“Are you certain about this? It seems very reckless. Your basing your plan on the reactions of an unpredictable player, one we know almost nothing about.” On his screen, Serge looked exhausted. Usually he sat with perfectly straight posture, the spitting image of military pride. Now he slumped in his seat, his eyes bloodshot and framed by dark circles. He’d removed his ridiculous faux-uniform and was wearing a sleeveless shirt. He’s gotta be really tired to put comfort before appearances. Reckes could sympathize. In the past week, he’d slept a grand total of eighteen hours.
“We’ve taken too much of a beating this past week. We’ve lost too many factories, and Seol hasn’t lost a single one. You know what that means, she’s got momentum. We keep playing like this, and the outcome is already decided. A few more days and we lose Jayle. After that, I’ll be the next to go down. If you wanna look at this thing clinically, I’d say we’ve already pretty much lost. So do you wanna do this the steady, standard way, then sorry to break it to yeah, game over, you lose, pack your bags. But we still got a chance. You base everything on skill and tactics, then there’s always a chance you’ll get screwed by bad luck. But if we put our hopes on luck to begin with, then there’s still a slight chance we can win,” Reckes said. He turned his dice over and over in his hand, feeling their comforting weight.
“Even after all these years, you still don’t strike me as a gambler.”
“Everything you do is a gamble. I’m just honest about it.”
“It all comes down to luck, huh?” Serge said, then sighed. “I never would have guessed it, but it looks like you and Brand have something in common. Alright. We’ll do this your way. I’m putting my trust in you Reckes. The fate of all our Houses rests on your decision. If we succeed, I will make certain my family does not forget your support.”
“Alright then, let’s get crackin,” Reckes said. He dropped the dice and reached out toward his interface, sending out orders to his units to prepare to move. But Serge did not yet turn away. He looked as though he was working up to say something.
“And if we fail…well. If we lose, I’m sure it won’t be because of you. You have been a loyal and supportive ally these past years Reckes. I’m grateful to have had you on my side. I’m honored to count you as a friend,” Serge said.
“Uh, yeah.” Reckes did his best not to let his amusement show on his face. So we’re friends now, huh? That’s news to me… “You too. It’s been a fuckin blast, we’re best friends forever. But we both got stuff to do, alright?”
Serge nodded, and made a little grimace that Reckes thought might be an attempt at a smile, and signed off, leaving Reckes alone, suspended in empty darkness with the lights of his interface surrounding him. He’d decided to drop out of the whole team war-room thing for awhile. It helped coordinate their efforts, but at this point they all knew what they had to do and he was getting really tired of filtering out the important bits from the constant stream of noise coming from the other players. His head ached, and his eyes were burning from staring at so many bright lights all the time. He needed some peace and quiet for a little bit. He tapped a few commands, and the blackness around him transformed into slowly billowing clouds, deep grey and flashing with occasional sparks of lightning. Beneath him, a grey-green sea flowed. It was an image of Algos, the planet he supposed was his home. He’d never felt particularly nostalgic for it before, but all of the sudden he’d wanted to see it again. So he had Sola whip up this display.
He sighed and took a deep breath, then set his dice aside and pressed a key. Dozens of screens, several of them twenty feet across, appeared all around him, showing him everything he needed to see. Today was the seventh day since Seol’s missiles had first bypassed their defenses. The sun was just starting to bleed over the horizon in the west, the sky over Jayle’s castle tinged light green. He zoomed out to a composite image created from all of his, Jayle, and Serge’s oracles, and saw that Seol’s main forces were less than three hundred miles from Jayle’s castle. At the rate they were moving, they could be there in a matter of hours. Far to the south and east, Serge’s army was deep in Brand’s territory, about five hundred miles from his castle. This was going to be close.
Time to roll the dice.
Mei walked across the deck of her airship, smiling as the powerful wind tore at her hair and clothes. She strode to the edge, where Iras was crouched outside the railing, hanging out as far as he could. She laughed at the sight; obviously they were not actually on top this airship, they were safely back on the roof of her castle, so there was no chance he could actually fall… unless he was currently hanging off the very real railing of the castle balcony. Well, it didn’t matter. Even if he did fall, her castle’s operating system would just catch him with a force field.
