Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 6


    Kurai sat back, eyes flickering back and forth as he watched the views of his oracles and garudas projecting onto half a hundred screens.  On one screen, he caught a glimpse of silver missiles raining down on a collection of jade factories, blasting them to pieces in the blink of an eye.  On another, azure spider tanks marched across a field of crimson mechanical corpses.  Gold armies held back on the edge of the conflict, waiting for the moment to strike.  And over a cold sea dotted with icebergs, jet black submarines fired at the peach machines floating in the sky.  And on yet another-
    He suddenly leapt upright, eyes focused on a small screen far in the distance, a garuda flying a lonely patrol over the distant empty ocean that filled the planet’s opposite hemisphere.  Thousands of miles of ocean broken up only by small, insignificant islands, most players didn’t bother to patrol it at all.  Though he did not share their arrogant disregard, he couldn’t afford to give it his full attention either.  But just now, he thought he’d spotted something in the sky.  Another garuda, flying several dozen miles away, hugging the water at a mere dozen feet above the waves. 
    “Isolate screen 27.  Enlarge.  Rewind, double speed.  Stop.”  He spoke, and the computer followed his commands.  Where he’d paused the feed, the garuda was in clear sight in the recorded image.  It was white. 
    “House Blanc.  I believe you haven’t spotted one of them for quite some time.”  The voice, spoken softly but from directly behind him, made him jolt with surprise.  He suddenly caught the minute whisper of paws on carpet, and the soft exhaling of canine breath.  His Companion Rasu had crept up on him again, coming within a yard of him without his notice.  She did that a lot.  He suspected she did it to unnerve him. 
    “Yes, it’s been four months since the last sighting.  I need to go after it.”  He took the controls and returned to the garuda’s present viewpoint, now hovering in midair over the ocean.  He scanned in all directions and saw nothing.  He sent it speeding off in the direction the other craft had been flying, and pulled up another screen, showing the positions of all his distant patrol craft.  There were nearly two hundred assorted garudas, oracles, and oceanic hydras within a five hundred mile radius.  He selected a fourth of them and sent them to comb the area.  “This could be our break Rasu.  Ghast would be very thankful to know what House Blanc has been up to all this time.  House Shade might make more profit off of that information than we would if we won this game.” 
    “As you say.  I’ve told you before I don’t understand your preoccupation with the ghost house.”  He turned to face the burning yellow eyes of his Companion.  Rather than design a humanoid body, he’d chosen to give his Companion the form of a sleek and graceful wolf.  She was huge, rising to his chest and nearly eight feet long from snout to tail.  Her body was a deep grey, with whorls of black and lighter grey patterned along her fur.  Her face was typically held in a grim expression of solemnity, though when she was excited about something she would look just as goofily happy as any dog.  When his owner learned that he had requested such an unusual Companion, he had been taken aback.  He had tried to explain that, aside from assistance in controlling one’s armies, a Companion was meant to fulfill all of a players needs for social interaction.  He had asked Kurai if he understood that his Companion would be the sole person with whom he would be able to interact with while playing the game.  So it will be just like old times then, he’d joked.  He’d lived without any help from anyone for over half his life.  He’d assured him that Rasu would be fine just as he’d requested.  So far he hadn’t regretted his decision.  Another human, even a synthetic one, would have been a distraction. 
    “That is because you are programmed to develop opposite my own traits.  I look at the big picture, and I try very hard to think outside the narrow scopes of established practice.  Your devoted focus keeps me on track with this game, and I appreciate it.  But what you don’t get is that this game is essentially meaningless.”  He waved an arm at the wall of screens before them.  “These lands, so far away from the space held by House Shade, can provide us only with meager resources we can already acquire with ease.  Information, however, can move mountains and end wars.  Everyone at court has been desperate to discover just who this white player is.  Should House Shade come into possession of that knowledge, then this game will have been worth it, even if we lose every bit of territory.  And of course, there is much to learn from the other players as well.” 
    “I don’t think you’ll be learning about House Blanc today,” Rasu said.  She lifted a paw towards another screen.  In the direction the white garuda had flown, a massive hurricane was raging.  His units would be capable of flying within, but their visibility would be poor and they would require careful monitoring.  He shrugged. 
    “Another time then.  Blanc can’t hide forever,” he said. 
    “How goes the battle of Aqua?” Rasu asked.  It was clear she was trying to get him to focus on what she considered more important.  He shrugged.
    “Much the same.  Seol’s forces have reached Jayle’s very doorstep, and Team Aqua is fighting desperately to hold her back.  Yet with every passing day, Serge draws closer and closer to Brand’s castle.  Seol must know this, but she continues to press on.  It seems both sides are gambling that they’ll be able to take out the other first.  They’re getting desperate.  I’ve had to turn down numerous requests from Reckes and Brand.”
    “You refused a trade?” Rasu asked.  “That’s unlike you.”
    “I’ve decided to stay out of this one.  When the dust clears, all six of them will be weakened.  Already their standing forces have dropped from hundreds-of-thousands to tens-of-thousands.  If they give me enough time to build up my forces, I’ll become a force to be reckoned with.  I am a bit worried though…” 
    “About what?” 
    “Mei Tao.  I wasn’t surprised to see her join forces with Team Apollo.  But her actions so far make no sense.  And, young as she may be, she’s smart enough to know what she’s doing.”
    “I’ve been wondering about that myself,” Rasu said.  “Since joining forces with Apollo, she’s barely committed to the battle.  She hasn’t had much trouble from Three either, so it seems like she’s just being skittish.” 
    “I believe she’s intentionally holding back, committing just enough forces to keep each side balanced.  The question is why.  As soon as one player is eliminated, it will set off a chain reaction, and when the dust settles, there will likely be a huge gulf of power in the region.  She could easily capitalize on this and snatch up a decent chunk of territory, or even try to eliminate the remaining players while they try to build back up.  It’s basic strategy.  If she’s intentionally trying to keep them in the game, it’s because she wants them distracted.  Which means she has another goal, just as I do.  So far though, I’ve made no progress on figuring out what that could be.  And sadly, she’s denied me her company on all my recent attempts to contact her.  Either she doesn’t want to risk letting something slip to me or she’s just busy,” Kurai explained. 
    “Do you really think you can know her mind?”
    “Its really not all that difficult, when you look at it logically.  Normally I’d be inclined to think it was a mistake, but with a player as experienced as Mei, that’s not likely.  It’s something to keep an eye on, at the least.  But enough speculation.  I think I’ll retire for today.  Call me if anything important happens.”
    “Would you like me to make any advances?”
    “Only attack if you don’t think there’s any danger.  You know the drill.  Take tiny bits of land, small enough that the others won’t bother to retaliate.  It adds up, over time.”
    “Master, I hope you do not think I am being presumptuous,” Rasu said, as he began walking down the long, dark staircase that led up to his observatory.  “But I do wonder.  You’ve been gaining territory little by little since the game began, and have held onto all that you’ve taken.  Yet, aside from House Blanc, you still hold the least territory of all players.  There are less than six months left until the games come to an end.  When do you plan on getting serious?”  He raised his hand and waved as he reached the bottom of the stairs. 
    “Oh you don’t need to worry about that.  I’m always serious.” 
    Kurai rode back up the elevator in darkness, the only light coming from the faint glow of a ring running around the bottom and top of the elevator.  It was just enough to see the outline of his surroundings.  With the walls clear, he could catch just a glint of movement behind them, the machines of his factories working in darkness.  Since growing up in the permanent night of Nier, his eyes had become very sensitive.  He preferred the cool, comforting embrace of darkness to the harsh light of the sun.  Bright light gave him headaches. 
    The elevators doors whisked open and revealed a stunning panorama of stars, shining bright in the deep green sky.  Night had fallen an hour ago in his part of the world.  He stepped out onto the roof and crossed to the balcony, where the wide black sea reflected the stars in a shimmer of light.  He stood and listened to the waves for a moment, content to let his mind go clear and empty.  He loved this planet.  And though every day was more or less the same, he had yet to tire of his simple lifestyle.  Again he wondered what would happen in six months when the game was over.  He would hate to leave, but he of course could not go against his masters orders.  Nor would he want to.  If there was someway he could be of service to the ones who’d given him purpose, then he would do it, no matter the cost.  Well, at least he would get to see Ghast again, in the flesh.  They still spoke often, but it was usually all business these days.  The heir was a busy man, and had many other informers to speak to. 
    The semi-silence was broken by a quiet melody, a series of six notes played from just beside him.  It was one of the many audio reminders he set up to let himself know when he had something scheduled.  He rarely forgot, but usually the reason he remembered is because he set up the schedule in the first place.  Besides, he liked writing the melodies.  He whistled, and an unobtrusive interface, light grey floating over the night sky, appeared.  He tapped a few buttons, and waited.  He had no idea if the one he’d contacted would answer.  Very often his calls went without response.  But he would not mind either way.  He was only killing time, and time would soon be a luxury he would no longer be able to spend so casually anyway. 
    Another six tone melody played, this one deep, echoing, and ominous.  It signified that he had received a favorable response.  He was a bit surprised.  It was a very quick answer.  Could it be growing more interested in their conversation?  He answered, and the entire surface around him shimmered, transforming to show another space.  First the balcony was flooded with light, and Kurai stumbled back, throwing his hands up in front of his eyes.  Ok, that’s new.  When he finished frantically blinking and let his eyes adjust, he saw the familiar site of a huge, sprawling chamber of stark metal and complex machinery.  In the middle of the room, a number of steps raised up like a pyramid.  Hundreds of thick cables ran from every corner of the room to snake up the pyramid, all connecting to a ring of objects in its center.  And in the center stood the master of this chamber, looming high overhead. 
    It stood more twelve feet tall, its long, multi-jointed limbs covered in thick black carapace.  Patterns and intricate symbols were etched in its shell, seemingly carved in by some sharp object.  A dozen long tentacles burst out from back of its head, and were coiled around various bits of machinery, connected to its invisible interface.  Its hands ended in foot long claws, sharp as swords.  Its face was a long and aerodynamic curve tapering to sharp point, like a beak, and was completely and utterly devoid of features.  Kurai had appeared at the bottom of the pyramids steps, and the creature descended with shocking swiftness, its limbs reaching far out for purchase like a spider stalking prey, totally silent.  It lowered its head and came within inches of him, seemingly looking him in the eyes, though it had none.  It was so close Kurai could see his own face reflected back in its shiny carapace.  As always, he could feel a sort of hum in the air, as though there was a great amount of electrical discharge firing off its massive body.  He smiled. 
    “Hello Three.  How are you tonight?” he asked.  Three pulled back and sat on its haunches on the lowest rung of the pyramid, looking like some huge demon offering to purchase his soul.  He made no move to respond.  Kurai knew he could not speak, though he likely would be able to use his interface to communicate if he wanted.  In all their conversations, he had never made any attempt to communicate.  He just stood there, and listened. 
    “I’ve been thinking that maybe I could get you to do something for me, to make this conversations a little less one sided.  Do you know what it means to shake your head or nod?  Like this.”  He showed him, exaggerating his motions for effect.  “Shaking means no.  Nodding means yes.  If I asked you some questions, would you do that for me?”  He paused to give it a chance to respond.  Three’s head did not move an inch.  It just crouched there, as though it were considering whether or not to twist off his head.  Kurai wasn’t worried…but he couldn’t deny that he always felt a little uncomfortable in the Void player’s presence. 
    “How about you try to nod.  I’ll ask a question I know is true.  Your name is Three, is this correct?” Kurai asked.  Again, Three sat perfectly still.  If not for the hum emanating from its body, it could have been a statue.  “No?  How about you shake your head?  I say a false statement, and you reply.  You are a human like me, is this correct?”  Nothing.  He sighed.  Still no progress.  He was quite certain that he was the only player who’d willingly chosen to try and speak with Three, but he had very little to show for it.  Why the huge creature even bothered to respond to his invitations, he could not tell. 
    “Fine.  I suppose I’ll do the talking again.  What was I telling you about last time?  Oh yes, my owners.  I believe I gave quite a detailed account of how they came to own me and gave me a purpose to fulfill.  It was something I’ve always wanted to put to words, but had no one to say them too.  After all, speaking such words of gratitude to my owners would likely be seen as embarrassing to them.  They took me in because they had a use for me, not out of altruism.  I am no less grateful for it, however.  So what should I talk about tonight?  Lets see, you know how I came to become a servant of House Shade.  How about what came before?  I will tell you how I existed before I had a reason to live.
    “My tale doesn’t have a proper beginning.  I can’t tell you where I was born or who my parents were.  I have only vague memories of a parental figure, most of them negative.  I suppose such a legacy does not bode well for their parentage.  My memories begin to coalesce around the age of ten.  I was living on a planet called Nier.  Nier does not rotate, so one side of the planet is always day while the other remains perpetually night.  I grew up on the night side, on the streets of a major city where House Shade made their headquarters.  In this city, the vast majority of citizens were employees of House Shade.  They were not charitable people.  I lived off of trash and handouts, slinking by in the shadows, competing with packs of stray dogs.  I spent my childhood in silence, learning early on that speaking invited only indifference.  I spent months without speaking a single word.  But I listened.
    “I would huddle in the darkness between tall buildings and listen as the throngs of humanity passed me by, snatches of conversation drifting by without context.  I would listen to their orphaned words and craft the rest of the dialogue myself, spending hours imagining what their distant lives were like.  Though I only could hear a bit at a time, there was nevertheless a single theme that emerged from the whole.  Freedom.  All of those people, walking by under their own power, secure in their comfortable lives, desired freedom.  Keep in mind these people were all living well, supported by the vast wealth of House Shade.  At any time they wished, they could transform their own homes into exotic distant places with a simple download from the universal network.  They could speak to anyone in the entire known universe as easily as they if they were standing next to each other.  They took vacations and traveled the stars, the infinite expanse of the galaxy at their disposal.  And yet they wanted more.  Freedom from their duties, freedom from their worries, freedom from their fears.  Now, the thought makes me laugh, but back then I was furious. 
    “I had all the freedom I could ever dream of.  No one told me what to do; no one cared.  I could go anywhere I wished, so long as I stuck to the shadows and stayed out of sight.  I had no duties.  I had no master.  And yet I felt like I was slowly dying.  Every hour bled into the next, with nothing to separate them.  What did it matter how much time had passed?  Nothing ever changed.  There were no pleasant memories to recall, nothing to look forward to.  Even the sky did not change.  What good was freedom?  When the opportunity came, I was happy to give it up.  Given how meaningless my freedom was, it only made sense that I would trade it for a comfortable cage.  In my situation, wouldn’t anyone make the same choice?” he said. 
    Three sat in silence, then ever so slowly began to move.  Its head swung slowly from one side, then the other.  No.  Kurai stood and stared in shock, then opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late.  The bright room vanished.  He was back on the roof of his castle, under the stars.  Three had cut the conversation.
    “Well.  Isn’t, that, interesting?”

