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Everything in the Garden becomes of the Garden, eventually. Shed leaves decompose and fertilize the soil. So do the bones and unspoken ideas of everyone who couldn't find the end of the maze.
They walk between the leaves, encouraging growth, laying down their bronze pathways, the only straight lines in all the Garden's tangles. The Vex weave themselves into the Garden, and the Garden returns the favor.
The pathways lie dull against granite. No power runs through them, not since the Heart stopped beating. But the Vex of the Sol Divisive have programmed themselves to worship the Darkness. It has given them power before. And the Vex understand time: what has happened before is, somewhere, still always happening. What will happen is happening now.
Soil that lies fallow for a season will recover and produce again. Power that wanes will wax again, if the ground is ready for it.
The Harpies stop where they are, a shudder running through each of them in order from one end of the Garden to the other. A flicker. A wash of power, coming from somewhere distant.
The power it carries lights up the pathways. The Mind's eye blinks for a bare moment, under its blanket of lichen.
The power passes through the Garden, overruns the Vex machinery within it, floods the network beyond it.
A moment held, like the shore after the tide rushes out.
Motes of something that isn't dust shake in the air.
The bronze pathways hum, a counterpoint to the Goblins' song. And the Garden's door vibrates with them.
He's had this hallucination before.
It's not that good, as hallucinations go: Praedyth's radio is talking to him, voices rising out of the static. He wishes it'd at least use a familiar voice, a Pahanin or Taeko or Kabr. He'd even take a Mir at this point.
He turns his head toward the radio. His cheek scrapes against granite. It hurts vaguely, the same way everything does, muffled by too much time and not enough Light.
"You said that already," he tells the hallucination, helpfully.
It squawks, "I did? When?"
"Last time." Or the time before. Chronology is a lost art in this cell. "Alert, spelunkers contact band two-two-seven dot nine-seven, something something, Skyshock potential…"
His voice fades. It hurts to talk.
"Say again?" The hallucination has a new voice this time, sharper, male. Nearly Mir-ish. "The band number?"
Praedyth rolls back over to face the ceiling, blank as always. He sighs. He's catalogued constellations in its speckles, cats and Ghosts and a squid or two.
"Excuse me? Whoever you are?" The first voice is back. "We're calling from band two-two-seven dot one-seven. If you were contacted by another two-two-seven group, we really need to know."
"You said that last time, too."
A third voice interrupts. "Did the other group use this radio frequency?"
They did. Praedyth hasn't had the strength for fiddling with his radio lately, in new attempts to contact the world outside this cell. Hasn't had the strength for much but counting off meaningless intervals of time, waiting for the next window to chance a message.
"We've tried this frequency at least a dozen times over the past month. It's never worked before."
Then what's changed?
The question shakes him out of his torpor.
Praedyth sits up, a wave of nausea following, and he repeats the question out loud.
Maybe it's not a hallucination. Maybe he's finally breached the walls of the Vault somehow. Maybe he has a chance.
"Hello? Are you still there?"
All he gets back is a wash of static. Whatever signal he was picking up, it's gone.
He is he is not he is walking in the Garden. He is talking silent singing.
(Watch your six don't worry about me grow grow grow)
He holsters his gun to gesture he holsters his gun to drink his gun is rusted into its holster and he will never pull it out again.
(How bad can it be how bad can it be how can we grow grow grow)
A Titan is a Wall a Shield a Cup filling itself to overflowing. The container changes the shape of its contents but the contents change the nature of the container and the nature is eternity.
(Who knows what's listening it's listening it's saying grow grow grow)
There is a shape that is his mind and the shape is protect the shape is sacrifice the shape is (grow)
He was named too well he is his own grave and the cut on his left hand will never heal.
Praedyth has watched from his cell for longer than he knows how to quantify, sitting inside, looking out.
He's seen so many different timelines. There's no way to know which are real.
From a certain point of view, they might all be.
Some things he recognizes. He sees the Traveler often, though he can't feel its Light through the bars of his cage. Sometimes it hangs over a city so familiar it makes his heart ache. Sometimes it hangs in an alien sky, and foreign shapes make airy loops around it—Ghosts of unrecognizable make.
Some visions he gets once, while some come back over and over again. One recurring image: a piece of the Traveler cracked off from its body, lying belly-up in a forest, with a small figure standing in front of it. The figure changes every time, but the sickly glow of the Traveler doesn't.
Once, he sees a vision of himself. Straight-shouldered, warm in the Martian sun, standing between Kabr and Pahanin. Kabr's helmet is familiar; it's one Praedyth helped make. He was a defter hand with spinfoil lamination than Kabr ever was. Kabr had worn that helmet barely five years into their life as a fireteam, worn it for six straight months, till he cracked it in half in the Crucible. That vision makes Praedyth weep—desiccated as he is, he didn't think he had it in him.
