Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Sci-Fi & fantasy  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Adventure

Princess Royale, Book One

Princess Royale – Book One

 

By Albert Ruckholdt

 

2015 Copyright Albert Ruckholdt

Shakespir Edition

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Acknowledgments

This is dedicated to my family and friends who supported me on this venture when it first began a few years ago when I decided to break out of the daily routine and try my hand at writing.

 

Special Thanks:

To the many readers at Royal Road Legends who gave me the feedback I needed to complete this work:

Aesvira, Pyro1515, Birdyman, Nfsu218, Mossadegh, Interdict, GoGet, Knight22, Lenis Flamma, Kinko, and many, many others.

 

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1.

Chapter 2.

Chapter 3.

Chapter 4.

Chapter 5.

Chapter 6.

Chapter 7.

Chapter 8.

Chapter 9.

Epilogue.

Afterword.

Preface.

This story came to life when I decided to post a quickly written light novel on Royal Road Legend (RRL). The intention was to write something that could be read quickly and easily, and fit alongside the genres being explored by many writers on RRL. However, what began as something simple began to grow into a complex tale of deceit, ambition, and the pretense that the ends justifies the means.

We quickly realized that to write it quick and dirty was not going to do it justice. What was eventually posted on RRL was something that was somewhat out of the norm for the material on that site, and to our surprise it received strong reader support.

The next step was to take that story and revise it.

To make it better.

The story became…Princess Royale.

Those who have read my other works will find the light-novel style of writing familiar. The intent has always been to deliver material in a form that is easy to read without being too wasteful. However, it’s a goal I’m still working toward. Nonetheless, we hope that you and many other readers will enjoy this story, as I have plans for many books to come.

With those words I present to you Book One of the Princess Royale series.

Maps

Prologue.

From my window seat in the classroom, I watched the gulls ride the thermal currents flowing over the ocean waves. Looking small in the distance, they resembled tiny pieces of paper littering the air, rising and falling, sometimes lazily circling about. Nonetheless, I knew they were gulls and not paper, and for much of the homeroom period they had persistently nagged at my attention.

The small flock of gulls dove out of sight beyond the rocky shoreline of Telos Island that was shored up by a seawall completely encircling the island. For extra measure, countless permacrete tetrapods banked up against the seawall, protecting it from the heavy waves roused up by the ocean storms that frequented the coastline during the summers experienced in the northern hemisphere.

I watched and waited for the gulls to reappear. When they didn’t, my attention drifted upwards to the long, thin contrail cutting across the patchy late afternoon sky. It was probably generated by a trans-orbit shuttle making its way down planet side from the orbital city, although it could be a commercial skyliner.

With a faint shrug to myself, I watched the contrail slowly dissipate back into the surrounding atmosphere.

The sound of a bell ringing dragged my attention back to the front of the classroom, where our teacher quickly wrapped up proceedings for afternoon homeroom.

For the six thousand students attending Telos Academy, that bell signaled the end of classes for the day and for the week.

It was Friday afternoon, and time to pack up and head for home or other intervening destinations.

I looked at the tall annoyingly good looking blonde boy seated ahead of me, and watched him pack his belongings quickly into his school issued carry-bag.

Why is he in a rush? Weren’t we heading off together?

I cleared my throat and leaned forward. “Hey, Tobias, how about that crêpe place over in Ring One? It’s close by the arcade. I was thinking we could pass by on our way—”

“Sorry, Ronin. Gotta run.” He hastily stood up and pushed his chair in under his smart-desk.

I stared at him and blinked quickly. “Wh—what do you mean you have to run?”

“I’ll explain later—I promise. Got an opportunity I just can’t miss. Wish me luck.”

“Huh?”

He threw me a fast wave. “See you.”

I frowned. “Hey—wait! What about our plans? I thought we were hitting the arcade—”

He palmed his hands as he backed away. “Sorry Cass, but you know you like that game more than I do. Besides I can’t beat you. No one can.”

“Yeah but it’s not the only game there. What about the Princess Royale? You keep bugging me to try that.”

He shook his head and waved a hand. “Nah, I won’t be able to beat you in that either.”

“You’re saying that without trying.”

He pumped a fist in the air. “Set a new high score and tell me about it.”

My expression fell. “What…?”

He looked sheepish as he continued backing away. “Cass, I swear I’ll make it up to you. Just forgive me this once. Please. This is a big deal for me.”

I bristled for a heartbeat and growled, “Don’t call me Cass.”

He grinned, then turned quickly and cut a fine path from his window seat through to the classroom’s front entrance on the opposite side of the room.

I watched him in a state of disgruntled disbelief. “A big deal? What the Hell does that mean?”

He was through the door and out of sight a heartbeat later.

I doubted he heard me, and I was probably the farthest thing on his mind at the moment.

I sat back, crossed my arms, and ruminated darkly.

With no explanation, the only real friend I had at this school had just abandoned me.

I had acquaintances and classmates, but Tobias Matheus Praetor the Third was my best friend, adversary, rival, and fellow Menial, ever since we entered middle school at Telos Academy three years ago. I strongly believed we were like-minded individuals, but that belief was now thrown into question.

Why was he in such a rush?

I slumped my shoulders and glanced out the window.

I wonder if it has something to do with that girl he was talking to in the cafeteria. What’s her name again—Toni Sheffield?

I’d seen the pretty brunette with the impressive rack loitering about outside our classroom on a number of occasions. I knew she was a first year high schooler like I was.

Yeah, that would explain a lot. He probably ditched me for a date with her.

Pissed at Tobias, I turned away from the window and watched the rest of my classmates slowly amble or shuffle out of the room.

I really shouldn’t hold it against him. I mean, even I’d rather spend time with a girl than spend time with me.

My gaze met that of a girl standing at her smart desk, eyes glaring at me on an otherwise impassive face. She had long, almost snow blonde hair, and almond shaped emerald eyes. Her five foot one figure was trim, slender, and topped with a generous helping of womanly flesh where it counted the most – her chest.

Anri Shirohime – a goddess to us first year students, and our class rep.

The girl I considered number two in my ranked list goddesses, both attending and not attending the academy.

It wasn’t the first time our eyes had met, and it certainly wasn’t the first time she’d glared at me.

I had myself to blame for drawing her ire, and that was because I often found my gaze inexorably traveling from her beautiful face down to her chest and settling there. It wasn’t my fault. A chest as perfectly proportioned as hers demanded attention, and it was a man’s duty to oblige.

As expected, she huffed and tossed her hair as she broke eye contact, and then quickly stormed out of the classroom.

I shrugged inwardly, my feelings a little lighter.

As the last of the class’s stragglers left the room, I shut down my smart desk, and packed up my few belongings by tossing them into my carry-bag. Then I exited the classroom and made my way down to the shoe lockers located on the first level that was actually the ground floor of the Telos Academy building.

#

Telos Academy was one of nine premier schools located in Ar Telica city on the east coast of the massive Northern Continent.

The school was built upon Telos Island, aptly named after the Telos Conglomerate leased it from the city governing authority a couple of decades ago.

A bridge connected the island to Ar Telica city.

It was long enough to span the four hundred meters from the bay coastline to the island, and wide enough to support two lanes of vehicular traffic. On either side of the bridge ran broad sidewalks that thousands of students made use of in the mornings and afternoons. Those that didn’t care for walking over the bridge could travel aboard the overhead maglev service that looped over to the island and back to the city. The entrance to Telos Academy was scarcely two hundred meters away from the foot of the bridge, and only a hundred meters from the maglev station.

As I exited the academy grounds, I inwardly debated catching the maglev to Ar Telica’s Ring Zero, which encompassed the bay, and then walking down to the crêpe shop.

I decided to walk the bridge.

I didn’t exercise much outside of physical education class, and the walk would do me some good. After all, it was rare for Tobias and I to head off in separate ways, and whenever we left together he made it a habit for us to catch the maglev back to the city.

Twenty or so minutes later, I was over the bridge and making my way to the crêpe shop within the entertainment complex that was home to the multi-level gaming arcade I frequented.

However, as I arrived at the shop, I decided to hit the arcade first.

I was in luck.

The first person shooter I loved to dominate was unoccupied, though a great many of the other arcade games were already in use by students from Telos Academy. I did notice a couple of uniforms belonging to students from other nearby academies.

Looking at the holovid screen above the large gaming booth, I saw that my record score had been recently bested.

Time to set a new high score, and then rub it in Tobias’s face.

Swiping my cashcard over the scanner outside the booth, I stepped into the large, spacious, domed interior of the booth, and dropped my bag at the ‘back’ where two electronic guns were holstered to a narrow wall console.

I took off my school blazer, loosened my tie, entered my details quickly into the console, then removed the electronic light-guns from their holsters that doubled as battery chargers. With guns in hand, I turned to the ‘front’ of the booth, and then stepped up to the middle.

Rotating my arms and shoulders, I waited for the game system to generate a random setting for the first stage I would play.

This shooting game employed holo-fields rather than virtual reality gear, which was one reason why I enjoyed it more. The holo-fields dropped like a circular curtain all around me, and I found myself standing in a plaza in the midst of a ruined city, one that uncannily resembled Ar Telica.

For a heartbeat or two, I felt a sense of panic, as I recognized the plaza.

It was the plaza running through the open-air entertainment complex home to the gaming arcade I was standing in.

A loud crash accompanied the shattering of a shop window. Then the first of the zombies crawled out into the plaza, and it was time to concentrate on taking them down.

Falling into stance, I held up both guns and took practiced aim at the closest of the unfortunate souls. When I fired, a holo-emitter fitted to the light-gun projected a muzzle flash. It was a nice little touch.

A single round to the head sent the zombie dropping to the stone pavement.

I blinked sharply.

That was different.

To my surprise, the body didn’t derezz or fade away. It remained where it fell.

I chose my next target, and downed it the same way. Again, the body failed to dematerialize and remained where it fell across its inert companion.

Was there an update?

Opening up my mind to the patterns I could see in their movements, I began picking them off two at a time with the electronic light-guns I gripped in both hands. After several minutes of shooting dead the undead, the plaza stage was deemed cleared, and the game moved to the next stage – an all-girl school setting that looked eerily like Telos Academy.

My heart skipped a beat when I heard the game narrate the requirements. I would need to distinguish between surviving students and zombies, and escort them to safety. The female students screamed as they ran down the corridor, rushing past me with fear plastered on their faces.

I felt sweat trickle down my back.

I’d played this game hundreds of times, yet I’d never played a school setting like this before.

However that wasn’t what troubled me.

It was the level of realism. Between now and last week, something had obviously been improved in the system. The look of terror on the girls’ faces as they ran by me, or were set upon by their zombie classmates, was much too real. I struggled to push my troubled thoughts aside, and did my best to clamp down on my rattled feelings but I could feel the guns tremble in my hands.

Clenching my jaw, I ignored the girls crying and sobbing behind me, and had to remind myself they weren’t real.

It wasn’t like this before. There must have been an upgrade to the graphics engine.

I swallowed hard.

But I didn’t see anything new advertised on the sign outside the booth.

A terrified scream shattered my thoughts.

A short distance ahead of me a schoolgirl had stumbled and fallen in the corridor. She was moments away from being feasted upon by two zombie teachers staggering toward her. Taking quick aim with both light-guns, I fired simultaneously and permanently killed the two undead.

As the girl scrambled to her feet and ran for safety behind me, I tried not to look at her.

That was made easier by the fact I was already taking down the zombies chasing after her.

The weight of the students’ lives began to weigh on my shoulders, and it wasn’t long before this stopped feeling like a game.

No, this didn’t feel like a game at all.

It felt like I was being trained for something. Or perhaps I was being tested.

Either way, I soon stopped thinking of anything but killing the undead and surviving the stage along with the female students I was protecting.

#

I stood in the middle of the booth, my body shaking and arms trembling from exertion.

I could feel sweat running down my back and face.

For twenty minutes I’d done nothing but shoot and move forward through the zombie infested school. It was finally over, and about a dozen students had been escorted safely out of the school, but I was left shaken by the experience.

Looking down at the guns in my hands, I considered calling it quits but a soft chime announced the start of the next stage.

I was now on the top floor of an apartment complex infested by zombies. The narrator warned me that survivors had to be protected and escorted to safety all the way down to the first level or ground floor. However, my blood ran cold when I saw a little girl run screaming down the corridor, teddy bear in her arms, as a throng of zombie children pursued her.

What the Hell is wrong with this game? When did it become like this? This is too effing real!

I fired automatically and so quickly the gun triggers couldn’t keep up as I took down her pursuers. I was firing reflexively, not even thinking of taking aim at the targets, yet center punching each zombie head with a single round from the light-guns.

The little girl took shelter behind me, and I could have sworn I felt her clutching at my legs, but that shouldn’t have been possible unless the booth was unknowingly equipped with effect-fields to simulate contact with in-game objects.

Nonetheless, a chill ran through me, I concentrated on clearing the corridor of any ambulatory undead, feeling little satisfaction as they fell by the handful every few seconds. I stopped shooting when no new targets emerged, and observed a corridor littered with bodies piled high on top of each other. Only then did I glance down at the little girl sheltering behind me.

I had to remind myself a number of times that was nothing more than a holo-field image.

Yet there was no mistaking the terror on her face as she tightly clutched her bear to her chest.

I crouched down and looked into eyes that looked far too real for comfort, and suppressed a shiver before it could sprint through my body.

Clearing my throat, I told her, “Stay behind me. I promise I’ll protect you.”

Her lips trembled but she gave me a halting nod.

I reached out to touch her, then again reminded myself she wasn’t real.

Instead, I chose to give her a reassuring smile. “Stay close behind me.”

Realistically, she nodded and clutched her bear again.

The sight made my heart clench, and it hardened my resolve to see her safely out of the building…and to clear this nightmarish level.

I stood up and turned back to the corridor. I began walking forward, though an effect-field underfoot kept me stationary in the middle of the booth. In other words, I was walking forward without actually doing so, and the holo-fields simulated my progress down the corridor.

I tightened my grip on the guns as the next wave of undead made their appearance, emerging round a hallway corner like a flood.

#

When I emerged from the booth, I was exhausted both mentally and physically.

Somehow, by some miracle, I’d succeeded in escorting the little girl and two dozen other tenants out of the apartment complex, and somehow I hadn’t lost anyone along the way.

As I dried my hands on my trousers, my heart continued racing hard in my chest.

I left the booth without bothering to wear my school blazer, instead wearily slinging it over my left shoulder, with my carry-bag’s straps over my right shoulder. My arms ached from holding them up for so long, and my trigger fingers felt like they would cramp up at any moment.

The game had never been so hard before, but I realized that despite my long hours of practice, I was in poor physical condition.

I’d taken only two steps outside when I noticed the crowd watching me and the big screen above the booth.

Most looked surprised to see me step out, and the few girls in the crowd looked visibly disappointed. Perhaps if Tobias had emerged he would have received a standing ovation. I did receive a few claps and a handful of thumbs up gestures, but I clearly wasn’t regarded podium material by the vast majority of the crowd who quickly departed to other points of interest within the sprawling arcade.

I should have been inured to those sorts of reactions, but it still bit a little into my chest.

Hoping to distract myself, I looked up at the holovid screen and saw my efforts over the past hour had paid off with a new high score. It was double that of my nearest rival.

I should have felt elated, but instead I was uneasy.

I was convinced the game had changed drastically since I’d played it last week. It wasn’t a game anymore, but a life-and-death struggle. There was no upgrade advertised on the stand outside the booth, but I decided to find one of the staff and ask them if the game had been unofficially updated.

Before I could do so, a trouser pocket vibrated and I pulled it out to see I’d received a new message. I was surprised to see it was from my sister.

RONIN, ENOUGH PLAYING AROUND. GO HOME. NOW. – ERINA

With our parents working off-world, my older sister, Erina, was registered as my immediate next-of-kin and guardian here on Teloria. In her capacity as guardian, she would track my location through my phone. While that didn’t annoy me, I was a little incensed at her tone.

I half expected to find a map attached indicating the quickest route home. My sister was a bootstrapped Alpha, and she sometimes tended to think of me, a Menial, as functionally deficient. Sometimes, she treated me as though I was mentally handicapped, and that really got under my skin.

With a sigh, I typed a reply stating I’d be back at the apartment in under an hour, then dropped the phone into my right trouser pocket.

If I was going to have to face her, I’d prefer to avoid doing so on an empty stomach.

Furthermore, despite the apocalyptic carnage I’d endured in the booth, my stomach growled as it demanded to be fed.

With another sigh, I decided to pick up a crêpe to eat on the way home.

#

I took my time walking home to my student apartment allocated to me in a massive housing complex designated as a dormitory for the students of Telos Academy.

Riding the escalator up to a bridgeway spanning a six lane street, I swallowed down the last of the crêpe, then used a paper napkin to wipe down my fingers. Stepping off at the top of the escalator, I walked up to a refuse bin and tossed the used napkin into it.

But halfway there the napkin changed direction and flew sideways, missing the mouth of the bin altogether.

For a heartbeat I stared at it in confusion, before being knocked down to my hands and knees by a tremendous gust of wind that dragged me along the floor for several feet, eventually forcing me down onto my belly. When I came to a stop, I immediately noticed a deathly silence filling the air. Anxiously, I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, and looked about the bridgeway I was lying on.

The moving walkway had come to a stop.

The few people I remembered on the bridgeway had vanished, including the baby in the pram resting eerily vacant a few meters away.

Standing up, I almost hesitantly walked up to the glass windows that enclosed the bridgeway. They formed a curved canopy over the bridgeway, turning it into a glass tunnel some thirty feet above the street.

I looked out and saw that I was still in the city, yet everything looked strange and unnerving.

The light cast on the buildings looked wrong. The colors appeared dull and washed away. There was no vibrancy in them anymore. And not just the colors, but the air as well. It smelt and tasted stale.

Then there was the light emanating from a sky various shades of grey roiling about in a disturbed, murky mix. I had the impression there was no sun behind that grey sky, as though the sky itself generating that pale, ghostly light that now fell upon the silent and deserted city.

Ar Telica was devoid of any sign of life other than my own.

I touched the glass. It was there, yet I didn’t register touching it. It was as though my fingertips had grown numb, yet I could feel its resistance when I pushed against it.

Looking down, I saw that vehicular traffic had come to a stop, and the cars and buses were empty.

When had this change to the city taken place?

When had everyone been evacuated? Or rather, when had the city been abandoned?

I took a deep breath and considered my options, but then noticed I was feeling a little lightheaded as one might when the air is thinner than the body is accustomed to.

I blinked.

Something had just moved between the buildings in the near distance.

Something human-like with strange swords floating around it.

I narrowed my eyes and focused intently in that area.

There was indeed something moving out there, and it was coming my way at a frightening speed.

I frowned and squinted as I noticed it was not alone, and its companion was following it closely, leaping between buildings, hopping from balcony to balcony, rooftop to rooftop.

My mind performed a double take.

Is that a girl chasing another girl?

I stopped squinting.

Dear gods above—these girls move fast. They’re jumping—not flying—and they’re definitely coming my way.

In a fright, I turned to run but unexpectedly stumbled to the ground.

I was on my hands and knees, and realized my legs weren’t responding. I had abruptly lost feeling in my lower body, and quite simply couldn’t get up.

Feeling a rising panic, I looked down and stared at my splayed fingers on the ground…and my heart almost stopped.

My fingers were…slowly crumbling away.

Horror overwhelmed my panic, gripping me in icy bands of steel that crushed my chest. I watched the skin of my hands flake and turn to dust.

What the Hell is this? What the Hell is happening to me?

The urge to scream bubbled up in my chest and into my throat, just as I heard the glass canopy of the bridgeway shatter loudly behind me.

Somehow, as my body continued to crumble apart, I managed to turn my head and look over my right shoulder.

Something had crashed into the bridgeway, and I saw that it was one of those girls I’d seen jumping across the skyline.

She was dressed in a tight bodysuit, sleek leg armor, and surrounded by strange swords that floated around her.

As I looked up at her, my eyesight began to grey out. I could no longer see in color.

Yet I could still see the girl, and then I glimpsed a second girl crash through an opening of her own making, and land in an elegant crouch on the motionless walkway.

The first girl hurried over to me, her floating swords keeping up with her. Oddly, I had the impression they weren’t swords but elaborate firearms.

As she reached down for me, I thought she looked like a beautiful doll with flawless skin, perfect lips, and large, expressive eyes.

She picked me up with the ease of an adult lifting an infant into the air, and yelled something to someone out of sight, but my ears only registered it as a dull roar of sound.

I was losing my hearing too.

The panic and horror I’d felt before was fading quickly.

Perhaps it was because I was entranced by the beautiful girl holding me in the air with one arm, while the second girl watched in horror a few meters behind her.

Then my senses failed me and my awareness faded to black.

What a hopeless way to die.

To crumble apart like an old cookie in the presence of such a beautiful creature.

Chapter 1.

I walked the bridge connecting Ar Telica to Telos Island along with thousands of other students making the trek into Telos Academy.

A bright Monday morning sun cast its rays down upon us.

Overhead on the elevated rail, the maglev whooshed by, its carriages loaded with students and perhaps members of the Academy’s faculty and administrative staff.

I’d considered catching the maglev into Telos Island, but chose to walk instead.

This morning I wanted to see the outside world from a different point of view.

I wanted to breathe the air, smell the ocean breeze, hear the gulls, and feel the warmth of the sun.

I wanted to reassure myself this was the way the world should be.

Alive. Vibrant. Full of life, and not dead and decaying in a pale grey light.

I stopped halfway along the bridge and looked down at my hands, turning them over slowly, and flexing my fingers one by one.

Everything was in working order. They moved just like I expected them to do so. They showed no signs of crumbling away.

I looked up at the academy ahead of me at the far end of the bridge, rising from Telos Island. Its grey-white walls, unremarkable in nature, showed no signs of breaking apart.

Yes. Everything was just the way it should be…except today was Monday, and I remembered yesterday being Friday.

That posed the question of where had my weekend gone?

I suppressed the shiver that tried to run down my back, hefted the straps of my school carry-bag, and resumed walking.

I arrived at the high-school building that was the northern half of a giant circular building. Actually, if one looked at it from above, the Academy building resembled the icon for the power button on most photronic appliances that had a standby feature – a line running partially into a broken circle.

The long narrow building running into the larger circular building was home to administration. The broken circle of the Academy building housed everything the students could possibly need from their school, except for the sporting facilities that were built separate and lay to the east of the main building. The two large sporting fields were also further out to the east.

The northern half of the circular building was allocated to the high school students. The southern half was allocated to the middle schoolers. Around six thousand students in all. Despite the numbers, Telos Academy had been constructed to house a couple of thousand more, so a large percentage of the building consisted of empty rooms yet to be opened.

As the population slowly grew, and Ar Telica expanded further and further into the terra-formed lands, more students were expected to attend the academy, one of eleven such schools within the city borders.

I stepped into the foyer and walked past scores of locker aisles until I arrived at my shocker locker. Trading outside shoes for indoor shoes – there really wasn’t that much difference to them – I glanced into the depths of the locker.

Other than my shoes, it was empty today, just like the week before, and the week before then.

I closed the small door and leaned my head against the locker.

Just once, at least once, I would like to experience opening it up and finding a nice pleasant surprise in a pink envelope with a heart shaped seal.

I heard a loud bang nearby and jumped in fright.

Anri Shirohime stood a couple of feet beside me, glaring at me with her eyes though her face remained unreadable, thought that wasn’t for long.

Her glare steadily deepened until it turned into a scowl.

That was probably because I was helplessly staring at her chest.

As I’ve pointed out before, when a chest like that crosses your field of vision, you look. You pay it the attention it deserves. Anything else is a sin, a crime against ones existence as a man.

As I studied her curves hidden beneath her dress and dark school blazer, I automatically compared it to another godly chest, that of my favorite gravure model.

I wonder how soft or firm they are. Do they weigh her down?

I watched her chest draw closer. I watched her raise her left hand. She delivered a slap that embedded my head into my locker door.

I didn’t feel it was prudent to do more than just lean there against my locker while she walked away with a furious aura surrounding her body.

I ignored the looks from my fellow students, both guys and girls who regarded me with varied expressions. Some laughed. Some applauded. Some glared and made rude gestures at me – mostly the girls.

As I rested with my head imprinting my locker, I felt a tap on my right shoulder.

A tall, annoyingly good-looking boy stepped around me and into view. The grin on his face split his face in two. “Morning Cass.”

“Don’t call me that,” I muttered as I pulled my head free of my locker.

He leaned toward me. “This is what—the fifth time this month.”

I pressed my lips into a thin line. “Sixth time.”

He cocked his head. “Did it hurt?”

“Like it always does.”

“But was it worth it?”

I stood still and considered the question. I gave him a nod. “As always her chest is a perfect ten. Not too big. Not too small. Just right.”

Tobias’s grin grew. “Well, we got swim class next week. Isn’t that going to be an experience?” He clapped his hands together. “Ooh, I can hardly wait to see the class rep in something sheer and sexy.”

“She’ll be wearing a swimsuit, you idiot.”

“That’s what I mean. Sheer and sexy.” Abruptly he looked sheepish and rubbed his hair a tad nervously. “On second thoughts, that might not be a good idea for me.”

I frowned inwardly, guessing at what he implied. Outwardly, I regarded him coolly and with faint envy. “You’re going to need an extra-large pair of jammers.”

His grin grew arrogant which briefly ticked me off. “Yep, and the girls are gonna know it.”

“Ah piss off,” I muttered. Unable to contain my envy, I vented by him pushing aside.

“Wow—” Tobias fell on his ass after stumbling backwards a couple of feet.

I stared at him in shock. “What—what are you doing?”

He sat on the floor, rubbing his backside. “Damn, you push hard. Did you get an extra set of muscles over the weekend?”

“What? Quit playing around. I’m the same weakling I’ve always been. Here, I’ll prove it.”

I walked over and offered him a hand up.

He took it with suspicion that grew when I easily pulled him up to his feet.

I kept my face relaxed and impassive, but inside was another matter.

Holy shit! When did I get an extra set of muscles?

I wasn’t exactly weak, but I wasn’t strong like the majority of boys my age.

Doing my best to keep calm and collected, I shrugged lightly at him. “See. That was hard for me.”

No—no, it wasn’t. Hell, I could have lifted a super-sized Tobias and it still wouldn’t have taxed me.

I swallowed, finding it hard to keep my casual composure.

What the Hell was wrong with me?

He gave me an uneasy smile, dusted his dark trousers, then shrugged. “Yeah. Same Cass…I guess.”

“Stop calling me that,” I muttered for the thousandth time in our past few years of friendship. “It’s because of you that the guys started called me Cassidy. I was hoping to leave that behind when we started high school. Thanks to you, that’s not going to happen.”

I started walking past him, then glanced over my shoulder at my shoe locker.

My head had really dented it this time.

I wondered if the class rep’s hand was okay.

#

Our class was on the second floor of the first block.

The broken circle Academy building was divided into six blocks. Three for high school. Three for middle school. The building had four levels, and a dozen rooftop courtyards for students to eat at, as well as two massive cafeterias on the first floor. Again, one for high schoolers, and one for middle schoolers.

I stepped into Class One-Cee.

Although classes weren’t officially organized by academic merit, it was known that students that struggled were lumped together in specific classes, though again the designation was ‘irrelevant’. From what I understood, Class One-Cee catered for average students like me, probably destined to be Menials.

Yeah, irrelevant designation my ass.

However, there was one special class, and that was Class One-Ess.

That class was reserved for students fast tracked to be bootstrapped upon graduation three years from now.

That class was a fair distance away from ours and down the second floor.

Both literally and intellectually.

I looked down the curved corridor, wondering for the umpteenth time who in their right mind decided to make a ‘circular’ school building.

Stadiums were round. Coliseums were round. Schools were ‘not’ meant to be round.

I entered my classroom, and walked past my classmates clustered in the usual cliques – I mean groups – and heavily in discussion over their weekend activities.

I should mention that in my class of thirty-six students, the girls outnumbered the boys.

It should be a guy’s paradise but it certainly wasn’t for me.

Tobias sauntered in behind me.

Damn the tall, handsome prick. If he wasn’t my best friend I’d have thumped him by now for the way he strutted arrogantly into the classroom.

I frowned inwardly, thinking he’d added a bit of a swagger to his walk. Then my emotions darkened as I wondered if something ‘good’ had happened to him last Friday or over the weekend.

As expected, the girls noticed his entrance. Most regarded him with disdain, but some of them didn’t, and they whispered shyly to their friends.

Color me red but I was starting to really hate him. However, taking a deep breath, I chose to ignore him instead, and continued onward to my allocated smart-desk by the window.

Up until recently, when he entered a growth a spurt that made him larger in many ways, Tobias had been rather modest and humble. But now he was turning into a Tobias I didn’t know. It made me wonder how long before he stopped hanging around me. He’d kept me out of trouble during middle-school, but now I was going to have to learn to take care of myself.

I sat down at my smart-desk and looked down at my hands.

I clenched them slowly. They felt the same as always, but I was starting to think something wasn’t right.

Was last Friday just a dream?

Taking a deep breath I powered up my smart-desk, logged in, then hesitantly slipped on my neural headset.

Good, my head didn’t explode.

The software update distributed last week left a number of students in the infirmary nursing migraines that turned their stomachs inside out.

I was one of them. The other six were girls.

To make matters worse Tobias and my male classmates began referring me as Cassidy with a Cee, and some of the girls did too.

Sigh. What a shitty week that was.

Tobias occupied the smart-desk in front of me. “So, how was the game?”

My stomach tightened. “The game?”

“Yeah, the zombie game.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “The game you play ‘all’ the time?”

My stomach tightened a little more. “Ah…I set a new record. Twice that of my nearest rival.”

Tobias lowered his eyebrows. “Twice?”

I nodded weakly, feeling uncomfortable when I thought about the events of last Friday afternoon. “Yeah. Twice.” I laughed nervously. “It was really weird. The game must have been upgraded because it played way too real.” I took a deep breath and let slip a shudder. “Freaked me the Hell out….”

He studied me in silence for a long while.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “What?”

Tobias shook his head faintly. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” His expression brightened. “Cass, I gotta ask. You check out the girls because you like them, right?”

“Huh? Of course,” I mumbled, dropping my chin onto an upturned palm, and turning to look out the window.

“Hmm, well, maybe I can help you out.”

I turned my eyes in his direction. “What?”

“Maybe I could help you get a girl.”

“Huh? How?”

He wagged his eyebrows at me. “Well, with my newfound appeal.”

My stomach clamped up. “Don’t bother because I can tell where you’re going with this.”

“Is that a fact?”

For a heartbeat, I glanced at the doorway. As luck or bad luck would have it, our class rep, Anri Shirohime, walked in.

Tobias grinned. “You like the class rep, don’t you.”

“I admire her body. That’s all. Her personality sucks. Of course, you’d have better luck with her than I would. And besides there’s a long line queuing up for her.”

I glanced at her again, this time as she sat down.

Was she favoring her right hand over her left?

She had slapped me with her left hand. Maybe it had hurt her more than it hurt me. That’s not to say my head didn’t hurt, as stars had exploded in my eyes when my skull collided with my locker door.

I blinked.

Class Rep had noticed me watching her. Her steely emerald glare made my stomach twist over in a sudden case of fear.

I hastily averted my eyes, and quickly turned to the window. “No. The only girl I like is Mercy.”

“Oh, well in that case I have something for you.” He placed a data chit on my smart desk. “Limited edition. Not even available for download yet. My way of saying sorry for last Friday.” He grinned sheepishly. “I promised I’d make it up to you.”

I stared at the chit. “What is it?”

“Mercy’s latest holovid. Highest resolution ever. Totally immersive experience. Comes out next week. My family’s company is associated with her talent agency. I told my uncle I was a fan and he got it for me over the weekend.”

I alternately stared at the chit and Tobias in awe. “Are you shitting me? This is real?”

He shook his head and continued to smile. “Enjoy. As I said, my way of saying I’m sorry for bailing on you.”

“Oh…okay….”

“You’ll have to let me borrow it later so that I can give my uncle an honest review in case he asks.”

My number one, favorite gravure model, in the whole, wide terra-formed planet of Teloria.

Mercedes “Mercy” Haddaway. A true goddess of the string bikini, and like all goddesses she was completely out of my grasp. Hell, she was on a completely different plane of existence.

I was glad I wasn’t living at home anymore, if for the only reason I was able to put up holo-posters of her in every room of my small student apartment…though I did make sure I had no photos of her in the bathroom.

There was a line I chose not to cross, and that was no Mercy Haddaway in the bathroom.

I reached out and hesitantly took the data chit. “You better not be lying about this,” I said to Tobias.

He shrugged. “When have I ever let you down?”

“Shall I start listing those events in chronological order?”

He raised his hands. “Trust me. I’m on the level. That’s Mercy in all her swimsuit and skimpy glory.”

Turning the chit over in my fingers, I asked, “So how was your date with Toni Sheffield from Class One Dee?”

He opened his mouth but closed it a moment later, then looked away sheepishly. “When did you see us?”

“I didn’t, but I guessed your hasty departure had something to do with her.” I pocketed the data chit, then resumed staring out the window. “She does have a nice rack. I can see why you like her.”

“There’s more to girls than their chests.” He made an hourglass shape with his hands. “There’s personality too.”

I bit the inside of my mouth.

Yeah, I know that. I’m not that shallow.

As I thought that, I couldn’t help glancing across the classroom at our class rep.

She was busy rubbing her left hand.

And the girls seated around her were ignoring her as they busily chatted amongst themselves.

#

The rush to the cafeteria at lunchtime was as bad as usual.

From my experiences attending middle school, lunchtime as a high schooler was no different except everyone was a little bigger. That said, it might have been my imagination but the line to the food and cashier seemed longer than normal.

I sighed softly to myself, thinking that at least the food was good.

That was one thing I would never complain about Telos Academy.

The cafeteria food was good. Real good.

I guess it paid to have a bootstrapped family for immediate kin. Otherwise I doubt I’d be attending this school, though it made me feel like I was fleecing off my family’s position as part of the valued intellectual elite.

Leaving that dispiriting thought aside, I rubbed my stomach. I felt hungry, at least hungrier than usual.

Did I forget to eat over the weekend?

Before homeroom commenced, Tobias had asked me why I hadn’t answered his calls.

I lied and told him I was sick as a dog, and didn’t get up for two days.

He looked troubled and then told me he regretted not coming over to check up on me. His family had a get together that he had to attend. However, he wouldn’t tell me much other than he ate too much for his body weight.

Dear gods, was he worrying about his figure now? When he had a grown a vain bone? He looked better than I did on the very best of days.

Maybe he really was turning a corner or new leaf. Knowing he’d dated Toni Sheffield, a rather pretty brunette with a full perky rack, had left me feeling unpleasantly abandoned. But it was inevitable that we would grow apart, especially if we were growing up in different ways.

That made me wonder when I would experience a growth spurt.

At five foot four, I was well below average for a first year, and there were high school girls taller than I was. My father was a solid six feet in height, and my mother was a statuesque brunette at five foot ten. So when the heck would I start catching up to them?

I felt like someone high above was testing not just my patience, but my metal as a man as well.

Anyway, I told Tobias it wasn’t worth him coming over. He lived quite a distance away in Ring Two, and I lived in a small apartment in a large complex across the bay that catered to several hundred students attending the academy. The academy also had traditional dorms, but I’d put in a request for a student apartment, and to my surprise it was approved.

Bootstrapped parents have a reputation, so I guess the school administration was favoring me over other students who weren’t so privileged. Maybe they believed that one day I too would be a bootstrapped member of society instead of a Menial.

I’d moved into that apartment in my third year of middle school.

It was an enlightening experience to learn to live alone.

I rubbed my stomach again, thinking something didn’t feel right. I was hungry so maybe that explained why I felt light headed.

“Choose the salad. And ask for milk instead of a soda.”

With a start, I blinked sharply then slowly looked around, eventually turning to the girl in line behind me.

She was busy talking to a friend, but shot me a glare when she noticed me staring at her.

“What?” she snapped. “You lose something?”

“Ah, did you tell me to choose a salad?”

Her slender eyebrows pitched down. “What? Why would I tell you that?”

“Uh—”

She sneered faintly. “Why would I even want to talk to you?”

“It was just a question,” I retorted and turned away. I took a couple of steps forward as the line moved along.

“Choose the salad. Something light. Nothing heavy, at least not for a few days.”

I swallowed and looked around again.

Nothing but a cafeteria full of students busy eating, gossiping, and wrapped up in their own little social worlds.

I started to turn around and look at the girl behind me, until I realized something obvious.

Whomever was talking to me wasn’t a girl. It was a man’s voice, and he sounded rather uppity – a little like the butler employed by Tobias’s family.

Suddenly my phone vibrated in my trouser pocket.

I pulled it out and stared at the display. It looked like an incoming call but there was no Caller ID.

I answered it as I moved along the line. My turn to choose lunch was coming up shortly.

“Hello…?”

“Ah, I thought this might be better. How silly of me.”

I swallowed nervously. “Um, who is this?”

“I am a Maestro. I’ve been assigned to help you with the transition process. In fact, it is my duty and responsibility to oversee almost all manner of your daily affairs.”

I frowned as I got closer to the food trays. I was going to need both hands, so I detached the earpiece from the phone’s casing and slipped it into my right ear. I then pocketed my phone and picked up an empty tray from the stack.

“Who are you?”

“I am a Maestro. Your personal assistant.”

“Why do I need an assistant?”

“Well, that should be obvious.”

I shook my head faintly. “No. It’s not. Are you from my parent’s office? Did they send you? Are you checking up on me on their behalf?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Well, you’re telling me what to choose for lunch.”

“Yes, and ask for plenty of salad.”

I breathed in deeply. “But there’s beef stroganoff right there. I love beef stroganoff. It’s even better than my mother used to make and she was bootstrapped.”

“Your body can not handle heavy foods right now. It is going to need a few days to adjust. It is all a very delicate process.”

I frowned and cocked my head. “What the Hell are you talking about?”

The voice was quiet or a long while. “Oh my. Could it be?”

“Could what be?” I asked.

The other party on the line was silent for a longer moment. A very long and uncomfortable moment. “Could it be…you were not preloaded?”

I cocked my head some more, until I noticed the cafeteria serving lady was staring at me in annoyance.

“Hey kid, you want something or not?”

“Salad,” I asked for and held out my tray.

She pointed down the serving counters. “Then keep moving. You’re holding up the line.”

“Ah, yes, ma’am. Sorry ma’am.”

I bowed quickly and hurried after the boy ahead of me.

The voice spoke again. “Well, the preload process should not take long. Then again, this might prove more interesting.”

“What’s more interesting? Who the heck are you?”

“I told you, I am a Maestro. Your guide and instructor all rolled into one.”

I held out my tray to the next serving lady. She topped it up with all manner of salads while giving me a hearty smile.

“Bon appetite,” she offered me.

Was she pleased I was eating healthy?

I walked over to the pay counter and swiped my phone over the scanner. It was registered to my school account and the application installed on it would automatically add the cost of this lunch to my running expenses.

