66. A Grid Station

“Margot Baudin.”

That was the name on the card inside Winnie’s chest pocket. It was her only picture ID, and unfortunately, it stated that she was an exemplar, which was why Winnie had to wait on a bench at a grid station while Victoria managed their travel affairs. It left Winnie with time to look over her new body.

Beside the ID, there was also a credit card, a grid pass, About eighty dollars, a few Argentinian pesos, and a punch card for a local grocery store. Margot had been two sandwiches away from a free one. Tucked away behind the dollars was a blank check, a health insurance card, and another credit card which didn’t look like it got much use. She must have been a responsible woman. It was a backup card for when she got in trouble, but nothing had prepared Margot for this.

Realistically, Winnie knew that Margot had already been dead for days when Victoria stole the body for Winnie. Some detainee or prisoner had been masquerading in it. That didn’t make Winnie feel better though. She turned her mind to check other pockets. Apart from a pen and some lip balm, Margot had nothing else. The previous body thief probably hadn’t had time to fill her pockets when Alexander called the exemplars out of bed. Only her phone and wallet, and Victoria had made Winnie throw away the phone.

With her possessions checked over, Winnie turned her mind once again to look at herself. She was a white woman. Twenty-six according to her ID. She was healthy and objectively attractive, though not nearly as athletic as Winnie’s original body. Victoria had stolen a few items from laundry lines and demanded Winnie change out of her exemplar uniform. Winnie had been self conscious about getting naked in front of Victoria, even though the body wasn’t hers.

The resulting hodgepodge of clothing fit poorly, but it was decent enough. Anyone glancing would see a bored woman waiting on a bench. Nothing more. Winnie checked again what Victoria was up to. She wasn’t buying grid tickets like Winnie had first thought, but rather renting a hopper. That made sense; it would be more private.

Victoria clearly had a plan. It was comforting to an extent, but given everything Winnie had learned about her, she wondered if Victoria’s plan was meant to help anyone except herself. A woman capable of using her own daughter for spare parts was not someone who rescued Winnie for Winnie’s benefit.

Victoria finished. She return and marched past Winnie. “Come.”

Winnie hurried after.

They reached the rental area. A central platform overlooked a lot filled with rows of hopper carriages, varying in color and design. In the early morning dark, the shuttles were little more than shapes to Winnie’s eyes, but after a week stuck with inferior tortoise vision, she’d taken to reflexively supplementing her own vision with her flair. As a result, she saw each hopper in perfect detail, despite the platform’s glaring fluorescents blinding her. She supposed Victoria would be proud under other circumstances.

At an automated kiosk, Victoria held a card against a scanner. It beeped, and a single coach lifted from the others and arced to the valet pad as though a hand had plucked it and carried it over.

They climbed inside. It was a four seater, arranged so that the two pairs of seats faced each other over a wall-mounted table. The leather reeked of freshener. With the doors closed, Victoria tapped a panel mounted beside the table, which lit up with a navigation menu. Winnie watched Victoria input a destination.

“Panama City?” Winnie asked.

“At first. We’ll travel by car from there.”

“But why so far?”

“Because Sakhr knows I’m here now. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Okay, but what about Helena? Are we going to rescue her too?”

“No. Too much risk.”

“Or is it because you don’t care?”

Victoria regarded her. “Regardless of whether I care or not, it would be suicidal. I couldn’t rescue you either until you escaped. All it would take is a single exemplar, or a bundle of wall bots, and they’d have me. And that was when Sakhr was only suspicious that I was alive. Now he knows for sure.”

“But you don’t care, right? He has your daughter, but it’s just her body you care about?”

“Is this a discussion you want to have now?”

“What discussion? The one on how you were raising your daughter just to steal her body? It’s true, isn’t it? That is what you were going to do?”

“Yes.”

She answered so matter-of-factly, as though confirming her own name. The neutrality of it made Winnie want to attack her.

“How could you possibly do something like that? She’s your own daughter.”

“I was going to need another body eventually. Her being a physical heir would provide an ideal body to rule from that the public would not question.”

“But that’s the most evil thing I’ve ever heard of! You let her believe that she had a future, but she was like cattle to you. You’re worse than Sakhr.”

“And you are neglecting the scope of the situation. What I was doing would cause the suffering of a single person. Sakhr and Alex have stolen the bodies of dozens of innocents in just this week. The only reason you’re weighing my choices regarding Helena as worse is because you know her personally.”

“No. It’s because she’s your own daughter.”

“I birthed her for the explicit purpose of creating a body. I didn’t decide this after she was alive, when I might have loved her.”

“That makes it worse.”

“It is only your bias that makes it seem so. Helena is one person—one person who happens to be physically related to the body I was occupying at the time. Look at the bigger scale, Winnie.”

“Okay. You mean like how you started the war? How you got billions of people killed, including my own dad?”

“That is a more suitable grievance to be angry at me about, but that’s still a matter of scope. I made billions suffer in order to prevent the suffering of trillions.”

“So you have an excuse for every horrible thing you’ve ever done?”

“I have a rationale, yes. I have made hard decisions. Perhaps if I die, I will suffer for them in whatever afterlife there may be, or perhaps I’ll live long enough to see my plans to fruition, and then my contribution to this world will be a net benefit.”

“You’re a monster. You think you had the right to decide that so many people should die?”

“The right? No. There’s no such thing as a right. They’re just privileges a higher power has decided to give people regardless of whether or not they deserve them. I don’t have rights because there is no power higher than me. What I had was the power to do what I did.”

The fact that Victoria’s temper wasn’t rising was the most infuriating part about this argument. She wasn’t defensive, or upset. She genuinely believed she was right. Winnie was just being irrational.

She wondered what would happen if she got out of the hopper and just walked away. Victoria would drag her back, wouldn’t she? Winnie was an asset—one that couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

“Winnie…” Victoria said. Winnie realized she’d been looking the queen in the eyes. “You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to like me. Just realize that right now I’m the lesser of two evils. There’s me, and there’s Sakhr. And whether you like it or not, you have to choose a side, because they’re not going to let you stand on the sidelines.”

“They still have Helena. Maybe you don’t care about her, but I do, and if you’re not going to help her, then I’m better off going my own. Maybe I should turn myself back in.”

“Don’t be idiotic. There’s nothing you can do for her.”

“Not with you, because you don’t care that she’s in the hands of a psychopath.”

“No, she’s not, Winnie. Look. Put your mind in the officer’s quarters in the rear starboard spire. The third floor. Largest quarters.”

Winnie did so, reluctantly. It felt dirty taking orders like that, especially when Victoria maintained eye contact like this were just another lesson. Winnie found the correct floor. It was a dark room with a larger bed than other quarters, nearly luxurious if one ignored the miniature size. Christof was laying in the bed, eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. His military uniform was draped over a work chair.

“Look in his bathroom,” Victoria said.

She did. It was barely large enough for two standing people, but it did have a corner shower with two glass walls. Its door was barricaded closed with a foot locker, because in the shower’s center was Helena. She was fully pulled into her shell again, just as she’d been before Winnie convinced her to try escaping, only now she was completely alone, and escape was impossible.

“But she’s safe,” Victoria said. “If you’d been watching your enemies more closely, you’d know Christof refused to give her back to Alexander.”