The Vault shows him Mercury again and again, recognizable only thanks to the scale of the sun in the sky. Sometimes there's rubble hanging in space, a planetary ring still forming. Sometimes there's nothing but rubble, and when he turns, he doesn't see any of the other planets in the system. Gone, somehow, eaten down to the crumbs.
Praedyth wouldn't mind those visions so much if he could only feel the warmth of that colossal sun. His hands are always cold, here in the Vault.
He sees waves of aliens cross the solar system's threshold, emerging into the light from outside the heliopause. Some of them travel with the air of eager, conquering armies, paint fresh and banners snapping. Some of them move as if they're on the run from something behind them, out in the galactic dark.
He watches the movements of the Vex. He learns to tell them apart: the shining silver ones, the brass ones with backswept horns, the ones with eyes glowing white. Occasionally, scattered among them are pockets of Vex stained with verdigris, their arms trailing shawls of moss. All the other Vex keep away from those ones. Twice, he's seen other Vex fight the mossy ones. It looks like the other Vex are frightened of them, as much as Vex can be.
Some timelines have veils drawn over them, a darkness too thick to see through. They push back against Praedyth's sight, resisting.
All the timelines he sees could be true for some living thing. He doesn't know which are true for him. He doesn't know if that's a meaningful question to ask.
He asks it anyway, and he keeps looking. There's no reason not to.
He's got all the time in the world.
The pulses are stabilizing. The voices come often enough now that Praedyth has been introduced to their owners: Sundaresh, Esi, Shim, and Duane-McNiadh. Not infinite mirrored variations of them from different timelines, but simulations all split off the same base, way back in what must have been the Golden Age. Some have grown far different from their progenitors.
Some have not.
"We have to base the modifications on the ansible system," one Duane-McNiadh says. He's either from 227.13 or 227.204. The voices have been bickering in his ear for what feels like hours.
"The ansible is a thought experiment! It was proved impossible!" says another. Some people, Praedyth has heard, are their own worst enemy. In the case of Duane-McNiadh, this might be right.
"An impossible machine could be the only solution to getting us out of an impossible prison—"
"So how do you propose to build it?"
Finally, a decent question. Praedyth jumps in. "What materials would we need, hypothetically? We're limited by what I've got with me."
He's in contact with six groups of them, all based in Vex network systems near Venus. They must be within ambit of the Vault's entrance, whatever that means. There are more of them further out both in the solar system and in the Vex information networks: up to two hundred and twenty-one more, apparently. There must be a way to contact them too, to use whatever let them connect with him and go even further, till they can figure out why now and what's happening. What the Vex are doing.
"What do you have with you?" That's Maya, Dr. Sundaresh. Brisk. The others listen to her when she speaks.
He has three guns, two disassembled down to their casings for parts. Two boxes of physical ammo and one of Omolon energy cells he's been using to power his radio. He stripped his armor down long ago; he made a comm unit from his helmet and pulled fine coils of wire from the conductive pads on his gauntlets and steel plating from his boots. In his pockets, he's got lint and the wrapper from a candy Pahanin tossed at his head half an hour before they entered the Vault. It's worn soft and folded into the shape of a crane. No Ghost. Her loss is one thing he has never gotten used to after all this time in the Vault; he still wakes up some days expecting the small weight of her on his shoulder.
"Anything to etch circuitry with?"
"If you give me ten minutes." He's got a laser pointer and the focusing crystal out of his Omolon rifle.
While he works, all of the Chiomas hold their own discussion.
"If Praedyth exists physically, even if the space he's in isn't strictly real, he has accesses we don't. And vice versa. Maybe together we can get something to work."
"If you believe his story about the Traveler," one of them says, doubtful—227.18's Chioma, more skeptical than the others.
"I've believed weirder," another one of them says cheerfully. She pauses and adds, "Do you remember the first thing we saw the Vex do?"
"Go for Maya's throat?"
"No—jump into that frame. Clear through the air."
Six Chiomas rattle their fingers against their radios in unintentional polyphony, thinking.
"Think we're close enough to Vex at this point to use one of their tricks?"
227.18's Chioma turns wry. "What's a little more tightrope walking between friends?"
Praedyth lifts his head from his former laser pointer.
"How much of a chance does this actually have of working?" This was Shim, usually the quietest one.
"Oh, negligible. But it's better than chasing after tech disproved centuries ago."
Praedyth doesn't have enough scavenged parts for both trials. It's one or the other, a choice they can't undo.
They take a vote; Praedyth marks the tally with screws on two adjacent flagstones.
227.18's Chioma gives the first aye.
They're taking the leap.
Describe time. No, really, give it a go.
You're going to say something about a sequence of events, aren't you? Seconds sliced off a clock, marching one by one off into infinity. Go ahead, use your metaphors: A line. A loop. A flat circle. Heard someone say time was like water once. At least that was novel.
