A permanent sunset decorated this world. Permanent in the sense that the planet's orientation to the sun would never again change, but fleeting because the sun was in fact dying. The red sky collected smoke in streams from countless sources. Wrecked hulks of blistered and hollowed out warships littered the rocky surface of the planet, as did the mirrored shells of the domed cities, all of them cracked open like broken eggs. It was quiet now. The fighting was over and one more world had been added to the chain.
The Vine hung from the sky, disappearing into the heights and terminating into the sprawling, twisted Root Palace upon the surface. On planetfall, the Palace shot a spiderweb network of actual roots into and throughout the planet, a parasitic circulatory system that pumped the world dry of its resources and of its very life. The Palace was almost ten square kilometers at its base and woody ridges reached around like greedy arms from either side, forming a gated courtyard that again doubled its overall size. Within those encircling walls, a ceremony of sorts was about to begin.
In the middle of the courtyard stood Tia Winn's Gran Kohm, a ten-story fortress, angular and gleaming. To one side of this was Mefis Abanastar's Gran Zaim, a huge coiled worm, purple and metallic, breathing with unnatural life. On the other side was Wheeler Barson's Gran Kwes, an equally large, jet-black horse made up of innumerable thirty-centimeter cubes. These were the war machines of the Viscain Empire and atop each, stood one of the Empire's three 20th Generation Generals.
Behind the Grans were the top ranks of the three armies. They were all Gene Soldiers except for Wheeler Barson's ground troop coordinators: Tia Winn's hot-tempered reverse harpies, with the heads of savage, hook-beaked birds, and inordinately sensual female bodies; Mefis Abanastar's amphibious fish men, with their bulbous yellow eyes, clawed hands, and jagged dorsal spines; and Barson's coordinators, humans with low-level psychic abilities, armored and settled into their personal walking tanks so that they resembled black, mechanized centaurs.
Before the military array were rows and rows of technicians, medical personnel, court officials, and even some retirees called back especially to attend this ceremony.
At the head of the courtyard, fifty meters above the main gates into the Root Palace proper, was an elaborate outgrowth of what looked like great lengths of gnarled driftwood. These were ornately woven into a half-enclosed dais ten meters across. Set within that cradle, the blurry, three-dimensional image of a giant, inhuman face resolved finally into a plump, sallow gourd, dark with shadow along its vertical ridges and exuding the suggestion of menace. This was Samhain, the Viscain Emperor, and furnace flames shone through his carved features. His true size was impossible to determine and his eyes and mouth, though seemingly fixed, were subtly different each time you looked at them.
On the dais, below the Emperor's image and to its right, stood Witchlan, the Minister of Affairs. Witchlan was two meters tall, draped in a dusky robe that was adorned with luxuriant green, moss-like trim. His head was a fibrous cone and at its peak was a long curled antenna that more than passingly resembled a stem. His overall appearance brought to mind a large bell. Witchlan raised two long sinewy arms from beneath his robe, calling for silence from the crowd. After a moment, the murmur died down and the Emperor spoke.
Samhain's voice was a low, booming whisper that forced down the flames within him and created a hissing thunder. In spite of this noise, once he'd uttered them, his words were always perfectly clear and understood by all.
"Lor Kalkin. Step forward," the image of Samhain commanded.
A man with slicked-back, black hair in a smart gray uniform, who looked perhaps twenty-five years old, moved from the rows arranged before the three Grans. At twenty paces beyond the last row, he stopped, knelt down on one knee and bowed his head.
"Yes, Lord Emperor," Lor Kalkin said, his voice strong and unwavering.
Samhain's voice came again like rolling surf, slow and measured, "Your original team has been reduced to you alone. But, as you know, during the fighting on the previous planet, number 1397, I awarded the Ritual Mask with its Mikai Curse to supplement the hard-hit Plague Squad. What no one knows, however, is that the Ritual Mask was never meant to be a permanent addition to the ranks of the Viscain Empire. While it has exceeded my expectations, it was not designed to last. I fully expected our otherwise nameless man, Mikaidaa, to fall during the conflict on 1397, to of course be of considerable use, but ultimately to fail." A wheezing snicker made Samhain's flames dance. "Now he's proven himself in two campaigns. As the Ritual Mask will ultimately fail, steps will be taken to provide Mikaidaa with the chance to win a second, permanent Artifact."
