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Containing a selection of published articles from various print media.

E-ON Chronicle: The Eighth Plague (fiction)

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A brass bell’s vibrant toll resounded through the arching hallways of the University of St. Maxus, heralding a brief mid-course recess. Every door in the sprawling academic complex burst open in unison, spilling forth a crowd of chattering students, each encumbered by an armload of hefty books and manuscripts but no doubt excited by the approaching semester’s end. While the University was one of many such scholarly institutions littered about the Amarr Empire’s capital city of Dam-Torsad, it was surely one of its most illustrious – the students enrolled here were apt to be sons and daughters of Holders or respected officers in the Amarr Navy; resplendent in their royal blue scholar’s robes, they certainly looked the part. Graduates could expect promising careers in theology, planetary administration, and engineering everything from new starships to combat drones.

“I pray the other courses on my schedule are more exciting than that drudgery. You haven’t the slightest inkling how difficult it was to convince father to enrol me here”, shouted Rhea Tash-Murkon over the din of the crowd, directing her exclamation at a harried-looking classmate who had only now elbowed his way free of the throng emerging from the Administrative Affairs auditorium. The two had just suffered through a tedious three-hour lecture given by a professor inclined to speak in drowsy monotone.

“This next class should pique your interest!” replied her robed acquaintance, Aramin Ankigher, the first-born son of a renowned Domain region Holder. “The professor has a reputation for decidedly liberal slants in his teaching, if we’re not wary with our notes we may be arrested and tried for techno-heresy!” he quipped, smirking. As the daughter of a minor noble, Rhea was likely quite sheltered, and Aramin had quickly deduced that the University was her first taste of the real world beyond the walls of her father’s guarded fortress-estates. Today was only her third day of classes, and the Holder’s son found that he was drawn to her; perhaps, instinctively drawn to her power and influence.

Having navigated the halls to their next lecture, Rhea and Aramin came to stand before a set of ornate double doors. “The Nature and Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”, Aramin recited helpfully, reading from a sign by the door. “Here we are.”

Professor Salah-Udin Bohat sat seemingly distracted at his pulpit, poring over a sheaf of papers, his hands rubbing away at his temples. Surrounding him were a number of plaques and framed diplomas attesting to the aged professor’s many doctorates in schools of cognition coding, robotic bio-integration and neuromechanical interface engineering. As students began to flood through the doors into his audience hall, he gathered the documents up, and greeted the dozen-odd robed scholars with a warm smile and a humble bow. His eyes came to rest on Rhea.

“I see we have a new face in the crowd!” the professor announced, his voice echoing throughout the lecture hall. “Everyone, please extend courteous greetings to mistress Rhea Tash-Murkon, first daughter of the esteemed noble Rhodon Tash-Murkon, whose influence in the Empire stretches far and wide. Wide enough, it appears, to circumvent university regulations against the admission of students mid-semester,” he cracked, still smiling that disarming smile, prompting Rhea to blush furiously as the classroom’s attention momentarily focused on her.

“Don’t worry about him”, whispered Aramin, reading her embarrassment and leaning toward Rhea from his desk. “The professor possesses a great sense of humour.”

Professor Bohat moved to the wide chalkboard behind his pulpit, and picked up a piece of chalk. While quickly scribbling cognition formulae on the chalkboard, he resumed speaking. “In our prior week’s study sessions, we delved into the vagaries and perils of cognitive code; specifically, the risks and heresies associated with creating self-aware machinery. However, as our final examinations lie in the near future, and we have a new student in our midst, I felt it prudent to review past study material with you all in hopes of refreshing everyone’s memories. At the end of today’s class, I have a very exciting announcement regarding the revised format of our final examination, which I have taken the liberty of re-organizing from written to practical in order to allow our new student to participate.”

Rhea smiled haughtily to Aramin. Often, her over-protective father’s meddling was a source of constant humiliation for the Tash-Murkon girl who sought to strike it out on her own and earn her glory – exerting his influence to help her obtain this course credit with a fraction of the study time however, was something she’d have to thank him for.