She joined him at railing and he flashed a fanged grin at her. Below, ocean streamed in on a crimson shoreline, the vast continent of Aqua open before her. To either side of her, a trio of airships hung in the sky, clouds and oracles drifting around them. A few dozen hydras lay in wait beneath the water, their missile pods poised to fire up to the surface above. On the shore itself, twenty thousand pale peach dragoons hovered over the sand, split into two distinct units. Before them were the wide rolling hills and orange forests held by Brand Amarant, who was awaiting her support. She would soon give it, though not too much. She had plans to help out Team Apollo for two days, then fake an attack by Three and withdraw her forces for awhile. It would be a delicate task, but she believed she could keep them fighting for at least a few more weeks. Meanwhile, she was crafting a new strategy for breaking through House Void’s borders. It was nine-hundred miles from his shore to the place where the ancient spaceship lay buried. She had her work cut out for her, but so long as she was in possession of that territory when the game ended, all would be well. Her parents and her brothers and sisters would be proud of her. Maybe Reckes will be too, she thought. He would certainly be angry that she had beaten him, but she guessed he was more the type to respect the ones who beat him than hold a grudge. If we’re lucky, maybe we can play another game! You couldn’t participate in the Land Games after you turned eighteen, but she and Reckes were both very young players. They might get another shot. She would love to give him the chance to get her back.
“Alright Mei, this is more like it!” Iras said, bouncing on the heels of his feet. “This is great for a landing force, but when are we gonna move the rest our units in?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” She smiled sweetly at him. “This is it. If you want to win, you’ll have to do it with these.”
“What? Are you retarded or something girl? There’s no way we can make a difference with just dragoons and missiles! Do you even want to win this game?”
She just smiled and waved goodbye, then turned and took a step forward. The air shimmered around her as she walked, and she reappeared back on her castle roof. She’d decided to let Iras be in charge of the Apollo force (though she’d have to keep her eye on him!). She’d kept the secret of the spaceship from him, as well as her overall strategy. He would be angry, but she thought it was funny when he was angry, so she hardly cared. She passed the elevator and began bounding down the stairs, feeling a rush of adrenalin as she came close to flying off. The battle of Aqua was already raging, and soon she would need to start making her moves, both against Serge and against Three, but for now she was planning on eating a huge lunch and taking a quick bath before she got started. Then she would-
“Hey Mei stop running around like a moron with her head cut off and listen up!” Iras voice shouted out of nowhere, right behind her head, and she shrieked in surprise and went falling forward. Thrusting out her hands, the rings on her fingers created a soft, springy force field and she bounced back up onto her feet. Iras’ upper body appeared in the air beside her.
“That doesn’t even make sense! What do you want!?”
“Right after you left, I caught a garuda flying under our fleet. I managed to destroy it-”
“So what? They already know where we are. This isn’t exactly breaking news Iras!”
“Shut up and listen! Or better yet, watch the fucking footage, I got shit to do.” He vanished and a screen appeared in his place, fluttering on little golden wings. She grabbed it and pulled it closer. The image was blurry, the target distant. But when saw the garuda flying in a tight loop, trying to avoid the missile Iras had sent after it, she felt a chill run down her spine.
The garuda was white.
“Master, shall we begin?” Sola asked, her voice drifting in from beyond the cocoon of illusionary clouds he had wrapped himself.
“Go ahead and get started. I’ll be watching, but I want you to take the lead on this one Sola. I’ve got a thing to take care of,” Reckes said. On his interface, he was watching his connection request go out. The receiver showed the symbol of House Tao.
“Yes master. But I am sure you are aware that, as your registered Companion, I am unable to perform at my full capacity? A Companion must limit their multi-tasking and calculation abilities to a level beneath that of their designated player. With my current handicap, I do not expect to be capable of defeating Seol Mercury.”
“I don’t expect you to win. Just slow her down. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Yes master. Taking control.”
