66. A Grid Station

“Margot Baudin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie hurried after.

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

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

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

“Panama City?” Winnie asked.

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

“But why so far?”

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

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

“No. Too much risk.”

“Or is it because you don’t care?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes it worse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look in his bathroom,” Victoria said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefly, she let her gaze meet Victoria’s.

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

65. Drifting Towers

The opening of the kitchenette door awoke Winnie. The lights came on. Winnie folded her feet closer over her face. In her mind, she glanced to see what was happening.

An exemplar had wandered into the kitchenette. He was opening drawers and cabinets one after another, seeing empty shelves. “Fucking hell,” he muttered. “The fuck is the point of these kitchens?”

He checked the fridge, nothing but a freezer section with an ice frost inches thick. The exemplar slammed it shut, sighed, and wandered out. Not once did he glance at the tortoise box.

Mentally, Winnie followed him long enough to see him going to other rooms on the floor looking for anything stored. Whether bored or hungry, he wasn’t finding what he wanted, only bothering the few civilians who now worked on this floor. Little by little, the spire was becoming a populated work center, but it seemed empty now. Her mind checked the sky outside. Night. The clock in her dorm read 11:23.

She tucked her feet closer until her scales pressed against her face. The man thoughtlessly left the light on.

…And the door open.

Hmm.

Winnie stared at it with her mind. Beyond were several halls, doors, tarmac, and a long expanse of ocean.

But still.

In her mind, Winnie plotted a path from her box. She’d have to fall off the table, then the door had a short lip she’d need to climb. Like all doors in this place, it was more of a hatch. This place may be dressed up as an office, but it was still in an aerial vessel.

But if Winnie got past that, she would then walk down the hall, past several civilians working late.

Then came several choices.

An elevator led further up the spire. Nope.

A doorway led out to the top deck. Closed, so no.

A stairwell led both up and down. Perhaps if Winnie and Helena got down to the hangar bays, they could stow away aboard a ship. Who would notice two tortoises nestled behind packages? Anywhere the ship took them would be better than here, but getting to that ship seemed damn near impossible. Multiple hallways. Endless doors. Countless soldiers coming and going in the lower levels. Anyone would stop them.

She nearly dropped the idea when someone opened the front door to the spire. It was one of the civilians. He had a wastebasket, which he used to prop it open. He circled around out of view of the door and took out a cigarette. The door was left unattended.

If the door were to close, he’d need a key card to get in. Propping it must be a minor convenience, even if it meant anyone might get in or out—even a tortoise.

Though suppose she did get out, what then? She’d be on the deck, the only place to go would be into another spire. Or down into another part of the citadel.

…Unless.

Winnie thought of when Alex threw Gilles overboard. It must be at least five hundred feet to the water below, yet she’d seen Gilles flapping his feet after striking the water.

Winnie and Helena were tortoises just as small as he was.

But could she survive from there? It was nearly a quarter mile to land.

A hell of a lot could go wrong, but this was the last time she’d ever have this chance. By tomorrow, either Sakhr or Alex would read her mind, and precautions would be taken. Punishments might be dolled out just for considering it.

So what the hell? If she truly wanted to stop the others from exploiting her power, escape was necessary. She tried not think about what Alex would do to her and Helena if they failed.

Winnie came out of her shell and eyed the cardboard wall of her box. Getting out was step one, and she’d need help.

She approached Helena. The girl was fully withdrawn inside her shell. Winnie nudged her front legs out of the way. Helena pulled in tighter.

Winnie wailed. No response. She nudged and nudged, but still nothing. Helena was wallowing, and she had every right to. After what Alex said, she probably wanted to crawl into a hole and die. But she could wallow in pity later. Winnie needed Helena to be brave like earlier.

Winnie bumped Helena hard. This got her to at least move her legs aside and look out. Winnie wailed, then looked to the wall. Conveying her desire to escape would be tricky.

Helena tucked back away. Winnie wailed again, loudly, causing Helena to wince. Eye to eye, they looked at one another. Helena snapped, pinching Winnie’s nose. Leave me alone it said. The bite smarted, but Winnie didn’t pull away. She wailed again and pushed against box wall. Helena seemed unimpressed, so Winnie pushed her. Helena stumbled. It caused her to bring out her legs to catch herself. This time when Winnie wailed, Helena wailed back. It was an exasperated fine.

This time, when Winnie went to the wall, Helena followed. They both climbed up against the cardboard. The box teetered, but not enough, so Winnie stepped onto Helena to push from higher up. This elicited an irritated hiss from Helena, but it worked. The box toppled. They spilled out. Winnie almost tumbled off the table preemptively.

…Which might have just gotten the fall over with. It was only three feet to carpeted floor, but just looking at it made Winnie imagine the night Sakhr escaped, when that tortoise fell and cracked open, insides like wet slop.

She ignored the thought and braced herself. One. Two. And over the edge she went. The carpet felt a lot harder than it looked. Winnie struck and tumbled. The pain was surprising, like a blow to the head which left her dazed, but amazingly, she landed right side up.

Helena was still at the top, looking down like a cat in a tree. Winnie mewled to her. Helena mewled back. Back and forth they went. The understanding was there. The problem was nerves, and the best coaching Winnie could give was to stand there and stare with her stupid tortoise face. In her mind, she checked on the smoker. He’d returned from his break. The gamble was how long he’d wait until his next one.

Helena moved… to turn away from the ledge. For a second, Winnie thought she was headed back to the box, but then she started backing up. She was trying to… what? Climb down? Her back legs dangled. She edged further. It was like watching a toddler descend stairs. Then all at once, she tipped. A fall, a tumble, a hissed gasp. She landed on her back, and her legs kicked pitifully.

Winnie rolled her over. Both now right side up, Winnie guided her to the door.

Next obstacle. The lip of the door. No problem. Winnie’s hind feet were long enough to push her over, although it was clumsy. She’d been a tortoise for almost a week, and even now she felt as though her limbs were protruding from cutout holes in a cardboard box, as if wearing a terrible robot costume.

They were in the hall now. Next step was to get to the front door, which meant passing offices. Her mind told her that they’d only have to pass one which was occupied. Unfortunately, the occupant was situated such that his open door was in his view. She wondered if it might be best just to wait until he went home… or wherever civilians went on the citadel to sleep. Unfortunately no telling when the smoker will leave either, or if another exemplar might come down from upstairs—

She froze.

The exemplars were upstairs—all of them, just a few stories away. Winnie tried to recall what the range was on their aura sensing. Could they pick up the tension of two souls on the spire ground floor? Her mind went up there, where offices were being converted into bunks. There were dozens of exemplars. Most were asleep. A few were playing on their computers or talked with one another. Only two were in contact with their plaques. If they sensed her, they didn’t care.

Were there any other threats she neglected to think of? Alexander was near the top floor, but he didn’t have a plaque, because for some reason Winnie didn’t care to know, he had kept her body. Sakhr had mentioned he was leaving, taking Sibyl with him. All Winnie could do was keep calm. It seemed a futile effort.

She crept beside the door leading to the office worker. The man seemed engaged in his work.

Helena nudged her and mewed. In the silent office, the noise seemed deafening to Winnie, but the office worker didn’t notice.

Winnie turned. Helena was impatient. There was no way to convey the need to be quiet, but maybe Helena was right. Waiting wasn’t going to make this better. Resolving herself, Winnie got ready. The next time the man leaned toward his screen, she bolted by the door as fast as a tortoise could bolt.

She made it across, and then the man leaned back.

Winnie wanted to yell at Helena to stop, but it was too late. Helena was already crossing, oblivious to the man. Winnie could only watch and pray.

Motion caught the man’s eye. He glanced, leaned to look past the door, but by then Helena was past. Winnie’s heart would need days to recover.

A minute later, they reached the front door, closed at the moment. Winnie had already picked out her hiding spot: the desk where a reception might greet incomers. It would be long dash to the door from there, but it was the best she could do.

Confused, Helena pawed her. Winnie tried to convey her intentions. Staring at the door, she crouched her head low and held her mouth slightly agape, as though panting. It felt like a natural way to convey the idea: wait and get ready, even though logically it made no sense to her. Helena seemed to understand though.

And so they waited. And waited.

Winnie was worrying if a smoker would come around at all when her mind finally saw an office worker get up. Same one as before. Grabbing his cigarette pack, a jacket, and his wastebasket, he headed to the front. He propped the door and disappeared to his same smoking spot.

Winnie moved. After a short dash, she tried inching underneath the hatch door. Her shell caught on the top. Okay then. Moving to where the door met the wastebasket, she tried to push it open. It was like pushing a giant. With every inch of her strength, she barely managed to widen the gap. When she turned to get out, it closed, pinning her shell against the wastebasket.

She wobbled. She pushed. Nothing.

She was stuck. So much for their great escape.

And then Helena started climbing over her. It was uncomfortable, and at the top, Helena had to tilt herself sideways to avoid getting caught herself. The attempt caused her to step all over Winnie, including her head, but she did get through. After tumbling over, she turned and pushed the door, freeing Winnie. They were both through, and now outside.

Winnie led Helena away from the door in the opposite direction of the smoker. They were nearly in the shadows when, “What the hell?”

She froze. Behind her, the smoking man had his hand on the door, but he was looking right at them. Helena stopped as well.

The man stared. Winnie hoped they were hidden, but of course not. They were on a vast, featureless tarmac. He stepped up and crouched by them.

“Huh? How the hell did you get up here?” He leaned closer. “Are you the queen’s turtles?”

No, Winnie thought, we’re tortoises. And no we’re not. Go away.

The man reached. Winnie turned and snapped at his fingers. A miss, but he yelped and recoiled. Helena hissed. Together, they plodded toward him, mouth’s agape and ready to clamp.

The man stumbled away. He hurried back inside and shut the door. Now their time was limited. Winnie scanned around with her mind. The spire they’d emerged from was near the center of the citadel. Any direction would take about the same time to reach the edge, but some edges were closer to the mainland. She picked one, and they were off.

She and Helena were walking across the open deck. Even at night, the citadel had enough light that anyone looking would plainly see them, but there was no point to stealth anymore. In her mind, she saw that civilian talking to the exemplars upstairs. When Alexander heard, he lurched from his chair. He, Christof, and several exemplars raced down the stairs.

Winnie and Helena were half way to the edge once the others got outside. The smoking man pointed out the spot near the door.

“They were here,” he said. “Looks like they walked off.”

“How long ago was this?” asked Christof.

“Two minutes?”

“And they were headed this way?” Alex pointed toward the direction the civilian had seen the tortoises heading. Good. It wasn’t the way Winnie had ultimately chosen.

“I guess so,” the man said. “They looked pretty lost to me.”

“But how did they get out? At all?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. They were already out here when I stepped out.”

“But someone had to… nevermind. Look at me.” Alex peered at him.

The man looked back, confused. “What?”

Alex threw his hands up. “Oh. My. God. You goddamn imbecile.”

“Hey. Who the hell are you?” the man replied.

“You leave the door to the imperial spire cracked open? Unattended?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I will see you executed.”

“Listen, kid. I told you those tortoises were already out here. I was the one who reported them. They weren’t—”

“Arrest him now.” Alex said to an exemplar. “Take him to a cell upstairs.”

The exemplars seized him.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” the man said.

“I work directly with the queen. Arrest this man for violating security protocol.”

I never violated anything.”

“Let him go,” Christof said.

Alex spun to him. “This man let the tortoises out.”

“He will be reprimanded. He will not be arrested.”

Alex looked like he wanted to yell something back, but instead, “Fine. Just take him back inside.” As they carried him off, Alex turned to the remaining exemplars. “Can any of you sense the tortoises?”

“What?” one asked. “You can sense them?”

Alex gave up and slapped his hand on the man’s plaque. Winnie held her breath as he concentrated. She wasn’t certain they were out of his range.

Fortunately, he didn’t detect them. “Just split up,” he said. Pointing to one exemplar, “You go to the barracks. I want everyone on the deck.”

“You want me to wake the barracks?”

“Yes. Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people? Get everyone. Find them. The rest of you split up. Search the deck.”

