*This is a sample chapter from the revised Home Run Edition. Cover by IMbeta.
The Diamond Kingdom was home to many faces and dozens of different cultures. The resource-rich territory spread across fertile agricultural lands and lumber mills. And in the center of the labyrinth of residential and commercial property was the neon purple beam shooting from the top of the Diamond Castle.
The flashing police siren painted the empty streets blue and red as it raced down the asphalt. Alex sat in the back of the knight’s cruiser, fighting the feeling that the masked driver was glancing at her in the rearview mirror. It was a fight she would win. If she couldn’t handle this small modicum of stress, she had no hope of overcoming real pressure when she was needed the most.
Since he took command of the military, new faces had entered Drake’s increasingly tight army, and with them an increased rigidness. She was glad her escorts hadn’t confiscated the .357 – they either didn’t respect her or were secretly allies that knew what she could do with it. In a time of murky allegiances, both were an asset. She occupied her mind by focusing on the chatter.
As if a stream of consciousness from many minds, she heard “they have her” and “‘bout time the cops did something right” and “spoiled Princess, whatcha gonna do now?” A single calm voice broke through. “She’s not like that. She saved me. If she hadn’t shown up when she did, I don’t know what would have happened.” But that was quickly drowned out. “Hahahaha” and “yeah right, shut up” and “kill yerself.” Alex turned tiredly to the window and the passing streets.
With every second they drove, the purple beam became stronger, splashing the buildings with the warmth of royal light for a mile around. It was the soul of the city, and everything flowed outward from it.
It was the Diamond Kingdom’s ZetaPort.
As massive terminals installed directly into the Earth’s crust, the ZetaPorts network together to form the North American Motherboard, the thirty two nodes spread over the entirety of the continent. By utilizing a port’s natively running Zeta Operating System, lease holders can design custom built societies, with infinite possibilities. Since The North American Motherboard’s launch, a hundred civilizations have risen, from the barbaric Hammer Valley to the beautiful Blackletter Coast. But a society is only as stable as its leadership, so dozens had fallen into chaos and were lost. With the king’s death, the Diamond Kingdom was in danger of a similar fate.
The cruiser pulled up to the castle’s grand entrance. Alex stepped out and gazed up at the place that had long been her home. Her eyes passed the circular window that looked out over the city and followed the majestic neon beam shooting from the castle’s top to the sky above.
Alex was ushered inside and down the long hall, the .357 canister in her hands. When the thick double doors were thrown open at the end, the blinding purple light smacked her eyes and kissed her skin. She lowered her head and her golden visor filtered the intense light.
She stared into the dazzling glow blasting from the glass beneath the throne, her headphones catching the words surfing its wavelength. “What do you think is happening at the castle?” the chatter asked. Finally Alex’s eyes adjusted and she could make out details in the light: Drake sat cross legged on the throne, his disfigured crowned head propped up by his elbow on the armrest. A steel helmet sat on the opposite side with a protruding chin and two sets of rubber tubes that ran from the back across the cheeks, giving it an intimidating serpentine flair. He looked down at a blonde woman kneeling by his feet in blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. “Don’t be overly dramatic,” someone else in the chat responded, “politics isn’t that exciting.” Alex was shoved inside.
The flannelled woman bowed her head. “I swear to renounce my faith in the failed monarch,” she said, trying to sound obedient when it was never expected of her before, “and pledge loyalty to my new king.” Dozens of people watched from the perimeter, anxiously awaiting their turn before him.
Alex had first met Drake after his predecessor’s funeral when she was thirteen. Magnus Zwei had introduced him and listed his significant military accomplishments, from safeguarding the scabs during the Bowler Strike to rallying a defense for the Siege of Clay. What struck her was that after the professor had finished, Drake threw in one more of personal importance. The name of the battle wasn’t what lodged it in her mind, but the feeling that despite its considerable length, he needed to add one more item to the list, hoping to impress the young princess. Seeing the pathetic theater before her, Alex again sensed that Drake fought to win respect, a consolation prize to being loved.
Drake watched Alex stop just behind the woman. He smiled, and then looked upon his newest pledge. “I don’t believe you,” he said to her. “That wasn’t your position when you painted me as a cartoon baby in dirty diapers sucking on a gold missile.”
“That was years ago!” the woman said, shocked he read her work. “It was satire!”
The new monarch flicked his hand away. “Now it’s treason. Get her out of here.” Alex’s escorts grabbed the woman by the arms.
“What,” she gasped as she was dragged away. “No!” Her words haunted those that heard it longer than it took for its sound to fade.
Drake turned to Alex. “Welcome home, Princess,” he said smugly. “Where have you been? Your father and I had men scouring the city for you.”
“Sorry, I had batting practice,” Alex said coolly. “I see you’ve been promoted while I was away.”
