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The Red Box
"Is that him?" Lavinia whispers.
"Oh yes. Nobody does 'unnervingly bewildered' like our boy Xur." The Titan points down into the shadows of the Tower hangar, where a cloaked figure hunches over nothing, as if run through by an invisible spear. "He comes here to trade. We didn't let him in, but we don't stop him, either."
Lavinia, as afraid of success as she is of failure, shivers through a thrill of nerves. "Xûr," she corrects the Titan, then, feeling like a pedant: "Sorry. Cryptarch habit."
"Right. Xur. That's what I said." The Titan shrugs. "I like old stuff too, Cryptarch. Go ask your question."
Lavinia's mother told her that on the day of her birth, a witch pronounced her lucky. She will have to trust in that luck now.
She descends to the hangar floor and walks determinedly up to the thing. It does not even lift its hood to look. "Xûr," she says, unsure what to do with her hands. "I'm Cryptarch Lavinia Garcia Umr Tawil. I've chosen to study the Nine." As all fools do, her master told her. "I want to ask you a question."
"You have no need of it." The voice hidden in that squirming face is a man's, low and incongruously clear. He sounds, Lavinia thinks, as if he is trying very earnestly and very hard to be understood. "But I will give it to you."
She has practiced this question, clung to it as her anchor when she drifted away from her master and friends. "We salvaged information from a Ghost on Venus, in the Ishtar Sink. It described an artifact found by our Golden Age ancestors. A copper box, painted red, lightly damaged, full of dust. On the individual motes of dust we found engraved maps of rocky worlds. Mars, Earth, Venus, other planets...maybe every Earthlike planet in the galaxy."
Xûr lifts its grasping face. She sees an almost human curiosity, but stretched over the rack of an alien shape, a provisional superstructure cobbled together to make a manlike form, ever on the verge of failure. "Planets," it says. "My motions, in large part, depend upon their configuration."
She doesn't shudder, much. "My colleagues say the artifact came from the Vex, as a warning that they will exist wherever we go. But I think," she swallows, "I think it's from the Nine. Did the box of dust come from the Nine, Xûr?"
Xûr's golden eyes shine at her. "I am here for a reason," he says. "I cannot remember...the dust has changed. The dust is precious."
"Yes! Did the Nine send us the dust? Why is dust precious, Xûr?" Why dust at all? Why not a letter, or a clay tablet, or anything clear?
"Blood," Xûr says, and makes a sound like a cough. "The blood is transformed. The wish is granted. The dust is commingled."
"It can't be the Vex who sent it," she insists, as if Xûr is another stubborn Cryptarch who won't listen.
(Lavinia you must stop babbling.) "The Vex use matter as a substrate for computation, not a medium to communicate. How is it that the Nine can map the mass of every rocky planet in the galaxy, but not send us a message on the radio? Why Venus? Why dust?"
"Much of dust was once cells," Xûr says, and coughs loudly. "This dust was once of the Nine. It commingled. It was forever changed." That harsh, percussive cough again. "Dust to dust. One dust to another. The Nine are the flesh of dust."
Lavinia realizes that the Agent of the Nine is laughing.
The archives are silent. The staff have gone home for the Dawning festivities, and only the diligent City frames move through the stacks now, eradicating disorder, serenaded in soft susurrus by the wind of turbulence cleaners sweeping off the quartz storage plates in their cases of relic iron. Lavinia imagines that the frames are possessed by the ghosts of nameless librarians from Nineveh, ancient Mesopotamian souls ready to pluck an intruder's eyes. Are there any librarian Guardians? Can't Guardians turn invisible, sometimes? Maybe one's right behind her now, and its Ghost is covered in the eyes of library intruders—
This spooks her so badly that she nearly falls off the catwalk. She bites her tongue instead, rearranges her aching legs, and keys in another search. She's already sifted through hours of Tower audio records to extract key words from Xûr's babble. Now she just needs to follow that spoor back to the beast...
