An officer announced Alexander’s arrival on the bridge, and the buzz of activity halted for formalities. Alex waved people back to work. Any other day, he’d wallow in the attention, but right now it was idiotic. He stepped up to a display table beside Admiral Laughlin.
“What’s happening?” Alex asked. The display showed an overhead view of South America.
“We picked up a deployment drop twenty minutes ago, Your Majesty. It skirted in from the Atlantic side of Brazil and landed near the Guyana border. The ship that deployed it came in hot, nearly two thousand kilometers per hour. It has to be them.”
He pointed toward a single dot pinpointed under Central America, “They’re accelerating back to cruising speed. In fifty minutes, they’ll be untouchable again. Fortunately though…” He pointed to a nest of dots over Honduras. “Our squads scrambled as soon as they got the alarm, and luck was on our side. No matter their course, our boys will synchronize with them for at least six minutes before the target reaches cruising speed. After—”
The map updated. A line extending from the target dot flickered and now curved downward over the antarctic.
“They’ve changed course, sir,” said an officer behind them. “Southward arc, at two point four two meters per second per second. Predicted change.”
“And the window?”
“Six minutes twenty-seven seconds. Their course is optimal, sir.”
“Excellent.” Laughlin turned to Alex. “Any course change they make now will only benefit us.
“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.
“They can try. We’ve already made arrangements to shut down the local grid if they do. The evacuees will make one hell of a crater.”
“And just to confirm, all pilots have shield stones with them?”
Alex turned to the bridge. “And is there anyone here who is not shielded? Anyone at all?”
No one responded. He couldn’t sense any auras anyway, but he was coming down a case of Sakhr’s paranoia.
“You won’t be in trouble if you speak up now,” he said, “but you will if you don’t.”
“Everyone here is equipped, as ordered,” said Laughlin.
“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”
“We’ve sent a team to investigate. It’s touchdown area was directly next to a gridport.”
Laughlin tapped controls on the display table. A small window popped up overtop of the orbital chase. It was a topographical map of a region. An arrow indicated where the pod landed. Next to it was a dot labeled “Cantá Gridway” with lines spraying from it. They were grid chutes which led to ports all over South America.
“But there was only one pod?”
“How many people could have been in it?”
“They’re meant for one soldier, but in a pinch, they can hold two.”
“Have we heard back from the gridport?”
“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Probably not entirely. No region is fully equipped yet.”
“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.
“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”
“You’ve got this under control, right?”
“Then there’s no need, is there? Destroy them all and keep me posted.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Any other day, Alex would have stayed, but he knew who was in that pod. He now had preparations to make. A good host should be ready for guests.
“New trajectory confirmed.” Navigator Tremont checked his readout. “Time to optimal cruising speed: fifty-eight minutes.”
“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.
Tremont fiddled with his onscreen numbers. “Six minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”
Rivera nodded slowly. Winnie didn’t bother asking how bad it was. That window was several times larger than the one they had faced before.
“Are you sure about those ships?” Rivera asked Winnie. She too wished she were wrong. The onboard radar hadn’t yet picked up the incoming interceptors. They had only Winnie’s word, and if she was wrong, they might yet live, but it wasn’t the case.
“Yes,” she said. “The people in the Manakin came up with the same intercept window.”
“Hmm.” Rivera faced Tremont again. “How quickly can we course change over a grid?”
The officer got to work.
Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”
“Why?” Rivera asked.
“They’re going to shut off the grid wherever our pods are going to land.”
“…I see. Are you sure about th… nevermind. Of course you’re sure. Disregard my last query, Lieutenant.” Rivera returned to the display board. Dots were shown in exactly the same configuration as aboard the Manakin. Six ships were coming. Same as last time, only the crews were shielded, the attack window was minutes long, and the Venezia only had two-thirds of the spider drones it had before. Death was certain. From the auras on the bridge, everyone else knew it too.
“What’s the status of the queen?” Rivera asked.
Winnie brought Victoria to mind. She was still in the body of Captain Russo, sitting in a shuttle on its way to the Manakin. She was in the back, away from the other soldiers in transit. They kept glancing at her as she mumbled to herself.
