Final Game Book One

Stellaxia

I pushed back, placing all my weight on the balls of my feet. Then I let a smile spread my lips. I slowed down. I knew every single movement to make – every contraction, every elongation. Then? I winked for good measure.

The massive Glaxon warrior was already enraged. At my wink, his pasty pink flesh became the color of snow that had been splattered with blood. He stood, his massive form towering over the dented metal table. Every other prisoner around him rose to their feet.

“I warn you, I’ll crush you, soft one,” he snarled.

I smiled again. I made it even wider. This one would’ve enraged even the most trained prison guard. Sorry, trained prison guard? That was an oxymoron. Hell, around this prison, guard was a fictitious word, too. Technically there were some. And if you believed the prison brochure, this was one of the securest facilities this side of the Galactic divide. But not once had a prisoner fight ever been broken up in my time.

The guards weren’t about to start today.

I stood slowly. Locking a hand on my flank, I scratched the side of my ass. There would’ve been a time when such a move would have gotten me in a world full of trouble. Hey, that time was right now. There were several races present who considered touching one’s ass similar to killing their mother. Suddenly the crowd, which had been waiting for a fight, started to beg for one.

The chaotic chorus echoed through the massive dining hall. The ceiling was high – stupidly so. Presumably it was to allow the swift entry and exit of security drones. Once again, though I was certain a place like this should have them, I hadn’t seen one. I’d been here for three damn years, and that was a long time for a soft one like me to stay alive without the assistance of prison security.

Especially considering my history.

The warrior crunched forward, his prominent row of stomach muscles sounding like loaded springs. He gently placed his bone-white knuckles on the table in front of me. The table that weighed at least a ton and was bolted to the floor with the kind of magnetic clamps they used on cruisers when they came into dock. The table that, theoretically, could not be used as a weapon to bat someone over the head – or just squash them flat like a pancake.

Slowly, his lips pulled back from his dual mouths, revealing the kind of teeth that would make a shark blush.

This was where I had to shrink back. I didn’t bother.

“Soft one will die. No question, no complaint. No pause.” The warrior opened his fingers, clamped them around the table, and wrenched it out of the floor in one smooth move. The crack echoed through the room like lightning.

I took the slightest step back. I was in a set of standard prison fatigues that scrunched at my small move. It was just this black, almost skin-tight suit. It wasn’t flattering. Nothing was. There was also no one to flatter, unless you considered some of the nastiest people in the galaxy to be fair game.

“Soft one just transferred into this unit. It’s time to transfer out forever,” the warrior said haltingly.

“Great joke,” I muttered as I slowly wiped the tip of my nose with my thumb.

The guy stood above me, the table like a hammer from God. “You have no chance.”

I didn’t dodge back, even though I could tell that from the energy building in his hands, he was about to bring that table right down on top of me. “You sure?” I said with the kind of collected cool you could only get after three years surviving this maximum-security hell.

The warrior actually stopped. So did his enraged friends.

“I’ve been in this jail for three years.” I shrugged down at the three neon stripes on the side of my otherwise completely jet-black uniform. Then I shrugged over to some of the guys closest to me. In my immediate vicinity, no one had more than one stripe. “Three stripes means I’ve been here for three years. It also means,” I looked right up at the warrior as slowly as I could, “that I got transferred into this unit. Do you know how hard it is to get transferred between units in this prison? Why, you practically have to kill someone,” I purred.

While it shouldn’t technically be possible to make a Glaxon warrior pause, this guy did. For a few seconds. Then his instinct to squash me like a bug took over. He brought the table down.

Immediately, seamlessly, with barely a thought and only a beat of my heart, I initiated my closed-loop.

I’d been doing it my entire life. For some people who’d only logged onto the Game in their later years, initiating one took real concentration. For me, it was exactly the same as breathing.

As I closed the loop, the implant in my brainstem vibrated slightly, heat spreading through my body as a small electrical pulse discharged into the air.

The world around me and the warrior changed subtly. Lines of light spread out between us, blocking us from the background crowd and highlighting our forms.

Two seconds ago, I’d had no defense against this blustering idiot and his table-hammer. Now I’d be unstoppable. I’d just entered a side realm, I guess you could call it. A pocket world, an artificial reality – you could pick which descriptor you wanted to use. To everyone in this galaxy, it was referred to simply as the Game.

And when it came to the Game, I was unbeatable. I could punch harder, kick faster, fly further, and fight dirtier than anyone I’d ever met. As I felt that familiar twinge travel down my neck and into my arms, the same neurological sign that told me my body was now cushioned by the safety of the Game world, the power I missed so much returned to me.

When this a-hole had initiated the fight, my only option had been to run or beg (sorry, I’d initiated the fight, hadn’t I? Woops. Forgetful old me). Now I had every option under the sun.

Rather than kick through the table and shatter it as easily as someone snapping a match, I chose to flip – as fast as I could. I went skidding back through the massive mess hall so quickly, I could’ve left steam in the air.

I landed down on my hands and knees. I tilted my head back and faced the warrior as he smashed the table into where I’d been standing.

“A game has been initiated,” a disembodied voice rang through the prison. “Games are illegal in this facility. A reminder, games are illegal. Playing them will result in demerits and, in some cases, an extension of one’s sentence.”

Yes, games were illegal. But once again, this prison did absolutely nothing to stop them and even less to discourage them. If prisoners could pick each other apart through a closed-loop, at least it meant they wouldn’t be killing each other in the real world.

Soft lines of glowing light illuminated the Glaxon warrior and me. They got brighter, further delineating us from the crowd. Technically, anyone here could choose to join the Game if they so felt. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t see the point. The Glaxon warrior thought he had this in the bag.

He walked through the crushed remains of the table, clicking his neck from left to right in a classic move of bad-guy intimidation. It was very much lost on me. I’d seen real evil men in my time, and this guy didn’t come close. “You initiated a game?” His laughter throbbed through the room like a giant – albeit angry – heartbeat. “You’re stupider than you look. I,” he bounced a hand off his chest, and the sound echoed through the high ceiling, “am the highest-level player in this entire prison. No one—”

Enough of this bullshit. I selected my favorite weapon. It was nothing but a simple sword. It didn’t have a gun attached to it. It wasn’t an electro blade. It didn’t have Vibra qualities that would help it to cut through all matter. It was nothing more than a chunk of metal. It gave me what I’d always needed, though – something to funnel my rage.

Without a noise, without a sorry, without anything, I thrust forward. I propelled myself like a shot. I reached the warrior and cut him down right across his muscly chest long before he could finish his sentence.

It took a microsecond for our closed-loop to register the attack. Then glowing red lines intersected over the warrior. “Your opponent has defeated you. Your game is over.”

That’s it. In approximately three seconds, I’d beat this guy with a fatal blow that would have worked on a target twice as trained as him.

It took him another three seconds for what had happened to register. As the intersecting lines of light that delineated the closed-loop disappeared, he jerked up his hand and patted his chest. He fell. He struck the floor with such weight, he could’ve cracked it or his knees.

A few of the other – smarter – prisoners were finally catching up to what had just happened. They were staring at me in open-mouth shock.

I kept my sword out. The game might’ve ended for that Glaxon warrior, but I was still logged in. Pressing the blade over my shoulder, I looked slowly around the room. “Anyone else want to try me on?” I leaned forward, acting cute, even batting my lashes as I stared at them all in turn. There were some seriously hardened criminals in here. A couple I even recognized from when I’d been free.

I hadn’t been lying. This was the most important maximum-security facility this side of the Galactic divide. There were real celebrities in here with me. Including myself, of course.

The Glaxon warrior slowly stood. He was panting. Despite the fact I hadn’t killed him in the real world, he could only just hold himself up. There were, after all, physical consequences for logging out of the closed-loop early – which is what happened when you were roundly, completely defeated.

“What…. How?” he asked, his voice as fragile as his body. Even though he was still on his knees, he could barely hold himself up.

I took a step toward him, my sword still held over my shoulder. “You ran into a spot of trouble. Specifically—” I reached him and looked down. Slowly, I got onto my haunches in front of him. If I’d done that without winning a game against him, I would’ve been dead meat. “You ran into a player who was much,” I brought up a finger and pressed it against the center of his thick skull, “much,” I pushed his head back, “much,” I said, my voice rising up higher, “more powerful than you. And you lost. You lost without getting a single blow in. You know what that means, right?” I added sweetly.

Though Glaxons didn’t pale, this guy looked as if he’d just had his throat slit – by me. “You can’t take my points. You can’t take my weapons. I’ll be a sitting duck—”

“Well then,” I locked a hand on his shoulder and smiled into his face, “it’s good for you that I want neither your points nor your weapons. Instead,” I looked him up and down, “I want your loyalty. As long as I’m here,” I stood and turned toward the door, “I don’t want any trouble. Do you hear me?” I paused and turned to him.

He managed to make it to his feet – but only with the help of several of his friends. Everyone stared at me in total gut-wrenching surprise. It was something I’d gotten used to over the years. The reasons always differed. But the exact look was always the same.

I’d seen it when, as nothing but a five-year-old child, I’d logged onto the Game and defeated 20 players in a single day.

I’d seen it again when, as a teenager, I’d been pipped to become one of the most powerful players there’d ever been.

Then I’d seen it when I’d headed into the president’s office and threatened to cut his head off.

I’d seen it when I’d been paraded in front of my people before being thrown into this hell hole.

And I kept seeing it as I was transferred through unit upon unit. There weren’t many units left in this hole to throw me into. That didn’t matter. I’d keep seeing that look for the rest of my life. It was a look that told me two things. I was far, far more powerful than people expected. But that was a problem. Because princesses like me were only expected to do three things. Marry young, shut up, and let someone else rule through them.

I walked away, still logged into the Game, my sword still over my shoulder.

I didn’t look back once.


I was lying on my hard as hell bunk, throwing a chunk of metal into the air and catching it again.

Technically, I was meant to have a roomy, but the guy had immediately asked for a transfer. When that hadn’t worked, he’d headbutted the wall until a medical bot had intervened and taken him to the infirmary.

“Bit of an overreaction, really,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not that bad.”

I caught the chunk of metal one last time, my fingers now searing from the pain of its jagged edges. I rolled over.

I stared at the wall. The phrase I’m not that bad repeated for a few seconds until I grabbed it and strangled it.

I was right – I wasn’t that bad; I was worse.

Because that was the only way to survive in this world.

And why did I bother to survive?

A good question. I’d never figured it out. Maybe it would’ve been easier to live the life that had been handed down to me. I came from a relatively high-up branch of the Celestian Royal Family. Technically, before I’d gone off the rails, I’d been betrothed to Prince Javan, one of the most powerful men in the Empire.

But that was in the past. This?

I rolled back around and continued to throw the metal up into the air, despite the fact my fingers were now bleeding slightly, trickles of bright blood trailing down my hands and splashing onto my front. This was my present. It would be my future, too. So it was legitimate that I get the most out of it. If the least I could do was keep playing the Game that had ruined my life, then so be it.

I rolled to the other side. Logging into my communication chip, I started to scroll through my messages with a simple blink. None of them were from the prisoners – and God knows none of them were from sources external to the prison, despite the fact that, technically, people could contact me if they wanted to. It’d been three years without a single peep. That did not surprise me. I was persona non grata to my people. That’s why I was in here. Rotting. Oh, and fighting.

“But rotting is better than marrying.” I threw the rock up. It hit the ceiling. It changed its orientation. It fell down, not toward my hand, but toward my face.

I let it strike me. It was just a rough bit of metal ore I’d found somewhere that the incompetent security bots hadn’t decided to take off me yet.

As it struck my brow, it cut me easily. You see, the Glaxon had been right – I was a soft one. Just not in the arena that mattered most to this twisted, broken galaxy – the Game. Once upon a time, the actual characteristics of your physical form mattered a lot more than what you could do with your mind. But times had changed. As technology had become integrated with every single aspect of people’s lives, including their brains, a new world order had risen. It was no longer how hard and fast you could punch a guy that decided if you would win a fight. It was how you could use your mind. The flexibility of your thoughts, the openness of your psyche – these were the new muscles and brute force of the modern galaxy. And it just so happened I was stronger than most.

You wouldn’t be able to tell that if you saw me. I had an objectively small form for my people. On this rusted chunk of a security ship, I was practically minuscule. There were some warriors here who were over 10-foot tall. I clocked in at precisely 5 feet.

But like I said, size just didn’t matter anymore.

You would think on a prison ship that the Game would be illegal. They’d shut it down, right? Wrong. They couldn’t. That’s why they always warned you whenever you started playing that it was illegal and that it might result in demerit points – but they couldn’t actually stop you from playing. No one could. All technology all throughout the modern galaxy reacted to neural implants – and every single person who was born was implanted with one. That meant you could create a closed-loop anywhere. Hell, I’d once read of a case of a space pirate who’d been drifting. His ship had been attacked. He’d managed to save himself by putting on an emergency set of survival armor. It kept him alive for 20 days in the blackness of space. He’d thought he’d been done for – until the chunks of another exploded vessel had tumbled past him. It’d been some kind of engine unit. Enough of it had remained that there’d been a faint electrical charge. That had been all he’d needed to log in. And once he’d logged on, the miracle of modern technology had saved him where nothing else could.

“The game can do everything. It can lift this galaxy up,” holding that chunk of metal, I pushed it all the way up until my shoulder protested, “and never let us fall again.”

Despite my words, I let that chunk fall. This time I didn’t take it in the face. It tumbled off the bed and onto the floor with a shaking bang.

I rolled over.

Placing my hand under my head, I tried to get some sleep. I couldn’t. Though I liked to think that over the past three years every single thought of goodwill toward my people had been burnt up, that was a lie. At times like this, I thought about them. As a member of the Royal family of Celestia, you were told from a young age that you had the brightest futures of all, and yet the most responsibility. You were there to guide and shepherd your people in the darkest times. You were there to take their burdens. But above all else, you were there to serve them for life.

I hadn’t served them – at least not in the way they wanted to be served. I’d let my anger get the better of me, and I’d threatened an elected official. But I still… I still thought about them.

I rolled onto my back again. “I hope one day you can see how screwed this world is and reject the Game before it’s too late.” That was a little prayer I said most days. I’d have to keep saying it – hell, I’d have to keep screaming it at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear me. And even then, no one would do anything about it.

The game was now completely integrated into every aspect of everyone’s lives. It wasn’t going away, despite how dangerous it was.

I rolled once more. I finally closed my eyes and pushed my thoughts away. There’d be more threatening to do tomorrow. Yeah, so I’d defeated that Glaxon in a few split seconds. That would not ward off all my competition. Tomorrow, bright and early, the real fights would begin. All the brazen idiots would be pulled out of the weeds. They’d view me as a challenge. I wouldn’t be. If there was one thing I was confident of – one unshakable fact that could never be altered – it was that I could not be defeated.

Because I’d lost too many times and too much to do it again.


I roused in the morning to a blaring alarm.

Blearily, I opened one eye. I locked it on my door. It was still closed. So it couldn’t be an inspection.

Maybe there was an intruder?

I thought that and considered rolling over, but my instincts got the better of me. I pushed up slightly.

The good thing about having a room that was two meters by two meters was that it was small enough to check in a single glance.

There was no one in here with me.

I went to flop back down, but that was when I realized that the blaring was in my own skull.

I frowned.

It was a message.

For a single moment, I wondered if it could be from my family but quickly dismissed that possibility. After three years, it was abundantly clear that no one wanted to have anything to do with me.

So it had to be the Game. It would be yet another message that I’d risen up the ranks last night. Perhaps I’d unlocked some new skill.

“I don’t care,” I muttered as I logged onto my internal message bank and tried to shut down the alarm.

But that would be when I realized I did have a message. And it was from the Celestian Royal Family.

I rolled onto my side, my back to the door and the rest of my room. I opened one eye and stared forward, despite the fact the message was being displayed into my mind, and regardless of whether I closed my eyes, there’d be no getting away from it.

I briefly thought of listening to it. Then I laughed as I saw the date stamp. “What is this? Do I have a birthday greeting? Wow. I’d forgotten that was coming up. Well then, happy birthday to me.” I closed my eyes harder.

But that would be when the door opened.

I groaned. “Look, boys, it’s way too early in the morning. If you initiate a fight right now, I’m not even going to bother getting out of bed. Losing to a snoozing woman will really ruin your prison cred. You’ll never be able to show your face around here again.”

“Who says I’m showing my face now?” a deep voice echoed out. “And who says I’d ever lose to you?”

Immediately, I realized it was being filtered through an armor unit. None of the prisoners had anything remotely resembling plating.

Shit – it was a guard.

I rolled over, stared at the ceiling, then, steepling my fingers over my stomach, glanced down. The first thing I noted was that this guy was in sophisticated armor. Wow, maybe he was the Prison Commissioner himself. “Can I help you?” I asked in a bored tone. “Are you going to transfer me to another unit again? I just got my hands around this one.”

The guy said nothing. I couldn’t get a read on him. I was familiar enough with people in armor to be able to get an emotional lock on them even if I couldn’t see their expressions. Most people didn’t know how to hide their body language. This guy did.

I narrowed my eyes slightly. “What? This about my match yesterday? Yeah, so it’s illegal. You can add a couple more years to my sentence. That’ll make it, what?” I made a face. “3892 standard Galactic years? I’ve got to admit – I’ve lost count.”

“The Empire hasn’t,” the guy said.

He had a warning tone.

So this guy wasn’t here to play games, and he wasn’t some standard grunt here to transfer me to another unit. Great. I must have stepped on someone else’s toes, then.

I rolled back over, inserted my hand under my head, and stared at the wall. “Do whatever you’re gonna do. Don’t just stand in the doorway. I hate people wasting my time.”

“You are not in a position to hate anything. You are a heinous criminal.” There was something very automatic about the way the guy said that. That didn’t mean there was no punch behind his words. There was. He very much meant what he said. But the way he said it made it clear that this wasn’t his first time dealing with prisoners.

Maybe he really was the Commissioner of this jail ship. Perhaps I’d be taken off and put on a prison mining asteroid or something. Hallelujah. It would be less boring than this place.

I still didn’t roll over. He took a step into my room. There was something about the exact way his armor pounded on the floor that made my back arch.

It brought me right back into a certain memory.

Adrenaline hit me – so did fear. I controlled them – made sure they weren’t obvious enough that this guy’s onboard scanners would be able to pick them up. Inside, a part of me shrunk back. It was the same part that had shrunk back on that day three years ago before I’d seemingly lost my mind and tried to kill Celestia’s president.

And it was the part of me that, ever since, had been hiding in the corner, cowering from what she’d learned.

“Princess Stellaxia of the Fourth Royal Tree – you will come with me.”

“Look,” I let out a heavy sigh, “there’s really no need to use my official title. Trust me – it doesn’t carry much weight these days. Hell, it never really did.”

“I assure you – once upon a time, your title did mean something to many people. Just not anymore.”

I could take a lot of things. That comment got to me. I finally sat up, dropping my hands loudly in my lap. I stared at the guy. I put more effort into reading his emotions, even though he was still as blank as a freshly painted white wall. “And who exactly are you?”

“Chris Armstrong of the Eighth Royal Division.”

I stared at him blankly. Then I sneered, quickly turning it into a laugh. “Yeah, sure you are. When you’re done screwing with me and you actually want to tell me who you are, tap me on the shoulder.” I rolled over again.

He walked all the way into my room – which wasn’t hard, considering its minute size. He didn’t tap me on the shoulder. He grabbed it, locking his hand – and his armor – down around my petite arm.

I opened my eyes slowly. I glanced down at his hand. “You’re an Eighth, are you?” I asked in a sarcastic, disbelieving tone. “An Eighth has come all the way here to see me. Geez, I’m honored. You do, however, realize that the Eighth Division only completes critical, sensitive, secretive missions, right? The kind of missions that require lethal force, discretion, and autonomous direction? Sure, you’re an Eighth. And you’re wasting your time to come see me. Wow. Next time, go and look up the purpose of each Royal Division before you randomly pick one to impersonate. While you’re there, you can leave me alone.”

“That is not possible. You’re coming with me.” The guy pulled me up.

I didn’t have anything to say about the matter. With his hand on my shoulder, I was putty in his grip.

I sighed in his face. “You serious? What now?”

“Princess Stellaxia – you have been recalled.”

I made a face. I couldn’t honestly tell you what that face was. It was kind of scrunched up, spread thin, pasty, and yet red with irritation. “Recalled?” I said, repeating that word in an empty voice. You would’ve had to be a very skilled psychologist to read that under my blank tone was a well of deep, twisted emotion. The kind I could easily drown myself under. “The Royal family wants me back, do they? Gotten over the fact I tried to kill the president and engage in high treason? I doubt that.”

For the first time, the guy showed emotion. I knew that under that armor, his jaw hardened. He hadn’t liked my joke, ha?

“Look, whoever you are, you can turn right around and leave. If you want to switch me to another unit in this prison, go ahead. We both know I’m not leaving. Now, close the damn door. I need my beauty rest before the games begin.”

“You will not be playing the Game for the foreseeable future,” the guy said in a deep, resonant voice. Though part of its vibrating force would have come from the armor’s filter, I got the impression that a lot of it just came from his own throat. He was clearly a big boy. The kind of massive, strapping lad who – in the old world, at least – would’ve been a warrior no one would’ve messed with.

I looked at him slowly. “I’m not gonna be playing the Game for the foreseeable future, ha?” My voice was technically blank again. I say technically. This time, any fool would have been able to tell what emotion it was hiding. Disdain.

As I’d already pointed out, there was now nowhere in this modern galaxy you could go to escape a closed-loop.

“Yes, Princess. There will be no more games for you.”

I laughed in his face. “Sure.” With a single breath – and a single heartbeat – I logged on.

Despite the fact I despised my closed-loop, I couldn’t deny that every single time I initiated it, I felt more alive. I’d rationalized that in the past by pointing out that of course I did – because the Game was the only place I felt power anymore. I was a real queen in my closed-loop – an untouchable force of nature. In the actual world, I was nothing but a dumb, trapped prisoner.

I had a second to feel that exhilaration once more. The way it rushed into my sternum. The way it powered up into my jaw. The way it felt as if I had wings, and I’d just opened them to fly away.

Then something happened.

It was like a blanket was thrown over my neural implant.

It quickly turned into pain. I jerked my head to the side, that pain quickly turning into agony. As it stabbed through my brow, I gasped and crumpled.

“As I already said – there will be no more games for you – for the foreseeable future,” the guy added again. He pulled me out of bed.

There would’ve been a time when I would have resisted. I could do nothing now. I was nothing but a limp doll in his arms. I flopped against him. Before my legs cut out, he picked me up and started to carry me.

More bleary shots of pain ricocheted through me. They got progressively worse as I was taken out into the main section of the prison. Chris’ dull footfall echoed out on the metal gangway.

I could see doors opening. I was vaguely aware of the fact prisoners were staring at me again. This time it wasn’t in surprise. It was in glee. Not a single soul would care that I was being kidnapped. This guy could pull out a gun and murder me dead – no one would bat an eyelash. They’d probably cheer. Because that was my life. A life pulled between the juxtapositions of pure power and pure submission. The life of a once cherished princess that had soured.

But that life? Was about to change for good. And it was precisely the arms of the guard who now carried me resolutely through the prisoners that would change it.



In prison, the lights were always cut to half. I’d never gotten behind the reasoning of it. Maybe they thought it would be more likely that prisoners would fall over and stub their toes and, considering they were prisoners and all, they would deserve it. Facetious answers aside, I’d wondered if it had something to do with cost-cutting savings. Why bother illuminating the lives of those who had proven themselves less worthy?

The point was, however, that over the past three years, I’d been living my life in the shadows. As Chris reached the massive, reinforced airlock that led out of the prison section of the ship, I braced myself.

There was a high-pitched whir as the airlock disengaged and opened. Gas ejected around the bulk of Chris’ body as he walked me through. Then the light struck me. It felt like a thousand punches. I was already in agony. I twisted my head to the side. With nowhere else to hide to get away from the illumination, I was forced to bury my head against Chris’ chest.

He kept walking, his footfall the only sound, because he sure as hell didn’t have any intention of explaining what was happening, apparently.

I started to hear voices. I’d assumed they’d be the kind of gruff, angry tones you’d get on security gigs like this. They weren’t. They were – if anything – reverential.

I doubted that reverence was directed at me.

“Your ship is ready. It is cleared. May grace be with you, holy soldier of the Empire,” someone stammered.

Soldier of the Empire – now that was something I hadn’t heard for a while. It was a title given only to senior members of Celestia’s Army.

Which Chris couldn’t be, right? Because this still had to be some kind of game – some kind of mistake. People were just screwing with me. They had to be. If Chris really was an Eighth….

The Eighths were everything I was not. In many ways, they were the last true soldiers of the galaxy. They didn’t play the Game. While technically they all had neural implants, and at any point they could create a closed-loop, if the legends I’d heard were true, none of them did. As soon as they became an Eighth, they vowed never to play again. Instead, they honed their real bodies.

Chris walked me into an even brighter section. I groaned. It wasn’t just at the overpowering illumination.

I couldn’t get a feel for Chris under his armor, but the closer I came to his chest unit, the more chiseled I realized it was. That shouldn’t mean much. He could have just booked an appointment with some med bot to get defined abs in about two minutes. Something told me that this guy’s muscles were real, though. He hadn’t picked them out of a catalog. He’d carved them into his body with sweat, grunt, and sheer power.

… But he couldn’t be an Eight. Right?

“We have received a message from Celestia,” someone muttered quickly. Their hurried tones gave me the impression they were some kind of technician. “They wish to know if you have secured the package.”

Chris grunted. “Yes, she is secured. You can let them know that we will be back in two days.”

My mind might’ve been shutting down, but I hadn’t slipped far enough not to follow that conversation.

I was the package.

And I was… I was going home.

God.

