Alarm clock ringing. Morning.

Fist to clock, clock stops ringing.

Sweep broken plastic parts away from futon with an arm gesture.

Hangover check. Hangover? No. Breakfast? Probably a good idea, especially with Mallory back on kitchen duty. Exercises first, breakfast second. Gotta stay sharp. Sharp and fed, but sharp first, then fed. Fetch training stick from wall mount weapons rack, twirl into place, go through the motions of the kata...

Despite having a personal philosophy about clothing that boiled down to "Less Is More," Lorelei did not, in fact, go through her warm-up routine topless. That would be silly, and uncomfortable. She went through it bottomless instead.

Slowly her brain woke up as the whirling wooden rod whispered through the air. Instinctive motions slid gracefully into voluntary ones as she grew more alert after a full night's rest... her stances sliding from attack to defense to attack in smooth combinations. She struck at invisible enemies in the air, halting the rod an inch inside their imaginary bodies... nodding in satisfaction at each attack.

"Still got it," she decided, as she did every morning. "And always had it."

"Is it safe to enter, or do I risk severe head trauma?" a familiar voice asked from the other side of her door.

Lorelei spin her stick around thrice, before shifting to back-twirls to avoid accidentally whacking her employer. "C'min!"

The door opened carefully, doorknob left unturned; Lorelei didn't care much about privacy, unlike the sniper down the hall.

"We have a job offer to check out today," Meiko explained, leaning in the doorframe. "But I want to warn you now: you may not like it."

"You know me, boss, I'm ready for anything," Lorelei replied, spinning her weapon from hand to hand as she chatted. "Don't stress about it. I'll handle anything you need handled! Or manhandle any men you need manhandled."

"Mhmm. Well, to prevent you from manhandling me when you find out where we are, you should know that I haven't formally accepted the offer yet; we're attending a sit-down meeting after breakfast to get the details. I could use a bodyguard to get to the meeting, but you don't have to participate in this one if you don't want to."

Lorelei flicked her fingers around the staff, and with a snap of the wrist lobbed it in the air. The spinning training weapon made a WHOOSHWHOOSH noise before landing perfectly back in its slot on her weapon rack.

"Now you've got me curious," she said, fetching a towel she kept nearby for morning workout purposes, and wiping down a bit. "What's so nasty out there that I can't face it? You're forgetting that I'm a beer-drinking, man-eating, bar-brawling son of a gun who's also the Ultimate 16 Champion of Tribal Alpha."

"Actually, no. I'm specifically not forgetting that," Meiko said, still looking unsure. "We're leaving shortly. Mallory made toast so we can eat and run... and Lorelei?"

"Yeah, Mei?"

"Put on some clothes before coming downstairs."

"It's nothing Mallory hasn't seen before..."

"We're NOT starting this again, are we?" Meiko asked, despairing. "I thought—"

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding! He's all yours, Meiko, whether you're taking him or not. I just like to play with his head. And YES, I'll put on my work clothes. Give me four minutes and I'll be there."

Three minutes were spent searching her wardrobe for something suitably skimpy yet functionally efficient yet personally statement-making yet stylish yet comfortable. Thirty seconds were spent strapping it on.

Twenty seconds were devoted to wondering what Meiko was being so vague about, and what in the multiverse Lorelei could possibly object to. She made it a mission in life ever since leaving home to sample damn near anything in life she could, after all; aside from maybe taking a job where she had to date a metric ton of man-fat with pimples on his ass, there was nothing she felt she couldn't conquer. No challenge she couldn't crush, no enemy she couldn't reduce to a small quivering lump of pain. 2,034 dead bodies couldn't be wrong, after all...

Ten seconds later she froze in her tracks on seeing the jungles of Tribal Alpha out the kitchen window.


unreal estate, episode 07: player hater

"Wow, it's humid out there!" was Mallory's usual level of observation and enlightenment.

"The climates of Tribal Alpha are divided into four quadrants: forest, jungle, tundra, and desert," Eiko recited from the House's copy of Twoday's Guidebook For Discerning Reality Tourists. "Each zone presents unique challenges for weekend players and established tribes alike! Docking yards are available in each zone, and represent combat-free zones for non-tribe members..."

"So, it's one huge video game?" Mallory asked, curious. "They run around out there and shoot at each other and fight and stuff?"

"Thaaat's right! And the Ladder of Triumph shows how many points each clan or visiting player rack up from kills and enemy flag captures. You can drop in for a weekend of fun, or move in fulltime by joining a clan and participating in a twenty-four-seven-three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day-a-year fragfest like none other! It's so cool; I've seen all sorts of tournaments held here on RealNet Sports! Oneechan, this is GREAT! Can I go play? I have a slingshot! I bet I could score some points—"

"No, you can't play," Meiko spoke without looking up from buttering her toast. "You and Mallory are staying here, and if you push him into letting you leave the house, you'll be in more trouble than I like to put you in."

"O...oneechan?" Eiko asked, surprised. "But it's just a game—"

"If it was just a game, they wouldn't need their own reality for it," Meiko explained. "Even if it was just a game, you know I don't like you playing violent video games. Violent PEOPLE games are much, much worse. Just because nobody really dies here doesn't mean it's harmless..."

"Uh... I was kinda wondering about that," Mallory said, turning away from the window. "How is it that people can attack each other and not actually hurt each other...?"

Eiko flipped to the next page in the GuideBook. "Simple enough—custom reality! One of the few worlds that doesn't conform to RealWare's Uniform Reality Standards 1.0. The Reality Engine here has a special add-on module created by RealWare seven hundred years ago that makes an invisible 'reality warp bubble' around everybody in this reality. When a weapon hit or other potentially injuring action is felt by the bubble, it takes away 'health points' and when you reach zero, you're knocked out for a few minutes and then moved to a random 'respawn point'! The ServOps Center which houses the engine and Ladder of Triumph is completely automated, a marvel of reality engineering! Oniichan, you should've known that, being a certified Reality Engineer and all..."

"You are upset?"

Lorelei almost went for a martial arts takedown when the whisper floated over her shoulder, but stopped herself after glancing back to see who it was.

The silent-moving sniper glanced down to Lorelei's hand, which was dripping slightly on the floor from where her fingernails had buried into her palm.

"...I'd be lying if I said no, and you don't care for lies, yes?" Lorelei asked, trying to stay calm. Cool. Controlled. Nearly failing to.

"Yes," Kisei confirmed quietly.

"Then yes."

"I see. Meiko has told you this mission is optional for you, yes?"



"I want to see what's going on for myself before I turn around and stomp back here in disgust," Lorelei decided after shoving past her reluctance to go out there.

"A suitable decision, I suppose," Kisei replied, before stepping around her to join the others at breakfast.

Her ears closed off to Eiko going on excitedly about the wonders of Tribal Alpha, as she stepped up for toast as well. Without even looking at Meiko, she buttered and ate in silence.

Truth be told, she would have preferred to go back to bed than face this place again. Not that she was afraid to return, no. Certainly not that. It was more a matter of absolute loathing and repulsion. If this was a positive magnet, so was Lorelei, one always driving off the other...

But even at the edges of her closed ears, she could hear the familiar sounds. Footfalls in the grasses. Weapons fire. Orders shouted. Screams...

The call of the l33t.

Come and play...

- - - -

The twisted wreckage of an AirBike spun from the sky like a wounded bird. A wounded bird on fire and raining red hot metal fragments on the armies below.

In an act of amusing irony, it crashed into the mobile vehicle repair bay, causing a giant fireball to roar into the sky and the soldiers below to scatter like little green plastic army men in a wind tunnel.

"REPAIR OUR VEHICLE STATION!" one of them shouted into his helmet communicator. "REPAIR OUR... oh, sh1—"

Another explosion heralded his demise. Or rather, his 'fragging'... as the completely unmutilated body simply tumbled backwards from the explosion, knocked out cold by remote. A fresh wave of troops rushed forward, firing rockets and railgun shots and grenades and flamethrowers and more as hundreds stormed the gates of the makeshift fortress...

At the edge of the jungle clearing (clear as in 'stomped flat' or 'burned away') stood three uninvolved bystanders: Meiko Mirai, with her bodyguard Lorelei and tactician Kisei. None of them felt compelled to wander into the ongoing brawl.

"Check with me on this," Meiko asked. "If one of those idiots shoots me, I won't actually be hurt, correct? Lorelei? ...Lorelei?"

"I have trained here before," Kisei filled in, while Lorelei maintained a stony silence. "Any visitors are treated just like other players, except that they respawn at the docking yards. You would simply be returned to the house."

