Chapter 0

There was nothing left but a lone fortress, its armor tarnished and its silhouette a black mark against the burnt sky. The metropolis surrounding it had been pummeled into bloodstained rubble and shattered glass, and the scene was the same across twelve continents. Where the Somari empire had once flourished in all its glory and arrogance, now only the fortress remained.

At its foot, where the air was clotted with shrapnel and ragged flames, the last survivors of the Trans-Continental Army made their final stand. They had been pinned down and slowly strangled to death, forced to take cover behind the mutilated remains of their civilization while spitting fire at anything that moved. Without hope for victory or escape, they were walking ghosts fueled by rage, too stubborn to admit they were already dead.

And still the invaders pressed on, coming at them from every direction. Enemy infantry advanced tirelessly over broken ground, leading the way for mechanized monsters whose artillery howled through the swirling dust. Each blast bit into the fortress' failing armor and inched the war closer to its end.

Meanwhile, within the fortress and far from the crumbling line, sounds of the fight became a baleful symphony. Cannon fire beat an uneven rhythm, accompanied by a melody of screaming jets and the bark of ten thousand rifles. Strained voices cried out in chorus, then were silenced once and for all.

This song came to Kai while he slept and dreamed. He ran from one nightmare landscape to the next, chased by a living machine that devoured the ground beneath him. The unstoppable beast chewed up and swallowed whole civilizations to feed its hunger, and still it craved more.

Then an explosion rocked Kai's incubation tank and he was awake. The nightmare world dissolved only to be replaced by the chaos of reality.

He blinked and blinked again but his eyes refused to focus. The world was blurry and ill defined, tinted by the cold blue gestational fluids. Something wasn't right. The incarnation process wasn't complete, but he knew there had to be an explanation.

A staccato series of explosions thumped at the chamber's walls, and Kai struggled to keep cool. It was no time to panic. He pressed his eyes closed and slowly opened them, and this time the image became sharper. The laboratory was in shambles; sparks danced from the ceiling, and rows of mangled birthing tanks dangled limply from their umbilical cords.

A pair of genetechs in red gowns rushed over to him, one carrying an armload of clothing. The color had long ago drained from their faces, and their wrinkled hands shook as they went to work at the console. Their expressions spoke of terror mixed with sadness.

Somehow, Kai kept his head in check.

The string of lights at the top of the tank changed color and their blinking pattern became insistent. He understood the message, but the gravity of it didn't strike him. Not that it mattered; there wasn't any way to prevent what came next.

There was a rumble and the ratcheting of mechanical locks. The viscous fluid drained from the tank a moment later, exposing his partially developed skin to fresh air. There wasn't any pain. Not yet.

Then the front of the tank opened and dropped him onto the cold metal floor where he curled up like a newborn. He wanted so badly to remain calm, but he had no chance. There was simply too much pain, and it grew so loud that it blotted out every other thought until only a mewling animal remained.

His mind retreated while his body rebelled. The tendons of his jaw stretched around a silent scream, and a series of quick convulsions violently ejected liquid from his lungs. More blue fluid splashed across the floor, reflecting the flickering ceiling lamps on its silken surface.

The genetechs were speaking but Kai was somewhere else. Somewhere far away, out of communication range. It took several long minutes for the wounded animal to subside, and finally allow rational thought to re-emerge.

"It's too early," one of them said.

"Nonsense. His nervous system is fully formed, and cellular automata are functioning within acceptable parameters. Sinit Kai, can you hear me?"

"Yes," he mumbled feebly. His mouth was an unfamiliar instrument. "Why?" he managed to ask.

The older genetech crouched down beside him. The scientist might have been a mountain once, but decades of erosion had left him shriveled, withered and craggy. "Our time has run out, Kai. You must leave this place while the path remains open."

Kai coughed and more fluid wrestled its way out of his throat. "I need to get to the front lines. The war..."

The genetech placed a hand under Kai's chin, and gently lifted his head. "There is no war," he said. "All you hear is the last gasp of the dying."

"It's a funeral," the other genetech said.

"How?"

The scientist shook his head as he spoke. "We lost at Sylus Gate and the rest of our defenses collapsed in a cascade."

The other said, "Locara, Asheth, Telarius Point, and finally here. Each a total defeat."

Kai looked down at his incomplete hand. The structure was in place, but patches of half-formed skin scarcely covered the lattice-work of muscle machinery. If his estimates were correct, that placed him into the eleventh day of incubation. His entire world had been conquered in just thirteen days.

His mind raced. "I'm still asleep," he said.

The genetech replied all too gently, "I hope you're right, and that you soon wake."