His interface flickered, and Sola took control of the large golden army arrayed around Jayle’s castle. Her own forces were integrated into his army, split into many small regiments. She’d spent two and a half years building only a token army, and with a third of her factories destroyed she was unable to field a significant force. Coming in from the eastern mountains and the southern plains was a massive crescent of silver. Seol’s lines were stretched tight and the constant stream of reinforcements were barely defended, but it didn’t matter. Reckes and Jayle didn’t have any forces to spare, so her lines remained safe. He watched dispassionately as the forces clashed, and the tight formations of both sides dissolved into a mess of chaotic battle. He turned to his main screen, putting it out of his mind. He had his own task to handle, and it was as much reliant on luck as it was skill. His fingers flew across the display as he ordered his units.
“Hi Reckesy! Do you really think you have time to be talking to me?” Mei popped up on his screen, half a dozen plates of food set in front of her, grinning furiously.
“You know I always got time for the ladies,” Reckes said. On his other screen, he was maneuvering his forces. Easy now… go slow.
“Liar. You just want to distract me or something. Well too bad for you I’m already taking a break! So go ahead and say whatever you want, I’ve got all the time in the world!” she said.
“Well it won’t take that long. I’ve got a proposition for you. See, I’ve been thinking really hard about something, like really grinding my brain here trying to work out the whole meaning of the universe and shit. And I’ve come to a realization. I am completely, utterly fucking idiotic. Just, a total waste of brain matter here.”
“No arguments from me!”
“Thank you, that means a lot. Course I’m really talking about the old me, not the current me, since I was able to realize how much of an idiot I was, that kinda makes me smarter now.”
“Sure, that makes sense!”
“See, I really just did the one stupid thing. Granted, it was dumb enough to give me this brilliant epiphany I just had, but it was still only one thing. Can you guess what it was?”
“Gee, uh, I dunno, maybe… letting me find out about the spaceship?” Mei said, yawning.
“Bingo. What the fuck was I thinking. So, just for the record, aside from that one screw up, I’m still a total genius here.”
“We all make mistakes.”
“I believe you said something about a proposition? Why do you even use big words like that anyway, it doesn’t make you smart.”
“Shut up, who cares about my vocabulary. Yes. A proposition.”
“And that is-?”
“I think we should share the space ship. Fair’s fair, we found it together. It was a totally collaborative thing. So why should we fight over it? We both know that this ship is the only thing that really matters in this game. We should make sure we’re the ones who get to benefit from it,” Reckes said. On his screen, he was just about at his destination, and he ordered his units to split and begin flying in evasive maneuvers. He wasn’t quite ready yet.
“That’s so generous of you! And how do your Aqua buddies feel about this?” Mei asked.
“Ok, so we’ve established I’m a moron but do you really think I’m stupid enough to trust this sort of information with those ungrateful assholes? I mean seriously, why the hell do you think I was even scouting Silence in the first place? I thought you were one of the smart ones, come on Mei.”
“What do you mean, that’s why you were scouting Silence?”
“I was trying to get a feel for each of the other players, see how good they’re doing. Because there’s no fucking way I’m going to finish this game attached to these losers,” he said. On his screen, he caught a glimpse of movement, and furiously began maneuvering his units away. It was too early for him to be seen.
“You mean… you’re going to betray them?”
“Of course I’m going to betray them. The only reason Serge even made it this far is because I was telling him what to do the whole time. And Jayle is of course as useless as they come. I’ve managed to get a nice chunk of territory, but now that Seol’s gunning for Jayle it’s time to move on. And who is there for me to ally with? Kurai? Can’t stand him. Brand? Only marginally less useless than Jayle. Oh, how about the huge fucking monster who can’t even speak? Nah, think I’ll pass on that one. So that leaves…”
“See you are one of the smart ones. What do ya say Tao? We got Brand stuck right between us as it is, and they think your on their side. All we got to do is wait for Seol to take out Jayle. Then you and me wipe out Brand in about half an hour and we’re good to go. There’s no way Serge will ever work with Seol if she manages to capture his precious fiancé. If we time this right we’ve got this game as good as won.”
“Are you serious about this Reckes? You’re always so sarcastic I don’t even-” Mei started.
