There is a saying among the Eliksni: Ketch is Kin, Kin are All. Out in the Reef, the detritus of civilization is all there is. Out in the Reef, ruins are as much landmarks as planets and moons. The flotsam of derelict colony ships from the Golden Age flood the atmosphere along with the ruined hulks of Hive ships from campaigns fought against the Awoken. For the Eliksni, finding the wreckage of a Ketch is like finding the ruins of a family home, and all the emotions that come with it. But the societal scars of Eliksni clans have long since vanished, and for those who bend a knee to the Spider in the remote corner of the Reef known as the Tangled Shore, they have lost the privilege of such sentimentality. A salvage crew was dispatched the week after a small scouting party from the Spider's personal fiefdom spotted the wreckage of a Ketch belonging to the lost House of Kings. The crew chief on the operation, an ambitious Vandal named Kosis, had shed her attachments to a life within that very house years ago. But the choice to leave something behind and the act of doing so are two entirely different things. Kosis insisted first on surveying the wreck herself, alone, before allowing her team near it. They were to take anything with even a shred of value after unceremoniously cutting the vessel from bow to stern. As they marked it for dissection, she watched them from a nearby escarpment. She looked around and carefully revealed the small bundle of vestiges she personally salvaged from the Ketch: a ceremonial washing bowl, a child's musical instrument, and the cracked ceramic effigy of a Servitor. Kosis covered them with a tattered cloth the color of the setting sun—branded with the symbol of a house she no longer called hers—and buried them. It was the only dignity this ship would receive.
As dusk fell over the frontier of the Tangled Shore, the salvage crew assembled their shelters in a loose circle around the downed Ketch. The Dregs begrudgingly established guard posts on overlooks surrounding the camp, with nighttime sentry rotations to match, and the crew's scrap-work Shank orbited the site on alarm mode. Savek seethed as she and the other Dregs dug out their guard posts. These precautions were meant to deter competing parties from biting the crew's claim, but it was a waste of energy this far out. The foreboding quiet would betray any approaching Pikes. Once camp was established, each crew member received an Ether ration commensurate with their station. Savek tried not to hunger as she watched Kosis inhale three full portions of the life-giving essence; more than twice her own share. The Spider had given them just two tanks—partly as a cost-saving measure, and partly as an incentive to get the job done quickly. Later that night, a crewmate woke Savek from her deep slumber. "You're late. Northwestern posting. Two-cycle shift," the Dreg grumbled. Savek clicked her mandibles in irritation and trudged wearily into the deep violet gloaming of the Shore. Savek was nestled in her dugout at the top of a wide dune, trying not to fall back asleep, when she heard a faint whisper. An urgent, familiar call from the far side of the dune, away from camp. Savek bolted upright. Maybe someone wandered away from camp. Or maybe, she thought subversively, someone secured a portion of Ether and needs an accomplice. The latter possibility sent her scuttling down the dune. When she reached the bottom of the slope, she found herself alone. Yet the beckoning whisper persisted, voluminous as an explosion and gentle as a caress. It came from a rocky cave no larger than Servitor. Savek drew her rusted Shock Pistol, clicked on her light, and peered into the cave. There, she saw it: the small black tower, poking gently out of the ground, like a babe in swaddling.
Savek returned to the camp as quickly as possible. Her excited description of her discovery was bold enough to spark Kosis's curiosity. Savek was keenly aware that failure to deliver on such a claim would be punishable by more than the docking of an arm. They gathered two Dregs, but by the time the four reached the structure, Savek could see it had changed. Where once only darkness filled the space within its frame, a hint of sickly green light now shone. Tendrils of smoke wafted from the apertures, as though it were an incense brazier. Kosis immediately strode forward and assessed the nodule crowning the surface of the barren rock. As the Vandal knelt beside the structure, she saw deformed latticework-like veins protruding through and eroding the stone, as though the object was grown rather than constructed. Kosis waved the Dregs over. Pressure began to build inside her head, behind her eyes, as the ground rumbled. They sprang back, away from the structure; the artifice sprang to life in turn. It twisted its way out of the ground, spiraling upward and outward, spreading open like a terrible biomechanical flower. Only when the eruption halted did Kosis feel the pressure in her head recede. It was undeniably of Hive origin, but Kosis had never seen anything of the sort. This implication, this realization—perhaps this was novel to the Spider as well. If that were true, this piece of "living" Hive technology would be worth more than Ether. Perhaps… Kosis gestured to the now towering length of living metal. "Take it apart."
