Monday, August 29, 2011

Act 1 Chapter 7

    Jayle paced back and forth from one corner of her bedroom to the other, biting her lip and clenching her fists.  In the middle of the room, an unobtrusive holographic interface was set up, displaying the invitation she’d sent to Serge for a conversation.  She’d sent it twenty minutes ago, and he hadn’t responded, which meant he was probably in the middle of a battle somewhere.  She could activate her oracles, send them out and find out exactly what he was doing, but she didn’t really want to know.  She was tired of this war.  She’d been tired of it since before it had even begun. 
    After her failed assassination, she’d of course returned outside to the plaza, first allowing her Vassals to secure the area, and gave another speech stuffed with meaningless reassurances.  The whole thing left a bad taste in her mouth.  She knew she was speaking nonsense, and now so did they.  In a single day, they’d nearly lost their city and their Goddess in two separate incidents.  Their world was crumbling. 
    But mine isn’t, she thought.  She was, in reality, no closer to danger than she’d been since the games had started.  Well, sure, she had been attacked, and it had caused her a considerable amount of fright, but she’d never been in any real danger.  The jade rings she wore on each hand projected a very thin, almost undetectable energy field around her at all times.  Had the bolt from that primitive crossbow flown true, her rings would have sensed it and thrown up a force shield, rendering the attack laughable.  It was a pity her would-be assassin wasn’t a better shot.  If the arrow had struck her and shattered against a wall of light, leaving her unharmed, her people would now be sure of her invincibility.  And poor Believer would still be alive. 
    No, the assassination attempt wasn’t what had her pacing in such an unladylike fashion.  It would have been ridiculous to assume that all of the natives were of a like mind, and would accept her as a benevolent ruler.  It wasn’t even the attack on her home by Brand Amarant that worried her.  It was what that attack represented.  Thirty months now.  The game was in its final stages.  Brand had started moving against her because they were moving into the endgame, and he wanted to eliminate House Jade from the competition.  In a little under six months, this game would be all over, and she would be on her way home.  Back to her sister. 
    What will happen to this city when I’m gone? she thought.  She could only hope that, after a few years at court in the imperial capital, she would be allowed to resume control of House Jades assets on this as-yet unnamed planet.  Any other representative, given control, would have no care whatsoever for the natives who called this planet home.  They would be brushed aside, not even used as labor since robots were more efficient, left to survive alone, numbers dwindling until they were nothing but another endangered intelligent species.  An attack like the one on her today, harmless as it was, would be responded to with overwhelming force.  The beautiful painted homes they’d raised all over her city would be burned down to make room for more production facilities. 
    She’d have to ask her sister, beg her, for the right to govern the planet in the name of House Jade.  But in her imagination, she could only see her sister scowling, a look of disgust warring with disbelief.  You ask a favor of me? she could imagine her saying.  What have you done to earn it?  Three years you were given the order to conquer this planet for the glory of your House.  Three years you sat around and played goddess for those quaint crustaceans, basking in the tribute they paid you.  You have no right to any favor of me. 
    Her dark thoughts were interrupted by a chime from her interface.  She turned and found that a confirmation had been sent; Serge was ready to talk.  She crossed over to the interface, then paused to look at herself in the mirror.  Her eyes were bloodshot and her clothes were rumbled, her hair mussed up from running her hands through it again and again.  It wouldn’t do to have him see her like this.  Serge could be dumb as a rock when it came to certain matters, but he was perceptive to notice that something was wrong.  And a daughter of House Jade, even if she wasn’t the heir, should never be seen so distressed. 
    It took her only a few minutes to wash her face, change her clothes, and pull her hair back into an elegant braid.  She pressed her palm against the interface and stepped back.  In a moment, the interface dissipated and Serge stood before her, only a slight shimmering revealing that he was only a holo-image.  He towered over her, more than a foot higher, slender but wide shouldered, cobalt blue hair hanging long in the front, over eyes the precise same color.  He had the same serious look on his face he’d worn habitually since he was eight. 
    “I’m sorry, I was caught up in another battle,” he said at once.  “The girl from House Tao was trying to find a weak spot in my defense.  Reckes helped me run her off though.  Is everything alright with you?” 
    “I’m perfectly fine,” she said, giving him a slight smile.  Not too much.  Natural, as though his suspicions weren’t worth considering.  “I just wanted to talk.” 
    “You don’t normally call this late…” he looked her straight in the eyes, always the direct approach. 
    “Yes, well, I asked you to do something for me earlier.  I was hoping you’d had the time to take care of it.  Of course, I understand you’ve been busy,” she said. 
    “Oh, about Seol?”  He looked away now, uncomfortable.  “I…spoke with her briefly.”  She reached out, laid her hand lightly on his shoulder.  There was a brief moment of visual static when their images were recalibrated, but she could feel the starchy fabric of his jacket under fingers, and hundreds of miles away, he could feel her.  It was only an estimation of texture, a manipulation of hard-light by their computer’s interfaces, fake comfort and no substitute for actual touch.  But it was better than nothing, and though she was making the appearance of comforting him, it was her who really wanted to feel a brief moment of human contact. 
    “Jayle, she… she’s pretty upset.  And she’s angry.  I know you two used to be close, but that’s over.  These past two years, you’ve left the fighting up to me and Reckes, and that’s fine.  We’re winning, after all.  But now, I think you’re going to have to-” he trailed off, shook his head.  “No.  Never mind.  Reckes and I will protect you.  Like we always have.” 
    “Ser, what did she say?” Jayle asked.
    “She plans to defeat you.  Take away every last bit of territory from House Jade.  It’s the only possible revenge she can have, here.” 
    “Then I should-” 
    “Don’t worry about it.  You’re busy enough with your own things,” he said, somewhat stiffly.  Serge had never really understood her actions regarding the natives.  He was a true noble’s son, properly raised. 
    “Thank you.” 
    Neither of them spoke for a long moment.  Jayle found herself forming a sentence in her head, but hesitating, unsure whether she should speak.  Finally she decided to just do it before she could convince herself not too. 
    “So how is she?” 
    “How is she?  How is who?” Serge asked. 
    “Seol.  I haven’t talked to her for nearly a year.  Since my sister took control of Mercury’s territory on Elmswith.  What’s she like now?” 
    “What she’s like?  She pretty much wants to destroy you.  She basically said that she’s going to march in here, smash your castle, and throw you in a dark cell for the rest of the games.  Maybe longer.  She’s pissed that her family is dead, and she’s even more pissed that she can’t do anything about it.  Remember how she used to get when she had a bad day in training?  She wasn’t angry at us for beating her, and she wasn’t angry that she lost, not really.  She was furious at herself, for not living up to her own standards.  She’s like that, but a lot worse.  It wasn’t a very happy sight,” Serge said. 
    “Do you think I could talk to her?” Jayle asked. 
    “I think that would be a horrible idea.  She’d just get angrier, and we both know she only gets better when she’s angry.  I know you don’t like to think of anyone as an enemy Jayle, and I know we all used to be friends.  But that was when we were kids.  Your House’s aren’t allies anymore.  She wants to take you down.  That’s the truth of it,” he said. 
    “Alright.  I understand,” Jayle answered.  She sighed, and collapsed back on her bed, having just enough dignity to fall into a sitting position rather than on her back.  Serge threw her another glance, and she could see a myriad of emotions flashing across his face.  Poor Serge.  Always speaking with such confidence and totality.  It gave the impression that he really knew what he was talking about.  Which made it hard to admit it when he didn’t.  He began wandering the room, looking every direction but at her.  She vaguely wondered whether he was looking at his room or hers. 
    “Incoming message.  Priority Urgent,” the voice from her interface shocked both Jayle and Serge.  “Sender is Marona Jade.  Subject: blank.” 
    “Your sister?” Serge asked.  It wasn’t really a question.  Marona and Serge’s parents had been the ones who’d brokered their eventual marriage.  He knew her well, if only by reputation.  Jayle’s hands clenched, twisting the bed sheets at the sight of her sister’s crest, floating before her, waiting for a response. 
    “I didn’t respond to her the last two times she messaged me,” Jayle said.  “I figured she’d think I was in the middle of battle.  I really don’t want to talk to her.”  But I have to. 
    “Do you want me to go?” Serge asked. 
    “No.  Please, can I just put you on hold for a while?  It won’t take long.”  Conversations with her sister were always brief.  That didn’t make them any less unpleasant. 
    “Sure.  I’ll be here, when your done.”  He stood awkwardly for a moment, as though he thought he should do or say something else.  She saved him the trouble and put him on hold.  Enlarging her interface, she used the controls to limit the holo-image to show her sister only herself and the bit of floor she stood on.  Marona would not be pleased to see how she’d decorated her room with the bright splashes of color the Woken loved so much.  Taking a breath, she stood, assumed an expression of solemn nobility, and pressed Receive. 
    A sizzle of light, and her room vanished, leaving only an empty black void colored by distant stars, every last one of them shining jade green.  Thousands of miles below her feet, a boiling green gas planet loomed.  With an echoing thud, Marona Jade appeared before her.  Being the first born, their parents had gone all out on her design.  Green hair and eyes of almost preternatural brightness.  Tall and abundantly curvy, with skin of a delicate creamy complexion.  Jayle had grown up hearing constant lessons on how much her appearance mattered, and Marona had not been hypocritical in that regard.  She was wearing a complex gown of white silk, slashed in many places to show either an under gown of light green or a hint of bare skin.  Her hair completed the look, ridiculously long and thick, it fell from the back in half a dozen spiraling bunches, as well as two straight tendrils in the front that hung as far as her ankles.  From just behind her ears, several strands of hair were gathered and threaded through buckles of her gown, so that her clothes were held together by her hair itself.  Typical ostentatious noble fashion.  Though she was only 11 years older than Jayle, her face showed no sign of girlish charm, only cold and carefully restrained fury. 
    “You have not responded to my last two messages.  What kind of excuse do you have this time?” she asked. 
    “I apologize, sister.  I was engaged in battle-”
    “You’re lying.  Worse, you’re lying badly.  You blinked three times before you spoke, and your left hand twitched.  Your tone is sorry enough but your speech sounds rehearsed.  No one needs to rehearse the truth.  Your manners have obviously deteriorated away from civilization.  You will not lie to me again,” Marona said. 
    “Yes, sister.” 
    “I did not call to listen to excuses.  I want a report.” 
    “Yes, sister.  In the months since my last report, our alliance has increased our territory by 14%.  We are on schedule with Reckes Aureus’ projections.”
    “I am aware of your progress.  Your fiancé keeps his parents well informed, who pass on their knowledge to me.  ‘Your alliance,’ you said.  What of your own territory?  What does House Jade seek to benefit from these Games?” 
    Jayle hesitated, but knew the longer she kept silent the worse it would be.  Marona hated wasted time. 
    “There has been no change.  My- our territory is the same,” Jayle said. 
