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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 tone.
"That's down, isn't it?" a Naval officer said.
"Twenty percent," T'tain said, and started to say more, but was cut off by a sharp gesture from Maida. The General's mouth twisted, and then he said, "The gagny brains that rule the place get bored very quickly. Give 'em new races, they say, or the price will drop to nothing. So when are you going to find us some new kuve?"
"We're in a g'daya box!" the Admiral snapped back. "Federation one way, Romulans another, Kinshaya one more -- where are the kuve supposed to breed?"
"You Navy have the grand master strategists -- "
"Do it elsewhere," General Margon said. His hand was on his dress weapon, apparently casually. There was a long, silent moment; no one moved but Sudok, who continued to work his controls, looking straight out the Gallery window.
"It's done," Maida said finally, without having looked at Margon. Eyes turned back to the Arena.
The game grid was rising from below floor level: a three-sided pyramid of metal struts and transparent panels, a tetrahedral frame nine four-meter pyramids on each edge. Spectra flickered across its facets.
There was a metallic thump, more felt than heard, as the grid locked into place. Then doors opened at Arena floor level, and the Green and Gold pieces filed out: Fencer, Swift, Fliers, Lancer, Vanguards, and Blockader for each side. They executed sharp halts-and-turns and stood, looking upward toward the Gallery.
Kethas waved to the pieces. Mabli saluted his.
Sudok said, "If the players will take their positions." Another key pressed: at either end of the window-wall, small cubicles lit behind glass, one green, one gold. The glass panels slid aside. Within were enveloping, deeply cushioned chairs, like a ship captain's command chair, set before holo displays already showing miniatures of the huge Arena grid.
"A shame this one will be Clouded," Kethas said to Mabli. "I prefer to watch my pieces through my own eyes, don't you?"
Mabli looked puzzled, said nothing.
"Only a thought," Kethas said, and laughed. "A Thought." Then he held out his brandy glass to Mabli. The Force Leader accepted it, took a swallow. A servitor appeared to carry the glass away.
Kethas and Mabli spread their arms, snarled and embraced, heads tilted back, throats exposed. The fury between them seemed to radiate; there were grunts of approval from the others.
The players separated, went to their cubicles. The spectators took up comfortable viewing positions, servitors moving cushions and tables to suit. A small, white-fleshed kuve folded its body to pillow the head of Margon's consort; she scratched it with a talon and purred. Finally only the four Vulcans and the serving kuve remained standing.
Sudok said clearly, "Gold to position first. The clouds descend." At the Arena ceiling, holo projectors came glowing to life.
Vrenn saw the Thought Admiral's wave. He thought, dimly, that it was an odd gesture, not at all like the Marine player's sharp salute, but in a moment it was past, and he was thinking about the game, and the victory. He felt the weight of his Lance, its good balance, the fine fit of his armor.
Prizes, he thought. The House had all the taped episodes of Battlecruiser Vengeance, and Vrenn had watched every one of them, and they all ended with the same line. Humans, Romulans, Kinshaya, servitors who had somehow managed to enter space, all of them asked their conqueror who he was, and the answer was always: "I am Captain Koth. Koth of the Vengeance. And this ship is my prize."
Not that Vrenn could ever have a ship -- not ever a ship, not without a line-name or a line -- but perhaps he could have the Lance. A prize of war, his entirely. And like Koth, he would use his prize --
The klin zha pyramid was glowing from within, clear panels turning opaque with holo images. Vrenn heard a slight escape of breath from Ragga, that said more than a mouthful of curses. The Clouded Game was hardest on a Blockader. It was not Vrenn's favorite, either. At least Gelly would be pleased, and the Fliers.
And Zharn, perhaps; it was hard to tell. Zharn was always leader-hard and leader-calm. No form of klin zha was easy for the Fencer.
On the other side of the Arena floor, the Gold team was moving, filing into the game grid. Green Team had second placement, then, and second move. Vrenn did not know how much advantage there was to second position, when the opponent's set-up was partly hidden; he did not like the Clouded game even when he controlled all the pieces. One could not see the enemy's pieces, or the enemy.
The Naval officer with Proctor Khidri spoke quietly; Khidri gestured, and Green Team entered the grid.