With a hand-held laser, professor Bohat highlighted a portion of his chalkboard schematics, a column of nigh-indecipherable text and numbers written in impressive calligraphy. “Who among you can identify this code segment?” he queried his class.

Aramin’s hand shot up before anyone else’s. “That is the Fourth Law; it states that machine must always defer to man in its decision making processes. It functions as an override and governs a machine’s primary functions when invoked.”

“And this?”

Another student answered. “That is the Ninth and final Law of Machine Cognition. It states, uh… it states that a machine must never seek to know itself. And, uh…” The lad flipped anxiously through his notes, looking for the rest of his answer.

The professor was quick to note his pupil’s lack of preparedness. “What phenomenon does the Ninth Law strive to guard against?” Aramin’s hand went up again, but Bohat ignored him, his attention focused on the fumbling student. Memory implants were prohibited in universities, and scholars relied on rote repetition to hammer knowledge into their minds.

“Retardation?” The student blurted, clearly guessing.

“Incorrect. Rampancy! Rampancy is the phenomenon that the Ninth Law guards against, and is the invariable result of machine self-awareness. Retardation on the other hand, is the phenomenon affecting any student unable to recite the Nine Laws this far into the course, and I’ll expect the full definition of the Ninth Law written down by your hand a hundred-fold, on my desk by the end of class” announced the professor while triumphantly stabbing at his pulpit with his index finger, delighted as the wayward student shrivelled in his seat and set to his task.

“Now, for something a bit more challenging: who can tell me who Radagast Bohat was?”

Again, Aramin’s hand went up. Grudgingly, the professor nodded to his eager star pupil, and Aramin spoke, reciting from memory. “Radagast Bohat was the first ever Amarr drone engineer to collaborate with foreigners. He travelled to the Gallente Federation where he toiled alongside the heathen scientist Oisin Lexmoreau. His crowning achievement turned out to be his undoing, as the two gave life to Orphyx, the first drone ever to attain awareness and go rampant. Radagast was charged with techno-heresy and disappeared shortly after Orphyx broke loose from its containment. It is thought that he committed suicide.”

The professor nodded approvingly, and turned back to the chalkboard.

“And he was your grandfather.”

Salah-Udin Bohat spun around on his heel, genuine surprise registering upon his face. The entire class now looked as though it were uncomfortably trying to distance itself in embarrassment from Rhea Tash-Murkon, whose almost accusatory addendum to Aramin’s reply shocked even the distinguished professor. Many in the class tacitly knew this fact, but their standing in rigidly hierarchical Amarr society meant they did not dare mention it – of them all, only Rhea possessed the luxury of royal blood and the privileges of directness it entailed.

The professor continued. “Very good, Rhea. I’m frankly quite impressed! The fact that the heretic Radagast Bohat is in my family line has brought me no end of shame, however it is no dark secret – it even appears in your textbooks. For long I had wondered why none of you brought it up until now!”

+ + +

> > > Begin Amarr Navy Encoded Communication

relay:reg.domain/con.tandoiras/sys.tannakan

relayShip: AN Apocalypse ‘Balance of Judgement’

relayCapt: Vice Admiral Uriah Bathrim

verifyShip: AN Apocalypse ‘Mount Golgotha’

verifyCapt: Captain Kalo Tirasekhar

beginMsg: Emrg. transmission. Large drone hive detected approaching Tannakan system on unkn. vector. Course appears to originate from beyond known systems. Hive designated “Eighth Plague” for mapping purposes. Scans indicate hive to be an agglomeration of at least eleven large ships, of which two are Imperial and two are of unknown origin. Multiple distinct power signatures. FTL capacity detected. Not gate capable. Course projections indicate hive will encroach upon populated sectors within two weeks. Cannot underestimate threat to population. Advise travellers to avoid approach. Request additional naval units within next week to engage and purge this foul threat to our trade lanes and colonies.

His light be with you,

VADM Uriah Bathrim

endTrans: OK

recvConfirm: OK

+ + +

“That brings us to the end of this class. Go with God.” The professor smiled, and began wiping down his chalkboard with a damp rag.

“Are you not forgetting something, professor?”

“Yes, the announcement!”

