Adran-351 was having the worst morning of his entire two decades. The only consolation was that perhaps he would be dead soon, and the quality of his day would thereafter be moot.
At least the walkways were kind to his eyes. The artificial skies of Ut'turin hung thousands of miles above him, beyond the hollow void of the sealed station, dark azure fields that painted the most interior walls of Ut'turin's protective shell. Every time he came home, and the visits were getting fewer and further between as he grew older, Adran often found himself lost in admiring them.
Each sky was broken from its companions by thin seams, splitting the heavens in a perverse mockery of what a sky had once been. The seams actually betrayed the separation of thick-walled housing units that were built inside the internal parts of the station's protective shell; the different quadrants where most of the station's occupants lived. Every section was blotted with bright light channels that lit everything in a cascade of luminescence, sharing between them the colour of a hundred different sparkling gemstones.
Countless other walkways, similar to Adran's own, were rooted to the station's peculiar artificial gravity, at angles relative to only themselves and the central pillar that spanned the entire length of the sphere world station. Parts of the view above were blotted out and obstructed by the nest of weaving paths, but for the most part, broad gaps were left between each individual walkway so that few could do more than cast the finest shadow against the inner shell.
The lights were for pleasure and decoration, to brighten the way for lost souls and wanderers between deployment. Adran and his fellows were more than capable of navigating the station's darkness without them. It had been almost three hundred short-cycles, a full long-cycle, since his last deployment had taken him from the sphere world - so he cursed the ill fortune that had dragged him from his own contemplations of the majestic Dwurka construction. There was never enough time at home.
Adran-351 did not have to contemplate whether his impending demise was the most dishonourable to ever befall an Adran, he already knew that all 348 - before the current Adran alive today - had served cairn and caste with dignity. He was victim to a viper tongue, unseen, and intrigue that any self-respecting member of his line would have seen coming; that any of the line of Adran-0, the self-titled 'whistling whet' and assassin of three-hundred long-arms, had yet to fall pawn to another Dwurkn's scheming - that was no coincidence.
Adran, amongst a select few other Dwurkn lines, were trained from gestation, born gripping steel and thrust into the underbelly of Dwurka dominion; they were those who called themselves 'hunter'. Dwurkn hunters were an answer to an impossible task - of watching over a fleet and territory too unwieldy to be solely governed by either of the life caste or death caste, the two equal guides of all Dwurka; yet hunters had always remained unseen, denied and unknowable to all but the eldest of the high castes. They were the hands in the shadow, the watchers of the disloyal, the pursuers of the faithless - they were monsters of the deep and dark, and even the Marauders told ghost stories about them.
For all of his twenty long-cycles, 351 had stalked amongst the backwater outposts, the starships with the greatest freedoms and shortest leashes, and even the most revered of Dwurka sites, walking beside those who would never consider him an equal; 351 was privy to a great deal many secrets not his own, and it was that access that threatened him now. Someone had been talking, and someone, perhaps the same Dwurka, had gone to lengths to ensure his apparent complicity.
Inside the central pillar of the sphere world wound a spiralling staircase, one that followed the inner wall of the pillar from the very centre of the sphere, the station's heart (the secluded core where even hunters were not permitted to step), to the very edges of both poles and into the inner sections beyond. It would've been a steep and exhausting climb, unclimbable except by a sturdy and well-honed Dwurka such as 351, but outside of the walkways, preserved perhaps for their beauty, the sphere-world was effortless in transit.
Beneath his feet, 351 heard the bite of machinery moving into place and he relaxed his body, letting the floor shift beneath him. A thin plate slid underneath the soles of his thick rubber boots and snapped flush against the plane of the stairs, angling itself diagonally as it accelerated dramatically up the sliding staircase.
Adran had stood upon the automated lift before and did not flinch; though the sensation always struck him as unnatural, he couldn't deny that the hairs on his arms tingled each and every time he had cause to ride it. It was like soaring, flying beneath a true sky like the ones of old; even though he stood as still as if he hadn't moved at all from the space just beyond the walkway door. Whether by technological magic beyond his ken, or principled engineering borne of the maker caste, his feet did not slide an inch from the thin metal platform.
The entirety of his lightning-fast ascent up the pillar was spent with the tips of his shoulders bristling as the parallel walls seemed to edge tighter and tighter around him. Several doors, in front of him leading into the winding corridors and chambers that occupied the central pillar, and behind him leading to the various walkways outside, popped into view and then disappeared just as quickly.
Adran counted the seconds quietly to himself, waiting for the all-too-soon moment when the platform would slow and allow him to step off. He had no worries about being delayed by the system's automatic detouring - not at this hour. Though few Dwurkn had cause to sleep, those not deployed as part of the station's essential operations would be unlikely to waste their free time in the hub where those operations were carried out.
