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.