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I. A Path's End
Ada-1 heard the chirp of a comm channel opening before a distorted voice spoke. "I've got eyes on entries and exits. Looks clear."
She stepped through a rusted doorway into a courtyard—the wind whistled through the torn seams of decrepit structures and raindrops crackled on loose metal plating. She walked through the muddy soil and stopped where the Bergusia Forge used to stand.
"Curses," Ada spat.
Her hands fidgeted as her gaze wandered aimlessly around the nearly barren landscape. Artemis-5 perched on a broken pillar, her scope methodically rotating through doorways and windows while her Ghost floated patiently overhead; the other two members of Ada's escort lounged against a broken wall to the rear, silently watching the Black Armorer. She looked back, studying their featureless helmet plates, then quickly turned away. Her foot clanked against something hard and metallic—she stooped down and picked up a forgotten slab of Black Armory alloy, a remnant of the lost forge.
Artemis kicked into the comms again. "That Forge tech? Any clues of what happened here?"
Ada sighed as she studied it. "Scorch cannon sears, wire rifle cuts, kinetic ricochet marks."
"Almost like there's been years of combat here," Artemis quipped sarcastically.
"How astute," Ada said dryly. "There's nothing more to glean here." She took a deep breath, a useless gesture in her Exo body but a compulsion nonetheless.
"Hardly," Ada said. "But we won't find much else—this area has been thoroughly scavenged, same as the others."
"Fallen?" Artemis asked.
"With no Guardians bothering to stop them? Could have been anyone."
"And now they're on to exciting new frontiers, while I'm left with nothing but rubbish," Ada said, her voice full of false cheerfulness.
Artemis leapt down from her vantage point and placed a hand on Ada's arm.
Ada's shoulders slumped. "I am glad for the evacuations. I shouldn't have—"
A howl echoed from somewhere in the complex. Artemis readied her rifle, and one of the escort squad entered the comm channel. "Pikes changed heading. We should get her out."
"Are you ready?" Artemis asked.
Ada studied the broken slab of metal in her hand, turning it over and tracing its jagged edges. "I'm not sure," she said, tightly clutching the piece of debris. "But what choice do I have?"
The hiss of Ada's welding torch echoed through the Armory hall, compounding into a sea of discordant noise until the seam was complete. She placed the tool down and grabbed the piece of alloy in her hand, testing the bond's strength. The actuators in her fingers whirred with effort, but as her focus shifted to the open tome on her desk, the metal promptly snapped. Ada let out an exasperated groan—two more pieces of detritus dropped on an already cluttered floor.
"Did you forget to measure twice?" a voice called out from behind. Ada whirled around as Hawthorne sauntered into the hall.
"Isn't that saying based on woodworking?" Ada asked flatly.
Hawthorne shrugged. "Don't have any welding jokes." She gingerly stepped over a tangle of cables. "Great work environment you've got; love the décor."
Ada turned to her tome with intense focus. "Can I help you with something?"
Hawthorne chuckled. "I was going to ask you that. Heard the cursing all the way up the stairwell."
"Can you interpret Armory schematics and machine the parts needed to assemble them?" Ada answered, without looking up.
"Unlikely," Hawthorne said.
"Can you convince Zavala to stop asking me when a forge will be operational again?"
Hawthorne puffed her cheeks and exhaled. "Even less likely."
Ada quickly flipped a page of the tome. The paper snapped, nearly tearing. "Sounds like the answer to your question is no."
"Is that why you're doing this? Vanguard orders?"
Ada jabbed a thumb at her own chest. "The Forges were—ARE—my legacy. It's my responsibility to continue their operation. Zavala's desires are tangential."
Hawthorne stepped closer to Ada's workstation. "Help me out here. I'm not super familiar with your illustrious organization's history—was the Armory born of a dream to have the world's greatest gun oven?"
"Did you come down here solely to antagonize me?" Ada snipped.
"All right, all right…" Hawthorne pleaded. "Look, I know we aren't friends or anything. I'm not sure you have any of those anyway—"
"Right, sorry," Hawthorne said quickly. "The thing is, people around here talk a big game about putting humanity first, but then it's all Guardians, all the time."
Ada nodded. "The devotion to Lightbearers can seem fanatical."
"But you're not like that, Ada."
