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The Second Coming
by Gray Brangwin


"Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer.."

"Have the messengers been sent?"

"Yes, my lord. But with the distance between outposts, it is estimated that it will be at least a week before they hit even the nearest outposts. I fear that it is too little, too late."

Uttering a soft curse, the general raised his hand, allowing his hunting falcon to take flight. "Of all the times.. I knew we should never have gone so far afield." He absently stroked his horse, eyes on the falcon.

On the other horse, his aide shrugged helplessly. "It seemed necessary, though.. after all, we needed more living space, and had to reclaim it from the wilderness; and there were all those monsters.."

The general snorted in disgust. "Leave the stupid place for a hundred years and the whole place goes wild.. if it hadn't been for the Great Plague, we'd never have allowed it to happen." He absently continued to stroke his horse. "But now.. we're on the brink of civil war, and we can't even notify our outposts about it." He shook his head angrily. "Light, they'll all be slaughtered before they can blink. Dedicated men they are, but they're still just a step up from the town militias. Sad day when the king's soldiers can get beaten by a poorly trained farmer." He looked up, a faraway look in his eye. "And now we may all pay the price."

The aide nodded. "I just wonder why they'd choose to challenge the king now, of all times.."

Scanning the skies for his falcon, the general did not immediately answer. When he did, it was in a quiet tone. "That I can answer, if you will keep it strictly confidential."

The aide stared quizzically at his lord, but merely nodded.

Still watching the skies, the general spoke. "You know of our king's fascination with technology, do you not?"

"Of course. It's what put the rebels into opposition with him in the first place. Ironic that they themselves use that the same technology with no complaints." The aide paused. "So why now? Why would they suddenly choose to start a war?"

"It's the king's latest experiments that have the rebels in an uproar. The king.. is a good man, but he gets a bit carried away at times.."

The aide, with an expression of acute dread on his face, asked the expected question. "What did he do now?"

"He.. has begun experiments.. on something he found in the older data-files. Something to do with a test subject that went mad." He turned to his aide. "The experiment was on the creation of a cyborg."

The aide's eyes widened, but he said nothing.

"The original test subject apparently developed an unholy fascination with cats, and felt strong urges to torment them in... imaginative.. ways. He was to be terminated, but escaped using the laser implanted in his chest. The experiment was written off as a failure."

"So why would the king choose to pursue a failed experiment?"

"Because it wasn't a total failure. The test subject survived, but his neural synapses could not be rewired sufficiently to both accept the implants and retain his own sanity. What was important, though, was that the test subject survived." The general, with a faraway look in his eye, watched the path before his horse. "So the king theorized that an inert neural network could be rewired sufficiently to accept implants without risk of insanity." He fell silent for a moment, awaiting his aide's response.

"But... are you saying... he's experimenting on corpses?" the aide whispered in an incredulous tone, dread colouring his voice.

"Yes."

"It's.. it's..." The aide ran a gauntleted hand through his hair. "It's monstrous! Experimenting on the dead.."

"It's no such thing! Think of it," the general said, staring fiercely at his aide, "If it worked, when it worked, the cyborg would be essentially restored to life. Where is the horror in that?"

The aide nodded slowly. "I suppose so..." He tilted his head speculatively. "But obviously the rebels don't think that way."

The general grimaced. "Yes, their 'Freedom of Thought' movement. As if using technology would suppress free will.."

"As if they don't use technology.." the aide wryly added.

The general grinned. "True, true.." He whistled for the falcon to return. After a minute, the general cursed softly.

"Damn.. lost it. And one of my best, as well.. never had a problem with it in training.." the general growled.

The aide addressed his lord in a somber tone. "Let us hope it isn't a bad omen, my lord Orakio."

Orakio jerked at the reins of his horse, setting it to a canter. "Let us hope so, Shiren. Let us hope so indeed."

"..Things fall apart, the center cannot hold Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

Within weeks, the Alisa III was deep in the throes of civil war.

The armies of the king clashed repeatedly with the rebel forces, both sides augmented by their own creations, juggernauts of metal or monsters from the darkest night-terrors of young children. Town after town was dragged into the war; even those of no alignment soon allied themselves with one side or the other to save themselves from being crushed in the rolling wave of war. The conflict soon spanned the bridges between worldlets, bringing the fires of war to those who had never known violence. The delicate equilibrium was upset, irretrievable; and within weeks, all had fallen to chaos.

A thousand years ago, the ship had first set off from the wreckage of its doomed home planet. Having no other form of government, the Palmans had elected to resurrect the monarchical system on the strength of a few old records of the reign of Alis Landale. Somehow, they had managed to thrive in this environment never meant for Palmans, retaining the old technologies, awaiting the day they found a new home under the reign of a just king. And within weeks, it all came crashing down.

