35 days after the defeat of the Book of Darkness
A silver-grey destroyer dropped into the thin atmosphere of a red planet. The Ys was small and out of date; one of many that had been pressed into service scouring the sector for remnants of the Mariage. The TSAB's manpower was stretched short out here at the very edge of their reach. This ship carried only four squads of six marines – under half its nominal compliment of sixty.
"Lieutenant, deploy and investigate the anomalous signal," ordered Commander Birturbo. Tall, thin, and pale faced, the commander had been tense and nervous throughout the entire mission. "It could be nothing, but I don't want any needless losses."
"Sir!" Lieutenant Dara snapped off a textbook salute, and looked around the cramped teleporter bay in the belly of the ship, meeting the faces of her understrength platoon.
She waited for her superior to duck back out of the room before scowling. Short brown hair framed a tired face, and her expression was snappish and irritable after days of searching. "All right! You should all know the drill by now, but apparently boredom is making you slack off. That last deployment was a mess! So to reiterate; any and all suspicious signals are to be treated as if they could be a Mariage hotspot. That means spells primed, corners covered, body cams on and don't let your guard down. I spot anyone chatting or watching a feed, I will bust them down so far that they never see daylight again. Clear?"
"Dara," Estelle groaned from the back of the small huddle. "This is the fifth dead-end today, you can't pretend you're not just as bored as us."
Dara gave him a killing glare. "We treat this seriously," she repeated, low and dangerous. "Teleport on my mark. I'll be heading down with Section C, since they're down one man. Section A, off you go!"
Six flashes of light marked their departure from the ship, and the signals came back reporting a clean deployment. Section B deployed, and then C. They materialised on the Martian surface in full Barrier Jackets, immediately sinking a few centimetres into the rusted sand. A dust storm was sweeping through the region, rendering the horizon invisible behind a reddish haze and obscuring much of the sun and starlight. In a testament to their professionalism – or possibly their desire not to be harangued anymore by their lieutenant – the squad fell into immediate formation; adjusting their colours to blend into the surroundings and crouching low to survey the area.
"Ys, this is Dara," she transmitted back up to the ship. "Platoon is on the ground. Any change in the anomaly?"
"No change," Commander Birturbo replied. "The dense terrain and the dust storm are interfering with scanners, though."
"Understood." Dara gave her orders, and the other sections began to advance, deploying their search spells and sweeping the rocky terrain.
One of Section C came scuttling low through the storm. "El-tee," Aleko whispered. "I've got something on Area Scan. Something humanoid – not just the wind."
The little group clustered closer together and peered through the gloom towards the cliffs a few hundred metres away. Dara's eyes narrowed as she picked out what Aleko had noticed; the slightest suggestion of a humanoid figure moving coming out of the shadow of a cave.
"Down, down!" she hissed, grabbing the two marines next to her and yanking them down. The rest of them hit the ground a second later, burrowing down into the sand to avoid notice.
The figure stood unnaturally still, searching the landscape with slow sweeps of its head. Dara swore quietly.
"They must have caught the teleport beacon. They know we're here, they just don't know where," she hissed. Opening a secure link to the Ys, she called it in.
"That's a Mariage," the commander said intensely. "It's exposed itself for our scanners. Lieutenant, standing orders are to search and destroy."
Lieutenant Dara gritted her teeth. "Sir, we don't know how many there are."
"We're prepared for close air support if the estimates on their remaining numbers are incorrect," the man said. "But we need to confirm if this is their nest, or just a scouting mission. We can't risk them getting awa—" His image broke up and scattered.
"Aleko?" Dara snapped.
"I'm trying," he muttered back urgently. "We're being jammed. I can't try to punch through it, not without alerting everything within a hundred kilometres."
"So we retreat?" asked Riva. Dara shook her head, hissing in frustration.
"The Ys will be trying to get through. If we run now, they'll vanish and we'll have to hunt them down all over again. But if they're out here and only sent one unit out, I'm betting they're low on numbers." She checked her links, made sure that she had contact with the other sections and moved A and B into position.