I hated this prison – every damn centimeter of it. But home…?

The adrenaline and fear I’d been trying to hide from Chris struck me. Even if he’d been holding me without armor, he would’ve been able to detect my fear.

“Don’t hyperventilate, Princess,” he muttered to me. “It will only bring you more pain.”

I thought that was some reproach. It wasn’t. It was an actual warning. As I lost control of my breathing, more pain arced through my head.

“God,” I stammered. “What’s happening to me?”

“Firstly, I would not bother pleading to a higher power. Trust me when I say that no one is going to help you. You are not worth it. As for the pain? That is a consequence of your closed-loop being shut down. I suggest you calm down and submit to justice.”

The phrases calm down and submit to justice were mutually exclusive. I wouldn’t be submitting to some objective justice, would I? I wouldn’t go before some just, rational court – nor a fictional celestial being with the omniscience to know what had really gone on in my life. I’d be judged by the same people who punished me three years ago. The same people who only knew half the story and would never learn what was really happening.

And as for justice? Trust me, that didn’t exist in this universe. If it did, most of the Royal family would be disbanded. The president of Celestia would be in prison, and the Game… would be shut down for good.

Despite my pain and the fact I was still hyperventilating, I managed to grunt before I sucked in another unsteady breath. “You mean revenge, not justice. Get your words right.”

“I know precisely what I mean,” he spat back, his voice hard.

I was carried through more brilliantly lit sections of the ship.

I lost track of where I was taken. My mind kept spiraling out of my control. It wasn’t just fear and pain anymore. This weird, heavy pressure pushed down from the top of my skull. It made it feel as if something was trying to explode inside my head.

“I’d stop fighting it, if I were you,” Chris growled. I knew he reached another airlock. It announced itself and told him to pause as he was decontaminated before exit.

A laser started to rove over us. It concentrated on me. I was the dirty one, after all. But I was no criminal. While Chris thought he knew exactly what he meant, he had no clue what was actually going on.

I did. I’d hidden from the reality of my situation for three years. Now I’d be taken back…. Back….

My hyperventilation became worse. That pressure in my skull only increased. I couldn’t speak. This ringing shook between my ears.

I started to black out.

The airlock opened in front of us.

I caught a glimpse of a sleek, seriously expensive two-person vessel – then the last thing I wanted to see – the crest of the Celestian Royal Family.

That was driven into my head as I lost consciousness in Chris’ arms.

When I awoke, I’d be back.

And this time, there’d be no running away.



Chris Armstrong

I leaned over the ship’s controls, inputted the correct communication band – by hand – then settled back as the message was sent.

For about the ninth time, I inclined my head over my shoulder to check on her.

Though this ship had a fully-appointed medical bay to keep her in, while it was old-fashioned, I wanted her somewhere I could see her.

“No, it’s not old-fashioned. It’s a necessary security precaution,” I muttered as I ran my fingers over my stubble-lined jaw. I’d been briefed on this princess. Even before I’d read the exact details of her case, I’d known about her. Every single member of the Celestian Empire did. She was a bright, shining star who’d turned black overnight.

Except she hadn’t turned black overnight. Now I was privy to her history, I realized her psychopathy had been there from birth. The general populace of Celestia had never known anything about the fact that Stellaxia was one of the highest-rated closed-loop players in history. They’d digested the images that had been given to them – of a kind, loving, just princess who’d struggled from a young age to get over the premature death of her father. A princess who had always given her time selflessly – and one who had willingly taken on the burden of being betrothed to Prince Javan. At his side, she’d been destined to assist him in ruling one of the most powerful arms of the Empire.

But that had never been the real Princess Stellaxia.

All you had to do was watch the footage of her trouncing anyone dumb enough to challenge her to a closed-loop to see the predatory glint in her eyes.

The fact she’d snapped one day and tried to kill the president was logical. Her egomania, which had been fed by her unparalleled success in the Game, had spilled out into the real world.

The rest should have been history.

Should have been, I repeated as I turned and stared at her one more time.

She was locked down. There were control cuffs over her ankles and wrists. She wasn’t conscious, anyway – nowhere near.

She’d done a number on her brain.

“You should’ve listened to me, Princess,” I said as I turned back. “There’s no point in fighting.”

“There’s always a point in fighting,” she muttered. Her words were a whisper, but they were there.

I didn’t second-guess them and assume I’d imagined them as I slowly stood. I’d removed my helmet and most of my armor pieces. They were sitting on the navigator’s chair beside me. I could call on them in a microsecond. They would spin over to me, connect, and cover me long before she had a chance to try anything.

I took a step toward them and squared off in front of her.

She was on a hovering medical bed. Her eyes were open. She managed a stuttering laugh. “You thought I was unconscious, didn’t you? Guess I fooled you.”

“Congratulations,” I said in a dry tone that was pregnant with warning.

“I’d take that congratulations if it was sincere.”

“It isn’t.”

“Thanks for being honest with me, then.” She let out a bitter laugh. It was choked. She was clearly having trouble speaking. No doubt her lips were parched and her throat was as dry as the vacuum of space. There were several things I could do to assist her. I would, however, do nothing.

I crossed my arms and stood in front of her. “I will only answer some of your questions,” I warned. “So do not bother pushing me.”

She laughed. There was something about that laugh. When I’d first watched footage of her, I’d been foolishly brought in by it. It was falsely light. It gave you the impression she could deal with anything. She couldn’t. All she could do was cause trouble.

“Really? Let’s see if I can find a question you’ll like, then. Why are you such an asshole?”

I just crossed my arms harder.

“What, you don’t want to answer that? Maybe you don’t have the self-awareness required to understand why you’re a cruel, mindless machine. Fine. Let’s see if I can give you an easy one. How’s the Empire?” There was the slightest fluctuation in her voice. No doubt it would be an attempt to emotionally manipulate me.

“That is not a question you care about. Try asking another,” I said darkly.

“Wow, you sound like you know me. Wait, have you read my file?” Her voice was singsong. She sounded like she was showing me something she was proud of. “What are they calling me these days? A sociopath? A madwoman who couldn’t take the pressure of being betrothed to the most important man in the galaxy? No. They’re probably just calling me a monster, aren’t they? Good on them. But it sure is hard to spot monsters in this world, considering we let them into our minds and base our tech on them.”

I didn’t follow her comment. I didn’t need to. “I’m going to put you back under,” I stated flatly – realizing I had that option. I’d offered her that I’d answer her questions, but why bother? She’d find out why she’d been recalled soon enough.

“You don’t have a lot of patience, do you? What was your name again? Chris Armstrong? I’m guessing you’re from the human side of the Empire, then. Unusual for you to have made it as an Eighth. You must work hard.”

I walked over to the main control console, typed something into the screen, and waited for the correct drug to be synthesized. It would be pumped into the room as a selective gas that would only affect her.

She laughed. I now hated that laugh. I’d only heard it twice, but it grated on my nerves. It was like it was trying to be let in.

“I’ve only got time for another question, ha?” Her voice became sleepy. “Why am I being recalled?”

That was the only question I was permitted to answer.

Rather than answer, I crossed my arms tighter.

She laughed once more. She sounded as if she was on the edge of death and she didn’t care. There was something very lonely about the move. “Why do I get the impression that even though you’re allowed to tell me, you don’t want to? You know, an attitude like that isn’t becoming of a soldier of the Eighth Division. You’re meant to be impassive, loyal soldiers of the Empire.”

“Only one side of that equation is accurate.”

“Well, you better hope it’s not loyalty to the Empire, Chris Armstrong. Because trust me when I say they aren’t worth it. They are not what you think.” With that, I heard her head loll to the side.

I remained there for too long, staring at her, wanting her to finish the rest of what she was saying, but she was already unconscious. A dull, echoing beep confirmed that fact.

Then there was another beep.

My communication had finally been picked up.

I wrenched my gaze off her, pulled myself down into the flight chair, and cleared my throat before thumbing the button on the com panel that would accept the communication.

The viewscreen flickered, and footage of an admiral was transmitted onto it.

I snapped a salute. “Admiral Falas. She’s secure. We are en route. We will dock with Academy Alpha in approximately 49 standard Galactic hours.”

“Good. Was she much trouble?”

“I imagine she believes she was, sir.”

“An interesting observation. Was she, however, objectively an issue? Your assessment right now will dictate what we do with her when she gets here. If you have any reason to believe that she has the capacity to open her closed-loop, even when we shut it down, you might as well turn around and take her right back to prison.”

I usually didn’t mind being put on the spot. That was the nature of being an Eighth. You didn’t run standard security missions. Though I didn’t want to admit this, Stellaxia had hit the nail on the head. We were sent on critically important operations that required not just standard force, but autonomous thinking. We couldn’t wait around for a superior to tell us what to do or think – we did and thought. And right now the admiral wanted me to make a reasoned assessment. One that, quite possibly, could change the future of the Empire.

I turned over my shoulder and looked at her. I turned right back around. “No. She knocked herself out, but she did not appear to have the capacity to locate what was shutting down her closed-loop – let alone fight it.”

The admiral let out a sigh. “That’s what we need to hear. Now, you can’t get her here fast enough. The training will have to begin soon.”

“Yes, Admiral.” I snapped another salute.

I knew some of the details of this mission. The rest would never be shared with me. And nor should they be. They were state secrets of the highest kind. You would require something of great, unparalleled importance to have one of the worst criminals in the Empire’s history released from prison.

“Keep her sedated until she gets here.”

“I intend to do so, sir.”

“And when you get here, I want you to stick around for a little bit.”

I’d been ready to automatically respond to the rest of this conversation. I was conversant enough with debriefings like this. My superiors would ask a few operationally relevant questions – then they’d salute and send me on my way. It was the nature of an Eighth that you never hung around in one place too long. We were deployed across the galaxy. We specifically undertook quick missions. You didn’t want your most elite soldiers burdened by long-running operations that would be more effectively undertaken by others. We were for fast, sharp, clinical attacks.

Obviously the admiral had momentarily forgotten that fact.

“Sir, I need to get back to the Sicevast Expanse,” I began.

He lifted a hand quickly.

If anyone else had just done what I had, it would’ve been labeled insubordination. But we Eighths did not have a clear relationship with the chain of command. Technically the admiral was above me. But when it came to existing operations, I was only answerable to the admiral who had given them to me. I already had a mission to go on with after this one.

“I have cleared it with the upper command.”

I had to control my expression. I regretted the fact my helmet was off. It had been one thing speaking to the princess without a mask, but I couldn’t afford to let Falas know exactly what I thought of that plan.

“This is a critical mission.” Briefly, Falas glanced down at something that was off-screen. He looked up sharply. There was something about the exact look in his gaze. It was something I’d been seeing in the sharpened stares of a lot of my senior commanders in the past several months.

It had been a long time since Celestia had gone to war. The modern galaxy was meant to be far too peaceful and connected for that. There were still countless skirmishes. True, complete peace could not exist in a real, complicated universe. There were too many factions and too much self-interest. But full-blown war hadn’t been seen in the Milky Way for at least 300 years. The precise itch climbing my back told me that unparalleled window of peace was about to close.

Unusually for a well-trained admiral, Falas grabbed his mouth and ran his fingers hard over his dimpled chin. It took him a long time to let his sharp gaze rise up and meet my eyes once more. “This training mission may be the last chance we have, Chris. We’re going to need someone with an extraordinary range of skills – like yourself – to give this mission a chance. And if it doesn’t have a chance,” his voice dropped as fast as someone tying your legs and hands and throwing you off a bridge, “then everything is over. The Empire will be lost.”



Stellaxia

I was still partially awake. I knew I shouldn’t be. When that a-hole Chris had drugged the air in the bridge, it had gone straight to my head. But here’s the thing – something I’d learned long ago as a child. The more you threw yourself into the Game, the more it made long-lasting changes to your mind.

I barely slept these days. Sure, I went back to my tiny little prison cell and rested my equally tiny little head on my nonexistent pillow, but I was never truly unconscious. Part of me was always scanning my environment. And the few times something had happened and I’d been sedated, I’d been marginally aware of my surroundings, anyway. Enough to remember people’s conversations, but not necessarily enough to get involved.

Right now, even though I could, there’d be no point in getting involved. I didn’t need to launch up and try to wrap my arms around Chris Armstrong’s meaty throat. There was no point. Without the Game, I was… what was that old human saying again? Oh yeah, nothing but a damsel in distress. But this damsel could still find out information that would assist her later.

The one thing that struck me most was Admiral Falas’ tone. Toward the end, it dropped like a hand that had been trying to hold an impossible weight. I couldn’t really feel too much emotion in this dulled state, but what little I could process struck me like a bat to the head.

They wanted to train me, and this was the Empire’s last chance.

I hadn’t wanted to believe that I was being recalled. Now, things started to slip into place. There was only one reason you would pull me out of that hellhole. My people, to a T, hated me. They were betrayed, not necessarily by my actions, but by how different they were to the princess they’d imagined. I’d always had strong image control. There’d been a whole unit of people dedicated to crafting my public persona. They’d decided when I would be seen. They’d decided what I would say when I went out in public. Every photo, all footage – every sanctioned interactive hologram. All that had been crafted. The image the populace had been fed had been so wholly different from who I really was that when they’d found out what I was willing to do for my Empire, they’d turned on me.

I, to them at least, had been the quiet, kind, dutiful bride in waiting to be married to the most important man in the Empire.

Now? I was the betrayer.

I made the mistake of shifting. Falas had just ended the conversation. Though I’d like to think that Chris was too stupid to pick up my movement, he wasn’t. He turned quickly. I could practically hear his neck muscles snapping.

I didn’t think I could move too much more, but I surprised myself when I let out a throaty, rasping laugh. “You might want to up your dosage next time. Your sedative is crap.”

“How much did you just hear?” he snapped.

“Oh, nothing important. Just something about the fact the Empire is on its last legs. I really wouldn’t believe that trash. It’s always on its last legs. That’s how they manipulate you into doing whatever they see fit.”

He rose.

Though it took a lot of energy, I blearily opened one eye. I locked it on him as he loomed above me. I’d give him one thing – the boy was very good at looming. It would come hand-in-hand with the fact he had such a strapping form.

He had a face to match. That was no real surprise. Though I’d only felt him through his armor, I’d already got the impression that Chris Armstrong was a soldier the likes of which you’d see in a programed holographic film. All jaw, all blazing gaze, all muscles, and all grunt.

Sorry, I was missing one important ingredient – the fact that all of him, at all times, was pissed off with me.

He turned and went to type something into the primary console again.

I just chuckled. If there was one thing I was proud of, it was my laugh. Regardless of what I’d gone through, it was free. Even back when I’d been a trapped princess, waiting to be wed and burdened with a secret like no other, I’d always laughed like I was free.

Maybe it had some effect on Chris, because he stopped. Or perhaps he was smart enough to know that if he kept sedating me, he’d either do me some permanent damage, or he’d do nothing at all until he figured out why I was still conscious in the first place.

His helmet was off. I could see his rigid neck. The line of his tight trapezius muscles was like a Richter scale. As it rose, I could tell things were about to get rocky for me. He took an echoing step up to me. He looked me up and down. “You’ve got tech on board, don’t you? That’s why I couldn’t sedate you properly.”

I laughed again. It was still throaty, but dammit, it was free. No matter what anyone did to me – what they said, how they acted, and what they thought – in my head, I would never let it get to me. That was a little lesson I’d learned from my father. This had been his laugh. That was, until he’d been murdered.

“I thought you Eighths were always up for any mission? Why do I get the impression that you have absolutely no idea how to handle me?”

He snorted. “I’ve already handled you. Why do I get the impression that you’re too arrogant to admit defeat?”

My expression soured slightly. I didn’t intend to show emotion, but I couldn’t control myself in time. Being on the edge of sleep like this meant I had lowered control and the solid mental wall that usually separated people from the real me wasn’t as strong.

“Did I just get to you, Princess? Even without my armor’s onboard computer, I’d be able to tell that you don’t like talking about defeat. Makes sense for an egomaniac like you.”

I spread my lips slowly. I quickly got over my fear. I laughed. It was dry and had a real edge to it. “Egomaniac, ha? Did you come up with that yourself? Or is that what’s written on my file now?”

“I don’t need a psychological assessment to understand you. It’s written all over your face – every action you make, everything you say, and in that god-awful laugh of yours.”

I really did laugh now. It was just as free as my father’s guffaws had once been. It brought up the memory of him momentarily – me bouncing in his lap, of him regaling me with the wonders of the galaxy. But all too soon, it brought up his violent death, too.

I pressed my lips together slowly and tried to get a handle on my emotions. I could not – and would not – wear my heart on my sleeve around this git. “You are very good at two things, Chris,” I used his first name. I had to. Soldiers of the Eighth Division didn’t have titles like other members of the Army. They weren’t lieutenants or admirals. If you knew them personally and you were above them, you referred to them by their first name. If you were beneath them, you called them by their last name. I was assuming a familiarity I did not have by calling him Chris. Hopefully that pissed him off.

“It’s Armstrong to you,” he replied quickly, his tone assuredly pissed off.

I smiled slightly. “And it’s princess to you,” I said without a snarl in my tone.

He snorted. “Alright – it’s lights out, Princess.”

He turned back to the main console. It would probably be better for me if he tried to drug me again and thought I was unconscious. Who knew what I could find out? I’d already ascertained one very important fact.

“Who will I be training? Or will they be training me?” I asked before he could command the computer to sedate me again.

He stopped. I might not be able to see his shoulders, but I could tell they tensed like clenched hands.

“You’re taking me to Alpha-1. I’ve only heard a few things about it recently, but aren’t their plans to turn it into a training facility for the Game? Now there’s only one reason you’d be taking me back there. Do I suddenly have a purpose to the Empire again? Do they need my skills? Interesting.”

He turned to me slowly. It was as if he was molten metal that was setting. For an Eighth, this guy didn’t bother to hide his feelings. Or at least not around me. “You will do what you are told. You will assist your people – the same people you betrayed. This will be your chance to redeem yourself.”

I laughed lightly. “There’s a lot of emotion in your voice, Chris,” I said, putting a real kick into my tone, making the way I said his name personal as if we’d been long-time friends and not casual acquaintances who’d been brought together by him kidnapping me. “Wait, you weren’t one of my fans, were you? Gosh, you weren’t stupid enough to believe the image management the Palace did on me, were you? An Eighth like you should be a lot smarter. My whole life was controlled to give me an image that was palatable to the rest of the Celestian Empire. I was to be Javan’s bride. Pretty, pure, kind, but overall, never a threat.” My voice bottomed all the way out on the word threat. I put all my emotion into it, because I was done hiding what I truly felt from this idiot. He thought he was the loyal one in this room, but the thing about loyalty is it depends on what you are loyal to. If you do not understand who you are serving, then you are not loyal. You are blind.

He slowly let out this dark snort. I could tell that in saying that, I’d confirmed everything he thought about me.

“You want to know what your file says about you? It says this. You’re obsessed with power. You mistook your capacity to play the Game as real skill. And you used that skill on a weaker opponent to feed your ego and delusions of grandeur.”

I paused. Then I laughed. It was decidedly ribald. It also had this defeated edge to it that I hoped he wouldn’t hear. “I’m sorry, did you just call the president of Celestia weak? God, it’s a long time since I’ve had anything to do with an Eighth, but I don’t remember them being this naïve.”

“You committed treason,” he defaulted to saying, his voice hard. “You used a banned weapon against an elected official—”

“I was trying to save the very galaxy you think I was attempting to condemn. But I see now that you don’t have the intelligence to ask the right questions. So how about you do us both a favor? Why don’t you pretend to put me under again? Then you can have more important conversations with other admirals that I can listen in to.”

I shouldn’t have added that last bit. I didn’t need to give him evidence of the fact that it was nigh impossible to sedate me. I just wanted to see the look in his eyes. It was worth it. He turned to me, his whole body rigid – and that was visible even under his armor. Heck, it would have been visible even if he’d thrown a blanket over his head. I swear the air around him became electrified.

“You think I don’t know how to sedate you? I’ll just double the dosage next time.” He turned back to the computer.

“I really wouldn’t kill me, Chris,” I said, the slightest singsong quality to my voice. The rest of it was pure malice.

He didn’t say anything. He did stop.

“You know, a lot of people pushed for capital punishment after I threatened the president. You know who stopped them?”

He didn’t reply.

“Why, it was Yaxal – the president.”

“He deigned to show you compassion—”

“Bullshit. He needed me. He knew I would come in handy again.”

“What do you mean again?” I could tell that he asked that automatically. It was clear that he was sharp, and he was trained to follow conversation threads. But as soon as he asked the question, his jaw stiffened, his stupid assumptions presumably telling him I was just manipulating him.

But too late – he’d asked.

“You know it’s my birthday today,” I said all of a sudden.

He relaxed. The only reason for him to relax was if, buried under his biases, he actually thought I’d been about to tell him something real about Yaxal. “Yes, I’m aware it’s your birthday—”

“It was three years ago today I found out what the Game really is.”

His fingers had settled on the console. They froze.

“It was three years ago today I decided to do something about it before it was too late. I failed, though. I was always going to fail. The Game’s everywhere. I’m just one woman. How can I possibly take on a whole galaxy?”

He let out a breath that had been trapped in his chest. “Did you just hear yourself? Take on a whole galaxy? You’re madder than they said you were.” Derision slipped back into his tone.

“What, do you think this is my egomania talking? I assure you it isn’t. I thought you Eighths swore off the Game, anyway? Something to do with honing your physical bodies instead. Out of everyone out there, I thought you would be sympathetic to this point. The Game,” I said slowly, letting my every breath be an exclamation mark that highlighted the horror of what I was about to say, “is designed to take this galaxy over. It is an infiltration tool. The president knows that. Because he helped craft it. And when the time is right, it will be deployed.”

By the time the words were out, it took me too long to appreciate that I’d actually said them. For the past three years, I’d held onto this secret. It wasn’t like I’d been trying to protect Yaxal and the rest of Celestia. It was simply because no one would believe me – and in prison, no one cared. But it had slipped out now, and it left a hole in my chest. A new one. There’d already been a hole there ever since I’d abandoned my people and been thrown in jail.

Chris let out a choppy laugh. At first, it had a confused edge to it, but he quickly shook off what I’d said. “I was told that you would lie. I was told not to believe a word you said.”

“No, Chris, you were told to keep me sedated. Precisely, one assumes, because they didn’t want me talking to you.”

He avoided my point. He clutched his jaw. He turned around and propped himself against the command console. He gazed at me. There wasn’t a lot to see. I was lying down, and I was still in my unflattering prison fatigues. He sure as hell was not checking me out, anyway. “No one believes you, Princess. No one ever will. Your file is as clear as day—”

“Few things are as clear as day, Chris Armstrong. How can, in a complicated galaxy, you ever truly understand something with just one look? I thought you Eighths were trained so that it was impossible to manipulate you?”

He revealed his teeth. “We are. And I assure you, your attempts are not succeeding.”

“One of these days, when you feel ready,” I settled back down and got ready to fall into a light slumber, “why don’t you turn that healthy suspicion against the very Empire you serve? You might find out things you don’t want to know – but it is better to understand one’s dark side than be swallowed by its shadows. Now, be a good boy, and sedate me properly this time.”

I heard him grunt with suppressed anger. His fingers flew over the console. More gas was pumped into the room. He did a better job this time. Though I wasn’t fully sedated, I swung in and out of consciousness like a swimmer drowning only to resurface.

As my thoughts flitted away, I concentrated only on one thing. One word – one promise. Training. It seemed the Empire was no longer willing to ignore my skills. Fine. But if they used me, I’d use them right back.



Chris Armstrong

I kept her sedated. Or at least as sedated as I could. At times when I turned to her and stared at her still form, I got the impression that somehow she was staring back, despite the fact her eyes were closed and there was no sign that the lights were on.

It was the same impression I got now as I stood and stared at the view on-screen. We were coming in to dock with Alpha-1.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. I’d never been on a mission here in the past – but I had been forced to rendezvous with commanders.

Alpha-1 was the new beating heart of the Empire – the facility that trained the soldiers of Celestia in combat and exploration. Over the years, the concept of combat had changed. If rumors were anything to go by, Alpha-1 now primarily trained its recruits in the arts of the Game.

My jaw naturally hardened as soon as I thought those two little words.

The Game was… unnecessary. After years of trying to accept it and trying to get over my gut feeling that it was an abomination, I’d come to that compromise. While the Game seemingly gave anyone who played it an otherwise incomprehensible advantage, it came at a cost – reality. It had been introduced 40 years ago, and in that short time, all existing technology had been retrofitted to allow it. Every single sentient creature born within the folds of the galaxy was implanted with the means to play it. It was everywhere – inescapable and omnipresent. Though as an Eighth I’d sworn off playing the Game as soon as I was commissioned into this division, it had unsettled me long before I’d accepted my insignia.

There was… something about it.

I found myself turning back to Stellaxia. She’d said a lot – and all of it would be lies. But the one thing I hadn’t expected her to do was cast aspersions on the Game.

“It’s manipulation, you idiot,” I mouthed, smart enough not to mutter my thoughts out loud. While I was certain she was now sedated properly, I wasn’t going to run any risks. How she could have withstood the drugs I’d pumped into her system earlier, I didn’t know. She must’ve been able to find illegal implants on the prison ship. Once she was on Alpha-1, she would be scanned, and they would be removed. The one thing they would not be able to remove, however, was her neural implant. They were not just necessary to interact with modern technology – they grew into one’s brainstem. Even with the best medical techniques, they could not be taken out of a person without killing them.

The console in front of me suddenly beeped. It was this sonorous hum that cut through my thoughts and made me jolt slightly. I stood to attention in front of the screen and watched with a darting gaze as we were pulled into the gravity well of Alpha-1. It was a massive conglomeration of ships. The outer circumference resembled the rings of Saturn – these sequentially smaller energetic circles surrounded the massive station. They were where ships were docked and heavy industry was undertaken. All of the huge energy generation plants were within them. As I let my gaze slip past them, it locked on the bulbous interconnected city domes of the station. There were eight in total. They were connected by a large central spire. It kind of looked like an old-style sword skewering fat oranges.

