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.