"We'll take point. Remember, they'll all be linked – as soon as one goes down, the rest will know, and start getting ready for us. Or escaping. We go in quickly, we cover all the angles, we lead with a scry-spell and we take them apart by the numbers. Estelle and Tatra lead – Estelle, shoot anything that moves, Tatra, you're on defence." The Mid- and Belkan-users nodded, and Dara continued. "Riva and Trabant next. Riva, you provide support if anything gets too close, Trabant is on forward watch." Riva hummed in acknowledgement, shifting her spear into a crossguard mode.
Dara took a deep breath. "Aleko and I will bring up the rear. Anything seems out of place, at any time, you yell it out for the squad. Got it?"
There was a low chorus of acknowledgement. The groaning or boredom from before was gone; replaced by a rush of adrenaline. Dara nodded.
"Trabant, can you dispatch it from here?"
The large man was already sighting down his Device. "Just a moment…" he murmured, shifting position. "Everyone get ready to go… and… firing."
A washed-out blue so pale it was barely visible lanced from his staff and hit the figure in the neck before it could react. The body spun once; head half gone, and burst into liquid flame as it fell.
"Go go go!"
The squad ran for the cave entrance, the other squads moving in behind them. Another figure loomed up as they poured in, but its grey shooting spell glanced off Tatra's shield and a stutter of fire from three different Devices dispatched it. Trabant launched a line-of-sight scrying spell ahead of them and they sped on through the cave; a window hovering alongside to show them the view around the next corner.
That was the only reason they survived the next two Mariage, which didn't bother with a shootout. The dark figures were a blur on the advance screen, and only Estelle's reaction time saved them. A green pulse of force expanded into a web that filled the tunnel, which both creatures slammed into and detonated; spraying acrid chemical goop across the cave walls.
The squad skidded to a halt as the spatter roared into flame, illuminating the gloomy cavern with an eye-hurting orange-white light and sparking flinches where droplets hit their barrier jackets.
"Don't stop, don't stop!" shouted Dara. "If we lose momentum they'll have time for more traps; suicide bombs mean they're desperate! Move, damn you!"
But the last three Mariage they found weren't setting traps. Nor were they preparing to fight. Moving more haltingly than their initial charge, unnerved by the near miss, the squad turned into a large cave and found the looming bulk of a supply ship; old and battered.
And taking off.
The marines threw themselves out of the way of the battered ship as it launched, uselessly peppering it with shots.
"Stop it!" Dara broadcast on all channels, sprinting after it.
But there was nothing that ground troops could do. The Ravi emerged from the cave, smashing aside rock in its flight, and…
Bright light lanced down from overhead, punching through the flank of the escaping ship and sending it crashing down into the mountainside. The Ys could be seen overhead, its prow glowing from the discharge of its primary weapon.
"Yes!" shouted Tatra. "The commander came through!"
"Move in!" ordered Dara. "Secure the vessel! Don't let them get it in the air again!"
A flying leap by Riva got her spear through a bulkhead door as it closed to seal off the ruptured section, and she levered it open with a yell as alarms began blaring. The ship was small – only three internal compartments – and they found the Mariage on the bulkhead's other side, clustered around an ancient black throne that faced away from the door.
Six spells fired. Two struck and shattered Tatra's shield. One hit Estelle, who dropped with a yell of pain.
Two Mariage dropped with her, and Riva's spear pinned the last one to the wall through its chest.
Panting and swearing, Dara limped forward as the others congregated around their downed man. Wincing and raising a hand to shield herself against the burning goop that now filled the entire left half of the room, she grabbed the limp form on the high throne and yanked it into her arms before backing away as far as she could.
"Hey!" she yelled, catching the attention of the section. "We have a man down and a hostage, and that might not have been all of them! Secure the rest of the systems!"
