Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work. ~ Mark Twain, alleged.
First entry. Day 37 since my resurrection. Since I seemed to have plenty of time on my hands, I was tasked by the Vanguard to seek some refugees that had left the City.
“Why would someone leave the walls?” I asked my Ghost while I examined a set of tracks that were fresh enough to have been made within the last day. Definitely human-shaped feet. At least 4, and we were seeking 6.
“Scavengers,” suggested my Ghost.
“Guardians are not the only ones who profit by bringing materials back to the City.” My Ghost spun and flickered next to my head, looking down at the tracks and back up at me.
I looked up to make eye contact with the floating cyclops. “Then why are we searching in this particular case?”
“They have been absent an unusual length of time. A family member sent a request.”
“And the Vanguard just happened to respond? Why not just tell them they knew the risks?”
“If they know the right people, the right factions, they might have leveraged a favor. Or pressure. I am not in a position to comment on the politics of the City to that level.” My Ghost flickered, as if making a curt gesture.
I stood. “Analysis?”
“5 humans, at least 1 has not hit puberty, and they are carrying a lot.”
“They brought a child?”
“If it is a family trade to scavenge, it is not unlikely. To live in the City, everyone contributes.”
I touched the grip of my hand cannon with my elbow, assessing, listening to the hum of the Sparrow behind me and the chatter of living sparrows beyond that blending into the susurrus of the wind-blown trees. “No Exos? No transportation?”
“Just footprints, and they seem too shallow for Exos. Also, a group of Exos that large? That would be Guardians, or at least that would be my guess. If they are Guardians, they will not likely need our help.”
“Why not?” I felt something flicker through me. //Annoyance?
“A fire-team that size is probably not looking for a tag-along.”
“Tag-along? So because I am freshly resurrected I am a tag-along?”
My Ghost made a sound I took to be the human equivalent of a sigh. When no elaboration was forthcoming I returned my attention to the tracks. “Only 5. This is not our group, or at least not the entire party.”
“Even so, groups like this have a network,” said my Ghost. “They supply merchants and foundries in the City. Even if they have rival interests they might know something.”
I nodded. Your Ghost will guide you. The Speaker had made a point of me listening to the little Valkyrie that had raised me to the field of battle. “Think you can plot an approximate location?”
“Given their direction, pace and numbers, I think I can get it close. We could catch up to them in minutes if we keep our eyes open, but we can scan as we go to be sure.”
I mounted my Sparrow and gunned it, following the trail down into a valley filled with hardwood trees. Lines of sight became shorter and shorter as we went further into the forest, covering the Sun and leaving us in shadow. Even so, I noticed the symmetry in our path. “Are we on a road?” I asked.
“It would seem so. A byway at one point: there is metal and other materials just a few centimeters beneath the dirt. It is possible this group has been this way before and is returning to a favorable cache.”
I slowed the Sparrow again and my Ghost floated a meter over my head, then began a scan, its collective parts fanning out into orbit around its core. “So what do I call you?” I asked.
The Ghost’s scan ended and it floated down to eye level. “‘Ghost’ will suffice.”
“Seems like there are quite a few of you.” I gave it a critical look. “Like you are all copies of something.”
Spin, flicker, blink. “The same might be said of Exos like you. Constructs, copies of their human creators.”
//Annoyance. //Curiosity. “So why did you raise me, then? If all Exos are the same, it would seem to make little difference.”
“You are not. You are each unique.”
“Are Ghosts not?”
“A conversation for another time.” My Ghost floated up again to resume the scan.
“If you do not give me a suggestion I might have to come up with one myself.” //Smugness.
The Ghost stopped to look down at me. “Nothing new, but the tracks continue on the path.”
I put the Sparrow in gear and we resumed our pursuit. After several kilometers the trees ended sharply and the Sparrow’s thrum echoed off the walls and glass of old buildings. I braked and turned the machine sharply so we came to a stop in what appeared to be a kind of town square. “Analysis?” I asked again.
