Lore:Above All Else
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I. The Long Drift
My family named me Ithriiks—"sturdy heart"—and held me aloft in the shadow of the Great Machine. My birth name was chosen to extol my strength as a hatchling; my chosen name would be aspirational. On my third molting, I chose the name Inaaks, "gentle hands." I would be the greatest weaver our house had ever known. I was so sure of it.
Then our world ended. Then… I was sure of nothing.
The end of our civilization came from the outside in, like a hand slowly closing around a throat. At first, it didn't feel real: Riis was gone, and my House was trapped aboard a Ketch, knowing that there was nothing at our backs. For so long, we broadcasted distress calls into the dark, hoping for others on the Long Drift to find us and offer succor. Help never came. Every satellite world we visited, the story was the same: desolation, death, despair. Weeks of searching turned into years, and I feared we were the only ship that slipped between those proverbial fingers of destruction. Were we the last? We had to continue hoping it wasn't so.
As we drifted among the stars, we inevitably lost members of our House along the way. I wove the finest memorial shrouds for our dead, so that they could rest in security and peace. Then, as the eggcloth ran out, we could not give them the dignity of binding. My gentle hands were eventually used to separate dead meat from carapace. We would not starve in the dark.
My son was brought into a world of isolation, abandonment, and suffering. I should have crushed his egg and woven it into cloth; a regret I will always carry. My sentimentality for the old world won out, and bitter hope for the future stayed my hand. I named him after my father. I did not know if we would carry on our House's tradition of birth names and chosen names. What purpose did it serve now? What did it matter?
My son's father died weeks after the birth. He was not missed. It was better that way. His death was something I did not regret.
It would be years before we encountered another Ketch. It bore the sigil of the House of Dancers, renowned for their skill with machines and their generosity to those in need. Their Kell agreed to send an emissary to discuss our needs. I knew this emissary, Eramis, when we were children. All I knew of her in adulthood was that she had a wife and hatchlings.
I had hoped the Whirlwind had taken it all from her. I hated myself for wanting that.
Eramis was no longer the meek child I once knew; that much was certain when I greeted her aboard my Ketch. She brought two hatchlings with her, just barely old enough to walk on their own. They were mischievous little things, the round one constantly trying to tug the taller one's arms off until Eramis disciplined them. I carried my son, swaddled to my chest, as a show of trust.
Negotiations between us were tense. I quickly realized that the House of Dancers had no interest in sharing their resources, but rather in assessing our own vulnerabilities. When it was clear to Eramis that we could not be easily disabled and stripped of our Ether, we found a "compromise." House of Dancers would be supplied with materials for repairs and, in turn, we would take on some of their people, along with a fractional store of Ether. She was sending them to die, with us, rather than condemn them to the cold and uncaring depths of space where her people could see. I learned who Eramis had become, and what ideals she lived by: "Two hands in greeting, two hands concealed."
It was an inequitable deal, and Eramis knew it. "Your alternative is death," she offered me. A coward's voice slipped out of my mouth when I declined that choice. I asked her where her wife was, hoping I would inspire her to feel, for a moment, as hopeless as I did. She did not so much as flinch, then foisted the two hatchlings onto me. They were not hers, as I had assumed, but the first of the House of Dancers that we would take in the exchange.
Too many hands and not enough Ether to go around. The simplest solution was also the most difficult one. We had to find a way to thin our numbers again.
II. The Whispering Dark
We had sailed the Long Drift for centuries, but I had yet to come to terms with our new reality. My son had only borne witness to a fraction of it. He was still young, still struggling to understand his place in the world. The two children from the House of Dancers, Rakis and Siviks, were slightly older and had become his reluctant friends. They protected him from the adolescents who would steal his Ether when I wasn't looking. It was not a family to me, not truly. I had yet to understand that Ketch is kin.
Once we found the Great Machine, we learned that it had uplifted a whole new species, granted them power beyond anything it had ever bestowed to us. That betrayal drove some in our House to despair, others to death, and many to violence. Adapting to this betrayal was to be our next challenge. I listened to the poison-minded advice of soft-shelled cowards and tried to speak with the Great Machine's new chosen—our usurpers.
They repaid the Machine's kindness with violence. Killed three of my closest friends. I later discovered that they shucked their carapaces and wore their chitin as armor. We learned all we could about these usurpers, like how their limbs were supple and could be pulled from their bodies far easier than our own kind. I came to love the sound of their screams.
If violence was the only language they spoke, so be it. Time had made me fluent.
Some of my House refused to abandon the old ways. The fools draped themselves in the naïve raiment of Splicers, praying to a god that doomed us all. They could contemplate their failure with what was left of their lives in the cold dark. I had no time for them, save for goading them into raids. If we wanted to retake the Great Machine, we would not do it by prostrating ourselves like weeping children. We would take it back by force.
We killed the Machine's chosen, taking what we could, rooting through the rotten innards of their dying world. We took refuge in the shadows of their dusty moon where the usurper's ruins stuck out like bones from the dust. It was empty, it was silent, but there was value to be had in picking those old bones clean.
On one such expedition, I had strapped my son to me and set out to pick over a bounty of bones. But it was not the spools of spincable, the plates of hardsheet, or the fragments of clearcut that proved most valuable. It was what we found buried beneath the bones. What was buried deep.