The rift had been a small one to begin with; to follow the path old Palma had been on, that of increasing mechanization, or that of old Mota, which had been that of increasing use of biological constructs. Those who led the second faction were largely embittered by the loss of their planet, and wished nothing more to do with the trappings of hyper-technology; content to remain as they were, to improve only on their creations and their own genetic codes. To others, who had lived their lives surrounded by the cold comfort of technology, it was unthinkable. Unfortunately for the biologists, the king had been of the technological school of thought, and thought little of their Luddite frame of mind. Perhaps, had they been allowed a fairer chance to present their case, the war might not have happened; but the future is rarely considered by anyone.

And so it began, and the facade of Palman brotherhood whirled away, crumbling into ash, it's fragile, false center destroyed.

*     *     *     *     *

Elsewhere, in Landen Dome, an experiment ended.

Orakio stared, unblinking, at what was left of his aide. Caught in an ambush by the rebels, half of his face had been torn away by the claws of some biomonster, sending shreds of bone into his brain. Those bone shards now lay in a disorderly pile on the bloodstained metal plate beside Shiren, as did most of Shiren's brain. Much of his body had also been devoured afterwards, probably by the hellspawn before their rebel masters could call them off. Rigor mortis had already set in, but the body had been recovered quickly enough that decay had hardly begun.

Staring at what was once his aide, Orakio tried to summon anger, but could not. Shiren had been close to him, but he had gotten careless; now he was no more than just another casualty. The spark of anger would not come; no oath of vengeance escaped his lips.

Instead, he said, "Activate."

The apparatus hummed to life, and blue currents of energy ran down the wires connected to the reconstructed body. First the duralinium endoskeleton, then the artificial muscle fiber twitched, before the first systems came on line. Slowly, the energy feed activated system after system, first the systems regulator, then the targeting link, then the exoskeletal armour controls, and then the bio-regulator, which began feeding nutrients and fluids into the few remaining dead, cold biological parts. Finally, the rewired neural net booted up, slowly gaining full operational status, and the cyborg's eyes opened. Orakio idly noted that the cyborg's eyes did not flutter open, like a Palman's, but rather flicked open in a single, quick movement-- but then the cyborg sat up, and turned to Orakio.

"What are my orders?" Shiren intoned, eyes fixed on his general, his lord, his master.

Orakio looked once more at what was left of his aide and could not speak.

"The blood-dimm'd tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned..."

The king and his general looked up as the guard entered.

"My king, my lord.. there are three civilians who wish to see you.. do you wish to admit them?"

Orakio frowned. "This is a time of war! We have no time for--"

The king held up a hand. "Wait, Orakio. I wish to see what is so urgent that they must barge into the castle thus." He turned to the guard. "Send them in."

"Yes, my liege." Bowing, the guard turned smartly on his heel and strode out. A moment later, he reappeared, accompanied by three people dressed in plain, worn clothing that wore the dust of many days' travel.

The man was large of build, with a build that spoke of years of toil in front of a forge, or perhaps in a quarry; though most hard labour was done by machines, some poorer towns chose to use manual labour instead. As for the two women, they must have been twins, for they looked exactly alike; the same calm, blue-gray eyes; the same fiery red hair they shared with the man, their brother--

--And the same carefully emotionless expression, also shared with their brother.

"King Ledoronthos, we ask to join your army." Short, clipped, precise. Minimal speech. Business-like tone. Every appearance of being professionally emotionless. Orakio didn't believe it for a second.

They were villagers. Of that he had no doubt. If the man had been a blacksmith before, he might be comfortable with a warhammer or the like in his hands, but swinging at moving, armoured objects was very different from swinging at an immobile lump of metal. And the other two.. they looked agile, but also as if they had never touched a weapon before in their life; which they probably hadn't.

By their expressions, they're running on rage alone, Orakio thought. Best go for the direct denial--

Weariness makes a fool of the canniest man. Orakio had never read others wrongly before, but this would be only the first time in the times to come.

"And what makes you think you are qualified to join?" the general queried in a deliberately mocking tone.

Surprisingly, the man just smiled. "We aren't." His two silent sisters came forward. "But you can make us qualified."

With regret, the king spoke. "If you speak of training, I am afraid that we cannot dedicate any trainers to you; all of our qualified trainers are already training a few thousand recruits, all of whom who at least had some military background prior to this. We have neither the time nor the resources to train you; I am sorry."

One of the sisters spoke up. "We do not speak of that. We are not fools; we have eyes like you and can see the state of this land for ourselves."

Trying very hard not to be insulted, and somewhat intrigued despite the insulting tone, Orakio addressed the group through clenched teeth. "Then of what do you speak? Talk, woman!" Okay, so maybe his temper wasn't under control.