“A…university, or museum, I think.” The Ghost flickered and fluttered about, spinning in the air once or twice. “I am not detecting any power sources. But there is tech here.” It turned around again and paused. “And smoke.”
I followed its gaze: a column of black smoke rose beyond several buildings away. “That’s not a campfire.” I loosened my hand cannon in its holster and stepped off the Sparrow. “Is there a way over there that you can see without us going through the open?”
“This way.” The Ghost floated off across the plaza and I followed its contrail of Light. Grass, dry and brittle, crunched beneath my boots. There was no birdsong here.
The entry my Ghost had chosen had once had a set of double-doors that had long ago been smashed in. In the stone of the arch over their shattered remains was an inscription. “What does it say?” I asked softly, pointing.
“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” My Ghost looked at me. “A university, then.”
“If you say so.” I stepped over the warped frame of the ruined doors and followed inside into the shadows. A triple-flight of stairs went up to a floor made of marble or some similar stone, supporting columns that in turn supported an arched ceiling with skylights so covered in detritus that no illumination got through. My Ghost shimmered and a beam of light pierced the gloom, showing rows of the columns. Old chairs, desks, and an empty pot that might have once held a plant were scattered among growths of vines thicker bigger than my own body interspersed with cobwebs. I followed my Ghost past them all into the depths of the building. It paused more than once, searching, then taking me down corridors past classrooms and nooks. Eventually we came to a library, shelves destitute of anything except the occasional forlorn book – whatever tech had been here had long ago been stripped from the desks. The room was shaped in a circular fashion with the ground floor open to the ceiling. The second and third floors had an open view to look down on the rows of desks that filled the open space; a coliseum of learning.
“There,” said my Ghost, nodding toward the far side of the room. The bobbing light revealed a wall of windows, and just beyond, the smoke column. I could not see the exact source, blocked by a low-roofed structure, but we were much closer than before. I picked my way across the room to one of the windows which had been smashed outward and stepped through. My Ghost extinguished its light and followed. We both stood still a moment and listened.
“Anything?” I asked. //Nervousness? Correction: //Caution.
“Not yet. It is very quiet.”
“Agreed.” I crossed the open space to the other building in a few strides and sought a hand hold on the wall and scrambled up. The roof itself was sloped, so I crouched and crept to the crest to gain a view of the tableau below.
There was a group of 6 tents, and not simple ones: they were made of heavy materials in a drab green, resistant to weather and wind in the wilderness and easily housing a single person in relative comfort. Well, I thought they might have all been that way: 4 were on fire, smoldering heaps that had been set to the torch. Near the tents were several corpses piled together.
“No movement,” said my Ghost.
“Anything else?” I asked, still examining the scene.
“Where?” //Alertness. //Fear?
“2 Dregs beyond the far side of the ring of the camp. Dead.”
I scanned until I saw them. One was missing a large portion of its head, the other had nearly half its body removed in a gruesome fashion. “High caliber rounds.”
“Possibly. They might be bait.”
//Caution. “If the Fallen were here, where are they now?”
“Perhaps they looted what they wanted and left.”
We waited exactly 10 minutes before I scrambled over the roof to the other side and put boots on the ground. Nothing stirred to challenge us. I picked my way over to the undamaged tents and peered inside. Both were empty of people, only cots and some bundles left behind. Next I checked the human corpses. There were 9, and 1 was indeed a child.
“5 on foot plus 6 tents,” I said. “A rendezvous. Our group was meeting another.”
“Perhaps from a settlement,” my Ghost agreed. “Or a trade they did not want anyone in the City knowing about.”
I looked at my Ghost. //Curiosity. “You think it is possible?”
“The Tower is only an arm of the City, however important,” said my Ghost. “The rest is an entity much larger than you might think.”
Is my Ghost rebuking me? A matter for another time. “This means there might be 2 survivors.”
“Or the Fallen took them.”
//Puzzlement. “Are they in the habit of taking prisoners?”
“If they thought they might be key to getting something they wanted. Perhaps something they scavenged.”
