112. The Empress

Cheers and applause still sounded through the bridge of the Venezia. Officers had raced to the rest of the ship to tell others the story of Tan’s ridiculous victory. Winnie offhandedly watched them in her mind. Mostly, her attention was back on the Manakin scouring for Victoria.

The exemplar spire was a massacre. All exemplars were dead. The marines had collected in the lobby. Many kneeled by a pair of dead marines, and they seemed angry. One argued with others saying how their orders were to stay in the exemplar tower at all cost.

“Fuck the orders,” another said. “This whole fucking ship is deserted.”

“They told us to stay put. No matter what,” another replied.

“Look at him.” The first gestured to a dead marine. “The captain is dead. Nobody is responding to us. I want to go after that son of a bitch.”

“It wasn’t Rod. He was being controlled.”

“I don’t give a shit. He shot the captain. I’m going after him.”

“We can’t leave!”

“The whole point of us staying was so no one who’s compromised gets away, but I’d say we pretty much sank that fucking boat. I’m going after him. Are you going to stop me?”

Winnie moved on. Someone escaped. It had to be Victoria. She skirted quickly through the citadel. The marines were right; the place was deserted. Only the dead remained. The bays were empty of ships. Glancing outside the citadel, she noticed that the citadel was now many miles from the city and drifting farther away. The deeper depth of the ocean had brought the citadel much closer to the water. Nothing was in its vicinity, save for one shuttle already miles away. She looked inside, and her power failed.

The blind spot was there.

So much had happened since she’d looked away, yet it had only been a few minutes. There was no way to know who, if anyone, was also aboard that ship with Naema. It might be Alexander. His office was deserted.

The bridge was two floors down. The entire crew there was dead save for one marine. He worked the systems console, though he was barely managing to stay on his feet. Blood seeped from a wound in his gut. He’d pass out soon, yet he struggled on, navigating through the engine controls.

“Victoria?” Winnie asked. “Is that you?”

The cheering crowd in the Venezia bridge went quiet as she talked.

“Victoria. Is that you in the bridge? I’m sorry I looked away. Could you say something?”

The marine worked on.

“Please say say something. Please. I’m sorry. Just say anything. Is that you?”

“Yes, Winnie,” Victoria said. “It’s me.”

Despite Winnie being thousands of miles away, she still managed to annoy like a toddler poking for attention.

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted. “What happened to you? Where’s Alex?”

“Alex is taken care of.” Victoria was only partially paying attention to Winnie. She navigated the menu until finding the controls she needed. Since the nuclear warhead two floors above wasn’t displaying a time, she had only Alex’s rough estimate for how much time she had.

After a few options and confirmations, Victoria had every bay door opening along the hull of the Manakin.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked.

Victoria navigated next to the engines display. She switched the running mode into maintenance. It required a password.

“Have Tan figure this out for me,” she said.

“But what are you trying to do?”

“Just do this, Winnie.”

Winnie pulled Tan away from his celebratory slouch and smoke. Reluctantly, he got to work. As he wrote down each character on a notepad, Victoria would type it in. The moment he leaned back, she hit accept, and a new menu popped up giving her more options with the engines. She selected all three nodes of the repulse tripod and shut them off.

The citadel lurched as thousands of tons of steel dropped twenty feet to the water. Victoria became weightless momentarily. When the citadel struck, she slammed back down, cracking her head against the console.

It must have knocked her out, since she slowly became aware that she was laying on the ground. The world was distant, as though she’d been pulled part way into a bodyswap. Her senses seemed to be working for someone else, but they came back.

The pain came first. The sharp ache in her gut seemed nothing now compared to the searing torture in her head. Blood coursed from her scalp. When she became aware of her hearing, all she heard were sirens. They blended in with the pain. When she finally saw, the bridge looked as though a grenade had gone off. Several consoles had gone black. Every cup of coffee, loose paper, tablet, and pen was now on the floor.

It didn’t seem like she’d been out for more than a second. She visualized the citadel. The bottom three decks had crumpled like foil. Water was rushing in. With all the rents and open ports, the citadel was sinking alarmingly fast. Good.

The Manakin was headed to the ocean floor. When the nuclear bomb goes off, incompressible water would mitigate the shockwave and absorb radiation. There’d be a massive spray when the gasses break the surface, and the Porto Maná beaches would get one hell of a wave, but that was it. The world-destroyer would disintegrate along with the rest of the ship. The world would be safe.

Victoria turned her mind back to Winnie.

The girl was shrill. “Talk to me! Say anything! Please!”

Victoria pushed herself up to a sitting position. With all her blood loss, it nearly knocked her out. “Yes, Winnie. I’m still here.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I’m sinking the ship.”


“Look above me, Winnie, in Alex’s office.”

At what? … Oh.”

Bit by bit, Victoria got on her feet. She lurched toward the bridge exit.

“Can’t you disarm it?” Winnie asked. “Tan could figure out the password.”

“Winnie…” Victoria took out the broken wrist monitor and dropped it.

Winnie was a bright enough girl. It only took her seconds to put everything together. Victoria was climbing the stairwell when dismay came over Winnie’s face.

“But how are you suppose to get away?”

Victoria reached the top floor. The exertion had her clutching her wounded gut. It took all she had not to drop right there and never get back up.

“Victoria. How are you suppose to get away?” Winnie asked more persistently.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she stumbled into the office. She opened the top of the warhead and turned on the screen to check the time.

Four minutes.

And now Winnie understood why Victoria wasn’t answering her question.

Victoria wasn’t going to get away.