Samhain now addressed all those arrayed before him. "My Shades, you who hold Artifacts, you who are like my very children, it has been two hundred and sixty-three years since we have had a single fatality. On Planet 1397 we had two. I have asked some of you who once served this Viscain Empire and who are now living on your pensions to serve once more, to take on students if you haven't already, or to push your existing students harder to have them ready for a competition to be held in five years. Some of you have already come forward and registered your students. Those of you who have not but are prepared to do so please waste no time.
"Specialist Kalkin," the Emperor said. "You are a graduate of the Locsard Psychic Academy. Though he has some facility, your psychic disciplines will do Mikaidaa little good."
"Yes, Lord Emperor," Kalkin said without raising his head.
Samhain's eyes scanned the retirees, fixing on one. "Laedra Hol. Step forward."
From one of the rows, a woman emerged, came forward, and knelt down beside Kalkin. She was dressed in form-fitting black so glossy that it gave off a blue sheen. About her shoulders was a wide, feathered ruff of the same color. She wore a helmet the shape of an eagle's head. The beak was formed of smoked glass and a four-centimeter, two-tined fork rose from its brow. "Yes, Lord Emperor," she said in a low, almost hoarse voice.
A fine layer of sweat suddenly coated Kalkin's down-turned face. Kneeling next to him was one of his predecessors, the legendary Laedra Hol. His eyes darted in her direction, but behind the smoked glass, her face was impossible to see.
"Former Specialist Hol," Samhain said, "Mikaidaa's F-Gene is unusual. It might even be described as unstable. He requires training. Though you already have a number of students, I believe you are ideally suited to take charge of that training. I believe he will respond well to your regimen and satisfy your requirements. He may even prove to be a challenge." The hint of a sharp grin flickering with firelight was suddenly evident.
Laedra Hol bowed more deeply and said, "Yes, Lord Emperor."
"All of you, this is the time to demonstrate your skills, to revel in your excellence, and to perpetuate the glory of the Viscain Empire. A preliminary competition to determine qualified participants will be held three years from today. The final competition will be held two years from that date. Two Artifacts will be awarded based on the results of that competition. An additional Artifact will be awarded to the top student of the Locsard Psychic Academy. Until then we remain incomplete and we mustn't relax our hold on the future."
Samhain turned his gaze back to Kalkin. "Specialist Kalkin, you will remain in charge of the Plague Squad. Mikaidaa is ultimately your responsibility. But, as we have encountered the last of the sentient life in this system, we can all take a temporary step back from active martial pursuits. Our current focus is on vigilance and training. For now, Specialist Kalkin, your role will be supervisory. With regard to your request, in light of your... personal loss, you are hereby allowed temporary leave contingent upon emergency and upon a schedule to be developed jointly by former Specialist Hol and yourself."
"Yes, Lord Emperor."
"All of you have worked hard. Though we gained vital information there, Planet 1397 put uncommon strain upon us all. There will be time again for warfare before too long. Today we rest, recuperate, and indulge. That is all."
As the Emperor's words faded, so did his image. From openings all along the enclosing walls, food was brought out and musicians emerged. A carnival atmosphere suddenly filled the expansive courtyard.
Lor Kalkin stood and sighed heavily, running his hands through his hair. Taking her helmet off, Laedra Hol rose beside him. Her wavy auburn hair was fairly short and parted carelessly to one side. She looked like she might be thirty-five years old, but that would have been when she received her Artifact, the Charging Fork, more than five hundred years ago.
"Mr. Kalkin, it's a bit late, but I'm very sorry for your loss," Hol said, her voice disarmingly—almost seductively—husky.
"You mean of my teammates?"
