Secrei's orbit, wide and far-ranging, marked the border of the Bahahm system. Though most of the seven worlds of that system were now dead and lifeless, all who once lived there and those who still did-regardless of differing cultures and languages-knew that the true name of the holy star that made life possible was Bahahm.
Now, upon Secrei, where no life had stirred for many thousands of years, awareness and the semblance of life thrummed back into being. First in one, then in another as the tired spin of the planet exposed them-two identical humanoid figures of smooth, seamless metal-to the tickle of a threat. Their ovoid heads were featureless except for six one-centimeter holes in a wide V pattern, making a crude face. Marking their shoulders were narrow black depressions, looking almost like straps, that dipped into their chests in the front and reached the bottom of their vague shoulder blades in the back. Heat exhaust issued from these, and they whined with power. Upon their hips were great revolvers with long, square barrels that were rather like small cannons.
Both sent the signal. Whether anything remained to receive that signal or respond to it was beyond their design to consider. Once finished, they proceeded towards the source of the thing that had roused them.
o o o
On the other side of Secrei, where they lay scattered, four more steely figures stirred. They rose slowly from the planet's surface, from where they had fallen inert ages ago with no more threat to counter or to motivate them; they rose and power filled them. One of these four was unlike the rest. It was decidedly feminine, smaller in stature, and more delicate. From its back, skeletal metal wings jutted sharply, but its face was the same: six holes, black and fixed, impersonal and soulless.
The four figures were reviewing received data, but as Secrei continued its lazy spin, they sensed what the other two had. Being drawn inexorably towards the beckoning source, the four figures moved out into open space, out beyond the confines of the Bahahm System, and followed after their fellows.
2. FIRST CONTACT
In the courtyard of the Root Palace, silence had finally overcome the crowd. Everyone had been prepared to begin a weeklong party immediately after the spoils of the Artifact Competition had been presented, but now the mystery of two alien figures had reduced everyone to blank, uncomprehending stares.
The two figures turned their bulbous heads all about, as if casually absorbing the scenery with six empty eye sockets each, but Wheeler Barson, now Dark with the power of the Gravity Spike, saw something different. He saw a methodical thoroughness and something in the manner of both that spoke of... what? Threat assessment? Tactical analysis?
Barson had command of the ground forces and was the leader of the Viscain Empire's generals. He was very tall at two hundred and twenty-one centimeters but proportioned in such a way that made him look merely average instead of like the giant he was. From the brow of the horse helmet that hid his face in impenetrable shadow shot a straight horn of what looked like porous black stone or old blackened bone. This was the Gravity Spike, the Artifact that gave him mastery over gravity and his own density and which was irrevocably bound to his being. He was entirely black, covered in streamlined, flexible plates that had the luster of soapstone, and parts of him seemed to possess depth, as if one might fall right into him if not careful.
"To your Grans!" Barson shouted, and the other two generals responded without delay.
Tia Winn commanded the air forces. She stood almost as tall as Barson and was his exact opposite. She wore little: a red halter; a short, almost meaningless gray skirt, and sheer, red and white striped stockings that came to mid thigh. Most of her skin was left exposed and her skin was stark, powder white. Her silky gray hair was tied back in a ponytail and it constantly made pearlescent rainbows. She was by no means old-at least in appearance-nor was she sickly. Her body was beautifully built and the subject of many Locsard Academy student fantasies. Touching her Artifact, the Keepsake Cameo, fixed forever to her breastbone, she ran off for her Gran.
Mefis Abanastar made surprising leaps, bounding for his Gran. He was in charge of the marine forces. Abanastar was tiny, standing at a mere one hundred and forty-five centimeters. Most people assumed that he had been twelve or thirteen years old when he received the Focusing Lens from the Emperor, but in fact no one except the Emperor had ever seen Abanastar's face. He always kept it hidden behind the Focusing Lens, through which nothing could be seen. He wore an indigo body suit that covered him to the top of his head so that not even his hair was visible.
The image of the Viscain Emperor in its niche in the façade of the Root Palace looked down to the newly created Shades and to Lor Kalkin, the only surviving member of the Plague Squad after the fighting on Planet 1397. "Stand ready to support," the Emperor said.
"Yes, Lord Emperor!" they shouted.