It should have been obvious before. The water was seeping through the citadel. In moments, it would reach the top deck. The spires would follow quickly. The citadel would be deep underwater long before that bomb exploded, but seeing that timer drove home the finality of it.

“Winnie,” Victoria slumped against the wall and slid down to a seat. It didn’t look like she ever planned to get back up. “Listen to me carefully. I sent Naema and Alex away on a hopper. Help Rivera track it down. You must get to it as soon as possible.”

“Don’t do this, Victoria,” Winnie pleaded. “You’re going to get out of there. If we sent a ship now—”

“No one can get to me in time. Get to the hopper. Alexander doesn’t have his memories anymore. He should be harmless, but there’s a woman with him named Sibyl. She’ll know—”

“You could tread water! Just find something that floats and wait. People must see the citadel sinking. Rescuers will come.”

“No, Winnie. The citadel is going to pull everything down with it. Sibyl will know where Alexander kept backups of his glyphs. You have to use his body-swapping glyph for yourself and Helena. I’m not going to be there to do it myself, but I’m not one to break my word.”

“No. Don’t just give up. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen.” Victoria wasn’t supposed to sacrifice herself like this. She was supposed to be selfish, not noble. A noble person didn’t deserve to die. “Try, Victoria! Please. Try trying. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”

“If you have any respect left for me at all, you will do as I say. Go to Rivera now. Tell him to descend. Help them track down that hopper. You must get to Alexander before the army does. Go.”

“Victoria, don’t—”

“I’m ordering you. Do this now.”

“Victoria…” Winnie didn’t know what else to say, nor did Victoria respond. Everyone in the Venezia bridge was staring at her. Her mind kept running over possible ideas for how Victoria might still escape, but it was fruitless.

“Ms. Cho?” Rivera asked carefully. “What is happening with the queen?”

“She—” Winnie paused. “She needs us to track down a ship. It’s safe for us to come down now.”

Winnie explained to the others what had happened, and then about the hopper still racing along the ocean. Since she couldn’t look inside of it, she could only describe it’s trajectory. The last that she recalled looking back at the Manakin, she saw water flooding through corridors. The spires descended into the water. By the time she’d finished helping Rivera plot a course, the citadel was entirely under water.

Her mind followed its descent into the abyss. Everything grew dark. The corridor lights flickered off as the power plants flooded. Soon there was nothing the human eye could see.

And then, light.

111. Like Old Times

The citadel shifted. Victoria only noticed because the sunlight streaming in the port windows now crawled along the floor. She checked in her mind. The citadel was slowly turning toward the ocean, and it was already accelerating. She looked in the bridge, only to find the blind spot had moved there from Alex’s office. So Alex was there then. There was only one reason why the citadel would start moving before it was facing in the right direction. There was no destination. It was just getting away from where it currently was: city of Porto Maná.

Her plan had been to keep impersonating a marine until Alex was satisfied she was dead. He’d had the marines check each other’s shield, something Victoria had managed to dodge, but it seemed Alex had decided on more extreme precautionary measures. Of course Alex would do something like this.

She headed to the stairwell.

At the door, a marine stopped her. “We’re not allowed to leave.”

“A porthole has been pried open,” Victoria said. “I think someone might have jumped out. We need to tell the captain.”

“We’ll radio it in then. We can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving the spire,” Victoria said. “Just going to tell the captain downstairs.”

“No.” The marine noticed the gash in Victoria’s armor. “What happened here?”

“Someone stabbed me.”

“Did it damage your shield stone?”


“Are you sure? That looks like exactly where it would be.”

“It’s not.” Victoria pointed above the gash. “My shield is here. Isn’t yours?”

“No. Mine is right here.” The marine pointed on his own chest.

“Right there?” Victoria stabbed him with knife. The shield glyph within popped when it ruptured.

The marine yelped, but he immediately forgot why.

Downstairs, all the marines looked up. Everyone sensed an aura appear. Victora had to act quickly.

“They’re keeping us in here because they’re going to kill us just as they made us kill them,” Victoria gestured at the dead. “And now they’re coming for you. Get to the roof. Shoot anyone who comes after you. Now go.”

The marine ran into the stairwell and bolted up the stairs. Two marines in the lobby took after him. Another two stayed behind. Victoria waited for the men to pass, then slipped down two flights to the lobby floor. She took aim at the two remaining marines through the door and kicked it open.

She was emptying the rifle’s clip before the door even hit the wall. The rifle’s recoil had flechettes flying all over the lobby, but both the guarding marine and the captain collapsed.

Victoria swapped her rifle for one of theirs and escaped to the Deck floors.

The bridge spire wasn’t far. Of it’s two stairwells, one was ablaze, the other was still rigged with a bomb. However, Alex was not in his office anymore. She could see the detonator on his unattended desk.

Victoria halted.

He wasn’t in the bridge anymore either. No one was, because the bridge crew was dead. Officers lay sprawled over bridge steps. The strike room was just as gruesome.

Victoria scanned the citadel for the blindspot. It was moving toward the flight bay in the citadel’s portside aft, where a single military shuttle awaited.

She sprinted down corridors. The bay was ahead, the blindspot was nearly there.

Turning the corner, she saw them—Alex and Sibyl, in the bodies of Helena and Winnie, were dragging Naema along. Alex aimed a gun at Victoria. She stumbled. A flechette narrowly missed her as she fell behind a stack of plastic-wrapped supplies.

She scurried closer to her cover. It seemed Tan’s power had tripped her up, saving her life from walking into a flechette. That power had proved far more useful than she had anticipated. She raised her rifle over the crate and fired blindly toward Alex, trusting in Tan’s power to guide her shot.