Elbowing the door to the cockpit open, Dara settled the little girl the Mariage had been clustered around in copilot's seat, pulled Estelle's body in after her and – with some relief –turned off the alarms. Kneeling to check him over, she sucked air past her teeth. The spell had hit him on the temple; a lethally concentrated bolt of force that had punched through his barrier jacket and knocked him senseless. His breathing was shallow, but regular.
"Lucky," she told him, straightening. "Very lucky. A little more force and that would have shattered your skull."
She rose and made her way through to the ruptured compartment they'd come in through, edging carefully around the fire. Aleko was crouching over his Device readout and frowning. "Dara…" he said slowly as she came in, "something weird is going on here. The jamming isn't coming from the ship – it's not even coming from the cave complex. Why would they stick it outside somewhere?"
"Are you sure? Check again," she ordered.
"Lieutenant!" Commander Birturbo's image was unmoving, but this close he could punch through the jamming to get a voice link. "Do you have the wreckage secured?"
"In progress, sir!" She glanced back at the girl. "We've got a hostage – a child."
"Mark her and we'll teleport her out," the man said.
Edging past the burning goop for a third time, she dug a beacon out of her pocket and placed it on the girl. "Ready when you are, sir," she said. She paused. Wait, with the jamming so thick, maybe it would be safer to…
The little girl vanished in light. "Transfer successful," Commander Birturbo said. "We'll take good care of her. Keep on with what you're doing, lieutenant."
The man cut the link. Sitting back in his chair, he looked over his silent bridge.
The bodies of his crew lay at their desks. Blood pooled on the floor, well-lit under the bright lights of the ship. They hadn't suspected anything. Flexing the clawed glove on his hand, the man put his feet up on his command console, and tapped a few buttons on his Device.
"Wait, what's that?" he said, his voice perfectly mimicking Lieutenant Dara. "There's more! Kaice! Dammit it, Tatra, take them down! Section A, come in! Come in! They're all down! How many of those monsters are there? Commander! I need danger close fire support! There were more and they're all activating!" He wasn't just mimicking her. He was also mimicking the noises of magic in the background.
"Are you—" he began in the commander's voice.
"Do it!" he screamed in Lieutenant Dara's voice.
"Fire support authorised," he said, in the commander's voice. He waved his clawed glove idly, and the systems were overridden. "Danger close. Sky Lance."
Bright light formed between the vessel's prow, before a ship-grade bombardment spell fell upon the wreckage of the Ravi. The Ys burned the vessel and its own marines from the face of the dusty red planet.
"Commander!" he shouted in the voice of one of the dead crew. "Teleport flicker! They're through our shields!"
He swore in the commander's voice. "All hands! Prepare for boarding act—" And then he screamed exactly the scream a man might scream if he was stabbed from behind without expecting it. It was not the first such scream the bridge had heard.
Sitting back in the commander's seat with a sigh, Due let herself relax, properly, for the first time in days. Her skin squirmed and shifted as flesh and musculature swapped out with other grafts, and she shivered happily as her face returned to her favourite form. A pretty young woman with dirty-blonde hair who looked to be around fifteen sat sprawled out in the chair, a few flecks of blood still on her face. She gave herself a winning smile and a wink in the reflective surface of the screen, and fired one more shot down into the glowing crater to take care of the remainder of Sections A and B. Then, with a languorous stretch, she pulled up a window and made sure that the girl those idiots had found for her was safely secured.
"Well then," she said, half to herself and half to her comatose passenger. "Time to leave. Can't keep the Doctor waiting."
Three hours later, a small group entered the UA-27 base of operations, unwounded but with shoulders sagging from tiredness. The tallest carried a tiny form in her arms; and she was flanked by three girls of varying sizes.
A man was waiting for them at the inner entrance, along with a young woman. The eldest of the new arrivals ducked her head prettily as they approached.
"Girls!" Jail greeted the Numbers. "It went well, then?"
Due nodded. "Your intelligence allowed me to pin down the world and lead my proxies there," she said, her manner as casual as if she was discussing the weather. "I maintained my impersonation of the commander I replaced easily, and eliminated all possible witnesses after my 'dear men' secured the Mariage Queen."