    “Precisely what I expected from you.  Incompetence.  Arrangements have been made with the families of House Azure and House Aureus for a percentage of their territory to be presented to me as tribute when the Games are complete.  House Jade will not fail to maintain a presence on planet 314.  This does not excuse your behavior.  I told you two and a half years ago that you would cease this petulance and dedicate yourself wholly to the Land Games.  You know I never repeat myself when I know my point is understood.  And yet you have continue to fail to live up even to the ridiculously low standards I have set for you.  I will not ask you why you are doing this.  I do not care.  I am telling you it will stop.”
    “Yes, sister.”
    “I have news.  Your mulish actions have up till now been merely a disappoint to me personally.  Now they are becoming relevant on a much larger scale.  I am speaking to you now from the Imperial Court itself, where I have been for the past three months.  There is a great deal of change occurring and at the moment no one can say what will happen.  But down the path of the worst case scenario lies intergalactic war.  I will spare you the political details.  Know only that if a war does come, it will compare to that game you’re playing as a typhoon to a summer shower.  Whole planets will be obliterated.  If war does come, House Jade must be prepared.  Every possible resource must be obtained.  The planet you are so ineffectually fighting for could be the edge we need to face our foes.  Now maybe you will understand what is at stake.” 
    “I understand.” 
    “Good.  Know one more thing.  In the event of a war, I will become the highest priority target for our enemies, followed by my daughter.   If both of us are killed, you will become the ruler of House Jade.  As you are now, I am certain our House would not survive under your leadership.  You performed very well in training, and have put your lessons to good use when you visited court.  I know you are not stupid.  This rebelliousness is childish, Jayle, and you are no longer a child.  It is up to you to mature into the woman that you should be.  That is all I have time to say.” 
    “Yes, sister,” Jayle said.  She could feel her heart pounding in her chest.  The vague hopes she’d had of convincing her sister to let her rule this planet as governor after the Games died away.  She’d made it very clear what she thought of her abilities.  Marona had likely written her off as a loss already, good for nothing but a marriage to secure allies.  Listening to her litany of disgust, Jayle couldn’t think of a single refutation. 
    Without another word, Marona vanished, connection terminated, and Jayle’s bedroom reappeared around her.  She sat back on her bed, feeling surreal.  After that brief but intense encounter, the real world seemed strangely distant. 
    Shaking her head, Jayle input a command, and her interface grew and transformed into a massive view screen, showing her a panoramic image of the city outside her castle.  Beneath the light of three moons, her city slept, the tall, colorful towers still and mute.  On the streets, there was only the small motions of the occasional late night walker, navigating by far-sense alone.  There were millions of the Woken in this city alone.  All of them relying on her, believing in her.  And she was going to let them all down. 
    “No.”  The air seemed to shiver as she whispered the word.  I won’t accept this.  If my sister doesn’t think I’m competent enough to rule, I’ll simply have to change her mind.   If that meant Seol was her enemy now, so be it.  She had no choice.  She input another command, and the view screen vanished.  Replaced by Serge. 
    “Wow, that really was fast?  Are you…okay?” he asked. 
    “I am perfectly fine.  Serge, I’m sorry I’ve been so useless up until now.  From this day forward, I’m going to be fighting with you.  I’ll let Reckes know to alter his strategy,” she said. 
    “Are you sure?  We can keep on as is.  You don’t have to-” 
    “Yes I do.  It’s not what you think.”  She smiled.  “This is my decision.  You don’t have to worry about it.” 
    “Alright then.  I won’t,” he said.  A slight curve of his mouth was about the closest he ever got to a genuine smile, but she noticed it, nonetheless.  Business taken care of, they lapsed into simple conversation, avoiding the loaded subjects of war, politics, and the Games.  Conversation between them was never exactly casual, not like it was in the simpler days, before their engagement.  But it was familiar, and easy.  Both of them had long since learned to bifurcate their dialogue, separating out the mundane and the significant.  The simple version of Serge she enjoyed, even if she hadn’t yet decided on his more serious side.  After hours of talking, they both lay, eyes closed, each on their own beds hundreds of miles away, but close enough to hear each others light breathing.  She reached out, slipped her fingers into his, her skin tingling as the hard light sizzled into the proper shape.  She held them there until he drifted off to sleep, and she followed shortly after.   

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Act 1 Chapter 6

    As the sky grew a darker green, the first stars began to appear, and with them, the Signs.  The first to appear tonight was the tragic form of The Sufferer, bearing his pain in silence.  A fitting sign, Farseer thought.  We are all suffering, and we will have to bear it for a long, long time.  But not forever.  He had faith of that. 
    The ground was uneven and unsteady beneath his feet, and he had to spread his four legs wide to keep his balance.  Where once had stood a beautiful forest stretching from horizon to horizon, its orange and white trees bearing life-giving fruit, now there was only a blasted and burning wasteland.  The blackened husks of the trees transformed the surface into a collection of vast waves, frozen in time.  All across the field, embers burned in the darkness, and with his far-sense he could feel the air buzzing around him in every direction as the energy of the forest escaped into the sky. 
    He kept walking, and soon came to a crater large enough to build a hive in.  A tangle of shattered metal and coils lay in it, corpselike.  He made a slow circuit, taking in its sight and feeling its shape with his far-sense.  There.  He could just barely make out some color in its shattered form.  A small segment had escaped damage, and was painted a brilliant shade of blue, a color that he had been taught represented wisdom and restraint.  The demon known as Azure had no restraint and certainly no wisdom, except for the knowledge of how to kill.  But he was far from the worst of them. 
    “…come to a place like this?  What is there to see?  What would we do if these golems come back to life?”  Half a mile away, the conversation of his followers reached him, their far-sense buffeting against his, vibrating the air in specific patterns that made words and phrases.  He could tell he was not meant to hear this conversation, that they thought they were speaking in private.  Even those who followed him could not always remember how vast his far-sense reached, how clearly he could pick up the movement of others even a mile away.  He paused.  He did not like spying on his followers, especially when they were expressing doubt.  But the harder he tried to shut out their dialogue the clearer it seemed to become. 
    “Who are you to question the Farseer?” asked Defender.  “He has told you again and again, he is following the signs of a Spirit.” 
    “Yes, signs only he can feel.  The last time he saw one, it was within all of our ranges, but none of us felt a thing.  What does that sound like to you?” the first speaker responded.  His name was White Flowers. 
    “It sounds like a true miracle.  The Farseer has sight beyond us all.  It is only fitting that he should be the one who guides us,” Defender said. 
    “I, for one, believe in the Farseer,” spoke Swift.  He always spoke slowly and methodically, as befitted an elder amongst youths.  Most of Farseer’s followers were young, just barely adults, like Farseer himself.  Swift was four times his age.  “But I feel he is too reckless.  These battlefields are full of danger.  Traps, set by one Demon for the other, could be triggered by us.  Some of these golems may still be active.  It is obvious now that the Farseer was born into this time to help us survive these Demons.  If we were to lose him here, all hope would be lost.” 
    That was enough to disinterest him in the conversation.  His shell began to buzz as he shook with anger.  “Survive these demons,” Swift had said.  Everywhere he went, it was the same.  They all spoke of survival, of perseverance.  Any thought of fighting back had been given up long ago.  His people had already resigned themselves to a lifetime of servitude.  Scurrying like rats before the golem armies that swept their fields, burned their cities.  Not him.  He would not go quietly.
    Farseer reached a steep hill and began to climb, the dead wood beneath him creaking and shuddering as he moved.  The largest of the moons was now rising overhead, flooding the battlefield with a pale yellow light.  He turned, carefully, and could see a vast open space before him.  Twelve of his followers, the only ones who had accompanied him here from True Water, were arranged in a cluster half a mile away.  Though they all looked the same from this distance, he could see them all clearly with his far-sense, their silhouettes as clear as day.  Coming from one of the largest centers of trade in the world, they represented a wide variety of races and cultures, with four different dialects among them.  But though they had shells of red, blue, green, white, yellow, pink, and brown, none of them shared either of the same colors as he.
    A Woken like Farseer was born only once a millennium, and each one was considered a direct avatar of the gods.  His shell was pure black, the color of loss and sorrow, but the patterns on that shell were a vivid orange, the color representing joy and rebirth.  This coloration was a sign of a great change, a shift in the very nature of life for all the peoples of their world.  Those bearing these marks were meant to guide the Woken into a new way, and to help them, they received the power of a heightened far-sense, ten times greater than that of an ordinary Woken.  Since he was old enough to understand, he had known that he was destined for great things.  The gods would not have given him his gift for no reason.  He had a destiny.  And when the Demons had arrived, the very year that he became an adult, he had known what that destiny was.  He would, somehow, convince his people to rise up and cast down these Demons, and take back their world.  But for the past two years, he had no idea how he was to do so.
    Attempts to battle the Demon’s golem servants had ended in disaster.  The most powerful cannons his people could make did not even dent the golem’s armor.  In the battles he had personally led against the Azure golems, they did not even bother to retaliate, simply marching onward at blinding speed, leaving his army behind in the dust, faith shattered, spirits broken.  That had hurt him so deeply that he had not tried to fight ever again.  No, he knew there had to be another way.  Much as he hated to admit it, his people were as insects against the invaders.  But some insects could kill.  He clung to the hope that he could find some weakness to exploit, and had taken to studying the golems in detail.  He had even spent time amongst the traitorous vermin that willingly debased themselves in servitude to the Jade Demon.  The one they called goddess.  Hiding his disgust as he plied them for information was the hardest thing he had ever done. 
    He had almost given up hope.  He never doubted the truth of his destiny, but he began to believe that it really was his duty just to lead his people in silent endurance, like the great Sufferer of old.  But then came the signs. 
    One day, he ordered his followers to give him some time for solitude, and began to climb a nearby mountain.  Alone amongst nature, he listened to the wind whistling through the chinks in his shell, the small animals hiding in the brush, and began to despair even more.  All this would be destroyed at the whims of the Demons, should they choose to make it a battlefield.  He climbed to the summit of the mountain, refusing to stop even as storm clouds gathered overhead, rain began to fall, and lightning tore the sky around him.  At the summit, he opened his far-sense, stretching it as far as he could, screaming out for help.  He had expected no answer. 
    He had been wrong to doubt. 
    The clouds opened up overhead, shoved aside like curtains at the hands of an immense being.  The yellow sky shone down on him, and the mountain seemed to sparkle as the light reflected in all of water that had deluged it moments before.  A bright light shone down, a beam of pure whiteness so bright that he could not bear to look at it with eyes or with far-sense.  He huddled, made himself small before it, and tried to show his humility, so that the White Spirit would show some mercy on him.  Then he felt something like a caress, as another’s far-sense fluttered against his, so light, yet strong.  Tentatively, he opened his far-sense, listening, and heard a single word clear and bright.  Follow.  It told him only to follow, and then the light vanished, leaving him alone on the mountain, hearing only the sound of rain dripping off rocks and trees.  He waited, fearing that it would say nothing more, but then, in the distance, miles away, he felt the slightest flicker of far-sense, pulling at him.  Follow. 