She glanced around the corner. Nothing. Alex and Sibyl had taken cover behind a shipping crate. There had been no targets to hit. The flechettes could not penetrate the crates.

“I knew it!” Alex yelled. “I knew you were still alive.”

Victoria could see the crate they were hiding behind, but that’s it. She hadn’t realized how dependent she’d become of Winnie’s power. It was like being blind.

“I guess since you’re here,” Alex said, “you’ve probably guessed why I’m stepping out. So we get to play a game. How much time do you think I set that bomb for? I’ll give you a hint. It’s about forty seconds before the really big one is supposed to go off. Do you remember what that timer was at?”

Another bomb. What was it with this man and bombs?

“You’ve also got to remember to subtract however long it takes for this hopper to get clear,” Alex continued. “I forgot to ask Quentin how large the blast would be, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re not getting on that hopper,” Victoria yelled. “Go back and disarm the bomb.”

“Nah. You can do that. It’s in my office. I’ll even tell you the code. It’s… 18060513. I know you’re not supposed to use your birthday as a password, but I did. So go ahead, but you’ll only be letting the bigger bomb go off then.”

“Then we die together, Alexander.”

“You’d do that? I don’t think so. You might not like me very much, but you won’t sacrifice yourself just to get rid of me.”

“Why not? You told the world what I did. I might never rule again.”

“Sure you could, Katherine. The world is filled with idiots. Make up a story. Tell them I was lying. Make them forget. You love doing that! Better yet. Just find another poor girl to steal a body from and start all over. Let this bomb go off and the world will be in such chaos, it’ll be ripe for the taking. With all your new powers, it’ll be child’s play.”

Victoria glanced around the supplies crates. She glimpsed Alexander pointing a repulse pistol at her and ducked away just as a flechette punched into the crate by her head.

“What you lack is determination,” Alex said. “You had such a good start. You were taking over minds. Replacing your enemies. You blew up half the world, and it worked like a charm. But then what? Six years of shit: taking over countries one at a time, diplomacy, Humanitarian Projects. I thought you must have had an attack of nerves, as if you suddenly forgot you’re the monster, but no. You actually cared about what people think about you. You actually wanted to help them.” He scoffed. “You have no idea how to rule.”

“And you know better? You couldn’t rule without warping the minds of every last person in the world.”

“Because it works, Katherine. I brought China together in three days. Three days. No wars. No struggle. It’s the rational way. You, on the other hand, destroyed the world. Then, before you could do any good at all, a teenage girl had a hissy fit, and you lost everything. That’s pathetic. Just give up. All you’ve ever caused is pain and suffering, because that’s all you know. It’s time for the little girls to go home. Let Daddy tuck them in.”

Victoria fired a few shots toward Alex. No hits. He was still locked down behind the same crates.

“Sooner or later,” she said. “You’ll have to turn around and go back.”

“With you just around the corner waiting for the all clear? No thank you.”

“Then we wait.”

“Then we do.” Alex agreed.

For a long while, they did. Each sat behind their respective covers.

Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So, again, not wanting to spoil this for you, but we’re getting very close to zero hour.”

“Then go disarm the bomb.”

“That’s not going to happen, Katherine, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to leave my wrist monitor right here. Then I’m going to get on that ship and leave. After I’m gone, you can disarm both bombs, and we’ll take a raincheck on this fight of ours.”


“Now you’re just being stubborn. Neither of us wants to die today.”

“Once you’re on the shuttle, you’ll have no reason to leave that monitor.”

“Okay. Fine. Look.”

Something slid across the floor. Victoria spared a glance. Alex’s wrist monitor now lay in open view. It was in the opposite direction from the ship for him. “There you go. You can get it once I’m gone. Remember. 18060513. Now I’m going.”

They shuffled around behind their protection. Footsteps moved cautiously toward the escape ship. Alex was clearly hoping Victoria wouldn’t hurt him in Helena’s body. He was wrong. Victoria ducked out and aimed.

Naema’s wide eyes stared at Victoria from inside her helmet. Alex was hiding behind her with the gun aimed over Naema’s shoulder, and Sibyl right behind him. Victoria aimed.

…But she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Did she really need to kill him? Alexander had done a lot of awful things in the world, and awful things to her. But he was the only telepath flair that existed.

Alex fired at her. A flechette punched into her shoulder. She fell back.

Scurrying behind her cover, she realized her shield had dropped. She hadn’t even felt it. Whatever glyph it was Alex had been using for Sympathy, he’d just used it on her.

Of course he would. Why not? She was here to kill him. He was just defending himself.

No. Those aren’t her thoughts. Alexander murdered her father. He murdered her.

…But still.

NO! No “but still”. She had to act now.

She lunged around the crate and fired wildly, aiming low. Flechettes punched into Naema. Her leg. Her neck. Her helmet. She collapsed. Alex dove for the escape ship, firing back. Victoria’s gut erupted in pain. She crumpled.

In the ship now, Alex had left Sibyl and Naema behind, The hatch was closing. He was safe. No weapons could reach him.

But that didn’t matter anymore.

Alex slammed the hatch switch with all his weight. The hydraulic motor kicked in. He dropped low and aimed out the ship. No Katherine. No flechettes. Sibyl lay toppled from where he’d shoved her. He was clear.

Then he glimpsed her. Naema had rolled to her side. She looked right at him for a single moment before disappearing behind the closing door.

“No! You bitch. Don’t look at…”

Me? That was how he was going to finish the sentence, but what sentence was that? The hatch door sealed. He looked around. It seemed he was alone.

“Huh,” he said. The word echoed off the hull.