"It's a shame about Karlan Farsal, but there was obviously more to it than that. I don't believe personal relationships of the sort you and Miss Orlo were engaged in have any place in our line of work. Being unable to control your emotions is dangerous. For you, your teammates, anyone who might be counting on you—"
His dead stare prevented Hol from continuing for a moment.
Her expression, stoic at first, quickly lightened until she was smiling warmly. "That sounded judgmental, didn't it. I'm sorry, let me start again. Emotions are our responsibility, but whom we fall for is out of our hands. Quite frankly, I envy you that you found someone you could feel such passion for, who, by all accounts, felt that same passion for you, and that the two of you could enjoy each other's company as long as you did. We should all be so lucky."
"Thank you," Kalkin said hesitantly, his brow furrowed in confusion. "You appear to be quite well informed."
She raised a knuckle to her lips and cleared her throat in an attempt to both call attention to and cover her embarrassment. "I have friends at Locsard," she said.
"Ah, the Academy," Kalkin said, nodding. "Well, anyway, thanks. I think that's one of the nicest things anyone's said so far. We tried so hard not to let it become what it did.
"It seems—and maybe rightly so—that there's more concern for our diminished numbers than for either of their deaths. Farsal's reputation is intact, but there's been very little sympathy for Kass." Kalkin glanced unconsciously over his shoulder towards the Grans looming behind them. "I guess I shouldn't expect any, but Kass deserves better. Our relationship didn't get her killed."
"Someone's suggesting it did?"
"Well, maybe they're like me, jealous of what you had, and just not very good at expressing it."
"Maybe. Anyway, like I said, thanks. And thank you for Mikaidaa. As things stand, we don't make much of a team. He's very hard to control once he gets started. He's got an above-average RMP but no psionic abilities so there's really nothing I can do for him."
"Don't worry," she said, smiling. "I saw the video on him. Though the name's changed, the Squad is in part my legacy. I'm confident I'll be able to help maintain its integrity. But, uh, where is he? All this," she made a gesture to indicate all that was going on around them, "is for his benefit, right?"
"Yes. He got a little over-excited during the fighting here. Barson had to step in and Mikaidaa got a little too close to his fist."
Hol's eyes narrowed slightly. "His Nine Order miracle, huh?"
Kalkin merely smiled. "He should be up and about in a few days."
VEAD Official Notice
From: Silowan Haspel, Director, Astrophysics Division
RE: Spatial Anomalies
The existence of a number of recently formed spatial anomalies throughout the current system, 281, has been confirmed. Using key measurements, a mean growth rate has been determined, indicating a creation date that falls within the campaign for Planet 1397. Due to the intensity of the conflict on Planet 1397 along with these corroborative measurements, it is tentatively assumed that these anomalies resulted, directly or indirectly, from that conflict.
We are currently investigating the nature and extent of the anomalies. Initial findings show them to be a disorganized series of wormholes, some appearing reasonably stable, some in a state of constant flux. Use of the wormholes as a secondary means of expedient transport is undergoing consideration. However, the number of wormholes and the inability to accurately determine their exit points remain problematic. Several probes have been launched in an effort to map those closest to Planet 1398, but this represents a small fraction of an increasingly prohibitive figure.
Of greater concern is the potential interplay between these wormholes and the fold zones resulting from the Vine's Stitch Drive. Overlap of these two phenomena could prove disruptive to the running of various colony planets and to the Empire in general.
683 wormholes have been cataloged so far, but this represents perhaps 20% of those that can be visually confirmed. There are most definitely more and the possibility exists that they are spread beyond the confines of System 281. If anyone should encounter an unmapped wormhole, do not undertake to investigate it, but report it to the Astrophysics Division immediately.
Updates to follow.