    When he descended the mountain and told his followers of his vision, they had rejoiced, believing that he at last was being given a clear mission.  They set off at once towards the spot where he had felt the presence, but found nothing when they arrived.  He had not worried.  It had told him to follow, and he would.  They continued in that direction for three days, and on the dawn of the fourth day he awoke to feel that same far-sense, beckoning from a distant point.  For months now, they’d traveled, following the signs from point to point, until they had crossed nearly the entire continent.  As time went on and it became apparent that only he could see these signs, some of his followers grew disheartened, but Farseer managed to endure, secure in his faith and his righteous fury. 
    But now the sign had led him here, to this very spot, and he felt certain that it was not merely another stop on the way.  The signs had led him around the Demon’s armies before, following a slow but safe path.  The Spirit would not have led him to this battlefield unless he was meant to find something.  Then again, he thought, maybe I just want it to be over.  For this to be the end of my journey.  He had tried hard to keep his thoughts patient on their long travels, but it was so hard.  His people had been suffering for two years now.  How much longer must he remain useless?  Maybe they should simply move on-
    He slipped, one of his feet falling through the crack between two tree trunks, and he sprawled forward, his face striking against the inside of his head-shell.  He spat out blood and struggled to his feet.  But as he rose, he felt something at last.  A deep rumbling coming from the earth, rising up beneath his feet.  It was so close!  He had been right, this was the place the Spirit would speak with him and tell him his purpose at last. 
    The ground beneath him exploded with the force of a cannon.  He flew through the air, and felt a momentary sense of weightless as he spun, unable to tell where was up and down.  Then he slammed hard into the ground and rolled, over and over, his soft body striking again and again against the inside of his shell.  He lay winded, barely able to breath.  One of his legs was in searing pain, and when he tried to move it he let out a sharp gasp of far-sense, overwhelmed by the pain.  It had to be broken.  He lay silent, suddenly with no idea of where he was or why.  Then he felt his followers below him, calling up with the full force of their far-sense.  Trying to warn him. 
    He slid open the armored slits in his head shell, heard the wind whistle through them as he blinked his bloodied eyes.  They were of no use, but his far-sense now was active, brushing up against every intricate piece of the monster looming over him.  A long, broken body trailing long wires like spilled entrails.  Two legs dragging another two broken off at their base.  Its head was half destroyed, but what remained was focused on him with its many glittering, insect eyes.  A single arm reached towards him, the end of it a long, smooth barrel.  One of the Demon’s golems, damaged but not destroyed.  There was nothing he could do.  Leg broken, he could not run, all he could do was lie there and wait for it to kill him.  He wondered what the historians would say.  Would they consider him a true Farseer, or merely a mistake?  Would they interpret his pointless death as a sign from the gods, telling his people to give up and die?     
    His far-sense rumbled forward as he spoke the word, rejecting the concept with every fiber of his being.  Dust and charcoal from the battlefield whipped into the air in a funnel, stirred up by the force of his cry.  I will not accept this.  Gods or Demons, you will not win!  He shouted out, throwing his far-sense out harder, stronger than he had ever tried before, and a sound like thunder erupted in the air around him.  His far-sense actually buffeted the golem, and it teetered on its legs and fell to one side.  Blinking away the blood, he could now see it pulling itself up, its eyes focused in on him with mechanical precision.  He gritted his shell, placed his feet, and forced himself up, shaking from the pain of his broken leg.  He reached his feet at the same time as the golem.  It reared up, five times his height, and pulled back its arm, preparing to spear him, shatter his shell and let his body leak out and dissolve in the dust. 
    He shouted again, and the thunder clapped.  The trees around him burst into pieces under the force of his far-sense, and as it struck the golem he felt something he’d never noticed before.  It has a far-sense.  He faltered, shocked at the revelation.  Only the Woken had that gift.  A mechanical, soulless automaton should not possess his people’s most precious gift.  But as he recoiled in horror, a voice in the back of his mind, much like that of the Spirit from before, directed his thoughts.  This is it.  This is the weakness you’ve been looking for.     
    He slammed his far-sense forward, surrounding and pressing into the golem from all side, choking and throttling its far-sense.  It was a ridiculous move, he knew.  Far-sense wrestling was a game for children.  A Woken’s far-sense was too weak to injure another.  But he knew it was his only chance.  And my power is far greater.   The golem roared, letting out a howl like metal scraping together, and thrust its arm forward to impale him.  He twisted, flung all of his strength to one side.  He felt a huge impact, and thought he was dead, but when the pain did not come he realized he’d thrown the golem off target.  Its arm was buried in the ground beside him, and its body had collapsed on the ground.  It began to rise again, but he could feel its Far-sense cracking and breaking under his grip. 
    “I have followed you here, Spirit!” he shouted, joy over coming his pain.  “And you have not forsaken me!  Golem, I will suffer your presence no more!  Be gone!” 
    There was another crack like thunder, and the golem shuddered and collapsed in a heap, its far-sense crushed.  It lay lifeless, no longer anything to be feared.  Farseer collapsed back, feeling his pain rush in all at once, but he felt like singing, so overcome with joy.  So he did, sending out his far-sense to rumble through the air, creating a melody of triumph and faith rewarded.  When his followers found him, lying bloody beside the dead golem, singing to the night sky, they paused, and then one by one lowered their legs and bowed before him.  Above him, the night sky had grown darker, and the Sufferer was no longer alone.  Beside him shone the Victor, axe raised to the heavens, proclaiming his glory for the whole world to see. 
    Soon, he thought.  Soon. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Act 1 Chapter 5


    She watched the last remnants of Brand’s crimson tanks blasted apart under the fire of her units (and Serge’s airships-on-loan) with calm satisfaction. As the battle winded down, she began to notice the sharpness of her breath, the sweat beading on her forehead.  She wasn’t as used to this as the other players.  Jayle avoided combat whenever possible, and the other players didn’t bother to attack her much either, considering how little territory she owned.  With a wave, she dissipated her interface and hopped to her feet.  Altogether, the battle with Brand had lasted nearly four hours, and she was hungry and in need of a bath. 
    She wished briefly that she could simply speak and have her Companion jump to attention, ready to prepare things for her.  But that wasn’t an option now.  She’d had Sero deactivated when she got tired of hearing her sister’s words coming out of his mouth.  Honestly, she couldn’t understand how the others could stand it.  Then again, they didn’t have any other company at all. 
    She’d set up her interface in the library just below her own bedroom.  Leaving it via the elevator, she pressed the key for the ground floor and waved the walls clear so she could watch as it shot upwards.  For the first few dozens of floors, there was only the dreary view of her castle’s automated factories.  Then light and color leapt out from every direction. 
    Many of the castle’s factories had been emptied and converted into living space for her earliest residents.  The walls and floors were the same gunmetal gray as always, but huge structures of hard baked mud filled the middle each chamber, rising to the ceiling in complex towers and bridges, like giant termite nests but far more carefully designed.  Every surface of the buildings were covered in brightly colored paints and dyes, some colored in full, others patterned in intricate designs.  She’d learned that the natives believed each color had a specific quality associated with it, and had been amused at the idea that these primitive people shared the ideas of the nobles of the Great Houses. 
    Clattering around everywhere in tight-knit groups were the natives themselves.  Though the children (of which there were a huge number, here in her castle) were very small, always clacking around her shins, making the air buzz with their excited vibrations, the grown Woken stood about as tall as a human teenager.  They balanced on four dexterous legs covered in thick armored carapace, giving the a passing resemblance to the House spider tanks used by herself and the other players.  Their torsos were lithe and thin, very human like except for the carapace and barbed tendrils running down their spines, and their arms and hands were close enough to resemble humans as well, though they had only two fingers plus a thumb, very pointed and sharp.  The human resemblance ended at the head, where they appeared to have a huge arrowhead-shaped shell across their shoulders, swept forward in an aerodynamic curve.  Holes large enough to fit her fingers through threaded the head-shell, which whistled when heavy wind swept through them, but could be closed via interlocking armored plates.  There were eyes in there, somewhere, but the Woken didn’t use them too often, except to admire the colors adorning their walls.  The Woken considered sight a secondary, mostly decorative sense. 
    The elevator opened and she stepped into a hallway.  Immediately four of her native supporters turned towards her and clicked shut their eyeholes, kneeling low on all fours.  She felt all the hair on her body stand on end as the hall was filled with a low buzzing.  The many bits and pieces of shell on their bodies vibrated, creating a lively song of percussion, and bringing a smile to her lips.  She had had a hard time learning the complex language of vibration from her people, especially since she could not detect the subtle undertones of the bass-like electromagnetic currents they used to create them.  But this phrase she knew easily, because she heard it every time she chose to walk among them.  “The Green Goddess,” they cried out, their tempo at fastest speed to show respect.  “Mother of the Stars.” 
    She reached out, and they gathered around her, allowing her to trail her fingers across the smooth surface of their shells.  She was glad they seemed to consider it a kind of blessing, because she loved the feel of their armored bodies, and the slight electric charge that run up her arm when she touched them.  They ended their buzzing/chattering and waited quietly 
    “What are you all doing out here?” she asked.  “I told you before, you don’t have to guard me.  No one is going to hurt me.”  One of the Woken, a young male whose head-shell came just up to her shoulder, buzzed in response.  His name was Gift.  His shell was of a deep, rich chocolate color, with beautiful patterns in blood red all over his body.  She bit her lip as she tried to understand his ‘words.’  “Danger, threats,” she understood that much.  “Red, Devil.”  She paused.  Red Devil.  They meant Brand.  His army had been outside the city for the past few hours, though it was now destroyed.  No doubt they worried he might have gotten some of his minions inside, to attack her directly.  Well, they were always worried about her, after all.  It wasn’t their fault they didn’t understand that the seven ‘devils’ conquering their world were her all acquaintances of hers, some friends, none hated.  She’d never had the courage to try and explain the nature of their relationships to her people.  Would they still love her if they knew she was just another demon?
    “I will be fine.  The red army is gone, and my machines will defend me.  It’s unnecessary for you to watch over me too, though I do appreciate it,” she told them.  Not to mention, pointless, she couldn’t help thinking.  Unarmed as they were, a single spider tank could slaughter them by the hundreds. 
    “Do you have need?” Believer asked, vibrating very slowly.  She liked Believer.  Her shell was a magnificent shade of pink, patterned in pure white, and she stood taller than Jayle, which made her feel more like her actual age, older than Jayle’s parents.  And she was one of the only Woken who would actually ‘talk’ slowly to her.  Woken vibrated very quickly when showing deference, so as to take up as little of her time as possible.  Which made it very difficult to understand them. 