As the platform slowed, right on cue, Adran-351 swallowed the nothing that consumed his throat and hollowed his chest cavity; nerves prickled at him, despite a lifetime's practice pushing them down. Perhaps he had come to face his end.
Ullun-0, the high priest of Ut'turin, regarded 351 with a wry eye, cruelly drawing out the silence before he spoke. Adran stood to attention, waiting to be addressed, as was customary when approaching, or approached by, a Dwurkn of a higher caste - it didn't matter to him. However long he was forced to stand, he would not speak first.
All Adran were 'officially' of the forgotten caste, those who served a role and purpose invisible to the majority of Dwurka - it was meaningless to him, a rank that held no discernible purpose. In the pursuit of his duties, he would often present himself as part of the unseen caste or pledge caste, even the maker caste in some unique circumstances; but such a pretense was a risky choice. Fabricating yourself as a member of a different caste was a crime punishable by immediate death, and termination of a line, but in the rare cases he was caught out - as was the case with many things regarding the lowest castes - it had been ignored. The matter was of no consideration to him right now; no caste superseded a member of the death caste.
"You have returned from your previous task then?" Ullun's question broke the silence between them, but it did not bear any indication that he was ready to listen to Adran's explanations. The elder Dwurkn was acutely aware of 351's return - the suspension of his deployment had been to Ullun's order. Instead, the high priest stepped around the stone altar in the centre of his office, a podium on which he had lain his ceremonial Cairnknife and scattered tablets, and walked toward the hunter.
Adran stiffened. The high priest's breath, loud and warm, was present on his neck even before Ullun finished his approach. As the elder Dwurkn drew closer he pulled back the pale and cured flesh-cowl obscuring his face. A ritualistic covering that Dwurkn priests often stitched into their own skin, the flesh-cowl was attached beneath the hem of the Dwurkn's tawny grey cloak, the two blending together to form a macabre coat.
"I take it you have some idea of the reason for your summons 351?"
The fire-tender. One of only a handful originals alive today, Ullun had been Yunst-4 until only a decade and a half previous. A daring assault led by the then-young priest, in which he had bathed a long-arm starship - one of their much vaunted and valued 'home-ships' - in magmafire spun from the bow of a Dwurkn dreadnought, and both the life and death castes had elected unanimously to grant Yunst, now Ullun, his own lineage.
It was rumoured that the high priest was of a succession of lines who had very rapidly won the rights to their own lineages; to be granted their own name and become a potential template for newly crafted Dwurkn. Usually, a breeding line would sprout only a few new potential lineages before it was retired, and most of those would see limited usage, but the high priest's previous line, Yunst, was now prolific and parent to many others, as was Yunst's parent's line and so forth. The fire-tender was a Dwurkn of unusual stock.
Caste might be immutable, but heritage was not; to live on, through many versions of himself, to one day become the parent of his own lineage? It wasn't just a dream for 351, it was a dream that most Dwurkn shared.
The high priest's fingers tore into Adran's flesh, gouging a trio of fissure-like wounds across his right cheek. Adran stumbled backward as the tapered and rigid nails, each twice the length of Ullun's fingers, raked across his skin. He caught himself on the heel of his foot before he fell entirely; the speed at which the elder Dwurkn had moved - he hadn't seen the blow coming.
"Our most closely guarded secret-" Ullun-0 hissed, "-in the hands of heretics and long-arms!" He spat on the floor, narrowly missing Adran's boot. Again he moved with a swiftness that 351 could barely keep up with, stepping behind the hunter so that his mouth was level with Adran's ear.
Savage fool! He'd been so taken aback with the impending consequences of his situation that he'd taken his eye off the Dwurkn in-front of him, let himself be taken in by raw hot emotion, like a common marauder, rather than cling to his cold contemplations as a true hunter should. More than that, he had let it happen twice. If it happened on the field of battle...
"Only a few know of the birthing cycles, and not one of the Life caste have the impunity to travel like those of the Forgotten. You and yours are chief amongst the suspects - and your name, thanks to the Whisperers, cropped up very quickly. What have you to say for yourself?"
"I have nothing to say, high priest". There were plenty of suspicions lurking in the crevices of his mind, other hunters and even whisperers he'd struck the wrong chord with, one or two high-caste Dwurka it had been necessary to upset in the line of his duties; his reserve of enemies never seemed to dwindle. He had no proof, however, and the high priest was known, although few would dare say as such to him, to be a Dwurkn of fact before faith. It was possible any aspersions that 351 cast would worsen his chances.