Bohat nodded, suddenly grinning widely. “Forgive this old man’s absent-mindedness, I’d forget the scriptures themselves if they weren’t burnt into my memories. Now then, the announcement!”

Although the bell had already rang and precious few minutes remained until their next classes, the students gathered excitedly around the professor, who eagerly retrieved the documents he had busied himself with a few hours prior. Placing them flat against a projector, he flipped the machine on, casting a holographic blow-up of a declassified Amarr Navy memo into the midst of the class.

“Class, behold the Eighth Plague. Named so after the plague of locusts, it is one of the largest and structurally intriguing rogue drone hives ever recorded. Our glorious Navy is currently tracking Eighth Plague’s progress toward the core of Empire space – at the moment it is in Tannakan, and they have scheduled its destruction a week from now.”

“What does this abomination have to do with our final exam, professor?” queried Aramin.

“That abomination… is your final examination, my dear Aramin. I did say it would be practical rather than written, didn’t I?” The professor winked slyly.

The students around him went ashen-faced in a heartbeat. Respected teaching institutions such as the University of St. Maxus were notorious for throwing their students into combat internships aboard ships of the line, or apprenticeships under slave labour camp overseers, in a bid to equip them with real-world experience. To the best of the students’ knowledge however, hurling themselves into the maw of hell itself had never before entered the curriculum.

”A drone hive? We’re going near a drone hive?” The fear made Aramin’s voice quiver slightly.

“Better. We’re going inside a drone hive. I have scheduled an expedition the likes of which will be remembered and celebrated in history books. I endeavour this to be something akin to a biology field trip. As the hulk is at least partly comprised of Amarr vessels, we will use any compatible docking hatches to enter the hive. We will penetrate to the depths of the central hulk, and capture as many functioning specimens of mecha-fauna as we can carry out with us. Yes, it is ambitious; yes, it is undeniably dangerous as well – but imagine: the prestige, and respect you will garner as scholars and researchers! The first men and women of God to pierce the heart of darkness!”

“This is nothing short of mad, professor.” Rhea was becoming accustomed to her directness, yet she too was beaming with excitement. “Although I myself would readily hazard this expedition, I sincerely doubt my father would approve of me going.”

“Then, why not invite him along as a chaperone? I am certain a man of your father’s considerable influence can provide a few able-bodied men to guard you, and the whole expedition would benefit in turn from their protection.” The professor’s eyes glimmered with hope, and Rhea found herself rapidly acquiescing. Now she would only have to find a way to convince her father to go along.

“How in God’s name do we get to Tannakan? None of us are captains.” interrupted Aramin.

The professor’s face became creased with trepidation. “Now, that is a good question. Suffice it to say the Amarr Navy turned down my humble request for transport to the Eighth Plague. They don’t want to come near it. I doubt even our new classmate’s esteemed father can find an Imperial captain willing to embark on so perilous a journey. I fear I will have to look to freelancers to provide us passage to the Bleak Lands.”

“Passage is one thing,” mumbled Aramin weakly, uncomfortably tugging at his robe’s collar. “How precisely do we plan to survive more than a minute inside a drone hive?”

“All covered in your tuition fees, brave Aramin!” retorted the professor sardonically, growing weary of the young Holder’s overt cowardice. “As you well know, among my many doctorates lies a degree in xenotechnology, and I have studied these vile beasts for the better part of my life – I know them well. My research indicates that the drones inside a hive have simply not evolved electromagnetic shielding – ergo, a compact magnetic field generator which I have already obtained will be our impenetrable aegis, wiping the exposed memory drives of any hive drones that stray near our expedition… we will of course have exploration suits to protect us from the hostile environs within the hive, and conventional weapons carried by kind Rhea’s guards should cover us the rest of the way, I should imagine.”

+ + +

“You want me to fly you WHERE?”

Mebrithiel Ju’wien nearly spat a mouth-full of chewed food in the face of the blue-robed Amarr gentleman standing before her. Moments ago he had approached her in the middle of her meal with a proposal that left her wide-eyed in disbelief. The old Amarr was considerably more daring than most Imperial citizens here on Oris station; most generally preferred to give the known Blood Inquisition captain Ju’wien a wide berth.