“Quentin loved to say that hard work will make your dreams come true,” he said with a sly grin. “I’m only missing one thing.”
Drake pounded his fist onto the armrest and activated the control panel. He stepped from the throne as the column slid down and the monitors popped from the sides. He spun the displays around to face her and motioned to the text big and bold:
ZETA OPERATING SYSTEM v2.3.7
2 ATTEMPTS REMAIN
“I want you to log in and transfer the ZetaPort’s lease to me.”
“I know,” Alex said as she walked to the throne. “You want to be able to hear what people are saying about you.” She reached the side of the proud seat and delicately lowered her hand to the clear armrest, feeling for her father’s lingering warmth. Only his scent still clung. “I gotta admit I understand your concern.”
Drake looked at her back. “We don’t need to be enemies. Your father didn’t have a strategic mind, that’s why he hired me. He didn’t see an enemy in everyone. I really liked that about him.”
That did it. Alex had heard enough. She subtly touched the control panel and the camera across from the throne that broadcast the king’s direct messages to the city quietly turned on. At the rally, the television displayed the neon purple hall for those who had stayed ‘til the after party party. The black hoodie was tiny next to the large metal armor.
“Transfer ownership,” Drake said, “and I’ll know I have your allegiance.”
The young princess stepped from the throne, the camera catching her in full. “It was clever, Drake,” Alex said, “using the protesters to distract the king so you could get to his backside. I’m curious; did you have agitators working both sides?”
“Not all warfare is fought with steel,” Drake smiled.
In the throne room again, Alex stood her ground. “Then you should know there’s only one way to win my loyalty. Let’s see how well that strategic sense translates to policy.”
Drake walked around her as she presented a case: “The population spiked the last few years and the ranchers need more fertile grazing land,” she said. “The only place is the northern plains, but if the miners get to the coal underneath, energy costs will drop for everyone. Who gets it?” Drake caught himself at the question, proving to her he never thought he’d be presented with the dilemma. “Come on, you can do this,” she said sarcastically, “I even left out how the environmentalists are going to protest if either get it.” She had provoked a response. Drake muscled his broad chest directly into her view, shoving his Diamond Badge in her face, the only in the kingdom to have a diamond on home plate. He was trying to defeat the problem with intimidation. Alex breathed.
The chatter reacted strongly to his silence. “Doesn’t he know? – Not again! – Answer her!”
“Think carefully,” she said, looking up into Drake’s emerald eyes, “I’ve seen the consequences of failure.”
The edge of Drake’s right lip curled into a sneer. He grabbed her by the back of the neck and pushed her face-first into the monitors.
“I killed your father quickly,” he said icily, “but my mercy has its limits. Log in and make the transfer.”
Apparently his solution was to keep the people from talking about the problem. She fumbled her hands to the keyboard. “Okay,” she mumbled as she typed, her lips smooshed against the glass. “Done.”
Drake pulled her away and took her place. He submitted the password. The monitors flashed in alarm, the red text displayed ‘LOGIN FAILED. 1 ATTEMPT REMAINS’.
“That’s weird,” Alex said playfully behind him. “I could have sworn it was ‘ScrewYouDrake.’ Do you see a recover password button somewhere?”
Drake stared at the screen in anger. He moved back to face Alex.
And turned into the side of the canister slamming into his face. He stumbled backwards towards the throne and into the dual monitors. They spun inwards as he fell through, obscuring him on the seat behind.
Alex’s black hoodie hit the ground. In a white and blue-sleeved raglan shirt, she held the canister out.
“That ZetaPort is the kingdom’s voice!” she said. “I won’t let you take it!” She reached her gloved hand inside the canister and grabbed the black handle.
“What do you care?” Drake asked, hidden behind the monitors, “You never heard it anyways!”
“It’s all I hear!” Alex said, unsheathing the .357.
Drake launched from the seat, his Dragon helmet wrapped around his head. Alex lifted the .357 just in time to block their collision, Drake’s hands clutching its shaft. He leaned into Alex’s face. “Then let’s give ‘em something to talk about!” The helmet gave his scream a metallic tint.
A mechanism on Drake’s chin clicked, producing a small flame. She recognized the metal grinding sound immediately – it was burned into her memory. Reacting quickly, Alex ducked for leverage underneath the bat and thrust it up under Drake’s jaw, just as the thin tubes along his cheeks shot gas into the flame, focusing a jetstream of fire. Putting all her strength into her legs, she forced his head back. The geyser arced in a line from the far wall up until it was roasting the glass ceiling above.
“Is this the extent of your rule, Drake?” Alex asked, gritting her jaw so tightly she could feel it up her temples. “Intimidation, abuse, and murder? You’re not making a strong case for loyalty.”