“Huh.” He said it again. Neat echo.

It must be a military ship. The walls were steel, and it was cramped as hell. Nobody would want to be in here unless their country demanded it.

So why was he?

He thought hard, but he couldn’t recall the chain of events that led to him here. He had been on a plane, and he’d been playing with the seat controls. Sakhr had been angry at him again. Because…

Right! Because Alex had been teasing him about his fear of planes. That man was afraid of everything.

Jesus. Why did this seem so long ago? At least a month. Everything since was a blank. Was he on drugs again? Sakhr would be pissed, but fuck him. Then again, maybe Sakhr had a point.

Alex had no idea where he was.

And holy shit! He was holding a gun! And he was a woman. A hot woman. It must have been a wild night.


The voice came from outside the ship. It was strong, masculine, and angry.

“Open the hatch door.”

Ah. Authority. Alex was already climbing to his feet. Anton must really be angry if he’s using that. Alex hoped he hadn’t fucked up too badly, whatever it was he’d done.

The door lever was in the first place he looked. Strange, considering he’d never been on this ship before. The hatch eased open, revealing an interesting sight.

A bleeding black girl, an asian girl, and a hispanic space marine who must be Anton.

Sure. Why not.

For some reason, he couldn’t read anyone’s mind. That was troubling. He’d have to figure the situation out for himself. Did he shoot the black girl? Maybe. And that asian girl sure looked like someone had hurt her feelings. Was all this his fault? Was that why Anton was glaring at him?

Well, Alex couldn’t feel bad for something he couldn’t remember. Might as well own it. He put on his signature grin.

“Drop your weapon and kick it over,” Anton said.

Alex shrugged, still grinning. It must have been one hell of a drug-fueled rampage. He complied. He wanted to say something witty as he did it, but he couldn’t think of anything good.

And from the look in Anton’s eye, it didn’t look like anything would go over well anyway. He looked really pissed, so much so that Alex dropped his grin. Was this serious? Had he gone too far? He hoped this was something they could put behind them. He’d hate to lose his only friend.

Victoria pulled off Naema’s helmet. The girl flailed. Victoria settled her down and checked her wounds. A solid leg shot. It looked like it damaged the bone. The helmet deflected the head shot though, and the neck wound, despite all the blood, was just a graze.

She removed Naema’s earbuds. Music blasted from them. Between those and the blinders, her sensory awareness must have been nothing. When she removed the gag. The girl gasped for breath.

“You’re going to be fine,” Victoria said.

Naema’s eyes were wild. She struggled again.

Victoria calmed her. “Settle down. I know you’re in pain, but I need you to concentrate on me.”

“Who are you?” Naema asked.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’m working with Josephine, and I need you to do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”

Naema glanced at Alexander.

“Don’t worry about him anymore. He’s harmless.”

Harmless?” said Alex.

Victoria ignored him. “I need you to close your eyes for a moment.”

Naema did. Victoria looked at Sibyl. “Come here and look me in the eye.”

Hesitantly, Sibyl approached. Victoria pilfered her mind for everything she could. The bomb was upstairs like Alex said. Password is as he said. The timer was forty seconds before the main bomb, and—

…And Alexander broke the wrist monitor. That son of a bitch. Victoria glanced at it. Even from here, she could make out the cracks running across its blank screen.

The time had said eight minutes.

In eight minutes, that world destroyer would go off. If Alexander had left her here as he planned, she would have had let the nuclear bomb go off, or else the world-destroyer would send everyone back into the dark ages.

She looked at him. He stared back innocently, as though genuinely concerned. She yearned to switch bodies with him and kill him now, but no. He may have been the monster a minute ago. Now, he was just a man, lost and confused. To kill him now would be like putting down a dog that had bit a child in confusion. Maybe it was the effect of his Sympathy glyph on her mind, but she couldn’t do it.

She pulled Sibyl toward Naema. “Unbind her. Get her on the ship. Keep Alexander from running off. I’ll be watching both of you.”

Sibyl nodded vigorously and snapped to work. Victoria collected the damaged monitor. It wouldn’t even turn on.

She might disarm the warhead, then find lesser explosives to destroy the world-destroyer. That depended on whether such munitions existed onboard, which she doubted.

Of course, she could just leave. Millions of lives of the still-reeling human race would snuff out. The world might blame her, or the terrorists. Either way, society would take another massive step backward. But she would still be alive. She had Alex under control now, and Helena’s body. She could drag the world back to order.

She’d just have to do everything all over again. Wage wars. Conquer. Cause suffering and death. It might be more difficult now that the world knew what Victoria had done, even if she hid in another body. And it would take years.

Years of pain.

Could she really go through it all over again? Maybe Alex was right. Or maybe it was just because she was so damn tired of being the monster. She’d always wanted to help, yet somewhere during this exile she’d started to wonder: maybe the world would have been better if she hadn’t existed at all.

Victoria fetched two fallen flechettes from the floor and moved to where Naema couldn’t see her. In her head, she formulated every plan she could think of. Her goal? She wanted to be able to look back on this moment and say, “yes. That’s what I wanted. I’m happy with how this turned out, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”

And then she tossed the flechettes into the air.

They landed and rolled to a stop. Both pointed to her left. She knew which plan that corresponded to. Somehow, she’d known they would fall that way even before she tossed the dice. Yet she had to toss them again just to make sure.

Same result.

So that was her path of least regret.

Her happy ending.

She hated so much that it was true, but she knew it was.

Victoria headed back toward the others. They’d gotten into the shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s chair, although he wasn’t taking advantage of it. Naema had limped to a passenger seat. Victoria knelt by her. 