“Yeah, but how long will that last? Helena bit Alex. He’s going to want her back.”

“Probably, but if any one of Sakhr’s ilk will take care of her, it’s Christof. He won’t give her up easily. Think rationally. Do you really think turning yourself in will help her?”

It wouldn’t. It had been an empty threat when she said it. “We could save her. I almost managed to save both of us alone, and we were only tortoises then. We can go back in.”

“No, Winnie. You escaped through sheer luck. They’re on alert now, and by this time tomorrow, Sakhr will have addressed the lax behavior of his subordinates—behavior I was planning to exploit for myself, but now we can’t. Believe me, Winnie, if I could safely get in, I would, if only to save Paul. Sakhr is being much, much worse to him than he is to Helena.”

“No. You only want to save Paul because you don’t want Sakhr to have his glyph. If you actually cared about him, you wouldn’t have put him in a tortoise.”

“I consider Paul my friend despite that. He had left me little choice in the matter, and I’d save him anyway, Winnie. I’d save you all, including Helena if it were feasible. Despite whatever you may think of me, I am not Sakhr. I have never once resorted to torture.”

Winnie eyes were turned away from Victoria’s gaze. She was still trying to think of some way to save Helena. They might fly in as birds and swoop Helena out of there, except the windows and doors were closed. The exemplars were all awake. The citadel was still on alert. No matter how much Winnie hated it, she couldn’t do anything for Helena.

“Stay with me,” said Victoria. “I know you’re angry with me. Just understand that if you run off now, they will catch you. Sakhr is a too great a foe. He’s clever. He’s powerful, and above all else, he’s careful. You’ll never beat him. No one has gotten the best of him in thousands of years, except for me. I’m better than him, and I will beat him again. I’ll put an end to this mess—the one that you created—but I need your help, and if you fall into his hands again, he’s going to use you against me. So, are you going to storm off? Or can we get moving?”

Winnie already knew her answer. She just didn’t like it. And if Victoria actually needed Winnie’s help, then maybe Winnie could have some control over Helena’s future. Maybe.

Briefly, she let her gaze meet Victoria’s.

It was all Victoria needed. She confirmed the destination on the menu, and the coach lifted into the air. Panama City was nine hours away.

49. Glow

Victoria catapulted from her chair. “Everyone evacuate the building now!” She snatched her bird’s cage and ran to the door.

“Your Majesty?” said Captain Gandara.

Now! There’s a bomb in the building. Get moving.”

Everyone startled, but Victoria did not stick around to see who followed. If they didn’t obey her order, then too bad for them. She was out the door and headed toward the stairs. Two floors down. The military shuttle would be right there.

The very second Quentin said those words, she knew exactly what his plan was. She’d been an idiot for not seeing it earlier. Fuser assemblers. They can produce any element under the sun. Metals. Rare elements…

Fissile materials.

That was half the reason she had confiscated those machines in the first place.

She reached the stairwell and leapt from landing to landing. In her mind, she checked where Quentin was. He was on the fifty-eight floor with the second machine, already prying open the doors.

What had he made? An alloy of Thorium? Uranium? Maybe even plutonium for all she knew. No doubt Quentin’s flair told him exactly which one—or what alloy of materials—to use. Whatever fissile material he had was no doubt subcritical when distributed across three separate floors, but when they all came together at the bottom of that elevator shaft…

The notches along the poles and the conversations about gliders had just been a feint to distract her, and it had worked. Goddamn that man.

She ascended to the eighth floor and charged into the hall. The guards at the security checkpoint had already been evacuated. Good. If someone were here, they’d slow her down. She visualized upstairs as she ran. The marines were racing through her personal floor toward the service lobby. Quentin and Sibyl tossed another set of bars down the shaft. At the bottom, the fissile bars were starting to glow.

It was a race to see who reached that last assembler first. She hoped it was the marines, because she would still be in the tower when that moment came.


Quentin burst into the lobby on the sixtieth floor.

“They’re here.” Sibyl said. “They’re coming.”

“Just do the last one, damnit.” Quentin flipped the latch for the elevator and pulled the door open. Sibyl grabbed the bundled rods. These ones had the reflexors wrapped about them. As she moved toward the elevator, marines charged in.

They fired. Sibyl screamed and collapsed. The bundle rolled toward Quentin. In a mad hope, he let go of the door and dove for the rods. As the door slid closed, he tossed them. A dart struck his side, and he went down.

The bundle glided horizontally through the closing door. The reflexors caught the door and its frame as it passed, causing it to launch through like a squeezed grape. It struck the far side of the shaft, twirled, descended like a snowflake, and then caught on a steel beam.

It lingered. The reflexors kept it from sliding off immediately, but eventually it did. From there it continued its lazy decent.

The marines saw none of this as they lugged Sibyl and Quentin toward the stairs.


Victoria saw the transport shuttle ahead. A soldier stood at attention outside the door.

“Get this moving,” she yelled as she ran towards them. “We need to evacuate now.”

The soldier hopped into action, yanking open the passenger door and running around to the pilot side.

Victoria climbed in and set her bird’s cage on the seat. Others were coming, though they were far behind. No one understood the urgency. They couldn’t see the bundle of rods slowly drifting down the shaft toward the eighth floor—the very floor she was on.

She slammed the hatch closed. The other evacuees could take other ships if they had time, but they didn’t.

Victoria looked in the cockpit with her mind. The pilot was powering up the system. Was this security’s idea of “standing by”?

“Move faster,” she ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.” The system booted up. He switched into manual and put his hands on the controls. On the comm he spoke. “This is the transport in tower bay four alpha. I have the queen on board. We require immediate clearance to evacuate.”

At least the pilot did not wait to hear back. They were lifting. The craft was turning. The bundle of rods drifted closer. The ones already at the bottom glowed hot. They were scattered like a pile of matches.

There was no way Quentin could have known how they’d fall. Meaning he had no idea what the explosion’s payload would ultimately be. It might destroy this floor. It might destroy the city. There were too many variables, the largest being how desperate Quentin was.

Her shuttle moved forward. The wide open exit neared. The bundled rods began glowing like the rods beneath them.

Then, whether because of heat or radiation, the reflexors around the bundle failed. It plummeted the remaining few feet.

For a fraction of a second, all the rods merely brightened, as though their approach toward super-critical might take time.

They exploded before the new rods hit the ground.


The ship lurched. Victoria tumbled from her seat. Her head stuck something. Pain lanced through her mind. Another crash. Already on the ground, she rolled into the transport’s stern.

The cockpit was making incessant beeps. Did she smell smoke?

No.

It was dust.

She coughed, put a hand to her scalp. Her fingers came away with blood. She focused her mind on the tower. From the eighth floor and up, the building was a mess. Multiple floors were wrecked. Chunks were missing, choking black smoke billowed out. Flaming debris rained over the campus. Every window in the tower’s bottom half had shattered.

Her own ears heard a screech echoing through the shuttle bay. Metal was tearing. To her horror, the upper half of the tower was sagging like melting wax. The movement was imperceptible, but the slant was unmistakable.

The tower was collapsing.

Victoria crawled to the cockpit. The pilot sat limp, his chin against his chest. His hand was delicately touching a gushing wound where his skull struck the side window.