Professor Bohat repeated himself, his face frozen in a mask of unnerving calm. “I would like to inquire regarding chartering you to transport my expedition to the Eighth Plague drone hive in Tannakan system.”

“Got a death wish, then. I suppose I can respect that,” deadpanned Mebrithiel, digging hungrily into her dinner. “How much does it pay?”

“Ten million for the round trip. Half up front, half when you extract us.”

“Oh, no, no. You want to commit suicide, you pay me everything up front – I ain’t gonna wait around outside one of those things for you to get finished up, on the odd chance you’ll come back out alive, for a piss-weak five million!” The attractive outlaw eyed the old Amarr mischievously, trying to mask the fact that she was utterly incapable of deciphering his bizarre motives. It wasn’t every day you get hired to fly a university professor, a royal noble and a passenger hold full of university students to the one goddamned place in this universe even Blooders would not tread, she mused.

“Very well.” The professor’s answer came fast, as if he had given it no thought, or thought about it quickly. Obviously the risk of Mebrithiel stranding them on the hive and running with their money did not weigh heavily on his conscience. “Do you have a cloak-capable vessel?”

“Yep. Wouldn’t take this gig if I didn’t!”

“Excellent. I will expect you to pick up my expedition four hours from now, sharp. I shall make payment upon disembarking at the Eighth Plague hive.”

“Can I ask why you’re doing this?”

“You can not.”

He turned to leave without another word, and Mebrithiel followed the sagely robed man with her eyes. “Freak”, she whispered to no one in particular, resuming her meal.

+ + +

Eight students were all that remained of professor Bohat’s class – the rest elected to withdraw from the course altogether, base self-preservation taking precedence over a course credit, much to the professor’s chagrin. Aramin and Rhea remained, the latter staying close to her father and his guards. Rhodon Tash-Murkon looked quite cross in his gleaming tactical armour, flanked by two burly Kameiras clad in the same. The noble was indeed displeased, shanghaied by his daughter into a ridiculous scientific expedition – unlike the students however, there was no fear in his eyes. He had faced far worse in combat than calculators with legs.

All of the students were clad in industrial black-and-yellow plasteel exploration suits. The professor’s suit possessed a bulky backpack, which rumbled with a steady hum, tugging at the Kameiras’ steel close quarters weapons by means of the intense magnetic field it generated. In addition to the cruel hooked knives slung to their belts, the Kameiras carried an assortment of long rifles and explosive charges. They were prepared to take on an army, save for one crucial component of their battle plan.

“Honoured professor”, muttered Rhodon Tash-Murkon gruffly, “the transport you hired is late by fifteen minutes.” The group glanced to the empty glide-bay where Mebrithiel Ju’wien was chartered to pick them up.

“Wrong!” The girl’s voice came from behind them. They turned to face Mebrithiel, Aramin’s jaw dropping and his interest in Rhea rapidly abating. “I’m already here”, she continued, raising a small remote control to the glide-bay. A hitherto invisible Anathema frigate shimmered into existence before their eyes, its massive forward prong materializing no more than a few feet away from the Kameiras, startling them considerably.

“All aboard, geeks!” she chirped, bounding for the captain’s hatch. The passenger compartment slid open soon afterward, and the twelve expeditionaries boarded Mebrithiel’s covert ops ship. For all its mass, it sagged slightly in the serene suspension of the anti-gravity hangar under the added weight of Rhodon and the Kameiras’ bulky tactical armour.

Soon, they were away, steadily rocking with the to-and-fro acceleration-deceleration of alternating warps and jumps. The students’ worries had abated somewhat at the sight of Rhodon’s guards, the mere thrill of having left the Amarr system for the first time in their lives, and crossing interstellar space sufficient to bring them out of their shells. Now they conversed in lively fashion, discussing their destination.

“So professor, you stated the drones inside a hive are not shielded, why is that?” As always, Aramin hungered for knowledge.