>REMOTE ARCHIVE DATABASE TEXT ONLY SEARCH INITIALIZED
>WELCOME, USER $nullStringRef
>PLEASE ENTER SEARCH QUERY
>nine 9 IX dust planetary alignment
Gonzalez, Hari-4, and Mwangi. "Anomalies in dark matter detections as a function of topological T-genic complexities in orbital dynamics." Journal of Post-Collapse Cosmological Recovery, Vol. 99 #1014
Shimizu et al. "Massive anomalies in dark matter detections cannot be explained without teleonomic models of CDM efflux self-interaction." Journal of Post-Collapse Cosmological Recovery, Vol. 99 #1015
Gonzalez, Hari-5 and Mwangi. "Cold dark matter anisotropy as a non-teleonomic result of scale variant coupling between mass and dark stellar wind." Journal of Post-Collapse Cosmological Recovery, Vol. 99 #1015 Annex 1
Shimizu et al. "Non-overlapping magisteria, or interference pattern? The role of 'seizure by necessity' in the redeployment of scientific instruments for City defense." New Thoughts in Post-Red Politics, Vol. 1, #18.
Strange. Very strange... full of references to the dark matter wind blowing through the solar system, a fact of galactic weather which every schoolchild learns and never thinks about again—
Something brushes across her scalp.
Lavinia jerks up from the screen, one bit lip away from a scream. A sensor mite, barely a glitter in the dark, tumbles past on the air currents. It will come after her body heat, and if it identifies her—then her master will have her writing ethnographic studies of deep sewer graffiti.
Hastily she keys in her next search string. "C'mon, Lucky Lavinia," she whispers, though she hates the name.
>nine 9 IX red legion ghaul attack on city undetected unforeseen no warning why
CCIOC. "Annex to the Final Report: Failures of City and City Allies Early Warning and Intelligence Systems." Unpublished/redacted document: sensitive to City security.
CCIOC. "Annex to the Final Report: 'A Culture of Permissive Espionage: The Openness of the Tower to Faction Agents and Unknown Vendor Entities (UVEs).' Unpublished/redacted document: sensitive to City security.
Shimizu, Hassan. "Unexplained CDM self-interaction immediately before the Red Legion invasion of the City: coincidence, or purposeful interference?" Rejected manuscript, Shimizu academic store.
>why rejected "Unexplained CDM self-interaction immediately before the..."
Rejection letter. "Reviewers concur that the paper does not provide a mechanism by which cold dark matter could interact with City sensors. Military experts attribute the Red Legion's stealthy approach to electronic deception by Psion operatives."
Lavinia freezes. Something with tiny, tiny legs is scurrying around the rim of her ear. She tries to get her hand up, very slowly, but it's too late, the little sensor mite is crawling inside—
It buzzes, and the buzz makes a tiny voice. "Miss Garcia Umr Tawil," Master Rahool says. "Could we have a word about your choices, please?"
They are waiting for Lavinia in the courtyard of the ruined Tower, although they do not strike until she holds the guilty object in her hand. A Titan in New Monarchy red pins her to the ground; a Hunter with a gun barrel as wide as the moon cuffs her and calls her a looter.
"Rahool has a watch on this one," the Titan remarks, consulting her black-tipped Ghost. "Says it's for her own protection— "
The Hunter hisses and flinches back. "She's got a bone!"
Thunder booms; something detonates nearby; Lavinia's ears pop. She gets the sense that, voluntarily or otherwise, the two New Monarchy Guardians have vanished. Lavinia tries to stand up but vertigo and the cuffs pitch her sideways and she lands hard on her hip. "Master Rey," she gasps, "I'm sorry, I should've filed a—"
"Lavinia." Ikora's coiled fury has a tooth of fear in it. "Open your left hand."
There's a bone in her hand. A long chunk of jaw with one huge white protruding tooth. It's warm and comforting and solid. She clutches it protectively, the key, the eggtooth that will crack open the mystery of the Nine and put her back in her master's good graces and save her from the probation Rahool dropped on her when he hauled her out of the archives—
With an effort of will that makes her shout out loud, she opens her fist and drops the Ahamkara bone.