Several of them were lit up in brilliant, pulsing, azure blue light. The rest were just dark chunks of silver-gray. I stared at the whole station one last time, then took a step back just before the console beeped again. I snapped a salute as an image of Falas came on screen.

“Is she still sedated?” Falas snapped without a greeting.

As I’d already said, I had a standard playbook when it came to interacting with my superiors. I knew what questions they would ask – and I knew what responses they would need from me. Falas had just sidestepped tradition.

The first thing Falas should do was thank me for completing my mission. It was up to me to share relevant operational details. But judging by the tension marching its way across Falas’ brow and causing his wrinkles to embed further into his skin like knives into a knife block, he didn’t have time for tradition.

I nodded and shrugged behind me. “She’s sedated.” I didn’t put my full force behind that statement. I tried to ensure my voice shook with confidence, but it couldn’t. You see, that was an assumption. Who actually knew? The computer sure as hell didn’t.

“And she has remained sedated the entire journey?”

I pressed my lips together. I briefly thought of lying. There was no point. If Stellaxia found out I hadn’t told the truth, she would use that fact against me.

There was also no point in lying for an entirely different reason. It was simply put, pointless. I had nothing to hide.

I straightened. “She woke briefly. I re-sedated her.”

Falas’ face had already been showing his emotion. It had been displaying it like a projector magnifying his every micro-expression until they were a thousand times larger and impossible to ignore. Now that very same tension swamped him. I watched his eyes widen – his pupils dilating as if I’d suddenly stuck a gun right up against his forehead. The skin around his already stiff, white lips became pasty and sickly as if someone had grafted the flesh of a corpse onto his face. He also leaned forward. I was still wearing my armor, though my helmet was off. That meant I had full access to my armor’s onboard computers. They gave me constant, accurate and sophisticated intel on my surroundings. And right now they told me that there was so much tension in the admiral’s body, I could’ve popped him like a balloon. “What did she say?”

I’d dealt with Falas a few times over the years. He was meant to be one of the more astute admirals. He had a reputation for an unflappable cold sense of calm. He was the kind of leader you would have if your empire was crumbling, for even on your worst day, he would stand with unshakable resilience.

The Empire wasn’t crumbling. This was not our worst day, and yet, he looked as if he was a fresh-faced new recruit with no idea how to control his fear.

“She attempted to manipulate me. I resisted,” I answered.

“But what did she say exactly?”

I let my gaze dart over the admiral’s expression. I took it all in. This right here was when I had to decide precisely what to reveal. There was no dictate forcing me to reveal every single thing the princess had told me. It all came back to the fact I was an Eighth, and ultimately, we were answerable to ourselves before we were answerable to the upper chain of command. I was not some simple soldier who did as he was told and relayed information like a glorified tape recorder from old Earth. I got to decide what was relevant.

And it took no time whatsoever to conclude that everything the princess had spat at me was nothing but a collection of lies. Bad ones.

“Nothing much. She threatened me. I knocked her out.”

Falas sighed. He leaned back. The chair he was on groaned as it accepted his full weight. He slowly crunched forward, fixed his elbow against the console in front of him, and placed his face in his hand. It took him too long to part his fingers and stare at me. It took even longer until he dropped his hand and straightened, finally acting like the admiral he was.

The whole time, I stood to attention, my hands clasped behind my back, my gaze locked on him. I picked up every detail – every moment of indiscretion. Admirals were not meant to show their weaknesses in front of their men. But right now, Falas was see-through.

He slowly smiled. “I’m sure you are not used to seeing your commanders behave like this. But you are not aware of what is at stake. Now, bring her home. Our scientists are waiting. The training will have to begin soon.” Without another word, he signed off.

I took a step back. I stared at the screen for entirely too long. I went to turn, but that’s when I heard that Stellaxia’s breathing had changed.

Crap, she was awake again.

“That guy’s an admiral, ha? I thought they weren’t meant to show their emotions like that? He was practically falling apart on screen. I wonder why?” she managed in a raspy but still clear voice.

I briefly thought of drugging her again – this time with everything the computer had on board.

She could clearly read my mind. With a groan, she secured her elbows behind her and lifted herself. Her whole body shook. She clearly had limited strength. While the sedative had worked on her body, it had not worked on her mind, however. She looked at me with the kind of sharp gaze that told me not only had she heard everything, but she had understood it all. “You have no idea what you’re getting into, do you?”

“I’m completing my mission.” Never taking my eyes off her, I leaned to the side, grabbed up my helmet, and crammed it on my head. The pneumatic hiss echoed out across the small bridge as it formed a seal with my shoulder units. I waited until lights blazed across my visor, telling me that my armor was whole before I leaned forward, crunched my fists together, stretched my neck, and reached her.

She just let out a throaty laugh that sounded as if she’d been drinking space whiskey for a week. “If that’s meant to intimidate me, try harder. I’ve spent the last three years with hardened criminals.”

“You are a hardened criminal.”

“Thank you for making my point.” She kept her gaze on me as I paused for a microsecond then picked her up.

This time was different. Back on the prison ship, she’d been suffering from the effects of trying to fight her closed-loop. Now, despite how many sedatives were coursing through her veins, she was fully awake, and she knew exactly what was going on.

Holding a woman like that was not something I had a lot of experience with. Her gaze could’ve bored right through my visor and kept on going until it crunched my skull to dust. “Do you want me to tell you why the admiral was acting like that?” she offered.

“Your observations are irrelevant.” I walked over to the bridge door and paused in front of it. Rather than use my neural implant to remotely command the ship to unlock the door, I simply lifted my knee with perfect balance and waved it in front of the motion sensor lodged at hip height.

This made her chuckle again. The way she laughed shook through her chest, pushed out into the rest of her body, and sent tiny vibrations flitting through my armor.

I paid far too much attention to them and not enough to that look in her eyes. “Trust me, my observations aren’t irrelevant. You have no idea what you’re about to get into. If I were you, I’d find some other mission, Eighth, and I’d fly away as fast as you can.”

“I never abandon a mission once I’ve started it.”

“Trust me,” she repeated – a phrase she said all too often considering I trusted her as much as I trusted a gun to my head, “it’s time for you to make an exception. If you continue, you won’t like what you find out. Your loyalty is the most important thing to you, isn’t it?” Still in my arms, her body still weak, she tilted her head slightly, her hair tumbling around my armor as I pinned her against my chest.

“I’m not listening to you.”

“Sure you aren’t. But you can hear me. And you are trained to pick up everything that is said, log it away for later, and use it when it’s necessary. So pay attention. Loyalty is the most important thing to you, Chris Armstrong. It’s meant to be the most important thing to every single active serving member of the Celestian Royal Forces, isn’t it?”

My whole body stiffened. This marching tide of anger started at my feet, rose up my knees, clenched my gut, then reached my jaw, wrapping around it like wire. “You’ll find that it’s meant to be the most important thing to the Royal family, too. You’re meant to take the burden of your responsibility – and your privilege,” my voice dipped low, “and use them to look after your people. The rest of your family might appreciate that, but you—”

“Trust me,” she said one last time, but there was no punch behind her words anymore. She pushed them out in a defeated breath, “I know exactly what the cost of my position is. And I know precisely what to do to help my people, even if you don’t.”

The ship wasn’t large. It was only a sleek, compact, two-person cruiser. It shouldn’t take me that long to get to the hatch. In fact, it should take me precisely 4.5 seconds. Now, I lingered, taking every step slowly, incapable of turning my head up and pulling my gaze off the prone princess in my arms.

But it wasn’t her weakness that captured my attention. It was the strength burning through her gaze despite her circumstances. She couldn’t play the Game, she was trapped, and she was about to be handed back to the people who hated her most, but you tell that to her defiance. It was rising up like an unstoppable plume from the galaxy’s greatest volcano.

It was almost… almost impressive. That was until I reminded myself she was no soldier – she was an egomaniac.

“I can almost see your brain working – you know that, right? It doesn’t matter that you’ve got a helmet on. It’s in the way you move – in the angle of your visor. I can tell you’re intrigued. Just as I can tell that every time your better side tells you to ask questions, your dumb side pushes them away and reminds you I’m meant to be nothing more than a simple criminal. But I assure you, there’s nothing simple about the situation.”

“I’m still not listening, Princess.” I finally reached the hatch. I had to manually input the code to get out. In my current situation, it was easier just to use my neural implant. I still hesitated.

Her already bright eyes became even brighter. “I wish I’d been just like you, you know? Then none of this would’ve happened.”

Don’t react, I told myself. Especially to that apparently vulnerable note in her voice.

“I envy you Eighths. You forgo the convenience of the modern galaxy. You barely use your neural implants. And you never play the Game.”

“If you hate games so much, why are you playing one now?” Shoving forward, I pinned her against the hatch with one arm as I released my other hand and quickly typed the code into the door.

“You think this is a game?” Her voice became husky again. “I assure you, it’s not. Everything that happens next is going to change the face of this galaxy. And you’re going to be helping the bad guys. Just remember that.” She turned her head away from me, appeared to get comfortable in my arms, and closed her eyes.

As the door opened and excess atmosphere buffeted around us in a cloud of white, once more, I couldn’t yank my gaze off her. I let a shaking, albeit short laugh rumble up my chest. “You shouldn’t lie, Princess. It’s unbecoming.”

She winked one eye open. “You shouldn’t lie to your superiors, Chris, it’s also unbecoming. Why is it that you didn’t tell Falas exactly what I told you?” She lowered her voice so it couldn’t push past the sound of the opening hatch. “The answer – not that you’re willing to accept it yet – is that you’re suspicious. I can only recommend that you follow your suspicions before it’s too late.”

My gut had a chance to clench. Then I heard the sound of pounding footfall. I was not at all surprised to see Falas jogging down a long shaft toward us. Technically, I needed to walk it alone with the princess, as both of us had to be decontaminated and then inoculated with the unique particle and bacterial mixture of Alpha-1.

Falas, apparently, couldn’t wait.

He reached me, half at a jog, two guards behind him. My gaze quickly sliced over them, my training kicking into gear immediately and listing their armor capabilities, gun power, and likely training.

Falas didn’t introduce himself or snap a salute. His gaze locked on Stellaxia. “She’s still sedated?”

I hesitated. For no good reason – for no sane reason, at least. I quickly pulled myself together. “She woke after our conversation.”

No… she had been awake during the conversation. I hadn’t intended to say that. Rather than correct myself, I let it slip.

I would likely pay for it afterward. Stellaxia would use it against me.

“What do you mean she’s already awake? You were meant to keep her sedated—”

“I believe she has some kind of technology onboard – likely some illegal implant she picked up off the prison ship. She may be using it to keep a constant monitor on her external environment. I suggest she’s scanned immediately.”

Falas’ face looked like I’d just taken a brick to it. The technology I was speaking of was rare, but he would’ve heard about it before. His reaction was completely disproportionate. Taking a jerked step back, he gestured behind him with a shaking hand. “Take her to the infirmary. Now. Now,” he snapped when his guards didn’t react quickly enough.

One of them took a lurched step up to me and pushed his arms up.

I knew what he wanted. It was clear he was going to take Stellaxia there himself. It was time for me to release her. And it wouldn’t be a second too soon.

But I didn’t hand her over. Not immediately.

I turned to the admiral. “I can take you there myself.”

What was I doing?

“You must come with me for a debriefing.” The admiral inclined his head forward.

“If she has illegal neural implants, she may be a risk. An Eighth does not abandon their mission early,” I needlessly reminded the admiral.

“It’s not an implant,” he muttered under his breath.

The way he said it gave me the impression that he hadn’t intended to share that fact. He was simply too emotional to control himself right now.

I was glad for the privacy of my helmet. It meant I could frown all I wanted as I faced him.

He gestured at the waiting guard again. “Hand her over,” he snapped.

Reluctantly, I gave her up.

She swiveled one eye open briefly and stared at me. There was a lot going on behind that look. It told me she’d followed that entire conversation, including every single inadvertent lie.

As she was taken away by that guard, I stared at her – and locked my every computer scanner on her – until she was fully out of sight.

Falas let out a breath. “This way.”

I set off after him. We didn’t head in the same direction where Stellaxia had been taken. We soon reached a T-intersection and took the left turn. We came upon a massive silver airlock. The guard with us had to walk forward, input a code by hand, then release the armor around his hand and let the lock do a full body scan on him. It took approximately 30 seconds. I spent every single one going over the interaction, then going over it again.

What was going on here?

The door finally opened.

I watched Falas’ shoulders rise as the airlock rolled its way into the internal mechanism in the wall beside it.

As he strode out, I was met with a brilliant sight. I’d seen it before, but every time, the startling view arrested me.

We were in a wide mezzanine corridor. To one side were a multitude of doors and hallways that led to the operational rooms of Alpha-1. To the left was the central energy spire. It was this pillar of brilliant light. It ran through every single level of the ship. Not only did it carry necessary energy – but it was a hub of information.

It was also a symbol.

The Celestian Empire’s insignia was that of a sword skewering a planet. Sorry, the official description was that of a sword that had grown up through a planet, but it was an easier visual descriptor to describe it the other way around. Many moons ago – centuries in the past – Celestia had been a violent empire. During the nascent days of the current modern galaxy, it had gone to war as much as it could. It had aggressively expanded. Some of its current wealth and power was due to those days. But we’d learned. The modern galaxy had moved on. In many ways, it was the very connections at the heart of things like the Game that these days protected the Milky Way from what it had once been.

As soon as I thought of the Game, a vision of Stellaxia’s face came to mind. The exact way she’d stared at me defiantly. Not just that – the exact tone she’d used as she’d whispered at me that she envied me. She claimed that if she’d had the option, she would never have played the Game.

Lies.

I tugged my gaze off the view. I wasn’t about to question the admiral in public, but I itched to know what he was thinking. I didn’t have to wait long, anyway. We reached an elevator. We walked onto the open platform, and the guard saluted before turning away.

As soon as the admiral initiated the elevator’s controls, he turned to me and sighed. “I know you have a lot of questions. As I’m sure you will be able to appreciate that I will not be able to answer them all.”

I nodded low. I waited for him to reveal his secrets. He didn’t. He crossed his arms, stared out at the view around us, and waited.

I glanced at the view out of my peripheral vision, but I did not let it distract me from the admiral.

There were no walls to this elevator. It was located next to that spire of light. As we shot up and passed it, we weren’t burnt by it, nor were we blinded by its brilliant illumination. A flickering blue shield protected us from its power.

I was suddenly struck by the thought that regardless of the shield, it was the second brightest thing I’d seen today. The fury of that pillar of light couldn’t match Princess Stellaxia.

I caught hold of that thought quickly and dismissed it as we finally reached the top level.

We walked out to the sight of two black-clad soldiers guarding the elevator entrance. They immediately snapped salutes at the admiral.

There was a wide corridor in front of us. It was a hub of activity. Various races of the Empire strode back and forth quickly, never wasting a second.

The ceiling was illuminated in glowing lines of information – active hologram feeds that were shunting data from one end of the massive station to another. I considered them a distraction. Others considered them a decoration. To them, they were a visual representation of the power of the modern age.

To me, I preferred looking at something that was real.

The admiral strode ahead of me. Every now and then people would stop and salute. While most of them were officers, some were recruits. Primarily, Alpha-1 was a training center. The recruits wore white and black jumpsuits. You could tell the power and superiority of a recruit based on how many blue stripes they had on their shoulders. One guy walked past with 11 stripes. He would have to be one of the highest placed recruits in the entire station. Presumably when he completed his training, he would immediately go on to an upper-level position in the Army.

As he passed the admiral, Falas actually bowed his head slightly. “My liege.”

Liege?

There were many members of the Royal family in the Army. It was a requirement for the upper arms of the Royals to spend at least two years serving. Usually, however, when they served, they were to be treated as ordinary grunts. Or at least, that’s what tradition dictated. If a recruit was a truly important member of the Royal family, then the respect they were afforded in the rest of their lives always bled into their training.

Off the top of my head, I didn’t know who that recruit was, but I quickly brought up an image of his face and made a match with my online database.

As soon as the name flashed underneath his face, I stopped myself from balking.

That was Prince Javan’s brother – Pavarn.

Why I had not recognized his face, I did not know.

“Just here,” Falas said as he stopped in front of a door. It opened. I was led into an operational room.

It was a massive space. It was cut on three levels that stepped down sequentially. The first level was a conglomeration of scanning consoles. They were separated by little islands of glowing light. Each console station could move around, and they did. They continuously switched positions. They didn’t stray across the main thoroughfare, which is what we strode down now. Too little strips of blue light reminded us to keep within the path, lest we disrupt operations. As soon as we stepped down into the second level, it was to a sea of server mainframes. Robots with elongated arms and clawed fingers continuously moved glowing data packages around.

I glanced their way, but not one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me. They wouldn’t care. They’d been programmed to undertake their tasks ceaselessly.

Finally, we reached the third level. There was nothing but one large round table. In the middle was a single data node. Above it was a roving holographic projector that could display real-time information from anywhere in the Empire. The delay was meant to be less than half a microsecond.

I expected other high-level officials to be at the table, but it was just us.

The admiral gestured to a seat.

I took it.

He walked over to a different seat, pulled it out, and sat. He didn’t flop into it, despite the fact I could tell he wanted to.

He turned and faced me. He flicked his hand to the side, and those holographic projectors kicked into gear. Suddenly, Stellaxia’s smiling face stared down at me.

It was old footage – she sure didn’t look like that anymore. Three years of a high-security prison facility had wiped the fake smile right off her face.

“By now you are fully aware of the fact that Princess Stellaxia was one of the highest-rated players we ever had in the Empire.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“You are probably not aware of the fact that she managed to achieve victory over two levels in the Game that no one else has been able to claim victory over.”

I turned and faced him front-on. “What?”

“That was not in her file. And in some ways, when we say she was one of the highest-rated players in the Empire before her incarceration, she was the highest-rated. Before her fall, at least.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Though as an Eighth, you do not participate in the Game, I am sure you are aware of its structure. You understand how one levels up, don’t you?”

I nodded evenly. “You participate in singular or group missions to take down preprogrammed enemies. Or you challenge existing players.”

“A brief if simplistic explanation. To level up, fundamentally, you must have full control of your mind. Because that, fundamentally, is all the Game cares about. It is those with open consciousnesses and fine control of their psyches that have an advantage in the Game. The more you control your mind, and the sharper you can refine it as a tool, the more you level up.”

I didn’t need this lesson. I sat there and took it, nonetheless. All the while, I let my gaze dart to the side, and my eyes traced Stellaxia’s face. If I was any judge, this photo had been taken not long before she’d snapped. Judging by her makeup and the crown jewels in her hair, it’d probably been from her official engagement photo.

… I didn’t need to say judging by, did I? All I had to do was admit that the second I’d seen that photo, I’d known precisely when it was from. I’d watched her engagement on the news, just like most loyal members of the Empire.

Not that that was a fact I would ever admit to her.

“While progression in the Game is ultimately logical – you level up by facing new opponents and defeating them – it isn’t always so. A level of uncertainty was programmed into the Game from its inception. The Game’s AI was also developed to evolve. It matches players with tasks that challenge them. It ultimately decides what they face and how far they can go based on its judgment of how open their minds can become.”

The admiral had an interesting perspective on this, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.

Again I was thankful for the fact I was wearing my helmet. It allowed me to keep a bored expression while ensuring my body language suggested I was paying attention.

“There are certain levels of the Game that unlock certain abilities,” the admiral finally got to his major point. “There are two of those levels that only Stellaxia has completed.”

“Within the Empire?” I corrected him.

“Within the galaxy. She is the only known player to have located them, let alone completed them.”

I stared at her face once more. She had this enduring smile. Once upon a time, it’d drawn me in. I could admit this in my mind – though I would never admit it out loud. There had been something about Stellaxia’s kindness that had drawn most people in. Though I didn’t want to use the word crush… I’d certainly held some… limited affection for her. Once upon a time, at least.

Now I knew who she really was.

No – I was still learning. I turned sharply to the admiral. “And what exactly did these two levels unlock? What skills did she attain?”

“We don’t know.”

I frowned. “What? The Game’s programmers could just go back and look through the logs, surely?”

“These days, programmers have a very limited role in the Game’s maintenance. The AI is relatively self-sufficient.”

“You’re telling me you can’t find it in the logs and the AI won’t tell you, right?” There was an edge to my voice that shouldn’t be there if I was playing the role of a loyal soldier. I was no longer simply a loyal soldier, though. I was back to being an autonomous Eighth. These questions needed to be asked. Politeness could go hang.

Falas briefly closed his eyes and sighed. “Yes, that is what I’m telling you.”

“If the AI is no longer accepting input, shut it down and reset it.”

Falas briefly looked flabbergasted at my suggestion. Then he let out a tense chuckle. “I assume that was a joke. The Game cannot be shut down.” His voice vibrated. I didn’t know if it was with suppressed laughter or fear. “It is now fully integrated into every single system, not just in the Empire, but around the Milky Way. If we were to shut it down, the modern galaxy would come to a standstill.”

I immediately wanted to reject what he’d said. Yes, I understood the ubiquity of the Game. But I understood the practicality of the Empire more. We would never have gotten to a stage where we relied upon the Game so much. Right?

Falas turned away from me, grabbed his mouth, hooked his fingers in, and let them drag down until the sound of his short nails scratching his skin filled the room. “There is another way to find out what levels she accessed,” the admiral said.

“I would not suggest asking her. She would not be helpful.”

Falas laughed briefly. “Do not worry. She was questioned three years ago.” His voice had an edge to it. “She was not helpful then, and we are under no illusion that she would be helpful now.”

I logged that fact away. “Then what do you suggest?”

“The princess was brought here to train Prince Pavarn. He has become the highest-rated player in the Empire.”

“And you think that he’ll be able to access these hidden levels and defeat them?”

“Yes.”

“More importantly, you think Stellaxia will actually assist him?”

Falas looked at me sharply. “The princess,” he emphasized, pulling me up on the fact I’d forgotten her title, “will have no choice in the matter.”

I almost wanted to cross my arms. It was a habit I’d been developing after hanging out with the princess too much. “And how exactly will you do that, Admiral?”

“By fine control of her closed-loop.”

There was a lot I could hide under the confines of my armor. But I could not control my shoulders as they twitched.

Fortunately, the admiral turned away. He shifted his hand over the holo receptor, and the image of Stellaxia’s smiling face disappeared to be replaced with a schematic of a neural implant.

“We believe we now have the ability to not just shut down a closed-loop, but control it.”

The image of the schematic was replaced by soldiers suddenly jolting like electrified chunks of meat. They went from standing around and walking, to fighting each other through the Game.

My back chilled.

“I assure you, the men participating in this experiment knew precisely what they were doing. When control of their closed-loops was initiated, there was nothing they could do to shut them down. They fought how we wanted them to fight.”

“… I see,” I said.

And the trouble was, I did see. I couldn’t pull my gaze off the footage. The men’s faces were completely blank. Or at least half of them were. The other half looked horrified.

“The process is not the same in every single individual it is tried on. It seems that the higher your level is, the more mental artifacts you bring with you when your closed-loop is controlled,” the admiral said.

He might’ve used some fancy words, but they didn’t hide what he meant. By mental artifacts, he meant the soldiers’ own minds, didn’t he? The higher your level, the more likely you were to be consciously aware when your body was being externally controlled.

My hands wanted to naturally clench into fists, but I settled for sitting further back in my seat. “So you believe this will work on Stellaxia?”

“The princess,” the admiral corrected again, an irate note in his tone.

Yeah, she was the princess. And I hadn’t suddenly forgotten years upon years of training in decorum. For whatever reason, my mind kept inserting her first name into the conversation as if she was here and I wanted to irritate her.

“The princess will train Prince Pavarn. When he attains the right level, the Game will allow him access to the two hidden sections. And he will obtain the skills he needs.”

There was a lot that had been left unsaid during that statement.

At the beginning of the conversation, it had sounded as if they had no clue what skills were unlocked by defeating those two hidden levels. Now it seemed as if Falas knew exactly what was going on.

I sat there in silence.

The admiral turned to me. “Your mission will be to control her,” he said flatly.

I’d been dreading that. Now as he said it out loud, my shoulders sank – but my heart sank faster. “I have a mission to—”

“The next three months of your schedule have been cleared. All upcoming missions have been handed on to other members of the Eighth Division. This,” Falas stabbed a finger down on the table, “is the most important mission your division has been given in years.”

“If you can control her closed-loop, why do you need me?”

“Backup.”

I didn’t control my gaze as I locked it on him under the privacy of my visor. My eyes narrowed, my cheeks twitching with tension. “You said that the experiments were a success and you could control any closed-loop—”

“Too much is at stake, Chris. We cannot take anything for granted.” He dropped back into the same distressed tone he’d used on the bridge.

He’d spoken of the fact this was the Empire’s last chance.

“Admiral, forgive the intrusion, but what exactly is going on here?” My voice was harder than his, and I didn’t attempt to mollify it once.

“The Empire is on a precipice,” his voice dropped. It didn’t need to. There was a sound buffer separating this section of the room from the server room behind us. Even if there hadn’t been, the robots would have been programmed to ignore and promptly forget anything they overheard.

The only thing I could think of as the admiral said that was what Stellaxia had shared.

The Empire always pretended it was on its last legs when it wanted to manipulate you.

I shook my head slightly.

Falas mistook that as an action directed at him. “Information of this has not been allowed to spread – even to the Eighth Division. But the Empire is facing a threat like no other.”

“From where?”

“The Astral Empire has been threatening us for the last 40 years.”