"Right. Well. Regardless, I don't feel like being 'killed' today," Meiko decided. "We're staying right here for now. Our client said she'd send a bodyguard contingent to escort us in if there were hostilities at our time of arrival. But if any of these jokers—"

"Duck," Kisei suggested.

The crew hit the deck as a homing rocket failed to home properly, and detonated a section of jungle fifty feet behind them.

"—and if they even SCRATCH the aluminium siding on the House, there's gonna be hell to pay," Meiko spoke through grinding teeth. "Believe me, I wouldn't take this job if we didn't need the money... and if someone doesn't show to escort us in the next five minutes I'm going to accept living on instant ramen for another week. ...Lorelei, if you wanna turn back now, you—"

"I'm not going anywhere," Lorelei replied quickly. "Besides, it's almost over. Three of them got inside the gates; two runners and a carrier. Standard flanking positions, but tight ones, good skill. There was even a second wave going in to back up the first and carry the slack in the event of failure. My guess is that in the next minute—"

A blazing alarm rocked the jungle, a sound that came from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Klaxon-style siren... and then a voice, a machine voice of the automated ServOps.


A whooping cheer went up from the invading army, as a tattered red flag was carried out of the gates, despite the heavy fire from the fortress walls on the now exiting army. A few members of the victory party were pegged neatly by snipers, but it didn't matter; the major points had been scored. Any frags beyond that were trivial.

To drive the point home, the driver of the invader's primary personnel transport got on a loudspeaker for a final taunt.

"W3lc0m3 t0 th3 b0tt0m, d00dz!" he howled in tribal dialect. "W3 0WNZ J0000!!!1!"

"Looks like the fun's over," Meiko decided. "I think we can forgo the escorts now."

- - - -

The fortress had seen better days. Weeks, too. Bordering on months.

Walking down the corridors, it was clear that all their resources had been turned towards defense—the fine art of keeping people the hell out. Snipers were positioned at every window, at least as many snipers as they could spare; cots and lanterns had been laid out so they could sleep in shifts in the hallway. Stone rubble and twisted metal littered the place, pushed aside to make a clear walking space down each hallway—fragments stripped from the quasi-science-fiction-medieval-castle-fusion architecture of the fortress.

As for the mood of the place, 'gloom' was an understatement. 'Despair' would probably be closer, except that the various uniformed soldiers they passed didn't look ready to give up—it was the kind of desperate despair that made you fight even harder to protect your way of life...

Although the looks Lorelei got were more than formal nods. They were looks of quiet surprise. Of course, the troops had been informed that Mirai Consulting would be arriving today, and exactly WHO Mirai Consulting consisted of... but knowing someone's coming and seeing them in the flesh for the first time in four years, these are distinctly separate things...

Finally the journey ended at a set of double doors, re-fortified after being blown open earlier by the D3THL0RDZ. Men in ragged crimson uniforms worked the opening mechanisms, allowing them entrance... to the Flag Room.

The Flag Room was the true core of any fortress, the single point that must be protected. Fragging the enemy in droves got you points on the ladder, of course, but nothing compared to the capture of an enemy flag. Of course, once captured, it 'respawns' back in the Flag Room ten minutes later—but by then the damage is done, and as the D3THL0RDZ did, you can safely retreat to plan your next raid.

Not that Meiko knew any of this. But Lorelei did. Memories leaking back into the front of her brain, from the parts she had sealed away along with her other childish mistakes...

Sitting at a war council table were the remaining leaders of the tribe. At the head of the table sat the leader of leaders... the master of masters. A hardened warrior whose prowess in battle was only matched by two others... one who could cut through a swath of men and rack up dozens of frags in minutes... a living embodiment of absolute death.

"Hello, hello!" she greeted, with a songbird's sweet voice. Her hands clasped together, shining blue eyes behind bangs attached to flowing blonde hair. "I'm so glad you could make it! Francis, please, some tea for our guests. I'm so sorry, I had hoped to prepare for your arrival more, but we got distracted by some silly little children... would you like any cookies? I baked some this morning for you! Someone, get our friends some chairs, it's so impolite to leave them standing—"

"We're fine, thanks," Meiko replied, taking control of the situation. "As for the tea, we'll pass. Now, Kelli of the Steel Blades Tribe, correct? I hope you understand that we'd like to get to business right away..."

"Of course, of course," Kelli of the Steel Blades Tribe replied, gesturing for three chairs to be added to the table. Once her guests were seated, she got to the heart of the matter. "I apologize for being vague in my job offer, but I thought it best that you see our situation before deciding... as you no doubt are aware, we are in dire straits. It's quite a sad story, and one I'm hoping you can help us out with..."

"From the looks of it, you're not doing real well in the games," Meiko guessed correctly.

"It's not from lack of sk1llz," Kelli noted, subtly smoothing out her red dress under the table, to maintain appearances. "We have ruled the ladder for generations... at or near the top slot at all times. Our warriors have gone on to form their own tribes which were also quite successful. However, the situation has taken a turn for the worse this year. Our enemies, being quite cowardly (and I mean that in the nicest way possible) have decided to band together against us as a single federation of tribes. This is not one of the simple, fragile alliances of the past that we easily overcame... at this point, there are only fifteen tribes left in Tribal Alpha. And fourteen of them are members of this new alliance."

"Ah. So, essentially, the entire world is against you?"

"It's jealousy, plain and simple," the leader spoke, with a breathy sigh. "We've been strong for so long that it's only natural for the weak to want to take us down. I understand, really, I do; our tribe got to this place over the bodies of others. That's the way of Tribal Alpha, but it does mean developing quite a few enemies along the way. But this alliance... it's against everything Tribal Alpha stands for. They do not seek the friendly competition of the hunt. They have no eye for the trophies and the titles, or the thrill of the fight... all they want is to purge us from this world, plain and simple. The alliance is an unfair fight, and if there's one thing that I cannot stand, it's bullying... but I digress. Are you familiar with the 'purge'?"

"I haven't fully read up on the rules of the game," Meiko admitted... glancing sideways to the silent Lorelei. "Lorelei, do you—"

"The Purge separates the l4m3 from the l33t," Lorelei replied curtly. "Once a month, whatever tribe is at the bottom of the ladder is purged. More or less. There are more complicated conditions needed to satisfy it than that alone, but... I wouldn't doubt that fourteen tribes could put even the mighty Steel Blades at the bottom. Anybody who can't climb off the bottom rung in one month's time gets purged... the reality-warp bubbles that keep them from really getting killed is turned off. After that they have to join another tribe, leave Tribal Alpha and never return, or risk the Final Frag..."

"As I said, it's an unfair way to achieve the goal," Kelli spoke up... keeping her eyes on Lorelei as she did so. "If one tribe alone managed to do this to us, I could accept the defeat. It would be honorable. But this mob mentality is spoiling the purity of the—"

"This is bullshit."

A chill filled the already chilled room.

Meiko briefly considered ordering her employee to hold her tongue, and opted not to.

"...I had hoped that your time in self-imposed exile would help you understand, Lorelei," Kelli replied. "I had hoped that when I hired your consulting firm to help us, you would be willing to stand up for us once again. Although I suppose by hiring you, your employer will make you stand for us regardless—"

"Stand up for what, pray tell?" Lorelei asked, mixing her sarcasm into her seriousness and ending up with something far darker and nastier than her usual playful attitude. "For your high score? Your 'honor'? Your l33tness? I had hoped that my time in self-imposed exile would help YOU understand why I left. You know what? I'm all for the Steel Blades getting the axe. Then maybe you idiots could join the rest of us OUT THERE, in reality. Rei-Lei was right. She was right and I was right to leave in the first place, just like I'm leaving now!"

Okay, now you can intercede, Meiko decided.

"Hold up a minute, Lorelei," she spoke, rising to her feet. "Just one minute while I render my decision here. Miss Kelli, Mirai Consulting is not a mercenary outfit. We are not in the habit of fighting wars for people. If you hired us hoping to use Lorelei's skills—excuse me, 'sk1llz'—to dig yourself out of this hole, then I'm afraid I will have to let you down. I won't order her to help, and have in fact already told her she can walk away from this at any time. If we take this job... then I intend to find a non-combat based solution to your problem. I do not believe in the one-option-only scenario."

"I apologize for disagreeing, Miss Mirai, but there IS only one option here," Kelli responded, trying to sound as sweet and polite as possible rather than irritated. "Within a few days, our reality-warps will be deactivated. Unless we fight our way off the bottom rung in that time, something we cannot do alone, we will be no more... because our tribe will fight to the last, for our honor. We will not run from the duty, unlike some..."

"Oh, what a clever hidden barb at yours truly," Lorelei chewed out. "You know, I decided early on I wanted to see what's going on for myself before I turn around and stomp back home in disgust. And I'm going to do that now. I'm going home."