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 5


    Beyond the wall of glass, a limitless stretch of cerulean water drifted by.  Though they were deep beneath the waves, he could see for miles, the water startlingly clear.  A school of giant sea dragons were passing by a mere hundred yards away, the sea lit by the iridescent lights of their bodies.  The sight was uplifting, their light an emerald beacon of hope in this dark place.  But his hope turned to despair.  He had not yet given up, but the fact was that he would most likely never see the sun again.  Not unless he gave in and agreed to work with the Deceiver.  But that was something he could never allow. 
    Stumbling on his still-injured leg, he put his hand to the glass, reached out with his far-sense.  Just beyond that narrow barrier, he could feel the force of an entire world’s worth of water, pushing against him.  It was an awe inspiring feeling, as though he had felt the touch of a god itself.  He pushed his far-sense out farther, the water rippling as it forced its way through, and lightly touched the distant dragons.  All at once their bodies shone like the sun, their light swelling to blinding brightness, and they fled in every direction in a swirl of color.  He pulled back his far-sense, feeling numb. 
    He turned and descended again towards the center of the chamber.  It was an enormous room, a circle divided into four distinct rings of varying height.  Each ring had its own wall of glass to provide a view to the outside, and the lowest ring, where he ate and slept, had a floor of glass as well.  He found it comforting, that he could send out his far-sense and feel it trailing across the many creatures that swam beyond, reminding him he was not alone, that there was a wider world outside this cell.  The Deceiver had provided him with every luxury, yet it was a prison nonetheless. 
    He had been trapped in this undersea shell for two days, as near as he could tell.  When first the sea split apart and this white vessel rose from the depths, shining with white light, he had been supremely moved, at last being given the attention a Farseer deserved, attention from the gods themselves.  That awe had turned to ashes swiftly.  He was not so blinded by faith as to believe that this vessel belonged to an actual Spirit.  He had been deceived, and he knew now that one who had claimed to be the Spirit was nothing more than another alien demon, empowered by soulless technology.  It had admitted as much, just after he’d arrived. 
    “In what way have I deceived you Farseer?” the Deceiver had spoken.  The sound of it’s voice made his shell clench with anger.  It was a flat, dull voice with no hint of melody, devoid of any hint of its owners sex.  Though it spoke his language passably, the inflection was all wrong, and most annoyingly, it continued to speak very slowly, as one did to a child.  “I never claimed to be this Spirit you so desperately seek.  I never claimed anything at all.  All I did was tell you to follow.  You have no one but yourself to blame for your misunderstanding.” 
    “I had faith that I would be led on the right path.  As Farseer it is my destiny to save my people.  Do you find my faith amusing, demon?” he said. 
    “On the contrary.  I respect your faith very much.  I cannot remember what it was like to believe in something so thoroughly.  Maybe I never did believe.  But have you considered that you are jumping to the wrong conclusions?  Maybe you were right to believe.  Maybe this is the path you are meant to take.”
    “What, you suggest that the avatar of the gods, the sole hope for my people was meant to waste his life imprisoned by a demon?  Obliviously this is how I will save my people.  How could I not have seen it before?”
Farseer said. 
    “Alien sarcasm, how amusing.  The fact that two separate species developing independently both came up with a term for the facetious use of insincerity is quite an intriguing one.  Do you think it more supports the theory of intelligent design or of evolution?  Personally I am inclined towards the former.”
    “You are wasting your words Deceiver.  Get to the point.  You obviously have no desire to kill me.  What is it you want of me?” 
    “I should think that is obvious.  I want your help,”
the voice said.