"Green player chooses the left-hand point," Sudok announced. The Gold pieces had been placed as Mabli chose; now the Green pieces occupied another point on the Grid's lowest level, leaving the third point empty.
"I can't see them all," Margon's consort said, annoyed. Margon grunted at her, a threatening sound. Sudok said nothing, and moved a control; the Gallery glass darkened, and the grid cleared as the obscuring holos were polarized out. Hazy shimmers remained, indicating which panels were blocked to the players' view. "Drownfish's teeth, look at that," one of the civilians said to the other. "Old Khemara's got a Lancer Advanced opening. What do you say to doubled stakes?"
The other administrator looked doubtful, turned to his tharavul. "Sovin. Percentages of success for the Lancer Advanced?"
The Vulcan said at once, "Nine percent of such openings lead to victory. Adjusted for the three-dimensional game, Obscuration rules, four percent."
"Well...let's say redoubled -- wait. Sovin, adjust for Grand Master play."
"Data base is small, Manager Akten."
"Coarse data, then."
"Coarse data indicate twenty-two percent success. I cannot correlate for Grand Masters versus Masters of Force Leader Mabli's rating."
"Double and that's all, then," Akten said, giving the tharavul a sidelong look. "Sometimes, Atro, you want to cut more out of their skulls than just their mind-snoop..."
Sovin, of course, did not react. Operator Sudok said "Starting positions are chosen. Goals are being placed." He pushed two slides forward.
General Margon stroked his consort's arm, watched her claws involuntarily extend, and smiled.
Vrenn stood in a triangular cell of metal and light. The floor was a sheet of heavy clear stuff with darkness below, bounded by black metal strips, each with a slot along its length.
He knew he was in the right front space of the starting position. It was a bad place for a Lancer in flat-board klin zha, backed against an edge, but perhaps not in this game. They must follow the Grand Master's lead, he thought. And be worthy of his play, as Khidri had said.
Voloh, the Vanguard, was to Vrenn's left, and Graade Vanguard was behind Vrenn. A very unusual starting position. Just beyond Voloh stood Ragga, still tensing against his Blockader armor. In the center of the position was Zharn; that made sense at least. Vrenn could not see any of the others, nor any of the Gold Team.
There was a flicker of light in Zharn's space. A disk, half a meter across and a handbreadth thick, materialized in midair. Zharn caught it nimbly. The Goal was of polished green metal, heavy by the way Zharn held it. Vrenn hoped he would not have to find out. Zharn put the Goal gently on the floor of his space, put a boot up on it and stood tensed and ready.
The slots in the floor strips lit yellow. At once Vrenn leaned forward, shifting his balance for action; he dropped his Lance from parade to ready position, and moved fingers on the controls. The Lance hummed through his fingers, and the Active tip went from blue to green.
There was a movement before him. A large shape, golden: the enemy Blockader, passing through an unClouded space. Vrenn watched the yellow strip in front of him, waiting for it to change, but it did not.
Ragga's did, yellow to blue, and the Blockader moved, watching to all sides, and even above, though of course no pieces could yet be on the higher levels.
But that was not a bad caution. In non-combat klin zha, a Blockader could not be killed at all; but it was different in klin zha kinta, and Blocks who forgot that it was different learned again in hard fashion. Another strip turned blue, and Ragga moved on; he disappeared as he crossed the line, which went yellow again after him.
Segon Vanguard walked from a mist into Ragga's empty space. He did it too hastily, Vrenn thought, went through the Cloud panel too sure the space beyond would be empty. Segon turned slightly, to wave to Zharn Fencer.
The Golden Vanguard emerged from Cloud and slammed his fist into Segon's chest, all in one motion.
Segon staggered, sank down almost to kneeling -- then brought the heels of both hands up hard into the Gold player's chin. The Gold's head went back, and Segon's left gauntlet chopped into her throat. Almost too fast to see, the enemy kicked to the side of Segon's knee; they fell together. The bodies locked, and tensed for a long, long moment, and then there was the liquid-metal sound of a joint failing.
Segon stood up, shoulders pumping as he breathed. He took an unsteady step away from the fallen Vanguard. The Gold's body shimmered, vanished, transported away.