    “I’m actually pretty hungry,” Jayle said.  “Had to skip breakfast.”  They seemed a little confused over the word ‘pretty’ but waved her along anyway, Believer explaining there was a victory feast being held at the castle’s gates, in celebration of the defense of the city.  They hadn’t dared to hope for her presence, and were delighted to have her. 
    She followed along, her entourage growing as she passed through the halls of the castle.  The closer she got to the exit, the more the air seemed to quake and tremble with the sound of thousands of Woken projecting their electromagnetic fields.  Her heart seemed to vibrate along with the beat, pounding harder, and she could feel her body tensing up for action.  Her ears began to ring slightly, and she felt as though she were off balance.  She paused for a moment before the door, composing herself.  In the back of her head, she could still hear her sister’s words, telling her as a child that in public, she was not herself, she was Jayle of House Jade, a member of one of the most noble and powerful dynasties in the known universe, and that she must never show hesitancy or meekness, lest she bring shame on her family.  These Woken may not know or care about her dynasty, but they did care about her, and any sign of exhaustion she showed would worry them all.  She needed to project a feeling of confidence so that they would feel safe.  Their whole planet was a war zone, overrun with powerful machines they couldn’t even lift a claw against, and they needed some small sign that things were going to be okay.  Until this game was over, that was all she could really do for them.
    She reached behind her and looped her fingers through the band in her hair, pulling it loose and letting her silky black hair cascade down to her hips.  She smoothed out the wrinkles in her clothes and focused on her expression, putting on her ‘noble’ face.  Eyes clear and focused, showing sharp attention but without hostility.  Mouth pursed and serious, but with a slight upward tilt to show confidence.  She stood poised slightly forward on her feet, holding herself with a dancer’s grace.  She’d learned how to put on this show almost before she could walk. 
    “Believer, open the door please,” she said. 
    The doors slid open, and all at once the air calmed, a wave of silence as powerful as an explosion hit her.  She stepped forward onto the steps and carefully descended.  All around her, thousands of Woken stood shoulder to shoulder, their shells glittering dozens of colors in the bright sun.  The yellow sky was fading towards twilight, the deep dark green of this planet’s night encroaching from the west, blending into a rich gold.  She looked around, taking in the sights but moving only her eyes, so that she did not show any indication of ignorance.  Huge buildings stretched overhead, composed of the cobalt blue metal her machines were built of, but each was covered in a thick layer of the same dried mud the Woken built their houses out of, painted bright colors.  Here though, this close to her castle, they were all the same rich green that represented her House, out of respect for the Green Goddess.  Hundreds of simple wooden tables had been set up in the main street that led up to her castle, and they were currently being piled high with the fruit and vegetable feasts that the Woken preferred.  A culture of such primitive technology could never have fed so many in one place, but she had helped them to construct huge underground orchards that ran beneath the entire city, so that they would not lack for food. 
    Closest to the gates of the castle, the tables were filled with Woken covered in strips of green silk, looped around their bodies and hanging around their legs.  The Woken did not wear clothes ubiquitously (their carapaces took care of both protection from the elements and modesty naturally) but they did wear them for ceremonial purposes.  These green wraps showed their dedication to her, marking them as a kind of priests, calling themselves Vassals.  She’d told her populace that she was not actually a god, only an alien with advanced technology, but that had not stopped them.  Woken philosophy was complicated, and from what she could gather they did not consider her status as a natural being to be incompatible with godhood.  Considering how she wanted to address her subjects, she paused at the end of the table, silently regarding the assembled host. 
    One of the Vassal leaders, an elderly black shelled Woken named Trust In Benevolence, lifted himself to his full height and clicked/buzzed out a question, extremely fast.  She wasn’t able to catch what he actually said, but she felt she could assume he was asking her intentions or officially inviting her to the feast.  She gave a magnanimous nod and swept her vision slowly over the crowd, allowing them all to feel as though she was locking eyes with them personally… although she couldn’t actually see their eyes, so maybe that was a meaningless gesture.  Using small gestures, she caught the attention of her castle’s computer.  The whole plaza was still in range of the holo-imagers.  Creating only a small interface, she formed a huge image of herself in the sky above, large enough to be seen clear across the city, and figured it to magnify her voice as well.  She could hear a great rustling across the crowd as they let out a collective click of awe. 
    “I am grateful to you for sharing this feast with me.  Before we begin, I would like to speak to you all, briefly,” she said.  In the back of her head, she could again hear her sister.  When reassuring others, always speak succinctly.  The less words you give them, the less they have to doubt. 
    “Today, our city was threatened by the army of the Red Devil.  But I assure you all, there was never any true danger.  I will always protect my people, and as long as I still live I will not see harm come to your city.  The Red Devil has been thrown back, and he will never be allowed to pierce the walls of this great city.”  As her words faded away, she could hear, and feel, the rumbles of small conversation in the crowd.  They were uneasy about something.  She raised her eyes, and could see, just barely on the horizon, the glowing blue shapes of Serge’s airships, still patrolling her airspace.  Of course.  “And if my army alone is not enough to protect you, I will call on my allies.”  She raised a hand and pointed, but guessing that they would not be able to see that far, projected Serge’s airships in the air above the plaza, along with a few of Reckes’ gold ones.  She could still feel the uneasy rumbling in the crowd, but what could she do?  There were some that called Serge and Reckes gods, but many others that considered them devils just like Brand.  She could see they would need more convincing. 
    She continued to speak, assuring them that their lives of peace and plenty here would not be jeopardized.  As she spoke, the rumbling sound grew louder, but more condensed, coming primarily from her right.  Keeping her appearance poised, she nonetheless began to panic.  She hadn’t had such a bad response from a crowd since she’d built this city and gained the trust of her Vassals.  The crowd began to grow silent, appeased, except for that buzz on the far right.  It was growing louder, and sounded different than anything she’d heard from one of The Woken before.  Shrill, angry.  And her words suddenly failed her as the sound grew and assaulted her ears, making her stumble back.  The air roiled with a cacophony of noise; everyone was moving, scuttling around like frightened bugs, clicking and buzzing with no regard for each other.  She looked to the right and noted a large Woken slamming his way through the crowd, bright red shell looking bloody in the twilight.  It was brandishing some unwieldy device of wood and strings.  It pointed it towards her-
    “Ah!” she shrieked as a heavy creature slammed into her, knocking her off her feet.  Believer had tackled her hard enough to bruise, and was straddling over her protectively.  She barely had time to notice when she heard a piercing crack, and a two foot long spar of wood penetrated deep into Believer’s neck.  Teal blood sprayed out, dotting the shells of her guards and Vassals.  The red Woken in the crowd was struggling to reload his crossbow, but the others were pulling him down, restraining him by shear weight.  She felt someone tugging at her arm and was pulled to her feet by Gift.  He dragged her away just in time to stop Believer from collapsing on her.  Blood continued to pour out in a thick pool around her. 
    In an instant, she was swept back inside her castle, surrounded by a protective throng of Vassals and Gift.  All of them were chattering and vibrating with fervor. 
    “What happened?” she asked.  Realizing that she must sound like a frightened child, she tried to compose herself, but couldn’t seem to stop shaking.  “Who was that?” 
    “A madman,” Trust In Benevolence was saying.  But Gift was saying something else entirely, his noises drowned out by the others. 
    “Let him speak!” she commanded, and her Vassals went silent instantly.  Gift did not seem likely to break that silence.  “Please, Gift.  I want to know.”
    He spoke.  “He called you a Deceiver, and a False God.” 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Act 1 Chapter 4


    Click.  Click.  Click. 
    The dice in Reckes’s hand clicked as he continued to roll them around and around, the familiar feel of them an almost unconscious comfort.  He stood in the center of a vast room, suspended in midair a dozen feet above the surface.  His attention was fixed on the vast display below, showing a map of the planet.  Origin, he thought.  That was the name he called it in his head, but never aloud.  Planet 314 did not yet have a name.  As was policy for the Land Games, it would be officially named by the victor.  He had no doubt the victors would be his team, but it would be Jayle who would have the honor of choosing the name.  Reckes wove the strategy that led them to victory, while Serge’s tactics procured the majority of their territory, but Jayle would be declared victor when they won, simply because House Jade was too powerful to offend.  Though he had nicknamed the planet, he knew that it would never bear that name officially, so he had never used the name in conversation, not even with his own Companion.  Yet he believed this planet would be the beginning of the long string of successes he planned to secure.  He did not mind giving up the glory of this particular struggle to his social betters.  As he continued to gain more and more victories for House Aureus, people would notice the pattern, and eventually, he would be vindicated.  The history books would note that this planet had been the Origin of Reckes Aureus’s illustrious career.
    The map below him showed the planet in its entirety, four main continents, sandwiched by massive glaciers of ice to the north and south.  All four continents were arranged around the planet’s eastern hemisphere, making its western side a vast, empty expanse of ocean and small islands.  None of the players much bothered with the western half of the planet, as the percentage of land there was so small as to be nearly inconsequential.  The largest continent stood in the center of the other four, was the largest landmass on the planet, and was roughly hexagonal in shape.  This continent, which had been nicknamed Aqua by his allies, citing the combination of Serge’s and Jayle’s House colors, was the source of most conflict in the games.  To the west, the crescent shaped continent Sliver curled around Aqua, surrounded by archipelagos.  To the northeast, another continent, a long, wispy shape hung across a narrow sea.  It carried the foreboding name of Silence.  And to the southeast, another continent, half the size of Aqua, took its name from its shape: Teardrop.
    Thirty months ago, the Land Games had begun.  Nine ships, each bearing a small robot army, a production facility to create more units, and a human child, descended from space onto the surface of the planet.  The children were the representatives of one of the Great Houses of the Maliarch Intergalactic Empire, and the armies the means of performing their duties.  Each of the ships, once landed, had converted into a castle, the fortress and command post of the contestants.  All were clearly marked by a colored insignia on the map below.  His own castle, of House Aureus, along with his allies of House Jade and House Azure, stood towards the west of the Aqua continent.  Two other ships had landed on the continent as well, the only other two Houses to form an official alliance: House Amarant and House Mercury, represented by the colors red and silver.  On Silence, two ships had landed: the black House Void and the White House Blanc.  On the Teardrop continent lay only the peach insignia of House Tao, his favorite enemy.  And Sliver held only a single castle as well, the slate grey color of House Shade. 
    Over time, territory had shifted again and again as battles were lost, all borders in a constant state of flux.  In the past year, Reckes’ team had come to dominate the Aqua continent, though small sections of it were held by others.  Tao had nearly all of Teardrop, a worthy rival to his team.  Shade held a fourth of Sliver, as well as tiny bits and pieces of territory all over the map, granted to him in exchange for the favors he so loved to deal out.  As for Silence… well Silence was nearly completely black now, the unquestioned stronghold of House Void.  He had hoped, back when the games had just begun, that Void and Blanc would be so preoccupied with each other that he could safely ignore them until Aqua was claimed.  But something very unexpected had happened. 
