Deep within a Martian cave lay a spacesuit partially covered by red sand. The formerly white suit was sandblasted into the color of terra cotta. Its occupant died, a casualty of one of the dust devils that roam across the planet’s surface. Martian dust, the consistency of talc but as sharp as volcanic sand, jammed the electronics responsible for life support, choking the man who used to be in it. The only reprieve this astronaut possibly had was a quick rush of carbon dioxide from the scrubbers in the suit back into the helmet. He could’ve lost consciousness right before he would’ve felt the pain and fear of asphyxiation.
Next to the spacesuit lay a Shadow Demon, the very first one of its kind. His eyes were open, but completely black. His almost naked body bore not only the trademark jagged runes on its cheeks, but two large, scar-shaped marks that stretched from his shoulder blades, across his pectoral muscles at a gentle angle towards each other, ending just a few inches away from the middle of the sternum. On each ankle joint was a small, jagged mark as well. His body was inhumanly lean, each major muscle group was defined with the precision of a classroom anatomical reconstruction.
Suddenly, lines of code appeared on his black eyeballs. The alien glyphs scrolled by for a few moments until the images of pupils came into focus. The image shook a little, then settled into place. His eyes flashed bright red as did the runes on his cheeks. The cyborg stirred, flinching and stretching. For a little while, he sat on his knees trying to get control of his body. He was wobbly and tired, but when one considers that he just woke up from death, he was holding up well. Eventually, his eyes began to see clearly and he froze with shock when he saw his reflection in the spacesuit’s dark visor.
He touched his face to make sure it was really him. The carbon gel covering his body felt soft, smooth, and warm, a lot like human skin, but it wasn’t quite as flexible. The crystalloid hair made a dull sound when tapped and barely moved. The demon cracked his knuckles, but the sound was metallic, not organic. He set his sights on his muscles, flexing the polymers in his arm, watching as the thick fibers moved under the gel.
Suddenly, he sensed something behind him, as if the air around his shoulder blades was disturbed. Instantly he turned and saw something darting down an ancient lava tube. Unsurely, he followed it, very slowly and carefully making his way through the narrow, winding alien cave until he reached a small chamber which connected three other lava tubes. Whatever got his attention could’ve went into any of them. Hopefully he could avoid it on his way out, he thought right before he felt a shove from the back and smashed into the rocks face first. Woozy from the impact, he turned around to see a fist inches away from his chin. As the punch connected, he fell to his side wincing in pain.
Scrambling to his feet, Ace managed to block an incoming blow from his attacker, a humanoid biped that looked a little like him but missing all the fine features of a human face or any of the red runes on its body. Its eyes glowed red, showing no emotion whatsoever. Remembering the few moves one of the soldiers stationed with him on the outpost once demonstrated over a weekend, Ace tried to topple the creature which swiftly threw him to the ground and viciously stomped on his ribs. It caught the kick aimed for its knee, lifted Ace off the ground and hurled him across the chamber hard enough to dislodge a few small boulders on impact, one of which fell squarely on his head.
“Unfortunately this one seems useless, doesn’t he?” said a voice behind the creature.
The attacker turned towards the voice and respectfully stepped back. Standing in the lava tube was a humanoid robed alien whose eyes also glowed red from the shapeless darkness under his hood. His clawed hand held a large, menacing scythe with a black blade inscribed with a red flowing rune. Even though Ace couldn’t see the alien’s face, he could feel the cold disapproval it must have displayed.
“Finish this and come back to the ship,” said the alien turning away.
The creature lunged towards the human. This was it, Ace thought, this is how I’ll die. In a Martian cave, stomped to death by some sort of robot. Suddenly, a new and bizarre emotion stirred inside him and he started to feel as if time was slowing down. This scientist inside told him that his brain was now in survival mode, accelerating its cognition. He unconsciously armed his claws and with a single, swift, powerful thrust plunged the fingers of his right hand right into the creature’s torso. His claws felt as if they punctured a leather coat and pierced deep into something tough and gelatinous. As they plunged further into the attacker’s body, Ace felt little wires and odd, smooth surfaces of its internal machinery. And while his mind paid attention to every detail and every sensation, his body did the fighting.
