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.