AUTHOR'S NOTE

I actually began work on this one more than a year ago. This particular story, while canon to the rest of my Neomorphs stories, should also be able to stand alone (though the prologue might be slightly confusing for people who haven't read some of those stories). With regards to the Neomorphs books, this takes place between books 60 and 61.


Prologue

I call myself the Drode. That wasn't always my name, but it's been millennia since I've been called what my father called me. If you called me Imaeus, I probably wouldn't respond. I've played the game for too long now.

What am I? I used to be of a race called the Ai. We weren't so different from humans. Not socially, at least. We had family units, lived in cities, suburbs, and rural communities, and we had our own problems to deal with.
Now…now I don't know what I am. I've become something different. Maybe I'm more than an Ai; maybe I'm less. I don't know. And I never dreamed that anyone would understand. Maybe I should have.

I've found someone who may understand. If I told him everything, he might understand what I am. He's felt the same thing I have. He has remained sane through it; have I? A better question may be if I was ever sane in the first place.

It took me a long time to decide to go to him and tell him everything. I had never been one for pouring my heart out, even before I became what I am today. But if there ever was a being who could understand me, it was him.
I came to him at night. He couldn't sleep; I may or may not have had something to do with that. He lay awake in his bed, motionless. Finally, he got up and started pacing the deck of his ship, the Reliquary.

I appeared before him. He just glared at me. "Drode. What do you want now?"

"To pause the game. To stop playing for a moment. Have you ever played the same game for millennia, Tobias? Or even for more than a few hours?"

"No."

"Of course not. Because after so long, you get bored. You put down the controller and step out of the fantasy. You go back to who you really are and what you really have to do. You have a life outside of the game. The character is not the player."

"Why are you here?" he asked again.

"I want you to meet the player."

"Why? And why me? Cassie's the sympathetic one."

"Cassie could never understand me. She wouldn't understand who I was so long ago and she could never understand what I have become, or what I have felt over these millennia. Only you could understand me, Tobias. Only you, who have been to hell and back in all senses but the literal one."

"Go on then. Play your game with me. We'll see how it ends."

I looked him in the eyes. They still burned with the fierce intensity of the hawk he had been for so long. "No games tonight, Tobias. This is the truth."


Part 1

IMAEUS



CHAPTER 1

My name is…my name was Imaeus.

At the moment, I was a mile above the ground and descending rapidly. The lithe Aian fighters were quickly getting larger to me. The early morning sun gleaming off their silver bodies filled me with an overwhelming urge to destroy. Most people like beauty. Me, I like flames. I wanted to take each and every one of those beautiful little ships and grind them into dust with my bare hands. Of course, Ai hands aren't made for that sort of thing. Our hands are delicate, made for much…subtler measures. Like deftly manipulating the controls of our fighter ships. Which is what I did.

All Ai ships looked the same. There was a reason for that: they were the same. All had the same long, cylindrical shape that tapered to a sharp point at both ends. A single cannon on the nose fired the purple rays of a kal-cannon. The ships were transparent from the inside, which allowed the pilot to see all around him; at least, he could see as far as he could turn his head. I was one of the ten percent of our race who could turn his head 360 degrees.

The ships flying below me were all zay-class fighters. Small, one-man deals. They would be amusing to swat down, but they wouldn't win the battle. They'd come from the tail of a larger ship; judging by the number of ships below me, I expected a dal-class cruiser, though it was possible that they had a gim; a beh or an alp seemed impossible.

We Ai had only five classes of ships, zay, dal, gim, beh, and alp. There was a simple system to it. A dal could hold thirteen zay and it had room for the pilots to sleep and eat. A gim held thirteen dal, and so on and so forth. On our planet, we had only thirteen alps. We Ai had a thing for the number thirteen.

My ship, a zay like any other, dropped into firing range of two ships. Both were maneuvering with all their skill, trying to turn their noses to face each other. I would choose right here whose side I was on. I would prove my loyalty.

Static hissed over my com-link. "Friend of foe?"

I smiled, though my questioner couldn't see it. "Neither." I fired on the ship to my left. He hadn't expected it. It blew apart, chunks of ayn, the metal we built our ships from, flying everywhere. They spun through the air, rotating. They alternated between flashing silver in the sun and being transparent.