    The Deceiver had been irritatingly cryptic ever since.  It had spoken on occasion, to offer him food and point out sights of interest from outside the vessel.  Any attempt to get it to explain itself further had been met with insistence that he wait and see.  Everything would be explained when they reached their destination. 
    At first he had been loathe to accept the offered food and water.  But pragmatism won over righteous fury in the end.  If he died here he would be a failure as Farseer.  Though it did not seem likely that he would ever be able to escape, much less fight back against the invaders, he would have to remain alive if there was going to be any chance of victory.  He had considered shattering the glass of this vessel with his powerful far-sense, and letting the ocean bury him in silence.  But he had been given a task, impossible as it may seem.  His body belonged to the gods, to his people.  He did not have the right to let himself die. 
    He returned to the table to see what had been placed.  Every five hours or so, except when he was sleeping, a number of strange mechanical claws would descend from the ceiling and set a collection of food and drink for his use, far more than he could possibly need.  He had wondered where the arms escaped to, and if he could somehow follow them and escape this cell.  But the openings they used were much too small for him to enter, and too high to reach besides.  He had at least concluded that the arms were a type of golem, and not a living creature.  He supposed he could destroy it with his far-sense, but then he would have no food.  He couldn’t see how it would inconvenience his captor anyway.  He went to see what had been provided today. 
    The main course was a magnificent crimson berry, sliced in half and hollowed out so that it could be filled with a soup of leeks and roots.  For every ingredient he recognized there was another he did not.  He sampled them all, pausing at each foreign taste, but found he was opposed to none.  He had wondered, a bit queasily, if some of these were in fact alien plants, the very sustenance the demons had been raised on.  But the Deceiver had laughed at that, and assured him that all had come from his own planet.  It made him realize how little he actually knew of his own people.  Well he was young.  If he survived, he would have time to learn. 
    “Are you there, Deceiver?” he asked.  Sometimes he found the silence in this place soothing.  Other times he found it maddening.  And the thought that the demon was always watching him, with no sign of itself, continued to grate on his nerves. 
    “Of course I’m here.  Did you think I would abandon you, my sweet friend?” 
    “Why don’t you show yourself?  Obviously a creature so despicably powerful has nothing to fear.  Do you enjoy this air of mystery you cloak yourself in?” 
    “Hardly.  I must admit I haven’t thought about it.  I have remained hidden for so long, it has become my nature.  But my reason for not showing myself is rather more pedestrian than some petty play for obscurity.  I am not there.  At this moment I am physically several hundred miles from your location.  Any image I showed you would be an illusion.  And I know how much you despise trickery,”
it said. 
    “Even an illusion would be better than conversing with the air.”
    “As you wish.  Give me a moment to prepare something.”

    He paused, wondering what had made him think to ask that.  He did not care what this demon looked like.  He shouldn’t even be talking to it.  Besides, logically it would have roughly the same appearance as the other demons.  He had spent half a year in Green Towers, the city ruled by the Jade demon.  Though he had never had the opportunity to see her in person, he had seen the many paintings her pathetic followers had made in her honor.  The demons were comical, ridiculous creatures.  They tottered around clumsily on two legs, with tiny heads and soft flesh like that of a peach.  They were all around an uninspiring sight, a dull, colorless race with no elegance or beauty.  The so called Green Goddess was not even green, except for the tiny circles in the middle of her exposed eyes.  He had been astounded such a pathetic creature could ever have gained such power.  They were probably mere minions of some more threatening demons, perhaps even slaves.  It was the only thing that made sense. 
    “Does this form meet your approval?” the Deceiver said.  A shimmering stirred the air before him, detectable both by sight and far-sense.  A figure coalesced like a painting done in extreme speed, first a rough sketch, then color added, followed by shadows and depth.  He bristled at the appearance chosen.  It was a shaped like one of his people, four legs strong and sharply pointed, long tendrils hanging down its back, upper body lithe and slender.  It had chosen to appear as a female, assuming the Deceiver even knew how to tell the difference.  Her shell was a milky white, unblemished and pure.  The color made him shiver.  Though nowhere near as highly lauded as the orange on black of a Farseer, white shelled Woken were extraordinarily rare.  White was a funereal color.  White was the color of a benevolent death, the satisfied death of one who had lived a good life.  Was it meant to be a threat?  More likely the Deceiver did not know its significance. 
    “I would rather you not profane the sacred image of my people.  Have you not done enough in sparking this apocalypse?”
the Deceiver rattled her illusionary carapace, making it hiss to show annoyance.  “You are such a downer, Farseer.  Misery and woe are all you ever talk about.  Don’t you ever get tired of listening to yourself mope?  Is that a positive personality trait for your people?  Do the girls line up to listen to you spiel your tragic manifesto?  Try to be a little less sensitive, it’s a repugnant quality.”
    “Oh, I’m quite sorry I haven’t been as amusing as you’d like.  Imprisonment tends to put a damper on my sunny disposition,” he responded. 
    “And the way you keep throwing around these absolutes without thinking… you’re blaming the wrong person for peoples trouble.  Have you ever once heard of any damage caused by a white army?”
  He kept silent as he realized he hadn’t.  White golems were seen on very rare occasions, but never in force, and never had he heard of them participating in the battles that tore his world asunder.  In fact he had nearly forgotten that there was a white demon at all.  Could this demon truly be willing to help me?  It was an amazing thought, that he could have the force of all that power, an army of golems, at his disposal.  He thrust away the tempting image.  These demons could not be trusted, and this one shared the blame for his people’s suffering, even if it did not partake in the war itself.  By all accounts the white ship had been the very first to land.  It could well be that it had led the others here. 
    “I have little interest in the game the others are playing.  Despite what they think, it’s meaningless.  No one will win, though I expect there will be losers.  This petty struggle is only the prologue to my story.  When all is over they will look back and wonder how they could have wasted so much time and resources squabbling like the children they are.”  The Deceiver seemed to be speaking to itself, as though it had forgotten Farseer’s presence. 
    “So why the guise?  If you really want my help, why not show me your true form?  I have never seen a demon first hand,” he said. 
    “How about no.  Sorry but I’m a bit sensitive about my appearance.  No one has seen me for many years now.  At first my solitude was due to necessity, but eventually I began to feel that I should make something of it.  I do not plan on revealing myself until I can speak with the one who forced me into this hermitage.  Only when his world is shattered and he is trying desperately to hold the broken pieces together, then will I reveal myself.  That will be a sweet moment.  I will savor it a good long time,” the Deceiver said. 
    “So your reason for all this is simple revenge?”
    “Don’t start getting worked up again.  Your planet was chosen to be the site of this battle long before I decided to get involved.  Even if I had refused to come, nothing would have changed.  Your peoples struggle was an inevitability.  But their defeat doesn’t have to be.  But we’ve talked about this long enough, I’ve given up on trying to convince you until you see what I have to show you.  I just wanted to explain why I choose to speak with you in this form.  And speaking of secrets, I think it is disingenuous of you to insinuate that I am the only one withholding information.  Why, you go so far as to hide your name, don’t you Farseer?”

    “My birth name is of no importance to you.  My shell has marked me as a Farseer since my third year.  My old name has no more meaning.  How would you even know about such thing?  Your kind do nothing but cause death and destruction.  Our culture and history mean nothing to you.”
    “Oh I wouldn’t say that.  Studying your people has kept me occupied while I wait for certain events to begin.  I do have to pass the time somehow.  So tell me, Farseer, what did you mother call you?”
    “That is something you have no right to know.”
    “Why not?  Had you been born with a different shell, everyone would know you by your common name.  Do you hate your name?  Does it remind you that, if not for a simple genetic anomaly, quite a common occurrence from a cosmic viewpoint, you would simply be another Woken?  You quite like your new name, don’t you Farseer?  It is such a
grand name, one that is spoken with such reverence and deference.  You do love to be held up high, don’t you, where you can look down at everyone.  Oh ho, did I strike a nerve?” 
    “Shut up demon.  My name is a sacred issue of trust from the gods to our race.  I wear it with pride.  I do not look down on anyone,”
he said.  He was speaking extremely slowly, measuring out his vibrations with a distinctly insulting lethargy.  He realized his tendrils were rising in anger. 
    “Come now Farseer, you don’t have to pretend with me.  I’ve been watching you for well over a year now.  No matter how alone you thought you were in the midst of the wilderness, my eyes were always nearby.  You’ve made quite an intriguing story for me to follow.  Almost Shakespearean in its bluntness.  You make quite the tragic character, full of flaws which will surely drag you down in the end.  Normally your story would end in despair, but fortunately for you I am here to change things up.  Normally you would only be a minor character, a bit of dark comedy to distract from the true tale.  You make an inspiring play for justice, the lone visionary sparking revolution with spiritual fervor.  But of course you will fail.  How can you possibly win against beings who make your gods look like insects?  But I can change that.  I will be your deus ex machina.  And together we will turn this story on its head and force its writer to tears.  Are you ready to wreak some havoc with me Farseer?” 
Her body was quivering now with each word, speaking faster and faster, not in respect, he guessed, but due to some wild enthusiasm.  She drew closer as she spoke, and with the last question reached out and put one hand on his head-shell, a light and gentle touch.  He froze as he realized he could feel it.  What he thought was an illusion was, somehow, actual solid shell and blood.  Was there anything these demons were not capable of?
    “You expect me to understand what you’re talking about?  You refuse to tell me your goals, to tell me why you need my help, to even explain what it is you want me to do?  Why should I listen to anything you have to say?” he asked, stepping away from her touch. 
    “Ah, Farseer.  You have such good timing.”  As she spoke, the entire vehicle suddenly shuddered and ground to a halt.  He extended his far-sense and realized they had arrived in the midst of some massive underwater complex, filled with towering spires and deep pits.  “We have arrived at our destination.  Follow me, and I will show you what I want you to do, and more importantly, why you will agree to do it.” 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reader Roll-cal

So we're at about the midpoint of Act 2 now, and I'm just wondering if I have any readers I don't know about yet.  If you've read any of Land Games and are still interested in reading more, please post a comment and tell me what you think.  And to all the bros from Tv Tropes, hey.  