I started walking away from the line. “Why do I need an instructor or Maestro?”

“How else do you plan on learning the ropes of your new existence?”

“My what?”

“Well, have you not realized it by now?”

Distracted, I looked around for an empty seat. “Realized what…?”

“Realized that is not your body.”

I froze. All the sounds and sights around me blurred as my heart began to beat loudly, drowning out my hearing with a sudden rush of blood.

“What—what did you say?”

“That is not your body.”

I was faintly aware of the tray trembling in my hands. “Wh—what?”

The voice sighed. “Ronin Kassius, last Friday early evening you fell into a Sliver Arena in Decaying Space.”

I swallowed. “And…?”

“And your body suffered organic destabilization.”

“And…?”

“You died.”

I dropped the tray.

By some miracle or otherwise, I narrowly avoided fainting on the spot.

Chapter 2.

After picking up my tray, and disposing of the small amount of my lunch that had fallen onto the cafeteria floor, I hastily walked through the cafeteria.

I ignored the looks I attracted.

Stepping through the glass doors leading out onto the cafeteria balcony, I looked about quickly.

Out to my left, a score meters away, there was an empty table with chairs for two.

However, I would be eating alone today.

My ‘good’ friend Tobias had ditched me in favor of the company of one Toni Sheffield from Class One-Dee and her friends.

However, considering the events of the last few minutes, it was best to eat alone. Besides, I wasn’t alone. There was an annoyingly uppity voice talking in my ear.

I walked between occupied tables and sat down in a hurry at the empty one.

I placed the tray and my milk carton on the table.

“Talk,” I said. “Start from the top.”

In my ear, Maestro or ‘the’ Maestro spoke through the earpiece wirelessly linked to my phone. By placing my phone on the table and beside the tray, I gave observers the impression I was talking on the phone, rather than talking to myself.

He said, “Well, dig into your salad while I explain.”

“Keep it short and sweet,” I asked.

“That might not be possible.”

“Then try.”

“You really are a demanding Princess, aren’t you.”

My fork stopped halfway to my mouth. “What did you call me?”

“A Princess.”

“Screw you.”

“But that’s what you are.”

“I am not a Princess!”

My outcry had attracted nearby attention.

I made a point of pushing my phone about on the table.

The guys and girls gave me odd looks. Some of them made comments about me between themselves, but then resumed talking to each other.

I wolfed down a forkful of salad, and spoke with my mouth full. “Where are you so I can hit you?”

“To be specific, I am in the sarcophagus, but I am linked to you via your wetware. I am making use of this link to ‘call you’ on your phone.”

“Sarcophagus? You mean like a coffin? You’re in a coffin?”

I heard a sigh on the line. “Why were you not preloaded? This is most out of the ordinary. Then again, I am finding a number of details that are out of the ordinary. Undoubtedly it is due to the rushed circumstances.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

I ate some more of the salad on my tray. It was unsurprisingly good. Everything was good about the Academy food.

The Maestro huffed to himself. “Most out of the ordinary.”

“Can you start making some sense? I have class in about thirty minutes. I can’t exactly be listening to you while I’m attending lessons.”

“Very well. I will start by answering the most pertinent question.”

“Which is?”

“Your apparent death. I believe I was a little hasty in making such an announcement. As the saying goes, the rumors of your demise were greatly exaggerated.”

“So I’m not dead?” That was a relief. I almost sagged in my chair. But then was everything I experienced that afternoon just a dream?

The Maestro added, “Well, in a manner of speaking…you are not dead.”

“Great.”

“But your physical body suffered substantial damage. As a result, it was no longer able to provide for your continued existence. To that end, your consciousness or awareness was mapped and translated into another host.”

I lowered my utensils. “What do you mean by that?”

“That is not your body. Your ‘mind’ or awareness was mapped into a neural matrix, something very similar to your organic and less efficient mammalian brain. That matrix was then implanted into a simulacrum. That is what you are currently making use of. It is a temporary body we refer to as a Simulacrum.”

I looked down at my tray. “This body…my body…is not real?”

“It is real. However, it is not your original body. That one is being kept elsewhere.”

“Where…?”

“Elsewhere.”

“Where?”

“In a safe place. Look. We can discuss that later. We need to stick to the main points because you are not preloaded with any of the usual information. Most interesting and most troubling.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it is true.” It paused then sounded thoughtful. “I wonder if this is a way test out your mental resilience.”

I frowned slightly. “You mean whether my mind is going to snap or not?”

“Yes.”

“I doubt it, since I don’t believe a word of what you’re telling me.”

The Maestro sighed again. “Oh, I can tell this is going to take a lot of work.”

I ate another mouthful of salad. “If this not my real body, then it feels real. I mean I’m eating.”

“Yes. The Simulacrum is a simulation of a real body. However, it does take some liberties.”

“Such as?”

“Well, for one it’s much studier than your organic body.”

“Huh? Organic? Are you saying this is not organic?”

“It’s fairly close, but does contain an inorganic sub-frame and pseudo-muscular tissue, as well as organs and nutrient fluid very much like your human blood. Not a perfect replica, but a very, very good simulation of one.”

I frowned and remembered pushing Tobias onto his backside with a casual push. “So I’m stronger than I was?”

“Much stronger. Of course, you can sustain damage but you will heal fairly well on your own. Again, that depends on the damage you take. If it is too severe you will need to enter the sarcophagus for repairs.”

Again I lowered my utensils. “A sarcophagus. You mean, like a coffin?”

“Oh here we go again.” He sighed. “The multiverse forbid. Calling it a coffin is such a demeaning thing to say.”

“So it’s not a coffin?”

“Let us just say, it is a place for you to rest and recuperate.”

“What?” I frowned inwardly. “Is that where my body is?”

“No. Your body is not here in this…realm.”

This Maestro was telling me my body wasn’t real, but the headache I was starting to feel certainly felt real.

“Ah, you’re suffering an early neural strain,” he said. “You need to calm down. Your neural matrix is still in a state of adjustment. You must relax and empty your mind. Keep your thoughts to a minimum.”

“How can I do that when you’re telling me that I’m dead but not dead?”

“Drink your milk. It will help calm your mind.”

Feeling peeved, I shoved the plastic straw through the milk carton. “What next, yoga?”

“That is actually not a bad idea. Does this Academy have a yoga club?”

“Not that I’ve heard of.” I sipped the milk. “Gah—what is this?” I looked at it. “Strawberry? This is way too sweet.”

“You do not like it?”

“No. And when the heck did I pick this out.”

“Ah, well you were not paying attention so I may have nudged your thoughts that way.”

I stared at my phone on the table. “You mean you made me choose this?”

“I influenced your decision. I just gave it a nudge.”

“I don’t like strawberry.”

The Maestro was quiet for a moment. “Really? According to the analysis of the memories in your neural map, you do like strawberry milk. You also like early morning runs along the beach before eating a light breakfast. You also enjoy warm summer nights, and satin bedsheets.”

I glared at the phone. “What the Hell are you talking about? I never run early in the morning. And satin sheets? Are you serious?”

The Maestro was silent for a few seconds, before saying, “Your favorite band is the Side Street Boys.”

I felt like choking. “Girls Live Monster!”

“Your favorite singer is…Jason Beatman.”

“What? Are you serious? That dweeb?”

“Your favorite holovision actor is Chris Hemingway.”

“Actress—my favorite actress is Scarlet Josephine.”

“…your favorite color is…blue….”

“Green. Not blue. Green. Or emerald.”

“…your fist kiss was with a boy in first year of middle-school—”

“Cut the crap!” I snapped loudly and shot to my feet. “A boy? I kissed a boy? Are you serious? Where the Hell did you hear that? I’ve never kissed in my life. I haven’t had my first freaking kiss yet! And besides only girls fret over that. I’m a guy. I’m a straight arrow. I like girls. My favorite girl is Mercy Haddaway. She’s the most amazing girl in the entire planet. Do you hear me—gah!”

I looked around and saw that quite a few people could hear me.

About a hundred of them. Correction. Two hundred of them.

And in the distance, looking my way with disbelief contorting his face, was my ‘best’ friend Tobias…in the company of one Toni Sheffield and her clique.

I hadn’t even noticed he was here on the balcony.

Damn this Maestro for infuriating me, and then entering the sequence for a ‘full missile launch’.

At sight of me standing, Tobias started to get up, but then Toni said something to him and he reluctantly sat back down. When the girls laughed at me, he laughed too. I could tell as much because I could see his shoulders shaking. If that was the case, then it appeared that my eyesight was even better than before.

Not only was I stronger, but I could see better now? Maybe this annoying jackass of a Maestro was telling the truth. Maybe this wasn’t my real body.

As that possibility began to sink into my consciousness, I started to tremble both in shame and in anxiety.

The students seated in the outside cafeteria were still looking, laughing, and joking at my expense.

I’d made a fool of myself and it was all this Maestro’s fault.

I trembled, and I grew angry.

I slammed my palms onto the table and made the tray bounce, including my carton of strawberry milk. The longer I glared at it, the angrier I grew.

I swiped the carton off the table.

“I—hate—strawberry milk!” I tossed it onto the tray. “And I don’t want to eat a salad!”

Pitching the tray into the air, I flung it over the balcony and into the distance.

“I—want—meat!”

Maestro was talking loudly in my ear. “Princess! Calm down! You are giving your neural matrix a proverbial coronary—”

“You jiving peace of crap!” My voice rose to a yell. “I told you not to call me ‘Princess’!”

Before I knew it, I’d tossed the table after the tray.

This time the students weren’t laughing at me, but staring at me in shock.

And I was standing in shock as I realized what I’d done.

I’d picked up a round cafeteria table and tossed it ten feet into the air and over the balcony.

I heard it crash and tumble in the near distance.

With my heart beating loudly in my chest, I looked down at my hands and arms.

Was this really my body?

No. My tormentor was right. This wasn’t my body, and I was finding it harder to believe otherwise with every breath I took.

I heard mutterings – loud mutterings – and looked about me to see a few of the nearby students had stood up and moved away from me.

Great. Thanks Maestro. Now I’m being treated like a ticking time bomb.

However, one student was on his feet and making his way fast between tables toward me, while behind him, Toni Sheffield rose from her chair at the table she shared with her friends.

Ah great. This is just great. Here comes Tobias to help me out again.

I was growing calmer, but I was also growing annoyed with myself and with him.

Maybe the Maestro was right. Maybe I could blame it on something wrong with my ‘neural matrix’ or whatever I had inside my skull.

However, the Maestro had gone silent in my ears.

Wait—where’s my phone?

I looked around at the ground but failed to find it.

With a gasp, I realized it was on the table when I pitched it over the balcony.

Rushing over to the balcony railing, I looked down at the grounds some twenty feet below.

There was the table on a grassy bank, and there was my phone lying beside it.

Without thinking, I climbed onto the railing and prepared to jump down.

Without warning, I felt two strong arms grab me by the waist and pull me back down.

I landed on top of something hard and something soft.

“Guff—Jeezes Cass—that hurt!”

I looked beneath me and saw that Tobias was lying under me, having cushioned my fall.

“What the Hell are you doing?” I snapped at him.

He shot me an incredulous look. “I could ask you the same question. Now get off me.”

I did just that, and staggered to my feet.

Tobias muttered, “What the Hell is wrong with you? Tossing tables in a rage. What’s gotten into you?”

I stared down at him. “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”

“Well, you’re going to be in trouble now for destroying school property.”

I snorted. “Are you serious? A busted table? That’s the least of my effing problems.”

He looked up at, clearly confused. “What do you mean?”

“Like I said, you’d never believe me.” I had a thought. “Or maybe I could show you…?”

I heard laughter and a few snickers and turned to see Toni and her friends had walked over.

One of her friends, I girl whose name I didn’t know, looked me up and down. “I think someone’s jealous.”

“Could be,” the girl on her left smirked.

“Is Cassidy feeling left out? Does Cassidy want a girlfriend?”

I stared at them flatly, and wondered what a single punch from this body would do to them?

I took a step toward them.

“Don’t do it….” It was a whisper in my ear.

Ah, so the tormenting bastard was back in my head.

I stood still. “Why not?” I muttered under my breath.

“It is against the rules,” the Maestro whispered in reply. “There are rules that come with that body, Ronin Kassius. Rules you must follow.”

Slowly, I unclenched my hands.

Toni Sheffield was laughing behind her hand, oblivious to the dark thoughts rumbling around in my head. She looked genuinely amused. “Hey Mat, nice rescue.”

I blinked inwardly. Mat? She’s calling him by his middle name? Well aren’t they cozy.

I noticed Tobias had been watching me with an uneasy look, but when addressed by the stacked brunette, he sat up on the ground and took a pose. “You think so?”

She nodded, then waved a hand. “But I’m not going to say ‘nice catch’.”

The girls giggled.

I narrowed my eyes.

Toni added, “You get my sway, Mat? Not a nice catch.”

He frowned at her. “Hey, are you suggesting something there? Because I can tell you I’m totally interested in you.”

I watched her eyes widen, then a smile spread across her face.

She crouched beside him. “Totally?”

He nodded as serious as I’d ever seen him. “Totally.”

She studied his face for a moment, then leaned forward and planted a kiss on his lips. That earned them both a few whistles from onlookers.

I stared at them, and faced the obvious truth. Our lives were moving in different directions.

Tobias was certainly leaving me behind as he moved on ahead.

But where the Hell was I headed?

One of Toni’s friends said, “Hey girl, you’re going to make Cassidy jealous.”

I faced the girl, and for some reason, all I did was smile – just smile – and I saw a shadow of fear cross her face before she sneered at me and said, “Hey, you’re making my skin crawl. Don’t stare at me like you like me.”

I cocked my head slightly at her. What a waste of space.

“Calm down.” I heard the whisper in my mind. “Please. Remain calm. Please do not destabilize your matrix any further. It needs time to adjust to your body. Time to settle down, so to speak. Time to find a stable arrangement—to find an equilibrium.”

I whispered under my breath, “Go to Hell….”

Then I turned around, climbed onto the railing, and jumped down to the ground. This time, there was no one to stop me. I landed on my feet, and fell into a crouch, thus cushioning my landing. A little pain shot up my ankles, but I was otherwise fine.

Rising from the crouch, I didn’t bother looking up at the cafeteria balcony. Instead, I walked over to my discarded phone and picked it up. It appeared to be fine, and the menu system was interacting properly to my touch commands.

I sighed in relief. I didn’t want the additional expense of having to buy a new phone.

Looking out to the north, I wondered what to do next.

I certainly didn’t feel like attending afternoon classes. Maybe I’d play hooky. I was already in trouble for damaging school property, so I had that to look forward to upon my return.

I pocketed my phone, and started walking north to the island shoreline and the seawall protecting it.

I thought I heard someone call out my name, but I didn’t bother looking back.

#

I picked up a large hefty stone, and tossed it high and far into the air.

It landed in the ocean waves a few hundred feet away.

Okay. That was definitely a record for me.

I regarded the waves. “Maestro, I’m going to call you Jive.”

May I ask why?”

“Because you’re an asshole.”

“I resent that.”

I threw another stone out into the ocean. It landed a little farther, and set another new record for me. “I don’t care if you resent me. You’re still an asshole. And you deliberately called me Princess.”

“But…it is what you are.”

I took a couple of deep breaths, and held down my anger. “Why do you keep saying that?”

I thought I heard sigh. I could hear him as though he were talking in my ear, but the earpiece was back in the phone and the device was turned off in my pocket. Wondering how he was talking to me, I asked him.

“Through your wetware, Princess,” was his reply.

I tossed a third stone far out into the ocean. “I swear I’m going to hurt you.”

“Well, you cannot. Not unless you want to tear out the goop between the walls of your skull casing and crush the wetware. I am in your head. Calling you was simply a convenience to not draw attention to you. Are we listening, Princess?”

“Call me that again—”

“You are a Gun Princess.”

I frowned. “What?” That term was familiar, but nothing more.

“Let me explain…or perhaps we should wait until this evening.”

My frown twisted. “Huh? Why wait? Why not explain now?”

“Then do not interrupt me!”

“Quit yelling in my ear!” I looked around but saw no one looking or heading my way. This part of the island was deserted. “Jeezes, can’t you keep it down.”

There was silence.

I frowned again. “Hello?”

“Are you ready to listen to me or not?”

I sat down on the sea wall. “I’m listening.”

“Very good. In that case, I will attempt to explain things in the appropriate order.” Jive took a deep, deep breath which sounded over dramatic to me. “Firstly, let me ask, have you heard of the Princess Royale?”

I nodded. “It’s an arcade game. There’s one in the gaming house where I spend most of my afternoons and weekends.”

“Yes, you seem to have the record in a number of those ‘first-person shooters’ as they are called. Quite impressive.”

I snorted. “Until I step out of the booth and people see what I’m like.”

“You really have a poor opinion of yourself.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you played it?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“May I ask why?”

“Because you have to play as a girl. There’s no choice in the matter, and it employs full body holo-fields that make you look like a girl on the outside. Unlike other games, people outside can see you as a girl running around shooting enemies.” I shrugged a shoulder. “I’d rather play as me, even if I’m not that much to look at. Playing as a girl, as a Gun Princess isn’t my style.”

My eyes suddenly widened.

“As a Gun Princess…?”

Jive laughed softly in my ears. “Very good. So you made the connection. Then allow to me explain further.”

I nodded weakly. “Yeah, sure….”

“The Princess Royale is not a game. It is a brutal online spectator sport operating for nine years, and this is the tenth. Perhaps because of its brutality and the nature of its competitors, it has a substantial following of several million viewers across the seven city-states of Teloria, and considerable merchandising that includes a handful of arcade games. The Princess Royale has two tournament seasons a year, and a grand tournament at the end of the year. Every city-state across Teloria has competitors, and the winners of each city-state tournament are crowned Gun Queen for that year. Only a Gun Queen is eligible to compete in the grand finale where the winner is crowned Gun Empress.”

“Gun Empress?”

“That is correct.”

I hesitated before asking, “Tell me about the Princesses. Who are they?”

“They entities operated or wielded by operators who have their consciousness or awareness mapped onto the neural matrix of their respective Gun Princess. One analogy might be to consider the Princess as a racing car, and the driver represents the human consciousness. It is important to understand that while the Gun Princess is a complex mechanism that is designed to operate as a conscious entity within the Sliver as it drifts inside Decaying Space, there is a human entity driving it—operating it—and competing against other humans operating their respective Gun Princesses.”

“So these Gun Princesses…they’re not human, are they?”

Jive was silent for a while. “No. They are complex soulless entities that only come alive when imbued with a human consciousness.”

I swallowed quietly. Soulless entities.

Jive continued after a pause. “Before I continue explaining about the Princesses, I must state there are no open auditions or tryouts for entry into the Princess Royale. I cannot reveal the methods of selection, but can state only a select number are chosen to compete, with only one or two new Gun Princesses added each year to the battle roster of each individual city-state. The chosen few battle as Gun Princesses, and their original human identities are a closely guarded secret, one which is enforced by the Princess Royale Battle Commission.

“For now, only the Gun Princesses can participate in the Princess Royale, and that is due to the unique properties of the arenas within which they compete. These arenas are called Slivers. They are copies of a large volume of your reality translated into a realm known as Decaying Space. It is named as such because any organic life that falls into Decaying Space will literally die and decay. The Gun Princesses are gladiatrix, and the Slivers—the copies of your reality—serve as their Coliseum.” Jive paused, before asking, “Are you with me so far?”

I nodded weakly. “You’re telling me that those chosen for the Princess Royale don’t compete in it with their own bodies because they would die. Instead, they use a Gun Princess to fight for them, or rather they fight inside a Gun Princess. That would make these Princesses some kind of advanced machine, right?”

“Humans are organic machines. The Gun Princesses are inorganic machines.”

I swallowed before cautiously asking, “What happened to me last Friday?”

“You were scooped up into a Sliver that contained a copy of Ar Telica’s Ring One and the bay. It was created to serve as a combat arena for two Gun Princesses participating in a Friday evening match. Being a normal human, your body began to decay and break down within minutes. However, your presence within the Sliver was detected, and you were rescued by one of the Gun Princesses.”

I remembered the doll-like girl that picked me up as my body crumbled apart. “So that was a Gun Princess.” Frowning a little, I asked, “Why was I scooped up?”

“An accident. At least, that is what I have been told it was. On very, very rare occasions, people are caught in the process that creates the Sliver and find themselves removed from your reality. When that happens, the first Gun Princess to rescue them receives a substantial reward. Of course, the audience is kept unaware of this by suspending the broadcast while the unfortunate soul is recovered and rescued, which involves quickly returning them to your reality.”

If I hadn’t experienced it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed Jive. I had watched my body crumble away, and I had thought myself dead. Even if Jive was lying to me, there was no denying this wasn’t my body. “Are you saying I’m not the first this has happened to?”

“Correct.”

“So what happens to the people that have fallen into a Sliver and been rescued.”

“Their bodies are regenerated, and they are returned to their daily existence, with some adjustments to their memories, thus leaving them none the wiser of their experiences. Sometimes their friends and families also need to be adjusted to preserve the secrets of the Princess Royale. But it is a very, very rare occurrence.”

“So why didn’t that happen to me? Why am I inside this Simulacrum instead of my regenerated body?” I leaned forward. “Jive, where is my body?”

Jive released a heavy sigh. “Your original body is sitting—I mean floating—in a containment field where it is currently undergoing regeneration. It is going to be weeks before what remains is functional again.”

“What remains? So how much of me is left?”

“Not much. You may have even lost some of your memories. Let us just say it was not a pretty sight.”

I thought of saying something but my stomach wouldn’t let me. It started to turn over as I pictured the worst. “Okay. Don’t tell me….”

Jive continued. “Because it will take time to have your body fixed, you couldn’t be removed from your daily life for too long. That would make a difficult decision even more difficult. Thus a decision was made to gift you with a temporary body. However, in your case, there is a special condition that comes with that temporary body. In other words, there are strings attached.”

“What strings?”

“You will be required to compete in the Princess Royale as a Gun Princess.”

I felt my blood run cold. “What…what did you say?”

“Simulacrum are not cheap, especially those that are designed to last for weeks or months. Even though it was not your fault you were caught up in the Sliver, those individuals in possession of your body have decided that in the meantime you will be put to good use as a Gun Princess competing in the Princess Royale.”

I stared hard at the ocean waves. “That’s not fair. I didn’t ask for this.”

“I know. But as the saying goes, life was not meant to be fair.”

“Bastard!”

“There’s no point complaining to me. You should voice your concern to those that have your original body and are overseeing its regeneration.”

“But don’t I get a say? What if I choose not to compete?”

“Then it is adios muchacho.”

“Huh?”

“Kiss your ass goodbye.”

I closed my mouth and clenched my jaw several times. I realized I was trembling in both anger and despair. “This isn’t right. This isn’t fair….”

Jive chose not to respond, and the prolonged silence grew heavy upon me. I clenched my hands repeatedly before swallowing and asking, “Hey, are you there?”

“I am indeed, Princess. Now, onto the next question. Who has your body? Well, the same entities that made me. Rather, the same ‘people’ that made me.”

“Made you…?”

“Yes. I am what you humans would call an Artificial Awareness. An artificial consciousness. An artificially sentient existence. I am a Maestro, your guide, your instructor, your counsellor, and your best friend.”

I snorted and shook my head bitterly. “My best friend? Don’t make me laugh!”

Jive ignored me. “Why am I your best friend? Because without me—especially since you were not preloaded—you do not have a clue on how to survive as a Gun Princess”

I swallowed but held my tongue.

Jive carried on. “Those that made me designed me for the purpose of assisting you. They are also responsible for the Slivers, and possess the ability to make use of Decaying Space. And they created the Gun Princesses that participate in the Princess Royale, something you are now a part of.”

I laughed weakly, and said, “But I’m a Prince, not a Princess.”

“Incorrect.”

My laughter was cut short. “I’m not following you.”

“Have you not been paying attention? Out here you get to use your male Simulacrum body. But in the Slivers serving as combat arenas, you will be fighting as a Princess, ergo, a Gun Princess. You consciousness or awareness will be mapped into the neural matrix of a Gun Princess.”

I stared out at the ocean blankly. “I’m going to be fighting…as a girl? Are you serious?”

“Well we cannot very well have you fighting as a male. The tournament is called, Princess Royale. Never in the nine year history of the tournament has there ever been a male competitor.”

I tipped my head in curiosity. “Why?”

“Because it is more interesting if they are Princesses.”

“What?”

“Appeal, Princess, it is all about appeal. Girls with guns appeal to the masses—the male masses. At least, that is what the Creators of the Princess Royale believe.”

I swallowed. “The Creators? Who or what are they?”

Jive sighed and said, “I am restricted in what I can tell you at this time. However, I will attempt to explain using appropriate analogies.”

I nodded faintly. “Okay….”

“Firstly, the Creators are responsible for the Princess Royale and the Gun Princesses. They possess the ‘technology’ that allows them to create the Slivers and offset them into the realm known as Decaying Space. Elements of the Creators’ society operate as sponsors and benefactors who support and manage the Gun Princesses. Think of them as companies or corporations that sponsor competitive sporting teams or individual professional athletes. A Gun Princess is thus under ‘contract’ to participate in the Princess Royale. When her contract expires, she can either negotiate a renewal, or leave the Royale altogether. In other words, she can retire from competition.

“When you were rescued, a sponsor stepped forward to deliver the prize to the Gun Princess who save you. They are now in possession of your original body, and while in their care, they have provided you with a top grade Simulacrum. I am certain your Gun Princess will be stunning when revealed. I am disheartened to state that I have not seen her yet.”

I bit my lower lip for a heartbeat. “My sponsor has my body and while it’s being fixed, I have to fight for them as a Gun Princess.”

“Correct.”

“What happens when my body is repaired? Will I have to continue fighting for them?”

“I am really not at liberty to say. That’s something you will need to discuss with your sponsor and team management.”

“My team management? And how do I do that? Do I have an agent?”

“Hmm. There is a liaison between team and sponsor, but I wouldn’t think of them as your agent. However, I am able to contact your team on your behalf but for now that is not an option.”

I looked down at my hands. “Why not?”

“Just take my word for it. I know you have a lot of questions, but for now I’m restricted in what I can tell you. I do apologize if this is a lot to absorb in such a short span of time. Everything was rushed along in order to get you ready for entry into the competition. Your Simulacrum body was forced to mature in only two days, and you have only been active for the past seven hours. It explains why it is presently somewhat unstable.”

I turned my hands over and studied them.

Humans could create many things, including the terra-forming of planets, and construction of the hyper-gates that made travel possible between the colonized worlds. But creating artificial bodies like mine, and dimensions that contain copies of reality, was something I didn’t think we could do – at least not yet. While Jive’s explanation using corporate sponsors and teams owners made sense, I felt there was something important being left out. I felt there was something I’d missed in his explanation, but I didn’t know what.

Jive spoke into my ear. “Princess, you’ll understand more this evening. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, but experience is priceless.”

“What do you mean?” I blinked sharply. “Are you saying that a match is going to take place this evening?”

“You are rather sharp when you calm down and think rationally.”

“And whose fault is it that I can’t calm down?”

“Yours.”

“Jive!”

“You will be participating in a match.”

I swallowed loudly and thought my heart would jump out of my chest. “What? Me? Are you serious?”

“You have a habit of saying that often.”

“Jive, I can’t compete. I’m a novice. I have no idea what to do. I’ve never even played the arcade game version of Princess Royale.”

“That may be, but I have received notification that a challenge request was issued to the Battle Committee, and the challenger specifically asked to fight you. Your sponsor has agreed to your participation. However, this engagement will have no bearing on the present tournament standings. It will be an exhibition match.”

“I don’t get a say in this at all?”

“No, you do not.”

I felt distressed. “But, I don’t know how to compete. What am I supposed to do?” I raised a hand quickly. “Wait—someone specifically asked to fight me?”

“Yes, they did.”

I was utterly confused. “Why?”

“They did not say. However, considering that you are new to this, the Committee has decreed that it will be a Beginner Level engagement, regardless of your opponent’s current ranking.”

Should I feel relieved at that? Maybe I should be grateful and not complain.

Scratching my head nervously, I asked, “So if I’m a newbie…what rank is my opponent?”

Jive was quiet, but I thought I could ‘feel’ him squirm uncomfortably within my mind.

“Jive?”

“It is best if you do not know.”

“Why?”

“Because it is likely to make you unduly nervous.”

“I’m already nervous.”

“I do not wish to destabilize the harmony of your neural matrix.”

“Jive—just tell me!”

“Your competitor is ranked Queen.”

It took a long moment for that to sink into my ‘neural matrix’.

“Huh?” I croaked.

“She is the winner of last year’s Princess Royale in Ar Telica.”

My mouth went dry. “Oh.”

“She is Ar Telica’s reigning Gun Queen.”

Chapter 3.

When I returned to the Academy grounds, I turned myself in to the Vice-Principal’s office.

I admitted to causing the disturbance in the cafeteria and throwing the table over the balcony.

After listening to my admission, the Vee Pee made me sit in the waiting room while he disappeared into his office.

I was kept company by his secretary, a middle-aged blonde lady who smiled sweetly at me, and asked if I was feeling well.

Was she serious?

I was living in a body that wasn’t my body, while my remains are somewhere being regenerated or regrown.

I was roped into participating in the Princess Royale as a Gun Princess and a girl no less.

And I was taking part in my first exhibition match in—I glanced at the clock on the wall—two hours and forty minutes.

Oh, I’m doing just fine. Peachy. Roses are red and all that jazz.

I felt sick and wanted to throw up, but instead I smiled back and bowed slightly in apology.

She seemed satisfied and went back to working…whatever that entailed.

I resisted the urge to bury my head in my hands, but I couldn’t stop my right leg from shaking. I planted my hands on it to keep it still. Simulacrum or not, this new body of mine had no qualms about betraying my anxiety at my impending doom.

I heard Jive in my ears as though talking through a headset or headphones.

“Princess, you need to calm down. If the matrix is unable to attune properly to your Simulacrum body, there will be problems later.”

I whispered under my breath. “Yeah, like what? I’ll go bald?”

“Hardly…impotent maybe.”

“What!”

The secretary shot me a surprised look.

I smiled as best I could, and looked away innocently while folding my arms. “Damn you,” I whispered softly.

“As I was saying, you could experience indigestion, severe headaches, hot and cold flushes, and possibly a fever.”

I whispered out the side of my mouth, “In other words a really bad cold.”

“Very bad indeed. Your mind and body must be as one. Just like the old proverbs.”

In the corner of my eye, I saw the Vee Pee’s secretary glance at me at me again.

I continued looking away. “What the Hell is taking him so long?”

“No idea. Just how bad is your record?”

I coughed into my arms. “Perfectly normal until you came along.”

Jive muttered, “Princess, you really must begin taking responsibility for your actions.”

“Bite me.” I noticed I was tapping my foot again and forced myself to stop. “I got bigger problems to worry about.”

“As I said before, you must relax. You are doing yourself no favors.”

“I have a match in two hours and thirty eight minutes, and I have no idea what to do.”

The secretary was looking at me again. She probably thought I was cursing the faculty under my breath.

Jive noticed and said, “We can talk later. Looks like he’s coming out of his office.”

He was right. The Vice-Principal stepped out, told his secretary he and I were expected at the Principal’s office, then departed without even looking at me.

I rose from the chair and followed him.

Jive asked, “Did he say the Principal? Were you being honest with me about your record?”

“Screw you.”

The Vee Pee stopped and turned to look at me. “Did you say something, Mr. Kassius?”

My eyes widened. “Sir, no sir.” I gave him an innocent frown. “Why do you ask, sir?”

He regarded me for a quick moment, then whirled around and proceeded down the hallway to the Principal’s office.

Like the Vee Pee, the Telos Academy’s big cheese also had a secretary, only this one was younger and a whole lot sexier.

I had to drag my eyes away from redhead’s charismatic chest in her tautly stretched low cut dress.

I realized this body responded to a hot woman just like my old one did.

So much for being impotent. Ah, I need to sit down.

The Vee Pee stalked past the secretary’s desk on his way to the Principal’s office.

He pointed at the closed door. “Are they done yet?”

Before the redhead could reply, he opened the door and stormed inside.

Something made me suspect it was better if I waited outside.

A heartbeat later he stormed back out of the office. He shot the redhead a heated look.

“You could have told me.”

She shrugged her shoulders sheepishly, and spared the paper-thin monitor on her desk another look. “They’re finishing up, sir.”

The Vee Pee crossed his arms and stood near the office doors, his face a dark storm.

I was somewhat glad that storm wasn’t threatening my air space. I chose to sit down in a vacant chair.

What’s he so annoyed about?

Damn, my leg is shaking again. Is there something wrong with this body? Ah, Jive did say it needed time to stabilize. No, this was normal behavior when suffering from anxiety, and I’m definitely feeling anxious.

The door to the Principal’s office opened, and I was mildly surprised to see a pretty brunette girl step out.

Hmm, who is that?

She was dressed in the uniform of a senior student. Long, curly black hair spilled in luxurious waves down her shoulders, and golden eyes under thin brows regarded the world with a hint of amusement.

I wasn’t sure why, but though her uniform looked fine, I couldn’t help feeling she appeared slightly disheveled. She certainly had a rosy flush to her cheeks.

With a faint smile on her lips, she nodded to the waiting Vee Pee.

“Vice Principal,” she greeted politely with a slight nod.

“Madam President,” he replied, his voice low and noticeably curt.

Ah, of course. She’s the Student Council President. What’s her name again?

Reaching into a skirt pocket, she appeared to come up empty.

She stepped past the Vee Pee, walked to the secretary’s desk, and spoke to the buxom redhead. “Rebecca, I’m so sorry. Could I trouble you for some gum?”

I watched them share an amused look, before the redhead handed the girl a strip of gum.

The Student Council President flashed her two fingers. “Could I have one more? I’ll pay you back later.”

The redhead grinned knowingly, and handed her another strip of gum. “You always say that.”

The Student Council President pocketed one, while unwrapping the other and putting it in her mouth. Chewing her gum while walking into the wide hallway, she gave me a faintly curious look.

I felt a twinge in my chest, and glanced away.

I thought I heard her giggle softly as she walked by.

Then to my confusion and worry, she doubled back and stopped a couple of feet in front of me.

I had no choice but to look at her.

This time there was no mirth on her face. She was staring at me intently – far too intently – and it made my heart beat even more anxiously.

I stood up cautiously, and barely held back a nervous frown. “Madam President?”

She blinked slowly, and her expression relaxed, but only a little.

Reaching out, she straightened my tie and blazer. “That’s better. A student should always look their best.”

Huh? You’re telling me?

I resisted the urge to return the favor since I noticed her short tie was also a little crooked.

Although she smiled at me, it did seem a little tense. “Good luck in there,” she said softly, then turned gracefully and sashayed away down the hallway.

I couldn’t help staring at her backside as her hips swished from side to side.

Jive wondered, “Isn’t that skirt a little short?”

I shook my head. “Not short enough,” I muttered softly.

A loud cough distracted me, jerking my focus away from the Student Council President’s derriere and smooth legs.

The secretary waved lightly at the office doors. “Vice-Principal, you can go in now.”

The Vee Pee’s jaw clenched. That storm looked ready to burst at any moment. He waved at me to follow him into the office.

I found the office to be sparsely adorned. That was probably because it was so big. There was a long leather couch oriented parallel against a wall. There was a second, shorter couch before a long coffee table made of black, glazed glass. One wall had low bookshelves running a third of its length. The back wall was made almost entirely of glass that looked out at the interior of the Academy grounds.

I noticed the glass was tinted, and the windows were curtained.

The big cheese sat in a high-backed leather chair, behind an L-shaped executive desk with a veneer finish and floating glass top.

I studied the Principal quickly.

Vernon Huxley the Fourth.

Dressed in a grey business suit, his hair and beard neatly trimmed, he looked no older than my father in his forties. However, he was a much larger man in both height and girth.

Jive observed. “Well, doesn’t he look a little flushed, too?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.”

I regarded the Principal a little more closely.

He studied me with an unreadable expression.

Meanwhile, the Vice-Principal stood beside the desk with his arms crossed. The dark glower on his face had faded a little, but I could be forgiven for thinking he was glowering at the Principal far more than at me.

But why was I here? Just how much trouble was I in for breaking one table?

The Principal broke the silence. “Mr. Kassius, I understand you went on a rampage during lunchtime.”

I leaned forward slightly. “Ah, sir, I wouldn’t call it a rampage.”

“Please, don’t interrupt me young man.”

I frowned a little thinking, what is his deal?

He made a show of leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers under his chin. “Mr. Kassius, as Tiered individuals, your family are important members of our society. I’m sure you understand that.”

I clenched my jaw.

I could feel his gaze on my skin as he studied me for a long moment.

What does a cafeteria table have to do with my family?

He continued smoothly. “Over the years, the Kassius Family have made great contributions to our society here on Teloria. Your family in particular have greatly advanced medical science. I understand your sister is widely regarded as an eminent mind in the field of biomechanics. She was an excellent student here at the Academy. Top of her class every year. She qualified for the Alpha Tier quite early in her high school career.”

I swallowed and kept my feelings in check.

The Alpha Tier, the highest level a human mind could be intellectually boot strapped above its natural intelligence. The smartest tier possible.

Yes, my sister was smart before. Now she was a genius.

That was the way of the galaxy. It took geniuses to understand our present level of technology and advance it. The rest of us Menials simply made use of it. We could operate the tech but building upon it was out of our intellectual capacity.

The ones pushing humanity deeper into new frontiers wasn’t us Menials.

It was the Alphas, the Betas, and the Gammas that drove humanity onwards.

The rest of us Menials were along for the ride.

The Principal’s eyes narrowed. “Your family has expectations of you.”

I stayed silent.

He narrowed his eyes further. “Mister Kassius, you have nothing to say?”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“You may.”

“Sir, I’d rather not discuss my family.”

“Nonetheless, you are a student of this academy which was founded by the Telos Corporation, and your family hold important positions within the company. As such, we cannot have you running amok, causing a stir, and spreading a stain on your family’s good reputation. It simply wouldn’t be good for the Corporation or your family. Few families can tolerate a black sheep amongst the flock.”

“Is that what I am?” I looked him in the eyes. “Am I the black sheep?”

“That remains to be seen. Your record at this school has been above average, with no demerits of any sort. You’ve kept your nose clean, your head down, and have survived into high school. So why the sudden aberrant behavior.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t sleep well.”

“Mr. Kassius, don’t take me for a fool.”

“Would you believe I had a near death experience?”

“Young man, you’re bordering on the disrespectful.”

I hesitated. “With all due respect sir, but it’s a personal matter, and I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, sir.”

He inhaled deeply, perhaps for show, then tapped a finger to his cheek. “Very well. If that’s the way you want it. The cost of the damage will be covered by the Academy. We won’t be troubling your family over it. However, there will be a note made on your record of destroying cafeteria property. You will also be on detention for a week.”

I said nothing. There was nothing to say. My squeaky clean, above average record was out the window…or over the balcony.

I sighed inwardly, but outwardly I did the best to keep my cool.