I knew we’d always had tensions with the Astrals. Before the Milky Way had been brought kicking and screaming into the modern era, most of the skirmishes Celestia had undertaken had been against the Astrals.

Judging by Falas’ expression, those wars had never really ended.

“I am aware of no—” I began.

He lifted a hand, spread his fingers, and revealed tension that was running from his wrist all the way down into his elbow, shoulder, and jaw. It looked as if someone had shoved wire into his body, replaced his skeleton, and gotten ready to crumple him into one tightly wound ball.

He could barely move his lips as he pulled them open. “They intend to use the Game against us,” he finally spat.

I jerked my head to the side quickly as I tried to process that fact. “What? The Game is meant to be—”

“Peaceful? They have found a way around its programming. They intend to reignite our final war.”

“… How?”

“For the past 20 years, they have been training their soldiers in the Game relentlessly. They have more higher-level players than every other faction in the galaxy put together.”

As he spoke, not only did spittle fly out of his mouth, but his gaze became locked – practically rigid with fervor.

It wasn’t something I’d ever expected to see. Granted, as an Eighth, I was disconnected from the general day-to-day running of the Army, but I was not so far removed that I wouldn’t have heard about something like this. Nor was I so protected that I wouldn’t have witnessed a culture like this growing under my nose.

“The Astrals are planning an attack. We don’t know when, but it will be within the next year. They will turn the Game against us, and we will have nothing,” he spat as he balled a hand into a fist and struck it against the table, “nothing at all to protect us.”

“The Game—”

“Is ubiquitous. There is no way to get around it. There would be nowhere to run. They would unleash their top-level players on us, they would decimate our armies, and they would take everything.”

“And what about the AI that runs the Game? I thought, from its inception, it was programmed not to allow outward hostilities?”

“They have found a way around that. We know for a fact that they are working on a hack that will allow them to remove that ethical axiom. Once it is removed, the Game will be used for one thing and one thing alone – war.”

I sat there, incapable of responding, incapable of fully accepting what I’d heard, either. It seemed preposterous. Granted, as a member of the Eighth Division, I had less reverence and less of an overall understanding of the Game. But the very thought that something people engaged in for fun could be used to trounce the most powerful empire in the galaxy should be impossible.

But the fervor behind Falas’ gaze told me it wasn’t.

“This is our last chance. Princess Stellaxia is still the only player in the entire galaxy who has ever broken through to those two hidden levels. It is believed that the power she unlocked by defeating those levels is unmatched.”

“And you think that if Prince Pavarn can attain those same skills, we’ll have a chance of winning this upcoming war?”

“Not just a chance.” He turned away from me, and I couldn’t tell if it was because he was about to interact with the holographic mainframe again, or if he simply didn’t want me to see his expression. “He will be able to defeat them in a single day.”

I opened my mouth to point out that was a dangerous assumption considering he’d already admitted they had no clue what skills were unlocked by defeating the two hidden levels. This was yet more evidence that he knew precisely what was there.

I pressed my lips together and breathed. Then I stood. “When will you begin training?”

“Immediately after she has passed her medical exam.”

“You should scan her for neural—”

“We already did. She was scanned in the prison ship. She has no new neural implants.”

“But she managed to fight sedation—”

“It is a consequence of the fact that she is a high-level player.”

I had no clue what to say to that. How on Earth could her proficiency in the Game allow her to withstand sedation in the real world?

I opened my mouth to ask, but it was clear from the way that the admiral suddenly looked at me that he had no intention of answering. “Prepare for your mission. Stellaxia’s protection will be in your hands.”

As an Eighth, I carried out my mission exactly. How I did that was always up to me. But if someone told me to stop a war, then I stopped the war. If they told me to do the impossible, I did the impossible. And right now, the admiral had told me to protect Stellaxia.

“Ensure she does not cause any trouble. And ensure she does as she is told.”

This was where I had to clarify my original mission. He’d told me to protect her. What he clearly meant was I needed to protect others from her.

“I’ve hand-picked you for this mission, Chris,” he admitted as he made direct eye contact. “There’s meant to be no one like you. Despite the inherent limitations in your biology,” he said quickly and with only the slightest dismissiveness in his tone, “you have proved yourself time and time again.”

Falas was from the Hentani race. Of all the various races that made up the Empire, humans were at the bottom. I had experienced some racism growing up, but it had largely been forgotten ever since I joined the Eighth Division.

The admiral quickly moved past his insulting statement. “The future rests on your shoulders. Do what’s right.”

Do what’s right?

I always did.



Stellaxia

I was quickly taken to the medical bay where I was pawed at by various scientists.

I gave the impression I was sedated. It was easy enough to control my body – easier enough to control my mind. They had very precise instruments that should be able to tell them if the lights were on in my head. But they didn’t work. All I had to do was… well, step into a side realm. I wasn’t stupid enough to attempt to activate my closed-loop. I knew the moment I did, unimaginable pain would flood my mind.

But I had played the Game so often in my life that I could… I guess you could say that I could imagine I was playing it even when I wasn’t. And it was precisely when I did that that I could draw my mind into this semi-hibernated state that would be able to fool even the most sophisticated equipment.

I was aware enough of the world around me to know that this medical bay was massive. It was clearly here to deal with all of the various injuries you would get on a training station like Alpha-1. But the entire medical bay and all the staff were currently focused on dealing with me.

It took a little over two hours until they cleared me. It wasn’t until then that a passing nurse bothered to inject me with an anti-sedative that would combat the excessive drugs Chris had given me.

Though I could open my eyes in a snap, I blearily let one blink open, then the other.

I’d been hoping that the medical staff would chat amongst themselves as they dealt with me – revealing the secrets of this station. But they remained stiff-lipped.

Now as I opened my eyes, the nurse attending to me gave me one brief, betrayed look, then turned around. You would think from the disgusted gaze she’d shot me that I’d insulted her mother – or plain killed her. I didn’t know her mother. She didn’t know me, either. But that didn’t matter. She knew of Princess Stellaxia, the broken one.

I pushed up. I let my gaze slice across the room. There were plenty of medical bots, but I focused on the people instead. To a T, they all looked at me as if I was slime that had just climbed out of a deplorable drain.

I didn’t let it get to me. I laughed briefly. “If you all hate me that much, take me back to prison. I quite enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure you did,” someone said as the door opened behind me.

I didn’t need to turn to see that it was Chris.

“What are you still doing here? I would’ve assumed you would’ve pulled the privilege of an Eighth and got out of here as fast as you could.” I could’ve taken the time to point out that I’d warned him to do the same, but I didn’t. It was best for Chris if I didn’t publicly tell everyone that I’d told him to run from this horror show before it was too late.

I didn’t need to turn. He walked around the bed in several efficient steps then stopped right in front of me.

His helmet was on. Of course it was. He’d be hiding his real expression behind it.

I slowly tilted my head up, locked my gaze on his head, then let my eyes drop. There was nothing lecherous about the move. It wasn’t like I could see anything under the rigid plating of his black and gray armor. What I was doing was assessing his every movement to see if I could register his mood.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to understand what you’re thinking behind that thick skull of yours.”

“You’re trying to understand what I’m thinking by staring at my abs?”

I smiled slightly. “It’s surprising what someone can give away if they’re unguarded.”

“I assure you – I’m never unguarded. Now, come.”

I placed my hands behind me, settled them flat on the uncomfortable bed, and tilted back as I looked at him. I didn’t ask any questions, and I sure as hell didn’t move.

He took a step toward me. My stomach fluttered ever so slightly.

“Would you prefer I carry you?” he offered in a husky voice.

“Yes,” I said flatly. “I would prefer to be carried everywhere.”

The other medical staff had returned to their tasks, but at my officious, rude tone, they all turned to stare at me angrily. It would be confirming everything they thought about me.

Oh well. I wasn’t here to make friends.

“Get up,” he growled again.

“What about the offer to carry me everywhere? You understand I’m a princess, right? I can’t possibly do anything for myself.”

I took pleasure in saying that. I took pleasure, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. If I had been an ordinary princess all those years ago, I wouldn’t be alive now, let alone in a position to be able to threaten this idiot. It was precisely because I’d learned to fight for myself that I now had the capacity to look Chris in the eye and not flinch as I smiled at him again.

“Do you really want them to think less of you?” He dropped his tone. He inclined his head over his shoulder.

A lot of the doctors and nurses had stopped to stare at me, their gazes unflinching and unkind.

“I don’t think they could think less of me,” I said, ensuring my lips didn’t stiffen, even though they wanted to. “My image was crafted back when I was a princess. And it was crafted after my fall. No matter what I do or say, I can never be more powerful than the brand the palace picks out for me.”

“I’m gonna tell you what’s going to happen.” He sounded like some officious drill sergeant. “You’re going to get up, and you’re going to come with me. Training is about to begin.”

“It really isn’t. I’m assuming I’m here to train someone else, considering I don’t need any training myself,” I said, deliberately trying to be as arrogant as I could. “I’m just gonna let you in on a little secret.” I leaned forward, shoved my elbows on my knees, and stared up at him with an unflattering smile. “I’d rather rot in hell than train anyone in the Game. You got that?”

“Do you really think we would’ve brought you all the way here and paused your justified incarceration if we didn’t have a way to make you cooperate?”

My gaze flashed.

“There’s that look again. You don’t like to be defeated, do you?”

“Actually, I don’t care about being defeated. You have to learn to get over it when you’re a player like me. The one thing I don’t like,” my lips stiffened, “is being used.”

I would’ve given anything to see his expression, but it was completely hidden from me.

He turned. He walked over to the head doctor. He grabbed something off the guy, then strode back up to me.

There was a small silver box in Chris’ hand. He tapped it twice with the base of his thumb, and the casing retracted.

Now there was some kind of remote-control gripped in his fingers.

I had no clue what it was, but as soon as my gaze locked on it, my stomach kicked. “And what’s that?”

“Our assurance that you will cooperate.”

“Do I detect an artificial evening of your tone, Chris? Why are you using your computer’s on-board voice synthesizer to ensure your tone is emotionless?”

I could tell he didn’t like that observation. He sure as hell didn’t answer my question, though. He instead brought that box up and pushed it right in front of my face. “This will control your closed-loop, Princess.”

I laughed. “I’m sure it will. Really? Is that why I was brought here? They think they can use me like a doll now? Go on, turn it on. Show me.” I was becoming more and more defensive, because I was becoming more and more afraid. I didn’t need him to proffer that box in front of me to know that whatever it was, it was something that could change – and ruin – the rest of my life. My instincts were sufficient. They continued to blare at me in every language they knew that that box was horror incarnate.

I didn’t know if I was surprised or not surprised at all when he didn’t immediately switch the control on. He continued to proffer it in front of my face. “Though I owe you nothing, I’ll give you one more chance. If you still want to hold onto the little dignity you have, you’ll get up, and you will follow me. Because you don’t want these people to see what’s about to happen to you.”

Now it didn’t matter if he was using his computer to artificially control the tone of his voice. I picked up his emotion. All of it.

He actually didn’t want to press that button, did he?

From what I’d overheard of Chris on the trip over here, he was a complicated man. Maybe somewhere under that rigid armor and that even more rigid wall of muscle, he actually had a heart.

I stared up at him defiantly. “Let them see the truth. Go on, press it.”

He hesitated. Then he jammed his thumb down on the central button.

My closed-loop suddenly initiated. A pulse of energy blasted down my brainstem and into my body. When I initiated a loop, it was a controlled affair. Energy would sizzle through me, and I’d get ready for the Game. Now it jolted through me as if I’d been electrocuted. I hadn’t been expecting it, and I lurched right off the bed. I fell onto my hands and knees just as I saw the world around me become illuminated.

“This is a medical facility. It is not recommended that you initiate a game here. Repeat, this is a medical facility—” a computerized voice suddenly echoed through the room.

The Game was not shut down.

I pushed to my feet. No – something pushed through me and pushed me to my feet.

I opened my hand and went to select a weapon.

I had thousands of weapons. The more you fought, the more you acquired. I had some of the most sophisticated guns the galaxy had ever developed. But I never used them.

Ever since I’d found out what the Game was, I’d always preferred to use a simple sword instead.

I couldn’t control my body – and God knows I couldn’t control the Game. The one thing I could control was the weapon I selected. I still secured my hand around my simple sword and drew it out.

Chris took a step back.

“You can’t use her in here,” the chief medical officer said. He did not flinch at the fact he used the words use her. I was nothing more than a tool to him.

“I have no intention of doing that,” Chris said, his tone still artificially controlled. “Let’s go.” He turned me around. I had no clue how exactly he was controlling me through that box, but there was nothing I could do to fight it.

Still holding the sword, I turned, and I walked up to the door.

I tried to resist every single movement I made, but my resistance simply fed back into my control. The more mental energy I used – the more the Game lapped it up.

By the time I reached the door, I felt a slight trickle of blood sliding down my nose.

Chris was in front of me. He turned, no doubt his armor warning him of the fact I was bleeding.

“What’s this?” He pointed to my face.

I knew he didn’t want an answer from me. I couldn’t really give one. I could almost move my lips, but I wasn’t prepared to try. This dense pressure was picking up in my skull. It was pushing down. It felt like someone was trying to squish me like a bug.

When no one answered his question, he raised his voice. “Doctor, what’s this? Why’s she bleeding?”

He finally caught the attention of the chief medical officer, and the man ran over. He had a scanner in his hand, and he waved it in front of me. Then he simply shrugged. “It’s a consequence of too much mental activity.”

“That’s not a satisfactory diagnosis.”

“It is an artifact from the closed-loop. It’s irrelevant.”

“Could it lead to long-term damage?”

“Unlikely. It will pass in time.” Dismissively, the CMO went to walk away.

Chris would not let him. He weighed a hand down on the man’s shoulder and locked him to the spot. Even if the guy had suddenly strapped himself to a cruiser, he would not have been able to walk away.

“It’s my job to see this mission through, Doctor. I don’t want your best guess. I want a proper diagnosis.”

Chris didn’t move his hand until it became clear the CMO finally understood Chris’ request.

The guy called for a more detailed scanner, and I stood there, still incapable of moving, just feeling that trickle of blood as it continued to slide its way down my face. It was joined by a few more slicks.

“It isn’t dangerous.” The CMO turned to Chris. “It might continue to happen in the future – or it might peter out. It will not lead to any deadly or damaging cerebral activity. I suggest you ignore it.” The CMO looked right at me as he turned away.

Yeah, nice try. But no one was going to ignore me.

I was the centerpiece of this horror.

It didn’t surprise me that they’d finally found a way to control people with their closed-loops. I knew for a fact that the president had been working on it three years ago. It was likely the entire reason I was still alive. I was too valuable to have been killed when all you needed was a means to control me.

I think I saw Chris take a deep breath. His chest piece did push out a little. But it could have been a sigh – or he could have been swearing loudly in the privacy of his visor. I’d never know.

I thought he made brief eye contact with me. Then he turned. He walked me through the door.

I was still dutifully holding onto my sword.

I knew a little bit about Alpha-1, but I didn’t know its internal layout. I assumed the infirmary would be far away from the actual training facilities, but I was mistaken. It was smack bang in the same corridor. As soon as we walked out, it was to the sight of recruits.

I was still in my prison fatigues. I got the feeling that I would be wearing them for my entire stay here. It meant there was no hiding from the glares that were shot my way. Recruits stopped and stared me up and down. Some of them talked amongst themselves. All of them faced me with as much combined hate as they could muster.

Though I was usually capable of letting it just slide off me like water off a duck’s back, not today.

I needed to be able to control my body language to prove to them that their stares couldn’t affect me. The only thing I had control over was my face. I stopped myself from looking at them in abject horror, but that was it.

My fingers were gripped loosely around my sword. They were holding it as if it was nothing more than a Teddy bear. Me? When I held my weapon, I clutched it for dear life. For that simple sword was the only reason I’d survived prison.

Ha, in many ways, I guess it was a Teddy bear, then – as it was the only comfort I’d ever truly had. My point was, while Chris could seemingly control me, he did not use my body in the same way I used me.

I held onto that fact as we continued down the corridors.

We stopped in front of a massive airlock. No – it was some kind of internal gate. It was large enough that it proved whatever was on the other side was important.

In front of it was none other than Admiral Falas.

He gave me a brief look. His gaze slid up and down my body, locking on my sword. “Why did you select that weapon?” He turned to Chris.

“I didn’t select a weapon. She did.”

“I will take this from here, then.” Falas reached into his own pocket and pulled out another one of those control cubes. He tapped it three times, and the casing slid back to reveal the device. He wasted no time whatsoever in taking control of me.

Again I felt that dense pressure marching its way down from the top of my skull. I… couldn’t describe it. It was like the weight of the entire galaxy had fallen on my head and someone was using it to try to crush my psyche.

I took a jolting step forward. It was uncoordinated. I fell against Chris’ back.

He turned. Another trickle of blood slid down from my nose.

His helmet inclined up ever so slightly, and I knew his full attention locked on it.

“Open,” the admiral said as he turned to the airlock.

It rolled open.

I was forced to walk inside. My every movement was jolting. It hurt. It wasn’t just what was happening in my head – the way my body moved was as if I was being jerked around by a kid with a puppet.

Every step I took sent this pain blasting up into my hips and back.

“I was told that the problems in the control system would be ironed out by now,” the admiral said angrily. I could tell he was talking to some kind of technician in his ear. Presumably he wouldn’t have the guts to talk to Chris like that.

The Eighths had always been a very special division. My father had actually had a lot to do with them. Before his violent death, there’d been a push to disband the Eighths – or at least to reincorporate them into the rest of the Army. There’d even been a push to pull them into the Game. The reasoning had been relatively airtight. To make the Eighths the best soldiers they could be, they needed to be the best in every arena – including the Game.

My father had resisted that push.

Hey, maybe it was one of the reasons he’d been murdered. I’d never understood why one day I’d come back from training only to see his blasted apart remains in my bedroom.

That massive door opened. Several electronic locks had to be disabled. A massive crackling force field had to be reabsorbed into the floor, too.

You would think that the greatest secrets of the galaxy would be behind this door.

They weren’t. It was just a massive training facility. I’d seen plenty in my time. As I’d risen up the ranks in the Game, people had started to take me seriously. At first, I’d just been the quaint princess who’d been unusually good at the Game that had been taking the galaxy by storm. By the time I was 10, and I had defeated every other single member of the Royal family who’d been stupid enough to play me, my abilities had finally been taken seriously. I’d been allowed to train in the same facilities on the capital planet that housed the Army’s players.

They hadn’t had rooms as large as this. But the feeling and the smell were still the same. It took me back.

My body would’ve stiffened – if I’d had any control over it.

The room was massive. It was virtually a hangar. You could easily fit the ship we’d traveled here into it – 100 times over.

Every step I made was echoing. They practically beat against the ceiling.

The room was relatively empty. There were a few targeting drones flying circles in the air. There was also a man. He was standing with his back to us. He wore the standard black and white colors of an Alpha-1 recruit.

Rather than walk through this massive expanse to get to him, he got to us.

Lines of light suddenly illuminated around him, signaling that he’d logged onto the Game.

As soon as he was logged on, he transported.

Transportation – the ability to move from one spot to another both in the Game and in reality – only came with the highest-level players. It was only available in areas where the Game could secure a transporter lock on you.

I could do it. Theoretically. I hadn’t been able to use that skill for a long time.

The guy appeared beside us. He had a weapon in his hand the likes of which I hadn’t seen. In the past three years, the Game – and its rewards – would have moved on. Despite my gritty prison training, I had a lot to catch up on.

“Prince Pavarn,” the admiral said as he bowed low in recognition.

Prince Pavarn? I didn’t need to search my mind to know who he was. He was Javan’s brother.

Except the Prince Pavarn I was looking at right now bore little resemblance to the kid I’d once met.

His large stature and handsome face had nothing to do with the passing of time. He’d re-crafted his body.

He looked a lot more like his brother now. It would be hard to tell whether Pavarn had decided that he’d needed a makeover, or if the branding arm of the palace had on his behalf. It would be more palatable for the populace to see two brothers that looked alike. And the more palatable they were to the populace, the easier the populace was to control.

Prince Pavarn nodded his head low and stretched out his hand to the admiral.

Falas didn’t take it. That wasn’t the point of this little ceremony. Instead, the admiral bowed and took a step back, reaffirming the fact that he had no right to take the hand in the first place.

Pavarn quickly dropped his fingers. He locked his full attention on me. He looked me up and down from every damn angle.

His gaze bored into me. I remembered a time when his eyes had been not just a different color, but a different intensity.

How times had changed.

“It’s working, then? Has she been any trouble?” He started to walk around me.

I could feel his roving gaze all over me.

I wanted nothing more than to reach around, stop him in place, and smash my fist into his face.

With no ability to move, I tried to control my expression.

He stopped in front of me. “There’s no need to look like that, Princess. This is the only way you can give back now. And you need to give back.” His voice lowered. “You didn’t just damage the Empire. You damaged my own family. How could you do that to Javan?”

I wanted to snort right in his face. How could I do that to Javan? His whole family was twisted. They were just as bad as the president.

They didn’t deserve quiet, demure, obliging brides. They deserved to be kicked out of the Empire forever.

I felt another little trickle of blood slide down my face.

No one seemed to notice it – apart from Chris. He’d been standing close-ish, but he repositioned his weight until he was right by my side.

“All right. Let’s do this. No time to waste. This is for the Empire.” Pavarn clutched hold of his sophisticated gun, crossed it over his chest, then made a salute with it like it was a sword.

Falas stepped forward. As his fingers locked onto the control pad in his hand, once more that dense pressure spread down from my skull. Every time it happened, it got worse. Now it felt like some giant was trying to stamp on my mind.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for a match like this. You won’t have a chance, Princess.” Pavarn pushed back, locked his rifle against his arm, and transported until he was twenty meters away.

“No,” I said. It happened all of a sudden. I managed to push through the lock on my lips. And once I did, it was easy as pie to spit, “This is not a match. You’re controlling me.”

I knew the admiral stiffened as he snapped his attention over to me.

Pavarn had already transported away. He transported back. “What was that?”

“If you want a real match, Pavarn,” I snarled, now capable of controlling my lips fully, “let me actually fight you. That way, you’ll learn a thing or two.”

Pavarn looked straight at Falas. “What’s going on?”

“They thought it was likely that she’d be able to speak eventually. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Pavarn did not look cocky anymore. He wasn’t waving his gun around and egging me on. He looked exactly as he should – like this was a risk.

He let his gaze slide up and down me again. When he locked it back on the admiral, there was no respect behind the move. “I want your word, Falas. Is she controlled?”

Falas chose to demonstrate. I launched at Pavarn with my sword. It was a simple move that anyone would’ve been able to dodge back from.

Pavarn didn’t want to dodge back, though. He lifted his gun, and he fired on me. The shot slammed into my stomach. I went spiraling back. Fortunately the door had closed. I smashed against it and fell down into a heap by the base of it.

Pavarn laughed. “Yes, it appears she is controlled.”

“A game has been initiated. Player two has been defeated,” a computer voice-over warned us.

Pavarn waved a hand. “Run Training Protocol Beta. I don’t want to have to reset the Game every single time she loses. Now, show me what you’ve got.”

He didn’t look at me. He looked at the admiral.

I felt myself moving. I was pulled up onto my feet. I lurched forward with the sword.

Pavarn just yanked his gun up and shot me again, a bored look on his face. I smashed into the door.

I felt it. Trust me when I say I felt it. The blast shook right through me. It hammered into my skull. It made it feel as if I would black out. I wasn’t that lucky.

When you played the Game – especially on a higher level – you felt like you were getting hurt. That was the whole point of the experience. It was real enough that it was completely immersive.

I wasn’t hurt, though. Those same lines of light that delineated the Game from the rest of the world ensured that while we could move and interact with real-world objects, we were protected from the consequences of being smashed into them at skull-crushing speed.

Chris was the only one who turned his head to look at me as I managed to pick myself up – or at least the Game picked me up.

“As fun as it is to keep shooting her, select a different weapon,” Pavarn said in an angry snarl. “We don’t have time to waste, remember, Admiral?”

Falas concentrated. I blinked my eyes closed.

I could feel that the admiral was trying to select one of the thousands of sophisticated weapons I had. But every single time he tried to make me grab hold of one, I wouldn’t. That was the only show of resistance I could make.

Pavarn waited there, getting progressively irater. “Pick a damn gun already. Make it a level-hundred weapon at least. I want a challenge.” He bounced from foot to foot. He looked like some kind of prizefighter who’d been caged.

“I am having trouble,” Falas finally admitted.

“What the hell do you mean?” Pavarn spat.

“It appears there is another bug in the program. I cannot select another weapon.”

Pavarn laughed. “Then there’s no point in training, is there?” He lifted the gun again. He shot me for no good reason.

I smashed against the door.

Every movement I made, Chris followed. His visor inclined my way, but I never saw his expression.

Was he smiling under that helmet? Was he wincing at the brutality of this?

“Simply select a low-level weapon yourself,” the admiral suggested.

Pavarn gestured with his gun. “Do you know how many hours it took me to earn this? It was several weeks of hard-core practice. I’m not giving this up.” He fired at me once more.

I smashed into the door. I felt the pain. I felt it until it made me want to cry. But not once was my back broken. Now we were in a training subroutine, he could keep doing this to me indefinitely. The game would not register these attacks as defeat.

“My liege, you were keen to train. It may take some time to iron out this kink. Simply select—” Falas began.

Pavarn fired on me again.

This time it took a lot longer for Chris to move his visor from Pavarn over to me. I couldn’t tell if that was because he was bored by the sight of me getting smashed silly, or if he was reevaluating everything he thought he’d known about dear Prince Pavarn.

“My liege—” the admiral tried.

I just picked myself up off my knees automatically. I took a step toward Prince Pavarn, my sword held high.

He fired on me. Continuously. I didn’t smash against the door this time. I just twitched on the floor.

