and nobody is going to donate any money if neither of us are there.”

Victoria breathed sharply through her nostrils. Her patience was running low, though her focus remained adamantly fixed on the phone. “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” she said “An emergency has come up. I had no control over this. If you want to make a fuss and let it ruin the charity for you, then go ahead. I can’t stop you.”

“I’m not ruining anything. You are. You never wanted to do this in the first place. Admit it. You don’t care at all about this charity. Do you? Do you even care about how what this event meant to me, about how much time I put into preparing it?”

The shuttle phone mounted beside Victoria rang. Before answering, Victoria looked at her daughter. “Frankly, Helena, your right. I don’t care.”

She then answered the phone.

35. Shuttles and Hoppers

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“How do I look?” Helena asked. She twirled before the mirror. Her green dress flared outward, expanding to show a gradient of blues hidden within. When she stopped, the colors folded out of view. Winnie thought of it as a blooming flower, not that she’d tell Helena that. It would only turn her off the dress.

“You look amazing,” Winnie said. “It came out just the way I imagined.”

Helena practiced her come-hither look in the mirror while running her finger along her bare shoulder. “My mom has never dressed this well, has she? She always in those pantsuits or those god-awful gowns. People will notice this.”

“How could they not?” Winnie checked the time. “It’s eight o’clock. Should we head up?”

“As soon as my mom is ready. Are you?”

“I am.” Winnie checked herself over. Winnie’s dress used the same color scheme as Helena’s, only to a lesser extent. She knew better than to wear anything that might compare to Helena. It wasn’t much different than what the charity staff would be wearing, which in turn, complimented the decor they’d selected for the Starlight auditorium.

“Maybe we should head up anyway,” Winnie said. “We’re already late.”

Helena turned to her. “First of all, no. We are never late. The fundraiser is not going to start when neither I or my mom aren’t there, so how could we ever be late? We could show up tomorrow and everyone would still be be waiting for us. Secondly, we’re not moving until my mom is ready, and she will be late. She’s always at least thirty minutes behind whatever her schedule says. If we go up now, we’ll just be waiting on the roof. Besides…” She tapped at her lower lip. “I feel like we’re forgetting something.”

“Your speech?” Winnie held up index cards.

“It’ll be there. I sent a copy to Madeline yesterday.”

“Do you want to rehearse it?”

“Why would I? It’ll be on the teleprompter.”

“I don’t know. Maybe so you don’t trip up? When I get nervous, I stumble over my words sometimes.”

Helena snorted. “Well, I’m not you. I don’t stumble, and I’m definitely not nervous. Everything is going to go fine, at least on my end. What else do we need to bring?”

“I think that’s it. Your dress looks beautiful. Your hair and makeup are perfect. I think Madeline is taking care of everything else.”

“Then I guess we just wait.” Helena sat beside Winnie on the bed. Winnie burned time on her tablet. Minutes passed.

“What’s taking my mother so long?” Helena said. “She is getting ready, isn’t she? She promised she’d come. You don’t think something came up, do you?”

“Wouldn’t Madeline have told us?”

“Yeah, she would. I guess… ugh.” She flopped back. “I guess she’s just taking forever.”

A light tap came from the door. Helena bolted up. “Yes?”

Madeline’s voice. “Your Highness. We’ll be departing from the roof pad. Your mother will be ready in five minutes.”

“About time,” Helena replied. “I’ll be up momentarily.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Footsteps retreated.

“Okay. Okay.” Helena’s checked her hair over. “I’m fine, right?”

“You’re fine.”

“Okay, let’s go.” She headed toward the door. Half way there, she paused. “You have the flashcards, right? You know… In case I get bored in the shuttle or something. Who knows? Maybe the teleprompter will break.”

Winnie kept her face neutral. “Sure.”

“Incoming shuttle. Identify.”

“This is tail number lima alpha four seven delta returning from Emohua relief, scheduled for an oh one twenty arrival. Submitting clearance now.”

The shuttle pilot dragged an image of his flight clearance onto a tower icon that had opened up. Beneath the icon were the words, “HMC Orinoco flight comm.”

Moments later, communications got back with him. “Acknowledged, lima alpha four seven delta. Flight plan transmitted. Switch to grid and proceed.”