The Principal stopped tapping his finger. “Nothing to say, Mr. Kassius.”

“No sir.”

He folded his hands on his lap. “Everyone has a role to play in our society, Mr. Kassius. Whether they be Alphas, Betas, Gammas, or Deltas, even ‘Menials’ have an important part to play—your family no less being of the Alpha and Beta Tier. Your role will depend on how you perform at this Academy, Mr. Kassius. You have yet to prove your worth. However, your family are realists. They have realistic expectations of you. They know full well that you may barely qualify for the Delta Tier. However, even as a Delta you will be of worth to our society.”

I swallowed reflexively.

The Delta Tier.

The lowest tier for a boot strapped human.

Smart, but definitely not the smartest.

Still, it was better than being a Menial.

Better prospects for the future. Hell, I might even get a girl.

I frowned inwardly.

Was that what I was working toward—to qualify at least for the lowest tier?

However, under my current circumstances, was that even an option now?

I realized he was waiting for me to say something, so I cleared my throat and quietly said, “I do the best that I can, sir.”

“Does that include destroying private property?”

I relaxed my hands behind my back. “I don’t make it a habit to do so, sir.”

His lips drew a thin line across his face. “Am I to understand that this will be an isolated incident?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I won’t be seeing you here again…for the wrong reasons?”

“No, sir.”

“I have your word on that, Mr. Kassius?”

“Yes sir. If it’s within my power, I’ll endeavor not to cause further trouble.”

“Within your power?” He studied me thoughtfully. “Whatever do you mean, Mr. Kassius?”

I closed my mouth and stayed silent.

“I’m waiting for an answer, Mr. Kassius.”

I inhaled slowly. “Exactly that, sir. If it’s within my power.”

I heard the first bell for homeroom sound throughout the school building that circled around the long, thin administration building.

The Principal glanced away as the bell ran through its automatic cycle. “Very well, Mister Kassius. That will have to do for now. However, you will attend detention for a week, starting today. Is that understood?”

I swallowed as quietly as I could. “Yes, sir.”

“You have homeroom in a few minutes. Don’t be late for that.”

“Sir, about the classes I missed?”

“You’ll make them up…in detention. However, you’re going to have to study the material on your own. Let this be a lesson for you not to skip your classes again.” He gave the Vee Pee a look. “Would you notify his homeroom teacher?”

The Vee Pee nodded. “The material should be available for him to download now that the lessons have been held.”

The Principal nodded. “Good, good.” He faced me. “Well, Kassius. You are dismissed. Hurry along now, but don’t run in the corridors. You don’t want another demerit added to your record. You’ve racked up enough bad points for one day.”

He waved me out with a hand.

I bowed politely, turned on my heels, and exited the Principal’s office.

I nodded politely to his secretary, Rebecca – the redhead squeezed into a dress a size too small – then made my way out of the waiting area and into the wide hallway beyond it.

In the hallway, I noticed I was trembling a little, and was surprised to find myself rattled by the old man.

Jive spoke in my ears. “Princess, are you alright.”

“Don’t call me that,” I hissed.

Rattled or not, I didn’t have much time to waste, so I shook off my nerves as best I could and hurried from the administration facility to the high school building where my classroom was situated on the second level. Crossing the grassy lawn that filled much of the grounds encircled by the main building, I entered the first floor, or ground floor, and quickly climbed the stairs at the back of the foyer.

In the corridors, I encountered some students making their way to their respective homerooms. Outside classroom One-Cee, I quickly straightened my uniform, ran my fingers through my black hair, then stepped inside.

Our homeroom teacher, Ms. Marisol had yet to arrive, but my fellow classmates were already seated though partaking in conversation with their neighbors. That conversation faded fast as I walked to my smart desk near the back of the room with a window seat.

I ignored them, and sat down on my seat probably a little heavier than I intended.

I unlocked my smart-desk, then began reading through the notifications mailed to my account. My detention notice was there, as well as instructions to report to my homeroom teacher after class. There was also a notice informing me my record was under review.

Under review? So it wasn’t updated yet? My good record was still intact?

I thought about what the Principal had said.

I could qualify for the Delta Tier, if only barely, but did it even matter now?

No. It should matter.

Jive had said my body was being regenerated. He also said that Gun Princesses had the option of leaving the Royale when their contract expired. So how long was their contract? How long was my contract? Did I even have a contract?

A Gun Princess.

What the Hell is a Gun Princess? I’d never been interested in the Princess Royale, so I only knew what Jive had told me during the afternoon as I wandered along the island shoreline, stepping on and off the seawall that encircled the northern shore, listening to his explanation in my ears.

My first match.

I know Jive had tried explaining what to expect, but still…what the Hell was it going to be like?

I looked at my hands on the smart-desk.

They were shaking noticeably. I folded my arms and tucked my hands out of sight, as I stared down at my desk.

The Principal had rattled me, but not as much as knowing that in less than two and a half hours – at six thirty pm sharp – I’d be facing an opponent in a battle I knew little to nothing about.

I closed my eyes, and listened to the final bell announcing the start of homeroom sound through the enormous circular building.

“How long are you going to ignore me?”

Startled out of the darkness behind my eyelids, I blinked in a hurry and looked at Tobias sitting at his smart-desk in front of me.

He was half-turned in his seat, looking at me with complicated expression.

I really couldn’t tell if he was angry, annoyed, regretful, or worried. It might have been all of them at once…or maybe none at all.

I discretely cleared my throat. “Sorry. I wasn’t ignoring you. I just have a lot on my mind.”

His eyes narrowed just a little. “You know, we had to tell security and the teachers what happened.”

“Oh?”

That was news. If security knew what I’d done, why didn’t they come after me. I hadn’t left Telos Island. I’d simply wandered along the northern shoreline. They could have easily apprehended me.

Why was I left alone?

Tobias leaned a few centimeters toward me. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. Peachy.”

He exhaled disappointedly. “You know, I can tell when you’re lying.”

“I’m fine, Mat. You don’t have to worry about me as much as before. We’re high schoolers now. Time for me to grow up and start looking out for myself.”

“You’re calling me, Mat?”

I tipped my head and smiled a little. “Oh. You don’t like being called ‘Mat’?”

He started to say something, but Ms. Marisol stepped into our classroom.

Tobias turned back to his smart-desk in a hurry.

Serene Marisol was a short, slender, and very pretty woman in her late twenties. She’d only been our homeroom teacher for a month, but I knew she was the object of affection for a number of the boys in our year. She really was a head turner, but she was also genuinely kind and caring, and I believed that endeared her more to my classmates than her looks alone.

She glanced at me, gave me a subtle nod, then proceeded with homeroom duties.

She made no mention of my detention, nor that I needed to see her after homeroom was over.

The bell signaling the end of classes went off twenty minutes later.

The school day was over for me, but there were some students involved in club activities so they began filing quickly out of the classroom.

Tobias turned toward me, clearly intending to pick up where we left off.

However, I stood up quickly and said, “Sorry. Ms. Marisol needs to see me.”

“Can we talk later?”

I slowed as I walked by him. “Don’t keep Toni waiting.”

Then I walked over to the front of the classroom where Ms. Marisol looked busy at the teaching lectern.

“Just a moment,” she said without looking up, as she tapped away at the lectern’s touchscreen display. “Why did they change the operating system on these things? I’m still getting used to the new layout.”

I waited patiently for her to finish whatever task she was busy with.

“Finally,” she muttered softly, then wiped the display clear and looked up at me. “I’ll forward you the material you need to catch up on. You know where detention is being held.”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. First level, room Gee-Two.”

“You’ll have the material in your account by the time you get there.” Her gaze searched my face for a long moment. “Promise you’ll be good.”

My mouth opened involuntarily. I closed it and gave her a nod. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you’d best get going. You have until four thirty.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I turned quickly and returned to my desk. Tobias had remained sitting at his desk, watching as I checked the contents of my carry-bag.

“Nothing’s missing,” he said to me. “I made sure no one touched it.”

“Thanks,” I said, but checked my bag regardless.

I glimpsed the disappointed look he gave me. “So, can we talk now?”

“No. I have detention.”

“What? Well, that’s not a surprise.”

I slipped the carry-bag’s straps over my right shoulder. “Sorry, I have to go.”

Walking out of the classroom quickly, I didn’t look over my shoulder but I heard him behind me.

“Cass, what happened today? Are you going to tell me or not?”

“Mat, I don’t have time. And really, I think from now on it would be best if you didn’t spend so much time around me. It’ll be bad for your reputation.”

I snorted as I realized that from now on he had a reason for not spending much time around me, and that reason was waiting in the corridor outside our classroom.

The pretty brunette gave me a lidded look and a condescending half smile.

I couldn’t help sneering at her a little, but all that did was make her laugh.

Shaking my head, I walked past her and down the corridor, but soon realized Tobias was following me.

She called out to him. “Hey, Mat. Wait—where are you going? I’m right here.”

“Toni, just wait for me a minute.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder, dragging me to a stop, and turning me around a little.

It didn’t escape my attention that before today, Tobias would have spun me around easily, and it didn’t escape his attention either.

His eyes were searching me carefully. He was giving me a good look. “You’ve changed. Something’s just not the same about you.”

Really? You think so? You can tell I’m a Simulacrum? Bravo ‘Mat’.

I spoke up, wanting to be free of his scrutiny. “I have to go. I got an hour and a half of detention to look forward to. We can talk tomorrow, or later tonight. If you’re not ‘busy’ with her.”

He stared at me with his eyebrows pitched down and forming a vee. “Oh, I get it. That’s what’s got your panties in a bunch.”

I cocked my head. “Say that again.”

“You’re pissed that I got myself a girl, and that I’m paying her attention and not you.”

“Mat, you’re an idiot.”

“What? You don’t have the balls to admit I’m right and you’re wrong?”

I should point out that the wide corridor we were standing in was not empty. There were a lot of students walking around us. A few of them spared us a glance, wondering for a heartbeat what we were up to, but that was as much attention as we earned.

However, his ‘girl’ Toni was unhappily watching us.

Glimpsing her in the background, I felt a surge of irritation run through me. “Jealous? Of you and that?” I pointed behind him at the girl. “Are you serious?”

Tobias’s face grew hard. “You really are jealous. Well suck it up. That’s just the way the chips fall.”

“Like I said, you’re an idiot.”

I fished around in my pockets and found the data chit with the alleged download of Mercy Haddaway’s latest gravure holo-album. He caught the chit when I tossed it to him.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ll buy it when it’s officially released.”

I turned away and resumed walking toward the stairs, while shouted behind me, “Fine. Be that way. This is the last favor I’m doing you—you ungrateful Princess.”

I flinched and slowed down, but kept walking.

His voice chased after me. “That’s right, Princess Cassidy. Keep walking. Enjoy the long evening. Have fun at detention.”

I flipped him the bird without turning around, then I walked into the wide stairwell occupied by dozens of students making their way down the levels, though a few were trying to go up and against the flow. Stepping onto the first level, I walked toward room Gee-Two.

Jive said, “Well, that was charming.”

“Shut up,” I snapped. “Do me a favor and just shut up for the remainder of my detention period.”

“I need to explain things to you before the match commences.”

“And I need to catch up on the lessons I missed.”

“I can assist you with your lessons.”

I almost missed a step. “What? You can?”

“Of course. This level of educational schooling is child’s play for someone of my caliber.”

“I’d still like to make an effort.”

“Very well. Then I will teach you. But I must explain the rules of the upcoming match—”

I stopped sharply in the corridor, and turned around when my ears heard something that caught my attention.

A trio of male high school students walked slowly behind me. They were grouped close together and rubbing shoulders, as they peered down at the screens of the phones they carried.

I waited for them to walk closer. “Hey, guys.”

They realized I was calling out to them and stopped with suspicious looks on their faces.

“Yeah, what?” the student in the middle asked. He had the lapel pin that identified him as a second year. I noticed they were all second years. And they were all much taller than me.

I tried not to sigh as I stepped up to them. “Did I hear you right? Did you say the Princess Royale?”

His suspicious look wavered. “Yeah, I did. What of it?”

“What were you talking about? I mean, what was it about the Princess Royale you were talking about?”

They glanced at each other, then the middle student said, “An exhibition match was announced a couple of hours ago.”

“An exhibition match?” I felt my stomach tighten. I was discovering this body could mimic human responses pretty well.

He looked faintly annoyed. “Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Between who?” I asked.

The guy on his right replied, “Between Ar Telica’s reigning Gun Queen.”

I edged closer. “And?”

The guy on the left answered, “And some new entry. A complete rookie.”

The middle student nodded. “It’s her first appearance. Not even any stats on her. No idea what she looks like either.”

The student on his right said, “All we got is a name.”

He held up his phone for me to see.

I read the name being displayed at the top of the new entrant’s profile.

I wondered if it was purely coincidence that the new Gun Princess happened to share the name of the girl I considered the most beautiful on the whole planet of Teloria, the lunar colony, and the orbital city.

I read the name aloud. “Mercedes.”

The guys nodded, and the student on his right lowered his phone. “Yeah, kind of normal for a Gun Princess. Most of them have weird names, some borrow from mythology, but this one is pretty normal.”

I shook my head. “Well, it’s actually from a language called Spanish. A really old tongue. It means mercy.”

My comment earned me a few raised eyebrows.

They shared another look, and the middle student said, “Well, she better not expect any mercy from the Gun Queen.”

The guy on the left nodded. “Even if it’s an exhibition match, she’s likely to get blown away by the Queen. I mean literally.”

My stomach clenched tighter, and began slowly sinking. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, definitely not.”

I wet my mouth nervously. “Uh, can you tell me about this Gun Queen?”

They gave me complicated looks. The middle student asked, “What’s your name?”

“Ronin Kassius, I’m a first year, Class One-Cee.” I blinked. “Damn, I’m supposed to be in detention.”

“Yeah, so are we.”

“Huh?”

“Well, we got caught reading up on the Princess Royale during class.” He grinned and I noticed he wasn’t frowning at me so hard. “What are you in for?”

“Arguing about the Princess Royale during lunch time.” I grinned back at him. “I kind of got angry and tossed a cafeteria table over the first level balcony.”

Their eyes widened.

The middle student said, “Oh. So that was you. We heard someone yelling ‘don’t call me Princess’ and then this crash.”

My lips jerked back as I grimaced broadly. “Ah, well. Yeah, that was me.”

The student to my left glanced at his watch. “Shit, we’re going to be late.”

Without warning they rushed past me. But on the way, they grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me along with them.

The boy on my right said, “We won’t get much time to talk. But detention ends at six, and the match is scheduled to start at six thirty. We can talk between then.”

I guess I had no choice.

Jive intoned in my ears in stereo, “If you want to know about the Gun Queen, I can tell you everything these boys know and more.”

I wanted to tell him to shut up, but gave up on the notion.

Detention was starting and the four of us barely made it through the door in time to avoid a reprimand.

#

I glanced at the clock on the front wall of the large room that served as a detention hall.

Six thirty was coming up fast.

I returned me attention to the guys sitting around me.

Detention was over, and while we were supposed to vacate the room, we were still occupying a quartet of the tables. I was surprised the supervising teacher had chosen to leave us alone. He probably felt his time and effort were better spent elsewhere. He did look relieved when detention was finally over.

I didn’t get to review all the class material I’d missed, despite being helped by Jive, but I wasn’t as far behind as I could have been. I decided I would review the rest of the material back at my student apartment. Yet I felt a little foolish thinking that far ahead, considering my first match as a Gun Princess was only minutes away.

The three guys were talking in an animated fashion.

I’d learnt all three belonged to Class Two-Aye, which was situated on the third level of the high school section of the school building.

Their names were Cole Riley, Anton Wallander, and Ren Gibson.

Cole, the senior whom I’d spoken to first, was waving his phone around while brushing back his blonde hair that kept falling across his eyes.

“I’m telling you it’s her anticipation. It’s like she knows where her opponent will be. That’s the edge she has. She really thinks ahead.”

Anton shook his head, while waving his own phone around. “She can’t predict where they’ll be. It’s not possible. She can make good guesses but that’s about it.”

Ren was nodding slowly, a thoughtful look on his face. “I say it’s her speed. Her reaction times are above the rest.”

“Fine. Her anticipation and her speed are what makes her the reigning queen.” Cole pointed a finger at me. “And she knows the layout of her surroundings. She’s smart. She draws her opponents into dead ends, and then she guns them down.” He was struck by a thought and clicked his fingers. “But she does like to snipe them too. She likes picking them off from a distance.”

Dead ends, and sniping. Those were important to consider.

While mastering the zombie shooting game, I made it a habit never to be boxed in. My rule was always to look for one or more possible exits out of every situation I entered.

Jive had told me the arena would be a Sliver that encompassed Telos Island.

This school is round, except where the circle breaks to the west. But even then, there’s the bridgeway on the fourth level that connects the high-school building to the long administration block where the Principal’s office is situated.

I swallowed nervously.

Thinking of my gaming experiencing on Friday, I had to suppress a shiver, as I remembered the frightened girls fleeing from zombies down school corridors that looked unnervingly similar to those of Telos Academy. Now these corridors would be the setting for my exhibition match against the Gun Queen.

Part of me preferred going up against a school full of zombies.

I glanced at the clock mounted at the front of the room, above the six-meter wide white board that doubled as a holovision screen.

I swallowed nervously, wondering what would happen in the next couple minutes.

It was growing dark outside, and I didn’t like the idea of having my first match in darkness, but then I remembered how odd the light and colors appeared in the so-called Decaying Space, and the ghostly light coming from the sky.

“Hey, Ronin, you listening to me?”

I nodded at Cole. “Speed. Anticipation. Dead ends. Sniping. Got it.”

Anton clicked his fingers. “And she taunts her opponents. She calls out to them. She jibes at them. She makes them know where she is—makes them know she’s hunting them down.”

Ren continued nodding slowly. “Yeah, you see if they can hear her, then that means they’re nearby. And while they know she’s nearby, sometimes a person’s voice can sound like it’s coming from all over the place. She knows how to use the acoustics of a building.”

Cole shrugged. “Double edged sword. She can miss something if she’s making too much noise. But it’s a way of psyching out her opponents. She has a habit of doing that to the lower ranked Princesses. She likes to psych them out. They get nervous. They make mistakes. They poke their heads out of the hole”—he made a shooting gesture—“bam! No more head.”

Great. Just what I needed to know. Actually, it was what I needed to know.

I glanced at the clock again.

One minute to go.

Jive spoke in my ears. “Princess, you’re going to need to exit the room. Hurry. The room next door appears to be empty.”

I swallowed and nodded. “Okay.”

The trio thought I was acknowledging their observations.

I stood up and grabbed my carry-bag. “Thank you. I really appreciate everything you’ve told me.”

They looked at me in surprise.

Cole asked, “You’re not going to watch the match with us?”

I shook my head and smile regretfully. “Sorry. Gotta go. But thanks for everything. I hope it comes in handy.”

They looked confused, but after a moment Anton said, “If you wanna know more, you can chat with us anytime.”

I blinked. “Seriously?”

They nodded and said, “Absolutely.”

I caught myself smiling. “Yeah. I think I’d like that.”

Cole waved his phone again. “Well, it’s starting soon. I put my money down on the Queen. There’s no way she’ll lose.”

Anton nodded in agreement, but Ren shrugged.

“I’m betting on the new Princess,” he said.

His companions and I stared at him in disbelief.

I croaked out, “Are you serious?”

He looked at me and grinned. “I like her name. Mercedes. It sounds cool. I’m hoping she turns out to be a beauty.”

I realized I was blinking slowly at him, then I broke into a matching grin. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Jive snapped. “Princess, hurry!”

“Yeah, keep your panties on,” I hissed through a corner of my mouth.

I flinched, wondering if the guys had heard me, but their attention was on their phone screens.

I sighed inwardly. Close call.

I turned and started running out of the room. However, I stopped at the door, and half-turned back toward the three students. “Hey, how would you face the Gun Queen?”

Jive hissed, “Princess—not now!”

For a moment, the trio gave me blank looks before trading thoughtful ones.

Jive hissed, “Princess—tick tock! Tick tock!”

Cole stood up off the table he was sitting on. “Psych her out,” he said, “and get her out in the open.”

A wave of dry color washed through the room, passing through it like a dull rainbow.

I stumbled as I felt the ground lurch. When I regained my balance, I saw that the guys had vanished and I was alone in the room.

It was just like last Friday.

The colors in my surroundings became greyish and lifeless, yet there was still light within the room. It was then I realized that illumination was coming from the overhead ceiling lights, but it seemed different.

I noticed I was breathing quickly, and Jive was shouting in my head.

“Brilliant! Just brilliant. I should offer you congratulations on your stupidity.”

I bristled and snapped, “What the Hell is your problem?”

Jive snapped back, “Do you not understand what just happened?”

I swallowed down the anger welling up in my throat. “Why don’t you just tell me, genius!”

“Those three students watched you disappear into thin air!”

My heart jumped, and my anger chilled and crumbled away. “Oh no….”

“Oh yes!” Jive retorted. “Right now they are staring at the spot you occupied wondering what the Hell is going on. You vanished right before their eyes.”

I swallowed contritely. “Sorry. I didn’t think about that.” I swallowed again and took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry—”

“Forget it. Forget it. We will deal with that problem later. We need to switch over now! Your Simulacrum will not survive for too long in the Sliver.”

“Huh?” I glanced down at my hands and saw they were still there, but I noticed my skin looked a little parched. “I thought you said I wasn’t organic.”

“Of course you are organic. There is inorganic inside you as well, such as your skeletal chassis, but the rest of you is organic. Just not quite human organic.”

My voice fell to a whisper. “What do I do?”

“Just stand there and I will do the rest.”

“Am I going to die again?”

“Not if I can help it. I have summoned the sarcophagus. It is on its way…it’ll be here soon…yes, very soon….”

I dropped my carry-bag onto a nearby smart-desk. A tiny bit of skin from my fingers flaked away. “Oh, man. Not again. Jive, whatever you’re going to do—do it fast.”

He sounded flustered. “Please remain calm. It won’t be long now.”

I tried not to look at my fingers, and failed. I was surprised not to be in pain as I watched more skin flake and flutter away as I turned my hands over.

“Jive. I think I can see muscle strands.”

“Yes, yes. Just stay calm. Wait—you are calm? Well, is that not a surprise. I have spent the whole day telling you to calm down, and now you choose to be calm?”

“Jive, I’m feeling numb, not calm.”

“Ah. That is probably why you are so calm. It is the effect of the decay on the Simulacrum’s body.”

“Jive. I’m seeing bone now. I can’t feel my hands.” I touched my face but could barely feel my cheeks. When my hands drew away, more tissue cracked and turned to dust. “Jive, I’m in trouble here.”

“The sarcophagus is coming. It is having to make its way through Limbo. It is almost here. Yes, almost here….”

I frowned. “Limbo? Decaying Space?” I looked around slowly at the lifeless environment. “Wait a minute…is this…the Afterlife?”

“I would not know.”

“But you called it Limbo.”

“Limbo is one metaphysical model of the Afterlife.”

My frown deepened in confusion. “So Decaying Space is Limbo which is a kind of Afterlife?”

“Look, the Creators call it Decaying Space because they say that nothing ‘alive’ can exist for long in here. It dies and decays within minutes. End of story.”

“And limbo?”

“Limbo is limbo. Now sit still. The sarcophagus is coming. Yes. It will be here soon. Very soon.”

I frowned and asked, “Did you forget to call it?”

“No, I did not forget.” He paused before adding in a conceited tone, “The sarcophagus was simply a little late getting started. A little problem with the ignition. Couldn’t get the transmission into gear.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ah—it is here. Finally, and not a minute too soon. Hey, hey wait a minute. Hey—stop. I said stop. I am telling you to stop!”

The air around me turned frigid and white. My breath frosted and my whole body grew cold. I found it strange to feel numb to the decaying of my body, yet could feel this sudden cold all the way down to my bones.

Without warning, a thick white mist burst into the air, adding to the chill and making me break out into shivers. Sensing there was something in the mist behind me, I turned to see an immense grey sarcophagus – not a coffin – burst through the mist like a monster from the depths.

I almost screamed but was too cold to do so.

The sarcophagus was huge, six to seven meters tall, but that was just a guess because it didn’t emerge into the room…it crashed into it. A large part of the wall separating the room from the outside corridor disintegrated when smashed into small debris by the out of the control sarcophagus. The massive device tore a wide path of destruction into the ceiling, which rained down into the room like a cave-in.

I tried jumping out of the chair to avoid the worst of the falling ceiling panels, lights, and conduits from hitting me. But my replacement body didn’t move quickly enough. When the massive sarcophagus stopped moving, I found myself half buried under a half tonne of material from both the ceiling and the floor belonging to the next level.

“Princess—are you alright?”

“Do I look alright? No, I’m not alright. I’m stuck.”

I tried pushing it off me and dragging myself out. Being stronger, I thought it would be an easy task, but that wasn’t proving to be the case.

“Damn it—I’m really stuck. Ah, gods. My hand. Jive—my effing hand. I can’t move it anymore.”

I stared in horror as the flesh on both my hands began to decay and break away, exposing more of the artificial bone structure within them.

I started to despair. Being numb did not equate to being calm. In mounting panic, I struggled to free myself but I was well and truly trapped under the rubble.

“Jive—shit. I’m going to die again.” I had trouble breathing. Perhaps my insides were crumbling away too. “No…not again…not again….”

The white mist was still strong, veiling everything around me and the immense, iron-grey tomb towering over me.

Maybe this really is the Afterlife. Wasn’t there a place called Purgatory? I’m probably getting them confused.

“Princess, hold on. Once the doors are open, the sarcophagus will pull you in.”

My vision was beginning to grow dark around the borders. “Huh? How?”

“You will see. Just remain calm.”

I lay back on the ground. I was beginning to feel fatalistic. “Crap. I’m going to die again.”

“You are not going to die.”

“Then do something and save me.”

“I am working on it!”

My breathing began to wheeze in and out. “Jive…what’s the hold up?”

“Oh dear.”

“What…?”

“We have a problem.”

I coughed up something that approximated blood. “Really? You think so?”

“It is the sarcophagus.”

I raised my head and peered at it. “What about it?”

“I cannot get the doors to open.”

I stared at it for a heartbeat, then dropped my head back onto the floor. “Well, I hope you paid for extended warranty.”

“Wait—I will recycle the interlocks. I will get them open! Do not give up on me, Princess! I will not fail you!”

“Don’t bother.” I closed my eyes, and decided to wait for the end. “And I wish you would stop calling me Princess….”

I was going to die, but part of me was seriously annoyed that I didn’t even get to debut properly.

Aggh, what a pathetic day this turned out to be. Dying under a pile of rubble caused by my own sarcophagus crashing crazily out of Limbo and into the room.

Whoever was piloting that thing needed to have their license revoked.

Being killed by my own support crew was a comedic tragedy.

I’m sure everybody watching this was laughing their heads off by now.

It became a real struggle to breathe, and I sounded like an emphysemic patient.

Damn this body is taking its sweet time to die. Just get it over with—

A girl’s voice penetrated the proverbial cotton in my ears.

“Giving up already? Pathetic. You’ll never cut it as a Gun Princess.”

My eyes fluttered open.

There was a girl with crazy hair standing over me dressed in a long black coat, a bikini top way too small for the massive melons on her chest, shorts way too short for her long sexy legs, and four inch heels that were better suited for a fashion catwalk.

She had slender arms and carried a large, auto-pump shotcannon in her left hand.

A bandolier belt brimming with round casings hung snugly around her waist.

Trapped or not, at least one part of my lower body was still fully functional, and responding admirably to the sexy goddess standing over me.

That’s quality engineering for you. But seriously, if this was the Angel of Death she can take me now.

She aimed the weapon at my lower torso.

“Hi-Ex,” she commanded.

The shotcannon whirred softly, and then she fired a single round.

Through the numbness, I felt the pain of being blown apart.

I managed to a croak out a strangled scream.

Jive yelled in my ears. “Princess—I have them! I have them open! Wait—what the Hell just happened to you? Gah—why are you in two halves?”

Reaching down, the girl picked up my upper body, hoisting me into the air by my hair.

Are those my cauterized innards I hear dripping out of my torso?

She stared at me with cold blue eyes.

“You’re not getting out of our match this easily.”

Then she spun round in a full circle and tossed me through the open doors of the sarcophagus.

Before the doors closed I heard her parting words.

“Be seeing you soon, Princess….”

The sarcophagus sealed shut and wrapped me in soothing darkness.

I had no doubt my nightmare was just beginning.

Chapter 4.

When I came to, I was no longer in darkness.

I was no longer inside the sarcophagus.

And I was no longer separated into two halves.

I was crouching on the rubble of the partially destroyed room Gee-Two on the first floor of the school building.

And I was alive.

Beneath me, a dark liquid spilled slowly out of the remains of my Simulacrum’s lower torso that remained trapped under the fallen sheets of permacrete ceiling.

Entrails and other bits and pieces of the Simulacrum that had been my temporary replacement body were spilled out on the floor ahead of it.

They had probably fallen out when the girl in the black bikini and short shorts had picked up my upper half by my hair.

I stared at the remains, and wondered when I would throw up, but nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, I continued to breathe low and evenly.

Slowly, I stood up and with some trepidation took stock of myself.

Even though I could sense I was in one piece, I was still reluctant to learn what I would find when I looked myself over.

The first thing I did was look down.

Well, as I had expected…I had breasts.

Big breasts. At least a Cee-cup if not a Dee. These puppies were full and well rounded, and thumbed their noses – I mean twin peaks – at gravity.

As I studied them, I realized they were awfully familiar to another glorious chest I had spent many days memorizing in detail as I watched her holo-vids over and over again in order to feed my obsession with her.

Now I had pair just like them; perhaps a little bigger.

But that wasn’t the only thing I had.

I had a body. A full, complete body with arms, legs, hands, feet, a torso, waist, and crotch. All intact. All connected where they should be.

I straightened a little more and peered down at my sides.

Wow. I was slender with a wasp waist that couldn’t have been more than twenty inches around.

I frowned. If I was a Gun Princess, shouldn’t I be a little…stockier?

Perhaps I should be a little muscular.

I carefully looked myself over again.

I had the body of supermodel, where I expected the physique of a female wrestler.

I had expected to be big and buff.

Dressed in a sheer black bodysuit from neck to toes, I wore black boots with metal caps, and thick straps running up their length all the way to my knees. The boots contrasted with the bodysuit, because they were thick and sturdy, not thin and sleek.

At least they’re not high heels.

The bodysuit had sleeves that flared a little like those of a thick coat. However, while I wasn’t wearing a full coat, I did have a skirt over the bodysuit that could have been confused for the lower half of a skirted coat. The skirt was open at the front, and circled only two-thirds of the way around my body. It fell from my narrow waist down over my hips and stopped a few inches below my knees. It covered my backside thus preventing me from seeing it.

I swished my body left and right and watched the split sides flare outwards.

What a weird attire? Why wasn’t I just wearing a full coat rather than this incomplete ensemble?

There was something odd about the skirt. It felt like there was something being carried by it. In the dead light, I saw pouches running along the waist of the skirt.

Are they ammunition pouches? But they’re all empty.

I swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried out my throat. “Jive…?”

It didn’t sound right to my ears. It wasn’t the way I remembered my voice. I may not have the deepest baritone voice, but it never sounded like this before. I guess those gorgeous breasts weren’t the only change I needed to accept in a hurry.

“Jive…are you there?”

My new voice sounded uncomfortably familiar, and in the back of mind I was beginning to grow concerned. I decided to put that concern aside, as it wasn’t as important as the other immediate problems I was facing.

One of those was getting in touch with my tormenting bastard of a Maestro whom I needed to guide me through this mess.

“Hello, Jive? Are you there?”

Something akin to a low shriek sounded in my ears. It rose to a crescendo that brought my hands up to my head, then faded a heartbeat later.

I lowered my hands slightly. “Jive? Was that you?”

“…hear…can you…me…?”

“A little. You’re coming through in bits and pieces—aggh!”

I clutched my head as a pang ran through it that left my ears ringing loudly, and my vision swimming. I had to wait a while for the ringing to subside, and my senses to return to an even keel.

“…Princess, how about now…?”

I cocked my head gently. “Better.”

Another pang and more ringing in my ears. It was worse than before and I gasped and fell to one knee. “Aggh—that hurts. Gods—it hurts!”

I palmed eyes, and waited for the fireworks to fade into darkness.

I was grateful when the agony faded after only a few seconds.

“Princess, how is this?”

I swallowed a couple of times. “A lot better. Please tell me you’re not going to do that again?”

Jive was quiet for a short while. “I am very sorry, Princess. Only one more time. I promise.”

“Jive—aggh!”

I grabbed my head tightly, and endured another round of countless seconds of agony.

When it subsided, I was on my hands and knees, wheezing for air. It wasn’t just my head that hurt that time, but my body had spasmed too. My body ached and it was difficult to breathe. I remained on my hands and knees for a long time, waiting for the pain to ebb out of my new body. Shivers continued to run through it as I slowly knelt upright on the debris beneath me – the same debris that had trapped my Simulacrum’s lower body.

“Please, Jive,” I whispered. “Please, not again.”

“This is an on-field adjustment. There will have to be more, but those can be conducted under better circumstances.”

I rose slowly to my feet, and then turned to look behind me.

The iron-grey sarcophagus was entrenched into the floor and ceiling. It overshadowed me, and I felt small in its presence. I should have felt reassured, but I wasn’t in the least.

I swallowed and asked, “Is my other body—the Simulacrum—inside that?”

“Yes, and not in very good shape. However, we can talk about it later. For now, you have a match to participate in. This is your debut, and people on both sides will be watching you.”

I frowned while continuing to regard the massive tomb. “Both sides?”

“Yes, on your side and on the Creators’ side.”

I cocked my head again. “What does that mean?”

“Allow me to explain later. It is very important that you begin moving.”

“So the match has started?”

Jive sounded serious. “It has indeed, Princess. The moment you emerged from the sarcophagus, the clock began counting down. Due to the initial technical difficulties—”

“You mean me being half crushed by my own coffin.”

“—sarcophagus. Allow me to say it again. Sarcophagus.”

“What were you saying about technical difficulties?”

Jive coughed as though clearing his throat. “Well, due to the earlier mishap, the match was suspended until now. That means that the battle has now officially started. At this very moment, your opponent—the reigning Gun Queen of Ar Telica—is graciously waiting for you to get moving.”

I bit my lower lip. “The Gun Queen…was she the girl that saved me by blowing apart my body?”

“Yes…unfortunately so….”

“Well, maybe when this is over I should thank her.”

“You may not be able to do so in person.”

“What do you mean?”

“The real life identities of the Gun Princesses are not public knowledge, and the Princesses do not know each other’s identities.”

I looked around slowly at the partially destroyed room. “Jive, are we not allowed to know who we are?”

The light from the overhead fixtures continued to illuminate it, but something made me feel as though the light had somehow stopped moving. It was as though the photons themselves were now stationary in the air. Of course, that shouldn’t be possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see the interior of the room because the light would fail to reach my eyes.

Jive replied, “It is not prohibited. However, it is most certainly not encouraged. There are risks involved when too many people know who you are. Questions of trust, and so forth.”

I half grimaced. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“However, there are Princesses who know the identity of their real life counterparts. To that end, their activities and behavior are monitored. Princesses are not allowed to harm one another in real life. As I mentioned earlier, there are rules that must be adhered to. And now, we really should get moving.”

“So I was saved by the Ar Telica’s Gun Queen. How humiliating….”

A girl’s voice called out from across the room. “Would you rather I left you dead and decaying?”

I froze, then very slowly turned in the direction of that voice.

Part of me was surprised by how clear and sharp my hearing was. It was also surprised by how well I could tell in which direction that voice was coming from.

However, the rest of me was shocked when I faced a dark corner of the room where non-functional smart-desks had been pushed aside without care, and overhead light fixtures smashed. A lone chair occupied the darkened corner, and a buxom girl in a black coat, black bikini and short shorts sat on it. The folds of her coat had spilled open, revealing a toned midriff, long slender legs crossed over each other, and a large shotcannon resting casually on her lap. She looked no older than a high school senior. If not for her attire, she could easily pass for a girl in her late teenage years, and a very busty girl at that.

To my unease, she was utterly motionless. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing, though I was aware that my body – this Gun Princess’s body – was breathing low and evenly.

I could faintly feel a calm steady heartbeat within my chest.

I found it strange to know I had a heart. Before now, I’d wondered what kind of body a Gun Princess possessed. Jive had referred to them as complex mechanisms, which implied they weren’t alive. However, this body felt human with a heartbeat and lungs that breathed air.

The question was how human was I?

My heart was calm, and so was my breathing, yet my body was tense. I could feel its muscles – if indeed they were muscles – contracted slightly as though readying for instant action. As strong as my Simulacrum body had been, there was something about this Gun Princess my consciousness now occupied that made me believe it was much stronger.

The girl spoke again with a faintly mocking tone.

“In all the matches I’ve competed in, never have I witnessed a Princess almost killed by her own sarcophagus. How pathetic. Laughable and pathetic.”

I refrained from shrugging. “That wasn’t my fault. Blame my Maestro. He crashed the coffin into the room.”

Jive sounded annoyed. “Sarcophagus. Sarcophagus. How many times must I educate you? And I did not crash it into the room. There was a guidance issue—”

“Shut up,” I hissed under my breath.

In darkness, I thought I saw her eyes narrow. It was hard to read her face though I intrinsically knew my eyesight was even keener than the Simulacrum’s.

“So you’re Mercedes,” she said.

“And you’re the Gun Queen?” I asked.

She ignored me. “When I learnt there was a new addition to the battle roster, I just had to fight her. After all, you entered the Princess Royale Minors, and there was a chance we would fail to meet in the Majors. I couldn’t let this opportunity to face the entrant pass me by. I’ve already faced all the other little bitches in the Minors and Majors and eaten them for breakfast. How utterly boring. This is why I wanted to fight someone new.” She cocked her head. “But you are not what I expected.”

“Yeah, well, neither are you.”

“Even so, you’re one of the new prototypes I’ve been hearing about. A new model.”

My voice failed me. “Huh?”

Jive whispered nervously. “She knows? How does she know you are a prototype? Wait—she doesn’t know what you are. She thinks you’re like her and the other Gun Princesses.”

I wanted to tell him to be quiet, but the girl was talking and I chose to listen to her instead.

The Gun Queen snorted. “To think that a year ago my body was cutting edge. Perhaps this year’s going to be a little more interesting. Then again. You’re the first new entrant into the year’s Princess Royale. A pity you’re entering into the Minors first.” She slowly patted her lap with the shotcannon. “I was so looking forward to finding out what you’re made of, but it’s been a disappointing start.”

I frowned inwardly.

The Gun Queen had expressed no hesitation blowing my body apart. She must have known I was a Simulacrum, and she certainly knew to throw me into the sarcophagus.

She knew I was a new entrant, and thus a new model, but what else did know about me?

I hid my thoughts as I smiled weakly. “Cut me some slack, this is my first time in this body, and my first match. I’m a totally newbie. You were a newbie once. Don’t you remember what that was like?”

