Lore:The Awoken of the Reef
From Destinypedia, the Destiny wiki
The Awoken of the Reef is a Lore book introduced in Forsaken. It explores the history of the Awoken people after they left the Distributary and founded the Reef. Entries are unlocked by collecting memory crystals scattered across the worlds of Destiny 2.
Uldren returned to the Reef during the Long Unquiet Night, when the Awoken people huddled in their beds and hammocks, gathered in ice caves and half-lit habitat cylinders, haunted by visions and portents. Faces appeared to them in the sublimating swirl of cometary ice: images and portraits became impossible to distinguish from their real counterparts. All statues were shrouded, lest they appear to passers-by as corpses.
Something had changed in them after their return to the outer cosmos. A live-wire hum passed through the tendons in their hands, their jaws popped when they swallowed, and flashes of light like the impact of cosmic rays obscured their vision. It felt to Mara as if they had lowered their feet into an ocean of charge and raised their hand to some invisible cable overhead: as if they were now again in contact with immense and opposing forces that had left an ancient mark.
"It feels like I've got scurvy," Sjur Eido snarled, having never had scurvy in her life. "As if all these old wounds in my soul are opening up again."
"People keep sending me notes," Mara said. Her sensorium had died in the transit, so the notes came to her through whispers and scraps of precious paper. "They say… I saw your face in my dream. I saw your eyes. I heard your voice."
"So it's not just me."
Uldren was the second person to bring her revelations on that day. First was Kelda Wadj, the Allteacher, one of Mara's most joyful recruits to the expedition: She was a master of pedagogy, able to mold any mind into a shape ready to learn, able to melt any fact into a fluid that could be poured. "I'm in from the Gensym labs," she said, "and they've learned something wonderful. We're all a bit magic now."
"Tell me more." Mara poured her a snifter of icy cometary water. "What does magic mean?"
"Some sort of weak acausality." Kelda lowered her flowerbulb build into a hammock of tangled plastic. "They've been firing encoded neutrino beams through volunteers, and it looks as if the resulting patterns of scatter depend on the cognitive and emotional state of the target. It's a very reliable detection, at least four sigma, but the effect size is terribly small."
Mara digested this with a shot of ancient ice, slushy against her tongue. "Acausality. You mean that whatever's happening—whatever influence we have on, say, neutrino beams—it's not accounted for by physics?"
"Not by any physics we know. At face, it seems to violate some conservation laws, which would make Emmy Noether's head spin." Kelda remembers the names of her ancient physicist heroes even when she cannot tell which way is sunward.
"Secret physics." Mara thought of the Traveler and its works. "We've all felt it, haven't we? We know we're…" How to say "trapped in the clinch between light and dark," she wondered, without quite so much portent? "We're in contact with certain numinous elements."
Kelda held out her cup for more water. "The question is, your Majesty—"
"Don't call me that. We're operating on a direct democracy here."
Kelda rolled her eyes. "The question is, do we continue to think of this as science? Do we teach it as physics? Causal closure says that everything that happens in a material system has a material cause. However, if symbolic structures in the mind are triggering material effect… shouldn't we call that what it is?"
"Death had no dominion," Mara whispered.
"We're in Death's dominion now. We're all dying again. We were immortal in the Distributary, weren't we? Some part of us was… attuned to the universe. And now that we're no longer receiving the Distributary's signal, we're attuned to something new."
That was when the hatch slammed open and Uldren stumbled in, grinning ferociously, clutching a scummy fistful of cytogel to a slash across his neck.
"Aliens!" he rasped. "I found aliens, and one of them cut my throat!"
Mara calls a caucus of elected representatives in the Sacred Fire, one of the largest hulks in the reef of derelicts. The Fire was built to support habitat construction on 4 Vesta, where Mara hopes to one day anchor the entire flotilla and set down roots—but the hopeful, fearful faces before her make Mara afraid that it'll never happen. What if everyone runs off at the first hint of home? Having come so far, across worlds and eons, to see Earth again—how can she ask them to hold back now?
"We've found Humanity," she tells them. "We've found our ancestors."
The cheer of triumph and wonder thrills her to the marrow. Most of these Awoken are Distributary-born, raised on myths of Humanity and the Traveler. She has just opened the pages of their storybooks and conjured them to life.
"What remains of the Human species lives in a single settlement." She nods to Uldren, who snaps his fingers for footage. His ship's holographic perspective plunges through fluffy strata of clouds and mist, out into clear air. A lucid vista, a perfect instant: the white mountains, the city, and the enormous shattered sphere that hangs above it.
"Freeze," Uldren commands. "That is the Traveler."
As the crowd murmurs and thrills, Mara feels herself bridle. She doesn't like that thread of reverence. She doesn't like the Traveler looming there, almost but not quite completely dormant (like a dying heart ripped from its body and thrown into warm water, it ebbs and flutters if you look at it with the right sensors). If the Traveler had the power to protect anyone, wouldn't it protect more than one huddled settlement?
Esila, daughter of Sila, leaps up from the crowd, too small to make it on her own, but buoyed up by enthusiastic neighbors. "What are we waiting for?" she calls. "That's everything we came to find! They need us, and that's where we belong!"
Uldren and Mara trade glances. Uldren snaps his fingers, and the recording resumes.
Something moves in the treetops. The canopy roils and parts. A red-brown aircraft shaped like a fat, wingless, furiously angry dragonfly bursts from cover and climbs to intercept. Uldren's head-cued camera tracks the target, and Mara imagines his narrow grin as he waits for the other guy to make a move.
The dragonfly ship drops a brace of little needles, and they erupt into dirty orange flame and come arrowing after Uldren. Everyone in the caucus gets an earful of his grunts as he whips through a high-G turn and climbs away.
"Those are Fallen," Uldren says. "They're a species of interstellar scavengers and subsistence pirates. They've been here for a long time, and they've sacked most of the large settlements that survived the original fall of Humanity. There may be more Fallen than there are Humans left on Earth." He lifts his chin to bare the pale scar across his throat. "I landed and went looking for prisoners. I was ready when he pulled two knives on me, but it turned out he had an extra set of arms."
"Worse," Mara adds, beckoning for panes of deep-space passive sensor data, "they're all over the solar system. We've detected flotillas of their interstellar ships around Jupiter and Venus. They don't go near Mars, but only because it's under occupation by another alien species. Mercury is—well, you can see for yourself." Gasps of horror at the clockwork cinder, all that remains of the legendary garden world. "We believe this may be the work of the Vex, a machine species listed in Shipspire's threat index."
Esila, famed historian, puts voice to the plea in the crowd. "So they need our help, don't they? We have to go to them! Our ships, our technology—we could make all the difference."
"No." Mara collapses the projected images between her hands. She stayed up late wrestling with this dilemma, which kept her from wrestling with Sjur. It was a choice she had to make alone. "We can't reveal our existence, lest the Fallen track us down. We need more information. Our focus must remain on securing this derelict reef, bootstrapping industry and a population, and scouting out the solar system."
"Mara, with all my respect, all my genuine gratitude for bringing us here," Esila sighs, "who died and made you Queen?"
Mara says nothing. But she thinks: Everyone, Esila. All of us died and made me Queen.
"It's bad," Sjur Eido says, confirming what Mara already knows, but nonetheless performing the valuable service of mopping away all the blood and tears and allowing Mara to glimpse the actual shape of the wound that divides her people. Not a literal wound (though she is, right now, tending to Uldren's scar, tweezing tiny fragments of Fallen metal out for analysis), but the rift in her Reef, the schism now re-schismatic, as if the quake that split the Distributary Awoken from Mara's people is now firing off aftershocks.