Elza Steinz, Forbis Vays, and Jav Holson stood ready below, watching as Barson joined Tia atop her Gran.
Gran Kohm was a flying fortress, a ten-story castle of steel and thick ceramic armor with guns of various calibers bristling from thousands of crenellations. Under Tia's command it rose effortlessly to a position between the two strangers and the Palace. When they had reached the level of the strangers who had so far ignored them, Barson and Tia shared an inquisitive look.
"Robots?" he offered.
As they turned back to the metallic figures, the one directly in front of Barson appeared to be staring at him. It was unnerving. It had no real eyes, only six lifeless black holes, and yet it appeared to be staring, almost through him.
Barson was about to speak when those six holes erupted with fire exactly like muzzle flare from machine gun barrels. Hundreds of projectiles pelted Barson's head and shoulders, but his increased density provided him with phenomenal protection that was superior to the assault. Dropping the arm he had reflexively raised to block his face, he saw the fresh cause for Tia's sudden cry.
The same figure had pulled the long-barreled handgun from its hip and was now firing. Barson had no time to react. The slug felt as big as a fist and it hurt. It also knocked him from Gran Kohm.
The other figure, meanwhile, had drawn its own pistol, and it began firing at random-seeming, but apparently well-chosen, targets upon Gran Kohm. The ceramic armor shattered like glass and allowed passage of the giant slugs into the fortress. Seconds after each penetration, bass thunder erupted, rattling the entirety of the Gran, and threatening to tumble Tia from her perch.
Shock and indignation commingled and nearly prevented Tia from reacting. She finally shouted the order for her gene soldiers to sortie. From six different bays located about the Gran, streams of primitive-looking, but carefully engineered bird-women poured out. They were beautifully proportioned, but had the heads, wings, and talons of savage eagles. Small, bright explosions broke out in series and red smoke billowed from all over the canting Gran. Tia punched some controls on a waist-high control pad and shells began bursting about the two metallic intruders.
As Barson plummeted downward, what he felt most acutely was anger at himself for being so careless. He fell headfirst and twisted so that his assailant came into view. With a grunt he aimed the index and middle fingers of his right hand at the silver figure and a dim globe appeared around it. Bowing its head slightly, the figure began to drop from its place in the sky until, following the sweep of Barson's arm, it overtook him and was driven into the ground where it sank, flush with the now crumbled rock surface. Barson righted himself and lighted upon the head of Gran Kwes, a giant horse built of millions of thirty-centimeter black cubes.
The shelling ceased. As Tia's troops surrounded it, the remaining metal figure lowered its pistol and poured machine gun fury from the six holes in its face into them. The sky filled with blood, feathers, and torn limbs. Ammunition in the gene soldiers' weapons and other ordnance they carried were detonated by the steady, unrelenting barrage of enemy fire and sent more deadly shrapnel into the well-established slaughter. Some of the troops were able to use their weapons; salvos of gyrojet projectiles and intermittent cyclone bursts buffeted the metal figure as did unheard, directed ultrasonic attacks, but nothing the troops had affected the figure in the least. It seemed to possess immovable mass floating in the air where it was. For all their savagery, none of Tia's gene soldiers could get close enough to use their high frequency pikes; they dropped, one after another, ripped open and ruined by the face gun.
Tia watched, teeth clenched, as her army literally fell before her. She touched the Keepsake Cameo upon her breast and focused on her alien foe.
The figure stopped, turned its head directly towards her and leveled its pistol at her. Tia's brow furrowed in concentration, and she pressed the Keepsake Cameo more firmly. The figure looked confused now. It began looking around, and then it examined itself, but only for a moment. Something was drawing its attention back to Winn, something it could not ignore, no matter what secret dream was being thrust upon it.
Tia's knees began to wobble. She was working too hard and she was failing more every second. The figure looked at the big gun in its right hand then at Tia as it aimed the gun back at her.
From the throng below, there was an explosion of pink fire.
"Ren!" came a sharp cry.
Above the crowd now, Kimbal Furst erupted into his Darkened, transformed state, the Taikou Fire casting animated, pink-limned shadows like a time-lapsed sunset. With the angular head of a bird of prey, and composed through and through of contained pink flames, he streaked towards the silver figure still in the air. He crossed his arms before him and spread them wide as he passed through the attacker, coming to a stop some twenty meters beyond.