With a growl, he spun the creature around and smashed it into the wall of rock. The alien on his way out of the chamber stopped and slowly turned around to see Ace tearing his robot apart, plowing it into the rocks again and again, each hit more powerful than the last. There was no technique, no strategy, but what the human was doing was very effective. As Ace finally felt that his new body was capable of a lot more than the one he was used to, he summoned all his might and bashed his attacker into the wall yet again with an infuriated roar, this time driving his entire hand into its thorax and grabbing a hold of what felt like its ribcage. The robot coughed up a small stream of what looked like blood and tried to back away from Ace, but with burgundy rivulets streaming out of its eyes and ears, and its strength fading, all it could do was hiss and loosely grasp the human’s shoulder. Pushing himself even further, Ace threw the robot at the alien who was now attentively watching the brawl. It landed like a rag doll, covered in blood. Its eyes faded to black and its every muscle went slack.
“Hmm…” the robed alien cocked his head. “I was wrong. You seem to have some potential with the right incentive.”
Ace, covered in the blood of his first kill glared at the alien.
“Who are you and what did you do to me?” he growled. “And I better get answers, or you’re next.”
“Getting a little head of ourselves, aren’t we?” laughed the alien. “Your culture refers to me as the Grim Reaper. And you are now a part of an experiment.”
“What kind of experiment?”
“Follow me and find out.”
The Reaper turned around and walked into the lava tube. Ace followed in tow until they reached an opening that lead them into the Martian desert. In the middle of a small crater straight ahead of them, a bizarre, formless, spiky spaceship sat waiting. As they approached, it soundlessly lifted just a few feet off the rusty sand and its surface started to glow with a sinister red aurora…
The odd creature with a bulky body awkwardly balanced on long, spindly legs and a broad head with six eyes held on a stalk-like neck, was worried. For cycles, it escaped the aliens hunting it on a dark little planet orbiting a small, obscure red sun. The aliens wanted it for selling dangerous weapons to their enemies and it knew that small fleets of machines were dispatched to find it. But what just arrived in orbit was not a simple squad of probes. These craft were unlike anything it knew the aliens to have in their possession. Wide, sleek, fast, and lined with powerful weapons, they quickly tore right through its outpost’s automated defenses, and whatever they carried, was now on the ground, making short work of its bodyguards.
It heard the muffled sounds of battle from its bunker and the screams of its dying soldiers. The invaders were approaching quickly. It ran down a tunnel leading to the outside. Maybe it can steal one of the sleek craft and make its way to the other end of the galaxy. It managed to pull off the same stunt once before. Maybe the same idea will pay off once again? As it ran, the sounds of approaching troops grew quieter and quieter. Yes, that was a good idea, thought the creature. The fighting is behind it. But as soon as it galloped into a narrow ravine and looked up to the starry sky in which a blue-white gas giant with thin, whitish rings was rising over the horizon, it knew it made a terrible mistake. The sounds of battle didn’t grow muted because it left them behind. They were muted because the fighting was coming to an end and the invaders were blocking off all the escape routes from the bunker.
Now it was surrounded by shiny, jet black and chrome machinery, facing down the barrels of menacing guns held by dozens of bipedal, jet black creatures in heavily armored, yet flexible uniforms. Their eyes were shielded by dark visors and several of them carried what looked like sheathed swords in addition to their compact but powerful machine guns. It tried to scurry away, aiming towards the vent from which it came but a bright flash of red light shoved it right into the midst of the invaders and their robots. The creature looked up to see another one of the bipedal aliens holding a curved sword with a black blade stamped with a sharp, red rune. Burning around the blade’s edges was a reddish aura of what it guessed was plasma trapped in magnetic fields to keep it as a cohesive loop of energy.
