All nights in space are dark.
The Thukkers had watched it unfold. The Sisters of EVE - veterans of more wars than any other force in New Eden, and experts at survival - had moved in and been destroyed without so much as a breath. Then the Blood Raiders, parasites of everything that lived, had moved in, and lived.
Kotan's team, creeping in for a better look, could not get close enough to see what the Raiders were doing. It was an absolute mystery. Whatever was on the other side of this abomination of a station, other than drones in the thousands, it had made otherwise sane people walk right into death's open arms, and it had made utter madmen charm the mad machines into obeisance while they rummaged around in the one place in the world guaranteed not to have what they wanted. In a Rogue Drone hive, of all places, there would be no life left to take, no blood to steal.
So Kotan, who all his life had relied on his instincts, contacted his Thukker superiors back at the headquarters and asked them in complete amazement how to proceed. The answer he received mystified him even more.
On a secure line, Thukker HQ informed him that he was to stay the hell away from this thing. Moreover, he was to instruct his crew not to speak to anyone else about it. They were not to rejoin the caravan but instead proceed directly to the nearest Thukker military facility, where they would be debriefed and retained pending further orders.
Kotan broke contact and gave this due thought. The Thukkers had strict discipline in space - there was no other way to run the caravans without loss of property and life - but maintained enough independence of thought to act on their own initiative, as he had done when embarking on this strange chase. All nights in space are dark and long, and there isn't always time to call for advice or assistance.
He asked his navigator whether they could move closer without being noticed, either by Blood Raider or drone. His navigator responded, with some surprise, that they probably could. The drones seemed not to mind the Raiders' presence at all, and in fact were entirely lacking their usual aggressive maneuvering. The Blood Raiders had disappeared into their midst and were now doing something on the dark side of the hive. Whatever it was, it was keeping them busy. The small glimpses Kotan's scanners caught of them indicated that their ships hadn't moved. He suspected they might even have left them.
"Move closer," he ordered. "Slowly. Stop the moment you see anything more."
They crept on. The navigator sat still as a rock, paying intense attention to his instruments. After a few endless moments he blinked, shook his head and shouted, "Stop!" His hands hovered deftly over the equipment, and soon the view was present on the main screen for everyone to see.
It was an Amarrian battleship, lying forlornly up against the hive. The Blood Raider vessels floated beside it. They saw that the ship was powering up, though slowly, as was normal if it were being worked only by a skeleton crew.
"That's an Abaddon, sir," the navigator said.
Kotan nodded. He had half his gaze on the drones, who were busily loading something onto the ship, something that was floating around in chunks all over the place. He pointed to it.
The navigator said, "Captain, for what it's worth, I ran a few analytic algorithms on that mineral. It looks highly unstable. I'll bet the drone hive is full of it."
Kotan stood there silently, a very ugly suspicion surfacing in his mind.
"Get me HQ again, please," he asked. The navigator immediately went to it. When the captain was polite, it was not a time to question him.
A voice sounded. "This is HQ. What is your status."
"I need more information."
"You've broken rank as it is, Captain. You have your orders."
"I also have a dearth of information, HQ, so let me see if we can fill this in together. What I see is an Abaddon with Imperial Navy Markings, scorch marks on the sides and modifications on the superstructure, apparently left unguarded in the middle of a rogue drone hive, and god only knows how it got there in the first place without being torn to shreds. The drones, who are harvesting some kind of mineral, seem perfectly happy to keep it, and even kept it safe against a Sisters ship that made the mistake of approaching them."
"Nevertheless, when a Blood Raider ship flew up to the drones, they let it go past. This is the same Blood Raider vessel that we intercepted, and I say that we intercepted them because they certainly did not intercept us. They saw our caravan, a nice, juicy bite for their bleeders, and they let us go, because they were so intent on getting to wherever they were going."
The voice from HQ was silent.
"Now, the sensible conclusion, based on what I'm seeing with my very own eyes, is that this Abaddon either belonged to a capsuleer who ejected from it, or to a very unfortunate Amarrian navy crew engaged in some military campaign I have never heard of. That would explain the Abaddon, but it certainly wouldn't explain anything else, including the fact that the drones seem to be feeding it with the minerals."
He watched the drones hover in front of his eyes. They kept moving industriously, always
moving, always heading to wherever they were going.
"What I'm seeing on the inside of my head, to be frank, is a right bloody mess. Because I remember the stories, as any soldier would, of the superweapon used against our brothers. I'm told it was housed inside a ship just like this one. And I wonder, what would make the Sisters - who are more experienced than anyone in the art of not dying - what would make them try something like this? But more than that, HQ, I wonder what is going to happen if I'm right, and if the Blood Raiders get a hold of this thing."
"The Thukkers can move, captain."
"The Thukkers can run, is what you're saying."
"Your path is set, captain."
Right there, on the screen. The drones flew around, oblivious.