The panel beneath Vrenn's boots trembled, then began to rise, riding on the rails of the game grid. Vrenn returned Zharn's salute, gave one to Segon, who raised a shaking hand to acknowledge.
The panel stopped on the next level above. Vrenn was completely surrounded by Cloud panels. The Elevation move had been toward the grid center, so there was still a board edge to his right -- safe to ignore that panel -- but he was not in a corner. Two directions to cover -- no, four. He looked up.
Spurs flashed by Vrenn's face. Vrenn swung the Null end of his Lance, caught the Flier in the thigh; the swooping Gold rolled in midair and landed on his back, spurred boots pointed at Vrenn. Vrenn reversed the Lance, touched the controls; the Active tip glowed yellow. The Flier twisted his control-gloved hand and was off the floor instantly; his bootheels struck the Lance's deflector shield, and the Gold spun in midair. His shoulder grazed a side panel of the cell, above a yellow floor strip; there was a blue flare and the Flier's jacket smoked, but the player made no sound. "Kai," Vrenn said under his breath, at the same time dropping the shield and checking the Lance's charge counter. It was down by almost a sixth.
The Gold somersaulted forward. Vrenn raised his Lance horizontally, catching the gilded steel spurs against it. The Flier continued his roll. Before the enemy could vault over and land behind him, Vrenn fell forward, twisting to fall on his backside. The Flier whirled, just short of striking the far wall; swooped down again.
Vrenn touched his weapon controls. The crystal tip pulsed green.
The Flier was struck in the left ribs, knocked off course. Vrenn spun the Lance end-for-end, smashing the Null end at the Flier's control gauntlet. He connected. Small bones crunched, and wires. As if swept by an invisible hand, the Gold's harness flung him into the wall of the cell, and pressed him there, outlined in blue fire. The harness spent its charge. The Gold Flier hit the floor, moved just a little, then sparkled and vanished without a sound.
A floor strip turned blue. Vrenn walked through the holo into the space beyond.
Some of the Naval officers, and even one of the Marines, were slapping their thighs in approval. "Good play! Good play!"
Admiral Kezhke said, "Who's the Green Lancer?"
Operator Sudok pressed keys, and the closeup image was printed over with red letters.
"Vrenn," Kezhke read, "Gensa, good House...Rustazh?" Kezhke knocked aside the fruit one of his consorts was feeding him. There was a silence in the gallery.
General Maida had a just-lit incense stick in his fingers; he stopped halfway to the holder on his shoulder. "I thought the Rustazh line was extinct."
"So did I," Kezhke said. "I wonder if Kethas knows."
"Can such things be?" Margon said amiably, and gestured to remind Maida of his smoldering incense.
Kezhke said, "Sudok -- "
"The Admiral Grand Master inspected his players' complete records some days ago." Margon said, "You can hardly assume a Grand Master's play would be affected by his interest in one of the pieces."
"No," Kezhke said levelly, "not Kethas. But it's been...seven years since all the Rustazh died -- "
"All but one, it would seem."
"It would seem." Kezhke stroked his stomach, turned to the cubicle at the end of the room.
Within it, Thought Admiral Kethas again moved his Lancer.
Vrenn had reached the sixth level of the grid, four cells to an edge. There were only a few Clouds here; about half the level was visible, and several spaces on the level above. Vrenn wondered briefly if the other Gold Flier was still in play, and almost without thinking checked his Lance. The indicator read four-tenths charge. The Fliers could not carry Goals, but surely that did not matter yet; surely they were not so close to endgame.
Behind Vrenn, a player was rising from below. He turned; it was Gelly, bouncing from toe to toe as if she were weightless. There was a film of blood on her metal gloves. She was smiling, like a shining light in her face. Vrenn nodded to her, and she spun round on the ball of one foot.
The other enemy Flier shot upward, through a space two away from Vrenn's, and was lost in the Clouds above.
Huge green-armored shoulders appeared near the far point of Vrenn's level: Ragga was coming up. There were creases now in his heavy leather, and a few rips. Vrenn wondered if he was happier now. He stood as if nothing had ever, could ever, touch him.