"Lorelei, you ARE home now!"

"You know what I mean, Mother!" Lorelei barked out, before turning and making for the doors at full sprint.

- - - -

Nervous eyes peered out from behind a tree. The brain they were connected to via optic nerves within was far more nervous than the eyes that they looked through, since eyes can't actually be nervous, but... the holder (beholder?) of the eyes was too nervous to really think coherently.

"Well? Is the coast clear or not?" an annoyed voice behind him asked.

"It's c-clear," the nervous one replied. "I don't see anyone, just the spawn point..."

His companion stepped around him, carrying the bundled up tent. "All right, good. We set up here. You get the cooking fire going; I'll erect the pup tent. We shouldn't be here more than two days."

The nervous one followed into the clearing shortly after that, studying the stone marker buried in the ground curiously. "It's unmarked, though... are you sure this is the place? I mean, what if we're wrong? We could be stuck out here longer. Or we could be attacked! We're really close to Steel Blades territory!"

"Will you relax, n00b?" the other one hissed, while unrolling the tent. "That's what the traps we're gonna set up are for! And as for the spawn point, it's on the Great Map. Generations of our ancestors can't be wrong! The +5/+5 Mythril Railgun of 0wnage respawns right here every 48 hours. All we have to do is stake the place out, defend it against anybody else, and one of the most w1ck3d guns in Tribal Alpha will be ours! A damn fine prize to take back to the Campers Tribe, and a victory for the Alliance! Now get the coffee going, I'm thirsty after all that hiking... NOW what is it?"

The n00b pointed a shaky finger to the trees high above the respawn point. "I.. I think I saw someone! Up there!"

"You said it was clear," the elder camper said, fumbling with a pair of binoculars that had gotten tangled up in the neckerchief of his Camper's uniform. He spun the Zoom dial, and looked upward... and dropped down to a whisper. "Right. One player... a woman. Sitting in a branch above. Not looking at us. She could be camping too... pass me the chaingun—no, the crossbow. Gotta be precise, if she gets away she could tell someone we're here..."

"What if she's part of the Alliance, though?" the panicky one asked quietly. "I mean, we have a fourteen out of fifteen chance of friendly fire here... we could get in a lot of trouble!"

"She's not a friend," the elder replied. "Because she's dropping on us right now. Break right."

"What?" the n00b asked, before being neatly cleaved in half.

At least, the flaming blue of Lorelei's plasma blade sliced through the space where the n00b stood—the effect was a little confusing to the eye, as if cutting through a ghost. But the end result was certain, as the younger Camper's body jerked twice, and fell unconscious to the jungle ground.

The elder, which was not nearly as l4m3 as that, rolled right and avoided Lorelei's follow-through attack. He had his +2/+1 Shining Armor Piercing Ice Zipgun out after that, cranking off two wild shots which were parried by the whirling arc of blue fire... before he found the plasma blade positioned right up to his neck, while he was flat on the ground.

"...damn," the Camper said. "You got me, Steel Blade. Not too bad."

He waited for the artificially induced blackness to overtake him. Except it didn't.

"S'matter, don't you want the frag?" he asked, not particularly interested in begging for the life he knew she wouldn't be able to take. "I thought all you Steel Blades were bloodthirsty little psychos..."

The blade twirled once before being powered down.

"Get out of here," Lorelei ordered him.

"Hey, this is my camp site, get your own," the Camper suggested, getting back to his feet. "Either that or fight me for it. That's how it works, isn't it?"

"I'm not in the Steel Blades anymore," Lorelei replied, trying to keep her voice level. "Fine. Camp here. Get your new toy. Just leave me alone."

"An indie fragger? Weekend warrior?" the Camper guessed, trying to make sense of the situation. "Where's your corporate team-building exercise cronies? Or are you just a violence otaku—"

The sound of a silent bullet vanishing in the warp-space around the Camper was, obviously, inaudible. The sound his body made when it hit the ground was not.

And since she had no need to stay stealthy now, her boots made a slight noise when she touched down from her sniping position.

Lorelei watched her, curiously. "What'd you do that for? He was almost interesting."

"Is there a reason I shouldn't have done that?" Kisei asked, with a mild shrug. "It is not as if the end result matters in this place. For that matter, why did you eliminate the other one?"

Lorelei frowned and then furrowed her brow and then looked aside and then softened and then groaned and then slumped and then shook her head in the span of a few seconds. "...I don't know. Just... something in my bones, I guess. It happened all by itself. 'Call of the l33t.'"

"I am familiar with the term, although I don't see any purpose to it outside of a mission structure," Kisei spoke, scanning the surrounding trees for any reinforcements (none). "Speaking of purpose, you had stated your intent to return to the House. When you did not, Meiko suggested I come look for you."

"Yeah... yeah, I know. Sorry. Didn't mean to worry the boss lady, I just... I wanted to think. And I gotta admit, I DO miss the peace and quiet of the jungle. ...relative peace and quiet. And the fighting. I don't know. I guess I'm a hypocrite, but what else is new? ...and I really blew up back there with Mom, huh? Bet Meiko's pissed. Maybe I should've stayed at home..."

"It did not affect the mission one way or another, even if it was an uncontrolled outburst. Meiko is not concerned about it. Although... no, it is of no importance. Come, we should return home."

Letting herself be snagged by the hook, Lorelei allowed herself a grin. "Ohhhh no you don't, Kiss. You don't drop bombs like 'Although, no, never mind' and get away with it. Even the ice queen gets curious sometimes, doesn't she? You're wondering what was really going on back there, weren't you?"

"...perhaps I was, but it does not really matter."

"Too bad, because I feel like telling the sad, sad story anyway," Lorelei said, having a seat on the sleeping bag the Campers had set out. And stealing some of their freshly brewed coffee. "Mmm. C'mon, sit down. The boss won't spank us for coming back a bit late, and the chances of catching me willing to talk about my past are as rare as... well, as rare as you talking about yours, aren't they?"

Kisei considered this a moment... before allowing a moment of weakness, to join Lorelei in sitting down. "Very well. What, exactly, happened between you and your mother?"

"It's not exactly what happened between me and Mommy Dearest," Lorelei corrected. "It's more about a girl I once knew named Rei-Lei."

- - - -

Rei-Lei was better than her, in all respects of the word except one.

The only advantage Lorelei really had was her lineage. While both came from the same clan, which was supposedly more important than who your mother or father was, Lorelei was the daughter of Kelli and Rei-Lei was born to a couple who hadn't made much of a name for themselves. By contrast, Kelli was an aspiring team leader who had her eye on the leader of leaders role... and with her own fame and success came fame for Lorelei, the child prodigy whom she was preparing for the distant future as a new leader of leaders.

So while Rei-Lei had to use hand-me-down armor from her parents and a simple sword and shield combo (shields being considered fairly lame, as they were somewhat like but not entirely similar to 'Playing Dee') Lorelei got high fashions and the finest weapon crafted by the Steel Blades... a double saber, a twisted blade on either end of a shaft that could be used to attack or parry twice in the same stroke. Lorelei was the shooting star, destined for greatness; Rei-Lei wasn't meant to be anything more than yet another tribe member who gets fragged while patrolling the base...

But whatever blood ran through their veins didn't agree with destiny. Lorelei got her first confirmed frag at age six on a hunt with her mother... Rei-Lei, out on her own after getting lost one day, achieved her first kill at age five. From there on, Lorelei never overtook Rei-Lei on the Ladder of Triumph... Lorelei would score an A on her martial arts, Rei-Lei would score an A+. Lorelei would single-handedly storm the BL00D5KU775 base and capture the flag at age twelve... Rei-Lei would capture three flags in one day from three different tribes with no backup.

Every day she would receive warmth and reassurance from her mother. "Don't worry, Lorelei. You're an outstanding warrior of good stock, with a true passion for the hunt—you'll achieve a title above her one day. I have faith that you will." The sentence sometimes varied, but the meaning was always the same: You'll catch her some day. Mother knows best...

Lorelei did her best to downplay her frustration. Giving in to it and becoming bitter wasn't her style; she wanted to have fun, like any kid. She got along well with her classmates, known as a prankster and a flirt even at a young age (since it seemed to scare the boys, and fear was ideal to strike into the hearts of your enemies), but whenever Rei-Lei was physically in the room... she had to restrain herself. Especially since Rei-Lei loved to talk to her. A typical conversation went as such:

"Lorelei, hello!" the cheerful young warrior would greet her, whenever she happened to catch Lorelei off guard and forgetting to avoid her. "Hey, what did you think of that test on the fifteen sword stances? I'm not sure I got that last one right—"

"Striking Eagle," Lorelei told her, hoping that would end it.