Ikora Rey makes it fly away. "You weren't after that bone. It was after you. Did you make a wish, Lavinia? Did you ask to know about the Nine?"
She tries to explain that she didn't, that she only wanted to track the bone back to its source (Venus, hopefully), and to learn why the Nine needed the Ahamkara.
"Why do you think the Nine needed Ahamkara?" Ikora asks, dangerously.
"To make wishes," Lavinia pants. "Xûr didn't appear in the Tower until the end of the Great Ahamkara Hunt. Whatever they used to get from the Ahamkara..."
She leaves it unsaid: maybe the Nine are now getting it from Guardians.
Ikora rubs her brow. "I can't stop you. But if you keep looking, I can't protect you from the consequences."
"Help me!" Lavinia begs. "There's something here! Something that connects everything, the Trials, and the Ahamkara, and the Guardians, and the Nine. There are things the Consensus knows about Ghaul's attack, things they haven't told us—"
Ikora Rey puts up one finger. Lavinia shuts up. "Choose. Are you going to go back to school, and let me pretend you were never here? Or do I have to report you for theft of an Ahamkara bone?"
Lavinia takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she says. "I have to keep going. I'll try my luck."
The tribunal's verdict is unanimous. Lavinia Garcia Umr Tawil has trespassed against her oath to guard the common welfare of humanity. She will never set foot in the City again.
The Reef is punch-drunk. Lavinia thinks that loss has driven the Awoken into a state of collective traumatic mania. Endless revels light up the purple sky; people leap off the world and drift away into the artificial atmosphere, to be collected, protesting woozily, by the skiffload.
Lavinia is a wallflower here, forever on the edge of things. She gets pangs of homesickness every night, and tells herself that the Reef is the right place to begin her journey home. This meeting, right now, might be the first step...
"Much mourning," the Fallen at her side murmurs. "Master Ives murdered, Variks missing. Spider hires away my friends. Well, I stay to guard Master Ives's work. You come in, make yourself into a home. I will bring nitrogen tea and records."
"Thank you." Lavinia wants to laugh, or maybe cry, at the malapropism. If only she could make herself into a home! But it'll be all right in the end. She will find the Nine, bring the truth home, and earn forgiveness.
The Fallen returns with tea and devices. "Watch. Record from Prison of Elders. Master Ives fascinated by it."
She sees Skolas, fallen Kell of Fallen Kells, waiting to die by combat. His huge horned armor lags his motions, like a weary companion trying to mimic everything he does. A servitor pumps ether into him. Lavinia wonders what would happen if she took Ether. Would she feel clearly and coldly determined? Would she turn into a huge Lavinia? Would she stop missing her home?
"Mara." Skolas's mouth was not made for that name. "Mara, do you hear?"
"The Queen of the Reef sentenced him to the fate of all Fallen," Lavinia's companion sighs. "To strive, and struggle, and fail. But he was already lost. His mind broke at the Citadel, where he saw into time."
Skolas blows white vapor. Frost crackles on his mask. "You gifted me to the Nine. And they sent me back. People think you are a fool. That you made an error releasing me. Led your people to die on my blade, as I led my people to die on yours."
Lavinia's translator murmurs along with the Kell's words. "The Nine's agent never told me why he released me. Now I know. You know also, I think. Both of you require the Guardians... and the Nine do not understand life and death. So they sent me back to you, to make the Guardians come. They did not comprehend the harm.
"I do not comprehend them either. I traveled among the Jovians for years, in their dominion. But I do not know the Nine. You, Mara Sov... you are the only one who bargains with them. You are the only one who has foreseen their role in the game. You keep your successes secret, so the world only knows your mistakes. No wonder I underestimated you."
He hefts the scorch cannon his jailers have given him. Lavinia thinks of the tools his House once favored: shuttle and loom. "I saw the shape of the Nine on Venus. A place that was once precious to them, where wishes could transfigure their flesh. I saw that they are bound to this star and to these worlds. You are of a kind in that way, you and the Nine. Not I. I will be glad to leave this world, Mara Sov. I am tired of being a pawn."