He emptied 20 bullets into me – and every single one of them felt like being shot for real.

He only stopped when Chris took a step in front of me.

I was vaguely aware of it. The only thing I could truly track was the fact that the blistering fire had stopped.

“What the hell are you doing?” Pavarn asked in a dangerous voice.

“You’re wasting your time, Prince. Select a simple sword and begin your training session.” Chris didn’t walk out of the prince’s way.

“Now who the hell are you,” Pavarn took a menacing step up to Chris, “to tell me what to do?”

“I have been given a mission to ensure that this operation runs smoothly. I can only provide three months of my time, however. Please do not waste it. Now, select a simple sword.”

Chris didn’t need to use his onboard armor to keep his voice artificially steady now. It just was. It was even like my blade when I could hold it with my own two hands.

“I’m sorry, but do I need to introduce myself again?” Pavarn said, arrogance dripping off his tone. “I am the second in line for the throne of the third branch of the Celestian Royal Family.”

“And I’m Chris Armstrong, an Eighth. I was given a mission to ensure this operation runs smoothly. Stop wasting time, my liege,” Chris said with exactly no deference in his voice. “And pick a low weapon.”

It was either testament to Pavarn’s complete arrogance or the ineptitude of this entire operation, but Pavarn actually seemed surprised that Chris was an Eighth. His arrogance didn’t exactly take a back seat, but he stopped menacing Chris directly.

The Eighths weren’t just a legendary division amongst the Royal Army. They had paramount importance amongst the Royal family, too. Due to their unique position in the chain of command – and due to their unique and considerable skills – they were very much not your standard grunts. We were meant to afford them the respect they deserved.

Pavarn took several steps back, shifted his weight, ticked his gaze up to the left, rolled his teeth around, then selected a low weapon. Technically. It was a level 20 electro whip. It would trump a simple sword like mine any day of the week.

Chris didn’t know that much about the Game, but Falas did. “My liege—”

“If you’re going to ask me to go to an even lower weapon, don’t.” Pavarn cracked the whip.

He did it right in Chris’ face. Chris could see the Game, even though he couldn’t technically interact with it. It was so hyperreal that most people who encountered it always stayed back behind the illuminated crowd lines the Game used to delineate active player-space.

Chris sure as hell wasn’t behind any line. It would’ve looked to him as if a sparking, lethal electro whip had just been cracked right down his middle. Did he blink? Not once.

He also didn’t move out of the way until Falas gave a small nod.

As Chris shifted back, he slowly tilted his visor toward me. By that time, I was already on my feet.

My body was fine. It hadn’t been damaged every time I’d been smashed against the wall. My mind on the other hand? If you shot a person enough times in a realistic enough setting, despite the fact they weren’t actually in harm’s way, it would screw with them.

Sorry – would screw with anyone but me. My life up until this point had perfectly prepared me for this bullshit.

Falas made me spin my sword. Well – he tried. Halfway through the move, it clunked out of my grip and fell against my feet.

Pavarn laughed. It was one of those guffaws you would give if some celebrity turned out to be a dud. “Really, Princess – that’s the best you’ve got?”

“No. Remove the control from my closed-loop, and I’ll ram this sword right up your ass. And that’s not even the best I’ve got,” I said, using the exact deadly menace I’d learned after three years on a maximum-security ship.

I almost thought I heard Chris give the slightest laugh. It was probably my imagination – nothing more than him subtly shifting his weight onto his back foot.

Pavarn sneered. He might like to think there was only aggression and superiority there – but I could read between the lines. The way his eyes flickered told me he was scared.

He had every reason to be. Or at least he would, if Falas knew what he was doing.

Though Falas hadn’t technically initiated the match yet, Pavarn took his own initiative. He ran toward me, cracking the whip high. Falas tried to make me yank the sword up, but Pavarn immediately used his higher-classed weapon to grab the sword right out of my hand. He released it, and it tumbled a good 50 meters behind him, sailing through the air until it sliced into the floor.

Then? Oh, predictably the bastard just whipped me across the face. To me, it felt like someone had just taken a searing iron and slashed it across the front of my body. Pain erupted through me like a volcano of torment. But did I scream? Not once.

I struck the floor. I didn’t push up until Falas made me.

“This is actually fun.” Pavarn bounced from foot to foot.

“But it is not training,” Chris said long before I could point that out. “This is not a challenge.”

“Do you think you have the right to tell me—” Pavarn began.

“You have three months, my liege. If you do not complete this mission, the Empire will crumble.” Chris delivered that line like a slap to the face.

I didn’t try hard to hide my incredulity. Sorry, the Empire would crumble? What were they pretending was the problem this time? Years ago, long before my father’s death – long before I’d thrown myself too far into the lethal embrace of the Game – I’d actually believed that the Celestian Empire was good. Maybe a little tarnished at the edges – maybe with a shady past, too. But in these modern times, we’d pulled ourselves up by our proverbial socks. We got along with the other races. We believed in shared resources, compassion, and shared power.

Then the wool had been pulled from my eyes. I knew exactly what we did in the shadows now.

So Celestia was in trouble my ass. We didn’t need anyone else to create our problems – we did it ourselves with our own arrogance.

Speaking of arrogance. Pavarn came at me again. I still didn’t have a weapon. He whipped me until that whip locked around my throat.

Falas either didn’t know how to use me, or was perfectly happy to waste this training session allowing Pavarn to take his anger out on me. Falas didn’t even bother to push up my hand and try to catch the whip, even though I could. I just stood there as it wrapped tighter around my throat.

I didn’t know what my expression was, and honest to God, I didn’t care. It didn’t show emotion – just a complete lack thereof.

I went to the same place that I’d gone to every night for the past three years. That little corner of my mind where the real me cowered after everything she’d learned.

In other words, I just shut down – even as he pulled me to the side violently and smashed me against the floor.

He let out an aggressive cry. He sounded like he was playing some contact sport – not whipping an undefended woman around on the ground. “I could get used to this,” he spat.

I didn’t need to get used to it. I already was. There was one thing I could be thankful for. If this was training – then whatever Celestia was cooking up would fail. Pavarn was too arrogant to learn anything – and Falas was obviously too scared of him to push.

… The only spanner in the works was the man standing just a few meters away from me. The man who still had his visor locked my way. And the man who shouldn’t – but probably did – feel sorry for me.

Chris Armstrong was a complete unknown in this situation. How he would act would be up to him and it would decide everything.



Chris Armstrong

By the time that farce of a training session was over, I didn’t know what to think. Stellaxia was bundled off to the medical bay. She now had a rampant nosebleed. By the time I’d pulled the plug on the session, her nose had been gushing. The front of her prison uniform had been completely covered in her own blood. I was guessing that was from the effects of whatever process they were using to control her closed-loop. It could easily be from what Pavarn had put her through.

I went to call the guy an unstable megalomaniac, but I stopped myself – both physically as I paused in the corridor, and mentally as I reminded myself of the stakes.

Pavarn was not your average member of the Royal family. He was a soldier. But unlike most soldiers, he had to navigate the vagaries of the Royal family and its intrigue as well. He was a product of his people. Did that mean I’d liked what he’d done? … No. But I understood it.

I took another step. I was reminded of just how much glee had been plastered over his face as he’d whipped Stellaxia around like some dogeared doll. Pavarn was right, she had done a lot of damage to the Empire and his family personally, but….

I took another step.

I heard someone clear their throat behind me. It wasn’t Falas.

I turned.

It was my old flame, a half-human, half-Hentai doctor – Vivian White. She was wearing a long, stylish grey tunic jacket. It had a perfect cut that accentuated her neck. Her hands were in her pockets. She inclined her head back, her short bob shifting around her ears. “I know it’s you, Chris. You might be in the same nondescript black and gray armor of the Eighths, but I’d know you a mile off. What are you doing here? Just another quick mission before you flit off into the galaxy, never to be seen again?”

There was a fair amount of pathos in her voice. When I’d said she’d been my old flame, I’d been the one to extinguish the relationship, abruptly and with barely any explanation. It had been during my first year as an Eighth. I’d come to the quick understanding that if I wanted to keep my position – which I did with all my heart – I couldn’t let that same heart be distracted by others.

I considered pretending I was someone else, but Vivian had always been intelligent. With her sharp, bright eyes, she could see through most lies.

“Vivian – long time no see.”

Her hands were still in her pockets. I could tell she was feigning an unaffected attitude, but her fingers were slowly crunching into fists. “Really? Are those the first words you’re going to say to me after you dumped me without an explanation? How about a sorry?”

I became increasingly uncomfortable. While there was no one else in this corridor, that could change quickly. I had a job to do here, and while I didn’t think anyone else would care that one of my old flames was on Alpha-1, I couldn’t let Stellaxia find out. Why? Because I was still under the impression that she would use any and every fact against me. Right?

I shifted my jaw from side to side. It was something I only did when I was uncomfortable. Though my helmet would’ve mostly obscured the move, like I said, there was no one as quick as Vivian. “Not that pleased to see me, ha? You should’ve looked up the full crew complement before you came here. It won’t matter, anyway. I imagine you’ll be off in a few minutes. What’s your mission, anyway?” She laughed quickly. “Wait, you won’t be able to tell me. Just the same as you couldn’t tell me why you ended us so quickly.”

I should just pull myself away from the conversation, but that would simply make things more awkward down the track. If she hadn’t heard why I was here yet, she would. I rolled my tongue around my teeth. “I’m here for three months.” The words were out long before I could think them through. Did they sound pleading or apologetic? Because I was neither. Presumably, Vivian had known what she was getting into when she started dating an Eighth. I’d warned her that our relationship would always be on unsteady ground. I’d simply proven that fact. And fortunately, I’d done it early on in the relationship before anything could get too serious.

“What? You haven’t quit the Division, have you? You’re here for three months? I thought your kind never stuck around in one place for too long?”

“I’ve been given a new mission.”

“What kind of mission could possibly—” she stopped abruptly. She’d been keeping her distance. Now she took a quick step up to me. “You’re the one who brought her aboard, are you?” It was impossible to discern the emotion behind Vivian’s tone. Her voice certainly did fluctuate when she said the word her, but I couldn’t tell if it was with anger, awe, or just surprise.

Again, I could lie my way out of here, but Vivian would simply find out the truth.

“Yes.” That’s all I said.

Vivian pressed her tongue against her teeth. It was an odd move. She only ever did that when she was calculating some variable.

“It was good to see you.” I walked away, realizing the pause in our conversation was a good time to end it.

I was surprised when she shoved a hand out and grabbed my arm. Her fingers were slightly slick with sweat as they wrapped around my gauntlet. I could detect her increased blood flow – the pressure of her breath, even an increase in adrenaline.

I turned back to her slowly. “What is it?”

“Why would they have an Eighth on this mission? You must be her guard or something?”

I’d decided telling the truth was the best way forward, but suddenly my lips wouldn’t move. She would find out that I was Stellaxia’s guard at some point. But I… wanted to know what Vivian was thinking first.

Back when I’d first been attracted to Vivian, it was her passion that had done it. There’d been no one like her in my life. When she knew what she wanted, she reached out, and she caught it.

But it also meant that she sometimes acted without thinking. And when it came to grudges, she kept them for life.

“Chris,” her tone changed. “Are you Princess Stellaxia’s guard?”

“I have somewhere to be. It was nice speaking to you.” I pulled my hand out of her grip.

She just kept pace beside me. “I didn’t think they’d continue the project,” she said, starting to speak in that same fast pace I was used to. Vivian could download terabytes of information in a few seconds – just by babbling like a drunk bird.

I didn’t bother to turn toward her.

“This is insane. They must be desperate. There are too many risks,” she added, all in one breath.

I stopped. I turned to her. Nothing would have been able to pull me away. “What do you mean there are too many risks?”

Her eyes flashed as they locked on me. “I can’t really discuss that.”

“But you were more than happy to force me to discuss privileged information,” I pointed out blankly. Not, of course, that my mission here was that privileged. News would spread, as I’d already pointed out. But I needed to know what she was speaking of.

Her expression hardened a little. If we hadn’t been speaking about something she was passionate about, this was where she would have walked away. She’d never liked my blunt affect. Few people did. It was an excellent means of ensuring no one got in my way.

Her lips pressed together, and they became a little white, but she didn’t lean up and slap me. “It’s untested technology. There have been countless side effects—”

“What side effects?” I snapped before she could finish her sentence.

She was clearly taken aback by my forceful question.

She opened her lips. She didn’t get a chance to finish. I hadn’t really been paying attention to where we were, but we were still in the training district. A set of doors opened behind us, and recruits spilled out. As soon as they did, Vivian’s eyes opened wide, and she simply walked away. I couldn’t tell if she’d taken the crowd as an excuse to get away from me, or if their presence had scared her into silence. As she flitted through them, I didn’t bother to catch up.

I turned and stared at the recruits. They all stared at me. Some of them who were more clued into the operational divisions of the Army recognized what I was, and they looked impressed. The rest just moved around me like water coursing around a foreign object in a river.

I counted at least 300 of them. And that would just be one class. According to what I’d read, there were at least 100,000 recruits currently being trained at Alpha-1. That did not include the staff who were here for operational purposes, nor the research division.

By the time the crowd dispersed, I angled my head in the direction of where Vivian had disappeared to.

Only two words echoed in my mind – side effects.

I turned hard on my foot.

I knew exactly where they were keeping the princess. It was my job to keep her safe, after all.

No, Chris, I commented in my mind. It’s your job to keep others safe from her.

I knew how risky it was to develop any sort of attachment to Stellaxia. I’d read her file, dammit. I might’ve repeated that too many times already – but it bared focusing on again. She had a psychopathic tendency toward manipulation. She knew exactly how to control people. And one way to do that was by feigning vulnerability.

As I strode quickly through the corridors, reached a privileged elevator, used my senior access codes, and programmed it to the level where she was being kept, I tried to repeat that until it stuck.

I could not become attached to the princess.

The elevator was thankfully quick. As it opened, I was treated to the sight of four soldiers guarding the entrance. All of them snapped salutes. I was not obliged to return them. I didn’t have the time, anyway. With nothing but a brief nod of acknowledgment, I strode past them.

While Alpha-1 did have a brig, it had been decided that it would be better not to keep Stellaxia there during her stay. It wasn’t made for permanent habitation of prisoners, anyway. It had been decided the more appropriate level to house her on was one of the scientific subsections. Specifically, where Alpha-1 did its more prestigious – and secret – experiments. They had the right equipment to ensure that, no matter what Stellaxia tried, she would not escape.

My footfall became harder as I finally reached the corridor that led to her room. There were eight guards. This time, they didn’t just let me through. I had to do a full bio scan. Removing my gauntlet, I waited for them to use their scanners to track exactly who I was on a molecular level. All the while, I felt like a tiger pacing in a cage. When I was free to go, I didn’t even bother to nod politely.

I strode right past them. I reached her door. I had to walk into a recess. A shield was turned on behind me. It was the kind of force field you would use when your ship got too close to a star going nova. My armor instantly registered its heat and power and warned me not to stick my hand into it if I was so inclined.

Once the shield was in place, the airlock-like door in front of me opened, several wheels unlocking and the entire mechanism disappearing into the floor.

I strode in.

For all that, the room was tiny. It was smaller than the one Stellaxia had been provided with back on the prison ship. There was a bed, sanitation facilities, and room enough to stand as long as she didn’t spread her arms too far. That was it.

Stellaxia was on the bed, her back to me, her body pressed into a tight ball.

My armor instantly told me she was alive but asleep.

I let out a sigh.

What the hell had I been doing? On the way over here, I told myself I’d find her in a puddle of blood on the floor – a wretched mess.

Now she let out a snore that would have matched someone three-times her size.

I rolled my eyes and went to walk away.

“You don’t actually think I’m asleep, do you? You’ve learned by now that unconsciousness does not become me. I like to keep an eye on what’s going on. It helps me decide who’s going to stab me in the back or not.”

She said that – and my armor registered it – but it still told me she was technically unconscious.

I froze. I took a long time staring at the door until I turned around. I paused, because at the back of my head, I told myself this was my last chance. The more I allowed her to pull me in, the less effectively I would do my job. And while standing here listening to her certainly was not giving in to her wiles, it was giving her attention. And the more I looked at her… the more….

“Do you have any pain killers on you? Wait, you guys don’t get to use them, do you? You probably just slap your chest and man up.”

“If you are suffering—”

“If I’m suffering?” She lost control of her voice. It shook up and down. It was either because she was entirely amused, or she wanted to throttle me. “What do you think, genius? You think I’d be suffering? Pavarn used me as a punching bag for two hours.”

“The Game—”

“Are you about to tell me that the Game ensures that no matter what goes on while you play, you won’t get hurt? You know it does hurt though, right? Every time you are shot in the chest, it feels like you’re actually shot in the chest.”

Yes. I did know that. Though I hadn’t logged on in years, I’d played the Game briefly. It was important to know what it felt like. And during my first encounter, I had been cut down. Someone had stabbed me right through the middle with a sword. I’d had plenty of injuries since – and they had been real. But none had felt quite like that initial encounter. There was something about the disconnect of the brain seeing you being injured but the body not registering a fatal wound. It made the experience all the more intense.

“Is that what training is going to be? You do understand that’s not what the technical definition is, right? Why don’t we just call it what it is – torture. Why waste the Empire’s precious resources and time? If they hate me that much, just pull a real trigger on a real gun against my real damn head and get this over with.”

“I would not have picked you as someone who was a fatalist, Princess.”

“I don’t even know what that means. But if you’re trying to point out that I shouldn’t beg for an end to this, you still have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

“As I’ve already pointed out before – I’ve dealt with you in the past. I am fully capable of dealing with you again.”

She let out the lightest laugh. “Why do you think this has anything to do with me? You’re still failing to see the bigger picture. Everything you think you know about this Empire is a lie, Chris Armstrong. We are not the good guys. We never were.”

My hackles rose. If anyone else had said that, I would’ve brushed it off. I’d dealt with prisoners before. This wasn’t the first extraction I’d done. It certainly was the first time I’d had to hang around afterward – but that wasn’t the point. I understood how prisoners thought. The last thing you could do was allow yourself to be drawn into their twisted logic. If you started to see the world like they did, you would understand them, but at the cost of losing your grip on reality.

“That statement pissed you off, didn’t it? Why? Aren’t you meant to be rational? Isn’t one of the most important tests an Eighth passes meant to be a psychological one? You can only move into that division if you have the correct attitude and if you understand how to truly see this world. But the only way to truly see the world, Chris, is to ask the right questions.” She suddenly coughed. There was a real throaty edge to it. She crunched forward, and I could tell she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. But if she was trying to hide what had just splattered from her lips, then she couldn’t.

She’d just coughed up blood.

Despite myself, I took a hurried step up to her.

She curled further against the wall, then let out a laugh that just led to another coughing fit. “What, surprised I’m injured? You know, I don’t think they are nearly as good at controlling my closed-loop as they think they are.”

I stiffened.

She finally rolled over and looked at me. Her whole face was covered in blood. She’d clearly been trying to hold it in, but there was only so much her hands could do.

“Is that a threat?” I asked evenly.

“No – an observation. This technology they are using,” she brought up a shaking hand and tapped her head twice, “has holes in it. The kind of holes that will probably kill me. That’s why it would be a lot simpler – and much kinder – just to pick that gun up,” she looked at my hip and the gun permanently holstered there, “and to end this now.”

I had no idea what to think until I reminded myself that it was highly unlikely the princess was suicidal. This was just another attempt to emotionally manipulate me.

“There we go again.” She pointed at me with a shaking finger. “You know, even with your helmet on, I can read you like an open book. And you were just reminding yourself that there’s no point feeling compassion for someone like me, ha? Because me… well, I’m the worst kind of criminal out there.”

“You committed treason—”

“Be a good boy and define treason for me, then?”

“I’m not going to play games with you—”

“That’s good, because I’m not allowed to play games now, either. So let me get straight to the truth. The game is an abomination, Chris. It’s a means for war and nothing more. And that right there is one of the Empire’s greatest secrets.”

I said nothing and did nothing. I thought only of what Falas had already revealed.

Groaning, she managed to pull her arms up and secure them under her head. But then she coughed again, and the rattling shakes of her chest only drew up more blood. She was forced to trail her already dirty fingers over her mouth to wipe it away. Then she pinched her brow. “Why do they want me to train Pavarn anyway? He clearly is too arrogant to accept any form of instruction.”

“I am not allowed to tell you.”

She laughed. “And you wouldn’t if you could. You want me to hurt, just like everyone else does. But tell me, Chris,” she dropped her hand, “where does your cruelty end? Because there’s a line, you know that, right? Between justified incarceration and vengeful torture. You crossed that line today.”

She didn’t mince her words. Nor did she dilute her gaze. As she stared at me and said that, her statement burrowed down into my soul.

Until I tried to push it back.

I turned sharply.

“Off again, are you? Why did you rush in here, anyway? It couldn’t be because you were checking on me, right?”

“Get some rest, Princess. You will be training again in the morning.”

She laughed. She put her all into it, and again she coughed up blood. “Let’s not call it training. Don’t do yourself the indignity of lying to yourself. You know my father,” her tone changed immediately, “he was a great supporter of the Eighths. That’s why I know so much about you. He saved your division years ago – long before you would’ve been a soldier there. And he told me,” her tone changed again, losing all hint of arrogance and force, “that the most important feature of a good soldier is their even keel. I had to look up what a keel was. Something to do with old Earth—”

“Ships.”

“Right. Apparently, it’s when a ship is steady and on course.”

“I’m leaving, Princess.”

“My father said that a good soldier – a real soldier – knows how to go forward while keeping themselves straight. Not many people understand that. Sometimes they view progress as pushing onward, regardless of where it takes them. To my father, if you wanted to keep the things that mattered most to you – your family, your morals, your hopes – then you chose the one path forward where the fewest people got hurt.”

“Perhaps you should take a leaf out of your father’s book.”

“Don’t worry – I am. I’m sure I’m going to get murdered just like he was.”

I paused, having to quickly locate a memory file of how her father had died. “He perished in—”

“Don’t you dare say an accident. That’s what the palace said. He was murdered. And the bastards did it in my room. They wanted me to come back and see his remains. They wanted to remind me that if I didn’t do as I was told, they’d kill me. I guess they’re about to come good on their threat. Now, be a good boy and turn the lights off, Chris. I’ll see you in the morning for the next torture session.” She rolled over.

I paused there for entirely too long. I needed to walk out right now, because every second I spent in her presence was a second it was clear that I’d been affected by what she’d said. It took half a damn minute until I finally pulled myself away.

I reached the door, walked through, and paused in the recess for another half a minute before I strode through the opening shields.

When I reached the end of the corridor, I stopped and spoke to the guards. As soon as I mentioned she was injured, they told me they were aware of it and they were monitoring the situation.

I didn’t challenge them, even though monitoring was materially different to treating. I walked away. Though I didn’t want to admit this, I was cold. Though I didn’t want to admit this more, I didn’t know where I was headed. If Stellaxia’s father had seen me now, he would have concluded that I was a soldier who’d lost my way.

So I simply walked forward because I could not go back.



Stellaxia

Another day, another short trip through hell.

This time, rather than be taken straight to the training facility, I was paraded around. I’d known this was going to happen. Men like Falas always liked to maximize their returns. Yeah, supposedly I was here for an all-important mission that would ensure the Empire’s survival, but I was also a great way to increase the station’s morale.

I was right now walking behind Falas, my wrists handcuffed, my prison fatigues there for everyone to see. He was parading me right down one of the most populous corridors on the recruit level.

I was forced to walk past my people. Sorry – my haters. No one out there would consider me their ruler anymore.

Good. Maybe that would make them wake up to the fact they didn’t need a Royal family at all. We were all twisted, soulless bastards.

Perhaps I was meant to look dejected. I didn’t. I kept my head held up high. Let me tell you, that was not as easy as it sounded. I had not had a pleasant night. Whatever the heck they were doing to my closed-loop was torture. I hadn’t let myself sleep. I hadn’t even snoozed. At any moment, my paranoid brain had told me that Pavarn would blast in and torture me more.

But if there was one thing my life as a princess had taught me, it was that when I needed to act unaffected, I acted.

Several people remarked unkind things at me. I ensured I made eye contact with them and smiled. I even offered brief waves and lifted my handcuffed hands as if the fact I was incarcerated was no biggie and I was back dealing with my adoring fans.

“Psycho,” I heard someone mutter. That particular word was picked up and repeated through most of the crowd.

Yeah, psycho. It was always easier to label someone crazy than to actually look into what they were saying.

I doubted there was anyone among these recruits who would be prepared for the reality of their empire. Hell, if enough of them were faced with legitimate evidence of what we’d done, they would likely look the other way. They wanted to believe they were good. It had nothing to do with what they really were.

I hadn’t seen Chris yet this morning. I didn’t know what that meant. Perhaps he’d decided to quit. Good for him.

We finally reached the end of the corridor. I assumed we’d take the lift back to the proper training facility. We didn’t. We turned and went into some massive lecture hall. It had stadium-style seating on one side and a huge open space at the bottom.

Standing there was none other than Pavarn himself. Though he was technically only wearing the standard recruit uniform, the way he acted, it was as if he was in full regalia while everyone else was wearing nothing but dull brown sacks.

The admiral nodded his head in deference as he strode in.

Oh great, was I going to be a show today? Fantastic.

The lecture hall started to fill up. I turned my head. I actually began to look for Chris. I could admit that I was a little disappointed when I didn’t see him.

Why? God, I don’t know. He had intervened yesterday when Pavarn had been shooting me. That didn’t mean he would step in to defend me again.

Who cared? He wasn’t here anyway.

I was forced to stand at the front beside the admiral. I was still handcuffed. The one thing they had done was clean up all that blood from last night. Presumably they’d have to get a robot in with lasers to get my mess off the walls in my prison. That, or they’d have to repaint.