Everyone split off.

“Winnie,” said Christof. “I’d like to speak with you privately.”

“In a minute.” Alex looked around. He made up his mind which direction to check. Whether he followed the same logic as Winnie, or by chance, he headed straight for them.

Winnie just had to circle one last spire and the ledge was would be right ahead. Get over that, and live or die, they’d be free of Alex.

Christof was chasing after him. “We can’t wake the entire base. Those tortoises are supposed to be just tortoises.”

Alex didn’t slow. “We’ll say it’s for sentimental reasons.”

Only a hundred feet to go now. Winnie hurried. From the shadows of the last spire, she raced to the edge, but Helena wasn’t. She didn’t realize how little time they had left, and now Alex was in view.

Of course, Alex spotted her immediately. He sprinted. Winnie charged. He dived. She cleared the ledge.

And his hand hooked her shell.

“Hah! There.” He eased her back in. “Almost had it, didn’t you? Almost had it.” His body—Winnie’s body—was covered in scrapes from diving onto tarmac. Winnie kicked and thrashed, but her limbs reached nothing.

Alex got to his feet and secured his hold on her.

Christof walked up.

Alex held her triumphantly. “She almost got away. Almost.”

“Not quite,” Christof replied, though he didn’t seem nearly as pleased. He frowned and glanced about.

Helena had backed into the shadow of the nearest spire. At a glance, she was hidden, but one good look would spot her. If she sprinted right now…

“Where’s the other, huh?” Alex turned Winnie to look her in the eyes. She snapped them shut and pulled into her shell. Alex pinched her tail, hard. His nails dug between her scales. All she had to do was hold out long enough.

Helena must realize that the plan was. She just saw Winnie try to jump off.

While Alex pinched harder and harder, Helena crept from the shadow toward the ledge, almost into Christof’s view.

“Come on. Come on.” Alex said, pinching harder. His and Christof’s attention were on her. Helena was by their feet now. All they had to do was look down. All she had to do was take another few steps. Why wasn’t she?

“Give it up,” said Christof. “She probably already jumped.”

“No. She’s still here.” Alex even glanced up and down the edge of the deck. He neglected to look right behind his feet.

Christof didn’t. He seemed to glance right at Helena.

“Why?” Christof said. “All you need is this one. She’s the important one.”

“I need that one for this one.”

“You said yourself Paul will crack soon. It doesn’t matter. One day without farseeing won’t kill us.”

Alex spun to face him. “Because they’re mine, Christof. They belong to me. I want my things back.”

“Listen to yourself. You sound like a lunatic.”

Don’t tell me—” Alex cut short and screamed in pain. Helena had her jaw clamped about his achilles heel. Alex let go of Winnie with one hand and grabbed Helena, yet she held on like a vice. His grip on Winnie was loose. She managed to find purchase against his arm with her back legs, and she scraped hard. Hollering, he dropped Winnie. She bounced against the railing. The world spun as she tumbled.

She could only await the crack against the tarmac. Thoughts of glistening, red mess filled her mind. But she kept falling, and spinning, and falling, and everything was dark. She must have cleared the ledge. Water waited below. She pulled into her shell and braced for impact.

Then it came. The water struck harder than any blow she’d taken yet. Her entire body jolted. Every inch of her shell felt like it had splintered.

But it all came to a stop. Though her body stung. Her limbs had pins and needles from impacting both the rail and the water, but already her senses were returning. Ice cold water seeped into her as though she were made of cloth. Her body felt stiff and numb. Winnie had been so concerned about whether she could hold her breath during this trial, she’d never even considered she might freeze to death.

Lower and lower she sank. Pressure squeezed her eyes and ears. Both her skull and her shell felt as though they might implode. Death must be certain. Tortoises were never meant to dive to these depths.

Finally, her shell hit sand. She came to a rest. Winnie couldn’t bear to open her eyes, but her mind showed she was about thirty feet deep. Surrounding her were long towers of seaweed. Small fish darted among the tendrils. It was like Porto Maná, she thought—skyscrapers with tiny hoppers drifting in between. With all of their technology, they still weren’t much different from nature.

Winnie realized she was stalling. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been resting here, but it was longer than just a few errant thoughts. Her mind had grown sluggish from the cold.

Placing her legs upon the sand, she checked the direction of the shore and started moving. With her bouyancy, each step had to be a gentle push. That made progress slow going as she waded through pillars of seaweed. It was pitch black down here. Thanks to Victoria’s lessons, her power didn’t rely on light, but she still couldn’t see well. The murky water hindered her vision. She nearly missed a chasm up ahead. If she were to fall into that, she’d never get out. With all the circuitous navigation she’d already have to do, she would be lucky escape at all.

Winnie never would have been able to guide Helena down here. She’d have been blind and scared. Winnie would have had to push her along.

If Winnie hadn’t left her behind, they’d both have died down here.

She visualized the citadel deck. Alex was checking his heel for damage. Christof had gotten Helena from him, and was now holding her securely. She could have gotten away. Even though she would never have made it to shore on her own, she would have escaped from Alexander, but instead she chose to bite the person who’d threatened to put a blowtorch to her feet. Maybe she did it to give Winnie a chance to escape. Or maybe it had been a glimmer of her stubborn spite.

Whatever reason, Helena sacrificed her own freedom for Winnie. Winnie wished she could get back on that deck and be with her, but Helena wouldn’t want her to. This was Helena’s parting gift.

The citadel deck was lit up. Soldiers caught up to Christof and Alex. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, right,” said Alex. “Of course, now you get here.”

“Call off the hunt,” Christof said. “The animals have been found.”

No,” Alex shouted. “We’re not done. One of them fell over.”

The soldiers looked over the lip of the deck. From up there, it was a black void. The lights of the distant city were the only indication there was a world beyond the citadel. “You want people… to go down there?”

“No,” answered Christof. “It’s gone. Tell everyone to stand down.”

“It’s not gone,” growled Alex. “It will come up on the shore.”

One soldier winced in skepticism as he gazed over. “If the fall didn’t kill it, the crocodiles will. It’s lost.”

Winnie’s mind snapped right back to her own surroundings. Were there crocodiles down here? Her mind darted around the dark abyss around her. Even with her power, the murky water could be hiding something just paces away.

She stopped, paused, and thought. The murky water was obscuring her vision for the same reason the darkness was. It was just preventing photons from reaching her mind’s eye, which it didn’t need anyway. Just because sediment was in the water didn’t mean her omniscient power should be hindered. She visualized her surrounding. What she did next wasn’t quite peeling away the murk, but rather acknowledging it was there, and then acknowledging what was past it.

She succeeded after a few tries. It wasn’t hard since it made sense; she could already read a closed book, yet she still felt a small resistance break away as her power evolved.

…Yay.

More importantly. No predators were near her. She walked on. But by now the thought was in her head. Maybe there weren’t crocodiles, but what about sharks, or jellyfish, or barracudas? She was just a tortoise crawling along at a glacial pace. Apart from a few clusters of seaweed to hide in, she was defenseless. For the rest of her trek along the ocean floor, Winnie focused her mind around her surroundings. She’d look back on Helena once she was safe.

The shore before the beach had many hidden features: rocks, tires, and an amazing number of bottles, both plastic and glass. Her mind showed no dangers, but the last stretch of her trek took the longest. She finally broke the surface of the water and gasped. Even for having reptile lungs, her chest had been clenching.

The air froze her scaled skin, but she was still alive, for now. Finally on the beach, she visualized the citadel. The deck was clear, but she didn’t believe for a minute that Alexander had gone back to sleep. She navigated the beach. The tide had created a thick line of garbage and dead seaweed. Climbing past all those obstacles, she reached crab grass beside a paved road. Beyond that was a stretch of Terracotta houses with neglected yards. Mildewy stone walkways led to sliding glass doors. Laundry lines were draped with washcloths and towels.

The neighborhood stretched on for miles. This was a district on the outskirts of Porto Maná. There was no forest or jungle to hide in, just urban sprawl.

Her hopes of escape had been so slim she hadn’t thought about what to do if it worked. Now what? Blend in? Live under a house? She wasn’t even sure what tortoises in the wild ate. Plants? Bugs?

It seemed pointless now. Alexander still had Helena. Whatever twisted plans he had would still happen, only now Winnie wasn’t there to help her anymore. Helena was on her own.

Then a sick thought occurred to her. What if Alex not only tortures her anyway, but does so knowing that Winnie will be keeping an eye on her? He could force Winnie to come back.

It was just another way this whole escape was a failure. Her friend was still captive, and Winnie had no idea how to survive.

With lack of anywhere better to go, she crossed the road to the yard of a duplex house. As soon as she reached the crabgrass on the other side, lights shined from behind her. A shuttle just landed on the beach. It’s lights and markings denoted it as military. Two exemplars got out and hurried toward the shore. One male. One female. Both had plaques.

They were close. Winnie might already have been within range of their empathy, yet their attention remained on the river.

She hurried along a pathway which took her between two connected houses. Her mind was so fixed on the exemplars behind her that she nearly missed the girl in the shadowed alley before her. The girl was young, maybe late teens, and Brazilian judging from her look. Her many tattoos clashed with her conservative summer dress. Already the girl spotted Winnie. She walked over, knelt, and scrutinized her. Winnie didn’t have time for this, so she tried to walk around. The girl merely moved to put herself in Winnie’s way. Hopefully, this girl, who reeked of cigarette smoke, didn’t see Winnie as a potential pet. When the girl got in her way again, Winnie charged with her mouth ready to clamp.

The girl batted Winnie on the nose. “Stop that.”

While Winnie was startled, the girl lifted her up. Once again, Winnie found herself struggling in vain to scrape with her legs, but this girl knew the correct way to hold a tortoise.

“Hey, kid,” came a gruff voice.

The exemplars had approached to the edge of the yard, looking right at the girl, and Winnie. After all this effort. She was going back. It’s not as though she ever had a chance. Exemplars were up and down the coast looking for her. If they hadn’t caught her tonight, they’d probably come into the city looking for her. Maybe they’d put up signs. Have you seen this tortoise? Big reward. Call the empire.

Winnie probably should have let herself get hit by a car. It would have been it’s own kind of freedom.

“You want to hand over that turtle?” the exemplar said. He holstered his plaque and held his hands out guardedly as though dealing with feral animal. The female exemplar circled to get behind the girl.

“It’s a tortoise,” the girl replied.

“Whatever. It belongs to the queen.”

“I know. Here, you can have it back.” The girl held Winnie out to the approaching female exemplar, who reached to take her.

“Wait.” The male exemplar squinted at the girl. “Kid. Look at me.”

The girl didn’t stop approaching the female exemplar.

“I said stop. Girl, are you… shielded?”

Suddenly everything moved quickly. The girl tossed Winnie to the exemplar, who startled and grabbed her. In turn, the girl grabbed the exemplar, sandwiching Winnie between them.

Winnie’s senses yanked away. There was nothing for a second, then she was falling. The world seemed to pull her down like it never had before. She bumped her head on the earth. Her limbs flailed. They had far more freedom of movement, because her shell was gone. Her skin was hot. Her senses were once again telling different stories and none of them agreed.

“What the fuck?” someone yelled. Then came two loud cracks that seemed to shake her brain. Someone gurgled.

Her eyes showed her a night sky glowing with stars. Everything was far brighter, and much more crisp.

She was human again. She would have recognized it sooner if it hadn’t taken her by surprise. She sat up. The male exemplar was laying paces from her. His chest was soaked red with blood. The girl was past him, carrying a tortoise toward the road. It was her tortoise body she’d just been inside.

With one great heave, the girl chucked the tortoise toward the street.

“No!” Winnie yelled, but it was too late. It struck the pavement with a watermelon crack. The poor thing’s limbs waggled helplessly. It’s insides now painted the asphalt. The girl walked back.

“You killed them,” Winnie said.

“I saw their minds, Winnie. There was nothing worth saving. Now get up. Others will know they’re dead.” She pulled a plaque from a holster on Winnie’s thigh and yanked the battery clip out of it. Something inside popped, and the girl tossed it aside. Winnie was still splayed out on the grass, so the girl grabbed her by the chin and looked her in the eye. “Focus, Winnie.”

