MAN OF IRON

PART 1

The single yellow star burned in the void. Its brethren framed it in the sky like sequins, their sparkle visible in every direction. Across this vista drifted the system's planets, nine dark spheres that danced through their orbits. Asteroids were pulled here and there by their gravity, comets hurtling in-system only to be seized and thrown back again along their elliptical paths.

And in the dark of the void, just barely outside this solar system, space itself shuddered. The darkness seemed to tear, deathly light slipping through, before the rent condensed abruptly into a single point. The point seemed to stretch forward, until a shimmering spike pushed through. Behind it followed more, the rent stretching to accommodate as the shovel-like prow of an Imperial Cruiser forced its way back into reality. The proud Aquila was followed by deck after deck of sensors and gun ports, all interspersed with thick armour. Shutters that isolated the ship's interior and cut off their view of outside slowly receded as more and more of the ship emerged from the warp.

To either side of it, the phenomenon was repeated on a smaller scale as the cruiser's two escorts followed it. They were slighter craft, eschewing the armour and sensors that made the Deus Ex Mechanicus so bulky and instead opting for speed and firepower. Their pointed prows gave way to slender midsections studded with weapon ports, which in turn was succeeded by bulky engine blocks flaring as their realspace drives powered up.

Aboard the cruiser, crews scurried like frenzied ants to ensure the transition had been successful. Techpriests marched with their retinues of servitors to calm the exhausted warp drives, or to awaken the realspace engines. The ship's spirit was soothed by a full dozen of the red-robed adepts, their prayers and ministrations echoing around the giant chamber housing the Mechanicus' plasma reactors.

On the bridge, the captain's pulpit was the only point of stillness amidst the sea of organised chaos. Two figures stood behind the gilded lectern. One was tall and regal, clad in the immaculate uniform of a captain of the Imperial Navy. The other was shorter, but shrouded in the Adeptus Mechanicus' crimson robes. Snake-like mechadendrites curled up from beneath their hem, bearing auspices and devices to sense the world around the priest. The red points of his augmetic eyes swung over to the captain.

"Status?" he said, his voice emerging in a mechanical crackle from a voxcaster mounted in his throat.

The captain gave a brief, deferential nod. "The Deus Ex Mechanicus is running at ninety-seven percent, explorator Chicherin. Initial reports indicate that the transition was a complete success."

Chicherin nodded. That was good. The dangers of warp travel, already massive, were multiplied a hundredfold during the actual transition between realms. Many a ship had been destroyed by even minor faults in those few precious minutes. He turned to regard the starscape outside the Mechanicus' forward viewport. "And our exit point?"

The captain frowned. He looked down at his display for a second, then back up. "Lieutenant Gerig!" he called. "Confirm our coordinates."

There was a pause while the stocky lieutenant complied, then his reply came back, tinged with worry. "Confirmed, captain. To a margin of point five."

The captain cursed under his breath before composing himself and turning back to the explorator. "We missed, sir," he said. "The warp has spit up out lightyears off target. Records are so scant on this area of the galaxy that we're having trouble determining when we are, as well."

"I see," said Chicherin. This was not good. The warp was capricious and fickle, and navigating its currents was at best an educated guess and at worst random chance. It was not uncommon for ships to simply disappear, only to emerge decades or even centuries later in a completely different part of the galaxy. As had, it seemed, happened to the Mechanicus and its escorts. Chicherin just hoped the time distortion did not prove too great.

"Explorator," said the captain. Chicherin looked back over to him. "We've made progress. We've emerged far to the galactic northeast, but thankfully we're still in range of the astronomicon – if just barely."

A shout from below cut him off. "Sirs!" came the excited voice, "We're picking up active signals from one of the system's planets!"

Chicherinwas thankful that his face was obscured by machinery. It wouldn't do for an explorator to be caught flat-footed in surprise.

"Data looks to be radio-wave, but I'm catching a large amount of what has to be visual display data as well. The actual format is too different for the Mechanicus to process, but it's pretty apparent that it's communications."

Chicherin turned to face the bridge. His voice brooked no argument. "Captain Rahab, you will take us into that system. If that world is human-populated, it is our duty to bring it into the fold."

To his surprise, the captain faced him down. "And what if it's alien, explorator? We're hardly a warfleet. A company of your skitarii may well be a formidable force, but it's hardly a planet-taking one."

"If it's alien, captain, we mark it for destruction and set about extricating ourselves from this warp-damned mess. For now, though, we simply cannot allow an opportunity like this to slip away from us. This could be an untouched, pre-dark age human world! Think of the possibilities!"

"Oh, I am thinking of the possibilities, and near enough every damned one of them involves this fleet getting wiped out," growled the captain.

"I am in command of this fleet, captain," Chicherin warned.

"And I am in command of this ship, explorator. Protecting her is my job, and I say that going closer to an unidentified, inhabited world with nothing but a Lunar and two Swords is tantamount to suicide."

By now, all eyes on the bridge were turned towards the two. Chicherin's mechadendrites shifted in agitation, betraying what his flat augmetic voice could not. "Disobedience is punishable by death, captain Rahab, and in a situation such as this the punishment could be even more severe." There is no telling when, or even if, we could be able to return to this system and if we do not take the chance we've been given… well, the Mechanicus would not look too kindly upon us."

The captain barked a laugh. "Your threats don't mean anything, explorator. The only difference between dying down there and dying in some Mechanicus cell is that we all get to live a considerable amount longer if we get the hell out of here."