"And the vessel?" Uno asked primly.
Due smiled. "I disposed of the corpses, scrubbed it with Mariage-characteristic Galean cleansing spells, and then vented it. They'll find the ghost ship in orbit when they follow its emergency broadcast. If your injection code does its job, the TSAB will be chasing Mariage ghosts for decades. My younger sisters' presence on site close to the target location was useful, but not strictly necessary. If they had not arrived, things would likely have gone exactly as I planned."
"I helped, I helped!" Quattro added eagerly. "I put up a field to stop them talking! Due said I did well, didn't you, didn't you!"
Due shifted the tiny form in her arms to ruffle her sister's hair fondly. "Quattro was a great help," she agreed. "You were the most useful one."
Tre, on the other hand, scowled. "I'm glad you had fun," she muttered sullenly. "I didn't get to do anything. Might as well not even have been there, right 'ci?"
Dieci; the last member of the little group, shrugged laconically. "I didn't mind," she said softly. "Went as planned. That's good."
Tre huffed in annoyance and stomped off. Uno sighed, and trailed after her.
"Hurt feelings?" Jail mused, watching her go. "Hmm. Well, I'm sure she'll get over it. And an excellent job, well done." He rubbed his hands together, smiling proudly. "I had complete faith in you, of course, but I'm glad to hear you weren't injured. And your objective?"
Due hefted the petite figure she carried. A long braid of red hair trailed down from to brush her knees. "Unharmed and asleep," she said. "She stirred a little when I first picked her up, but nothing since."
"Ah, poor dear." Jail nodded sympathetically. "Deprived of an energy source, she can do nothing but sleep, it seems. Well, we'll see if we can't sort that out." He smiled again, the mad gleam in his eyes twinkling at the thought of the new puzzle resting peacefully in front of him.
A small hand tugged at his lab coat and he looked down. Dieci, after a momentary pause, remembered to look up.
"Are we going to have a new sister?" she asked quietly. She had been a lot less lively since the Testarossas had left, Jail noted. Likely missing her friend.
He ruffled her hair paternally. "Perhaps, Dieci," he agreed. "A new sister, if she proves… amenable to being your friend. And perhaps much more." Despite himself, a chuckle escaped him as he gently lifted the young Queen of Galea from Tre's arms, and turned to take her back into the base. "As soon as we can wake her up, I'm sure she'll be a great help to us."
"That's good." Seeming happier than she had since Alicia had left for parts unknown, Dieci smiled. "I'm glad we rescued her from the TSAB, then." Behind Dieci, Due grinned. "And it's good that those servant-things of hers won't be around anymore."
Jail couldn't help it. He shifted Ixpellia in his arms to pat Dieci on the head, and laughed delightedly.
"No, indeed, Dieci," he managed, as he wiped tears of mirth away from his eyes. She was giggling too, drawn along by his amusement despite not really understanding the joke. "No, they most definitely will not."
"But I think she'll be a great help to us anyway."
Author's Note: Wow.
Let me repeat myself. Power Games is over. Wow. This story took far, far longer than I planned or expected – hiatuses caused by the demands of university threw off my writing schedule to a much greater degree than Game Theory did, which coupled with the long-chapter format made for ridiculously long dead periods. I'm not at all happy about that, and henceforth the Gamesverse will be shifting to a shorter chapter length that will hopefully prevent it from happening again.
But it's finished now, and it was a pretty wild ride. Thanks, as always, go to EarthScorpion; my cowriter and editor. As with Game Theory, I learned a lot from writing this story – and I was able to use and refine some of the lessons I learnt from Game Theory in the process. There are still flaws in the narrative, just as there were with its prequel, but all in all I'm pretty proud of what I've done here.
Next up in the Gamesverse will be a side story written by EarthScorpion, called Hide and Seek Games. Look out for it on his page! And until then, goodbye and thank you for reading!