Winnie recognized the girl’s demeanor. She was someone who expected you to do as she wanted and would tolerate nothing less.

“Your Majesty?” she asked. “Victoria? You’re alive?” That was obvious. Better question: “Where have you been?”

Victoria eyed her as though Winnie had just confessed to neglecting her lessons. “Do not waste our time with questions, Winnie. Get up. It’s time to go now.”

64. Surveillance

“No. Not there,” Sakhr said. “The grid station. Look there.”

Winnie flew her mind’s view from the guard post in Northern England to a grid station farther south, from where swarms of shuttles were taking off and landing. The station was small though—maybe a hundred commuters and a dozen staff. Winnie quickly looked at each of the people working there. One of them was supposed to be an exemplar, but none were. And records indicated that the exemplar posted here hadn’t checked in for his flight back to Porto Maná.

Sakhr sighed. He took his hand off Sibyl’s plaque and added a note to the exemplar’s record on his computer. Tabbing back to the exemplar management software, he issued a remote wipe for that exemplar’s plaque. Remote wipe confirmed.

“Next one,” Sakhr said. “Exemplar Reynolds. Here’s his address.” Sakhr handed his tablet Winnie. It showed a map. This address was in Korea. Seeing it brought a pang of homesickness. Without thought, her mind sought out her mother in California, who was in the kitchen of their home. She was cooking. Circles of dumpling dough were laid out before her, but she wasn’t stuffing them. She just stood there, staring into nothing. It seemed like every time Winnie looked home, her mother was doing that, like a machine that was breaking down. Some day, she’d just freeze altogether, perpetually stopped in the middle of some chore. She’d gather dust.

“Focus,” Sakhr said.

Winnie zoomed in on the tablet, but her mind found the location before it finished loading. After several hours, the process of tracking down missing exemplars had become streamlined. It sped things up considerably when Sakhr, aggravated at their slow progress, had finally given Winnie a human body—Sibyl’s specifically. Meanwhile, Sibyl sat camped on top of the plaque which lay between Winnie and Sakhr. That woman took being a tortoise in stride. She didn’t flounder once or fail to use her legs correctly, nor had she complained. She slept while Sakhr frequently laid a hand on the plaque to read Winnie’s mind as she saw what Sakhr told her to see.

And she’d seen so much. All day, Sakhr had her standing by to look in one place or another. He’d had her eavesdrop on conversations between officers, diplomats, and ministers. Most had said nothing interesting, but occasionally one said something unpatriotic, sometimes about the failing empire, or sometimes about the strange rumors going around about Queen Helena. Winnie had also helped Sakhr locate over a hundred exemplars, and thereby condemn them to being hunted.

Winnie felt sick helping him like this. She’d tried slowing down, doing just enough work so that Sakhr didn’t consider her slacking, but since Sakhr was looking in her mind constantly, he saw what she was doing.

She thought of yanking the battery pack on the high exemplar plaque. It would be quick; Sakhr couldn’t possibly react fast enough to stop, but she knew if she considered the idea seriously, Sakhr would put her back in the tortoise. And what’s the point? He’d lose a single shield. And only until Paul gave in. In the meantime, Helena would suffer for it.

“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.

“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”

“Look at me.”

Winnie did so.

If Sakhr had any upset over her considered rebellions, he didn’t show it. “Look at his place of work. He’s stationed here.” He indicated an airport named “Incheon International” on his tablet.

Winnie pulled up the map. She zeroed in and began searching. The airport was a large place. It took her some time to search out all the security terminals where an exemplar might be posted, and then to check for any work logs in offices. She and Sakhr stared at each other the entire time.

During this search, there was a long moment of silence.

“Why don’t you and Alex get along?” she asked.

Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.

“I mean, it seems like you two argue all the time. Do you put up with him because of his power? Because—”

“No.”

“No? No… that’s not the only reason you—”

“No. Stop talking. Focus.”

“Oh.”

And that was that. In the many following hours, she and Sakhr didn’t say anything else that wasn’t directly related to his work. The repetition was exhausting, yet Sakhr kept her working right up to the point someone knocked on the door. Alexander.

Sakhr called him in, and Winnie was brought face to face with her own body once again. Only this time she was human too. He was within reach, and the only person in the world who could set it straight was sitting two feet from her. It was infuriating that there was nothing she could do.

Alex approached. “Your advisor is too afraid to come in here and tell you that your plane had been sitting on the landing pad for over twenty minutes.”

“Damnit.” Sakhr looked at the time. Half standing, he closed down the exemplar app.

“I’m surprised you’re okay with leaving,” said Alex.

“They’re not giving me much of a choice, are they?”

“You could just say fuck it. If the minister really needed to talk, he’d come to you.”

Sakhr grunted. He wasn’t interested in discussing it. Alex glanced at the tortoise.

“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.

“Satisfactorily. You’ll take her back to her box. You won’t persuade her in any way.”

“Gotcha.” Alex approached.

For one baffling moment, Winnie thought Sakhr was going to let Alex take Sibyl away, but Sakhr stopped him. He took Sibyl off the plaque, rousing her from her sleep, and looked to Winnie.

Winnie hadn’t been her own body, but it had still been nice being human again. Sighing, she placed a hand on the tortoise. Sakhr placed his on top of hers. Her senses yanked away.

For one brief, brief moment, she thought she was looking out of Helena’s eyes, but no. She was in the tortoise. Her mind was noticeably sluggish once again. Alex picked her up none too gently. He carried her down several floors to the spire base, and then to the kitchenette. Helena was there in the box.

Alex approached, but he didn’t put Winnie down yet. He turned her around and looked at her face to face, except Winnie didn’t have to answer to him, so into her shell she went, covering her face with her stubby little legs.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said. “Look me in the eyes.”

Winnie stayed as she was.

“Just because Sakhr is happy doesn’t mean you’re safe. Sooner or later, we’re going to have a master glyph. That means he won’t need you anymore.” Alex got closer to her. “Do you think he’ll care what happens to you then?” He said those last words slowly, as though making sure even tortoise ears could understand him. “So maybe you should be a little friendlier to me. Now open your eyes.”

Pause.

“Open your eyes for her sake.”

Of course he was playing that same trick.

Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.

He studied her eyes. “Hmm. Interesting conversation you tried to start with him. I’ll remember that.” He studied her mind until satisfied, then set her down in the box. Helena was out and watching him.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “if Sakhr wants to pull you out again, you’re going to be a good girl and do what he wants. You don’t want him to bother me again.”

Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.

“Well, look at you,” he said. “Still angry I see.”

Alex stared her down silently. Whatever Helena conveyed made him snort derisively.

“And what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

A pause.

“Is that a promise?”

Pause.

“Tall threats coming from a tiny tortoise. You really just don’t get it, do you? We’ve already won. No one can help you, and even if someone could, they wouldn’t, because no one cares about you, Helena. Not even your own mother.”

He paused. “Oh come now. Do you honestly still believe she might swoop in and rescue you? That she’ll make everything right, and you’ll go on being heir to the throne?” He patted her shell. Helena backpedaled and opened her mouth, ready to snap should his fingers get close enough. “Believe it or not, little girl, you’re actually better off. Haven’t you figured out yet why she always treated you so poorly? Your mother was just as capable of swapping bodies as we are. Victoria wasn’t her first body, and it wasn’t going to be her last. That’s what you were to her—a body—a receptacle for her when her current one got old. She never loved you. She never let herself, because you were just… a spare part.”

Helena hissed.

“I don’t have to,” he continued. “I figured it just from what I’ve seen in your head. Why do you think she never bothered teaching you how to rule? Most heirs spend their entire childhoods learning about politics and rulership. You spent it shopping. The only thing you ever had to work for was your body. All that basketball and jogging was to keep Victoria’s future body nice and tight for her while her own ass grew bigger every day. I knew her as a child, kiddo. Your mother was obsessed with her own looks, and this is just like her. And the clever part about choosing her own daughter is that you’re already the heir. She never has to explain bodyswapping to the rest of the world.”

Alex stood. “You should be glad we killed her for you. What she did to you is more cruel than anything I could ever do. So how about you cut the attitude.”

He headed to the door. “Anyway, goodnight. Sleep tight.” He switched off the lights and left.

Helena remained staring straight at where Alex had been as though his words had petrified her. After a long pause, she rested down, and withdrew entirely into her shell.

Winnie wished she could say something, but she didn’t what she’d say. Nothing would make Alex’s words hurt less, because there was one irrefutable fact about them: they were true. Winnie saw that. Helena saw that. It explained too much too well.

There were so many times Helena had bragged to Winnie about their future together, so many times Helena talked about what she’d do once she became queen. Her entire life had been looking forward to that moment, but it wasn’t there anymore. It never had been. For the first time Helena saw her life for what it had always been: a tragic lie.

Winnie plodded over and tried to peek into Helena’s shell. She tried edging Helena’s feet out of the way of her face, but Helena resisted. Winnie only got a glance at her. Helena had pulled into her shell as far as she could. Whatever defiance—whatever fire—Helena had mustered was gone. She was just a tortoise now, defeated and helpless.

There was nothing Winnie could do. Helena simply wasn’t there.

62. Results

Winnie knew they were coming for her when she saw them enter the lobby and beeline for the kitchenette where she and Helena were kept. What she didn’t know was why. Her mind had been elsewhere.

They were exemplars, or someone might think that. Winnie had seen many times when Sakhr had ventured down to Alexander’s levels of the spire. A few more detainees would be waiting. A few more unwitting exemplars would be arriving from the lower decks to perform scans. Winnie had stopped watching it after seeing it a dozen times. It always went the same way: confusion, panic, struggle, death.

These “exemplars” came into the kitchenette where Winnie and Helena were kept. “There they are,” one said as he picked them up, as though fetching supplies.

“These are people?” the other asked.

The first shrugged. “Guess so.”

“What’d they do to piss Alex off?”

“Shit if I know.”

They took Winnie and Helena up the spire stairs. Third floor from the top, they knocked at the door. Winnie glanced inside with her mind. In that moment, she knew that today might be the worst day of her life.

It was a horror scene.

Blood. So much blood. Blood on the floors. Blood on the exemplar waiting inside. And especially blood on a man strapped to a chair in the center. It matted his hair and hid his features. It drenched his chest. It soaked into his prison leggings such that the bright yellow fabric was visible only in patches..

“We got em,” said the man carrying Winnie’s crate.

The exemplar in the room nodded toward a table. He was leaning against the far wall with a cigarette between his lips. There was blood on the filter. “They’ll be back in a minute.”

And so the men put Winnie and Helena down, and everyone waited. They chatted as though on a work break. It probably was for them, but how they could be so okay with this? The stench of blood and shit was overpowering. They’d actually gotten used to it. This was a job for them. And now they wanted Winnie.

She vomited. Brownish muck mixed with lettuce oozed from her mouth. Nobody noticed apart from Helena. She plodded over, nudged Winnie, and then tried to look around. She had no idea what was coming.

Alex and Sakhr arrived. When they came through the door, Sakhr recoiled and covered his nose. “Good God, Alexander. Is he even alive?”

Alex scrutinized the unconscious man. “Yes.” He motioned to an exemplars. “Get the next body. Male again.”

The exemplars who had brought Winnie left.

“I told you not to let him get this close,” Sakhr said. “This is absolutely unacceptable. How much blood has he lost? How close to death is he? Did you even listen to me last time?”

Alexander waved him off. “He’s fine.”

You. Cannot. Let him. Die.

“We’re being careful.”

This.” Sakhr waved at the blood pooled on the floor. “This is not careful. How many more times am I going to have to replace the body?”

“That’s up to him.”

“He has to be awake when I transfer bodies.” He points at the man’s many wounds. “I have to feel all this when I’m in his body.”

“Only for a moment.”

“Why can’t you just use ordinary methods? Why must you ruin the bodies? Are you even trying? I put Paul in this body… what? Six hours ago?”

