115. Just Privileges

All ministers and local regional heads were crammed into the Leguan staff room. They sat shoulder to shoulder along a conference table made from smaller tablecloth-covered plastic tables. Winnie sat by Helena, both because Helena begged for her to be there, and because she was technically the Head of the Exemplar Committee now that she had her body back.

“So pardon me, Your Majesty,” said a general, “If we haven’t been dealing with you these past few weeks, that means the peace work with China… it was this Alexander?”

“It was, but he was using mind control.”

“The same mind control he supposedly used on all us?”

“It’s not supposedly,” Helena said. “He was.”

“Are we still being mind controlled?”

“No. You’re not. I’m not going to use any kind of mind control.”

“Did your mother use mind control?”

“No. I don’t think she did.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“I don’t think she had the ability. The mind-control showed up after those glyphs got out in the open.”

“But she would have?” asked another.

“I don’t know,” Helena said. “I’m not her.”

“I don’t think she would have,” Winnie interjected. “It wouldn’t have interested her. She wouldn’t have considered it actually ruling people. More controlling them.”

“But she did use mind control to assault the Manakin?”

“Out of necessity,” Helena said. “And it wasn’t an assault. She just snuck aboard to get rid of Alexander. Alexander was the one who sunk the citadel.”

“I thought you said your mother did.”

“I meant he was the one who set the bomb. My mother sank it to contain the blast.”

The men and women in the council chamber still looked confused.

“So how can we be sure that you’re really Helena?” a minister asked.

Helena opened her mouth. Closed it. With a sigh, she unhooked her necklace. Her aura came to life. “Here. Read my mind.”

Everyone reacted. “Ma’am. Put that back on. It’s not safe,” the general said.

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“The enemy can strike from anywhere.”

“I’ve already explained. Just… do you want to read my mind or not?”

She looked each person in the eyes one after another. Many averted their gaze, but most took her up on their offer. Some gaped. Other stared, eyes fixed on Helena with intensity. Others simply glanced, then nodded.

“Do you all believe me now?” she asked.

No one replied.

Eventually, a minister spoke. “Are you going to tell people what happened?”


“I’m not sure that’s wise, ma’am,” said the general. “If people learn how easily the empire was usurped—that you spent two weeks imprisoned in an animal while some maniac ran the country—it could cause panic.”

“And no one will react positively to knowing their minds have been controlled,” said another. “They’re already wary of the Exemplar Committee. This could strain their tolerance to the breaking point.”

“I know,” Helena said. “That’s why I’m going to make some changes. My mother used the exemplars to control people while keeping secrets from everyone, even me. I, however, will not be a hypocrite. I’m dissolving the Exemplar Committee.”

Everyone’s reaction was immediate.

“Your Majesty, you mustn’t do that,” an admiral said. “The Committee holds this empire together. Your mother put a lot of faith into foreign militaries enforcing her reign on their soil. If the exemplars aren’t there to ensure loyalty, rebellion will occur. Parts of this empire would secede the moment they had the chance.”

“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Helena said. “Maybe we shouldn’t force ourselves in places we’re not welcome.”

“You’re not suggesting we relinquish control?” the admiral asked.

“We’ve already lost control of Northern Europe,” Helena countered. “Asia is in riots right now, and we don’t have any forces in India anymore.”

“But voluntarily give up control? Showing weakness like that would lead to war. Many of these countries would unite against us if they thought that they could get away with it. The exemplars and our control over food supplies are what barely hold this empire together. I understand why you want to disband the Committee. It’s a noble cause, but we just can’t right now.”

“Okay,” Helena said. She donned her shield stone. Her aura was betraying her cool, confident presentation. “But the people don’t deserve to live under the constant threat that we can read their minds while they can’t read ours. They don’t trust us anymore. That needs to change. Maybe from now on, they should have a right to demand screenings from those who control them.”

Again, her audience clambered to respond.

“You want them to read our minds?” one outspoken minister said.

“We’ve spent years reading theirs,” Helena said. “But nobody read ours. And look what happened. We’re the ones that failed them.”

“Your Majesty. Your Majesty,” a minister replied. “That’s lunacy.”

“Of course we can,” Helena replied. “Why not?”

“People would lose faith in the empire.”

“More than they already have?”

“Yes. You are our queen because of who your mother was. That’s it. If people find out that it’s possible to switch bodies, and that Victoria was actually someone else in Victoria’s body, what does that say about your right to rule?”