Ai ships were designed to break apart into cubes, to try to spare the pilot. I saw him falling to the planet below. He would be fine; we Ai had a remarkable ability to survive physical punishment. It took a lot to kill one of us. I tilted the nose of my ship down and centered it on a place the pilot would pass. The computer calculated the distance and timed it. When it gave the signal, I fired. A single purple beam lanced out of my ship and flashed through the pilot. He was nowhere to be seen after that. Shooting an ejected pilot was considered a serious breach of ethics.

I never had much use for ethics.

The surviving ship hovered in place, facing me. I turned to meet it. Again, static hissed. "Why did you kill the pilot?"

"The best reason of all," I answered. "Fun." I fired.

This time, I couldn't stick around to finish off the pilot. Ships from both sides were turning towards me now, all unsure what to do. They were hesitant, waiting for a sign. I gave them one.

"So," I called in wide-band waves so that everyone could hear me, "it looks like you'll have to bargain for my favor."

Someone responded. "Why should we fight over you? Why would we need you?"

"Good question. I have a better answer." I could see the ship now. It was a dal, hidden under a cloud bank so I hadn't seen it from above. I twitched the controls and flew towards it. There were still a dozen zay in the air. Half decided to stay back and watch me. The other half, the half whose ship I was approaching, decided to follow. They were making this too easy. Such a shame. I looped around to the tail end of the dal. There was an opening at the tip of the tapered point, big enough for a zay to fly through. That's exactly what I did.

Slowly, I guided my ship through the hangar door. Before me was a large ring with six holes in it. Those holes housed the ships. When a battle began, the ring would move to the hangar entrance/exit and release a ship. Then, it would rotate to deliver another and another and another. A second, identical ring behind it would then be moved right up against it to release the remaining ships.

What was that? That only accounts for twelve of the thirteen zay? One stays on patrol at all times; we Ai can be a paranoid lot. One of our many delightful qualities. I flew through the rings without any trouble. The pilots of the dal hadn't realized I was entering yet. Too bad for them; they might have survived if they had thought to rotate the rings. It would have kept me from entering.

I took a moment to gaze around me. I saw the barracks and mess hall, but mostly, I saw machinery. Ai weren't big on building things small; a ship's power generators and kal generator took up most of the space. But there was still room for the bridge.

I dipped my nose and aimed at an engine. A twitch of my finger fired my kal-cannon. The purple beam sliced deep into the machinery; the ship shuddered around me. Kalcyon waves vibrated what they touched at a molecular level; there could be no defense from them. A single kal-cannon could destroy a ship the size of an alp. And you don't even want to think about what it does to an Ai body. I promise I'll tell you soon.

I swung nose back and forth, slicing the ship apart. I gutted all of the systems. My altimeter assured me that we were dropping, though I couldn't tell. At last, I turned to the bridge, still crowded by Ai.

They had no escape, of course. We didn't build escape pods onto our ships; our leaders thought it would make us careless of the equipment. And we hadn't quite figured out how to shrink a kal-cannon down to a portable size, so they had no way of shooting me down. In a few moments, the ship would crash into the ground and probably kill them.

I hate the word probably. I opened fire.

I still remember the look on their faces. We Ai didn't kill the helpless; it was unproductive. They didn't understand why I shot them. I could have left them for dead; that would be what anyone else would have done.
They looked at me and raised their many-jointed hands in surrender. Their pruney flesh shook with fear. They mouthed their pleas. Whether I could hear them or not it didn't matter.

A kal-cannon has an interesting effect on living tissue. It breaks apart what it touches at a molecular level but leaves the rest untouched. So, when I slashed my purple lance across the chest of one Ai, he broke in half. One I decapitated. The others, I didn't pay enough attention to.

I turned my ship towards the nearest wall. A quick, almost surgical maneuver sliced a hole out of the wall big enough for me to fly out of. I exited and turned back just in time to watch the dal crash.

It exploded in a surge of fire, kal and shrapnel. The surviving zay fled as fast as they could. It wasn't fast enough. Three of them were brought down by the enemy ships; I brought the other three down myself. At last, I turned to the six remaining ships. Again, their leader contacted me. "Thanks for the help. But who are you?"

I smiled. "Call me Wildcard."

CHAPTER 2

We landed on the ground below us. It was a typical chunk of Aian mountainside. Black cliffs towered above us. More were below us. A few careless steps would leave us dangling, begging for our lives. Not that gravity would care. One of the things that I think everyone learns pretty quickly in life is that the laws of nature and physics do not care how much you beg them to exempt you. They're a lot like tax collectors that way.