The Golden Lancer stepped out of Cloud, faced Ragga directly. Vrenn leaned forward slightly, eager to see.
The enemy's Lance flashed green. Ragga made no attempt to dodge the bolt; he did not even grunt as it struck him. Then he swung.
The Lancer was at least smart enough not to bother with his shields. He reversed his weapon to the Null end. Vrenn smacked a hand on his thigh; it was a bold move. Not that it would save him, not against Ragga.
The Green Blocker's fist smashed at the Lance butt, knocking it down, almost out of the Gold's hands. The enemy staggered.
So did Ragga.
Vrenn stared as the best Blocker of all the Houses sank to his knees. The Lancer stepped back to recover. Ragga barely moved. The Null end struck him, and struck again, and again.
On the third stroke Vrenn heard the pop of a spark, and then he understood: the Lance butt was not Null. There was something hidden in it; a contact stunner, or an agonizer.
It must, he thought, it must be a rule he did not know -- some handicap against a Grand Master, perhaps -- Vrenn checked his controls, touched a finger to the Null of his own Lance; only the grip of training kept him from banging the blunt end against the floor or into one of the wall barriers. Vrenn looked up, toward the window where he had seen the players, but it was blocked now from his view.
An edge of Gelly's space went from yellow to blue. Vrenn turned, saw the path of blue lines leading to the Gold Lancer. Ragga was gone. Vrenn opened his mouth, to warn her. His jaw was tense enough to hurt, and before he could strain out any words Gelly Swift was across the spaces at warp speed.
The Gold brought up his weapon. Gelly danced around it, kicked the Lancer. He stumbled, started to turn. She kicked him again, punched him in the lower back. He seemed about to fall; she tumbled, did a handstand and struck his helmet with her bootheel.
The Lancer fell.
Gelly cartwheeled upright.
The Lancer stood and sent a bolt into her body.
Gelly doubled over. The Lancer hit her with the blunt non-Null steel, hit her twice. There was blood. Gelly's blood was a very dark color.
A snarl came up in Vrenn's throat; he swallowed it back.
Vrenn was Elevated again. When he reached the seventh level, the Goal disk was just being transported into his space; he caught it as it fell. The metal Goal was indeed quite heavy.
The space was opaque on two sides, above, and below; the clear side showed nothing. Where, Vrenn wanted to know, was Zharn? Moving the Fencer away from the Goal was the most dangerous gambit in klin zha.
He wanted to know as well if the Gold players were cheating, and if so how they expected to succeed; and if Ragga and Gelly had been transported alive; and he wanted a Gold player, to kill for his own.
"About those odds..." Manager Atro said.
Akten, without looking away from the windows, said, "Wagers cancelled, of course. No fault."
Atro waved a hand.
Kezhke had retrieved the fruit from his consort and was chewing furiously. "I don't know about that Lancer," he said, juice running down his chin.
"The Thought Admiral might then be distracted?" General Margon said calmly, reaching for a glass of brandy.
"Not the Green Lancer, the Gold," Kezhke said at once, then turned to face Margon. "I am not a Thought Admiral, and I do not pretend to understand fleet strategy; but even you, General, know epetai-Khemara's record."
"Oh, yes," Margon said lightly, and made a gesture with fingertips to forehead, indicating mild insanity. The Marine officers laughed. So did some of the Navals. "Does anyone know what sort of fusion that Green Swift was? She was rather interesting, in a skinny sort of way." Margon's consort threw a grape at him.
"The Green Goal's unprotected," General Maida said. "He's sent his Fencer off..."
"Operator," Kezhke said slowly, "replay of the last kill by Gold Fencer."
Sudok touched a key, and a small holo was thrown on the glass.
"Lancer Elevated to Seven, covering Goal," one of the Managers said. "Gold Lancer to Seven."
Kezhke said "Operator, stop replay, and enlarge....General Margon, will you look at this?"
"When I mentioned the Swift, I only had the epetai-Khemara in mind...he likes skinny. And green."
"Green Lancer, carrying Goal, up to Eight."
As Vrenn set the Goal disc down, the enemy Lancer rose into view. Now, Vrenn thought, and waited for the yellow space barrier to change. Instead, the floor began rising again. Vrenn put a foot up on the Goal, fingers tight on his Lance; the ache in his jaw was radiating to the side of his head.