The other woman now spoke. "We have heard.. rumours.. of a certain process you have developed between the two of you-- one that.. changes people."

Artfully schooled expression, as if chiselled out of cool marble. "We have no idea what you speak of." King Ledoronthos said, silently challenging them to say more.

"If I may speak so plainly, come of it, your majesty," the man sneered. "Shiren al Torienthis was the nephew of Renan al Torienthis, our mayor. Did you think we would not recognize him when he marched through our town on the way to the front?"

They were silent a moment. Then, clearing his throat slightly, the king spoke.

"Absolutely not."

The three of them turned their gazes at the king, staring daggers at him. "And why not?" one of the two sisters asked in a cold voice.

"Because of several reasons." It was Orakio who spoke this time. "First, the cyberization technique, so far, only works on corpses. Second.." He looked the sister who had spoken in the eye. "Second.. the process is irreversible. There is nothing you can go back to if you are subjected to the cyberization process. You will have nothing ahead of you, nothing but an eternity of existence as a military cyborg." He continued to watch them, a dark, serious expression on his handsome face. "It is for this reason that we have not begun experiments on living subjects, and we have no intention to begin now."

"Bugger your intention!" The three were completely unfazed by Orakio's impromptu speech. "Do you believe," the man snarled, biting off every word, "That we would be here had we anything to go back to?! Do you think us idiots to think we would not understand what we asked for?!" He lowered his head, trembling with emotion. "Torien was nothing more than a farming village, where we perfected the technologies of agro-farming. And now? It's gone. Everything. Every man, woman and child; every robot, every microchip, every scrap of metal. Razed in the fires of blazing techniques and crushed in the maws of the ravening creatures they set upon us. All gone, but us."

He raised his head, eyes empty. "Better we lose our humanity than remember what can never be regained."

Orakio and the man stared at each other for long moments. At length, Orakio spoke.

"What are your names?"

Not taking his eyes from Orakio's, the man replied. "Sirenos al Toriengal, and my sisters are Mieu al Toriengal and Miun al Toriengal."

Orakio turned away, eyes shadowed. "It shall be done tomorrow. My king, by your leave--"

*     *     *     *     *

The boy crouched in the rubble, silent. His arms encircled the whimpering girl in his arms, one hand absently brushing the locks of pale green hair from her wide, unseeing eyes. Expressionless, he stared sightlessly at a charred structure of wood and metal; one of a few hundred surrounding him.

Metal. What an incongrous symbol of that demonic curse, the boy thought. Pliable, useful, ductile. He had liked metal, once, as much as he had once wondered in the clean, stirring breath of a spring breeze, and the light, gentle sunlight that shone over his youthful face. By the age of five, he had learned that all of this was an illusion, an artificial environment maintained by the systems that were the brain of the Alisa III as much as the engines were its heart. It had not stopped his joy in all things around him, though; with his sister, he enjoyed many an engineered spring morning.

In an odd, distracted mental voice, he wondered how he was ever quite so blind.

The metal men had come, that day. Tens upon hundreds of combat drones, on their way to the front, stopping to destroy the place that was nothing more than a supply station before moving on. Cold, methodical. Enemy destroyed, moving on.

What the boy remembered, though, was not the horrible, faceless maskes of the drones, or their lancing lasers, or the echoing screams of his parents, or the sight of his house collapsing into a pile of smouldering cinders before being completely vapourized by a stray laser. All he remembered, all he could remember, was red hair. Flaring, red hair atop a mechanized countenance, metal plates mockingly coloured the colour of dead flesh fused to the metal man's cheeks. And all he could feel was hate.

Tomorrow, he would go to the east. Tales of the ruthless lady general who served under the revolutionary king Resthenes had spread even here, some months ago. Though young, the boy already had extraordinary skill with a slasher and a reasonable repertoire of techniques; he had no doubt he could secure a place in Laya's army. And he would hunt down that red-haired abomination and destroy it.

Tomorrow, he would scavenge a pair of monomates and an old suit of armour, as well as find his father's old, magic-imbued Terran slasher, and he would set out with his sister to Refeil Castle. But for now, the last echo of innocence remained as Lune sat in the ruins, seeing nothing, absently stroking the limp form of his catatonic twin sister.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.."

"You asked to see me, my liege?"

The proud general genuflected to his liege, before straightening and facing the wreck before him. The war had not been kind to Ledoronthos; a tinkerer at heart, a good king for no reason but his care for his people, being forced to be the figurehead for a civil war had taken its toll on the young, bright twenty-year old who was now a sad, introspective thirty-six year old.

Such was the price of war, Orakio thought to himself. But still it must be paid.