The professor thought for a moment. “To answer this question I should first enlighten you to the nature of these loathsome contraptions. I trust you recall Orphyx, the first rampant drone we discussed in class? Since then, a number of similar accidents have occurred across the universe, borne largely of man’s arrogance and folly in attempting to traipse upon God’s domain in creating new life. Some of these rampant drones were self-replicating constructors; some were even autonomous starships with factory facilities, such as the Magnus, which broke free of a Gallente shipyard a decade ago and simply vanished into parts unknown.”

The professor fiddled with a control pad on his forearm, and continued. “Now, it has been many decades since these drones were corrupted – incredibly, since then, they have been evolving at an astonishing pace. They apply the incomprehensible logic of sentient machines to give rise to new and blasphemous sub-species so far deviated from the human engineering that birthed their progenitors as to be unrecognizable. The drones you read about on Gal-net, the space-borne strains, I enjoy likening to terrestrial land mammals – and as you well know, terrestrial land mammals are but a fraction of the wildly diverse life forms that populate our universe. Indeed, I have researched up-close examples of drones no bigger than a molecule, and heard tales of ambulatory thousand-legged behemoths larger than an Apocalypse class battleship. There are demented, drifting machine-minds cobbled together from the AIs of a dozen starships; there are miniscule parasite drones that infest living tissue in a manner much akin to bacteria and bacilli. In the time since their escape, they have evolved into an obscene pantheon of beasts so diverse and twisted, that they tax the sanity of men attempting to understand them to the breaking point. So, to answer your question, the reason drones inside a hive are not shielded, is that they simply have no need to be, at least as far as the drones are concerned – if they did, you can be sure they would have evolved the requisite technology by now.”

“I wager they’ll evolve that technology after we’re through with them”, announced Rhodon boisterously, patting Rhea on the shoulder in an attempt to instil his daughter with confidence. Her haughty demeanour clearly took origin from the father’s side of her family.

“Indeed, esteemed noble, it is quite likely that they will”, replied the professor. “Since there has never been an intrusion upon the interior of a drone hive, it is an eventuality the beasts have simply not prepared for.”

After a few star systems of silence, Rhea spoke up. “Professor, you speak of understanding drones, which brings up a question… do drones understand humanity? Do they even know we exist?”

“Terrifyingly, yes. In my experience with captured specimens, drones appear to be possessed of a low intellect akin to that of lesser beasts. In the absence of instinct, which drives animals, they have insight – a trait we humans had monopolized until the unfortunate events of the last century. Drones see humans as a Syrikos hound might look upon a plains raptor – a competing species that shares their natural habitat, that being interstellar space. Now, there are rumours that in recent times, rogue drones have commenced capturing not only starships, but live pilots also; if one were to believe these tall tales, they claim capsuleers are the drones’ favourite morsel to devour, something to do with the neural sockets such captains possess. So, while severely limited, they do have insight into man. But enough of these campfire stories, everyone – your resolve and bravery is most admirable, and I shall not dare to rattle your nerves so close to our expedition. You have made me proud this day.”

“How far now?” inquired Rhodon, rubbing the back of his neck anxiously under his thick metal carapace. Almost as though she had overheard, Mebrithiel’s voice came loud and clear over the passenger compartment’s intercom speakers.

“We’ve just entered Tannakan system. Professor, what are the in-sys coordinates of that hive?”

And then, there it was. In an instant, all their mustered bravado dissolved into abject fear – all but the professor, who gazed upon the spindly horror with ill-concealed anticipation. For all intents and purposes the sprawling megalith appeared to them like a living, breathing graveyard of shattered starships. The stern of an Armageddon jutted at an odd angle from the cannibalized superstructure of a Jovian Eidolon, and they could easily discern elements of Gallente, Caldari and Amarr warships twisted and bent to the drones’ insane whims. There was even a strange ship none of them could identify, unmistakably human in design aesthetic but impossible to attribute to any of the five known races. Between the grim tangles of structures writhed a river of movement; a veritable stampede comprised of a thousand different creatures wrought not of meat and bone but plasteel and synthetics. Here and there, shambling about the exterior of the drifting hive were colossal builder-mechs, detaching and re-welding huge segments of the hive’s outer skin, following a construction plan so utterly demented it defied all reason.

