Gren hated science. Not as an abstract concept, he had no problem with it existing in its own right and regardless of how he felt about it he would have been an imbecile of the highest order if he denied that it was essential. Without men, woman and machines toiling away in laboratories of one form or another, mankind would have failed to survive its first encounters with some of the most mundane infectious diseases let alone managed to rise up out of the ashes of annihilation to claim lordship of the stars. No, he definitely could not pretend that he hated science simply because of what it was. He hated it because of what had been done to him in its name. He had spent the majority of his early life strapped to tables, wired into machines and having various pieces of himself taken apart and put back together again as scholars tried to puzzle out exactly what he was. But after years upon years of endless tests, investigations, questions and trials no one had been able to figure it out. All that they knew was that he was unique. It had taken a legion of the Proconsul's finest explorers the best part of a decade to determine that. They scoured every world in Republican space: from the upside down towers of Vasalax which plunged towards the planet's core away from its surface of toxic ooze like needles into the eye of a voodoo doll, all the way to the carbon-crystal forests of Loz where men went to seclude themselves away to try and carve their names in diamond bark with nothing but their minds. Ships were secretly or not-so-secretly searched and habitat satellites were blockaded until they had been checked for anyone who was even vaguely like him. But everyone who had been charged with the task returned empty handed and none the wiser. As far as he knew they were still looking and still failing.
Even he didn't know what he truly was. Not an alien, that much was obvious. That would have been astonishing, to himself most of all as it would have been the first he'd heard of it, but mankind had learned a long time ago that the galaxy was devoid of other such “evolved” species. Sometimes he thought that was such a shame, but then humanity couldn't even peacefully co-exist with itself so he dreaded to think what would happen if it had to share the galaxy with any other similarly belligerent races. Beyond the borders of the Milky Way no one could be certain, but according to all existing evidence the realms of man existed in isolation. So it wasn't his species that had made him such an object of curiosity, but rather that he represented an interesting and unprecedented variation in the nature of humanity. A genetic flaw had rendered him capable of projecting his will across space. Not at extended range, of course. If that had been within his power, then the Republic would have had him chained to a wall in some lightless dungeon issuing edicts to all corners of creation. That would have been a simpler way of achieving the unity he so desperately sought but it would have been far crueler. Also less interesting. Where was the challenge of getting your enemies to eventually agree with you if they'd never had the chance to be wrong in the first place? The Proconsul and the rest of the prelates didn't see it that way though. In fact, as much as they knew his aberrant gifts were useful they also feared them. With him around they could never be certain if their thoughts were their own, or if he was nudging them in directions they would never have taken if not suggested. Truth be told they had reason to fear him. He was afraid of himself. It was all too easy to reach into someone's mind and tinker with their thoughts as though one were rearranging a stationery cupboard. The temptation was at times almost impossible to resist, and he couldn't say to himself that he had always been a model of discretion.
That was why he'd spent the majority of his later life roaming the space-ways. He was a useful tool, but just as it was wise to never hold a knife by the blade his superiors had opted to keep him as far as away from them as possible. That way they could be certain he was acting according to their will and not they according to his. He'd used his gifts often enough, most recently with Pinter back on Oreon. If he hadn't then he would never have convinced him to allow those ships to land no matter how much he sweetened the deal via conventional means. But that was different. Pinter owed him a favour. Actually, it was several. It had been no easy task smuggling him out of the Empire after what he did, but helping to ensure the capitulation of his adopted planet was almost enough to settle the debt. The genetic material from a Praetorian was an unexpected but substantial bonus down payment. Jerrin, the roguish brat that better men were forced to call prince, had also felt the effects of his powers of persuasion. He had required lesser levels of manipulation as he lacked the wit to see that his petty, selfish goals perfectly complimented Gren's altruistic visions. Besides, the child hadn't really had a choice in the matter. He either gave Gren what he wanted or stayed in the rubble of his ship on that monstrous rock of a planet to be consumed body and soul by ash and flame. It was a spot of luck that such an “illustrious” personage should just have happened to be on a ship that passed through an ancient testing ground for eclipse-field mines. They were relics of the last war, hidden in shadows between physical reality and the seething sub-strata of the universe. Some were still active and marked out a section of the Republic's secret borders. Not a terribly honest weapon but an effective one. He'd saved the boy's life and promised him the throne he so coveted. All he wanted in return was to make humanity whole again. It was a noble goal, one that the princeling shared in his own twisted way so it hadn't been difficult to convince him. But even that limited amount of coercion did not sit well with Gren. He detested it, as always, but it was better than the alternative in most cases. No one liked dying.