"Really? I wasn't sure, so I figured it looked a bit like the Wild Coyote," Rei-Lei said, walking alongside her classmate. "Sort of a bent left knee, ready to push off with the right leg... you know, sort of a variant? Not that I've seen a coyote before, except on the RealNet streams, but I'd like to see one some day! And, um, listen, if you wanna spar sometime—"

"I'm busy," Lorelei excused, and hurried along...

...because if she DID fight Rei-Lei, she could lose. Final proof of her l4m3ness, despite her mother's pressure, despite her desire to SUCCEED... and that would be the final crushing straw, what with Lorelei's self doubt already built up after years of coming up short. (The test answer was in fact Wild Coyote, for instance...)

For years, it continued without change. Lorelei would hunt by herself, with her team-mates, with the entire tribe... but always with an eye on winning a title, achieving a goal, anything she could hold over Rei-Lei. Rei-Lei, who seemed to achieve everything effortlessly. Rei-Lei, who never mocked her or made fun of her, as much as Lorelei almost wished she would. Rei-Lei, who didn't even seem to understand how amazing she was...

One month before Lorelei's sixteenth birthday, after a particularly smashing social party attended by all her friends and even a few notable political figures within the tribe—with only the finest decorations and entertainment, paid for by Kelli, who had recently been nominated leader of leaders—Lorelei retired to her room to bask in the afterglow of being liked by so many people... and attacked the problem of Rei-Lei with renewed vigor. Specifically, she called up the RealNet terminal in her barracks, loaded the Ladder of Triumph, and ran a search on ANY title or trophy that was as of yet unclaimed by Rei-Lei. No matter how outlandish.

Lo and behold, one existed. It was called the Ultimate 16: number of frags achieved before any warrior born in Tribal Alpha turned sixteen years of age. Currently, Lorelei had 1,976 kills... and Rei-Lei only had 1,845. Rei-Lei had always focused more on achieving her amazing scores via flag captures than via personal kills—a weak point. But the Ultimate 16 record, set by some kid fifty-seven years ago, was 2,032 kills... and Lorelei only had one month to make up the difference...

Which she would do. It would be one title she could hold over her rival's head, one that her mother would praise her for. Her destiny fulfilled, and motherly praise by the bucketful...

A knock at her door distracted her. She had forgotten to lock the door...

And Rei-Lei entered, carrying a wrapped gift.

"Lorelei, hello!" she greeted, as usual. "I'm so sorry I'm late... nobody told me you were having a big party! I guess my invitation got lost or the messenger got fragged... but don't worry, I got you an early birthday gift! It's a small buckler; I saved up for weeks to buy it for you. You don't have any defensive armor, you know, and my shield's gotten me out of more scrapes than... what're you looking at?"

"Nothing," Lorelei emphasized in as many italicized letters as she could manage... but not fast enough, as Rei-Lei peeked around her at the screen.

"Ultimate 16...? I didn't know there was a title for that! Cool! Hey, I've got an idea; wanna compete for it?" Rei-Lei asked, all smiles. "I'm really behind, so I don't know if I could catch up, but... it might be fun! And you could use your new shield; I bet it'll help you a lot!"

Since Lorelei couldn't think up a solid reason not to, she had to concede to the competition. The urge to scream, to yell at Rei-Lei after so many years of trying to be polite and avoid her had built up... but not far enough. Not yet.

The competition was on. Lorelei fought harder than she had ever fought before; she went on no team hunts, nothing that could score points for anybody else. It was her against the world. She tore through tribe after tribe, unconscious warriors strewn in her wake... some fortresses razed completely to the ground. She wasn't after the flags; she was after the kills. Once word got around of a crazy girl who was tearing apart tribes with no desire for the flags, defenses were boosted... which simply gave Lorelei more people up front to kill.

She kept a portable ladder-checker with her at all times. It was tuned to measure her frag count, and that of her rival. The numbers were not good; somehow, Rei-Lei had come up from behind quickly. Lorelei fought tooth and nail but couldn't overcome. The deadline, her sixteenth birthday and the final score of 2,032 crept closer and closer...

Once, Lorelei considered folding. But her mother, who knew of the quest, wouldn't let her.

"This is for your honor, Lorelei," Kelli explained in her I'm Talking Serious voice, which was just as soft as her usual voice but somehow more potent. "This is your chance to catch her. If you give up now, you'll never know if you could do it... you'll be a quitter. Now, I don't like to think that I raised a quitter. Fight with everything you have, and I know you'll do it, and then I'll throw you the grandest birthday party you've ever seen!"

The bodies hit the floor in greater numbers after that. Neck and neck the girls raced, despite never crossing paths; Lorelei made a point not to hunt anywhere Rei-Lei was hunting. No interference, no cherry-picking her rival's targets; this would be a battle won on her own strength. One week from the deadline, one week from the goal...

And Rei-Lei's score stopped increasing.

Lorelei didn't give a second thought to why this would happen. She didn't think if Rei-Lei got hurt or if anything was wrong; all that mattered was burning her name into the Ladder of Triumph. The game was everything. She slept in the jungle like a Camper, never returning home, spending every hour she could stay awake tracking and killing other players. Numbers scaled, higher and higher...


For kicks, she killed two more before returning home. 2,034.

The party was phenomenal; Kelli had gone all out, pulling every string, cashing in every favor she had with the elders of the Steel Blades. One of their own had taken one of the legendary titles of Tribal Alpha, and Lorelei became a local hero. Heroine. And such. Gifts, praise, friends looking a bit jealous, cute boys wanting to date her just to be associated with a superstar, people who didn't really care about her pretending to admire her...

And her mother's love, at last. Victory.

But something was eating at her. It took a few days to figure out what it is, and even then, she only got it sorted out after noticing Rei-Lei's score hadn't climbed one single digit since it stopped cold.

For the first time, Lorelei sought out Rei-Lei, rather than the other way around. It took some time to track her down, as she hadn't been home in a while... the two met at last on a rocky cliff overlooking the jungles that the Steel Blades 0wned. And for a change, Lorelei was the first one to speak.

"I won the Ultimate 16, you know," she pointed out... secretly hoping it would hurt the other girl.

Instead, Rei-Lei reacted with distracted indifference. "You did?" she asked, without moving her gaze from the landscape. "Good for you. I'm glad you could achieve it."

"Why'd you stop?" Lorelei asked, trying to sound merely curious instead of desperately curious. "You had a fighting chance. Not as fighting of one as I did, of course, being so totally l33t, but you could've come close... but you stopped. I was tracking your score. What happened?"

Rei-Lei gave a little shrug. "Nothing, I just... left, for a while."


"Offworld. I went to Urbana. A friend on RealNet suggested I needed some 'fresh air'. So I went to Urbana, then to Nocturn... even visited Nippon for a bit... I forgot about the competition. I'm sorry I couldn't play, but... I guess I lost interest..."

"You... lost... interest," Lorelei spoke, trying to restrain herself. "You just stopped. You gave up... before I could find out if I had FINALLY, really, truly beaten you..."

"Oh, is that why you wanted the title? I'm sorry, I thought it was just a friendly thing, like the other times we competed—"

"There as NOTHING friendly about it, dammit!" Lorelei hissed, finally losing it after so many years. "Do you have any concept of how long I've been chasing you? How hard it was to measure up to you and come up short when I was SUPPOSED to be better? How can you just lose interest, like... like it didn't mean anything to you, when it damn well meant something to me? How could you do that to me?!"

Yell back, Lorelei thought. Yell at me. Mock me. Insult me. Or cry. Or bow and scrape. Or just do something...

Instead, Rei-Lei studied Lorelei in silence... with those eyes. Eyes that almost took pity on her, a quiet, sad sort of pity that didn't intend to insult.

"I'm sorry," Rei-Lei replied. "But there's more important things in life than this silly game."


"That's what I was finding out, out there," Rei-Lei explained. "Out there, the first frag is the final frag. We all know that, but it's different to really live that way... it makes life mean so much more. There's so much out there that's so wonderful, and so scary, and even the scary stuff is kinda wonderful when you've never really been afraid before... and I made friends, and I had new experiences, and it was all so strange to me... and the game felt so silly in comparison. I'm told that I've done some great things in the game, but out there, none of that mattered to anyone. And after a day or two it didn't really matter to me anymore. I just... forgot about the competition. I'm sorry."

Alien. That's how it felt: completely alien. Lorelei didn't know if she should be enraged, shocked, sad, angry, or what...

