Kayleb Forest was young enough to have learned the standard Thorlinthian unit system, and his marriage technically made him a citizen of Valhal, but his parents were old Earthers who raised him to think in the American units. That’s why he always felt strange when thinking he was about to compete in the EGC as a member of a Thorlinthian team against the American team. Now, as the crowds miles below cheered, he thought back to how it had all come about.
Kayleb knew from the first EGC, when a hypecast game had been previewed to Earthers for the first time, that he wanted to play. It had been hard enough in school getting special visas and time off to get into Zero G Ball; but the first time he had played, even in the safer environment of the Laser League, he had felt totally outclassed. Of course, there were very few Armadians in an appropriate age range, which meant he learned playing against adults, and Thorlinthian adults at that. Despite that fact, he loved it. He had been the first in his school to learn the Thorran language, which was standard amongst the Armada, and he was the only one in his class to learn East Valhallan, which was the language spoken by the coach on the TAS Frightbringer, where he had taken every opportunity to go and train. It wasn’t just Zero G Ball, either. By the time he’d normally have entered high school, he’d been accepted by the Armada’s Remedial Education Program, which was designed to give Earther students the opportunity to receive a Thorlinthian-level education by the majority age, which sat right around 16 years of age. He was the oldest applicant in the Frightbringer’s radius of authority to be approved for the program and the second oldest in the world. He was, by Earther standards, a genius. By Thorlinthian standards, he was slightly above average. He was the only student accepted by the Frightbringer that finished the program ahead of schedule.
Kayleb would often be called a traitor back home. He didn’t seem to feel as devoted to resisting Thorlinthian rule as a “good American” should, but that was fine by him. One doesn’t stay scrawny long playing Zero G Ball regularly, and the Peacekeepers rarely took issue with a “traitor” defending himself a little too heavily against “patriots” with a bone to pick. Peacekeeper forces were primarily manned by “traitors” themselves. He soon became friends with the Peacekeepers in his town, and he would study in their station. Sometimes, he would even get to tag along on shuttle trips to the Frightbringer on days civilians weren’t normally permitted. After his first year playing, he scored an invite to the Frightbringer to watch the second EGC live from space. He realized then that he knew both competitors from the ship’s team, including his coach, who competed in the Kohstr tournament. The other was a frequent sight in the hangar, where she could usually be seen inspecting shuttle hulls and repairing defects. He had first met her on his first visit aboard a Peacekeeper shuttle. She hadn’t expected a civilian and had quickly started swearing in East Valhallan, which Kayleb had just started picking up. He didn’t know what exactly she had said, but he recognized several words to do with eating and using the toilet. It was unlikely they were used in the appropriate context.
Seeing her play Kohstr was like watching a master chess player. Her moves held neither hesitation nor haste. She moved carefully and would only set down her hand on occasion to push back the lock of blue hair that kept loosing itself from behind her ear. He had asked about the hair, thinking it was against the rules, but an Armadian he never met had told him she had almost become a Valkyrie, but she had failed out of their academy. She wasn’t smart enough, apparently. Kayleb kept probing and learned that her name was Keria’Ledrii, named after her great grandmother or some generation past that. The Thorlinthians didn’t count generations further than that, so the word used was imprecise. Though born a Khuda’Cronell, her failure to attain Valkyrie ranks caused her to lose her title and become a Teros’Cronell. She was a young teenager at the time, one of the youngest in the Armada. Valkyrie drop-outs were apparently an exception to the age limits. Kayleb learned there were a few in the fleet, but most didn’t go on to seek a military career. It had something to do with honor or lights. The word was the same. Kayleb experienced his first crush that day, and he resolved to become one of the champions at the fourth EGC, when Zero G Ball was first scheduled to be played. Once her match was over (She lost to the Lieutenant in the first round.), Kayleb headed straight for the Zero G Court to train.