The pilot pressed a button that slaved the shuttle to the local repulser grid. There was a bump. Then the ride smoothed out. The shuttle drifted through the air with flawless precision. The pilot was done piloting. Before the craft landed on the citadel, he would need to submit a manifest, but apparently he decided that could wait. He reclined in his seat and rubbed his temples.

The smoke was giving him a headache.

Twice now he’d had to reset the shuttle’s internal smoke alarm, and he kept coughing, as though hinting to his passengers that smoking was prohibited, though he couldn’t even recall that he had passengers.

Josephine and Tan had stowed away aboard the shuttle when it was making a supply run with a military depot in town, although stowing away was a strong word, since they both sat in plain view, strapped in like any passenger would be.

Whenever the pilot realized he wasn’t supposed to have company, Josephine would wipe his memory. She shouldn’t have to do it often, given their stolen uniforms. Unfortunately, Tan would not stop smoking aboard a smoke-free vessel.

He always smoked before doing anything nerve wracking, but he should have done so before the flight. No matter how many times Josephine motioned for him to put it out, he just kept right on smoking. She suspected it was his own little protest about this trip.

Rescuing Naema had been Josephine’s idea, not his. After the fighting had settled down at the market, she had looked around for Naema, but there was too much confusion. When the wall bots started locking the place down, she knew they had to leave. For hours, Josephine fretted. She just knew they’d captured her, but Tan had told her to wait, that Naema’s power would protect her. But then Josephine had gone to check Naema’s home. The Lakirans were there. Two prowlers drifted overhead while soldiers questioned neighbors. Naema’s shack had been torn down. That decided it.

“We’re going,” she’d told Tan.


“Yes. We are.”

“Too dangerous. They catch her. They catch us too.”

“You already know what it means for us if they get her power.”

“They can’t. Her power break theirs. No good for them.”

“So you want to just leave her?”

He’d shrugged so casually that she’d wanted to sock him. “We save her if we could, but she is on Citadel now. Not safe. They will see us. High exemplars will find us. Not a chance. Will.”

“That’s not for certain.”

“Every time we go onto military base, Bishop come. Every time.”

“If it was you they caught, I’d come save you. I did once.”

This silenced him.

“You can stay if you want. I’m going,” she said. “I could use your help though. If they catch me, how long do you think you’ll last on your own?”

The look he’d given her was withering, but that had settled it. Two hours later found them aboard this shuttle. Josephine tried not to dwell on the argument. Tan should have wanted to come in the first place, but threatening to withdraw her protection like that, even implying it… that was something Sakhr would have done.

A popup appeared on the pilot’s screen. He needed to submit a manifest now. Josephine unfastened her seat, stepped to the cockpit, and reached over the pilot’s shoulder to fill it out.

“Hey!” he shouted.

“I’ll do this,” she said while clearing his memory. She filled out the form. Three passengers: the pilot and the names of the officers from whom Josephine had stolen the uniforms. The rest was cargo information. She submitted it and sat down in the copilot’s seat. Whenever the pilot started to ask her a question, she pulled from his memory. Any time he glanced back to see Tan, she performed her mental exercise.

Tan and I work toward the same goal right now. We act as one.

And she’d pull.

Pretty soon, he just accepted his mysterious crew. The grid system guided the shuttle into one of many bay doors along the citadel’s hull. Like a feather, it touched down on a landing pad. The doors opened, and soldiers gathered in to unload supplies.

Josephine and Tan walked past them. She cleared the soldiers’ memories as they went. Outside the landing was a narrow corridor. Soldiers sidled by to get around them. None paid them attention.

Tan and Josephine weren’t intruders. They were just in the way.

Her Majesty the Queen was not on the roof when Winnie and Helena arrived, but their ride was. The shuttle was Victoria’s personal hopper. It looked a giant, chrome beetle. One of its wings was up, and a red carpet led into its exposed flank. Wind whipped at Winnie and Helena’s dresses. A few service men were scouring the landing pad and all the other corners of the roof for security. Other guards waited by the door. It was all a bit much for Winnie, but she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the fanfare. Tonight, she was part of the royal procession.

She and Helena boarded the hopper.

The inside was small for a royal vehicle, but it didn’t lack for luxuries. Seats lined the walls like a limousine and it had the same accommodations. The ice compartment had fresh ice. The bar bay had chilled drinks. No sign of wear and tear. At the front was a little window showing into a cockpit. This shuttle could fly on its own. The charity was in Cuba, and while Cuba had acted as a fantastic neutral ground during the war between the empire and many North American factions, it didn’t have a repulse grid.