Ada shook her head. "I appreciate the sentiment, Suraya, but I'm not sure how that relates to the forges."
Hawthorne leaned on Ada's desk. "I think your voice is important to have around here. I want you to succeed. But you might be holding on to the past too tightly."
Ada scoffed. "You presume to tell me how to carry the Armory's legacy?"
Hawthorne gestured to the forge memorabilia strewn about the hall. "Not at all. But your founders didn't wake up one day with forges on the brain. They started with a problem, then designed a solution as only they could."
Ada turned, her eyes thoughtful. "And you're suggesting I'm starting with a solution instead? Limiting my view?"
"I'm saying I would understand if it was hard to let go of all of this when it's all you've ever known."
Ada nodded. "The idea of leaving the forges behind is admittedly unnerving."
"I get it," Hawthorne said. "But the old methods aren't working. Maybe it's time to carry on your founders' legacy in your own way."
Ada was silent for a moment. "I should get back to work. Thank you for your advice." She jutted her arm out in a stiff handshake gesture.
Hawthorne chuckled and clasped her hand around Ada's. "Good luck. But maybe try to keep the noise down, okay? It bothers my bird."
Ada-1 tapped her foot impatiently while standing in the Cryptarium. "So, can you do it?"
Rahool looked up lazily from his datapad and scowled. "What a ridiculous question. Of course I can. It's a question of when I'll have the time."
Ada's head tilted down. "I didn't realize we were indulging in semantics."
Rahool's response was arid as he tapped away on the device. "There is no greater pleasure."
"Very well. When do you think you will have the time?"
"Hmm…" Rahool placed a hand on his chin. "The influx of data from Europa is significant, on top of the routine Guardian armament support. Not to mention the open-ended nature of your query…"
The Cryptarch's eyes flitted as he thought through the problem.
"A conservative guess would be two to three weeks."
Ada groaned. "That's absurd. I can't sit around for that long."
"You misunderstand," Rahool replied. "I make no statements regarding what you should do with your time."
Ada gripped the Cryptarch's desk. "Fine, can I search for it myself?"
Rahool shook his head. "Access to the classified archives is limited to sanctioned Guardians, Tower support staff, or the Vanguard themselves. You are none of those things."
Ada scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous, I've seen that Drifter perusing this data on a weekly basis for his own amusement."
"That's not— there's no way—" Rahool stammered and blushed. "I assure you, no such breach has occurred."
Ada folded her arms as Rahool continued. "And even if it had, one crime doesn't excuse another."
Ada leaned forward assertively. "I guess you will be of no help then."
Rahool shrugged. "Not for two to three weeks, at the very least."
Ada grunted and stormed off through the Cryptarium's towering doors, their colorful display of cullet glass shining on her shoulders, when she heard Rahool loudly call out after her.
"What were the names again that you were querying against?" Rahool asked.
Rahool's eyebrows lifted at the final name. "You may be in luck. It seems our interests have overlapped."
IV. A Guiding Hand
Ada worked to keep pace with her Eliksni guide weaving through the dimly lit and angular maze of the Last City's Eliksni Quarter. The blur of open windows and doors provided brief glimpses into their new guests' lives: Strips of purple fabric filled wash basins. Jars of unknown food clinked against each other as they boiled in oversized pots while parents softly clacked their mandibles and watched their infants nestled in gently used blankets. In the distance, attendants surrounded a humming Servitor.
The guide entered a basement-level dwelling. Ada followed as they pushed through a rough cotton curtain and stood in a warm and humid room laden with myriad rugs and carpet swatches. The City's ambient glow slipped in through a singular small window while candles flickered in a pastiche of glass vessels. A series of futons had been arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the room; there, a band of Eliksni lounged on and against the furniture, all listening to the words of a single speaker seated on the floor. The air filled with guttural clicks and low growls that Ada could make no sense of. She finally understood the performance to be over when the audience dispersed and her guide led her to sit beside the scribe.
"You're the one asking questions about Europa, are you not? About Salvation?" the scribe said.
Ada frowned. "You speak our language remarkably well."
"I had an unusual upbringing," the Eliksni replied. "I am Eido. What do you seek, Black Armorer?"
Ada sat on a futon, keeping a healthy distance from the Eliksni. "I'm searching for information from the BrayTech facilities on Europa."
