The air buzzed and hummed, making her ears ache as though she were at some high altitude. Her skin tingled from all the electricity firing back and forth. And the constant clicking and clattering of shells made her clench her teeth, wishing for just a few seconds of blissful silence. She had long ago given up trying to pick words out of the noise. She would be completely lost if Gift weren’t kneeling at her side, very slowly translating important bits of dialogue. Of which there were few. Since she’d arrived an hour ago (could it really have only been an hour?) the senior Woken had not stopped talking once, but aside from brief explanations (“He’s angry that the refugees are being allowed to continue slandering your name, she’s worried that there will not be enough food for them all, the monks have begun stirring up rebellion”) Gift had not translated much of it. Jayle had quit speaking after about ten minutes, and since then the other Woken had grown more and more relaxed and now seemed to be ignoring her entirely while they bickered amongst themselves.
After the disaster with Seol, when her forward bases had been completely wrecked by her missile barrage, Jayle had quickly gone to see why her people were contacting her. In the elevator descending to ground level, she’d changed the walls to show her a view of her city, and had been shocked at the sight of tall plumes of black smoke rising from several parts of the city. The streets had been clogged with Woken, shining in the sun like rivers of many colors. The would-be assassin who’d tried to kill her during her speech was obviously not the only one of his kind. A couple days after the knowledge that she was at last joining in the war had spread, a riot had begun in her city that had lasted for hours. Little damage had been done, and those responsible were vastly outnumbered by the law abiding citizens. But it sent a clear message. Where before she had thought her people were happy, now she knew that beneath the surface, resentment and fear ran deep. And she had nothing she could tell them to dissuade them of their anxiety. If they feared that she was now committed to the same destructive warfare as the rest of the “demons,” well, they were right. She was just as responsible as the others for ruining their lives.
Jayle had done her best to convince those in attendance that she was fighting for their best interest, for the good of all Woken, that only through victory could she provide them a future. But with her body language merely the peculiarities of an alien to them, she had to rely purely on her words, and she new they would not be swayed so easily. The past two years of peace were now over, and her people were beginning to realize that it had been an illusion all along.
“Goddess?” Gift buzzed very quickly, so that she took a moment to realize he was speaking to her. She tried to focus on him and realized her vision was blurry and seemed to be swaying back and forth. Everything sounded slightly muffled. She tried to remember the last time she had slept, and realized that it was more than forty eight hours ago. How does everyone do this all the time?
“Yes Gift, I am listening,” she said, taking care not to let her exhaustion slip into her voice. She realized she was starting to slump in her chair, and forced herself to sit up straight.
“Trust in Benevolence wishes to ask if your Grace has any plans to continue the expansions that were put aside. He notes that they would be of much use in housing the refugees that continue to arrive in the city. He wishes to assure you that he does not mean to criticize your Grace-”
“Of course Goddess. We do not question your wisdom.”
“Good. I must return to my duties now. The silver devil is determined.” She stood and all the Woken kneeled and let out a cacophony of noise, buzzing and clicking their shells in reverence. As she left, she wondered whether Seol had actually given any thought to the natives at all. During their old training, she had generally ignored the simulated natives unless they were technologically advanced. Jayle had done the same, and had never considered what it would be like to witness such a wide scale conflict from their perspective. Only their friend Sahara of House Dawn had consistently interacted with the natives, always trying to turn them into useful allies.
She threaded her way through hallways filled with Woken. Most of them paused and knelt as she passed, clattering their shells into a storm of applause, while others crept forward, presenting their shells for her touch. The stark white walls of her castle were now splattered with bright paint of every color as the refugees tried to settle into their new home. She rather enjoyed the change, and suppressed a grin as she thought of how her sister would react if she could see it now. On the way to the elevator, she was nearly bowled over pair a blue and red shelled child, tumbling end over end down a set of stairs. She sighed and helped him up. She’d warned the children about stairs, but they continued to try to use them.
She stood in the elevator in a stupor, waiting for it to arrive, only to realize that she had not requested a destination. She started to speak, to order it to bring her to her room, then hesitated. For days now, there had been a thought in the back of her mind, slowly worming its way forward. She had done her best to ignore it, but she had always known it was there. She was tired, and she was confused, and above all she felt lonelier that she had for years. For the first time since she had been accepted as the Green Goddess, she felt cut off from the Woken. She wanted someone to talk to.