"I'm going to leave Tribal Alpha for a while," her "rival" continued. "Do you want to come with me? You've always been a good friend to me, you know, one of the few friends I really had here. I want to show you the things I've found. Maybe then you'd understand—"

Lorelei was never sure why she ran away then. But she did run, and run all the way back home, entering the Steel Blades fortress in tears. Through sobs, she explained what had happened to her mother...

...who was upset at the news as well, in her quiet sort of way. "I had... no idea Rei-Lei was completely without honor," Kelli had concluded. "To cast aside the glory of the hunt, to trivialize it like that... don't doubt your heart, Lorelei. You won that title. If she gave up, then that means you are better than her. She's shown her true colors now; it doesn't matter what her score would have been if she hadn't stopped. You're the finest warrior in the Steel Blades Tribe, and whatever she says about that doesn't matter—"

"It doesn't matter," Lorelei repeated.

"Right. It doesn't—"

"None of it matters," Lorelei spoke, sobs slowing as realization spread across her like a dawn. "I spent weeks fighting and fighting and fighting and... and for what? Numbers on a computer? Some stupid title? I didn't see my friends, I didn't flirt with anyone, I wasn't... I was just fighting all the time..."

"That's what a warrior does, dear. We fight. Our honor—"

"WHAT honor?" Lorelei spat back, pushing away from her mother. "It's not soldiers in a war, this is... this is a GAME, Mother! It's just a game! Nobody really dies, nobody really gets hurt, we just keep going at it and going at it to get bigger points and see who's more l33t! It's not living. I watch the RealNet streams too, you know! There's more out there and I never left because I was so busy trying to rack up glory, and... and for what? She stopped! I never beat her! And she doesn't even CARE that I was trying to beat her, it wasn't important to her, so... so why should it be important to me?!"

And her mother got stern. Truly stern. "Because it's important to me. It's important to your family, this tribe. This is what we do, we fight for glory! I didn't raise a quitter, did I? You've proven yourself, and you'll keep proving yourself, and one day you'll be the leader of leaders—"

"Of a bunch of spoiled game players who aren't even alive! Forget it. Forget it! If she's going to have more than that out of life, then... then I want that too! I want to live out there. I'm leaving. I'm packing and I'm leaving tonight!"

"You're going NOWHERE, young lady," her mother spoke with pure ice. "You're hysterical, and you're in no frame of mind to be making decisions like that. Besides, I won't let you leave. You're too important to the tribe and—"

The dim light of the fortress gleamed off Lorelei's steel double saber. The weapon given to her as the favored daughter.

"I'm leaving," she iterated. "Around you or through you. If you really cared about me you'd let me do this. I'm tired of playing this stupid game... I'm leaving with Rei... I'm leaving with my friend."

" would dare fight your own mother?"

"Would you fight your own daughter?"


And Lorelei would never know why her mother then stepped aside, without a word. All she saw was her exit, and took it, leaving her weapon behind.

- - - -

The coffee pot was empty, and the Campers had respawned somewhere far, far away by that point.

"You wouldn't believe how much my life changed after that... and stayed exactly the same, kinda," Lorelei said, after finishing her last cup. "I guess I'm just a walking contradiction... I learned to see the game as being a waste of my time, but here I am carving up Campers for kicks... anyway, after I left, I was still picking fights in bars and generally living free and wild. Old hobbies are hard to break, you know. It felt okay to me, since I wasn't shooting for some meaningless goal, I was just doing my own thang. If anything, it was one of those positive, life-affirming things to brawl for myself instead of for the Ladder of Triumph. Thankfully whenever I got too crazy, Rei-Lei was there to act as a guardian angel and keep me from experiencing the Final Frag... she's the only real friend I had. Thanks to her, I became the jovial, well-adjusted social delinquent you see today instead of the bitter and awkward social delinquent I was before. It took a whole year to adjust properly to life outside—after that, Rei-Lei left to pursue her own interests, and I took on a job bodyguarding for Mirai Consulting in order to pay the bar tabs and do something constructive with my itchy trigger fingers. As they say, although I'm not clear on who 'they' are, that was that."

Kisei, who possessed a keen analytical mind, needed no additional time to reflect and respond. "So, although you are still an impulsive risk-taker with a weak sense of self-preservation, it is superior to your prior state of being a player in a game. I suppose I can understand how this small upgrade would please you so."

"I'm going to take that as a compliment," Lorelei decided, "Since I know that's as high a level of praise as you can manage. And believe me, small upgrade or not, it saved me. If she hadn't... ten yards behind you, target but don't fire."

Kisei went from sitting on the ground to lying flat with her sniper rifled locked and ready in 0.6 seconds.

The target made her presence obvious after that, walking into the clearing with both arms raised. "Obviously, I mean you no harm, Lorelei..."

The coffee pot iced over when the temperature around Lorelei dropped a few significant digits. "Mother," she acknowledged.

"I've come to talk," Kelli said. "Not be shot at. Just talk. If you're willing to listen, of course..."

"I said all I had to say earlier. Don't waste your time and mine. Kisei and I have to get back to the House now—"

"You don't know the whole situation, Lorelei. You wouldn't be so dismissive of this problem if you knew the truth. All I ask is five minutes... is that too much, my daughter..?"

The D-word. Lorelei flinched... and nodded to Kisei, a silent signal. The sniper quietly stood, shouldered her sniper rifle, and walked off into the jungle.

"You've got four minutes and fifty two seconds," Lorelei said. "Start now."

A bit more relaxed, Kelli downshifted to her usual soft voice. "I understand you've come to a... philosophical disagreement with the hunt," her mother selected from any number of more accurate terms. "I will admit I'm a bit disappointed... but why do you think I stepped aside and let you go those years ago, Lorelei?"

For this, the younger hunter didn't have a snappy response. "...I still don't know. But I'll bite. Why?"

"Love. Simple as that. I love you, and no matter what road you choose in life, I'll support you. Even if I disagree with the road you chose... I knew then when you dared to raise a weapon to me that you were passionate about your choice. How could I deny you that? What kind of a mother would I be if I tried to force you to stay?"

"Flowery. I'm not sure I believe it, but it's flowery—"

"Do you still love me?"

Lorelei gritted her teeth. "Mom..."

"If I haven't completely lost you, daughter... then you'll want to help us," Kelli spoke. "Because the situation is much worse than you're thinking. This is not just a matter of tribal war, it's something much more personal to you... you left before I could tell you, but... the Alliance was formed by someone you know very well. Rei-Lei is responsible for this."

At that, she laughed out loud. "Rei-Lei. Rei. LEI. Oh, mom, come ON. She—"

"When did you see her last, Lorelei? Two years ago, perhaps a bit more? I know that because she came back to Tribal Alpha soon after," her mother continued. "Once she arrived, she formally left the Steel Blades to form her own tribe: the 'Final Strike'. They quickly began drawing allies, and one year later, the Alliance was formalized. They crushed tribe after tribe, pushing enemies to the bottom of the ladder and chasing them out of Tribal Alpha... frightening times, Lorelei. We were aggressive and proud, yes, but these new ones fought like demons. Like zealots following their leader..."

"This is a real yarn you're spinning, mom. Rei-Lei would never take part in the games again."

"Just like you would never take part again?" Kelli asked. "The jungle talks. It says you fragged a Camper today. If you could slip back in, hearing the call of the l33t, what makes you think she couldn't revert to her ways? This is the same warrior who achieved dozens of titles and trophies, more than you ever did... why would her fighting again be so inconceivable? A person can change a lot in a short amount of time... as you have proven, I believe."

"All right, I'll play this game. Let's assume she's actually running this show, even if I don't believe it," Lorelei hypothesized. "And let's assume that she's somehow turned into a psycho. So what? The end result's the same; you're gonna get purged, and I'm not fighting your war for you. Once it's all over, you either join them, or you leave here. I've left here, it's quite a nice experience. Might do you some good—oh, but wait, you're planning to die honorably, aren't you? Think you can really live up to that? I doubt all the Steel Blades are willing to play lemming, even if you are..."

"We also have word that the Final Strike plans to kill us once the grace period is over."


"Even if you don't believe me about Rei-Lei, and even if we decide not to die with dignity, chances are high that we'll never survive long enough to run," Kelli explained calmly. "All they have to do is surround the docking yards, and we'll have no means of escaping this reality. I can't emphasize this enough, Lorelei: we are the hunted here, not the hunters. Believe what you want, but know this—if this situation does not end, if one way or another our warp-bubbles are deactivated, the losses may be great. Yes, I myself intend to die honorably against these aggressors, and perhaps others do not, but in this state of chaos there will be blood one way or another... and it will be something you could have prevented."

"And... and now you're guilt-tripping me. That's low, Mom. Real low..."