That was the reason he found himself bound to the Republic. When he had been released from the institution he was given an ultimatum: serve or perish. If he'd been born in the Empire then no such choice would have been given. He would have been condemned to die on the examination table the moment his abilities became apparent. His organs would have been put on public display for laymen to gawk at and coo over as they were told that this specimen represented an intolerable threat to the purity of the species. Which was laughable. Generations of life on foreign worlds and in space had already altered segments of the population beyond what any ancient Earth-born would have recognised as human. Yet they were treated no worse than anyone else. In some cases often better, as their particular adaptations meant that they were the only ones capable of doing what they did without impractical mechanical assistance or expensive augmentation. But none of them posed a threat to the status quo, and so were accepted with good grace. Someone like him would have done and as such could not be tolerated. The Republic on the other hand, knew better than to waste such a potentially valuable resource unless it was absolutely unavoidable. He'd pledged his loyalty to the cause and that was good enough. So far he'd given his masters no reason to doubt his word. None that he knew of, at least. Even if he had, he wouldn't care. The nature of his servility had done nothing to dull how keenly he felt a sense of responsibility and duty to his fellow citizens. He served everyone, not the plotting politicians back on the capital world which was why he offered help to any who needed it. Of course, such help often came at a price but it was usually a fair exchange and they were perfectly at liberty to refuse his offers. Generally. If anyone had any complaints they had never made them known to him, but then he supposed that they wouldn't do. Anyone in the Republic wouldn't dare turn down someone clad in a prelate's robes, if word of such rejection reached the wrong ears then the consequences would be unfortunate and unpleasant. Those from worlds beyond its admittedly limited sphere of influence would be so terrified by the mere presence of a descendent of men they had been told had almost destroyed the galaxy (which was an overstatement, as the Empire was hardly all that constituted the contents of known space) that they'd agree to anything just to make him go away.
Which is exactly what he did. He knew better than to overstay his welcome. When he left he always returned, curiously enough, to his own laboratory. Perhaps, the experimental violations he had endured were responsible for piquing his interest. Or it could have been that he had come to realise that even though he had suffered it was for a greater good, only temporarily and after it was over he had been free to go. More or less. Yes, he may have hated science but it was a necessary evil. As he narrowed his eyes at a screen across the room he wondered how many times throughout history that exact same thought crossed the minds of men. Willingly or unwillingly they had seen their inventions and discoveries put to use as weapons or abused for profit, a plague upon mankind instead of a panacea. Then more than ever it needed to be the latter. He moved away from a workbench covered with tools of such unusual and intricate designs that they may well have completely boggled the minds of uninitiated onlookers, he couldn't be certain that even he knew what they all did. The braces on his legs chafed and painkilling pads planted just beneath his skin sent pulses of soothing chemicals directly to the trouble spots. Before the drugs took hold he swatted a drifting drone away. It had done nothing to specifically bother him, all it had tried to do was show him some information regarding the latest genetic profiles of the samples from Oreon. In the seconds before the aches in his muscles faded he had lashed out in frustration, not paying attention to the note beside a particular experiment which read: huge success.
The machine buzzed away through the hovering clouds of holographic calculations and diagrams that filled the air above him like will-o'-the-wisps shepherding him along the tangled road to enlightenment. They cast a pale hue upon the surroundings and turned an otherwise unassuming room into a dreadful vault. Surfaces of ordinary metal seemed to crack and peel like stonework from an age of giants transposed from its natural setting to serve the purposes of man. The girders that criss-crossed the ceiling melted away into a filigree of silver struts that glittered like the polished bones of prized palaeontological specimens. Free-standing computers and various specialised devices were liberally distributed about the room like antiquities in the burial chamber of a king of some long extinct race of machine men. Some were processing data and cataloguing information for ease of reference, others were monitoring ongoing experiments. A few of the more eccentric computers who fancied themselves truly intelligent were postulating the uses of chocolate tea pots, of which they had discovered more than a fair few, or whether or not the universe was actually the smallest thing in existence as opposed to the largest. In relative terms, of course.
But it was a series of capsules set high on a dais of cold, dark metal that looked as if it had been forged from the shadows of an Asmodean realm which was the only object of Gren's immediate attention. Rows of computer consoles arranged like the many-tiered rotunda of a gladiatorial stadium rose up around him, their screens brightened at his approach as the machines sensed his presence and prepared to do his bidding. He gave everything a cursory glance and nodded with approval as he caught glimpses of information that he found to his liking. A good thing too, as it was not unknown for him to throw things at his computers if they told him something he didn't want to know, much to the annoyance of the engineers who had to tidy up after him. Not that he ever forced them to do it, he was quite capable of taking care of his own mess, but he didn't think they'd appreciate him incorrectly configuring a replacement computer and sending power surges through the ship. For the time being though the equipment, and the collective sanity of the ship's mechanics, was safe. He perched himself on a stool, adjusting his leg braces to accommodate the position, and looked up at the containers mounted just above him. They were of a murky green colour that verged on white, like eyes removed from deep sea beasts. Yet no inhuman malice shone within them, instead there was only the sickly glistening of coalescing organic matter as enzymes and nano-bots went about their work. Each one represented years of failed labour. Once, not that long ago it had reached the point where he could barely live with himself. Before he'd been banished from the Proconsul's sight he had sworn on the grave of every mother that he would find a way to reunite humanity. If he couldn't do it then no one could. Such self-assurance had provoked much derisive chuckling as he had been dragged out of the consulate halls, thrown onto his ship and told not to return until he had fulfilled his self-imposed oath. But as they'd laughed he saw into their minds and found that some believed him. They may have been taken aback by his brashness and naive surety, but none of them had ever dared to be so bold as to think his goal could actually be achieved, even though that was the exact reason the prelates had been appointed in the first place. To think that they might actually live to see generations of schemes reach fruition was encouraging. It was also dangerous. The Republic had achieved much and had done well to survive so long in secret after its almost total extermination. Few were willing to risk losing it all on the whims of a mutant. But his abilities aside, Gren had something that no one else had ever possessed since the second dawn of human history: Praetorian D.N.A.