As the last word came out of the genetech's mouth, the far end of the chamber exploded. Flames clawed through the wall and spit forth shards of razor sharp metal.

Something clicked in Kai's head and engineered instinct took over. He plotted the trajectory of every moving object in the chamber and launched himself into the air, twisting and contorting to avoid the shrapnel that ricocheted all around.

The room was quiet again an instant later, and Kai found himself crouched over the genetechs' remains. The hail of metal had shred them to pieces, and their blood now mixed with the blue gestational fluid in swirls. In spirals.

"Go," one of them gasped. "The lowest level. The machine waits." Then he was gone.

Kai stuffed the bundle of clothes under his arm and ran. The tunnels leading away from the laboratory were twisted, warped, and empty except for the sound of his feet pounding across stone and the rumble of approaching fire. He was running through a graveyard, and the graveyard was burning.

Level by level, he wound his way through the maze of corridors and descended deeper into the ground. All the while, sounds of the battle grew louder as one floor after the next was stripped away by the invaders' unstoppable fury.

He reached the last subfloor and sprinted toward the central hub while heavy bulkheads closed behind him, permanently sealing the crypt.

Then he was there, wherever there was. The room was another lab, this one bright white and circular. It was clean and totally untouched by the war that had demolished his planet. A sarcophagus-like capsule stood at its center amid an overgrowth of cables and machinery.

Kai wasn't sure what to do next. He dug through the bundle of clothes and found a mission-computer, a hollow metallic cylinder with an eery sheen, which he latched around his wrist like a shackle. Once closed, it adjusted itself to his arm and he felt the familiar tingle of it linking into his nervous system.

The computer's screen lit up and words began to scroll by, which he simultaneously heard echoed in the back of his head. Its voice was childlike and boisterous. "Initializing... Initialization complete. Greetings, Sinit Kai. You will be pleased to know that all of my systems are functioning at maximum efficiency."

The older models weren't so cloyingly personable. "Sure. Great," Kai said as he slipped into his uniform. "What's my mission?"

"You're certainly a rude one. No matter. Your mission is simple, Sinit. You need only step into the capsule, and it will do the rest."

Kai fastened the last of his buttons and tugged his jacket to make sure it was straight. The self-healing material of the uniform sealed itself against his half-formed skin, and the last of the pain disappeared. "I don't follow. What does this capsule do?"

"How strange. I thought Sinit-class infiltrators were supposed to follow orders without question."

"Things change," Kai said, "and I'm apparently all that remains of the command chain."

The computer took a moment to process that. "Well, if you absolutely must know, the capsule is an experimental transit system. There's a significant chance it will deliver us to a distant star... or it may annihilate us in a lovely show of lights. To be quite honest, I'm not sure which is more likely."

"Comforting." Despite his apprehension, Kai didn't take long to make a decision; the capsule at least offered some chance of survival. He stepped inside and tried to make himself comfortable. "To what end?"

"Other intelligence operatives were able to determine the enemy's next target, and the device is programmed to deliver you there. Upon arrival, you will have two objectives."

The capsule closed, and hissed as its pressure seals locked into place.

"Get on with it, machine."

"You are maddeningly impatient, you know that? I was getting there. Your first objective is to protect me. I was implanted with a shard of the Primogenitor's holographic data-core, and I now contain the entire stored knowledge of our people. Our accomplishments must not be forgotten. Your other objective is to deliver a message."

The hiss slowed to a halt, and was followed by a series of warbling tones that caused the capsule to vibrate. Their volume raised until the entire vessel became one great tuning fork.

Then it happened. There was a bright flash, and the capsule climbed up and up through the many layers of the ruined fortress and further into the bleeding sky. The teeming ranks of the enemy stretched away in all directions, covering the land to the far horizon.

Once the capsule was clear, a furiously burning light swelled up around the fortress and engulfed it, then raced out and swallowed the invaders, burning and crackling as it went. As the planet shrank away from Kai's view, the whole world was eaten by the blinding power of that light, and then it all blinked out at once.

"What in creation?" Kai asked.

"There will be no surrender, Sinit Kai. The Somari race died today, but the enemy paid dearly for their victory."

The whole situation was too surreal. Kai's head swam and he prayed to wake up, but it was no use. He was alone in a strange capsule hurtling through the blackness of space, and the world he knew was gone. "Tell me, what message am I to deliver?"

"Tell the universe that the Nefrem have awakened. Tell them the devourer is coming."

The mission-comp's words echoed through his mind as the remains of his homeworld disappeared from view, and he heard them over and over until he finally drifted off to sleep. It was a sleep haunted by a billion wailing ghosts, and the spectre of strange worlds yet to come.

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