Land Games Act 2 Chapter 4



    The sun shone down from the east, a blazing yellow light illuminating a huge river twisting in on itself over and over again.  Dozens of islands sprang up from its midst.  The islands and the banks of the river used to be thick with trees, but yesterday’s fighting had reduced it all to ash and transformed the river into to a thick grey soup.  Across the river, Brand’s crimson army was scattered across the plains, seemingly at random.  A couple of hills looked to be reinforced with artillery, probably beam cannons like the one Brand had destroyed in their previous battle.  But his units had no formation, no hint of order or design.  Most of them weren’t moving.  Serge wasted no time.  Now was the perfect opportunity to strike. 
    He sent his dragoons across first in waves, spread out in three distinct phalanxes.  The hills lit up with blasts of gunfire.  Hundreds of his hovercraft crashed and burned, but even without backup they were able to smash through Brand’s line for dozens of miles, easily tearing through the scattered groups of unprepared spider tanks.  As he activated his dragoon’s boosters, sending them blazing across the battlefield and spraying aerial mines in every direction, his spider tanks began to advance, leaping from island to island to cross the river with ease.  Brand’s tanks were being blasted apart by mines, and his own tanks were quickly forming into a wide crescent, sweeping north and cutting down foes like a scythe threshing wheat.  Normally at this point, he would have considered meeting this result with a confident smile.  As it were, he felt only a vague unease.  Compared to Brand’s sudden burst of enthusiasm yesterday, today he didn’t seem to be reacting at all.  Were his units on auto-pilot?
    “Ergo, any trouble on your end?” he asked. 
    “Nope, just mopping up some of Brand’s defensive structures.  He left them damn near unguarded, it’s kinda pathetic.  He must be focusing his attention somewhere else.”
    “Reckes, Jayle, is Brand engaging you anywhere?”
    “He just diverted 20,000 tanks away from my army…” Reckes said.  “Even though he totally outnumbers me.  I was trying to lure him into a trap, but it looks like he’s just gonna let me smash these fortresses.  He’s headed towards you Serge.  Move up your 4th reserve to point B7, and you’ll be able to flank him.  Not too fast, or he’ll see it coming.  If he’s bothering to pay attention.”
    “Everything’s quiet here,” Jayle said.  Her own units were being held in reserve, to support any army that started to flounder.  Reckes didn’t want to provoke Seol too much yet.  Before they could put their plan in motion, Serge needed make some more headway to the southeast, towards Brand’s castle. 
    “Alright.  I’ll smash his army here.  How will that affect the plan?” Serge asked. 
    “Shouldn’t be a big deal, we’ll just jump ahead a few steps.  I’ll revise the operation board when the battle’s over,” Reckes said. 
    Gritting his teeth, Serge returned his attention to the battle, if one could even call it that.  With voice commands, he called out to his forces (which caused Reckes to shoot him a bemused look) and ordered a general charge.  Without building into a proper formation, his troops burst forward and ran rough over the enemy.  Normally he would have paid dearly for such a reckless move, but Brand’s units were so poorly arranged that they barely got the chance to fire back.  His beam cannons, well protected and cleverly placed, nonetheless proved inconsequential.  The tanks failed to protect them, leading to their immediate destruction.  By the time Brand’s army appeared on the horizon, he already had the field well in hand and had his forces digging in for defense, a pair of shield walkers plodding up to take place in their midst. 
    Serge set them to firing, then leaned back and lifted his arms like a conductor preparing his orchestra.  As Brand’s units began to encroach, splitting to target both his shield walkers at the same time, he swept down his hands to activate his reserve.  Thousands of dragoons sped at breakneck pace through tenuous territory, hundreds of them modified to carry spider tanks.  They struck the enemy like a hammer; his main force, the anvil.  In minutes, the field was littered with broken and shattered machines, their bright red paint providing a gory appearance. 
    Perfect, he thought, allowing himself a slight twitch of his lips in the direction of a smile.  But aside from the pride he felt as victor, there was another feeling gnawing away at the back of his mind.  Yesterday, Brand had seemed like his old self again, not the best tactician, surely, but capable of spontaneous bouts of reckless brilliance.  When he’d talked with him after the battle, he’d seemed distant and reflective, two traits he never would normally use to describe Brand.  During training, he’d always been happy for a challenge, always asking for advice and looking to Serge for an example.  It had made him nervous, worrying about how his every action could be construed, but he still had appreciated the thought.  He remembered at one time he had hoped that maybe one day Brand would use the advice he had given him to succeed in the Land Games. 
    Now, they were enemies, and Brand’s abilities seemed to be falling at a meteoric pace.  If all went according to plan, he would be defeated in a matter of weeks, and House Amarant will have gained nothing from their ill-chosen champion.  He couldn’t help but wonder how Brand would take it.  He knew if that ever happened to him, he would never be able to face his parents. 

    Reckes swept his eyes over the map, searching desperately for some way to speed things up, to finish this and free up their forces.  Again, the memory of the spacecraft rose up and he cursed his stupidity.  He should have stopped Mei from seeing it, but now she knew about it and she was in a much better position to get at it.  Reckes hadn’t bothered to tell his allies about the ship.  Unless they could defeat Brand and Seol first, there was simply no way they’d be able to capture and hold it until the end of the game, and he didn’t want them distracted.  And if either of his allies took it into their head to take over on strategy, he would have no choice but to comply.
    Serve well, and be appreciated, his parents had told him.  It was practically the family motto.  The Aureus House had long been a subservient vassal, first to House Tyrion and now to Azure.  He’d whined and shouted about how he was better than that, that he should be in charge.  He was such a kid back then.  But then his grandfather had taken him aside and spoken to him.
    The old man was ancient, more of a great-great-great-great-uncle in truth, but he had always felt more close to him than that.  A masterful player himself, he’d played the Land Games when he was even younger than Reckes, served another House, and emerged victorious.  Even now, he served, as a respected advisor to the head of the House.  He’d taught Reckes the truth about what it meant to serve others. 
    Those in power must always struggle.  Always watch for the knife in their back, always wonder what to do, and always will they be the ones to suffer if they fail.  But those just beneath them, those who give good counsel, those who steer the ones in power from the shadows, aye, they come out ahead.  You hang back, say your ‘yes sirs’ and ‘yes ma’ams’  and keep your head about you, and you’ll see who’s really the one in charge.  The old man had taught him a lot of good things.  In the end, it all comes down to luck.  He glanced over at the pair of dice he’d rolled earlier, laying untouched on his interface.  They’d come up as a one and a two.  Not the worst luck, but pretty close.  He’d have to be at his best if he was going to have a shot. 
    “Sola,” he called, looking to where she floated across the room, calm and serene.      She turned towards him, golden eyes shining even in the well lit room.  “I’m going to begin the operation.  Back me up.”
    “Yes master, of course.  In what way should I support you?” she asked.  An A.I. as simple as hers had to be given specific instructions, sadly. 
    “Just maintain the groups directly adjacent to mine control group, and watch for any dip in production.  Be on standby if I need to split forces with you.” 
    “Yes master.”  He watched as she bent back to her work.  He hadn’t known how to act around her when he’d first arrived on this planet, and he still felt a bit awkward ordering her around like a computer when she appeared to be fully human, aside from the wings.  An only child, Reckes had grown up only with his parents and a handful of grown servants.  The other kids he’d met in training were only obstacles and rivals.  Even Serge and Jayle, the ones he’d dedicated his services to for the past two years, he didn’t feel much affection for.  When this was all over, they’d go their separate ways.  Only far more powerful, if I can get that ship, he thought. 
    He swept into the game, moving northward into Jayle’s lands.  Since his plan relied on keeping Seol fixated on Jayle but preventing her from being defeated, he figured it was best if they managed to expand her territory as much as possible while Serge got into position.  Unfortunately, he soon found himself moving forward blindly.  Even though he was clouding the skies ahead with dozens of oracles, they were being shot down at a remarkable rate.  The most he could tell is that the mountains were filled with silver units, spread out into dozens of small groups.  Normally that would be a foolish decision.  But someone like Seol, who could actually control them all separately without being overwhelmed, could turn it into a truly threatening tactic.  No matter how he chose to advance, he would quickly be surrounded. 
    He halted his troops between two of Jayle’s fortresses, which had several thousand green valkyries hovering overhead, and switched control over his garudas.  Currently he had thirteen of them, flying patrol all over the planet to keep him informed on distant developments.  He pulled two from Kurai’s border and called them to join up with his army.  Kurai might try to take advantage of his distraction, but he was too weak to pose much of a threat, and if he did attack, he would almost certainly attack Jayle.  And honestly, she could use the experience. 
    “Yo Jayle, I’ve got garudas incoming.  I want you to have your valkyries fly escort so we can see what Seol is up too,” he told her.  It took nearly an hour for his garudas to arrive, and during that time his oracles caught glimpses of silver movement throughout the hills.  She was clearly poised to strike.  If she would attack, then they would have Jayle’s fortresses on their side.  But the more they let her build up her forces, the harder it would be too repel her later.  And he wanted to know what he was up against. 
    His garudas went forward just behind the valkyries, the wide spread of land clear in their vision.  The eastern edge of Jayle’s territory bordered a range of mountains made of deep purple stone, with huge boulders of green crystal jutting out from their side.  The mountains had dozens of valleys between them, covered in violet sand, with white water rivers cascading through, constantly changing the flow of land.  The burnt orange trees that grew on the mountaintops provided considerable cover, and the constant spray from the rivers created a thin mist as well.  It was the perfect spot for an ambush. 
    “We’d be morons to go in there after her. We’ll just have to make it a little less inviting for her,” he said, smirking.  “Jayle, have your valkyries fire missiles on all the mountaintops.  She won’t be so comfortable after a few avalanches.” 
    “We can’t do that Reckes!  There’s a lot of Woken living in those hills.  Most of the mountains have been hollowed out to form villages,” Jayle said.  Reckes grit his teeth. 
    “Well they’re probably long gone now, she’s got a whole army marching through there.  We’re missing a great opportunity here.” 
    “Listen to Jayle, Reckes,” Serge cut in. 
    “Sure, we’ll just float around in the sky here with a big target painted on our-” 
    “Master, evade!” Sola screamed. 
    The air filled with explosions, Jayle’s valkyries bursting apart dozens at a time.  He managed to pull his garudas up, skimming the upper atmosphere, and was met with the sight of a sky filled with black smoke.  The garudas vision shifted, allowing him to see through the smoke, and he caught glimpse of a large turtle shaped object slowly crawling through a valley, half submerged in sand.  He soon found two more, spread throughout the mountains.  Tanks were leaping out of caves onto the summits, firing up into the swarm.  There was a crash and blare of static, and one of his garudas was gone. 
    “Pull back!” he shouted.  “Sola, send in the dragoons to cover our retreat.  Hold back 20%.” 
    “Those are airships!” Jayle was shouting.  “She dismantled them and turned them into artillery batteries.  She’ll be able to fire on our border from here if we let them stay!”  The remaining valkyries, numbering less than four thousand, flew high in a loop, spreading out into four distinct squadrons, then dove for the airships, spitting missiles.  If she had listened, they never would have had the chance to attack, he thought bitterly. 
    “Sola, give me control of the dragoons.  Prepare for anti-air defense,” he said.  Jayle was right.  If they didn’t stop those missiles, Jayle’s border could be blasted wide open.  It must have taken months to move those airships up slowly, quietly, out of sight on the ground.  He’d thought Seol was all about outright combat.  It seems she’d learned some subtlety. 