The biped stopped a few steps away and briefly stole a glance upward. Overhead, a small transport pod swung about and slowly began its descent down into the ravine. Oh, good, the creature thought. They might just leave me alive for now. Maybe they’re just here to capture me. It tried to stand up. The bipedal alien holding the sword jumped towards it, grabbed its neck with the force of a steel strap slamming shut, spun it around its center of mass, and slammed it down to the ground with enough force to send pebbles around it flying several feet in the air.
Despite being only a third as tall and weighing barely a sixth of the creature he had trapped, she was far stronger. Now, holding her prey by its neck, she carefully aimed his sword and looked up. Another biped pressed a round dial which covered his ear as it held his visor, paused for a moment, then nodded. Most of the other aliens around him disarmed their machine guns with a high pitched whine and stood down. Their part of the mission was complete. Just one more relatively small detail was left.
As the transport ship touched down, a hysterical, high pitched squeal immediately followed by a short, concussive blast echoed through the ravine. Silence followed. A few minutes later, the transport was loaded and sent into orbit carrying the mission objective in its cargo hold. The rest of the ships fanned out toward their next set of targets scattered across a wide swath of the galaxy.
In deep space, the flow of time seems to grind to a halt. Eons can drag on without a noticeable change and without days or seasons when something actually happened becomes little more than a rough, arbitrary estimate that depends on whatever species is keeping track. And for one alien city on a small, rocky world covered by vast deserts and bisected by an equatorial ocean so rich in iron that the waters turned green, time as humans know it has stopped. With no one to count and record the stellar cycles, it was just a vast collection of spires and bizarre, twisted shapes inscribed with large, dimly glowing glyphs which seemed to have stood there exactly as it was since the planet was born and very likely to remain as it was until its star finally died. Undisturbed for ages, it stood in silence, lost to its builders and to the passage of time, but certainly not forgotten.
From the mountains, a long procession of bipedal creatures in dark cloaks was making its way towards its imposing gates. Behind them, glowed the disembodied eyes of a Dark God, a specimen of the galaxy’s de facto rulers, worshipped by their sentient subjects as living deities and commanding technology most species assumed to be nothing less than black magic. The bipeds walking down the gentle slopes were a new part of their massive military, armed with claws and fangs, and strong enough to take down creatures five times their size with relative ease. From the darkness under the hoods of their robes, their red eyes shone with primal curiosity. They’ve heard much about this world but they never thought they’d get to see it. As the front of their column reached the main road to the ancient city, ten figures leading the cloaked soldiers uncovered their heads.
More than a decade after they were taken from Mars, the human astronauts now stood on a planet known as the graveyard of galactic empires, gazing at the primeval relics of a species long gone with their new eyes. One after the other, starting with Ace, they were trained in alien martial arts and interstellar warfare by the Reaper and dispatched on surgical strikes at the dark Gods’ few remaining enemies. The three soldiers in the group adapted quickly. Their civilian teammates faced a far steeper learning curve but they rose to the challenge. They had no choice. Were they to fail, they could be killed, their friends abandoned as just another failed experiment in the dark Gods’ quest for a stealthy black ops unit. After quelling rebellions and dispatching alien troublemakers who threatened the stability of the Dark God’s dominion, the cyborgs were now being given their promised reward.
As they looked up, they saw immense ships aligning their bulk for their descent, carrying everything from building materials to weapons within their cavernous innards. The prototypes of what would become their sleek destroyers were touching down nearby to be gutted for materials. Over the next few months, a city would rise and a new civilization would attempt to survive in the middle of the slow but violent churn of interstellar space. They had a chance to build their own civilization from scratch, but they were also keenly aware that an early blunder on their part could spell disaster down the road. And having been placed on the outskirts of the Dark Gods’ empire meant that powerful alien species would quickly find them and come knocking with less than peaceful intentions. They would have to hit the ground running and use everything they were taught while in the service of the galaxy’s overlords.
The now infamous Shadow Nation was about to be born.