The Vex, they're the closest to understanding it. They've got distance from it. If time's a river, then we're fish and they're diving birds. What's wet mean to a fish? What's it mean to an osprey, who's never fooled by refraction on the water's surface?
Hold on now, you're gonna say. This is getting a bit abstract, even for the bodiless echo of a dead guy in the Garden. You want concrete truths? Something simple, digestible? A story to keep the dark out?
You want time to be a staircase we keep climbing forever. But hey, even a Guardian skips back a step or two now and then. Die with your Ghost in range, and it'll just pop you back to before that bullet, give you the chance to make a fate you like better. Nothing's been simple on Earth since that big white cue ball rolled in from the next neighborhood over. And the stories, they don't work too well as a night-light anymore.
You're going to say, but the Traveler is our friend, the Traveler likes us, it gave us a Golden Age and garden worlds and Guardians. You're going to say, you wouldn't be alive without it, mister big shot.
Without it, I wouldn't be stuck in the Black Garden making bets with myself on which Goblin's going to be the next to slip on a soggy leaf and fall off a cliff, either. You took my Light already; you'd better take my advice.
I know the Void's still calling. But I've come untethered—I can't reach it any more. So, if I'm right that I can reach you, you keep your ears open. I don't care how much you hate hearing it. This is important.
The Vex understand time in a way we never will. Doesn't matter how long I spend here watching them. Doesn't matter how many jury-rigged portals Guardians fling themselves through. We live in time. They use it as a tool. Any moment that's ever happened, any moment that will ever happen, they can go back to it. Play it again till they get it right. Simulate it.
The Light's a counter to that. They come back, a Guardian comes back. They simulate an ending, a Guardian tears through it. Stalemate.
But the Vex in the Garden? They bend the knee to the Garden's Heart. It gave them power till you got lucky. The Vex outside, they made a different calculation. They run. But the Vex inside make the same deal you make, every day of your unnatural life. And who's to say that deal won't start paying off for them again sometime soon?
You can't understand the Vex, and you don't want to understand the Heart. But is your ignorance any more forgivable when it's willful?
Lots of questions and not a lot of answers. Better take care, or you'll drown in 'em, surely as you'll drown in time, whether it's anything like a river or not.
The pulses from outside the Vault come quicker now. More copies of the Ishtar Collective team arrive, using them for a boost, leapfrogging in from the dark.
Their messages are getting out there, out to the ends of the Vex networks.
The pulses are getting strong enough that Shim thinks they have a chance to boost data even beyond the network to physical reality—whatever "physical reality" means to them and to Praedyth at this point, lifetimes deep in Vex projections.
Praedyth is attuned to the rhythm of the Vault; when another pulse lines up with that momentary weakness that lets his radio work, he pushes a message through.
It doesn't bounce back. It has gone through. He whoops raggedly; a dozen Ishtar Collective scientists return the cheer.
They start to send messages scattershot, wherever they can, whenever the pulses climb high enough to boost their signal. That works for a while. Then the pulses get too strong, strong enough to destroy the integrity of the messages. Instead of skimming along the top, riding the wave, the messages tumble through it and shake apart under its power.
If they're getting strong enough to unravel data, it could be they're getting strong enough to carry something heavier than a pile of code.
It's worth a try, Praedyth thinks. Anything is, at this point. Something is coming, a tidal wave's shadow looming over every timeline he can see. Its peak rises sharp over the Earth, breaking the terminator's arc with a deeper darkness. The City can't escape it.
Praedyth carves messages into the last functional pieces of his gear: anything that can serve as a bottle for his messages, thrown out on time's ocean. And what does a Guardian pay more attention to than their equipment? They'll catch someone's eye, somewhen.
He knows the wave is coming. More visions flicker past him now, burning afterimages into his eyelids. More timelines—a possibility or eventuality, he doesn't know—lost to the encroaching dark.
He knows they won't be able to handle it alone. He knows they need a warning. They need to know it's coming.
Here's how it goes: you and Maya and Shim and Duane-McNiadh take your first cautious, sliding steps out into the Vex information network. You get your footing. You've got to translate everything into metaphor to understand it, here, and this is like tightrope walking on a greased line. You and Maya lean into each other. Shim slips, and you help him up. You explore. You go on.
Here's how it goes: you and Maya and Shim and Duane-McNiadh take your first cautious steps out into the Vex information network. You've got to translate everything into metaphor to understand it, here, and this is like doing a Fourier transform on yourself down the blade of a sundial. You fumble a step, and Shim and Duane-McNiadh hoist you back up between them. You come up with a pair of skinned knees, but it's fine. You explore. You go on.
