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.
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One could not see the enemy's pieces, or the enemy. 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. 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.
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What do you say to doubled stakes? Percentages of success for the Lancer Advanced? Adjusted for the three-dimensional game, Obscuration rules, four percent. Sovin, adjust for Grand Master play. Operator Sudok said "Starting positions are chosen. Goals are being placed. 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.
The Final Reflection
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.
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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.
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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. 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.
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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.
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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! 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. Kezhke said, "Sudok -- " "The Admiral Grand Master inspected his players' complete records some days ago. But it's been 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.