Helena hesitated.

“And what about state secrets, ma’am? What would happen if the location of our nuclear arsenal became public knowledge? What’s to stop them from taking information about military operations from our head and selling them to another nation? What if they—”

“I get it,” Helena said. “So we won’t open ourselves up that entirely. All I know is that my mother was never checked by anyone, and that’s part of what caused this whole problem. And I still believe if we can read other people’s minds, they should have the right to read ours.”

“A right?” asked the general. “Your mother had a saying about rights. They’re—”

I know what my mother used to say.” Helena stopped and composed herself. “So maybe we don’t dissolve the Exemplar Committee, but there has to be more accountability. The world is changing every day. People have lost trust, and we need to earn it back.” She sighed. “I know I’m… My administration is still getting a handle on things, but I will do what’s best. Will you stand by me?”

There was silence at first. Winnie was worried no one would answer.

Then, “Of course, Your Majesty.”

It was the general. He took his shields stone from around his neck and laid it on the table. His eyes met Helena’s.

“I support you,” said a minister. She too set aside her stone and looked at Helena.

One by one each person at the table pledged their support. Whether by choice or by pressure, they all removed their shields as they did so. There was nothing to hide.

“Good,” Helena said.

“That was horrible,” Helena wailed. “I’m going to be the worst queen in the world.”

She and Winnie were sitting together in her Leguan officer’s quarters.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Winnie said.

“It was. They all think I’m an idiot.”

“No, they don’t. You’ve been in office for less than a day. Nobody expects you to know exactly what to do. It’s their job to help you learn. What’s important is that they all support you.”

“No, they don’t. They just think they do. Their heads are all messed up and they don’t even realize it. Whatever Alex did to them has rolled over onto me. Did you know the Chinese premier called me today? He said he just wanted to make sure I was all right, but I think he wanted to do phone sex with me or something. He wouldn’t stop flirting.”

“So maybe people are a little attached to you,” Winnie admitted. “You could use the advantage.”

“Yeah, because I have no idea what I’m doing. None. Everything I said in there was stupid. I was actually going to say we should stop hoarding food assembly until that guy pointed out that it’s the only thing keeping us from all out war. The biggest thing I’ve ever led was a basketball team.”

“Oh, uh… about that,” Winnie said. “Ms. Montes wants to know when we’re coming back to class.”

“I can’t,” Helena wailed. “I don’t have time for school anymore.”

“We’ll have to make time. The queen should at least have a high school education, but she says the school will work around your schedule.”

Helena thrust her head onto her pillow.

“Ms. Montes will set up tutoring for you,” Winnie continued. “And it sounds like the ministry takes care of most day to day stuff about running the empire. Although maybe not at first. Everything is hectic right now, but it should all calm down soon.”

Helena still had her face buried. “Would you like to be queen? You still have the body swapping glyph, right?”

“I’m not bossy enough, but that reminds me.” She brought out a folder from her bag. Inside were transcribed glyphs. “What are we going to do with these?”

“What are they?”

“Alex’s backup glyphs.”

Helena picked up the one on top. “This is the Sympathy glyph, isn’t it?”


“Is this the only one left?”


Helena started to tear it.

“Wait!” Winnie said. “Are you sure?”

I’m not going to use it. That’s something my mother would have done. I’m trying to prove to the world that they can trust me. I can’t do that and use this.”

“But that’s the last glyph. If it’s gone, the power is gone for good, and that power might be the only reason the ministry is giving you a chance. It might be the only reason we’re not at war right now.”

Helena gazed at the glyph for a long while. “No.” She tore it in two. “I won’t use it, and I can’t think of a reason why I would that’s not wrong. The world is better off without it.” Helena continued tearing it into tiny pieces. Afterward, she stared at the remains. “Did I just make a big mistake?”

“No,” Winnie stared with her. “You’re right. It shouldn’t exist. You’ll give people shields, and that will protect them.”

Helena looked down at the second sheet in the folder. “And this is body swapping, right?”

“It is. It’s the only glyph in existence now.”

“Should I tear it up too?”

“That’s up to you.”

“But I want to know what you think.”

Winnie shrugged. “I don’t know. What you’re holding in your hand is the secret to immortality. Sakhr lived for thousands of years because of that.”

“But we’d have to steal lives to do it. I’d be just like my mom.”