“Get us moving now!” she yelled.

Dazed, the pilot took seconds to respond. He grabbed the control stick. His eyes skirted the dashboard warning lights. Flipping several switches, he attempted to move the vessel. It swerved. Victoria nearly fell again.

She visualized the transporter. Chunks of concrete had fallen from the bay ceiling and struck the craft. It’s right wing had buckled. The repulse engine was running, but it was askew.

Could the ship fly? Maybe. Land? Probably not, but if this pilot could stop wasting time and just get out of the bay, the reflex grid should catch them.

And then she realized the significants of debris raining on the campus. It was falling freely. The campus grid must be down.

The city grid though. That might still catch them.

The pilot finally got the craft airborne. It drifted toward the far bay wall. He adjusted, and the ship teetered the other direction.

The pilot spoke into the comm as he steered. “This is transport in Bay area four.”

No response.

He repeated himself.

Again nothing.

The pilot gave up and focused on steering.

“Just get us out of the bay,” Victoria shouted.

“I’m trying, ma’am” he said. “The ship is damaged.”

He got the craft to drift toward the lip of the bay. The wing scraped the floor.

Victoria checked the tower again. Debris rained more freely. Floors below twenty were collapsing. The tower was descending.

“Move faster,” she shouted.

The pilot hunched over the control stick. His eyes darted from viewport to viewport. Victoria’s eyes were fixed on the wide, night sky before them.

Finally, the transport cleared the bay. The vessel dropped several feet as the right wing no longer had a floor to drag upon, but the pilot stabilized the craft, and they drifted sideways away from the tower.

They were clear.

Victoria visualized the tower again. It was fully collapsing now. Floor after floor crumbled. The top leaned more as it plummeted. The damage to the campus would be severe. She wondered vaguely whether Gandara had evacuated the campus as well.

Then she saw one particular piece of debris. By the time she acknowledged it, it was too late. She hadn’t time even to open her mouth and warn the pilot.

It slammed into the shuttle, tearing the hull open like paper. The jolt threw her into the cabin. The pilot struggled with the controls as the craft spun wildly. In seconds it would crash. It would be fatal, and Victoria could not prevent it.

With her head spinning, and with blood matted to her face, she pulled herself into the cabin. The roof was torn open. The stars in the sky spun by. There, wedged under a seat was what she needed.

She lunged, grabbed Willow’s cage, and tore open the small door. Her fingers cut open against the warping metal bars. Willow flapped wildly inside, bumping against the cage wall with each swerve the transport took.

She grabbed her bird with a bloody fist.

Moments later, transport crashed into the campus grounds. Everyone aboard died instantly.


Winnie felt like a basketball on the floor of a boat. When Christof had tossed the box onto the shuttle, the tortoises had spilled out. The others had landed upright. Winnie had not been so lucky. Once she’d stopped spinning, she tried moving her limbs, but got nowhere. So she closed her eyes, pulled into her shell, and concentrated on her flair.

She watched the marines dragged Sakhr away. After he was gone, many had charged down the stairs, leaving only a few to cover the shuttle. Winnie kept her eyes on the ones traveling down.

They had raced through Victoria’s private floor to where Quentin and Sibyl were tossing more bars into the elevator. The marines stunned them and dragged them back, but just as the marines returned to the roof, an explosion rocked the tower.

Winnie’s shuttle shook, causing her to spin and slide. The cockpit beeped. Alexander clutched the pilot seat as the dashboard took on a life of its own.

The tower seemed to drift away from them, yet the hopper remained floating in the air. The marines on the roof scrabbled for their deployment pods. Despite the quaking ground, the pods remained upright.

Alarmed, Winnie focused on the tower as a whole and saw what a ruined wreck it had become.

What had caused this? Was this part of Quentin’s plan? How many people had he just killed?

The world would suffer for this, and it was all because of her—her and Helena.

Back home, Winnie’s mother would hear about this on the radio. She’d turn on the news and see the smoldering tower, and she’d try to call Winnie. She would never get through—not to the real Winnie anyway.

The hopper began flying itself. It lifted higher into the air and took a trajectory over the the campus. Winnie didn’t know where. Her mind was still watching the marines struggle. They crammed their hostages into their remaining pods just as the building quaked again.

And then the tower started collapsing.

It happened slowly, as though something so catastrophic couldn’t happen all at once. The world needed time to witness itself change. Each floor crumbled into the next. Soon, the tower fell into a bed of smoke and dust. A cloud spread outward, filling the campus like a bowl until it reached the edge of the city.

Lights were coming on throughout Porto Maná; the city was waking up.

And what about the queen? Did she make it out? Winnie hoped so. Victoria would be her best chance of fixing all of this. Though somehow Winnie knew that everything would not work itself out as she hoped it would.

This affair was a prelude to a dark, bleak future.

48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

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

“Do you know with what?”

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

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

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

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

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then spite always was the best motivator.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…


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

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

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

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

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She can plan for that though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

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

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

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

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

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

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

“I see…” said Sakhr.

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

“Do you have one?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t trust you.”

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

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

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

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

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

“Why?”

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

45. Her Move

“Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“The assemblers on my floors are registered to my personal LakiraLabs account, correct?”

“I believe so, ma’am.”

“Suspend my account immediately. Then send a remote wipe to lock all upstairs machines. All of them, not just my floors.”

“Yes, ma’am, but if I may ask what this is all abo—”

“No. Just do it.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

44. Fault Detected

“And the orbiters are in position,” Bishop said.

Victoria nodded. “Good.”

They were now more prepared to capture Josephine when she did inevitably land. The old model wall bots those orbiters carried probably wouldn’t come up. The newer models could still deploy faster and without human interaction, but it was nice to have the alternative. Wherever Josephine landed, whether in open field or a covered building complex, the military would be ready.

Between all options at Victoria’s disposal, she couldn’t think of a way that Josephine could outwit her. Even with Tan and his erratic flying, Victoria had already won.

…or Victoria just hadn’t figured out what they were doing yet. Her mind was admittedly foggy. She glanced over at Willow. The hawk was sound asleep.

She really should do the same. Even if just to lay down for an hour, it would help. Nothing else was going on. Bishop would notify her the moment Josephine’s ship started descending, that’s if Victoria wasn’t already aware through her own constant tracking. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to be drowsy.

“I think, Bishop, I might actually turn in for a bit.”

“A good choice, Your Majesty. I will watch them. You’ll have your phone on you?”

“Yes. Regardless of whether they do something, I want you to wake me in…” She brought up her phone’s screen. There was the notification. She vaguely recalled it coming up before. Unlocking her phone, she read the message.

"Office terrarium 00:12, Nov 13th 2055: Fault detected."

For a second, her mind couldn’t make sense of those words. It just puzzled them, even though she recognized it as a warning she’d typed long ago, for a threat she hadn’t considered in ages.

She snapped into focus. Her mind was in her office at the tower top. The lights were off, but she still saw the cage. The front was caved in. Marzipan was missing. Who? Who in the hell would have let him free?

The answer came immediately, and as much as she wanted to choke the life out Helena’s skinny little neck, this wasn’t the time. That notification came almost forty minutes ago. That’s a hell of a head start. Where would Sakhr go?