“Nuh-uh, don’t give me that. The time for bullshit is over. We’ve got a golden opportunity here, forgive the pun, and we need to jump on this while the iron’s in the fire. We let the Jayle and Brand get eliminated, then you and me focus on taking down Three. All we need to do is get that ship and we’re good. House Tao gets to move up in the world and maybe my House can finally serve someone who actually deserves it. What do ya say?”
“I…I don’t know.” All her usual easy cheer seemed drained out of her. Her food lay forgotten on the table. “I don’t think I can actually make this kind of decision by myself. I’m not even the heir! I should contact my parents-”
“No, listen, we don’t have time for this. You know this is a win win situation. Just think about it for half a second. You want this. I know you do.”
“Well it sounds like a good plan, but… what about your team mates?” she asked. “Don’t you feel bad about betraying them?”
“Why should I? This is an upgrade. You and me on the same team, that’s how it always should have been. This is politics girl. Sometimes you gotta get your hand’s dirty.”
“Alright then! Let’s do it!” Mei said, her manic grin returning. She waved, and her pink interface appeared around her. “Send me all your visual data!”
“Sure. You can go ahead and send me yours in a few minutes. Wouldn’t want you to think I’m pranking you here.” With a few taps, he linked their computers, and just like that all of his units became visible to here. He watched closely as her eyes scanned her screens, her grin somehow widening even farther. All he could do now was hope she wouldn’t question the placement of his small flight of valkryies, currently hovering between the borders of Silence and Teardrop.
“So what’s the plan then? Just wait for Seol to take out Jayle?” she asked. He breathed easier, but tried not to let himself show any relief.
“For now, yeah. I’ll slowly start pulling my troops back, let her get closer. Serge will never notice. Without me defending her Jayle won’t last an hour. By tomorrow, this game will be down to six players, and you and me will be on top.”
“Alright, I’d better go get my interface set up! See you soon!”
She climbed the stairs two at a time, her body tingling with excitement. Reckes wants to be on my team! She could barely believe it was really happening. She’d tried to make herself be realistic, so she’d never really considered it as a possibility before. House Aureus was widely known for their loyalty, so she’d never have expected this of Reckes. But he’s different from those pushovers at Aureus. Reckes knows what he wants. And he wants to work with me! Since the game had begun, she and he had worked up a friendly rivalry, and he would occasionally talk with her even if he didn’t have any tactical reason for doing so. She considered them friends… but she’d never been sure how he felt about her. Maybe this would open up the possibilities to a closer relationship. She wondered if Reckes was engaged to anyone yet.
She found Iras on the roof, directing her forces with wide sweeping gestures, as though he were conducting an orchestra. He turned as she entered.
“Hey Mei, what the hell just happened? We just got all of Reckes Aureus’s tactical data! And he’s listed as an ally now?”
“YEP! We are now Team Golden Peach! Until we think of a better team name anyway. So yeah, don’t attack him or anything. Let me see what’s goin’ on.” She walked to one of the big, comfortable chairs in the middle of the roof and plopped down, then pulled up her full interface, the many winged screens filling the air around her.
“Mei, have you thought about this?” Iras tone made her pause. He wasn’t yelling. He didn’t even sound angry. He sounded worried, and that was something she don’t think she’d ever heard from him before. She swept a number of screens out of the way to get a look at him.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it. Just look at the map. In a few hours me and Reckes will be in top place, and Jayle and Brand will be out of the-”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s tactically sound. But who came up with this plan? You or him?” Iras asked.
“Well, Reckes did, but I don’t see why-”
“And why would he suggest this now? They aren’t doing too good, but if they can take out Brand first, then they’ll pretty much rule all of Aqua by game’s end. Seol will take a lot of time to beat, but if she’s on her own then she can’t win. And your not seriously helping her, are you?”
“Because now is the best time to join forces! He’s just doing what he thinks is best. Also, I am one of the most successful single players in this game. Why wouldn’t he want to join up with me?”
“Uh huh. All makes sense. Now what about House Aureus? Has his parents agreed to this alliance? Have yours?”