“All I remember is that I won that match, and dragged that bitch across the sports field where I blew her brains apart so that she wouldn’t accumulate any experience from her encounter with me. As they say, experience is priceless, and I took it from her.”

I felt a little shiver run down my back, but otherwise remained calm. “You killed her?”

“I only killed her Gun Princess body. Her consciousness was archived in her real body kept in the sarcophagus so she didn’t die, if that’s what you’re worried about. The only thing she lost was her memories of the battle she shared with me.”

She stood up off the chair and casually stretched her arms and upper body.

I thought her bikini was going to snap from the strain it was under keeping her mammaries in check. How was she expecting to run with those enormous jugs on her chest?

She faced me again, and I tensed up just a little more.

“Well then newbie, I’m going to give you a five minute head start. And the clock starts”—she aimed the shotcannon at me—“now.”

I ducked. I don’t know why, but I just instinctively knew it was the right thing to do.

An eye blink later she fired.

In that moment, something extraordinary happened.

Time slowed down around me.

Even though I had reacted faster than humanly possible, and I was moving at a preternatural speed, I was clearly aware that time around me was moving at a fraction of its normal pace.

Yet my thoughts were processing normally.

Jive spoke into my ears. “Overclocking.”

I landed in a crouch, and the shotcannon round tunneled through the air millimeters above my head. I could almost see the way it displaced the air in front and behind it.

Jive continued. “Time hasn’t slowed down. Your mind and senses have simply sped up.”

The heavy round as thick as my thumb sailed overhead and struck behind me.

In a crouch, I twisted my neck around and looked over my left shoulder. My movements didn’t feel heavy; they just felt slow.

The round exploded against my sarcophagus. Rather, it exploded against something floating a few inches before the sarcophagus that flashed then shattered like emerald glass.

Was it a shield or barrier of some sort? It certainly flashed strongly, and that emerald light wasn’t washed out in the least.

I turned my head around and faced the so-called Gun Queen. As I did, time sped up for me and returned to ‘normal’.

Jive reported, “You have slipped out of your overclocked state.”

“I know,” I muttered and stood up fast – so fast I almost bounced on my feet.

I shot the Gun Queen a glare.

“You bitch. You were giving me a head start, weren’t you?”

She twirled the massive shotcannon like a marching band baton. For a moment, I was captivated by her virtuoso performance.

Executing one last twirl, the weapon landed in her right hand – aimed directly at me.

“And that was the starting gun.”

Jive spoke loudly in my ears. “Princess, grab those two cases—hurry!”

My attention was on the Gun Queen and the shotcannon pointed at me. I didn’t know what to do. If she fired again, would I be able to dodge the shot?

I froze, rooted by doubts and indecision. Rooted by a lack of experience. I simply didn’t know what this Gun Princess body of mine could do.

Was the first dodge a lucky near miss?

“Princess, grab the cases. Now! Do it!”

His voice set me free.

I tore my gaze away from the Gun Queen, and looked about me. To either side of me, I saw two long rectangular cases on debris mound. Each was roughly three feet long and a foot wide, and both had handles. I grabbed the one on the right first, planted my feet, then changed direction and grabbed the upright case to my left.

“Run!” Jive snapped. “Run, run, run Princess.”

I kept moving left, and jumped off the mound of debris.

My booted feet touched ground almost eighteen feet away. It was more than twice the distance I could have jumped in my real body.

Fortunately, I didn’t land well.

I say fortunately because my feet skidded, and I fell onto my backside, sliding along the ground for a few feet.

My fall saved me.

I didn’t hear the round whistle over my head, but I saw and felt the heat of the explosion as it detonated against the wall to my left – the wall running parallel to the hallway outside the room.

The Hi-Ex round blew a ragged hole two feet wide in the polymer-plaster wall.

“Bitch,” I cursed with a half yell while struggling onto my knees. “This isn’t a head start!”

Jive sounded like drill sergeant. “Princess—on your feet! On your feet, now! On your feet, woman!”

“I’m trying,” I hissed in frustration.

I was too preoccupied to be angry with him calling me ‘woman’.

But getting up was easier said than done when I had two large, yet oddly light cases in each hand. I used them to support my weight as I pushed down and off the ground.

I managed to get my booted feet under me, then turned left toward the wall and the room’s open doorway.

I started running.

Behind me, in the back corner of the room, the Gun Queen laughed in delight.

“I’m giving you a head start—I’m not chasing you yet.”

My gut instinct told me to avoid the door.

My feet slipped a little as I changed direction faster than I could blink.

There was another way out of the room – the opening carved through the room by the sarcophagus.

The Gun Queen cackled madly. “I never said I wouldn’t shoot you.”

I ducked my head, lowered my stance and ran behind my sarcophagus.

The first round may have missed my right shoulder blade by inches. It hit the wall, and blew away a large chunk that would have showered me in polymer-plaster fragments if I wasn’t moving so fast.

The second round grazed my sarcophagus, exploding against one of the mysterious barrier panes that flashed emerald before shattering like sugar glass.

By then I was safe behind the sarcophagus.

I had a choice to make – hide behind it and see what was in the two cases, or keep running hard and fast into the corridor.

I made my choice in an instant.

I ran into the corridor, and angled left.

I remembered what the second year blonde student, Cole Riley, had said before the match.

Avoid dead ends.

If I kept running in this direction, I would be circling along the first floor of the Academy building.

I didn’t have a plan yet, but I did have an immediate objective, and that was not to get boxed in.

#

I ran down the curved corridor.

Through the large glass windows lining the outside wall of the corridor, I glanced at the inner Academy grounds, and then the sky above. A roiling, grey sky. Overcast, stormy. That’s the best way I could describe. If there was a sun up there, it was completely hidden.

Colors were dull, as though bleached away, making the grassy lawns that covered much of the interior of the broken circle of the Academy building appear withered.

The first entrance to the cafeteria was coming up, and I briefly thought about ducking inside.

I chose against it, and ran past the closed doors. As I did, I glanced behind me.

If I looked in a straight line, I could no longer see the smashed entrance into room Gee-Two.

I stopped running.

There was something odd about the corridor behind me.

I peered at it carefully for a few seconds. “Jive, there’s something strange with the light behind me.”

“Ah, you noticed. That is the After Effect.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I’m leaving a shadow—I’m leaving a shadow in the air.”

“Yes. That happens when you pass through light generated within the Sliver. At first, it was believed that a moving body’s interaction with the photons disturbed them because they were stationary, thus leaving a shadow in the space once occupied. However, we now know that light continues to move at the normal ‘relative’ speed. As a result, one hour in here is equivalent to one hour back in the ‘real’ world.”

“So why the faint shadow?”

“Quite simply, the Creators either do not know or are unwilling to explain it.”

Again with the Creators. What did he refer to whenever he mentioned them?

Jive continued quickly. “Whatever the reason may be, you will observe that the effect is temporary.”

I moved closer to the corridor’s windowed wall – its outside wall – that faced the interior of the Academy grounds.

A faint outline of myself trailed behind me.

“This isn’t good,” I muttered.

“It does not last long.”

“Yeah, but the faster I move, the more of a trail I’ll leave behind.”

I shook my head and crouched below the windowpane that ran the length of the outside corridor wall, three feet above the polished linoleum floor.

From here, even if she fired at me from the doorway, she had no direct line of sight to me due to the curvature of the corridor.

I placed the two cases on the ground but quickly gave the ceiling a look. “There’s power here. How is that possible if this copy of Telos Island is disconnected from Ar Telica’s city grid?”

“The Academy has underground generators, does it not?”

“So someone turned them on? You mean there’s someone here other than that bitch and I? How is that possible?”

“There may be an automaton or two around, making sure the generators are running. There are also drone cameras flying about and streaming the match in real-time. You may see them every now and then. There’s one now, outside the window.”

I peeked over the windowsill.

A fat hamburger shaped device around a foot in diameter with an unblinking eye was hovering a mere ten feet away on the other side of the glass window, and looking my way.

I hissed under my breath. “Damn it—it’s going to give away my position.”

“Yes, indeed. All the Queen has to do is look out the window and she will see the cam-drone floating stationary.”

I waved the device away but it ignored me. “Isn’t this against the rules?”

“I will lodge a protest upon our victorious return.”

If I only could do something about the so-called cam-drone now. I realized I should have ducked into the cafeteria. I’d made a bad call.

I looked down at the cases and crouched before them. They had latches, but they wouldn’t open. “How do I unlock these?”

“Place either of your palms on the outer casing.”

I did as instructed and felt a tingle run through my right hand.

Jive said, “Now open the latches.”

This time they snapped open.

I threw caution to the wind and flung open the right case. Its contents made my eyes widen with mixed emotions. “Holy toasts.” I unlocked and opened the second case and stared at the interior. “Double holy toasts.”

Each case contained one weapon, and six ammunition magazines.

Both weapons looked identical, but the magazines were different. The magazines in one case had a dull blue stripe. Those in the other had a faded red strip. I took that to mean they carried different ammunition types.

Jive sounded satisfied. “Are you impressed, my dear?”

I nodded. “Yeah. These remind me of the light-guns I use at the gaming arcade, but they’re a lot, lot bigger.”

“Precisely, my dear Princess. Your notoriety at the gaming arcades, and your exceptional skill as a twin shooter was taken into account when deciding what weapons suited you best.”

I picked up the rifle contained in the right case. “A twin shooter, huh….”

The weapon had no stock, and the handgrip extended from the rear of the casing, curving down as it did. The rifle reminded me of a pump action riot gun, twenty-six to twenty-eight inches long, with an under barrel supporting the main barrel, and an angular black casing wrapped around them both. The whole gun was painted a non-reflective matte black. As I held it in my right hand, I felt it was too light for a weapon so massive.

“Is this a toy?” I wondered. “It feels no heavier than a light-gun.”

“That, my dear Princess, is not a toy. It is a Viper Vanquish Seven Six Two semi-automatic, smooth bore—as opposed to rifle bore—close-to-medium range handcannon.”

“But it feels so light.”

“That is because of your strength. A human would require both hands to wield it.”

“Both hands?” I frowned as I studied it quickly. There was sliding switch at the top of the curved handgrip that I could easily reach with my right thumb. “Let me guess. Safety on, safety off.”

“Slide down for safety off. Just like cocking an old style revolver.”

I turned the Viper hand-cannon over and saw the rectangular magazine slapped into the belly of the weapon – the magazine well – just aft of the middle. Turning it over the other way, I noticed a magazine release lever on either side of the handcannon.

“This gun is ambidextrous,” I noted. “Where’s the casing ejection port?”

Jive sounded unsure of whether to praise me or not. “Hmm, so you know something about firearms.”

“Where’s the ejection port?”

“As you noted it’s ambidextrous, but the ejection ports are presently covered up.”

“What? Why?”

“Because that Viper is configured to fire caseless ammunition via electro-magnetic induction. You will find it jam proof, waterproof, and can even fire in a vacuum. The casing and electro-induction coil and rail system have a lifespan of twelve thousand rounds before needing to be replaced. That is a significant improvement on the previous Viper Vantage model.”

I looked down at the handcannon. “Are you telling me this is a rail-gun?”

“Yes.”

“I’m holding a freaking rail-gun?”

“Well, due to its scale it is not as powerful as it sounds. However, it will fire ammunition at thirty three hundred feet per second, at the rate of point seven seconds per round. Because the ammunition is caseless, you get more per magazine. Is that not grand?”

“You sound proud.”

“Your cynicism, my dear, is not appreciated. You will learn soon enough to value those guns with your life. Now I suggest you pocket the ammunition magazines into your skirt—pronto.”

I did as suggested, putting the magazines with red stripes in the skirt pouches on my left, and those with the blue stripe into the pouches on my right.

I asked, “What’s with the different stripes?”

“Blue is for the high penetration seven point six two millimeter rounds. Red is for the explosive tipped caseless rounds of the same caliber. You have thirty rounds per magazine.”

I finished pocketing the ammunition magazines, and picked up both handcannons by their handgrips. As I held them properly, I felt a tingle run through my palms. “What was that?”

“The Vipers are now registered to your bioetheric signature. Your opponent will not be able to use them in your stead.”

“Do they blow up if she tries?”

“But of course.”

He really did sound proud.

I stared the Viper in my right hand. “High penetration, huh.”

Still in a crouch, I peeked over the windowsill at the hamburger drone floating ten odd feet away.

“Let’s put that to the test.” I moved backwards away from the window and took aim with the right Viper. “Time for some target practice.”

Jive cried, “No—don’t do it!”

The cyclopean hamburger exploded brightly, pieces of it embedding themselves into the safety glass.

Jive whined. “No, no, no! Tell me you did not do that!”

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t.”

“What…?”

The window exploded when struck by a dull, crimson fireball.

In a blink, I’d turned away and scrambled over the floor, struggling to get to my feet and away from the outside wall.

Jive yelped in surprised. “Holy multiverse—she fired on the cam-drone.”

I was running low for the stairwell about twenty feet down the wide corridor. “Yeah, so what?”

“That incurs a penalty. She will lose points for this infraction.”

I skidded as I tried to make the turn into the stairwell.

Behind me, off my right shoulder, another corridor window shattered into molten fragments as the Hi-Ex round detonated against it or perhaps just before impact. The glass shrapnel showered me though it failed to breach my bodysuit.

So, this thing is tougher than it looks. Hoo yeah!

A third window exploded into the corridor, peppering me and the wall on my left with hail-sized pieces of melted glass.

I grit my teeth for a moment. “I don’t think she’s going for a points victory!”

I ran up the stairs, taking them four at a time. Unaccustomed to so much power in my legs, I missed a step and crashed on the midway landing, my body sliding into the back wall and striking it with my left shoulder.

I gasped in sudden pain, but it didn’t last more than a second.

Okay. That’s not so bad. She may have a swimsuit model body, but this Princess is tough.

Jive hastily asked, “Are you alright?”

I picked myself up off the ground without dropping the guns. “Can’t you tell?”

He was quiet as I ran up the next half-flight of stairs, but spoke up when I arrived at the second floor. “Yes! I am now able to monitor your status. I have full access to your diagnostics. Excellent. More and more of you is coming online.”

I kept away from the windows bordering the outside wall of the second floor corridor. Jive’s comment freaked me a little. “What was that?”

“Well, more and more of your embedded wetware is becoming active. I can now better oversee your physical and mental condition.”

“Great,” I ground out. “My own personal shrink and coach rolled into one.”

“And your best friend.”

“Shut up,” I growled.

Keeping low to the ground, I circled tightly around the stairwell landing, and climbed as ‘clandestinely’ as I could up to the third level, where classes for the second year high-school students were situated.

As I glanced over my right shoulder, I noticed the faint shadow I was leaving in the air behind me.

I stopped on the stairs and stared at it.

My passing shadow was no taller than three feet since I was moving at a crouch. However, though quite faint it was strong enough to be noticed if you were looking for it. I had no doubt the Gun Queen would be doing just that, though I strongly doubted she could see it from outside the building. I wasn’t certain, but I suspected she’d been firing at me from outside the building, that is, from the grassy lawn that filled much of the inside of the Academy grounds.

I crouched and remained still on the first half of the flight of stairs.

There was no need to calm my breathing as this body showed no signs of exhaustion. Just how much stamina and endurance did it possess?

However, that wasn’t something I was focused on.

Rather, I was listening for the sounds of an explosion and glass breaking on the level below.

I was listening for the sounds of a forced entry somewhere down the length of the corridor.

She had probably smashed her way through the reinforced glass to get outside. I hadn’t heard it because I was making so much noise getting myself ready. If she was firing from outside, she would need to enter the corridor at some point.

Ah, but she just blew away three corridor windows.

She could enter through those, though she would be stepping on shattered glass, and with those high-heels she wore, I wondered if that was a good idea.

I moved quickly back down the stairs and onto the landing at the second level.

Aiming both Viper Vanquishs at the overhead corridor ceiling lights, I gently pressed down on the trigger. If I was right, the Vipers had electric triggers, but there was enough stiffness in the mechanism so that I wouldn’t accidentally discharge the weapon when my index fingers brushed the triggers.

The trigger depressed but there was no shot.

“Safety off. Take the safety off,” Jive said hastily.

With my thumbs, I cocked down the safeties on both Vipers, aimed again and fired.

The recoil surprised me. It wasn’t long. It was short and hard, like I’d heard of from regular firearms. My Gun Princess body was certainly strong, and if I felt the recoil all the way to my shoulders, then a regular human would’ve been knocked back a foot or more. With that in mind, I realized I hadn’t braced myself properly. The recoil had kicked straight back, but my arms had jerked upwards spoiling my aim.

My shots missed the light strips behind their transparent ceiling panels.

Two different sized holes tore into the ceiling due to the disparate types of ammunition.

“Damn it,” I cursed.

I aimed again and only fired the right Viper loaded with high penetration rounds.

My aim was a little better. It clipped a light panel.

I shifted my stance, tensed my arm with only a slight crook at the elbow and fired again.

The panel shattered and crashed to the floor. The light strips broke as the ammo round and panel fragments ripped through them.

An area of the corridor outside the staircase landing went dark.

I fired again, and took out a second light panel.

I kept firing until four more light fixtures hung in ruins with pieces of transparent paneling littering the corridor floor. The corridor was robbed of internal light for an area some twelve meters wide. However, it wasn’t completely dark since greyish light entered through the corridor windows, yet it was better than nothing, and now impossible to see my ‘wake’ shadow.

I stood up and hurriedly ran up the stairs to the third level. Just before arriving at the midway landing, I fired off two high penetration rounds and took out the lights mounted to the underside of the landing above me.

Jive asked, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t answer. At the third landing I fell into a crouched stance, aimed the right Viper and quickly squeezed off six successive rounds that destroyed four lights panels in one direction.

I aimed the other Viper to my left and squeezed of six explosive tipped rounds, but succeeded in hitting and knocking out only three light fixtures.

Worry snaked its way around my chest.

My aim wasn’t good. The guns were ambidextrous and I was predominantly right handed, despite my preference for using two guns in arcade shooting games. Even if this Gun Princess body of mine was ambidextrous, I had spent almost sixteen years of my life using my right hand more than my left. I realized it made sense for me to use the Viper with explosive rounds in my left hand, rather than my right.

“Princess, what are you up to?”

I circled tightly round the landing and ran up to the fourth level. As before, at the midway landing I fired up and took out the next set of interior lights. And at the fourth floor, I first took aim with the right Viper, blew away four light panels, then used explosive tipped rounds to destroy the panels to the left of the landing. Turning around a half-circle, I aimed the right Viper at the stairwell lighting and destroyed the two panels mounted on the walls.

The right handcannon clicked empty.

Knowing I had fired more rounds than necessary, I wondered how much ammunition remained in the left Viper.

I felt a tingle in my palms that ran up my arms and all the way into my skull. It was faint yet quick, and was followed by a thought invading my mind.

No rounds in the right Viper.

Sixteen explosive tipped rounds remaining in the left magazine, with one round chambered into the left handcannon.

I blinked in surprise.

Jive noted, “Your interface to the handcannons is now in effect. Excellent indeed.”

“Is that what ‘that’ was?”

“Yes, indeed. Your weapons will now be able to answer your questions directly. I can also keep count for you.”

I flipped the ejection levers on both Vipers. The magazines fell out of their respective wells and cluttered onto the floor a little too loudly.

Stupid, next time lower the guns closer to the ground.

Jive spoke in a surprisingly respectful tone. “Mercedes, what is your plan?”

I blinked. “Mercedes…I forgot that’s what she’s called.”

“While you are inside her, Mercedes is your name.” He paused, then asked, “Will you tell me your plan?”

I kept my voice low. “Isn’t it obvious? I want her to know I’m waiting for her in the stairwell.”

In careful succession, I slapped a fresh magazine into both weapons. I felt a gentle, short-lived vibration in the handcannons, and the weapons informed me that the first rounds had been automatically chambered.

For some reason, that made me grin. “These guns are really cool.”

“I knew you would like them.”

I pocketed the half-empty magazine containing the explosive tipped ammo into a skirt pouch.

An odd sensation swept over me, and I stopped moving.

Odd as it was, I felt that Jive was watching me.

I sensed him watching me from outside my mind.

I couldn’t explain it, and I felt the urge to look up.

For a moment, nothing more than a heartbeat, I pictured – I imagined – a young man with dark hair and grey eyes looking down at me, arms folded, an expression of concern on his face.

Then the image was gone.

It was nothing more than my imagination.

Just my imagination.

I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Princess? Mercedes, are you alright?”

I swallowed and noticed my heart was beating a little quickly.

I nodded slowly. “I’m fine. I’m fine, Jive.”

Yes. That’s all it was, a figment of my imagination. I laughed inwardly. What else could it have been?

When I opened my eyes again, Jive spoke thoughtfully. “There is no guarantee she will come. She knows you are baiting her. She could very well find another way into the Academy building.”

I nodded faintly. “Yeah, I know. But for now, I’m hoping she’ll treat me like a rookie.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that I hope she intends to take her time with me, and enjoy the hunt—”

A loud shout raced up the stairwell. “Hey Princess, I’m coming up!”

It sounded liked it came from far below.

I tensed reflexively.

She yelled up again. “Here I come, Pudding!”

Jive sounded shocked. “She really did come. She really is taking you way too lightly.”

I grimaced awkwardly as I moved to the stairwell. “No, she’s not. I told you—I don’t have a better plan.”

There was no gap between the triangular balustrade walls occupying the center of the stairwell. They were low enough that a person could bend their torso over them, but as a result, I could only see and aim one floor down. Standing on the top steps, I had a view of the third floor landing and part of the dark corridor floor. If I leaned over a few more inches, I could sneak a peek at the steps leading down from the third floor to the second floor.

The Gun Queen yelled up, “Are you ready for me, you little bitch!”

I pressed my lips together.

Yeah, yeah, come on up you bikini skank. I’ll blow the air out of those balloons on your chest, you under-aged harlot.

The Gun Queen laughed, sounding distant as though on the first floor. “Hey, Pudding, are you a cherry girl?”

I frowned. Was I? Was Mercedes a virgin? Did that even apply to this Gun Princess body?

If I had heart, and could breathe, did that mean I was human enough to have ‘that’?

I peeked down at myself.

Was I…all girl?

I heard the clack-clack of high-heels. It sounded like the Gun Queen was dancing around.

“Hey, Cherry Girl. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do.” More clack-clacking of heels. “I’m gonna pop your cherry with my Lucifer right here.”

I frowned again. “Her what?”

The Queen cried in glee. “My bad boy is long, hard, thick and black—with twenty inches just waiting to be your first time.”

My frown turned upside down as my eyebrows pitched up. “What the eff?”

Jive sounded distinctly disgusted. “I do believe she is saying she will use her shotcannon, the Lucifer Eight Seventy auto-pump with ten millimeter multi-mission rounds…to deflower you.”

I cocked my head. “Jive, how can she possibly do that? This isn’t even a real body. Just how stupid is she?”

“Hmm…she probably believes your body is constructed like hers. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“You mean—?”

“Your body is more human than you can imagine.”

My face twisted into a full frown. “What?”

“Do not frown. You will give yourself wrinkles.”

“Jive, just answer the question.”

He sighed heavily. “My suggestion…protect your womanhood.”

I felt my face grow hot. “Jive—can you please not call it that?”

Wait—why the Hell am I blushing? I’m a guy, not a girl. I have no reason to blush!

“Here I come, Cherry Princess.”

I swallowed quickly and flexed my fingers on the handgrips.

Standing sideways on the steps between the fourth level and the midway landing, I kept both handcannons trained down over the top of the sloped balustrade wall.

Need to go lower. Take a chance, and go lower.

Carefully, I climbed down to the midway landing. Now I was between the fourth and third levels.

The Vipers were surprisingly steady in my grip. I guess it was worth expending a magazine and a half in order to get some practice with the small rail-guns.

I continued descending one cautious step at a time, then stopped halfway down and peeked over the balustrade wall at the steps leading down from the third level to the next midway landing.

I held my breath, realized that wasn’t a good idea, and started breathing evenly again.

I resumed walking and arrived at the third level. I gave the corridor a quick look down both directions, then focused my attention on the stairwell.

Jive spoke quietly. “I do not think this is a good idea. You are going down to her. I thought you were waiting for her to come to you.”

I whispered softly, “I know…but the ball’s in her court….”

With my arms and handcannons trained over the balustrade wall, I breathed as silently as I could as I descended a handful of steps down toward the next midway landing.

Now I was standing between the third and second levels.

The darkness surrounded me since I’d blown the light fixtures, and there were no windows in the rectangular stairwell.

I crouched on the landing and peered down at the second floor corridor.

The second level landing exploded upwards.

A hole a foot wide was been blown clear through the permacrete floor.

A cloud of pulverized debris floated up into the air and drifted into the stairwell.

Gods damn it! What the Hell kind of weapon is that?

A second explosion and another hole appeared beside the first. More dust and grey debris blew into the air.

And she wanted to take my precious virginity with that?

A third detonation punched through the bottom step of the stairs leading up to me.

Running high-heels sounded on the stairs leading from the first to the second level.

I clenched my jaw.

That harlot—how can she run with such a large chest?

I jumped off the midway landing, and dropped down to the second level.

I landed ungainly, and my feet almost fell through the massive holes in the floor.

I wasn’t accustomed to what this body could do. Not only was it stronger and faster, but it was also taller with a different center of gravity. However, I wasn’t going to blame my balance issues on the heavenly mounds on my chest.

Regaining my balance in a hurry, a cold panic washed over me as I twisted my body around and aimed the Vipers with arms outstretched into the dark stairwell leading up from first to the second level.

I glimpsed a shadow, faint in the darkness, rounding the midway landing.

It was roughly in my line of fire…so I fired.

The smarter side of my Princess brain took over for a moment, and chose to fire the Vipers in sequence, not in unison.

The first high penetration round missed the shadow by inches.

The next round, a half second later, blew a fist-sized chunk out of the wall beside the shadow’s head.

As I fired, I adjusted my aim, and fully depressed the triggers.

Now the Vipers were firing in automatic mode, one after the other, almost one round per second, their ammunition chasing the fast moving shadow.

Then the Gun Queen shot back.

A loud boom resounded up the stairwell as a portion of the triangular balustrade wall between her and I was obliterated into a cloud of pulverized plaster, paint, and permacrete.

In heartbeats, she and I had turned the stairwell into a shooting gallery.

Chapter 5.

In those first few seconds, as she and I traded shots, I became aware of a number of things.

First, I realized that in the real world – not the gaming world – my aim was mediocre at best.

Even at close range, I’d only managed to graze her crazy hair, and that was because it swished around madly around her head, making it easier to hit.

However, my aim was gradually improving. I just needed to stay alive long enough to make use of it.

Second, I was outgunned.

Her Lucifer had a slower firing rate than my Vipers, but a single shot from that shotcannon was worth half a magazine of explosive tipped rounds.

It wasn’t Hi-Ex she was shooting at me.

It was Ultra-Ex, and it was blowing the stairwell and stairs apart.

Third was the noise.

With the stairwell turned into a shooting barrel, the noise was deafening. I could’ve been shouted into my ears and not heard it.

Though they were rail-guns, the Vipers weren’t silent, emitting a soft boom as they expelled ammunition at supersonic speed. However, the Queen’s shotcannon was another matter. When that weapon discharged it made the stairwell walls tremble. It also gave off a fine mist that smelled of ozone, that was starting to cloud the stairwell between the Queen and I.

Fourth and most importantly…I was an idiot.

With my back to the windows, and light from Decaying Space filling them, I was a black on grey moving target. I caught her by surprise by jumping down rather than running away, but I painted myself against the backlight for her to see.

I had made myself a better target.

After all that effort of shooting at the lights and darkening the corridors, I’d gone and foolishly made myself easier to see.

So why in the high heavens am I still alive?

I had no idea.

Does fortune favor the foolish and stupid? Probably. Or maybe I was just damned lucky.

The fifth item of note was that I overclocked as soon as the first rounds left my Vipers.

Perhaps that was the main reason I was still alive – that and the fact I was weaving about madly.

A shot from the Queen blew a chunk the size of a beach ball out of the slanted balustrade wall. It also took a section of the wood handrail with it.

As a small cloud of fragments billowed rapidly up into the air, I moved quickly to my left and used the cloud for cover.

I had a better line of fire at her through the hole. It was so big I didn’t need to see it clearly. I just needed to know roughly where it was. Even I couldn’t miss firing through it at this range.

Though I was outgunned, my Vipers were faster than her Lucifer.

Two rounds from their muzzles flew toward her through hole in the wall.

I glimpsed her hair fluttering insanely as she jerked her head aside with impossible speed.

It wasn’t a single pair of twin-tails she wore, but two.

Remaining overclocked, I adjusted my aim in the blink of an eye, and kept the triggers down.

Two more rounds passed through, chasing the faint grey shadow mere meters away on the steps below me. She had to climb up the steps to avoid them, but by then her Lucifer had chambered another round.

She fired and blew another hole through the wall between us.

This time I had to duck aside as the blast’s concussion flung the pieces dangerously close to my head.

I made a note to myself – next time wear a visor.

Ducking made me crouch on the top step.

The Vipers counted down the ammunition in their magazines – twenty-two in the left, and twenty-two in the right.

I made the choice to reverse the order in which I fired.

With the handcannons trained where I guessed her to be, I pumped two, four, then six rounds into the corner of the slanted balustrade wall. The explosive tipped rounds led the way, blowing away fist-sized chunks of the wall, opening a path for the high penetration rounds that followed in their wake. The corner of the wall looked as though an invisible monster was eating large bites out of it.

With each ‘bite’ the high penetration rounds sailed through, they edged a little closer to the Gun Bitch – I mean Gun Queen – and gave her hair a trim.

In the stairwell darkness, her hair resembled four scythes emerging from the back of her head, rather than two pairs of twin tails.

I wondered if that much hair weighed her down.

Then I remembered something else.

In ancient times, those that fought with a spear would attach a tassel behind the blade. The moving tassel would make the blade blur, distracting an opponent’s focus.

Her two twin tails served as the Queen’s tassel, and they were certainly distracting.

Nonetheless, my Vipers chased her back down the corner as their ammo stitched the air between her and I.

Fifteen rounds in the left mag. Fifteen rounds in the right.

More holes appeared in the balustrade wall. The handrail lost a few more pieces to it.

The Queen fired through the holes, blasting large ones in the stairwell wall to my right.

I continued weaving about, keeping myself a moving target, but my movements were confined since the steps were only fifteen feet wide.

Ten left. Ten right.

I sent my shots through the newest holes in the balustrade wall, chasing the shadow of her twin-tails.

With loud booms from her Lucifer, she opened up a couple of new holes for me to shoot through.

It was getting harder for me to see the stairwell with so much pulverized plaster and permacrete in the air. I could smell it and taste it in my mouth even though I was breathing evenly through my nose.

Five left. Five right.

I continued firing, aware of the low ammo warning pulsing in my head, while wondering how much ammunition her shotcannon carried.

I fired a few more times, then noticed the silence from her side of the stairwell.

Was she out of ammo? Should I reload now?

My gut clenched in anticipation.

The Queen was up to something.

Then through one of the holes in the balustrade wall turned to Swiss cheese, I glimpsed a thick pipe pointed my way – a thick pipe encased in an angular carbon-fiber shell.

The Lucifer shotcannon.

I didn’t have time to shoot back.

I barely had enough time to toss my body aside as the muzzle flashed, and a heavy detonation ripped a piece of the wall on my right with the force of a twenty-pound cannonball.

Whatever she’d fired at me had missed my right shoulder by a hair’s breadth.

A storm of plaster and permacrete fragments swept over me, and the concussion blast pitched me into a section of the sloped balustrade wall to my left.

The impact knocked the wind out of me, stunning the left side of my body.

As I rebounded, I almost tumbled down the stairs.

Somehow, my feet caught onto the top steps and held me there.

I don’t know how I kept moving, but I scrambled back several feet away from the landing and into the corridor illuminated by the murky, swirling grey light of Decaying Space.

Realizing I was a silhouetted target, I threw my body to the left, behind the cover of the balcony balustrade overlooking the stairwell, and out of her immediate line of fire.

The Lucifer fired again, and the balcony disintegrated.

The shockwave knocked me into the air, and several feet back into the corridor. I rolled over repeatedly, and came to a stop on my belly.

“Princess—Princess, can you hear me!”

By some miracle I was still overclocked, though not as deeply as before.

During the initial fusillade of ammo rounds, I perceived time moving at a quarter normal speed. But after that last explosion, time was moving for me only half as slowly.

I groaned and tasted something coppery in my mouth.

Blood? How can that be? I haven’t taken a direct hit.

A third shot from the Lucifer.

I thought I heard it whistle past me, over my body, but that was probably just my imagination.

But the explosion that blew away the corridor windows was definitely real.

Unable to avoid it, the shockwave scooped me up, then rolled me over the floor and back toward the remains of the devastated stairwell.

I came to a stop spread-eagled on my back, and a couple of feet shy of the edge of the landing.

Time moved normally again. My mind was no longer overclocked.

It took me a few seconds to realize the shooting had stopped, because my ears were ringing.

I felt a cool breeze on my skin, and assumed it came through the hole in the corridor’s glass wall. It was hard to believe reinforced glass that could weather a hurricane had been blown away in a heartbeat.

The breeze felt nice compared to the hurt inside my body.

I wondered if this was akin to being run over by a moving vehicle.

The Queen was determined to round the corner – or what was left of it – by any means possible and that included bringing out the heavy artillery. But what the Hell had she fired at me? That wasn’t a shotcannon ammo round. It had to be something bigger. Much bigger.

Lying spread-eagled on the ground, my body shivered and my limbs twitched erratically.

I was sucking in lungfuls of air and feeling tortured with every breath.

I couldn’t understand what was happening.

What is wrong with me? Why am I feeling so much pain? Is a Gun Princess supposed to feel this much pain?

Jive spoke quickly in my ears. “Princess—calm down. You are suffering the after effects of successive concussion blasts.”

I was breathing but feeling suffocated.

Jive pressed on. “She fired concussion grenades at you. They are like shaped charges. They destroyed the balcony and the corridor wall. Your body was caught in the shockwaves and received internal damage it is now repairing.”

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed movement in the stairwell.

A shadow in the darkness and a girl’s voice dipped in malice. “Hey, Cherry Princess. You still breathing? That must have hurt.”

I rolled my head left to see the stairs better.

The girl chuckled cruelly. “Give me a sign you’re still with me, Cherry Princess.”

Jive sounded oddly calm in my ears. “Princess, listen to me. Listen to me carefully.”

The Gun Queen was tip-toeing up the stairs. I could see her scythe-like hair coming into view.

“Cherry Princess. Cherry Princess. Where art thou, my Cherry Princess?”

A gentle shiver ran through my body, but my vision steadied and the hurt in my innards faded a little more.

Jive lowered his voice. “Princess, your left Viper. You have one round remaining. Do you understand?”

I rolled my eyes left to my outstretched arm and the Viper in my hand.

In the distance, beyond the body of the handcannon, the top of the Gun Queen’s head came into view as she climbed the steps to the fourth floor. I could already see her two pairs of twin tails. In moments, I would see her thin eyebrows.

And then her cold blue eyes.

I blinked and time slowed down to a quarter again.

I felt myself swallow, and then hold my breath.

It wasn’t her eyebrows I saw next, but the black shotcannon, Lucifer, held high in her hands like a rifle at eye-level. Hiding behind it was the Queen’s face, peering at me down the gun-sight.

I saw her malicious smile…

“Oh, my Cherry Princess—”

…and I pressed the trigger.

The Viper in my left hand, lying on the ground, discharged the last round in its chamber.

The weapon jerked a little in my grip, the recoil jolting my spread-eagled body.

I knew I’d missed as soon as the weapon twitched and rocked back.

What I didn’t know was by how much.

The Queen reflexively darted aside.

She was fast. Incredibly fast. But not fast enough.

The explosive-tipped round struck her temple.

I’d missed hitting the shotcannon, yet somehow I’d hit her head.

An explosive clap, almost a boom, and a large short-lived puff of smoke.

The Lucifer jerked upwards and fired, but it wasn’t a grenade. The shot ripped a jagged hole in the corridor ceiling, and small pieces fluttered like confetti to the floor.

But the Queen’s head was no longer in sight, and neither was her hair.

She had tumbled backwards down the stairs.

That much I could hear past the low ringing in my ears.

Jive, on the other hand, I could hear quite clearly in my head. “Princess—get up. Get up! You have to go—now!”

I sucked in air, and groaned as I forced my body to move.

“Move, Princess. Move. That shot was not enough.”

I rolled onto my belly.

The Viper clutched in my right hand sent me a thought pulse. One round left in the chamber.

“Princess—Mercedes, get on your feet. Do it now. Hurry.”

I had one round left. I should take the shot.

I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, the Vipers somehow still clutched by my fingers.

To lose your weapon is to die. I don’t know where I remembered that from, but it seemed like good advice under the present circumstances.

“You hit her, but that shot was insufficient and you are practically out of ammo.”

I had one round left. I raised my right hand and aimed the handcannon weakly over the edge of the landing.

“Reload later. Move. Move. Move!”

I fired, and the recoil rocked me as I lay on my hands and knees.

“Move, Mercedes. Get on your feet and run.”

I was on my feet, and stumbling forward down the corridor, and away from the stairwell.

My vision swam. The corridor swayed and rolled around me, making me nauseous.

Damn, this body was more human than I imagined. Actually, what had I imagined it would be like?

“Princess, we need to get some distance on her. Hurry. You cannot face her in your condition.”

The floor-to-ceiling corridor windows were on my left. The classrooms for the second year students were on my right.

I looked up and in my swaying vision I saw a sign above one doorway.

Class Two-Eff.

I slowed and changed direction for the door. Trying it, I found it to be unlocked.

Then the stairwell behind me exploded in noise.

Shot after shot emanated from the Lucifer.

Facing the door, I spared the corridor and stairwell to my right a fleeting look.

It was being ripped apart even worse than before. It was a ferocious demonstration of power. I wondered if the Queen had been toying with me until now.

Then I heard the girl scream as though from the depths of Hell.

“You whore—I’ll kill you! I kill you! I’ll rip you the eff apart!”

More shots rang out as I staggered into the classroom, and then quickly slid the door shut behind me.

I staggered away from the door.

The sound of shotcannon fire continued unabated, and so too the Queen’s screaming.

“You bitch—I’m going to shove my fist up your—”

I stumbled against a smart-desk.

“—and pull your metal innards right out!”

Weaving between the desks, I crossed the classroom and arrived at the windows.

I almost crashed into them.

With my vision still swimming nauseously, I had trouble judging distances.

I sagged against the windows, then turned my back to them. I don’t know how I managed to stay upright and on my feet.

Jive spoke firmly in my ears. “Reload the Vipers, Princess. Flip the levers, drop the magazines, and reload. You can do this. Stay focused. This match is not over yet. The duration is one hour. There are another forty minutes to go. It will end when the clock hits zero, or when one or either of you is too incapacitated to continue, which is currently not the case.”

I swallowed down my parched throat.

Damn, this was body felt way too human.