It wasn't the fall that would kill us, of course. Ai have an ability to survive long falls. And the gravity of Aian is considerably less than on most other worlds. No, the fall wasn't dangerous; the sharp pointy rocks at the bottom were what did it. I had a long time to look at those rocks on the descent from the lower atmosphere. I landed as close to the mountainside as I could; I was not going to fall to my death. That would be embarrassing.

The remaining Ai got out of their ships to meet me. They had the same pruney flesh as all other Ai, though only two were purple like me, and none as dark. The other three were white, blue, and, a dark green. The white one seemed to be their leader.

"Thank you, Drode," he said. Drode, of course was the Aian word for wildcard. "I am Saberwing. These are—"

"I don't need to know their names," I interrupted. "Where are the rest of you? Where's your dal?"

"Quite a ways gone by now," Saberwing answered. "They left to assist another squadron who needed it."

"So why didn't you go with them?" It was suicide for six zay to fly around without help.

"Eight of us wanted to check out the mountains and see if the rumors were true."

Eight? So they had lost two. As far as I knew, that dal had a full compliment; that meant they were pretty good, if they had fought off that many. I needed to be careful. "What rumors?" I asked.

"They say it's here, at the top of this mountain peak. The Source," Saberwing whispered.

I was unimpressed. "It's just a legend. And even if it isn't, what makes you think you found it? A thousand generations before you missed it."

Saberwing put an arm around my shoulders and brought his face close to my ear. "Because back in the real world, they're getting an expedition ready to go to this part of Aian. I know; my brother's part of the team."

I snorted. "So what? They've been looking for the Source for years. Why is this any different?"

"My brother tells me that a month ago, they picked up a hermit from these parts. He saw a great red eye in these mountains. It changed him. It blasted half his brain away," Saberwing whispered.

"So?"

"Well, the scientists checked it out and it seems that half of his brain really was burnt away. Kal waves did it."

"That's impossible. No one could survive having their brain exposed directly to kal waves."

"Who says he survived? The scientists extracted the images from his brain with a lak processor."
"Lak processor?"

"You don't know about that? They've been looking for the opposite of kal waves since they were first put to use. The original purpose was supposed to be for shielding against kal, but that never panned out. They found waves of the opposite frequency, so they called it lak; you know, kal backwards."

I suspected that this guy didn't really know what he was talking about. Kal, after all, was short for Kalcyon, so backwards it would be Noyclak.

I said this to Saberwing, but he just shook his head. "I may not know everything that's going on, but this is for real this time. This expedition will find the Source."

"Even if that is true, you won't find it here."

"No? This place is old as our race can remember. It has evolved with us. The technology here has grown with our own. This is as real as Aian. If I can find the Source here, I can find it in Aian. And if I do that, I'll be the biggest hero our race has ever known."

What he said got me thinking. I didn't think for long; I'm not reckless, action is just more fun. I went to my zay and retrieved something. A long, ayn spear. It carried an electrical charge. Electricity was one of the few guaranteed ways to kill an Ai. Or short out a computer system.

I walked calmly up to Saberwing. He raised the skin over one eye. "What's that for?"

"You." I shoved the spear into him. Electricity crackled through the inside of the shaft and into Saberwing. He convulsed and dropped at my feet. Good for him I only had the thing on stun.

The others turned on me, but that was no problem. I was armed and they weren't. An unarmed Ai was no threat to anyone. Especially not to an armed one.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. They fell before me without any effort. All six of them were stunned. Saberwing watched me with burning eyes.

I went to his ship first and jammed my spear into the computer. It shorted out. All the data it had collected, including Saberwing's route to the area, was lost forever. I did the same for the other five ships.

"Sorry, Saberwing," I said. Of course, I wasn't sorry at all. "But you might be on to something. And if that's true, then I can't let you be the one to find it."

Casually, I increased the voltage of my spear. Now it was set to kill. One by one, I finished off the other Ai. It would take them weeks to find their way back here. By then, I would be long gone.

I would be the one to find the Source. And once I did, its power would belong to me. It was my ticket off this rock I called home. I, the Drode, the Wildcard, would find the legendary Crayak.

CHAPTER 3

I walked back to my ship, but stopped suddenly. A number flashed in the air before me. Then another. Another. Seven more times it flashed, a smaller number each time. And then my two least favorite words in all the Aian language.

GAME OVER.

I stepped back from the consol. It ejected my chip. I searched my pockets for another voucher. Nothing. And I couldn't afford to buy any more. Not if I wanted to eat that night. Eat food or possibly find the Crayak? For me it wasn't much of a choice. Never sacrifice immediate necessity for possible future gain. What use was knowing the location of the Crayak if I starved tonight?