“We don’t need to go to our parents for everything! We were chosen as the representatives of our Houses-”
“Yeah, to play the Land Games and win territory. NOT to set political policy for your House. An alliance between Houses is a serious thing. It’s not just something you do in the middle of a game. I think this is a trick.”
“How can it be a trick? I haven’t even sent my data to Reckes yet! He’s wide open to us and he doesn’t know anything! There is no way-”
beep beep beep beep
Her interface was signaling that she needed to see something. She grabbed a flashing screen and pulled it close. It was a view from a garuda, high above her airship fleet, the one floating over the ocean between the three continents.
It was no longer simply floating. The fleet was moving northwest at an alarming speed. The coast of Silence was just visible on the horizon. And in the sky, a couple hundred black missiles were launching towards her. Immediately she took control and began firing missiles to try and counter the others, but it was almost too late. Valkyries were rising up behind the missiles, coming to finish her off.
“Iras, why did you move the fleet!?”
“What? I didn’t move any-” His face went pale, and he pulled up an interface, his eyes scanning. “THAT BASTARD!”
“Who-” she was interrupted as the first missiles hit her fleet. Three of the airships went down immediately, while the others managed to blast the remaining missiles out of the sky. But several took damage. They wouldn’t be able to move at full speed. She could either slowly retreat, and try to protect them on the way, or she could abandon the damaged ones and pull her two good airships back. Either way, she’d just lost a massive force. But how?
“I told you Mei! He did this!” Iras was still yelling but she had no time to listen. Then her interface began to beep again, drawing her attention to the north end of Teardrop, where her forward base was under attack. She switched perspectives and froze, feeling as though she’d been punched in the gut. The force attacking her base was a force of twelve-hundred valkryies. They shone bright gold in the sunlight.
“He pulled us! He used the emergency help request and it automatically responded. I’m sure it sent you an alert, but we were too busy arguing-” Iras was going on and on.
“Shut up!” she screamed, and turned her interface soundproof. Her airships were being overran by black valkyries. She couldn’t understand why her base was being damaged by such a tiny force, then realized that her units would not automatically defend against an allied force. She switched her rating of Reckes from Ally to Hostile, and immediately her forces began to open fire. He was vastly outnumbered, and would be beaten soon. She could feel her heart beating fast in her chest, her stomach was churning, and she felt like she was going to be sick.
“Hey. Sorry about that.” Reckes voice came from one of the many screens floating around her. She’d left their chat window open when she went up to talk with Iras. She turned and snatched it out of the air, glaring as her vision filled with tears. On the screen, Reckes sat stoically, his fingers toying with his stupid dice.
“What are doing? I thought we were supposed to be allies now?”
“Yeah, about that. You really should have known better. House Aureus isn’t all that powerful, but it is old. We’ve been around for fourteen centuries. You know how we made it that long? Because we were always under the protection of another House. We’ve shifted allegiance again and again, sure, but never once have we betrayed the House we were bound to. And as lame as Serge is, I am bound to serve him. I don’t betray my real allies,” Reckes said.
“But I thought… I thought you really wanted-”
“To join up with you? Sure, I’d love to. You’re a great player Mei, and I like you. But this is politics girl. Sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty.” The screen went black.
“Mei!” Iras had overrun her silence setting and was shouting for attention. She turned, stunned. “Your base is under attack! Are you just gonna sit there!?”
She looked. What was Iras talking about? Her defenses were finishing off Reckes easily, no worries there. Then she saw it. Advancing from Silence’s southern shore, a huge force of black units were moving forward, come to capitalize on her weakness. Another was moving across the water, pursuing her damaged airships, straight towards the eastern edge of Aqua. Towards Brand’s territory. And then she realized that was his strategy all along. To get Three to move out, and distract the others from their attack. But she had no choice. Her forces had to retreat, and the only direction she could go was west.
“This is wrong. Three… since when does Three have such a big army?” She ran a scan on her interface, and it automatically counted up all House Void units visible at this time. A chill went down her spine as she read the number. Either her computer had added a few zeros, or House Void had quadrupled in size since their last battle.