"All I'm doing is telling you the facts. The Steel Blades are weak, Lorelei. Our numbers have dwindled, and the constant Dee has exhausted us. You know that while I'm skilled, I alone am not enough to make up the score difference to save us... the only one who can get us out of this hole is the one who earned so many frags in such a short time. The winner of the Ultimate 16..."

"I'm... I'm NOT fighting for you!" Lorelei repeated, frustration mounting... and her will starting to weaken. "I can't say that any more ways than... and... even if you were going to die, it... dammit, Mother, this is not a comfy position you're putting me in here! Yes, yes, I don't want you to die. We have bad blood here but... okay. Yes. I love you. Happy? But don't bring me back into this, Mom..."

"It's your choice," Kelli spoke. "Just as it was when you left. I support your decision either way... but you have to be aware of the consequences. If you do nothing, who knows how this will end? If you fight for us... just this one time... then we'll have another month to fight, regain our standing, or even find alternatives. Lorelei... I know this is hard for you. But I beg you, please... do this for us. For your TRUE family..."

From a leather holster on her back, Kelli produced a weapon... a twisted pair of blades, flawless shining steel. It had been forged years ago, but had been kept in pristine condition.

"Your blade," she said, holding it with both hands, holding it out to her daughter. "I kept it all these years. It's time for you to take up the hunt again, hopefully forever, but even if it's just this once you'll have done the honorable thing."

Lorelei's anger and fire died down considerably, memories flooding back of her days with that cold blade. "...Mom... I don't know... this whole thing is so damned confusing. I hate being confused..."

"There's a cluster of Alliance fortresses half a mile east from here... knowing you, raiding the outer ones will give you enough points. Go for quick kills and flag captures, full offense. There's a respawn point nearby if you slip; I know you've been fragged ninety-nine times and swore you'd never lose again, but be realistic when you fight. It's our way to play the rules of death to our advantage. Above all, avoid the central base; that's where Rei-Lei is, and it's the most guarded. Speed is of the essence, not the challenge of cracking a strong base... Lorelei, this is all I ask. Once more into the breach, for your family. Will you do it..?"

The young hunter did not take up her old weapon.

Instead, she twirled her more modern plasma saber to the ready, both ends flaring with a blue fire that burned like the ice in her voice.

"Fine. I'll get involved," she confirmed. "But only because this situation is too fuxx0red to ignore while hoping for the best... if ANYTHING you're saying is true, then there's a chance someone could die. I know for certain Meiko wouldn't want that, and... I wouldn't, either. But I'll do this my way. I want no backup. I don't want you interfering. If I have to dive back into the fray once more I'll dive on my own terms. And then I'm leaving. Agreed?"

With an honest look of relief, mother offered daughter a smile. "That's all I ask of you, Lorelei. And... hopefully when you finish, we can talk, and patch things up...? But I leave it to you. Remember; strike hard and fast at the perimeter. Trust my strategy on this one and you'll have proven your worth to the Steel Blades..."


Without another word, she turned and marched eastward into the jungle. She didn't need a compass, or even to look up at the sky; this was her stomping ground. This was Steel Blades territory, and the years hadn't erased it fully from her memory...

Which is why she knew she was being watched without actually seeing her watcher. The shape of the jungle felt wrong at one point.

"Well?" Lorelei asked, speaking up.

"Well what?" the voice from the trees asked.

"Weren't you going back to your room to scribble in that book of yours?" Lorelei asked. "Or to report to the boss?"

Kisei emerged from nearly nowhere. No stealth technology, simply m4d h1d1ng sk1llz.

"I meant no offense in regards to overhearing your conversation," she replied. "My apologies. However, I was thinking I would accompany you."

"Really. Aaaand, what interest do you have in this?"

"None. The squabbles of outsiders are not my concern," Kisei said simply. "Nevertheless, as Meiko Mirai's retainer, this is now a mission goal for me. The chance to train a bit, even if within the boundaries of a meaningless game, would also be welcome."

"You really think Meiko would approve of this, then? Us rolling maverick style without checking in and getting our marching orders? I was figuring you'd turn me in, not join me, frankly..."

It took Kisei a moment and a half to admit it. "It is highly unlikely Meiko Mirai would approve. She would prefer negotiation. Likely we will be punished for taking solitary action, but I have my own reasons for this act which I choose not to disclose at this time."

"Huh. You're breaking character quite a bit today, Kisei. I'm impressed. Fine, why not—tag along if you like. They might want a piece of your hide too, frankly; we'll likely not be welcome after we bagged two Campers, so expect a lynching party, not a welcoming party... but above all, don't drag me down with that slow-loading rifle of yours. I don't hide in shadows like a l4m3r Camper, Miss Sniper. "

"You do what you do, and I will do what I will do," Kisei replied, almost but not quite precisely cracking a smile. "That is all the coordination we need."

"Heh. Deal. This could actually be a bit of fun... you know I like to fight. Call of the l33t, I guess. Oh, and in case you overheard Mommy's strategy too, there's going to be a little change in plans..."

- - - -

Quiet is not good for a guard. Quiet means that you're currently knee-deep in the long stretch of time between loud moments; loud you could deal with, since it was in your face and obvious and demanded reaction. Quiet meant trying to avoid falling asleep waiting for the action.

One of the two guards outside the central fortress of the Alliance was already asleep; the other stayed alert, but did it in a very bored sort of way. He had been working for the Final Strike Tribe for months now, and while the initial fury of suppression was enjoyable (even if it wasn't supposed to be) this quiet time was getting on his nerves. Here there was a huge clearing flattened in front of the central fort, with perimeter forts to take down any incoming armies, and he had to play door guard against a battered Steel Blades force that likely would never come...

Then he saw the might of the invading squadron. Or rather, the single woman carrying a Steel Blades-style double saber who was calmly and casually strolling on up to the gates. Interesting...

It took her three minutes of crossing the open field to get there. On arrival, she jogged to a halt, and studied him head to toe.

"Steel Blade?" he asked. "And from the looks of it, the one who bagged Rick and Nelson of the Campers an hour ago. Word got around about that little stunt, you know, but nobody expected you to show your face again..."

"Ah, yes, the rumor mill," Lorelei spoke, fond memories returning. "I had forgotten that it moves at the speed of frag... well, this makes my job a little harder. But not much... any chance of me peacefully walking in and rapping with the fragger in charge over a couple of beers?"

"No. Let's get on with this," the guard spoke, drawing his rifle. "I'd been hoping I'd see some action before the final campaign was all over... now, where's the rest of your running buddies?"

Puffing out her ample chest, Lorelei spoke with pride. "I am an army of one!"

Both the sleeping guard and the wide awake guard dropped to the ground unconscious after their warp bubbles ate a pair of sniper rounds.

"...okay, maybe an army of two," Lorelei admitted after the fact.

With a whirl of her blades, a hole was neatly carved in the central fortress of the Final Strike Tribe, and she was ready to get down to business the hard way. Why did they always pick the hard way?

- - - -

This is a nice base, Lorelei thought while absently fighting off seven men at once. The walls were perfect for bounding off of for backflip attacks, the ceiling was just the right height for the leaping spin slashes. Whoever constructed it really knew a thing or two about action-packed hand-to-hand martial arts sequences—this was a place you fought in not just to kill the other guy, but to do it in STYLE.

Like the network of pipes built into the ceiling—perfect for getting a handhold on and doing a flipping spin kick that takes down three guys at once. Or the tile floors, the way they had just enough traction for a good footing, but also were smooth enough to do a sliding dash along. The three guys who would be missing their legs if not for the warp bubbles probably would agree that the just-right level of floor buffing gave Lorelei's attack a little extra 'Wow!' factor.

Of course, it was also designed well to provide places to snipe. Lorelei could tell because every now and then, some guy who she had neglected to knock into next week would try to get the jump on her—and be pegged instantly by the silent 'pang' of a sniper round. Not that Kisei was ever visible; she simply moved from spot to spot with absolute silence and flawless stealth. Lorelei didn't mind losing the spotlight too much, since she was a little rusty at taking on an entire army at once, and whatever slack she didn't pick up Kisei was putting away with ruthless efficiency.

After her 32nd frag, Lorelei was truly enjoying herself. (She didn't mind fighting this way; it wasn't for some silly ladder goal, it was just for fun. If anything, it was cleaner fun, since other than some hurt feelings all the guys she cut to ribbons would be A-OK.) The deeper she got into the compound, the cooler the scenery got. There were stairway railings for the bodies to be knocked over. There were warning klaxons and spinning red alarm lights to give the place the right ambiance. And the pièce de résistance, the finishing touch... large machines that seemed to hold no purpose whatsoever except to spout great roaring flames! PURPOSELESS FLAMES!