“And yet he still has not complied,” said Alex. “Do you think if he hasn’t complied to this, that waterboarding would have worked? Maybe some splinters under his nails? Trust me. I’ve seen his mind. I know what it will take. I will get you results.”

Sakhr scowled.

Shortly, the exemplars returned, dragging a man from detainment between them. At the sight of the blood, the man fought back like a lion. He howled and screamed.

“No!” he stammered. “What is this? What is this?”

It took everyone combined to secure him to a second chair. Duct tape went over his mouth. They sidled him close to the bloodied man until their hands were in contact. Meanwhile, the exemplar who’d been on his smoke break administered a shot of something into the tortured man, causing him to snap awake.

“If you’ll please,” said Alex.

Sakhr glared at him one final time before resting his hands upon both tied men. A flicker later, the roles switched. Sakhr stumbled back, teeth clenched.

The new man who’d struggled so much now slumped. The terror in his eyes changed into a dead focus that stared through the floor with a vacancy that scared Winnie more than the terror had.

The bloody man thrashed wordlessly. Pain from his new body screamed where there had been nothing a moment before. There was no room in his mind for a coherent response, only to flop against his restraints like a suffocating fish.

Alex motioned to an exemplar, who took out a gun, pointed, and shot. The click of the repulse pistol was no louder than a stapler. The bloodied man slumped. Blood poured from a new hole on his forehead.

Alex and the interrogator untied the dead body and tossed it to the corner. For the vacant man, they pulled his chair to a corner and left him facing the wall. The man stared at it as though there were nothing else worth watching.

“All right. You two,” Alex pointed to the remaining exemplars. “Another body.”

“Male or female?”

Alex eyed Winnie. “…Female.”

“Sure thing, boss.” They left.

Suddenly Winnie was hyperventilating. Torture? They were going to torture her? She vomited again. Nothing came up. She struggled to move, but her body was going numb. Staggering, she raced to the corner. Putting her stumpy feet against the wall, she rocked her weight against it, hoping to tip the box. There was no thought to where she’d go, she just had to try. Helena watched curiously. She still didn’t know.

“Looks like they figured out what’s going on,” Alex said. He scooped Winnie up.

She kicked her hind legs, scratching at skin.

“Goddamn this relentless little bitch.” Alex raised her in the air.

“Stop!” yelled Sakhr. “Do not drop her.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Just hold her properly.”

“I am. Look.”

Winnie kept struggling, but he gripped her with both hand. She gained no purchase.

The exemplars returned dragging a middle-aged woman in prison leggings and a tank top. She too fought upon seeing the room, but they strapped her to the vacated bloody chair. Duct tape came next.

“Bring her.” Sakhr pointed to Winnie.

Alex didn’t move. “Nope.”

“What? Is that Winnie?” Sakhr pointed to Helena.

Alex jostled Winnie. “No, this is.”

“Then bring her.”

“No.”

“Alex…”

“You want her cooperation, right?” Alex put Winnie on the table and grabbed Helena. “Then she is the one you want.”

Sakhr eyed Alex.

“Trust me,” Alex handed Helena over.

Cautiously, Sakhr took her. He placed the tortoise onto the lap of the prisoner, then touched the woman’s cheek. Eyes fluttered, and there was Helena.

Her reaction was explosive. If she hadn’t realized what was happening before, she did now. Helena kicked and strained with ferocity. Her binds creaked. Her chair threatened to topple. The exemplars caught her. Only once fully restrained did she finally take closer stock of her surroundings. She took in the bloody instruments, the dead body in the corner, and the people. And then her gaze settled on Sakhr, the man who ruled from her old body.

To her credit, despite everything around her, she managed to glare. If Winnie were in that chair, she’d have no strength like that.

Alex grunted when he saw Helena’s scowl, and he turned to Winnie. “Look at me. Look me in the eyes.”

Winnie didn’t look away from Helena.

Alex sighed. He picked a bloody knife off the table, stepped to Helena, and promptly slashed the blade across her face. Helena screamed into her gag. Her cheek spilled open like a broken seem. Blood streamed down her cheek.

Alex turned back to Winnie. “Now do you want to look at me?”

Winnie relented.

“Good. Now listen close, because we’re going to play a game. We need your power, but we’re currently suffering a few technical setbacks, so we need you to use your power for us. When Sakhr tells you to view somewhere, or to look for someone, you’re going to do exactly that. If you refuse, that’s going to frustrate us. And we’re going to take our frustration out on Helena. Is that understood?”

Winnie looked from him to Helena. The thought of giving these men what they wanted was repulsive beyond imagination. She’d sworn to herself that she wouldn’t, even if it came to this. Everything that had happened since Sakhr escaped had been her fault. Taking their wrath would have been her penance. But Helena? It shouldn’t make a difference, but of course it did. Condemning another to a hell, even if they were just as guilty, was not something Winnie could live with.

And yet Helena shook her head. Her eyes were narrowed. Helena had made herself the same promise: give nothing. Winnie didn’t know where she found the strength. Helena saw the instruments, the body, and the bowl of discarded parts. Yet she glared, as though out of spite more than courage. Her arrogance would not allow her to give these people what they wanted, despite everything that had happened to her. The part of her that made her insufferable was giving her strength. She was being the bitch that she was.

“Come on now,” said Alex. “Look me in the eye and agree.”

But Winnie kept her eyes on Helena. If Helena could be strong, then so would she.

“Hmm,” said Alex. “Maybe you’re not fully grasping this. Do you see that man?” Alex pointed to the person staring at the wall. He hadn’t moved once. “He’s on his third body now. Do you know how many bodies we have downstairs? Last I checked, over eighty. Do you know how many bodies are in the Trinidad detainment camp? Over four thousand. How many bodies do you think Helena will last? How long until there’s nothing left inside her? And the final question: How long do you think we can keep this up? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not hurting us more than it’s hurting her.” Alex stooped down to look Winnie squarely in the eyes. “Now why don’t you agree to cooperate while I’m still looking in your mind. If you don’t, I’m not going to look again for several hours.”

Once again, Winnie looked past him to Helena. She would do anything to be able to talk with her, just for a moment, if only to ask, or apologize.

And yet Helena shook her head again, and so Winnie shut her eyes.

“Okay then!” Alex stood straight. He skipped over to instruments lined up on a table. After looking over them as though perusing ice cream flavors, he pointed one out. “This one.”

He had selected a blowtorch.

The exemplars prepped the tank and attached tubes. With a few clicks from a spark lighter, the torch burst to life.

Helena thrashed in her chair as though they were already applying heat. Winnie wanted to look away, but she was still here. She would hear every shriek and smell the burning flesh,. Even if she looked away, she knew her flair would watch every single second. How could she not watch?

Everything Helena was about to endure was because of Winnie, even if Helena had encouraged her. And for what? Alex said he’d do this as long as it took. Either Winnie would cave after Helena suffered, or Paul would eventually give in, and they’d make a glyph of Winnie’s power. It was idiotic to resist. Alex was going to get what he wanted one way or another.

Alex scrutinized Helena. “Start with her… feet.”

The exemplars tilted Helena’s chair onto its back, putting her legs upward. Helena kicked and thrashed, but her leg bindings were solid.

Winnie couldn’t do this. Even if Helena still had courage, she didn’t. If it were her own body—her own pain—then maybe she might try to be brave, but she couldn’t have Helena suffer for her.

She wailed. The sad, tortoise noise was hardly audible over Helena’s struggles and the hissing torch. She wailed over and over, but the spectacle continued.

With Helena’s shoes removed, the exemplar adjusted the torch to a clean blue burn, then lowered the torch toward Helena’s feet. Helena sobbed into her gag and strained away.

Stop.”

Everyone paused. It was Sakhr.

“Look,” He nodded toward Winnie. “Check her. I think she’ll cooperate now.”

“I don’t care,” said Alex. “I warned her I wouldn’t ask again for hours. I meant it.”

Sakhr sneered at Alex as though observing a crushed cockroach that wouldn’t stop twitching. “I didn’t come here to play your sick, sadistic games, Alexander. I’m here because I need to know what the hell is happening in my military right now, not in several hours. If the girl will give me what I want, then we’re done here. Now check her.”

Alex shrugged. He motioned for the exemplars to cut the torch, then moved to Winnie. Winnie met his eyes.

He sighed. “Say what you will about my methods, but I get results.”

58. Port Hole Windows

Victoria had caused the war.

That’s what Paul had said. Winnie still wasn’t sure whether she believed him, though she couldn’t fathom why he would have lied about it. It would mean that the one woman who Winnie was hoping would rescue her was in fact responsible for every grief Winnie had ever suffered in the last six years. This revelation should have shocked her, like a splash of ice cold water, but so much else had happened to her that she was already numb. Whatever Victoria had or hadn’t done was irrelevant right now. Winnie needed to focus on her situation, and why her captors had come to claim her.

Sakhr’s soldiers put Winnie and the others inside a smaller box for carrying. A military transport was waiting for Sakhr in a landing zone outside the apartment. It was far from royal, but it was certainly secure. The ride was bumpy, making Winnie queazy.

It didn’t help that she was tucked inside her shell, but it was better than tolerating Alex’s gaze. Her flair told her that if she looked out, she’d still see him there, hovering over their box, wearing Winnie’s body like it had been his all along, peering down at them like a child watching ants toil.

Helena seemed to be recovering from the trauma of their situation. Out of her shell, she stared back at Alex. A human wouldn’t recognize her expression, but Winnie’s tortoise mind saw her defiance. Alex returned her gaze thoughtfully. Either Helena didn’t know that Alex was a telepath, or she was sharing with him a piece of her mind. Whatever he saw caused the corner of his lip—Winnie’s lip—to curl upward.

The other tortoise with them was Gilles’s, who meandered about the border of the box as though drunk. He was stuck in the frame of mind that your feet should be beneath you, and not off to the side.

Winnie traced the transport’s path in her mind. It was not headed back to the military base, but its destination was easy enough to guess. Northwest of Porto Maná, a gleaming citadel floated above the ocean. It was so massive and so still, it was hard to believe it hadn’t been there yesterday. People along the beaches and walkways of the city pointed and stared.

Alex’s interest in Helena waned. He looked at Winnie.

“Hey,” said Alex. “Come out.” He tapped her shell. Winnie ignored him.

“Come out. Come out. Come out.”

Picking her up, he shook her, causing her head to bump around inside her shell. When that didn’t work, he lifted her high and dropped her. Just before hitting the box, he caught her. He’d done this annoying tactic before. Every tortoise instinct inside her lurched. She couldn’t stop imagining the poor tortoise that had been dropped during Sakhr’s initial escape. It’s shell cracked like an egg, revealing slimy red. Winnie still managed to keep herself tucked away.

“Stop being rude.” Alex held her up to peer at her, but her eyes were sealed. He held his finger just before her face, as though to bop her nose.

Winnie shot her head out and snapped, managing to nip the tip of his finger. She tasted blood. Winnie had just bit her own body, but it was worth it.

Alex’s response was swift. Something punched her in the face. Then again. Alex was flicking her with this finger—hard. She swiftly retreated into her shell. Her face hurt now. Her head and neck ached from whiplash. Still worth it.

“That was a very bad thing you just did,” said Alex. “I think later you might come regret that. We have plans for you. I have plans for you. Pretty soon, you’re all going to learn that from now on, you’re all going to do exactly what I want. Tonight, maybe I’ll—”

Winnie.”

Alex looked up. Sakhr was glaring at Alex from across the transport. He was holding a hand over the microphone of his head piece. It took Winnie a moment to realize he was yelling at Alex, and not at her.

“I’m on the phone,” Sakhr said.

Alex looked sheepish. His pouty expression made Winnie’s body seem ditzy and air-headed. “Sorry.”

Sakhr returned to his phone call. Sitting near to him was Paul, handcuffed and strapped down. Paul observed Alex with an expression as though watching a drunkard publicly urinating. Meanwhile, Alex eyed Winnie while sucking his finger. Whatever he was considering, he decided against it. Shrugging, he put her back in the box.