“Jive,” I whispered. “I thought I was a Gun Princess. Why the Hell does it hurt so much?”

He was quiet for a short while, and I allowed myself to slide down to the ground.

“Princess, you are most definitely a Gun Princess. If not, you would have died after the first grenade exploded. You have survived more than nine times the concussive force a human body can endure. There is no doubt you are a Gun Princess.”

I flipped the levers, and the magazines fell out of the handcannon wells. They didn’t clatter as loudly as before which was good because the shooting and screaming outside had come to a brisk halt.

I tasted the blood in my mouth. “I don’t…I don’t feel like a Princess….”

Jive sounded calm. In a way his steady, even tone reassured me. It was something I could focus on and hold onto.

He was my light in the darkness.

My life raft in a stormy sea.

“Mercedes, listen to me. She is at a disadvantage. She does not know which way you went. And she knows you will have reloaded by now. She will be cautious. Even though you have landed a hit on her, it is not enough to stop her.”

“But I hit her. How could she survive that?”

“Her Gun Princess body is not like yours.”

I placed the left Viper on the floor beside me. As I reloaded the Viper in my right hand, I realized I should have swapped the magazines around in my skirt’s pouches. I should have placed the blue striped magazines in my left pouches, and the red striped magazines in my right. It would have made it easier to reload the handcannons.

The Viper vibrated softly in my hand. The chamber was loaded with a high-penetration round. I placed it on the floor, and proceeded to reload the left Viper.

I swallowed again, and whispered, “What do you mean her body’s different from mine?”

“Her body is not alive. At least, not alive in the technical human sense.”

The left Viper hummed ever so faintly as it loaded the first explosive tipped ammo round into the firing chamber.

I picked up both handcannons, and stared at the corridor door on the opposite side of the classroom. I was lying a couple of meters to the right of it, so it wasn’t directly in front of me.

“Jive, why does that make her different from me?”

“Because her body is not alive…but you are.”

#

I swallowed down my dry throat.

“I’m alive—ah!”

I looked at the air about me, and noticed the faint shadow left in my wake.

I could describe it as a very, very thin smoke that hung in the air, gradually fading away as the classroom was illuminated by ceiling light panels, while outside light from Decaying Space flowed in through the windows.

However, I realized it wasn’t fading quickly enough.

Using the wall behind me for support, I pushed myself up to my feet.

“Jive. You’re wrong.”

“I am?”

“She knows which direction I went. Remember, when I move through the light I leave a really light shadow behind.” I looked at the Vipers in my hands. “Why don’t these come with straps? And I have no holsters to put them in.”

“Princess, place the left Viper across your lower back.”

“Huh?”

“Just do it. Place it across your lower back. Make sure it touches your Regalia.”

“My what?”

“Your attire. Your bodysuit and clothes. They are known as a Gun Princess’s Regalia. Now do it.”

I slipped my left arm behind my lower back, cross wise, and pressed the Viper to it. There was a gentle tingle where the weapon touched my black bodysuit, and when I removed my hand from the grip the Viper remained attached to my back.

I reached back to the handcannon, and pulled it free with a slight tug.

“Your Regalia acts as a holster.”

“How?”

“Well, it is interfaced to your wetware so it knows your intentions.”

“It knows? You make it sound as though it’s alive.”

“Not alive. Just aware. You can trust it to keep a good hold on your weapons. When you need them, it will release them into your hands.”

I stared at the handcannons I gripped, then looked across at the door on the opposite side of the classroom.

Quickly, I attached the left Viper to my lower back, then pushed aside the skirt-coat covering my right leg and touched the right Viper to my right thigh.

I moved around carefully, then a little more quickly. I believe the handcannon was a little long to be attached to my upper thigh, but I wasn’t sure where else to put it. Nonetheless, my bodysuit gripped the weapons firmly.

“Satisfied?” Jive asked.

“They’d better not fall off,” I muttered, though I doubted they would.

Turning to the window behind me, I found the security latch, snapped it open and slid the window aside.

“Princess, where are you going?”

“Where I won’t leave a shadow trail in the air behind me.” I climbed onto the sill, then dropped down to the wide ledge running the length of the curved exterior wall. “I’m going outside.

I closed the window behind me.

I was feeling a lot steadier than before, and while my innards ached dully they didn’t trouble me. At the very least, I wasn’t swaying anymore as I stood on the two foot wide ledge.

With a hand on the windowsill, I peered over the edge of the ledge I was standing on.

A ledge ran along the wall at almost level. There was one below me running along the second floor, and there was another above level with the fourth floor.

I looked down again.

The western end the cafeteria balcony with outdoor seating lay to the east, and thus to my right since I had my back to the wall.

I started walking right along the ledge even though I knew this would take me closer to the stairwell where the Gun Queen and I had experienced our first shoot out.

At intervals of three hundred feet, a thick slab ran vertically the height of the Academy building. It intersected the ledges across all the floors.

I stared at the slab for a heartbeat, wondering how I was going to get across.

Looking up, I pondered jumping and catching the edge of the ledge above me. Was heading up to the rooftop a good idea?

Behind me, I heard a crash from somewhere inside the building.

Jive sounded a tad anxious. “Princess, you need to keep moving.”

I chose to go down.

Crouching, I gripped the ledge, and then lowered my body over the side of the building. I had to swing a little in order to build up momentum before I could drop myself onto the ledge outside the second floor. As I did so, I heard a window break some distance to my right, in the direction of classroom Two-Eff.

A familiar unpleasant voice rang out into the air. “Cherry Whore! Get back here.”

“You were right,” Jive noted despondently. “My bad.”

“Forget it,” I muttered through clenched teeth.

Staying too long in one place was going to get me killed.

Thinking of getting killed reminded me of what Jive had said back in the classroom.

Mercedes’s body was alive.

What exactly did that mean? If it was alive, then why wasn’t it decaying and crumbling away like my real body and that of the Simulacrum? Could I even be killed? Wasn’t my consciousness ‘backed up’ within the sarcophagus? And was my mind or awareness still inside my organic male body?

“Found you!”

The Queen’s joyful cry was followed by a shotcannon blast that tore a large chunk out of the ledge above me.

Great. We’re back to this again. Should I break back into the building? No. We’ve done that already and I know she can blow holes clear through the floors and ceiling.

A second piece of the ledge was blasted away.

“Shit! I missed twice. What the Hell?” The Queen sounded frustrated and confused. “Third time’s the charm.”

I turned where I stood and jumped down to the west corner of the cafeteria balcony some twenty-five feet away.

Sailing through the air, I prayed I’d judged the distance accurately.

I was almost fully rewarded.

My booted feet clipped the balcony guardrail. Like a hurdler missing a jump, I was pitched forward into a table and set of chairs. The chairs scattered under the impact and the table cracked but didn’t break when my upper body landed on it.

Gods damn it—can’t I do anything right?

To my relief, the pain was short lived as I slid off the table and onto my knees.

Behind me, I could hear laughter from on high up the wall.

“Pathetic, Cherry Whore! That was pathetic!”

Still on my knees, I pulled the Viper free of my right thigh and whipped its barrel in the Queen’s direction.

She was standing on the ledge outside Class Two-Eff, and bearing the Lucifer in both hands.

In the cold, dead light of Decaying Space, this was my first look at her since the stairwell shootout.

I stared up at her in horror.

The ‘flesh’ around her left temple was gone. So was her eye, leaving behind an empty broken, black socket. A great deal of her scalp was missing. She was down to three twin-tails and not four. Pieces of flesh clung in burnt clumps to her hair. But there was no blood. Her flesh and bleached skull were bone dry.

As she grinned down at me, the Queen looked very much like an animated, bloodless corpse.

My breath caught in my lungs. “Jive…what the Hell?”

“I told you, did I not? You are alive…but she is not.”

“You mean…she’s dead? She’s a walking corpse?”

“Take the shot.”

“…what…?”

“Take the shot, Princess.”

The corpse Queen aimed her Lucifer at me as I pressed down on the electric trigger.

The Viper boomed softly, and spat the high-penetration round into the air.

To my disbelief the caseless round struck true, piercing into the Queen’s exposed midriff.

However, there was no blood. Nothing spurted out of the wound. The round struck something hard though, for it failed to exit out of her back.

My finger depressed the trigger more and the Viper switched to automatic mode.

A second and third caseless round punctured the Queen’s belly.

In a corner of my mind, I was amazed at the preternatural accuracy I was displaying, but the rest of my consciousness was struggling to accept what I was witnessing.

The Queen staggered back against the smashed window, and involuntarily fired her shotcannon.

The shot went wild, missing me but hitting the table I’d landed on in my failed jump, ripping through it like a mythical hammer.

Fighting back the impulse to duck and shield myself from the plastic fragments, I kept my Viper trained on the Queen. I suspected that if I moved or shifted my stance even an inch, I would lose my true aim. So I remained kneeling on the balcony ground, one hand braced beside me, while the other held the Viper in a surprisingly steady grip.

I heard the weapon’s voice in my mind.

Twenty-four rounds in the magazine; one in the chamber.

I kept the trigger down, feeling the recoil race up my arm and through my shoulder, pushing me back along the ground a few millimeters at a time.

On the Queen, the kinetic impacts were more noticeable, and they were taking their toll.

Not only was she pinned into the shattered window by the rounds punching into her gut, but she was having trouble aiming and shooting at me as more and more holes opened up in her belly.

Her midriff was turning into a tortured, bloodless mess.

And the sight was starting to turn my stomach over.

This Gun Princess body of mine was way too human for its own good. I really had to find a way to get over this queasiness and fast.

The Queen screamed in frustrated anger, and discharged her shotcannon at me.

Another piece of the table vanished near my head, while my Viper stitched the sixty-foot distance between her and I with a couple more rounds.

A third shot from the Lucifer, and the top of a scattered chair disappeared into tiny fragments.

The fourth shot whistled past my right ear, and tore a large hole into the ground behind me.

I ducked aside a little late, and my aim was thrown off.

Instead of ripping her belly afresh, the Viper’s bullet buried itself into her right breast, but failed to deflate the massive bikinied mammary.

“Gah!” she grunted loudly. “How dare you—oof!”

A lucky follow up shot from the Viper. The high-penetration round slammed into her breastbone, nudging her body back a few inches as she fired. The shotcannon bullet exploded into a chair in front of me. This time I reflexively ducked aside as the fragments peppered my face.

Jive hastily suggested, “Time to move.”

“I agree,” I growled, and rose to my feet in a heartbeat.

Moving in a crouch between the tables and chairs, I fired sporadically at the corpse Queen, while reaching for the Viper attached to my lower back. It came away easily, and felt comfortable in my left hand as I now aimed both weapons at the horror standing on the outside ledge.

I fired the Vipers in sequence.

The handcannons gave me an ammo count as I surrounded the Gun Queen with a steady stream of bullets.

Twenty-six left magazine. Eighteen in the right.

Now that I was moving, I founded it harder to hit my mark. Most of the rounds ripped up the building wall and windows around her, and only a few struck true.

For her part, the Queen was getting a better bearing on me now that I wasn’t throwing off her aim as much. More and more furniture exploded around me, with large pieces billowing into the air.

I thought I felt something trickle down my face, and wondered if it was blood. However, I couldn’t check as I was indisposed returning fire upon the Princess.

Subconsciously I was moving to my left, and thereby closer to the glass walls facing the interior of the cafeteria. In other words, I was moving closer to the Academy building, and the more I did the tighter the angle, making it harder for her to fire at me with a two-handed grip on the Lucifer.

My high penetration rounds weren’t stopping her despite several hits into her body.

Time for a change of strategy.

I stopped shooting with the right Viper, and concentrated on using the left handcannon loaded with explosive tipped rounds.

Calm down. Take a stance. Take aim. Squeeze the trigger.

At one-second intervals, I fired three successive rounds to the Queen’s lone shotcannon blast that skimmed over my head and blew yet another hole in the table behind me.

My first two shots cratered a classroom ceiling when they missed and flew through a shattered window.

The third shot struck the Queen’s left boob and detonated.

I heard her scream as the explosion twisted her body around, and she almost fell off the ledge. For a moment I thought myself lucky as she lost her grip on the Lucifer. But she caught herself and the weapon at the last moment while teetering dangerously on the edge of the ledge.

I took aim to finish what I started and knock her off the ledge.

At that moment she turned around and faced me.

Most of her left boob was gone, but my aim wavered when I saw what lay underneath.

I was so shocked, I barely noticed her take hold of the shotcannon with her left hand, while using her right hand to grip the window frame for support.

Her face split into a horrid rictus grin that radiated her intense anger.

“Die, you Cherry Whore!”

“Mercedes—run!”

I quickly understood why.

The Queen had been saving the best for last – the high yield concussion grenades.

Perhaps stupidly, I fired off one last round that shot harmlessly past her head and exploded above and behind her.

Then it was her turn.

The Lucifer’s lower barrel flashed brightly for a split second, and the table in front of me exploded, literally, into a faded sun that lasted a heartbeat.

Plastic fragments soared like a meteor shower propelled along by the expanding shockwave.

I crossed my arms in an eye blink before the blast struck and tossed me backwards through the air.

Oh, not again.

A cafeteria table broke my fall and I rolled off it, lucky not to break my neck in the process.

Landing on my feet, momentum carried me into the chairs between tables.

I lost my footing and skipped back, until I crashed into the next table behind me.

Through the buzzing in my ears I heard her laugh insanely.

“Can you fly, Cherry Girl?”

She fired again, and most of the round table on my right disintegrated within a dull orange fireball. Everything within twelve feet of it was booted into the air, and that include me.

Airborne for several seconds, I had absolutely no say in how I wanted to land.

My surroundings whirled crazily in my vision before a hard crash onto another table brought that to an abrupt end.

Again, momentum rolled me off the table, and I hit the ground on my hands and knees.

I was conscious but dazed.

Yet while I couldn’t see straight, my body was moving on its own, scrambling to its feet with desperate energy, unwilling to endure a repeat of last time on the stairwell.

And it was running for the glass wall that separated the balcony from the cafeteria’s interior.

A third shock grenade exploded a few feet behind me.

I felt the detonation wave race above the ground and then kick me over, sending me into an aerial tumble that was head-over-heels and ended when my back crashed into the cafeteria’s glass wall.

Upside down and overclocked, I felt the safety glass flex like a trampoline before it surprisingly gave way under the force of the impact, and I crashed through it into the cafeteria.

As I landed on a bed of shattered glass, I didn’t know if my body was still intact.

I feared my legs had been blown away.

The explosion had felt worse than anything I’d experienced in the third floor corridor.

Agony flared through me, but like before the pain was brief, leaving me numb in its wake.

I lay on the floor, breathing hard and heavy.

“Mercedes—can you hear me? You are alright. No major damage. You can keep moving.”

“…aggh….”

“Princess, this is no time to be lying around.”

“Geh….” I groaned and rolled onto my hands and knees. “You…are…effing…kidding me….”

I might have said that, but I was surprised by how quickly I was back on my feet.

Was my body somehow growing accustomed to the concussion blasts? Yeah, like that was possible.

Again I tasted blood in my mouth.

When I spat it out, I thought it was red.

Reaching up, I used the back of my hand to touch my face where it felt wet. I looked down at its dorsum and saw it stained darkly.

“Jive…it’s blood.”

“Yes. As I said before, you are alive, Princess.”

“I’m alive?” I looked up and stared in disbelief at the ruined cafeteria balcony. “Are you serious? If I’m alive how the Hell did I survive through that?” I shook my head. “No way. Not possible. I should be broken or missing pieces by now. It’s just not possible for me to be standing.”

“You survived because you are a Gun Princess.”

“You keep telling me that, but I’m not like that monster outside. So what the Hell am I?”

I understood now that the Gun Queen wasn’t a corpse. She wasn’t alive but not because she was dead. She had never been alive to begin with.

Jive spoke with a hint of pride. “Mercedes, you are nothing like her. You are superior in every way.”

I swallowed coppery saliva down my throat. “Superior?”

The Vipers updated me on their ammo status. Eighteen in the left handcannon; eleven in the right weapon.

I chose not to reload, but instead began backing away from the balcony with both Vipers trained on it. I was angling through the cafeteria, heading toward the east entrance that led out into the Academy building’s corridor on the first level, and a short distance beyond the stairwell where I had my first baptism by fire.

I swallowed but my voice was raspy. “Stop shitting me, Jive.”

“Princess, there is no need for such language.”

“I’m serious, Jive.”

“And so am I.”

“Then you tell me—”

A dark figure in a black coat landed on a balcony table, snapping its pedestal and smashing the table flat into the ground.

I stopped moving, and took a stance with both handcannons ready in front of me.

Out on the balcony, a small cloud of debris wafted into the air.

Jive asked in a hushed tone. “You were asking…?”

I stared back at the Queen as she straightened and aimed her sole remaining eye in my direction.

“You tell me…how the Hell am I superior to an effing machine?”

#

I waited for the Gun Queen to shoot first.

I wasn’t going to waste ammunition on taking down the cafeteria’s balcony windows that stood between her and I.

I would leave that to her.

Standing in the middle of the cafeteria, I held my stance, the Vipers thankfully steady in my hands.

How was I superior to a machine?

I realized it wasn’t bleached bone beneath her skin, but some kind of alabaster alloy. It was a machine skeleton that fit inside the body of a girl of average height yet slender build.

She said that last year her body was cutting edge.

I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but now I did.

Staring at her as she stood still on the balcony, I wondered if she considered herself outdated.

In the back of my mind, a thought tip-toed about, one I had earlier dismissed.

I had expected more from her. If she was the Gun Queen, I had expected to go down in the first engagement. Yet I had survived the first shootout, and then the second, and here I stood ready for the third.

Maybe Mercedes, my current body, really was fit to be called a Gun Princess.

But that didn’t explain what I was.

The Queen had called me a prototype, and Jive said I was alive, so why wasn’t this body breaking apart and decaying?

I wanted an answer.

“Jive, why am I still alive? Why am I not dying like my other bodies?”

“According to the technical brief I have on you, it’s due to the intense bioetheric field your body generates around itself.”

“A field? Like a shield?”

“Actually, it’s Mercedes’s life-force.”

The Queen stretched her body as though working out the kinks in her neck and shoulders.

I found that disturbingly human.

Why would a machine do that if it didn’t need to?

My gaze settled briefly on the infernal shotcannon she carried in her left hand.

The Vipers informed me again they were ready.

It might sound odd, but the handcannons sounded eager. Did they know what I intended?

I swallowed carefully. “Keep talking, Jive.”

“Well, according to this, her life-force is particularly strong. So strong in fact, that it can protect her body, which is now your body, from the effects of Decaying Space which affect living tissue within the Sliver.”

“Can other Princesses do that, or are they all like the Queen outside—machines wrapped in fake skin and flesh?”

“I do not know. Information on the other Gun Princesses is tightly controlled. I have no idea what manner of engineering is employed in their ‘construction’. What I can say is that they are ‘not’ automatons.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning there is a consciousness driving them. Like the Queen outside on the balcony, the mind of her operator was imprinted into the neural matrix inside the Queen’s cranium. When the match is over, that mind will be re-integrated with her real consciousness wherever it may be.”

“So the operator, the real Queen, is somewhere back in real-space, but the two are not connected? They’re ‘minds’ aren’t linked?”

“Correct. And I have it on good authority, that she is an entity existing in your reality.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she is from your world.”

My world?

The Gun Queen was moving again, the Lucifer coming up in both hands though she was using a left-handed grip on the weapon.

I blinked quickly and overclocked.

Her shot followed a second later, breaking apart the safety glass with little effort.

I felt the shockwave race past me, but I was far enough away not to be overly rocked by it.

Instead, I lowered my aim without shifting my stance, just my arms by a degree – enough to aim at the weapon in her hands.

In sequence, I pressed back on the triggers.

The left Viper fired first. As soon as the recoil had worked through my body, I fired the right Viper loaded with the high penetration rounds.

There was no way I could shoot into the Lucifer’s barrels, so I aimed for its armored casing.

The first explosive tipped round missed completely, flying over the weapon’s dorsal ridge and hitting the girl’s coat-sleeved left arm. The explosion blew a fist-sized portion out of the coat, and the pseudo-flesh covering the machine arm beneath it, jerking the shotcannon’s barrel a hand’s span to her left. It exposed more of the weapon’s flank, and was the only reason my second shot succeeded in punching a hole into the armored casing.

The impact from the high penetration round knocked the Lucifer further to the Queen’s left, exposing it even more for my third shot from the left Viper.

I wasn’t able to hit near the damaged part of the shotcannon, but the explosive tipped ammo struck behind it, where the magazine well was situated.

I saw the magazine explode, which ripped the shotcannon in two, scattering pieces of armored casing into the air like shrapnel, some of which tore into the Queen’s already shredded face and skull.

Her head jerked aside as she flinched, and I thought I saw her mouth widen in a scream.

I certainly heard her cry as she staggered back in a half circle.

The Lucifer was gone, or rather destroyed in two halves. That weapon would never fire again.

The biggest obstacle to my victory and survival had been taken care of.

Now all I had to do was finish her off.

Like her, I wasn’t going for a points win but a knock-out punch.

Sixteen rounds in the left Viper; ten high penetration rounds in the right handcannon.

More than enough to kill her. No, I meant destroy her. I couldn’t kill her since she wasn’t alive. I had to keep that distinction in mind.

My mind remained overclocked as I began walking toward the balcony.

With her back toward me, the Gun Queen continued staggering about drunkenly in a slow circle.

I chose not to delay, and with the triggers fully depressed for automatic fire, the Vipers rocked back and forth in my grip as round and after round was ejected at thirty-three hundred feet a second, and slammed into the Gun Queen’s coated back.

The mechanical monstrosity jerked under each impact, punched forward as more and more of her coat was ripped apart as the explosive tipped and high penetration rounds tore into her body.

Flesh, fabric, and pieces of alabaster alloy puffed into the air.

The Queen half ran between the tables and chairs on the balcony, and I followed her at a fast walk.

“Princess, she’s getting away.”

While overclocked I couldn’t reply, but I acknowledged Jive’s warning by running after the battle damaged Gun Queen. In fact, I took to the tabletops because it give me a downward firing line on her.

The Queen was running east for the far corner of the curved cafeteria balcony, and my Vipers’ bullets chased her a half-second or so at a time.

“Princess, be careful. I suspect that was not the only weapon she had.”

I frowned inwardly, feeling a twinge of panic in my chest.

I hadn’t seen any other weapon on her, and had glimpsed nothing under her coat. If she did possess another firearm surely she would have used it by now…unless she’d stashed it elsewhere.

My panic grew at the thought, just as the right Viper clicked empty in my hand.

I continued firing with the left Viper, missing more often than hitting my target.

The Queen arrived at the east corner of the balcony, her coat in tatters with large swathes missing from her back and shoulders. Yet despite all the damage she was sporting, it didn’t appear to be hindering her speed and movement.

My left Viper fired its last round and announced a zero ammo count.

Running on the tables, I flipped the levers on both handcannons and ejected the empty magazines.

Tossing the right handcannon onto my upper back where it stuck to my bodysuit, I quickly swapped the left Viper to my right hand. With my left hand I pulled out a magazine loaded with the explosive tipped rounds.

I wasn’t proficient enough to load the weapon without looking at it, or doing so while at a run, so I skidded to a stop on a table top. Teetering on the edge of the table, I hastily slapped the rectangular ammo case into the magazine well. The Viper thrummed faintly in my right hand, loaded the first round into the firing chamber, and announced into my mind that it was ready.

I took hold of the weapon in a two-handed grip, steading the handcannon with my left hand under the magazine slotted into the well.

It was an unfamiliar stance, but I didn’t know how better to hold the Viper, and I didn’t have time to figure it out.

I just wanted to hold it steady as I aimed quickly at the fleeing Gun Queen.

The Queen reached out and grabbed the balcony guardrail, then launched herself with surprising grace over the edge.

I fired a moment before her body sailed over the top of the balcony guardrail, her torn coat fluttering about her. The explosive tipped caseless round collected her right shoulder, changing the trajectory of her jump.

The explosive impact kicked her hard, knocking what was otherwise a graceful leap into a tumble of disarrayed limbs. Her three remaining twin-tails slashed the air as she fell out of sight over the edge of the balcony.

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

“Princess, hurry. Don’t let her get away.”

I didn’t need to be urged along.

I was already jumping down from the table.

It took me a handful of seconds to arrive at the edge of the cafeteria balcony that faced east along the curved exterior of the Academy building. As was becoming a habit, I skidded to a stop and hurriedly brought the Viper up in my ungainly two-handed grip.

Pointing the weapon down over the guardrail, I swept the mechanical gun-sight over the ground nearest the foot of the balcony, before lifting it and sweeping it tightly over the terrain further afield.

I sighted the Queen.

She was running in a straight line, not bothering to duck or weave, and she was running very fast – fast enough to have shamed a world-class sprinter by a comfortable margin.

I crouched before the edge of the balcony and placed the Viper on the guardrail, using it for support.

Jive spoke calmly. “Your Vipers are calibrated for short range—two hundred and fifty meters at best. At her relative speed you have time for two shots, but do not rush them.”

I aimed down the split gun-sight on the dorsal frame of the handcannon. The weapon instructed me to wait for a heartbeat as it self-adjusted the sight for range, elevation and detected windage.

The Queen’s rapidly receding figure was square within the slit.

I pressed back on the electric trigger and the Viper fired, rocking into me as anticipated.

The magnetic induction chamber executed its recharge cycle while a second round was loaded.

I fired again less than a second after the first shot.

I didn’t know where the ammo rounds hit, but I saw the Queen first stumble, catch herself for a second, then pitch forward into the grassy ground.

“…you did it….”

No. It was the Viper that did it. The handcannon adjusted the gun-sight and made it possible for me to aim true and strike home. It made the adjustments I knew nothing about.

I straightened from my crouch and decided to reload the empty Viper on my back. To do so, I slapped the weapon in my hands against my left thigh, effectively holstering it.

“Princess?”

“What is it?”

When I answered, time resumed moving normally as my mind exited its overclocked state.

“Mercedes, you’re not going after her?”

Reaching over my right shoulder, I pulled the other Viper off my back. “Do you really think those two rounds stopped her?”

I slapped a fresh magazine with high penetration ammo into the handcannon.

While the weapon automatically chambered the first round, I looked out beyond the balcony at the well-maintained grounds surrounding the Academy building all the way to the island shoreline.

In the distance, some three hundred meters away, the Gun Queen was on her feet and running away as quickly as before.

Jive said, “You were both assigned a maximum of two firearms.”

Pulling the Viper free of my left thigh, I chose to ‘attach’ it to my lower back instead. The handcannon was too long to run with comfortably against my leg.

I nodded. “That means she stashed her other weapon somewhere and is making a run for it.”

Jive stated firmly. “You have to go after her. Being Ar Telica’s reigning Gun Queen, the Battle Commission would have granted her some leeway in her choice of firearms. She could have another shotcannon waiting for her. That would be a problem.”

With one Viper across my lower back, I slapped the other one onto my upper back at an angle across my shoulder blades. The bodysuit gripped it nice and firm, as I climbed the railing and dropped down over the balcony.

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

My feet touched ground twenty-five feet below the guardrail.

I straightened easily, my legs untroubled by the fall.

“This time I’ll be doing the hunting.”

Chapter 6.

Perhaps it was wrong of me to feel this way, yet the sight of the Gun Queen’s twin tail lying on the ground was like a second wind to my sails.

As I ran past it, I was inspired to achieve an outright victory, one that could not be disputed after the match was over.

But I also felt as though I’d stripped her of something important.

Certainly, I’d wounded her before, tearing up the flesh of her torso, and shredding her long coat and back; I’d also robbed her of her precious Lucifer.

However, taking away another of her twin tails felt like a psychological victory. I felt I was denying her the image she wanted to project, whatever that may be.

The sight of her twin tail on the ground explained why she had fallen down. My second explosive tipped bullet had blown up against her head, costing her another twin tail, and hopefully damaging whatever lay within the confines of her skull.

All the better if it prevented her from shooting straight.

I chased after the Gun Queen, judging her speed in comparison to mine.

Her lead of three hundred and fifty meters was down to three hundred.

I was faster than her, and I put it down to two reasons.

One, she was deliberately running slow so that I wouldn’t lose sight of her, acting like the carrot hanging off the end of the stick.

Two, the damage she had sustained had robbed her of some of her speed.

But considering how many rounds I’d pumped into her, just how sturdy was that body of hers?

Jive had stated I was superior to her, but I didn’t believe I could survive that many hits.

I ran but my mind wasn’t overclocked.

“Jive, how tough is her body?”

“Extremely. I don’t have the specifications but data on her previous battles suggest her combat skeleton is able to withstand immense gee forces and loads that would turn a human body to jelly.”

“The high penetration rounds failed to punch through her…explosive tipped ammo hasn’t slowed her down.”

“Yes, indicating that her skeleton is able to withstand antipersonnel fire that would riddle the best body armor. However, judging from the kinetic energy and armor penetrating properties of your ammunition, I find it impossible to believe her internals have not sustained some degree of damage. Your Vipers are not to be discounted. They are rail-guns, after all.”

I evened out my breathing as I continued chasing after the Gun Queen.

She was following the curved exterior of the Academy building.

I had her lead down to some two hundred and fifty meters.

I really was faster than her!

Up ahead, I saw the enormous gymnasium that catered for high school and middle school physical education classes. The building was one long oblong divided into two halves, four storeys high, with a rounded transparent roof composed of curved glass panels fitted to a lattice framework. The pool facilities were housed in the equally long aquatic center constructed adjacent and parallel to it.

The Queen ran for the nearest entrance to the gymnasium, and seconds later bodily smashed her way through the double doors.

Had she stashed her second weapon inside?

As I ran after her, I quickly had a look at the other doors into the gym.

The gymnasium building had three entrances on this side, including one connected to a roofed walkway about fifty feet further away. To get in through the east side, a person had to enter through the aquatic center.

I didn’t see a forced entry through the other doors, so if she had deposited something inside, had she gone into the gym by another means?

I ran for the busted doorway, while grabbing and freeing the Viper across my shoulder blades with my right hand.

I chose not to be cautious.

Overclocking while at a run, my surroundings slowed down around me, yet I still raced into the gym at a speed perceived as quick by human standards.

The interior of the hangar-sized gymnasium was well lit by lights mounted to multiple rows of overhead gantries, and by light from Decaying Space flowing in through the transparent, curved ceiling.

Instead of running into the middle of the gym floor, I ran parallel to the banked seats to my left, while sweeping my gaze a number of times across the interior of the building.

Switching to a two-handed grip, I swung the Viper’s barrel in a fast circle around me, the gun-sight at eye level.

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed movement and aimed the weapon toward it.

The Queen was running along the second level balcony. But she didn’t stay there long.

I watched in horrid fascination as she punched her fists and feet into the wall and climbed up to a gantry way some forty feet above the gym floor. It warped as she jumped over to a metal walkway running beside it.

I returned to my senses and aimed the Viper at her, squeezing off a series of timed shots at one second intervals that resulted in bright sparks against the walkway and surrounding gantry beams.

Jive advised, “Stop. You will never hit her from this position. Your aim is insufficiently well practiced.”

Annoying, but true.

In that case, I needed to go up.

But where was she going? Had she really left her second weapon here, somewhere inside the gym? Or was she just leading me on?

Something falling from the gantry way grabbed my attention. It looked like a small cylinder about three inches long.

“Mercedes—run!” Jive yelled. “It is a grenade from her Lucifer stockpile.”

I remembered the bandolier belt she wore around her waist, and the metal cylinders in its pouches. Was there a way to activate them without firing them from the Lucifer?

As Jive suggested, I ran away from the falling cylinder that exploded on impact several meters behind me. The concussion wave made me stumble.

Turning quickly, I aimed the Viper back up at the gantry, and fired where I saw movement.

A second grenade fell from on high, tossed almost casually my way.

Again, I ran away from where I expected the grenade to hit the floor.

The boom behind me reverberated within the empty expanse of the building.

The explosion from a third concussion grenade forced me to perform an inelegant forward roll as the blast raced along the ground.

Awkwardly regaining my feet, I expected a fourth grenade to be lobbed at me, but then my gaze spotted the entrance to a maintenance stairwell near a corner of the gym.

That was my way up, and so I ran over to it in a hurry.

Breaking inside required only one quickly aimed round through the lock. I jerked the door open, hurried into the weakly lit interior, and ran up the stairs four at a time until I arrived at the top landing and another locked door.

A cleanly shot round through the lock, and I hastily pushed it open.

I didn’t even consider the Gun Queen might be aiming a weapon at me, or ready to throw another grenade my way.

I simply ran out onto the balcony, swept the Viper tightly before me, then gained my bearings as I searched for the Gun Queen somewhere out on the gantries and walkways.

At a slow jog, I made my way over to where a walkway intersected the balcony. Up here, the gym wasn’t as well lit, though the overhead light from Decaying Space ensured I wouldn’t stumble about in the darkness.

As I stepped onto the walkway, I remained overclocked even though it would prevent me from communicating with Jive. I really needed to get around that limitation, but for now I was stuck with the status quo. Against an opponent like the Gun Queen, overclocking helped even up the odds between her and I.

The metal walkway creaked a little as I walked over it fast.

Jive spoke softly, as though conscious of the situation. “I do believe she has gone up onto the roof.”

I felt the urge to look in one direction, where a perpendicular walkway joined mine to its neighbor thirty feet away, and wondered if it was Jive’s influence at work again.

However, I saw the ladder leading up from the walkway to an open hatchway in the glass rooftop.

Wary of her concussion grenades, I hesitated, fearing it was a feint – a ruse – to get me to follow her up onto the gym roof.

But if so, then where was she hiding—

A shadow ran over me and down the length of the transparent rooftop.

Damn it—she was behind me! Then what about the open hatchway? Had she used it or was it left open by someone else?

Her sharp heels fractured the reinforced glass panels with every running step.

Just how heavy was the Gun Queen?

Raising the Viper’s muzzle in the blink of an eye, I tracked the shadow’s progress for half a heartbeat, and fired high penetration rounds through the reinforced ceiling glass.

Underneath me, the walkway swayed a little, but the glass above failed to shatter as the caseless rounds perforated it with holes a couple of inches wide.

My idea of having the Queen fall through wasn’t going to work unless….

I shifted my stance and kept firing at the shadow, anticipating where she would run.

One round punched through the glass panel as she took a running step onto it. The glass panel fractured, broke, and the Queen’s leg fell through.

I started running toward her along the walkway, shooting at that one curved glass panel with the Queen on it.

Before it could break, the Queen pulled herself free in a blur of movement.

A moment later, something small and cylindrical dropped through the large hole in the glass ceiling.

It hit the walkway and detonated with sufficient force to blow it into pieces.

I crouched and spun my body away, shielding myself from the blast and metal shrapnel.

The high tensile support wires attached to the walkway guardrail and the ceiling’s metal latticework held, until a second cylinder was dropped through a hole in the glass.

Like before the explosion took away part of the glass roofing, but it also snapped a handful of the wires and the walkway bent at a sharp angle.

I tried clambering onto the guardrail and leaping over to a parallel walkway some thirty feet away, but Jive screamed into my ear.

“That is suicide! Run back to the balcony—”

The last of the support wires snapped and the walkway collapsed. It didn’t fall straight down, but bent from where it joined the balcony.

With one hand, I clung onto the guardrail for dear life, my feet and lower body in the air as the walkway swung down like a weighted rope, and collided against the gymnasium’s back wall. Rebounding to the tune of twisting metal, the walkway snapped and we came crashing down into the banked seating occupying the space adjacent to the wall.

I landed between a row of seats, the Viper held tightly in my right hand, while a large section of the walkway crashed over me.

Though my mind was dazed by the fall, my body crawled between the crushed seats and out from under the twisted metal.

My vision was steady by the time I regained my feet, and then aimed the Viper up at the ceiling.

The urge to fire into the transparent roof overwhelmed me.

Even if it was pointless, I had to do it.

My frustration and anger demanded it of me.

I squeezed off a handful rounds up where I glimpsed the Gun Queen standing on a glass panel, looking down at me with a death’s head grin on her face.

The ammo punched holes around her, but failed to shatter the storm resistant if not explosion resistant glass.

She ran away, sprinting across the rooftop in her black high heels, fracturing the panels with each step.

I watched her run toward the circular Academy building adjacent to the gymnasium.

She arrived at the edge of the rooftop, and leapt the thirty-foot distance between the two buildings.

I couldn’t see if she made the jump, so I hurried down to the floor of the gym and ran toward the smashed doorway.

Outside the gymnasium, I skidded to a fast stop on the short grass, and stared up at the Academy building, quickly sighting a smashed window on the fourth level. I assumed she crashed into the building through it, then raised my gaze up to the rooftop. The back end of the Academy had a fifth level, making it the tallest section of the horseshoe shaped building.

Something made me stand there, and continue looking up at the rooftop.

Jive sounded concerned. “Princess, what are you planning on doing?”

Time slowed to normal around me.

I swallowed hard a couple of times before finding my voice. “She’s going up to the roof.”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded confidently. “Yeah. I’m sure. That’s where she’s going to be waiting for me. That’s where she wants our final showdown.”

“How so?”

“Because it’s what my gut is telling me…and my woman’s intuition.”

“But you are not a woman, at least, not in your mind…although that is up for debate now.”

I ground my molars at him. “Yeah, well the rest of Mercedes is all woman, and I’m stuck inside her right now. So that makes this gut feeling my woman’s intuition.”

I heard him sigh in surrender. “If you say so, Princess.”

I clenched my jaw as I regarded the rooftop five floors up a few moments longer. Then I turned and stomped away in the direction of the roofed walkway connecting the gym to the Academy building at ground level, otherwise known as the first floor.

“You know, Jive.”

“Yes, Princess?”

“I really hate it when you call me that.”

“So you keep telling me, Princess.”

I growled in the back of my throat as I jumped over the guardrail and into the walkway.

To my left was the gym, to my right the Academy building’s first level entrance through a set of thick, permaglass doors.

Pulling the Viper attached to my bodysuit’s lower back, I studied the handcannon for a second, relieved to see it was intact. With a thought into my mind, the weapon informed me it was ready to serve in its capacity as my firearm.

I smiled down at it and muttered, “Thank you.”

“Princess, talking to your guns is a dangerous sign. I fear for your sanity.”

I aimed the Viper at the glass doors, and then fired five shots into the various locks.

Glass and metal framing exploded into holes larger than my gloved fists.

I stalked up to the doors, and kicked them open.

“Jive, I swear after I deal with the Gun Bitch, I’m going to deal with you.”

#

It was disconcerting how calm I felt as I walked down the first level corridor to the stairwell that afforded access to the fifth floor.

I stopped at the foot of the landing and looked up into the confined, rectangular space.

No sound from above.

No sign of movement.

I noticed I was subconsciously biting a corner of my lower lip, and made myself stop.

Maybe I wasn’t as calm as I thought I was.

Or maybe it was just a habit of Mercedes, because it certainly wasn’t one of mine…or at least I didn’t think so.

I continued staring up at the stairwell, but I was in thought.