I had no clue how many days I could go through this for. I didn’t care what that doctor had said. Whatever was going on was hurting me. I just hoped I went out in a bang and not a dribble.

“You are all aware of who stands before me,” the admiral began as all of the recruits sat.

Angry mutterings rippled through the crowd. God, they sounded like a mob. Unthinking, uncaring, and willing to repeat anything their overlord told them.

Back in prison, I’d kind of hoped the galaxy had moved on. It hadn’t. It had moved backward.

I stared up at the ceiling. That was until I felt Pavarn’s gaze drilling into the side of my face. I sliced my eyes over to him.

He smiled.

It was the kind of smile you would use if you were about to put a gun to someone’s head.

The admiral continued. I tuned out for a bit. He spoke of the Empire’s provenance – of the importance of the Royal family. Of everything that Celestia had ever done. This was just the standard gibberish they repeated at all formal ceremonies. Once upon a time, I’d thought it was nothing but tradition. Now I understood it was reinforcement. The more they repeated it, the more these idiots actually thought they were in a position of pure privilege. They were the best because Celestia made them the best. And if they just kept repeating that and ignoring every other fact that suggested the opposite, they would rise above.

I tuned back in to the conversation when Falas said my name. Sorry – spat it like poison.

“Our new training program will soon begin.” Falas looked at me directly.

I had no idea what was going on in that little head of his. It became apparent when he gestured my way.

I felt something click in my brainstem, and the Game was initiated.

This time I didn’t lurch around. All night, when I hadn’t been bleeding and gagging, I’d been practicing for this exact moment. The one thing I could hold onto right now was my dignity. It wasn’t the same dignity these idiots thought I needed. I wasn’t about to fall at their feet and apologize for everything they thought I’d done. I was going to stand right in front of them with my head held high, my gaze on theirs, and my stare unflinching.

As the Game initiated, I stood perfectly still.

Perhaps the admiral had assumed I would stagger around and become a gibbering mess. I could see there was disappointment in his gaze.

As it was, not many people understood what was happening. Sometimes it was hard to tell who’d initiated a game. While lines of light certainly did move around me, Pavarn was standing relatively close, and he could’ve initiated one just as easily.

The admiral cleared his throat. “We have now come to understand closed-loop technology better. And we finally have it in our grasp.” He moved his hand up and clenched his fingers together.

My hand moved up, and I did the same.

There was a general muttering.

The admiral continued. He spouted bullshit about the technological prowess of Celestia. Then he moved on to the whole point of this stupid exercise. “Some of you may be aware that Princess Stellaxia, before her fall,” he emphasized that as if his voice was falling off some cliff, “was a relatively high-level player.”

I snorted. That drew a lot of ire from the crowd. I just smiled back and winked.

“We now have the capacity to ensure the loyalty of such high-level players. And to ensure that the resources that were pumped into them, and the very same resources that they abused, will not go to waste. In trying times like these, it is important for us all to do our bit. For the Celestian Empire can only rise on the backs of us all.”

That was the truest thing he’d ever said. For Celestia did not rise on its own. It trod on those beneath them.

I didn’t need to turn to Pavarn to know that he had just initiated a game. There was a buzz in my mind.

Here we go, I thought.

The admiral walked away from the podium. His hand was in his pocket. I could tell he was gripping hold of that control cube.

Suddenly, my handcuffs disengaged and fell at my feet.

Pavarn selected a weapon. Predictably, it was the same gun he’d used yesterday. There was a real glint in his eye, and I shouldn’t have to tell you what it was. It reminded me of light trailing down the tip of a dagger that was about to be thrust into my heart.

I felt my head click to the side, and my eyes moved of their own accord.

The admiral was trying to select a weapon.

Presumably, all night his little technicians had worked on trying to iron out the kinks in the program, as he called it. But this was no kink. This was my only resistance. And sure enough, as he tried to force me to select one of my high-level weapons, I didn’t. I selected my sword. It appeared in my hand, and I held it evenly.

The crowd had obviously been expecting a real fight – or at least something that resembled one. They would all be players, and they would all know that Pavarn was holding a level 200 gun while I had a level 1 sword.

Pavarn sneered at me then jerked his attention over to the admiral.

Falas was an idiot. He should’ve tried me before he’d taken me out into public.

Pavarn looked at Falas again. I could feel myself trying to select another weapon, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t let them get my gear.

I just gripped my sword harder.

The crowd started to mutter. There was only so long Falas could continue this farce for.

Pavarn, always the competent Royal, knew that. “Fine. A good bloodbath is a good show anyway.” He raised his gun.

I wasn’t being controlled at this point. They had initiated the Game. And Falas had forced me to select a weapon. But he currently wasn’t in control of my body. That would presumably change in a few seconds – but a few seconds was a long time to leave someone like me unchecked.

Long before Pavarn could move, I thrust forward. I made time irrelevant. I just kicked it out of my psyche as if I could control space itself.

I’d defeated a lot of high-level players in that prison with nothing more than this sword. Pavarn was probably 50 levels higher than anyone I’d fought. Who cared? I had pure motivation on my side. I also had the fact he wasn’t paying attention.

As I powered into him, I whirled the sword around and stabbed it right through his chest. I pulled it back long before Falas could react, and I slashed it over the back of Pavarn’s head. I kicked my foot into the hand he was using to hold his weapon, and I put my combined force into it.

Falas could go hang. I wasn’t a relatively high-level player – I was the highest-level player in the galaxy. And they needed to see who they were messing with.

The gun clattered way out of Pavarn’s grip. He went to select another weapon, and Falas went to control me, but it was too late. I sliced my sword down across Pavarn’s back. Technically the higher your weapon, the more of your mental energy it could channel. Low-level weapons weren’t meant to be used to dispatch high-level players. But technically could go hang. So could Pavarn.

I’d just defeated him.

Lines of light formed above him, and a computer voiceover echoed through the room. “Player two has been defeated. As the odds were in player two’s favor and they were using a significantly higher level weapon, the defeat is complete. Player one will—”

“Shut her down. Shut her down,” Pavarn screamed.

I smiled. If you defeated someone very quickly, especially if you were using a weapon that was at a much lower level than the one they were using, you then had the choice to remove all their points and their weapons from them.

It would be a sweet way to end this farce, but unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that easy.

Pavarn reached me and cracked his fist across my jaw. This wasn’t in the Game. My head jerked to the side. The force he used made me see stars.

“Contact is illegal between players,” that same voice-over reminded everyone.

“Falas,” he roared.

I felt a click in my head. Despite the fact I didn’t want to, I logged out of the Game. Because I hadn’t chosen what to do with Pavarn’s points and guns, they would be returned to him.

As the lines of light dissipated, Pavarn fell down onto his knees. His head jerked up, and he locked his gaze on me.

I was down on my own knees, too. Pavarn logged out. Judging by the look in his eyes, he wanted to do one thing to me. And it would not be kind. Now I was out of the Game, there would be no consequences for him.

Pavarn moved toward me. Someone got in his way.

I hadn’t been aware that Chris had entered the room. Now he was right there, right in front of me.

I looked up at his broad back. His armor glinted under the powerful lights.

The crowd clearly had no idea what to do with what had just happened. This was meant to be a demonstration of what the Empire could do with this technology. It was also meant to be a reminder of Pavarn’s power. Instead, he’d had his ass kicked by someone with a weapon that was pretty much nothing more than a metal stick.

“Get out of my way, Eighth,” Pavarn growled.

Chris remained exactly where he was.

Falas made it back to the podium. I didn’t turn to look at him. I was far too consumed by staring up at the sight of Chris’ back. I mean, it was just a back. But the way I looked at it – and him – was as if he was an angel.

I didn’t need other people to save me. That had been a mantra I’d repeated my entire life. Still….

The admiral immediately went into damage control. Rather than explain what had just happened, he moved swiftly onto spouting chest-thumping statements about how grand the Empire was. At some point, someone far smarter than him would think of an explanation as to what had just occurred.

By then, the rumors would already have spread.

Pavarn was on his feet. I didn’t bother to stand. My control cuffs were right there. I reached over.

“Stop her,” Pavarn growled.

Stop me from doing what? I just slammed the control cuffs back on my wrists. I didn’t mess with them. I just trapped myself again. Then I stood. I took a step back until I was in line of sight of Pavarn. I offered him one slight, sweet smile, then I turned my attention forward. I surveyed the crowd.

People clearly had no idea what to think. Relatively high-level players did not trounce the best the Empire had in under three seconds.

The admiral wrapped up his speech quickly and nodded at Chris.

I walked out of the room with Chris right beside me.

Fortunately, Pavarn remained where he was.

By the time I reached the corridor, all I wanted to do was hang my weary head.

That interaction had come at a cost.

My nose started to bleed again.

Chris turned to me. He said nothing. His helmet was still on.

“You know, it’s not fair,” I commented to him as I was powerless to stop the blood trickling down and splashing onto my collar.

“What’s not fair? The fact you defeated the prince with a simple sword in front of his peers?” Chris’ tone was completely even. He might’ve been pissed off but hiding it well. He also might have been amused.

“No. I deserved his weapons and points. I won that game fair and square.”

“There will be no fair and square for you, Princess.”

I laughed. “Thanks for the reminder. Now, do you mind much taking me to the medical bay? I feel like there’s a bomb in my head.”

He inclined his head toward me. I could tell he wanted me to elaborate, but he didn’t want to ask me to.

“Every time they initiate that closed-loop,” my mouth twitched, and I wasn’t sure if it was fear or just some random muscular action, “it makes me feel like my head is going to explode.”

“Your symptoms are being monitored.”

I laughed. “Well then, that puts my mind completely at ease. Especially now I gave the prince a taste of his own medicine. Do you think he’ll be very angry at me?”

Now there was nothing he could do to hide his snort. It didn’t rattle or anything, but though it was short, I could tell it was amused. His amusement quickly ended. “You can’t be in too much pain if—”

“Don’t impugn my ability to insult my peers, Chris. I assure you, even if I was on death’s door, I’d be able – and willing – to make their lives hell.”

He just turned around and kept walking.

I had no idea where we were headed to. Presumably at some point Chris would get a message relayed into his armor that would no doubt tell him to take me back to my prison until they figured out how to iron out the kinks in my program.

This time walking through the corridors was different. Despite the fact the lecture wasn’t over, all the students present would’ve utilized their various communication devices to spread what had just occurred. Sure enough, as I walked past a group of recruits, they stared at me – materially differently from how they’d glowered at me before.

A few of them spoke behind their hands. “What the hell is she?” one of them muttered.

“A princess,” I said with a curling smile. “Thanks for asking.”

Chris didn’t pull me up.

The students just stared at me briefly then scurried off.

We turned around another corridor. At the end was a set of lifts that would take us up and out of here.

Chris had been marching. Until he stopped suddenly.

There were a few people in the corridor. Some students, a couple of scientists, and maybe two doctors if the gray color of their coats was anything to go by.

I couldn’t see where Chris’ eyes were directed, but I got the impression that it was the woman roughly in the middle of the corridor that had made him freeze.

She was tall, had this broad, round, smiling face, and these bright eyes that would arrest anyone’s attention.

I really doubted Chris had suddenly been taken by her beauty, though.

Judging by the way none of his muscles moved, he knew her. And not in a casual acquaintance kind of way.

I looked at him, my own eyes wide.

The crowd parted, and the woman took one look at Chris, and her cheeks tightened.

Everyone else in the corridor was looking at me.

Sure, she glanced at me, and her face paled in recognition, but she kept most of her attention for Chris.

She half jogged up to him. There was an urgency to her movements.

I got the impression that Chris, as he turned his head slightly to the left, was looking for an escape route.

Good luck, this corridor was straight and there wasn’t a door in sight.

She reached us.

She looked at me briefly, her eyes opening in recognition. They did not, however, narrow in hatred.

“Chris. I was hoping to—”

“Not the time, Vivian,” he said in a tone I hadn’t heard him use before. Obviously he hadn’t thought this through, because he hadn’t used his armor to suppress his emotion. It was clear as day. And it was tense.

I’d skipped way past thinking these guys were casual acquaintances to concluding that they were either together or had been in the not so distant past.

You would think that, after hands-down beating Prince Pavarn and displaying my real powers to a room full of cadets, that would be all I would be able to think of. Now that interaction was swept away as I watched on in total interest.

“I need to talk to you, Chris.” She started off looking at him, but again her gaze was magnetically drawn to me.

I waited for her to show her hatred. You know, to sneer maybe. To tell me casually that I was a psychopath before going back to her original conversation. She did nothing, though. She just looked at me… like I was an ordinary princess.

That was a little disarming. It meant that I wasn’t paying attention. Even as I heard someone stomp up behind me.

“Vivian—” Chris began.

Someone locked a hand on my shoulder and turned me around. Judging by the grip alone, it was Pavarn.

Great.

He smashed his fist into my face. It was far more violent than the way he punched me after I defeated him. I had no capacity to defend myself. I crumpled, my head instantly ringing.

“Stop,” Chris growled. He stood between Pavarn and me.

Pavarn just walked around him as if Chris was nothing more than a fly that had stupidly buzzed into his way.

He went for me, but Chris snapped a hand out and held Pavarn’s shoulder, stopping him in place.

There still weren’t that many people in the corridor, but every single person stopped and stared.

“Stop,” Chris said again, his voice showing no inflection. It was emotionless. There was no pleading – there was no force. Because there didn’t have to be.

My head was still ringing. Blood was now gushing out of my nose. It was hard to tell what came from the punch and what came from the damage after the fight.

I stared up at Pavarn.

“Unhand me, Eighth. This is your last warning,” Pavarn growled.

“You can warn me all you want. But you can’t stop me. You, however, will stop.” Again, there was no emotion in Chris’ voice. He might as well have been talking to a rock or some inanimate object. Something that he would have absolutely no fear of. Something that would not be able to turn around, click his fingers, and end his career in a heartbeat.

Pavarn turned, his lips curling into a dangerous sneer. “I don’t care what division you work for. You unhand me right now.”

“It is irrelevant whether you care what division I work for or not. I have been given a mission. I will complete it.” Chris didn’t once lower his tone, nor did he remove his hand.

When Pavarn tried to shrug out of Chris’ grip, Chris simply took a step closer and shored up his stance.

Pavarn looked like he was about to break. His anger was getting ready to explode.

He let out this sneering, stuttering laugh. “Do you have any idea who my brother is? Do you have any idea—”

“What kind of damage you are currently doing to your reputation?” I cut in. I could just sit here and play the damsel in distress. But that wasn’t me.

I smiled at him through my blood-covered lips. “News of your day has already spread, Prince,” I said, really putting my emphasis into that word until it shook through the room. “And news of your behavior right now will spread, too. Now, I can’t quite remember your brother – because it’s not like we ever met that much – but if there’s one thing that’s more important to him than anything else, it’s the dignity of his family. Who do you think he’s going to be more disappointed in and more likely to punish? You or the Eighth?”

The whole corridor was silent.

My observations were far more effective than a gun to Pavarn’s head. He froze. Suddenly he stopped trying to wrestle with Chris.

“I imagine by now the palace has heard of this.” My hands were still cuffed, but I brought them up and slowly trailed my fingers down my cheek. I wasn’t trying to clean the blood. I was just scratching distractedly. “You’re going to get a call about… now.” I clicked my fingers.

His head jolted in just the specific movement that told everyone he’d just received a neural call.

“Run along, young Prince. You have a lot to do in the next couple of hours. Damage control is always so time-consuming.” I smiled again.

Pavarn looked like he wanted to kill me. But he couldn’t. His face was pale, and he was clearly listening in to the call.

He turned around, swallowed, clenched his hands into bloodless fists, and strode off without another word.

That just left me on the ground, still covered in blood, but with at least a smile on my face. With a chuckle, I lifted my cuffed hands and planted my palms against my eyes. I laughed again, then dropped them.

Perhaps to the untrained it would sound arrogant. To anyone else, it would sound frustratingly amused. It was refreshing to know that the politics of the Royal family hadn’t changed any.

Chris slowly turned to me. “I had that.”

“You think I just helped you, do you?” I asked in a singsong tone. “No. I wasn’t jumping in so he wouldn’t ruin your career. I was just taking the chance to hurt him again.”

I sounded like a psychopath. Whatever.

I wanted nothing more than to see Chris’ face right now. I could tell that under the safety of that armor, his expression would be completely uncontrolled. But I wasn’t that lucky.

It took me a while to realize that while we had an audience, we had quite an intimate audience member. Vivian was standing right there. She’d seen everything. And judging by the way she looked at Chris, she knew what he would be thinking.

She was pale from shock. “Chris—”

He didn’t answer her. He leaned down, wrapped a hand around my arm, and pulled me up.

When I wobbled, he stepped a little closer.

I wasn’t doing it on purpose. Something I pointed out when he growled at me. “Buddy, I’m not trying to act the damsel here. I legitimately can’t stand.”

“I’m sure.” He looked at Vivian as he said that, but he stepped in close to me, pushed his arms under my back, and picked me up.

I tracked Vivian’s expression. I didn’t know if it was hurt. Maybe it was – but there was an overlying emotion that was a lot more powerful. She looked… pressured.

It was her turn to step in close. “Chris—”

“I have to get her to the med bay and report on this incident. I’ll see you around, Vivian.”

“Don’t rush on my account,” I said quickly, flashing him a grin, which was pretty easy considering I was right there close to his face.

“I’m not listening to you.”

“Then try listening to Vivian here. It’s clear she needs to speak to you. Maybe she has something important to say.”

Far from helping him stay, the more I spoke, the more he wanted to leave. He pushed away from Vivian without another word.

She tried to run up behind him, but he quickly reached the elevators. There were two guards there.

“I’m heading to one of the restricted levels,” he told them pointedly.

They put their hands out and told Vivian to stop. I didn’t know what she was, but if she was a doctor, she wouldn’t have the right to head to some of the command decks. Chris had promised to take me to the med bay, but obviously he just wanted to get the hell away from Vivian.

As he turned me around and walked me through the open elevators, I leaned over his shoulder and stared at Vivian.

She didn’t look at me like I was a monster. Instead, as her gaze jerked between Chris and me… she almost looked as if she needed help.

But I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t even help myself. Today might’ve been fun – but I would pay for it a thousand times over.



Chris Armstrong

Soldiers were always cut from a different cloth. There were a lot of things that could impact someone’s career. How much experience you had, where you’d grown up, how hard you’d trained. But the one thing that constrained a soldier more than anything else was their expectations.

True soldiers honestly thought they could win every single fight they went into, regardless of the odds. They shut off the part of their brain that told them something was impossible, and they just did what had to be done.

Princess Stellaxia was no soldier – but she sure knew how to fight. When I’d walked into that lecture theater to see the admiral initiate a match, I thought it would be the same bloodbath as yesterday.

Instead, it had been one of the most impressive fights I’d seen in a long time. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t been real. The only thing that counted was that she’d seemingly done the impossible.

I didn’t catch that thought as quickly as I should. I had to be forever vigilant, monitoring my mind to ensure that I didn’t soften to Stellaxia.

“Who was she, anyway?” Stellaxia asked, still in my arms. She sounded fine. I wanted to conclude she was just faking it, but I would have to ignore my armor. She was weak. Legitimately so. Pavarn hadn’t held back when he’d assaulted her twice. He’d punched her with the force to knock her out. Presumably the only reason she was still conscious was because of whatever strange ability she’d developed.

As for the damage the Game was doing to her….

It’s not damage, that last rational part of my mind pointed out. I’d gone back to the CMO last night. I’d grilled him to find out if there were any possible side effects of controlling one’s closed-loop, but he’d repeated that there wasn’t.

The blood noses Stellaxia kept getting were nothing more than an artifact. They’d pass in time. As for the pain she complained of? The CMO had looked me right in the eye and told me she’d be faking it.

I doubted that.

I don’t know why… I just did.

“Don’t ignore me. You usually tell me you’re not listening, but you always are. This time you really aren’t paying any attention. Who was Vivian back there? You were clearly once in a relationship with her. Why did you break it off? She seems nice.”

There was something about Stellaxia’s rapid-fire questions that reminded me of Vivian’s bubbly personality. And I did not like to be reminded. I hardened my jaw.

Stellaxia’s gaze was always on me. I usually felt safe under my helmet. Safe to roll my eyes, safe to express myself however I saw fit in front of whomever I saw fit. But around Stellaxia, my armor felt like nothing more than air.

“You should go back there, you know.” Her voice changed. “Vivian clearly needs to speak to you. She seemed emotional.”

“Do not use this against me, Princess.” My voice hardened.

She made a face. “Do not use what against you? What, you think I’m mean enough that I’m going to think this is a vulnerability? You think I’m canny enough that I’m gonna tell you to go get distracted so that you won’t watch me carefully? Okay, fine – say I’m that kind of person. What exactly would I get out of it? I’m trapped, Chris. There’s nowhere for me to go. My closed-loop is completely controlled, and I’m slowly being crushed under it anyway. It was fun screwing with Pavarn – don’t get me wrong – but he will always win. The next time I train, he’ll probably inadvertently kill me. So what the hell is the harm in you going and talking to Vivian? Just dump me in my room. It’s not like anyone’s going to see to this blood nose anyway.”

“I’m not listening to you,” I defaulted to saying.

She laughed. It was that same damn laugh. I wasn’t sure if it grated my nerves anymore so much as just arrested me. I stopped before we walked out of the elevator and onto her level.

I took in a calming breath.

“You don’t like my laugh, do you?” she said astutely. “Well that’s a problem – because I love my laugh. It’s the last thing about me that’s free. I got it from my father, you know? Probably not. Because you clearly know nothing about him.”

“I am well aware of your father’s exploits. Unlike you—”

“He was a good man? You can believe what you want about me – but you’re right about him. He was one of the last good Royals of the Celestian Empire. That’s why he was murdered.”

“He wasn’t murdered.”

“Like I said, you can believe whatever you want about me,” her voice hardened, “but you can’t deny the truth about him.”

It was clear that I’d just hit an emotional button. If I was in a vindictive mood, I’d keep pressing.

I walked her down the corridor that led to her room.

We reached the little recess that led to her airlock door. I paused and waited for the shield.

“Seriously though, Chris. Go to Vivian. She looks scared.”

I stiffened. “I’m not—”

“Can we please cut the bullshit? I know that you’re listening. I know that you once had feelings for that woman and you may still have them. You might’ve been distracted during that interaction, but I wasn’t. She looked scared,” Stellaxia repeated again as the shield disengaged and I stopped in front of the airlock.

I said nothing.

Stellaxia sighed. I took her into her room and put her down on her bed.

Maybe I should’ve taken the time to drop her vindictively, but I didn’t. I placed her down.

At first she was sitting, but she quickly flopped to the side. It wasn’t dramatic acting. She was having trouble holding her balance. She rubbed her head hard. Then she looked up at me out of one eye. “Go. While you’ve still got the time. I might’ve put Pavarn back in his box, but boys like that hold grudges.”

“I know how to look after myself.”

“Congratulations. Not everyone does, though,” Stellaxia said pointedly.

I stiffened again. While I’d certainly detected urgency in Vivian’s tone, she hadn’t been scared. That was just more manipulation.

I went to turn away.

“You can think what you want about me,” Stellaxia pushed herself up and propped her back against the wall behind her, “but don’t use your anger for me to blind yourself from what’s going on with other people. You’re not as bad as you seem, Chris, and you certainly are a lot better than the idiots on this hell hole. Don’t become them just to spite me.” She rolled over, crumpled herself into a ball, and became quiet.

I don’t know how many times I’d done this – stood with my back to Stellaxia as I told myself to leave. This time, it took a lot longer. I also wasn’t discreet about my emotions. I pinched the bridge of my nose through my armor, sighed, and walked out.

By the time I dragged myself into the corridor, her words had finally seeped into my brain.

There was no reason for Vivian to be scared, I told myself firmly. I tracked back to the footage of her captured by my helmet, and I saw that her eyes had certainly been wide. Her voice had trembled, too.

What could she want to tell me?

If Stellaxia were here and she were listening to my thoughts, I knew what she would say. Why question what Vivian wanted to tell me? Why not find out?

“No, you idiot,” I muttered in the privacy of my helmet, ensuring my words were not picked up and relayed to the outside world. “Do not let Stellaxia’s voice into your mind. That way trouble lies.”

I walked away. I didn’t get far. Predictably, Falas came to find me.

One look at the admiral, and I could tell that he was holding it in.

While it was customary to remove my helmet in a superior’s presence, I chose not to.

Though Falas should’ve shown discretion and not spoken to me until we were in private, as soon as he located me, he walked stiffly to my side. “That could’ve been handled differently. I expected—”

“You should’ve checked to see that you could access her full weapons inventory before you put her on display,” I fired right back.

That right there was insubordination. This wasn’t just sassing an officer. This was pointing out – in public – that all fault had been theirs.

Falas looked like I’d just punched him.

I straightened up and dropped my hands beside myself. “I did as I was told, Admiral. You told me to keep her safe.”

“I told you to keep us safe from her.”

“Need I repeat this mission to you, Admiral?” My tone was completely emotionless. I could have been speaking to a child and just repeating the facts of life.

“This is delicate—”

“Not if the Empire is on the line.” I took a step closer and ensured that my voice would not echo out. “If we really only have three months to train Pavarn, then you cannot keep treating him like royalty. Nor can you afford to stroke his ego. You find a way to train him, and you train him. The entire Empire is on the line.”

It was hard to say whether my speech would work on a man like Falas. I’d once had respect for him. I had nothing for him now. Maybe I was being unkind, and he was simply under undue pressure. Or maybe I’d never seen his true colors. I did not like what I saw. He was far too willing to pander to royalty. While I understood the need for respect and decorum around the Royal family, I also appreciated that when they became soldiers of the Empire, they were treated as such. And no single member of the Royal family was more important than the Empire as a whole.

Falas had obviously forgotten that equation.