Until now, Winnie had not heard any of these impostors refer to each other by anything but their true name. It made sickening sense that when this group could be overheard by others, such as the soldiers near the front of the transport, they’d use Winnie and Helena’s names. How much of their captives’ lives did they plan to adopt? Was Alex going to contact Winnie’s mother? God, she hoped not. Her mother would know something was wrong. She’d get suspicious and become a liability, and Winnie had no doubt what Alex would do to a liability.

The light from the transport windows dimmed as the craft swooped into one of many openings along the belly of the citadel. The opening connected to a private bay where dozens of officers awaited. The craft touched down. The doors opened. A stout Admiral shouted out to all the men, and everyone saluted as Sakhr came down the ramp.

“Welcome aboard the HIMS Manakin, Your Highness,” the Admiral said. “Admiral Marc Laughlin, citadel captain.” He gestured to a man beside him. “This is my executive officer, Commander Antonio Benito.”

Benito nodded. To the other side of the admiral was army General Soto, or as Winnie knew him, Christof.

Sakhr nodded. “Glad to be aboard, Captain, Commander. Have all precautions been taken?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Laughlin replied. “Air traffic to and from the citadel is restricted. Whitelisting is in effect. All onboard staff have been scanned and accounted for. The reflex grid is set to full alert, and the citadel has been fully combed over.”

Sibyl had come off the shuttle escorting Paul. She murmured into Sakhr’s ear.

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Admiral, Exemplar Serrao has just informed me that there are birds nesting somewhere above us.

“Yes,” Laughlin replied. “That’s probably the family of osprey nested in the bridge spire peak.”

“I was told that the reflex grid on full alert was sensitive to block out birds.”

“Ah, yes. That’s the saying: It’ll turn the birds around. Just a saying, ma’am. We don’t set the sensitivity that high. Too many false positives.”

“Turn it up that high, Captain. I don’t want anything getting aboard without clearance.”

“Birds, ma’am?”

“Or devices the size of birds. We don’t know how enemies got into the Capital Tower. I will not take any risks.”

Laughlin nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“No birds.”

“Er… Understood, ma’am.”

“And my accommodations?”

“Yes. We’ve relocated all civilian personnel from one of the spires. It’s cleared and ready for you to move in, Your Highness.”

“Then let’s get a move on.”

The Admiral led everyone to an elevator large enough to lift a tank. It took them onto the surface of the citadel. From here, it was as though they were standing on the streets of a city. Chrome spires towered around them. Though unlike skyscrapers, they were curved. A cross section of them would be oval.

The admiral led them across the open area. It was paved, and from the marking on top of it, planes could land here, even the old kind that required runways. They stopped at a particularly wide spire, and a pair of accompanying officers opened the door for everyone else. Sakhr was the first to enter. It looked like the lobby of a computer tech company, albeit with aluminum walls, hatchways for doors, and port holes for windows. There was even a reception desk, though currently unmanned. Winnie glanced quickly at the spire floors. Each was bare and abandoned.

“This will work,” Sakhr said.

“Then this will be the new imperial spire,” the admiral replied. “Would you like me to show you the upper floors?”

“Please.”

Everyone headed in. Alex lingered outside on the deck with his box of tortoises, as did Christof.

Once they were alone, they finally acknowledged that they knew one another. They walked together. Alex led them toward the edge of the deck.

“Pretty spiffy place,” Alex said. “Had any trouble?”

“The admiral didn’t like an army general telling him what to do,” Christof replied, “but we got the job done.”

“It might make sense to get you into Laughlin’s body.”

“General is fine,” Christof said shortly.

“If you say so. It might be easier to handle the exemplars on board if we had someone in charge though.”

“The exemplars are handled. They’re remaining below deck to clear any incoming personnel. They won’t come near the imperial spire.”

“Good to hear.” Alex reached the edge. Beyond its precipice was a drop into an endless expanse of ocean far below. He set the tortoise box down.

“What are you doing?” Christof asked.

Alex scrutinized each tortoise. Winnie had her eyes closed. Helena was glaring up at him. Gilles was still figuring out his body.

Alex picked up Gilles. “I’m just…” He looked Gilles in the eye. “…Getting rid…” He stood. “…Of some dead weight.” He chucked Gilles over the edge.

Jesus.” Christof lurched as though to dive after him, but caught himself. “What in the hell, Alex?”

“Don’t need em.”

“You just threw him away?”

“Yeah. That was the caretaker.” Alex picked up the crate and headed back toward the spire. Bewildered, Christof stared after Gilles as he arced into the water far below. Winnie couldn’t help but follow in her mind, despite the gruesomeness of what was to come. Gilles struck the water with a mighty splash. The fall didn’t kill him though. His limbs thrashed as he sank into the cold, dark depths. He would drown slowly now. Winnie knew it would might take hours before death finally took a tortoise. He’d be alone and in pain, and no one he knew would ever know his fate.

Christof caught up with Alex. “Why do you even have the tortoises?”

“Sakhr’s left me in charge of them.”

Christof regarded him skeptically.

“I’m serious,” Alex said.

“And you’re just going to throw them over the edge?”

“Just that one. The others are useful.”

“Useful…”

“Yeah. This one is the flair. This one is the princess.”

“Alex. These are just children.”

“I know.”

“They haven’t done anything to us.”

“I know.”

“It’s because of them we escaped in the first place.”

“I know all this.”

“There’s no reason for them to suffer any more than they have.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Then why are you keeping them. You don’t care about them. You don’t even know how to care about them.”

“I’ll have you know I was a tortoise for seventeen years. I learned a thing or two.”

“I know you, Alex. I know what your idea of fun is. I’ve never remarked on how you spend your free time, but these children could be important. I don’t want them suffering needlessly.”

“And I agree. These tortoises will not suffer any more than necessary.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

They walked to a back room in the new imperial spire. It was a kitchenette, complete with a coffee maker and small fridge, though no supplies were stocked. Alex set the box of tortoises down and faced Christof. “It means we’ve just been tossed the keys to a crumbling empire. It’s supposed to be held together by the exemplars, but they’re going to fall apart at the seams too, unless we replace them. And the one man who could help us do that has decided to make a moral stand. We need every tool in our arsenal. That might include getting these munchkins to play nice. Especially this one.”

He tapped Winnie’s shell.

“Sakhr would not approve of this,” said Christof.

“Christof…” said Alex, amused by his friend’s naivety. “Where do you think I got the idea?” He pointed to his own eyes, and then to his temple. Think about it, the gesture said. He headed toward the spire stairs.

Christof lingered, frowning after Alex.

57. Plantains

It was breakfast time in the Gilles’s residence. Morning light from the windows flickered as hoppers silently shot along a grid chute outside Gille’s fourth floor apartment. Winnie found that more than a little annoying, but the sun would move, while the chute remained immobile, determined by whatever computer servers guided the hoppers. Gilles must put up with it every day. He certainly ignored it well enough when he emerged from his bedroom dressed in boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. Scratching his chest, he plodded into the kitchen and rinsed some flowers and weeds he’d collected after a late night walk yesterday. Kneeling over the missile crate, he tore the vegetation and distributed it among the tortoises, talking all the while.

“Now these might be a little cold still. I know how some y’all don’t like that. Just give them a minute or two.”

Winnie’s pile of collard greens remained from yesterday. She’d tried to eat. Even now she felt weak from starving, but the misery in her gut left little room for an appetite.

“Hmm,” said Gilles. He took the old greens out. “I get it. Y’all had a stressful few days. Your home’s been blown up. You’re in a strange place. It’s gone and ruin your appetites. Wish I could say things are going to settle down now.”

After replacing the food, he cleaned the crate. Winnie ignored him, until suddenly feeling gentle pressure along her back. In her mind, she saw Gilles stroking her shell. It was soothing, but she wished he’d stop. It made her feel like a pet.

She tried to cringe. From her mind’s view, her intent didn’t come across, but to her surprise, he stopped. “I’ll leave you be. Just promise you’ll eat something. You’ll feel a mighty bit better if you do.”

Oh fine. Winnie bit off a piece of dandelion. It tasted just as she expected it would: bitter and bland. She figured it might at least taste better in this body, but no. Ordinary tortoises must eat this stuff because they’ve never found anything better.

Whatever. She ate. The act was a chore. Gilles coaxed both Helena and the other tortoise into eating as well, then disappeared to the kitchen to fry up something for himself. Winnie had to admit she felt a little better, as unpleasant as the greens were.

When Gilles returned from the kitchen, he had a plate of fried plantains and a bowl of orange melon. “Don’t go telling anyone, but how about today I give y’all something special.” He placed a piece of balled melon before each of them, then settled back to eat his plantains. Winnie stepped forward to try the food when someone knocked on the door.

She visualized the outside hallway. Any hope that things couldn’t get any worse evaporated at the sight of Gilles’s visitors.

Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”

“It’s still just Your Highness,” Sakhr said.

 Flabbergasted, Gilles welcomed him. Sakhr strode into the room, followed by Alexander and Sibyl. Entirely ignoring Gilles, they scrutinized the tortoises in the missile crate. Gilles shut the door and hurried to pick loose articles around the apartment. “Please. Anywhere you’d like to sit. If I’d known you wanted to see me, I could have come to you. Might’a saved you a trip.”

Sakhr pointed at the tortoises. “You stole these.”

“Stole? No, Your Highness. I was just—”

“It took the military all day to track down who took these animals. You had no right to take them from the military base. They don’t belong to you.”

“I left my information with the private at the front. Nobody was taking care of them at the base. I was the animals’ primary caretaker in the tower, and I—”

“I know exactly who you are, Mr. Gilles. My mother hired you to feed and treat the animals. That is all. You had no authority to take these tortoises into your own home as though you have some special claim over them. These tortoises belong to me.”

“I meant no trouble, Your Majesty. I didn’t—”

“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.

“Your Highness. I’m sorry. I thought I’d just take care of them until you got some time to decide.”

“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to a couch. “Sit down.”

Gilles obliged. Sakhr nodded to the others. Sibyl studied the tortoises and pointed out the one Winnie knew nothing about. Alexander picked it up and handed it to Gilles. Winnie knew exactly what was about to happen to the poor man, but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

As soon as Gilles took the tortoise, Sakhr placed one hand on his shoulder and the other on the animal. There was that shudder. Gilles’s body jolted. The tortoise gasped and writhed.

The man now occupying Gilles’s body startled. His limbs moved in jerks, as though his body were undergoing a reset. After gaining some semblance of control, he dropped his face into his hands and shuddered.

Meanwhile, Alexander tossed the tortoise back into the missile crate. It skidded. Winnie remembered what it was like when she was first trapped inside a tortoise. All her senses had told different stories. Each felt like a lie. She could only imagine being tossed about at that moment. Winnie plodded over to Gilles. His eyes didn’t even focus on her, just darted back and forth. All she could think to do was put one foot against his and pat it as best she could. Winnie wasn’t fond of Gilles, but he didn’t deserve this.

“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.

The man nodded distractedly, as though he’d just woken up.

Alex sat to the side, noticed the dish of fried plantains, and claimed it for himself.

“Your name is Paul, is it not?” Sakhr said.

The man nodded.

“Paul. I need you to focus. I know you’re disoriented right now, but we need to have a discussion, and I don’t have much time. Understood?”

“I hear you.” Paul focused on Sakhr a moment, then returned his head to his hands.

Sakhr spoke on. “Like you, my compatriots and I have been captives of Victoria for years. Two days ago, we escaped, and as a result—”

“Who’s body is this?”

“What?”

“This body.” Paul held up his dark, worn hands. “It used to belong to Gilles, didn’t it?”

“Is that important?”

“Where is Gilles? He’s not in the tortoise, is he?” Paul craned to peer into the missile crate.

Sakhr leaned to block his view. “Look at me. Don’t worry about who’s body you have. We’re having a discussion now. My brethren and I escaped, but as a consequence we are in a difficult situation. You’re the glyph maker, are you not?”

Paul gaze settled on Sakhr. “I may be. And who are you?”

“I’m the man who freed you.”

“Man?” Paul looked Sakhr up and down, taking in Helena’s form.

“This is not my original body.”

Paul glanced from him to the others. Realization dawned on him. “Sakhr?”

“Yes.”