“Maybe you could be open about using it instead. What if you only took lives of people on death row or something?”

“Ew. And live in the body of some slimy, tattooed convict?”

“Maybe one day we could make mindless clones of ourselves, and we take those bodies.”

Helena regarded her.

“I don’t know,” Winnie said. “It just seems like there’s a lot of potential we could be throwing away. I could just see us eighty years from now, swallowing a dozen pills every morning and leaning on our walkers, wishing we still had this around.”

“But maybe that’s why we should destroy it,” Helena said. “Just like with Sympathy, sooner or later we’re going to be tempted. And what if it got out? Could you imagine that? Identity theft would hit a whole new level. Like, an even worse level than it’s already reached with all this mind-reading going on. Some old bad guy could break into someone’s house, tie someone up, read their mind for everything they’d ever have to know, then switch bodies and take over the other person’s life. Or worse. A person could take over a baby. Who would ever know?”

“Everything can be abused,” Winnie said, “but it still might be the most amazing power that’s ever existed. Maybe there are people out there who would want to swap bodies with each other. And I can think of a few ways swapping bodies with someone might be fun, even if just for a while.”

“But I’m still not sure it’s worth the risk.”

“What about Alex?” Winnie asked. “If you get rid of that, he’ll be in a tortoise forever.”

“So? He deserves it.”

“He doesn’t even remember what he did.”


“I’m just saying. It’s not like we’re punishing him. There’s no lesson for him to learn if he can’t remember, and what if someday we want to release him? Or imprison someone else? Every generation, more flairs are going to show up with powers we can’t even imagine. Maybe keeping the glyph around is a bad idea, but maybe one day we’ll need it.”

Helena looked despairingly at the glyph she held between her fingers, poised to tear it. “Oh, I don’t know. Every choice I make seems like it could change the world forever. I don’t want this kind of pressure. Why can’t being an queen be all about fashion like I wanted it to be?”

Winnie put the glyph back in the folder and tucked it away. “Maybe you’ve been queen enough for now. Big decisions can wait until tomorrow.” She her shield stone off from around her neck and set it beside the bed.

“What are you doing?” Helena asked.

Winnie met her gaze. Her mind returned to a place in the universe where their solar system was just speck far behind. Before her were untold galaxies of all different shapes and size, all unimaginably far away, and whatever lay beyond.

“Where do you want to go?” Winnie thought.

Helena removed her own shield stone and looked back. “Far away,” she thought.

114. Ignorance

A civilian shuttle landed at the Attila military base in Northern Amapá. Soldiers circled about it, and one tapped on the window. It rolled down.

The soldier peered in. “Welcome to Fort Leguan. I need all of you to step out of the shuttle.”

The door opened. Christof stepped out, then Winnie. To the soldiers, they appeared as a general and an exemplar. Christof held a briefcase by his side. Winnie cradled a tortoise.

That drew the soldier’s eyes. “What is your purpose at Leguan?”

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

“This is for security. I need you to answer our questions. What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

Christof and Winnie handed over IDs. The soldier’s didn’t react at all to Christof’s identity as General Soto, who was one of the most wanted men in the empire. Winnie wasn’t surprised. Both of the men’s aura’s were exposed.

The soldier handed the IDs back. “Come with me. We’ll get you scanned and checked out.”

“A security screening?” asked Christof. “We’re not to be scanned. There should be a note about that.”

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

“Listen,” the guard said. “There have been three attacks on the queen in the last month. You’re not getting near the queen without a scan.”

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

“It’s okay, Private.” Josephine approached from the administration building. “Let them through.”

The guard hesitated. “Minister Molyneux, I have instructions to clear everyone without exception.”

“They’ve already been cleared. They just finished passing through security.”

He frowned. He and his fellow soldiers exchanged glances. Their auras hiccuped in a way Winnie had gotten used to seeing.

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

“Wait a moment,” the guard said, then paused as though lost in thought. His partners weren’t any better.

“Just come along,” Josephine said. “They’ll be fine after we leave.” They walked to the administrative building. “Did you find it?” she asked.

Christof held up the suitcase.

Josephine sighed. “Thank God. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s been that bad, Minister,” Winnie said.

“That’s just a harmless white lie. No one will remember after I’m gone. Come on. I can’t leave him alone for long.”

They entered the administrative building. People were collected in the lobby. They flocked at the sight of Josephine. Everyone spoke at once.