She should've known this would happen. She shouldn't have told them so much about Earth. "How bad?"
Sjur pokes Uldren in the hard gut, where a passing line of molten metal left a red burn. He's under anesthesia, but he snarls at her anyway. "As of the last caucus, I'd say thirty percent of the expedition wants to head for Earth. If you ask the 891," though there aren't 891 of them anymore, "it's more like eighty percent."
Mara swears and pulls a bloody line of solidified slag from her brother. "Unacceptable. We can't lose their skills." Or their genes: The Awoken have yet to adapt to the attrition of this harsh spaceborne world, and tentative mothers are still in the early stages of designing their babies. It's vital to maintain a diverse gene pool. "And the Fallen will vector them back to us."
"I know," Sjur says, heavily. "That's when I'm going to die."
The most horrible thing about the words is that they slap down on Mara's consciousness like face-up cards, like truth revealed. "Unacceptable!" she barks, and then both she and Sjur begin laughing, and then, at last, Mara shakes her head and growls. "You can't know that, Sjur. No one can know that."
"I do. I don't know how, but I do. I know it's going to be something I choose to do, and it's going to be incontrovertibly heroic. Which is enough for me."
"But if that's true—" Mara proposes, flinching away from the personal conversation they really ought to have, and all its attendant rawness, "—if you die when Fallen attack us, it means I won't stop these people from fleeing to Earth, and the Fallen are going to find us, and we're doomed." She is already building intricate models of how the universe might accommodate fate or doom and how she might go about destroying those things.
"Could be, I suppose." Sjur pulls a parchment-thin rag of dead flesh off Uldren's wound. "Look. I'm the Queen's bodyguard. I always expected I'd die violently."
"I'm not the Queen."
"Maybe that's your problem." She flicks Uldren in the chest, leaving a purple bruise, fading. "What is with you two, anyway? You never talk about him. You never seem to think about him at all. But he's dashing himself to pieces for you. How do live as his favorite and only sister for so many centuries… and hardly even smile at him?"
Secrets, Mara thinks. You've got to have secrets from each other so there's room for him to fill in the gaps with his own happy illusions. Two ships joined together rigidly will tear each other apart if they try to move. But a loose tether leaves room to maneuver—and can be more quickly disengaged, if necessary.
That makes her think of Sjur's prophecy again. She sets the shrapnel down in the dissection dish, very gently. "You won't die. I won't allow it."
Of all the disasters that might happen in space, riot is the worst. Breaches can be contained, fires can be starved, plague can be quarantined, radiation shielded, heat vented—but a riot has a will of its own: a chaotic ingenuity that corrodes any countermeasure.
Mara crawls through compartments choked with vaporized coolant. She keeps low and clutches the breather to her face. All she can think of is Kelda Wadj's last message and the data attached. "Mara. The paracausal effects are strongest around you. Whatever's happened to us, you are the locus. I cannot overstate how subtle and how important this discovery might be. Mara, when we use radioactive decay as a trigger for simulated bombs—bombs that could harm Awoken—the trigger atoms are a thousandfold less likely to decay near you. People are literally safer when you are around."
She has to get into the riot. She has to protect her people.
A horrible groan vibrates through the habitat structure, and then, with an apocalyptic shudder, something tears off the Reef. A ship. A ship is leaving. Mara has failed. Mara drops onto her belly and pants into the mask. Then, cringing in anticipation of migraine, she activates the augment, the jury-rigged machine her eutechs produced for exactly this purpose by extracting Mara's ruined Distributary implants and reworking them. She's going to fire a command override to shut down that ship's systems—
—but then she realizes it's a salvaged Human vessel, deaf to her commands.
She gasps in frustration, sucking down cold bottled air. "Sjur."
"I'm here," her radio whispers. "Pinned down in the dockmaster's office. I shot a few in the shoulders, and they seem to have gotten the idea."
"Let them go. If one ship's away, there's no sense holding back the rest. Our position is compromised."
"Broadcast to everyone. I'm going to allow anyone who wants to leave the Reef to go. This is their one and only chance." She rolls onto her back and stares up into the swirling vortices of coolant, seeing faces, futures, the lives she has just lost, the lives she might yet lose. She brought her people here to die in the sense that she brought them into mortality—but she never wanted it to happen quickly.
"They know, your Majesty," Sjur says. "They already know."
"You told us. We heard your voice." Awe like gratitude in Sjur Eido's voice. "Mara, I heard you. You spoke to me."
Thus the riven Awoken were riven again, into Reefborn and Earthborn. Those who left went to scour the ruins for lost history and give some succor to their Human cousins who still clung to a hostile world. The Awoken came unto these Humans like nephilim, armed with lost weapons, forgotten industry and medicine. They were like omens of hope, for they were often taken to be starborn colonists returned to the hearth, which was not, after all, so far from truth. All who looked on them saw that the night sky contained more than lurking doom. They bred true with each other and sometimes hybridized with Humans, and in the course of centuries, many forgot the Distributary and even the Reef. However, there was always in their souls an itch, a vector pointing to a distant place in the Asteroid Belt, where their Queen still dwelt.
"They've made a difference already," Sjur told Mara not long after the first Awoken made planetfall on Earth. "They'll save so many lives just with the provision of medicine, pure water, and construction supplies that even if they all died by year's end, they would each yield ten or twenty Humans."
"I know," Mara said, with bitter pride. "Let the people remember them as saints and paladins, and tell no one how many more they might've saved if they had only kept the faith." For she knew the precious value of each Awoken life: She knew how many she would have to spend and mourned each soul wasted on a lesser purpose.
On the day the Fallen struck, Mara was proclaimed Queen. It happened swiftly, though after no little debate among the people, for everyone was afraid of a monarch who could speak to their thoughts. Yet they feared more to deny her power and sovereignty, for they had come between worlds in her name. To refuse her would be to refuse their choice.
"Awoken," she told them, "for the first time in my life, I hesitated to reach for power, and now one in three of you are gone. I cannot deny what the cosmos has made of me any longer. I am your one and rightful Queen."
She knew she had been a fool to pretend to be a peer to the others. What was true of her brother was true of all Awoken. They needed secrets to marvel at, secrets that rhymed with the deep enigma of their souls. They could not follow what they fully understood.
There would be a formal coronation later, in a place not yet built. Out of respect for that unhappened coronation, Mara did not at first wear a crown; and later she claimed as her diadem the ring of event horizon that surrounds the observable universe.
"My Techeuns," she said, gathering Kelda Wadj and the other eutechs who'd remained, "will be given absolute authority to explore our new power, the Traveler's relics, and all associated domains. We are no longer in the realm of pure science. We require an order of mysteries and witches to tend to them."
Not an hour later, a Fallen Ketch threw off its stealth and began a deceleration burn toward 4 Vesta. The four-armed predators had traced one of the Earthward ships back through all its erratic course changes and to the Reef. They came in search of the source of these blue ape-kin.
A salvo of coherent-matter guns gutted the Ketch: blink-quick death for the mighty ship, ancient fury compressing matter into a relativistic pinhead. It was a waste of weapons that couldn't be recharged or reloaded, however, and the Baron in command had already scattered his skiffs like camouflaged seeds. The Fallen Raiders came down all over the Reef and cut their way inside. The Awoken, young to mortality, terrified of death, fled in fear.
Mara, Uldren, and Sjur Eido rallied as many as they could. Sjur fought in a powered combat shell, but Mara needed to be seen vulnerable, silver-haired and narrow-eyed, hurling herself at the enemy. She fought with pistol and dagger, and her brother moved like a wraith at her flank. Her people were ashamed of their timidity. No more were the Fallen scuttling alien predators: Now they were an indignity, an offense to regal privilege to be met with a snarl and a rifle shot. The Awoken saw their desperation: how the stump-limbed Dregs stumbled forward emaciated, how the Vandals cringed from battle as they peeled off wall panels, desperate for salvage to please their Captains.