Back along the length of the Vine, on planet 1287, Laedra Hol made her home. As a retiree, she was provided with whatever was necessary to maintain a comfortable existence. All retirees could take their pick from the myriad worlds conquered by the Viscain Empire. A combination of science and Samhain's will kept the chosen planets habitable and self-sufficient, though, in most cases, hardly inviting. The former Triangle Squad leader had a villa and a staff to run it. A small body of water had been re-introduced, complete with wave generators, and the villa sat on its shore. A dim artificial sun kept the temperature a constant twenty-two degrees centigrade, but this could be adjusted up or down to simulate seasonal change. By design, the sun could never produce more than the amber glow of sunset. As a result, for twelve hours each day the villa and its glittering sea were treated to beautiful twilight. The remainder of each day was cast in total darkness.
One kilometer from the villa lay the Vine where it had rooted into and sprouted back out of the planet so long ago. Set within the crotch of the Vine was a perfectly level landing pad, a square, one hundred meters to a side. Lights blinked on and off eternally in sequence, always ready to receive visitors. This was a jump deck, a method of transportation perfected by the head of the Military Hardware Division, Gilf Scanlan—the same genius responsible for the magnificent Grans. From another jump deck, travel was almost instantaneous, but over extremely long distances the risk of being lost in the warp field the system created became unacceptably high. To remedy this, jump decks and relays had been installed at intervals all along the Vine up to the planet that housed the farthest retiree.
Now from the jump deck came a terrible sound. It was the mournful cry of a machine being pushed beyond its limits, of gears straining and metal rending, the kind of sound that makes you squint and grit your teeth and pray that it stops soon before irreparable damage is done. But this was the sound of a perfectly working jump deck in operation. Millions of lines of light crisscrossed and moved like the point of a stylus, tracing a pattern until a jump ship sat upon the deck, fully formed and solid. Once the sound of the jump deck had subsided, the ship had nearly completed powering up its engines and was ready for the short flight to the villa.
The ship—a sleek stack of long-nosed, three-sided, overlapping pyramids—touched down just outside the walls of the villa. Two figures emerged and were greeted by a member of the villa staff who escorted them through the front gates. The remainder of the staff, about ten people, formed a line inside the courtyard to welcome the visitors. Laedra Hol, dressed in a long dark robe, stood at the head of the line. Further inside and behind her were seven young ladies with fierce expressions.
The two new arrivals wore identical gray uniforms. One of them was Lor Kalkin. The other looked to be about thirty years old. He had close-cropped, light brown hair and, besides the slightly wild look in his eyes, he seemed to be surpassingly ordinary. While Kalkin looked straight ahead, the other, because of nerves or outright paranoia, shot looks everywhere. He eyed the staff perfunctorily and noted the seven young ladies behind Hol—they in particular appeared to be capable fighters. He absorbed the details of the courtyard wall, the layout of the buildings, where conspicuous doors were, and where hiding places might be found.
The man came to a halt, probably because Kalkin had, but his eyes continued to dart around.
"Hey!" Kalkin forced a whisper through clenched teeth. "Remember what I told you? Kneel."
The other suddenly grasped the situation and quickly knelt and bowed his head. "My apologies," he said. "There is no excuse for a lapse in etiquette."
Mildly confused, Hol looked at Kalkin and said, "This is Mikaidaa?"
"I wasn't expecting him to be so polite."
"Just wait," Kalkin said, grinning.
Hol turned to the other. "Well, Mikaidaa, I understand that you can't remember anything prior to receiving the Ritual Mask. Do you think the Mask is to blame for your memory loss?"
"I don't know, but I tend to think not. I have been told, though, that the temporary nature of the Ritual Mask combined with the instability of my F-Gene could have produced a shock sufficient to account for the memory loss during the bonding process. I guess there's no way to know, really."
"I see. Do you remember anything?"
"Nothing specific. But I remember being very, very angry."
"Can you imagine why?"
"They say you are uncontrollable while Dark."
"That is, I suppose, partially true. I feel like I can do anything with the Ritual Mask. There are no limits; there is nothing to restrain me. I can vent my anger on anything with my bare hands. Often, though, there comes a point where it all turns into a red dream."
"The Mikai Curse?" Hol said.
