Chapter 1: Tactics
The children of the Empire were arming for the Game.
Vrenn was a Lancer. He tested the adhesion of his thick-soled boots, adjusted a strap and found them excellent. He flexed his shoulders within their padding -- the armor was slightly stiff with newness; he would have to allow for that.
Vrenn's Lance still hung on its charge rack. He leaned into the wall cabinet, read full charge on the indicator, and carefully lifted the weapon out. The Lance was a cylinder of metal and crystal, as thick as his palm was wide. He rested its blank metal, Null end on the floor, and the glass Active tip just reached his shoulder. Then he hefted it, spun it, ran his fingers over the controls in the checkout sequence, watching flashes and listening to answering clicks. The crystal tip glowed blue with neutral charge.
It was a fine Lance, absolutely new like his armor. Vrenn had never before had anything that was new. He wondered what would happen to these things, after they had won the game...if there would be prizes to the victors. He took a deep breath of the prep room's air, which was warm and deliciously moist; he lifted his Lance to shoulder-ready and turned around.
Across the room, Dezhe and Rokis were helping each other into Flier rigs, shiny metal harnesses and glossy boots with spurs. Rokis tightened her left hand inside the control gauntlet, and rose very rapidly, almost banging her green helmet on the dim ceiling. Dezhe snorted, grabbed one of Rokis's spurs and pretended to pull her back down.
"G'daya new stuff." That was Ragga, who was struggling his immense bulk into the even greater bulk of a Blockader's studded hide armor. "Not a g'dayt crease in it, can't khest'n move." He did a few squats-and-stretches, looked a little more satisfied, but not much.
"Who said you could move anyway?" Gelly said. Ragga swiped at her; she danced out of the way without the slightest difficulty. "You'd better not move. You might fall down, and I don't think the rest of us together could get you up again."
Ragga showed his teeth and arched his arms, roared like a stormwalker. Gelly skittered away, laughing. Ragga was laughing too, a sound not much different from his roar.
Gelly sealed up the front of her uniform, a coverall of shiny green mesh, with gloves and boots of finely jointed metal on her slender hands and feet. She was the best Swift of their House: the House Proctors said she might be the best Swift of all the Houses.
Others said other things, about her slimness, her smooth forehead, the lightness of her bones and flesh. Vrenn felt a little sorry for her: when they were younger, he had called her "Ugly, ugly!" with the others. But she couldn't help being ugly, and if it was true that some of her genes were Vulcan or Romulan -- or even Human! -- that was not her fault either. He did not think she was part-Human, though. Vrenn had killed a Human in the Year Games, when he was six, his first intelligent kill, and Humans were slow, not swift.
There had been the one who called Gelly kuveleta: servitor's half-child. Zharn had killed that one, and done it well. They had all killed, Zharn and Vrenn and Ragga many different races, but Zharn was the best.
But they were all the best, Vrenn thought. Their positions had not been randomly chosen, nor they themselves: of the three hundred residents of House Twenty-Four, they were the nine best at klin zha kinta, the game with live pieces.
Now Zharn was sitting against the wall of the prep room, in full Fencer's armor: smooth green plates and helmet, slender metal staff across his knees. He was humming "Undefeated," a favorite song of House Gensa. Segon, a lightly armored Vanguard, was near him, keeping time with his bootheel. A little farther away, Graade and Voloh, the other Vanguards, held hands and kept harmony.
Zharn began to sing aloud, and in a moment they were all singing.
And though the cold brittles the flesh,
The chain of duty cannot be broken,
For the chain is forged in the heart's own fire
Which cold cannot extinguish...
The door opened. In the long corridor beyond, lit greenly by small lamps on the walls, was their Senior Proctor, old Khidri tai-Gensa. Khidri was nearly forty years old, very wrinkled; he had been a full Commander in the Navy until vacuum crippled his lungs. Next to him was a Naval officer, in black tunic and gold dress sash and Commander's insignia, with medals for ships taken.
Zharn was instantly on his feet. "Green Team, present!"
The players snapped to attention at once, wrists crossed in salute, weapons at ready-arms.
Khidri gave them a slight smile and one short nod. "This is a high day for the House Gensa," he said. "We are chosen to play at the command of Thought Admiral Kethas epetai-Khemara."
Vrenn felt his chest tighten, but he did not move. None of the Team did. A planner for the entire Navy! he thought, and knew then that he was right: they were the very best...and others knew it.
