The dark room rippled with an eerie, surgical-bright glow centered on a glass tank at the center. Inside, a pale woman floated in a bowed shape, belly highest, swaying, her shaved head thrown back as if in laughter. Tubes snaked inside the glass and attached to nodes in her chest and temples. Great wounds in her torso had been stitched and bound together with white bandages. There was a low hum, the sour smell of chemicals and an echoing rhythmic beep that matched the slow beat of her heart.

In one corner of the room, under a glaring light, a dwarf in thick safety goggles stood on a stool next to a headless robot in the shape of a woman. His power drill revved and died, revved and died, as he worked.

The door opened, startling him. The dwarf cursed and rubbed at a scratch on the white armor, ignoring the blind queen and the two guards who followed her. The queen pressed her fingertips to the tank. The raven on her shoulder glared through the glass.

“Ungrateful wenches,” she hissed. “What would they have been without me? Wives. Mothers. Forgotten grandmothers telling boring stories. I saved them from mediocrity. I made them dangerous. I gave them a skill, a purpose, a family … and how am I repaid?”

The two Stormguard women looked at one another, then back at the tank. “We returned -” began one, but the queen continued as if she hadn’t heard.

“Betrayal. For some romantic notion. For a child who knows nothing of building and guiding an empire. But not you, my child.” The queen rested her cheek against the glass. “You will be more powerful than any soldier. You will never tire. You will never question me. You will never betray me. Because you cannot.”

“Does that mean I have your permission to put her together?” called Frankie without turning around. “I can get her head off and have her configured by tomorrow.”

“Yes,” said the queen. She turned from the tank to smile in her terrifying, eyeless way, at the only two Stormguard who had chosen to return. “And you, my loyal girls, will help me test her strength.”

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