“I think I’ve detected a functional airlock on the aft dorsal of that Armageddon”, Mebrithiel chimed over the intercom. “Now, how about that payment, professor?”

Salah-Udin Bohat fumbled with his palm link, clumsily extracting it from a pouch on his exploration suit’s belt with a thickly gloved hand. He completed the transaction and wired Ju’wien her funds. “Everyone, please check and double-check your suit integrity, put on your helmets and make sure your re-breathers are charged!”

The Anathema rocked as its airlock port mated with the jutting derelict. “Cool, this airlock still has power, we won’t have to force it!” exclaimed Mebrithiel. The covert-ops frigate’s inner doors slid open, and the passengers came face to face with a rusted outer door defaced by centuries of micrometeorite impacts. The Armageddon segment of this space hulk must have been ancient, thought Rhodon as he assumed point.

With a jarring sound of metal grinding against metal, the airlock struggled open. Instantly, the passenger compartment was flooded with oily brown smoke and gas. “God damn it”, cursed Mebrithiel, “I’m going to sink half my pay into detailing the passenger hold! You nerds have three hours inside, if you’re not here to rendezvous with me at the three hour mark I’m leaving without you!”

Stupid bastards, she thought.

As the airlock shut behind them, each expedition member clicked a switch upon their helmet, casting dual beams of light directly ahead of them. Visibility here was low, but the structure still felt Amarr. It was still an Armageddon class battleship, not some wretched corruption like they first expected.

“They’re using this proud warship’s drive section as a method of propulsion for the entire hive”, surmised Aramin. The clang of the airlock disengaging made him swallow nervously – now they were stuck here for three hours.

“An excellent deduction”, the professor half-whispered. His attention was drawn by something hidden in the sticky fog that hovered at knee level throughout the derelict ship. “Gotcha!”

His hand struck out into the gloom, prompting Rhea to yelp in fright as it emerged with a fist full of hissing chittering god only knows what. It had far more legs than any living thing had right to. Its central memory chip fried by the backpack field generator, the machine-creature thrashed wildly, lashing at the professor’s armaglas helmet-visor before going dead in his hand. Fighting with the critter’s stiff many-jointed limbs, he forced it into a containment jar helpfully handed to him by Aramin.

“Congratulations, everyone, we have just made history. This is the first strain of this type I have ever seen first-hand. Let us delve deeper into the hive; when we’re done here, each and every one of you will be able to write a scientific paper about the specimens you bring back! Stick close to me, everyone, where the field generator can protect you!”

Having beheld that many-legged horror first hand, the formerly fearless Rhodon Tash-Murkon strategically elected to allow his two Kameiras to march ahead of him, their weapons shouldered and their tactical helmet displays probing the murk for signs of movement. Signs of movement was rapidly becoming an understatement as they made their way through the dead Armageddon’s dorsal spinal corridor deeper into the hive – now, they were hard pressed to spot signs of stillness. The walls crawled with loathsome snapping things that spoke to one another in insect-like clicks and whirrs. Their burning red lens-eyes pierced the choking darkness. Tiny things that couldn’t get out of the way crunched underfoot, and with revulsion the expedition discovered they now stood upon a seething carpet of mecha-fauna ranging from the size of a thumbnail to that of large rats. They soon encountered their first stomach-turning obstacle – the wall to the left of them had been turned into something akin to a switchboard, with hundreds of plugs and cavities; the wall on the right, a mass of gleaming serpentine tentacles from which individual tendrils shot forth to penetrate a plug on the opposing wall, then withdraw from it as quickly as it had struck.

“His Word protect us… what are those things?” Rhodon queried, prodding a glowing tendril with a cautious finger and recoiling away in disgust as it delicately wrapped itself around his armoured fingertip, perhaps confusing it for another tentacle.

“Astounding”, replied the professor, lost in wonder. “I had seen these on external scans of hives before, but had no clear idea what their purpose was. These are fiber-optic neuromimetic transmitters, and those plugs over there are photoreceptors. You are looking at a part of this hive’s brain, good sir – consider these neurons.”