Helena sat in the seat near the door, where she could see anyone approaching. Madeline emerged on the roof holding a box covered with a blanket. Helena rolled her eyes and scooted to make room. Madeline loaded the item in beside them. Winnie’s quick mental glance inside revealed Willow, Victoria’s pet hawk, sleeping soundly on a perch.

“Sure,” Helena said. “Let’s bring the bird. Why not?”

“Your mother will be right up,” Madeline said. “She’s just had a quick delay.”


Madeline ducked out and scurried back to the roof exit.

“Why are we bringing Willow?” Winnie asked.

“Because my mother is borderline insane, and this is not a quick delay. Where the hell is she?”

Winnie remained quiet.

Helena looked square at her. “Well?”


“Where is she? Use your power.”

“I’m never supposed to use my power on her.”

“Oh, Christ. Don’t search her bedroom. Just check the stairwell or something. Is she coming?”

“No.” Winnie hadn’t use her power, but the absence of any commotion outside the shuttle was enough to tell.

“I wonder if she’s doing this on purpose?” Helena said. “I had to remind her about this a thousand times. It’s probably a power play. She wants me to wait.”

“She’s never on time for my tutoring sessions… except when she’s really really early.”

“Yeah, but that’s different. She sees you every week, and you’re just a flair. You’d think she’d care more about her own daughter.” Helena sighed and slumped back. “She doesn’t even want to do this.”

Winnie didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Helena didn’t look to her this time.

“What now?” Tan asked. For this trip, he was placing all the burden on Josephine. Back when they were suiting up, she’d wondered whether she’d have to tie his shoelaces for him.

“We have to find Naema,” she replied. That was obvious, but she was thinking out loud. Her prearranged plan ended here. “She’s probably wherever they keep all the other prisoners.”

How to find it? Simple.

Josephine caught the next soldier hurrying by. “Do you know where they hold the prisoners?”

He looked perplexed.

“This is my first time aboard,” she explained.

“Do you mean the detention center, ma’am?”

Josephine had forgotten she’d stolen her uniform from an off-duty captain.

“Yes, that’s what I meant.”

“It’s on Deck six in the Fore Sector.” He pointed down a corridor and issued several directions. From the sound of it, Josephine would have to walk a good ten or twenty minutes. The one part of his instructions that were clear was this: go down, and go toward the front.

She thanked him. He saluted and continued on. She yanked away his memories of the conversation.

They only got lost a few times looking for the detention center. Once they got near, it was impossible to miss. The yells echoed down the corridors. The stench wafted. The center was a hallway with an L-bend in it. Along the walls on both sides were cells, each large and filled with a dozen or so people. Despite the crowding, Josephine got the sense this was a quiet hour. The refuse covering the floors was from many more people than this.

Josephine walked up and down the hall looking at each inmate. Naema wasn’t among them.

“There might be more cells,” she said. “I think there’s another block on the other side of the ship just like this.” It was infuriating how few signs there were pointing to anything.

“She not here,” Tan said.

“Not here here, but in another cell. Come on.”

“Not in cells. If they take her family, then they know her. She not here. She will be different. Eh… separate.”

He had a good point. She felt silly for not realizing it herself. But then where was she supposed to look?

Josephine cornered another soldier.

“Is there another detention center?” she asked.

Another puzzled expression. “Sir?”

“I’m looking for a detainee. They’re not here.”

“Have you tried processing?”

“What’s that?”

“What’s processing?” he asked, as though clarifying that she was asking an obvious question.

I just transferred here.” Her words were harsher than she’d intended.

“It’s where we put civilians into the system before sending them home.”

“No. That’s not what I want. The person I’m looking for is being held, probably apart from the others.”

“Oh. Then you probably want the brig.”

The brig. Yes. That does sound like a place Lakirans would put an innocent teenaged girl.

“Where is that?” she asked.

Winnie could tell when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was about to show. Guards outside the shuttle lifted a hand to their earbuds. Their stances became rigid. Others hurried through scanning high and low for last minute threats. Some peeked into the hopper as though Helena and Winnie wouldn’t have noticed an assassin sitting with them.