He became red with anger, but quickly paled. Maybe he could see my point, or maybe he could finally recognize that it was completely inappropriate to have such a conversation in an open corridor. He turned without a word and stalked forward. I followed.

Sorry – my legs and body followed. My mind was back with Stellaxia. Had I left prematurely? I’d already messaged the med bay to go and check on her. Maybe I needed to go with them. They seemed worryingly willing to overlook her symptoms.

Falas soon led me to a discussion room. As soon as the door was closed, he let out a hissing sigh that sounded as if someone had just punctured his lung. “Prince Pavarn must be managed—”

“You’re absolutely right. But he can no longer be managed in the way that he has been up until this point. You cannot allow him to treat this as an egotistical exercise.”

“You are an Eighth. A solitary soldier who is not aware of how we run things—”

“If you are correct, and we are headed to war, then the rules must change. For everyone.” I should not have added that first bit about questioning whether he was correct. I should’ve simply accepted the fact. But….

I didn’t want to go there, yet I couldn’t push it away. The bit I was so unwilling to fill in was the doubts that were starting to rise in my mind like fog obscuring a world I had once thought was clear.

“Prince Pavarn is one of the most important members of the Royal family. He is not a simple soldier. He cannot be treated as such. When he leaves the Army, he will remember—”

“Don’t concern yourself with thoughts of the future. It’s not how you win a war. You must prepare yourself for what’s at hand.”

“I do not need a lecture from you.”

“And I do not need one from you. I fulfilled my mission today, Admiral. I kept Stellaxia safe.”

“Your mission,” his lips pared back in anger, “was to keep us safe from her.”

“So you would’ve preferred that I let Pavarn beat her in the lecture hall?”

“You should not have involved yourself—”

“And you should think through the consequences of his actions. He lost that match. In front of a crowd,” I added slowly. “You forced her to log out. And then he hit her. Do you think that looks good, Admiral? Do you think that reflects well on his military training? Do you think, if I hadn’t gotten involved, he would’ve suddenly started acting in a way befitting a prince of the Celestian Army? Or do you think he would’ve continued to act like an untrained, uncontrolled fool?”

I didn’t mince my words. Which was a mistake. I’d just called a member of the Royal family a fool.

But I’d made my point. The admiral paled.

“I believe that the palace has already heard of his actions. They have already contacted him. While he is one of the highest-rated players in the Empire, we cannot forget that he is not the most powerful member of the Royal family.”

“Not one of the highest-rated players,” the admiral snatched hold of that fact. “He’s the best we’ve got.”

I didn’t bother to point out the faults in that argument.

“It is of critical importance that we are on the same page, Chris.”

There was a lot I could say to that. Being on the same page did not win a war. Conformity only ever led to more conformity.

I settled for locking my hands behind my back. I could’ve just kept them by my sides, but my fingers were slowly turning into the kind of fists that would be able to punch through steel. I was never usually this irate around a commanding officer. But my commanding officers were usually a lot better than this.

“The prince is demanding an apology. You need to give him one.”

“Did you listen to what I just said?”

“Did you listen to a word I just said?” he said louder. “The entire galaxy is on the line. Prince Pavarn is the only chance we’ve got.”

“Then I suggest you stop pandering to him, Admiral, and you train him just like any other recruit.” I turned. I’d just entered this room, and it was clear that the admiral had a lot more to discuss with me. I didn’t care. I reached the door before Falas could splutter in surprise.

I paused. Yes, as an Eighth I had autonomy. But if Falas made a weighty enough complaint, I would lose my position. Without it, what would I have? Nothing. I’d had to eliminate all the distractions in my life for this job.

So I paused. I turned to look at him. “Pavarn is no soldier yet. You must ensure he is if we are to have a chance.”

“He is frustrated and nothing more. He will change when he acquires the desired level in the Game. He will rise to this responsibility.”

“Soldiers never change with more power, Admiral. They only get worse.”

“Listen to what you just said.” His voice punched down low. “I’ve been tolerant of your insubordination up until now. You’re speaking of a member of the Royal family of Celestia. Show him the respect he requires.”

“Dictate Beta 3 of the military ordinance program outlines the correct treatment of soldiers who come from the Royal family. They are to be trained in the exact same way the rest of our recruits are.”

“You and I both know that it doesn’t work like that in practice.”

I shut my mouth. Technically I could decide to quit this mission. I could state that I was no longer fit for it. It would likely have repercussions for my career later down the track, but if it meant I didn’t put myself in a position where I continued to sass superior officers, in the long run, it would be better for me.

As I paused, my frustration getting the better of me, I honestly thought about quitting. Something stopped me. It was the thought of Stellaxia, curled up on her bed, her hand pressed against her mouth as she desperately tried to keep her injuries to herself.

Was she a consummate manipulator? Yes, of course she was. Did she deserve my pity… no. But I’d been given the task of protecting her, and that was what I would do.

I had no clue if the continuity and safety of the Celestian Empire really were at stake. But something was going on. I wasn’t the kind of soldier to turn my back on that.

“If the prince requires an apology, I’ll give him one. However, from tomorrow onward, you need to stop pandering to his excesses. No more public displays. No more allowing him to get his aggression out. He must be a good player if he’s risen so far. Make him the best by pushing him further.”

I shouldn’t need to point out that I was in no position to give the admiral ultimatums. At least it was a peace offering, and I was no longer storming out.

He didn’t have any other Eighths on hand to keep Stellaxia controlled. Not that I could say I was doing a particularly good job when it came to that. The point was, if I suddenly left, he’d be scrambling, and he was clearly in no position to do that. With a deep breath, he leaned forward, crunched his hands into fists, and pressed his knuckles against the edge of the desk. It took a long time for him to look up. “Very well. But ensure your apology is sincere.”

I nodded, but under my armor, I rolled my eyes.

I could say whatever he wanted me to. But any apology I gave would be as fake as one of Stellaxia’s laughs.

“I will see you at the next training session, Admiral.” I bowed low and exited the room.

It wasn’t until I was out of there that what I’d done truly struck me. I had never been so forceful to a superior. It would go on my file. I could jeopardize my entire future for this.

I didn’t know where to go next. I briefly thought of heading back to Stellaxia’s room, but I knew that was a risk. The more time I spent with her, the more my attitude toward her softened, no matter how much I kept trying to harden it.

I’d been given my own quarters. I hadn’t spent much time in them yet. I hadn’t bothered to sleep much. When Stellaxia was on downtime between training sessions, it was a good opportunity to check out Alpha-1. I did that now. I knew if I went back to my room and tried to squeeze in a few hours of rest, I would ruminate instead.

I found myself heading to one of the viewing platforms. It was a large area with expansive windows to one side. Recruits and couples sat around, chatting amongst one another. This morning, only about 50 percent of recruits had recognized what I was. Now everyone I passed glanced at my armor and whispered behind their hands.

I wasn’t just an Eighth anymore. I was an Eighth who’d gotten in Pavarn’s way twice.

Speaking of Prince Pavarn. I should probably head to him right now and apologize. The admiral would check up on me. The longer I left it, the more suspicious I would become in his eyes.

Instead, I stopped in front of one of the massive windows. Clutching my hands behind my back, I inclined my head up. I stared at the starry expanse of space beyond. Letting my gaze dart between the constellations and nebulae, I soon became lost in my thoughts. It didn’t last. About five minutes later, I detected soft footfall behind me. Judging by its wary pace, it could only be one person.

I shifted my gaze to the side and located a reflective patch of the window. Sure enough, behind me was Vivian.

Her expression was all twisted. It looked as if someone had put her face in one of those old Earth torture devices and tried to break it up. In all my years of knowing her, I’d never seen her like this.

I turned.

Her lips twitched, and she tried to hide her emotion. She looked down at her feet briefly. Then her gaze darted up to me. “We need to talk.” Her voice was low.

There were a lot of recruits around us. A few of them stopped speaking to glance her way.

Vivian was good at what she did. She was a great doctor. But on Alpha-1, she would be an unknown entity to these recruits. So why were they paying her so much attention?

It was clear she didn’t want to speak much in front of them. So if I didn’t want this conversation to continue, all I had to do was remain exactly where I was standing.

… I thought of that briefly until Stellaxia’s point rose in my mind. Not everyone could look after themselves.

Vivian paid utmost attention to the people around her. Her eyes were wide as they darted from left to right. She stared at no one obviously, though, and she didn’t make any large movements of her head. She looked like prey that was being tracked by predators. I’d seen that flighty look in people’s eyes enough to be able to track it now.

It finally got to me.

I nodded once then inclined my head forward.

We started to walk away.

I expected her to launch into a conversation, but she didn’t – not until we were completely away from the recruits.

Now I was paying attention to her, I fully appreciated that she was the tensest I’d ever seen her.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“My quarters will be fine,” she whispered.

For all I knew, as soon as I walked into her quarters, she might berate me for breaking up with her with no explanation. I doubted that. Though I didn’t want to admit this, Stellaxia was right.

Rather than take me straight to one of the primary elevators, Vivian took me on a circuitous route until we reached one of the far away lifts that no one else was using.

It took a full 15 minutes to get to her room, despite the fact we could’ve gotten there in under two.

The whole while, she didn’t speak, and I didn’t force her to.

As soon as the doors to her room closed, however, she turned, and her expression fractured like someone had taken a bat to it.

It was such an intense reaction, I took a small step up to her. “What is it?”

She pushed a pressured hand against her forehead, dug her fingers against her hairline, turned, and let out a harsh breath. “Don’t be like that, Chris.”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t be concerned for me like that. It makes it worse. It makes me miss you.”

Before my heart could sink and I could conclude she’d just wanted to get me alone after all, she turned back to me, and she took a deep breath. Her expression and countenance changed. “There’s something you need to know.”

My stomach kicked. “What?”

She locked her arms around her middle and dug her fingers against her elbows. She closed her eyes slightly. “This whole situation is not what you think. There’s… a plot going on.”

The words a plot going on echoed in my mind, but I couldn’t conceive of what she was talking about.

When I didn’t react strongly to her revelation, she pulled her lips hard over her teeth and let another hissing breath through them. “You know what my job on Alpha-1 is, right?”

“Medical doctor.”

She laughed. “It was. To begin with. Just scrapes and bumps and the occasional accident. Nothing too big. Until they started their experiments on the closed-loop control system.” She started to pace. Every movement was rigid with fear. She would swing her gaze wildly between me, the door, and the large window behind her small bed. It was as if she expected someone to rush in and attack her at any moment.

I was still standing where I’d stopped. My body was mostly frozen, but my left hand was partially raised toward her, my fingers open stiffly.

“At first, it seemed like a good idea. I don’t want to admit this,” she rubbed at her head, her long nails leaving indents and red lines down her temples, “but we actually don’t know that much about closed-loop technology.”

“That’s impossible. The Celestian Empire was the primary force behind its creation.”

She laughed hard, her voice so twisted, it sounded as if there was a noose around her throat. “You would think that, right? But you’d be wrong. The Game’s AI was programmed from the beginning to control itself. It was through its own evolution,” she pressed her fingers against her eyes hard, “that the Game was meant to remain fun.”

“Fun?” I repeated that word, my voice empty.

“I really don’t need one of your lectures about how unnecessary the Game is right now, Chris. Just listen.”

So I listened.

She took another deep, shaking breath. “While we understand technically how closed-loop implants operate, a lot of their finer processes are now beyond us.”

“How?”

She made direct eye contact with me. “Because the AI keeps them updated.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

“All firmware updates for the past 20 years have been programmed and deployed by the AI. There has been little external oversight.”

I’d spent a long time trying to come to terms with the Game. Once upon a time, I’d held conspiracy theories that had supported fringe views exactly like the one she had just expressed.

All that hard work suddenly came crashing down. I took another jerked step up to her, my whole body tense. “Are you telling me that no one is essentially in control of the Game anymore?” Technically, it was just a repetition of what Falas had already told me. But the way Vivian was delivering it was a hell of a lot more visceral. Maybe it was because I knew her – maybe it was because I believed her. Or maybe it was because I was finally gathering enough evidence that I could not ignore.

“No – we’re no longer in control of the Game. It’s in control of itself.”

I let that conclusion strike me. A hundred times, a thousand times, then more. It felt like I’d just voluntarily offered myself up to be beaten for eternity.

Back during the Game’s inception there had been justified resistance. A lot of people – just like me – hadn’t seen the point of it. For others, they thought it would lead to a dangerously distracted galaxy. They’d assumed that people would become far more interested in their augmented reality than they would the actual world around them.

All that had happened, but no one cared anymore.

Resistance to the Game was now essentially nonexistent. It was so integrated into the modern galaxy that if you tried to remove it, you’d be ripping off our limbs.

“That’s why the Army secretly started its closed-loop program – to try to understand what we’d lost control of. I was one of the doctors who… dealt with the side effects.”

All she had to do was say the words side effects, and my mind carved away all distractions until it was just me and what she was revealing.

“What are they?” I asked through a husky voice.

She laughed. “Do you want me to go from the most serious to the least serious?”

“Just tell me what can happen.”

“In about 60 percent of cases – death.”

I’d been prepared for a small number. 60 percent was no small number. I now took another step up to her, despite the fact I was already close. Her gaze flashed, both with tenderness and alarm at what she was discussing. “Didn’t they tell you that?”

“They told me there were no side effects.”

She looked down at her feet then up at me slowly. “Why do you care, anyway? She’s a criminal. One of the worst the Empire has ever seen.”

For some reason, Vivian didn’t use Stellaxia’s name.

I rolled my tongue around my teeth. It was not a calm move. “I was given a mission—”

“So that’s it, is it?”

That question came out of nowhere. Vivian was almost acting as if she was jealous of Stellaxia. What the hell was there to be jealous of?

“I have no idea what you’re—”

“Talking about? I wouldn’t have picked you for someone who’d be able to break out of the mold and think for themselves.”

“What exactly is that meant to mean?”

“That we’re fed a lot of lies in this Empire, Chris. It usually takes someone with great mental control to be able to see through them.”

While Vivian had just revealed a lot of information to me, I hadn’t got the impression it was treasonous. One look in her eyes now, however, and it was clear she wasn’t trying to save the Empire here. She was trying to break it.

She reacted to my suddenly penetrating gaze, and she turned. She stopped in front of her window. She clasped her hands tensely behind her back. She took a breath that pushed her shoulders out. “You’re going to rat on me, aren’t you? I’m not sure I care anymore. I’m already in a precarious position. Too many people know that I don’t agree with what’s going on. Do me a favor, though.” She turned to me.

She had this wistful look I once adored so much. When Vivian looked at me, sometimes I was convinced she could see a better man than the one I looked at in the mirror every day.

“Promise me something, Chris,” she repeated.

“What?”

“When they kill me, don’t let them take any revenge on my family.”

Her statement left me floored. I stared at her.

She chuckled and turned back to the view. “You know, the least you could do is take your helmet off. It’s not fair. You get to see me breaking down, but all I see is that stiff wall of emotionless strength.” She laughed again. “Which is precisely what you’d be showing if your helmet was off anyway. You never were one to wear your heart on your sleeve.”

“No one is going to kill you, Vivian.”

“Are you sure? When they find out what I’ve done, they’ll try.”

I froze – all because of three little words. What I’ve done.

I took a slow step toward her. “Why? What have you done?”

“Bought all the poor bastards here a chance, Chris.”

“What did you do, Vivian?”

“Have you ever thought about what the Game really is?”

“It’s a distraction.”

“It’s a tool of war. Regardless of the high death count and the other innumerable side effects, at any point whenever the Celestian Army wants to, they can deploy their entire citizenry as an armed force.”

“… What?”

“Think through this technology. As soon as you can control someone’s closed-loop, you can use them however you want to. And every single person in the Celestian Empire has a closed-loop. Even you do.”

“I don’t—”

“Play the Game? Irrelevant. They could control your closed-loop at any moment to force you to play it.”

“Vivian, this makes no sense—”

She laughed. She forced her tense palm against her forehead, and again she let her nails trail down the side of her face. It was an even more vicious move this time. It looked as if she wanted to scrape her skin from her skull. “Are you sure? Celestia has always been an empire of war. We created the Game. But we never play around. Everything we do and have ever done has always been toward one purpose – domination.”

One word echoed in my mind. Domination.

I turned toward the window. And that’s when I saw something flitting toward the ship.



Stellaxia

I woke – at least resurfaced – to a beep echoing through my room.

“What is it now, Chris?” I pushed up. But it wasn’t Chris who entered. It was some faceless guard in thick armor. He jammed his thumb in the direction of the door.

I was in a petulant mood. I turned and rolled back toward the wall, intending to get some more shut-eye. I needed it. I now had a ringing headache. It wasn’t about to get any better.

“Suit yourself, then,” the guy growled.

I felt the Game initiate. This time as that buzz raced down my brainstem and energy shot through me, I felt like I was swallowing a volcano.

Instantly, my nose started to bleed. There was nothing I could do to stop myself from pushing up. I got out of bed, turned, and walked through the door dutifully by the guard’s side. We were met by a contingent of other guards.

They cuffed me, and I was taken to the elevators.

This time I wasn’t paraded in front of recruits. I imagined I would be kept the hell away from them from now on. Who knew what kind of lies Falas was now spinning to explain the embarrassment of Pavarn losing to a woman with a level-one sword?

We took the elevators down to the training level. We stopped in front of that same massive airlock door.

“Where’s Chris?” I asked.

No one bothered to answer me.

I hadn’t thought it through before, but it was usually Chris who escorted me to training. Now he wasn’t in sight. Even as the doors opened and I saw Falas, a couple of scientists, and Pavarn, Chris still was nowhere to be seen.

My gut sank. Maybe they’d really gotten rid of him or he’d wised up and left. That would leave me alone.

I was forced to walk in. My nose was practically gushing now. I was surprised when Falas acknowledged it. He gestured at it and muttered something to the scientist beside him.

The guy walked over and injected something in my neck. My nose stopped gushing blood, but this ringing picked up in my ears instead. I winced. “I think your drug isn’t working, boys. You just shifted the problem.”

“Shut up,” the guy spat at me.

“Very polite,” I laughed back in his face. Then I coughed. My body jolted forward, and I heaved so badly, I felt like I was about to lose my guts out of my mouth.

Falas continued to mutter something to the scientists beside him. Though I was woozy, I managed to pick up one snippet of a sentence. “We can’t afford to lose her.”

No, they couldn’t. There was a really fine line between punishing me by ignoring my symptoms, and letting this farce go too far.

“Is it meant to sound like a cruiser’s taking off in my ears?” I asked the guy in front of me pointedly. When he looked as if he was going to dismiss me, I switched my gaze to Falas. “I kind of feel like I’m about to black out. I’m assuming you don’t want me to die here today. It would look mighty bad for this already farcical operation if I checked out this early.”

He fobbed a dismissive hand at me. I felt a medical scanner being waved in front of me this time.

The next thing I knew, the control of my closed-loop lessened. It wasn’t enough that I could initiate my own Game. But it no longer felt like the weight of the world was crushing my mind.

Thus far Pavarn hadn’t said anything. He’d devoted himself to glaring at me instead. I didn’t need to have the past I did to understand what that particular stare meant. If he were alone with me right now, he’d take the opportunity to wrap his hands around my throat and end this.

I didn’t flinch. Nor did I once jerk my gaze off him. Slowly, however, I smiled. It had the desired effect on him.

“Is she fit to start training?” Falas asked impatiently.

“Do you want me to answer that?” I asked facetiously.

He glowered at me then switched his gaze to the head scientist. The guy didn’t even bother making eye contact. He stared at the device in his hands. He soon shrugged. “Seems so.”

I laughed. “Tell me, which one of you is going to get in trouble the most if I die? I imagine the president won’t be happy. There’s a reason he kept me alive all these years, you know. Me,” I sneered, because it wasn’t like I could slap a hand on my chest or tap my head, “I’m valuable, see.”

“As target practice,” Pavarn roared from behind me. He’d already initiated his own game.

My cuffs fell off, and I was drawn into the Game.

Judging by the pulsing energy that shifted through the room in waves, Pavarn was holding a modified Vibra blade. It was essentially this stick of metal that could become solid or molten in the flick of a switch – or, when the Game was concerned, in a single thought. The blade also vibrated so powerfully that it could cut through most metal. As it was slashed across my back, I shouldn’t have to tell you how painful it was.

It was as if someone had simultaneously cut me, burnt me, poured molten metal into me, and yet whacked me a thousand times with a stick.

I crumpled.

Pavarn took a step back, let out a boisterous scream of joy, shifted around on the spot, then selected another weapon. I could see it out of the corner of my eye. It was the same gun he’d inadvisably used on me during the lecture.

I waited until I was instructed to get up. I stood and turned.

Pavarn got ready to shoot me.

“You know, Admiral, I thought you learned your lesson yesterday. This isn’t training. This isn’t even a blood sport,” I spat. “This is a complete farce. Is our dear president keeping track of this? I’m sure he is. I am too valuable to ignore.”

“Shut up,” Pavarn snarled.

He shot me. Point-blank with a weapon like that, it felt like hell had just been injected into my sternum. It ripped me apart – at least it felt like it did. I fell over.

We entered training mode again. No matter how many times he attacked me, there would be no end to this until he stopped it.

I was instructed to get back up again. The admiral cleared his throat. He was clearly about to tell Pavarn to calm down so they could iron out those few last kinks in the program and finally start training him for real.

Pavarn was uncontrollable. He selected another weapon. This time it was a long whip. He cracked it once beside him, then snapped it right in my face. It felt like a searing iron being sliced down from the top of my neck, across my chest, then over my belly. If it had been a real attack, I’d be dead – eviscerated for all to see.

“Tell me, Admiral,” I said in a voice that now fluctuated with pain as that dense ringing pressure became 10 times as worse, “who are you more afraid of ultimately? This buffoon of a prince – or the president? If I die, trust me, you won’t be that far behind.”

For the first time, my comments actually affected Falas. Maybe he’d never made that particular distinction before. But in the hierarchy of things to be freaked out about, the idiotic Prince Pavarn was not up there. The president, on the other hand, could pull strings and ensure Falas was fired the very next day. Then he could pull a different set of strings and ensure that Falas died the very next day after that.

“Shut up, Princess,” Pavarn growled.

He went to attack me again, but the last thing I thought would happen occurred. Falas got in his way. He stood between Pavarn and me, and though it looked as if he had just pushed himself into the path of a raging bull, he didn’t back away, even when Pavarn snarled in his face. “What are you doing, Admiral?” he asked in a trying tone. “The training can start in a bit. I have a bone to pick with dear Princess Stellaxia. She deliberately embarrassed me the other day. It’s time for a little natural justice.”

“My liege, though I understand your feelings, we must first assess the problem in the program. This is also… not real training.”

Wow, Falas had finally toughened up and started to do his job.

Too late.

Pavarn just locked a hand on Falas’ shoulder and shoved him out of the way. He selected a new weapon. This time it was a sword. It wasn’t one I’d ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t a simple level I weapon. It didn’t… didn’t appear to be quite real. It was as if it was half insubstantial.

Pavarn caught me looking at it.

The smile that cracked across his stiff white lips reminded me of the earth starting to fall out from underneath my feet. “What, never seen something like this? It’s new. Only developed several months ago. Only the highest-rated players have had an opportunity to get it yet.” He paused, brought it up, and stared from the hilt down to the blade. When his eyes locked on the tip of the blade, he drew it up and pointed it at me. “Apparently, it mimics some banned weapon from the Astral Empire. Being stabbed with this – according to what I’ve read, at least – feels like having molten lava poured down your throat. Sounds painful, ha? No one’s ever had a chance to use one against me. And they never will. But I sure would like to find out if the rumors are real.”

No more talk – he thrust toward me.

I tried so hard not to show fear. I drew on every single awful lesson I’d ever learned as a princess. But it wasn’t enough. This time, I cowered away from him.

He had a chance to see that – to note that he’d finally gotten through to me – when all holy hell broke loose. The floor of the training facility jolted as if something had just crashed into it, and a split second later, a red alert klaxon blared through the room.

“What the hell was that?” Falas took a jolting step toward the door.

I turned and stared at it just as another echoing pound blasted through the ship. I was already down on my knees. That was good, because the shaking was so bad, it would’ve caused me to fall flat on my face.

I watched as the admiral received a call. It was a neural feed, so I couldn’t hear what was being said, but based on how pale he became, it wasn’t good news.

“The station is under attack by Astral pirates. Move.” He nodded at the scientists and guards, and as one, they all left.

“What should we do with her?” one of the guards asked.

“Leave her in here with me. I’ll keep her under control,” Pavarn offered.

No one argued with him. They left.

And then I was alone – alone with a man who didn’t just want to kill me, but one who would.



Chris Armstrong

A split second after I saw that shape head toward the station, something smashed into it. It was no light hit. I was forced to the side, and it was only when my armor made a magnetic lock with the floor that I managed to stop myself from tumbling head over heels. Vivian wasn’t that lucky. She fell toward her bedside table. Before she could strike it on the side of her head, I kicked the table out of the way, moved in close, and grabbed her.

I held her tightly as I stared in open-eyed horror. Several ships appeared out of jump loops at the side of Alpha-1. It took precisely no time at all for me to discern who they were.

“Astral pirates,” I stammered breathlessly.

Vivian wrestled her way out of my grip. She pressed close to the window. She stared, not in fear, but in wide-eyed wonder at the pirates.

“They’re actually here.”

“What? Why aren’t you shocked? Vivian, what have you done?”

“I know you don’t understand. But just try to hold on. I did this for the Empire. For what’s left of it,” she stammered.

“Vivian—”

Something slammed into the side of the station. The red alert klaxon was already blaring. It became twice as loud. A computer-synthesized voice kicked into gear. “Warning. The station is under attack. Repeat, the station is under attack. This is not a drill. All personnel are to report to their stations. Countermeasures are being initiated. If the enemy manages to transport aboard, all personnel are authorized to engage.”