By the time the fourth EGC came around, Kayleb had almost finished his Remedial Education, but he discovered that Earthers needed a complete juvenile education to even try out for one of the teams for the qualifiers, so he couldn’t try out for the Frightbringer’s team that year. The American team required a college degree, and it didn’t look like any colleges were planning on accepting a Thorlinthian education any time soon, so he couldn’t play for them for another four years after that point, which was indeterminate. He realized at that point that he wasn’t going to get to play in the EGC. He couldn’t even start on the requirements to try out for the American team, and the ship system was being replaced by representative teams from New Valhal starting with the next games, so he couldn’t represent the Frightbringer after he finished his Thorlinthian education. The best he could do was play as a small fry in the Ship League, which would be his first time playing with semi-lethality. Still, he loved the game, and he was on his way to being a great player.
A year later, Kayleb talked to Keria’Ledrii for the first time ever down on Earth. He thought it was strange, running into her at a grocery store, but apparently, the Frightbringer wasn’t the only ship that had quite a few crew members seeking to live “ashore” somewhere that wasn’t below zero and didn’t have the Cost of Living of New Qzcivden. As it happened, the Frightbringer made its shuttle runs to his town, so the crew that wanted to live ashore almost all lived there. Keria’Ledrii happened to have an apartment about a block from Kayleb’s grocery store because of its proximity to the Peacekeeper Station, where the shuttle runs were tended. She was able to do her job from the ground about half the time, it seemed, so she actually spent quite a lot of time in town. Kayleb didn’t even realize how long he had been talking to her until his attention was drawn away by the melted ice cream dripping past his fingers. He replaced the ice cream and was surprised when he turned around to find Keria’Ledrii still standing there, leaning with her back against the opposing freezer doors. Apparently, she wanted to keep talking, but he explained he didn’t want a second carton of ice cream to melt in the store, so he headed over to the check-out. She followed him and started asking him questions about himself. He was bewildered until he looked up at the check-out clerk, who was staring at the two of them as if they were talking nonsense. At that moment, he realized he had been speaking to her in East Valhallan, which no one else in town knew. Most had picked up standard Thorran, but she spoke with a thick Valhallan dialect, and he was the first Earther who understood her. She wanted to keep talking because she had no one else to talk to. As she checked out after him, he offered to have her over for dinner at his parents’ house. She commented on how nice that sounded and accepted.
Kayleb’s parents didn’t know any Thorran or East Valhallan. Keria’Ledrii didn’t know any English. Nonetheless, the trio got along well that evening with Kayleb as their increasingly haggard translator. Shortly after Keria’Ledrii started explaining what she did in the Armada, Kayleb reached a point where he simply didn’t know the words anymore. He told her this, and the conversation began to come to a close. Kayleb’s parents offered for her to stay the night, as dinner had carried well past dusk, but she was heading back to the ship on the first shuttle early the next morning, so she politely declined. She would be back in town in ten days’ time, though, so Kayleb’s parents invited her to come for dinner again, this time early enough that she could play a board game. Kayleb didn’t know how to say board game, but his parents brought out a few to show her, and she seemed excited at the prospect. Kayleb saw her to the door, and no one noticed that she had left her pocket wireless until Kayleb got up for the late morning shuttle to the Frightbringer for practice. He grabbed it and brought it along with him to the ship. When it landed on the ship, the door opened, and Kayleb could see Keria’Ledrii across the hangar looking very concernedly at a type of ship he had never seen before. He excused himself from the rest of the Earthers on the team and headed over to speak with her. He was stopped abruptly by a very uniquely clad Armadian with black armor and a formal kilt and sash on top. Upon seeing the swords and knives, Kayleb guessed that the Dragon Rider stories were more than legend and didn’t argue about being stopped. He did, however, tell the Dragon Rider that he had the wireless belonging to the hull technician working on his Dragon.