    Where once nine castles had been marked, the map now held eight, with a single castle marked out by a vivid red x.  According to the rules of the Land Games, when a player’s castle was conquered, that player could be captured and held by the winning player until the end of the game.  Of course, since all the players were the scions of noble Houses, with a complicated web of ever-changing allegiances between them, all captives would be treated with respect and comfort.  But that hadn’t happened.  Castle Blanc had been abandoned before the black ship had even arrived.  Worker drones had stripped the castle down for parts, converted it into a set of custom airships, unlike any units ordinarily seen in the Land Games, and before anyone could stop it, they had all vanished.  In all the times the Games had gone on, he had only caught a handful of glimpses of the white units representing Blanc.  To the best of his knowledge, procured by constant aerial observation and information traded by Houses Shade and Tao, House Blanc held no territory on any of the four continents.  With no large production facilities and the bulk of his or her army left abandoned on Silence, House Blanc seemed to be no threat at all.  But the thought of it out there, lurking on the edges of known territory, made him uneasy.  It was a bizarre strategy the contestant of House Blanc had chosen, and he couldn’t see anyway it could be utilized effectively, but he didn’t like it.  It was an unknown force, a wild card that could affect the game in ways he could not yet imagine.
    But he didn’t have time to be worrying about phantom threats.  His team held the largest percentage of territory on the planet, and were steadily gaining.  By the end of the Land Games, they would have nearly all of Aqua, in addition to all the bits and pieces they held on the other three continents.  Now was a time to be focused on his strategy.  He must continuously overview his actions and those of his enemies, prepare for any eventuality.  His grandfather had taught him that once a conqueror gained momentum, they became harder and harder to stop.  He had momentum, all he had to do was keep building it. 
    Finished reviewing the global situation, he dissolved the holo-image.  He was still in the same room, but now standing on the floor, where he had been all along.  His position in the air had been only an optical illusion, arranged by his interface.  Now was the time for some action, but first he needed to eat something.  He tossed his dice up and caught them repeatedly as he walked across the massive room.  His footsteps echoed with each step, but halfway to the door he stopped suddenly as the room went suddenly dark, his entire interface vanishing.  He froze.  This couldn’t be happening.  His castle had four independent generators in case of failure, each connected via miles and miles of cables to the machines that drew energy from the core of the planet itself.  The only possibility was sabotage. 
    He whirled around as a high pitched sound split the air, then dissolved into a nightmarish garble of static and distorted voices.  A few yards behind him, a figure was forming, as his interface manipulated the light.  It started as nothing but a cube, then a random assortment of colors and shapes, undulating and shifting along with the noise, which was growing louder and louder.  He took an unconscious step back as it grew before him.  Then the noise silenced all at once, and the image vanished, thrusting him once more back into total darkness.  His ears ringing, his eyes covered in spots from the vanished light, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something standing in the darkness, just before him.  He forced himself to calm his breathing.  There was nothing there.  His interface was malfunctioning, somehow-
    Lights snapped on, a dim red glow barely illuminating the room, but enough to make him jump back at the sight of a figure just before him.  A small form, child sized, eyes glowing in the darkness-
    It’s me, he realized.  The figure standing just before him was, in fact, a perfect hologram copy of himself.  At 13 years old, he was one of the youngest of the competitors, small and skinny even for his age.  His copy slouched, shoulders hunched just as he always did, his body wreathed in loose oversized clothes.  His eyes shone pure gold in the light, just like the hair he kept in a wild tangle that hung forward and framed his face.  His skin looked deathly pale in the red light, and his eyes were clouded by familiar dark circles.  The hologram breathed, shifted its weight, and blinked just as a real person would.  There was something very unsettling about standing in front of himself, in silence.
    The hologram opened itself mouth, and another painfully loud roar of static and dozens of voices rang out.  He could hear Serge’s deep tones, Jayle’s soft comments, Brand and Seol and all the other competitors he’d spoken with, all except for those of the black and white Houses.  He kept all of his conversations recorded, as most people did, and it seemed his computer was spitting back bits of them randomly.  This was a serious error.  How could his interface possibly be so corrupted?  It was true that House Aureus was among the poorest of the Great Houses, but his parents had spared no expense to grant him his gear for the Games.  There should be no problem there.  Could this be an actual attack by another player?  Hacking into another player’s interface wasn’t against the rules… but it was extremely difficult and time-consuming, and using the interface to control someone elses units was grounds for disqualification. 
    Just as he thought he understood what was happening, the image began to again change.  His skin and hair went pure black, leaving his body a cartoonish figure with glowing gold eyes.  Long tendrils exploded from the back of its head, reaching around to sliver through the air around him.  Its legs cracked and reversed, then elongated, growing taller and thinner, its proportions no longer remotely human.  The arms grew longer as well, and thicker the closer they got to the hands, becoming huge paws ending in long, wicked talons.  The head became smooth, devoid of any features, until even the eyes and hair faded away, leaving him staring at a towering monstrosity, standing and watching him in silence.
    He felt himself shaking and began to retreat slowly.  He knew now what was happening.  The figure before him was familiar.  He’d seen its image in the briefings of the Land Games, when he’d been given a lesson on each rival competitor, their history, their strengths, their weaknesses.  Its name was Three.  The player representing House Void.
    The lords of the Great Houses often engineered their children to represent their houses.  Reckes’s gold eyes and hair had been arranged for that very reason, and of course all lords children were designed to be as close to physical perfection as could be done reliably.  Their bodies were altered to need less sleep, their minds to be better at multi-tasking, at abstract thinking, at logical deduction.  They received every edge that could be given.  But House Void had gone much further.  After the creation of their ‘child,’ there had been an investigation by the Empire.  Their creation was deemed too vastly altered to be legally declared human.  It could not be made heir to the House.  Which was perfectly fine with them.  It had been created for the Land Games alone.
    Three took a step forward, its tendrils reaching, threading through the air around Reckes.  There was a clatter as the dice dropped from his hands to collapse on the floor.  He couldn’t stop from shaking.  His interface was capable of creating hard light as well as mere holograms.  It was entirely possible this thing could tear him apart limb from limb.
    “Stay back,” he said, trying to sound brave.  “If you kill me, you’ll forfeit the game, moron.  Your House will gain nothing, and you’ll provoke war with Aureus.  We’ve served Azure for generations, they will support us as well, with House Jade behind them… You’ll be c-crushed-”  He jumped, letting out a cry of alarm as one of the tendrils touched his shoulder.  It was solid.  Three began to reach out a hand, filled with claws as long as swords-
    “Interface reset!  Authorization L!”  A high, girlish voice rang out. 
    A scream rose up, threaded with static, and the images began to fade in and out.  The black beast stumbled forward and a tendril passed through Reckes, thankfully nothing but a hologram now.  After a brief moment, the entire image was wiped away.  There was silence, and then his original interface, the world map, reappeared. 
    “Master, are you harmed?” 
    “I’m fine.”  He waved her away, retrieved his dice.  “What happened?” 
    “I detected an outside user accessing your interface.  I have been working to reverse it for the past 72 seconds.” 
    “Do you know where it came from?” He asked.  Now that the moment of terror was passed, he realized the image of Three could have been a ruse, to make him suspect the wrong player. 
    “The source of the program was from the castle of House Void,” Sola said, smiling.  He nodded.  So it was exactly what it seemed.  He wished he knew what it meant. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Land Games Act 1 Chapter 3

    Serge sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the blinking image floating in midair before him.  It showed the colors of House Mercury, and was awaiting his touch.  Pushing it would contact Seol, who he very much doubted would want to speak to him right now.  He’d pulled it up several minutes ago, and had been sitting ever since, staring blankly through the shining silver screen.  With a sigh, he reached out, but touched a small tab in the corner of the screen instead, pulling up a larger interface.  He tapped a few more icons, and a gallery of images appeared in miniature.  It was very small, a picture of him standing with his full assortment of relatives, one of just his parents, four pictures of his younger sister she’d sent him since the start of the Games, to show him how much she’d grown.  He wasn’t the sort who kept a lot of images like this, but there were a few more, ones taken during training, sent to him by Jayle who’d insisted he have a copy. 
    He enlarged one, taking in the sight of himself sitting between Jayle and Seol, each of them looking very small and childish..  According to the date, it had been taken three years ago, only a couple months before they’d learned they would be entering the Land Games together.  He himself appeared to be glaring at the camera, eyes narrow beneath his long midnight blue bangs.  Jayle looked as serene as ever, but Seol was all smiles, holding out the victory sign to the cameras.  He remembered, they’d taken the picture shortly after a micromanagement examination, meant to test their reflexes and control.  Seol had won it hands down, and she’d gloated the rest of the night.  Her and Jayle chatted loudly for hours, laughing and distracting him as he’d tried to get some work done.  When he finally convinced him to leave him be, Jayle had made him agree to an image capture before they left.  Of course, they weren’t physically together, each of them broadcasting their holo-images from whole planets away, but it still made a convincing picture.     
    “What’s this all for?” he remembered Seol asking, giving Jayle a shrewd look.  “My kicking your ass in a micro-test is hardly an unusual occasion.”
    “Today’s a special day.  I’ll tell you after we take the pictures,” Jayle had said.  He’d wondered why she wouldn’t say it before.  After it was done, Jayle made her announcement.
    “My sister has just gotten through with negotiations with House Azure.  Me and Ser are officially betrothed!”  Serge was as shocked as Seol, his father having not yet given him the news.  Seol had grinned, and given them congratulations, but then she had gotten very quiet, and stayed that way the rest of the night.  He’d forgotten about that.

    Feeling as though he were about to swallow some bad medicine, he reached out and put his finger to the silver image.  As it switched to a loading screen, he pulled back his uniform coat from the bed behind him and put it back on.  Best to show a dignified appearance.
    The screen vanished, and the air in entire room shimmered, then Seol appeared, slightly blurry until the image clarified.  She was standing ahead of him, dressed in those chains she loved so much.  Her face was blank, no smiles now.  He stood as well.
    “Serge.  You haven’t called for a long, long time,” she said, stating the facts without accusation.
    “No.  I wanted to offer you my condolences.  I heard about your mother and brother.  I’m sorry.”
    “They were supposed to be going somewhere safe.  A piece of debris, a chunk of rock no bigger than my fist, struck them while they were at max speed.  Of course the ship’s shields should have made it a non-issue, but they were malfunctioning at the time.  Don’t you think that’s strange Serge?” she asked.
    “Yes.  There still should have been a back up shield.  It was a…very unfortunate accident,” he said.  He could barely stand to say it.  This was going about as well as he’d expected.
    “No accident.  Sabotage.”
    “That’s possible.  Likely, even.”
    “Though I suppose we’ll never know.  The ship was almost completely destroyed.  Do you know how old my brother was, Serge?”
