The Length of a Chain | Part I
"Jolyon, my man," Uldren Sov whispers, "you and I are going to take the Black Garden." "Oh yeah?" Jolyon Till the Rachis, famous among Crows, sniper, scout, and teller of tales, lies full-sprawl prone at Uldren's side. The scrubbed-down length of a Supremacy rifle, snugged against his shoulder, nearly doubles his height. "I heard you and I were gonna float Saturn in a bathtub." "I'm serious, Jol." "And you'll be dead serious if you go to Mars, har-dee-har-har. Target range 2,900 meters. Wind and rotation?" "Wind 21 kph from your three o'clock. You are two degrees off spin-north. I'm going, though, I really am. You've got to come! You'll never live it down if you miss this one." "I'll never live anything down if I'm dead! Shot ready." "Send it," Uldren says. The Supremacy booms and kicks into Jolyon's shoulder. Uldren doesn't even bother to check that it's a bull's-eye. "You've been with me on all the big ones, Jol. I can't do it without you. Besides—" He opens his hand to reveal the ejected cartridge, snatched from midair, cobra quick. "If we don't do it, some Guardians will, and the next thing you know, Mara will be inviting them in to do Crow work." Jol rolls onto his right flank to regard Uldren. The Master of Crows grins his winningest; Jolyon Till the Rachis squints and slaps the mag release one-handed. Uldren catches it. "You're a lot like your sister," Jolyon sighs, "except that when she plays dirty, she doesn't smile so big." "I got all the charm in the family." Uldren waits patiently for Jol to work the bolt and eject the chambered round. He usually wins this little game—usually—but sometimes Jol surprises him. "Nobody's ever been inside the Garden. Imagine what we'll find." "Nameless horrors?" "They're all nameless when nobody's named them, Jol! Nobody's ever been! Isn't that enticing?" "No. Because your sister's forbidden it, Uldren." "That," he says, cheerfully, "is how I know it's worth doing." And because the Awoken people will thrill at another tale of his narrow survival. Mara's never really understood how much heroes matter to people. A Queen is an indispensable thing; but a hero, now, you know what he wants, when he's lost, when he's won.
The Length of a Chain | Part II
Their departure is meant to be secret. "Nobody will turn out," he assures Jol. "We'll slip away at zenith. By the time anyone catches on, we'll be aerobraking into Meridian Bay!" "You're insufferably cocky," Jol says, "and by the time we go, the whole city will know you're up to something." "They will not." When they set out for their ship, they find the promenades and galleries aswarm with cheering throngs of Uldren's fans and followers. He waves and waves, turning, grinning, in a better mood than he will maybe ever be again. And if one dark mote burns within him, it is the fear and certainty that these people love him only because he is closest to their Queen. Do they ever ask themselves why he's constantly breaking her rules? Why he always ventures so far from her? He wants his sister's approval. He knows and accepts that. But he wants her approval for something she did not anticipate, did not plan or foresee, and did not account for: he wants her to thank him with surprise. If you hurl yourself away from someone to test the length of your chain, you cannot know the chain's length until it draws you short. Does that make sense? Uldren thinks so. Uldren is afraid so. Either he is truly free of his sister—free to choose to stand at her side, to choose of his own free will—or the chain is longer than he has managed to run.
At the Gate | Part I
Give Uldren Sov the chance to torment a Guardian, and he will take it faster than you can shout, "Rasputin shot the Traveler," an opinion he lobs into Guardians' minds whenever he can. He hates the Traveler's horseflies the way anyone would hate an infant godling issued with coloring-book morality and a whining, know-nothing paperweight; they are self-righteous, cocksure, callously instrumental intruders in a system they don't need to understand. He hates that most: the ability to move through the world without caring about how it works. So he's done everything to Guardians he can think of—shot them up, shot them down, sent them on doomed quests, dunked their Ghosts in intolerably stinky selenophenol, drilled holes to bury their obnoxious patrol beacons inside solid rock, tricked them into disassembling mighty weapons. But every time he gets into a gunfight, he wonders what it must be like to do this without any sheer raving terror. "Jolyon!" he hisses, as the Goblin downslope lobs another slap grenade his way. "Jolyon, where are you?" Nothing. The grenade detonation pops Uldren's ears and pushes ozone up his sinuses so hard that he sneezes. The Goblin fires at the sneeze. Glassy shards of melted sand ricochet off his cover and shatter into chiming airbursts. He is three hundred meters upslope. Guardians, armored Cabal, and fearless Vex may fight at point-blank range; mere mortals still hang back so far they can barely see their targets. The infernal thing about Vex is that they teleport. Uldren's not sure if he's pinned down by ten Goblins or one. A bullet cracks past.