"Orakio.. my general, my friend..." the king spoke, his voice little more than a whisper.

"Yes, my liege?" Back straight, always at attention; relentless in battle, remorseless in slaughter. It was no different now.

Ledoronthos was silent. After several moments, he spoke haltingly, some unidentifiable emotion behind his words. "I.. I need the friend right now, and not the general.. if you please." He fell silent again. An unvoiced sigh on his lips, Orakio relaxed slightly, letting some of his hardened facade slip. It had to happen sometime; he'd seen it coming for ages. Well, he'd just have to help Ledoronthos through this-- the people needed their king, no matter how he really felt about it.

A small, bitter smile crossed the king's lips, and he addressed Orakio. "You can't let go, can you? No, it is you now.. no matter. I must still speak with you nonetheless."

Orakio silently cursed whatever capricious deity had turned his once-accurate judgement on its head as Ledoronthos rose from the throne and crossed to the window, staring down at the streets below. The general knew what his liege saw; the once-lively streets that now teemed only with liveried soldiers and battle drones that moved with unnatural, jerking movements, and the dark pall set over the city by the smelters and factories working overtime to produce more drones. Lately, drones with a more advanced AI had begun production; but in one corner of the city, in a white-walled building next to the barracks, more and more conscripts were waiting their turn to be "enhanced" into cyborgs. A pale shadow of it's former prosperity, Landen lay before them.

"My general? Do you ever.. regret?" A volume of meaning lay concealed within those words, Orakio thought. But Ledoronthos' words compelled an answer. After all, he was the king.

"No, my king. Regret has no place on a battlefield."

"I thought so." Facing the window as he was, his expression was hidden from Orakio's view. "I regret. I regret every day." He lowered his head slightly. "I regretted every bad decision I made, I regretted every execution I ordered." He placed his hands on the curtains. "And now I regret developing the cyberization process."

"My liege, if you refer to the rebel claim that they went to war over your experiments, then rest assured that they were merely a convenient excuse. It had been building up for ages; comes from being stuck on this ship, I suppose."

Ledoronthos laughed softly. "You mistake me, Orakio. I speak not of that, but of what it became."

Orakio tilted his head curiously. "My liege?"

"Don't play games with me, my general. You know perfectly well of what I speak," Ledoronthos spat in an uncharacteristic snarl. "It was to be a medical science, a possible restoration of the recently deceased through partial cyberization. Instead, what is it now? Used to accomplish that!" The king gestured at something outside the window, but though Orakio could not see what he gestured at, he knew that it was one of the cyborgs, probably one of the more openly mechanized ones.

"My liege, they are vital to the war effort--" he started.

"I know! Just as I know that without more, we cannot stand against the enemy forces!" Ledoronthos was practically shouting now, his shoulders trembling with emotion. "But.. but I can take it no more! I.. I have not the strength to send so many to their deaths, or to a life worse than death! I.." The king, shuddering heavily now, gripped the windowsill for support, momentarily unable to speak.

A dark suspicion crept into Orakio's mind, and he spoke before thinking. "My liege, you cannot mean to cease the cyberization of conscripts! Without the added strength, we cannot hope to even hold Landen, much less what territory we do occupy! That is madness!"

"I know. I know only too well." The king's soft, shuddering whisper brought Orakio up short. Ledoronthos turned around, and the general was astonished to see the tears running freely down his king's face. "Which is why I choose to run away instead. As of this day, Orakio, you lead the people of Landen, and of the Alisa III. I cannot perform this farce any longer."

For once, Orakio found himself at a loss for words. "But.. you are the king," Orakio started lamely.

"It matters not. Call yourself king if you wish; I care not. I have not the conviction to lead my people to their deaths any longer." Ledoronthos, king no longer, began to turn away.

"They will not accept me. I am not of royal blood.."

"And my distant ancestor was? Already they have more respect for you than they hold for me; they speak of your bravery in battle, of your genius, and pay lip service to the throne. But it matters not; even had they naught but loathing for you, still I would pass the leadership on to you. Because no one else can endure this burden and remain unscarred but one who can destroy his own emotional baggage. You." Orakio failed to notice the bitter, ironic smile that crossed his former king's lips at this. Instead, his mind filled with images of glory, of victory over the rebels, of the exultant, victorious shouts of his people, of the new, technological society they would build on another planet. The last picture that blazed in his mind was that of Palma reborn.

His voice trembling with passion and raw with the intensity of his feeling, Orakio spoke, not knowing that two domes away, in Refeil Castle, Laya, with Lune by her side, spoke the same words to old King Resthenes.

"I will lead. For our people, I will lead. For Palma, I will lead, and win!"

And that day, the Devastation War truly began.

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