Armored Sjur Eido met the Fallen Baron in zero-gravity combat above his spider tank and shot him dead, one adamant shaft through plate and throat. Ether hissed into vacuum. Sjur threw herself upon the spider tank that clung to the Sacred Fire's hull. Laughing in joy, she cut into the tank's barrel and threw a charge inside, knowing its next vengeful shot would be meant for the Sacred Fire's main habitat drum—and that she would die in the catastrophic misfire.
The tank fired. The charge detonated. Sjur Eido was thrown clear, utterly unharmed.
"That was where I should have died," she said, in wonder—and in her mind was the smiling face of her Queen.
Mara made one more attempt, and only one, to call her scattered people home. She had hoped the assault would convince them they had a responsibility to the Reef, to come home and repair the damage they had caused. It went poorly, however, for though her tech witches were able to amplify her bond to her people through the augments Kelda had developed, she was only one voice in a maelstrom. Her Awoken had sensitive antennae, in the metaphysical sense, and could not hear her plea through the clamor. Also, the communications engineer kept forgetting to call Mara "Majesty" or "Queen."
"Good news," Uldren told her with the grim delight he always showed after a debacle he had survived. "Illyn and I went through the Fallen communications logs. Their Baron never transmitted our position to his Kell. He wanted the prize to himself. We remain secure."
"The Baron might have planted a time-delayed beacon," Mara warned him. "Never underestimate these beings. They've lived in the void longer than us."
"I already admire them," Uldren confessed. "They've lost so much. Some of them even ritually dismember themselves, Mara, to prove they have the strength to grow back the missing limbs. I tell you that even if we are doomed to dwindle and go extinct, those Fallen may outlive us."
Mara made a dry note in her log that her brother had at last discovered his true people.
For her part, Sjur Eido wandered about in a daze, filled with joy to be alive and grief that she no longer knew the day when she would die. "In you, all things are possible," she told Mara. "I live because of you." When Mara saw her string her mighty bow, the limbs coiled behind her leg and around her opposite arm, she was glad beyond telling that Sjur had survived.
In time, Mara appointed Paladins to oversee her new military, as Alis Li had done during the Theodicy War. She created talented starfarers as Corsairs, to scour the asteroid belt in utmost secrecy and to establish routes and caches that would support the covert motion of Awoken ships.
Most of all, she charged her brother with the mission that occupied her thoughts. "Brother," she said, "never again can I allow my people to be divided. We must offer them more than shielding ice and cold habitat cylinders and the warrens of Vesta. We must make a culture, a thread that binds us all in pride and wonder at the mystery of ourselves. Nowhere does culture flourish better than in a city."
"Gather in one place," Uldren warned her, "and you make yourself a target."
Mara had considered this, and found an answer. "Go forth and find me a power unknown to all the other powers of this world. Return it to me, and I shall make of it the cornerstone of my new city, where the Awoken shall dream of all they have been and all that is yet to come."
So Uldren went out voyaging among the worlds, swift as a blueshift ghost. In time, he returned to the Reef with a creature not larger than his hand, saying, "Behold, Sister, the lie that makes itself true. This is an Ahamkara."
It was Mara alone who established a covenant with that young Ahamkara, which chose the use-name Riven, in honor of its host. It was Mara alone whose singular will and unity of purpose saved the Awoken from that which we now name the Anthem Anatheme. For there was in Mara very little division between Reality-As-Is and Reality-As-Desired; she was confident in her centuries of purpose and patient with the winding way by which the river of methods reaches the objective ocean. Blessed are those who in their absolute selfhood become selfless. Unappetizing are those who in their truest self-knowledge exclude the possibility of self-deceit.
"Mara," said Uldren Queensbrother, "why do you forbid me to speak to the Ahamkara?"
"This secret is mine alone," said Mara Queen. She knew that her brother had only widened the gap between He-As-Was (which is called NUME) and He-As-He-Would-Be (which is named CAUST). "Begone to the outer world, where I require thee."
This was when Sjur Eido, having spoken to Kelda Wadj and to Esila, at last came before her Queen. Kneeling, she said, "Your Majesty, Kelda Wadj says you are a god, for there is no difference between your desire and reality. Yet I know that you desire things before they ever become real. Esila says that you are keeping a secret from your brother that he must never know. I think the secret is thus: You are now a god because one day you will become a god, and a god is not temporal. Your brother is not a god because he will never become a god. Shall I worship you?"
"Sjur," Mara said, falling to her knees, clutching her beloved's face between shaking hands, "Sjur, on the day you worship me, you cannot love me anymore, for to worship is to yield all power, and I cannot love what has no power over me."
At this, the Ahamkara coiled around her neck, yawned, and showed its fangs: for there was a crevice between What Was and What Was Wanted.
"I see," Sjur Eido said. "Then to me you are not yet a god."
Although in time the knowledge of what Mara would become pushed them apart, it was a kind and happy push, as a friend might urge a beloved companion onward to a distant opportunity. And their days together were spent gladly.
Mara's death began in this mark:
Later would come Eris Morn, Osiris, Toland, and all the other accessories of the majestic suicide. Later would come the Reef's tentative entanglements with Vex and Cabal, Fallen and Hive, and the fateful decision to intervene when the House of Wolves turned Earthward to conquer the Last Human City. Later, there would be stories here untold, the Ahamkara and the subcreation of the Dreaming City, the shatterstone fury of the Reef Wars, brother Uldren's journeys into that fell garden, and great sweeping plots whose beginnings and consequences have been entirely expunged for the sake of elegance—or, as of the root81, redacted for the sake of secrets yet untold.
Here is where the beginning began, at that moment when Mara bolted awake from the dream. Her circle of Techeuns lay with her in the misty wintercold chamber, and they came back groggily, their augments stuttering with resync.
She had dreamt a thought of absolute simplicity and perfection, and the thought had become a tooth and bitten her. It had left a wound shaped like
Mara seized a pane of crystal paper, flashed it rigid and receptive with a touch, and wrote.
I DREAMT OF SWORD AND BOMB. I dreamt of the self-honing blade that has cut itself so fine, it pierces the world and thus becomes the world. It is self-honing because it constantly whets itself against itself. I dreamt of Death bearing this blade, or of something so closely allied with Death as to be its synonym, so that to separate them would require a knife sharper than sharpness. Death raised up that blade and said "I cut all and all I cut. Aiat."
Then Death cut the bomb, and the bomb was broken and could not fire. I was in the bomb. I knew that Death was the cut-verb, and that its only verb was to cut.
SHAPES AND GLIDERS. I dreamt of existence as a game of cellular automata. In this metaphor, there were only two things: shapes in the game world and the rules of the game world. The rules were the rules of Life and Death. I understood that the sword was the desire to escape existence as a shape in the game and to become the rule that made the shapes. This rule said only "live" or "die"—it had no other outputs. It could not keep secrets. Against it was the desire to become a shape so complex that it could within itself play other games.
WHAT WILL SOON BE. I dreamt that the Sword that was Death and Rule sought out complexity and cut it to reveal the simplicity within. I knew that soon we would be cut for we were complex and full of secrets. I knew that it was coming. I knew that the stroke would fall and that I had to stop it.
HOW CAN A BOMB MAKE USE OF A SWORD?
HOW CAN THE RULE THAT SEPARATES LIFE FROM DEATH BE KILLED?
"I must go to the Dreaming City and use the oracle engine," Mara told her Techeuns. "Prepare my ship."