He studied Alex. “So you must be Alexander.”

Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.

Paul looked at Sibyl, narrowing his eyes. “And you would be… the aura seer. I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”

She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”

“So you already know about us,” Sakhr said.

“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”

“I suppose that saves us introductions. How long were you in that tortoise?”

“I don’t know. Years? The last thing that happened was the bombing.”

“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”

“Then six years.”

“A lot has happened since then. Victoria waged a war and conquered the world, although her grasp on many nations is tenuous. She managed to maintain her power with a cadra of loyalists she called exemplars, to whom she granted glyphs created using your power. Each of them is capable of reading minds, and sensing auras, or powers. They were her eyes and ears.”

“So she actually did it, huh?”

“She told you about these plans?”

“She did. It became the wedge in our relationship that led to my imprisonment. Well, that and other things.”

“What other things?”

“We had disagreements about how she’d rule.”

Alexander piped in. “Victoria wanted to cause the Collapse. Paul didn’t agree.”

Everyone turned to look at him. Winnie’s mind jarred upon hearing those words. Her comforting of Gilles stalled as she focused entirely on the conversation.

“And you’re only telling me this now?” Sakhr said.

“You never asked.”

Sakhr glared at him.

“Honest,” Alex replied. “I wasn’t hiding this. It just never came up until now.”

Sakhr turned back to Paul. “Is this true? Was that the reason?”

“Yes…” Paul still eyed Alexander. “She came to believe the world was broken, and it couldn’t be fixed unless the existing world society first collapsed. Are you saying she succeeded?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“How… how bad was it?”

“The current world population is around four hundred million,” Sakhr replied. “That’s almost one twentieth of what it used to be.”

“I uh…. I see.”

“Yes, and in the wake she’s installed herself as world leader. Unfortunately, her power relied—”

“Where is she?”

“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”

“You think?”

“We’re very sure, but there is a chance she survived the accident.”

“What accident?”

“In our escape, we detonated a bomb in her tower. She failed to escape in time. Her body was positively identified yesterday.”

“You mean you killed her?”

“No,” Sakhr said. “The bomb was an act of desperation meant to help us escape. Her death was incidental.”

“But you’re glad, aren’t you? You tried to kill her before?”

“So you know about that too. Yes. I did. And if I had succeeded, then none of us would have been trapped for decades. The apocalypse would never have happened.”

“I suppose so.”

“But she might not be dead. And even if she is, we have other problems. All of her exemplars have the ability to recognize us for who we are. We can’t keep them at bay forever. We’ll need shield glyphs to protect ourselves. You know about the shield glyphs, right?”

“Yes.”

“The young girl, Sara, whose power is the Shield is quite happy to draw more for us, but she needs something called a Master Glyph. Apparently, because of her power’s very nature, no one can draw it, not even Victoria. Sara needed a glyph of your power so she could draw her own.”

“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”

“Good. Then you understand my situation. Will you help us?”

“No.”

Alexander grinned, his mouth full of plantain. It was the grin of a man who had just earned the right to say, I told you so.

“…No,” Sakhr repeated, confirming Paul’s word. “Why not?”

“Your body. It belonged to Helena, right? Six years. I guess she’d be… sixteen? Seventeen? Next in line for the throne, right? Why do you have her body?”

“Her body was the first available to me during my escape.”

“And what became of her?”

“What does it matter? She was Victoria’s daughter.”

“I knew her when she was younger. A tempered little firebrand, but she was innocent. She didn’t deserve to have her body taken from her.”

“I’ve seen inside her mind,” Alex said. “Trust me. We’re doing the world a favor by taking over for her.”

“So, you are taking Victoria’s place?”

“For now, yes. It’s the best hope we have of remaining undetected.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

“It’s a fact.” Sakhr’s patience was fraying. “What else am I supposed to do? If I give this body to anyone else, they’ll know we exist. They may come after us. The exemplars will come after us. If I keep this body, at least we can protect ourselves from them, but we can’t do that unless we work together. Will you help us?”

“No.”

“Why not? We just freed you from the same woman who imprisoned us all. If she is still alive, we need to unite. She is literally as powerful as all of us combined.”

“Perhaps, but I cannot ignore the chance to undo a mistake I made years ago. I didn’t realize what kind of woman Victoria was when she first found me. She encouraged me to train my power, which I did. She told me about how she planned to fix the world, break down existing governments and create one where people were free. I believed her then. By the time I found out what she planned to do with my gift, it was too late to do anything about it. She had already learned the secret of my glyph writing, and now it sounds like she created a world exactly like I feared. Her government uses my power to control the will of the people and to invade their very minds. But now I can correct this. If there are no more glyphs of my power, which I assume must be the case if you’ve come to me, then all I have to do to erase my mistake is nothing. In time, all the existing glyphs will wear down.”

“The world has plunged into chaos,” Sakhr said. “Riots have broken out across Europe. The North American states are talking about seceding and rebuilding the union. Lakiran forces were spread paper thin, and now they’re having to pull out of dozens of countries due to instability. I can’t fix any of this because I have no control over the Exemplar Committee. It’s going to dissolve as soon as they find out who I am, that’s if they don’t decide to oust me, leading to a power vacuum that will only exacerbate the situation. Millions will suffer if I can’t restore order.”

“And I’m sorry to hear that, but humanity will recover. If I give you that glyph, then the world will lose a freedom it will never get back.”

“Victoria kept strict control over the glyphs. I will too. I will not allow them to be abused.”

“Even if I believed you, it’s not worth it.”

“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”

“Victoria told me about what kind of people you all are. And what you did to her out of your own fears. She had a lot to say about you in particular, Alexander.”

“I’m sure.” Alex made a small bow as though just announced. Alexander, ladies and gentlemen.

“Don’t you think her perspective of us was a little biased?” Sakhr said.

“Prove me wrong then. Return the empire to Helena.”

“This isn’t a game.”

“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.

“I’ve already explained why I can’t do that.”

“Then you’re stuck.”

Sakhr leaned back and regarded him. “Do you want to go back in the tortoise?”

“Does that mean Gilles will get his body back?”

“No.”

“Then it makes no difference to me.”

Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.

“I told you…” Alex said.

“Get the guards,” Sakhr growled. “We’re leaving. And you,” He faced Paul, “are coming with us.”

“If you say so.”

56. Bloody Tiles

Fourteen hours. That’s how long Winnie had been a tortoise. She knew because it had been near one o’clock when she and Helena had broken into that stupid terrarium, and the clock in her dorm room read three in the afternoon now. She could have checked any clock in the world, yet her mind kept going back there. Despite being so close to where the tower fell, it was empty and clean. If she were there, it would almost be as if this nightmare wasn’t happening, except for the sirens in the distance.

Instead, she was in a maintenance room. At least, she thought it was. It was a small, tiled room lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, and its walls were lined with equipment racks. A lone door led into a landing hangar, where the soldiers had arrived after detaining Christof and Alexander. She’d hoped when she saw the soldiers arresting them, that the end had finally come, but then Alex started telling all those lies. How did they buy that? Didn’t they see how intently he was looking in their eyes before each word he said?

Winnie had squawked and hissed and climbed the edge of her box, but no one had even looked at her. When the soldiers had gotten back to base, they’d taken Alex straight to their general so Alex could spread even more lies, while they stashed Winnie, Helena, and the other tortoise in this room. Cold and tired, Winnie drifted in and out of sleep. After hours, hunger had set in that not even deep seated misery could hide. The most attention anyone gave them was the occasional private who came in, glanced at the box, and asked anyone nearby, “what are these doing here?” or, “should someone do something about these animals?” But the soldiers were too preoccupied watching television in the other room to bother; the news showed the world coming apart.

Dozens had died in the collapse. Rescue workers were being admitted to hospitals for radiation poisoning. Parts of the city were evacuating. The empire was in a state of emergency. Territories on the other side of the world saw this as the end of the Lakiran empire and were already talking about succession. Less stables countries were seeing wide scale riots. The death and destruction grew worse with every hour.

She wondered if it was easier for Helena, who was curled up in her shell at the other end of the box. Without the benefit of Winnie’s power, she couldn’t know about the hell she and Winnie had forced on the world. All she knew was cold and hunger. Time was meaningless for her.

Winnie, meanwhile, soared about with her flair, but nothing she saw made her feel better. The television in the other room had announced Victoria’s death hours ago. Winnie had already known. Her mind had been there when they’d dug her ruined body out of the twisted wreckage of her ship, just as she’d been there when Sakhr had killed General Soto, and the poor exemplar who came to scan the sick, and the doctor who’d treated Quentin. She was there every step of the way to see the ruination her actions had brought. She didn’t know why she bothered watching. What was the point? The one woman who could have fixed all this was dead.

Winnie wished so much she could take it all back that her regret seemed tangible, as though she could exert her will back to that single moment. Just a push perhaps. She could nudge herself so she fell against the birdcage instead of the terrarium, or maybe the cabinet on the other side. Maybe she could force a thought into her past self’s head. Don’t do it. Stop Helena. Stand up to her. You have no idea what hell awaits you, and how many people you’ll hurt. The tiniest change could derail all of this.

The pit in her stomach gnawed at her, but there was no food, and no one around. With nothing left to do, Winnie pulled into her shell. She just needed to shut out the world and try for a moment to forget this living nightmare.

Just for a while.


“I must say. None y’all look very happy this morning.”

The words awoke Winnie. Natural light shone just outside her shell. Using a trick she’d used many mornings while nestled in her bedsheets, she used her power to look around instead of peaking her head out.

She and Helena were still in the shipping crate in a maintenance room. It was morning, and a elderly man with a gentle smile knelt over her crate. The gray, curly fuzz on his head matched the beard outlining his white toothed smile. His limbs were thin and gnarled, like someone who’d spent his long life doing honest work under the sun.

All Winnie knew was that he wasn’t a soldier. He wore a simple pair of khakis and a faded shirt. Given that no one else was around, she wondered whether he’d just walked into the base, completely overlooked. Surely not.

“Don’t worry now,” he said. “I’m here. I haven’t forgot about you. Looks like we lost a few of our brothers and sisters, but you made it out. Y’all lucky devils.” After studying Helena, his brow furrowed. “Never seen you before.”

Helena emerged from her shell and looked back. When he picked her up, she thrashed in alarm.

“Calm down now,” the man said. “Just giving you the once over. Looks like you’re a uh… Hermann’s Tortoise? Male, hmm?” He grabbed Helena’s tail between two fingers and looked underneath. “Yep, male.”

Startling. Until now, Winnie had never considered the gender of these tortoise bodies. Everything felt foreign. Even thinking about it, she couldn’t tell what equipment she had. She concentrated, wiggled around a little, visualized her rear side. She was a… girl? Alex was a male though, right? It was his tortoise body she’d inherited. Had Victoria not bothered to match gender when putting people inside tortoises?

“You must be the upstairs tortoise,” the man said to Helena. “You’re lucky someone saved you. I heard you were kept under lock and key. Don’t matter to me. I’ll take you in. You can call me Gilles.”

He set Helena down, then examined Winnie and the other tortoise, talking soothingly all the while. “Don’t know what’s goin to happen to you two. In all this commotion, I think everybody done forgot about you lot. But here I am. Not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re okay today.”

At first, Winnie paid attention to what he said, but there wasn’t much content. Soon she let the words wash over her. It almost made her forget about her hell. The man’s touch was soothing. Given his expertise, she guessed he was one of the tower caretakers. He was lucky not to have been in the tower last night.

Gilles took up the crate and carried them to another building, into a lobby where a private was at attendance behind a desk.

“Ah, you found them,” the soldier said.

“Mmhmm,” said Gilles. “Are these all they saved? There musta been fifty animals in that tower at least.”

“These were all that were in the shuttle last night. If anymore animals survived, I don’t know about it. No offense to those things, but I’m kind of surprised anyone bothered saving them with everything that’s going on.”

“These tortoises meant a lot to the queen.”

The soldier nodded vaguely. “I talked with Major Husher. He doesn’t want them on the base. Are you able to take care of them. W could find a zoo…”

“Nah, I got em.”