“I need you to listen to me very carefully…”

109. Astronomical Odds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? What the fuck?”

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

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

“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But his aura bloomed to life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tan rolled dice and flipped switches Lucero just forbid.

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

“Captain?” Josephine prompted.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” yelled Lucero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

108. The Cascade Strategy

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

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

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

“Be ready,” Victoria said under her breath.

“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.

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

“That’s going to mix people up.”

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

“I’ll try.”

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

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

“Alex will be the one killing them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied Romero.

“Then begin on Deck One. Fore sector.”

“…Understood, ma’am.”

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

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

“How long will that take?” asked Winnie.

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

“What about the other stairs?”

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

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

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

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

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

A crowd formed on her.

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

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

“That’ll help you too, won’t it?”

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

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

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

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted.

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

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

“Is that you? Are you okay?”

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

Winnie locked eyes with Tan and conveyed the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There you go,” said Tan.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sat and worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivera turned to Lucero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go to the corner.”

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

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked shrilly.

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

“But you have used this before, right?”

“About four years ago.”

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

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

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

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

A second popup appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you talking to us?” Rivera asked.

“Yeah. We’re on our own.”

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

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

“Aye, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine looked at him “What?”

Tan glanced at her.

“Oh,” Josephine said.

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

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

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

He rolled a five.

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

“Captain?” Lucero said.

“Let him,” Rivera ordered.

Lucero let Tan take his place.

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

107. Security Failures

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

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

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

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

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

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

He glazed over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain, this is your queen.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.

106. The Labyrinth

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the window?”

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

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

“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”

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

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

“But there was only one pod?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many people could have been in it?”

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

“Have we heard back from the gridport?”

“Not yet.”

“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”

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

“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.

“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Of course, ma’am.”

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

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

“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.

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

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

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

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

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

The officer got to work.

Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”

“Why?” Rivera asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”

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

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


“Any ideas?”

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

“And if you can’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A guard rushed in.

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

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

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

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

Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.

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

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

“Play the next game,” she murmured.

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

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

“Keep straight,” Winnie said.

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

“Down the ladderwell.”

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

“The dice say down.”

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

“Where now?”

“Continue through the door before you.”

This brought her into a sleeping quarters.

“Go right.”


“Up a ladder well.”

“Up?” asked Victoria.

“Up, yes.”

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

“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.

“I don’t know.”

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

“I think so.”

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

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

“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.

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

“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie locked minds with Tan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tan shrugged.

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

“No,” Tan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I do.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The dice led her back down. She descended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look in the air duct.”

“Which one— Oh, I see it.”

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

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

“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.

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

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

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

“Are those bombs remote controlled?”

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

105. The Sovereign Citizen

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

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

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

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

The grid had picked her up.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you see where I’m going?”

“I see it,” said Winnie.

“Look around. Find any investigators.”

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

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

“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, dear,” he said.

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

“I have no idea what they’re saying.”

“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.

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

“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.

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

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

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

“They’re just guards, I think.”

“Are they shielded?”

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

“Then I want you to—”

“On it.”

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

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

“Done,” said Josephine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just keep an eye out.”

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

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

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

Victoria replied calmly.

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

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

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

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

“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.

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

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

“I will do so.”

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

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

Victoria didn’t answer.

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

“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.

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


“Where in Colombia?”

“That’s none of your business.”

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

“On what charges?”

“Illegally crossing the border.”

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”

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

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

“You already said so.”

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

“Go to hell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get her out of here,” Russo said.

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.

104. A Nightmare Machine

Over three hours, the Venezia plummeted ten kilometers from it’s preferred cruising perch at the top of the stratosphere. The pilots on the bridge knew this only from the dials on their console. The ship portholes provided little more than a pinhole glance of the outside.

For Winnie it was different. Her mind sensed the vacuum-thin air growing thicker. She felt the ship’s repulse fields wedging air out of the way. The compression caused the hull to bake. The ship tilted away from the earth like a reigning horse, and everyone aboard was slightly heavier from the drag force slowing the ship from its blistering speed.

Winnie sat in the launch bay. Of the twelve deployment pods, only one was open. The lights were on inside, and the floor had a circular ring of light, a target for marines rushing in for quick deployment. She’d examined the displays inside. Right now they showed a countdown to launch: eighteen minutes. The harness inside was set up for its classic deployment instead of a seat like it had been when the crew had nearly evacuated. Winnie tried sitting in it. It left her in a half standing position with legs slightly bent. Supposedly marines could eject from the pods quickest like that, but even with all the straps holding her down, Winnie could imagine herself melting through the restraints into a puddle as the pod plummeted to earth. This was a nightmare machine. And Victoria was about to ride it back to Earth. Alone.

She turned her mind to the bridge. Acting Captain Rivera was talking Victoria through some final points.

“We’ll still be over the Atlantic when you’ll launch. Your pod will skirt the surface of the South American grid for about two hundred kilometers losing speed and land you near your destination. We can’t guarantee a high resolution drop. You could be several hundred meters off target. It’s wherever the grid thinks it can place you.”

“There’s no way to increase drop accuracy?” asked Victoria.

“Not at the speeds we’re going. We’re dropping you faster than usual. As it is, you’re going to have one hell of a bumpy ride, but these pods are still cleared for these speeds.”

“So you’re saying I should wear a helmet?”

“Our marines normally wear body armor,” Rivera said. “We could slow down more, but we’re taking one hell of a risk as it is. I already can’t guarantee an intercept squad won’t catch up with us. It’s your call.”