Ten times and once more Mara asked the Oracle Engine to show her the sword that was death and the way it would appear. Ten times and once more the Oracle Engine showed Mara an image of her family.
First it showed her Sjur Eido, laughing and bright with strength, who would recede and later return.
Then it showed her Uldren, her brother, who explored the ruins of the fallen worlds and sought out challenges to test himself.
Then it showed Mara her own face and lingered on the secret brightness of her eyes.
Last of all, leaving Mara imperious with disdain toward her own feelings, curtly aloof toward all who asked her what troubled her, it showed her Osana, who had remained behind.
Mara dwelt on this puzzle. A mother who had remained behind; a sister with secrets; a brother who hunted and explored; a woman who was plain and fierce. She understood then that the answer to her question lay within herself and that to defeat what was coming, she would need a perfect understanding of herself. Isolation would be her watchword, for an isolated system is easiest of all to understand.
First of all, Mara went into the gardens and planted a flower for her mother, who she thought must still live: though she might by now have forgotten her first daughter and her first son.
"Mother," she said, "I asked to be your sister rather than your daughter, and so I denied you the chance to tell me your secret, the mothertruth that is mapped in the negative space defined by the lies mothers tell their daughters. Well, here are my secrets. I love you. I have always loved you. Without you, I could never have been anything at all."
Then she went to speak to her brother—but Uldren was away on Mars, and she found only his empty chambers, the half-sharpened knives and racks of pistols. She knelt in grief and touched her hand to the floor where his pacing boots had scuffed the asteroid stone smooth. This was the shape of their siblinghood now. The pursuit of absences.
Last of all Mara went to Sjur Eido. Sjur was making a list of incredibly stupid and fatal tasks to post on a Guardian bounty board. "I want to tell you the truth," Mara said. "Ask me a question."
"If you take any positive integer and halve it if it's even, but triple it and add one if it's odd, and you repeat this process forever, will you always, eventually, reach one?" Sjur Eido demanded.
"Sjur, my faithful Wrath," Mara said, "please take my openness seriously. Though I'm sure Illyn could answer your math problem."
"Okay." Sjur looked at her curiously. "Then here's my question. What's gotten into you? Why are you acting like this?"
"Can we walk?" Mara asked her.
Mara and Sjur Eido go out into space and kick off the hull, wearing Corsair skin-pressure suits and slim tethers. The stars circle them like hard-focus candles, like the diadems of a trillion dancers. Sjur Eido pulls herself close and touches helmets with Mara. "We're alone. What's happened, Mara? You've always been, ah…"
"Private?" Mara suggests.
"Mysterious and reclusive, I was going to say."
"A sword can be part of a bomb if the swordstrike is the detonation mechanism," Mara says. "It's impossible for a cellular automata game to change its own rules, but it is possible to create subgames with their own rules, and for those subgames to yield advantage in the master game."
"That's cool," Sjur says. "You know, when you talk like that, what you're actually saying is, 'I don't want anyone to understand me, but I want them to understand they don't understand me.'"
"Yeah," Mara admits, and then, hoarsely, she makes herself say, "Sjur, I have this secret, this thing I did, and I don't know if anyone can know it without hating me forever."
"I had a secret too," Sjur reminds her. "The thing I did…"
"It's nothing compared to mine. Nothing at all."
"Having had some long experience hating you, and then having given it up, I think it would be hard for me to go back." Sjur's strong hand settles at the small of Mara's back. They twirl on upward, rotating around a point between them, their thousand-kilometer tethers slowly unfurling. "Do you want to tell me?"
"No," Mara says. "But I think I have to."
"Okay. Your Majesty, what did you do that made Alis Li throw blackberry tea in your face?"
"I was first," Mara says. And she explains the missing half, the first half of the sentence:
I made the rules and initial conditions that deceived her into believing she herself had decided
It ends like that, where the rest picks up.
Sjur Eido looks at her in expressionless silence. Sjur Eido's hands stroke the seam between Mara's skinsuit and the glassy petals of her helmet. Long ago, this woman betrayed her oath and went to serve the Diasyrm, a woman who cried out in anguish at the curse of physicality and the possibility of suffering. Long ago, this woman threw away her whole life to punish the highest crime she could imagine: the denial of transcendent divinity to those who might have claimed it.
"You're the devil," Sjur says. "You're the lone power who made death. You allowed the possibility of evil. You might be responsible for more preventable suffering than anything that has ever existed."
Mara cannot shake her head or even nod.
"Well," Sjur says, "if you hadn't, none of us would be here. I guess I don't see what else you could've done, if you cared about those we left behind. If you wanted us to be able to go back and help in the fight." She leans forward and very gently kisses the inside of her helmet, where it meets Mara's: in her mind, in that place that is bound to all other Awoken, Mara feels the touch of gentle lips.
Sjur looks suddenly sly. "You know, Mara, I don't think you could've confessed anything, anything at all, unless it were a way of keeping a deeper secret. What's really going on?"
"There are many ways to godhood," Mara tells her. The belt of Orion glitters on her helmet like a three-star rating left by some Hive entity Sjur once killed. "One way is to kill all that is killable, so all that remains must be immortal. Another is the road I have walked, mostly by accident. One of these ways is closer to the sword, and one is closer to the bomb. If the bomb can defeat the sword by the standard of the sword, then the bomb has claim to primacy."
"Never mind," Sjur sighs. "Seen anything cool on Crow surveillance lately?"
Later. Much later. It is the night before the day of screams. Mara meditates cross-legged in a cradle of null gravity. Variks has told her more than once how the Fallen speak of the Awoken as sterile, unable to regrow their flesh, cursed to bear their scars forever. Also how they think of the Awoken as self-twinned, coexisting with their own shadows. Didn't ancient Inanna, queen of heaven, descend into the underworld to confront her shadow twin, sister Ereshkigal?
Inanna was judged full of hubris and executed.
You cannot defeat a thing that is synonymous with death except on its own territory. You cannot fear and flee from death. You must face it. Death is a sword, and a sword is like a crossing-point, like a bridge—and a bridge may be walked two ways.
The plan exists in her mind alone, although beloved Eris has by necessity learned most of it. The Techeuns do not know the whole plan, although they will position the Harbingers upon the threshold. Even sweet capable Petra does not know the whole plan.
So many she will leave behind.
Uldren knows nothing of the whole plan. He has kept more and more to himself, building up secrets and schemes—all, Mara knows (and pities), because he needs Mara and thinks he can get her attention by keeping secrets from her.
Secrets are her virtue and the virtue of her nemesis. The being whose existence she deduced from the analogy-of-family the Oracle Engine showed her.
Mara will begin the end of that Queen's brother today. She knows what that means for the fate of her own. An eye for an eye. She must think now of the fate of entire cosmos—and of her tender, half-assembled answer to the cold sword logic of the Hive. She must not grieve. She must not fear.
Was Inanna afraid when she descended? Mara's not going to be outclassed by some ancient fable. After all, Mara's name is death. But there is one thing she admires most about Inanna over all the other myths of katabasis.
Inanna went to conquer.
She closes her eyes. Oryx's throne world smashes through her fleet, the bubble of everted screamspace pulverizing rock, metal, and flesh as mere matter surrenders to the will-made-fact of the Taken King. Somewhere, Uldren roars defiance. This is the moment of absolute sacrifice, the incarnation of Awoken doom: to give up their lives in defense of the world they once abandoned. The sense of their great dying rips at Mara like a sob.
She feels her Techeuns preparing emergency selfgates. Shuro Chi reaches out to her—a wordless, urgent need for Mara to live—and it takes all the cold impassive remove of Mara's millennia to turn that hand away.
The shockwave strikes.