    “I’m sorry, no,” he said.
    “Eight.  He had a birthday coming up.  A little over six months from now.  I promised him the Land Games would be over by then, that I’d be home in time for his birthday.”
    “I’m sorry.”  It was all he could say.  Her words conjured up the image of his own little sister, 11 years old, sending him messages nearly every day, still excitedly waiting for the day he’d come back home.
    “What do you have to be sorry for, Serge?”  Her voice was as sharp as an executioner’s axe, now.  “We both know who’s responsible.”
    “That’s… not true.  I don’t know anything.”
    “Of course you don’t.  No one knows anything.  Half the contestants in this Game have contacted me, offering sympathy.  But not a single one of them had so much as a theory as to why my family was murdered.  Everyone just pretends like it doesn’t matter, like it can’t be helped.  Everyone one of us has been trained for war since we were children, and yet no one has the guts to handle an uncomfortable subject.  I understand you have to be loyal to your family, Serge.  But don’t stand there and pretend like you don’t know who did this.”     
    “Alright.  I won’t pretend.”
    “And yet, just hours ago, you sent a fleet of airships to protect your dear wife-to-be.  So the wedding’s still on then?’ 
    “You know it is,” Serge said. 
    “Of course.  Well you and miss perfect and everyone else may be happy to just let things go on and pretend nothing’s changed, but I won’t.”  She stepped forward, until their images were only inches apart.  He could feel the air moving against his face, the computer simulating her breath with tiny manipulations.  “Let me tell you what I’m going to do.  I am going to whip my fiancé into shape, and I’m going to get my army ready, and then we are going to march into Jayle’s castle and burn it to the ground.  Then Jayle is going to come back to my castle, and we are going to have a long talk, together, with her sweet sister.  This is not an idle threat.  This is a thing that is going to happen.” 
    “You know I can’t let you do that.  I will protect Jayle until my last breath,” he said. 
    “Of course.  You’re welcome to try.”  She vanished as she cut the communications, leaving him alone in the dim room.  Sighing, he stood silently for awhile, composing himself.  Then he walked towards the elevator.  There was no time for sleep now.  He had preparations to make. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Land Games Act 1 Chapter 2


    Brand tapped a section of his chair and his holo-interface unfolded around him, encompassing him in a tilted cylinder, as though he were in the cockpit of a one of his war machines itself.  He’d been taught to always look down on the battle from overhead, that the direct view from a single unit couldn’t match the all-seeing eyes of the oracles, but he disagreed.  Commanding from up high just felt like he was playing a game.  He liked to be up close, in the action.  Of course, since the unit he was controlling always seemed to get destroyed a few minutes after he chose it, he ended up getting disoriented as he leapt around from viewpoint to viewpoint.  Chalk it up to bad luck.  He’d always had the worst luck of anyone he knew, hands down.   
    He tapped again and a display appeared just over his lap.  He scrolled through it, scanning his options, then finally tapped the folder marked Frenzy.  Immediately, sound exploded from the holo-speakers all around him, a viciously fast track of pounding percussion and heavily distorted guitar.  He always had a good playlist going when he went to war, it helped get his blood pumping.  The song blasted louder, faster, building a crescendo as his preset programs loaded up, showing the vast army awaiting his commands.  More than 70,000 spider tanks, twice as many fleet dragoons, and a dozen of the massive dreadnoughts, a special weapon only he had access too.  The wealth of House Amarant eclipsed that of any other House in the quadrant, and his parents had made certain that he would be well prepared for the Games.  Of course, despite his overwhelming superiority, he’d been steadily losing all the territory he’d acquired within the first six months of the Games.  It all came down to luck.
        Well, he’d decided he’d had enough of that.  Today he would change his luck.  Seol, his partner, had told him that the Aqua alliance, Serge and Jayle and Reckes, would be distracted and he’d have an opportunity.  He was going to march right in and capture Jayle’s castle, and get this game going.  Briefly, he jumped up to an oracle view, just to admire his army spread out below him, each machine shining with the scarlet color of the Amarant family. 
    “Brand, what’s going on?  Are you sleeping in there again?”  A screen appeared on an unused segment of his interface, showing the face of his Companion Volca, her intricate maroon braids surrounding her disapproving stare.  Her eyes were the same color of her hair, like rich red wine.  When he was designing her, he’d simply chosen the crimson color of his own hair and eyes and darkened it.  He grimaced at the memory of all the time he’d spent meticulously designing every lush, bountiful curve of her body.  Wasted hours.  Not two weeks after they’d arrived, she’d taken to wearing heavy gowns that covered her from neck to toe.  He suspected she did it to antagonize him. 
    “Uh, no, do I look like I’m sleeping?  I’m heading out.  I’m gonna go wreck Jayle’s shit,” he told her. 
    “Well it’s about time you got serious about this game.  You haven’t won a battle in weeks.  You always give up right when you’re starting to gain ground.  You need to be ruthless.”  Volca’s image began to move, and he could hear her footsteps outside his interface as she walked to her own battle station.  There was a flash across the screen, and then her face was lit by the dim red lights of her own interface. 
    “Whoa, hold on, what are you doing?  You’re not coming,” Brand said. 
    “Of course I am.  You can hardly be trusted to handle her on your own,” Volca said. 
    “Hell no.  This is my thing.  I’m serious about this.” 
    “You always are.  Until you get bored.  Fortunately, I do not get bored.  I’ll take command of the reserve and flanks.  All you need to do is launch the attack.” 
    “Well if you’re so roaring to go, why don’t you just do it all yourself?  I’ll just chill here and cheer you on.”
    “You know as well as I do that a Companion’s role is to support their player.  According to the rules, I must limit myself so that I remain below your current skill level.”  Her voice snapped like cracking ice.  He shrugged.  Her passive aggressive quips about his lack of talent was nothing new. 
    “Fine, let’s get this over with.  I’m getting bored.”  For the life of him, he couldn’t remember why he had been so excited only minutes ago.

     He lost more than 30% of his army crossing the border.  With his massive dreadnoughts, towering mobile fortresses hundred of feet high and bristling with weapons, he smashed through Jayle’s first fort with ease, but as he was passing through reinforcements from her other strongholds struck him in a coordinated pincer strike, leading to Volca yelling at him for not securing his the route first.  He shrugged. 
    “My army’s a lot bigger than hers, so 30% is really, like, 3% comparatively.  It’s not worth flipping out over,” he told her.  Of course she immediately started flipping out, so he muted her screen and kept marching.  It took hours to reach the castle, the whole way constantly being harassed by Jayle’s dragoons and valkyries, lightly armored flying machines that sprayed explosives down over his army.  They were kinda starting to piss him off, but he’d forgotten to load any of his tanks with anti-air weapons so he’d just have to deal with it.  They’d all get shut down when he captured Jayle anyway. 
    From his viewpoint (the targeting camera of his dreadnought’s main gun), he could see Jayle’s castle just over the horizon.  It stood atop a crescent shaped mountain of dark, almost purple rock, covered in thick green and orange vegetation.  The castle itself was dug halfway into the mountain, still slightly resembling the egg shaped vessel that had brought her here.  Dozens of facilities were spread out from it, curling around the mountain like the roots of a giant tree.  Below the castle, in a valley split by a sparkling river, was a sprawling metropolis, built from parts repurposed from her army of war machines.  The colorful crab things that made up the native sentient race of this planet flocked to her territory from the whole world over.  This city alone housed close to ten million of them.  The thought of having to stomp through that city to get to the castle made him uneasy.  If he captured Jayle, all of their technology would cease to function.  

    Apparently having finally noticed that he was ignoring her, Volca had set up an emergency siren to get his attention.  He gazed around in vain for some way to turn it off, but couldn’t remember how.  He settled for turning up his music instead.  Ahead, the castle was beginning to glow as various energy beams charged up, preparing to fire.  Jayle’s green army of tanks and dragoons was massing around the edges of the city, preparing for his assault.  Even ignoring the size of his army, they looked pathetically small. 
    A blinding light filled his screen and his primary view was jolted to a random spider tank as his dreadnought exploded.  Shit, stayed still too long.  He tried to switch to an oracle view, but Jayle’s valkyries had shot them all down.  Too, late, he realized his dreadnoughts had kept marching forward, out of the range of his shield walkers.  Another went down, but he just managed to pull the other back.  Without really thinking, he’d made up his mind.  Rather than attack the city, he spread his units out in a massive semi-circle, raining down fire on its edges, trying to snipe Jayle’s units in between their cover.  It wasn’t going very well.  Many of the buildings had smaller shield projectors on top of them, which was soaking up the brunt of his damage.  After setting up his units attack patterns, he spun his chair over to the side, away from the dizzying signs of battle, and pulled up a social screen.  He pinged Jayle.  If she would talk to him, maybe he could get her to surrender.  Unsurprisingly, he was ignored, and the third time he pinged her the computer informed him that he had been blocked.  Sighing, he set about bombarding her units again, but just as he was about to set a new attack directive his spotting unit was blown apart.     
    There was a chime from the social screen he’d left on.  So, she wants to talk after all.  To be honest, even if she wasn’t going to surrender, it would be cool just to get the chance to check her out.  It’d been months since they’d last spoke, and she was growing fast, getting sexier everyday. 
    It wasn’t Jayle.  A chat invitation flashed on the screen, a brilliant silver banner presenting Seol of House Mercury.  His partner in the Land Games.  His fiancé.  He couldn’t really say he was looking forward to marrying her.  Physically, of course, she was nothing to look down at.  She’d been designed via genetic engineering after all, so she was pretty much stunning.  But she had a way of making him feel like a kid.  She always seemed in control, and when he met with a spot of bad luck and screwed up their strategies, she didn’t yell at him or sneer like Volca.  She didn’t react at all.  Like she’d expected him to fail all along. 
    He sighed, turned down the volume on his music and battle screens and shoved them all over into a corner of his interface.  With a tap, he accepted the request.  A whole three-quarters of his interface transformed, revealing a stark grey room in the Mercury castle.  Standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed over her chest, was his fiancé, Seol.  Her eyes flashed silver along with her hair, pulled back into a single twisted tail hanging almost to her waist.  The silver stood out against her chocolate colored skin.  She was wearing black jeans and a black jacket held together with silver chains, tight as a corset.  Both forearms were covered in several dozens of chains as well.  Seol had always had a taste for conspicuous fashion. 
    “Hey Seol.  What’s happening?”
    “You’re not doing anything now, are you?” Seol asked.  When she spoke, it was always quietly powerful, each word falling with precision and weight.  His eyes flashed unconsciously to the battle still going on in the corner of his interface. 
    “Nah, I’m just sittin’ around.  Gave Jayle a call, but you know how she is.  Wants nothing to do with us Apollo losers.”  Seol had named their alliance the Apollo team because of some kind of clever symbolism about their House names.  Some kind of old god or something, he hadn’t really been paying attention. 