“Storage bay G.” The elevator hummed as it accepted her command, and began to descend. When the doors opened, nothing but darkness lay before her. She had not been here in well over a year. As she stepped over the threshold, dim lights began to shine from distant corners of the room. It was cylindrical, and very deep. This storage bay was the absolute lowest part of the castle, the absolute most secure spot. Every castle had a room like this, and they all held the same thing. Normally, there would be no reason to visit this place, except in the most extreme of circumstances. But when she decided she could stand no more of her Companion’s disapproval, she had chosen this as his prison.
The lights grew brighter as she walked out onto the narrow catwalk, suspended four hundred feet above ground level. Halfway down the catwalk it branched out to one side, and she paused to take in the sight. It ran another fifty feet to the chest of the massive machine encompassing this chamber. More than five hundred feet tall, the massive machine was contained within a massive sarcophagus, but she new that it was shaped like a human, designed to be controlled as smoothly and easily as her own body through the use of a neural interface. The Autonomous Contingency Evacuation unit, known colloquially as an “Ace,” was meant to be the measure of last resort in a game gone bad. In addition to being capable of faster than light space travel and preserving it’s pilot during the months it would require to reach safety, the Ace was a true weapon of war. Compared to the units controlled by Jayle and her competitors, they were on a whole other level. With just this Ace, she could easily wipe out an entire army of spider tanks, and survive a barrage from a full fleet of airships. But that wasn’t an option. The use of an Ace during the Land Games was considered an act of war, and would be met with immediate assault on the House responsible. They were meant to be used to evacuate the players in the event that an actual war broke out, or if the native population somehow became a danger to the players (a possibility that had never occurred). They were armed with enough weaponry to allow them to fight their way through a blockade and escape into space. The Aces represented the importance the House leaders placed on their children. If they were going to be sent halfway across the universe unguarded, then they would have to be provided with a foolproof method of returning home. But she had not given the Ace a thought since the last time she had been here. With only six months left until the games ended, she did not expect to ever use it.
She ignored the side path and continued down to the end of the catwalk, where a small balcony stood, containing a number of high security vaults. Though there was no official explanation for them, Jayle suspected the vaults were meant as a prison in the case that a spy or saboteur was captured. Each of them was capable of placing their contents into suspended animation. She brushed her fingers across the vault’s surface and it turned clear, revealing her only prisoner.
Sero was a tall, lithe figure, long limbed and elegant. His face had a timeless quality to it, almost preternaturally thin. Soft locks of golden hair fell to his waist. Though his eyes were closed as though asleep, she could see them easily in her memories. Electric blue, bright and fluid, framed by long lashes. She had been delighted when she had first been allowed to design him. She had grown up with only her sister for company, and even her friendship with Serge and Seol had marred by the constant need to hide her true self, to put on her noblewoman’s mask and maintain her dignity and grace. She had thought that she would finally have someone she could be completely open to. And for a time, it had been so. Sero had been similar to Serge in a lot of ways, dutiful, composed, loyal to a fault. And yet he was much more sure of himself: relaxed, confident, and full of easy humor. She had missed him, these past years…but she hadn’t been wrong to lock him away.
“You were never really my friend,” she said, though of course he could not hear her. “You played the part you were given, just as I did. You wore your mask well, better than I ever did. I really did think you cared about me.” But as it became increasingly clear that she had no interest playing the game, his humor had turned sharp and cruel. He began to insult and belittle her, and before long he began to remind her of Marona. And that was something she couldn’t handle, not after she had finally gotten free of her. Even so, she couldn’t help but raise her hand to the control interface. Just a slight touch of pressure, and he would be released. What would he say if he awoke now? Would he smile, crack a joke at how long it had taken her to wake him up? Or would he scowl, and tell her how stupid she’d been. She was doing what he wanted now, she was playing to win, so he’d have nothing to complain about. But that would mean admitting he was right all along. And he would hardly be able to resist rubbing that in.
Quickly, before she could change her mind, Jayle turned and walked quickly out of the storage bay.