Ren Fauer had followed his teacher through the air at comparable speed. He scooped Tia, who was easily twice his size, into his arms and sped her away from her attacker and from her own sinking Gran, which threatened to explode any time now.
The silver figure turned to face Furst with what looked like curiosity then, even without eyes, it appeared to look down at itself as white hot crisscrossing lines showed upon its surface.
Furst was dismayed to see those lines fade as the metal cooled almost instantly. Surpassing his dismay, though, was shock. The Taikou Flash had never failed so completely before. He had passed through the enemy, had exposed the enemy's every molecule to raging, nuclear fire, had carved patterns that would have reduced mountains, but it wasn't enough. He wasn't sure what to do. He was fairly certain that, given the speed at which the metal had cooled, repeated attempts would have no cumulative effect, and just as the kernel of an idea began to form, one of the shells from the big pistols ripped into his chest.
Something wasn't right. There were things that could dampen or even extinguish the Taikou Fire, but explosive shells had no business having any effect on him. But then another one followed and did. It was a strange sensation; not exactly like pain, more like pressure, a force that was, he knew nonetheless, inimical to his continued existence. He dashed away to gain some time to think.
As civilians scrambled for safety, Abanastar's gene soldiers were surrounding the fallen silver invader. His troops, engineered like Tia's, were green, sharp-clawed amphibians, and all carried an assortment of weapons ranging from standard pulse rifles to high frequency tridents. Riding upon Gran Zaim, a giant metallic purple worm that was moist and breathed in a parody of life, Abanastar himself now approached.
But, before Abanastar could do anything, a blazing column of white light fell upon Gran Zaim, disintegrating a third of its body, and leaving a deep, smoking crater. Abanastar leapt to safety and stared up into the cold, dim sky. There were more of them now. Using the power of the Focusing Lens, he could see even the one farthest away, above the thin atmosphere, from where it had fired that devastating blast. That one was different from the rest. If the ones they had encountered so far were male, then that one was female. Three sets of fantastic framework wings spread out from its back, and Abanastar immediately understood their purpose. They worked a little like the Focusing Lens, drawing in available forces and magnifying them. This was bad.
Though most didn't realize it, Abanastar never spoke. Whether he could or not was unknown, but he could communicate without difficulty. He contacted Mont Cranden whom he knew must be among the crowd somewhere.
The grounded silver figure was up out of its hole and doing to Abanastar's army what its fellow had done to Tia's. Meanwhile three more figures joined the one still in the air, firing their pistols at Shades, or at the Vine, without cease.
Barson saw the futility of having the regular troops fight. With a quick confirmation, he took control of Abanastar's troops, directing them and his own to clear the courtyard and conduct the civilians safely into the Root Palace.
Barson's troops were the only purely human soldiers employed by the Viscain Empire. All of them were augmented by powerful machines-four-legged tanks with which the heavily armored troops could combine to become mechanized centaurs-but not even they, backed by their hydraulics and steel and mechanically derived power, could meet the threat of the single, fallen invader. Five hundred elite among Barson's troops comprised his Coordinators, low-level psychics who linked not just the ground troops, but all the soldiers under all the generals when necessary, enabling them to work as one integrated, efficient entity. The evacuation process, once begun, was carried out swiftly and mostly without confusion, delayed only by the shear number of people who had come to witness the Artifact Competition firsthand, and occasionally by a "broken" gene soldier.
At the Emperor's command, Kalkin was sent to aid in the evacuation and the three new Shades were released to fight. Elza Steinz invoked the Crush Box, going Dark and transforming into a forty-meter giant of pure energy. She flew skyward to meet the enemy there.
Forbis Vays pressed the fingers of his right hand to his breast, to the place where the Titan Star lie permanently fixed to his being. In a flash he was transformed, but had one the speed of perception to observe the process, one might see the living metal burst forth in squares and sheets, meshing together, spreading, creating a matrix until the bright, gleaming armor was complete, a hermetically sealed shell, with the hilt of the Titan Saber forming the distinctive horn adorning the helmet.
Jav Holson bent slightly, drawing his shoulders forward and hunching his back. Then, similarly hidden from the naked eye by impossible speed, a huddle of spectral shapes exploded outward from his spine, like the spilt contents of an overripe womb. As the shapes began to separate, the gravity of his being caught them, and they slowed to a momentary stop before snapping back into place variously about his body. The Kaiser Bones covered him now and Jav was like an animate skeleton, inky black where the bones were absent.
