Duress and Egress
Man of science though he was, the first thing Asher Mir did was shoot the damned thing. The Pyramid hovered inside Io's atmosphere, close enough to be impacted by a projectile flung at sufficient speed. In the time it took Asher to blink twice, he knew the angle of attack and the mass of the projectile. Asher finished building the mounted railgun before his coffee had cooled. He charged the magnetic coils, waited for the wind to die down, and broadsided the ship. He had expected the projectile to hit a Kinetic barrier, or best-case scenario, impact the Pyramid and cause utterly infinitesimal damage. Instead, at the moment of impact, the projectile stopped existing. Asher's brow furrowed while an irrepressible smile crept over his face. His metal arm clicked and hummed gently of its own accord. This Pyramid had the audacity to park in front of his laboratory and pull such a cheap trick? Clearly, it had not thought it would meet Asher Mir. He assembled another missile, one with a detectable radiation signature and a radio signal. He fired it at the Pyramid. It similarly disappeared on impact, its signals snuffed out, no longer detectable from Io's surface. Another payload followed, this one a miniature relay station. He routed it through his console and fired. At the moment it touched the Pyramid, it transmitted a spike of radiation and radio broadcast. Asher smirked. They were still there, held in the field of the Pyramid. Visually undetectable, signals squelched, but still physically there. How the Pyramid was accomplishing this feat was unimportant at the moment, though his mind flooded with fantasies of zero-point energy. The question that gave him pause was the what: What was the ship doing to the projectiles as they sat suspended in space in the periphery of its loathsome shape? And why?
Deputy Commander Sloane watched the overloaded Vanguard skiff dip close to the waves. "Watch it!" she barked into the communicator, and the craft straightened out. "That's liquid methane down there, and if it don't kill you, the Leviathan will." "C'mon, ain't no Leviathan," said the pilot, his voice crackling. He was some boy from the City who couldn't have been more than 17 years old. "And if that's methane, how come you don't even got a helmet on?" Sloane grinned. She wasn't used to backtalk. "Because I moisturize, short-timer," Sloane said and squelched the comms. A Fallen Ketch screamed overhead, and Sloane was on the catwalk outside the rig in a flash. She bellowed at the men working on the deck to cover clear of the cargo as she drew her Scout Rifle and dropped to a knee. The first few Dregs were dead before they hit the ground, but the winds whipping off the seas sent her next shots wide. She figured the landing party would go for the cargo shuttle over her men, so she spun to take a sightline toward the craft, but the things were charging for the supplies instead. She cursed and leapt over the railing, landing like a crash of lightning. Her earpiece sprang to life. "Siren's Watch, this is supply craft Vienna Stinger looking for a place to put down." "Landing pad five, south side!" she shouted over the crack of her rifle. "Offload what you brought, and I'll have a supply team swing by in a minute." She plugged two more Dregs and the Ketch's engines changed from a roar to a whine. A halfhearted volley of Wire Rifle fire spattered the landing pad from the Ketch as it blasted away. Sloane called out to her team. No fatalities, nothing taken but two crates of fresh supplies. She ordered the team to the next landing pad and began climbing the long stairs back to her perch. They hadn't hit while they were loading the Golden Age technology for shipment back to the City. They were after the supplies. They were leaving. She looked up at the Pyramid in the sky and frowned. The door to her office closed and sealed with a hiss. A soft blue light on the panel promised that the seal was airtight. Sloane walked across the room to watch the seas through the open hole blown in the side of her rig.