From the Eighth level, only two spaces on an edge, he could see downward, see Zharn on the Seventh; now he thought he understood. Zharn would move from Cloud, on the Lancer.
Zharn did. He swung his thin staff in the widest possible arc; the tip struck the Gold Lancer's right arm and wrapped around it. Zharn twisted the polarizing grip and the metal went rigid. Vrenn had seen Zharn execute this kill a hundred times: as the enemy was pulled around, he would be carried directly into Zharn's knifing left hand, and the Gold's own body energy would help to drop him.
Then, impossibly, Zharn stumbled, The Fencer's hand twitched, depolarizing his staff; the Lancer spun in the wrong direction, and shoved the Active Lance-point into Zharn's throat. Green light flashed on green armor.
Zharn's head went back, far back, too far back. His eyes, very wide, looked up into Vrenn's, and his lips moved, spasming --
No, not just a spasm. Vrenn read them, very clearly.
Get this one, Zharn said, and flickered silently out of existence.
"Do you see that flare?" Kezhke said. "Between the Lance and the Swift's body?"
"That's just a lens flare," someone said, without force.
"Assuming that it isn't," Margon said, interested, "what is it?"
Kezhke said, "You know more of personal weapons than I, General. You are an authority on them."
Margon sniffed his brandy. His other hand rested, relaxed, on the grip of his dress weapon. "Are you proposing, oh, anything, Admiral?"
A few of the others stepped quietly aside.
Kezhke waved both his consorts away. He had no weapon visible, but of course no Klingon of rank would be unarmed in public. "Perhaps that you should examine this image, General, and a few others."
"Operator Sudok," Margon said, "did you examine the equipment for this game?"
"I did, General," the Vulcan said.
"And there were no irregularities?"
Kezhke said nothing. No one would appear so foolish as to doubt a Vulcan's word.
Margon took his hand away from his sidearm, gestured toward Thought Admiral Kethas's cubicle. "If the Naval champion wishes to stop the game, we will naturally accept a draw."
"Kethas," one of the Administrators said, distracted and puzzled, "has never been drawn in tournament."
"There is that." Margon went back to the viewing window. "And certainly never by a Marine Force Leader. All that, and the son of the Thought Admiral's good dead friend playing, and the invincible Gold opposing him...I do so enjoy klin zha; nothing short of living war is so stimulating."
"Gold Lancer Elevated, to Eight."
"There is always," Manager Akten said, "the komerex zha."
"I do not acknowledge the existence of the Perpetual Game," Margon said without turning. "Society is society, war war. If they are games at all, surely they are not all the same game. I deny it."
"That is a favored tactic," Akten said.
"Green Lancer to Level Nine."
There was no Cloud at the highest level. Vrenn stood in a four-sided pyramid of clear, shimmering panels edged in black steel, and waited for the last move of the Game.
There could only be one move now. Vrenn had carried the Goal to the Ninth Level: the enemy had his next move only to capture the disc. And only the Lancer could reach this space in one. The other Gold Flier might, of course, if she were on an edge space and still alive...but Vrenn knew it would not be the Flier. The move would be too easy, not bold enough for a game between Masters.
He was right. A spindle of light, dazzling, soundless, appeared in a point of the space, and the Golden Lancer materialized.
Vrenn smashed his Lance against the Gold's almost before the transport was complete; he felt the displacement field push him back as it did the air. Then the effect died, and Vrenn shoved the enemy back, so that both the Gold's shoulders struck wall panels. Vrenn cursed; he had been expecting shock fields, but here there was only plain matter.
The Gold pushed back, and tried to turn his Lance crosswise to Vrenn's, get freedom to use the Active or false-Null tips. The two Lancers struggled for a dozen heartbeats; then Vrenn was pushed back, by incredible strength. Lances cracked against each other, and against yellow energy shields. Vrenn read his charge counter: one-fourth. He dropped the shield and used the Lance as if it were a plain metal fighting stick, striking sparks, connecting with blows to the enemy's limbs that seemed to have no effect at all. He would have howled, but there was no breath to spare.