    “Funny.  She seemed quite friendly to me.  Up until about a week ago,” Seol said.  Something was strange.  Her chest was rising and falling rapidly, and her eyes were narrowed sharply and slightly red.  Could she have been crying?  He paused, wondering if he should ask.  He opened his mouth, but she cut him off.
    “Brand, you are my partner, right?  Someday, you are going to be my husband.”  If she had any particular feelings about this inevitability, she gave no hint of what they might be.  “That means we are in this together.  If there was anything you needed from me, I would do it.  Because that is my duty.  Do you understand?” 
    “Uh, sure.  Of course, we’re cool, you help me out all the time,” he said.  He didn’t like the sound of this.  She was working around to something, slowly, unstoppably, like a snake slowly coiling around it’s prey. 
    “So that means it is also your duty to support me.  To help, if I need help,” she said.  He really wasn’t liking the sound of this. 
    “Are you in some kind of trouble?  You under attack?” 
    “No.  I don’t want to get into the complicated details.  It would be unpleasant for us both to have you try and comfort me.  I’ll keep it simple.  Things have changed.  We have a new priority.  Our number one goal is now the defeat of Jayle.  Not her team, just Jayle.  Nothing else matters right now.  You got that?” 
    “Yeah, no problem, she’s like, the weakest link anyway.  Should be no problem.”
    “Of course it will be a problem.  She has her brave knight Serge to protect her.  And clever little Reckes too, with all his plans.  What I’m saying is, we have to step it up.  You know that streak of ‘bad luck’ you’re always going on about?  That’s over.  From now on, we will not succumb to mere luck.  Everything will be handled precisely, and perfectly.  There is no margin for error.  Call all of your troops back to your border.  We can’t waste anything right now.  I’ll call you when I have more instructions,” she said.  She cut the video before he could reply.  He just sat, staring at the screen in silence, shaking his head.  Jayle and Seol.  They were both crazy.  He’d never understood them, probably never would. 
    Remembering the battle, he swung back and opened the screens wider, searching for a good vantage point to survey the battle.  He was met only with a black screen with flashing red text, reading All UNITS LOST.  He sighed, leaning back, and his sigh turned into a massive yawn.  Another big failure, just after Seol had commanded him to stop.  He really did have the worst possible luck. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Land Games Act 1 Chapter 1

Land Games
Act 1


    Serge’s oracle rose, slowly revealing more and more of the vast army of jet-black, eight-legged spider tanks marching steadily towards him.  A quick look, and he estimated that there were about 40,000 of them, a fact his computer quickly confirmed.  Had he been the smiling sort, he would have met this revelation with a confident smile.  As it was, he simply acknowledged his advantage and set about preparing his troops.  With a flick of his fingers, he split his view into four separate screens, the footage from multiple oracles hovering high over his own forces in a box formation.  His own spider tanks, all colored the respectable blue of the noble House Azure, were arranged into four squadrons of 14,000 each.  Placed protectively in their midst, towering half a hundred feet over them, were the spherical shield walkers, the air around them buzzing and shimmering with the energy they held in reserve.  The long, sleek machines floating a dozen feet off the ground, armed with powerful rail guns and camouflaged floating mines.  He nodded with satisfaction.  His eastern flank was secured, to the west lay only his allies, and a few hundred miles behind him was his own border, heavily guarded by multiple strongholds.  The black army of House Void would lose this battle, and another chunk of territory would be his.
“Ergo, do a quick scan of my units outside this war zone.  I don’t want any other trouble popping up while I’m busy here,” he said, speaking loudly so that his Companion would hear him over the noise of her own programs running.
    “Sure, running scan now,” she responded, from somewhere off to his left.  As he was currently completely surrounded by the holographic interfaces that allowed him to control his forces, he couldn’t see her.  But he knew she was only a few yards away, sitting nestled in her own circle of holo-images.  A ghostly image of numbers appeared floating in the air before him, counting down from 47 seconds, the estimated time it would take Ergo to finish her scan.  In the meantime, he enlarged the screen showing his dragoons, then swept his hand across the image, separating out several thousand dragoons and sending them skimming north at a 1000 miles per hour.  He would need some of them to strike ahead of his spider tanks, softening up the enemy and springing any trap the enemy might have set.
    “All done, Ser.  There’s a couple skirmishes out by Lake Hylan, but it’s nothing major,” Ergo said.
    “House?” he asked.
    “Amarant, of course.”  She sounded bored.
    “Take care of it.  I’ll handle this battle myself,” Serge ordered.
    “Oh, come on Ser, we can leave it on auto!  You know you need my help.”
    “No, we should never underestimate our enemies.  You will deal with it.  And I believe I have told you before not to call me by that nickname.  My name is Serge Azure.  You should address your master properly.”
    “Yeah, whatever.  See ya later.”  She cut off their communication before he could respond, a typically insolent gesture.  He ignored it.  There was a battle to be won.
“All units, prepare to advance!”  At his voice, his 56,000 spider tanks snapped to attention, weapons primed, legs sprouting out and lifting them to their maximum height.  His dragoons swept into position, leaving a colorful trail of iridescent blue light floating in the air behind them.  He allowed himself a small grin, then flung out his arm as he shouted the order.
    The dragoons burst forward, boosters activated, sending them a dozen miles ahead in a matter of seconds.  The spider tanks rushed after, the lush grasslands churning beneath their feet.  The black army had chosen a good position at least.  They were perched atop a tall bluff, its slope covered in the twisted, bright orange trees that grew everywhere on this planet’s more temperate zones.  His oracles kept pace with the dragoons, and just as they reached the edge of the orange forest, hundreds of warning signals flashed across his screen.  Serge gritted his teeth and pulled his dragoons back and a huge burst of small arms fire shot out from the orange foliage.  Hidden within it, shrouded behind holographic camouflage, was a whole contingent of railturrets, a special unit of House Void.  He threw his oracles forward, scanning the forest to reveal the targets, but up on the bluff some of the longer ranged spider tanks were firing their anti-air cannons, filling the air with exploding shrapnel.  Hundreds of his oracles burst apart in mere moments, but those that got through showed him all he needed.  The black armies shield walkers were up on the bluff, encompassing his main forces.  That left those in the forest completely unguarded. 
    Setting his units on auto, he tapped a screen and switched back to a view of one of his border fortress’s, more than a thousand miles away.  Sweeping his hand across the display, he selected a dozen photon cannons and targeted the orange forest.  They fired, their beams shining lightning blue against the yellow sky.  They twisted and curved against the planet’s atmosphere, then struck down from the sky in a magnificent bloom of light and sound.  The forest was obliterated, and his dragoons easily rode over the few turrets that had survived. 
   As the enemy tanks focused on his dragoons, his own tanks rushed up the bluff, using their superior numbers to surround the enemy in an ever tightening semi-circle.  Huge energy shields flared up, soaking up fire power, but he had more tanks and more shield walkers, and the enemies numbers began to dwindle.  Serge pushed his oracles, now ignored as the tanks had more priority targets, over head, scouting to see if House Void had any surprises in store for him.  About 600 miles back, another force was moving up, but there were holes in its formations and a general misbalanced look about it that indicated it had only just escaped from battle itself.  By the time it reached them, it would be so poorly outmatched that they would have no choice but to retreat. 
    “Ser!  Airships approaching from the eastern front!”  Ergo’s voice shocked him out of his revelry.  Leaving his army to fend for itself, he swung over to the view of his eastern oracles.  Sure enough, floating 4000 miles away from his eastern dragoons, three massive crafts hung among the clouds, each of them flying the peach colored standard of House Tao.  He gritted his teeth in fury.  Of course she would see fit to interfere.  She never fought a battle that wasn’t a sure bet for success.  With his main army engaged and his own airships half a planet away, he had no way to retaliate.  His oracles rushed forward, zooming in as far as they could, and he could just barely make out a few hundred missiles, already launched from the airships.  At their maximum speed, they would reach his forces in under an hour.  He had no choice but to pull them back behind his border forces, so that his anti-air defenses could keep them safe. 
    “You could probably still make it back in time if you wait for ten minutes.  By then, the battle will mostly be over anyways,” Ergo said.
    “No.  Attacking without securing my flank was a stupid move.  I don’t know what else she might have on the way.  Are you done with that skirmish yet?” he asked. 
    “Huh?  Oh, yeah, we won it, no problem.” 
    “Then take over here.  Order an immediate retreat.”
    “What’ll you be doing?” 
    “Preparing,” Serge answered.
    With a wave of his hand, he shut down his battle overlay, leaving him reclining in a cylinder of inky blackness.  He closed his eyes, and forced himself to breath deeply, in, then out, until he’d counted to fifteen.  The whole time, he itched to get moving, to take back over his armies command and set things right, but he knew that was foolishness talking.  A true player knew when a battle was lost.With a command, he pulled up his resources menu.  Fortunately, every one of his units, as well as all of those used by his enemies, were completely unmanned, robotic machines that followed simple orders, so he never had to worry about recruitment.  All he had to do was build more.  He scanned the orders he’d given his production facilities three hours ago.  All looked well, except… he hadn’t expected House Tao to have a whole three airships, not since she’d lost hers two days ago fighting House Mercury.  He would do well to have some more anti-air capabilities, as well as some longer ranged ground units.  He spent the next hour reorganizing his production lines. 
        “Ser, you still in there?”  It was Ergo again.  From the sound of it, she’d left her command post and was standing right behind him, just outside his interface. 
    “I’m just finishing up,” he answered.  “Give me a report.”
    “Oh, it went alright.  We lost 12,000 tanks.  And all the dragoons, of course.” 
“Mm.”  Acceptable losses.  The dragoons were so lightly armored, and so cheap to produce, that losing them was pretty much expected.  “Well done.”      With a last flourish, he finished assigning his production algorithms and shut down the interface, leaving him enclosed in his interface’s default setting: an image of the deep blue night sky of his home world, studded with stars and the light of its four moons.  He closed his eyes, lying back wearily. 
    “Hey, you alright?”  Ergo’s voice sounded from in front of him, as she walked through the display to lean over him.  He blinked his eyes open, taking in her deep blue eyes staring down at him with amusement.  As his own personal Companion, a Brilliant class A.I. robotic assistant, his family had let him design her himself. 
    He’d thought long and hard on it, at first opting to give her the same midnight blue hair and pale skin of his own family, to better represent the nobility of his House.  But ultimately, she was a servant, not a noble, so he’d decided she should have a unique appearance all her own.  He’d given her common brown hair, soft and feathery, which hung down in twisting spirals from her head almost to her knees.  To compliment it, he’d given her a deep, sepia brown skin, dusky and covered in darker freckles.  The blue eyes had been his one concession towards familial similarity.  Physically, her body appeared just a bit older than he, a teenager nearing adulthood.  Of course, her body was actually closer to five years old, and her mind closer to a hundred.  She was today garbed in a skintight black suit that covered her whole body except for her face and her bare feet, covered in luminescent blue lines that glowed just as her eyes did.  The clothing showed off every curve of her body.  She often dressed so.  He suspected she did it to distress him. 