Could Saberwing have been right? Could the Crayak's location be hidden in the game? Saberwing…that wasn't his real name of course. It was his character's name in the game. Just like I wasn't really Drode; I was, "Imaeus!"

I turned to the sound of the voice. It was my friend, Mularon. He was my opposite in many ways, yet he might have been my closest friend. He was serious and responsible. Me? I was as carefree as my namesake, Imaeus the Rogue. He was something of a folk hero to the Ai people.

"My father is here to take me home. Do you want a ride?" Mularon asked me. Another big difference between the two of us: Mularon had a family.

"No thanks. I have to get something to eat before I go," I told him. I was in the right place for that. One could do almost anything here in the megaplex. Food, clothing, low-grade weapons, or even games; all could be found here. I usually came for the games.

I was the greatest gamer on all of Aian. That isn't bragging, it's fact. Every year, the government releases a list of the top one thousand gamers and I've topped the list for the last two years. There was no one better than the Drode, the wildcard. That was why I could afford to play both sides; because I was the best.

In the game, I was the king. But outside, I was just another kid. And not exactly the upper crust of society; not like Mularon. My father was a rogue like me, maybe even as bad as the first Imaeus. My father was the type to take another man's female just because he could. When I was just old enough to understand, he died for it. I have no idea who my mother was. She gave birth to me and then left me with my father. She wanted nothing to do with us after that; I guess we sort of messed things up between her husband and her.

With my parents gone, I had to raise myself. I had a few relatives and I sometimes stayed with them. Mostly, I did what I could to make my own way. I would smooth talk people into letting me sleep in their homes, for example. Who wouldn't take in a poor, homeless kid? And when they slept, I took everything they had.

It was a wonderful game, really. Even better than the simulation I always played. This game was real, for real stakes. If I failed, I might die. If I succeeded, I'd get by another day and maybe make a profit.

It was fun, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Mularon's family had tried to take me in before; his parents felt sorry for me. I would have none of it. I wanted their money, not their pity. I couldn't live off of pity. It was a bad cycle, though. I'd run a con job and get by for a week or so. But the money would run out. And I couldn't always count on kind hearted people to be stupid as well. I might go more than a week without food or shelter. For all my life, I was satisfied with this. There was never a real way out; not without leaning on the crutch of charity. That wasn't something I would do, though. I was a conman, not a beggar. Never a beggar.

Now, I had a real way out. The Source was the oldest of our legends. They said that it created our race and built our world. We had long ago ceased to believe in deities, but the Source remained a mystery. We called it the Crayak; that was our word for the Source. If someone could find it, they would be rich beyond imagining. It surely held ancient secrets that would lead to great profit. Finding the Crayak was a dream for almost every child; I had given up on dreams long ago.

Now, though, things were different. The government was putting together a team to search for the Source again. That was a mistake, I knew. Only two types of people would volunteer: fools and crooks. Fools believed they'd actually find the Crayak. The crooks were desperate and thought to use it for their own advantage.

I was a criminal, but not a crook. There's a difference, at least to me. A criminal was one who broke a social law. A crook was one who did wrong. I obeyed what laws made sense. But if it came down to obeying the law or surviving, I chose the second one every time.

A crook didn't bother with the law. They took what they wanted when they wanted it. That wasn't for me. I'd seen the crime lords, the real crooks. Wrongdoing for profit, and profit for the sake of profit; that was where I drew the line. But at least the crooks weren't as bad as the politicians.

They were the fools. Long ago, we Ai had decided it was good to elect our leaders. We used to have a battle system that let the strongest and wisest of us rise to power; not any more. Now, it was whoever lied the best, gave the best speeches, and was willing to give the most money away.

If you ask me, we would be better off going back to the old days. Only the strong survived; the week perished. People like me flourished, while those who couldn't do what needed to be done died. It wasn't right that someone like me, a child brilliant enough to make his way alone in this world, existed on the bottom rung of society while people like Mularon's father, likable but foolish, prospered.

But if I found the Crayak, I could change all that. And I would. But first I had to get myself into this team. I knew I couldn't do it alone; no one could. But before all of that, I had to eat. I never sacrifice immediate necessity for possible future gain. What use was knowing the location of the Crayak if I starved tonight?