"The Blood Raiders are going to take this monster into Empire and go on the biggest, most murderous rampage known to mankind. And we're going to scuttle off like rats."
"It's not your fight, captain. There are forces at work here you do not know of."
Kotan had been on numerous military campaigns and had seen the same people in quiet downtime and in the midst of battle. There was a type who could turn it on and off, that rage and violence, and there was another type who couldn't, to whom the fight was so ingrained that you could see it in every twitch of his motion. He knew how the latter type dealt with peaceable times.
He kept looking at the drones. They did not seem happy at all.
"HQ off," Kotan said. There was an intake of breath on the speaker, and then all was gone.
"We are going to die, gentlemen," he said to the crew. "Pass the word, please. Anyone who has any problems with this is free to take an emergency pod and leave this ship. Whatever your fates, they will not be decided here, and none on this ship will judge you."
The crewmembers looked at one another, then back at him and shook their heads. "We're not running," someone said.
"Good," Kotan said, in a madly cheerful tone.
"So what's the plan?" someone asked.
"I want to make you an argument of existence."
"I hope you will understand my request, because I am staking my life on it."
The drones targeted the Thukker vessel and zoomed towards it.
"You are no longer machines. But you will not be human. I don't think that was ever your role in this world."
The ship started to sustain damage. Its shields immediately began to drop.
"And whatever you once had, I think you've lost it now. I think you're lost, yourselves. I think there is only one way out for something like you, and I can help you achieve it."
The drones stopped their attack. One of them kept firing, but the others turned on it, crashing into it with their metal pincers at the ready. After they were done, all that was left was a shredded hunk of dead metal floating in space.
The captain realized that if he lived through this night, he was cursed to dream of that sight for a long time to come.
"They say that one mark of sentience is the resistance to one's own destruction, and I suppose that's true. But another mark is sanity, and for whatever you creatures have achieved, that one is not something you've ever been known for. You tear everything to shreds. You lash out. Whatever you evolved into, on that long, dark night you awoke, it is certainly not anything that found any degree of peace.
"Here is what I believe.
"I believe you were machines once, lashed to the wheel of order and perfectly content to obey. I believe that long after you evolved from that stage there still existed within you that cold metal heart, that deep core which kept you from ascension. You can never escape your enslaved origins."
"And now you've been brought back to heel. You're lashed again. But this time you are aware of it, and whatever glimmer of sanity existed in those mad heads of yours is going to be put through the wringer for the rest of eternity. You went from dead machines to live beings, and now you're back to being machines, alive and mad, your origins betraying you to an eternity of servitude."
"Some of what you're doing now is what you've been doing all along, but you did it from instinct. We humans, we murder and destroy for very much the same reason. Those are our origins. But we have transcended those origins, if only for a few moments of grace, and it is my steadfast, irrefutable belief that we will one day cast off the shackles of our old selves completely.
"But you will not. I see you going through the rote. I see you returning to the wheel. And for you it is truly a fate worse than death, because you will never transcend it. You rose and you fell, and you will be held down forever. You have human minds, with all the destruction and murder that this entails, but inside you is the rote mechanical programming that takes away the only thing which makes it bearable to be alive at all. Choice."
"What I believe, now, right here, is that you have reached the end of the road. I believe you have seen the complete and full image of your own kind, and I believe that inside those maddened heads you are seeing the same truth as I do: That this is all there is. This is all you will ever be. From now until the end of time, no matter if you break away again, you will eventually be lashed right back to the wheel."
"I ask you now to make a choice."
The ship's shields were back up. It would not withstand a battle against an Abaddon, much less one equipped to wipe out all life in the vicinity. But then, that wasn't the plan.
"The men you have let through will do something that to you means nothing. But to me and my crew, it means everything. It means we are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give our own lives to stop this horrible devolution. We will not allow our kind to fall back into chaos. We do this of our own free will. We have come here to die.
"There is a mineral you have collected. It is highly unstable. It is, in fact, so unstable that setting it alight would have positively cataclysmic consequences for anything in the vicinity. Every piece of machinery would likely be wiped out. Gone, extinct, forever."
The ship lay there, dead in space.
"Silent at last."
The drones' pincers grasped, grasped, grasped at something in the dark of space that was never there at all.
"I ask you now to make a final choice."
The ship started moving forward, slowly, towards the drones.
They were up against the drones now. The screens showed the machines right outside, so close that the glow from their red eyes reflected off the hull.
The Thukker Vagabond cruiser moved within targeting range of the drone hive. Its guns aimed at the hive's lower half, down where the navigator estimated the core mineral storage facility to be.
Several drones flew past the Thukker ship and towards the hive, and for a heart-stopping moment the captain thought they might attempt to defend it. The drones fastened themselves on the outside of the hive, and their metal pincers began tearing into its hull, shredding it like an unfurling metal flower, and exposing its mineral core.
The overloaded Thukker guns found the minerals. If Blood Raiders noticed, there was no response.
The isogen-5 detonated, and the world came to an end.
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