Her mind jumped to the conservatory reptile section. One dead tortoise was on the walkway. Several were missing from their enclosure.

Damn it all.

Her mind raced about.

The lobby. The grounds. The shuttle bay. The rooftop. The security suites. The elevators.

The elevators.

There they were.

“Your Majesty?” Bishop asked. “When should I wake you?”

She spun to Captain Gandara. “Shut down the elevators now.”

“In… this building, Your Majesty?”

Now!”


Sakhr and all his fellow escapees were in the elevator sliding down the side of the Capital Tower. It stopped, smoothly and without any jarring, and then nothing. Sibyl pressed buttons. Still nothing.

Winnie’s relief was profound. Somewhere, someone had found out. If it wasn’t Victoria, she would know soon enough.

“Well, there you go,” Alex said. “What twenty more seconds would have gotten us.”

Sakhr grunted.

“We should probably get out of the elevator,” Christof said.

“Yes. Help me.” Sakhr handed Helena to Sibyl and pried at the elevator door. Christof joined, but it wouldn’t budge. Quentin shouldered to the button panel and opened a small compartment. He flicked a switch, and the doors popped. Sakhr and Christof easily slid them open.

“Did your power tell you that?” asked Christof.

“No. My rudimentary knowledge of elevators did. How come none of you knew?”

“I don’t remember elevators having switches like that.”

“All repulse elevators do. How long were you all in tortoises?”

“Long enough,” Sakhr’s tone ended the conversation. The elevator was stopped midway between two floors. One by one, each climbed out into an office hallway.

Sakhr led them to the stairs. He started heading down.

Christof hesitated. “They’re going to have people waiting for us.”

“They may, but they won’t hurt us. Not in these bodies.”

“But they can apprehend us.”

“They won’t come near me. Victoria knows I’d just swap bodies. Therefore, they can’t come near any of us.”

Alex spoke. “Perhaps you’re forgetting about the hazmat suits they wore when they put us in tortoises in the first place.”

“I’m not forgetting,” Sakhr replied testily, “but we don’t have a choice. If we stay here, we will encounter those hazmat suits again, but they only just shut down the elevators. That means they’ve only now realized we’re loose. Our best chance of escaping is if we move right now before she organizes. Now, come along.”

He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.

Six floors down, the stairwell ended on floor eight. Sakhr tried the door. It didn’t budge.

He turned to Quentin. “Do you know this building? Is there another stairwell?”

“Yeah, but it’ll end on this floor too. It’s the security floor. Everyone coming and going gets screened here.”

“Are the doors normally locked?”

Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I never used the stairs before, but I wouldn’t think so. Seems like a fire hazard.”

“Can we can break this down?”

Quentin’s eyebrows raised. “Does it look like you can?”

A mere glance at its steel frame was enough to answer that.

“What about any—”

“Who’s there?” a voice yelled through the door.

Sakhr yelled back. “This is Princess Helena. Is this door supposed to be locked?” His accent was less pronounced.

“Tower’s just gone into lockdown, Your Highness. I can’t let anyone through.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Don’t know, but something. You should probably wait upstairs. It’ll be over soon.”

“But I need to get out now. Surely the lockdown doesn’t apply to me.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but the lockdown came from the queen herself. Nobody is passing, not even you.”

Sakhr glanced at the others. “Is my mother in the building?”

“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”

“Good to know,” Sakhr muttered. He looked at the corners of the stairwell ceiling. “Let’s assume her eyes are on us through every camera in the building.”

Winnie knew Victoria didn’t need cameras, but there was no reason to correct them.

“Quentin,” he continued, “are you sure there is no other way to the lower floors?”

“Nope. Each security floor has separate stairs and elevators. Everyone goes through the lobbies.”

“How many security floors are there?”

Quentin considered. “Just two, I think. This one, and the ground floor one.”

Christof spoke. “I remember when we first came here, we landed in some kind of garage on a higher floor.”

“The docking bay, yeah. Floor eight. That’s why security is on this floor, but now that I think about it, Victoria has a personal bay on the roof.”

“Is somebody with you?” said the voice through the door. Everyone ignored it.

“Will there be a ship we can use?”

“Maybe,” replied Quentin.

“Then let’s go.”


“Captain, is my personal hopper still on the roof?”

Victoria had already confirmed with her mind that it was, but not asking would raise questions. Winnie’s power was not public knowledge.

A guard seated at a security terminal pulled up a view of the roof. Captain Gandara peered over his shoulder. “Yes, it is, Your Majesty.”

“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure, ma’am. Are there intruders inside the building?”

“Yes.”

“Then we should contact the police?”

“Just answer my question. Can someone steal it?”

“I’m, uh…” Gandara looked at the officer seated at the console. “Do you know?”

The officer answered. “Possibly, Your Majesty. If someone got inside, they could boot up the craft’s systems, but it won’t let them fly anywhere without the key fob.”

“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”

“Possibly, but even if they found one, they’d be restricted to grid travel unless they had remote clearance to use the engines.”

“And who can grant clearance?”

“That’s us, ma’am. We register all non-grid flights with the military and the Lakiran Airspace Division.”

“Is there anyway around that?”

“No, ma’am. Clearance has to come through us—me, actually.”

“Very well.” That answered that concern. If Sakhr managed to get inside, at least they couldn’t fly anywhere, unless they were dumb enough to try grid travel. Then she could have LAD flag that craft and keep it indefinitely suspended in the air until she was ready to deal with them. Too bad Quentin would know better.

All this imperial hopper business did was buy her time—time she should be using.

She grabbed her phone and strode from the communications room. In a closed office, she put it to her ear.

“Bishop?”

“I’m here, ma’am. What’s going on over there?”

“Sakhr is loose.”

What? How?”

“I don’t know. We’ll sort it out later. This takes priority over Josephine.”

“Of course.”

“Right now they’re wasting time getting to my hopper. Where are the other high exemplars? Get them back here.”

“I’ll tell them, but they won’t get there for hours.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I checked when you asked earlier. Stone is in Argentina. Dosia left for Denver. Liat had to—”

“Forget it.” The timing of this unfortunate accident was infuriating. She envisioned Josephine’s craft floating miles above the Sahara. There might still be time for her afterward, but this came first.

“Get a swarm of wall bots surrounding the Capital Tower,” she said, “and have the orbiters change route. I want them over the tower as soon as possible.”

“For the old generation wall bots, ma’am?”

“Yes.”

“They’re already at full speed in the stratosphere. It might take time before any of them can redirect enough to get over the tower.”

“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She returned to the control room. The people there stood about.

“Captain,” she said. “The military will be deploying wall bots around the tower. No one will be coming or leaving. Inform whoever needs to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He jumped to the phone. His aura was tense and confused. She could sense how badly he wanted to ask what this was all about. Too bad for him, there was no need for him to know about Sakhr. She visualized the stairwell once again.


The group stumbled onto the roof of the Capital Tower. The sky was a dark, mud brown—polluted from city lights occupying the horizon. A steel canopy overhung the landing pad, hiding most of the sky from them. It left the roof in near shadow. Only white light from the open stairwell door outlined the hulking shadow of the queen’s personal hopper. It lay straight ahead on a raised platform. Winnie had to rely on her flair to see it in this dark. Tortoise eyes were awful.

