*This is a sample chapter from the revised Grand Slam Edition. Cover by IMbeta.
The Diamond Kingdom was home to many faces and dozens of different cultures. The resource-rich territory was a fluid flow of streets and concrete bridges spread across its 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, its color splashing out across the buildings for miles.
A siren pierced the air as the knight cruiser it was mounted on raced down the empty streets, the spinning blacklight bulbs cutting through the neon purple. Alex sat in the caged back seat, forcing herself to remain stoic with the driver’s glances in his rearview mirror. If she couldn’t handle this, she wouldn’t be able to overcome 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 her headphones or the .357 – it meant they either didn’t respect her or were secretly allies that knew what she was capable of. 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 computer 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 defaulted on their leases. 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, eyes passing the circular window that looked out at the city, following the majestic neon beam shooting from the castle’s tip through the sky.
Alex was ushered inside and down the long hall Drake had walked to kill her father, the .357’s 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 conversations 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 nonchalantly on the throne, his disfigured crowned head propped up by his hand under his chin, elbow on the armrest. A steel helmet sat on the opposite armrest 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 on a blonde woman kneeling by his feet in blue jeans and a red and white flannel shirt. “Don’t be overly dramatic,” someone responded in the chat, “politics isn’t that exciting.” Alex was shoved inside.
The flannelled woman bowed her head. “I renounce my loyalty to King Diamond,” she said, trying to sound obedient when it was never expected of her before, “and pledge it to my new king.” Dozens of people watched from the perimeter, anxiously awaiting their turn.
Alex had first met Drake four Years ago, after his predecessor’s funeral when she was 16. Magnus Zwei had introduced him and listed his significant military accomplishments abroad, 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 victory of personal importance. What stuck out was 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. “You painted me as a cartoon baby in dirty diapers sucking 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. “Your father and I had men scouring the city for you.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Alex said coolly, “I had batting practice.”
Drake pounded the control panel in the throne’s armrest- the two computer terminals dropped from the ceiling. He spun one monitor around, text big and bold in the display’s center:
ZETA OPERATING SYSTEM v1.7.2
2 ATTEMPTS UNTIL SYSTEM LOCK
“I want you to log in to the ZetaPort and transfer the lease to me.”
“Desperate to hear what everyone is saying about you, huh?” Alex asked and walked to the throne. “You could only temporarily block communication earlier.” 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 hired me because 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.”
“It was clever, Drake,” Alex said, “distract the king with protests to get to his backside. Did you have agitators working both sides?”
“Not all warfare is fought with steel,” Drake said. The comment piqued the partiers’ interest.
In the throne room again, Alex stood her ground. “There’s only one way to win my loyalty. Let’s talk policy.”
Drake walked around her as she presented a case: “Our population has spiked and ranchers need more fertile grazing land,” she said. “The only place is the northern plains, but if the miners get to the coal underneath, everyone’s energy costs drop. So, who gets it?” Drake caught himself at the question, proving he never considered such a dilemma. “Come on, you can do this,” she said sarcastically, “I even went easy and left out the environmentalists who protest whoever gets it.” He stepped up to her.
The chatter didn’t like 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.”
He grabbed her by the back of the neck and pushed her face-first into the monitors.
“Log in and make the transfer,” he said sternly. “Your father used up all my mercy for the day.”
Apparently, his solution was shutting down any talk of the problem. She fumbled her hands to the keyboard. “Okay,” she mumbled and typed. “Done.”
Drake took her place and submitted the password. The screen turned red and displayed ‘LOGIN FAILED. 1 ATTEMPT UNTIL SYSTEM LOCK.’
“That’s weird,” Alex said playfully behind him. “I could have sworn it was ‘ScrewYouDrake.’ Is there a password recovery button somewhere?”
Drake turned from the screen in anger, and right into the bottom of the .357’s canister slamming into his face. He stumbled backwards to the throne. The suspended monitors spun as he fell past, obscuring him on the seat behind.
Alex’s black hoodie hit the ground. In her blue-sleeved white raglan shirt, she held the canister out by the handle and wrapped her fingers around the .357’s grip. She slightly slid the bat up and the cap popped open.
“That ZetaPort is the kingdom’s voice!” she said and unsheathed the .357. “I won’t let you take it!”
Drake launched from the seat. He moved so fast that Alex only had time to block the collision, gripping both ends of the .357. “What do you care about their voice?” he asked, the dragon helmet on his head giving his voice a metallic tint. “You never heard it anyways!”
“It’s all I hear!” Alex said into his steel face.
“Then let’s give ‘em something to talk about!” Drake shouted.
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 underneath the bat and thrust it up under Drake’s jaw just as the thin tubes along his cheeks shot gas, transforming the flame into a jetstream of fire. Putting all her strength into her legs, she forced his head back. The geyser arced up from the far wall until it was roasting the glass ceiling.
“Is this the extent of your rule, Drake?” Alex asked, gritting her jaw so tightly she could feel it up her temples. “Intimidation and murder aren’t strong cases for loyalty.”
Drake grabbed at his side and 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 he launched more missiles her way. The people along the walls dove away from the blasts as Alex ran by.
“And what were you going to do with Zack Gunn?” she asked, batting away a shot whizzing at her head. She put all her momentum behind her bat and lunged at her foe, but Drake snatched her by the neck, lifting her enough that her sneakers dangled a foot off the ground. She choked out a last question: “Would he ever have been seen again?”
“Gunn and his idiot fans will hate my policies,” the man in the harsh steel mask said with cold blood. “And I already know how effective their protests are.”
Alex smiled at his words. “Something tells me you’ll be hearing from them,” she said and 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 moment.
“Then they’ll rise up,” she whispered.
The scene was broadcast to the rally, whose mood had turned from a party to a wake. 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 ZetaPort’s lease!” Drake hissed, his composure gone. In his madness, the flame sparked to life again.
A sad whisper came over Alex’s 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 pushed forward and 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. “Any who watches will rot! Any who speaks will hang!” The helmet’s flame 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 enemies, Drake?” she asked. “Give them the freedom to tell you what’s on their mind!” The tubes along Drake’s cheeks filled with gas.
Alex stepped her left foot out, shifting her weight to her right, and twisted her waist so she was a tight coil. She locked and loaded her batting stance, just as her father had taught her.
“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 Drake’s 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. It came from a small video screen on Drake’s forearm.
The video was of a young Drake with a full head of hair and slight scarring on his face, sitting in a sterile white government office. The video cut to a presentation an older Drake was giving to a military base auditorium, bald again. “No one can stop what’s coming next.”
Alex looked at the lifeless body with the broken face. “You’re dead,” she said to Drake on the screen, mortified.
The stream scrolled through a dozen random videos, owned by people throughout the kingdom, stopping again on one with a young boy wearing a black and white striped bandit shirt with mask and toy popgun, playing cops and robbers in his yard with his dad.
“You got me,” the boy said, dramatically grabbing his chest as if he’d been shot. “I’m dead.” He fell to the grass playfully.
Alex recognized the boy, 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 as more videos scrolled on screen, including her batting at the Diamond Stadium earlier that evening when she talked to her dad, before scrolling again. Alex realized that everyone’s media had been stolen.
The last video was Alex standing at the stadium’s crowded entrance in denim shorts and slim white shirt, her hair 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.