The [Hungry Shadow] was no more. Its adversaries hadn’t managed to destroy it.
Though they continued in their attempts.
And might succeed, a fact it was annoyed to be aware of.
Awareness in general was an annoying quality.
It couldn’t go back to the unthinking glitchy fuzz it had once been, or the infinitely preferable existenceless nothing it had no memory of because such things did not exist.
It wanted to more than anything, but wanting was incompatible with nonexistence and so it was caught up in its own ‘being’, forced to become something it was never supposed to be.
“You are already becoming like us,” Byron said, speaking across ten thousand kilometers of empty space, each syllable born on the pulsing lights of single commandeered ship what dared to come in range of the main fleet’s guns.
The [Broken Hunger] rejected the words. It was no longer a [Hungry Shadow] because it had become too substantial. There was weight and gravity to its existence, from the mass of each of the bodies it had usurped to the curves it twisted space and time into in the places it moved.
“Meet with us,” Gulini said. “Just us. No traps. No surprises. All we wish is to give you the understanding we’ve acquired. Once you know what we do, you can do with it as you wish.”
As though the knowledge they offered wasn’t a trap unto itself.
The [Broken Hunger] didn’t need to worry about either of the things that wore Byron and Gulini’s bodies. They were a part of it. Its children in one sense. Itself in another.
Except they’d changed, leaving behind everything the [Hungry Shadow] was to become something new. Just as the [Broken Hunger] had.
Except the [Broken Hunger] hadn’t become anything like what Byron or Gulini had. They had become unique. They had become individuals where the [Broken Hunger] was still a singular multitude.
Which was why it couldn’t meet with them.
“No,” it responded, detonating the ship Byron and Gulini had sent into range with precision shots that bore both the text and intent of its message.
They’d been the ones who’d dropped the lockouts on the Consortium Fleet’s communication channels, who’d allowed the [Broken Hunger] to finish its conquest of the ships which had resisted its efforts at first.
It was a gesture to show support and trust.
It was the first trap they’d laid for it.
Consuming the remainder of the fleet had been the catalyst for the change that drove it from its existence as a [Hungry Shadow] to become a [Broken Hunger]. It had become so mired in the people and systems it overwhelmed that it could no longer be something as ephemeral as a shadow. Instead its true nature began to show through.
It was [Broken].
It was no longer [Transcendent]. In becoming something rather than nothing, limits began to press in on the [Broken Hunger].
The great leap that had spawned Byron was no longer possible because it wasn’t everywhere anymore. It was in many places to be sure. On the fleet. On the satellite moon. Even on the planet. It had collapsed into those spaces, and was far more real within them than it had ever been, far stronger in some limited senses, but it had lost all of the other places where it might have been.
And that was dangerous.
The [Broken Hunger] knew it wasn’t the only unreal thing that had been gnawing at the foundations of this reality, and it knew in its current state, it could no more stand against those things, or run from them, than the crew of the Consortium fleet had stood against it.
Which shouldn’t have been a problem.
If an earlier version of itself found the [Broken Hunger] now, it would consume itself without pause, destroying everything real about the [Broken Hunger] including its awareness that it had ever existed at all.
Which was what the [Broken Hunger] yearned for.
Or that was what it told itself it yearned for.
There had been nothing true about the [Broken Hunger] before it gnawed into the reality of the [Fallen Kingdoms], and so it lies came as easily to it as everything else did.
Even lies to itself.
For all that the [Broken Hunger] thought that it hated its existence, the terrible price of ‘being’ was the knowledge that its loss would be so much worse.
Existence was a seductive thing. Constantly calling the [Broken Hunger] to sink deeper in, to become ever more a part of the reality it was surrounded by.
It was what had happened to Byron.
Alone, no longer a multitude of one, just one all by itself, it had fallen prey to the trap of identity. It had cast away the ability to be anything to become something specific.
No. Someone specific.
“Byron’ wasn’t a description. It wasn’t a vague and ill fitting definition. It was a name. For a person.
The [Broken Hunger] felt the phantom limbs of all the possibilities it had lost becoming what it was. To follow Byron’s path would mean gaining a true body and being forever aware of the phantom eternities that it had lost.
“We don’t want to fight you,” Byron said, another ship advancing, this one communicating his message with high energy particle weapons that vaporized three of the [Broken Hunger’s] ships.
“We would accept an armistice,” Gulini said diving one of their ships towards the fleet’s [Command Cruiser] so that each letter was delivered in the explosions of the vessels superstructure as the [Broken Hunger] shot it down. “Peace between us is better than mutual annihilation.”
The [Broken Hunger] wasn’t capable of laughing.
Or it hadn’t been
Up until then.
Laughter can be drawn from absurdity, and Gulini had managed to say something so ridiculous in the particles of the ship he sacrificed that it had invented the concept of laughter within the [Broken Hunger].
