Please don’t try to compete with me. I’d like us to remain friends. He ran his thoughts over the memory again, as if it were a sore he couldn’t stop picking at. The often remembered line came back to him at the most irritating moments, and made him pause and think too hard about things that should have been forgotten long ago. He tapped a screen to turn up his music, hoping to drown out his thoughts, and focused on the view ahead. Under strict orders from Seol, he was controlling his army from high overhead, watched over through the many eyes of his oracle swarm. Still, he kept his main screen showing the view of his dreadnought, leading from the midst of his tank and dragoon horde. His entire force, more than 100,000 strong, was bunched up in a tight formation, a massive fist ready to smash through his enemies defenses. He took in the view of his forward oracles, showing the frantic battle already going on far ahead. Seol’s silver dragoons and light tanks waged a complex skirmish against gold and blue machines. Seol was striking a dozen places at once, attacking, retreating, then attacking again whenever the enemy tried to move their forces. She had advised him, well, ordered actually, to create his present formation and move up slowly and carefully. So far Serge and Reckes, units in disarray from Seol’s expert attacks, had been pulling their armies back whenever his forces approached. He’d already regained a hundred miles of the territory he’d lost in the past weeks, but Brand hadn’t gotten to do much at all, other than fend off the attacks of far distant airships. They always seemed to come from the direction he hadn’t scouted yet. He wondered how they always got so lucky, and why never seemed to be able to get such a break. Volca was always ready to intercept them though. Fortunately, he guessed.
“Brand, charge forward at battle speed 4,” Seol spoke to him from of his many smaller screens. As always when she was busy commanding, she sounded completely toneless and eerily exact. It was an odd contrast to her blazing fast hand motions and the sight of her eyes whipping wildly from screen to screen, following the action in numerous simultaneous battles. Finally, something to do, he thought. He swept his hand over his command screen, activating all units, and pushed forward at increased speed. The battle line came rushing forward now. Seol must have spotted an opening that they could exploit. Or, maybe she was in trouble and needed backup? He paused, about to ask her, but thought of how pissed off she’d be if he distracted her and made her attack the wrong target or something. Seol and Volca were practically the same, always so tense when it came to the games. Like it was some kind of life or death thing. He sighed, and put his palm to his forehead, rubbing out the tension. He’d been at this for six hours now, doing practically nothing the whole time, and a headache was steadily building. He turned up the music again.
“Another air-strike coming in from the north-east,” Volca called, opposite of Seol’s screen. He shook his head and scanned his screen hopelessly, trying to remember which oracles to select, only to see that Volca had already indicated it for him. Flying from the northeast was another huge swarm of missiles, hundreds of miles away but bearing down on him fast. Unlike the last four air-strikes he’d had to deal with, these ones were green. Ha, so even Jayle’s getting into it now, he thought. That was more like it. Back in training, he’d always liked going up against her the best. She was damn good, and used to trounce him pretty badly most of the time, but somehow he always felt less ashamed when she beat him. A girl of her status was expected to be a winner after all. You are of House Amarant! You will not lose to trash of this sort! More memories, more words he’d rather forget. He shook his head and started tapping at his screen, selecting his anti-air units and preparing them to fire in volleys. He slipped up a few times, but noticed and was able to recover by the moment the missiles arrived.
Explosions filled the yellow sky, leaving the north-east obscured with dark clouds. Nine missiles made it through, but five of them exploded harmlessly against his shields, so he only lost a couple thousand tanks. He heard nothing from either Volca or Seol, which was as close to praise as he was likely to get. He scanned the field again and saw that ahead of him, a blue army was in disarray, three groups of tanks scattered around a string of lakes and hills, a swarm of dragoons speeding up but much too far away. The remnants of Seol’s forces lay shattered around them, ruined, but they’d done their job. She’d sacrificed a much smaller force to weaken the enemy, so that his force could scatter it with ease. He froze. She was relying on him for this. If he screwed it up, she’d be angry again.