Sakhr and Alex breathed heavily, but they were better off compared to the others. Sibyl came up clutching the handle rail with white knuckles. Quentin and Christof came moments later supporting each other. Christof had the other tortoise tucked in his shirt.

“You took your time,” Alex said.

“You’re the ones who put me in a fat-ass,” Quentin replied, wheezing, “…leave yourselves in the teenage coeds.”

“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to the ship. “Can we escape in this?”

“We need to get inside first.”

Everyone paused before the hopper. Sakhr slid his hand along the surface, feeling for something. Alex did the same farther along, so did Sibyl on the other side.

“How do you…” asked Sakhr. “Where’s the handle?”

“Are you serious?” Quentin disentangled himself from Christof, reached under the frame, and squeezed a release hatch. The shuttle yawned open. “You guys are incredible.”

It was strange for Winnie to be back here again tonight, under such incredibly different circumstances. Her own body even took the same seat as before. Only now she was sitting its lap.

Quentin and Sakhr got in the cockpit. “Are you a pilot?” Sakhr asked.

“I know the theory.” Quentin pressed a prominent button, and the cockpit lit up. A dashboard touch screen showed several options. Quentin tried to access a menuscreen named Autonav. Each time it prompted him to select a flight plan from a list, but the displayed list was empty. “Hmm.”

“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.

“Maybe not.”

“But on the other menu, it said ‘pick destination’.”

“That was Telenav. We don’t want that.”

“What’s telenav?”

“Telenav is the grid system. The repulse nodes through the city would fly us instead of the ship’s own repulse engines.”

“What’s wrong with that? We just need to get off this tower.”

Quentin took a calming breath. “Except that they know we’re escaping. If we use Telenav, they can override our destination remotely and put us anywhere they want. Including right back on this tower.”

“Can you hotwire it somehow?”

Quentin turned to him. “Does this ship look like a Ford pickup? Maybe if we pop it into neutral and push it off the tower, the momentum will get the engines started before we hit the ground.”

“So that’s a no…”

Alex called from the back. “Did we just waste our time coming up here?”

“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.

“Hey, why is this all on me? It’s not like I had time to think this out. I didn’t even know I’d be escaping today.”

“We let you out because Alex thought you could help us. Now can you, or not? We can always give your body to him.” Sakhr pointed to the mystery tortoise in Christof’s lap. “Perhaps he’ll have a better plan.”

“Jesus Christ, guys. I don’t hear any of you suggesting anything.”

Christof intervened before Sakhr could respond. “We don’t know this world like you do. Repulsers, Telenav systems… That all means nothing to us. We would have used the Telenav system if you hadn’t warned us. That’s if we weren’t still outside looking for the handle. We need you. That is why we’re turning to you.”

“Okay. Fine.” Quentin sighed. “Let’s head back down a floor. I think I’ve got an idea.”

“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.

Everyone headed downstairs. One floor down was Victoria’s personal suite. This brought them into her foyer, near the office containing the terrarium that started this whole mess. Sakhr gave it a lingering glance as they passed by.

“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.

“Yes, yes.” Quentin led them to a pair of assemblers installed in the wall outside the kitchen. “Yesss. This is what I hoped for.” He brought the first out of standby and paged through the menu. “Perfect.”

“What is this?” asked Sakhr. “Some kind of computer?”

“It’s an assembler.”

“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.

This caused Quentin to gape at him. “Good God. You’re all a bunch of grandparents, aren’t you?”

“Will you just focus?” Sakhr replied shortly. “What can you do with this?”

“A lot.”

“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.

“We can’t make a gun if that’s what your asking, but a lot of things can be weapons with a little knowhow. Maybe we can blow open those security doors.”

He queued a few chemicals from the Home Improvement section, then moved to the other assembler. Here he picked items from the Hobbies section, then navigated to a list of all connected assemblers nearby.

“All right. I’ve got these machines going. Looks like there are a few others downstairs. I’ll just send some items to those aaand… that should be it. Give it about ten minutes and we should have ourselves some decent grenades.”

42. In the Dark

“Helena?”

Winnie stepped closer. “Helena? Are you all right?”

Helena stood hunched over the terrarium. In her hands, Marzipan flailed about. He hissed and made strange little cries. Something about picking him up had sent him into a panic.

“I think we should leave him alone. Helena?” Winnie tapped her.

Helena looked about, as though startled that Winnie was in the room.

“Yes?” she asked. How drunk was she?

“I think we should leave Marzipan alone, and tell somebody about this. Your mom is going to find out eventually anyway. She’d be angry if we just left Marzipan alone in a broken cage.”

“No,” Helena said. “No. We’ll take care of this. We’ll put him with Victoria’s other tortoises. That way he won’t wander off.”

“Are you feeling okay? How drunk are you?”

“Drunk?” Helena seemed to take stock of herself. “Oh damn it. I am quite drunk. That does explain it.” She looked at Winnie appraisingly. “Are you drunk?”

“Yeah. I think I might throw up.”

“Well don’t. Come. Tell me. Where are Victoria’s tortoises. We must take Marzipan there.”

“You are so drunk. Why are you calling your mom by her first name?”

Helena blinked. She looked down at herself. After a pause. “Because I’m drunk.” She chuckled. It broke the tension, and Winnie laughed too.

“Now enough dallying,” Helena said. “Let’s get to the tortoises.”

Dallying? You’re talking like an english professor.” Winnie laughed more. “And listen to yourself. You’ve suddenly got an accent.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

After a pause, Helena slowly smiled. Then in unison, they both broke into peels of drunken laughter. Winnie was relieved that Helena was okay, even if she was acting strangely, and her laughter oddly manic.

Marzipan kept squirming.

“I think he’s gone out of his mind,” Winnie said.

Helena looked at him. “He’ll be fine. We just need to have a place to put him down. Come, now. To the tortoises.”

Come, now.” Winnie mimicked. She chuckled a little more, but Helena was done laughing. Winnie sobered. “We can’t. Remember? They locked us out of the garden.”

“Then how do we get in?”

“We’d have to ask one of the caretakers.”

Helena looked down at the frantic tortoise in her hands. “Very well. We’ll get the caretakers. Lead the way.”

Winnie did. The relief she felt was profound. Finally, Helena agreed to get adults involved. She and Helena would get in trouble, sure, but at least tonight’s madness would finally end.


“You what?”

“It was an accident,” Winnie said.

“What were you two doing in the queen’s office anyway?”

“We were messing around. I’m sorry. I know. We shouldn’t have been there.”

The caretaker eyed both Winnie and Helena. He’d been asleep before Winnie had knocked on his door. His eyes were bleary, and he wore a wrinkled teeshirt and boxers.

“Didn’t you two just break into the conservatory the other day with Gilles’s card?”

“We’re sorry about that too.”

“I was the one who had to clean the broken glass off the path. The reptile exhibit still smells like tequila.”

“We’re really sorry.”

The caretaker sniffed. “And you’re both drunk right now, aren’t you?”

“That is irrelevant.” Helena held up Marzipan. The tortoise still thrashed and gasped. “He needs someplace to stay for the night.”

The caretaker looked at Marzipan. The tortoise’s distress was obvious.

