Turquoise colored water stretched to the horizon before him, rocked by gentle waves. The surface was dotted with hundreds of floating green islands, matted plants with long vines that dangled hundred of feet under water for some unknown purpose. Their tops were covered in bright orange and pink flowers, with stalks that rose high above the waves, and small, six-limbed monkey creatures clung to their tops, surfing from place to place. Blood red fruits stood at the top of each stalk, dotted with pink spots. A hundred miles to the west, his sensors could make out the coast on the Aqua continent, the water along it’s shore stained a deep purple from the vast collection of red algae that grew beneath the surface. A hundred or so of Brand’s scarlet dragoons rushed by heading south, but his craft passed them by undetected. Another hundred or so miles to the east revealed another shoreline, this one composed of rocky cliffs studded with gold-leafed trees. Four-winged birds swooped from tree to tree, diving into the waters below to hunt. The cliffs were the western most point of the Teardrop continent, being fought over by Houses Mercury, Void, and Tao, with most of its surface firmly controlled by Tao.
Reckes was doing his best to stay focused and concentrate on guiding his garuda, a specialized aerial stealth and reconnaissance unit, capable of making a circuit of the entire planet, twice, using a single tank of fuel. But he’d rarely seen the sea this close before, and with his interface collecting not only visual but aromatic and aural data, he really felt as though he were cruising above the water, the smell of salt-water and alien plants wafting up from below. His home planet, Algos, was almost ninety percent water, and he’d spent his early years on boats and hovercraft, skimming the surface of the water, following the bits of clear surf between the massive hurricanes that ravaged the planet. This sea was much calmer, and colorful. He couldn’t help but think it was an improvement.
Shaking himself out of his nostalgic stupor, he pulled up half a dozen screens and checked again on his oracles, which he’d flung out far ahead to scout his way. They were just now reaching the southern shore of the frigid Silence continent, ruled absolutely by House Void alone. Spread out a hundred miles apart from each other, he hoped that one of them would spot a hole in Three’s defenses, just enough for him to get his garuda in. Three’s attack on his castle’s computer had been an eye opening experience. The black armies had until now kept to the northeast of Aqua’s shores, far away from Reckes’ lands, and he’d felt he could safely ignore it until Seol and Brand were dealt with. Now he wanted to know what House Void was up to.
Two of his screens vanished as his oracles were shot down. He fully expected to lose all of them; no player slacked off when if came to protecting their borders. From his vantage point, he could see a long line of anti-aircraft stretched across the rocky beach. Floating more than a hundred miles behind the border was a jet black airship, already launching missiles to swarm over the border and search for enemy aircraft. This wasn’t going to be easy. He would probably have to get some aircraft of his own up here, make a diversionary attack so that he could let his garuda slip by. That was going to take time, and there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be shot down by another player on the way here. For now, he decided to pull back the garuda and hide it down near the water. He picked an extra large floating island and settled the garuda in between its tall stalks. The little monkey creatures dove into the water at once.
“Incoming message,” his interface chimed. A small image popped up to show the peach-colored crest of House Tao. He suppressed a grin, and responded with a tap. The image enlarged and filled most of his front view. There was a brief flash of color as it calibrated itself, and then Mei, the young contestant of House Tao appeared before him.
“Nice hiding spot,” she said, speaking with her usual enthusiasm. “Those fruits are delicious. I call them sea-melons. Although they’re not really melons. Citrus maybe? They’re green inside, and they taste kinda salty and tart. You should really try some.” She smiled brightly, lying back on a steep chair, surrounded by her own interface. Unsurprisingly, she was eating from a bowl of some kind of small yellow fruits.
Twelve years old, Mei was the only contestant younger than him. Very small and highly animated, she gave the impression of a clever bird, perched and watching. Her hair was arranged in a simple bob cut, and tinted a light pink, the same as her wide eyes. What was her family thinking? he thought. Pink and peach aren’t even the same colors. Though he supposed it would have been rather creepy if her hair and eyes were the same color as her skin.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll just pop the hood and pick a few.”