He broke formation, sending his army forward at top speed, his dragoons pulling out far ahead of the others, his spider tanks leaving the slow moving dreadnoughts behind. A bright beam lit up the sky and nearly blinded him before his screen darkened. When he rubbed the light out of his eyes he saw his vanguard had been destroyed, and Serge’s tanks were pulling into a proper formation, presenting a curved crescent he was forced to funnel his army into bit by bit, being fired on all the time. Atop the nearest hill, more of a mountain really, he saw a stationary beam cannon charging up again, built into the rock so that only the ten feet of its barrel was exposed. How the hell was I supposed to know that was there? Although, now that he thought about it, he remembered Seol’s advance units being hit by something like that earlier. He scanned the battle again, saw that his army was taking heavy losses, while Serge’s crescent slowly withdrew so that he could maintain his advantageous formation. But despite his losses, he vastly outnumbered the blue forces, and his machines were stronger and more powerful as well. The battle was as good as won, so long as he didn’t have any more surprises. The beam cannon on the mountain was a good three hundred miles away, out of the range of spider tanks. His dreadnoughts had a much longer firing range, but it would take several minutes still before they could reach it. If it fired before then…
“Volca, take over for me. I’m gonna go fuck up that cannon,” Brand commanded.
“Good luck, sir,” she answered. He gritted his teeth. Companions weren’t supposed to wish you luck, they were supposed to have faith in your abilities. And her tone made it pretty clear she thought he was about to do something stupid. Well, he knew what he was doing, and he’d show them he wasn’t some moron still learning the game. All he had to do was take down that cannon before it could fire again, and he’d turn a victory into an impressive victory. Unless something unlucky happens again. It probably would. He had the worst luck of anyone he ever knew.
Fingers moving at a blur, he separated out a force from the middle of his army, not yet engaged, four hundred dragoons and a fourth as many tanks. He ordered them together and made his spiders jump, leaping onto the dragoons which shuddered under their weight and lowered until they were barely floating over the ground. He had his tanks spread out, two of each leg on a different dragoon, distributing their weight, and the dragoons could float almost at their regular height. They’d be fast too. He’d just have to be careful not to make them go too fast, or his tanks would fly off and be scattered all over the fields. The crescent shaped line of blue was directly to the north, the mountain to the northeast, a wide lake spreading to its south. He send the dragoons shooting forward, skimming over the lake. Its water shot high into the air as they past, slamming down as a geyser on the craft following behind. Dozens of tanks fell back under the force of the water and sunk into the lake. Shit. He lowered their speed and the tanks were able to hold, though they swayed drunkenly back and forth. In less than two minutes, they’d be in firing range…
More geysers of water exploded out of the lake, hundreds of them, and dragoons and tanks were thrown off course or blasted into shrapnel. Serge’s other group, the small force to the east of the lake, was firing on his units. He sent a fifth of his dragoons speeding towards them, trying to draw their fire, but they ignored them and kept focusing on his main force. Their numbers were dwindling fast, and nearly all the tanks had fallen off to sink into the lake.
He flinched again as a huge blast of light erupted from the south, setting the lake shore on fire and engulfing many enemy tanks. One of his distant dreadnoughts had fired its main cannon. At this distance, it couldn’t harm the heavily fortified cannon up on the mountain, but it could certainly hit the tanks along the lake shore. He glanced at his screens and saw that Volca was moving it northeast, getting it into a better position to cover his forces. Damn it, I told her I could handle this. Of course she wouldn’t think he could do it on his own. Too late he realized he should have had his dreadnoughts covering his force from the beginning.
Fire was coming from the western shore now too, Serge’s main force getting in on the action. He sped his dragoons down the middle of the lake, being rocked with fire from all sides, and he spotted more blue tanks hidden on the mountain ahead, firing down in rapid bursts. He was down to a dozen tanks, no, nine, but his dragoons hit the shore and he had them jump, flying a hundred feet up to slam against the side of the mountain. Twelve tanks were surrounding him, covered by spiky red bushes and boulders. He split his spiders aim, firing manually, and wiped all of them out in huge blasts that sent chunks of mountainside careening down to the lake below. Another four of his tanks were lost, he had five left. He began to jump them from one ledge to another, clearing dozens of feet with each leap. The mountain was providing cover for him now, and there was barely any opposition left. I’m going to do it, he thought. Three more of his spiders went down, one destroyed, the others simply blasted off the mountain to sink in the mud of the lakeshore below. His last two leapt up, landing on a natural ledge before the cave that held the beam cannon. A pair of blue tanks surrounded it, but he fired at one from below and simply charged into the other at full speed, losing three legs but sending it tumbling down the mountain. Inside the cave, the cannon was glowing hot, ready to fire. He didn’t have the time to stop it, so he ordered both tanks to leap up and grab hold of the barrel, shoving their legs into it just as the beam fired. His screen fizzled out as the tanks fried, and he switched to an aerial oracle just in time to see the mountaintop explode like a volcano, raining chunks down boulders over a hundred mile radius. No beam fired. He grinned wildly and punched his fist into the air, shouting triumphantly.