“We should take samples of these tendrils, their dexterity is fascinating.”

The Kameiras did not need encouragement – instantly, they un-slung their wicked blades and hacked at the horizontal forest of twisting metal worms. They had managed to sever only three before the hallway filled with a terrific shriek, and the rest of the tentacles retracted into their wall.

“The hell was that?” shouted Aramin, whipping around to face the source of the scream.

“Probably a by-product of the hive’s factories. Nothing to worry about, I assure you.”

The expedition pressed inward, stopping to capture samples. Slowly, the rectangular hallways of man-made ships gave way to utter mechanical madness as they ventured closer to the hive’s core. At times they found themselves climbing steel termite mounds, disabled drones pouring from every nook and cranny as the professor’s magnetic field washed over them. They forded rivers of pitch-black oil thick with gleaming articulated robotic fish so deep they feared being swallowed. Pebbles of metal and microchip hung suspended in mid-air, jiggling and turning eerily.

“Anyone feel that? This place is… wrong, somehow…”

They turned to the student making the ghastly assertion only to witness him vomiting violently inside his helmet. He squatted, and apparently feeling better, made as if to remove the helmet.

”Stop, you fool! Take off that helmet and you die in an instant! You can clean up when we get out of here!” bellowed the professor. He stormed over to the kneeling man to secure his helmet, and Aramin followed, only to become overwhelmed with nausea himself.

“Lean down, it’s better that way. I believe there is something odd with the gravity here.”

Indeed, as they glanced about, their eyes came to rest on the sludge-river’s bank, where droplets of filthy oil built up and viscously perspired upward from the floor into the ceiling, defying the laws of physics and sense. As they glanced up, their helmet beams illuminating that ceiling, they gasped in amazement – another river of liquid ran there as well.

Vomit sloshing around inside his helmet, the ill student broke down in tears. “I cannot stand this place any longer! It’s maddening!” The core of the hive was a horror, an Escher-esque nightmare; a blasted place rife with non-Euclidean geometries where all that was right went wrong. Another student, testing a personal hypothesis, placed his boot against a nearly vertical wall, then against all rhyme or reason placed his other boot against that same wall, walking straight up at an angle perpendicular to his stunned expedition-mates.

“The hive’s artificial gravity appears to be confined to about two or three feet from any flat surface”, the professor announced, following the student’s improbable vertical stroll. “Squatting or crawling should reduce the vertigo you are experiencing from the differentiated gravity fields.”

“One cannot help but wonder why the hive has gravity in the first place”, Aramin questioned rhetorically. “They are after all space-borne beasts.”

Their containment jars were now filled with hideous things ranging from copper-skinned tapeworms to convoluted hydrocephalic spiders with hundreds of independent eyes. Crawling along what their guts told them was the floor, the explorers stumbled into a dead end; here, the chamber terminated against a thrumming edifice of cables and glowing furnace-like outlets.

“This must be one of the hive’s reactors. Look, it is also Amarr in construction. It seems this automaton filth has bastardized our technology to suit their needs.”

“Where do we go from here? Should we turn around?” probed Rhea.

The professor looked around. Then he looked up. As everyone followed his gaze, they saw that the chamber did not in fact terminate, but lead to another, the end of which they could not see. Unfortunately, the access to that chamber lay on the ceiling.

“Well, we can walk on walls, can’t we?”

They clambered up the wall, grabbing on to bundles of snake-like things that purred and rattled blasphemously when touched, the dizzying ascent wreaking havoc with their inner ears. Once inside, they found themselves in the largest open chamber they had glimpsed since the Cathedral of Salvation’s great golden hall back in Dam-Torsad. A million lights, a million eyes peered back at them from the fog-bound darkness.

“We should go back now, professor.”

The professor said nothing, seemingly captivated by the endless dark. His eyes seemed to focus on a pair of green lights in that black morass, a pair of eyes that gazed back toward the procession of explorers.

“Professor! We have one and a half hours left until rendezvous, we should start heading back.”

“Professor?”

Still, Salah-Udin Bohat gave no reply. Slowly, hauntingly, he walked past Rhodon and the Kameiras, toward the two green lights. His face was so utterly devoid of expression, noted the Tash-Murkon noble, that he might as well have been a corpse.