“About time,” Helena said. She scooted farther into the shuttle to make room. “I bet she didn’t even try to match the color scheme we made.”

“I guess we’ll see soon.” Winnie always felt uncomfortable with Helena’s reproachful remarks toward the queen. It couldn’t be wise to talk poorly about a dictator who could read your mind.

Victoria emerged from the roof access door with Madeline at her heel. Helena was right. Victoria wore one of her own formal dresses: white blouse and a cream skirt with a matching vest. Beautiful attire, but it wouldn’t match the scheme arranged for the charity ball. She must have known; Helena reminded her endlessly, yet she chose to ignore it. Victoria may have thought Helena’s micromanaging of the scheme was childish, but even Winnie’s mother would have played along.

Victoria took the seat next to Willow. She looked her daughter up and down. Helena pretended to gaze out the window. When Victoria looked at Winnie, Winnie waved.

“Winnie,” Victoria nodded. She looked at her daughter. “Are we ready to go?”

We’ve been ready to go for a while. Just waiting on you.”

Victoria didn’t rise to it. She turned to Madeline. “Let’s go then.”

Madeline climbed into the cockpit with a pilot. A guard closed the hopper door, and they took off. The world outside the windows dropped away.

“Have you tried any of the new exercises I’ve given you?” Victoria asked. She was studying a tablet she’d brought with her, but she could only be speaking to Winnie.

“A couple,” Winnie said. “I was busy getting ready.”

“Any progress?”

“A little.”

“How so?” She looked up. Winnie stared off as though recalling. Eye contact would reveal how little “a little” was. Victoria would find out eventually, but why now?

“I was able to see in the dark without pretending there was a light,” Winnie said.

“Can you distinguish colors yet?”

“Not in the dark, no.”

“How about your point of view exercises? Can you be aware of all sides of an object?”

“Kind of.”

Victoria tilted her head. “Kind of?”

“I can see it from all sides, but it’s like I’m using a lot of cameras.”

“You could already do that.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess I mean I’m able to do it more easily now.”

“I don’t want you to do it wrong more easily. It’s a crutch. You should know what something looks like inside and out without having to look at it. Stop practicing it with your flair for now. Just try to imagine a fictional object. Practice knowing it inside and out without relying on visualizing it from different angles. Once you can do that. Then we’ll see if you’re ready to start projecting again?”


“Hmm.” Victoria eyed her. “And how about locating people? Any progress on that?”

“Oh, come on,” Helena said. “Why are you doing this now? We’re going to the charity concert.”

Victoria turned her gaze to her daughter, her expression cool, but to Winnie’s surprise, she did stop. For Victoria, ruling the world came second to training flairs. This charity would fall even lower on the list. Winnie was still glad for the interruption. Otherwise the trip would become another lesson.

Helena spoke. “So I’m ready for my speech. I thought what we’d do, Mother, is enter together. For pictures. You’re not dressed in the scheme, but that’s okay. The queen should stand out. It’s supposed to be just food and drinks to start. No dancing until later. Then we give our speeches to start the auction. Madeline forgot to give me a copy of your speech, but as long as it covers—”

“I didn’t prepare one.”

“You…? Then you’re just going to say a few short words then? That’s fine. People will be tired by then, it might be—.”

“I’m not making a speech.”

“Oh. What? Oh. Are you sure? I mean, aren’t people going to expect one?”


“But I just assumed you would. You always do. It’s on the program that you are.”

“We’ll change the program.”

Silence. Helena stared at her lap. Her jaw was clenched.

Victoria sighed and looked from her tablet. “I’m not giving a speech because this is your night, Helena. You organized it, and now you’re hosting it.”

“But it was your idea.”

“Yes. I know it was, but the audience doesn’t. The point of this charity is to build your presence. You need to stop being a nameless daughter and start being a political figure. So yes, I’m not giving a speech. You are. You’ll be meeting the guests. You’ll be posing for pictures. You’ll make connections.”

“If you don’t want to be a part of this, then why’d you even come?”

Victoria threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m coming to support you, Helena. Nobody has any idea who you are, so I’m lending credibility to your cause, but I only plan to mingle. The world needs to see that this was your initiative. Soon you’ll have enough status to draw media attention yourself.”

“Then you won’t have to deal with me anymore.”