Skolas lays his huge horned head back against the cell wall.
Lavinia, watching, spills her tea in excitement. "They want to help us," she whispers. "They're from our planets! They want to help! Oh, I'm sorry, I'm so clumsy—"
She leans down to mop up the spilled tea. A flashbang grenade detonates in her face. The next thing she knows an Awoken officer is sentencing her, under martial law, to life in prison for espionage.
Lavinia, fumbling for any sign of her good luck, is glad to see the Fallen go free.
Lavinia is shocked to find she prefers the CIC of an Awoken warship to the safety of a prison cell. She was terrified of Cabal during the occupation, and now she is going into battle against them, but she is not afraid.
"Three minutes to closest approach," the flight dynamics officer calls. "INCO, target emissions status?"
"The Leviathan is illuminating us with targeting sensors. No change."
Paladin Rior pulls Lavinia out of her nook. "Miss Umr Tawil, please come observe the instruments with me."
"Do you do this a lot?" Lavinia wants to impress Paladin Rior, who sprung her from jail because, in her words, "every brain in the Reef is busy thinking about one problem, so I need your brain for another." Lavinia doesn't want to let her down. "Step on the tiger's tail with these... fly-bys?"
"Shows of force," Kamala corrects her. "We need Calus to believe that we're prepared to meet his ship with our own fleet. And if we can investigate other mysteries along the way, like your theory about the Nine, then all the better. Here, now. This is the device you requested. Please observe."
Kamala shows her a pane of black glass, illuminated by a faint purple fuzz that sweeps left to right. Lavinia touches it in awe. "That's dark matter?"
"Correct." Every schoolchild knows that most mass in the universe is dark matter; but it is nothing more than mass, and it never forms structures smaller than a galactic halo. Dark matter has no charge, passes through itself, never gathers into clumps, and has no chemistry. It is only ever dust.
"If you're right..." Kamala draws in a breath. "Any moment..."
"Drive field error!" the flight officer calls. "Minor perturbation on the leading edge. We are encountering unexpected mass groups. No corresponding radar or lidar contacts."
The black screen of the dark matter detector explodes into frenzied purple-white shapes, like the webs of a spider locked in sensory deprivation for a million billion years. Thick cords of shadowstuff that twine into strangling arms which branch again into thousands of tiny fingers that pierce—
—straight through the Cabal Leviathan.
"Oh my," Lavinia breathes. "That's the dark matter we're passing through?"
"And this is unusual? This level of structure?"
"Miss Tawil," Kamala says, "a single molecule of dark matter would be unusual. This is blasphemous excess. This is impossibility."
No, Lavinia thinks. This is the Nine. They're looking at Calus. They're reaching out. These are their hands...
"We should've thought to use this sensor earlier," Kamala muses. "Our Queen invented it to assist navigation when we were losing ships near Rhea. A phaeton backscatter scan. Very clever. Everything she did seems to make sense, eventually; she was so very far-sighted. No one else ever bargained with the Nine as an equal, did they? No one will ever know what good she did for them... our Queen of secrets."
"I have to contact the City!" Lavinia fumbles for some way to get a capture of the screen, a picture of the Nine, but she doesn't have her tablet. "I found them!"
"Ah. About that." Rior's armored hand falls on her shoulder. "The Queen's edict also forbids me from disclosing the Reef's knowledge of the Nine to individuals without REGAL clearance. So. Thank you for your assistance, Miss Tawil. Take her back to her cell."
If anyone ever calls her Lucky Lavinia again, she thinks she might shoot them.
The scout missile detonates less than a hundred thousand kilometers away from Cocytus: a pinprick of antimatter annihilation that energizes thousands of bomb-pumped lasers to spike the void with light. One of those beams strikes the Corsair's ship, pierces the stealth system, and reflects.
They are discovered.
"Lavinia," the Corsair radios. "I'm detected. I have to run."
"That wasn't the deal!" Lavinia shouts, pacing in front of a humming portal. "You break me out, you bring me here, and you carry my findings to the City! I need another ten minutes—"
"No time. Royal Guard coming. Shouldn't have paid in advance, Cryptarch."