Both Jav and Vays sprinted towards the metal figure on the ground, which was now being surrounded by other Shades and competition participants.
Proud and confident, Somner Faiks fell upon the metal figure from behind, landing the full power of his Nine Order Diamond Palm on the back of its head with the force of over thirteen thousand kilograms. The figure jerked forward, stumbling. Though cracks had shot through its head, it righted itself almost immediately and turned. Faiks tried to catch the gun as it came around, but it broke his arms and crushed through his ribs like an I-beam. Then the face gun fired and took his head apart piece by piece.
"Bal kom nis kar ahn! Kii soh nis kar ahn!" Lara Bester shouted. She flashed, almost impossible to see, towards Faiks's killer, but her kicks had no effect.
Beilan Sappertine wrapped the arm-thick psychic tentacle that sprang from his forehead about the metal attacker, but he could not crush-or even move-it. The face gun flared, tracking along the tentacle, shredding it all the way until reaching its source and destroying it.
Unreasonably certain that they were vulnerable from behind, Raiber Haas leapt at the implacable enemy's back with mantis claws whistling through the air. The built-up pressure blades that preceded his fingers failed to cut through the metal they struck, however, and his fingers crumpled into bloody, twisted shapes, shining with white knots of exposed bone. The big pistol swung around and disgorged its payload, making a hole of Haas's entire torso from his lower jaw to the line of his waist.
This was all happening in seconds, but everyone was wondering the same thing: how had Faiks done so much damage with one punch when no one else so far was able to scratch it?
The shiny black form of Cov Merasec, Dark with the power of the Fugue Inducer, produced a sickle in each hand and stepped up beside one of his fellow retirees. Isker Vays, sheathed in the Jaaku Thorns, looked like a tough, living plant, ringed with thick spines and cabled with fibrous muscle in various dark shades of green. He held a thin, whip-like foil that had no guard and that looked like little more than a tapering reed.
"Just like old times, eh Vays?" Merasec said.
"I'm not sure what times you remember, but I never remember the enemy getting so close or any single one of them being so strong." He shouted to the competitors now, "Your help is appreciated, but no one is to throw his or her life away! Retreat with the rest into the Root Palace!"
Gast Froster had been about to engage the enemy himself, but stopped short at Isker Vays's words. He looked with uncertainty from Vays to Merasec, and asked, "Teacher?"
Reluctantly Merasec nodded and, using the Fugue Inducer, he began to multiply. He rose up into the air as a small but growing army and shouted down, "Help's coming Vays, but we're light up top!"
"Understood!" Vays said, moving towards the silver figure.
The remaining competitors gathered up the wounded and dead as much as was possible and retreated.
Abanastar had found Cranden, whose Gate Crown enabled him to create nearly impregnable, interdimensional vaults. Together they worked on eliminating the danger posed by the female cannon high above, invisible to most. Abanastar produced a series of floating lenses in tandem, each of differing size and thickness, and through which both he and Cranden could clearly see the gleaming female figure. He picked up a rock the size of a hen's egg and threw it through the telescope-like arrangement of lenses. The rock became a white streak, with its velocity and density increased many times over by the multiple lenses, and struck the alien female full in the face. Stunned by the attack, it didn't move for a moment and with a nod from Abanaster, Cranden began to construct a prison around it, which would, at least temporarily, remove it as a threat.
Compared to Furst, Merasec was a clumsy flier and required his Artifact to remain airborne, but he could get where he needed to go and fill the air with hundreds of independent copies of himself. There was no way those silver robots or whatever they were could stand before his Fugue Army.
Laedra Hol was now rising into the sky, the visor of her stylized helmet flashing with data like a head-up display. She couldn't exactly fly, but that didn't limit her to the ground. Using the Charging Fork, which could boost any number of attributes exponentially, she supplemented her mastery of Approaching Infinity theory, singling out individual molecules of air from which to spring so that she climbed ladder-like towards the four silver figures who continued unloading their deadly firepower alternately into the Root Palace and into the crowd below. When she reached the first, she struck savagely and repeatedly and made the metal man bob and twist like a marionette. She then paused for a moment, considering the apparent ineffectiveness of her attack. She easily dodged a pistol shot, then a second as Furst came up beside her.