Four-meter lengths of wafer-thin metal from the Hive artifact were laid out side by side amid the scrap pulled from the innards of the Ketch. Even disassembled, the Hive tower was intricate. Multi-layered. Woven metal latticework coiled in ever-tightening concentric cylinders. Each could spin independently within the larger housing. Maddeningly complex armatures were contained within, lubricated by gristly, living tissue. Kosis had marked the Hive salvage specifically for the Spider's attention. It wouldn't be shipped off to marketplaces and storehouses like the remains of the Ketch—finds like this were of special interest to him. Kosis considered sending a missive ahead of the shipment but thought better of it. If she weren't there to present the find herself, another ambitious Vandal or Dreg might try and take the credit. Spider would probably promote the usurper strictly out of appreciation for their cunning. Kosis was so focused on ensuring the safety of her salvage that she hadn't noticed Savek and the other Dregs running into camp from the direction of the cave. Kosis stood, Sword in hand, half-expecting a mutiny. But from the fear in Savek's eyes, Kosis quickly realized it was anything but. "It returned!" was all Savek could exclaim. The Dregs confirmed: the dismantled structure had regrown in a matter of hours. Kosis ordered the trio to lead her back to the site, to see it with her own eyes. A part of her yearned to see it again. Much to Kosis's disbelief, their assertion was true. The structure stood as tall as ever, emanating its hideous green light. A pang of dread shook Kosis to the core. Her mind flooded with memories of childhood stories about the Whirlwind and the onslaught of the Hive. "Leave it," she ordered. "Leave it and do not return." It was a command, though one born of fear. The tower whispered an unheard counteroffer into her subconscious. <<Come.>> <<See.>>
Savek found herself standing at the mouth of the cave when she woke. The first touch of violet pre-dawn was sharpening the horizon. She stared at the Hive construct, her head crooked as her eyes traced the languid movement of its concentric metal turbines. She inhaled its luminous green vapor. <<Seek the whispers—they are faint, but they are calling.>> She remembered putting in a full day's work on the Ketch, carefully disassembling the remnants of the gyroscopic stabilization system. The delicate assignment required her normally sure-handed touch, but that day, she was distracted and unfocused. In a moment of inattention, she cracked the gyroscope's ceramic housing, reducing its resale value by half. <<The cutting word is a doorway—the first syllable of hated salvation.>> "You've ruined it. That's coming out of your share." Kosis was suddenly standing behind her. How long had Savek been staring at the broken gyroscope? "Flaws diminish the salvage; half portion of Ether and double guard shift. Another mistake, and we leave you behind." Those last words were less literal and more a euphemism mutated over time through Eliksni cultural drift. The Dregs lowered their heads as Kosis strode off in the direction of the Ether tanks, then turned their palms toward Savek in sympathy. <<Cleanse thyself of your decay, then will the mind be free to understand the value of transgression.>> Savek remembered dragging her exhausted body to her guard post. She remembered watching the lazy debris of the Reef float by. She remembered speaking with someone in the darkness. Someone reassuring and powerful. Who was it? She tore her eyes away from the obelisk and surveyed her body in the thin morning light. Her dry skin flaked. Connective tissue wasted at her joints, and a sickly crust had developed around her mandibles. She was emaciated from lack of sleep and Ether. Her hunger was a void, slowly filling with green vapor. <<When imagined, your potential will infect, and spread.>>
Kosis dimmed her datapad display and did some mental calculations. Even accounting for the delay brought on by the Hive artifact, they were still far behind schedule. If the situation didn't change soon, compromises would have to be made. Either she had to return with less salvage than anticipated, or she had to stretch the Ether reserves to buy more time. She'd have to reduce her own share. Or reduce the size of her crew. Kosis knew what Spider would choose. She began cycling through crew members, deciding which one to cull, when the sudden silence of the moment struck her. No Arc cutters sizzled. No grunts of effort or idle chatter. No clangs of loaded salvage. Just the empty wind and the whir of the rusty Shank making its usual rounds. A dull pressure built in her thorax as she surveyed the abandoned work site. She searched for any explanation except the one she knew to be true. With the holster unclipped on her Shock Pistol, she set off toward the Hive construct. There they were, sitting idly in the dirt, staring into the slowly churning spire. They paid her no mind. She tried to speak, but only dull clicks escaped from her mandibles. When she finally found her voice, it came across as a croak, barely audible above the deafening whisper of the tower. "You lot. Get back to work." Several of them turned and stared at her quizzically. They seemed confused. The smallest Dreg and newest to the crew, stood up. He approached her calmly, his voice the howl of the Whirlwind. "Those born only to live cannot see eternity, nor are they welcome here. If you dwell on that which is beyond your grasp you—" The peal of the Vandal's Shock Pistol tore through the air, rupturing the crew's trance. Several leapt up while other scrabbled away in disorientation. They stared as the young Dreg slumped to the ground, his face disfigured by a blistering hole. The whispering had ceased. In the silence that followed, Kosis found the rest of her voice. "I just extended our Ether rations by three days." She backed away, her Pistol held level. "Hurry up. We're leaving as soon as that wreck is stripped."