Drake whipped his large sword from his hip, barely missing Alex jumping back. Just as she landed, a fireball flew at her head. She fluidly rolled away, continuing in a curved sprint towards Drake as more missiles launched her way.
“And what were you going to do with Zack Gunn?” she asked, batting away a shot whizzing at her head. The people along the walls dove away from the blasts as Alex ran by. She put all her momentum behind her bat and lunged at her foe. Unconcerned by the attack, Drake snatched her midair by the neck, lifting her high enough that the toes of her sneakers dangled a foot off the ground. She choked out her last question: “Would he ever have been seen again?”
“Gunn and his idiot fans will have issues with my policies,” the man in the harsh steel mask said with cold blood.
Alex smiled at his words. “Something tells me you’ll be hearing from them.” She nodded to the side. Drake turned in its direction.
The camera was staring directly at them, its red light on and bulbous lens capturing every frame.
“Then they’ll rise up,” she whispered.
The scene was broadcast to the hushed rally. Drake looked ferociously out at the audience from the screen, the young woman in his clutches. “My God,” someone said, “he’s a monster.” The others around her looked on in horror. Drake threw Alex back-first at the throne, and she crashed against the armrest. The crowd winced in pain.
Back at the castle, Alex painfully got to her feet.
“Transfer the lease!” Drake hissed above her, his composure gone. “I will get full control of the ZetaPort!” In his madness, the flame sparked to life again.
Alex heard a sad whisper in her headphones. “It’s inexcusable what happened to your family” then “I don’t know how we got so lost” and “I’m so sorry, Princess Alexandria…” Her hand gripped tighter around the .357’s handle.
Drake blew out another stream of fire.
Alex somersaulted to the side of the geyser. Catching the balls of her feet, she thrust the bat into Drake’s stomach, doubling him over to the loud crack of a gunshot. She hit him in the leg to bring him lower, another gunshot. She hit him in the chest to knock him onto the ground. Gunshot.
Drake fell to his hands and knees and struggled to look up. He became painfully aware of the people around the room staring at him. His embarrassment made him panic.
“Look away!” he ordered pathetically. “Anyone that watches this will rot in the prisons! Anyone that speaks of it will swing from the gallows!” The flame at the helmet’s chin flicked on again.
Alex stepped in front of him, shielding everyone in attendance from his fury. She looked him sternly in the eyes. “You know the best way to keep tabs on your people?” she asked. “Give them the freedom to tell you what’s on their mind!”
She went through a deliberate sequence of moves she had long ago mastered; she set her left foot out, twisted her waist so the foot rolled onto its toes, and brought the bat back so it ran down the length of her shoulders behind her head. She had locked and loaded her batter’s stance, wound in a tight coil. Just as her father had taught her.
“That’s how I heard you plotting your coup, Drake, even in the backchannels.” Alex could see the tubes along Drake’s face fill with gas. “I may have missed saving my dad,” she screamed, “but I won’t. Miss. YOU!”
And then the Diamond Princess pulled the trigger.
As the flame shot from Drake’s helmet, Alex snapped her body back and swung the .357 out with the force of a locomotive, driving the jetstream back into his metal face, extinguishing the fire and shattering his jaw.
A gunshot rang throughout the room, and the steel face mask shot through the large window out into the city, a game tying home run with glass shards for confetti.
As the ringing fell away, it was replaced by Alex’s heavy breathing. The audience looked at her in stunned silence. She fell to her knees in exhaustion.
“I know you’re angry,” she managed to say between breaths. “If it’ll give you the justice you need, I offer myself.”
Alex held the bat up across her hands, presenting it to the room.
“Strike me down.”
But no one dared move.
And then, a voice broke the spell. “I accept your offer.” All heads looked around in confusion. “But everyone else will pay first,” the voice said menacingly. Alex found the source, a small display on Drake’s forearm.
It was a young Drake with a full head of hair and slight scarring on his face, sitting against a sterile white background that could only have been a government office. The video cut to a presentation he was giving to a military base auditorium, bald again. “You can’t stop the progress of time.”
Alex looked at the lifeless body with the broken face. “You’re dead,” she said to the screen, mortified.
The video rolled through a dozen random videos, stopping again a second later on a heavy set man weeping in a courtroom, and cutting to more people afterwards.
“You’re right,” he sobbed. The screen scrolled.
“I am,” a blonde woman added before it scrolled away.
“Dead,” giggled a boy being tickled on a lawn. Alex recognized him, found him standing behind his parent’s legs. He stared at his phone, scared but unable to understand why. Alex pulled her CB9000 from her pocket.
It showed a video of Alex standing at the stadium’s crowded entrance in airy denim shorts and slim white shirt, her hair up in a ponytail. It closed out the bleak montage.
“I just don’t know it,” she said. Then the stream went dead.
Continued in chapter four.