“That would be so awesome. But hey, I got a ton of them growin’ in my orchard. I’ll send you some as a consolation next time I send your army home in pieces,” she said.
“Yeah, we should totally have a clash soon. I’m sure you’re getting bored just lying around eating all day.”
“There’s a difference in lying around, and lying in wait. Didn’t you pay attention in training?”
“Why bother? One of the teachers tried to fail me once, so I challenged her to a game. After I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone how bad she got stomped by an eleven year old she passed me for the rest of the year,” he said. Just behind his view screen, one of the little monkey creatures had climbed onto the garuda’s top and was staring straight at him with huge, luminous eyes.
“Well if you’re so good, how come you didn’t make a better effort of stayin’ out of sight? I noticed you about two hundred miles back,” she said.
“I didn’t want to deny you the joy of my company.”
“Ha, yeah right. You never want to just talk. What do you want this time?” she asked.
“I want to talk fruit exchange, what else? How about I trade you an airship for a barrel of sea-melons?”
“Please, who’d want one of your airships? That gold color sparkles so bright they get shot down as soon as they leave the ground.”
“Ok, you drive a hard bargain. How about an exchange of info then?” he asked. Mei finished her eating, tossed the bowl aside, and hopped to her feet. She was tiny, probably shorter than him by a foot, though of course they’d never met face to face.
“You want to exchange info with me? What’s wrong with Kurai? You guys are always makin’ deals, right?”
“He wouldn’t know about this,” Reckes answered. Kurai was the player of House Shade. His tiny territory was almost directly west of Jayle’s, clustered in the islands when made up the Crescent continent. He was too far away to have any dealings with Three.
“Well, ok, I’m game. I’ll answer your question and you answer one of mine. Obviously, I’m not gonna tell you about my own troops though.”
“So ask away,” she said.
“I want to know about House Void. You’re….its most common opponent. Have you noticed anything unusual recently? Has it improved its tactics, maybe?” He knew better than to ask if she’d been hacked like he had. No player would willingly reveal such a sad blunder.
“Improved? I wouldn’t say that. Actually, its been kinda screwing up. Just yesterday I did a little raid, just checking for weak spots ya’know, and I managed to punch through its border guards without even trying! I’m not even bragging, it was like I was up against Brand or something. It’s really weird, too, cause Threes always been really tough to crack before. And its stopped advancing, just sitting back, building forces. It’d make me kinda nervous if I didn’t think I could handle it,” she said. “Other than that, I don’t really know. It’s not like we talk ya’know? I don’t even know if it can talk. That thing gives me the creeps.”
“I know what you mean. Hmm, thanks. Its not much to go on but it gives me an idea,” he said.
“Why do you want to know anyway? Last I checked, Three barely had any territory on Aqua. It’s not nearly as big a threat to you guys as Seol and Brand. Ooh, do you think they’ve formed an alliance? This late in the game!? That would be seriously bad news…ya’know, for you.”
“Nah, nothing like that. I’m just trying to get to know it. You know, be a good neighbor and all,” he said.
“Yeah, good luck with that. Well, it just so happens I do have something I’ve been wanting to know about. What can you tell me-” she paused dramatically, and leaned forward towards him. “About Blanc.”
“House Blanc? You mean the player, right? Why would you even want to know about him, he’s not even a competition. Or her, I guess,” he said.
“Well, the other day she, or he, or whatever, messaged me out of the blue! Boy or girl, they didn’t project an image so I couldn’t find out. It was weird, they didn’t seem to really have anything important to say, they just wanted to talk. They asked me about my family, and what I was planning to do when I finished the game, stuff like that. Small talk. You know, I think they must be getting lonely.”
