Prologue

Sada of Dezaria stood beside her uncle's shadowed throne. Six lamps scattered the dark hall. "Lord Skaldart?"

"Yes, Sada." His glowing, red eyes cracked open.

"We need more fuel for the reactors."

Skaldart stood with the screech of shifting metal. "We are too old for this, Sada." He took her hand and stepped from the throne's dais.

Sada winced beneath her uncle's weight as he leaned on her intact frame. "There are few enough of us left." Her bionic arm creaked as Skaldart took a second 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 held up a hand to block the light. "What are the prospects?"

Sada tapped just above her ear, producing a list only she could see. "Kyrhal in Andromeda-space, Meridian near the mother-world, Iscandar-Gamilon of Sanzar, and Prydane, on the other side of Cygnus."

"Send General Meldars' Goruba and instruct him to take Meridian and report the world's yield. We will decide which source to mine next."

Sada sent the order.

Skaldart's deteriorating bionics betrayed him as Sada guided him through an unmarked door. The augmentation room's stark white walls framed a floor-to-ceiling tube in the room's center. She helped her uncle into the tube.

Once inside the augmentation chamber, ten mechanical arms lifted him four feet off the floor. "Begin."

The chamber deconstructed Skaldart's torso. When the machine peeled back his chest plate, the open cavity was filled, not with organic matter, but circuitry and metal parts. The only living thing in his chest was a pulsing heart—though it was wearing out. The maintenance machine discarded and replaced worn pieces before putting back the chest plate.

Next, the machine ripped away the damaged leg, exposing abused wiring that sparked and sputtered until the machine attached a new limb.

Among other adjustments, the chamber replaced his remaining organic eye with a bionic one and changed out the existing prosthetic eye.

Skaldart didn't react to the process.

Sada was scheduled for another overhaul in 865 days. Synthetic flesh covered over half her body. All four limbs were bionic, and her spinal column had been recently replaced. The heart beating in her chest was synthetic, but she still possessed over a third of her organic body.

Skaldart… was only a heart and a brain now.

The repair work done, Skaldart left the augmentation chamber under his own power and motioned Sada to follow him. When he stepped outside, he turned away from the throne room. "Dezaria is in agony. Her time is coming."

"But she has many years yet," said Sada.

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

"And the core?" said Sada.

"Intact. The corruption is spreading, but we've transferred much of the information to independent storage."

The walls creaked, and every metal floor plate wailed and groaned for three long seconds before falling silent again.

"We must get to the mother-world," Sada said. "Deliver Dezaria's knowledge store and what remains of our people so they can live out their days in peace."

"Guardiana is far. Too far even for you, our last Cartographer to guide us. Dezaria is…past warp travel. Her disturbed systems wreak havoc enough on the universe. Even now, a storm swirls around us, hiding this place in shadow."

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

"Without the augmentation chamber, few would survive the journey," Skaldart said. "We are too ancient a people, Sada. Grandmother Seda, for whom you are named, was wise, but she was not all-knowing. The spirit of Diana graced us with knowledge." He flexed one bionic hand. "Those Hadassian fools rejected her gift. Even the Ibrahemics took some of what Diana offered. But our bodies weaken, and it is time to complete our great task." He met Sada's gaze with grave eyes. "You know of what I speak."

Sada nodded. "Yes, lord."

"Amass the remaining Autoplanets. Ensure they're ready to strike."

Sada bowed. "It will be so."