“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 fiancé, 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.