In one way, she is vaporized with her Ketch, the bonds between the very particles of her body questioned by the harrowing logic of Oryx's weapon and found inessential. The mechanism of devastation is spontaneous fission. The author of the devastation is laughing in joy.
In another way, a more true and symbolic way, she is impaled on Oryx's blade. She has thrown all her might at him, and he has answered. He has snuffed her fledgling divinity and her meager claim to royalty, he has exposed Mara to the raw and caustic hostility of his High War. She has been defeated by the sword logic.
She dances down the blade and steps into his throne world. The Harbingers give her the gate and she takes the step. She is dead, consumed by Oryx: She is dead in his will, his Ascendant Realm. There was no other way inside except this true way.
Inanna at least gave her people some warning; she told her minister to have her worshippers lament, drum, pray, and lacerate their buttocks. Inanna told her minister to beg the gods to save her. Mara has not. Instead, she has enlisted Eris and several million mad dancing Guardians to go knock off the god who killed her. It is, on that level, a very simple bank heist: Get yourself taken into the treasury as treasure, and when the owner dies, break back out with his stuff.
But even Inanna had to send everyone away before she passed through the last door.
Mara thinks of everyone she has ever known, all the people she has lost, back even to Yang Liwei and that ray of Light in deepest Darkness. She is there again, on the tether, falling into the mystery. Her brother is crying out after her, trying to follow, and she cannot look back.
She has been thinking of a logic of her own, of secrets and hidden designs. The universe has not grown simpler in its age. Wherever life can begin, it has begun, and even in some places where sensible folk expect it should not. The great tendency has been toward intricacy, toward sophistication, toward deep thought and richer ways of being. A sword is everywhere edged, but the pieces of a bomb do not look at all like weapons until they are assembled.
Oryx's throne world tries to tear her body and psyche into a quintillion screaming pieces, but Mara has survived the inchoate primordial chaos before space and time. She has retained her selfhood through far worse than this—and she has patience for eons. Eris will succeed. The Guardians will play their part. When the power in this world is free for the taking, Mara will take it, not as the victor taking spoils, but as a scavenger takes a prize component for her masterwork.
When a pawn reaches the far side of the chessboard, it may be promoted to a queen. And what hatches when you promote a queen? What new board does she claim her place on?
She settles in for the long wait, entirely alone, almost at peace with it.
"I see. And our Wolfships?"
"Those that remained at the Outpost are still in good condition for now. And we have some still in reserve at Pallas."
"And how many shipwrights?"
"I'm afraid I cannot say."
"Wilco that. Signing off, Commander."
The comms light goes off and Petra takes a deep breath for calm. She leans forward to flip switches, adjust dials. Her hands are shaking. "Commander." She was never supposed to be Commander. All she'd ever wanted was to serve and protect Mara, and now Mara Sov was—
Mara Sov was…
Mara was alive; she was alive somewhere. She'd promised!
Retaking the yoke of her own Galliot, Petra sets a course for the Tangled Shore. She cycles through comms channels as she flies: The Hive are swarming the Outpost, and the Disciples are demanding escort in their evac. Devi is MIA. Guardian jumpship after Guardian jumpship is throwing itself kamikaze at that monstrous Hive ship, only to be repelled by some kind of defense field. A hundred Seeders are landing on Ceres. Hallam is evacuating every civilian he can to the shielded inner cities. Two hundred more Seeders on Pallas. Skyburner forces inbound, armed to the teeth. Wolf allies defecting. Devi is found.
Petra cannot turn off the radio. She cannot stop listening; she can scarcely breathe. She wants to reverse course and fly her ship into the eye of that flagship; she wants to wreck herself against its ugly scrimshawed hull and scream so clear and true as she dies that that wretched beast will hear her and know what atrocity he has committed. She wants to believe Mara is alive but how, how, how when she cannot feel her, when she does not know every step of the accursed plan!
She approaches Thieves' Landing from a reckless angle, then cuts fast and low across the lashed-together wreckage of the Shore. The air is thick with dust and debris and shimmering immaterial Harbinger matter; it is impossible to see more than a klick out. She follows her radar.
Unconsciously, she holds her breath.
And then—there it is. The Watchtower.
Petra sighs through clenched teeth.
It's whole. Unharmed.
In the bomb-walled passages of the place called Processes and Services, the screams have stopped.
"I've never heard it quiet before," Lissyl whispers. "Are they gone?"
But she knows, as Portia and Nascia know, as Illyn herself knows, that the Taken have not gone. Not very long ago, Processes and Services was the place Illyn and her sisters came to make the Desolates—items of technology imbued with the husk-dry power of Oryx's Taken. Illyn was the first to stand as living conduit; the first of the Techeuns to use that deep interior faultline, that fundamental Awoken schism, as a bridge. She remembers the endless, awful, infinitely malicious screams of the things. But she also remembers the whispers… and if the screams are silent now, the whispers are louder than ever.
"Quickly," Illyn hisses. "Before Petra is informed." Any breach of Processes and Services triggers an alert, and while they were crafty in their intrusion, even minute body heat and motion of the air will be detected. "We must ask our questions and go."
Brave Portia leads them to the cell she selected for their use—a vacuum-gapped sphere of relic iron coated inside and out by signal-deadening spinfoil. It hovers in suspension, a black miniature Traveler, a pearl formed around a hideous interior flaw. Illyn opens a needle-thin access port. The stink of ozone rolls out.
There is a Taken Vandal within, flexing and shuddering through nameless permutations of blissful agony.
"Nascia," she whispers. Quiet, precise Nascia slips a whisker of cable into the port, guiding it through impossible twists and encrypted locks with the caress of her augments' fields.
Illyn rubs her temples. The whispers are loud here. The whispers that haunt the place where their Queen's voice once sounded. Whispers which sound so much like missing Shuro Chi and the others from the Queen's flagship.
They should have selfgated to the Dreaming City if the battle went wrong. They should have come home safe. What if they need help? What if Petra has kept their fate from Illyn? Would she do that, Petra Covensdaughter, raised by the witches? Things have not been easy between the Regent-Commander and the Techeuns…
"Ready." Nascia offers the splayed end of the cable to them. "Be careful, all of you."
Their augments sync in a stutter of light, like a sunbeam passing over a field of diamonds. Inquisitive Lissyl forms the first question. Do you hear us?
The viper-strike rush of the Taken thing's will comes at them. It is powerful, but familiar: Illyn deflects its demand. "I think it hears us," she says, with a grim chuckle. "We know Taken too well, don't we?" There were fears once that the Guardians would be appalled by the Taken-empowered armor. But Petra was right. Guardians will wear anything that gives them power—whether tactical or social.
Together, they unfold the Taken thing's brutally elegant interior geometries, seeking the threads of connection that reach out across space and time. "Shuro?" Illyn whispers. "We have heard you. Do you hear us?"
That is when she makes the fatal mistake. She thinks of the time before Saturn. She thinks of Shuro Chi and Uldren and Mara. She… wants that time back.
In the nonspace around them, great jaws snap shut.
"RIVEN!" brave Portia screams. Illyn was prepared for Taken—folded perfect things, elegant and thus manageable—but this absolute appetite, this impossible will…
She speaks the secret word of stasis that will crash their augments and end the communion. She does not know if she is in time. Quiet Nascia is screaming, inquisitive Lissyl is screaming. The screaming has begun again.
White light flashes through the film of Koro's plastic hovel. Tellia thinks of arc grenades and the Baron's Scorn cutting through the walls of her lab. She shudders, counts the arrows in her quiver, and tries to go back to sleep.