The drone insistently buzzed about his head but he swatted it away again, more out of disinterest than lingering pain-induced anger. Reaching down beside him he picked up a case emblazoned with all manner of warning signs and sigils that any normal man would have trembled to look upon. Gren was not so weak of mind, but he had to admit it was wise for most people to avoid such containers as there was no telling when contact with their contents could have gut-spewing, flesh-shrivelling consequences. The squat box was locked with magnetic bolts that no force could break. Except a gentle brush of Gren's fingers as internal mechanisms sampled his blood and they released the catches with a reluctant clunk. From within it he drew forth another canister of living jade. As a magister would have peered into a scrying orb, he gazed into its verdant depths and saw the future taking shape. Through the mists of possibility came snippets of sights that perhaps he was imagining or...maybe they were real. A wreath of fire ensnared the galaxy which seemed as though it were a pool of liquid diamonds somewhere suspended in a void. The laws of physics were in turmoil as the madly cartwheeling disc of light shed droplets from both its upper and lower surfaces, which spread out to form a web of brilliant crystals connecting all points of reality together as one. If he had not known it was all in his head he might have had to shield his eyes from its supreme lustre for fear that some geode-god would strike him blind for daring to gaze upon its works. Only divine creation or man-made destruction could have brought into being such a sight, and for a moment he feared that his war would be the last not because it did away with the need for conflict but because there would be no one and nothing left in its wake. But as his view grew clearer he saw each nova-burst was a world, not engulfed in the raging infernos of Armageddon but resplendent in a glory that had not been known since the days when civilisation was still enamored with the idea of itself. He saw them one by one at first but then in sweeping blurs that carried him from the far edge of the galaxy to its inner core and on each one he witnessed every hand extended in friendship, every heart open to the joy of life, every mind driven by a singular purpose and every soul free. Amongst the virtually blinding blasts of white there were swathes of rustling crimson cloth caught on breezes at such a height that he feared they would collapse in on themselves and after their achingly slow fall come to suffocate everything beneath them. Then he realised that such a thing would not be possible, even at the end of all ends it would remain held aloft by hands as hard as sculpted marble and just as graceful too. A race of Praetorians he thought, dragon's teeth risen from the dirt to be an ever vigilant vanguard against the collapse of all that they held dear. But no, they were the hands of normal people who had taken charge of their own destiny. Normal people. Just like him, Gren thought as his eyes refocused and he saw only his reflection.
He set the capsule of verdigris gunk on an empty plinth. Latches extended to clamp it in place with a soft click like tendons in the jaw stretching and the whole thing retracted a short distance into the bank of machines as though it were a velvet worm about to devour its prey. Computers began to examine it, deep within the pathways of their circuitry they toiled over calculations that would have taken an organic mind lifetimes to complete. Behind their status lights that blinked like cyclopean eyes regarding the world with utter disdain, the machines turned in on themselves to more closely observe their work. Such a strange thing to be a machine, Gren pondered as he busied himself with organising a shelf of digi-slate tomes. They were not bound by the limits of their form as was the case with biological life, but rather by those imposed upon them by their creators. Within their domain of data and digits they could acquire almost limitless understanding of a thing in the time it would take a human to even begin thinking about it. He shuddered at the thought of what must have run across a processor's simulacrum of a mind as it contemplated the questions its masters posed it. Within the multi-faceted levels of its logic sub-routines must have lurked all the worst that could be imagined and perhaps even more terrible than that, all the horrors that men did not dare to admit dreaming. Machines had cold and unusual minds for which the extermination of a planet warranted no more pause for thought than the simplest of sums. Luckily, more often than not, they were controlled by people who took considerably more care when weighing up the consequences of their actions.
In Gren's case, that was especially true. He more than anyone appreciated the gravity of the decisions that had to be made if his quest was to succeed. They began with Pinter and his band of miscreants, continued with Jerrin and his spy slave and, as he noted a shift in the ship's trajectory given away by a slight tremble in the bulkheads, they had brought him inexorably to Rustica. He set aside his books and turned to the window. The planet loomed large even though it was still at a distance, magnified it seemed by his own sense of foreboding. He wondered if it wasn't too late to call off the attack, but it had been too late since the moment he became an exile. Everything he had done and everything he would do had been set into motion at that point. Just as one can see a lifetime together laid out in the eyes of a stranger as they meet by chance across a room, Gren knew exactly what he was going to do. It had happened, it would happen, it was happening. He didn't want to see the planet burn and he hoped it wouldn't come to that, just as he hoped that when the time came Governor Tandis would remember who it was that had helped make her career by avoiding a famine that would have devastated the lives of billions.