Prologue

"Lord Skaldart."

A woman's voice echoed through a vast, dark hall, lingering in corners and seeping into cracks. The only light came from scattered lamps.

"Yes, Sada."

The reply rumbled back from the far end of the hall, and two glowing, red eyes cracked open.

"We need more fuel for the reactors," Sada said, her light footsteps barely touching the floor as she approached her ruler's shadowed throne.

Skaldart stood up, the screech of shifting metal ringing with his every movement. "We are too old for this, Sada," he hissed.

The woman reached out to Skaldart. He took her hand and with a shaky step came to lean on her intact frame. She winced but held up under his weight.

"There are few enough of us left," Sada said, her metal arm creaking as Skaldart took another lurching step.

They passed a lamp. Its yellow light made the ruler's bluish skin appear a sickly green and sent Sada's pearly skin orange. Skaldart winced and held up a hand to shield his face from the light.

"What are the prospects?" he asked.

Sada tapped a spot just above her ear. A list appeared in her field of vision. "Kyrhal – out near Andromeda-space, Meridian near the mother-world, Iscandar-Gamilon of Sanzar, and Prydane, on the other side of Cygnus."

"Send out General Meldars' Goruba and instruct him to take Meridian first, then report the world's yield. We will decide which source to mine next after that," Skaldart instructed.

Sada quickly composed and sent the order.

Skaldart dragged along, his aging body betraying him as Sada guided him through an unmarked door. The sounds of whirring machines and clanking parts filled the room.

Skaldart took a seat inside an alcove. "Begin," he said.

Sada watched in fascinated horror as several mechanical arms deconstructed the ruler's torso. His chest plate peeled back to reveal a cavern filled, not with organic matter, but metal parts. The only living thing within his chest was his pulsing heart – though it too was wearing out.

The maintenance machine pulled out worn pieces and replaced them with newer ones. Next, Skaldart's damaged leg was ripped away, causing the abused wiring to spark and sputter. He never batted an eye as the machine replaced the limb and wired it into his frame.

Sada shuddered as she thought of the day she would have to undergo her next significant overhaul. She looked down at her hands – covered with synthetic flesh. Both her arms were bionic as well as her legs. Her spinal column was only recently replaced as age had worn it down and caused it to fragment, but she still had over half of her organic body. Skaldart… was only a heart and a head now.

With the repair work done, Skaldart stood under his own power and motioned for Sada to follow him. He left the maintenance bay and turned left, away from the throne room.

Sada went after him.

"Dezaria groans in agony." Skaldart's footsteps echoed in the dark halls. "Her time is coming."

Sadness rose in Sada. "But she has many years yet."

"Perhaps," Skaldart allowed, "But not so many as we'd first hoped. The reactors' fuel consumption has increased by twenty percent in the past hundred years. At that rate we won't be able to keep them operational without consuming entire galaxies."

"And the core?" Sada asked.

"Intact," Skaldart replied. "The corruption is spreading, but much of the information has been transferred to independent systems.

The walls creaked and both Dezarians stopped short. The plates beneath their feet wailed and groaned but fell silent a few seconds later.

"We must make haste to the mother-world," Sada said. "There we can ensure Dezaria's knowledge is not lost, and what remains of our people will live out their days in peace."

"Guardiana is too far from here." Skaldart hung his head in defeat. "Dezaria is… past the point of warp travel. Even now her disturbed systems have great consequences. A storm swirls around us, hiding this place in shadow."

"Then evacuate – let everyone make it to Guardiana in their own time –"

"Many would not survive such a journey without constant maintenance," Skaldart interrupted. "We are an ancient people, Sada. Too ancient. Grandmother Seda, for whom you are named, was wise, but she was not all-knowing. The spirit of Diana graced us with the knowledge of such enhancements as these." He flexed his mechanical hand. "Those Hadassian fools rejected her gift. Even the Ibrahemics took some of what she had to offer. But now, as our bodies weaken, we must accomplish one last task." He gazed intently into Sada's eyes. "You know of what I speak."

Sada nodded. "Yes, lord."

"Amass the remaining Autoplanets. Make sure they are ready to strike when the time comes."

Sada bowed. "It will be so."