“I can’t promise you’ll be reimbursed for your expense.”

Gilles waved him off. “I’ll take them. I’ll take them. Fellas need a proper home, don’t they? We can’t be sending them off to any old zoo. ”

This satisfied the soldier.

Outside in the landing lot, Gilles loaded the crate into a personal shuttle. Before closing the door, he fetched a handful of collard greens from a bag and set them in the box.


Gilles’s home was an apartment on the outskirts of Porto Maná. It only had a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom, each just large enough to serve their function. Decorations included sculptures carved of wood or the remains of animals—mementos one might bring home from a visit to the Amazon or the African homeland back when forests and indigenous tribes existed. The kitchen reeked of powerful spices. His bedroom showed the most living. Laundry littered the floor. Books and magazines buried the bedside table. He clearly lived alone, but the many pictures showing a younger Gilles with a comely woman which implied that had not always been the case.

Currently, the coffee table in his living room had been pushed to one side to make room for a packing crate which had once held a military glider missile. The army had let him take it home to use as a makeshift terrarium.

It was the tortoise’s new home. Gilles spent the afternoon preparing it. That involved reassembling the crate, lining it with a plastic tarp, then filling it with mulch and water. Winnie and Helena were inside now, camped in one corner. The other tortoise was opposite to them, exactly where Gilles first placed him. Only once had Winnie seen him move, and that was for the collard greens earlier. After eating his fill, he’d remained right where he was, too apathetic to return to his corner. How many years would it take until Winnie was like that too?

She had recovered from her emotional slump. Or rather she found she didn’t think about her predicament as much if she spent her time focusing elsewhere. Sometimes she watched the television back on the military base.

Information came out irritatingly slow. Whenever the news learned a tidbit, they would repeat it every thirty minutes while replaying their most relevant footage. They constantly recapped what had been happening, as though someone might actually tuning in now who didn’t already know that the head of the empire had been severed. When they weren’t recapping, they brought on experts to share thoughts and predictions. It was all so vacuous.

So Winnie started searching the military base instead. With the queen dead and no sign of Winnie ever being rescued, she had forgone Victoria’s golden rule of never spying on the empire. It’s not like she’d get in worse trouble.

She started first by drifting high above the base and looking down. The sun was setting, but the base was still on high alert. Soldiers drilled. Shuttles drifted along identical trajectories. Shuttles landed in lots outside offices. Larger crafts floated into hangars.

One building was a barracks. Beds neatly lined the long walls. All were empty at this hour. In a civilian office, people in business casual attire worked in cubicles. The only military were the soldiers at guard on the ground floor. Her targets weren’t here; she moved on. It was jarring to refocus her projection instead of flying from building to building, but this was what Victoria had taught her to do. Flying was inefficient. Refocusing was faster. Winnie wasn’t sure why she kept up the practice, but somehow it felt wrong to forgo the lessons the queen had left with her.

Then Winnie found them. Sakhr was in a hangar along with Alexander and Sibyl. Soldiers were unloading crates from a shuttle while they watched. Each crate was filled with twisted, charred items from the ruins of the Capital Tower. A forensics team would take each one and pour through the contents, scanning everything with clicking radiation sensors and bagging them for later study.

Sakhr seemed interested in particular boxes. As the forensics team cleared their contents, Sakhr motioned to a supervising Major, who then directed the boxes to be taken to a private room. It was here, away from the forensics team, that Sakhr examined the contents.

The sole fact that he wanted to look at these privately was reason enough for Winnie to keep watching. Perhaps she would spend the rest of her life spying on him. As painful as it was to watch her own body masquerading around causing mayhem, she might learn crucial information she could somehow use to her advantage. She didn’t know how yet. Maybe such an opportunity would never arise, but if it did, she would be ready.

And so she watched…


“Is this all there was?” Sakhr asked.

“Everything we found near her,” said the major.

Three crates. Each item inside had their own plastic bag. Sakhr examined a few: a phone with a shattered screen, a tablet bent in the middle, and a pair of women’s dress shoes. Each item had blood on them.

“These are your mother’s possessions, aren’t they?” the major asked.

Alexander responded. “Yes. These are the queen’s affects.”

“She wearing a cream-colored dress?”

Sakhr had no idea.

“Yes, she was,” Alex answered. “We were all dressed to go to a charity auction the other day… before everything happened.”

For all Sakhr knew, the story about the charity was just another in the endless stream of lies Alexander had been telling, but the bastard certainly knew what he was doing. He was in people’s minds. He knew what they needed to hear.

At the bottom of a crate, in a bag of its own, was a bloody necklace made of small ivory tiles. Sakhr recognized it. Each little tablet had its own power inscribed upon it. Over seventeen years ago, Victoria had fingered those little tablets while telling of her collection of powers. Sakhr had dreamed of it ever since.

He snatched the bag and removed the necklace. Though blood covered many tiles, he fastened it about his neck. The major shuffled uncomfortably. Sakhr searched his mind for any change. Years ago, he’d had aura sensing. He didn’t recall much, but he remembered that it was easy to identify the sensation when he expected it, but now he felt nothing. He motioned for Sibyl to look him in the eyes. She did so. He sensed… nothing.

Sakhr studied the necklace. There were seven glyphs—one for each member of the coven, and three more. Since only two were damaged, wouldn’t that mean the other five should work?

He tried wiping away the blood and wearing it again. Nothing.

He dug through the other crates.

“Your Highness?” the major asked.

“Are you sure that these are all of her possessions?”

“Is something missing?”

“They aren’t working.”

“Ma’am?”

“The glyphs. They’re not doing anything.”

“Ah.” Alexander interjected. “It’s exemplar tech. He doesn’t know.”

“Know what?” the major asked.

“Never you mind,” Alexander said. “This is an exemplar affair.”

So glyphs were still a secret then. Exemplar-only tech. The longer Sakhr was outside of his tortoise prison, the more he realized Victoria never told people anything. She coveted secrets. It meant no one knew who Sakhr was, which played to his advantage, but it also meant Victoria probably never revealed her true power, which was to learn powers. She didn’t actually need glyphs.

Which meant the necklace was a misdirection. The tiles were fakes. Of course that damn woman wouldn’t keep real glyphs around her neck. Why would she? The only person who’d make use of them was somebody who’d stolen them from her. The fake was only to maintain the lie that she was the glyph writer.

But why keep it up?

Sakhr, Alex, Christof, and Sibyl were the only people in the world who knew she was once Katherine, or what her power actually was, and all four of them had been under her lock and key. No one else even knew who Katherine was. So why divorce Victoria and Katherine? Why pretend to be someone else for all these years?

It could have been to hide the true identity of the real glyph maker, but then he was also her prisoner. Or perhaps there was someone else who knew Katherine.

That couldn’t be it, right? Sakhr would obviously know them.

He cast the necklace aside and dug through the other boxes, but he didn’t expect to find anything of value. Another bag contained Victoria’s tattered dress. It was more red than white. Another contained a flight helmet, and a flight suit—items probably found near her body.

The third box contained a piece of twisted metal made of small metal bars. It took him a moment to identify it. “Is this a birdcage?”

“We believe so, ma’am.”

“This was in the wreckage?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ah, what?” Alex perked up. He looked the major in the eyes. “Oh right… The queen had a pet hawk. Everyone knows that.”

A look passed between Alex and Sakhr. Alex grinned sardonically, clearly coming to the same realization Sakhr was. That birdcage had been in the shuttle with Victoria. She’d had that hawk with her.

Sakhr turned to the major. “Was the hawk found?”

“Ma’am?”

“Was the hawk found dead? Did the rescuers find it’s body?”

Of course the major hesitated. It would be too easy for him to say something like, yes, dead as dead can be. It was a bit of a mess, so we left the body there. No. There had to be uncertainty.

“Not that I know of,” the major said.

Sakhr looked around. This hangar’s side room had a roof far above with plenty of beams to perch upon. And there were skylights, though they were sealed. He glanced at Sibyl. She too was looking around, but not frantically. Good. The idea occurred to her too, and she sensed nothing near.

“If you’d like,” the major said, “I can send someone to look.”

“No. Don’t bother. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.” He pushed the crates away. There were no glyphs for him to use. It seemed even in her death, Victoria would continue to hound him. “Thank you for your help, major. You may leave.”

The brusqueness startled the major. “I… Yes, Your Highness.” He left quickly. Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl were alone.

Sibyl spoke. “Do you think she actually survived?”

Sakhr let out a long sigh. Why should he answer her question when he obviously had no more information than she did? What kind of idiot would even ask?

“I don’t think so,” Alex answered. “She would have acted by now.”

“Not necessarily,” Sakir said. There could be a hundred reasons why she hadn’t struck yet. Her death was only one—a big one, and God how he hoped she was dead, but it was still only one of many reasons. He faced Sibyl. “Can you sense her coming?”

“No…” she replied. “I haven’t been able to sense her ever since she got her shield, but maybe I could know she’s coming because she won’t have an aura.”

“Not good enough,” Alex said. “Katherine could just fly in as a hawk and collide with Sakhr. She’d be in Sakhr’s body before anyone could do anything. What we need are shields of our own.”

“I know,” Sakhr growled. “That’s what this damn necklace was supposed to solve.”

Alex frowned. “Why should the necklace do anything if Katherine could use all the powers by herself?”

I know this.”

“What you need is a safer place to stay…” Alex trailed off.

“You obviously have a place in mind.”

He grinned. “Do you remember General Soto mentioning the citadels?”


As soldiers continued to test and bag more debris, Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl headed back to the building Sakhr had commandeered for his imperial work. They spoke little, but Winnie watched anyway.

She had heard their conversation. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out who “Katherine” was.

Victoria.

They believed Victoria might still be alive.

Winnie was almost afraid to hope. Even if Victoria was, a world of things could happen between that shuttle crash and Victoria saving the day.

But Winnie already knew she could never put that thought out of her mind. Ten years from now, she’d still be hoping for Victoria’s return. Hope is all she could do. That, and watch.

Sakhr and the others split off to talk with ministers and officials. Winnie would learn no secrets from public interaction like that, but she watched anyway. Twenty years from now she’d still be spying.

One day she might get the chance to use her knowledge against them.

49. Glow

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

“Your Majesty?” said Captain Gandara.

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

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

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

Fissile materials.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quentin burst into the lobby on the sixtieth floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Move faster,” she ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They exploded before the new rods hit the ground.


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

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

No.

It was dust.

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

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

The tower was collapsing.

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

“Get us moving now!” she yelled.

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

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

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

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

The city grid though. That might still catch them.

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

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

No response.

He repeated himself.

Again nothing.

The pilot gave up and focused on steering.

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

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

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

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

“Move faster,” she shouted.

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

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

They were clear.

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

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

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

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

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

She grabbed her bird with a bloody fist.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the tower started collapsing.

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

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

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

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

48. Scaffolding

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

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

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

She nodded, hardly listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could move earlier…

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

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

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

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

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

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

So it was a ruse.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only watch on…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

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

“I meant why do we need them?”

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

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

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

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

“I need a… yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Sakhr nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

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

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

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

“I thought you said you trust me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is insanity.”

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

“And you’re insane.”

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

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

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

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

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

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

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

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

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

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


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

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

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

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

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Understood.”

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


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

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

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

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

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

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


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

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

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

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

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

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But what was Alexander waiting for?

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

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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


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

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

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

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

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

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

Do it now.”

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

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

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

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

46. Sems and Clems

Sakhr and the others split up to find the other assemblers, although he made sure that everyone stayed within Sibyl’s Empath range.

Alex found a pair on his own. Before heading back, he sat down in the hall with Winnie and Helena. Alone here, he held Helena up to look her in the eyes. Winnie would have tried slipping away again while he was distracted, except that Alex had set her on the floor upside down. Every time she got close to righting herself, he’d casually pushed her back over. She had just about resigned herself to this dizzying position when Alex set Helena down and picked her up. He studied her just as he had Helena.

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

“Ooh,” Alex said. “I saw that. You know what’s going on, don’t you?”

Winnie pulled into her shell and covered her face with her feet.

He shook her. “Come on. Open up. Let’s have a look at you.”