Victoria regarded her. “Are we going to start this now? This is your night. Let’s not ruin the mood before we’re even there.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“And Helena?”


“You should review your speech. There won’t be a teleprompter.”

I know that. I said I reviewed my speech, didn’t I?”

“If you say so. As long as you’re sure you’re not going to make a fool of yourself.”

Winnie sat still, acting as though she hadn’t even heard the conversation, but she wondered about Victoria’s mention of the teleprompter. It’s as though Victoria had been listening in to her conversation with Helena earlier using her own power, or perhaps Victoria had seen it from her head when she’d waved at the queen just now.

Either way, it was unsettling, but there wasn’t anything to do about it.

In her lap, she held the index cards prominently. She knew better than to offer them to Helena now; that would be siding with Victoria, but Helena could easily snatch them if she wanted.

She gazed out the window. Sure enough, after a minute, Helena yanked the index cards from her hand.

28. Security Features

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“Wait,” said Naema. “So you stole an exemplar’s powers?”

“That’s right,” said Josephine. “Remember when I told you about how the queen turns powers into strange drawings? Those are inside those big tablets of theirs. They call them plaques, and all you have to do is hold one.”

“Then why don’t you still have it?”

“Because the Lakiran queen is paranoid.”

Naema, Josephine, and Tan were walking back from their exemplar outing. Tan lingered behind like a teenager embarrassed to be seen with his parents. They were passing through Port Harcourt. The markets swelled with afternoon business. Music played from speakers perched in windows. People danced in the streets. It was almost like the Nigeria Naema remembered as a girl; almost. 

Josephine talked as they walked along. “Victoria puts an unbelievable amount of failsafes in her exemplar’s plaques. If those things go more than ten feet away from the exemplar they’re assigned to, they give a warning beep. If they’re not back within range in one minute, tiny explosives inside the plaque destroy those drawings. So if Tan and I want to use those plaques, I have to stay within ten feet of the exemplar.”

“Why don’t you open it and remove the drawings.”

“They’ve thought of that. Trust me. They’ve thought of everything. If it opens, pop. If it loses GPS for too long, pop. If the exemplar goes somewhere he’s not supposed to, pop. The tablets even have a detachable battery that the exemplars are supposed to yank out if they think they’re about to be taken hostage. It kills the powers immediately. And I think the empire can remotely destroy them too if they suspect anything fishy.”

“Why so much?”

“Those tablets were the biggest advantage the Lakirans have over the Chinese and the EDA. Exemplars could pick out spies, sense hidden troops, interrogate prisoners of war. No one else can do that, and the Lakiran’s will hold onto that advantage at any cost. Do you remember how the empire launched this huge assault into Britain?”


“Oh. This was about four years ago. No one understood why the empire came to Europe so early. It really overstretched them. I heard it’s because the European Alliance had managed to get their hands on one of those plaques. The entire early invasion was started just to get it back. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the empire definitely came to Europe before they had a good handle on North America.”

“Maybe the queen is just greedy.”

“Maybe. Anyway, Tan and I were able to get an exemplar’s plaque from him, but not for very long. It really helped us work on each other’s powers, but we can’t do that for you if you’ll just break anything we bring near you.”


Josephine glanced at her. “You don’t seem very bothered by that.”

Naema shrugged. “I guess I would be if I had mind reading or something. What do I do? Nothing. I break other people around me. Or so you say. I’m still not sure it isn’t all just a big joke you’re pulling.”

“You saw the exemplar.”

“Yeah… I guess so.” Naema saw the exemplar thump his tablet, then Josephine pulled her away. Disregard Tan and Josephine’s word, and there wasn’t any other evidence of her power.

They walked through the market until coming upon dividers blocking the road. Beyond, a Lakiran construction project was underway. An aerial crane floated over a deep pit. It had three prominent bulges along its bottom in a triangular shape which no doubt contained high capacity repulsers. They stayed aloft using the same invisible tripod technique the citadels used.

Cables dangled from the crane. Construction workers guided prebuilt pieces into place upon a structure in the pit. Soldiers stood guard around the site, and spaced around the crane were aerial watchtowers suspended in the same fashion as the crane. In each, a soldier behind a railgun was ready to rain hell upon troublemakers.

“They’re building a grid node,” Josephine said. “Told you. They’re moving in.”