He must have worded that wrongly, however, since he immediately found himself pinned to the ground, the Dragon Rider shouting at him in Osgordian, which Kayleb recognized but didn’t speak. To his surprise, however, he soon heard a familiar voice shouting right back at the Dragon Rider in the same language with what Kayleb was certain was an incredibly thick Valhallan accent. Occasionally, he heard some Valhallan curses pop up and the Dragon Rider was spitting hard words right back, some of which were easily distinguished by the other Earthers in the hangar as English and Thorran swear words. After at least two minutes of thinking his arm was going to be snapped any second, Kayleb found the weight of the Dragon Rider suddenly lifted from his body and the grip gone. He heard a crash and a squeal and looked to see the Dragon Rider about 50 yards away, having smashed into a light shuttle’s nose so hard the shuttle had turned, dragging its landers along for the ride. Kayleb looked the other direction and saw a bright green light fading from a very flustered face with a strand of blue hair messily hanging in front. He gaped before she said in East Valhallan with a clumsy smile, “I failed because I was stupid and lacked grace, not because I was weak.” This was clearly a reference to the Valkyries’ Academy, and Kayleb chuckled stupidly as she helped him up with his uninjured arm. Kayleb asked what that was all about, and she said the Dragon Rider had insulted her virtue and accused Kayleb of being a thief and worse. At that, Kayleb remembered the wireless and went to pull it from his pocket only to discover that that arm was dislocated. When he groaned and turned white from the pain, Keria’Ledrii called out to her supervisor and escorted him to the infirmary. Once he had been fixed up at the infirmary, he handed her the wireless, and she gave him her contact information. As they walked out, a medlifter carried in the Dragon Rider, unconscious. Keria’Ledrii reached out momentarily, and Kayleb was quite sure she broke one of the Dragon Rider’s fingers with a twist. That was the first time Kayleb was late to practice.
A year later, Kayleb turned 18 years old, and there was a small party with a couple friends from town and some from the ship. Keria’Ledrii was there, too. She had to have the significance of it all explained to her, since she wasn’t used to years, and the age of majority in Thorlinthia was different. Once she’d caught on, though, she was probably the most enthusiastic of the party-goers who weren’t in Kayleb’s family. When he asked her at the end of the night to start going out with him officially instead of just hanging out as they had been for the past year since he was finally an adult, he had to spend quite some time explaining what he meant. By the end of the conversation, they were engaged. The party decided it would keep going for a few more hours at the news.
A month later, he was informed that if he wanted to remain in the Ship League for any additional cycles, he’d have to enlist as a Peacekeeper. He said he’d think about it, but when he talked to Keria’Ledrii, she said that wasn’t necessary. He should just try out as a champion for the EGC instead. When Kayleb explained why the American team wouldn’t let him on, she told him to try out for the New Valhallan team since he was so good in the Ship League. When Kayleb protested that he wasn’t a Thorlinthian citizen, she informed him that he would be after their marriage. Try-outs, however, were in two months, and Kayleb couldn’t afford to sit around not practicing for a whole year. They talked to his church and got the wedding moved forward. After the wedding, Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii did something that hadn’t been done before. They took advantage of Thorlinthian laws allowing a member of another (presumed but not explicitly stated to be Thorlinthian) planet to change planetary citizenship upon marriage to make an Earther a Valhallan citizen, which in turn made Kayleb a Thorlinthian citizen. He wasn’t the first Earther to legally become Thorlinthian, but he was the first to be directly affiliated with a planet other than Earth. He didn’t make the team, but he was able to secure facility usage rights as a Valhallan citizen aboard Valhal’s embassy ship, the TAS Hunter. It was such a long shuttle ride from his hometown to the Hunter (which was situated above Italy) that he had to move. Being a Thorlinthian citizen, however, he no longer needed a visa to live outside the US, so he simply moved to Italy, and Keria’Ledrii lived aboard the Frightbringer while she secured a transfer to the Hunter. The transfer took a few months, but there were no surprises when she arrived at their apartment near Rome. Neither of them were sure how to feel about that.