“I’ll have to tell the queen first,” he said.

“We can’t,” Helena said. “We mustn’t bother her right now.”

“She’s dealing with a crisis,” Winnie added.

“Look.” The caretaker rubbed his eyes. “That’s the queen’s personal pet. I’m not even supposed to go near it. None of the caretakers are. I can’t go sticking him in an enclosure without at least telling her what I’m doing. I could get fired.”

“She must not be disturbed,” Helena replied. “I will accept full responsibility for this decision.”

This startled both Winnie and the caretaker. Never had Winnie heard more mature words escape Helena’s lips.

The caretaker sighed. “Let me get dressed.”


That small ship had crossed several country lines now. Nigeria was long in its wake. Victoria had contacted several aerospace districts to tell them not to shoot down the unregistered craft. It tickled Victoria each time she did this. The people aboard that ship were doing everything they could to avoid Victoria as though she were the evil queen hunting for their hearts, and yet it was she who was saving them from their own ignorance again and again.

As she watched in her mind, the ship curved gently.

“They’re shifting direction again, Your Majesty,” said a lieutenant in the control room with her.

She nodded.

“They’re heading into Algerian airspace. Shall I notify the local air traffic?”

She nodded again. Their constant change in direction must have something to do with Tan. No one else aboard that ship would pilot it so aimlessly.

Her phone chimed.

She picked it up. One notification. She started unlocking it.

“Your Majesty.” Bishop spoke over their open connection. “The orbiters with early generation wall bots have just launched. They’ll be surfing in about an hour. Their flight paths will mean any one of them will be coasting over East Europe.”

She set her phone down. “And they can launch those wall bots remotely?”

“No, but they can put them in deployment pods with marines. They configure the wall bots on the ground. From launch, they can have the wall bots up and running within three minutes.”

“And then the marines will evacuate?”

“And then the marines will leave in the pods, yes.”

“Good.”

“All we need is for Josephine to stay airborne for about the forty minutes it’ll take for the orbiters to reach their flight paths. Think that’ll happen?”

She looked at the ship again in her mind. They were over the Sahara Desert right now. There wasn’t much Lakiran presence there, plenty of places for them to land and disappear, or so they’d think. That territory was practically uninhabited after six years of nuclear winter: no crowds, no obstacles, no one to get in the way. The army could quarantine entire swaths of land with wall bots and capture only their targets. Josephine would be a fool to land there.

“They will,” Victoria said. “They’ll be airborne for another few hours at least.” France? Spain? Is that where they were going?

“That’s a few hours you could use to sleep, Your Majesty.”

“It’s a few hours I could lay in bed and wonder what’s happening,” she corrected. “You’re not getting rid of me, Bishop.”

“I didn’t think I could.”


The caretaker’s flashlight emitted a dull red light. It wasn’t much to see by, but he seemed to know his way around the conservatory as though it was his own bedroom. Winnie was carrying the light however. The caretaker had taken over holding Marzipan.

“There should be one free enclosure near the back,” the caretaker was saying. “It’s supposed to be for some iguanas, but they’re not showing up until next week. We’ll put the queen’s pet in that one, give it some water, and then you two are going to tell the queen first thing tomorrow what happened.”

“We will,” Winnie said.

“And you will tell her that this was all your idea. This way.”

He guided Winnie down a path. The familiar nitrate smell filled the air. The red light revealed the enclosures.

Helena paused to look in one. “Are all of my mother’s tortoises here?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Does she keep any others privately like she does Marzipan?”

“No. These are all of them.”

“How many are here?”

“Five.”

“How long have they been here?”

The caretaker shrugged impatiently. “I don’t know. A while.”

“Decades, would you say?”

“Sure.”

Helena asked no other questions. The caretaker led Winnie to an empty enclosure near the back. He stepped in and set Marzipan down. The tortoise did not calm down at all.

“Is he going to be okay?” Winnie asked.

“He’s scared right now,” the caretaker replied. “Crazy night. New environment. He should calm down in a bit.” He fetched a hose from nearby and filled a rubber-lined depression inside the enclosure to create a pool. Marzipan still thrashed as though in the throes of a seizure. He seemed like he was trying to crawl toward Winnie, but his legs weren’t working right.

“Jesus,” the caretaker said. “What’d you guys do to him?”

“We just—”

“Excuse me.” Helena approached. Winnie hadn’t noticed her wander off. “Could you look at these for a moment?”

She was holding two tortoises.

What are you doing?” the caretaker yelled. “Put them back immediately.”

“But there’s something you need to see about them. Look.” Helena set one at her feet, then handed the other toward the caretaker. He tried to snatch the tortoise away from her, but when he did, it was as though an electric shock hit him. He froze. His eyes became distant.

It was exactly how Helena had acted when she first touched Marzipan. Something had happened—something that changed Helena. Victoria had kept Marzipan separate for a reason.

Winnie had only just realized this when Helena thrust the other tortoise into her arms.

Then everything changed.

41. Time to be Kings

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed, Sakhr thought. Having a tower halt everything to greet him was not a pleasure he had ever had before. Money had never been a problem, but this was a life money couldn’t buy. This required fame, something Sakhr had arduously avoided until now.

A small woman approached. She was olive-skinned—a common color here.

“Greetings. My name is Melanie. I’m Victoria’s assistant coordinator. Are you Sakhr?” Her aura was nervous, self-conscious. It put Sakhr at ease.

“I am.”

“And you must be…”

“Alexander.” He bowed.

She greeted Sibyl and Christof, then turned back to Sakhr. “If you will please follow me. I will take you to Victoria.”

She led them to a conference room on the fifty-fifth floor. It had an office feel, complete with a conference phone and a projector at one end with a cable for a computer to connect to. It wasn’t quite what Sakhr was expecting. After preparing them drinks, Madeline assured them Victoria would be right with them, and she left.

They took seats and waited. After Madeline’s aura disappeared off the edge of Sakhr’s Empathy, he realized that no one else was around. No one at all. He knew the building was still under construction, but certainly there would be someone nearby. Or was this building mostly abandoned? Why meet here then?

He sensed her approach long before she entered the room. Four auras came up the elevator. One he recognized as Melanie. She split off once they were on the same floor. The other three approached. Hers was easy to identify. It bled arrogance.

He figured it would, but sensing it didn’t ease him. She would be difficult to work with. There would be many disagreements between her and Sakhr. It wouldn’t take long before one of those disagreements became an irreconcilable problem.

Two auras waited outside.

Victoria entered. She was every bit as beautiful as the news made her out to be. Sakhr didn’t know why, but that put him more ill at ease.

“I’m glad to finally meet you in person,” he said.

She settled into a chair at the head of the table. “Likewise.”

“Are those your guards outside the door?”

“They are.”

“One might think you don’t trust us,” Alex said.

Sakhr cast him a glare.

Victoria replied calmly. “If I felt threatened by you, they would be waiting inside the room with us. They’re for everyone else. In the past decade, I’ve made quite an impact on the local region through LakiraLabs. I’ve brought a lot of jobs and aid to the community. The place has been thriving like it never has before. I’m sure you’ve heard the news refer to me as the baroness of South America. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Unfortunately, not everyone sees my impact as a positive thing. Many see me as a unwelcome capitalistic influence.”