    She watched in horror as her valkyries crashed down on the mountain summits, blasting chunks of rock and crystal skyward with each strike.  She could only imagine the devastation going on inside, the villagers huddled together at the lowest points, praying for protection.  Maybe even praying to her, the Green Goddess.  She’d let them down again, another wonderful failure.  When she’d been training for the Land Games, she’d been the perfect student, skilled, insightful, passionate, and clever.  But after it had just been one failure after another.  Her poor people didn’t realize how pathetic a goddess they’d received.  Two years ago, Believer had told her that the Woken traditionally considered jade green a color of selfishness and shortsightedness.  Those that followed her had revised their beliefs, but she had always felt it was an apt description.  Of her sister, who wanted the whole universe.  And of herself, oh yes, it fit all too well. 
    Her fingers flew across her interface, splitting and combining her swarm of valkyries in an ever changing dance, dodging missiles and raining fire down on Seol’s subterranean weapons.  She could feel her teeth grinding in frustration.  Three years ago, she’d have performed this dance flawlessly.  Now she was awkward and slow, her tactical mind blunted by so much inaction.  So far, she’d managed a few hits, but majority of her shots were being destroyed by defensive fire, and Seol had shield walkers moving in to soak up what little got through.  She knew full well how much damage those ships could do this close to her border.  After all, she had been the one to develop this tactic, four years ago, during the one week break centered around the Emperor’s Birthday. 
    She had spent that week locked in constant battle with Seol, frenzied duels that would last half the day and end in a laughing celebration.  In those days, Seol and her had been inseparable.  Seol never got tired of the game, but even when Jayle insisted on a break, she had been happy to sit with her, not talking much, but listening, silver eyes focused like a hawk on her prey.  It had gotten too the point where Marona had stepped in and forced Jayle to call up Serge, insisting that she needed to spend some time getting to know her future husband, although their arrangement had not yet been publicized. 
    The land-ship tactic had won her the game, but Seol had criticized it anyway, saying it was much too slow to be worth the effort, especially since the ships could do so much more in the meantime if left in the air.  Seol always wanted immediate results, and Jayle had managed to capitalize on her impatience in many a game.  It was too bad that Seol had chosen now of all times to take her advice. 
    Reckes golden dragoons were sweeping into the mountains, but she had no time to wait for them.  As it was, she knew if she diverted her attention for an instant, all her units would go down, and her border would be defenseless.   To her left, her interface was lighting up, showing that her Vassals were requesting an audience, a rare event.  One that meant something important had happened.  She grit her teeth and kept playing.  Her people would have too wait. 


    As much as he tried to focus on his own battles, Serge couldn’t help but notice the flurry of activity going on in the room around him.  Reckes and Jayle were shouting back and forth to each other, sounding steadily more frustrated.  Serge glanced again over his own map.  Brand’s forces had rallied into a more stable army and was actually reacting to his attack now, but he still had him on the run.  A barrage of missiles from his airships had already made it past the battered army and was currently streaming towards half a dozen of Brand’s fortresses.  If they did half as much damage as he expected, the way would be open to advance of Brand’s inner territory. 
    “Ergo, take over,” he commanded, and then pulled up his factory controls, managing his reinforcements while taking in what was happening on the globe in the center of the room.  In the mountains just outside Jayle’s border, a frenetic battle was taking place.  “Reckes, do you want some help over there?” 
    “No!  Stick to the plan… we have to… oh shit.”  Reckes was hunkered over his interface, sweat beading on his brow.  His eyes were wide and unblinking.  Across the room, Jayle looked much more calm, but he’d never seen her hands moving so fast before. 
    “Jayle, give me a feed on your oracles,” he said.  She didn’t react at all, but after a moment the grey interface encircling them beeped and he was able to access the view of her oracles.  He sank back in his chair, realizing what he was seeing.  “Reckes, you need help.  I’m sending-”
    “NO, you stay there and finish the plan!” Reckes turned towards him, livid, then something on his interface caught his eye and he whipped back to it, distracted.  Serge ignored him, began queuing up the forces he’d held in reserve-
    “Uh, Ser, we got us a problem here,” Ergo called.  He pulled up the oracles viewpoint she had selected for him, then stared for a moment, uncomprehending.  Across the network of rivers, Brand’s army had been more or less wiped out by Ergo.  But rising up from behind them was another force.  It was quite small, but rising from the ranks were at least two dozen of Amarant’s towering dreadnoughts.  How can he have so many?  Brand’s dreadnoughts were so expensive that they seriously cut into his supply of the support units he needed to protect them.  It was only really feasible to field about ten of them at a time.  And yet there was clearly a large number of units arrayed around them…
    He took control and sent a dozen oracles diving towards the army.  They were predictably destroyed, but by slowing down the footage they recorded, he was able to get a glimpse of the enemy.  The dreadnought fleet was surrounded by about 4000 spider tanks, a paltry amount, and twice as many dragoons.  All were silver.  Seol’s. 
    “She can’t be controlling both armies at the same time,” he said, not entirely sure of it.  Seol had always been incredible at micromanagement.  And she had always been capable of getting even better, the more determined she was to win.  He guessed she was pretty determined now. 
    “It’s probably Ceus,” Ergo said, referring to Seol’s Companion.  Even so, she had too be splitting her attention pretty carefully, as she would have been the one to set this up. 
    “Then we’d better take it out fast,” Serge said.  If they managed to defeat Ceus’s army, than Seol would have no choice than to shift her attention, unless she was willing to let Brand lose a number of his factories.  He shifted his forces, rearranging them into a defensive position, and separated out a few squads of dragoons for flanking attacks.  But he wasn’t sure if his forces were adequate.  He had no experience facing that many dreadnoughts at a time.  And all Brand would have to do was set targets for them, he wasn’t likely to mess that up.  He didn’t have time to think about it.  The integrated force was moving forward, fast. 
    “Hang on Jayle!  Ergo, with me!” he called.  “Squad delta, charge!” 