“Lonely. Crazy is more like it. If they weren’t already. What the hell kinda strategy involves blowing up your own castle?” he said. Reckes was talking to cover his thoughts. The player from House Blanc was talking now? After two and a half years of complete inactivity? And Three is acting weird too. Maybe it’s connected. “Well, I hate to let you down, but I really don’t know anything about White. They were the second ship to land and get started, but by the time I’d arrived they’d already slipped away. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there is no territory held by House Blanc, except maybe out in the farthest islands, which aren’t really worth fighting over. I mean I‘ve seen some white oracles every now and then. I shoot them down of course.”
“The weirdest thing is that, before this game, I’d never even heard of House Blanc,” Mei said. “It’s got to be a really small, weak House, probably brand new. But then, why would it have been chosen to join the games? And how would they even have the money needed to get their castle set up? Sounds like a mystery too me…”
“All that work to get a castle and they just blew it up. Probably some moron who hit the wrong button,” Reckes said. “Well, if you really think about it, it’s possible that House Blanc is getting some secret funding from another House. But if they did, they picked the wrong contestant. White has been completely useless. Maybe somebody paid them off to sit the game out. Make it easier for someone else to win.”
“Uh, that would be stupid. They could have just allied with whoever they wanted to win,” Mei said.
“Yeah, you got me there,” Reckes said. It was really kinda sad how easy it was to distract her. She hadn’t even realized that she’d gotten nothing for all the info she was giving him. He’d only wanted to learn about Three, and now he knew that white was up and moving again, and that Mei was winning back black territory. She was so easy to manipulate, yet somehow she still had enough territory to rival his and Serge’s alliance. It was probably just cause no one ever wanted to attack her. Defense was her specialty.
“So, you’re trying to do a fly-by on Three? I’d love to see what he’s doing inland myself. How about I make an opening for you, and you supply me the video feed from your garuda? Sounds fair to me,” Mei said, grinning. And so she’d found a way to get something she wanted out of him after all. Well, he certainly wasn’t going to turn her down. No way he was getting in without a distraction. This way he wouldn’t have to waste any of his own troops in the process.
“Alright. I can wait for you to get your troops into position-”
“Nah, I took care of that already. The moment I spotted your garuda I figured I’d better get ready. If you were planning something, no way I wasn’t gonna take advantage of it.”
“Alright then. Should we do this?” he asked.
“Let’s make it happen!”
Watching Mei work was a pleasure. She started up with half a dozen dragoon raids, hitting each and every House Void stronghold on her continent. Three’s units responded like an army of ants swarming out of a stomped mound. Black spider tanks chased after the peach colored hovercraft to no avail, they pulled back too quick to be caught. Then dozens of missiles shot down from overhead, Mei’s airships having launched fifteen minutes ago from several hundred miles back. Anti-air ordnance filled the sky, but it wasn’t enough. Several missiles were about to hit, when suddenly a geyser of water shut up out of the sea, and a pair of huge crafts rose out of their depths. Jet black craft with wide, sweeping wings like manta rays, they floated on the water’s surface, releasing a swarm of their own smaller missiles. Every one of Mei’s missiles went down. Reckes hadn’t expected that. Having grown used to battle on the planet’s largest continent, he wasn’t used to the idea of underwater units.
However poorly it may have been playing lately, Three did not react slowly now. In mere minutes, it had formed up a respectable force and was moving out, striking southeast towards one of Mei’s strongholds. Her attack had come from the west and south, and so Three must be thinking that her army was weaker in that direction. He wondered if that was what she wanted it to think, having made that blunder a few times himself. It didn’t move carelessly though. He could still see the large sea crafts waiting underwater, and a number of airships were moving south from the Silence continent. She sent yet another strike from the west, but it was ready this time, and nearly half her dragoons were obliterated before she called the rest back, having done no damage worth mentioning. He felt a slight satisfaction at the sight of it. Mei was good, but she wasn’t perfect.