She was almost disappointed when she got the flag room to confront the boss character. That meant it was almost over. It also meant she had to stop fighting, once she found out who the boss was.

"You know, I really didn't believe her," Lorelei admitted, staying in a defensive stance while squaring off with the only one left to guard the flag. "I had to see with my own eyes. Sorry about the mess, but I'll admit, this place kicks incredible amounts of ass... my compliments, Rei-Lei. Hold back, Kiss, she's mine..."

Sword and shield. Her best friend for one full year, and the misdirected years before that...

Of course, Rei-Lei didn't look happy to be reunited like this.

"I'm not happy to be reunited like this," she admitted. "When I heard that you were back, I was hoping it wouldn't come to this..."

"Come to what, exactly? Me cutting you down before you have a chance to stomp my tribe... and my mother... into foamy red oblivion?" Lorelei asked, ready to attack.... but not attacking. "Or us sitting down and talking about this like the friends I'm hoping we still are, so I can get a better picture of what's going on here?"

Rei-Lei's sword dipped a bit. "Talk...? But... you just cut through all my defenses—"

"Your minions put out the Unwelcome Mat, what did you expect me to do? And you know damn well none of that matters. You taught me as much that this game was meaningless. So, I had a little fun on the way in—are you taking the 'honor of the hunt' seriously enough to really be upset about that? Call it a test I set up for you: if you're angry, and you want to strike me down to avenge your... excuse me... 'fallen brothers', then I guess Mommy was right about you. What's it gonna be, Rei?"

A dangerous pause locked the action in freeze frame, before...

- - - -

The body tumbled over the side, limbs flailing wildly as it plunged towards certain death.

"Get down, get down! Incoming fire!" the squad leader shouted, dropping low but keeping his machine gun high. "Eat this, you psycho bitch!"

The Evil Super Spy Vixen McViolent™ wagged a finger, hand on one hip in a dominatrix sort of way. "Eiko-chan, you know I don't like you using that sort of language... and where did you get this doll, anyway..?"

Muscles Manslaughter™ pouted, letting his scale replica green plastic M-60 go quiet. "But oneesama, I'm just trying to 'keep it real'! Real soldiers curse a lot. Isn't that right, Mallory?"

From the bottom of the sofa-cliff, Kensuke™ deadly replied, "Uh, I really don't know anything about that sort of thing, so uh, I'll go with Meiko on this one..."

"I'm hooooome! And I bring bounty from the hunt!"

The trio of doll-playing pretend-warmongers looked up at the extremely tardy ex-Steel Blader walking through the front door like she owned the place which in fact she did not. And Kisei entered, too.

"What kept you?" Meiko asked, letting it become public knowledge that she was irritated. "Please tell me you simply wanted some time by yourself, and you were not actually doing something that I'm going to regret..."

"I wanted some time by myself, and I did something that you're not going to regret," Lorelei announced, curling a 'come-hither' finger to Meiko as she strolled into the kitchen. "Check this out, guys, I think I've found the solution to this little situation..."

The Housefolk gathered around the table... while Lorelei rolled out a battered, dusty old document. It was once laid down in white ink on dark blue paper by a machine printer, but now it was faded and blurry.

"Ladies and gentleman, I give you: The ServOps Center," Lorelei explained. "One fully automated, computer-controlled nerve center for the entire reality. In charge of reality generation, warp bubble control, weapon dump and food dump respawns... and long time ago, someone built this thing to keep the gears turning forever. Why? Who knows? But thankfully for us, they wrote down an exact schematic of the building, including labelling each of the many wonderful devices. And THIS blob here, if I'm not mistaken, controls the Ladder of Triumph. Why fight a war for the Steel Blades when we can slip in, monkey with the machine, and put an end to this without a single non-drop of blood non-spilled?"

"You're proposing we hack the scoreboard?" Meiko asked. "I see. That would work."

Lorelei nudged the quiet Kisei with an elbow. "I TOLD you she'd go for it..."

"I didn't say I'm going for it, I said it would work," the bosslady noted. "In fact, I'm not going for it. Where did you get this blueprint, Lorelei? I doubt you simply picked it up somewhere."

"I did too pick it up somewhere!"

"Where, exactly?"

"In a Final Strike Tribe flag room guarded by two hundred guys, of course," Lorelei said, with some pride. "Kisei and I took 'em out en route. We were quite l33t indeed."

Groaning, Meiko rolled her eyes to give Kisei a sideways glare. "I thought you were going to find her and keep her OUT of trouble, Kisei..."

Oddly enough (for her, at least) Kisei paused a moment before replying. "I have ensured she did nothing to embarrass you or sabotage your efforts, Miss Mirai. Please forgive my leniency in judgement of her actions, but I felt as long as I accompanied her, I could simply hit her with a stun round and bring her home if she put your operations at actual risk."

Lorelei stared a bit, as well. "So THAT'S why you agreed..? Damn, Kiss, I've underestimated you..."

"I must also admit... the... methodology she's employing right now is questionable to me, but... ...Miss Mirai. In the past, you have suggested I turn to Tachi's teachings when I have doubt about the ethics of an issue. I assure you, today I am doing just that. If you have faith in that judgement, then you should not worry yourself about this plan."

"Right, right, don't worry," Lorelei spoke, trying to get things back on subject before they got messy. "See, I did some investigation of my own, to get down to what's really going on around here... it seems they were planning to use it for their own purposes to stop the Steel Blades once and for all. Unfortunately, they lacked a key we have, so they took Plan B: Bludgeoning the Blades into non-existence... but at any rate, figuring this was worth its weight in gold, I took their map and skipped back here to present you with it. Shazam! What's not to go for? It's the kind of quick and clean job you like to take, isn't it?"

"This is not quick, nor is it clean," Meiko spoke. "For starters, this is breaking and entering in addition to tampering with a secured system. That might go above and beyond the call of duty for this mission; I'm not sure I'd want to incur a legal risk, even against an ancient, purely automated—"

"C'MON, Meiko. This is the way to do it! The way to do it your way. All I need are two things... and one is the go-ahead from you. I'll plan the operation and execute it, you don't even have to step outside the House."

"...and the other thing?"

Lorelei scratched her head. She knew this would be the hard sell point. "Well... it's like this. The Final Strike couldn't act on this without a key to get in. We've got that key. Since the system is completely automated, the only people with authorization to enter at any time are fix-it guys who keep the thing from crashing... in other words... certified Reality Engineers."

Everybody looked at Mallory, who was busy trying to put Kensuke™'s plastic arm back in its plastic socket.

"Uh... what?" he asked, feeling like a big, juicy steak in front of a crack squadron of antivegetarians.

- - - -

The one-eyed security camera bore a hole through Mallory's head. Or at least it felt like that to him, as he broke out into cold sweats and stammered his way through the prepared speech (badly).

"I-I'm performing a su-surprise... a... an inspection!!" he declared, holding up the Officially Certified RealWare Reality Engineer Identification Card that Mr. Tanner left for him the other night. "As an officiallyregisteredrealityengineer I... I'm going to make sure you won't break down and go boom!"

The computerized voice circuits beeped and blooped. "Error: 'Go Boom' unrecognized phrase. Inspection period established for bi-weekly Thursdays from first of every Urbana Standard Calendar Year. State reason for schedule non-adherence."

"Look, compute THIS, okay?" Lorelei asked, glancing sideways to make sure they were still alone out here. "If you were capable of tuning your Reality Engine yourself, you wouldn't need an engineer. That means if you were capable of sensing an impending system crash yourself before it hits and you gotta call in an emergency... you wouldn't need surprise inspections. But you can't, so you don't, so we're here, so let us in already. Comprendo?"

"Error: 'Comprendo' unrecognized—"

"Do... you... understand?" Lorelei spoke clearly and distinctly (and slowly).

The stainless steel door slid open slowly, hundred-year-old mechanisms whining and grinding as the portal to heaven made way for two impostors.

"Please remember to leave copy receipt and work order in standard memory cube format after finishing work, Reality Engineer," the computer spoke, before the camera resumed its normal left to right security panning.

Mallory's shoulders drooped, the tension no longer keeping him rigidly upright. "...thought... we were doomed for a second there..."

"Shush, and c'mon," Lorelei urged. "We've gotta work fast here..."

Into the door they went, down the halls according to the ancient map. Corridors of computer banks and bits of machinery... clearly designed by humans, as control panels stood at waist height, but with caked-on layers of dust and grime that belied years of disuse. The lights provided enough illumination to find their way, even if the flickering could grow maddening to anybody not legally blind...

This is it, Lorelei thought. The reason behind it all... and inside, it was just a big, shiny toy game. A toy game that granted its players little cookies to keep them playing, gave them tools to play with, and never, ever stopped playing. If there was a meaning behind it, a reason it all got started, whoever built the place didn't leave any clues behind.