    “Incoming message, priority 1,” a noncommittal voice spoke from her computer.  “Sender registered as player Seol, of House Mercury.”
    “Open,” Jayle answered.  She was still playing on half a dozen screens at once, trying desperately to maneuver her valkyries into position while ordering more units in from her closest cities.  She had thousands of dragoons pouring out and blasting towards them at top speed, but they would likely do little good.  Most wouldn’t make it into the valleys with all the defenses Seol had set up.  She didn’t have time to try and figure out why Seol was messaging her, but she figured she had better answer it.  If Seol wanted to divide her attention between playing and talking, she was welcome to it.  All Jayle had to do was stay silent and focus. 
    “I didn’t really expect you to be willing to listen to me.  Maybe you’ve matured.” 
    Seol’s familiar voice spoke from around her.  She’d chosen not to provide a visual, but Jayle had no trouble imagining her silver eyes, focused like a hawk.  Her voice was utterly flat and calm, devoid of any hint of stress.  Jayle expected nothing less from her. 
    “But this is one thing you certainly haven’t improved at,” Seol continued, while her missiles blasted another hundred valkyries out of the sky.  “The old Jayle would never have let me get my army into such an advantageous position.  Have you lost your wits?  Or do you just not care?” 
    Jayle saw an opportunity, and leapt forward to hit the screen, nearly shouting in fervor.  Her valkyries wove and dived, and at last a flurry of rockets shattered through the shields and struck an airship.  She grinned as explosions blossomed along its side, and the useless wreck ground to a halt.  Seol continued her monologue without notice. 
    “That would be just like you.  This Land Games is meaningless, you’d say.  Just fighting over pointless territory.  As if a spoiled brat who has had everything she ever wanted handed to her could possibly understand why we play.” 
    Across the range, Reckes dragoons were nearly wiped out, but a scant few hundred were flying across sheer cliffs, many of them smashing into boulders as they flew, but they had almost reached another grounded airship.  She swept her entire valkryie force in that direction, losing hundreds more, but managing to provide him with cover.  It was enough.  Not having time to slow, Reckes sent his forward dragoons ramming into the airship at full speed, firing their rail cannons as they went.  Another flurry of explosions, and Seol was down to one airship.  We’re almost there.  We can still do this, she thought. 
    “Reckes!  Pincer!” she called, trusting him to see her plan. 
    “Sola, take squad b!” he shouted, following her lead.  They swept the reminder of their forces towards the airship, attacking from three separate angles.  This would finish it. 
    “All your life, you’ve slipped by, always so perfect,” Seol continued.  “Everyone always praised your talent, your dedication.  But no one ever looked closer.  No one saw the truth.” 
    Jayle’s body ached, and her arms felt like they had huge stones chained to them, weighing her down.  She was moving slower now, and more of her aircraft were falling, faster than ever.  She had well under a thousand now, barely enough to make a difference.  Reckes dragoons were thinning out, their shots impotent against the shields surrounding their target.  Seol’s forces were converging from all over the mountain range, mopping up the remaining resistance.  In a few seconds, Jayle’s valkyries were all that remained.  No, I can still do this.  I only need one shot.
    “But I did.  I saw you as you truly are.  You played the games they told you to, and you won again and again, and gained everyone’s respect.  But you only did it because it was easy.  Because you didn’t really have to try.  You’re just naturally that perfect.” 
    Jayle’s fingers slowed, then halted, as she realized there was nothing left for her to do.  Her army was gone.  The airship began to rise, extending fully from the ground, and opened wide, its roof splitting in four triangles to reveal the massive siege missiles meant for destroying factories.  She could still watch.  A hundred oracles still flew overhead, but Seol did not destroy them.  She wanted her to watch. 
    “But that’s where we’re different.  You don’t really care about anything.  You don’t have anything to fight for.  And that means you can’t win.  Talent can’t compare to righteous fury.  And I’m pretty fucking furious.” 
    The missiles launched, trailing shimmering lights behind them.  As they rose into the air, static filled her screens as all her oracles were shot down at once. 
    “Well I’m going to give you something to care about Jayle.  You want to sit alone and play goddess with your pets, and ignore the war happening right outside your borders?  You think you’re above it all?  You think that it doesn’t concern you?  You’re wrong Jayle.” 
    Her screens filled with sight of massive explosions, lighting up the map.  The globe holo in the center of the room shuddered, showing shockwaves spreading from the two dozen sites hit.  Shields, bright green walls of energy flaring against the yellow sky, held or broke.  Nine of her factories collapsed completely ruined.  Those that still stood were heavily damaged.  
    “I’m coming for you Jayle.  Try and remember how you beat me before,” Seol said, stoic up until the end.  With a click, she ended the connection, and Jayle was left sitting in silence. 
    “Damn it!” Serge shouted from across the room.  “I had to retreat.  Brand’s regained all his territory.” 
    “This isn’t working,” Reckes said, shuffling his dice in his hand.  “We need to do better.” 
    No, Jayle thought.  We need a reason to care. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 3


    “Alright, is everyone synched up?” Reckes voice floated in from somewhere off to Serge’s left.  Serge was seated in darkness, the light grey outlines of his interface barely visible against the empty backdrop.   He ordered his computer to activate, and the interface blazed up around him in transparent blue.  He’d redesigned it since the last battle, and the interface now was arranged only at chest height, allowing him to see the room around him, which was currently a blaze of random shapes and colors.  As his computer connected to those of his allies, the view transformed to show a simple octagonal room.  Sitting across the room, arranged like a triangle, were his two allies, Reckes to his left, surrounded in golden screens that flowed around him like water, and Jayle to his right, sitting up straight within a ring of green.  To the left hand of each of them sat their Companions at their own station.  Ergo was entrenched in a cube of violet light, standing on bare feet, eyes trained on him in anticipation of orders.  Little Sola appeared to float in midair, her body held up by luminescent wings, a flurry of orange screens and pads hovering alongside.  Only Jayle, sitting much too stiffly, was without a Companion.  Yet another weakness they’d have too compensate for. 
    The room where they all sat did not exist in reality.  It was a digital space created to give them the illusion that they were all together, which would make it much easier to cooperate in the coming battle.  Though he’d agreed to it, Serge wasn’t sure he was completely comfortable with the arrangements.  He wasn’t used to having an audience for this sort of thing.  Hanging in midair before each of their stations was a ring of dull gray, a common interface that each of them could link their own screens too, to share information amongst the whole group.  And floating in the very middle of the space was a huge holographic globe, showing the current known positions of all fortresses, armies, and production facilities that existed on the planet.  Reckes had set the whole thing up. 
    “I’m ready,” Serge said. 
    “Same here,” Jayle said.  Outwardly, Jayle exuded confidence and serenity.  But Serge had known her long enough to know that she was being too blatant about it.  If she was really prepared, she’d seem more relaxed, more an unconcerned player than a grim soldier.  But when he thought to say something, he hesitated.  The truth was, he didn’t really know her that well anymore.  Since coming to this planet she’d more or less done her own thing, and he’d been so caught up in playing the game that they hadn’t had much time to stay in touch.  Maybe she’d changed.  The old Jayle would never have defied her sister, and he never would have guessed she would be too anxious to speak with Seol herself.  He let it go.  She was right to be nervous after all.  Aside from half-hearted self-defense, this was the first time she’d involved herself in an operation for two years. 
    “Alright, me and Serge know the drill, seeing as we’ve been doing something other than sitting on our pretty asses for the past two and a half years, but I figure I may as well go over it real quick for our new partner here,” Reckes said, tossing a pair of dice into the air over and over again.  Serge stiffened at the insults, but he decided not to say anything yet.  Seol could launch her attack at any moment, and they needed to get ready.  He’d have time to reprimand Reckes later. 
    “For the past six months we’ve been making considerable headway into Team Apollo’s territory.”  As he spoke, he highlighted areas of the map, showing their progress over the past.  Serge looked on with pride, remembering the thrill of battle and the satisfaction of victory.  “But now Seol means business, and she’s been pushing back as hard as she can, going at it nonstop, and we’ve begun to lose territory.  Even that twerp Brand is doing better, since she’s personally overseeing his strategy just as I do for Serge.” 
    “Just as?  I think you are overstating your importance to this partnership,” Serge said.  “Your tactics have been invaluable, but it has been my army that has won the majority of our battles.” 
    “With a considerable amount of help from his stalwart Companion,” Ergo said. 
    “Yeah, I’m sure you peeping over his shoulder was great for morale, can we get too business here?  Anyway, my point is, things are coming to a head now.  We’ve got less than six months until the end of the game, and it’s about time we made this planet a little less crowded.  So we need to focus on the weakest link, take them out first.  And that’s Brand, obviously.  Once his army is neutralized, no amount of awesome micro will allow Seol to compete with the…three of us.  But to beat him, we need to get through a lot of territory, and we’re gonna need to move a lot faster than before. 
    I’ve always favored the slow and steady approach, because it gives our enemies that many more chances to fuck up.  But we’ve made enough headway that our territory is too big for us to effectively defend.  We gotta throw caution to the wind and finish this with one strike.  But we’re never going to be able to do it in time, not if we’re flipping out over every mile lost.  We’re gonna have to risk some losses.  So, I have a new plan.” 
    Serge had the feeling he wasn’t going to like this.  Reckes was smirking, and had finally stopped playing with those dice of his. 
    “We give Seol what she wants.  We give her Jayle.”
    “Absolutely not!”  Serge was on his feet at once, and slammed his fist down on his interface.  Since it was currently in soft-light mode, the only affect this had was to make a pitiful sound as if he had punched a pillow.  “Jayle is our leader, and we must devote all of our efforts to protect her!”
    Reckes sighed and gave him that same old insolent look.  Ok, maybe Jayle wasn’t really involved in their fight, but she was still technically the leader of Team Aqua, by virtue of her birth.  House Jade was the most powerful House in the Quadrant, and House Azure was significantly elevated due to he and Jayle’s coming marriage.  Reckes’s House was little more than a vassal to his own, and Serge didn’t think he really appreciated the vast difference in status.  It was not as if he personally believed that House Jade was superior, or that Reckes was beneath him.  It was simply a fact of life that needed to be confronted, not ignored. 
    “Hold on, Ser, I think we should hear him out.  Reckes is just being dramatic, I’m sure he doesn’t really planning on sacrificing Jayle,” Ergo said.  She lightly trailed a finger across one of her pads, and a text message appeared on his miscellaneous screen, reading >you know he says things like that to rile you up.  Relax a little.
    “Master Reckes, it is contradictory to our goals to allow one of our allies to be defeated.  Perhaps you should rethink your strategy,” Sola spoke from across the room, her voice high and musical.  Reckes eyed her with annoyance.  Serge knew he was somewhat embarrassed by the state of his Companion, being far below Ergo in terms of artificial intelligence.  But Serge had a suspicion he was fond of her in his own way. 
    “Well if your plan involves me, I think we should hear it,” Jayle said.  “I don’t plan to lose to Seol, but if you think I can be of use I’d be willing to help.” 
    “Well yeah, obviously we don’t want to actually lose you.  I think I’d want to be in a whole different Quadrant if your sis found out we let you get offed.  The plan is simple.  We fake a route, sacrifice enough units to make Seol think she’s really kicking our ass, let her overextend herself into Jayle’s domain.  While she’s in psycho mode trying to take Jayle down, I will play defense and hold her off.  That should give Serge time to launch an assault deep into Brand’s territory.  If Seol’s as pissed off as Serge say’s she is, she’ll be too distracted to help him out.  Serge captures Brand’s castle and disables his army, then loops back to help us defend Jayle.  With Brand out of the picture, we’ll have Seol’s castle in a matter of days no matter how much damage she manages to do.” 
    “It sounds risky,” Serge said. 
    “Of course.  Skill, tactics, they’ll only get you so far.”  Reckes placed one of his dice on his interface and spun it on its end.  “Sooner or later, it all comes down to luck.”  The die clattered to a halt. 
    “The strategy sound’s good, Serge,” Jayle said, catching his eye.  “Honestly, as rusty as I am, I’m more suited to being bait than anything else.  And I know Seol well.  If she still plays like she did in training., and we don’t take her out the first time, we’ll never get a second chance.”
    “I think I should be the one in charge of defending Jayle.  It’s my duty as her fiancĂ©,” he answered. 
    “You said it yourself, Ser: you’re the one who won all that land,” Ergo said. 
    “Look, I’m the idea guy,” Reckes said.  “I’ll draw out an invasion plan for you ahead of time, and see if I can figure out any holes in his defenses.  But we both know I’m no match for you in actual combat.  It has to be you Serge.  You’d just better hope you beat him fast enough, or I might not be able to hold Seol off.” 
    “I don’t know.  If we can’t stop her in time-”
    “It’s alright Serge,” Jayle said.  “I’ll do it.  I want to do it.” 
    And just like that, it’s decided, he thought.  And my House is finished if we let you lose. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 2