“Answer me, Winnie. Pay attention,” Victoria murmured. “Look at me, Winnie. Answer me.”
“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”
“Don’t look away again. I’m about to land.”
“Have you been watching what’s happening to us?”
“As long as I can get to Alex in time, it won’t matter. I’ll call them off.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then you’re on your own. Stephano and Rivera knew what was at stake, but those ships aren’t going to reach you for fifty minutes, and I don’t plan on failing.”
“Okay.” Winnie relayed this to Rivera. He seemed as concerned with the idea as she was. Their lives were in the queen’s hands. To live, Winnie would have to help Victoria however she could. She wondered if this had been part of Victoria’s plan, but chose not to dwell on that.
“What do you want me to do,” Winnie asked.
“Just look ahead,” murmured Victoria. “Use Tan.”
Winnie returned to the ready room and stood in the door frame, keeping her in view of the bridge crew. Tan was still cramped into his seat, and he’d finally put his tablet away, as though he’d finally decided to invest himself in this fight for their lives.
Winnie transmitted Victoria’s instructions to him, and he rolled dice to come up with locations for Winnie to search. Victoria was entering a docking bay. She would have to pass a security checkpoint—one that would require her to relinquish her “shield”. Tan’s search instructions turned up nothing of interest. His second roll even had her searching empty space outside the citadel. Winnie double-checked his mind to make sure he hadn’t changed his winning conditions to whatever will make Winnie stop bothering me the quickest.
The place Winnie really wished she could see was Alexander’s office in the bridge tower, except that it was still one enormous blind spot. He’d kept Naema in that office for days now, yet somehow his glyphs weren’t breaking when he’d come and go. Winnie tried one last time to creep her awareness inside only to have her power clench like a spasming muscle. A shame. He was there right now, and Winnie knew he was up to something.
The landing nodes aboard the Manakin snagged Victoria’s shuttle. Its invisible hand carried it in and deposited it neatly upon a landing space. Victoria and the others shuffled off. Down the landing stair, armed soldiers cordoned them toward the security bay. Like all citadels, each bay aboard the Manakin had its own dedicated section for security checks and exemplar scans, but traffic had increased since the Capital Bombing. As a result, field tents were set up at the back of the landing bay, extending the security section to twice its size. Even then, a queue had formed containing a dozen soldiers.
Tan rolled. Winnie checked. “Fourteenth,” she said. She scanned the line. “Let one more person go ahead of you.”
Victoria paused to check her pockets. Another soldier filed into the queue, and then Victoria stepped in. Thirteen people were before her. The security bay took soldiers off the queue in twos and threes. Even with the extra tents, it took Victoria twelve minutes to reach the front of the line. Winnie knew because she watched the countdown in the bridge leading to intercept time.
They called Victoria and the soldier before her. The soldier got sent to the dedicated security room while Victoria got sent to a tent. They checked her bag, sent her through a body scanner, then directed her inside.
An exemplar was sitting at the other side of a table. Unlike with the dedicated scanning rooms, there was no shield between her and him. He gestured her to take a seat.
“His shield is in his left coat pocket,” Winnie said. She had Tan throw another set of dice. “Wait eleven seconds,” she added.
The exemplar spoke. “You need to take off your shield for the duration of this interview.”
“I don’t have a shield,” Victoria said.
“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”
Victoria patted herself down. Winnie’s own count was down to five seconds.
“I swear I don’t have a shield on me.”
The exemplar pointed impatiently toward the door. “Yes, you do. Return to security.”
Winnie’s countdown reached zero. Victoria snatched the exemplar’s extended hand and lunged. Yelling, he pulled away, but he reacted too slowly. Victoria reached into his coat. Either by luck or by the help of Tan’s power, her hand slipped into his pocket and snagged his shield. She tossed it under the desk.
“Sit,” the exemplar said. “Don’t make a sound.”
The words coming from the exemplar’s mouth could not be disobeyed—Victoria’s words. An invisible hand forced the exemplar, now in Captain Russo’s body, into his seat.