“It’s fine. I need you safe. Once you’re cruising again, stay put, don’t communicate with anyone. Winnie will inform you when it’s okay to come down.”


“Let’s make sure that’s clear, captain. I will not contact this ship in any other way. Until Ms. Cho tells you its safe, you are to stay in the air. She and I will be in constant contact, and she’ll know if something goes wrong.”

“And if something does go wrong?” asked Rivera.

“Then I wish you luck living out the rest of your lives aboard this ship. There won’t be a place on earth safe for you.”

Winnie dwelled on that remark. The ship could never land anywhere without the empire finding out and coming after them, but somehow Winnie didn’t think Victoria was talking about that. Her mind returned to that room in the bowels of the HIMS Manakin where Quentin’s device sat quietly. Engineers had welded the door shut, leaving the room in pitch black. Though there was light inside the water-filled chambers within the device. The metals glowed…

That was the reason the Venezia couldn’t land safely if Victoria failed. Life aboard this ship might be necessary compared to the frozen winter that device would leave behind.

And that device was also the reason there couldn’t be any armed boarding of the Manakin. Not with that bomb and the dozens of safeguards Alex had installed around it. Infrared cameras watched it constantly. Light and sound sensors lined the walls. Alexander had wanted them to automatically detonate the bomb, but Quentin had talked him out of that. Twice since they’d rigged the room, the sound sensors had gone off. Each time Alexander’s wristband alerted him. Each time he’d scurry back to the top floor of his spire, where Winnie still could not see. She guessed he had security feeds up there that showed him the bomb room.

Victoria arrived at the launch bay. Winnie met her eye and brought to mind any new developments she’d seen with Alexander: none. He’d just finished giving a trope speech to visiting leaders from India. They’d walked into that talk planning to demand India be allowed to rebuild their own armies. They’d left after agreeing to reoccupation in select districts. Alex had done this dozens of times in the past week. Winnie had long since dismissed any doubt that his mystery glyph let him warp minds. What amazed her was how no one else seemed to question how easily he swayed people, especially since glyphs were no longer a mystery.

Victoria motioned for Winnie to get out of the pod, then settled herself into the harness.

Victoria worked the straps. “Help me with these.” Winnie did so. It took them minutes to figure it out.

“Are you ready?” asked Victoria.

You’re the one about to drop through the floor.”

“I already know whether I’m ready. I’m asking you. This plan depends upon you more than I’d prefer.”

“Don’t trust me?”

Victoria regarded her cooly

“I’m ready,” Winnie said. “I’ll help you win, and then you’ll hold up your end of our deal.”

“I’m not going to betray you, Winnie. You’ll still be useful to me after this is all done.”


“Would you rather I tell you it’s because I’m an honest woman?”

Winnie considered it. “No. You’re right. That answer fits you.”

“Then let’s get started. Close the hatch.”

Winnie pulled the overhead hatch part way down. “Good luck.”

“We’re not done talking,” said Victoria. “Close the hatch and put your mind in here.”

The hatch shut, hissed, and clicked tight into place. Inside, the console lights illuminated Victoria’s face in eerie green.

“Are you listening to me?” Victoria said. Her voice didn’t penetrate the pod at all, not even a muffle.

“Yes,” replied Winnie.

“Good.” Victoria pressed an interior button. “Captain. Can you hear me?”

“I can. Launch in forty seconds. Are you strapped in?”

“Yes.” She let go of the button. “Go to the others now. Never break contact with me, clear? Split your attention.”

“Clear.” Winnie put her mind both in the pod, and in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. Josephine, Tan, and Christof were already there. “Can I wish you good luck now?”

“If you must.”

103. Trust

Captain Stephano was a sad sight. The medic had cut away his uniform during surgery, and now he was left with tubes running from his arms and mouth. He looked old, Victoria realized. He had gray hair at the temples and bitter wrinkles about his mouth. Victoria had to check the medical tablet to confirm that he was only in his thirties. He’d served in her army for five and a half years, which meant he was one of the first people to join her army as a soldier, instead of a carried-over mercenary from her company days.

Those first few months had been the toughest times. She’d succeeded in safeguarding most of her privately owned territories. Using her food and mercenaries, she’d become the crux of the locals’ wellbeing, but no one had seen her as anything more than a prominent land owner. Her transition into official control had been the most delicate and awkward stage of her rise to power. She’d hand out currency just to collect it again for food she had given out for free just a week previous. Her men had shown up to people’s houses to collect taxes for the first time, which was always contentious, even when she bore official stamps of old governments. She could pretend to be a servant of a South American coalition as much as she wanted, but if she hadn’t owned the people bearing the guns, she’d have gotten nowhere.

And recruitment hadn’t been easy. Convincing people to join a coalition supervised by one foreign white woman had required an enormous leap of faith from the people. Stephano had been one of those who’d given her a chance. If not for people like him, she’d have failed, despite all her hidden powers. He’d believed in her.

Now here he was, an old man rotten with death. And it was because of her.

The other marines had worked out what had happened. Private Larson had been waiting in a storage housing for forty minutes. Liat, Bishop, Victoria, or anyone with a glyph card should have sensed him. His memories were gone, but Victoria suspected he’d practiced calming himself. Anyone with a glyph card could figure out how to still their aura—another reason to regret its leak.

When Victoria and the others passed, he followed. The rest Victoria knew. She was damn near omnipotent, but one unshielded man had caused so much grief because she locked up.

There was a commotion outside the stateroom door. Victoria visualized it. The guards that Executive Officer Rivera assigned to Victoria were stopping Josephine from entering.

“No one is allowed in,” the guards were saying.