At the Gate | Part II
Radiolarian fluid splashes on the sand. "I got it," Jolyon radios, breathless, "but I'm pretty sure I also got made." Confirmation arrives in a fusillade of Cabal mortar shells, smart munitions that home in on the sound of the rifle shot. Usually the Cabal do not waste them against Vex. Some Centurion must be eager to use her toys on a target that won't teleport away. Uldren sucks air in relief when Jolyon clicks his transmit switch to signal he's OK. Uldren gets up, panting. He can just see the gate to the Garden. Everyone knows where it is, sure, it's just getting inside that's the trick— The air blurs. A roiling cloud of vacuum flux blocks his view, and then, in a blast of discharge, a Vex Minotaur strides into existence. Uldren curses, throws a jamming grenade, and runs. "There has got to be a better way to do this," he gasps. "Any ideas?" "Only the one you don't like. Thread the Gate with a ship coming in at Mach 20." "The Gate's not active! Even if we made it through the Cabal guns, we need to trick the Vex into opening the door!" "That means killing a Gate Lord with just our personal weapons—" "No, it doesn't," Uldren breathes. "I have a princely idea." This is what Uldren lives for. Skittering past death, brushing its whiskers, leaping away from that toothy maw. "Break contact. We need stealth now. Then we need to pick a few unfortunate targets…"
Through the Gate
They crawl belly-down across the Martian desert like worms. Active camouflage ponchos break up their outlines. The roaming Cabal Harvesters growl on the horizon. For the last eight hours, Jolyon has been picking off Cabal infantry with his rifle, fleeing the eruption of automatic counterfire. Uldren has listened on cracked battlenets as mightier weapons are invoked and brought to bear. The war machine is now inflamed, swollen with outrage. Jolyon touches Uldren's ankle. Fingertips drum out code. How far? "Fifty meters," Uldren whispers. "If the Vex know we're here, they haven't—" The air prickles. Subsonic groans of power stir in the sand. Something mighty awakens above them. "Never mind," Uldren mutters. The Vex have now reacted. He throws off his poncho, rising with revolver and deflection grenade in his fists, screaming challenge. Jutting from the Martian desert before them is the canted, fringed hoop that is the Black Garden's Gate, huge enough to swallow a Fallen Skiff. It thrills with infinite energy. Out of that aperture emerges the behemoth silhouette of a Vex Gate Lord, metal and mind crashing together, self-assembling, ready to defend this secret place. The Vex are born here, in the sense of baptism: consecrated to the service of some terrible purpose that the machines found within. "Hey, big guy!" Uldren shouts. "Over here!!" Calmly, carefully, Jolyon Till the Rachis begins to fire his rifle straight up into the sky. The reports of the Supremacy's huge cartridges spill out across the dunes. The Gate Lord towers above them. Uldren whoops and hip-fires a couple rounds into the sand at its feet. "Can you dance, sir?" he bellows. "Have you got the footwork?" Inside the Vex entity, there are mighty algorithms constructing a model of this merely temporal place, calculating potential threat, weighing the utility of weapons discharge against the good that power might do elsewhere. This computation is the only reason Uldren's still alive. The bone mic tuned to Cabal tactical channels wakes up at Uldren's throat. They have localized the sound of Jolyon's rifle and are responding. He hollers up at the Vex behemoth and starts to jig. "It's going to rain on Mars! It's monsoon season in Meridian Bay! Did you see the forecast?" He grabs Jol by the hand and pulls. Together they sprint toward the Gate Lord and its charge. The Vex machine must know what's coming—but it has to weigh the certainty of Cabal against the tiny possibility of these microbiotic motes slipping into the Gate. The Gate Lord raises a weapon to obliterate them. They skid into the Gate's threshold, and Uldren activates the deflection grenade so hard he nearly breaks his thumb. A perfect sphere of topologically defective space-time blinks into being around him. He holds Jolyon close, and together they calm their breath. The barrier is impenetrable, but it will not last long. Until then there is only so much air to breathe. Outside, the full fury of a Cabal fleet carrier lands on the Gate Lord. When the barrier fades, the Gate Lord is dead, and Uldren and Jolyon are no longer on Mars.