Kayleb didn’t try out for the EGC for the next few years. He instead rejoined the Ship League as the first Earther Armadian after enlisting and attending training in Antarctica for a little over a year. It took a couple weeks for him to get back up to snuff, but the close quarters combat training he had received paid off in plenty, and he quickly found himself a better player than before. He also found he had a little more money to throw around once he was employed as an Armadian, even if it was low-level pay. He and Keria’Ledrii started spending more time actually in Rome when both were on liberty and took leave for World Youth Day his second year in the Armada. At the end of his minimal term as an Armadian, Kayleb decided to try out for the EGC team again before renewing his obligation. This time, he made it.
He got out of the Armada and started taking a daily shuttle to the TAS Tyrant, which was over the former South Africa, for practice. There, he met Reggie, who had been MVP for New Valhal in the previous EGC. Reggie was now missing two fingers, but the giant of a man claimed it made it easier to grip the ball. Reggie, as it turned out, worked at the New Qzcivden Basilica, Saint John Paul the Great Cathedral. This gave them quite a lot to talk about, as Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii were both somewhat recent converts, having joined the Church their first Easter in Rome. Reggie said a lot of “Tees” (Kayleb didn’t like the word) converted pretty regularly, and that Saint John Paul the Great Cathedral actually had the world’s largest baptistry for that express purpose. Reggie came over for dinner a lot, and occasionally, Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii actually went to Reggie’s place in New Qzcivden for dinner. The first time they went, Kayleb realized just what winning the EGC could mean as far as money went. Victors received suites in New Qzcivden and a regular stipend, which was neither excessive nor as slim as their pay had been while both had been in the Armada.
A week before the games, they found out the first team that New Valhal was competing against was North America. That wasn’t good news. They were hoping to go against North America last for a better chance at placing. The team was confident they could beat the other teams, but North America had the daughter of Drigondii Sheii’Cronell on its team. The rest of the team was adequate, but Lihandii Khuda’Cronell was a total unknown. Her try-out had been extremely secretive, and no one could be found who would say anything about how she played. Not only that, but no one had any idea what kind of strength she had, and whenever he contemplated the upcoming match, Kayleb would think back to the Dragon Rider in the Frightbringer’s hangar. He had no doubts about how strong his wife was, but he also had no qualms admitting that he was pretty sure Lihandii was stronger. It felt strange when he thought about the fact that he was planning on how to defeat North America on behalf of the New Valhallan team. He didn’t really think he was a traitor, but he had always thought of himself as American. Now he was going up against the team he had planned on playing for.
All these things came rushing through Kayleb’s head as he stared straight ahead into Lihandii’s eyes. He knew from personal experience that it wasn’t a good idea to look Valkyrie-types straight in the eye, but something was strange. Her eyes weren’t glowing green, though they certainly glowed. No, they were an unmistakeable gold, and looking into them was like looking into the sun. He looked away and to the clock as Drigondii Sheii’Cronell wrapped up his speech. The timer was counting down in millidays, but Kayleb was counting down in seconds. 3… 2… 1… Now.
There was a rush like he had never experienced in a game before when the spheres opened and he leapt forward. He had timed it perfectly. Under any circumstances, he should have been the first to that ball. Even Reggie was a good twenty yards behind him, but a golden flash swelled around the ball, and Kayleb dodged a shot only just as the ball spun around to reveal Lihandii Khuda’Cronell clinging tightly with one arm extended away and holding a repeater. The bolt certainly struck Reggie, and Kayleb fired back twice with his own, both shots missing by a hair and zipping past the teenaged girl and hitting two of her teammates as she spun about the ball as if it were a set of parallel bars. She came sliding toward him, feet first, and Kayleb managed to deflect the majority of the blow, so he was surprised when he found himself flying backward at top speed with a broken set of ribs. He took a while to slow down, and quickly realized he was the last remaining member on his team still conscious while his teammates had managed to make Lihandii the last on hers. Kayleb gritted his teeth as he blasted forward at breakneck speeds to intercept the ball. He shot the ball with the repeater, and a few of its teeth went spinning off while the ball slipped from Lihandii’s grip. Kayleb made contact with the orb for a brief moment before looking at Lihandii and straight into the Devil’s eyes. This was one of the fastest-paced games of Zero G Ball ever played, and it was only just beginning.