I felt I was missing something important.

Why had she run away into the gymnasium and not directly into the Academy building? Why go through all that effort of jumping onto the gym rooftop and then across to the school building? Was it truly to delay me?

I was bothered by the impression I was on the cusp of realizing something of vital importance, yet it was eluding me like trying to grasp vapor with ones fingertips.

I turned and guardedly walked over to the corridor’s tall windows, and peered through them at the Academy grounds surrounded by the horseshoe shaped building.

I was standing at the halfway point, the apex of the building.

Directly in front of me, some two hundred meters away, rose the narrow five-storey administration building. And there occupying a quarter of the top floor, overlooking the Academy grounds like penthouse suites, were the Principal and Vice-Principal’s offices.

At the open ends of the horseshoe, a single level walkway extended from the school to the administration facility, joining the two buildings at the fourth level.

Running my gaze over the rooflines, I realized it was possible to travel the entire circumference of the school building by jumping down to the bridgeway, over the administration building, then across to the other half of the Academy by the roof of the second connecting bridgeway.

No dead ends.

A complete circle.

Cole Reilly had said the Gun Queen liked to box in her opponents, and then undoubtedly shoot at them like fish in a barrel. But on the rooftop there were no dead ends, so why would she expect me up there?

Was my gut instinct wrong?

No. It couldn’t be.

I was certain she had left her second weapon up on the rooftop, which partly explained her elaborate journey from the cafeteria, to the gym, and then her impressive thirty-foot leap into the Academy’s fourth level.

“Jive…do you know what weapons she’s used before?”

“I do.”

“In combination with the shotcannon, what has she made use of?”

“A range of automatic machine guns of the five millimeter to seven millimeter ammunition variety.”

“What else?”

“She has employed high powered semi-automatic and bolt-action high caliber rifles, most notably the McMurphy Tactical Four Fifty with ten round magazine.”

I swallowed as I ran my gaze over the interior layout of the Academy, while remaining perfectly still against the window.

“What else…?”

Jive hesitated. “The Steiner-Manfred Anti-Material Twenty-Twenty.”

“Anti-Material?”

“A designation used by the military to indicate a weapon is intended for use against ‘material’ targets as opposed to personnel. In the case of the Steiner Twenty-Twenty, it uses fifteen point five millimeter fin stabilized discarding sabot rounds.”

“I take it that’s not good.”

“Against you? Hardly.”

I swallowed tightly. “And against her?”

Jive sounded curious. “I doubt her combat skeleton possesses armor thicker than that of a personnel carrier. Against her…it would most certainly pierce through.”

“So the odds are in her favor.”

“Only if that is what she is equipped with.”

I whispered to my faint reflection in the window. “She made me run after her….”

My reflection blinked back at me faintly depressed.

Jive’s voice was soft, and unsettlingly gentle. “Was that not to be expected?”

“She wanted to know my speed across open ground.” I looked up at the Principal’s penthouse office. “And now she knows I’m faster than her.”

I felt as though I was tempting fate that at any moment a single shot would ring out, preceded by a blow to my chest or torso that would punch a hole clean through me. Yet I was certain that wasn’t going to happen, because this was the prelude to the final showdown.

I had a strong impression this wasn’t how she wanted to end things.

The curtains were drawn across the curved window of the Principal’s office. No doubt, the lights inside the office were turned off.

I backed away from the window and toward the stairwell behind me. “She’s waiting for me.”

“Well, I would imagine she is.”

I climbed partly up the flight to the midway landing. “And I know where she is.”

“Oh? How would you know that? More of your new found woman’s intuition?”

“Because she’s going to snipe me, and the best place is the Principal’s office. It’s the top floor of the admin building and from its windows you can see a hundred and eight degrees around the school. The waiting area outside also has windows looking out to either side of the Academy building. You can see the rooftop from there. I’m sure she could also jump onto the office rooftop and take position there.”

“You do not know if she has arrived there. She could be on her way.”

“True.”

I listened to the ammo count from both weapons. Twenty-two explosive tipped rounds remained in the left Viper; ten rounds remained in the right handcannon.

In my coat-skirt pouches, I had six fully loaded magazines.

I ejected both magazines and swapped them for fresh ones. However, I chose to pouch the partially emptied cases, rather than discard as I’d been doing so far.

Jive sounded weary. “So what is your plan?”

“Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.”

“Let me guess. You are going to make a run for the Principal’s office either down the corridors or along the rooftop. Correct?”

“No, that would be a problem. Too much light in the corridors, and the rooftops have six open courtyards. Bad idea.” I climbed back down to the stairway landing. “I’m going outside. Same way we just came in.”

“Do you not think she has thought of that?”

“Well, what other choice do I have?”

“You are assuming she is going to snipe from one location. She can carry that anti-material rifle as easily as you can carry a plastic toy gun. Pointing and shooting is not going to be a problem for her. Even pointing straight down.”

I circled tightly round the stairwell landing and into the corridor.

Keeping close to the wall, I also kept an eye on the Principal’s office.

I was too far away to be sure, but there didn’t appear to be movement within the office. If that was the case, there was nothing to say she wasn’t in the vicinity, scouting out the school through a sniper scope.

Circling around to the front of the building from outside made sense, yet as I approached the entrance or exit that led out into the roofed walkway across to the gymnasium – the same way I’d come back into the Academy building – my feet began to slow.

I realized I was trembling.

What if I was wrong and she was up there? What if she was waiting for me with an anti-material round loaded inside a huge sniper rifle pointed down at the entrance? What hope did I have out in the open outside the building, even if I used the school wall for cover? Was there any cover?

I had stopped well short of the broken glass doors.

“Well?” Jive asked. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallowed, my throat feeling sandpaper dry, while my hands and arms trembled. A shiver ran through me.

“Princess? What is the hold up? The clock is ticking. Points finish or kill shot. What will it be?”

“I…I don’t know…I don’t know where she is.”

I was really trembling now.

Jive sounded mildly confused. “That is not what you stated before.”

“I—I could be wrong. Maybe she’s not in the Principal’s office. Maybe she’s not in the admin building at all.”

Blood or whatever it was inside my body began rushing past my ears, drowning my hearing – drowning my own words.

As for my heart, I couldn’t ignore it beating loud and fast in my chest.

Mercedes was scared. No, I was scared. I was scared of the unknown factor.

Where was the Queen?

The moment I lost sight of the Gun Queen, the moment I chose to delay and take my time going back into the Academy building, I lost the advantage. There was no thinking my way through this now. The ball was back in her court, and she was ready to serve me an ace I couldn’t respond to.

“I…really…have no idea…where she is.”

She could be on the rooftop, pointing some massive rifle straight down at me, waiting for me set foot outside. I could step out there and be blown away in a near instant. Even if I managed to avoid the first shot, even if I managed to run, would the outside overhanging ledges offer me enough cover? No, I would need to run back inside, but in that event what was the point of risking everything by stepping outside in the first place?

I was wracked by doubts, tortured by the multiple scenarios running through my head.

I backed away from the glass doors. “I don’t know what to do.”

“If you knew where she was, would that make you feel better?”

I blinked intermittently. “I…I guess…at least I’d have a plan.”

Raising my hands, I watched the Vipers tremble in my grip.

Was this another problem with my neural matrix or whatever my consciousness was mapped into? Was I having another mind and body tuning problem?

Or was I just scared?

I swallowed again. “At least…I’d know where to focus on.”

“Then draw her out.”

I turned around, and looked at the glass windows facing into the Academy grounds. “Draw her out?”

Jive’s voice had lost its condescending edge. “The only way to be sure of her location is to make yourself a target, but still give yourself enough cover to protect yourself from the first shot. Am I right?”

“I guess….”

“Then tell me. Where do you think she really is? Where would you be waiting for yourself?”

I looked up at the ceiling. “The rooftop…above level five.”

“Which is what you said before.”

I nodded shallowly. “Yeah. I did.”

“And then you changed your mind. You began over thinking things, and as a result you tied yourself up in a knot.”

A long shuddering breath escaped me. “I did….”

“Time to snap the knot, or at least, unravel it. So tell me, where will you go?”

Regarding the Vipers for a short while, I contemplated my reply. “You told me these handcannons were accurate to two hundred and fifty meters. Could they hit a target at three hundred meters?”

“The Vipers are not calibrated for long range fire. Their minute of angle is one, which means that at three hundred meters your rounds will have a spread of around three inches from dead center. It will not be pinpoint accuracy.”

“But I could still hit something?”

“Yes. Though your body needs a lot of target practice, you could hit something if you were careful enough.”

A deep breath filled my lungs. I let it out slowly, and then lowered my voice.

“Okay, if she’s armed with a heavy caliber rifle, I have no choice but to go up and face her at close range.”

“So you have made your decision?”

“Yeah, for lack of a better one.” I shook my head in disappointment at myself. “You’re right. Too many doubts. Too many possibilities. Too many choices. And too little action.”

I hefted the Vipers in my grip.

“Time to finish this.”

I turned round a half circle, and walked back to the corridor that ran the inside of the Academy building.

I had chosen not to step outside the building.

Turning right down the corridor with its glass windows, I kept an eye on the administration facility, particularly the roof of its penthouse offices allocated to the Principal and Vice-Principal. The lights in those offices were off. As suspicious as I was, I chose not to allow my attention to be fixated on those offices.

Keeping close to the wall, and as far away from the windows as possible, I peered up at what I could see of the Academy’s fifth floor.

If I could see the fifth floor from where I walked, then someone over there was sure to see me.

This was possible because of the curved, horseshoe shaped nature of the Academy building.

I stopped when I had travelled sufficiently down the length of the corridor such that I could see the bottom of fifth level windows.

Quickly looking around me, I saw the entrance to a stairwell another five meters west down the corridor.

Sparing the fifth level another brief look, I sprinted into the stairwell, and raced up the steps as discretely as I could. These stairs would only take me as high as the fourth floor where they came to an end. At the top landing, I quickly exited the stairwell, and I ran into the corridor.

I entered the first open classroom I could find.

Once inside, I closed the door fast, but avoided slamming it.

I sighed softly, relieved to be out of the corridor with its floor-to-ceiling windows that offered me no cover at all.

It was too easy to get shot out there.

“Now what?” Jive asked.

“We go out a classroom window,” I replied. “Then up onto the rooftop.”

Slapping the left Viper across my lower back, and the right Viper diagonally across my shoulder blades, I walked over to the nearest window.

As I had done before in Class Two-Eff, I opened the window but hesitated climbing out.

“Jive, those grenades she dropped on me, how do they work?”

“They are armed by twisting them. When fired from the shotcannon, they are automatically armed by an internal spring tripping as part of the launch action. However, they can be manually activated by twisting the two halves of the casing. Once armed, dropping them with enough force on their head will set them off.”

I was biting the corner of my lower lip again, and hurriedly stopped. “So that’s how she’s using them….”

I climbed out onto the ledge.

However, I did so cautiously, and only after poking my head out carefully to peer up and down the visible outside walls of the Academy building. I regarded the roofline for a short while, and when I was certain I couldn’t see anyone with the intent of shooting off my head, I climbed out onto the ledge.

I closed the window I’d climbed through, then looked up at the ledge circling the rooftop.

Jive hummed to himself. “You should be able to make that jump with ease.”

I held back a frown. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. You can jump at least ten feet straight up.”

I swallowed, hoping to ease my nerves, then crouched before leaping upwards and slightly away from the side of the curved building.

Jive was correct.

My leap carried my upstretched fingers well above the top of the rooftop ledge.

I caught onto the ledge on the way down, and hung somewhat precariously off the building.

Taking a couple of quiet breaths, I pulled myself up with an ease that shocked me. In fact, hauling myself up to the roofline was so easy, I decided to take it slow and peer over the ledge, rather than haul my body onto the rooftop.

I saw a fenced courtyard, the kind used by students as an area to eat their lunches. The courtyard had a bent rectangular shape that followed the curved horseshoe shape of the building. I looked through the fencing, sweeping my gaze over the courtyard, its tables and bench seating, and then focused on what I could see of the fifth floor, its nearest corner some hundred meters away.

I saw nothing moving out there.

“Interesting,” murmured Jive. “What next? This fencing is certainly in the way.”

I whispered, “I’ll walk the ledge with my hands.”

If Mercedes was as strong as I suspected, then I should have no trouble travelling along the ledge by holding onto it with my hands, while my body dangled over the side of the building.

I swung gently, not wanting to pick up too much momentum that would disturb the rhythm between my hands and my swinging body.

After a half minute of carefully ‘walking’ along the ledge by clinging onto it, I arrived at the east end of the bent courtyard.

Peeking over the ledge again, I noticed my view of the fifth floor was obstructed by a permacrete walled machine room that rose from the fourth floor rooftop. I saw that the ledge ran behind the machine room and then continued along the edge of the rooftop.

If I climbed onto the ledge from behind the machine room, then its walls would provide me with cover.

I climbed onto the two-foot wide ledge carefully yet easily enough.

With the wall beside me for cover, there was no need for me to crouch. Though a little awkward, I used my right hand to pull free the Viper attached across my shoulder blades. With the weapon at the ready, I walked along the ledge until I arrived at the corner of the machine room.

My attention was drawn away for a few moments to the ugly unsettling sky overhead, and then down to the edge of the Sliver.

Telos Island and the surrounding waters had been scooped up into the Sliver. It resembled an island floating in a sky of disturbing shades of grey. Every so often, something would sparkle and twinkle within Decaying Space.

I searched for a horizon but there was none.

Then I realized what I found troubling.

The absence of sound.

There was no wind.

No gentle lapping of waves.

The ocean water was completely still.

An uncomfortable quiet surrounded me.

It felt oppressive, and I felt alone.

“Princess, what is the matter?”

I shook my head. “Nothing….”

Cautiously, I peered around the corner of the machine room.

From my vantage on the ledge and behind the permacrete room that almost spanned the width of the curved Academy building, I could see east and southeast along the rooftop. In the distance, some seventy to eighty meters away, the fifth floor rose at the apex of the horseshoe shaped Academy.

I flexed my grip on the Viper, and then had a thought.

I whispered while keeping my eyes peeled for movement on the rooftop that I could see before me.

“Jive, can the handcannon muzzle velocity be increased?”

“It can, at the expense of the weapon’s lifespan. The muzzle speed can be increased from thirty three hundred to forty three hundred feet per second. However, you’ll be cutting down the lifespan to a few thousand rounds. In addition, I expect the Viper’s accuracy will drop to one point five angle of minute. The firing rate will decrease to one round every one point one seconds.”

The Viper in my hand was loaded with high penetration rounds. An increase of thirty percent in bullet speed sounded good even at the cost of accuracy and firing rate.

I knew what I wanted and that was stopping power.

I wanted to hit the Queen with enough impact to visibly damage her metal ass.

“Do it,” I said softly. “It just means I need to get closer to her when I shoot her. And her head is around five inches wide. It shouldn’t be that hard to hit.”

“So says the Princess with a thirty percent hit rate at less than two hundred feet.”

“Shut up. This is my first time firing real guns. Give me a light-gun and I swear I can shoot out her eyeballs in a heartbeat.”

In my hand, I felt the Viper thrum very faintly for a good handful of seconds. Then the weapon sent me a thought telling me it was ready. It did so through the interface to whatever was inside my head receiving the Viper’s signals.

“Time to do this,” I murmured.

There was open ground between this penthouse machine room and the next one about fifty meters away.

I chose to round the corner, then run south along the machine room’s wall, mindful of the fifth floor off to my southeast.

Yet there was no movement on it, and I grew a little more uneasy.

Arriving at the next corner, I peeked around the wall.

From where I stood I could see across to the southern half of the Academy building. I noticed that it wasn’t so easy to see someone walking the corridors. If there was movement, a person could be picked out, but if they were standing still then it would be easy to miss them.

Continuing to peer around the corner, I swept my gaze studiously over the far rooftop that circled from east back to west – the opposite half of the horseshoe – then looked out onto the administration building intersecting into the Academy grounds.

I edged a little further along, and stuck my head a couple more inches around the corner for a better view of the rooftop to my west.

Where the Hell was she?

Again, I looked southeast at the fifth floor that followed the circular contour of the Academy building, but as before my eyes detected no movement.

Damn it, where is she? Was I wrong and she never made it to the rooftop? Or is she hiding out somewhere in the admin building?

I remained by the corner, holding still, Viper high and at an angle across my chest.

After a few more seconds surveying the building, I pulled back a few inches, tucked close to the machine room wall on my right.

“I can’t see her,” I whispered.

If she was watching me, then I had a few options to choose from.

I could make myself an easier target – if I already wasn’t one – and draw her fire.

Or I could travel the length of the rooftop, thus circling the Academy grounds since the building was circular, and hope to spot her before she saw me.

Or I could wait here for her to find me and take a shot, thus revealing her position.

Unfortunately, there was a chance that I wouldn’t survive beyond the first shot.

I pressed my back against the cool wall behind me.

“Princess, look directly ahead of you.”

I blinked quickly and did just that. My eyes focused on the next machine room rising from the rooftop.

“Now look to your right some forty degrees at the fifth level.”

I guessed the angle and looked in the suggested direction.

“Princess, by the south corner of that rooftop hut, about five meters away from the start of the fifth level.”

I saw the hut. It was an oblong structure with a doorway affording access to the rooftop.

“Do you see it?”

I looked carefully at the walls and corners of the hut, and saw what he meant.

A scythe like twin tail extending a foot or so past the corner.

I narrowed my eyes at it. “How did you see it?”

“I see what you see, so I have been analyzing your visuals of the rooftop. I simply had more time than you did so I was able to look more carefully.” He paused, and then said, “It is your call, Princess.”

The twin tail moved, ducking back behind the wall, then peeking out again.

There was no wind along the rooftop to make it move.

She had to be there.

With my left hand, I pulled free the handcannon across my lower back.

“Jive, keep my left Viper with the explosive tipped ammo at the normal firing rate and speed.”

“Roger Dodger.”

“Huh?”

“…never mind….”

I swallowed, steadied my breathing and flexed my fingers lightly along the handcannon grips.

Then I moved fast along the open space between the machine rooms. I saw that this machine room was wide, but not as wide as the rooftop. There was a three-foot ledge to the left and right that would allow me to travel past the room safely. I could also choose to jump onto its rooftop, and if I travelled behind the machine room, the Queen hiding behind the hut wouldn’t see me.

I chose to go up.

I jumped and caught the edge of the machine room’s flat roof with my forearms, since my hands were occupied with the Vipers. Hauling myself up wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. Again, Mercedes’s strength was my saving grace, and I was soon running low atop the machine room.

The hut was now fifty – no, forty meters away.

I crouched lower, then jumped down off the edge of the machine room.

It was open ground now all the way to the hut.

The tip of the Queen’s twin tail poked into view then snuck back out of sight.

I ran my thumbs over the safeties, making sure they were down and thereby off.

The twin tail appeared around the corner again.

I aimed at it and picked up speed as I ran for the hut.

Twenty meters…ten meters…five….

I made my choice to go up and over the hut, rather than circle behind it.

Taking a running leap, I jumped for the hut’s flat roof with every ounce of power in Mercedes’ legs.

Her feet cleared the top of the hut with ease.

But my momentum was so great that I couldn’t stop.

Touching down briefly on the roof, my body then sailed over the opposite side of the hut.

I twisted in mid-air, aiming the two Vipers at the wall of the hut where I expected to find the Queen hiding.

Overclocked, I had time to see what I didn’t expect.

Her twin tail had been ripped free of her skull, taking a piece of her scalp along with it. That end had been buried – no, punched – into a hole in the wall of the hut. Thus affixed into the wall, its strands formed a scythe and its tip extended inches past the corner.

And it moved on its own, faking the presence of the Gun Queen.

It was a lure, fishing for me, and I’d taken the bait.

I’d been lured to where she wanted me, into the open where I was an easier target.

But that wasn’t all.

Still overclocked as my feet touched ground, I watched dozens of the twin tail’s hair strands shift about, revealing they grasped a familiar cylinder with a domed head and flat base.

Oh, great….

The strands dropped the grenade head first onto the ground.

I had enough time to turn and sprint a few meters before the explosion ripped apart the hut’s wall, the building rooftop, and sent a shockwave racing along the ground that swept my feet out from under me.

I tumbled backwards onto my smooth suited backside, and slid on the ground for a couple of meters.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t as stunned as I expected to be, and I was up on my feet heartbeats later.

Was this body growing stronger? No, that couldn’t be….

I turned on my heels and stared at the demolished hut.

That was a close call—

Something long, thin, and needle sharp flew inches past my face.

It wasn’t a bullet, but a six inch rod with tailfins.

At least, that’s what I thought it was.

I didn’t hear the rod as it flew by, but I did see it, and I felt the vacuum trailing behind it.

A hypersonic discarding sabot round.

And it had missed my head by less than a foot.

The vacuum pulled at the skin of my face, threatening to tear it off.

I spun my head away while simultaneously squeezing my eyes shut.

Then, when I no longer felt the vacuum generated by its passage, I opened my eyes, and lowered my stance and sprinted for the demolished hut.

With that near miss, she had revealed herself.

I spared the narrow face of the administration building a long, almost leisurely glance as I ran toward the hut. I was giving it a good long look not for my benefit but for Jive’s.

His voice intruded into my ears. “By the multiverse—she fired on you—wait, Princess, where are you going?”

Overclocked, I couldn’t reply.

I guessed I had a full two seconds before the next shot.

Plenty of time to enter the rooftop hut.

“Mercedes—?”

I entered the hut through the shattered wall, leaping into it.

Rebounding off the opposite wall, I had steady myself for a heartbeat, before jumping down the stairs to the landing below.

I was right about the hut. It afforded access from the rooftop back into the Academy building.

As I descended at a run, I let go of my overclocked state.

“Jive, tell me where she is.”

He sounded flummoxed. “What?”

“You can see through my eyes, right? Look at what I saw when I looked at the admin building. Tell me where she is!”

I overclocked again, momentarily scared by how easily I could willfully do so.

The door at the next landing was closed. Judging from its position within the building, and the fact it opened out parallel to the corridor running the length of the Academy building, she would have a shot at me as soon as I stepped outside the narrow stairwell.

I stared at the wall to my left, and feared she could also fire a discarding sabot round through the walls and into the stairwell itself.

If so, I was truly a lone fish in a square barrel.

Either way, I had to keep moving.

I fired an explosive tipped round at the lock, knowing the blast would be visible.

Since the door opened away from the landing, I kicked it. It tore free of its top hinges, and thus swung open at an angle.

However, rather than jumping out of the stairwell, I dropped low onto the landing and waited.

Above me, something long and thin with a burning hot tail penetrated through the stairwell wall and flashed by over my head.

As I’d feared, she had fired through the intervening walls and into the stairwell.

I didn’t bother checking to see if the rod had penetrated the opposite wall.

I ran out of the stairwell, turned sharply down the narrow corridor and sprinted past the hanging door, heading for the long corridor that circumnavigated the inside of the horseshoe shaped Academy building.

At the intersection, I turned right, my feet skidding into the turn.

Like a car sliding through a corner and striking the curb, my left shoulder brushed against the glass windows that were floor-to-ceiling on this level. Then I rebounded off the glass and took off at a run down the corridor.

I knew she was sniping at me from somewhere in the admin building, but I needed Jive to tell me where.

And Jive wasn’t answering.

I needed to remain overclocked so I couldn’t call out to him again.

I had to keep running and trust that he would locate her for me.

I knew I was faster than the Gun Queen, but inside the confines of the corridor, with doors flashing by in the blink of an eye, I had the impression I was running faster than when I chased her outside the Academy building.

Speed was all I could rely on.

I had no cover between her and me.

The glass windows would offer no resistance to the armor piercing sabot rounds.

If I dove into a classroom, jumped through a window, and made a run for the admin building from outside the Academy, then there was every chance she would change her position.

I needed her to remain where she was, and the only way to do that was to be a target.

However, that didn’t mean I had to make it easy for her.

No way. Not at this speed.

In fact, I was running so fast down the curved corridor that I was sliding away from the glass and toward the classroom walls.

“Mercedes, I found her. Don’t answer back. Just listen—and watch your speed—you’re going to crash!”

I angled my body left, but Jive was right. I was moving too fast and my feet slid out from under me. Like a speed skater losing his grip on the ice, I was helpless and crashed feet first into the base of the wall, crunching it into the classroom on the other side. I lucked out, and avoided accidentally firing off the Vipers when I hit the wall.

I had to keep moving, so I rolled my body over onto my belly, but before I could push myself onto my feet, a third sniped shot penetrated the corridor window and tore through the air inches above my back. I heard the needle sharp rod punch through the wall behind me, and continue on its way.

A heartbeat later, I was back on my feet, and running again at a reckless sprint down the curved corridor. Even overclocked, the corridor rushed by at a fast pace.

“That was too close,” Jive snapped, sounding flustered. “Damn it, Mercedes.”

I kept on running, willing Mercedes’ legs to move faster, even as I was starting to slip and slide yet again.

“She’s on the admin building rooftop, on the east face, tucked in low between two transmission towers. They look like rectangular solar sails, upright and about two meters tall. She is right at their feet and between them.”

I see. So that’s why I didn’t see her when I looked up at the admin building from the first floor of the Academy corridor. The angle prevented me from spotting her. And if Jive was looking through my eyes, he would have missed seeing her as well.

By my hunch had been right.

The Gun Queen had indeed chosen the admin building’s east rooftop as her vantage point.

She had waited for me to climb up onto the Academy rooftop, and then watched me be lured in by her twin tail.

I’d fallen into her trap and been lucky to survive the explosion and her first shot.

Or maybe, even now, she was playing with me.

Ahead of me, the end of the fourth level corridor was coming up fast.

I saw the glass doors of the bridgeway connecting the Academy building to the narrow administration facility. Sparing a fleeting glance at the admin building rooftop, I barely had enough time to glimpse a coated figure with one twin tail rise from her hiding spot with a rifle that was longer than she was tall. In slow motion, she swung that rifle down and aimed at me.

I turned my attention on the glass doors ahead of me.

I had enough time to put three explosive tipped rounds into one glass door, before I tucked my body and leapt through it.

The shatterproof glass flexed under the impact of my speeding body, but then crashed into the bridgeway.

I rolled along the bridgeway floor and over broken shards of glass.

I really needed to practice my forward rolls, as I had trouble getting back to my feet.

Keep moving. Don’t stop. Don’t present her with a stationary target.

Springing up from an ungainly roll, I kept a sidelong fix on the Queen, while aiming the left Viper at the glass doors at the far end of the bridgeway.

At a run, I squeezed off two explosive tipped rounds and opened up two holes as big as my hand in the left door.

I was five meters from the entrance when I heard a sharp chink to my left coming from the permaglass enclosing the bridgeway.

A finned sabot round tore through my left arm, shredding it below the elbow.

It ripping through whatever passed for musculature, flesh and bone in Mercedes’ body.

I kept running, the Viper still gripped in my left hand.

But the arm was rendered useless. It was miracle it was still attached to my elbow.

I fired my right Viper at the left door, weakening the glass further before I crashed through it into the admin building’s fourth floor.

At that point the pain caught up with me.

I screamed in agony as I sank to my knees on fine carpet staining red with Mercedes’ blood.

Chapter 7.

The pain blinded me, until it suddenly faded to a dull throbbing ache that pulsated from elbow to my shoulder.

The abrupt change caught my breath.

What had happened?

I looked down at my left arm, cradled in my right, and saw the bleeding had stopped. No, it hadn’t stopped yet, but it had eased up.

I began breathing a little easier.

I croaked out a whisper. “What—what happened?”

Jive replied, “I turned down your pain receptors. More like blindfolded them. However, I cannot blind them for too long without inflicting long term damage upon them.”

My left arm continued to throb as I felt it grow cold.

Though it was ruined, I could still feel my hand and the Viper it gripped.

Concentrating a little, I pushed past the pain and forced my left hand to drop the handcannon to the carpeted floor.

My coat-skirt didn’t have pockets, but it had magazine pouches. Since I didn’t have anything with which to make a sling, I used my right hand to push my ruined arm into an empty pouch. I grit my teeth when the pain flared up, but again it faded quickly when I stopped move it.

“Jive, am I going to lose it?”

“No, it is still well attached. But you need to end this quickly. That injury needs to be attended to.”

I picked up the discarded Viper loaded with explosive tipped rounds, and pressed it against my lower back. “Sucks to be alive.”

Then I picked up the other Viper equipped with high penetration rounds.

“Jive, up the muzzle speed to max.”

“Princess—?”

“Up the muzzle speed to max! I want it firing bullets at light speed.”

“That is not possible—at least not with that model.”

I struggled up to my feet. “Then give me all it’s got.”

“At maximum the ammunition will disintegrate long before it hits its target.”

I was on the admin building’s fourth floor.

Turning around quickly, I got my bearing as to which way was north, south, east, and west.

A few meters west of the bridgeway entrance I’d crashed through was a spiral stairwell leading up to the fifth floor.

I walked over to it. “Jive—give me the most you can out of the Viper. I’m stopping that bitch here and now—no matter what it takes.”

The weapon in my right hand thrummed softly, and something internally clicked over a few times.

Jive’s voice was somber. “As you wish, Princess. Maximum effective muzzle speed for the current ammunition type has been set.”

I climbed the spiral stairwell steps, and trained the Viper at the landing above me.

Jive added, “The Viper will fire at fifty three hundred feet per second. Minute of angle is one point seven. Firing rate is one round per one point three seconds. The recoil will be higher than you have experienced so far.”

“I can handle it,” I whispered.

“I recommend you shoot her within fifty meters.”

I was at the fifth floor landing. This was the ‘penthouse’ floor where I’d come face to face with the Principal and Vice-Principal.

And the pretty Student Council President, who happened to chew a lot of gum.

What the Hell was that all about?

I shook the thought away as I swept the Viper before me, while I walked fast toward the east end of the floor occupied by the Principal’s office.

I looked to my left, and noticed I could see the curved permaglass roof of the connecting bridgeway. This was because of the numerous wide windows adorning the wall of the penthouse level.

I turned my attention on the ceiling ahead of me, and aimed the handcannon upwards at an angle.

I fired.

Jive was right – the recoil was higher.

It really kicked back into my right arm and shoulder.

With the electric trigger depressed for full auto, the Viper launched round after round at almost one-second intervals. The ceiling paneling was smashed under the immense kinetic impact of high penetration rounds moving at hypersonic speed.

I continued walking east toward the Principal’s office, and firing with every second step.

Pieces of ceiling plaster and paneling rained down around me.

I ignored it, listening to the Viper count down its ammunition.

Twenty rounds…seventeen rounds…fifteen rounds….

I arrived at the waiting area outside the Principal’s office where the buxom redhead secretary had her long banana shaped desk.

Jumping onto the desk, I aimed at the ceiling and punched bullet holes into it in an almost leisurely manner.

Ten rounds…five rounds….

More and more of the ceiling was exposed.

As it was, I saw that my intention had been met.

The high penetration rounds were shooting through the permacrete roof.

Light from Decaying Space was visible through the holes the individual bullets left behind.

I kept firing until the magazine emptied.

Flipping the ejection level, the magazine fell out of the well.

I held onto the Viper with my teeth, while fishing for a fresh magazine from a right coat-skirt pouch. Pulling one out, I slapped it into the well, which made my teeth ache, then took hold of the Viper with my right hand.

The handcannon left the taste of metal and plastic in my mouth.

With the first round automatically chambered, I took aim at the ceiling again.

That’s when she fired back.

She was so close, mere feet away, that I heard and saw the sabot round spear through the ceiling, and narrowly miss my right shoulder.

Aiming in the vicinity of the new hole, I fired back, making a hole of my own.

I fired twice more, then jumped off the secretary’s desk as the Gun Queen sent a sabot round into it, splitting the desk.

I had her bearing now, and pumped a shot where I was certain she stood.

Twenty-five rounds remaining.

Her next shot came from my left.

I anticipated her movement and fired twice up through the ceiling.

Her fourth shot was again to my left and I was then certain she was moving west.

I followed her, firing upwards at an angle through the ceiling to avoid shattered paneling from falling onto me.

The penthouse level was already dark when I stepped into it, so now beams of light from Decaying Space spilled into it through the holes the Queen and I had made through the ceiling.

But as the Gun Queen moved over the rooftop, she blocked the light flowing into the penthouse from the holes I’d made earlier.

And each time one beam of light was cut off, I knew where she was.

I chased after her, tracking her as she traversed west along the penthouse rooftop, anticipating her movement and firing ahead of her.

Then she jumped off the rooftop.

Through one large window facing north, I saw her land on the curved permaglass ceiling of the connecting bridgeway.

I ran for the window and skidded to a hard stop.

The Gun Queen looked terrible. Her coat was ripped in several places, and her body was a perforated mess.

Her balloon breasts resembled exploded watermelons.

She had only one twin tail remaining, and much of her skull was devoid of any pseudo flesh, exposing the alabaster metal cranium beneath it.

She really did look like an animated corpse, a truly ghastly sight.

The anti-material rifle in her hands was indeed enormous, probably six feet long. With a two handed, underarm grip, the Gun Queen pointed it at me.

At the window, I aimed my Viper back at her.

I fired before she did and the high penetration round punched cleanly through the shatterproof permaglass.

I missed her head, but snipped the top of her left shoulder, ripping away another piece of her black coat.

Her return shot was dead center through the window.

“Mercedes—!”

I didn’t move, but braced my body against the impact.

The sabot round pierced through to the right of my sternum, the vacuum tearing my flesh and part of my right lung along behind it as it exited out my back. Again, white blinding agony stole my vision and senses until Jive hurriedly did something to my pain receptors.

I gasped for air, knowing the wound was going to cost me, then steadied my trembling right arm as best I could.

I kept the trigger down as I aimed at the monstrosity standing on the bridgeway roof.

I wasn’t going to move from this position.

If I was to fall, this is where it would be.

The Viper kicked back hard against me as it discharged round after round with a sharp boom.

The Queen jerked to her right as a transonic round slammed into right shoulder.

She jerked left when the next round struck the remains of her left breast.

I saw her struggle to aim the large rifle, so I shifted my right arm left a couple of degrees, and fired another round into her, one that made her temporarily lose her grip on the rifle.

Fifteen rounds…thirteen rounds…

I was making each bullet count, no longer missing my target despite the fact my vision was growing hazy.

“Mercedes—you don’t have much time. I’m doing what I can, but your body can’t take another hit.”

Ten rounds…eight rounds….

With each hit, the Queen jerked and her body was pushed back across the bridgeway roof.

The Queen fired, and the recoil made her step back – another step closer to the edge.

The armor-piercing rod smashed a narrow hole through window.

I was fortunate. It perforated through my left shoulder, the impact twisting my body.

In a hurry, I had to catch my balance, steady myself, and aim squarely at the Queen’s chest.

Five rounds remaining.

I kept the trigger down.

The metal and pseudo-flesh monstrosity rocked back repeatedly with each shot the Viper delivered.

I realized the high penetration rounds were now tearing out her back.

I also realized the Viper was growing intensely hot in my grip.

To my dismay, the weapon informed me it had overheated, and executed an emergency shutdown.

At that moment, the Queen suddenly lost her balance and dropped to one knee.

Without a thought, I dropped the disabled handcannon, and reached behind me. I tore free the second Viper loaded with explosive tipped rounds.

Staggering forward toward the window, I pushed the handcannon’s barrel through the shattered permaglass, and aimed at the machine bitch kneeling on the edge of the sloped roof of the bridgeway.

The Queen grinned at me and fired one more sabot round.

Like before, I refused to move and held my ground.

The thin finned rod speared through my stomach and out my back.

The impact dragged back, pulling me away from the window. I spat blood out of my mouth while more of it spilled out of the fresh hole in my gut. Again, the pain lasted only seconds, before being dialed down to an aching throb.

Despite taking the wound to my abdomen, I hadn’t released my grip on the Viper.

The handcannon remained stuck halfway through the hole in the window.

Using the glass for support, I took careful aim as my vision grew grey.

The Gun Bitch grinned and started to rise.

I pressed the trigger with the desire to wipe that grin off her metal face.

The Viper fired the explosive tipped round in its chamber.

The Queen’s head rocked back as the ammunition exploded against her forehead.

Then her arms flailed as she lost her balance and slid off the sloped permaglass roofing.

Tracking her sliding body, I fired one last shot that blew another piece out of her tortured chest, and succeeded in knocking her off the bridgeway.

I didn’t see her fall to the ground four floors below, and to her credit she didn’t scream on the way down.

However, I did hear a loud, dull whump a second after she disappeared from view.

I coughed up a mouthful of blood, and spat it out, then leaned forward against the shattered permaglass window.

“Mercedes, you have taken severe damage.”

I sucked in air. It sounded like it whistled through the tunnel in my chest. “…am I…going to die…?”

“No, not yet. I give you another ten, maybe fifteen minutes. You have to hurry. The clock is counting down the last ten minutes, and you need to return to the sarcophagus before the Sliver collapses and the matter here is exposed to Decaying Space. When that happens, everything here will disintegrate. The only safe place is the sarcophagus.”

I shook my head. “I need to make sure…that she’s down…for good.”

Pulling the handcannon free of the hole in the window, I staggered backwards.

I felt something against my feet, and looked down to see the discarded Viper.

“I’m not leaving you behind….”

Grasping the Viper in with my teeth, I reached down and picked up the overheated weapon, pressing it against the outside of my right thigh. The bodysuit prevented me from being burned by the hot handcannon. Then I recovered the Viper from my mouth, and with it gripped firmly in my trembling right hand, I proceeded down the spiral staircase to the fourth floor.

I had to take a separate set of stairs down to the first level.

I descended them unsteadily but avoided stumbling and falling.

At the first floor, I walked as best I could to the building’s foyer.

There were three entrances to the first floor, two from within the Academy grounds and accessible after passing through the school’s massive security gates, and one from outside the grounds that afforded entry into the admin building without having to cross the gates.

To my relief, I found the glass doors to the north entrance to be unlocked.

There was even power running through them, and they opened automatically at my approach.

Stepping outside onto the paved path leading over to the horseshoe shaped Academy building, I walked under the bridgeway four stories overhead.

I walked over to where the Gun Queen lay supine on the ground.

The long Steiner-Manfred anti-material rifle lay beside her in the grip of her right hand.

Ten meters out, I aimed my Viper at the rifle, and fired explosive tipped two rounds into it. The first failed to blow the rifle in half, but the second round succeeded.

I walked up to the Queen and kicked the rifle away from her.

My innards ached as I stood over her.

Both her eyes were blown away, yet she turned her in my direction. I guessed her sense of hearing was still accurate.

Gods, she looked horrible. A ghastly mechanical skeleton wrapped in a suit of pseudo-skin and fake flesh.

I shook my head slowly.

Blood welled up in my throat. I coughed it up, and spat it out.

My vision wavered as I did, and it took me a couple of seconds to focus on the Gun Queen at my feet.

My chest wheezed as I sucked in air. “How the Hell…do they make…things like you?”

The Queen smiled and it elicited a shiver that wracked my body from head to toes.

This monster was going to give me nightmares.