“Brand. New orders. Retreat.” Seol’s voice rose up from his right, very quietly. He blinked and turned to see her image, big wide eyes unblinking, still whipping wildly back from one screen to another.
“Did you say retreat? No, I did it, I stopped the cannon, so we’re good, let’s take these guys-”
“Retreat. Right now. I don’t have time to explain my orders to you,” she said, teeth gritting, hands still flying over the controls. “Volca has prepared a route. Go.”
He slumped back in his chair and pulled up the map Volca had sent him. It showed a gold arrow streaming in from the south, and green from the west. Reinforcements. Just as Seol said, Volca had drawn a red arrow showing him the best route for retreat, with occasional notations written here or there. She had already begun pulling back his main force, since he’d left her in control. He sighed. No one seemed as though they were in any hurry to commend his awesome victory over the hidden beam cannon. He was sure if this had been a training simulation, the teacher would have mentioned it for sure… although probably to point out how reckless it was. His music faded out, reaching the end of the list, and he didn’t bother to start another one. He took back control from Volca and settled down for a boring retreat.
Please don’t try to compete with me. The words rung again in his head as he idly tapped points on the map, sending oracles and dragoons to scout his retreat. He’d been at it for forty-five long, dull, minutes. I’d like us to remain friends.
I didn’t compete with you, he thought. I sat back and took it easy, just like you wanted. So does that make us friends, now? He sighed, then turned it into a loud groan aimed across the room, where Volca stood in the midst of her own interface, turned transparent from his perspective. Her maroon braids were arranged in four loops, two hanging down her back and the other across her ample chest. She was wearing one of her typical wide, elegant gowns, red and orange and yellow silk made in layers on layers. He supposed it was kinda pretty, but he’d have preferred to see more than a few inches of skin here and then. After he held his stare at her for more than a minute, she paused and turned.
“Can I do something for you, master?” The sweetness of her words was undercut by sneering sarcasm. A.I.s as advanced as hers were programmed to be loyal to their masters… but they didn’t have to like it. Volca had been cold towards him ever since that one little incident, shortly after he’d received her. I have the absolute worst luck.
“Yeah, I’m getting bored… I mean, I need to be rested for the next battle. You can handle all this retreating stuff right?”
“Retreating isn’t a simple affair. If it is not handled with care, we could end up losing more units. But the Aureus forces are keeping their distance, and Seol is holding off Azure’s advance. If you feel like you need to rest, now would be as good a time as any,” she said.
“Alright, I’m outta here,” he turned off his interface, stood, and stretched. The muscles in his back popped and cracked reassuringly. The room they used for combat was luxurious, designed similar to his parent’s solar room back on Hephaes, used to discuss important matters with guests. It had deep and comfortable couches filled with soft pillows, intricate rugs large as houses, and tall windows that opened onto a balcony overlooking the rugged mountains surrounding his castle. It was an exquisite display of wealth and comfort, but he’d never liked it. Growing up in his parents castle, he’d always been terrified that he was going to break something really expensive. The balcony he’d always liked though. On Hephaes, it had overlooked the fields where huge fungi were farmed. They produced a pinkish gas that smelled sweet and fragrant, so that when he looked out he saw only a vast carpet of pink mist, with dark shapes moving through like ghosts as the harvesting robots went about their work. He used to like to climb over the railing and hang over the edge, so that he could see the thousands of feet of empty air below him, crossed occasionally by long serpentine birds with a dozen wings.
He passed the balcony with only a glance though. He was hungry, and by now his machines would have his lunch prepared. As he reached the entrance to the spiral hall that would lead him down to the dining room, Volca called out to him once more.
“Huh? You want something?” he asked.
“I just wanted to mention one thing. Seol’s orders to retreat was as a result of the overall battle situation. We’d gained a lot of ground, and we couldn’t possibly hold onto it all until we have time to build reinforcements. Not to mention, she was taken unawares at Jayle’s participation in the battle. It was the right moment to retreat to maximize our advantage. It wasn’t a result of any failure of yours.”
