Somewhere across Arcardius, one of those enormous missiles would respond, angling toward Sora, ready to blast it from the sky.
“A test fire of sorts?” Darai asked from across the office.
Nor nodded. “The moon is small enough that just one missile should be able to handle it.”
A triumphant smile was just broadening across her rouged lips when a beep sounded from the scanner. Nor blinked down at it as two words suddenly appeared, glowing red.
“That can’t be,” she said. Zahn and Darai joined her on either side, looking down at the screen with twin frowns on their faces.
Nor typed in the code again.
But the same message flashed back at her.
“The code must be wrong,” Zahn said, reaching up to access the com behind his ear. “Perhaps we already have some Unaffecteds beneath our noses.”
“They’re loyal,” Nor argued, shaking her head, her crown suddenly too heavy. “Everyone on this estate is being compelled. Valen is certain of it.”
Zahn mumbled something into his com. Moments later, the doors to the office opened as a team of tech droids and their analysts arrived, shuffling inside with portable holoscreens clutched in their arms. Nor stood aside, watching as they tried to override the system, to no avail. The same response came up every time, that hideous message in bold, bloody red.
“What’s the problem?” Nor demanded. She was pacing now, the long train of her gown tangling beneath her spiked heels. The head analyst stepped forward, a beautiful woman from off-planet, her orange eyes downcast as she studied the curved screen in her hands. “Well?” Nor snarled. “Speak!”
The analyst looked up, terror written across her face. Her Adhiran accent made her voice sound calmer than the words should have. “I’m so sorry, Majesty. But it seems...it seems there was a fail-safe set in place.”
“What fail-safe?” Darai asked, stepping up beside Nor.
The office suddenly felt too stuffy, as if too many warm bodies were packed inside at once. The analyst blinked slowly, seemingly trying to decide what to say. “It seems that when General Cortas died, this fail-safe was activated.”
“Speak plainly,” Nor growled, her patience growing thinner by the second. “Explain what that means.”
“It sickens me to say this, Majesty,” the analyst began, “and I beg that you please take no offense at my words, for the fault is not mine.”
“Go on,” Zahn encouraged gently. The analyst nodded, likely reassured by the calmness of his voice. Zahn was the only one holding it together right now, still steady and true as the day continued to fall apart around them, and Nor felt another wave of gratitude for his support.
The analyst turned her holoscreen, so that Nor could see numbers running across it, symbols and shapes she didn’t know how to decipher. Beside the analyst, a small red tech droid beeped sadly, its clawed hand drawing away from the screen on Nor’s desk to retract back into its torso. Apparently even the droid had given up.
Nor took a deep breath and faced the analyst as the woman tried to explain.
“According to the system...it says here that you, Majesty, are technically not the General of Arcardius. I’m ashamed to admit that we had no reason to know this before now, but in any case, when you tried to access the nuclear arsenal, the fail-safe responded, revealing itself for the first time. So I’m afraid that, even with the correct codes, you will not be able to activate those weapons.”
“Cyprian Cortas is dead,” Nor snapped. Her hands were curled into fists now, so tight that her nails nearly broke through the skin. “He was executed when I arrived here, and I took his place. Therefore, I am the rightful General of Arcardius. I am queen of this entire galaxy.”
The analyst swallowed hard, taking a subtle step backward. “I’m afraid the fail-safe does not see reason. It only understands numbers and coding. And the coding, Majesty, has told the fail-safe that though you are my queen, and everyone else’s in this room, long may you reign...”
Words spoken out of fear, even through the compulsion.
Nor’s teeth ground together as the analyst finished her thought. “Therefore, you will not have access to the arsenal until you are the rightful General of Arcardius—until the system deems it so.”
The room was so silent, Nor swore the others could hear her heartbeat pounding from within her chest. She stared at the screen on her desk, wishing she could compel it to obey her. But her compulsion, and Valen’s, only worked on the living.
“The other planets,” Zahn suggested suddenly, his voice still level despite the unease spreading like a poison through the office. “We can use their weapons instead. We have the codes for them, as well.”
The analyst’s words were barely a whisper when she spoke, her little droid sliding closer to her side. “I thought so, too, but the fail-safe’s reach stretches across all of Mirabel, Majesty. I’m so sorry. We didn’t know... We didn’t anticipate...”
Ice had encased Nor’s body. She had killed all the leaders, killed them with one swift slice of her blade so that they would not stand in her way. And now, a month after taking over, it was as if their ghosts had suddenly come back to haunt her.
Or perhaps they’d been lurking on the fringes this entire time, waiting for the right moment to strike.
“There is a ceremony of sorts,” the woman said tentatively. “When a leader passes on, a new heir is chosen. Not just by words or oath, but by the system, as well.” She looked down at the screen in her hands again, its dim light reflecting in her orange eyes. “But in the event that the other leaders fall without an heir, and only one remains, that single remaining leader gains total control of the weapons network across the entire Unified Systems.”
“Then we must do that now,” Darai said, nodding his head as he came around to the front of the desk. “We will enter Nor into the system here as the sole leader of Mirabel, so that she can access the arsenals.”
The analyst’s knees began to shake. “That’s simply not possible, sir.” She looked to Nor. “Unfortunately, according to the system and the fail-safe... Another leader has already been chosen.”
All eyes fell upon her as Nor gripped the desk for support. It couldn’t be true.
She’d made sure everyone was dead.
Nor’s body felt strangely light, while her head felt too heavy on her shoulders. “Who?” she asked softly, menacingly. “Who is it? We will find them and kill them.”
“That’s the other problem,” the analyst said with a grimace. “The system’s firewalls, its back-door fail-safes...they’re all heavily protecting the identity of this chosen leader. And merely killing this person won’t give you access to the weapons. It would be too easy for leadership to fall into enemy hands if that was the case. The new leader has to pass on the power, to freely hand it over and enter their chosen heir into the system.”
“THEN BREAK THROUGH THE SYSTEM!” Nor screamed as fury roared within her blood. She hadn’t come all this way just to be stopped by some technological glitch.
She picked up a glass bauble from the desk and launched it across the room, where it exploded against the wall in a shower of gleaming shards that looked like falling stars.
At a quick nod from Zahn, the analyst ran from the office, her droid trailing in her wake. The room turned to chaos, Darai commanding orders, the other workers and droids scrambling to obey. But all Nor could hear was the blood roaring in her ears, a heavy thrum as it pulsed hotly through her body.
She was queen. The only leader left in Mirabel, all others be damned.
Nor stormed out of the office, Zahn and Darai hot on her heels, and she did not stop until she reached the front doors of the estate and stepped out into the cold night. She stared up at the stars, gazing out across the sky, as if she could see this so-called other leader hiding in the shadows.
For when she discovered who it was...
Not even the Godstars would save them from her wrath.
CHAPTER 8 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
Her hands were covered in blood.
An ancient obsidinite dagger, the color as dark as pitch, lay forgotten on the metal floor of the Marauder. The blade had broken in two during the fight. Unsurprising, for Androma had fought hard in the skirmish. The weapon itself was old and somewhat dull, but the wounds it had inflicted upon her fallen enemies were not.
It’s over, she told herself. You slayed them all. You won.