Naema didn’t disagree. Lakirans already had nodes installed throughout Nigeria, but those were the temporary kind, above ground. They’d float the nodes into position, then bolt them down. It allowed the Lakirans to drop in their orbital drop response teams, but not much else. This, though, was higher capacity, a permanent installation placed underground. They couldn’t pack this one up and leave if the Nigerian occupation didn’t pan out. Naema had seen pictures of cities with shuttles cluttering the skyline. This was the first step. Pretty soon, Lakirans responding to trouble would be coming from local stations, not ships coasting the upper atmosphere. That meant faster response times.

“But look on the bright side,” Josephine pointed at one of the watchtowers. An exemplar was gazing over the crowd. “Looks like Tan wins two to zero, and we get to test again.”

“Won’t the Lakirans wonder why two exemplars had trouble today?”

“They might, but it’s too late. Look.” The exemplar was already frowning at his plaque. “It’s definitely broken. Do you want to watch this time? I don’t think we need to be careful. The soldier’s aren’t turning away spectators here.” They watched while the exemplar fiddled his plaque, turning it over as though looking for the on switch.

Tan came up beside them. “We go.”

“Patience,” Josephine said. “This is a better test. Nobody is going to notice us here. Naema, are you convinced yet, or do you still think I’m making your gift up?”

“We go. Now.” Tan sounded more insistent.

“It’s not that late. Just a minute.”

“I have bad feeling.”

The change in Josephine’s demeanor was stark. Glancing around, she took Naema’s arm. “Okay, let’s go.” They worked backward through the crowd. Josephine and Tan kept glancing back as though expecting someone to call them out. Naema glanced, but nothing seemed wrong. Tan’s bad feelings seemed to carry particular weight with Josephine.

Somebody yelled. It was distant and in French. Then came a scream.

Then a gunshot.

Suddenly, everything happened at once. The crowd surged. Everyone yelled and screamed. There was a bout of gunfire. Naema glimpsed someone in a second story window firing a rifle toward the construction project. The Lakiran guards responded with a spray of flechettes from their silent rifles.

Naema lost sight of them as the crowd jostled her. Everyone was trying to run now. Someone crashed into her. Another fell between her and Josephine, causing their linked hands to separate. Josephine’s head snap around to look just as Naema fell. She landed on her broken hand. The pain stole her attention momentarily. When she looked up, Josephine was struggling against the crowd to get to her. Naema rose to one knee.

Suddenly, an explosion.

She was on the ground again. Heat washed over her back. Over the ringing in her ears, gunfire continued. There was blood on her. Panicked, she checked herself over. No injury. It was someone else’s blood. She climbed once again to her knees.


She looked up. Josephine was across the street, laying flat on her belly. The crowd had cleared, and now Naema saw why. There were dead between her and Josephine.

Josephine motioned for her to get down. Naema scrambled for cover behind an overturned cart. All around, the fighting continued. Men with rifles were firing from around corners and behind door frames. More shot at the Lakirans from windows. They were rebels, but whether they were remnants of the European Alliance or some African group, she didn’t know. They were dressed in street clothes which hid them in the crowd.

Three more explosions sounded back to back, and the husk of an aerial watchtower dropped from the sky. From a window, a rocket launched at one of the remaining ones. It’s path was instantaneous, but from the smoke streak, it came within five feet of the tower before the tower’s repulse field arced it away. It crashed into a building. Stone and brick showered the street.

The guard in the tower spun his rail gun toward the window. No projectile shot out, but the building tore apart as though someone had scraped their finger through wet newspaper. Part of the wall fell away. Bloody carnage was inside the exposed room, Body parts tumbled out. Naema knew vaguely what had happened. People called those railguns shears. They generated repulse fields as thin as pencil lead but strong enough to apply thousands of pounds of force.

Another tower turned its railgun toward rebels taking cover behind a brick wall. The bricks chipped, but did not crumble as the plaster wall had. The men behind the wall cleaved apart, like bags of soup spilling open. The field passed through the wall. Naema realized it would do the same for the cart she was hiding behind. She couldn’t stay here.

Josephine was still taking cover across the street. Naema wanted to sprint across to them, but her mind kept envisioning flechettes biting into her guts as soon as she was in view. Her legs wouldn’t move.