Khidri said, "The Thought Admiral is of course a Grand Master of klin zha...this day we must be worthy of a Grand Master's play." In the last was the smallest hint of a threat, or perhaps a warning. Next to Khidri, the Navy officer stood impassive and rather grim.
"Zharn Gensa, is your Green Team ready?"
"Armed and prepared, Proctor Khidri."
"Then bring them," Khidri said, and as he turned around Vrenn thought he saw the Proctor's smile widen. Then Vrenn looked at Zharn. The Fencer was nine, a year older than the rest of them, and seemed the pure image of leadership.
"House Twenty-Four Green Team," Zharn said, "onward to the victory!"
The klin zha players filed out of the room, marching in step down the green corridor, singing.
Yet if my line should die,
It dies with its teeth in the enemy's throat,
It dies with its name on the enemy's tongue.
For just as mere life is not victory,
Mere death is not defeat;
And in the next world I shall kill the foe a thousand times,
The Arena Gallery was a long, low-ceilinged room, furnished with large soft cushions and small wooden tables with trays of succulents. Servitors, moving silently in clean tan gowns of restrictive cut, replaced the trays when they became empty or messy. Fog hung at the ceiling, humidifier mist mixed with the personal incenses some of the officers present carried. One long wall of the room was entirely of dark glass.
There were slightly more than a dozen of high ranks present, Naval and Marine, and two civilian administrators with a reputation at klin zha. Also in the room were a few of the officers' consorts -- two for Admiral Kezhke, who was never moderate -- and three Vulcans, all tharavul.
"The spindles for first move, Thought Admiral?" General Margon sutai-Demma held out a pair of hexagonal rods, of polished white bone with numerals inlaid in gold on their faces. Margon gave them a small, rattling toss and caught them again. They showed double sixes. There was a mildly unpleasant look on Margon's face, but there usually was, and the scar at the side of his mouth only added to it.
Behind Margon, Force Leader Mabli vestai-Galann sat on a cushion, looking quite uncomfortable. One of Margon's kuve consorts was stroking Mabli's shoulders, which did not seem to relax him at all, though the female's claws were fully retracted. Mabli kept glancing at the other officers: every one outranked him. Worse, the administrators did as well. Mabli looked straight at his opponent.
Thought Admiral Kethas epetai-Khemara had deep wrinkles in his knobbed forehead, hair very white at his temples. He was fifty-two years old, an age at which Klingons of the Imperial Race should be dead by one means or another, yet his eyes were clear and sharp as naked stars. He smiled at Force Leader Mabli, then faced General Margon. "I grant the option." Kethas reached casually to one side, picked a glass of black brandy from a servitor's tray.
Mabli said "I take..." He broke off, looked around. Only the civilians looked especially disapproving. "... I choose first position."
Kethas nodded, drank. A side door opened with a whisper of air, and the Game Operator entered the Gallery.
The Operator was a Vulcan, tharavul like the others of his race present. He wore a green and gold gown of his homeworld's cut. In his hands was a flat black case; two chains and pendants hung around his neck. The upper pendant was the triangle-circle-gemstone of the IDIC; the lower was a large silver figure of a biped astride a quadruped -- a piece of the Human game chess.
The players stood as the Operator entered. "Kethas," the Vulcan said, and gestured with spread fingers.
"Sudok. This is Mabli: he shall have Gold today, and chooses first position."
Sudok inclined his head to Mabli, but did not raise his hand. Then the Operator held the black case level, before the Gallery's glass wall. A metal pedestal rose from the floor to support it. Sudok opened the case. Illuminated controls shone within, flashing color from Sudok's jewelry. He touched a series of buttons; the officers and their consorts began moving toward the glass wall.
Beyond the panel, lights flared, revealing the Arena. It was fifty meters across and high, six-sided, long sides alternating with short; the walls sloped inward slightly, pierced with the windows of other viewing galleries, mostly dark now. This gallery was near the Arena ceiling, which was hung with a mazework of lighting, camera, and projection equipment.
The floor was painted with a triangular emblem of three crooked arms, gold on black. Operator Sudok touched another button, and the floor split into three pieces, panels retracting outward.
"T'tain," General Maida said to the tharavul behind him, "what was the price for the last shipment of gladiators to Triskelion?"
"Two point six million in crystals and fissionables," the Vulcan said, in a flat t...