“Well, yeah, of course I knew that. We kicked ass, right? See ya later Vol.”
His lunch was ready, delicious food produced by cold mechanical hands. He sat at the head of a ridiculously long table marked with the Amarant crest and laughed again at the thought of it. Who did his parents think he was going to eat with? There were exactly nine humans on the whole planet, and seven of them were his enemies. Maybe they thought it would make me feel at home. He’d grown up in six or seven castles scattered throughout the galaxy, each of them nearly identical. His parents lived in them too, though rarely in the same place as each other. But countless times they’d eaten together at a table like this one, only the occasional flicker or blur to show that his parents were actually a dozen planets away.
As he ate, he pulled up the table interface and considered how to pass the time. Dozens of educational programs and social lessons were on the top of his itinerary, long overdue, but he wasn’t in the mood for that. He scanned through a number of holographic-films he’d been planning to watch, but there was pretty much no chance he’d be able to get through a whole one before it was time to return to battle. Seol was dead serious about beating Jayle, and he had no choice but to support her. He was aimlessly checking the interplanetary network when an alert message chimed up beside his elbow. It informed him that a message had been sent. The sender was Ryam Amarant.
I’d like us to remain friends. He stared at it, all appetite lost. His brother Ryam had sent him a message or two every week, for as long as this game had gone on. His correspondence was not in the least deterred by Brand’s lack of a response. Of course not. He wants us to remain friends.
His brother Ryam was born of the second wife of Marius Amarant, the ruler of House Amarant. Though he was three years older than Brand, he should have been second in line due to his mother’s status. Yet when time came for the Land Games to commence, they had chosen Brand to play. He remembered being completely blindsided by their choice. Everyone knew who the better player was; Ryam had been one of the top students in his training class, while Brand was one of the worst. The Land Games were important, but they had more important plans for Ryam. Since that day, he’d known that his parents had given up on him, and had chosen Ryam as heir to House Amarant.
But really, he’d known that for a lot longer, even if he had refused to think about it. Four years ago, they’d gone on a family vacation, one of the few times in his life all five of them had physically been in the same location. He remembered it vividly, still. He and Ryam had gone off together, while their father spoke with some other Lord. They’d taken a small aircraft from the resort they’d been visiting and flown out to local jungle, where trees tens of thousands of feet tall reached almost to the upper atmosphere, vines strung between them like giant spider webs. Above the trees, a number of sky dragons floated, their serpentine bodies held up by bladders full of gas bigger than houses. Ryam had let him take the controls, and he was flying wildly around one of the dragon’s faces, easily avoiding its snapping jaws. After he managed to get close enough to fly through its three rows of teeth, he flew down to the top of the trees and set the aircraft to hover, taking in the view of the jungle and the creatures that lived atop its canopy.
“It was good we got the chance to go together, this time,” Ryam said.
“Yeah, this place is pretty sweet,” Brand said. “I guess after this we’ll be back to training full time. But that’ll be fun too. One of these days I’m going to beat you.”
“You enjoy training?”
“Of course! Its an awesome game, and it’ll be even cooler if I get to do it for real! Not like that’ll ever happen. If we ever get to compete, dad will pick you for sure.”
“You never know. You might get your chance.”
“As if. The competitors all have to be under seventeen years old. If there was a game coming up, dad would know about it. By the time one happens, I’m sure I’ll be busy learning how to run the family and everything. They’ll have to pick one of our cousins to play.”
“Brand…” He trailed off, then reached out and tapped at the aircraft’s controls, taking over. It shot forward at gut-wrenching speed, and Brand let out a yelp of surprise. They shot forward faster and faster, heading straight towards the trees. Brand felt his exhilaration rising as they sped towards impact, and then had a brief moment of terror as he realized they weren’t going to pull up. At the last moment, Ryam dove between the vines and began to loop in and out of the trees, their ship flying so fast Brand couldn’t even see the obstacles coming. The ships impact sensors were going haywire, flashing and beeping warnings constantly, but Ryam ignored them, until they burst through one last tangle of vines and appeared beneath the canopy. Below, it was as dark as a cave, with only the faint luminescence of glowing bark fungus to draw the eye. Brand panted, heart pounding in his chest, so when Ryam began to speak it took him a moment to even notice what he was talking about.