Everything changed again. An orbital deployment team arrived. Pods crashed onto the streets, one right before Naema, separating her from Josephine. The sound was like metal thunder. Their hatches blew open, and armored soldiers came out firing. If the rebels had any chance of winning this fight, it was gone. Several dropped immediately. Their cover did not protect them from the assailants suddenly appearing from unexpected directions. They ran. The Lakirans kept firing, shooting rebels and civilians alike. Not even Naema could tell who was who.

The orbital soldier right before her need only glance to his right to see her. She was unarmed, but he might not care. The rebels had been hiding in the crowds, and the Lakirans weren’t taking chances.

He marched down the street in pursuit of someone. No Lakirans were in sight, but neither were Tan and Josephine. Bullets and yelling still sounded, but not near her. Bystanders crawled away from the fighting toward alleys and alcoves. Some got up and sprinted. No one shot them down.

Josephine was gone, but this was Naema’s chance. She crawled toward an alley. As soon as she was out of view, she got up and sprinted. Three steps. She stumbled, tore her knees, and landed poorly on her hands. Pain exploded from her broken thumb, but she got up and kept going.

She raced down the alley and around a turn. Something knocked her down. It was as though she’d run into a dense wall of air which blew her back. She got up and tried again. Again, something pushed her onto her rear. Ahead of her, floating about ten feet in the air, was a small drone—a wall bot. It was generating a repulse field between itself and Naema, sealing the alley. It must have flown in along with the deployment pods to lock the situation down. There would be others too, shutting down the entire area. Naema knew how this worked. Everyone was a suspect. All got dragged away.

She ran back to check the fighting. Gunfire had stopped. Other wall bots were floating into position where the fray had been. Many were already locked in place. Civilians batted uselessly against invisible walls. The fight was over. The Lakirans would start arresting people, her included if they found her.

She looked for an alley the orbs might have missed. One nearby had overflowing dumpsters. Bystanders were hiding for their lives behind them. She paid them no heed and ran to the end, took a turn, and skidded to a stop. A wall bot was already in place at the mouth.

Somewhere distant, there was a burst of rifle fire, followed by an explosion. Nothing followed. Some rebel hadn’t realized the Lakirans had already won. A ship blotted out the sky between the buildings for a moment. It was landing nearby. More soldiers would soon crowd the streets. They’d carry her away unless she escaped, which grew increasingly unlikely.

Would her supposed power protect her? Maybe, but maybe not. She didn’t want to take the chance.

She scanned around. The streets were locked down, but fire escapes might not be. If she got into a building and hid, then maybe the exemplars wouldn’t find her. That’s only if her power would protect her against an exemplar she’d never laid eyes upon.

The bottom of the fire escapes were nine feet above, nothing she could jump, but there were leftover crates from the market. She piled two and carefully climbed on top. The people cowering by the dumpsters paid her no attention. They watched the alley mouth for signs of combat. Teetering on top of the crates, Naema leaped for the fire escape and caught it with her good hand and the fingers of her casted hand. A buried part of her was aware of the crippling pain it caused.

She pulled herself up and hooked her foot over the railing. She’d was nearly on the fire escape when white-clad soldiers appeared at the mouth of the alley.

“Hey,” one yelled. “Freeze.”

She looked to see two peace officers aiming weapons at her. Naema didn’t know what their weapons fired, but she had no doubt they would fire them. She held up one free hand in a gesture of surrender.

“Get down from there,” they yelled.

She unhooked her foot. Once her legs stopped swinging, she dropped onto her hands and knees. Before she could rise, the soldiers shoved her onto her stomach and secured her hands behind her.

They dragged her toward the street. The fighting was over. The area was swarmed with soldiers, some dressed in white for peace, others wore deployment gray. All had weapons. The fetid smell of death and smoke filled the air.

More and more wall bots fell from the sky. When they reached building level, they’d hover into place and generate partitioning fields to further lock down the streets at a greater radius. Others were dedicated to caging herds of frightened civilians.

Naema couldn’t spot Josephine among the crowd. Even if she was, what could she do? No amount of memory wiping would let her pass those repulse barriers.

They set Naema down by others, and a soldier with a control tablet directed wall bots to fence her in. The next ship to arrive was a large hulking craft. Soldiers cleared a place for it to land. It was a transport ship, here for the prisoners. That was going to be her ride to the citadel.