“I know,” said Josephine. “Could you let her know I’m here.”

“You’ll have to come back later. Right now, ma’am, you need to leave.”

“Just. Let. Her. Know.”

“I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”

Victoria spoke loud enough to be heard through the door. “Let her in.”

They did.

Victoria didn’t rise from her post beside Stephano.

Josephine stopped before the captain’s bed. “How is he?”

“They say he’ll live.”

“Has he been awake any.”

“Earlier. Yes.”

Josephine nodded and hunkered down. There was no other seat in the stateroom. “And how about you?”

“I was not hurt. I think I have Tan’s power to thank for that. I stumbled in just the right way.”

“But are you okay?”

Victoria regarded her.

“I’m just concerned,” said Josephine. “That’s all. ”

“I’m fine.”


They sat silently a while.

“Do you know why that man attacked you?” Josephine asked. “Everyone has been talking. Some say he was talking about how you were brainwashing everyone. He’d seemed on edge.”

“Yes. Rivera told me. Though how do you know?” Victoria looked at Josephine, and the answer was in her eyes. The flairs had banded together in their own little clique. Winnie watched the soldiers and shared. When they spoke Portugues or Spanish, she’d lock eyes with Christof, who could translate. Even Tan had joined their gossip circle.

“Adorable,” Victoria said.

“They haven’t let me anywhere near the attacker,” said Josephine. “But Winnie says he’s in bad shape. The soldiers say he’s gone mad.” She paused. “How much did you take from him?”

“I wasn’t concentrating on that.”

“They’re saying he doesn’t remember anything in the last six years.”

“I took whatever I could. I guess more related to me than I would have guessed.”

“Everything relates to you now, Victoria. This army serves you. This nation is yours. Everything that happens because of you could be considered your fault.”

Victoria nodded. “You’ve managed to give your power quite a broad definition. Do you still think you couldn’t extend your power to include any possible memory?”

Josephine did not let the conversation steer away. “That man forgot the Collapse. He lost everything that came after it. That means you believe the Collapse, and everything that’s followed, is your fault.”

Victora looked at her, unamused.

“Please, wait,” said Josephine. “Don’t make me forget this. I’ve already known for a while. Winnie knew, and I’ve been in her head all week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.”

“I do not wish to discuss it. There’s no need for you to know.”

“But I want to know it all the same. Please.”


“Because you shouldn’t have to carry it all by yourself.”

“Don’t give me your therapy, Josephine. There were plenty of people who knew. My high exemplars knew.”

“But now they’re dead. Who else is left? Winnie? Has she accepted it?”

“No, but I don’t need acceptance. I know what I did. I knew the world might see me as a villain, but I still believe what I did was necessary. So did Liat, Bishop, and my other high exemplars. We were trying to make the world a better place in the long run.”

“Why did you trust them?”

“I didn’t. Trust is when you give someone the power to hurt you. My high exemplars were only allowed to know because they were forbidden to keep secrets from me. That was the life-long deal they made when I saved them from their death beds. I owned them. That’s not trust.”

“Is that the only way you’ll ever share with anyone.”

“I learned a long time ago not to trust, Josephine. You should know this.”

“Okay then.” Josephine presented herself. “Own me.”


“You have no high exemplars left. So take me. I’ll accept the role. Whatever it is you do, whatever you have planned, I’ll stand by you. You can scan my entire life if you want.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Liat killed for me. She spent two and a half years in the body of an overweight Russian diplomat disseminating my lies. She didn’t just know about the Collapse. She helped me cause it.”

“Did she know what you would have her do that when you recruited her?”

“Yes. I warned her.”

“Did you tell her why?”


“And she believed in you enough to do it. They thought you served a greater good. Every one of your high exemplars did. And I will too.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if I’m exactly what everyone now thinks I am? A monster—too twisted inside to see the ruin I’m causing.”

“Then at least you’ll have somebody to let you know.”

Victoria grunted.

“So. What’s the plan?” asked Josephine. “We’re going to retake your empire. Right?”

“If there’s anything left to salvage. And if the people will ever let me. I don’t know if the empire can ever be restored now, unless I go the same route as Alex and control the the masses, which I refuse to do. The world has crumbled again. If I want to bring it back together, it will require another war, and I’m not sure I have the will anymore.”

“Then don’t. Fixing the world is not your responsibility.”

“It’s not my responsibility, but if I don’t, who will?”

“Everyone else will just have to figure it out. It’s their world too. They’re living in it. The powers that you had are in their hands now.”

“And what would you suggest I do instead?”

“Why don’t you try living? You’ve been in such a rush to make a difference that you forgot about that. Go out and see the world you’ve tried so hard to control. Grow. Enjoy your life. Cut out your own little corner of the world for yourself. Don’t concern yourself with the wellbeing of everyone else.”

“Sounds dull.”

“It’s not. You went from being a child to a conquerer. There should have been a whole lot more in between that you missed.”

Victoria gazed upon Stephano. She was silent a long while. It was strange to her to think of a life where she wasn’t a ruler. In so many decades, she’d never considered such a thing.

“No,” she said, “I can’t do that, even if that’s what I wanted. Not with Alex where he is. Maybe the world is not my responsibility, but if I left now, I’d be leaving the world worse off because of it. He has to be stopped—him, and his mind control, and that thing he had Quentin build.”

“And this is what you want?”

“It’s what I need to do.”

Josephine nodded. “Then what do we do next?”

102. A Mottled Egg

“British authorities have declared a state of emergency after rioters stormed the Lakiran embassy in London last night” the reporter said. “These attacks come in the wake of Queen Helena’s announcement that her late mother, Victoria, may have instigated the nuclear war.”