A guard rushed in.
“Is everything okay in here?” the guard asked.
“I slipped.” Victoria righted her chair and sat. When the guard lingered, she looked at him again. “We’re fine.”
The guard left. Victoria turned back to the dumbfounded exemplar. Despite being in an unexpected body, he didn’t seem alarmed. Winnie had heard Victoria and Josephine discussing this tactic earlier. Victoria was erasing his immediate memory so constantly he had no time to panic.
“Now listen to me,” she said. “I passed this scan. There was nothing wrong, and you will report nothing once I’ve left. You will obey.”
Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.
Moments later, Victoria exited the tent, once again in Russo’s body. The exemplar was dazed, but not alarmed. In total, the security checkpoint took Victoria fifteen minutes, leaving thirty-five minutes on the countdown clock to intercept.
Soon, Victoria was wandering the cramped lower corridors of the Manakin.
“Play the next game,” she murmured.
“Right.” Winnie sought Tan, who turned ponderously to his dice. Through her eyes, he saw the passageways before Victoria. Ahead, a ladderwell led up and down, but the corridor kept on as well. Doors lined the sides.
He rolled, examined his results, and passed it on mentally to Winnie.
“Keep straight,” Winnie said.
Victoria did so. She arrived at a smaller bay area, where ships were kept in storage. Several doors, ladders, and elevators led from here. Tan rolled again.
“Down the ladderwell.”
“Down?” asked Victoria. “I’m trying to get to Alexander.”
“The dice say down.”
Victoria followed. This brought her to a catering room. The soldiers down here glanced at her. Captain Russo stood out. Only local personnel worked here.
“Continue through the door before you.”
This brought her into a sleeping quarters.
“Up a ladder well.”
“Up?” asked Victoria.
Victoria went up. Further instructions led her past a medical ward, a line of military-supply outlets, a few commercial diners, and finally back to the very hallway she started in after leaving the security bay. The whole circuit cost them nine minutes. Twenty-six to go.
“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.
“I don’t know.”
Victoria kept walking, taking turns at random to appear busy. “Is Tan reading the dice correctly?”
“I think so.”
“Winnie. Look into his eyes. Are his goals the same as ours?”
“Yes. They are. He’s going to die too if you don’t get to Alex.”
“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.
“It’s already confirmed. I’ve been looking at his mind this whole time.”
“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.
“She’s back where she started,” Winnie replied. “Are you sure you’re doing the dice right?”
“I am doing what she say. Roll dice. Give you path.”
“But the dice aren’t doing that,” Winnie said.
Tan shrugged. “If they don’t give path, there is no path. Dice are random.”
“I don’t accept that,” Victoria said. “Alexander is in the bridge tower. There are two stairwells into there, and an elevator. What is Tan’s game specifically? I need to safely get to Alex within the time limit. I can go anywhere. I can swap bodies. I can make anyone do whatever I need so long as I can de-shield them. Is Tan considering all my options when he rolls his dice?”
Winnie locked minds with Tan.
“Yes.” Tan said. “Maybe… Alexander go to her?”
“Can you roll the dice for a yes or no answer?” asked Winnie.
Josephine answered. “It doesn’t work like that. Tan can only steer her toward a winning condition. He can’t tell her what it is.”
“Here’s an idea,” Victoria said. “Have Tan change the game. To win, I need to safely get to Alexander within five minutes. Any longer and we lose. Roll.”
So Tan rolled, Winnie issued instructions, and Victoria followed. Within a minute, the dice took her into a dead-end armory room, and then turned her right around.
“These are random steps,” Victoria said. “Why can’t we win this? What are we missing?”
“Are you rolling the dice enough? Maybe you’re not giving your flair enough time to control your micro-movements.”
“No,” Tan said.
“Winnie,” Victoria said. “You’ve been watching Alex regularly, right? He is on board?”
“I watched him go into the office on top of the bridge spire.”
“But have you been watching closely? Could he have slipped away?”
“No. You know he hasn’t. I can’t pull him to mind, which means he has to be in that blindspot.”