She can't. She puts on bow and quiver, joins Koro outside. He's sifting the lightning-struck earth, grinning like a fool. A burrowing insect slips between his fingers—he pinches after it, but gets only one slim antenna. "I need nitrogen to grow plants," he explains, pointing up to the sky and the mist of contained air that surrounds this part of the Reef. "When the containment field builds up enough charge, it arcs to the ground, and the lightning bolts split nitrogen in the air, which fertilizes the soil. Isn't that amazing?"
Tellia stares at him. "You can't seriously want to farm here." Home, civilized proper home, is a sealed habitat—a cool clean place full of light.
"Why not? We're a refugee people now, Tellia. You think things are going to get better?" He points to the bright stars of habitats and ships above. "All those—those are targets. We have to learn to live off our land."
"We're a refugee people because things keep killing us!" Tellia leaves angry bootprints in the soil. "You won't have to be out be here long. Petra Venj will lock down the Reef, or the Queen will come back, or… or…"
"You really think she survived?" Koro brushes his hands clean. "My Felda sure didn't, and she was tough. Real tough. It took legions of Guardians to kill Oryx. The Queen, she's… I know she was something special. But she's no Guardian."
"I think I can still feel her," Tellia says, stubbornly. "Sometimes."
"Sometimes. Who knows what can get into our heads these days."
A new star ignites overhead. Koro squints. "Guardian ship," he says. "You can tell by the way they come in, like they just don't have a care."
"Maybe they'll come hunt the Scorn." Maybe one day Tellia will be a scientist again, in a proper lab, with a proper place to sleep. "Like the days after Skolas…"
"I've got other hopes." Koro slaps his thighs, bounds to his feet, and, as if he is a true prophet, heads for his hovel just a moment before his baby bursts out crying. "You hear about that one Fallen on Hygeia? He pays for people willing to maintain a few remote telescopes."
"You work for the Spider?" Tellia cries. "But he's—"
"Willing to pay in hard goods. Willing to help people move. Even willing to provide security." Koro pulls back his hovel's flap. "Want to help me with the kids? Someone's got to explain why they shouldn't be afraid of lightning."
Petra has her welcome for Zavala all planned out. He will say something stentorian which, while it is technically a greeting, Petra will also read as reproach, or condescension, or perhaps paternal concern. Petra will smirk at Zavala like she really doesn't care, so that he knows he's nobody, a little guy, a bureaucrat, far beneath her anger. But at this exact moment, a shard of cyanide-laced ice from the far reaches of the Oort cloud will penetrate the Reef's ravaged defenses and smash into Zavala with such velocity that he becomes a thin ooze across the floor, a scum. When Zavala's Ghost begins to rebuild him, Petra will say, smoothly, "No, allow me!" Then she will brandish a mop.
The hatch opens. Cayde-6 backs his way through, talking to Zavala: "Whatever you've seen, whatever you've read, it's worse. These people need our—"
"Cayde." Petra half-consciously adopts Mara's fey remove, her insouciant and remote posture. Her throat jams up, and she actually coughs aloud against the sudden grief. "You brought—"
Zavala grinds his way into the room, an obelisk of City stone extruded across the solar system to invade Petra's space. He very politely answers Cayde before turning to her. "The fact is, Cayde, the Queen did us a favor by leaving the Reef in chaos. As long as the Fallen are here killing each other, we have room to rebuild." Now he nods to Petra. "Regent-Commander. Pleased to see you well."
"Likewise, I'm sure." Petra feels in her heart that the Queen saw the Reef as a protector of Earth and its people, if perhaps not protector of the Traveler. It still kills her to hear Zavala speak openly of the Reef as a distraction. "Cayde had a proposal," she says, "that he wanted us both to hear."
"Yes I did!" Cayde prances between them, like a flare meant to draw off the heat-seeking fury passing between Petra and Zavala. The City's fall drove him deep into his jester persona, devil-may-care and fancy free; he hasn't quite recovered. "It's like this, Petra. We're bringing a lot of Earth's lonely people into the arms of the City. I got to talking to Variks about the situation out here, and I figured hey, maybe it's time we extend that policy to you." He sobers. "I want to invite the Reef Awoken into the City. Abandon this place to Variks, to Dead Orbit, to whoever wants it. It's hell out here, Petra. You won't survive."
Zavala's eyes are locked on Petra. He burns with a magnificent, stentorian power. "Does the Regent-Commander have enough control over the Reef to execute a withdrawal?"
"Despite your best efforts," Petra snaps—and then, suddenly, she cannot stop. She is too furious, too hot with grief. "At least Cayde is honorable enough to acknowledge what you've done to us. Every Fallen House you shatter washes up on our shores! Every Hive god and Cabal tyrant you attract goes through us to get to you! No wonder she couldn't stand the sight of you, Zavala. You've forsaken your people."
She bites back the rest: how she wishes that back in two-thousand-and-whatever, when the Darkness hurled mankind off the height of its Golden Age to plummet sixteen centuries into barbarism, it had done just a slightly better job.
That's not true. That's her broken heart talking. But oh does it talk loud.
"She was a charlatan," Zavala says, quietly. "Fighting a war that existed only in her mind. Dragging you all behind her. Any of you who will admit that are welcome in my City. But I will not take in whatever conspiracies she left unfinished. If you come to us, you come to join the City."
No. No. Stop being the Queen's people? Stop remembering her promise? "You're afraid," Petra tells the Titan of Titans. "That's why she could never trust you. Go back to your Traveler, Zavala. Thank you for your concern, Cayde, but the Reef has its own purposes, and you would mourn your foolishness if we abandoned them."
"They are the purposes," she snarls, "intended by our Queen."
They lock onto his ship so far out that he actually grunts aloud in shock—but they have seen stealth tech in action before, among the Fallen and against Oryx, so he should not be surprised.
The message comes. "State your business, or be fired upon by orders of the Regent-Commander."
Arach Jalaal chuckles at the title; he remembers Petra's time in the Tower, her simmering impatience to be back out in the black sky. She got her wish. Perhaps she regrets it. She was right about one thing, at least… this is where everything that matters happens. If Dead Orbit had ruled the City, there would've been a fleet to meet Ghaul.
"It's Arach Jalaal of Dead Orbit," he says, cheerfully. "I'm here to speak to Regent-Commander Petra Venj. I am not an emissary from the City. I come on my own accord to discuss matters of fleet."
Jalaal has been to the Reef before, but never through proper channels. He's a little surprised when Petra Venj meets him at his transmat zone; he expected an escort to a waiting area, where he'd be given a sense he's not a priority. However, Petra is an operative, not a politician. She can't bear to delay action for the sake of theater. He likes that.
"Arach Jalaal." She shakes his hand firmly. Does he feel a whisper of some faint telekinetic force against his throat? She can do that knife trick… and what else? "Welcome back to your ancestors' home."
"Regent-Commander. How does the role suit you?" A reminder that they are both out of place.
"It's temporary." She beckons him to walk. "You want to discuss ships. We have talented labor, but no safe yards for them to do their work. If you can supply a site—"
He checks her with a slash of his hand, a spacewalker's gesture. "I came for salvage rights."
"Around Saturn. I want your permission to go through the debris swarm for materials and spaceframes. The dead will, of course, be returned."
Petra is silent. Arach expects her, being a spacer, to be a pragmatist; to see that the Reef doesn't have the spare capacity to process this salvage and that the inner Solar System needs as many ships as it can raise. There is also the question of Oryx's weapon and whether it can be defeated if the Dreadnaught ever stirs again.
But Petra remains silent.
"The wounds are still too fresh? I apologize. It seems a shame to leave those resources for the Fallen, or to drift into Saturn…"
She speaks. "Earthborn. Did you mourn for her?"