The television switched to a shaky view of people outside a granite building. The windows were knocked out. Men and women ran in and out the front. Some climbed through broken windows. Police were on the scene, driving people away from the building with a phalanx of riot shields.

“The embassy building was not the only target. Rioters set fire to the aid stations in downtown Cambridge and other local establishments. Firefighters were unable to get through the crowds.”

Images showed burning remains of tents as rescue workers dug through the wreckage.

“Police are advising citizens to stay indoors, saying these attacks are only the beginning. Debates on Britain’s continued involvement with the Lakiran empire are expected to renew, with many ministers now arguing that Britain should secede.”

The images switched back to the newsroom. “Turmoil continues as people around the world demand that Helena reveal her sources implicating her mother’s involvement, saying that she should subject herself to a mental scan. Many are saying that the Lakiran empire has no right to remain as head of the Global Coalition, with many countries threatening to withdraw. In India, people took to the streets, burning effigies of the Queen Victoria, claiming that her crimes against humanity are the worst this world has ever seen. Even the capital city of Porto—”

Victoria shut off the television. She was alone in the wardroom apart from Liat, who guarded the door. Occasionally, an officer entered. Seeing Victoria, they’d salute, look around as though they might have left something in there, and leave. Victoria didn’t need her powers to sense their awkwardness. Despite her speech, nothing had gone back to normal. The soldiers didn’t trust her. She’d considered wiping the talk from everyone’s memory. It’d be simple. Call everyone back for another meeting, then hand-pick apart their memories, while scanning minds for any physical evidence onboard the ship she’d need to dispose of, but what was the point? She couldn’t hide world news from them, and she wouldn’t be aboard much longer.

Soon, the Venezia would pass over the South American grid. Thus would begin her operation. If all went well, she’d have her empire back come South American nightfall. As Helena, she could let Victoria take the rap for all past crimes. Only the people aboard this craft would know she was the same woman. They could not be allowed to remember that, but she would not forsake them. They’d be rewarded, even if they didn’t remember why. And she could get on with fixing this damn empire.

“Your Majesty,” said Liat. “The Captain.”

Victoria looked up as Stephano entered the wardroom.

He saluted. “We’ve made our final course adjustments, Your Majesty. We’ll be over the target location in five hours.”

Victoria nodded. She already knew.

“Have you picked a landing spot?” he asked.

“I have.” While Victoria dealt with all this announcement nonsense, she’d tasked Winnie with finding a landing spot for her, and Winnie had settled on an isolated outpost outside of Boa Vista, south of Porto Maná. Victoria had checked it over herself and was pleased. Winnie had done well.

“Then we should make final preparations.” Stephano motioned for her to come. She followed. That crisp conversation had lacked any acknowledgement of Victoria’s speech or its result, and he avoided her eyes. Was it that bad?

Soldiers throughout the ship carried on their duties. Before, they’d stare as she’d pass. Now she was invisible.

Up two floors, they reached the officer’s deck. Relative privacy from the rest of the crew.

“I’d like to readdress your plan, Your Majesty.”


“It’s foolish to go alone. My men will follow your orders. I’d be more comfortable if even two of them were going.”

“This is not an excursion that benefits from more people. I’ve already explained what Alexander has set up in the citadel’s lower levels. If he believes we’re closing in on him, he will allow it go off, hence why I will go alone. I can get close to him. A group cannot.”

“Ma’am. The marines aboard this ship are trained for this exact sort of procedure.”

“It’s not a matter of their training, Captain. I’m going to be swapping bodies. Do your men want to swap bodies with me?”

“My men have discussed it. Would they get their bodies back?”

“There’s no guarantee.”

The walked further.

“Your exemplars then.” Stephano motioned to Liat and Bishop, who walked paces behind them. “Bishop told me that’s not his original body.” He turned to Bishop. “You have no attachment to it do you?” To Victoria: “If you swapped your exemplars out for the marines on this ship, then the marines would be guaranteed to have their bodies safe once they returned to the ship. You could only take two men with you, but it would still make me feel a hell of a lot better.”

“No, Captain. I will go alone.”

“This is foolishness, ma’am.”

“Your men don’t trust me.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Is it?” Victoria stopped in the hall outside the bridge. “Look me in the eye and tell me your crew trusts me.”

“No. They’re afraid of you, but that’s no reason to discard them. My men will follow orders. It would be a show of faith for you to—”

“Ma’am!” It was Bishop. He was looking down the corridor at a marine whose aura was all wrong. It shone with glaring anticipation. Already Bishop was putting himself between Victoria and that man.

“This is the officer’s deck, Private,” said Stephano. He wasn’t aware yet. He didn’t have a glyph card, or he would have seen the danger. Liat was pulling Victoria back when the marine made an underhanded toss.

The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.

It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she’d seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.

But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.

“Victoria!” Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn’t correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.

For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria’s body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.

She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she’d ever had for this world would drift away.

In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.

And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?

She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.

“Stop,” she yelled.

It was as though a collar around the soldier’s neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.

His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.

Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.

Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria’s side, pulling Liat off her.

Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria’s face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn’t her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.

She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn’t they see she wasn’t hurt? Why wouldn’t they just put her on her feet? She wasn’t weak.

…She’d just froze.

The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn’t struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.

“What?” he mumbled. “What happened?” No one listened.

In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.

Yet Larson didn’t see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. “What just happened?” he asked. “Am I on a ship? What is this?”

The soldiers’ glares faltered.

“Why am I dressed like this?” He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.

“What is this?” he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.

“What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!”