Chicherin had had enough. Initiative was valued in a captain, but when it became outright defiance it was too much. "I have the command here, Rahab."

"With all due respect, explorator, you don't know shit about naval tactics. I do. And I say we-"

A deafening crack cut him off as an explosive bolt detonated inside his abdomen and nearly blew him in two. Chicherin lowered the bolt pistol-bearing mechadendrite and faced the shocked bridge crew.

"We go in," he said.

-I-

The sudden appearance of… something in the outer edges of the solar system a week ago had scared even the politicians into action. Emergency summits had been called, scientists had been interrogated. First it was a comet, then it was a solar flare, then aliens, before everyone finally admitted they didn't have the faintest idea what the hell it was.

Duo grimaced as he jogged down the corridor of Relena's office building. Groups had already risen up claiming it was the beginning of the apocalypse. One god or another was finally going to end the world. He didn't believe it, but too many people apparently did. Riots had already started. Police and the military were trying their damndest to stop them, but it was like throwing a bucket of water at a forest fire. Short of declaring martial law and locking down everything, there wasn't a lot the ESUN governments could do.

Now, though, they had apparently found something big. He had no idea why he had been called up, but it beat trying to keep a business going when the whole neighbourhood had collapsed into anarchy. Hilde had wanted to come with him, but he'd managed to persuade her to stay home. After all, if she didn't, there might not be a business to come back to.

He finally got to Relena's office and took a moment to catch his breath before pushing the door open. Inside, it didn't look as if it was such urgent news The only other person in there apart from Relena herself was – to his surprise - Wufei.

He hadn't seen the other pilot since the end of the Dekim Barton fiasco. He looked older than the eight year gap could account for. His crisp Preventer uniform only went so far to disguise it. The two exchanged a brief nod.

"Duo, you're here," said Relena warmly. "We can begin." She stood from behind her desk. "Four hours ago, we received communication from the object in space."

"What?" blurted Duo. "They really are aliens?"

Relena frowned, but continued. "No, Duo. They appear, to all our best guesses, to be human. Even the language is translatable – it seems to be a version of ancient latin."

"So if they're human, where did they come from?"

"If you'll let me finish," Relena said, "I'll get to that. They identified themselves as a starship by the name of the Deus Ex Mechanicus, and its escorts; which seems to mean something along the lines of 'god from the machine'. They say that they're from something called either the 'Imperium of Man' or the 'Adeptus Mechanicus', it's unclear which. We've been given a name – their commander, who goes by the title of 'Explorator Chicherin' – and they've extended an invitation to meet them in person.

"While this does seem a little fast, especially considering this is an entirely new civilisation, after consulting with the president I have forwarded our acceptance. We've been given leave to approach in safely in a window of twenty-four hours after they achieve orbit around Earth."

"Explain," said Duo, "who 'we' is." He already had a sinking feeling that he knew exactly who 'we' was, but there was always the off chance that-

"The three of us," she said.

Well, that scuppered that then. "Now hold on a minute," he said. "Why us? Why me? I work in a god-damned scrapyard, and somehow I'm the most qualified to make first contact with aliens?"

"You've been chosen because of what you were rather than what you are," Relena explained. She gestured towards him and then Wufei, who was still as silent as ever. "You two were Gundam pilots and while that may not count for much in everyday life, in situation like this it makes you invaluable. You're used to operating alone, you were highly trained, you're skilled in infiltration and intelligence gathering – in short, you're the perfect candidates for this."

"So we're there as spies," said Wufei. The distaste in his voice was clear.

"Yes, and no. You're primarily there as bodyguards – no matter how open and genial they've been so far we can't be sure they'll stay that way. For all we know this is an elaborate trap to gain hostages. Strangely, they have given us leave…" she rustled through reports and transcripts on her desk, "…to bring an escort of 'size equivalent to the status of the representative', and by bringing just you two they either think I'm not worth capturing or you two are dangerous enough that they won't try anything."

Duo had to admit he could see her logic. Still, it didn't make it any easier to swallow. "But why us specifically? Even if you're just going for us Gundam pilots, surely Quatre would be a better choice for this? Hell, even Heero could do the whole bodyguard thing better than we ever could." Wufei coughed at that, but he carried on. "Wufei, maybe; he is in the Preventers after all. But why choose poor old Duo?"

She paused. "You two were chosen out of expediency. Quatre couldn't be taken in case they actually do try anything – the Winner company is too valuable to the economy to risk its head in this. The same goes for Trowa, even though the Barton foundation is a shadow of what it used to be. And as for Heero… well, he hasn't been seen in six years." She shrugged. "And besides, I thought you'd love the chance to get back to a little excitement Duo."

Excitement was one thing, first contact with genuine aliens was another. Especially when everyone was treating them as armed and dangerous. And besides, how would he break it to Hilde? Sorry Hilde, I've got to go into space with Relena to talk to aliens. Maybe get shot at, maybe save Relena from capture, you know, the whole schtick you wanted me to get out of in the first place. Yeah, that would work.

"Relena, I can't," he said. "I've got other things that need me." Other things that'll kill me for just running off without them.

"The world needs you Duo."

He sighed. Sorry Hilde, he thought. I'll make it up to you. "Fine. I'll go, if it's that important. When do we leave?"

"Tomorrow. Six AM."

Duo groaned.