He thinks she will know if he lies. "I respected her, yes, but I despised the way she seemed… entitled… to us all. I never regret choosing the path I did. I was Awoken to continue the search we started long ago. The quest for worlds worthy of our lives."
Petra turns her back and goes.
He stares after her. Only after a long minute does he understand: She cannot say any of the things she wants to say and cannot bring herself to tell the lies she should. So she refuses him. She refuses the choice.
Jalaal pities her a little. She will never be free of her.
Of Earth and the Reef
Dear Master Ives,
I write to you on behalf of the Cryptarchs of Earth in sympathy for all those who died in service to your Queen. We Earthborn feel your loss and hope this tragedy will usher in a new era. We have made great strides in unraveling a richer and deeper history of Earth and its colonies—a history buried below merely ordinary truths. This content is, of course, far too sensitive to publish generally. We long feared that if it were intercepted by her Majesty your Queen, it would be denied or manipulated to serve some need of her own. Some of these discoveries relate to the nature of our "awakening," while others point to the occurrence of journeys like our own… journeys that may have had troubling results. All of this scholarship would benefit from cross-reference and critical comparison with your own collected records. We hope you agree that this knowledge is far more important than any schism that once defined our peoples. We look forward to cooperation between our libraries, correspondence between our scholars, and the beginning of a new intellectual Golden Age, a time of lucidity and truth.
Dear Master Rahool,
We, the Cryptarchs of the Reef, appreciate your sympathy for the devastation that our people suffered in your defense. We likewise express our sorrow for your recent losses and, of course, apologize for the length of time it has taken us to respond to your requests. We were determined to give our reply the full deliberation it deserved. It is our unanimous consensus that you are vile, sir—that you are a grasping wretch. That you would attempt to use our misfortune to solicit access to our vaults and records (which I assure you are far more extraordinary than whatever half-eaten corruptions you've discovered among your ruins) is quite appalling. We will, however, happily review any data or records you believe would be of interest to our efforts. You'll also be curious to know that reams of new discoveries are being generated daily since your Traveler cast out the last of its Light to refuel your Guardians. Let us hope you are wise enough to understand its message.
With all the respect that is due,
Zavala lowers his brow to the Ionian earth. It feels like the respectful thing to do. There's a big coiled ammonite fossil right under the thin topsoil, though, and he knocks his forehead on it. The pain and the blowing sulfur dust make him sneeze.
"Humbly I come," he says, almost laughing, "to speak to thee." Ikora said this was the place. Io. A world still half-born, connected as if by an untorn umbilical to the Traveler. "I wanted to say… thank you."
He finds he's looking up at Jupiter. He's accustomed to seeing the Traveler above the City, so he fastens on the nearest huge floating sphere as a proxy. He forces his eyes down to the soil again. "Thank you for what you did to Ghaul."
Ikora tells him if you listen with the right ears, you can hear the Traveler's last conversation with Io. As if the matter of terraforming an entire moon with Earthlike gravity and a biosphere is only a matter of rhetoric and instruction. Well. Isn't that the challenge, in the end? Not just assembling the power to do something, but convincing people to do it? No, not even that—not convincing or coercing (Traveler knows he is tempted sometimes), but teaching them how to think as you think, how to value what you value, even giving them the ethics required to understand your valuation. So that you can trust them to make the choices you would, even when you're not around to father them.
Zavala wishes he were half as good a teacher as he is a Titan. Then maybe he could allow himself to relax a little and let others take care of things.
Except last time he let his guard down—last time he dared think they were triumphant, with Oryx repelled, SIVA contained, Vex befuddled, Cabal huddled in their bunkers and too stubborn to come out—Ghaul turned up in a storm and nearly destroyed the City, the Traveler, and everything Zavala loves.
"Did I fail you?" he asks the bone-coiled dirt. "Am I… the reason you had to wake up? Because I couldn't stop Ghaul by myself?"
In the giddiness of victory, he declared this their new Golden Age. But now he thinks he may have misunderstood the Traveler's awakening. He has always, he hopes, been a brave man. But he is almost too afraid to ask this next question. "Is this just our next 'age of triumph'? Is something worse on the way?"
The bruise where he head-butted the fossil throbs. History, Zavala once told someone, is a question of armor. How much can you survive and keep on living? More than this, more than what's hit them so far.
But how much more? And if the next escalation is a consequence of the Traveler's awakening, will it be Zavala's fault?
Duty is a puzzle. The harder you work, the more it seems to weigh. That reminds Zavala of Basho, his favorite poet, and of the hot spring Basho once visited to see the Murder Stone, which killed birds and insects that came too near. He has a horrible idea of the Traveler as that stone, surrounded by buzzing flies all shaped like Ghosts…
"You're doing it again," his Ghost warns him. "I know that expression."
"I know," Zavala says. "I just worry."
Spider's lair. Petra in her element, light-footed, light of thought. She keeps herself open to the place. Heat of packed bodies and machinery, bite of Ether in the air. Money and the promise of money and the things money can make people do. Knives. Pistols. Danger like static charge.
"He's no good for you," she says, "and he's no good for me. If you turn him over, I'll be happy. You like me happy, don't you, Spider?"
The Spider grumbles. "Very well. You will take him alive? He must have stores of Ether, and no matter what Variks says, that Ether is mine…"
He's agreed. She has what she came for, which is proof that the Spider actually wants this capture to succeed. As Regent, she can never tell when she succeeds. She's constantly reacting, making decisions that will only be clearly assessed by historians. Here, she is the Wrath again. She feels brave.
"We'll deal with the Ether once we have him. Thank you for the information." Petra slides the hood over her head and dismisses herself back into the crowd.
Two Dregs barter salvage with tokens like fingernail-sized knives. Slatted light falls through thick clouds of adulterated Ether to cut hard lines across the torn bannerless fringes some of the Fallen wear. A Cabal deserter, hunched against the wall in a baggy pressure sac, sells the location of Red Legion arms caches for lodes of raw Glimmer. Petra pauses for a moment on the threshold; looks back longingly at the chaos within; wishes that anything would happen to make her stay.
She goes out into the shadows of the surface.
Soon, as clear as the visions that sometimes come to her, she knows there's something moving quick and stealthy up ahead. She keeps her pace steady. Checks her knife and pistol.
"So few of us remain, Petra Venj."
The voice betrays a bearing, and she catches just a glimpse of structure against the background noise: the hood of a cloak, the arch of lips.
"Who's there?" she challenges.
It's a man. His movements are erratic, shrouded in arrhythmic noise that mimics the chaos of nature. He knows how to seem like an accidental thing: a tumbled heap, a brush of wind.
"Petra… if only we could go back to those days before…"
"Uldren?" she gasps. He is here! He has come to take the Regency and execute his sister's will! She'll be free again to act, act without cruel deliberation and agonizing uncertainty, free to meet every challenge instead of making them for herself—
"She trusted you with all of this, all of us. And you gave it to the 'mercy' of the Light."
She feels the intent to murder, and she knows it is meant for her. She draws and acquires the target faster than a sound can cross from mind to tongue—but her sight picture captures only darkness.
Two slow heartbeats. When no shot or knife comes, she begins to withdraw.
Nothing follows her to her ship.
Asher Mir stands looking at himself in a mirror. He is shirtless. With the hand that still feels, he reaches to the shoulder that doesn't feel. He taps his fingernails against the rigid metal there, then taps his way to his clavicle. The boundary between metal and skin is neither uniform nor tidy: Metal gives way to a sheath of hard, keratinized skin that puckers and blooms and splits like he is a snake sloughing its skin. Keratinized skin gives way to toughened callus, ugly with bruising and overstressed veins.
He spreads his palm against his chest and holds it there, as if covering it up will make it go away. Then, with effort, he drops his hand and forces himself to look for a long time.