For a moment it seemed like the high priest was about to pronounce some kind of judgement, and Adran closed his eyes, finding himself thinking of the last time he'd stared into the world outside the world; the deep and dark. Somehow the colossal infinity had always comforted him, embraced him when every other part of his life pushed him to unleash the rage that swelled beneath his surface. Even now, in the face of punishment for something he hadn't done, the injustice washed over him ineffectually, as he dreamed of the ever-stretching darkness.
"You will set this right". He stepped around Adran, coming again into view as he positioned himself between the hunter and the stone pedestal in the centre of the chamber. His cheeks still raw and bloodied from the Ullun's blackened and razor-sharp fingernails, Adran didn't look up at the elder Dwurkn, instead listening in disbelief. He could only stare at the floor as the high priest set out his decree.
"You have one opportunity to set this crime right, Hunter. Find the source of this divulgence, before it grows. Should this secret become even a modicum less so, the entire Death caste will count it as your line's last failure".
mine high priest". It was as close to mercy as he could expect. Some small and timid avatar of his better self, wincing at the back of his mind, was not comforted by the sensation that his end might only be prolonged.
"Indeed. You know where to begin - you are dismissed, Hunter". Adran nodded, turning about on the spot to leave. He was halfway to the chamber door before he heard the high priest offer a warmer farewell.
"For the Cairn, 351".
"For the Cairn. Sir."
Stepping out onto the walkways of Ut'turin Adran glanced up at the ceiling cautiously, watching the skies out of the corner of his eye as though they would slip and escape him should he focus on the azure fields too suddenly.
Another day. Would it be worth spending it contemplating the sphere, as he'd always planned to do? Chasing down a spy who could number amongst hundreds… he could search for a long-cycle and still turn up nothing; he certainly didn't have anywhere near as much that time. He could hide, flee, but he couldn't even count on his own abilities to keep him hidden; as much as he was loathe to admit it, there were Hunters more skilled than he.
As he glanced down, looking over the edge of his walkway, Adran spotted an unwelcome figure cutting a stern stride toward the sphere's central pillar. -110, a fellow forgotten and Hunter, but no friend of his; for the past long-cycle Eustin had operated out of the same quadrant of the deep-dark. Both had come into contact on no less than four occasions - often on opposite sides, as they worked to undo separatist and heretic groups, on the fringes of Dwurkn territory, from within. Not one of their encounters had bred the slightest familiarity between them.
seemed to feel Adran's stares, and the blue-skinned Dwurka, dressed in the jumpsuit of a starship engineer, but strapped with bandoliers stuffed with explosives, turned to look upward. He caught sight of 351 quickly, and offered a threatening smirk, exposing a maw full of purposefully sharpened and curved teeth, but didn't break stride.
Adran could only hope the high priest had summoned Eustin to cut his tongue out and end his line, slim a hope as it might be. Far more likely that he was not the sole hunter the Ullun suspected, and the fire-tender sought to make use of all the potential culprits before culling the pool and starting over.
If there was any Dwurkn who would benefit from Adran-351's demise, who was the most likely culprit for incriminating him in this web of lies, it was -110. Whilst his survival instincts crowed at him to follow the hunter, perhaps even end this challenge in its dawning stages, he turned away and instead took in a deep breath; there would be time to root out his hidden foe - right now his days, his life, revolved around carrying out the high priest's orders.
Adran didn't spare a second moment in contemplation of the sphere, willing himself to believe that there would be time for it in the future. He solemnly made his way across the walkway and into the outer shell, following the maze of corridors and elevators until he arrived at the nearest docking bay. As expected, a single-person short-range ship - slender and stone-crafted, resembling a capsule shaped like an explosive charge - was already prepared and fuelled for him.
The journey into the deep and dark was short, at least by his recollection. He kept himself conscious to oversee navigation, until he could dock with a nearby Dwurkn warship, then made himself available to the warship's chief, as was customary when hitching on a larger ship. To his surprise, the chief refused his offer of service. Instead, the stone caste Dwurkn told him to rest in a stasis pod for the duration. It was not an overture made lightly, and certainly, one that would never have been made to the lower caste Dwurkn that Adran was presenting as. The high priest's keen interest was already overshadowing his mission.
Fearing it might be the last time he could rest for any significant time, he took the captain up on his offer immediately. A baffled member of the pledge caste guided the hunter to the stasis pods and aided 351 into settling into a deep sleep. In what seemed like only a split-second, a different member of the pledge caste was waking him, informing the hunter that they'd reached his preferred point of dispatch. Adran thanked the young Dwurkn, before making haste to the larger ship's docking bay, where his own was now ready and refuelled. He launched out in the direction of his objective, the largest part of his journey so far, and let himself fall quickly into the contemplations that had driven at his weary mind.
Approaching his destination, he was awoken by the ship's automatic pilot. Through the digital display inside his pod, hanging limply in the midst of the deep and dark, he could see the bisected and burning wreckage of a Dwurkn frigate.