    “You did make sure to paint them, right?  Grey is such a boring color, I don’t know how you can even stay awake during battles,” Mei said.  She was lounging on a couch with a bowl of candied fruit, opposite the holo-image of the player of House Shade, sixteen year old Kurai.  Floating in the air all around him were the various screens of her interface, flapping aimlessly around the room on various oversized wings.  She didn’t like to have them all pushed up around her.  She liked to have room to spread out and relax. 
    “Of course.  I always make my deliveries precisely as ordered.  But I wouldn’t be so critical of other’s appearances.  Grey is a very fitting color for me.  Very inconspicuous.”  He sat on a black throne, one leg drawn up, hands folded on his knee.  Despite his claim that grey suited him, his hair and eyes were a plain dark brown.  He was short as well, and his face was round and ordinary.  Kurai hadn’t been genetically engineered like all the others, she knew, and the difference was striking.  He looked so plain and inconsequential.  Not attractive, but not ugly.  But in a room with the other boys of the great Houses, she wouldn’t have looked twice at him (especially not if Reckes were around).  It was no wonder most of the players barely paid him any attention at all. 
    She waved at one of her distant holo-screens and it quickly flapped over on pink feathery wings.  She knew her interface design wasn’t very professional, but hey, they were playing a game, even if it was a very important game.  She didn’t see any reason not to have some fun with it.  She stretched out the screen and carefully inspected it.  It was the combined image from a trio of oracles she had floating over her southeastern border.  On a tiny island only a dozen miles wide, Kurai had arranged his “offer.”  4000 spider tanks, 6000 dragoons, and a pair of shield walkers, all painted the precise shade of peach that symbolized House Tao.  All of them looked to be in good shape, and her oracle’s scans detected no anomalies.  She wasn’t too worried.  Kurai knew better than to double cross her.  With his depleted forces spread out over thousands of miles worth of ocean, defending hundreds of islands, he’d incur heavy losses if she turned her full attention on him. 
    “Looks good!” she told him.  “You transfer the control code to me, I’ll switch it, and you’re free to claim your islands.  I’ve already pulled back my forces.” 
    “Another satisfying transaction.  But I’m a tad surprised.  I never would have guessed you’d need them now.  With Team Aqua and Team Apollo are at all out war, I figured you’d have it easy.”
    “They’re not the only contestants in this game, ya’know,” Mei said.  She wasn’t about to tell him of Three’s activities, or the secret she and Reckes had discovered beneath the surface of Silence.  The revelation changed everything.  No matter how much territory anyone gained, the House that controlled the alien spacecraft would be the true winner of the Land Games.  And she had the advantage.  Team Aqua had no chance of conquering Silence until they dealt with Seol and Brand. 
    “Well I do hope they get put to good use.  I’d hate to have used up all that paint for nothing.  So now that business is over, I’d like to hear your opinion on current events.  Team Aqua or Team Apollo, who do you favor?  Serge has been winning ground for half a year now, with Reckes’s support.  And I hear they’ve got Jayle throwing in too, so that could make all the difference.  I hear she was quite the player, back in training.” 
    “Yeah, she was amazing!  Between her and Seol, they had it all covered, no one even stood a chance when they teamed up.  But it was okay, one of them always broke down and betrayed the other when they started to show weakness, so all you had to do was sit back and defend until they destroyed each other.  Seol’s control is amazing, no one could beat her in fair fight.  But Jayle was good at everything.  She used to make me real jealous.  I wasn’t nearly as good back then, and everyone kind of ignored cause I was so little,” Mei said. 
    “It sounds like a lot of fun…”
    “Yeah, I wish you could have been there.  Then I’d have some idea what you were capable of.”
    “Ha, yeah right.  I’d have never showed my full strength in a mere training exercise.  Play your moves close to the vest and all the dumb players will underestimate you.”
    “And the smart ones?” Mei asked. 
    “They’ll overestimate you, cause they don’t want to be one of the dumb ones,” Kurai said. 
    “One of these days you’ll have to fight for real, and then I’ll get to see if I’ve been overestimating you.”
    “I have no doubt.  But I notice you haven’t answered my question.  Team Aqua, or Team Apollo?” he asked. 
    “It’s a gamble either way.  Serge is a pretty solid player, even if he does get too overconfident sometimes.  He’s no Seol though, she’d beat him if it weren’t for Reckes.  With him calling the shots, Seol can’t win with skill alone.” 
    “So you don’t even consider Brand worth mentioning?  That’s pretty cold.” 
    “Well, if he’d bother to even try I think he could make a difference, but there’s pretty much no way that’s going to happen.  He’s been useless since the games started.  I dunno why, he wasn’t great back in training but he wasn’t horrible either.  It really sucks he’s getting all those nice toys from his House and he doesn’t even know how to use them.” 
    “I think there’s more to Brand than meets the eye.  I may not have been around for you guys training, but I’ve talked with him a lot these past years.  The kid’s got issues.  He’s just got to work through them.”
    “Careful who you’re calling kid.  He’s older than me you know!” 
    “I suppose you’re right.  None of us are really kids, not anymore.”  He said it without inflection, with a smile on his face, but something in his words made her skin crawl.  “Anyway, I’m going to half to cut this short.  It seems Rasu has picked up something quite interesting, and I’m going to need to inspect this personally.  Say high to Iras for me, and keep out of trouble.”
    “Yeah right.  We’re supposed to be in trouble.”  She waved, and Kurai faded out of her view, dispersing like mist. 