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

“I have the Chinese Prime Minister on the line.”

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

“The Ministery of Aviation needs to speak with Helena.”

Winnie could hardly make out what any of them were saying.

Josephine held up a staying hand. “If everyone will be quiet. Queen Helena will be available just as soon as the medical team clears her. Now please, clear the way.” She led Winnie and Christof past guards and up a flight of stairs.

In an office at the end of a hall, Alexander was sitting at a desk covered with playing cards and a cribbage board. Winnie knew from her spying that Josephine had been his playing partner, and he was waiting for her to return. Sibyl sat nearby. She’d been in no mood to play, since unlike Alexander, she knew what was coming.

Alexander smiled. He didn’t mind that no one else did. “Hello. Ah, good. Two more. Perfect. Everyone, come in. Sit down. Do any of you know how to play cribbage? It’s an older game, but I assure you it’s aged well.” He looked from Winnie to Christof, trying to meet their eyes. “No? I guess we’re going to do something else then. I don’t suppose any of you brought anything to drink.”

Christof set the briefcase on the table and popped it open. Inside a manilla folder were sheets of line paper. They were copies of glyphs Alexander had stored in a government-controlled deposit box in Poro Maná, far away from Naema’s destructive gaze. Not even Sibyl knew exactly bank he’d gone to. Tan’s dice had shortened the search dramatically

“What?” Alex peered at the glyph. “Is that a tribal tattoo? Normally those come after drinking.”

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

Helena stared directly at him. It was looking into her eyes that Alex’s smile finally faltered. For the first time since he’d lost his memory, Alexander had an idea what was about to happen.

“No.” Winnie replied. “She’s a tortoise.”

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.

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.”

99. Public Support and Land Mines

The largest room on the Venezia was the launch bay. The crew had collected there, excluding the pilots. The marines stood, arms crossed, near the back. The Air Force crew sat along the ground. A few leaned on walls and door frames. Others perched inside or on top of deployment pods. Winnie, Josephine, Tan, Zauna, and Oni collected near the bay door, separate from the crew.

The captain had announced a crew meeting. He didn’t specify what it was about, but Winnie knew. Everyone else could guess. No one was going to miss this. Even the pilots listened in through the intercom.

Victoria waited beside Stephano. Her exemplars stood to either side, putting themselves between her and the crew. It was their job, and even though the crowd showed no hostility. The spotlight was on Victoria even though she ignored everyone while she chatted with the captain.

A few more soldiers trickled in. Stephano nodded to her. She addressed the room.

“Before I founded the Lakiran empire, I was the CEO for LakiraLabs, which owned property in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Guyana, and parts of Central and North America. In order to get around US regulation, I eventually moved the company’s operations to South America at great expense and focused on importing specialists from Europe and North America. As LakiraLabs grew, so did the need to invest myself in local governments. I helped improve living conditions and combat drugs and crime in places I owned. I’d become an unofficial baroness for northern South America.

“So when tensions between the world’s superpowers escalated. I, like many others, found my corner of the world in danger. Socialist movements threatened to nationalize my lands. The US, who had previously only antagonized me, suddenly became my best friend. They encouraged me to embroil myself in the politics and prevent Socialist parties from gaining control. They offered me everything from public support to land mines. I became a part of this escalation in a way I never wanted to be.

“When peace talks came up, South America become a bargaining chip. I tried to diffuse tensions, but it never worked. The superpowers lent aid and weapons to capitalist and socialist parties in efforts to build relations. All it led to was increased instability. After years of watching tensions grow despite everything I did, I concluded that war was an inevitability. I turned my efforts from preventing it to seeing how I could make my lands survive when it came, and making sure South America would not be targeted in the case of nuclear retaliation.

“To do that, I had to sabotage foreign aid coming into the country. I intercepted shipments, undercut meetings, and even assassinated some political figures. My aim was to keep South America from falling into the pocket of any superpower, which was why when the missiles finally flew, so few targeted the region, but my actions did contribute to the instability. And in doing so, most likely hastened the coming of the war.”

She paused. “That is what Alexander is referring to. I am guilty of what every other politician was doing at the time. I looked after my own land instead of trying to fix the world as a whole. I’ve kept this information private because it would only interfere with keeping the empire together. Alexander, meanwhile, has caused instability around the world in a desperate attempt to cause unrest aboard this vessel. It only shows how little this madman cares about the empire, and seeks only to secure his own position as its ruler. I hope now we can put this rumor behind us and return to our duties. Captain Stephano and I have finalized a plan to retake the Manakin. You’ll receive orders soon. Dismissed.”