“I can imagine,” Sakhr said. “We passed through Brazil once decades ago, during the first Cold War. It was not a time to be making ripples. I can’t imagine it’s much different now.”

“South America is not as involved as it was before, but it still faces political troubles.”

“It leaves the question,” Sakhr asked. “Why relocate your company’s headquarters here? Why leave the US at all?”

“It’s certainly brought its hassles, but it’s was worth it. The burden of the United States’ latest laws and regulations had been hindering our progress. LakiraLabs already outsourced labor to Brazil and Venezuela. Moving here put us closer to our operations. And I’ve had an easier time shaping the law to my needs. The South American governments are more amenable to my money.”

“When they’re not threatening your life,” Sakhr added.

“Most of that threat actually comes from outside parties. My influence over labor laws here has negatively impacted the bottom line of many American corporations that outsource here. They pressure the US government, who in turn pressure the South American governments to put a stop to my growth. My most dangerous detractor, if you’ll believe it, has been a banana company that exports from here. I’ve caught them working with drug cartels to raise hell on my territory. So far, no government is willing to acknowledge this. Then there are the Russians denouncing me as a capitalistic exploiter. They fund rebel groups in the region. Frankly, if it weren’t for my edge, I would have failed a while ago.”

“Your edge being the powers you’ve stolen from us, right?” Alex said.

“I merely copied, but yes, with yours and others’ powers.”

“And when exactly did you copy our powers?” Alex said. “I’m sure Sakhr merely forgot to tell me.”

“Several months ago.”

“Funny. You only been in contact with us for three weeks.”

“Alexander…” Sakhr warned.

“It’s quite all right. I’m a careful woman. I observed your group as a matter of my own safety. I’ve had bad experiences when reaching out to other such flairs.”

“Others?” Christof perked up. “What other powers have you discovered?”

“A few. Years back, I found a man named Quentin Avery. He has a power which gives him a fundamental understanding of our world’s physical properties. He works with a team of my scientists out of a think tank in Virginia.”

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Hence your repulser field.”

“Hence all of our technologies which have put LakiraLabs decades ahead of its time. Not only do I have Quentin, but with my ability to write glyphs, I’ve hidden glyphs inside the ID badges of all of LakiraLabs scientists, allowing them to be better at their jobs.”

“Very clever,” Sakhr replied, “but why are you hiding the glyphs from your own people? When you first contacted me, you expressed the desire for us to come out of the shadows.”

“Which,” Alex interjected, “not all of us are on board with.”

Both Victoria and Sakhr ignored him.

“I do intend for that, but not on a wholesale level. Flairs are my edge. If I were to reveal that edge, others would try to gain it. I plan to keep both flairs and my technological advantage until I’m done expanding my domain. Only then will I reveal the powers, and only in a manner I can control.”

This constant use of the singular I bothered Sakhr, as was the way she wouldn’t look any of them in the eye. “How much do you intend expand your domain?” he asked.

“As much as possible.”

“So…” Alex said. “You want to conquer the world?”

“Yes.”

Alex laughed. “Wow. You’re for real. You actually think that, don’t you?”

“With the tactical use of your flairs, I can.”

“Of course you can. We could have done that any time we wanted. Maybe you don’t know about Sakhr’s power, but he could be president of the United States by tomorrow. Each one of us could be a world leader.”

“It’s not the same. You would be the world’s figureheads, but you wouldn’t rule it. You’d have to hide behind the bodies you puppeteer.”

“So it’s about arrogance then?”

“No. What I mean is you could not change things the way they are. You’d have the power of the presidents, but that’s it. That power if far from absolute. They have congress’s to appease and elections to run. They cannot change the world with their will, but must compromise with everything they do. Even if you surpassed that obstacle, you could only change the world so much. Your coven does not have real power, not yet.”

“We could stop the cold war resurgence tomorrow if we wanted,” Alex said.

“You could,” she agreed. “Why haven’t you?”

“Because it’s not our concern. I don’t care about saving the world. I care about living in it the way I choose.”

“Does he speak for all of you?” Victoria glanced around. “You don’t care about the world?”

“Of course we care,” Sakhr said. “We live in it, but by taking over important people, we would risk exposing ourselves.”

“And so you choose to stand by and hope that the world fixes itself? Even when you could correct it?”

“We could alleviate the situation between the world’s superpowers for a time,” Sakhr said, “but as you point out, our power would be limited. The amount of effort it would take to wrest the countries out of their own madness would be monumental.”

“Of course it would,” Victoria said, “but I haven’t failed yet, not significantly so.”

“So what then?” Alex said. “You’re going to fix the world? Listen. You’ve only been on this planet a few decades. We’ve been here for centuries. We’ve—”

“And yet you are all exactly where you have always been,” Victoria said. “A group of nomadic travelers who steal what they want and run at the first sign of trouble.”

“Do not accuse us of cowardice, Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“I’m not. I’m accusing you of wasting your potential. I, on the other hand, have worked for fifteen years toward this goal. I own countless tracts of land across South and Central America as well as other parts of the world. My control over the regional politics is near absolute. I’ve made a small business into a dominant international empire using technologies I’ve developed and brought to market—technologies that have shaped every corner of this planet.”

Sakhr was silent. This conversation was going in a direction he hadn’t predicted. She was acting different then the few other times he’d spoken to her. He wondered if Alex had been right. Answering her call may have been a mistake, regardless of any risk from ignoring her.

Alex argued on. “That’s fantastic for you. We don’t want to run businesses and governments. We’re content as we are.”

“No. You’re complacent. You’ve wasted these powerful gifts on worthless indulgence.”

“Oh right,” Alex gestured to the room. “None of this is indulgent. Your own personal tower. Making yourself baroness of the region. Perfectly frugal.”

“Unlike you, I am accomplishing something. I am using my gift to its fullest potential, as well as all other powers I encounter. I explore them, figure out out how they work, what I can make them do. And then I use those powers to accomplish great things. You are content to accept your station in life. I have never stopped asking questions.”

With that remark, Sakhr knew.

An echo of a memory flew into his mind like a key and unlocked the full picture. In one singular moment, every gap filled in. Every question was answered. He understood what she was doing, why he was here, and why none of this felt right. It all made hideous sense.

The other’s kept arguing, yet their voices came to him from miles away. Sakhr reflected on the fatal mistake he’d made. Though his features hid his revelation, he knew Victoria could see his aura. Her own swelled exultantly, even while answering another inane remark of Alex’s. She knew he knew.

What could he do? What could he possibly do that she hadn’t already considered? The trap was sprung hours ago, and the cat was playing with it’s food. If he ran, the guards were beyond the door—guards who’s bodies he knew he wouldn’t be able to steal; he was certain she’d thought of that. Could he leap to his death? He was over fifty floors up. As long as he could shatter the window, he might save himself from whatever fate she had for him, but he couldn’t. After centuries of wandering, never had he realized more than right now how much he wanted to live.

“I’m sure,” Alex said, completely oblivious, “You’re amazingly proud of yourself. I never doubted that for a minute. But you still don’t get it. We don’t care. Why bother ruling the world at all? Apart from the appeal to megalomaniacs such as yourself, that kind of power doesn’t give us anything we don’t already have.”