We traversed that day into dark tunnels, where something hideous festered beneath this moon's surface. Horrific creatures that stank of wet soil, shrieked like dying animals, and tore at flesh. They possessed a ferocity we had never seen before, and my raiding party was being whittled down one by one. But when it seemed like these creatures were to finish the rest of us off… they relented.
They appeared to hear something. Something that terrified them. Something that left us to wonder: what are monsters afraid of? The creatures scurried back into their warrens and vanished into the subterranean temple they spilled out of. And for a moment, I thought I heard something too. Something soft, a whisper. But as forceful as a scream. That was when we saw it, situated in a rift beyond the temple. The true treasure of this dusty tomb.
A pyramid of jet black, opening its doors for us.
My mother could not keep me swaddled to her chest forever. I was no longer a child, and no longer in need of sheltering. I was my own person, and it was time that she understood that. I knew that she loved me. Because she shared her Ether with me. Because she killed those who harmed me. Because she wanted better for me than the life we had. But we are not always the arbiters of our own fate.
I aspired to nothing short of her approval. She was our inspiration, our leader, our hope. Kell of our House and protector of our people. She who gave me a name that meant "strength above all else." She named me Misraaks, and I was now strong enough to bear it.
On the day I told her I was capable of raiding at her side, we sat together in the cargo hold of our Ketch. There was not the pride in her eyes I had hoped for. She was transfixed by the medallion around my neck, an icon of the Great Machine. One I had taken from the corpse of a Splicer. One I had earned through blood. She tore it from my neck, crushed it in her hand.
"This will not protect you!" she shouted at me. "This will only lead you to death!" I had never feared my mother before, but I had never seen her look at me the way she did that day. She pushed me up against a wall with her upper arms and pressed the bent charm against my brow. "No son of mine will beg for scraps in the shadow of the Abandoner."
But even as she threatened me, I felt her press something into one of my hands: a reliquary, one of the few she had forged from the treasures of the Moon. She saw the recognition on my face and stepped back, releasing me. I could tell she wanted me to inspect it. I had never seen one of the reliquaries up close before, and though the glass was clear, the oily fluid inside obscured everything embalmed within. Yet still, I felt its presence worming behind my eyes like roots of a great tree burrowing into soil.
It whispered to me. Not with words, but with promises blooming behind my eyes in visions of glory. When I looked up to my mother, I asked her why we could not have both. Why we could not seek the power we had stolen from the Moon and simultaneously earn the right to seek refuge beneath the Great Machine once more.
"You are brave and curious," My mother mused, "But you do not yet understand the brutality of the world." Then she showed me. She drove a knife into my side, twisted it, and split my carapace apart. I did not give her the satisfaction of hearing me scream.
"Let this be your first lesson," she said to me. "You are my crew now, and when your crew questions your leadership, you make an example of them."
She drew the knife out of my side and handed it to me. "Never forget that."
I promised her I wouldn't.
We had discovered a ship full of Human usurpers hiding behind one of the moons of a dusty red world they called Mars. Generations of survivors cowering on a derelict colony ship since the Great Machine failed them. Siviks, Rakis, and I led the raiding party that boarded their vessel. The Humans were malnourished and pitiful, yet they still tried to fight us.
The battle was short and brutal. I watched Rakis rip a usurper's arms out of the sockets and throw them to the floor. He was so strong back then. We all were. Our growing Ether shares were intoxicating, as was the bloodlust of unrestricted violence. Rakis was massive, even then. Stronger than all of us. One of the Human champions—if they could be called such—challenged Rakis. The rest of us stood by as he tore the Human's limbs off, one by one, and then crushed what was left of the champion's head between his hands. The other Humans threw down their arms and begged for the lives of those who did not fight. Noble, but foolish.
I corralled the survivors into an airlock and sealed them inside. Rakis and Siviks disagreed with me on how we should handle them. Rakis suggested that they would be more valuable in servitude, rather than be given to the cold dark. "Imagine it," he asked of me, "usurpers wearing the sigil of our House, doing our bidding for us."
Siviks seemed amused by this notion. "Usurpers serving us," he said with delight. "We could steal back the Great Machine's favor by taking from them their identity."
Rakis reached for the airlock controls, and I struck his hand away. He looked at me with confusion, and attempted again, disrespecting my leadership in front of the others. I knew I had to do something.
Without hesitation, I evacuated the airlock into space, killing our captives. The brothers, angered, fought back. I held honor to my aspirations. Strength above all. I butchered half the Dregs loyal to Rakis and Siviks, then turned my blades on the brothers. In spite of their struggle, they ended the battle at my feet, half their followers dead and the others huddled in fear. My mother was fluent in the language of violence, but I was eloquent.
I marooned Rakis and Siviks on an asteroid for their final punishment, along with their surviving crew and left them with a knife and my mother's lesson: "When your crew questions your leadership, you make examples of them."
I returned to our Ketch, towing the derelict colony ship. When I told my mother what had become of Rakis and Siviks, I expected her to approve; but instead, I saw something haunted in her eyes. I thought she was ashamed of me, of what I had done, but I was only following her example. I was victorious, and yet in victory, I felt emptier than in any failure.
It was not until much later that I realized the truth. My mother was not ashamed of me.
She was ashamed of herself.