The Ketch that once belonged to the House of Kings lay on its side now, the vessel's underbelly stripped down to the curving superstructure supports. A half-kilometer of power cabling spooled out from the middle of ship, forming a path that lead to the salvage team's tents. From the escarpment overlooking the salvage site, the Ketch looked like the disemboweled remains of some great beast. Kosis wondered, as she sipped on a hand-tank of Ether, if this is what her people had become. Carrion birds to the rotting carcasses of their society. She wondered how many more generations of Eliksni it would take before the old ways were entirely forgotten. If any Eliksni born today would know how to play the instrument now buried on the overlook. Would her daughters be proud of how she had chosen to survive? She wondered where their bones were scattered. Wondered if they suffered when the House of Kings was torn apart. The sound of footsteps pulled Kosis from her thoughts. She affixed her Ether flask to her belt and rose to greet whomever was coming. It was Savek. Alone. "Your shift isn't over," Kosis firmly reminded the Dreg. Savek lunged forward with a Sword—Kosis's own weapon, stolen from her tent. She sucked in a breath, which might have exited her as a cry of confusion had the Dreg not buried the Sword hilt-deep in her throat. Ether sprayed into the air, comingling with blood. The blade ground against her spine as she slid, helpless, down the length of the Sword. As she fell to the ground, her vision tunneled dark, her extremities numb. Savek screamed a primal and unfathomable wail. The Vandal's last thoughts were of the Kell of Kells. Then, nothing.
Savek supplicates before the obelisk. It looms over her, listing from the cave entrance into the bruise-colored sky. Its black metal surface writhes and undulates like wormflesh. It whispers of victory and transcendence. <<To claim evolution one must be unmade.>> The throb of Ether courses through her prone form. She can feel the longing itch of her arm stumps that yearn for regrowth. Sickly sweet Ether leaks from her body, mixing with that of her crewmates. <<Flesh and mind are but cages—become unbound, or remain ever unworthy.>> Savek's claws dig convulsively into the grainy dirt as her body ruptures. Her skin gives a grisly rip as her viscera expands beyond its confines. The thick glow of Ether is joined by another more ravenous force. Plasm spurts from connective tissue as her body swells, molting and regrowing in an eruption of chitin. <<Your prison of the flesh is being unmade, your mind freed—such glories do not come easy.>> <<Allow the flesh to give of itself, that it may surrender to the coming evolution.>> There, kneeling before her new god, Savek's mind is broken and remade in continuous motion. She watches as her memories are deconstructed into images without association. She observes her identity dissected into the unknowable motives of a stranger. She watches herself transform from She into It. <<You will know—through the pain, through the fear—there is no longer a you that was, only what comes next, and all the pain to follow.>> <<As the old self falls away there will be only suffering.>> It raises its head for the first time, and finds the tower likewise transformed. The black spire opens like a birthing cavity, yawing forth a new realm. The breach draws the creature into a massive cathedral hall with malachite suns roiling overhead. Here, the whispers are all-consuming. <<As the old self falls away there will be only suffering.>> <<There will be only suffering.>> <<Only suffering.>>