"Yes. I can't always control the onset of the Curse and once it's started, anything in my way seems to be..."
"Lost," Kalkin said.
"So, you lack control. Gene Soldiers are one thing, easily regrown, but human beings are something else. How many of General Barson's troops have, uh, 'gotten in your way'?"
Mikaidaa stared at Hol uncomfortably. She met his gaze and did not falter. Feeling betrayed, he cast a reproachful glance at Kalkin who merely pursed his lips and cocked his head.
"Don't be angry with Mr. Kalkin," Hol said. "Even if he had been the one to inform me, it's not as if it's a secret. How many?"
Mikaidaa cleared his throat and composed himself. "Over a thousand, I'm told. Given the nature of our business, it's impossible for a more accurate figure."
"Of course," she said, nodding. Hol addressed Kalkin, "Didn't you also say something about his numbers fluctuating?"
Kalkin nodded. "On 1397, his Raw Physical Power was rated at just under thirty-three thousand. On 1398 it was half that. While he was in the hospital they couldn't get any stable readings, but his RPP was recorded as being as low as four thousand at one point."
"What about his Raw Mental Power?"
"A constant five hundred."
"Oh? That is high for not exhibiting any specific talents. But maybe those talents are just being hidden by everything else going on inside him."
"I want to see it," Hol said, turning to Mikaidaa.
"The Ritual Mask." She indicated the young ladies behind her while still speaking to Mikaidaa. "These are my students. Any one of them can easily defeat a normal man. But four of them are currently learning my secret techniques. This puts them in a class far above normal. While one or two of them might not be a match for a Shade, all seven of them should be. I want to see you fight first hand. I want you to try to hit me."
He looked at the seven young ladies and then at Hol before him and nodded. "All right. Perhaps it would be best for your staff..."
She waved her hand and the line backed away and started to file into the main building. The seven young ladies stepped forward. They wore silk robes, each of a different color, and effectively made a wall between Mikaidaa and their teacher. Kalkin stepped back several paces.
Mikaidaa took a deep breath. Pearls seemed to ooze through the pores of his face as he went Dark and the Ritual Mask surfaced. It was a simple oval plate of slightly yellowed bone that was veined with cracks. It followed the contour of his face but was itself featureless except for two creases where the eyes would be. Those "eyes", like Samhain's features, changed when you weren't looking, giving the mask a surreal, punctuated expressive quality.
Hol studied the mask carefully. The network of cracks made her stomach drop. How much longer could it last? Mikaidaa had fought tirelessly on planets 1397 and 1398. Perhaps the cracks weren't as bad as they looked. Still, when an Artifact was destroyed, its recipient was dragged along to destruction with it. It was never clean, either. She fought back a chill then gathered herself. "Begin!"
Mikaidaa's head moved in response to Hol's words, but it was a jerk devoid of any motion. Suddenly Mikaidaa was two steps forward, hunched over, arms extended. Again, no motion and yet he had moved. A third time, there was no in-between movement as he was suddenly in mid run, barreling forward.
One of the seven young ladies wasted no time, leaping to intercept his rush. The fingers of Mikaidaa's left hand went rigid before him, curled into a claw, and he batted her away with a backhand. She was able to bring her arms up just in time to block the strike, but the force of it sent her crashing into the wall. The others noted the strength necessary to accomplish that feat and, with a series of nods between them, fanned out to approach Mikaidaa from different directions.
One of the ladies dropped and swept the ground with her leg. Mikaidaa jumped to avoid being tripped and he sailed through the air effortlessly. However, while in the air, he had little control of his movement and was set upon by three of his attackers. Two of them flashed by him, one in front and one behind, nearly like scissor blades, and indeed, they came away with their hands bloodied. Like him, all the ladies had their hands set into claws, and these two had just ripped out stringy knots of flesh. This upset his forward momentum and prepared him for the third lady's attack. Spinning through the air like a pinwheel, her leg kicked out and she brought all her force down on Mikaidaa's head. Making a nearly instant ninety-degree shift in direction, he shot into the ground, raising a cloud of dust.