She had tried everything. The great Bray. A lineage that promised to save them. For all her genius and moxie, this was beyond her. Rasputin lay dying in a dozen empty screens splayed out around Ana's command station. She could visualize the bleeding code running through her fingers. Zavala's voice was in her ear, as ambient haze—relegated to the background of her mind like distant gunfire. The image of the Pyramid's distortion wave was still raw. This wasn't an attack. It was a command. A lazy dismissal of all their best laid plans. There were no explosions. No blaring sirens or sparks of dramatic electricity. Nothing to combat or fix. Just a Guardian walled in silent black glass and disbelief. She had been so sure. Ana's eyes tracked Jinju as the Ghost sped from console to console, attaching strings of Light to each. They slowed her as she went, buried under some load. "Ana," Jinju's voice strained under crushing distortion. "I think I've got him. Most of him, but not for long." The words cut through the distant gunfire. "What?" Ana asked. Her voice came softly at first, unsure what form to take as the information processed. "What?!" Jinju groaned and whispered an exasperated, "Pillory… Engram…" "It's not ready." "Ana, now!" "He'll go insane! I… can't." The Light tethers attached to Jinju began to pop one by one. "It's this or nothing!" The prospect sent Ana tearing across the room. She belted a command into the air, and a floor safe opened in response. Ana snatched the dodecahedron enclosure from the safe and braced it in front of Jinju. "Jinju, do it!" The Ghost's shell reformed to forge a directing structure before her core erupted with Light and data. A stream of pure information beamed into the Engram, filling it with spiraling wisps of Light. "Did you…?" "As much as I could." Outside the windows, bolts of atmospheric friction dragged flames through the sky as Warsats plummeted from low-orbit defensive positions. Their impacts were distant.
Brother Vance's smile fell as the Titan entered his sanctum. The smell was unmistakable: ancient gunpowder, burnt oil, scorched Vex fluid, the burnt tang of steel overused through a hundred lifetimes. "You have the Perfect Paradox," Vance said, his voice as steady as he could manage. He extended his hands. "May I?" The Titan shrugged, then dug into his pack for the Shotgun. He placed it in Vance's waiting hands. He ran his fingers over the barrel and tested the weight of the stock. "Ah," he said. "Not the original Perfect Paradox, is it?" The Titan stood in confusion. Vance waited for a moment with his head tilted before he continued. "You did not claim this weapon from the tomb of Saint-14, but instead through some Fractaline-powered tesseract, yes?" The Titan nodded, then stood for a long moment looking at the blind man. "That Sundial made it," he said finally. Vance's grip tightened on the gun. It was heavy, loaded with seven—no, eight shells. Tactical mag. Getting this one had taken some time. "And how many timelines did you thoughtlessly tether to our own for this weapon? Our world now bears the strain of how many additional realities in exchange for this hollow abomination?" Vance's mind swam at the thought of the infinite web that pulled on the Shotgun. "How much Fractaline did you sacrifice for this? Four hundred fragments?" He paused, aghast. "More?" "It's got a trench barrel," said the Titan helpfully. "Remove yourself from my sanctum," Vance said, placing the Shotgun down like a dead animal. "You have accelerated the end of all things, and I must update my prophecies accordingly."
