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.
“YOUR CASTLE IS UNDER ATTACK!”
“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.