CHAPTER 4

My stomach full, it was time to find a way to get myself onto the team. Easier said than done. I knew it was a government job, which meant that they would be assembling in one of the thirteen major cities on Aian. I had no idea which city it would be. There was a way to find out, though. Although we Aian hadn't mastered interstellar travel, other races in our galaxy had. One of them was the Ska. A Ska ship crashed on our world about a decade ago. The pilot, a Ska female, died when the ship crash-landed. Her husband and daughter survived.

The government swept them up pretty quickly, but word got out. The politicians couldn't hide them for long, so they released them into our society. Now, they had no way out. The pilot was also the mechanic, testing an experimental fight system. A little ironic, I think. Their flight went perfectly; it was the landing that was bad. With her dead, the Ska had no way off of the planet.

They found a way to make life better for themselves. They had technology that we Ai didn't, and they were willing to share it. They were careful, of course. They never gave us weapons, for example, or better flight capabilities. But they did do wonderful work with survival gear.

That was why I wanted them. If the government was going to send some Ai on a dangerous mission to the mountains, they'd have to make sure the explorers survived. If not, the press would have a field day. So they'd consult the Ska.

Luckily for me, I knew the Ska. They were among the few people I had lived with and not robbed. That would come in handy now. I was out on the streets. The sun was going down and it wasn't a safe neighborhood. I wasn't worried. I was known here and I had few enemies in this part of the city. A few of the younger gang members disliked me because I wouldn't affiliate myself with them, but I wasn't worried. My friends were more powerful than them.

I wasn't nervous in the bad part of the city, with its gangs and mafia. But when I crossed that very visible line between the lower and the upper, I got a little worried. Here was a world where I didn't belong. I kept to the shadows. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but if the authorities saw me, they'd question me anyway. I very obviously didn't belong here. There was something visibly different between these people and me. I think it was in how and when we smiled.

These people smiled when there was nothing funny or happy. They smiled at life itself. Me, I smiled when something blew up. Or when I betrayed someone who had made the mistake of trusting me. I smiled when I brought someone down to my level. I loved nothing better than taking these happy, smiling people and making them like me.

Am I a little bitter to the world? Perhaps. But don't be quick to think you wouldn't be too, all things considered. My father was dead, my mother gone. When you live your life with nothing, there isn't anything quite so satisfying as taking someone who has everything and showing them your world.

I flitted from shadow to shadow until I made my way to the home of the Ska. It was like any home on Ai; on this side of the city, at least. A tall, almost cylindrical pod made of the same ayn as our ships. It had a door in the front but no windows; there was no need with ayn. I knew there was another door around the back. I knocked, but no one answered. I waited for a full minute and then decided I couldn't wait any longer. If I stood around out here for too long, someone would see me and get suspicious. I decided to let myself in.

The door was locked, of course. But they only locked it with one system; I was used to going past three or four.

This wouldn't take long. From a pouch concealed by my wrinkled flesh, I took a pair of small tools.
I put my tools to the lock and fiddled around a bit, listening intently. I heard one click into place and then the other. A small electrical current coursed through the door, unlocking it. It slid open when I withdrew my tools. Inside, there was a small keypad in the wall next to the door. I didn't know the combination, so I did the next best thing. From another pouch, I took a different tool. It was in the shape of a miniature Ai hand; a cute little touch that made it a must have for any smooth criminal. I placed it to the keypad. Just like the lock picks, it let loose a small electric charge and shorted out the security system.

They weren't home. That much was clear. I wasn't surprised. The Ska homeworld was a land of open fields and rolling hills. They tried to stay at their place in the countryside as often as possible. That was where their workshop was anyway; that was where they'd be making the devices for the search team.

It was far too late for me to head out to their country home. It was too far to walk anyway. I would have to arrange for transportation tomorrow, but that could wait. I needed to sleep.

I made my through the house. Again, I was struck by the lack of imagination Ai architects and designers had. Everything had the same cylindrical, pod shape that the house had. It was ridiculous. The couch, for example, was like a pod split in half and lying on its side. The "broken" area was padded. I meant to sleep there, I really did. But, as I lay down, I realized that I wasn't tired. And then my eyes fell on the computer.

I couldn't help myself. I rolled off the couch, strolled over to the consol (another silver, tapering cylinder), and inserted my chip.

CHAPTER 5

I had long ago stopped feeling the usual rush of a gamer. I was used to this game now. I had worked at it until I became the best. I'm a perfectionist that way. I want everything to be the best it can be; that which is not the best should be destroyed and forgotten. Now that I was the best, I was somewhat bored with the game. No one could beat me at anything. Things always ended like this for me. I got too good and my fun was spoiled. But there was a solution for that. I just needed to find a new, bigger game. Like a real life search for the Crayak.