I took one step back from the window. I continued to stare out in surprise. Not only was Alpha-1 one of the most populous stations in the Empire, it was nowhere near the border. I’d seen and dealt personally with Astral pirates toward the Badlands, but they were a long way from here.

This would not be a casual attack. They would be after something.

Vivian stood right up close against the window. She pressed a sweaty hand against it. She continued to take in rocking breaths that saw her chest quake in and out.

“You stay here, Vivian. If you’ve done something—” I began to back off toward the door.

She turned to me. “You have no idea what’s on the line, Chris. It’s not just our future – it’s everyone’s. If you knew what I knew, you would have done the same.” The way she looked at me as she said that was completely unflinching. She wasn’t making this up. She obviously believed that, in her position, I would’ve done the same.

She did not know me. If Vivian had something to do with the fact these pirates were here, then—

I heard screaming out in the corridor. It had to be loud to make it in through the sound buffering qualities of the thick metal.

I wasted no time as my training kicked into gear. I opened the door.

I had one last chance to turn and look at her. I threw myself out. As I did, I made a remote link with the door. I used my override access codes to lock her in.

I could wait to find out what she’d done once this was all over.

As soon as I hit the corridor, I hit chaos.

I’d assumed we’d still have a while before the pirates managed to breach the station’s shield and transport aboard – but I was wrong. There were already five armor-clad pirates fighting recruits in front of me, and as I saw several bright flashes, 10 more transported in.

I reached for my gun and started firing.

Several of the recruits went down. Though I couldn’t track the fight perfectly, as I was distracted with keeping myself alive, they didn’t appear to have fatal injuries.

That would just be happenstance. I knew how these pirates worked. When they attacked, they didn’t leave anyone alive to come after them.

A cadet roared past me. He didn’t even have a weapon. He went to shoulder a pirate out of the way.

The guy had nonstandard armor. It was the kind that could become electrified in the blink of an eye. And when it did, it would singe that recruit to a crisp.

I moved. I reached the recruit, wrapped an arm around the guy’s middle, and threw him at the wall. It wasn’t hard enough that I knocked him out. He slumped down as I reached the pirate.

The guy tried to fire on me, but I was too quick. I got to the wall, launched myself up it, and flipped over his head. I landed on the other side of him, dropped down quickly to my knees, and swept my foot to the side. I managed to connect with his armor just as it became electrified.

If I were a standard guard, then the amount of energy flowing through the guy’s plating would’ve given me pause for thought – and the guy an opportunity to capitalize on that pause. But my armor was the best the Empire could produce. As waves of energy discharged into it, they were rebuffed.

My blow connected with the guy’s knee in a solid, resounding move. He fell to the side. I shoved up, twisted around him, and locked a hand on his throat. It wasn’t as if I could rip through his plating, get to his neck, and strangle him. I didn’t need to. My armor had fancy countermeasures of its own.

When he’d attacked me with that energy blast, my computer had managed to scan his armor. I knew precisely what system produced those blasts. And I now knew exactly how to neutralize it.

I let my hand slipped down to the top of the guy’s sternum. Right underneath it was a node, and below that, an energy crystal that was producing those attacks. My armor had the capacity to create shields. And if you could create them, you could also disrupt them if you knew their modulation.

My armor let out a blast just as the guy tried to use another shot of electricity to push me off. It was just at the wrong time – for him, at least. I interfered with the field, and sent feedback smashing into him.

He jolted to the side as his armor was fried by its own attack.

“Not done yet,” I commented as I launched up, elbowed him in the shoulder, and shoved him down.

I’d spent all my time dealing with one assailant. This guy had the most sophisticated armor in the corridor. It was also an opportunity for me to learn exactly what they’d brought on board.

There were many different factions among the Astral pirates. I had no clue which one I was dealing with.

I launched to the side, rolled on top of the guy I’d disabled, and went to rip his helmet off. His buddies finally intervened. The recruits had been doing a good job of keeping them off my tail, but they would not be silenced anymore. Two of them reached me. They wrapped their hands around my throat and yanked me backward. I used a burst of energy from my armor to lock my feet against the floor. Then I wrenched my shoulders forward.

One of the pirates was stronger than the other guy. The guy in the cheapest armor couldn’t withstand my move. I threw him over my shoulder. At the same time, I wrenched my gun out. I fired on him once. Just one deadly accurate, powerful blast to his armor’s chest unit. The shot didn’t rip right through, but it did send this charging energy crackling everywhere. The guy jolted uncontrollably then became still.

Thus far the pirates hadn’t said a word. Now the guy I had on the ground screamed. I didn’t recognize the word exactly, but I was certain it was some kind of insult.

He reached around and pulled something out of his back holster. I’d already scanned his holster. There were two whips and some modified gun the likes of which I’d never seen. He yanked the gun up and fired on me.

My armor was theoretically ready for anything, but as that bolt slammed into my chest, the wind was cut out of my sails. I fell to the side, a few jolts passing through my body. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that one of the pirates lurched toward me. The guy who was clearly in charge grabbed his arm, pulled him back, and shook his head once. Then he pointed forward and away.

I really doubted the leader didn’t want me dead. He was just smart enough to know that while I was down for now, I was not down for good.

By the time the energy discharges abated, they were already out of sight. The recruit I’d saved helped me up. “You okay, sir?”

“Yes, I am. Head to the armory. You can’t fight them with your bare fists.”

I pushed into a run. The first few steps were unsteady as I fought against the effects of whatever the hell that gun was, but the more I moved, the easier it became.

I quickly came across more skirmishes. This was just a residential area. There was no important tech here, and there sure as hell weren’t any important targets.

This had to be a distraction.

A distraction from what?

There were a lot of things on Alpha-1 that a group of enterprising pirates could be after. From some of the greatest prototype technology the Celestian Empire was working on, to the command secrets kept in the station’s data banks.

But only one thing struck me. Because there was only one thing I was ultimately here to do.

Her name echoed on my lips as I ran forward, ignored the fights, and pushed away every instinct telling me to stop and help.

I was here to do one thing, and an Eighth always completed their mission, no matter what.



Stellaxia

Pavarn picked me up by the throat. He looked into my eyes, and I was forced to look into his.

I was way beyond not showing my fear now. I trembled. He’d already thrown me across the room several times. There was a deep gash in my head. I couldn’t describe how much pain I was in. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying – it was that I was still being controlled by the Game. And the longer I was controlled, the more damage it did to me. I honestly felt as if this would be the end.

He said something, but my ears had already filled with this dense ringing.

He threw me to the ground again.

I just lay there. I thought I heard a few of Pavarn’s screams blasting through my ringing. He kept repeating that I shouldn’t have done that to him, that I had no right to mess with his reputation.

He reached me again. He selected some random weapon and used it on me. I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just… I didn’t think I was here anymore. I honestly thought I was floating in freefall now. I was far away from my body, and I was getting further.

Pavarn was using every single trick in the Game he knew to defeat me. I had no idea how many weapons he had, but if he was anything like me, he would have thousands. He would use every single one of them on me.

So I just shut down further.

I went to that space in my head. To be honest, despite my bravado, I’d been cowering here for three years.

I might’ve acted like prison hadn’t affected me, but it had. It had stolen away the last of my hope. Now as I shuddered at the edges of my mind, I thought of my father. As my head filled with even more ringing, I thought I could even see him. Here I was, cradled in his lap, his hand on my head.

He was cooing in my ear, telling me it would all be over soon.

I smiled and reached a hand up to him.

But then I was snapped right back to reality when Pavarn used the whip on that very same hand. It looped around my wrist, feeling like a line of burning fire.

He dragged me forward. “Why did you challenge me? Why did you think you had the right to embarrass me? Why did you do it, Stellaxia?”

“What happened to you, Pavarn?” I knew this was where I had to insult him. I didn’t care anymore. This was it. Something was happening in my brain. It was like I could feel my head being torn in two.

“Shut up,” he screamed. “I’m the one speaking.”

“What happened to you, Pavarn? I only met you several times. You seemed so nice. Did they change your mind when they changed your body? What did you let the palace make you into?”

“Shut up,” he screamed.

“It’s the Game, isn’t it? It did this to you. You should try to fight it while you can.”

“Shut up,” he screamed.

I was only conscious enough to be able to see a few meters in front of me. He rushed in. I saw his face. There was anger there – of course there was. But there was fear. He probably didn’t appreciate that.

I closed my eyes. “Reject the Game before it’s too late, Pavarn. Stop playing it while you still have a little control of yourself.”

“I am in control,” he blared. He screamed so loudly, he could’ve brought the ceiling down.

I honestly thought I heard something snapping in his head as he did. I warily, blearily opened one eye. I stared at him as he shot toward me. It was either my broken imagination as my mind and body shut down, or the lines of light around him changed. When a player was actively involved in the Game, they were always delineated by blue light. Now his were black.

He reached me. He wrapped a hand around my throat.

I closed my eyes and smiled. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

I waited.

But he did not throttle me. Something rammed into him and pushed him off.

I struck the floor. I opened an eye. And there I saw him. Chris Armstrong.

Though I could barely see, I could recognize him. You could give me a lobotomy, and I’d still recognize him.

Pavarn jerked away from Chris. “What are you doing?” he roared.

Chris rose to his feet slowly.

Pavarn stood. He looked… completely broken. His eyes were open, his cheeks were all strained, and he shook.

He went to jerk around Chris to get to me, but Chris didn’t just grab him by the shoulder. Chris rocked forward, squeezed a hand into a fist, and smashed it into Pavarn’s gut.

Chris was in armor. Technically, Pavarn kind of was, too. He’d utilized some of the higher-level tech you got in the Game to bolster himself. But it was just in the Game. And Chris had fortunately punched him in the real world.

Pavarn’s eyes had a chance to boggle open wide, then he spluttered as he fell to his knees. “What the hell are you doing?”

Chris stood above Pavarn for several seconds, not saying a word. Then he turned neatly on his foot. He got down and checked me. I knew his armor would’ve already scanned me, but for whatever reason, Chris locked a hand on my face. His thumb pressed gently into my blood-splattered cheek.

“You took your time,” I spluttered, coughing up more blood.

He leaned down and picked me up.

“This is starting to become a habit of ours,” I tried for a joke, but it was the wrong thing to do. I wheezed and coughed up yet more blood.

Pavarn was now on his knees. “I’ll make you pay for this, Eighth,” he all but screamed. “I don’t care what division you belong to. I will make you pay. You’ll be executed for this. You have no right to strike a superior.”

“You are a recruit. I am your superior,” Chris said in a dead even tone as he carried me toward the door.

“I’m Royal,” Pavarn spat. “You’re nothing more than human muck. I don’t know how they made you an Eighth, but it was an oversight that will never happen again. I will petition for your kind to be pulled from the Army as a whole. I will make you pay on every damn level.”

Chris stopped. I didn’t want to think that Pavarn’s threats were getting to him, but maybe they were.

Chris managed to secure his arm underneath my form, holding me against his chest as he freed up his left hand. He grabbed his gun. Without turning around, he flicked the setting to stun.

He shot Pavarn.

There was a thump, then nothing more.

Though all I wanted to do was black out, I stared up into Chris’ face. He had armor, and I had no idea what his expression was, but he would know exactly what mine was.

I got by in life on my own. It hadn’t always been a choice. It had simply been a survival mechanism.

For those brief moments as I stared at Chris, hope and thanks welling within me, I got to understand what it felt like to have someone by my side.

He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he quickly turned his head up and started to ignore me.

I managed the lightest chuckle, but then groaned as a wave of pain slammed down my stomach.

“Don’t move. He critically injured you. I will take you to the med bay.”

I held onto the fact that he said Pavarn had critically injured me. If it were anyone else, they would’ve either brushed off my severe injuries, or they would’ve used the far more neutral statement that I was injured. Hell, if it was Falas, maybe he’d say that I’d injured myself.

I had a second to stare up at Chris, my heart doing things it hadn’t done in a long time, when the door opened.

Chris hadn’t opened it.

I used the little strength I had to turn around.

And then I saw the sight of men in armor. There was a problem, though, because it wasn’t Celestian armor.

“Pirates?” I spluttered.

Chris wasted no time. He bolted to the side, me still in his arms. He turned quickly, using the bulk of his back to protect me. The gunfire started, a few shots slicing into his shoulders. But it quickly stopped.

Chris needed to put me down to concentrate on the fight. I grabbed his arm, trying to convey this without words. He leaned into my move. At the same time, he turned, somehow managed to roll with me in his arms, and jolted up, further away from the pirates.

There were at least 20 in the room now.

There was one at the front. He was in slightly tarnished armor. He brought a hand up in a stopping motion. The pirates behind him still had their guns held high, but they didn’t continue to fire. He pointed at Chris, then at me, then turned his finger down.

“No chance,” Chris said. He wasn’t using his armor to modulate his tone. Or maybe he was, but I could hear right through it to the trembling voice beneath.

The pirate repeated the move, pointing at me, then pointing down.

The pirate leader chuckled. Then he did something I hadn’t been expecting. He released his helmet. He wasn’t giving Chris a fantastic opportunity to shoot him in the head. A very sophisticated force field immediately jolted into place around his face, protecting it.

The guy was handsome in a roguish way. He had a flop of black hair with a single silver streak that ran down the middle. It was currently sweaty and stuck to his face, but that did nothing to detract from his overall appeal. Once upon a time, I hadn’t gone for the bad-boy types. Then I’d been stuck in prison, and that’s all I’d been surrounded by.

“Put her down,” the pirate repeated.

“No chance,” Chris snarled.

“You’re that soldier from before.” The pirate yanked up a hand and tapped his chest unit. “I didn’t think there was anyone on board who’d be able to get past my attack. You’re an Eighth, aren’t you?”

“I will give you one chance. Surrender.”

The pirate laughed. “Look around.” He gestured to the men around him. “Would you surrender in my position? Because I would surrender in yours.” He still had his gun, but he didn’t lift it up and point it at Chris. Yet. The guy’s fingers tensed around it, demonstrating that, at any moment, he could fire.

But he didn’t. Why?

Because he was after me. That fact finally struck me. It was all in the way he darted his gaze down and stared at me. I’d seen that kind of look before. It was the look of a man who thought I could do something for him.

“Put her down. I’ll do you a deal. I’ll stun you rather than killing you.” The leader gestured to Chris.

“There will be no more deals from this point on.”

“Fine. This is 20 against one, though. You really like those odds?”

“I never think of odds. I only ever think of my mission.”

“And what exactly is that?” The pirate shoved his helmet back on his head.

“To protect Princess Stellaxia, no matter what it takes.”

I tore my gaze off that pirate and stared at Chris. I didn’t care about his armor anymore. I told myself I knew what his expression would be.

Since my father’s death, no one had protected me. I’d only protected myself. If I were in my rational mind, I would point out that Chris wasn’t really protecting me, either. He was doing his job by keeping me contained. Right now that didn’t matter. I stared at him. I got the impression he stared back at me. But then he thrust to the side, because the shooting began.



Chris Armstrong

She stared at me. There was no filter on her expression. The usual control that was present whenever Stellaxia did or said anything was gone. It was like I could see down to the depths of her soul. And from those very same depths, she was endlessly thankful.

I kept telling myself not to get close to Stellaxia – that that way danger lay.

It was too late.

The pirate leader yanked up his gun and pointed it at me, but he didn’t shoot.

There was a very good reason for that. If Stellaxia was his target, he obviously didn’t want to harm her. The weapon he had seemed to interfere with my armor. He couldn’t run the risk of discharges of energy leaping into Stellaxia’s undefended form.

So I just held her tighter again.

She looked at me once more.

There seemed to be a lot going on in her head. Or maybe she was just a few seconds from blacking out. Though now wasn’t the time, my obsessive gaze noted the details of her bruised throat, bloodied cheeks, and broken ribs.

Pavarn had done that.

And no one had stopped him.

I backed off, Stellaxia finally tearing her gaze off me and staring at the pirates. “Why are you here? What do you want with me?”

Somewhere at the back of my head, that part of me that was still suspicious had pointed out that Stellaxia could have planned all of this. Maybe the pirates were here to break her free. But that thought couldn’t penetrate far. She would’ve had no capacity to contact them. While the maximum-security facility she had been in had not emphasized security between the prisoners, it sure as hell had ensured there was no undue outside contact.

Plus, I already had a culprit. Even if Vivian hadn’t contacted the pirates directly, she’d known they were coming.

“I’m going to give you one last chance to put her down, buddy.” The leader kept his gun raised.

“Why the hell do you want me?” Stellaxia snapped once more. She shouldn’t be speaking. Every second breath, she wheezed.

“Forgive me, Princess, but by the looks of you, you’ll be better off with us than him.”

“He didn’t do this. Now answer the question. Why do you want me?”

The pirate leader actually bowed slightly. The Astral Empire no longer had an imperial family. But when they had had one centuries in the past, that right there was the bow they’d always used. They had never been as deferential to royalty as the Celestian Empire. A fact that had always irked Celestian citizens.

“I’m here for you, Princess, to save you from this hell, and in doing so, I will give the galaxy a chance.” He bowed again.

“I don’t know you—” Stellaxia began.

“I assure you, you don’t have to for me to save you. Now, if you don’t put her down,” the guy switched his attention to me, “we’ll have to put you down instead.”

“Try your best.” I kept backing off.

There was nowhere to go. There was only one entry and exit out of this room. Though I could try to make my own and shoot a path out of here, that would take time I didn’t have. The second I turned my back on these guys was the second they shot that very same back down.

“Put me down, Chris,” Stellaxia whispered quietly. “You can’t fight with me in your arms.”

“Try me,” I said defiantly.

I went to pin her against my chest and yank out my gun, but one of the pirates suddenly came rushing up to my side. He was faster than all the others combined. I was forced to jolt to the left. I struck the floor, rolled, and came up just before the guy could reach Stellaxia.

If I needed more evidence of the fact that she hadn’t called these guys, I got it when Stellaxia wrapped her arms around my neck and held on. The guy grabbed her leg and tried to pull her back. I jolted to the side and kicked him. I used a blast of directed energy from my armor. It smashed into him and thrust him off.

“We don’t have all day,” the pirate leader snapped. “Move in. Remember, don’t touch a hair on her head. We have orders.”

Three more pirates came at me from the left. That fast guy wasn’t down yet. He rolled, leaped onto his hands, jumped back a meter, then thrust forward. I felt like I was being attacked by a wild animal.

I managed to dodge again, but the other pirates were around me.

Stellaxia closed her eyes and held on.

No one was controlling her body at the moment. She wasn’t in cuffs, either. This was likely the first time she’d freely been able to move her hands since she’d gotten to Alpha-1. And the thing she’d chosen to do with them was hold onto me….

Don’t you dare think about it, I snapped at myself as I jerked back. I managed to kick another one of the pirates as they came at me. This time, I made the blow solid. I redirected a lot of my energy. With the kind of kick that would see any wall crumple down before me, the guy went flying. He fell against one of his friends.

The other pirates took wary steps back.

“I wouldn’t underestimate me,” I growled.

I could tell they were itching to use their weapons, but they didn’t dare to.

Stellaxia had finally realized that the only reason I was still standing was that she was in my arms. That, or she was afraid. I could never imagine her cowering in fear, so it had to be the first one. She pulled herself up as much as she could, wrapping her arms around my back and keeping my chest safe with her own torso.

The pirates circled me, trying to get off a clean shot, but I kept moving around so they couldn’t find one.

“Aren’t you Eighths meant to be one of the most moral arms of the Empire?” the leader said in a frustrated snarl. “Would you think about what you’re doing here, man?”

“I’m doing my job,” I snarled back.

“Well, if your job is to destabilize the galaxy and plunge us back into war, then keep doing what you’re doing. But if you have a heart somewhere underneath that impenetrable armor, put her down and walk away.”

“I have a job to do,” I said simply. “And I will do it.” There was precisely no emphasis behind my words, because there didn’t need to be. They were automatic and easy. I knew what I would do, no question, no change of plans.

In fact, I don’t think I’d ever been surer of something in all my life.

Until I received a call. It came straight into my armor. It was a priority call. It was personal, but you could still mark a call as an emergency, even if it didn’t come from a command unit.

I heard Vivian’s panting voice.

My gaze jerked up and locked forward.

“Vivian? What—”

“Just don’t let them win, Chris. Please, just don’t—”

She was cut off. In order to cut off a neural feed like that, especially so suddenly, you either had to stun a person or kill them.

“Vivian,” I screamed, and I did so out loud.

Stellaxia jerked her head up and stared at me.

The pirate leader froze. “Vivian White?”

I was torn.

I might’ve broken up with Vivian, but I still had feelings for her.

“What happened, Chris? Chris?” Stellaxia demanded.

I watched the pirate leader take a step back.

It was clear he was making his own call.

“Did you just kill her, you bastard?” I said breathlessly.

“Chris? What are you talking about? Is Vivian—” Stellaxia tried.

Vivian might still have a chance. I would have to get to her now. But to get to her now, I would have to abandon this mission and Stellaxia.

My life narrowed down. I’d once seen myself as having open horizons. That’s why I’d joined the Eighths. I’d been able to tour the entire galaxy. My mind had been opened to just how large and magnificent the Milky Way was. I’d had a different life growing up. I’d had a life of no possibilities and no hope.

But now the world I’d clutched onto for the past several years of my service ended. I didn’t have any more wide-open horizons now. I had two options. Stay or go.



Stellaxia

Chris had just received a call. It had to have been from Vivian. And she had to be in trouble.

I could feel his need to get to her. His armor was completely irrelevant. It was like I was wired into his nervous system. As his chest thrust forward and he took in a large, rattling breath, I felt his muscles shift slightly toward the door.

“Go,” I whispered. “You can get to her, so go.”

That pirate leader had taken a step back. He was talking under the privacy of his own helmet.

He’d reacted the moment Chris screamed Vivian’s name. That wouldn’t be an accident. The pirate had to know her. Why he would know a seemingly low-level doctor, I couldn’t comprehend. The only thing that mattered right now was getting Chris to do the right thing.

“Just go, Chris. Put me down and—” I screamed. It came out of nowhere, because the pain that preceded it came out of nowhere, too.

Over the past several days I had been taken on a tour of my nervous system. I’d felt things my psyche simply wasn’t designed to withstand. This was worse.

Chris jolted. “What is it?”

“What are you doing to her?” The pirate leader thrust a hand forward, his fingers spread in a halting motion. “Don’t you dare use her as a hostage.”

I continued to scream. This searing hot bolt of pain ricocheted through my mind. It felt like….

It felt like….

“Stellaxia. Stellaxia,” Chris screamed.

I almost blacked out, but at the last moment, my elastic consciousness snapped into place. It brought my awareness back to my body as someone initiated a game.

Chris snapped his head up and turned around. So did the pirate leader. At the other end of the room, Pavarn was picking himself up. His head was turned down so I couldn’t see his expression. I could see his lips, though. They were curled in this unstable way – this way that anyone would see and conclude one thing. He’d snapped. Completely.

“A true game has been initiated. External safety protocols have been removed,” a voice-over informed us.

“What the hell does that mean?” Chris snapped. “Pavarn—”

Pavarn selected a gun. No one stopped him, because to everyone else, he was just playing a game. Until suddenly he wasn’t. Energy was picking up around the gun. These lines of light intercepted with it – light I’d never seen the Game show. And light that affected me on some deep level. As he yanked the gun up, I just knew the bullet would be real. Or if not real, then the effect it would have on Chris would be the exact same.

“Move,” I screamed at Chris. I barely had any energy, but what I had I used to push Chris slightly off course. It saved his life. A bolt slammed into his shoulder and spun him around. He was forced to drop me. It tore a chunk out of his shoulder unit and sent sparks scattering over me.

I didn’t scream, even as I fell harshly.

Chris lay there and clutched his shoulder. Then he jerked a hand around and went for his gun.

“What the hell is happening?” Chris stammered.

“He’s broken through his closed-loop. Move,” the pirate leader screamed, but he was out of time.

Pavarn started firing. There were several pirates in front of him. As his weapon let off every shot, something happened to the bullets. They became real – the station’s computer interacting with them and giving them the lethal energy they needed. They smashed into those three soldiers and ripped them apart.

I was still down on my hands and knees. I stared in terror.

The thing I had dreaded for three years was finally coming to pass.

“No,” I stammered. “There’s no way—”

“Move,” the pirate leader screamed.

Several of the pirates headed for the doors. Pavarn just mowed them down. The pirate leader ran straight to me. Pavarn raised his gun and pointed it right at my head. He didn’t say anything. No more screaming. He just wanted to get this done. This would be my final punishment.

It didn’t happen. Chris reached me long before the pirate leader could. He wrapped his hands around my shoulders and protected me.

A bullet slammed into his back. Chris jolted forward. His chest rocked against mine, his helmet sliding down my face as he tumbled beside me.

“Chris,” I screamed.

Pavarn reached me.

The pirate leader tried to shoot Pavarn with his modified gun, but Pavarn just transported out of the way. He turned his rifle around and fired on the pirate. It was a clean shot. It caught his shoulder and spun him around. It didn’t kill him, but it sure as hell ripped his arm off.

He fell.

Pavarn finally reached me.

Chris was still alive. His fingers slid over my shoulders as he tried to pull himself up.

Pavarn just kicked him out of the way.

I stared up into Pavarn’s eyes.

I couldn’t see any hint of the prince I’d once known. Pavarn, back in the day, at least, had always been a bit of a goofball. I hadn’t minded him. He’d lacked his brother’s severity and seriousness.

Now he was broken.

As I sat there, I let the future pan out. There were two possible worlds now. There was one where I just faced that bullet head-on and I let it end me.

Then there was one where I fought.

No one was controlling my closed-loop right now.

So I initiated a game.

Pavarn fired.

The end of Final Game Book One. This series is complete. There are four episodes in total.