“It’s about making a difference.”

More auras were coming up the elevator. These ones were tense, ready for combat. The ruse would be up soon.

“Oh, so you’re a humanitarian then,” Alex replied. “You’re pretty damn naive if you think you’ll amount to any positive change in the world. I’ve been around a lot longer than you, woman. I’ve seen a dozen dictators spout words just like yours. You’re just—”

Alex,” snapped Sakhr.

Alex looked at him, already sneering for what he thought was Sakhr coming down on her side. But then he saw into Sakhr’s eyes, and it came together. He startled to his feet, his chair clattering over, as though he’d finally seen the gun pointed at his head this whole time.

“What?” Christof said. “What’s going on?”

Sibyl was frozen like a mouse.

“No, Alexander,” Victoria said. “You do not know patience. In your centuries of life, you have never spent more than a year working toward any endeavor. I, however, have been working towards a goal ever since a very singular event happened to me. You might recall when. It was around same time that all of you found a particular girl in an airport. You took her in. You told her she was special. You treated her like a friend, and when you found out that she could pose a threat to you, you broke into her home and murdered her and her father.”

“…Katherine?” The word came from Christof.

Alexander looked around wildly, frantic for a course of action. It didn’t matter. That girl wouldn’t reveal herself unless there was nothing he could do. Sakhr wanted to try, maybe get to the door, or attack the woman, but his logic told him it would only amount to an undignified struggle—a wild animal fighting against its net.

Victoria kept talking. “You might remember that girl had the ability to copy other powers once she understood them well enough. The first power she took was yours, Alex. It made discovering the secrets to the others easier for her.” She looked at Sakhr. “Do you remember what you thought before giving her to Alex to murder? What a shame. You looked her in the eye when you thought that.”

Alex charged Victoria. Something stopped him. Sakhr felt a burst of air against his face. An unseen wall divided the room—a repulse field. It was probably on even before she entered. Not a single chance taken.

Alex tried to push through it. As though pressing repulsing magnets together, his hands kept veering off to either side. Wind burst each time.

Victoria sat peacefully on her side. “That girl’s story ended that night. But there was a fly that landed on her body before she died, no doubt attracted to the blood. The story of that fly is dull. It flew about aimlessly for hours afterward, until sheer chance would have it land on the arm of a boy who watched as police carried bodies from his neighbor’s house. His story is more interesting. Days later, he ran away from home, only to turn up in a week, behaving just like a dog. Tragic.”

Everyone but Victoria and Sakhr was out of their chairs. Christof and Sibyl both wasted time testing the repulse field. Alex was trying to force open the door to the hall. There was no point. If Sakhr was going to escape, it would not come from scratching the cage’s walls. Victoria would need someone to grab him for whatever she had planned. That would be those auras coming toward the door. That might be a chance. If he could manage to swap bodies, he’d have a chance. To hell with the others.

Or perhaps he could bargain. He could capitulate to her, help her take the others while he served. God, how he would detest serving this little girl, but he could do it, for centuries if he needed. Alex might not know patience, but he did. So long as he didn’t die here.

“There are other stories like that boy’s,” Victoria said, “stories of more important people: business men and politicians. They might encounter a friendly cat or a bird, and their behavior changes wildly. They’d make make drastic changes to their finances, only to break down one day and believe themselves to be animals.” She held out her hands to present herself. “I am the victim of this pattern as well. Me, Victoria Palladino. As an adolescent. I was a bubbly, over-privileged child drifting through her education like a unmanned vessel. I was to inherit my father’s tech company, but I didn’t have shred of ambition. That all changed one day when a bird collided with my pet dog while I was walking on the Princeton campus. My dog acted most peculiarly the rest of the day. Especially that night, when it attacked me as though I were an impostor. The poor thing had to be put down, and I’ve never been the same since.”

No one was listening to her. Christof had joined Alex in breaking down the door. It might as well have been made from brick. Sibyl was weeping in the corner. Her comfort threshold had been crossed. She would be useless now.

“That was the summer I found my drive. I became a woman who deserved the company she would inherit. The only person to ever question this change was my father. He sensed I wasn’t quite the little girl he’d raised. It unfortunately caused a rift in our relationship. Not that it matters now. He had a mental break himself. He lives in Silverside Sanitorium now, though I’m sure he’d be proud of my success. You see, Sakhr, when one is as gifted as we are, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish if only we have the proper drive.”

“Will you shut up, you little bitch,” Alexander said.

The doors burst open. Men poured in, all in hazmat suits and wielding stun batons. One shocked Alex before he could react. Christof rushed them, only to drop when one buried their baton in his chest. Sibyl cowered at their approach. They stunned her anyway.

Then they turned to Sakhr, and his dignity was gone. He was poised like a feral cat. Pouncing, he pulled at masks and tore at fabric, trying desperately to expose any skin.

The batons reached him first. His body failed. On the ground now, he kicked and screamed as they piled onto him, but it was too little, and much too late. With his face pressed against the carpet, he could see the feet of the others as they dragged Alexander, Christof, and Sibyl from the room. It was just him and the people holding him down… and her.

“Put him on the table,” Victoria said. The men dragged Sakhr up where he could see her. She was still reclined in her chair, making a phone call.

Someone answered immediately.

“I’m ready for Mr. Bishop now.” She hung up without waiting for a reply.

Sakhr tried to remember anything about the name Bishop, but he’d never heard of it. “Wait,” he stammered. “Just wait. Don’t kill me. We can talk about this.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re much too valuable to waste.”

“What?” Sakhr struggled helplessly. “What are you talking about? What are you going to do?”

She got up and came around too look at him as though he were a specimen. “Where’s Josephine?”

“…What?”

“Josephine. I had expected her to be with you, but apparently not. You must have some idea where she is.”

Sakhr’s mind raced. This non-sequitur had no meaning to him. He’d never heard that name before. Was she someone close to Victoria? Did she think Sakhr had done something to someone named Josephine? Something she blamed him for?

Victoria frowned. “You really don’t know that name at all, do you? I’ll find her eventually. I have patience, and you’ll be waiting right along with me.”

The door opened again, and a woman dressed as an orderly entered, pushing along a geriatric old man in a wheelchair. He looked as frail as old parchment and had not a single hair on his gaunt body. Oxygen tubes snaked around his ears and wrapped under his nose, yet his breaths still took heaving effort. An antiseptic hospital smell wafted in with him.

This must be Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop looked at Sakhr with lively, hopeful eyes unbefitting of his dying body.

No,” Sakhr yelled. He struggled anew. “Don’t put me in that body. Please, Victoria. Katherine. I’ll do what you want. I’ll serve you if that’s what you wish. For however long. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Just please! Don’t put me in that body.”

“I won’t.” Victoria smiled at him. “I have promised Mr. Bishop your body, but I wouldn’t dare leave you in a body on death’s door.”

Sakhr looked at her with wild, confused eyes as Victoria took a box from the orderly.

From inside, she took out a tortoise and set it on Sakhr’s chest. “Meet Marzipan.”

This marks the end of Part 1. Thank you all who’ve been reading so far.

I’d love to hear from you, whatever your thoughts or critiques may be.

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.

“Admiral?”

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.

“Bishop?”

“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.

“Nothing.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“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.