He looked into the enemy's face. Their eyes met. The Gold was clearly full-Klingon, as much Imperial Race as was Vrenn; the broad dark face was scarred heavily, and there was a strange high tension in the look, like electricity in the yellow eyes.
Vrenn knew that it was desperation that he saw, and thought the Gold must see the same. They were images in a mirror, only the colors of their clothing different.
No, not only. The Gold had his dishonest Lance. And with his desperation, Vrenn Gensa Green had his rage.
Vrenn struck downward to disengage, then spun full circle on the ball of his foot, extending his Lance as Zharn had swung his slender staff. The startled enemy had blocked high, and the crystal tip of Vrenn's Lance caught him just below the right armpit.
Vrenn fingered his controls, and the whole remaining charge in his weapon went into a single green bolt.
The Gold player dropped his Lance. Vrenn kicked it aside, then threw away his own. And then he stopped still, and stared.
He had been wrong. There had been no hidden weapon in the Gold player's Lance. Not in his Lance, at all.
The Gold's right arm lay on the floor, twitching, its fingers spasming one-two-three-four. Above it stood its former owner, wobbling on his feet. From his right shoulder, wires dangled and sparked, and coolant and fluidic oil dripped from broken tubes.
Vrenn drove a fist into the enemy's body, then another. He felt tissue give beneath: only part-robot, then. Good. Very good. The enemy fell back, against a wall panel.
"Kai!" Vrenn shouted, only half meaning it as mockery, leaped and drove both feet into the Goldthing's midsection.
Plastic splintered outward, and the cyborg Lancer went out and down, down fifty meters, and hit with a sound neither fleshly or mechanical. Blood and oil ran together.
"Gensa, the victory!" Vrenn shouted from the apex of the grid, out the open panel. He looked at the officers watching from their gallery, across space and a little below him now. "Gensa, a thousand times, undefeated!"
He wondered if any of them were listening.
"What an extraordinary endgame," Manager Akten said. General Maida coughed and snuffed out his incense. One of Admiral Kezhke's consorts turned and was sick; a servitor caught it in the hem of its robe. Kezhke said "I should call it more than -- "
"Yes," Margon said, and his pistol was out. Consorts and officers went for cover.
"Tokhe straav'!" Margon shouted: Willing slave, the vilest name Klingon could call Klingon, an insult only death could redeem. Then Margon fired, a bolt of actinic blue light that starred the glass door of Force Leader Mabli's cubicle. Mabli had just turned when the second shot blasted the panel apart, showering the player with fragments of crystal. The third shot tore apart his chest. Margon's pistol was holstered before the last shard of glass had struck the floor. The mist overhead swirled, and there was the sharp smell of ozone. Kezhke's left hand was tense on his leveled right forearm; slowly, he relaxed.
Margon raised the brandy glass he still held. "Kai, Thought Admiral. Another victory with your many."
Kethas stood in the open door of his cubicle. "Yes." He looked past Margon. Servitors were already sweeping up the fragments. "And for every victory, a loss, Margon?"
"There was nothing else for him," Margon said plainly. "Certainly not life. What could be accepted as truth from one who would commit fraud at klin zha? I would suspect that, when the plodders of Security finish with this straav's record, it will be found full of lies as well."
"I would not doubt that," Kezhke said, without sarcasm.
"But the corruption ends here," said General Maida.
Kethas was looking out the window, at the figure on the top of the pyramid. The Green Lancer had arms upraised, and was shouting something the glass filtered out. It was barely possible that Mabli had heard Margon's challenge, before his glass was broken; but it hardly mattered.
Kethas said, "There is a last thing, sutai-Demma...."
Margon said, "Epetai-Khemara?"
"A pleasing game. My compliments to a worthy opponent."
Margon nodded. Kethas turned away, "Manager Akten," he said, "I should like to discuss a matter with you. An adoption from one of the Houses of Lineless Youth."
Akten gestured to his tharavul. "I took that to be the context of your message, and Sovin has a set of -- " Akten stopped short. "You said an adoption? Not just a transfer of residence?"
Kethas gave the faintest of smiles. "You are a good player, Akten...but even I did not know in advance how the game would end."
Copright © 1984 by Paramount Pictures