"And you believe we have this?"
"I know some of your people defected from House Salvation. They may have seen something."
Eido nodded. "They have seen many things."
"One of my forebearers, a great weaponsmith, worked at the Bray facilities on Europa… but I only know a fraction of what she was doing there."
"Ah," Eido said. "Always about guns."
Ada frowned. "Your people are no strangers to weaponsmithing."
Eido inhaled. "True. And now, improbably, both our arsenals stand together in the shadow of the Great Machine."
"An alliance that makes it all the more logical for you to help me," Ada said.
Eido placed her claws together. "I will not help, because I cannot. No mentions have been made of anything related to your Armory founders."
Ada's gaze dropped to the floor.
Eido cocked her head and observed the Exo. "Such despair. Maybe this is about more than guns after all?"
Ada paused briefly. "I lost something. A part of me."
Eido nodded solemnly. "Your forges, yes?"
"My whole existence was tied to the Armory. To those forges. Without them, I feel…"
"Without purpose?" Eido finished the thought.
Ada shook her head. "This isn't— I'm not sure you could understand."
Eido chuckled—a guttural grunt combined with clicking teeth. "Our history is littered with the banners of lost Houses. Most of us have worn more than one color, knelt before Kell after Kell, hoping that they would be the last." She leaned closer to Ada. "Eliksni understand the fluidity of purpose very well."
"Fluidity implies a continuation," Ada replied. She sighed heavily. "But it seems my path is coming to an end."
Ada studied the Eliksni. "This is not the conversation I was expecting."
"If this settlement is going to work, it's probably best to break from old expectations," Eido said.
Ada nodded and looked at the light softly radiating through the window. "I've taken enough of your time. Thank you," she said and confidently extended her arm with sincere gratitude.
A clawed hand landed softly on her shoulder as the Eliksni instead thrust her datapad into Ada's outstretched hand. The befuddled Exo quickly parsed the screen.
"This is something we found in the Bray archives. It is not what you were looking for, but it may help you decide where to walk next," Eido said.
"I—I'll look into it, I suppose."
"Good," Eido replied as Ada stood and slid the datapad under her arm. She hesitated.
"Are you sure it's a good idea to give me this? How… how will it look to your allies—you helping me like this?"
Eido chittered. "It will look like unity."
Louis was the first to notice Ada. The bird's head darted in her direction as it shuffled on its post. Hawthorne turned, a brief look of surprise on her face before she grinned.
"If it isn't the reclusive armorer," Hawthorne said. "I was just thinking about checking on you."
Ada reached the top of the stairs and marveled at the expanse of the Last City stretching from Hawthorne's vantage point.
"Oh? Was I making too much noise again?"
Hawthorne shook her head. "The opposite; way too quiet down there."
Ada chuckled. "Things have been going more smoothly as of late."
"Glad to hear it," Hawthorne said and nodded. She removed a morsel of meat from the pouch at her waist and tossed towards Louis, who gobbled it voraciously. "So what was the answer?"
"Centuries-old research on matter programming, left behind by a megalomaniac," Ada said.
Hawthorne whistled. "Sounds like a trip."
"It has been. I feel quite changed by this experience," Ada said, a slight lilt to her voice.
"Change can be good."
Ada watched engine flares weave through the City's expanse. "There was one thing from our last conversation that stuck with me."
Hawthorne raised an eyebrow.
"Only one? That's definitely disappointing."
"You said you weren't sure if I had any friends," Ada continued.
"Ada, I didn't mean to—"
"If I'm being honest, social connection has never been my strong suit."
"I know that it can be scary to put yourself out there. Especially with everything you've been through," Hawthorne said softly.
Ada considered her words. "It can be. But I'm finding this new journey to be a little less daunting, when I'm willing to walk it with others."
"Sounds like a pretty good lesson," Hawthorne said with a smirk.
Ada let her gaze wander over the constellation of architecture gleaming in the Last City; the meandering grid of roadways and the rolling landscape beyond. She breathed in deeply, letting the air fill her chassis.
"I should probably get back down there. I have a lot of work ahead of me," Ada said, clearing her throat.
Hawthorne clasped a hand on Ada's shoulder, startling the Exo. "Don't be a stranger, Ada. You come up from your cave more often, you might find you have more friends than you think."