“…so, after this vacation, I won’t be going back to training. Dad’s taking me to court with him next year, to introduce me to some of the other Lords. You’ll have to finish your training by yourself.”
“You’re going to court? No, you’re lying. I’m the heir, you don’t have any reason to go to court. You must have misheard him, he was talking about me-”
“You’re going to have to focus harder on your training Brand. I’ve been looking out for you during the competitions, but I’m not going to be around any more. But you’ll be happy there, right? You like the games. I never did. Seemed like a waste of time,” Ryam said. Neither of them were looking at each other.
“But you’re so good at them, how could you not like them?”
“We’re nobility Brand. We can’t limit ourselves to things we like. We have duties. Its your duty to get as good as you can at the Land Games. Because if one comes up, you’re going to be playing, not me. I’m going to be working with dad.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that. Maybe I’ll get better than you, and then-”
“Quit joking around. This is father’s decision. He made it for the sake of our House. It’s not something we can change because we like or dislike it. This is my duty. Please don’t try and compete with me. I’d like us to remain friends.”
The conversation trailed off soon after. On the way back, they flew in silence. Brand let Ryam pilot the whole way.
“Incoming message.” His dinner table interface had a message silently flashing on its screen, indicating that someone wanted to speak to him in real time. He groaned, expecting it would be Seol. He didn’t dislike her, but she could be a lot to handle at the best of times, and since the accident he never knew what to say to her. But when he clicked the screen he was surprised to see it wasn’t Seol. It was Serge.
Serge appeared standing in the middle of the table, looking as though his top half had been chopped off and served up for supper. He looked around, annoyed at the undignified way he’d appeared, and then walked through the table to one of the many pointless chairs and pulled him up a seat. Brand resisted the urge to stand up. Though Serge was only a year older than him, he was nearly a foot taller, and the way he carried himself always made him seem like an adult in comparison.
“Yo. What’s with the transmission? You always blow me off when I call you,” Brand said.
“I don’t mean to. You just usually have the bad timing to contact me when I’m in the middle of battle,” Serge said.
“Yeah, that sounds about right. I have some seriously shitty luck. Aren’t you kinda trying to run me down right now?”
“I left Ergo in charge of it. I thought it would be a good time for a break. And I haven’t talked to you in weeks, so I thought…” he shook his head, as if he weren’t entirely sure what he’d been thinking.
“Kind of a weird time to hang out. After all, me and Seol just kicked your ass. Oh, I get it, you’re talking to me so you can get out of Jayle bitching you out! Ha, I’m onto you.”
“Jayle? Bitch me out?” He gave an incredulous look. “No, she wouldn’t do that. Jayle is very supportive.”
“Oh. Well, uh, of course Seol doesn’t do anything like that either. She’s totally supportive. I cant go five minutes without her calling me up to support my ass,” Brand said.
“I suppose we were very lucky to go into this game with our fiancés on our side.”
“Lucky, yeah. I noticed yours was out fighting today. What’s up with that? I thought she went all Gandhi on us,” Brand asked.
“She’s become more serious lately. I… don’t really understand why.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’re better off not even trying to figure her out. I thought I had Seol figured out, and then she went gritty-revenge mode and started acting all hardcore. More than usual.”
“Well I have the advantage there. Me and Jayle have known each other our whole lives. So Seol is still serious about this?”
“Uh, not sure I should really be talking to you about our strategy. Seol would be pissed.”
“Of course. Anyway, its pretty obvious from the way she’s fighting. I haven’t had this big of a challenge since the games started. You were doing better too. That attack on my cannon was pretty interesting. I wouldn’t have risked so many units like that, but it all worked out. I think maybe you just have to find the right play style for you. Keep it up, and you’ll be a serious contender.” Serge smiled, obviously trying to compliment him, but his words made Brand feel even more apathetic. He couldn’t imagine dredging up the energy to go back and fight anymore tonight. Does he really think I'm getting better? He realized he had been playing much better tonight than he had for months now. Every time he’d fought Serge before, he’d felt increasingly unmotivated. Back in training, it had been simple. Back then, he’d always wanted to win. But now, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to win or lose.
Don’t try and compete. Remain friends.