There was a beep as he received a message from Mei. Too busy to talk, she’d simply sent him a map of the eastern hemisphere, with an aerial route drawn on it in garishly bright pink. A little circle was drawn around a specific point, with the words go here written in messy handwriting. He didn’t hesitate, but fired up his garuda and sent it blasting northwest at top stealth speed. His swarm of oracles, floating almost out of the atmosphere over the eastern sea, revealed a swarm of movement up ahead. Black and silver aircraft were exchanging fire from their respective landmasses, with a few island borne artillery strikes thrown in for good measure. How Mei knew that Mercury and Void would be clashing at this moment, he didn’t know, but it made the perfect cover. He slipped his garuda into a swarm of silver missiles heading for Silence, then burst northward at the last moment, threading his garuda over the smoking remains of a ruined defense post. From the wreckage, Seol had no doubt taken it down only minutes ago.
From that point on it was an easy flight. Three was focused on the battles going on at its borders, with no time to search for an intruder in its own domain. Still, he circled wide around the strongholds he saw. Silence was very different from Aqua. The ground rose and fell like ocean waves, covered in snow, and long rivers flooded the land between them, their tops frozen, forming huge fractal patterns hundreds of miles long. High mountain peaks rose above the clouds, and black forests grew in the valleys between them. Everywhere he flew, he saw no movement, heard nothing but the endless moaning wind. It was stark, quiet, and beautiful. Silence was well named.
He checked his map as he approached his destination. Orbital and spacecraft were not permitted in the Land Games, which meant that all maps were partially guesswork, formed from quick imaging taken in the midst of battle or low quality pictures from high altitude spy craft. But he had a rough copy of the layout of Silence, repeatedly updated over the years, and both Three’s castle and the landing spot of House Blanc were marked. He was rapidly approaching Three’s castle, but the other position was even closer. His main screen, still showing the view from his garuda as if he were actually riding in it, lit up as its computers noticed some distant unusual activity. It was coming from the spot where White’s castle had landed, before exploding so pointlessly. He hesitated. What reason could there be for anything to be happening there now? Surely Three would have long ago picked over the site for anything useful. But his images showed a number of low flying aircraft over the site, and they weren’t anything his computers recognized. Furthermore, they weren’t black, but orange. He couldn’t ignore it. He tilted his garuda and angled straight for the site, rising high above the clouds for cover. It didn’t take long to reach it. He took a deep breath, then dove beneath the clouds to take a look.
A bizarre sight met his eyes. White’s castle had landed in the middle of a wide open tundra, dotted with a few trees and huge boulders deposited by ancient glaciers. The frigid earth had been peeled away, layer by layer, revealing a huge crater that burrowed down in narrower and narrower steps. Tiny colorful forms swept over the whole area, and a number of rough buildings had been thrown up on its periphery. The aircraft he’d spotted were so ridiculous he took a moment to even realize what they were. Balloons of orange canvas, with a basket suspended below by hempen rope. Some kind of furnace burned in the basket, filling the balloon with hot air, allowing it to float. A pair of natives with bright shells were huddled in the hot air balloon, overseeing the work below. Were these natives excavating the ruined castle? Did they honestly think they’d be able to capture the technology and turn it against their rulers? What a waste of time, Reckes thought. They would find nothing that would allow them to threaten the Houses. Land Games technology was carefully designed so that it was impossible for alien natives to comprehend.
He was about to turn his garuda away when he realized he had been wrong. The few pieces of the castle had been dragged aside, lying randomly around the crater in heaps, and not a single native was paying them attention. But in the middle of the crater, a single spire rose up, three hundred feet high, made of a shiny metal that seemed to refract in the sunlight, throwing up dozens of rainbows around it in every direction. It was caked in dirt, scratched. Clearly very, very old. He activated his garuda’s sensors, and it scanned the ground below. Taking an image of the return vibrations revealed that a massive device lay beneath the tundra, filled with many chambers. Reckes felt his breath fall away as he realized the significance of the device. It was clearly some kind of spacecraft, hundreds if not thousands of years old.
This device was the first evidence of a space faring extraterrestrial race in known history. And House Blanc had landed right on top of it.