Asher Mir cursed his way across Io. As he picked his way across the rocky outcrops, he cursed the loose soil underfoot, cursed his oversized pack, cursed the roving Taken, cursed the kick of his Silicon Neuroma Rifle against his shoulder. He looked up at the Pyramid funneling its foul energies down into the Cradle and sneered. Well-read as he was, he didn't have the energy to arrange the required words. It was late during what passed for night on Io, and while Asher was tired, he hiked on diligently. He stopped only once, briefly, to study a snail whose shell was growing tiny clusters of crystalline black obelisks. He crept down through the cavernous spaces beneath the Cradle. Unfamiliar roots protruded from the earthen walls. He calmly observed the pattern of a twitching Shrieker, and his calculated ricochet sent a band of Taken roaring down the wrong pathway. He passed unmolested. Eris was in her meager camp near the twisted roots of the enormous Tree. She knelt near a beam of light coming from far above, which filtered through the pith of the Tree to strike an unnatural splash of cambium petals. Asher noticed the smells of sap and burned cooking oil. She said she was pleased to see him, though when she sought to clarify the cadence of his supply drops, he felt she might be put off by the unexpected visit. As he unpacked what he had brought her, she explained the Tree, the messages, the whispers. The thrilling struggle to glimpse the face of the unknown, even if that unknown may be trying to kill you. She was smiling as she spoke. Asher understood exactly what she meant. He rested by the fire. Nearby was a small table that held samples of Hive chitin, clippings from the Tree, ashy soil, and an open notebook that Asher saw was a personal journal, which he quickly flipped shut with distaste. He reached again into his pack. He brought forth a bottle of fine golden spirits (from when some towering ignoramus misunderstood his request for isopropyl alcohol) and placed it on the table. He had brought two clean glasses, nestled ridiculously in the boxy shipping case of a large graduated cylinder. He removed one and placed it gently next to the bottle. Asher coughed, relaced his boots, then stood and shouldered his pack. "You have things taken care of, yes?" he said to Eris. "Certainly," she said, intent on the beam of swirling light. He shifted and made a little noise in his throat. "I need to know that things will be taken care of," he said clearly. Eris looked over and considered the man standing across from her. "To the best of my ability," she finally said. Asher nodded and began his long walk back.
Deputy Commander Sloane was in a foul mood, and Amanda Holliday, bless her heart, had no idea. Titan's waves crashed relentlessly against the massive support struts of Siren's Watch. Were things different, a crew would be down there right now, swinging between the mammoth legs, working to repair and stabilize. But things weren't different. "You can throw together a box girder and reinforce it, no problem," Amanda said. "You can. I can't," said Sloane. While she had built a few walls, Amanda had an enviable engineering background to fall back on, though it seemed she wasn't much of a teacher. Amanda's hologram slurped ramen. "How long do you need it to last for?" "Long enough to get it out of my mind," said Sloane. "Since it's started wobbling, I haven't even had time to worry about the Pyramid." "Small favors!" chirped Amanda. Sloane ran a hand through her coarse hair. "Come on," Amanda groaned. "You're sittin' on a mess of Golden Age technology on Titan. There's gotta be an engram with a bridge inside it." Sloane stared flatly. That might actually be true, but Sloane didn't have time to hunt for lost technologies. "Make a wave breaker, then! Tetrapods bolted against the strut, or better yet, something out in the sea to break the wave early." "If you can't take it when it hits you, you go out and hit it before it gets started. Like this!" Amanda leaned forward and did something in her ramen bowl that Sloane obviously couldn't see. "You're not looking," Amanda said, and tilted her bowl forward just enough to spill broth over her desk. She cried out with laughter. "I'm hanging up now," said Sloane, and after a cheery wave at Amanda's melodramatic pout, she did. The hologram faded out, leaving Sloane in the dark. She stayed there for a long time.
Zavala set down two glasses. He watched Ana's face as he poured velvet-looking liquor and filled them. Her eyes were focused on the grains of his desk, how to the unobservant, they would fade away into the greater canvas of wood, indistinguishable from each other. The Traveler hung behind him, buried in a darkening cloud, a part of and apart from the sky. "I can't believe we lost," she said. "We are not lost." Zavala pushed a glass toward Ana. "I froze. We still don't even know what—if we saved anything," she said. "It's not so easy to act in the face of defeat. The prospect of a future is something we have to keep in mind." Ana glared at Zavala. "Nothing we do is supposed to be easy. Isn't that the point? This was a stress test, and I buckled." "Faith, Ana. You reminded me that we wrap ourselves in the doubt of past failures. Without you, the City would be ash and rubble, more than once." Ana scooped the glass into her hand. She smelled the liquor, winced, and placed it back on the table. "You believed in me. Rasputin was my job." "Yes, and he still is. A job for the future," Zavala said and sipped his drink. "Now we have a new job. Eris needs our support." "Tell me everything isn't over." "When Cayde passed, I saw the fracturing of the Vanguard as a path toward inevitable failure. Still, it has proved impossible to fill his seat. I believed I would be too weak to lead without the balance added by his… unique perspective. As it turns out, his life was but one in an eternity of choices." "Zavala, I don't want—" "Relax, I'm not offering you the job. Unless you killed Cayde, and we've had the wrong man this whole time?" "If I did, would you forgive me?" "I'd understand," he said and smiled. "Ikora told me back then that an object in motion stays in motion. I've always admired the phrase, but I must admit, it can be difficult to adhere to." Ana shook her head. "That's just physics." "A fundamental aspect of life." He watched Ana's mood lighten as she considered his words. "We find the footholds we can, and make the best step given the ground we have before us." Ana nodded. "Whatever happened to Cayde's chicken?" Zavala sighed. "I believe Saint has anointed it as some sort of 'Pigeon Lord.'" Ana's locked jaw melted into a smile. "Life does not wait for us, no matter how long we live it. Drink your drink," Zavala chuckled, his glass to his face. "Before the Lord of Pigeons summons us to attack the Pyramids."