She didn’t respond. Suddenly, she was falling. Startled, she opened her eyes and jolted. Alex caught her just before she hit the ground. His gaze immediately locked onto hers.

She covered up again.

So Alex dropped her again. This time she kept her face covered, trusting her flair to see. Alex was keeping his arms poised to catch her each time, hence she was in no real danger, even if her heart leaped each time he did it.

Then the light on the assemblers changed. Their hum stopped, then started again sounding differently. Lights around the edges were pale red. Noticing this, Alex collected Helena and Winnie and returned to the others.

Quentin, who’d remained by the first machines, was swearing and stabbing his fingers on their touch screens. All but a few buttons were gone from the menu.

“Stop.” Quentin stabbed another button. A padlock symbol in the upper right flashed.

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”

“Meaning?”

“They’re reclaiming assembled resources, destroying what they were making. Someone accessed the machines remotely.”

“Is there anything you can do to stop it?” asked Christof.

“Good idea. I should do that instead of banging on it uselessly. Is that what you’re saying?”

“If people are controlling this remotely,” Sakhr said, “why can’t you just disconnected it from the network?”

“Oh. My. God. You have no idea how technology works. You think the Lakiran empire would let people use these things offline? If the cloud servers disconnect you, your machine won’t even know how to assemble.”

“And you knew this could happen?” asked Sakhr.

“This is not my fault. There’s no way I could have known they’d lock the machines two minutes after we started using them.”

“You just said they have central control over them. Can’t they see what the machines are doing?”

“Yeah. If they have the server logs open and are actively looking at them. They’d have to already know we were using them first.”

Pausing, Sakhr looked along the ceiling of the hallway. “Then how did they know? I’ve seen no cameras on this floor.”

“She doesn’t need them,” Alex answered. He held up Winnie. “I took some time to look into our tiny friends. I think this little one right here is the explanation.”

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

“It’s the little Asian girl who so kindly lent me her body. She has the power to see and hear remotely. Haven’t seen how it works yet, but from what she knows,” he tapped Helena, “Victoria can see anything, anywhere, anytime she wants.”

“So she’s been watching us every step of the way?”

“Probably.”

Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something in another language. He eventually looked up. “We need another plan then. And quickly.”

“But she’ll know what it is,” said Christof.

“I know. We’ll just have to move faster than she can react.” He looked around. “Quentin. Do you think you could make explosives from something else? Maybe from things laying about?”

“Depends on what we find.”

“Then we do that. Everyone split up and search. We’re looking for chemicals, electronics, anything that might be useful.” He sighed. “Anything at all.”


Victoria was mulling through strategies. The last time she captured Sakhr, she’d had mercenaries in hazmat suits with her. She could try that again, but if it failed, it would fail spectacularly. It would be safest if she had time to wait for her high exemplars.

Unfortunately, none of them could get here in time. She had ordinary exemplars nearby, but they had no idea who Sakhr was. More importantly, they didn’t have shields.

Victoria considered waking Sara. If that girl could draw up extra shields for her… But no. Even if that was a good idea, Victoria would need to supply Sara with a master glyph, and that just wasn’t possible right now.

That left only non-glyph solutions. It had to be military.

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

“That’s a little more tricky. Their flight trajectories were set so they’d be over West Europe. They’re redirecting, but it’ll take almost two hours before they can get a reliable overhead window.”

“Why so long?”

“They’re going really quickly in one direction. Now they’ll need to go just as quickly in another. To change that much speed, they’ll need to come into the lower stratosphere. It’s almost as bad as landing and taking back off. But you will have windows before that. One orbiter will pass near the capital in thirty-five minutes. He’ll have a four minute window in which to deploy. Then there’ll be another about forty minutes after that, but that orbiter won’t have old gen wall bots. It’s just a patrolling orbiter.”

“Thirty-five minutes, and then seventy-five minutes…”

“It’s bad, Your Majesty. I know. The air force doesn’t trail orbiters over the homeland that much.”

“I know…”

“The marines won’t know anything about the situation they’re going into, will they?” she asked.

“I didn’t tell them. What would you like me to say?”

She considered. “Nothing. I want to talk with whoever is in charge of the thirty-five minute orbiter.”

“Yes, ma’am. Here is the contact info.”

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She examined the info. Captain Stephano was the CO aboard the HIMS Venezia. She called the number.

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

A pause. “How can I serve you, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve been redirected to pass over Porto Maná. I understand you’ll be ready to deploy in thirty-five minutes.”

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

“We’re to be ready to deploy onto the Capital Tower within our window, and await further instructions.”

“And here they are. There are enemy agents inside the Tower. It will be up to your men to apprehend them. Unfortunately, they have hostages, including my daughter.”

“I see.”

“High Exemplar Bishop informs me that you have nonlethal means of incapacitating targets.”

“Yes, ma’am. Our electric flechettes.”

“You’ll be using those. Under no circumstances are your men to kill anyone.”

She paused. Should she issue that order? This problem could be solved much more easily if she had a sniper shoot Sakhr before anyone came in. Then the marines wouldn’t need to do anything special. It was, after all, her refusal to kill him in the first place that allowed this to happen. Was the risk really worth the remote chance his power could be evolved further?

But then he wasn’t about to get out of Helena’s body either, and that she couldn’t kill.

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

“They took my tortoises out of their enclosures. And I don’t…” she sighed, knowing how ridiculous this sounded, “…I don’t want them hurt. They’re important to me.”

“Understood, ma’am. We’ll look out for the tortoises.” He sounded entirely professional about it too. Victoria would remember this man.

“And there’s another complication.” She thought about how to put this. “Your men cannot come into physical contact with anyone.”

“Ma’am?”

“One of the hostiles is using technology similar to that used by exemplars. They are capable of… compromising anyone they touch. Once compromised, the victim must be treated as a hostile. All of the hostages, including my daughter, have been compromised in this way.”

“If we can’t touch anyone, how are we supposed to apprehend them?”

“They require skin to skin contact. Make sure your marines are covered. Use your wall bots to section off the tower floors. Most of the hostages will not be able to compromise your men, and I can tell you which ones are dangerous and which are not, but I won’t be able to do that until the time comes. So I will need to be in contact with you and your men during the strike. Do you understand so far?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Will your deployment pods be capable of carrying away hostages after you’ve incapacitated them?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll arrange for those pods to deliver to a secure location, where everyone will be quarantined and kept separated until we can sort this out. This includes your men.”

“Understood.”

“And remember. You must treat the hostages as hostiles. Once compromised, they are effectively mind-controlled. Your men must be ready to incapacitate anyone I tell you to, even if its your own men.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Get your men ready. I’ll call you with more details soon.”

Victoria disconnected him. “Bishop? Did you get all that?”

“I did,” Bishop said.

“Then you heard about the need for quarantine. Make it happen.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop stayed on on the line as he worked.

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…


“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

“You don’t know that,” Alex said. “This is the glyph maker machine.”

They watched as Quentin worked the console to the plaque assembler. He’d opened a saved file, which displayed a glyph on the screen. The only option was to send it to the assembler, which he’d pressed. The machine hummed. A progress screen was delayed.

“But the glyph will be useless,” Sakhr replied. “If you remember, she always had to finish the glyphs. Look.” He hit the back button, returning to the displayed glyph. Picking up the stylus, he doodled across the image. “See? It’s not done. She kept bringing us up here because she needed to see us before she finished it.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, “but it might not be entirely useless. Look at those. What the hell is going on inside there?” He peered through the glass as a robotic arm applied explosive gel to the back of the silicon glyph wafer. “There’s got to be something useful we can do with this.”

He didn’t recognize what the gel was for. Winnie would have to make sure they didn’t learn that from her. That meant not letting Alex look her in the eyes.

“What about these?” Christof was standing by three crates in the workshop room, the ones labeled as military property. “Military. Might be something good in here.”

“Let’s see.” Sakhr and Christof pried the lid of a crate. After they pulled away the side panels, packing peanuts flooded out. There was the same clunky machine Winnie had seen earlier that day. It seemed so long ago. In the light, she got a better idea of how it looked. It was like something teenagers might throw together in their garage. Its circuitry was housed inside what looked like a retrofitted footlocker. The reception pan stuck out side like an open car door. Every nut and bolt was plain to see.

“Quentin?” Sakhr asked. “Do you know what this is?”

Quentin looked it over. “It looks like an old assembler.”

“Do you know why it this would be military property?”

“No. It looks like it should be in a museum.” He tapped a tablet plugged into the device by USB. It lit. “It’s a modern tablet though, isn’t it.” He opened an app and paged through its menu.

“Is this something that can help us right now?” Sakhr asked.

“Probably not. It doesn’t look like it’s hooked up to the assembler cloud. Either it’s really old…”

He trailed off, frowning at a particular page. Then he grinned. “Oh my God. Seriously?”

“What?”

“It’s a fuser.” Excitedly, he skirted over the assembler until finding the footlocker circuit box. He popped it open and poked through.

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

“It’s something I designed before Victoria put me in the zoo. It’s like an assembler, except better.”

“Better how?”

Quentin flipped a switch inside the box back and forth. Nothing happened. He left, fetched a power cable from a lamp in the other room, and returned. “So most assemblers work with micro-sems inside of them, right? Once they’ve constructed a molecule, they pass it along to macro-assembly.”

“Micro-sems?”

“Micro Assemblers. Look. How much do you know about microfield technolog—oh, right. Grandparents.” He stripped the power cable, exposing bare copper. “Okay. Assemblers work by having billions of tiny, tiny robots that work on individual molecules. Then they push them together or tear them apart to make other molecules. Then they pass them along to bigger robots who take those molecules and make bigger chunks. Who pass them on to bigger robots, and so on, until you have robots the size of your fist that put together the final product.” He patted the assembler’s reception bin. “Got it?”

“Okay.”

“This one is a little different. It does everything that other assemblers can do, except it also has robots that are so tiny, and so precise, that they can actually push atoms together to make different atoms.”

He attached the power cable to something inside the circuit box. “It makes the assembler a thousand times more useful. Take ordinary assemblers, right? They can make all sorts of things, literally out of thin air. It pulls its carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen from CO2 and humidity. Then it puts them together to make synthetic fabrics and foods and all sorts of stuff, but that’s it. If you want something made of iron or silicon, or any metal, you need to supply those elements to the assembler with little cartridges. This thing can make all those heavier elements from the same air. It doesn’t need anything.”

He plugged the other end of the cable into the wall. “The best part is this looks like it has a Stiller generator. Assemblers use ungodly amounts of power. This thing even more so, but it should be able to reclaim the power released whenever it pushes molecules together. It basically makes power out of humidity using the same principle that microfusion plants use. But the microassemblers in this fuse a lot more than just hydrogen. All this assembler needs…” He flipped the switch inside the circuit box again. This time, lights came. Cooling fans hummed. “…Is a little jump start.”

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

“If this thing is so wonderful, why is it locked in here?” asked Alex.

“Victoria is greedy,” replied Quentin. “She likes to hoard her technology. I’ll bet that even today, no market assembler can make another assembler. Even years after the war, she kept all the food-ready assemblers under contract-only release. Unauthorized use of one was a felony. And this?” Quentin tapped the machine. “She locked all my notes on fuser assemblers away. She didn’t want anyone making these. I’m surprised she built these.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised she figured out how without me. Her scientists aren’t much better than monkeys in lab coats. I made her business empire for her.”

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

“I think so. It looks like it’s got a debug build of the designer. Shouldn’t need access to the assembler library. The downside? It doesn’t have access to the assembler library. I’ll have to design everything we use from scratch.”

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”

“Explosives?”

“Sure. I can make better ones now actually.”

“Then do that.”

Quentin got to work on the tablet. He glanced at the other two crates. “Are those other ones? You guys should probably get them booted. Did you all see what I did?”

No one responded.

“Of course not,” Quentin mumbled. “Hey. Telepath girl.”

Alex had been fiddling with his stolen sidearm. “Referring to me?”

“Eye contact right?” He stared Alex in the eye. “You can get the other machines going. Do you see what I need you to do?”

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”