In the Garden
Uldren and Jolyon huddle together, shivering beneath a canopy of white tongues. The rain pours down. Uldren can't tell where it comes from, exactly—somewhere up in the green mist? But the rain falls and falls; and he and Jolyon turn their heads up to drink, here at the bottom of a chasm between two flower fields, where the Garden's immaculate surface divides into tropical fetor. "Everything grows here," Jolyon mutters. "Look at your nails." Uldren studies his hand. He has a dreadful image of his fingernails developing into tight down-curved loops that curl around back into his fingers, completing a hideous circuit to their root. It's awful and yet it's wonderful, in a transgressive way, in a newborn-screaming way. It speaks to him of new and secret things happening here. "They're dirty," he says, "but I trust you'll forgive me on that account. Rain's not letting up. Shall we move?" "Aye." Jolyon hauls himself up with a fistful of slithering vines. They try to coil around his wrist. Tiny teeth shaped like letters saw at his skin. He stares at them, starts to say something, and jerks his arm away. "Are you all right?" "For now," Jolyon mutters. "For now." They move down the length of the chasm, green mist swirling overhead, ankle-deep in a wet compost of flower petals and rich black soil. Wide, flat beetles with arching horns wrestle in the earth. Uldren flips one on its back. The beetle has no interior: seen from below, it is just a hollow shell. Jolyon pulls up a fern, and its roots are the branching metallic threads of a circuit board. Tiny squirming things shaped like wet microchips mill in the exposed soil. "I don't like this place," Jolyon whispers. "We should get back to the surface…" He means the Garden's surface, the manicured sectors of red flowers that stretch away toward a distant mesa. But it's far too Vex up there, Uldren thinks. They've been in here, gardening, moving earth, making walls, building their ancient constructs of stone and light. Trying to tame this place. "It's life," he breathes. "You're right, Jol. Everything grows here…" He cannot let this place be killed. He cannot let it be looted and overthrown like everything else that doesn't fit into the narrow binary dogmas of the Traveler's undead warriors. Excitement seizes him and he runs ahead, sloshing through the muck, laughing aloud. "Uldren," Jolyon shouts after him, "what are you looking for?" "I don't know!" he cries back. "That's what's so incredible! I can't know!"
After the Heart | Part I
"Mara, I picked you flowers." The Queen's retinue parts before Uldren. Astonished eyes flicker between his face, his wounds, and the potted flowers cupped in his hands. Some of them see a madman and reach for weapons before they remember that this is Uldren Sov, Prince of the Awoken, beneficiary of the Queen's limitless indulgence. "Asphodelia is its name." He kneels and offers it to his sister. "It grew only in the Black Garden… until today. We will plant it here, in our dominion, where I know it will take root and flourish. It will remind the people of our twin heritage." For a terrible moment, Mara is unreadable. Then she smiles and beckons. "Our brother has attained the Black Garden and returned to us. Come forward." She peels a single petal from the flower and lays it across her fingertip. Holds it up to the light. "Magnificent. Illyn, see to it." She passes it off. Uldren swallows protest. He'd hoped she might plant it herself. Afterward, in private, she is silent and still. He tells her everything he remembers. "Did you see the heart?" she asks, softly.