“Then there’s something we’re missing,” Victoria said, “I refuse to believe I cannot get to him at all.”
“What if he knows you’re coming?” Winnie asked. “Wouldn’t that explain it? He knows a pod landed. He’s not going to do nothing about that. He must at least know we’re up to something. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”
“No,” said Victoria. “Not waiting for me. Or else I could get to him. He must be doing something to ensure I can’t reach him.”
“An escape route? A warning system? He must have something hidden in that blind spot to stop me.”
“That should mean you could at least get close to the blindspot,” Winnie said.
Victoria nodded. “Have Tan set the target destination four floors below the staff bridge.”
Winnie worked with Tan again. He rolled dice. Victoria went from the corridor, down a ladderwell to an engineering room, through a break room, and into an equipment closet.
Victoria growled in frustration. “Does this game even work? Can you even get me to the stairs?”
They played. Up a ladderwell, down a hall. Through a general quarters. Then up a ladderwell twice. She arrived at the base of a stairwell leading up the bridge spire.
“So at least we know it’s working,” said Winnie.
So as not to linger, Victoria kept moving past the stairwell and walked a circuit through nearby corridors.
“But why can’t I just walk up these stairs?” asked Victoria “It would take me right to him. Look with me, Winnie. I can’t see anything in the stairwell or the spire that would stop me.”
Winnie checked. Inside the bridge spire, business was as usual. Admiral Laughlin was monitoring the intercepters on route toward the Venezia. In the operations room, officers coordinated incoming and outgoing air traffic from the citadel. The staff bridge was empty. In the other control rooms, officers weren’t even watching the door. The stairwell leading down was deserted apart from a lone sergeant walking up the stairs while fumbling with loose leaf notes. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him.
“Do you see the soldier in the stairs?” asked Winnie.
“Of course I do.”
“It looks like he’s gone up those stairs a lot today. Maybe you can just go. Maybe there’s just a locked door near the top you can’t get through.”
“We’re running out of time,” Winnie said. The countdown was now sixteen minutes.
“I’m not going to go unless the dice tell me to go.” Victoria walked another hallway. “Let’s try playing the game in parts to see where it fails. Roll the dice again. Set my destination as the deck level landing of the stairwell.”
Tan rolled again. Instructions led Victoria to the end of her current hall, and then the door on the right, which led to a bathroom.
“Okay then,” Victoria said, “How about just one floor up this floor. Can we do that?”
Dice rolled. They led her back to the stairwell, then up one floor.
Victoria stopped on the landing. “Okay. Try going up another floor.”
The dice led her back down. She descended.
“So for some reason,” Victoria said. “Tan’s flair thinks we lose if I go to the deck floor of that stairwell.
Winnie scanned the stairwell thoroughly. “Do you see the security camera?” she said.
“Yes,” Victoria said. “And have you seen the hundred other security cameras I’ve passed since coming aboard? It’s not that. Try playing the Spotting Game with Tan. Center it on that floor.”
As usual, Josephine took the first turn rolling the dice. Winnie followed the resulting instructions and viewed four floors below in a shower room. Nothing. Tan’s turn. The dice pointed Winnie about six feet away. It put her mind inside the wall, close to an air duct. She glanced inside.
“…Oh,” Winnie said. That definitely counted. Tan-1, Josephine-0. Tan wins the game.
“What is it? What do you see?” Victoria asked.
“Look in the air duct.”
“Which one— Oh, I see it.”
It was a canister. Attached to it was a device with wires leading to a small box with an antenna.
“He put a bomb in his own stairwell?” Winnie asked.
“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.
Winnie checked and found a bomb immediately. She’d missed them before because she’d never thought to check underneath the elevator.
“Couldn’t he bring his own spire down with that?”
“Maybe,” said Victoria. “I wouldn’t expect rational thought from a man who has a doomsday device on his watch.”
“Are those bombs remote controlled?”
“Yes,” said Victoria. “And if the dice don’t want me going in there, it means Alexander is watching me right now, and he has his finger on the trigger.”