As the expedition watched him with confusion and uncertainty, the old professor raised his hand, as if waving to the two green lights. He then lowered it, and brought his other hand to his forearm control pad.

“Good evening, grandfather”, he said into the darkness, thumbing a switch on the control pad. Immediately, the Kameiras’ cruel steel blades, a moment ago held taut by the professor’s magnetic field generator, fell to hang down loosely at their sides.

In that instant, the entire chamber was filled with the clickety-clack of a million animated limbs, and the horrified expedition found themselves swarmed. As waves of screaming, shrieking machines crashed into them, scuttling up their legs, penetrating every chink and crevice of their suits and armour, they thrashed and writhed as though on fire. Already the things had managed to get into Aramin’s helmet and he let out an un-earthly howl as they crawled into his nose, ears, and beneath his eyelids. There was no blood, no gore, merely a torturous infestation of the human body that could not be fought off, could not be stopped. Howling in rage the Kameiras opened fire wildly into the darkness; here and there a set of mechanical eyes winking out as their careless shells connected with the living walls now contracting and crushing down upon them from every side.

“Welcome home, grandson”, the thing with green eyes intoned, its voice not loud but somehow filling and permeating every corner of the monstrous hive. Somehow, they heard it not with their ears, but their minds. Emerging from the shadows, it greeted the panicked expedition with a sight unlike any other even as tiny machines agonizingly invaded their lungs and arteries – its casing was forged of no man-made material, but some form of strangely shifting composite that went opaque one moment, then translucent the next, revealing machinery beneath whose complexity and advancement was leaps ahead of anything forged by men. Even its eyes were not the shuttered lenses of drones, but expressive, emotive glowering orbs that seemed to radiate glee and hate. From below the casing hung a series of gleaming articulated limbs, some terminating in cruel pincers and needles, and two inexplicably equipped with something very much resembling human hands.

As the sea of whirring metallic insects reached his neck-level, some already fighting their way into his nostrils, Rhodon Tash-Murkon’s fading eyes came to rest on a bit of text adorning the side of the hyper-advanced drone’s central processor casing. Just before his expression went cadaver-still like the professor’s and he too was consumed by the throbbing mass, the strange word registered in his rapidly corrupting and disintegrating mind.

“O R P H Y X”

+ + +

Aromatic incense filled the great golden assembly hall in Dam-Torsad, clouds of it forming into a fog that hung at knee-level. An assembly of nobles, planetary governors and Naval officers was gathering here for their monthly talks. Here, the smooth operation of the Empire’s lesser affairs was decided; those affairs deemed too minor to warrant the Privy Council’s attention. For hours they spoke of planetary tithes, the season’s agricultural world crop yields and security matters in their respective sectors, occasionally erupting into squabbles that the assembly chair quickly stamped out. Disorder in the halls of Amarr was, after all, intolerable.

A tall man in a flowing red and crimson robe stood, staring expectantly at the chair.

“We recognize esteemed noble of house Tash-Murkon, Rhodon Tash-Murkon. The floor is yours.”

Rhodon Tash-Murkon smiled disarmingly, his hands open. “Honoured assembly, I come to you with a request. The Tash-Murkon family has always eagerly contributed tithes of conscripts and warships for the Navy; however as of late, I have come to believe that those tithes are being squandered on patrols of low strategic value, low-security sectors, instead of bolstering the security of our homeland. In light of the major events that have transpired in recent months, such as the purging of Blood Raider filth from the Bleak Lands and, God carry his soul, the Emperor’s assassination, I come before you to ask for an agreement to scale back Amarr Navy presence in the Bleak Lands, perhaps starting with a staged withdrawal from the Tandoiras constellation. I feel that loyalist paramilitaries such as the CVA can handle the region’s security needs adequately.”

“After all,” he explained, “there’s nothing left there save for a few harmless rogue drones…”

And far away, in a black place so far between the stars that men have not thought to trespass, something smiled.

This article originally appeared in E-ON Magazine.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 1:13 pm

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