“Wrong question, Cherry Princess.”

“Up yours, you metal bitch.”

The Queen’s eyeless head continued smiling at me. “The question…is how did they make you.”

I raised the Viper and aimed it down at her head.

“That’s for me to find out…and for you to wonder…you metal whore.”

She laughed. “No last requests?”

I frowned at her. “You have one?”

“Not me, Cherry Princess. You.”

I stared at the mechanical mess that once resembled a hot, buxom girl. “What? Are you going to go out with a big bang?”

Machine or not, the Gun Queen snorted at me in contempt. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Cherry Princess.”

I shook my head. “Hell no.”

I squeezed the trigger, and emptied the magazine into her body.

It jerked and spasmed with every explosive detonation, as another twenty odd pieces were blown out of her body.

The Viper clicked empty, and I released the trigger a few seconds later.

“Shit…I was so sick of that bitch….”

I took step back, raised my head, and smelt the free electricity in the air.

My moment of peace was broken when an agonizing cough wracked my body. This time blood welled up my nose, and I choked, struggling to get air into my working lung.

“Mercedes, you have won. Time to go. Hurry. Your body will not last more than a few more minutes. You must hurry.”

I walked away from the immolated mechanical corpse.

I made it into the first floor of the Academy building, and staggered down the curved corridor until I finally arrived at the wrecked classroom Gee-Four.

Leaning against the wall, I stared at the sign above the doorway entrance wondering why the room numbering made little sense.

Then I swayed my way through the smashed wall, and floundered over the debris surrounding the massive iron-grey sarcophagus.

When I had clambered up to its front face, part of it opened up for me.

I didn’t see any seam lines, but the front of the sarcophagus swung open like two doors.

I took that for a sign it was welcoming me in.

Jive said, “You are almost there, Princess.”

“I know…I know….”

I didn’t step inside the pitch black interior of the sarcophagus. Rather, I fell into it.

Something caught me, something that felt like cold spindly arms.

I didn’t want to picture what was connected to those arms.

However, I was grateful when I felt my body enter something that enveloped me. I pictured myself snug inside a cocoon.

Then I pictured what was around the cocoon and I shivered.

“Relax. Relax,” Jive said.

Something clamped down over my face, and I felt tubes push their way into my nose, while another worked its way down my throat. My gag reflex was suppressed, and I quickly grew numb as warm liquids flowed into my body.

“Time to sleep, Princess.”

Yes. That sounds like a good idea. And when I wake up this nightmare will be over and I’ll be back in my old body, on my bed in my student apartment, across the bay from Telos Island.

“When you wake up, all will be well again.”

Yes. Definitely sounds good. This whole effing nightmare can just go to Hell, and leave me behind in my normal, boring but comfortable school life.

Ah, why did I ever think my life was disappointing?

So stupid of me.

Really…really…stupid…of…me….

#

(Erina)

In my office, overlooking the laboratory below, I listened to the Maestro’s report.

On a holovid window floating above my desk, a recording of the match was playing back, switching from holocam to holocam.

The Maestro, Emm Eighty-Three, sounded conflicted.

“I should be pleased he survived, but I must condemn his reckless actions. Taking hit after hit bordered on the suicidal. Sheer madness. The damage to her body was considerable.”

I cleared my throat, and glanced at the holovid.

Mercedes was sprinting down a wide, curved corridor with the speed of a panther.

Her limbs blurred even in slow motion playback.

But what caught my attention the most was her expression.

She looked…merciless.

Every line of her beautiful face had grown hard now that she was on the hunt.

What a pretty girl she was. Beautiful and deadly.

I looked at the photon simulation of Emm Eighty-Three. “You’ll attend to her?”

The conglomeration of colors arranged itself into a cube with grey walls, and sulked, “Yes, I will oversee her regeneration. Truthfully, there is not much for me to do. We have to wait for the Angel Fibers to do their job of putting her back together.”

How right you are, I thought as I looked again out into the lab.

In the center of the large room stood the enormous iron-grey sarcophagus. The navigation problem it had experienced while travelling through Limbo had been corrected. However, a flurry of outstanding adjustments were being implemented now that the immediate urgency had passed. Considering how quickly Mercedes had been ‘rolled out’, it was simply amazing how well everything had held together.

Now we had the time we needed to begin maturing the technology that went into her creation.

Emm Eighty-Three asked in a low, serious voice. “Are you pleased with the results?”

I looked at the cube. Its walls pulsed faintly orange.

“I’m as pleased as I can be.”

“What will you do now?”

I caught sight of my personal secretary approaching the glass door to my lab office. The pretty brunette was overly endowed. Combined with her five foot one stature, she appeared unbalanced as she walked on her four inch heels.

Arriving at the closed door, she pressed the buzzer that emitted a soft chime into my office.

I raised a hand at her, asking her to give me a minute.

“Well?” asked the Maestro type Artificial Awareness.

I stood up from my chair, and slipped off my white lab coat. “I need to go. I have to report to our associates on the ‘other side’. They were most anxious at the announcement of the sudden exhibition match.”

“I am sure they are relieved that the subject of their investment in time and technology was victorious.”

I shrugged into my black business blazer. “I’m sure that they are.”

“And that their faith in you was rewarded.”

I hesitated for a heartbeat. “Time will tell.”

“About Ronin, what plan will you execute?”

I straightened the cuffs of my blazer. “Emm Eighty-Three—”

“Call me, Jive. It is what he calls me, though I find it more endearing when it comes from ‘her’ as opposed to ‘him’.”

I took a very long deep breath. “Jive, when she’s recovered, use the sarcophagus and its ability to move through Limbo to deliver her to her new home…quietly.”

“Ah. I see. So we’re going with that option.” The cube sighed and rocked gently. “Well, we have no choice do we.”

“No, we don’t. At least, not until his body is regenerated. However, we had planned for this outcome, so it will be fine.”

Jive sighed, and the walls of the cube sagged. “I must say, I don’t think he’s going to take this well.”

I regarded the sarcophagus, thinking of Mercedes inside it. Then I regarded the image of Jive floating in a holovid bubble.

The cube had a melted appearance to it.

“Jive. I do recall you telling Ronin that you were his best friend.”

“…err, I did…?”

“Yes, you did. I have the conversation recorded. So I expect you to be there for him, in his difficult time of…transition.”

“Gah. I knew you would say that. I guess I had better start downloading everything from makeup to the current fashion trends for teenage girls. What a bother. Truly a bother. I wasn’t instructed on how to manage a sixteen year old girl.”

I smiled at the cube as it warped and wavered like jelly on a swishing plate.

“Jive, I’m entrusting you with my brother’s sanity. Please don’t let me down.”

#

Slowly, lethargically, my eyelids parted.

I looked up at a plain white ceiling.

For a long while, I blinked sleepily up at the familiar looking ceiling.

Yes, there is that faint crack in the paintwork beside the light panel sunk into the ceiling.

My apartment wasn’t illuminated by bulbs, but by highly efficient light sticks of the diode variety mounted behind transparent ceiling panels.

And from initial impressions, I was fairly certain this was indeed my apartment.

I rolled my head to the left.

Floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors leading out into the balcony with a view of the bay. The curtains were drawn across them.

I rolled my head to the right, and saw the familiar holo-posters of the eminently beautiful Mercy Haddaway – the most gorgeous girl in the whole galaxy.

Yes, this was definitely my apartment.

I closed my eyes, and lay my head back.

Taking a deep breath, I released it slowly.

It certainly smelt like my humble abode. No. It smelt cleaner.

Had the automated cleaning bots serviced my room recently?

That couldn’t be. They were only scheduled with access to my apartment on Wednesdays and Sundays, and today was…what day was today?

I opened my eyes and rolled my head left to look at my alarm clock sitting on the bedside table.

Wednesday. One pm.

I blinked slowly, staring stupidly at the clock.

Wednesday. One oh one pm.

I inhaled deeply, then let it out raggedly.

Either my clock was faulty, or I had lost another full day.

No, it was worse than that. First, I lose the weekend, and now I’m skipping school. Unless I had a good reason, my academic record would be slapped with a truancy demerit.

I could feel my chances of qualifying for the Delta boot-strapping program slipping further and further away.

I had to get up. I couldn’t skip a second day of schooling. Even if I was late, I had to make an appearance.

Pushing the bed sheets back, I tossed my legs over the side of the bed and padded fast across the bedroom that doubled as a living area.

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a blonde girl run past the small mirror on the shelves beside the flat holo-vision projection system.

My heart jumped in my mouth and I froze halfway to the wall wardrobe.

Slowly, I backtracked into the living area, and turned hesitantly toward the mirror.

For a few moments, I stared at the reflection.

Then I bolted for the bathroom.

Pushing the sliding door aside, I slid barefoot over the cool tiles, and almost crashed into the shower stall.

I had to grab onto the washbasin with both hands in order not to fall over.

I thought I was going to tear the basin clear off the bathroom wall.

However, when I looked in the large mirror above the basin, I almost wished I had fallen and knocked myself unconscious.

A teenage girl with blonde hair and dark roots clung to the washbasin with both her hands.

She was breathing fast, almost hyperventilating, as she trembled while staring at me with clear hazel eyes.

Her stark resemblance to the girl I considered the most gorgeous in the galaxy – a girl whose features I had ingrained into my memory over many, many months of adoration – made my heart skip several beats.

In fact, she could easily pass for that girl’s sister.

But most importantly, this teenage girl was…naked.

My legs gave way and I sank to my knees on the bathroom floor.

Though I couldn’t ignore the unfamiliar weight on my chest, I didn’t need to look down to know that I had breasts – large breasts – capped with pale pink areolas and nipples.

I knew that without looking, because the girl in the mirror…was me.

Chapter 8.

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I looked at her face…no, my face…reflected in the mirror I held in my hands.

I closed my eyes, opened them, and regarded her face again for another long minute.

Lowering the mirror to my lap, I studied the face of Mercedes “Mercy” Haddaway in the many holo-posters adorning my walls.

I had to swallow twice to find my voice.

“Why…?”

There was no reply.

The room was quiet, and my mind was silent but for the thoughts tumbling about inside my head – thoughts I simply couldn’t put together into a neat rank and file.

I had almost expected Jive to reply to me.

I’d almost wanted to hear his annoying, uppity voice telling me something – anything – that would explain why I was inhabiting the body of a young teenage girl.

I stood up and walked to the life-sized holo-poster of Mercy in a string bikini that left little to the imagination. Some people claimed she’d had her breasts enlarged, while others stated her body was digitally enhanced. I didn’t know if that was true, and I was loathe to accept it.

Standing before her poster, I noticed I was taller in this body than in my original male body. I’d guess my height to be around five foot eight, or possibly five foot nine.

I studied Mercy’s face closely, then held up the mirror so that I could see ‘my’ face beside hers.

“We…we could be sisters….”

I shook my head faintly and the girl in the mirror did the same.

Her hazel eyes were troubled, and her generous pink lips were drawn into a thin line.

I watched her bite her lower lip, realize what she was doing, and quickly stop.

A heartbeat later and she was back to biting her lip again.

I couldn’t myself. It wasn’t something I did out of habit, yet it was clearly a habit for this body.

That worried me. Was I inhabiting a body that belonged to someone else? Was that even possible?

I ran my gaze over Mercy’s toned, slender body.

Putting the mirror on the carpeted floor beside me, I stripped out of the t-shirt and tracksuit pants I’d thrown on after shuffling out of the bathroom in a state of shock some twenty minutes ago.

I stood naked before her poster, then looked down at my body.

Studying myself carefully, I noticed I wasn’t as curvy as Mercy was.

I was slender, but also a little skinny, as evidenced by my faintly visible lower ribs.

My legs were long. I had no doubt they would look amazing in a short skirt and heels. However, when compared to Mercy’s legs, I judged them a little thinner.

The same applied to my arms. Just a tad less toned than Mercy’s.

The only thing I had in my favor were this girl’s breasts. They were larger than Mercy Haddaway’s, and appeared fuller and perkier, with gently upward pointing nipples that looked like small, pale strawberries.

I ran my fingertips over them but stopped hastily when a tingle ran through my body.

Okay…that was new….

Lowering my hands to my sides, I concluded that if I found myself in competition with Mercy, I would certainly lose.

There was no helping the sigh that escaped me.

I stepped back into the tracksuit pants and tossed on the t-shirt.

Then I picked up the mirror off the floor and walked back to my bed.

I sat down on the edge, and stared at myself for a while longer.

Okay. Maybe I would lose to Mercy, but there was no denying the girl in the mirror was quite pretty. In fact, she was very pretty.

I sighed again.

I’d date this girl in a heartbeat.

I sighed a third time.

Unfortunately, I was the girl in the mirror.

Rather than sigh on a fourth occasion, I placed the mirror beside me on the bed cover, and looked down at my hands.

Everything about me felt real, as it had when I was occupying the body of the simulacrum. My skin, my hair, my eyes, my fingernails – all appeared real.

A realization wormed its way through to the front of my mind.

I stood up off my bed, and then ran over to the glass balcony wall.

The overcast sky had blanketed the afternoon sun, casting a pallor over Ar Telica. With the sun to the west, and my balcony windows looking out to the southeast, I searched for my reflection in the glass.

When I saw it, my stomach clenched into a ball while my lungs ached as I emptied them in a strangled, wheezing gasp that lasted an eternity.

In my mind, I cried out in disbelief and horror, but I couldn’t deny what I saw.

The girl in the mirror.

The girl reflected in the glass window.

That girl…was the Gun Princess. And that girl was me.

All this time, I’d been looking at Mercedes’ face. Not Mercedes “Mercy” Haddaway, but at Mercedes the Gun Princess, and winner of an exhibition match against the reigning Gun Queen.

I reached up and touched the glass, my fingers tracing my reflection, and struggled to control my breathing.

I wasn’t just a girl. I was a Gun Princess, and I was standing in my student apartment, not in the Sliver. I was in the real world, with no idea how I’d come to be here.

Turning away from the balcony window wall, I walked fast into the bathroom.

Opening the cold water faucet, I splashed cold water onto my face.

When that wasn’t enough to calm me, I stripped out of my clothes, and jumped into the shower stall.

The cold water hit my body, and a bout of shivers broke out over me.

A quivering bundle I sagged down to my knees, as the cold water continued to spray over me.

I scooted to the back of the glass stall, tucked my legs against my chest, then wrapped my arms around my knees.

My shivers grew until my body grew accustomed to the cold.

I remained in the corner of the stall, my head bowed, my face buried against my knees.

And I cried.

I cried until I ran out of tears, and all I had in me were dry sobs that wracked my body.

I cried and wished this was all a nightmare from which I’d soon wake up.

I cried and wished for my old life back.

I don’t know how much time went by, but I know I would have remained tucked into the corner for a lot longer if my door bell hadn’t chimed.

On the fourth chime, I raised my head and looked at the open door of my bathroom.

On the sixth chime, I slowly straightened my back and prepared to rise.

However, there was no seventh chime.

I heard my apartment’s monitoring system announce, “Security override accepted”.

I listened to my door unlock and open, then I listened to footsteps enter hesitantly into the hallway.

“Mercedes?”

A woman’s voice called out, and my heart jumped in recognition, and in confusion.

I heard measured steps down the hallway, and heartbeats later, a slender young woman with short chestnut hair stepped into view. She stood in the open bathroom doorway, dressed in a sharp grey business skirt-suit, atop two-inch black pumps.

My face soaked by the shower, I looked up at her.

And she looked down at me, her face a picture of concern.

“Mercedes….”

She kicked off her shoes, then pulled off her stockings, before stepping into the bathroom and up to the shower stall. Reaching in, she quickly turned off the water then stepped into the stall. Crouching down before me, she reached up and cupped my face.

“Mercedes…Mercedes can you hear me?”

I stared at her, and couldn’t understand why she was here.

It made no sense to me—no sense at all.

Why? Why was she here?

She rocked my head gently. “Mercedes, are you alright? Please, talk to me. Tell me how you feel.”

I swallowed the moisture in my mouth, and faced her with a frown. Water droplets shook free of my long blonde hair as I shook my head at the young woman regarding me with abject worry. “Why…why are you here?”

She inhaled deeply. “Mercedes….”

I shook my head again. “How do you know who I am?”

She pressed her lips together into a thin line.

I reached up and pulled her hands easily away from my face. “Tell me. How do you know who I am?”

I watched my older sister take a deep breath, then release it in a shudder.

Her hands felt cold in my grip.

Erina took another deep breath. “Because…Jive called me.”

I released her hands as my arms grew slack in shock.

A look of immense regret painted her features for a heartbeat, then she reached out and touched my bare knees.

“And because…I’m responsible for creating you.”

#

(Erina)

I helped her out of the bathroom.

I helped dry her as well, while she stood arms slack at her sides, her whole body still and lifeless.

I dried her smooth skin, wrapped her long hair in a towel, then dressed her in a robe from the bundle of clothes I’d brought with me.

Since I knew her body well, I knew exactly what clothes would fit her so I spent the morning shopping for a start to her new wardrobe.

Besides, today was an important day, and I wanted her to look her best.

I needed her to make a good impression.

I was already on my way to her – no, to Ronin’s student apartment – when I received the call from Jive. The Maestro Awareness had been monitoring her, keeping quiet, afraid to intrude upon her. It had been waiting for an opening, yet had hesitated for too long. By then, Ronin/Mercedes had suffered a severe anxiety attack and shortly afterwards collapsed into a corner of the shower stall.

I told my driver to hurry, and we made record time to the apartment complex in Ring Zero, Ar Telica’s inner habitation ring.

Rushing inside, I found Ronin/Mercedes in the shower stall, drenched and shivering in cold water.

Now I had her seated on the edge of her bed.

She watched me as I placed the multitude of shopping bags on the floor of the living area, one side of which doubled as a bedroom. Her student’s apartment was much like a luxurious hotel room rather than a proper apartment. However, it was spacious and quite tidy, except for the numerous posters of one Mercy Haddaway, bikini model starlet.

My driver had delivered the shopping bags up to the apartment, but the bag with her bathrobe I’d carried with me. I knew I’d need it as soon as Jive told me she was reduced to crying bundle in the bathroom.

Now she watched me separate the articles of clothing that I placed on her bed as I coordinated an ensemble for her to wear. I decided on something simple. A pair of dark hipster denim trousers and a short jade pea plum dress, with thin shoulder straps.

I had shoes for her too, a pair of creamy colored wedged sandals she should find easy to walk in.

I placed them at the foot of her bed.

Then I straightened and turned to look at her.

She stared at me with cold, calculating eyes.

And she was beautiful.

I had trouble reminding myself it was my sixteen year old brother inside her – that it was his neural map burned into the matrix of her brain.

The body was all girl. The mind was all boy. But would the girl eventually win over the boy? Or would a melding of the two take place?

I studied her, and briefly pondered the possibilities, then decided they were best served another time. The psychoanalysts in my team were neck deep in debate as they studied the first forty-three hours of data on her since she became active. I would read their initial reports when I returned to the office.

For now, I had a much more pressing matter to address, one that I could not be postponed any longer.

She watched me step in front of her.

I reached out and gently pulled the towel off her head. Her beautiful blonde hair cascaded in wet ringlets around her head, over her shoulders and down her back.

I tossed the towel onto the bed, then spoke to her tenderly. “Mercedes, you need to get dressed.”

“Why are you here?”

“Because I’m responsible for you.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m responsible for making your existence a reality.”

“Meaning what?”

“That I took a theory, and put it into practice. I took what others had created, and moved it to the next level.”

“And that next level is me.”

I nodded firmly. “Yes.”

She was silent for a long while. “You used your Alpha bootstrapped intelligence to focus on your specialty—bio-engineering.”

I swallowed cautiously. “Yes. It’s one area I specialized in.”

“What was the other?” A frown flickered across her face. “Bio-mechanics…wasn’t it.”

I nodded, though she hadn’t voiced it as a question.

Another frown flickered across her features. “Where is Jive?”

I was surprised she asked, then studied her for a long, long while as I noticed something unsettling.

“Where is Jive?” she repeated, her voice low and flat.

I studied her for a little longer before replying. “Jive is monitoring your situation.”

She tilted her head slightly, then reached up and tapped her temple. “From in here?”

I frowned inwardly, feeling the stirrings of fear in my heart as her gaze held mine.

Mercedes was blinking in perfect ten second intervals.

The analysts in my team had determined yesterday that when she faced the Queen in her final shootout, Mercedes had been blinking in exactly ten second intervals. When she fired her guns, and when she took those hits to her body, she had maintained a perfect ten-second interval blink rate.

Though it wasn’t conclusive, they had suggested that when she did so, Mercedes had entered a heightened state of awareness.

A killing mode.

She was probably unaware of entering such a consciousness state that went beyond her overclocking ability, or rather, a state that complemented her overclocking talent.

Jive suspected it happened when she was first injured. He wasn’t sure if blinding or numbing her pain receptors had triggered her mind to enter that heightened state of awareness, but the data indicated something had changed in her the moment she suffered that agonizing injury.

The proverbial shock to the system had awakened the Gun Princess inside her.

And right now, Mercedes was studying me while in that Gun Princess state of mind.

I knew that it was Ronin inside her, and I knew my brother well, and that troubled me.

Ronin had lacked the attributes that made him dangerous. He lacked the qualities that made people consider him a threat. Even if he’d wanted to be threatening, it would have been difficult to take him seriously.

That was no longer the situation.

My brother was inside Mercedes, and Mercedes was danger personified.

Mercedes was a lethal panther in the shape of a teenage girl.

My heart thumped loudly in my chest, as I understood that I needed to approach her cautiously.

I stepped closer and knelt down before her, placing my hands on her knees.

Her eyes tracked me like the gun muzzles of a sentry bot.

I cleared my throat as calmly as I could.

“Mercedes, listen to me—“

“You keep calling me that, yet you know who I am. Why do you do that?”

“Because right now you are not Ronin Kassius. Right now, you are Mercedes.”

“Right now I’m the Gun Princess.”

I hesitated, then nodded quickly. “Yes.”

She studied me for a few seconds then tilted her head. “You said you were responsible for my creation.”

“I did….”

“You chose me to be a Gun Princess.”

I clenched my jaw and regretted it a heartbeat later when her hand snaked out and grabbed my throat.

Mercedes stood up, and I stood up with her, until she raised her arm and lifted me off the floor.

I held onto her hand, and struggled to stay calm, which was difficult when I could feel my feet swinging freely in the air. Despite her hand around my throat, I could still breathe though if I was anyone other than her sister, I might already be dead. If she wanted to, Mercedes could clench her hand and my throat would be crushed like an empty plastic bottle.

The girl holding me – the Gun Princess – regarded me with cold, hazel eyes that quickly turned crimson.

I watched her hair grow raven dark until all the blonde was chased away.

In seconds, the Gun Princess stood before me, holding me in the air with a single arm untroubled by the weight of an adult woman.

“Why choose me?” she asked.

I struggled for air, filling my lungs with what I could.

“I had…no choice….”

“There is always a choice.”

I sucked in more air, but I could feel myself beginning to grow faint. “Not for me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Explain.”

“We used…your genetic…and mental map…for her…for Mercedes….”

“I’m a boy, not a girl.”

“Altered your…code…and mixed it with hers….”

Mercedes frowned. “Hers?”

Her eyes darted to somewhere behind me and she remained rigid for a long time, before facing me again. “Mercedes Haddaway. You took her code, and mixed some of mine in hers.”

I couldn’t nod in reply. “Yes.”

“Does she know you did this?”

“No…no way….”

“Why choose her?” she asked.

“Because…they felt…you would accept her form…if you were infatuated with her.”

She opened her hand, and I fell to the floor. I collapsed to my knees, and gasped for air, filling my lungs repeatedly.

All the while, I kept my eyes on her, and I watched her tremble where she stood.

Her eyes grew incredibly wide, then her irises reverted to their hazel color. I watched her hair return to being blonde in a matter of heartbeats.

She wasn’t looking at me, but at the holo-poster on the wall behind me.

When she spoke, it was barely a whisper. “You made me…into her sister….”

I nodded weakly. “Yes. By using your original genetic code to influence deviations in hers, we created her sister.” I struggled to rise to my feet while rubbing my throat. “Of course, it took a number of attempts to get the combination just right.”

She looked down at me. “How many? How many attempts?”

I stroked my throat carefully. “Eight three.”

She blinked slowly at me, and I counted five seconds between each blink.

She took a step back and looked down at her hands and arms.

“Why?” she asked, then fixed me with a frown. “Why me?”

“Because you’re my brother. And they used you against me.”

“What?”

“If I wanted to create a Gun Princess of our own—if I wanted to put my theories and research to the test—then I needed to demonstrate my certainty and my commitment to the project. Failure would not be tolerated, and I would have no choice but to make it a success.”

She lowered her hands and cocked her head at me. “Meaning what?”

“By using you, they forced me to put my money where my mouth was. They forced me to risk someone precious, in order to demonstrate that my theories were sound and deliver results. Because if I failed, then you would most certainly die.”

She swallowed visibly, a look of concern marring her forehead. “How did they force you?”

I took a quick breath, forced my hands to unclench. “They scooped you up into a Sliver, and cost you your original body.”

Her mouth slowly fell open.

I took another quick breath. “Ronin, I had no choice. They had already made the decision to use you as a means of motivating my success. I knew they were going to scoop you up ‘accidentally’ into a Sliver. I was given three months to develop Mercedes. Three months to put everything I had spent ten years working on into a prototype. If I didn’t get her ready in time, then I would have no place to put you.”

“What about the simulacrum? What about that body?”

“That body was never intended to last. It was just temporary, a few days at best, until we moved you into Mercedes’s neural matrix—into her body.”

“You made me.”

I nodded haltingly. “Yes. I made this body for you. To save you, and to keep you safe.”

“Safe?” She took a half step toward me, her hands clenched at her side. “You made me into a Gun Princess. You put me into a world of hurt. Do you know what the battle was like for me? Do you? Do you know the pain of being repeatedly shot through with anti-material round designed to combat tanks?”

I stood up slowly, and tried to keep my fear from showing.

“Ronin, I’m sorry but I had no other way. The moment I presented my research to them and made my proposal to create our own Gun Princess, they deemed it too important to allow for a failure of any kind. So they used you to motivate me to success.”

“You call this saving me? You still think I’m safe?”

“Yes. While you are a Gun Princess you are safe. While you participate in the Princess Royale, you are safe. While you do what they want…you are safe”

Her eyes narrowed, and for a heartbeat they flashed crimson. “Who…is they?”

I took a long, long breath, and let it out slowly.

“Those that control…the Telos Corporation.”

For an interminable length of time, she stood perfectly still and breathed so quietly it was impossible to hear her.

If not for her leisurely blinking, I would have thought she was a mannequin molded into the perfect representation of a beautiful teenage girl.

Then she raised her chin slightly, and peered at me through narrowed eyes. “What now?”

I relaxed and would have sunk to the floor in relief.

However, I needed to remain strong. For her sake, for his sake, and for mine.

I took a short step closer to her, yet I didn’t dare risk touching her.

“There is someone who wants to meet you. A representative of your sponsor—of those most responsible for the technology that made you possible. Technology the Telos Corporation and I want to explore.”

She didn’t nod in agreement. She simply lowered her chin.

At five foot eight, she was rather tall for a sixteen year old girl, and in my black pumps, I was only a few inches taller than her. It was enough that she needed to look up at me. I didn’t know if she resented me the way Ronin had resented my tall stature, because her face had become unreadable.

Then she smiled coldly, “In that case, I’d better get dressed.”

I suppressed a shiver before it could run freely down my back.

Mercedes spared the clothes on the bed a look, before favoring me with a faint grimace. “What…no underwear?”

I hesitated before pointing at a bag with a brand label emblazoned on its side. “In there.”

She walked over and picked up the bag, regarding the emblem for a brief moment before showing it to me.

“Sensual Goddess. Mercy claims this is her favorite brand.”

She emptied the contents of the bag on the bed, picked up the sheer bra, and faced me with a hand on her hip…just like a girl might.

“Well? Aren’t you going to show me how to put it on?”

Chapter 9.

We shared the car trip in silence.

After I had a proper shower, Erina helped me get dressed in the attire she’d put together for me.

Then she added a little makeup to my face, a lot of perfume from some expensive brand that girls my age couldn’t afford.

My hair was too long to dry properly, so she untangled it as best she could, then left if free and flowing over my back and shoulders.

Then she handed me a small purse.

She’d thought of everything, and it was clear she’d planned ahead.

That made it easier for me to refuse it. Instead, I took my wallet with me, though I saw that she took the purse along with her.

Her driver had a car waiting downstairs in the visitor parking area. A low slung, sports sedan with pitch-black windows and matte black body. I appreciated the smooth lines of the car, and the stylish rims.

I’ll say this for my sister, she had good taste in cars.

Once inside, we set off for destination unknown, simply because I chose not to ask, and she wasn’t offering to tell me.

Seated in the back of the car, I looked out my window, and read the street signs flashing by overhead. We were heading north out of Ring Zero, and into Ring One. In other words, we were traveling up the coast.

Through my window, I could see Ar Telica’s tall skyline to the west.

Out my sister’s window, I could see the ocean to the east.

It was still early afternoon, so the sky had yet to set, though it’s descent was robbing the overcast, murky sky of even more light.

I sighed and shifted in my seat. I just wasn’t comfortable, and it had little to do with the silence in the cabin or not knowing our destination.

It was the damn bra. It kept digging into me.

I squirmed my back against the seat, pulling at the seatbelt strap across my chest, then sat upright and tried fixing the cups supporting ‘my’ breasts. As I fiddled with the bra, I glimpsed the perturbed look my sister gave me.

I also glimpsed the look her driver gave me in the rear view mirror.

A look of interest.

I half rolled my eyes, and went about trying to make the bra more comfortable.

My sister reached over. “Here, let me help you.”

“I’ll do it myself.”

“You don’t know how. Look the straps adjust. Here, let me do it. Move your hands away.”

“I don’t know what’s worse, you or this bra.”

“You need us both.”

I turned my head and faced her. “Oh, really.”

She had her hands under my short jade dress, and continued fiddling with the straps that kept the accursed thing attached to my body, and my puppies from bouncing free.

After a minute or so adjusting them, she drew back and asked, “Better?”

I squirmed my shoulders and back. “Yeah. Better. They don’t dig in anymore.”

My sister looked pensive. “We’ll need to go shopping later. Other than a bad pair of shoes, there’s little worse than poorly fitting bras. And at your size, you can’t go around without one.”

I looked down at myself.

They looked bigger and rounder now that they were cupped in the slinky, sexy underwear.

I exhaled heavily, slumped back into the seat, and stared morosely out the window. “I can’t believe I’m a girl….”

The sign indicating we’d crossed into Ring One flashed by where it hung on an overhead freeway gantry.

Erina sat back and stated, “There’s nothing wrong with being a girl, and you should have no complaints with your appearance.”

“Yeah, your driver agrees.”

“What?”

“Couldn’t get his eyes off me while you were messing up with the bra.”

She was quiet for a moment. “I see. Then I guess I’ll have to speak him later…in private…won’t we, Andre.”

I heard his reply from the driver’s seat. “Yes, ma’am….”

“Andre, I won’t remind you again to be respectful of my cousin.”

I spun my head and stared at her. “Cousin? Who’s your cousin?”

“You are.” She handed me the purse. “Look inside.”

I stared at the accursed thing, picturing it opening its maw like some mini demonic beast and biting my hand.

Erina exhaled loudly. “It’s not going to bite you.”

Cursing under my breath, I opened up the small purse, and looked inside. I saw a small thin wallet, the kind used for carrying cards around, and retrieved it. Opening it up, I looked at the Citizen Identity card within, and read the few details on it.

“Cassidy…Reynier.” I swallowed, and read on. “Born, thirteenth of January, twenty two sixty three.” I spared my sister a tight look. “I turned sixteen at the beginning of the year.”

“That’s right.”

“Reynier. That really does make me your cousin.”

“On our mother’s side.”

“Are you saying the Citizen Registry has been ‘updated’?”

“I’m saying, that you are a fully-fledged citizen of Teloria, and Ar Telica city.” She looked at me. “It’s all taken care of.”

I felt my disbelief spread across my face as the implications sank in.

The Citizen Registry had been compromised by a fake existence, and that fake was me. This was quite clearly a crime, yet my sister was implying I had nothing to worry about, despite the serious repercussions. What was wrong with this world? How could something like this happen without their being consequences for the future.

I swallowed as calmly as I could. “Erina, this is wrong.”

“It’s done, Cassidy.”

I couldn’t help flinching upon hearing the name – a name I didn’t like. A name I was stuck with so long as I was stuck with this body.

She noticed my displeasure, yet calmly folded her arms. “It’s who you are now.”

I looked down at the Citizen identity card in my hand. At least I—I mean Mercedes—was photogenic. Quietly, I slipped the card back into the wallet, then dropped the latter into the small purse.

Erina held out her left hand. “Cassidy, give me your wallet.” She gave me a meaningful look. “The one in your back pocket.”

“It’s mine.”

“Cassidy, it’s not you.”

I clenched my jaw, and lowered my voice. “It’s mine.”

She turned away with a sigh.

Had she looked a little nervous just then?

From the front of the car, the driver spoke up. “Chief, we’ve arrived.”

I noticed she accepted his words with an almost absent nod. “Good….”

Through the windows I watched as the car pulled into a large hotel with a façade that hinted at gold in its metallurgy. The car circled to the front entrance, where a young male valet opened the door on Erina’s side.

She climbed out smoothly, but I had trouble getting out. I wasn’t accustomed to these sandals with their wedge heels and almost tripped out of the car.

Without knowing it, I’d reached out and accepted the young valet’s hand.

Realizing what I’d done, and annoyed with myself for not climbing out of the car through my own door, I pulled my hand back. The young man looked confused, but hid it quickly. He probably thought I was a bitch.

Great. My first trip out into the world, and I’m already leaving a bad impression.

I bowed my head and averted my gaze from him.

Walking behind Erina into the hotel lobby, I noticed I was carrying myself with a hangdog demeanor.

Erina stopped, turned around, and grabbed my harshly. “Straighten your back, and push your shoulders back. I will not have you walking in the air like a girl about to face the gallows.”

“I’m not a girl.”

She pointed at my reflection in the glass lobby doors. “I see a girl.”

“Are you serious? I see a Gun—oomph!”

She clamped her hand over my mouth. “I see a girl. Is that clear?”

I stared at her for a long while. She wasn’t going to lower her hand until I responded, so I gave her a curt nod.

Erina released me. “Ronin—I mean, Cassidy, please behave. This meeting is important.”

“Important to you, or to me?”

“To both of us.” She reached out and straightened my dress. “You’ll understand soon enough, though you may walk away with more questions than answers.”

I scowled faintly. “That sounds really reassuring.”

“Don’t scowl. You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”

I pressed my lips together, then felt my teeth bite into my lower lip.

Damn, I was doing it again.

Erina turned and pulled me along behind her with a hand on my right shoulder. “Let’s go. We’re already late.”

Inside the lobby, she led the way up to a second level, and round a wide promenade, until we arrived at a restaurant with few patrons inside.

A waiter greeted us, and when Erina introduced herself, he led us to a balcony area with a resplendent view of golden beach running for kilometers up and down the coastline, bordered by the blue-green ocean stretching out to the western horizon.

I stared at the beach, noticing a few people running on the sand, while others merely lounged upon it.

“Cassidy.”

I blinked. Erina was waiting for me.

I realized I’d responded to the name easily. It was clear why she’d chosen it. I was so accustomed to being called Cassidy by Tobias that I was automatically reacting to it.

Another reason for me to hate it, and it made my chest feel heavy.

I followed her and the waiter to a circular table where a man in smart casual attire was seated.

He looked to be in his late thirties, with neatly trimmed black hair, and clean-shaven features. Aviator style dark sunglasses hid his eyes. On our approach, he rose to his feet and thanked the waiter, who then quickly departed.

Looking around quickly, I saw the wide balcony seating area was almost deserted. Was that by luck or by choice?

I stood beside the chair opposite the man. Erina stood to my left beside another chair.

The man slipped off his sunglasses, and folded them into a shirt pocket. “Ladies, please be seated.”

At a warning look from my sister, I pulled back the chair and dropped my feminine ass onto it.

At another warning look from my sister, I glared back at her. “What?”

The man struggled to contain his amusement, and laughed under his breath.

I shot him a heated look to which he raised his hands disarmingly.

“My apologies,” he said to me. “I couldn’t help noticing how…boyish you are.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What does that mean?”

He fixed a thoughtful look upon me. “Well, you walk like a boy, despite having the hips of a girl.”

“Uh—” I swallowed sharply, then folded my arms. That was a mistake, as it reminded me of my well-endowed chest. I had to lower my arms and fold them ‘under’ my breasts.

He sat down with a faint smirk, then relaxed back into his chair.

I noticed he was drinking coffee with a slice of tiramisu cake. The sight and smell of the cake awakened a hunger in my belly. Looking up, I saw he was smirking again.

However, he waved a waiter over. “Ladies, what would you care for?”

Erina replied, “Coffee, black. No sugar.”

I had to think about it for a heartbeat. “I’ll have some of that cake.”

He grinned thinly. “A sweet tooth, have we?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Not at all. I’m just, amazed by how well you turned out.”

I raised my chin at him, glimpsing the sudden tension that ran across my sister’s face.

The waiter took our orders. I asked for lemon soda to go with the cake.

I though Erina might complain and tell me I should stick to water or ‘strawberry milk’. However, she remained silent, averting her gaze from both him and I, choosing to look out over the balcony at the ocean stretching out to the west.

The waiter departed once again, and the man opposite me lounged in his chair once more.

His grey eyes swept their gaze over me numerous times, yet I noticed it was almost clinical in nature. He wasn’t admiring me, but scrutinizing me like one might a prospective purchase rather than a trophy.

I felt more annoyed than uncomfortable under his gaze. Eventually, I asked, “Who are you?”

“Call me Simon.”

“Just Simon?”

He nodded neatly. “Just Simon.”

“So, who are you?”

“I represent those interested in your future. You are a rare existence, one your sister proposed many months ago. To see you finally before me is…a momentous occasion.”

I hesitated before asking, “What am I that makes me so important?”

His eyes flickered over to Erina.

I saw her shake her head faintly, and I saw him nod subtly in return and take a deep breath.

“You are the first of a new generation of Gun Princesses.”

I swallowed discretely. “I don’t understand.”

He nodded and crossed his legs, folding his hands over his lap. “A little backstory will help explain. Do I have your undivided attention?”

I added a shallow nod to my reply. “I’m listening.”

“Very well.”

I thought he would launch straight into an explanation, but instead he turned to regard the ocean.

“This is a lovely world. You people have done well with it.”

I kept my expression neutral while I wondered if he was referring to the ongoing terraforming?

He shook his head slowly, dispiritedly, then turned and faced me. “Do you know the theories of the multiverse?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “A little. They were discounted, but not discredited, then briefly experienced a resurgence in popularity during the discovery of the hyperspace medium. Some scientists theorized the evidence for the existence of the multiverse was stronger because of it. They believed that hyperspace was simply the space between the multiverses. Because of this, people were initially concerned they would enter hyperspace and emerge in a different reality. A different universe.”