The two who had not yet attacked, along with the one who had tried to sweep his legs, now set upon him. One snatched up his right arm, applying opposite pressure to his elbow in an attempt to break it. One wrapped her arms around his neck, either to snap it or choke him. The third struck again and again with her clawed hands, tearing his gray uniform to tatters and saturating it with his blood.
Mikaidaa never made a sound. He reached up behind him with his left hand, finding a firm grip as his fingers tangled in a mass of glossy black hair. He pulled and flicked his arm at the elbow, yanking the girl from his neck and sending her screaming through the air. Some of her hair remained in his fingers as he turned his attention to the lady before him and caught one of her striking claws by the wrist. With a quick counter-clockwise jerk, there was a snapping sound and the lady on the other end let out a stifled cry. He rose from his knees and, using the shift in position along with his superior strength, twisted his right arm free of the elbow lock, taking hold of his former captor's wrist. With her trapped in his grip, he front-kicked the other directly in front of him to put an end to her persistent strikes with her good hand. Her lower body shot out from under her, and she skidded to the ground, her chin plowing a shallow trail in the dirt. He took the remaining lady's wrist in both hands now and, with a quick rowing motion, made her body follow the course of his hands. She snapped to the ground, the flat of her back hitting with a tremendous impact, forcing a coughing spray of blood into the air.
A loud, sharp sound echoed through the courtyard as Mikaidaa's head jolted to one side under the pressure of a vicious kick. He dropped back down to one knee, but a second kick to his midsection forced him back two unbalanced steps. Swift hands gripped his right wrist as a third kick splintered his elbow. A final kick spun his head around, raising his chin to the sky and exposing his throat. A blurred shape passed before his neck and blood burst forth, raining all down his front. All seven had now gathered and were raining down blows.
Every muscle in Mikaidaa's body suddenly tensed as if an electric current were being fed into his body. At the same moment, the space around Hol's head shimmered as her stylized helmet became semi-visible. Upon the smoked-glass visor, warning lights danced and blinked. Gray phantom eyes had opened on the face of the Ritual Mask. Suddenly, the air was wet with red mist and filled with a maddening drone. Blood had risen from various wounds and hung heavy in the air. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the blood was being drawn into the Ritual Mask.
"Stop!" Hol shouted, but her voice was barely audible above the noise. She went completely Dark, the Charging Fork now visible and beginning to work.
Mikaidaa's right arm bent back into correct alignment and his elbow mended itself before everyone's eyes. With that hand, Mikaidaa grabbed the nearest girl by the face and threw her head into the ground where it bounced with a sick, hollow clop that was strangely too loud above the noise of the Mikai Curse. Body still, her eyes had gone white and were staring blankly up at the dim sky.
Another advanced, but her strike was met early with Mikaidaa's own. Her forearm folded at the impact point, the sound of her crushing bones somehow perfectly clear above the din.
The blood haze was being drawn into the Mask more quickly and with greater force now. Something was about to happen. Both Hol and Kalkin could feel it. Kalkin jumped back and shouted something unheard through the clamor and his body suddenly changed, took on a grotesque, mottled appearance, bruised and purple.
Suddenly, Hol was before Mikaidaa, her palm one centimeter before his chest. The two-tined Charging Fork jutting from her helmet vibrated into a blur and created a long resonant note that began to compete with the drone of the Ritual Mask. Light instantly began to trace intricate patterns like myriad atomic models between her hand and his chest. Mikaidaa roared. Whatever was going to happen was about to happen now. Hol pushed the heel of her palm into Mikaidaa's chest.
There was a thunderous boom followed by a loud crash followed by the sound of a distant splash. The mist had dropped, painting the ground red with blood. The droning noise was gone and Kalkin appeared to be human again.
Mikaidaa was gone. His trail was clear enough, though. Two ruts in the ground led straight through a shattered portion of the wall near the front gates and through the hole in the wall, the tumultuous state of the sea made his whereabouts clear.