The music rang clear and true. Brother Vance listened, his face a paroxysm of glory. "It repeats," he whispered to himself and the young Warlock who was bent over the Infinite Forge, diligently crafting weapons from another age. She listened politely, but heard nothing. She went back to her task. "Why do none pity the phoenix?" The Warlock looked up, startled. Vance was across from her, though she had not noticed his approach. His question came with no preamble, as if the two had been in the midst of a conversation. "I'm sorry?" offered the Warlock. "Endless rebirth, true, but each matched by a fiery death," Vance said. "No sooner does it clean the ash from its feathers does it fall, again, to flame." The blind man turned and bathed his face in the glowing sunlight that streamed into his sanctum. "And none speak of its song." The Warlock thanked Vance for the use of his forge and stood to leave. "You are more than welcome," he said without turning his head, though his vacant smile had grown kind. He gestured toward the tomes and scrolls on his desk. "Help yourself to a prophecy, friend," he said. "I believe I have finally finished my studies."
As Asher Mir watched his assistant's ship tear into orbit for the last time, it occurred to him that he had not expressed how truly satisfactory he had found some of their work. He briefly entertained the thought of leaving a letter, but there were others more deserving of his thoughts. And if he worked in descending priority, he might never make it to his assistant, which would defeat the purpose of the exercise completely. Instead, he went to the Pyramidion. The Vex are not born, yet not created. Desire to understand this conundrum brought Asher to Io. He reasoned that the Pyramid, with its alien resources and unknowable power, had likely come for the same purpose. The dark ship sought to take the secrets of the Vex for itself. But Asher Mir had already staked his claim, and he was prepared to defend it. He soon stood at the gate of the Pyramidion. The Vex security responded as he knew they would, and he was prepared. He piled their broken corpses on the plates and continued inside. He destroyed the first hundred Vex, then the second. A Minotaur roared into being before him and he crushed its radiolarian core in his metal fist. He climbed forward over their clawing limbs. He slipped in the cooling roux of their dead fluid. Asher swallowed a mouthful of blood and kept moving. He paused by a whirling gate and watched the aperiodic waves, then stepped through at the only possible moment. He walked steadily through laser grids that seemed to bend around him. He hung calmly in a gravitational tourbillon as the ground beneath him flickered and shifted madly. And the Vex began to observe. The corridors of the Pyramidion were lined with glowing red eyes. The metal mannequins stood dumbly, twitching, shuddering as Asher passed. A familiar area unfolded before him: a cubist sinkhole reeking with the flat, base stench of slate mud and bleach. He looked where the sky should be and found another impossible shape; another fractal contradiction. Far above him, placid in its Penrose vortex, the vast radiolarian lake lapped gently at the metallic shores. The man reached up to the lake with his metal arm. He then reached with his arm of flesh. He reached with both, and he brought the lake down.
