The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.
It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she'd seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.
But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.
"Victoria!" Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn't correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.
For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria's body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.
She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she'd ever had for this world would drift away.
In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.
And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?
She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.
"Stop," she yelled.
It was as though a collar around the soldier's neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.
His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.
Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.
Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria's side, pulling Liat off her.
Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria's face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn't her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.
She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn't they see she wasn't hurt? Why wouldn't they just put her on her feet? She wasn't weak.
...She'd just froze.
The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn't struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.
"What?" he mumbled. "What happened?" No one listened.
In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.
Yet Larson didn't see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. "What just happened?" he asked. "Am I on a ship? What is this?"
The soldiers' glares faltered.
"Why am I dressed like this?" He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.
"What is this?" he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.
"What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won't you talk to me? Why won't somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!"