I was momentarily surprised at the game. I didn't appear in the mountains like I should have. Instead, I was in a green, open field. Not far away was another Ai. One I recognized. And one who recognized me. "Drode!"

"Marigold," I answered. Marigold was the game name of the Ska daughter. I always called her by that name even when we weren't playing; her real name was impossible to pronounce with Ai mouthparts. "Just the person I needed to see."

We were in a section of land that I knew pretty well. In the real world, the Ska country home was here. There was a cave behind me with a nice lake in it.

"What about?"

"Your father made some survival equipment for the government recently. He might still be doing it. Where is it going?" I asked.

She shook her head. In the game, she was a red-skinned Ai like many others. In real life, she had very little in common with an Ai body. "I don't know. I don't ask him about that sort of thing."

"Then I will. You're at your country home?" I almost stumbled over that question. I didn't have one home; to me, it was almost unbelievable that someone would need two.

"Yeah, we're there. Do you have any way of getting here?" Marigold knew I didn't. But to say that would hurt what she thought of as my pride. I had given up pride long ago; you couldn't eat pride.

"No."
"Then I'll come and get you. My father just gave me my own zay. Of course, it's got no kal-cannon, but it's still faster than walking."

"Two people can't fit in a zay," I pointed out.

"This isn't exactly a standard zay, but that's the best way I can describe it. We'll both fit; it's built for passengers."

"Didn't know anyone did custom jobs." I was making small talk now. I hate small talk. I consider it a failure of conversation. When you make small talk, you've run out of important things to say. Marigold had a sleight smile on her face. "What is it?" I asked her.

"I was just remembering how much you hate small talk."

"So you're just enjoying torturing me," I finished. I knew there was something I liked about her.

"I—" She cut off when five zay appeared above us. They had either just joined the game or they had acquired cloaking devices. I had one but rarely used it. Stealth took some of the fun out of an attack. I enjoyed the look on someone's face when I appeared out of nowhere and started attacking. I also liked the look they gave me as they slowly realized that they couldn't beat me. I was unstoppable, a force of nature. I loved it.

These five landed. The pilots got out. I recognized Saberwing immediately. With him were four new players. They were large, for Ai. Their arms actually had some notable muscle. "Drode," Saberwing greeted me.
"Saberwing. What a surprise. I love surprises."

"I mentioned that my brother was with the military? Well, now he's with me. So are some of his friends. They don't take too kindly to what you did to me."

I saw something I could exploit. "Oh? Do they take kindly to you telling me about government projects and Crayak search teams?"

The largest of the Ai, a blue one, turned to Saberwing. "You told him about the search team?"

"I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry. But then he killed me and my friends. And he shorted out our zay so we couldn't spawn back where we started."

"Trying to take all the credit for himself," the soldier concluded. He wasn't too wrong. They advanced on me. Saberwing held back. It was just me and the four soldiers. Marigold was nowhere to be seen.

I hefted my ayn spear; I was never without it. But this wasn't a fight I was likely to win. These were four armed, trained, angry soldiers.

But anger clouded judgment and I could use that. I started backing into the cave behind me. Then, I decided it was a good idea to taunt the soldier. "You've had military training. So you should know you can't beat me. I have all the advantages."

"Advantages? You're outnumbered four to one. We're professionals and you're an amateur."

"All of which means very little. I know the terrain. I've thought this through. I have a plan. You? You're just dumb muscle, fit for sacrifice at the first sign of trouble. But then, that's life in the army." I was close now. Already, I could feel the water of the lake around my ankles. I needed to get them all in the water first. "But, of course, professional soldiers must be more than a match for a gamer like me."

They followed me into the water. I couldn't believe how stupid they were. Oh well. It wasn't the strongest who survived, it was the smartest, the one who thought hardest.

I grabbed a stalactite hanging above me with one hand. I wasn't strong enough to hold myself up for long. It would have to be long enough. I shoved my spear into the lake. You know, of course, that water conducts electricity. Very well. The lake water conducted the electricity of my spear directly into the four soldiers. For one moment, I could see their bones beneath their flesh. Then…they were gone.

I dropped back into the water. Both arms were tired. But I had done a good night's work. I had a ride to the Ska home tomorrow. I had defeated, nay embarrassed, four soldiers. I had added another statistic to my profile. It was a good night. A good night indeed.