Victoria turned and walked toward the side bay door.

“Why is he a madman, Your Majesty?” The voice came from near the back of the crowd.

“Pardon?” said Victoria.

“You said Alexander is a madman. What’s he done?” It was a cadet perched in a deployment tube. The other marines weren’t looking at him, but at Victoria.

“Alexander is a con artist who has hurt many people in his long life,” said Victoria. “He, in collusion with others, detonated the dirty bomb in the Capital Tower. He’s actively mind controlling the ministry and all heads of state, and he’s also stolen the body of my daughter.”

“Where did he come from?”

“He’s been around for centuries, working with others to steal bodies to preserve their own existence.”

“Were you one of them?”

Stephano stepped forward. “That is enough. You will all return to your duties now.”

“No, Captain. It’s all right. The answer is no. I was not one of them.”

“Were you born as Victoria Palladino?”


“Have you been erasing our memories?” asked a lieutenant.


“Has the other girl?” he pointed to Josephine.

“No. I forbid her from doing so.”

“Then how come I have gaps in my memory. I can remember some talks I had recently, but I can’t remember what they were about.”

“I haven’t been erasing anyone’s memories,” said Victoria.

“I have gaps too,” said another. “How can we tell if someone is?”

“You can’t, but no one is tampering with your minds. You’re just more aware of forgetting things.”

“How do we know you’re not the one lying and Alexander is telling the truth?” This voice was much stronger than the others. It came from a marine by the door in the very back. “Alexander is promising to give more power to the people.”

“He’s promising a lot,” said Victoria. “He lies. He’s a master at it.”

“How about you let us read your mind so we know you’re not lying.”

“That’s not possible. I’m shielded permanently.”

“Then let us read their minds?” The marine pointed to Bishop and Liat.


“Why not? What are you hiding?”

“That is enough!” snapped Stephano. “Private Larson, I will speak to you privately. Everyone else is dismissed.”

The crowd broke. Victoria left. Stephano led the marine to a private room to reprimand him. The launch bay cleared within minutes. Victoria had walked a line with her story. If Winnie hadn’t already known the truth, she wouldn’t have been able to pick out the truth from the lies. It was a convincing story though. It painted her as guilty, but not as a villain. Impressive work, Winnie thought, but from the look on the soldier’s faces, it might not have been enough.

97. Reactions

“Has anyone asked her?” a marine private asked.

“Naw. No one’s seen her. She’s holed up in the captain’s quarters,” answered another.

Oni lay on his rack listening in on the soldiers’ conversation. In the last few hours, he’d heard many like it. The soldiers didn’t talk with him or his family, but they ignored him enough that they didn’t watch their words around him. By now, he knew everything they knew.

“Has the captain talked to her?” the marines continued

“I don’t think the captain knows yet.”

“He knows. He knows everything that happens on his ship.”

“Then why hasn’t he talked to her?”

A soldier tossed a few chips into the pile to call. “I think he hasn’t talked to any of us because he knows it’s true. ”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” said the dealer. Another soldier called.

“Come on. Everybody already knows it’s true. Nuclear war broke out. Victoria just happened to have the one piece of technology that let her feed her people. Everybody starves but her. She takes over the world. That’s some Bond villain shit right there.”

“So she saw the Collapse coming. A lot of people did. Doesn’t mean she caused it.”

“No. She caused it. Everybody outside of the empire already knows this.”

“Bullshit. If Victoria caused the war, then she planned it like shit. Were you in Porto Maná after everything went down? LakiraLabs had to rush construction on those assemblers. We were eating canned food for almost a year. A lot of people starved.”

Turn went to Tan. Tossing in some chips, he passed the turn to the next. The soldiers let him play with them, but never as the dealer. Unlike the others, he focused on the game.

“She had to do that,” another said. “What would it look like if she already had all the assemblers she needed? Bombs drop. Winter sets in. Oh look, everybody. I just happen to have a warehouse full of these food makers.”

“She couldn’t have cause the Collapse even if she wanted. She’s just one person. Espionage on that level would have taken a huge team of people. And you think nobody on that team would have leaked that they were trying to destroy the world?”