"I've never seen anything like them," he said.
Hol shook her head, almost pouting. "They can't be invulnerable."
A mob of Cov Merasecs had reached the level of the enemy and began to engage them. His countless sickles clanged off the gleaming metal, leaving no marks-and making no difference. The face guns flared and pistols roared and Merasec, as many of him as there were, fell again and again, almost as easily as Tia's gene soldiers had. His Artifact provided a defense far superior to the gene soldiers' hides, and he wasn't torn apart bodily as they had been, but the shells were getting through and the copies were dying. Even if Merasec himself were killed, as long as one of his copies remained alive he was in no real danger. So, to the extent of his endurance, he would push the Fugue Inducer to produce more and more copies and push these invaders to their own limits.
Isker Vays was lithe, quick, and agile, avoiding the face gun and the pistol shots, but wherever those shots went people were in danger. He began to realize on some level that the Root Palace was, too. It wasn't as if he wasn't trying, either. His Willow Sword could cut through stone-could cut through steel-and that was without the empowering Single Element Ghost Sword technique. Using the technique, he had encountered nothing that could withstand his blade-until now.
It was perhaps too soon, but he had no choice; his strikes were having no effect. He held his Willow Sword at his chest, took a deep breath, and concentrated on the blade, which began to hum with power. He dodged more gunfire and moved into position.
"Union Blade!" he shouted.
His Willow Sword bent and was exactly like a reed against steel upon his opponent's chest. Nothing. And his gamble cost him. The face gun fire blasted into his own face driving him back and drawing one streamer of blood.
Jav and Forbis Vays arrived now. The latter cried out, too late to protect his father as a pistol shot opened up a bright red wound through the fibrous shell of the Jaaku Thorns.
An accomplished student of both Laedra Hol and Kimbal Furst, Jav utilized Approaching Infinity theory, or AI, to launch himself into the metal invader. But, before he could use that same AI to make his kick many times more deadly than it normally would have been, the pistol barrel swung his way with its muzzle flaring. From within the Kaiser Bones, Jav saw events with perfect clarity, and it was because he knew the lethal power of those shells that he was able to teleport out of harm's way. Also relying on AI, this displacement was a kind of conditioned reflex he could invoke when knowingly facing life-threatening danger and it was a skill unique to Jav alone. He marveled now at the new degree of control the Kaiser Bones allowed him. He placed himself directly behind his opponent, his momentum completely unaffected, and continued through, using AI to substantially augment his kick as he originally intended. On impact more cracks shot through his target's head, neck, and upper torso as the metal man was sent headlong and skidding into the rocky ground.
Forbis Vays tended to his father who coughed and writhed in pain, clutching at his lost left eye and at the glaring red hole in his side.
Elza Steinz, crackling with semi-solid energy, snatched one of the silver attackers roughly from the air in a hand that enveloped it and cast it down like a small child displeased with a toy. The metal figure struck the hard ground and bounced sickeningly. Elza rose up further and grabbed another, ignoring the disquieting-impossible?-pain of the pistol shots and face gun fire that passed through her transformed, immaterial body. This second one she took in both hands and squeezed, but, as she clamped her huge yellow-orange hands together ever tighter, her glowing outline began to shimmer, to distort-and finally to shrink. More and more effort went into the act of crushing, and her giant form continued to recede, until eventually retreating entirely back into her. A fused, uneven sphere of charred and smoking metal hung in the air before her, but as the light of her power went out, she lost consciousness, and together with the sphere, she began to fall.
Barson was tired of watching the metal men stand against his fellow Shades as if they were nothing. Gran Kwes loomed above the one Jav had kicked away and which was already standing again. Barson jumped down from his Gran and began to beat the alien as no one had so far been able to. Each punch rang out like the tolling of a sonorous bell and sent the gleaming metal man reeling so that it could not bring its pistol to bear. Face gun fire lashed out, but wasn't strong enough to pierce Barson's Dark armor. Finally, he grabbed it by the face, stopping up the barrels there, and punched it savagely in the chest. The head remained in his hand, but the body flew, limbs splayed and lifeless, until it hit the courtyard wall where it sunk as if into soft, yielding clay instead of the resin-hardened, indurate wood of the Vine.