After she watched the Guardian's ship roar off Titan for the last time, Deputy Commander Sloane went into her office and put on the Golden Age technology she had claimed from the Hive. The heavy power source hung from her shoulders like a bandolier. She draped it across her neck and stepped into the suit, vast and clumsy. As she bowed her head into the grey hood, a viewscreen appeared before her. She did not understand the language—not yet—but chose the green option. With a hiss, the suit conformed to her shape. It was heavy, but she had full range of movement. She focused on her arm, concentrated, and the material scabbed into thick armored plates. That was something. She tried to form Arc energy, but the suit blocked her Light, or perhaps she would have to learn how to flex her Light through the suit. She selected another option with her eyes, and selected again to confirm. There was no pain as she felt the suit snake a cold tube through her side and coil somewhere near her stomach. That answered a few of her questions. Sloane lurched outside. There was a storm, like Titan was trying to drive off the invader that sat lazily in its sky. She walked into the gale, and the rain beaded on her second skin. Each step was easier than the last as the suit adjusted to her gait. A symbol flashed, and a Hive Thrall charged her. She gripped it by its neck and arm before tearing it apart. It was so easy. She laughed then, and the suit interpreted it as a battle cry and amplified it; broadcasted it. The sound echoed off the discarded shipping containers on the rainy landing pads, echoed through Siren's Watch and up toward the Pyramid. Lightning flashed in the sky, and the storm raged on.
Ana: Black Box
As Ana Bray watched the Guardian's Sparrow rocket across Hellas Basin for the last time, she saw a confidant who had believed in her when no one else would. That faith, Zavala had reminded her, was a bond with more power than all the Warmind weapons in the system. It was a promise to go on—an agreement that there was still a future. Jinju had called it "reverse salvage." She knew a thing or two about building something from the wreckage of their past. The building was nearly empty. She had sent as much tech to the Tower as they could handle: an entire freight vessel's worth, packed to bursting. She turned to the large glass window overlooking silent Warsat cannons. There were no Cabal. The death buried beneath Mars had quieted. Valkyrie subroutines that could be maintained remotely remained active, just in case. Jinju ran final checks on the jumpship. A dark Pyramid loomed overhead. An experimental Exo chassis was secured in the ship's cargo hold. One foot in front of the other.
After the Guardian left his sanctum for the last time, Brother Vance collected his few belongings and stepped onto the scorching surface of Mercury. He found the entrance to the Infinite Forest easily, as though he had practiced the journey endlessly in his mind, because he had. This time, he went through. The Forest roared. He was struck by the dizzying void of it. The echoes made no sense. He took his first step into the hallowed place and fell to his knees vomiting. He struggled with his pack as a tempest beat on his eardrums. He withdrew his Infinite Simulacrum, impossibly small in this immense space, and with trembling fingers synchronized it to the frequency of the crack in the Forest. It ticked like a metronome and then… Silence. The Forest was sealed. Tentatively, Vance felt his way across the enormous stone he stood on. At the same time, he skipped effortlessly from the stone as if he had done so countless times before. At the same time, he soared. He was moving in every direction—falling, laughing, singing—down every path, into every reality, spreading his message of hope. And the original, the true Vance, felt his infinite parallels erupt from him. He felt them bear him up as they passed. Thank you, he said wordlessly, unable to breathe from joy, and felt a hundred thousand touches of reassurance. He found he was weeping. There, in the swirl of his golden echoes, Brother Vance lifted his voice and began his song: "Some hope for—" His own voice answered him from behind. "The future," it continued. Vance leapt toward it. He recognized the feel of his own cloak, and his hands found its throat. Its form twisted, turning cold and sharp beneath his hands. It threw Vance on his back, but he held on. He pushed his hands up the thing's face, under its blindfold, and dug in with his thumbs. It howled. How unfortunate, Vance thought to himself behind his wide smile, that you still have eyes.