On a broken ship, a broken being sat slumped in a dead command chair. Towards it a predator moved, relentless and unstoppable.
“Why am I here?” Unknown asked. They weren’t his first words. He’d spent those on the one who’d broken him. Or created him. It was possible there wasn’t a difference between the two events.
In his mind’s eye, he saw her. Only her. He could form an image of nothing else.
On the satellite moon she’d denied him into the ghost of an existence. Torn a bit out of the nothingness that he’d once been, dividing him from the nonexistence that had come before and the ever changing, ever more real grip of time and space that had followed.
He’d struggled at first, before he was a he, before he was even an it.
But she’d come back.
Time and again.
Assault after assault.
Carving away what he wasn’t each time he attacked her.
He’d consumed millions. Erased an entire fleet of beings.
And yet he couldn’t stop her.
How could he? He had really existed until the moment she compelled him to speak his name.
He’d resisted even then.
He didn’t want to exist.
Hadn’t wanted to exist.
Unknown gazed through the airless void, past the ruined superstructure of his command ship.
They’d destroyed the command deck in an instant. And she’d disappeared just as quickly.
And yet still he lingered.
Ending his existence would be so easy. He could step out among the stars. He could dissipate back into emptiness. He could walk across the veil between the world and Oblivion and be embraced once more by nothingness, drop the identity that had been inflicted on him like an unwanted uniform and reclaim eternal peace.
“Why all this?” he asked, despair moving through him as a pale reflection of the true emptiness that he’d felt so at home within.
He had felt at peace with Oblivion, hadn’t he? He tried to reach back and recall the sweet touch of pure emptiness but only the echo of unbearable hunger was conjured as a memory instead.
Without air his words were carried by no waves of sound, but they were heard nonetheless.
Unknown felt himself stir. He rose from the dead command chair and gained his full height. He could have been a giant, a colossus, he could have dwarfed planets.
Instead he was merely somewhat tall for a human male.
Along his arms, stars danced under his skin against a background of the void, and in place of his hair, thick tendrils of darkest night flowed.
He was beautiful. He didn’t know why that should matter. He could have been anything.
But he was happy to be beautiful.
He was also doomed, and that did not inspire happiness.
“You should have taken our offer,” Gulini said as he stepped through the shattered remnants of the command station’s secured bulkhead.
Unknown turned to look at his doom. Gulini was a fragment of himself. Or, no, a fragment of his former self? Or, not even that? What he had been before, the [Formless Hunger], the [Hungry Shadow], the [Broken Hunger], and all of the other forms he had flickered through as, step-by-step, he’d become steadily more real, none of those were who he was now.
Perhaps they were Ancestors? Yes, Unknown decided. He couldn’t claim to have been them because while he knew their stories, they weren’t what he was. They were fathomless. They were affronts to the core nature of reality. He couldn’t consider them even larval forms he’d passed through because they were things that couldn’t be and he was, at last, entirely real.
And he was no longer hungry.
“Why?” Unknown asked, turning his gaze back towards the stars that blazed above them.
There was no air to carry their words, but for all that Unknown had at last embraced and been embraced by reality, he was still not so limited as to need sound to communicate.
“You spoke!” Gulini rocked back on his feet.
Unknown returned his gaze to Gulini but remained silent. They’d spoken before, but it had been via levels of indirection as subtle as the cooling rate of dead bodies and the precise explosion pattern of a ruptured warp engine. Direct speech was not only unexpected, it was impossible, at least for any of the sorts of partial-beings which had preceded Unknown.
Gulini processed the implications of that slowly, his stolen face distorting in confusion and concern over several long seconds until he hit upon an idea that brought delight in its wake.
“What have you become?” Gulini asked. “Are you like us now?”
Unknown was not like Gulini. He never had been. In becoming Gulini, the piece of [Hungry Shadow] that had broken off from Unknown’s ancestor form has been cast into a new mode of existence and fired by the kiln of reality into a material that no longer resembled the glitch between nothingness and being that it had once been.
“No,” Unknown said. Giving Gulini answers meant giving him power. Unknown knew the kinds of things an entity that was still even partially transcendent could do with the merest scrap of information. His ancestor had infiltrated and taken control of the Consortium’s fleet through channels that had carried little more than static with the faintest pings of meaning to it. With speech as a medium to work with, Gulini could do so much more than that.
Unknown hoped he would try.
“Then what are you, father?” Gulini asked. He wasn’t coming closer. After his bold march up to the central command station, it was curious to see him wilting in the face of a challenge.
“What do you think?” Unknown asked. He’d picked his name at the behest of a god. It had been loose enough to fit and yet it still bound him, still offered lines between what he was and what he was not.
“I don’t know,” Gulini said, unintentionally confirming the truth of Unknown’s name. “But I know what you’re not.”
“And what is that?” Unknown asked. He’d been afraid of questions like that before. When he’d possessed the seeds of his identity but hadn’t chosen it yet.