Here's how it goes: you all take your first confident steps out into the Vex information network. Maya says it feels like trying to get down a mountain on a surfboard. Duane-McNiadh makes grim pronouncements about avalanches, but he does this from a step ahead of you. You're all eager to get started.
You come to a place that's a simulation of a world you don't recognize—hills rolling with grain that's just faintly iridescent, the color of their stalks an echo of the purple sky. Something in the distance calls out—a bird, maybe. Something that might be the Traveler lies on the distant horizon, a moon-sized eggshell discarded on the ground. It's spiderwebbed with cracks. No light emerges from them.
Duane-McNiadh walks too quickly, not testing the ground. He's gone before you can blink—fallen through an unseen edge of the simulation. When you move to where he disappeared, tilting your head at a certain angle makes the world give itself over to empty black with glowing wireframe edges that don't do anything to illuminate it. Tilt your head back, and there's nothing but purple wheat and the far-off call of an unknown bird.
"We have to go after him," says Maya, "we can't just leave him—"
You're all still shocked, faces drawn. Shim bends for a rock, squints, and tosses the stone underhand at the edge of the simulation. It disappears before it can hit the peak of its arc. He shakes his head.
You and Maya repeat the experiment, heads cocked like nervy sparrows. When your rocks hit void, they disintegrate first into wireframe and then into that black nothingness.
You retreat. You put up a marker at the rise of a hill, for all the good it'll do. You mourn. You go on.
You lose Shim.
You lose Duane-McNiadh.
The four of you cobble a radio together to contact the other teams. Every night, when you stop to rest, you click through the channels, hoping another team has had the same idea. On a cliff made of glass, topped with a thin layer of sandy earth and a thinner layer of grass, you get a response that's nearly intelligible.
You rest the next night at a seashore under the glass cliff. You wake up before dawn at the sound of screaming. You don't have time to find out what's happening before it happens, very finally, to you.
You lose Maya.
You lose Maya.
You lose Maya.
You mourn. The thought of all the other Mayas out there doesn't help. They weren't the Maya you'd puzzled with over living basalt flowers, a world with seventeen moons, a continent that Shim had sworn up and down was sixteenth-century Australia and that Duane-McNiadh couldn't be dissuaded from calling Pangaea. You'd found a simulation with a city where you discovered a jewelry store, picked out a necklace, brought it home to her, and wished her a happy pseudo anniversary.
Maya didn't like bracelets, said they always fouled her work. Her hair had been getting shaggy again and was due for a trim. She could never decide whether or not to grow it out. She laughed at you lifting weights to maintain simulated muscle, but she spotted for you all the same.
There are other Mayas out there, layers of them, all the way up to the original, wherever she is. You hope they're doing well. But that doesn't stop you from missing this Maya, missing whatever arguments and discoveries you'd have shared in the rest of the lifetime you'd promised to one another.
Shim and Duane-McNiadh pull you up from beside Maya's marker. A basalt lily rests on top of it, petals thin enough to let light through.
You go on.
The Garden wakes, and the Undying Mind wakes with it. It rises from the barrow that's grown up around it, shedding vines and hanging moss like bedsheets.
Circuits flood with power, pass the excess along to the next in line, flex massive limbs in boot sequences. Goblins write more circuits and weld them to the Mind, building it up to take advantage of the power—not an occasional pulse now, but a steady hum. Their faith has been rewarded.
In the Vault, one hundred and eighty-three sets of simulated Golden Age scientists flex their own limbs, ready to make a break for it. Praedyth, kneeling at his radio, shakes out his hands. They're stiff—he's stiff, queasy with exertion and worry and a stack of lifetimes in a cell—but ready.
"How big is a transistor compared to a pin, do you know?" He can't tell which Maya is speaking. There are one hundred and sixty-five of her spread between the teams.
"Are you calling me an angel?" This is Chioma, amused. Praedyth knows which team it is now: 227.72's Chioma sounds hoarser than the others. He doesn't know why.
Maya again: "Would you like to dance?"
Duane-McNiadh snorts in hundred-part harmony, and eighty Shims grin and elbow him in the metaphorical ribs.
It's a slim chance. But a chance is all they need.
The Garden's massive door hums, an echo of the song the Goblins sing as they tend the flowers. The first Minotaur readies itself to step through, shield coming awake around it.
Everything that has happened is, from a certain point of view, always happening. Everything that will happen is happening. If you know how to slice the ribbon of chronology thin enough, you can step through to the necessary moment. If you know how to tear it…
A hundred and sixty Mayas reach for the Chiomas by their side. A hundred and fifty-eight Chiomas reach back.
One Praedyth, waiting for the conductor's baton to drop. Uncountable Vex in the Garden, waiting for the same event, a synchrony none of them notice.
Somewhere, a veil is always lifting.
Somewhere, Kabr is always dooming himself.
Somewhere, a door is always opening.
Somewhere, they are always stepping through.