“She could have done it easily. Look. She’s on board now in the body of some teenager. She can swap bodies. Nobody knew about that, and you can bet your ass she had that power before the Collapse. Are her exemplar pets swapped out too? We don’t know. No one knows anything about her.”

“The exemplar’s, man. The exemplars,” said another. “Who knows how long she had glyphs before she made the exemplars. She could have been mind reading everybody, and killing off anyone who wanted to talk. She had body swapping. Who knows what secrets she still keeps?”

“I don’t buy it. We’ve all met her. Does she seem like a killer to you? A tough lady, sure. But not a killer. Not a mass murderer.”

“She wages wars, man. She’s already a mass murderer.”

“You know what I mean.”

“What I don’t get is why did this fake queen or whatever tell us all this.”

“It’s a ploy,” said the other lieutenant. Both were on duty monitoring the status of the ship’s nuclear reactor. Everything was nominal. They paid more attention to the video playing on a tablet between them.

“Look.” One soldier backed the video up.

“I would demand answers from her,” said Alexander in the video.

“See? She looks directly at the camera when she says that. It’s meant for us. Then she says that Victoria shouldn’t be heading this empire, as though she’s still alive. She meant this message for us.”

“It’s a he, by the way.”


“Alex is short for Alexander. It’s a guy.”

“Whatever. He’s trying to talk to us.”

“But it was political suicide.” The soldier took the tablet and did a search on the speech. “Look at this. Everybody on the internet is freaking out. People are asking for Helena to step down.”

“Since when does what the people want ever mattered? She’s got the armies. The Chinese have already said they’re going to stay in the empire. Everyone else is too. The only thing standing in her way is—”

His way.”

“…His way is us. He knows Victoria is here. He knows we’ll ask her if this is true.”

Has anyone asked her?”

“What’s the point?” asked Second Lieutenant Marco, the ship co-pilot. “Isn’t that woman we caught supposed to be able to erase memories? We could ask her. She could tell us she caused the war single handedly, and killed Santa Claus while she was at it. Next minute: pop. We know nothing.”

“There’s no way she’d get away with that,” replied Barnes, the pilot. “I mean, just listen to this chatter.” He raised the volume on the shortwave radio momentarily. The language was in Arabic, but the word ‘Victoria’ jumped out several times. “Nobody is not talking about it. Every time she’d take it from our memories, it’d just restart the rumor mill as soon as someone read their internet feed. But then we’d all be asking why we’re only hearing about this now.”

“Maybe she’ll erase everyone’s mind.”

“The whole world’s? I don’t think that’s how it works. If it’s true, it’s going to come out.”

“If it is true,” asked Marco. “What would you do about it?”

“I don’t know. Haven’t thought about it. Not sure I want to.” Barnes lapsed into silence a while. “I had a wife, you know. Maria. We were in Panama during the Collapse. Bombs didn’t hit there, but you know… the winter. We couldn’t get out. I mean, where’d you go, right? The starvation hit everywhere, except south, but everyone going that way was sent back.”

“She starved?”

He shook his head. “Didn’t get the chance. Bunch of teenagers thought she might have something they wanted. Stabbed her to death for an aid pack of assembled shit. Broad Daylight. Hundreds of witnesses. When I found her the next day. Her body was right where she fell. Lakira moved in two weeks later and restored order.”

“You’d blame Victoria?”

“I don’t know. I know I never would have joined the army if Maria were still alive.” He shrugged, shaking off the story. “How about you? Did you lose anyone from the war?”

“Of course I did. Everyone did,” said Tactical Officer Lucero. “What I want to know is: are we going to do anything about it even if it is her fault?”

He had several others had collected around the target evaluation console on the bridge. They spoke in a hush since Victoria was only a room away conversing with the Captain.

“It’s not a question of if,” said the flight navigator. “She did it. She started the war.”

“How can you know that?”

“You saw how much Alex hurt his position by saying that. He’d only do it if it hurt Victoria more, and it wouldn’t hurt her if the rumor weren’t true. Victoria has to be guilty.”

“All these rumors already went around years ago. Nobody cared then. Nobody will care now.”

I care. Those rumors back then were bullshit, but this is real. We’re working for the bad guy. Puts everything I’ve done these last two years into a different light.”

“It doesn’t mean everything we’ve done is bad. We’ve been building an empire.”