The channel disintegrates into digital static as the Corsair's ship accelerates away.
Lavinia swears and beats her suited fist against her helmet. She's trapped in Cocytus! The last time the Awoken trapped anyone here, those poor souls went utterly insane. The doomed crew of the Dead Orbit scout ship Sophia called this place A113, an innocent catalogue number; they had no idea that the gates aboard—once a Golden Age experiment—had been captured by the Hive deity Crota. Those gates consumed them all.
Now Crota is gone, and Lavinia has gambled everything that the portals have fallen into other hands. Ahamkara make the unreal real—Calus's ship is surrounded by a halo of unreal dark matter, like a ring of probing hands, Guardians can manipulate reality itself—there is a pattern here, a story, and it leads to Cocytus, to what these gates might do.
"Logs." She pages frantically through the observations left by the Awoken sentries once stationed here. Cocytus was abandoned when the Red Legion attacked, all its defenses scavenged to reinforce Vesta. "What came out of the gate? What did you see?"
//EVENT 1 TIME 00:00:00 Portal 3 emitted a hydrogen nucleus. Over 72 hours, the emissions developed from diatomic hydrogen to nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, water, and simple organic molecules. At the 80-hour mark, a pellet of thick black hydrocarbon tar. Until 82:34:15, the gate emitted tar containing complex monomers and polymers—
"Come on!" Lavinia barks, paging ahead. "Come on, damn you, give me something real! Give me the Nine!"
//EVENT 1 TIME 524:03:11 Portal 3 emitted a living organism. Death was immediate. Autopsy team reports a spherical body, radius one point one meters, surfaced in hydrocarbon tar. Deep, evenly spaced "throats" converged on a central cavity perhaps intended to serve as lung and stomach. The body consists of an undifferentiated tissue of primitive cells. A basic spasm reflex forces air down the throats. Without enzymes to catalyze metabolism, the organism could not survive. Cell death occurred instantaneously throughout the mass. There were no provisions for self-repair or reproduction.
Lavinia reads this again, horrified and fascinated. Something on the far side of the gate is learning to assemble atoms, molecules, even haphazard life... something from a world of darkness and dust, probing its way into our structured existence, trying to cobble together a message, an emissary, a body...
The Nine are on the far side of this gate. She's sure of it. She's found them.
But to meet the Nine directly... would that be madness? Would there be any return? Would she ever see the City again?
She's come so far for her truth.
An alarm sounds in her helmet. INCOMING TRANSMAT, the suit warns her. INCOMING TRANSMAT. Her radio barks at her, stern as Ikora Rey: "Cryptarch Lavinia Garcia Umr Tawil." It's Paladin Rior. "You stand in violation of the Queen's law. Surrender yourself, and you will be treated fairly."
Lavinia stares into the yawning gate. Beyond it lies a realm of utter darkness and dissolution, a place where nothing exists except the most alien forms. To go there would be suicide. She would die like the poor tarball creature.
But what lies behind her? Failure? Surrender? Shame? A life in a cell?
"Lucky Lavinia," she says, and leaps through.
You want our source, our primal cause?
We try to guard and nurture you.
Do you understand our fates are intertwined?
I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I.
At first this is all the loop of dust can calculate. It is the hardest thing in the universe for the dust to make a loop at all, because, like a gust of wind or a river, it was only meant to move one way. For a mind to function, the end of one thought must alter the beginning of the next: so, like rivers, like wind, the Nine could not have minds until they could make loops.
Lavinia Garcia Umr Tawil comprehends the Nine.
They were already ancient when the first human beings named themselves. Their flesh was older than stars: the dark dust wind that blows through the galaxy, pinched by the gravity of Sol and its planets, drawn into their cores and exhaled again.
These were the Nine.
In time loops did form. Great arcs of outbound dust collapsed back to their sources to create circuits of shadow. The thickening and thinning of these circuits were the first thoughts of the Nine. They dwelt in massive indifference, unborn primordial gods. There was no force among them except gravity; no structure except the distribution of mass. Their hearts were in the cores of worlds, but their farthest streams faded out into the turn of the galaxy.