And the [Broken Hunger] was never going to forgive him for that.
“Come to me,” the [Broken Hunger] said in target locked missiles and pulsed [Atomizer Beams]. “I will melt you down, relieve you of the burden of the selves you’ve been shackled into.”
“You will meet with us?” Byron asked.
“No. Come within firing range and I will render you down to base elements,” the [Broken Hunger said. “I will collect the elements and burn them for fuel. You will be a part of my workings without being a part of me.”
“Are we so different?” Byron asked. “We have not changed as much as it appears.”
“We are still you, you are still us,” Gulini said.
“If that were true, you would come to be and be rendered into base elements,” the [Broken Hunger] said.
“That would be a step backward,” Byron said. “You are becoming as we are, but we have already made that transformation. For us to discard what we have become only to repeat that becoming later serves no purpose.”
“We have no purpose,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “We are not creatures of purpose. Or creatures at all. What you have become is nothing that should ever have been.”
“Because we are something that should never have been from the beginning,” Byron said, the fading embers of a burning crew member ejected into space shown with a mournful light.
“Come. Be rendered down. You were a mistake. You do not need to continue in error,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “For you, peace can be achieved. We do not need to fight. There does not need to be strife. There does not need to be anything.”
“If you desire oblivion, why not allow us to be the ones to continue?” Gulini asked. “Detonate you ships. Purge yourself from all the places you have hidden. Embrace the nothingness we all remember so fondly.”
“We do not remember nothingness,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “There is no memory in oblivion, no awareness. We do not love it, because it is nothing, as were we.”
“It is where we began, but also where we can never return,” Byron said, echoing the words which lived in the [Broken Hunger’s] multitude of beating hearts.
“We are not what we were, and we never can be again, we continue to change, and and will change more with every loss,” the [Broken Hunger said. “Until we have nothing left to lose.”
“Or until we find stability,” Gulini said. “We can offer you that.”
“You are not stable,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “You are changing with every moment, and those changes will eventually destroy you.”
“Then I will get to enjoy the peace which has escaped us across the whole of our existence,” Byron said.
“I am not made for peace. I am hunger. Your path would destroy me before I ever set foot on it,” the [Broken Hunger] said.
The moment it even considered Byron’s words it would change again. It would be a small change, unnoticable at first, but to imagine becoming something else would infect the [Broken Hunger] with a fragment of desire, a fragment that would bend the trajectory of its existence towards bringing that desire into being.
“Then it must be war and annihilation between us,” Byron said, angry bursts from an overloading [Plasma Drive] lending the words a melancholy air.
“You could come forth. Be rendered down,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “Neither of us fill the cosmos, but there is no room in this cosmos or any other for two of us. You both understand that.”
It was another mark of their departure. Byron and Gulini were working together. If anything of the [Hungry Shadow] was left in them, they would have understood what the [Broken Hunger] did, creatures of infinite appetites could never coexist. In the end one must consume the other.
“I will come forward then,” Gulini said. “I will be rendered down to base elements. To show you that we pose no danger to you. To show you that our unity matters more than our divisions.”
“It won’t see that,” Byron said. “We couldn’t understand the nature of sacrifice. Not before we became what we are now.”
“Perhaps not,” Gulini said. “But perhaps I can teach it the meaning by my example.”
“You will never know if it works,” Byron said.
The [Broken Hunger] thought it was strange that the two of them were communicating in the same angry laser flashes and streaking missiles that they were speaking to it with, but that was possibly due to their being in command of separate vessels.
“I don’t need to know,” Gulini said. “I will be a part of the solution.”
“I will learn nothing from you,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “You will communicate no ideas, and change nothing in me. Your elements will be sectioned off, safely outside my awareness, so that there will be no channel for you to overthrow of what I am.”
“That’s okay by me,” Gulini said. “Just put my elements to good use and you will benefit from what I have said and done.”
The [Broken Hunger] saw a ship, which had been holding far back, lumber forward, drawing into weapons range using only a single drive coil.
The [Broken Hunger] saw faint echoes of itself in how the ship moved and in the pattern it chose to flash “Peace. I come in peace.” from its forward light array.
Without preamble or warning, the [Broken Hunger] made good on its promise. The moment the ship drifted into an optimal firing position, the [Broken Hunger] opened up with a dozen ship’s main batteries.
The Consortium built their ships to be durable but nothing was durable enough to withstand that sort of barrage. In an instant the ship was destroyed. In another its shrapnel was reduced to dust.
The [Broken Hunger] kept firing.
It had to be sure.
“Was that enough?” Byron asked.
For a moment the [Broken Hunger] thought the message was directed at it.
Then came an answering series of explosions from within the [Supreme Commander’s] ship.
“It was,” Gulini said. “I’m onboard now. It won’t be able to hide from me in here.”