She largely ignored Mallory's jittery nerves, following the path burned into her memory, not even needing to look down at the map. Within a minute, they were at the heart of the heart of Tribal Alpha... the ServOps Control Room.

"O... okay, here we are," Mallory spoke, taking the map and trying to sound authoritative. (It was HIS credentials that got them here, after all.) He walked from distinctly separate machine to distinctly separate machine, identifying them off the map as none bore distinctive labels. "'Food Negotiation Unit...'"

"Even hunters gotta eat," Lorelei pointed out. "No animals here to hunt for food other than human animals. The system buys food over RealNet and has merchants bring it in; I've seen 'em dock now and then. And that's not what we're looking for, so let's move on, mmkay?"

"Right, right. Um... Weapon Negotiation Unit... Respawn Point Reality Tunneler... ah, there's the Reality Engine, okay... and that makes that the Warp Bubble Generator... and... here!"

Mallory tapped a fancy looking box, with a series of numbers lit up above it in a holographic display. The Ladder of Triumph... normally viewable from fortress workstations with fancy graphics and tribe logos and shiny 3-D trophies. But once those were boiled away, it was really just numbers in a box...

"All right, now... how do we change the scores to make the Steel Blades rule again?" Mallory asked. "You told Meiko you had an idea how to do that, but I don't see any keyboard or buttons or anything..."

"Right, right... well... technically, yes, I know how to change the scores."

"Oh, good. How do we do it?"

The dimly lit room flared with blue light, as the plasma fields snapped into being at either end of a double saber... and the blades slashed diagonally through the Ladder of Triumph.

Mallory screamed and jumped away, as the machine kicked up sparks from exposed wires, emitted a series of screeching electronic tones... and died. The hologram flickered out, random numbers skittering through the air before they all reset to a hard zero and gave up the ghost.

"I didn't tell Meiko WHAT I was gonna change the scores to. 'No score for anybody' feels very appropriate to me. To me, and to Rei-Lei," Lorelei explained... with a smile across her lips, one that had been a long time in the making. Twenty years of her life, to be precise.

"WHAAA?!" Mallory yelled. "Lorelei, what did you DO?! Meiko's gonna kill us! She—"

"The Reality Engine's not linked up to this thing in any mission critical sort of way, right?" Lorelei asked, calmly striding over to a machine and tapping it with her finger. "You've got a sixth sense about this stuff, yes? Tell me. Now. Yes or no. Will knocking this offline crash Tribal Alpha?"

So deep into panic that he was oddly calm, Mallory shook his head numbly. " won't crash, no..."

Lorelei's smile jacked up an extra inch.


In one spinning blow, she took the Warp Bubble Generator out forever.

- - - -

Future generations of the original tribes would look up to their parents and their grandparents, after a long day at school, and ask: Where were you when it changed?

Answers would vary, of course. Nobody was fighting; the Steel Blades were holed up in their fortress, the Alliance were waiting to hear the results of their new agent's mission. Some would be eating, or sleeping, or simply sitting around... but they all heard the same thing, a warning klaxon across the entire reality and the voice of the ServOp Center. Instead of declaring who had captured the flag this time, it had a very different message to convey.

"WARNING. END ALL HOSTILITIES NOW. Reality Warp Bubble Generator has been deactivated. All frags after this point will be 100% fatal. Repeat: End all hostilities now. Please contact Dr. Aaron Bates for routine service. Thank you."

And that would be the last thing the ServOp Center voice would ever say.

After that, all the tribes that had gathered in the Jungle Quadrant for the Campaign to End All Campaigns (as it would be called in history books) made the trek to the ServOp Center at great speed. This was something that concerned them all; everyone who could get there in time did so. And this is what they saw:

The one who was called Lorelei (the Prodigal Daughter of Tribal Alpha, the Vengeance of the Tribes) with some nameless, uninteresting-looking boy emerging from the ServOp Center, smoke billowing out of the door behind them. A contingent of three that had come with the Prodigal Daughter arrived shortly after; and then Rei-Lei of the Final Strike, then Kelli of the Steel Blades...

"Lorelei..." Meiko spoke, trying to restrain her anger. "You had... BETTER... have a good reason for lying to me today."

"Eh? Lie? I never lied," Lorelei said, almost smug in her confidence. "I said I'd find a peaceful end to the problem. And I did! Okay, so I destroyed the entire machine Tribal Alpha's been yoked to for hundreds of years, but it's a peaceful end, yes?"

If Meiko was upset, Kelli was absolutely livid with rage. "You... YOU... MY DAUGHTER, you've killed us all!!" she accused. "Frags are no longer safe! People will die! I thought you didn't want any blood spilled? We discussed this! We had an agreement!"

"I had an agreement to get you out of this problem, and I did, Mom. I think in time you'll understand why. I can see you're a little too upset to talk about this rationally, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going home to have a victory drinking binge—"

"We are exposed to them! They'll kill us all—"

That broke Lorelei's good cheer... as she snapped into a snarling, angry mood. "Mom, QUIT BULLSHITTING ME! I didn't believe you for one minute, and it's a good thing I didn't. Meiko, Kelli's snowed you completely. The Alliance weren't trying to crush the Steel Blades out of jealousy, or dominance, or anything like that. They were trying to get rid of the only ones left on Tribal Alpha who didn't want to declare a reality-wide TRUCE! Rei-Lei? Tag in here, I'm not in the mood to explain anything..."

Rei-Lei approached Meiko quickly, ignoring Kelli's silent mumbles of absolute loathing. "For the last two years, I've been spreading the concept of shutting down the ServOp Center and turning Tribal Alpha in a 'normal' reality," she explained, speaking quickly. "I was surprised at how many tribes agreed with me, were tired of the games and wanted to live a peaceful life at last. A few smaller, newer tribes disagreed, and we had to suppress them using the purges—chasing them out of Tribal Alpha, letting them leave peacefully. It was a Campaign to End All Campaigns; once all who believed in peace were all that was left, we'd disarm and live different lives. But the Steel Blades refused—"

"She wanted to destroy our honorable way of life! Everything we've fought for would be meaningless!" Kelli protested.

"It was meaningless to begin with!" Rei-Lei fired back. "All those titles and trophies and accomplishments were pointless! Everybody in Tribal Alpha except YOU and some young punks who just liked to kill with impunity wanted out. We want to live our lives for ourselves! Even the D3THL0RDZ of all people felt that way. Why couldn't you have accepted that? It didn't have to go this far—"

The setting sunlight glinted off steel... the steel double saber Lorelei had abandoned long ago, now in her mother's hands.

"I'm not going to accept that... that everything I've ever believed in was a stupid game! It had to mean something!" Kelli spoke... as people cleared out in a circle around her, none of them wanting to actually DIE. "If I take you down, then I can rul3 this world once again... as the Steel Blades should! We are L33T, don't you understand?! We're... we bow to no one, and I don't care that the warp bubbles are off, I'll cut your backstabbing heart out, and..."

Rei-Lei spread her arms out, holding no weapon. Not even her shield. "If you're going to kill me... if you CAN kill someone, really murder someone, do it. See how much honor you find in that! Every person you ever 'killed' never meant anything more than a point on the ladder, Kelli. And if you kill me it won't get you a frag point either, it'll just put blood on your hands. The bubbles are gone forever! This is what Tribal Alpha WANTS. And killing me won't stop that, either—"

A blind rage is just the thing for clouding over any doubt you have. The kind of cloud you can do anything in. Like murder someone.

Kelli ran forward, bringing her blade back for a long slash at the one she hated so much, letting out a war cry as she went, not stopping herself, not wanting to think about it—

And was stopped by Lorelei, her glowing blade blocking the strike flawlessly.

"Mom. Calm. Down," she hissed, using all her strength to hold her mother back. "Calm down or someone's gonna be hurt, hurt for REAL. And you're not getting to her 'backstabbing heart' unless you go through MY backstabbing heart first—"

Kelli gritted her teeth, trying to push down harder. "Lorelei, step... aside..! Or—"

"Or you'll kill me? I thought you loved me, Mom. Or were you lying then too? Here's something that ain't a lie: I love you. You've used me and misunderstood me and made me so mad I can't see straight, but I still love you. Now calm down... and think..."

The steel saber rattled a bit as Kelli's hands shook... and then it landed on the soft ground with a thump.

Lorelei deactivated her weapon... putting her arms around the proud woman who was now sobbing quietly into her daughter's shoulder.

The ex-hunters went home. It was over.

:episode complete

(unreal estate copyright 2003 stefan gagne)
[unauthorized use is strictly prohibited]