    When Mei had been told that she, out of all ten of the Head of House Tao’s children, had been chosen to represent their House in the Land Games she’d been ecstatic.  She enjoyed nothing more than the intricate balance of strategy and skill that made up the games, and since she was old enough to learn she’d spent nearly all her free time training.  So it was hardly a difficult choice to make, especially considering more than half her siblings had suffered from genetic rejection of their designs and were now forced to live with a number of mental and physical deformities.  So while her older brothers and sisters dedicated themselves to the study of politics and intrigue, and the practice of warfare (very different from the staged battles of the Land Games, even if the execution was more or less the same) she focused on what she loved best. 
    After all these years, she still loved the game, but the total enthusiasm she used to have was starting to fade.  For thirty months she’d done nothing but battle, and after such a long time the war never seemed quite so important.  Some days, she just wanted to crawl into bed, wrap herself in blankets, and sleep in blissful peace.  It had been years since she’d slept for more than four hours at a time, and she was starting to forget what it was like to wake up feeling truly rested. 
    Reminding herself to return to combat in a half hour, she hopped off her couch and stretched, feeling her joints and muscles cracking and popping with relish.  Finished eating, she tilted the bowl of fruit down to the floor and whistled, and a pair of the cute sea-monkey creatures came rushing over from across the room.  She had dozens of the little guys all over her castle, she loved to watch them frolic and curiously explore.  Her Companion thought they were vermin, but she’d long since forbidden him to throw them out.  She suspected he still tried to trick them into jumping off of the balconies though, but that was alright cause they could get back up quite easily. 
    She found her Companion on the roof of the castle, crouched over his interface in a predatory manner, face twisted into an expression of manic glee.  The wind was blowing hard this high up, and her hair (short as it was) whipped wildly around her face.  Iras long, silky hair, jet black and shiny, was writhing around like an octopus, she wondered how he could even see.  Older than her (in appearance, anyway), he was tall and thin, with a sharp grin and narrow, flinty eyes that shone a brilliant gold.  He was wearing a pair of dark shorts, but he hadn’t bothered with either shirt or shoes.  For whatever reason, he never seemed to care much for clothes.  His skin was deeply tanned, and intricate gold tattoos covered his arms and back, showing everything from calligraphy to flowering vines to vicious beasts.  She’d let her sisters help her design him, resulting in a somewhat haphazard mixture of personal tastes.  She’d been responsible for his eyes.  Even though he was kind of a huge jerk, she loved his golden eyes. 
    Engrossed in his game, he hadn’t noticed her appearance.  She crept forward on bare feet, and managed to get a peek over his shoulder.  Seeing what he was up to, she gritted her teeth and drew back her hand. 
    “Ow!  What the hell did you slap me for you little psycho!?” 
    “I told you to monitor troop movement between the eastern and northern bases!” she yelled. 
    “I did!  And now I’m in the middle of launching an attack on Silence’s southern shore.”
    “We have been over this!  My troops are ready, and I am waiting for the right moment to strike.  Now is not the right-”
    “Oh, yeah, the right moment.  Why don’t you stop waiting around and get to fighting!  You don’t win wars by lying around and day dreaming, girly, you got to go out and kick some ass!  So that’s what I’m doing!” 
    “Nope.  You’re my Companion, and that means you take orders from me.  You’ll just have to learn to relax.” 
    She left him yelling and threatening and walked across the roof, to the railing that looked to the north.  Ahead was a vast plain dotted with yellow shrubs, and beyond lay the white emptiness of the open desert.  Storm clouds were brewing over it, a very rare event indeed.  She wondered if the natives that had fled into the sand would consider it a miracle.  Beyond those dark clouds, a thousand miles away, her territory ended, and silent lands of Three lay in wait.  For days now, he’d made no move at all.  Maybe Iras was right.  He was acting strange.  Maybe now was the time to attack.  But she’d gotten this far through caution and careful action.  She had no idea what Three was going to do.  So she would wait. 
    Reaching out into the space before her, she moved her fingers as though typing on a keyboard.  Her castle’s computer recognized her wish and created a small interface around her, just a screen a few feet wide and a holographic pad.  She’d been planning to return to her battle station soon, maybe move some troops along the border and see if Three reacted, but first she wanted to check on something.  A trio of garudas were currently flying at high altitude over Brand’s territory.  She felt a momentary sense of gratitude to him; his carelessness provided her with an easy method to acquire information.  A quick scan over their recorded video revealed that the battles between the five Aqua continent contestants had come to a momentary lull.  It brought a grin to her face.   If her hunch was right, she’d be receiving a message very soon.  She shooed out Iras (he’d only make things more complicated), and waited.  She didn’t have to wait long. 
    After accepting the invitation for a holo-chat, her guest appeared behind her, next to a table containing a basket of fresh fruit.  Tall, wide hipped, curvaceous, the difference in their ages was striking.  Her long spiral ribbon of silver hair was lifted by the breeze, flowing a good four feet to the side like a banner.  Her mirror-esque silver eyes were framed by a pair of white-rimmed glasses that stood out against her deep brown skin.  Mei was always interested to see the strange ensembles she chose to wear, and she was not disappointed.  This time it was a jet black dress, fit for a high-class party, the skirt shredded almost to ribbons from thigh to calf, revealing white stockings beneath.  Her arms were bare, except for a long silver manacle clamped tight around her left wrist, dangling down to a shattered link, giving off the implication that she was some kind of escaped prisoner, albeit an extremely well dressed one.  A scarf of scarlet silk completed the look.  Mei didn’t know enough to guess if the outfit was in style, but it was certainly memorable.  Seol Mercury was like the opposite of Kurai, her appearance would draw every eye in the room.  Mei didn’t give her a chance to speak. 
    “Seol, I’m so glad you finally called me back!  I’ve really been wanting to talk to you!”  Seol blinked in confusion. 
    “You… messaged me?  Oh, that’s right-” 
    “It’s totally fine, you must have been really busy lately.  I’m so sorry to hear about what happened.  If you turn on tactile mode I’ll give you a big hug,” Mei said. 
    “Um, no, there’s no need for that…  You said you knew-” 
    “About your mother and brother?  Yes, of course.  It’s very sad, I hope your father can discover who did it.  I’m sure my own family is looking into the matter too, since it happened on one of our shipping lanes.  My parents have instructed me to tell you that House Tao is prepared to turn over the culprit to you if they manage to find him.”
    “You mean, you believe?”  Seol sat (collapsed, really) into the nearest chair and put a palm to her face, hiding her eyes.  “I’m glad.  Every single person I’ve spoken with, they’ve been talking like it was just some kind of accident.  Which is completely ridiculous.  You’re smarter than I gave you credit for.”  She dropped the hand and her eyes went wide as she realized what she’d said.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean I thought you were stupid!  Just… you’re so young.  It was surprising enough to have Reckes join the games, but of course his family don’t have much of a choice…  you have a lot of older siblings, right?” 
    “No offense taken.  And yeah, I do have siblings who could have taken my place, but I begged my parents to let me go.  They didn’t like the idea at first, but when I got the instructors to talk with them, they saw how it was.  I’m the best player House Tao has to offer!  Well, back then anyway.  Maybe some of the others have gotten better by now,” Mei explained.  She left out the part about half her siblings being incapable of participating.  Genetic mutations were extremely common with custom children, but most Houses had them aborted before they grew old enough to risk a miscarriage. 
    “Well, I thank you for your concern, but I didn’t really call to talk about my family, and I’m going to have to get back soon.  Reckes and Serge have really stepped up their game,” Seol said. 
    “It must be rough.  I’ve got all sorts of free time over here, since Three has backed down,” Mei said.  She plopped down in the chair across the table and snatched up a fruit, some kind of light pink fruit that pealed open like a banana.  She hadn’t gotten around to naming them yet. 
    “Well, about that-” 
    “It’s too bad we don’t talk more, Seol.  Back in training, I was so young you guys never wanted to talk to me.  It’d be nice to be friends now.” 
    “I’m not here to make friends,” Seol said, eyes flashing.  She paused, then rubbed her temples, clearly dealing with a headache.  Mei watched her awkward attempts to steer the conversation and grinned through a mouthful of pink-fruit.  Seol, for all the handful of times she’d spoken with her, always reminded Mei of her older sister Yeas.  She was one of the ones who’d mutated in the womb, and despite medical treatments had turned out abnormal.  She never spoke except when necessary, and spent most of her time staring idly into space, her eyes tracking the movements of something only she could see.  But whenever Mei sat down with her to play a game (she liked chess in particular), her eyes would focus sharp and she’d devote all attention to the game.  She was good, too, always remembered the rules and never got bored, no matter how long she played.  Seol had that same kind of focus.  Playing the Land Games, she was sharp as a knife and brilliant, her units reacting so fast you’d swear you were playing against four opponents at once.  Outside of the game, she was far less self-assured. 
    “No, that’s not right.  I’m sorry.  Maybe I am trying to make friends.  You see, me and, um, my fiancĂ©, are trying to finish things with Serge’s team.  We’ve focused on Jayle as the weakest link, and I’m trying to take her down.  But we have less than six months until the games are concluded, and if she’s still in the game by then, if I don’t beat her-”  She shook her head, took a deep breath.  “I can’t let that happen.  House Jade needs to suffer for what they’ve done, and stuck here, this is the only thing I can do to fight back.  I need your help.  Together, our three armies could crush them, I’m sure of it.  Neither of us has the authority to broker an alliance between our Houses, but we can make a temporary pact, just for the games.  If you help us, I’ll withdraw all of our forces, both mine and Brand’s, from your continent and leave it all to you.  Even if you want to end the alliance when Jayle is captured, I promise we won’t ever invade your territory for the rest of the Games.  I know I’m asking a lot, very suddenly but if you think about it-”
    “Sure!  I’ll join you!”  Mei reached out her hand to shake on it.  Seol sat frozen, stunned in silence.  She reached out and the air crackled and sizzled as her hologram turned solid, and their fingers intertwined.  Mei leapt across and wrapped her arms around her, causing Seol to gasp in surprise.  Mei smiled as she hugged her, but inside her thoughts were dark.
    I’m so sorry Seol, but you make yourself too easy, she thought.  It hadn’t been hard to guess that Seol would come to her for help, and she’d spent a long time thinking about her response.  The spacecraft on Silence was the only thing that mattered.  Currently, only she and Reckes knew about it, although it was possible he had revealed it to his team mates.  As long as Seol and Brand’s alliance stood in their way, there was no chance Reckes would be able to get it before her.  But neither did she want them defeated.  The loss of any player, this late in the game, would upset the balance of power so much that she wouldn’t be able to guess what would happen.  If she was going to get what she wanted, Team Aqua and Team Apollo were going to have keep each other occupied.  But from the outside, there was only so much she could do to keep them balanced.  By pretending to join with Seol, she could affect both sides, tip the scales so that neither side would be able to defeat the other, and while they were distracted, she’d recover the ancient spacecraft, securing House Tao as the ultimate victor of the Land Games.  It was too bad she’d have to give Seol the false hope of striking back against her families murderers.  But if she was careful, maybe she could keep Seol from ever knowing that she deceived her. 
    “Our team is going to be the best team of all time!  I can’t wait to get started!” Mei said.