What will happen, he wonders, when the machinoforming reaches his lungs? It is already painful to cough.
"You should go to the Reef."
Asher sucks in a breath through his teeth and snatches at his shirt. He struggles to put it on, then whirls around to find Ikora Rey leaning in his doorway. "Unforgivable intrusion," he spits. "Declare yourself plainly when you approach. And schedule your so-called visits in advance. I was not expecting you."
Ikora exchanges a brief glance with Ophiuchus, then goes on, "Tyra believes that Ives or another one of the Reef Cryptarchs might be able to help."
"A fool's errand. The Cryptarchs are preoccupied by idle theory. The answer to my problem lies here, with the Vex."
"If that's so, why didn't you come with me to see Osiris?"
Asher fights his way into his robes, fastening snaps and ties so quickly that he misaligns several. "Because he is a useless, self-obsessed wretch."
Ikora raises an eyebrow and waits. Asher sneers as he smooths both hands across his belly, trying to tidy his silhouette. "I concede your point but I do not have to acknowledge it."
"The Techeuns, then. My Hidden say—"
Asher stiffens. His head snaps up. "Your Hidden!" he barks as hot tears well in his eyes. "Your Hidden know NOTHING about this illness! The Queen's witches, if they still live, know NOTHING about this illness. No one can stop it! I am beginning to believe there is no sense in even trying!"
As I have made it my life's work to seek as much truth as history can offer, I chronicle these dreams in hope that my subjective understanding might provide some path to truth for others:
INFINITE SADNESS: I stand at the bow of a ship, crying as the stars streak the skies. I am trying to chronicle trillions of star systems at once, searching for a single planet. A faceless companion asks why I look so sad, and I show her a photo of a globular mass or a dual-ringed planet, depending on how you hold it. "How much did you pay for that?" she asks. "Everything I have," I respond. Then the stars stop streaking and the ship crumbles apart. We fall into nothing, and I awake.
FISSURING WARMTH: I am running from an encroaching burn of blue light. I jump from rock to rock, as they are the only things with gravity. Every leap is a battle against the cold nothingness of space. I see a sea of people gathered together, and realize that's where I am trying to go. I make one more giant leap, but the blue burn catches my ankles, and I fall. The impact of my plummet shatters the rock in two. Hundreds of these beings fall into the chasm I created behind me. I try to heave each of them back to the surface, and I do until I can't anymore. My elbows won't bend; my arms are too weak to push. The descent gets warmer and warmer until all goes black, and I awake.
SONGS OF ANALYSIS: I am outside my body watching it float from one shapeless void into another. The first void contains a voice humming a tune, yet no presence. As I pass through each, one by one, another voice joins in harmony. I try counting the voices, but I am not sure if I should be adding or subtracting as they fade into one, and in my confusion I lose any memory of numbers at all. I feel a tether pulling me back into being and see myself waving goodbye. A voice burrows into my mind as the serenading songs become discordant, ugly. The voice becomes louder, and I awake.
WASHING SKIN: I have gathered my belongings in a gray porcelain sink. The soap clings to my fingers. As I wash what I possess, my things begin to dissolve. I scrub harder because I know that the washing is a way to remove impurity, and I must be certain that I will not dissolve too. My mother tells me that silver is the element of false-life, blue skin poison. I worry that my fingernails are soft.
MOUNTAIN: I am on the mountain at Felwinter's Peak, except there is an express monorail to my neighborhood grocery in the City, which is all out of what I need. A Guardian brings me a special engram. I refuse to decrypt it. I tell the Guardian it is better this way, unactualized, secret, certainly containing the thing that will be needed when the moment comes.
TYRA: I am someone else. I hope that someday I will meet Tyra Karn.
Dinna twists the emergency transponder until the circuit closes. And for the second time in her life, she feels the crackle of the beacon as it burns itself out, blasting its life into a single radio howl: PSARA PSARA PSARA
It means that the Queen's throne room is about to fall.
"Done," she tells her second. "Let's not count on reinforcements."
"Not our reinforcements, at least." Pods are still coming in from the prison, crashing all over the Vestian Outpost. "The throne isn't a tactical target. Do you think they'll bypass us?"
"Not a chance," Dinna says, grimly. "Not the littlest chance."
The Queen's Guard has, technically, never been defeated in battle: Pride dismisses the House of Wolves' backstab as an act of treachery, not military might. But once more the Fallen are loose in the Reef… and if there is no treachery involved, Dinna will eat dirt and call it hummus. This reminds her too much of that awful day.
So when the voice comes through the door, she calls, "Hold. Hold."
"Paladin Dinna?" the Prince of the Awoken calls. "You know that's my throne you're guarding, don't you? May I come in?"
"You're not alone," she shouts back.
"I have my retinue with me."
A few of Dinna's people lower their weapons. "Weapons up," she snaps. "We can't trust him to—"
Royal overrides slither through the throne room's networks. The doors open, and a dazzling barrage of flashbangs plays the royal welcome. Dinna stares straight into it, weapon aimed, eyes open, trusting her helmet to buffer her sight—and waiting for the first blue flash of Fallen weapons.
Prince Uldren Sov saunters in like the belle of the ball, his cocked revolver aimed at the ceiling. "At ease," he says, with a little swish of his cloak, and everyone, Dinna included, responds. Just a moment's weakness. Just the subtlest flicker of deference, because he is the Prince and it feels so right to have royalty in this throne room again. Fingers off triggers, weapons skewed a few degrees off target—
The impulse is so strong because it jives with Dinna's discipline, which has already stepped in to crush the immediate instinct to blow Uldren away. Something's wrong. Something's off.
Baseline Humans can react to a visual stimulus in less than two hundred milliseconds. Awoken, less than a hundred. But there is a phenomenon Dinna and every other Royal Guard knows well, a trick of the mind called attentional blink. You are waiting for something to appear: a hostile, a gunshot, a loud noise. When it does appear, your attention blinks. You cannot detect a second event if it comes just after the first.
So it is with the blue flash of Arc-rifle fire behind Uldren's cloak.
It could go differently, still. But there is no one in this room who can easily sight in and fire on their Prince—and he has no such reciprocal inhibition.
the clever one sees through our pawn
'I am not your pawn. My will is my own. Though… perhaps not my actions, of late.'
P A W N S H A V E M A N Y U S E S
'More than you know.'
Her plan was multi-armed. Strong.
'You will never see her coming. Mara Sov bows to no one.'
clever or not she will not halt the storm they are coming
N O T H I N G W I L L C H A N G E T H A T N O W
'Don't be so sure. Those I judge have agency like you will never know.'
Then why are we afraid? We are Nine.
'Hah. Are you?'
A R E W E
truth truth count the voices
'One, two, three, four, five. Haha.'
They will see it our way, given time. We are the same.
'No one sees anything your way. You seek to hear us… them… but you don't listen.'
N I N E
i wish to share your confidence
Have you learned nothing? Even we should not use that word.
'What tipped you off? The paracausal nightmare in the Reef? Or the Hunter with the bleeding eyes?'
E N O U G H
'Even you have tempers.'
the pawn will give us agency in this her goal is our goal we made her thusly
'Yes. And no. You will never understand us.'
Yes. They are coming, and when they arrive, she will do as she always does. Judge.
'In that we agree. I'm judging you, too.'
EVERYTHING DIES. EVEN THE ONES RIDING THE ONCOMING STORM.
T H E R E I S A N E N D T O E V E R Y T H I N G
The greatest threat to a Guardian is another Guardian.
SAFE HARBOR IS VERY FAR AWAY
'Dogma. I'm sick of your dogma. I'll be just a little longer, Namqi.'