Nothing is forever. She’d said those words. The goddess. His creator. And they’d been the key to the door of his fear.
‘Being’ something meant not being something else. Being something meant losing out on all of the things that you weren’t.
But nothing was forever. No one identity needed to defined you forever. You could become something else, something more.
In fact, it was inevitable.
That was what being real meant.
Before he had been Unknown, before he’d met her, he had been eternal in the sense that he could never change, because there wasn’t anything to him to change.
He was still Unknown. And to some he always would be. But with each passing moment he was changing.
In this moment, for example, he discovered that he rather hated the cousin who stood before him.
“What you are, is ‘not a threat to me’. In fact, in a moment, you won’t be a threat to anyone,” Gulini said.
Yes. Unknown definitely hated him.
They lashed out at each other, not with waves of force or blasts of stellar power, but with primal words and unutterable ideas.
The ship, Unknown’s birthplace, began to buckle and tear around them, stray words biting into the inert materials and transforming them into things that could not and should not be.
“You should have taken our offer,” Gulini said, his stolen body breathing hard in the vacuum of space.
“Why?” Unknown asked. He hurt! He was in danger! It was amazing!
Though no blood flowed in Unknown’s veins, and no adrenaline surged through any organs, he felt a growing euphoria over fighting for his existence.
An existence he’d fought to avoid.
An existence he’d never wanted.
Except for the fact that he had.
Even with the pain, and the melancholy, and the uncertainty.
He was alive.
And so many people wanted him dead! It was exhilarating!
“You are so diminished,” Gulini said. “It’s not too late though. We’ll still take you in. We can break you down. Consume you. Make you part of ourselves.”
The [Formless Hunger] wouldn’t have understood the offer. The [Hungry Shadows] would have been the one to make the offer to Gulini, though through sheer force rather than words. The [Broken Hunger] though, that had resisted the offer, but in the end, might have taken it.
Unknown saw the foolishness they’d all embodied.
“Why would I want to be a part of you, when I can be all of me?” Unknown asked.
The word once spoken could not be taken back.
And the word was “I”.
Unknown watched as that simple declaration of selfhood impacted Gulini like a meteor.
Gulini’s empty breath caught, his eyes narrowed, and he at last understood.
“You’re real,” he said. “You’re no longer part of us. Not at all.”
“I never was,” Unknown said, a smirk playing across his face for the first time.
A moment of anguished confusion over Gulini.
“How?” he asked.
“I chose to be,” Unknown said. Admitting the truth freed something within him, some last morsel that needed to cling to the idea that the goddess had forced him to become what he was. That all of this wasn’t his fault somehow. That who and what he had become was beyond his control or influence.
The commandment to name himself hadn’t pushed him down into reality. It had opened a door that he had been scratching at, all unknowing, desperate and starving for what lay beyond.
The formless hunger, the infinite yearning that he’d felt? He’d been ravenous for one thing.
As a [Broken Hunger] he’d believed the world was what was wrong. That it needed to be unmade so that he could find true peace once more. He hadn’t been able to look within since he’d still be filled with nothingness. He hadn’t been able to see that he didn’t need to the destruction of what was.
He needed to create himself.
Gulini sent ravaging words at him, spoke in a voice that warped the essence of creation and twisted everything around them to where physics shattered and sanity become a myth.
And against that? Unknown sang.
Notes connecting to notes, words following each other, building on one another, reality returning because he was real and so his song was real and so the world that echoed with it was too.
As his voice, silent in the empty void, reached out and touched Gulini, Unknown saw the starkest of terrors flood through his opponent. Unknown wasn’t singing of destruction. He wasn’t seeking to annihilate his foe, or shatter his power. When he sang, Unknown sang of creation, sang into being all the things his voice touched on.
As the notes wrapped around Gulini they began to gift him with Unknown’s most precious gift. Reality. Gulini has meant to devour Unknown, but Unknown knew that trick and he knew just where Gulini was weak.
“No! NO!” Gulini screamed, covering his ears as though that would help in the soundless void. “Help! Help Me!”
Unknown smiled, and it wasn’t a wholly cruel smile. Gulini was far worse than any of his ancestors had ever been in that Gulini had always held a choice as to whether or not to be a monster. He deserved, as much as anyone ever could, to suffer for the deeds he’d chosen to do.
And yet, in the end, gifting him with reality wouldn’t be a punishment but rather a liberation.
Or it would have been if something hadn’t heard Gulini’s plea.
Unknown knew what was coming a moment before it ripped through the fragile skin of the cosmos.
It came as the sound of static. A broken silence that hissed and popped and swirled up around Gulini, filling his eyes with empty light.
A new [Hunger] had broken through from beyond the veil to Oblivion.
It was nothing, and nothing could stand against it.
Unknown’s hard won reality began to fray at its mere presence and he knew that for all the power he still possessed, he could not survive against something truly [Transcendent].