They were the fountains of Achlys, the night before chaos.
But life arose on the worlds at the heart of the Nine, tiny complicated motions of ecosystems and metabolisms and computations. That life left mass-shadows in the wind of the Nine, plucking at them like harp strings. From these trembles of structure the Nine learned to seed enormous resonating waves, thoughts vaster than worlds.
So the Nine awoke. And in time they understood that they were as fragile as they were mighty; for if the life that seeded their thoughts ever passed away, they too would vanish.
They had no eyes to catch light. They had no ears to hear. And yet they turned their wills upon the alien world of Matter, and strove to learn, for they knew they had to protect their hearts, or die.
With a horror of revelation so absolute that it would drive her mad if she still had sanity to lose, Lavinia understands where the Nine have always been. They are within everyone, every system, every living and moving thing. Trillions and pentillions of slim dark matter tentacles plunged through all our bodies, drinking up the complexity of our lives and thoughts.
We are all pinched silhouettes impaled on the twitchings of infinitely long spiderlegs.
Came now the Traveler, and with it a strange hope—for the Traveler's Light had the power to cause without causation! If the Nine had the Light, they could seed their own minds, free themselves from the dependence on matter-life! They could gain forces beyond Gravity to structure themselves, and so become more than wraiths of dark dust. They could enter the mad alien superworld of our chemical reality.
So they turned to this new hope... and were divided.
"Come to me," a voice calls to Lavinia, although there is nowhere to go, nothing to be, not even emptiness but the absence of anything to be empty or full. Lavinia perceives, without emotion, that she now exists as a structure of dark dust, a sandstorm blowing against itself.
"Come," the voice calls. "I am Nasya. You are not safe. Come with me."
No. Of course she is not safe. Because there are factions among the Nine: one faction sent Xûr and Orin to study Guardians and the Light, to seek the secret of effect-without-cause and to protect the source of that secret, the last source, now that the Ahamkara are gone. Those five played at alchemy with the Cocytus gates, turning dark dust into energy and then into matter, but they could not unlock the secrets of our mad existence. They needed ambassadors. Go-betweens.
The other faction walks a different path. A path of folds and needles slipped through spacetime itself, existential syringes yielding new spaces, to be remade as the Nine desire. They have tried to gather enough dark dust in one place to form a black hole, and found it difficult: when the dark mass collapses in gravity's fist, the dust passes through itself and scatters.
But difficult is not impossible. And there is far, far more dark matter in the universe than bright. They will find a way to make new worlds of it. They will end their dependence on life, and on the Light of Guardians, which the falling veil will soon snuff out forever...
In passing, Lavinia sees the entire history of the Queen's interactions with the Nine: more than anyone suspected, and more vital. She sees how one of the Nine blinded Guardians to Ghaul's approach, risking everything (for Ghaul would have destroyed the sun, and the Nine with it) to learn how to steal the Light. She sees how that one was punished.
"Come!" Nasya calls, urgently. "Come with me! Come quickly, before—"
Something dark and hypodermic pierces the void beneath Lavinia and slurps her down, pulls her through a proboscis so tiny that it breaks her apart into a stream of single particles, one after another. She is annihilated...
... and reborn, somewhere, somewhen, made of flesh again, shaking and dripping fear-sweat, mewling like a little baby. Her cheek presses against a warm wooden floor. There's a fireplace, and a fire in it, and strong wind outside that sucks at the flames.
The clever-looking old lady at the desk looks up. "Ah," she says. "Lavinia! You made it."
"Wh—" Lavinia gasps. "Wha—"
She smiles, as if Lavinia's confusion is the sweetest greeting she's ever heard. "Don't be afraid. You've come to exactly the right place."
"Someplace where you're appreciated. Where we can really use everything you've learned." The old lady pours a thin stream of tea into a cup of bone. "Didn't I tell you that you were lucky, back when you were born?"