    “Come on, get up!”  She waved, and the interface faded away, revealing the magnificent center gardens of his castle.  He had set up his interface in the center of a small island within a pond filled with lily pads and blue flowers.  A tree, a proper tree with brown bark and green leaves, towered overhead, filtering the bright sunlight streaming down through the glass ceiling.  It was actually a hologram, of course.  Before it had landed and burrowed halfway into the ground, his castle had been a spacecraft, which had transferred him here to this planet two and a half years ago, along with Ergo and a small army, to begin the Land Games.  Half a year more, and the Games would be over.  By then, he’d need to capture a lot more territory. 
    “You’ve been sitting here all day, you need to get up and move around.”  Ergo was still chiding him.  He bit back a sigh and lifted himself off his chair, allowing her to grab him and pull him up faster.  He stepped away, straightened out his uniform (custom made, but based on the military uniforms of his House), and walked towards the shore.  As he reached it, a bridge of pale blue light appeared over the water.  It shimmered a bit when he stepped on it, but held his weight easily enough.  Ergo followed behind him, still talking. 
    “You’ve been snatching up territory like clockwork for weeks now.  I really think you could stand to get some rest, relax a little.  Jayle agrees with me, you know she’s always telling you to get some sleep.  You know how long it’s been since you’ve slept for more than three hours at a time?  Twenty five days.  Don’t tell me it’s not true, I have a flawless memory, and I’ve been keeping track-” 
    He stopped paying attention to her ramblings, the mention of Jayle giving him pause.  His fiancé, 15 years old, same as he.  Their families had arranged their marriage, which would occur in their twentieth year, long ago.  They’d grown up knowing they would one day marry and unite their Houses.  The marriage was a useful one, it had allowed them to form an alliance for this Game, which was part of the reason they were currently in the lead.  He hadn’t seen her for awhile. 
    “-and when was the last time you bothered to eat anything?”  Ergo was still criticizing his poor self-preservation.  He cut her off, knowing better than to try and wait for a pause. 
    “I’ll go to bed after I talk to Jayle.  Take care of things here, alright?” 
    He left Ergo in the gardens and entered the central elevator, reserved for his personal use.  Not that there was anyone else to use it.  In the entire castle, there was only himself, Ergo, and a few natives Jayle had convinced him to employ, no matter the fact that his machines could do their jobs better and require no pay.  He set the elevator walls to clear and watched as dozens of floors filled with factories whizzed by, churning out spider tanks, dragoons, oracles, and the many other machines he commanded.  Of course, this facility was only one of many scattered throughout his vast territory. 
    The elevator stopped at his bedchamber, located at the very bottom of the ship, the most secure place.  Players in the Land Games were not allowed to be killed, but if he was captured his army would be disassembled and he would forfeit all of his territory.  It would be an unconscionable loss for his House.  If he allowed such a travesty to occur, he would probably go ahead and just disown himself.  Crossing over to his bed, he removed the blue jacket he wore over his white shirt and tossed it aside. 
    “Activate voice command.” he spoke.  A chime responded, and an unobtrusive holographic display popped up in the center of the room, the size of an apple.  “Contact Contestant Jayle of House Jade.  Non-priority message.”  The computer chimed again, and he let himself fall back onto the bed, grimacing as his spine popped several times.  He had been at the Games for a long time today, Ergo had that right. 
    “Serge?  This is a surprise.  You never call me unless there’s something major going down.”  Jayle’s voice, soft and tinged with amusement, spoke from the middle of the room.  He pulled himself up to a sitting position. 
    Jayle was sitting in a chair that hadn’t been there a moment ago.  To be more specific, both she and the chair were holo-images, projected from her own castle on the other side of the Aqua continent.  It was a common practice for the heads of the great Houses to design their children via genetic engineering, so that they would perfectly encapsulate and represent the nature of their House.  As each House was represented by a specific color, many children were given hair and eyes corresponding to their house’s color, as Serge did.  Jayle had the emerald green eyes of House Jade, but as she was a second daughter, they had left her hair a natural, glossy black, which she wore loose except for a small braid hanging down over one ear.  Tall, serene, and graceful, she looked older than her 15 years.  Today she was dressed in a simple sky-blue dress with no hint of her family’s colors.
    “I don’t really have anything to say.  If you’re busy…” 
    “Please, I don’t mind,” she answered.  She smiled, and looked very calm, relaxed, and restful.  For the first time he really noticed how tired he was.  “It’s good to see you out of the Game for once.” 
    “Is it?  Ergo’s been going on about the same thing for days.  Even the other players have been complaining, saying that they can’t ever relax because I’m always on the attack.  I’m starting to think I’m the only one who’s taking this game seriously.  You do realize the honor of your House is riding on us, right?” Serge said.  Jayle rolled her eyes.
    “The honor of my House.  Please, Serge, please don’t start talking like my sister, I hear enough of it from her.  As if this game really matters at all,” she said.  He was shocked.  He’d heard others joke before, but could she really mean that?     
   “The game determines the how much of this planet our Houses will control,” he said, as if explaining to a child. 
    “Uh-huh.  Last I checked, House Jade held noteworthy lands on thirty-something planets.  Do you really think one more or less can make that much of a difference?”  He held his tongue at that.  She could speak of such things so easily because her family was the most respected in the whole quadrant.  His own House, while still respectable, only held land on twenty-seven planets.  Not yet counting this one. 
    “I suppose that’s why you leave most of the production up to me?  If you’d provide more units, we’d have easily swept the continent by now…”  He trailed off.  He was trying not to sound too critical. 
    “You know what I’m doing with my resources.”  She yawned, stepped out of the chair and began to idly wander, inspecting his room.  Yes, he knew what she was up too.  Since she’d conquered the peninsula she’d landed on, Jayle had spent large amounts of precious resources building cities, roads, infrastructure for the indigenous natives she’d displaced.  Now they flocked in droves from all over the world to live in her territory, and he’d heard some were worshiping her as a goddess.  Well he supposed it must feel nice to be loved by so many, but the natives were strategically useless.  They’d only developed renaissance era technology before the Games begun.  He thought it was quite enough that they had blessed them with technology that they wouldn’t have developed on their own for thousands of years, but he knew better than to say anything.  Jayle was very sensitive about her natives.
    “Besides, it will all be over in less than a year, and then we can finally get off this planet and go home… hold on a sec.”  She paused, her face contorting as if she were focusing hard on something, and her holo-image flickered a few times, slipping over several frames.  He realized the image of her wasn’t actually a live recording, as his was.  “Sorry,” she turned back to him, smiling sheepishly.  “Had to do some maneuvering.  Brand caught me off guard with a dreadnought.” 
    “You’re in battle right now?  Why didn’t you say so?” he demanded. 
    “Because you’d flip out and try and come help me…hang on.  Wait, what are you doing?”  He busily creating a holo-interface around him, leaving it open on one side so he could keep her in sight.  He pulled up the view from one of the many oracles he had floating over her territory.  He sat for an instant, stunned. 
    “I know!  Hold on…” her image shifted, showing her seated, surrounded by a transparent interface. 
    “You should have told me right away!  I need to send you my army…” he said, pulling out units from his many bases. 
    “No!  This is why I didn’t say anything!  You always jump up and try to protect me when I can take care of myself.  It’s just Brand, you know I can handle him.” 
    “House Amarant has the most powerful army money can buy,” he snarled back.  It was no good.  His main forces were engaged in a skirmish with House Void, responding to his earlier victory.  If he withdrew any of them, Tao was sure to take advantage…
    “Yeah, well, Brand is not exactly a tactical genius.  He’s already managed to lose two dreadnoughts because he left them unshielded.” 
    “I’m sending you half of the forces from my northern border forts.  They’ll be at your castle in about 90 minutes,” Serge said. 
    “Serge, please, we need to stick to Reckes’s plan!” 
    “Why should Reckes make all the tactical decisions?  I don’t trust him.” 
    “You don’t trust him?  His family has served your family for a hundred years!” 
    “Yeah, well, that’s why I don’t trust him.  They’re well over-due for a betrayal.” 
    “Seriously, Serge, if you send that many units, you’re going to get invaded.  And then you’ll lose all that land you’ve been raking in for the past three weeks,” Jayle said, diverting her attention back and forth between him and her interface. 
    “Since when do you care about tactics?” he said, but he knew it was true.  With the losses he’d taken earlier, and his border under attack at this very moment, and House Tao’s airships ready to pounce the minute he showed weakness, he couldn’t afford to move so many troops at once.  His production facilities were still working to produce enough units to hold all the territory he’d recently conquered.  He sighed, ordering all his units to halt.  “You’re sure you can handle him on your own?” 
    “Yeah.  I mean, just about any of us could, honestly.  Ha, he lost another dreadnought.” 
    “Alright.  I’ll leave my troops on standby.  But I’m sending a pair of airships over to your border.  Don’t bother trying to argue.” 
    “Alright, alright.  I actually kinda need to focus on this, but thanks for calling me.” 
    “Good luck with the battle.  Wake me up if you need help.”  He started to cut the transmission, but she called out to him one more time.
    “Wait!  There’s one thing I need to ask you.  You know about Seol, right?  What happened to her…family?”  He froze.  That was one subject he’d hoped to avoid.
    “I heard, yes.  She lost both her mother and brother, and the whole ship’s crew as well.”
    “That’s right.  She’s all alone now, except for her father, and he’s busy dealing with the House’s affairs.  We were all friends in training, and I really feel bad for her.  Do you think you could…talk to her?  I’m sure she’d be happy to hear from you…”  Jayle was carefully avoiding looking at him now.  It was true that he had also been friendly with her during their mutual training, but he hadn’t spoken to outside of combat for many months now.  He knew the reason Jayle couldn’t talk to her herself, but as her fiancé, as a friend, he couldn’t throw that it her face.
    The investigation of the ‘unfortunate accident’ had turned up nothing, but every player with an ounce of political know-how knew the truth of the matter by now.  Seol’s mother and brother’s deaths were an assassination, not an accident.  There had already been several attempts in the past months, and they had been on the way to a more secure location when it happened.  And though it would never be proven, everyone knew that it had been the head of House Jade who had ordered it.  Jayle’s older sister.  Jayle was the last person Seol would want to talk to.  He shouldn’t speak to her either.  What could he offer?  His condolences?  House Azure was allied to House Jade.  One’s actions implicated the other.  It might have even been one of his own family members who’d done the deed.  The mere thought of going to Seol, telling her he was sorry, when they both knew he would profit from her family’s death, was a farce.  Completely ridiculous.  But…Jayle was asking him to.
    “Of course I will.  Good luck with your battle.”  He cut the transmission.