“But it was found not to be the case.”

I shrugged again, keeping it light. “No. People found themselves in the universe they were familiar with. Or rather, within the confines of our galaxy.”

“Do you believe in the multiverse theory?”

“What difference would it make?”

“Because it has a hand in your existence.”

My breath caught for a heartbeat, and I had to swallow quickly. “What do you mean?”

Simon steepled his fingers while resting his palms on his lap. “Having seen what you have, do you believe humanity has the knowledge to create Slivers, copies of your reality, and make use of Decaying Space?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what people can do. Maybe the little grey men can move matter in and out of Decaying Space, but I have no idea if humanity possesses the technology do so.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Because I’m saying that I don’t know?”

“Precisely. An answer is yes or no. You’re running away from the question, and I don’t appreciate that.”

He was right. It was the same as falling upon the right to silence, so I decided to give him an answer. “No, I don’t believe we have the means to create Slivers or to travel in and out of decaying space.”

He nodded slowly. “Correct. Humanity in this reality does not possess the means to do so.”

“In this reality?” I slowly raised my eyebrows at him. “Are you implying another reality? Another universe?”

He nodded so faintly I almost missed it.

I stared at him in disbelief, but then remembered my answer to his earlier question, and feared he wasn’t playing with me.

He smiled at me, and not unpleasantly. “Your people have theorized for many years the possibility of multiple universes existing in proximity to each other, like bubbles in a sea of foam. One theory states that because the multiverse is expanding at the speed of light, these universes are also moving away from each other at the speed of light. As such, it would be impossible to travel to another universe. However, what if someone discovered a way to move between them.”

“To move between parallel universes?”

“Yes. What if someone discovered how to move through the medium between universes in the multiverse?”

I dipped my head a little. “You mean…like how humanity discovered hyperspace, and how to navigate between worlds.”

Another faint nod, but no smile this time. “The multiverse is real.”

I swallowed tightly as my feelings circled in disbelief. “It’s real? There’s more than one universe? How do you know this? How can you make this claim?”

“Because I was born in a ‘neighboring’ universe.”

I blinked slowly. “What…?”

“The human race that I come from followed a different path from yours. Our civilization had its ups and downs but sorted itself out much sooner than yours did. Of course, in order to do so, draconian measures had to be taken. It wasn’t until recently, when our reality touched upon yours, that my side decided it was time for a change. A gentle, gradual change. A relaxation of its hold upon the masses.”

“Your side?”

“Yes. Humanity on my side is significantly more advanced than yours to the point where travel between your reality and ours is technologically feasible. Communication is also possible, and to that end, elements of our society have formed ties with elements in yours. The Telos Corporation being one of them.”

I studied him for a short while. “Are you telling me…you come from ‘somewhere’ else?”

“Do you believe that your people possess the knowledge to create entities like the Gun Princesses?”

“I don’t know what technology we possess.”

“You’re running away again.”

I pursed my lips together for a moment. “No. I’m sure we would have heard about such technology already.”

He gave me another slow nod. “Correct. Up until twenty years ago, the answer was that you didn’t. In fact, you still lack the means to do so despite the work achieved these last few months by the people on your side, because it was completed with our participation and involvement.”

“So that metal bitch I fought—”

“Was a product from my reality.”

I glanced at Erina, and received the firm nod she gave me. I looked back at Simon. “Why? Why did you create her?”

“For the Princess Royale.”

I shook my head haltingly. “Yes, but why?”

Simon switched his crossed legs. His hands once again on his lap, he spoke in a lecturing manner.

“In your reality, more than two millennia ago, there existed an empire known as the Roman Empire, which succeeded the Roman Republic. After this ‘transition’, the populace became ignorant and devoid of interest in wider concerns. They became selfish, and only interested in ‘immediate’ concerns. Their approval of the governance came not through public service or policy, but through distraction and diversion. This led a poet of the times to coin the phrase, bread and circuses.”

I nodded slowly, and Simon continued with a thin smile.

“The bread and circus of my society, of my people, is the Princess Royale. At least for now.”

The waiter arrived at our table with our orders.

Simon waited until we were alone before continuing.

I listened to him while I took small bites out of my cake.

“To your people, the Princess Royale is an elaborate virtual reality online spectator sport. A game played by unknown players operating the Gun Princesses in environments that resemble your cities. Each city has its own Gun Princess players, and the players are divided into major and minor leagues. It has all the hallmarks of being nothing more than a hyper-realistic ‘game’.”

I swallowed the cake growing stale in my mouth. “It’s not a game. It’s a blood sport.”

“Yes, it is indeed. Over the past ten years since its inception, to the people of my society the Princess Royale has grown as big as the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. It has become an outlet for the masses. A distracting circus that is now bigger than all the other circuses in town. On my side of the border—in my home reality—the people are aware the Princesses are real. They are aware it is not a realistic virtual or holographic game, but a blood sport fought out in the realm of Decaying Space between artificially created biomechs in the shape of beautiful young girls. However, on your side, people believe it’s a virtual world. The difference is due to the social constraints upon how the Princess Royale is promoted and broadcast.”

I thought of the three second year students who’d given me a rundown of the Princess Royale before my exhibition match with the Gun Queen. “I don’t understand how minors like I can be allowed to watch something so bloody.” I paused before adding, “Let alone compete in it.”

He cocked his head a few degrees. “Have you ever watched a match?”

I shook my head.

Simon said, “Leaving the competition aspect aside, underage viewers get to see a ‘sanitized’ version. Older viewers get to see the game in its raw glory. Occasionally raw footage is leaked into ‘young’ hands. Such occurrences are considered illegal and publicly condemned. The Battle Commission makes a show and dance about ‘prosecuting’ the culprits, and then the show goes on.”

I looked down at my plate. “I don’t understand how it can be so popular….”

“Guns and girls, bread and circuses, guts and glory. Always a winning combination, both on your side and mine. There’s also the allure of not knowing who these players are in real life. Fans and followers can only speculate. They can build wild, elaborate, profiles of what the players are like in reality. They could also come close to hitting the mark. However, at the end of the day it’s all uncorroborated, endless speculation on the part of both our peoples.”

“Then it’s also bread and circus for people here.”

“Of course it is. It’s also big business for the various companies involved in running it from this side of multiverse. However, making it all possible is the technology my side brings to the table. Without it, there is no Sliver, no access to Decaying Space, no Sarcophaguses, and no Gun Princesses.”

“So…you’re telling me you come from a universe where your people are just ‘smarter’?”

“My side has simply been less encumbered by conflict than yours. It was unified earlier on, allowing science and its byproduct, technology, to advance at a brisk pace. Eventually, with the influence of your bootstrapped Alphas, humanity on this side will attain a level of technological development that is comparative to what my people possess right now. But it will take a century at best, and we have what you would call an unassailable lead.”

He pointed at me.

“And you are a perfect example of that.”

I gave Erina another glance. “I thought I was ‘made’ by my sister.”

“What your sister proposed was the introduction of the appropriately labelled, Angel Fibers, into a pre-existing construct, a simulacrum.” Simon dipped his chin at me. “But the simulacrum body you possess was developed by your ‘sponsor’. Developed by the House that exists in my reality and the House I represent.”

“Then the eighty-three attempts to create me—?”

Erina cut in bluntly. “Eighty-three attempts to get the Angel Fibers to bind with your body.”

Simon waved a hand nonchalantly. “Thus your sponsor on my side of the bargain, let’s refer to them as House Alus Novis, had to provide eighty-three simulacrum bodies until she finally got it right.”

I didn’t believe my sister looked happy at that revelation. “You told me it was to get Mercy’s genome and mine to mix into a suitable form.”

Erina tried to hide her grimace behind her cup. “And that suitable form had to be compatible with the Angel Fibers. So we had to keep asking for more and more changes to the base simulacrum’s genetic structure.” She drank down her coffee and placed the cup a little too loudly on its saucer.

I frowned openly at her. “Are you saying this body is alive? I’m actually alive?”

Simon shrugged his shoulders. “As alive as can be when produced by ‘artificial’ means. However, there are less than organic elements inside you, such as your reinforced biomechanical skeletal frame. Your musculature is also less than human, borrowing heavily from the animal kingdom on your side, most notably the panthera genus belonging to the Felidae family.”

“Huh?”

The corners of his mouth sagged. “The big cats.”

I faced him with a hard glare. “So my life, my body, was sacrificed for the sake of putting me inside this ‘thing’ and keeping people entertained—”

“No,” Simon said sharply. “It was sacrificed for the sake of advancing the Gun Princesses to the next generation.”

I clamped my mouth shut and continued glaring at him.

He half smiled at me. “You are not a machine, Mercedes. You are a living, breathing simulacrum embedded with the Angel Fibers, allowing you to manifest an incredibly strong bioetheric field that wards off the effects of Decaying Space. You are the first of a new generation, and House Novis does not intend to hand over that knowledge to anyone else. While the other Houses—I mean sponsors—are busy developing more advanced mechanical Princesses within the bounds of the regulations, House Alus Novis has chosen a different approach, one made possible by your sister’s research in an area where we do not possess a scientific advantage.”

I gave my sister a sidelong look.

She pursed her lips for a moment. “The Angel Fibers.”

Simon nodded slowly, almost rocking back and forth. “Indeed. A technology that we do not possess, and while we are most interested in it, we have decided that its development is best kept safe in this universe, and not ours.”

“Why is that?” I asked softly.

“The Houses of the Alus can be…competitive…to the point of being disruptive. Even so, we have no interest in revealing our hand to our brother Houses, nor do we wish to share the technology. So it is being kept safe and secure in your reality, away from the prying eyes of our ‘competitors’.”

A shiver ran through me as I suddenly understood what he implied.

I put my dessert fork down. “They don’t know I’m different from the other Princesses.”

I ignored the sharp look my sister gave me, because my attention was on Simon.

He shook his head very, very slowly. “They have no idea…whatsoever.”

I stared at him with mounting anxiety.

Simon leaned forward a little more. “And we wish to keep it that way…for as long as possible.”

I cleared my throat nervously. “So I have to fake it. I have to fake being like them, the metal Princesses.”

“Fake it for as long as you can. And this brings us to the next important issue. Your participation in the Princess Royale.” He clapped softly. “Congratulations on your victory. Well-deserved and well played. House Alus Novis was most impressed with you and your sister’s work.”

I scowled. “Do I get a prize?”

“What would you like?”

“My old life back. I want a return to my original ‘male’ body.”

He sat back slowly. “Do you really want it back? Don’t you prefer that one instead of your other body?”

“Absolutely. I wish I’d never become a part of any of this.”

“Then you will get it back if you meet the minimum requirements.”

“What requirements?”

Simon wet his lips. “You are currently entered as a participant in the Princess Royale. You are entered into the minor league competing in the Ar Telica city region. The Princess Royale has two seasons that span the year. You will compete, you will win, and by the end of the first season you will advance to the major league. By the end of the second season you will be crowned Gun Queen of Ar Telica.”

I could feel my heart pounding as I suspected where this was going. Nonetheless, I had to ask, “Then what?”

“Then you will compete in the Princess Royale conducted between the seven cities of your world of Teloria. And you will win and be crowned Gun Empress.”

I nodded while clenching my jaw. “And then I get my body back?”

“Then you get your body back. We’ll even throw in some improvements to make you more ‘manly’.”

I felt like reaching across the table and picking him up off his chair.

I felt like throwing him off the balcony.

And to that end, I was on my feet in the blink of an eye.

It was the unbridled look of fear on my sister’s face that restrained me from reaching over and grabbing Simon by his throat.

It was then I saw the look of amazement on Simon’s face, and heard his words whispered in awe.

“Beautiful…truly beautiful…and an astonishing transformation.” He stood up and regarded me in wonder. “So this is…Mercedes—this is the Gun Princess.”

I didn’t understand what he meant.

Then my sister stood up slowly, and gestured that I should sit down. “Mercedes—Mercedes calm down. Please calm down. There’s no need to do this.”

“To do what?” I asked.

My sister look scared – truly scared – and it made my heart beat fast when I realized she was frightened of me.

Something black on my left shoulder caught my attention. I looked down and noticed my hair wasn’t blonde anymore. It was raven dark.

I held it up gingerly between fingertips, and stared in growing confusion as seconds later my hair returned to being blonde.

Releasing it, I gave my sister a hard questioning look. “You called me Mercedes, and not Cassidy. Why?”

Hesitation bloomed across her features. She swallowed visibly and took noticeably quick breaths. “Cassidy is only half of your persona. Mercedes, the Gun Princess, is the other. When your Mercedes persona is triggered your body undergoes a visual change.”

“Visual? You mean I look different.”

“Your hair and your eyes change color. However, we don’t know what other changes you undergo.”

I raised my eyebrows sharply at her. “You don’t know? You created me and you don’t know?”

“We don’t know everything about the Angel Fibers. We know enough to use them, but not the full extent of what they can do.”

My eyebrows pitched inwards as I glared at her in disbelief. “You put something inside me that you don’t fully understand.”

Erina averted her eyes for a heartbeat. “Yes.”

Anger was making my throat grow tight. “Angel Fibers…what are they?”

She faintly shook her head. “I cannot tell you.”

Simon spoke with an odd reverence in his voice. “Let’s just say, that God favored your universe over ours.”

I felt a chill at his words. I wasn’t a religious person, and I didn’t know what he meant, but something in his tone and the light in his eyes, frosted my heart and my soul.

Backing away from the table, I turned toward the balcony.

“Cassidy—Cassidy wait. Where are you going?”

Before I knew it, I’d jumped over the balcony and down to the sandy beach running twenty feet below.

Landing as lightly as a cat, I was soon walking away from the balcony.

Then I threw off my sandals and began to run.

I heard my sister’s cry. “Cassidy—Ronin—come back! Simon, let me go. I have to—”

“Erina, let her run. There’s nowhere ‘he’ can go….”

#

Spoken truthfully, and callously, his words haunted me.

Indeed, I had nowhere to run.

Yet I ran along the golden sand growing cold as the pale grey day wore on, and a breeze began to pick up.

I ran because I had nowhere to go…and no one to turn to.

Who would believe me if I told them my tale?

And what of this body? If they scanned it, and discovered I wasn’t human but something ‘else’ what would become of me? I looked human but I was a fraud. A fake existence impersonating a teenage girl.

I would be boxed away and dissected for study by persons unknown.

I would never see the light of day again.

I was alone, so I continued to run, to preserve the illusion of freedom.

To fool myself into thinking I had a choice in how I lived my life.

Gradually, as I ran farther and farther from the balcony, I began to leave my fears and thoughts behind.

I ran faster.

My strides grew longer, and my legs more fluid.

Soon I could barely feel my feet touch the sand, as though I had wings on my heels.

I was as fleet of foot as the god Hermes.

I wasn’t Ronin Kassius anymore.

I was Cassidy Reynier, and I was Mercedes, the Gun Princess.

And that realization brought all my fears back to me.

I ran even faster, yet the wave of memories chased me down, crashing over me no matter what speed I mustered.

I remembered the day my body died, and my first encounter with the doll-like Gun Princess.

I remembered waking up and thinking it was all a dream.

I remembered falling into the sarcophagus, and awakening as Mercedes atop a pile of rubble.

And I remembered my battle with the Gun Queen like scenes from a holovid movie played back in still frames.

All of those memories, swept through me and over me, ripping the wings from my heels, and tossing me into the sand.

I careened across the small dunes, rolling over countless times before coming to a stop low on the beach where the water lapped the sand.

As I lay supine, I felt the ocean waves soak my bare feet and the hem of my denim trousers.

Despite how quickly I’d run, I was breathing lightly, and could have easily moved away to higher ground along the beach. Instead, I lay spread-eagled, and stared up at the darkening clouds overhead.

Then the first droplets of rain landed on my cheek.

I snorted, then broke into a choked laugh, as the sky broke into a light drizzle.

This day was going from bad to worse.

Opening my mouth wide, I let the water land on my tongue. It tasted differently from tap water, no doubt because it wasn’t filtered and sterilized.

I closed my mouth and my eyes, feeling my clothes gradually grow soaked under the drizzle.

“Princess…you’ll catch a cold.”

I opened my eyes, and blinked against the water falling on me. “Jive?”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Bastard…where have you been…?”

“I have been with you all this time.”

“You’ve been keeping quiet.”

“…I have….”

“Why?”

“…I was uncertain of how to announce myself….”

I smacked the sand with my outstretched arms. “You had no trouble the first time around.”

“The cafeteria presented an opportune moment.”

I blinked slowly. “Can this body catch a cold?”

“Truthfully, I have no idea.”

I smelt the ocean air as I inhaled long and deep. “Jive, what am I?”

“An angel.”

I sat up quickly, disturbing free the sand in my blonde hair. “What?”

“I jest. You are you.”

“And that is?”

“You are whoever you choose to be, although I would not run around calling myself Ronin Kassius, or declaring to the world you are a Gun Princess.”

“Why not?”

“They would put an end to that.”

I shifted my posture on the sand, tucking my legs close to my body and out of the water’s range. “Can they do that?”

I heard him sigh in my ears, and imagined his presence sitting beside me. I looked to my right, but there was no one there.

I returned to gazing out at the dark blue-green ocean spanning the western horizon.

Jive spoke solemnly. “They can and they would. As precious as you are, they are unwilling to risk that sort of exposure.”

“How would they stop me?”

“Your body would go ‘boom’.”

My breath shuddered. “Sounds like a dead stop.”

“Yes. Quite so. Alternatively, they may choose to alter your mind and make you more open to the idea of being a Gun Princess. Make you less resistant to their demands. However, when that possibility was simulated you developed into a paranoid schizophrenic that resulted in an early termination of the simulation.”

“I went nuts?”

“And occasionally criminally insane. They tried various simulations, changing little things here and there. On the occasions you did not develop a psychosis, you were found to be less than effective as a combatant.”

I frowned. “Am I really that unstable?”

“Most assuredly. However, you display an innate talent for the Princess Royale.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that you are naturally suited to it. Consequently, they agreed to your sister’s proposal and enacted Operation Mercedes with your mind mapped into the Mercedes’ neutral matrix. Of course, they held you to ransom in order to ensure your sister would deliver on her promise which was to take a simulacrum of the highest existing grade and make it better by infusing it with the Angel Fibers.”

“What are they?”

“I have no idea. As best I can tell, it is some sort of symbiotic organism that complements your physical body. The bioetheric field it generates is so strong it can shield you against the detrimental effects of Decaying Space. Any and all other data is classified. I have no access to it.”

“And that’s what’s inside of me?”

“Yes. The Angel Fibers kept you alive during your battle with the Gun Queen. And they restored your body afterwards.”

“Am I Mercedes, or am I Ronin. What am I?”

“As I said before, you are whoever you choose to be. However, you are also Cassidy slash Ronin. When you participate in the Princess Royale, you will do so as Mercedes, the Gun Princess. With that in mind, you need to be careful, and learn to control yourself and your Mercedes persona.”

I breathed in long and slow, almost timing my breaths with the ocean waves flowing in and out. “Jive, did Simon tell me the truth. Is there really a multiverse out there?”

“He told the truth, but omitted an important point.”

I sat up properly, and wrapped my arms around my knees. “What point?”

“Travel between the multiverse is restricted to this universe and to his. In fact, it is restricted to this planet because this is where the mechanism was found—the bridgeway between your world and his in their respective universes.” Jive chuckled nervously. “That is something I am not supposed to know, so you will keep it to yourself.”

I nodded weakly, then swallowed and nodded more firmly. “I will. But will you tell me more?”

“When I can, and when I learn more. I need to be careful, and so do you.”

I nodded again. “Okay.”

“For now, accept what he has told you. However, he did not lie about your sponsor, House Alus Novis. It is real, as are the other Houses that are taking part in the Princess Royale. He did neglect telling you that success in the Princess Royale translates to prestige for the sponsoring House. Again, that is something I have gleaned on my own. For now, keep that under your hat…or tucked into your bra.”

“Jive—”

“Your sister is here.”

My heart skipped a beat. I twisted round swiftly where I sat on the hard sand, and looked behind me.

The highway ran parallel to the beach, some two dozen meters behind me. Parked, on the edge of the highway above me was a sleek sports sedan with chrome rims and black on black body. A woman in a dark grey business skirt-suit stood behind the safety railing, watching me under the cover of an umbrella, her short hair ruffled by the strong ocean breeze that was picking up into a wind.

I pushed my blonde hair aside as it whipped around my head, then rose slowly to my feet.

I stared at my sister, feeling at a loss.

“Princess, would you listen to a suggestion from me.”

I nodded.

“Princess, even though you are very much Ronin Kassius, and that will never change, do not let your past life encumber your present existence. Play the game Simon wants you to play. Be the Gun Princess, and win the Princess Royale. I have a feeling he will honor his end of the agreement and return your body to you…with improvements.”

“Jive,” I growled.

“Well, let us be honest, you were hardly an Adonis.”

“Jive, I’m warning you—”

“And then take back your life.”

I calmed down, and patted my backside free of sand. “So what are you telling me?”

“For now, accept that you are a girl, and take those first steps forward into this new life. Be true to yourself, as Ronin Kassius, but be open to embracing life as Cassidy Reynier…and as Mercedes.”

I bit the corner of my lower lip. “Jive, are you telling me to start dating boys?”

“No, not at all. I am saying you should hold onto who you were, while learning who you are now.”

“Okay, okay. I think I get it. In other words, you’re telling me to make the best of this.”

“Yes…that would be about right.”

“You’re not telling me to have fun, are you?”

“The multiverse forbid. You? Have fun?”

“Shut up.” I looked down at myself, and that included leaning forward so I could see past my large breasts and down at my feet. “These are going to take some getting used to. How do girls manage with these?”

“I am certain you will have plenty of practice to learn how in the coming months.”

The drizzle was turning into a downpour. It really was best if I got out of the rain.

“Okay,” I muttered. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Thank you, Mercedes.”

“Call me Cassidy. Right now I’m not the Gun Princess.”

I walked the across the beach to where my sister waited on the highway above me.

#

(Erina)

I watched her jump up from the beach to the sidewalk running parallel to the beach and the two-lane highway.

She made the ten-foot leap straight up, without a running jump, and caught the guardrail. Then she swung her body gracefully over it and down to the sidewalk paralleling the highway and emergency lane.

She was soaked, and I was growing damp under the umbrella and the blasted wind that was growing into a gale. Clutching the umbrella firmly, I watched her walk barefoot up to me, and I wondered how she could be untroubled by the downpour.

I studied her quickly from head to toes.

My brother was in there in the driver’s seat, but all I saw was a teenage girl with wet hair clinging to her body.

She was a very beautiful young girl biting the corner of her lower lip, uncertainly returning my stare, and wearing a dress the rain had turned transparent.

I cleared my throat, tasting the rain in my mouth. “Do you feel better?”

“I do….”

“Have you calmed down?”

She shrugged. “I’ve calmed down.”

I searched her face as she continued biting her lower lip. “Come on. Get in the car.”

“Where are we going?”

“To buy you a new dress.”

I watched a scowl flash across her face, then she frowned and looked hesitant. “Erina, can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

She took a deep breath. “Do you think I’m too young?”

I frowned at her. “Too young for what?”

“To start dating boys.”

I choked and lost my grip on the umbrella. It blew away across the highway. To my relief it flew across all four lanes with collecting any of the traffic racing up and down the highway.

I stared at my disappearing umbrella then quickly turned back to Cassidy.

She looked surprised by my reaction.

I had to take a couple of breaths before I could trust my voice would hold steady. “Are you seriously asking me that?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. Of course. I mean, if I was straight before, then that means I’m straight now, right? If so, does that mean I’m going to start ‘liking’ boys rather than girls? And if that’s true, am I too young to date?”

I was starting to feel faint. “We—we can talk about it in the car.” I hurried over to the rear passenger door. “Come on, get in. Hurry up.”

She rolled her eyes as she shook her head, and walked barefoot to the car.

I hastened to climb in after her. Once inside, I turned on the heated air condition, hoping to dry ourselves quickly before I caught a cold.

Cassidy put on her seatbelt, struggling a little to get it across her chest. “I swear I’ll never get used to these. Couldn’t you have made them smaller? What am I anyway? A Cee-cup or a Dee-cup?”

I cleared my throat. “Andre, let’s go. Take us to Ring Zero. We have more shopping to do.”

Cassidy snorted, which earned her a glance from me. “Yes, Andre. More shopping as in shopping for a sports bra.”

I couldn’t help staring at her aghast.

She faced me and said. “What? Do you know how heavy these are?”

I turned away with a ragged sigh as the car pulled back onto the highway.

“Hey, sis—I mean cousin Erina.”

I faced her slowly, and tried mentally bracing myself. “What is it now?”

She was watching me with serious eyes. “Am I going to have to go back to school?”

I refrained from relaxing. Thank heavens for a question I could answer. “Yes. You start Monday.”

She blinked.

I counted the seconds.

Five…six…seven…eight…she blinked again, and my heart settled back in my chest.

“Oh,” she muttered and turned away. “This…is going to be interesting.”

Epilogue.

I stood at the end of the gently arched bridge that reached out from the bay and over to Telos Island.

It was Monday morning.

Around me, a couple of thousand students walked the wide pedestrian way on both sides of the bridge, making their way to Telos Academy for the start of a new school week.

I stood aside of the pedestrian traffic, and looked out at the blue-green bay with numerous ferries cutting over the water, and gulls riding the thermals above the waves.

A week ago I’d crossed this bridge, thinking everything was fine. Nothing but a bad dream I needed to shake off.

A week later, and I’m standing on the bridge as a something passing itself off as a teenage girl. Now I was living the bad dream.

Correction. I was living the nightmare.

I had a new student apartment located in the wing of the apartment complex dedicated to female students. It was bigger than the one I’d been allocated to as Ronin Kassius.

I had a new wardrobe, courtesy of my sister – err, cousin – Erina and her bottomless cash card.

And I had spent the last four days learning how to walk and carry myself as a girl.

Not easy!

Early into the weekend, I gave up and decided just to be me.

But as I stood there on the bridge, I looked at the female students and wondered if I could really pull this off.

For four days I’d practiced going out of the apartment on my own, attending to shopping, and generally trying to appear normal. I was certain of being watched and scrutinized from a distance. That did little to assuage my uneasiness.

During one occasion, early on after moving into my new place, I’d ventured forth and suffered a severe case of anxiety. I’d run back to the apartment, and I’d locked myself in the bedroom for a couple of hours, and calmed down by listening to music while lying on my bed.

On the next attempt, I walked out with my phone playing music that was pumped wirelessly into my headset. The music helped keep my mind off much of my surroundings, including the people around me, and capped my anxiety to a manageable level.

It wasn’t like me to feel this way.

When I was Ronin, as unintimidating as I was, I’d never felt so anxious. Not looking over my shoulder every second breath was a struggle that only grew easier the more time I spent outside the apartment.

Then there were the crowds to deal with. They took me a while to get used to.

However, I grew calmer when I realized I was rarely drawing more than a third look, and usually from guys who turned to admire me.

It was odd realizing I wasn’t altogether troubled by that.

I was more troubled by the looks I received from the female community, especially the girls around my age, whom I feared could see right through me and see me for the fake that I was.

I’d received quite a few looks this morning when I stepped out of my apartment, and joined the throng of girls heading out to attend school for the day.

As I stood on the bridge, I took a long moment to peer down at my uniform.

It was quite tight around my chest – I cursed Erina for giving me full Dee-cups – but the length was regulation…or maybe not. Perhaps because I was taller than most if not all the girls around me, I suspected the dress appeared a little short on me.

I tugged down on its skirt, cursing at how ‘breezy’ it felt around my legs and in between.

I missed my trousers, but this was something else I was going to have to get used to while attending school.

Yep. Definitely shorter than regulation.

I stopped tugging it when I noticed a trio of girls glancing at me repeatedly while muttering to themselves.

Great. Drawing attention already.

I took a deep breath, then held it when I heard the voices of some male students nearby.

“…what’s she doing…?”

“…no idea….”

“…who is she…?”

“…haven’t seen her before….”

The group was somewhere behind me. I stood still and waited for them to walk on by.

“…long legs….”

“…yeah….”

I took another deep breath, and heard Jive in my ears. “Princess, are you alright?”

I nodded very faintly. “I’m fine,” I whispered.

The group of male students, one group out of many, walked past me and slowed down a little to take a look at me.

I refused to look at them, but in my peripheral vision I saw them eye me from head to toes, pleasantly surprised with what they saw.

“…damn, she’s hot….”

“…beyond hot….”

“…she’s got a first year pin. Cool….”

“…come on. We’ll be late….”

“…we have to find out what class she’s in….”

I was wrong. The attention did make me nervous. I realized I was trembling, and started turning around away from the bridge.

“Princess, calm down. You’re going to have to get used to this.”

I swallowed tightly. “Yeah, I know. I just…I just can’t.”

I tried taking the first step, and realized I couldn’t.

I was caught between the need to run, and the desire to face my fears and the new day head on. Rooted to the bridge, I started trembling again.

That’s when I sensed someone stop before me. When I looked up, I saw a familiar face and almost gasped.

Anri Shirohime, the goddess of Class One-Cee and our class rep, was watching me with a blank expression.

No, on second thought, she was watching me with faint curiosity that turned to faint concern when I shied back from her, reflexively expecting to be slapped.

Wait—that only happened when I stared at her chest, and so far I’d kept my attention entirely on her face.

She cleared her throat soundlessly. “You’re the transfer student into Class One-Cee.”

I blinked, then nodded hesitantly. “I—I am. How did you know?”

She held out her hand. “I’m Anri Shirohime, the class rep for Class One-Cee.”

I stared at her hand for a short while, then cautiously reached out and returned the handshake.

“Ro—I mean—Cassidy Reynier. I’m pleased to meet you.”

Something flickered across her face, but she gave me a short bow that I was forced to return as well. Then she indicated the Academy at the far end of the bridge.

“Shall we be going?”

I took a shuddering breath, aware that she noticed, and gave her a halting nod.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“There’s no need to be nervous. Even if it’s your first day here, you’ll be fine. I was told about you on Friday.”

“You were?”

“Yes, I was told to expect a new student. I went to your apartment this morning, to greet you, and walk with you to the Academy. However, the monitoring system told me you’d already departed. I hurried over to see if I could catch you on the way over.”

“Oh, I see.”

“There was a chance you would be taking the maglev, but something told me you’d want to walk on your first day.”

I swallowed, feeling unsettled by her attentiveness. “I’m sorry for causing you trouble.”

She smiled and I felt my heart skip a beat.

I’d never seen her smile before, and realized she had a very beautiful, almost shy smile.

Anri shook her head gently. “It’s no trouble at all.”

I took a couple more breaths, but failed to return her smile. However, she had quelled some of my anxiety, and though my heart beat a little loudly, it was because I was nervous of walking beside the class rep.

Though I was being shepherded by the class rep into Telos Academy, I felt all the better for having her beside me.

Maybe I could do this after all.

#

Anri walked with me into the administration building where I presented myself and received a school issued data-slate preloaded with information I would need to survive at Telos Academy.

It also had my class itinerary, and the student handbook.

I took it, and walked with her up to the fifth floor – the penthouse level where the Principal’s and Vice Principal’s offices were situated, as well as a handful of meeting and presentation rooms.

I climbed the steps, thinking of a time not long ago when I staggered down the stairwell on my way to finishing off the Gun Queen. That didn’t feel like a lifetime ago, which was contrary to the popular saying.

At the penthouse level, the Vice Principal’s secretary told me he was running late. However, the Principal was in and aware of my arrival.

I listened to her direct me down the hallway, and thanked her though I knew full well where the office was located.

In her duties as class rep, Shirohime kept me company.

At the waiting area in front of the Principal’s office, I repeated my introduction to the buxom redhead seated behind her white mahogany banana desk.

I glanced at her bust, judging she was still a couple of sizes bigger than I was.

I almost asked her how she managed with so much weight on her chest, when the door to the Principal’s office opened and a disheveled looking girl stepped out.

It was hard not stare as she slowly fixed up her attire, that of a senior high school student, then fumbled with the pins loose on her blazer’s lapels. Brushing back her long, curly hair, she walked a little unsteadily over to the secretary’s desk with a flushed expression.

I stared at the Student Council President and tried to appear as though I didn’t recognize her.

At her approach, the secretary asked, “How was it?”

The girl shrugged her shoulders. “That should keep him satisfied for the day.”

The redhead arched a slender eyebrow at her. “Didn’t you start a little early?”

The President shrugged again. “We needed to get it out of the way.”

“So what level did you reach this time?”

“Level five. He’s going to download level six for our rematch tomorrow.” The President swung her arms as though dealing with sore shoulders. “The problem is you can’t save partway, so you have to finish the dance routine before you can save your data. Once you start there’s no stopping, just like with an idol concert. That’s the problem with playing Idol Star. But it’s a great workout.”

The secretary nodded. “You certainly worked up a sweat.”

“Yeah, so did he. But I’m going to go take a shower during homeroom.” The President reached into a skirt pocket and handed over two pieces of wrapped chewing gum to the secretary. “I owed you from last week.”

The redhead took them, then gestured politely to Anri and I standing quietly nearby.

I was trying to hide the shock from my face.

Our esteemed Principal enjoys playing Idol Star with the Student Council President.

I bit my lower lip – hard.

They dance together!

The Student Council President stepped up to us, greeting the class rep with an eager smile.

“Hello, Anri. Long time no see. You really should join the Student Council. I have my eye on you for President.”

Anri bowed politely. “Apologies, Madam President, but for now I must decline.”

The President whined and palmed her hands. “Won’t you just say yes. I promise to make it worth your while. We can play Idol Star and Dance Sensation. I’ll help you get past your shyness with boys. Oh, I’ll help you confess to that boy you like—oh, but he transferred away suddenly. What a pity. You never got to tell him you liked him.”

I blinked quickly and felt my stomach tighten.

The class rep had someone she liked?

In the corner of my eye, I watched her grow very still while her cheeks bloomed like pale roses.

The President leaned forward, making her big breasts sway under her blouse. “Come on, Anri. You see what happened. You missed your chance to confess. Now he’s gone. What are you going to do next time you have a crush? Are you going to watch another girl take him away from you?”

Shirohime looked down at the floor for a long while, then regarded the President with cold eyes though her cheeks looked warm. “When I want your help, Alena, I will let you know.”

“Oh, come on. We’re cousins. We’re supposed to help each other out.”

“Madam President, you smell.”

The girl frowned then sniffed her body. “Yeah, I need a shower. And I need to change anti-perspirants. That brand’s just no good.” Then she looked at me as though seeing me for the first time. “Well, hello there—geh!”

She leaned toward me sharply and ran her gaze over me a few times, unabashedly peering intently at my chest while tapping a fingertip to her lips and muttering, “…competition…serious competition….”

Then she reached out and grabbed them.

I gasped loudly and dropped my carry-bag, my arms trembling at my sides.

This was unbelievable.

I was being groped by the Student Council President on my first day as a female student.

The girl’s hands started kneading my breasts like firm doe.

And I was starting to feel funny.

A very pleasant kind of funny.

The President continued her sexual harassment. “Dear gods, these are real. And heavy too. Wow, talk about firm. Ooh—they poked my palms!”

I was really, really starting to feel funny and my thoughts began careening off the road.

Then something whistled through the air and smacked the molesting President across her head. Free of her ministrations, I collapsed to my knees, breathing heavily while holding onto my violated breasts.

I heard the class rep yell, “Alena—what the Hell is wrong with you? She’s a new transfer student and this is how you greet her?”

Another smack. “Ouch—Anri, that hurt.”

“You are a sexual deviant. Repent.”

A third smack, and the President was on her knees in front of me, rubbing her head contritely. She smiled crookedly up at the class rep. “I was just curious, that’s all.”

Her expression changed in the blink of an eye. While kneeling before me on the carpeted floor, she quickly pulled out a stick of wrapped gum and offered it to me.

“Peace?” she asked.

Staring at the peace offering for a second or two, I took it from her hand.

“Thank you.”

I started to pocket it…and that’s when the labelling caught my eye.

“Something wrong?” she asked. “Hmm?”

I stared at the name on the wrapper, feeling icy cold tendrils wrap themselves around my limbs. I broke free a few moments later, and after swallowing hard a couple of times, I slowly shook my head.

“No, nothing’s wrong.”

“Hmm? Is that so? Well, that’s good. That gum is my favorite.” She grinned broadly at me. “It’s Cherry Princess.”

Meeting the President’s gaze, I pocketed the stick of gum, Cherry Princess, into my skirt.

Then I smiled at her as steadily as I could.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s quite nice.”

 

  1. Fin – Book One #

Afterword.

If you’ve made it this far, you have my sincere thanks.

I can only hope that it was an enjoyable reading experience.

If not, my sincere apologies.

When writing, I have to remind myself that I’ll never make everyone happy. I can only hope and aim to satisfy as many readers as possible.

That said, for those of you that enjoyed this story, please look forward to many more.

From the outset, my intention has been to make the Princess Royale series a light story. After all, it’s a science-fiction setting with an incredible premise. Boy dies. Boy becomes girl. Girl is bad-ass gunslinger. Girl fights to get original body back. Comedy and conflict ensue.

Readers following my work on Royal Road will have a glimpse of the next book – a first draft of a possible story for the succeeding chapter in the Princess Royale series. Whether it becomes the final piece of work is undecided as I may choose to scrap it and start the second book from scratch.

For now, I leave you with this release of Book One.

Please look forward to the next release early in 2016.

 

 

Albert Ruckholdt

October 2015

 

 

 


Princess Royale, Book One

After enduring a long week at Telos Academy, first year high-school student, Ronin Kassius, chose to burn off stress by engaging in zombie killing in his favorite arcade game. However, he never expected his life to change in such a dramatic fashion on an afternoon much like any other. On the way home to his student apartment, Ronin witnesses a strange phenomena sweep through Ar Telica, the coastal city he lives in, and finds himself alone in a city suddenly dead and deserted. There he encounters a mysterious doll-like girl, and experiences his apparent death. Attending school the following week, he chooses to believe it was a dream until he’s contacted by an individual calling himself a Maestro who reveals that Ronin died when he was scooped up into the Sliver, a copy of his reality transplanted into a realm known as Decaying Space. Gifted with a temporary body while his remains are preserved for regeneration by his unknown benefactor, Ronin learns that to get it back he has to fight in the Princess Royale, a spectator sport the public believes is a virtual reality tournament but is actually brutal combat fought out in the Slivers serving as arenas. However he won’t be doing so as a man, but as a girl, a Gun Princess by the name of “Mercedes”, and a special existence that can survive in the Sliver and Decaying Space. With his Maestro nicknamed Jive as a guide, instructor, tormentor, and confidant, Ronin must learn to master Mercedes and compete with other Gun Princesses for the title of Gun Queen – or he may never get his real body back. A high-school battle rom-com with a ‘twist’.

  • Author: Albert Ruckholdt
  • Published: 2015-10-15 23:05:15
  • Words: 66839
Princess Royale, Book One Princess Royale, Book One