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…”
“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?”