“Yeah? For what? If Victoria builds an empire because the world is destroyed, that’s one thing. If she blew up the world to build her empire, that’s completely different. I wouldn’t have joined the army if I’d known this.”

“We don’t know what she did,” said Navigator Tremont. “For all we know. She tried her best to stop the war, all while preparing for it in case it did happen.”

“Then why doesn’t she just say so? Victoria’s been hiding ever since the announcement.”

“We can’t just make assumptions.”

“Can’t we? That woman is not forthright about anything. She kept glyphs to herself. She hid her body snatching ability from everyone. She hasn’t told us anything we don’t absolutely have to know.”

“She has her reasons.”

“Who is Alex anyway? He obviously knows more about her than we do? All we know about him is that Victoria says he’s bad news. She never said why? Maybe he’s the good guy.”

“I think you’re all forgetting there are telepaths aboard this ship,” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “We shouldn’t be having this discussion.”

“All I’m asking is the truth. We deserve that. We’re fighting against the empire because some woman claims to be the dead queen, only she won’t tell us anything.”

The conversation broke as Executive Officer Rivera entered the bridge. Several headed back to their stations.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Just talking, sir,” said Lucero. “Have you heard the news?”

“Of course I’ve heard. No one will shut up about it.”

“Is the captain going to ask her?”

Everyone on the bridge looked to the exec. He glanced at everyone else. “What the captain does is none of your concerns. Get back to your work. Now.”

The huddle broke.

“But you always knew,” thought Helena.

“Yeah,” Winnie thought back.

Helena peered through Winnie’s memories, seeing the conversation Winnie had with Victoria about the deal to get Helena a body in exchange for cooperation. Helena dug back further to when Winnie was overhearing the truth from Paul, and the anger Winnie had felt thinking about how Victoria was responsible for her father’s death. Then Helena saw Winnie’s last phone conversation with her dad.

Winnie mentally recoiled.

Helena stopped. “Sorry.”

“No. It’s okay. Look.”

Helena witnessed the memory as though it were her own. She saw the announcement on the news, and Winnie’s mother trying desperately to reach her husband. Winnie shared final words with her father, knowing they would be their last, but not fully understanding why. She’d imagined her father’s final moments, screaming at the phone, then staring at the city when that final flash of white came.

“Were those actually your dad’s final moments?”

“I don’t know. I guess they might actually be.”

“And Victoria did this to you?”

“In a roundabout sort of way, yeah.”

“And you agreed to keep her secret?”

“It was her condition on her giving you a body.”

“But she killed your dad.”

“But what am I going to do about it? If I even think of rebelling, she’d know, and she’d make me forget everything. I’d rather know the truth.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“I guess because I agreed to help her anyway. If she had made me forget and I later found out, I’d probably run away before she could do it again.”

“But then—”

“Yeah. She could just find me and erase my memories again. I thought about ways I might protect myself from her. Maybe I could write down everything on a piece of paper. You know… Victoria caused the war and killed your dad. She promised to give Helena a body once she’s in control again. All the stuff she might make me forget, but then I realized she’d read my mind and see the note. Then she’d just get rid of it first.”

“What if you put it somewhere she couldn’t get to it?”

“I can’t think of anywhere. I thought maybe the admin section of my clothing website, but then she just get the password from my mind. The best plan I came up with was to use one of those ‘Last Wishes’ sites people use for when they die. You know… you send it a bunch of messages. Then if you don’t check in with it once in a while, the server emails the messages to your family. That way you sort of send messages from beyond the grave. I figured I could make an account, give it my secrets, then change the account name and password to something I don’t remember so not even I could stop it.”

“But Victoria could contact the website’s company,” said Helena.

“Exactly, or get into my email. If I were really serious, I could ask Josephine to erase my memory of making the account.”

“I thought the memories she takes have to be related to her.”

“Oh. Right. So see? Not even that works. Besides, Josephine would have to erase her own mind too, so no matter what I do, Victoria could stop it. I can only trust that she’ll keep her word, but now that now that her secret’s out, she doesn’t have a reason to.”

“Don’t worry about it so much. If I don’t get a body, I don’t get a body. Don’t let her control you because of me.”

“I will get you a body, Helena. Stop trying to talk me out of it. Besides, she can always put me in a tortoise, so what choice do I have? I have to help Victoria no matter what she’s done. I’m stuck.”