I approached the Dreg still in possession of its head and knelt to examine it more closely. The wound was ragged and burnt, and I was convinced that it had indeed been shot with a high-caliber round. The bullet had ripped off an arm and a chunk of its torso, leaving ether spattered in the dirt. //Puzzlement. There was no sign it had been dragged, meaning…
//Chagrin. With slow deliberation, I raised my hands and stood to my feet. “We are from the City,” I called out. My Ghost spun about in surprise. “I am a Guardian. We mean no harm.”
I heard a shuffle behind me and turned. An old human female – at least, I judged her to be old by the wrinkles in her face – glared at me through an eye down the barrel of a sniper rifle almost as long as she was tall. Behind her was a human male, approximately 10 years of age, clutching in both hands a single-edged knife big enough to serve him as a short-sword. He was wide-eyed and visibly shaking. Both were dressed in non-descript clothes that blended well with the green and brown of the nearby woods.
“Guardian.” The old-woman’s voice was heavily accented. “Like storm-crow. Always following in the wake of battle to pick over lost treasure. The Dead seek the dead.”
“We are here to help.” I spread my hands wide.
“You look like the devils who kill family.” She spat. “Take off hood and helm.” She motioned with the rifle for emphasis.
I obeyed, taking slow, measured movements to pull off my hood and remove the helmet and goggles.
“Blue, like Awoken. But machine.” She squinted and her wrinkles deepened further. “Explain why you here.”
“We are looking for the refugees who left the City 4 days ago,” I explained.
The old woman bristled. “Not refugees. Merchants. They all dead. We go back to City when nightfall.”
“Clandestine trade. Thought as much,” said my Ghost.
“Tell little spirit be quiet or I shoot it.”
//Fear. “We mean no harm,” I repeated. “We want to take you back to the City. Your family is worried.”
“Papa?” asked the youth. He said something in a language I had not yet learned. The old woman spit out several harsh words and he fell silent.
“The Fallen may come back,” I said. “We need to go.”
“Will find own way home. You. Go. Now.”
Again the youth spoke. Another discussion broke out, harsher than before.
“What now?” asked my Ghost while they argued.
“Seems like we do not have much choice but to leave,” I replied softly.
“Well, we-” The Ghost broke off suddenly and whirled. I heard it a moment later: the deep thrum of engines, just on the edge of sound, coming from the direction I had ridden my Sparrow down.
//Fear. //Excitement. “Fallen!” I said, sharply enough to get the attention of the others. They stopped to look at me. “Pikes, coming this way.”
The old woman cocked her head and listened. “You bring Devils to us!” she spat.
“Inside the library!” I grabbed up my helmet and cloak again. “Now!”
The old woman took off at a surprising pace, the youth in her wake. I followed, and we reached the broken window to the library just as the first pikes whipped around the corner and into the clearing. A shout was followed by spats of Arc energy from the Fallen war machines, and what few undamaged windows there were shattered into a rain of glass and hot stone.
We ran between the desks on the ground floor, seeking cover among the stacks. “Up the stairs, second floor!” It was a circular staircase made of steel with only enough room for a single person to run up at a time, hidden in the back of the library from the windows by rows of bookcases. Fallen shouts and howls echoed eerily from outside. We sprinted up the steps and I ran to the end of the row, took cover behind a case and pulled out my hand-cannon, peering through the banister as Fallen Dregs poured into the library, howling and shrieking: 9 of them. 3 Vandals followed.
“We run no more!” hissed the old woman next to me. I startled as she thrust the barrel of the rifle past me through the banister. “Will not die coward!”
I seized the weapon’s barrel to stop her. Too late. Too slow. The rifle roared and its discharge punched a Dreg crawling into the building back outside in a shower of ether. With shrieks of glee – or maybe hate – the Fallen swarmed forward, seeking a way up to us.
I looked over my shoulder at the stairs. The youth was crouching behind me, his eyes nearly bugging from his head in terror, the knife still clutched in his hands. I slid the hand cannon across the floor to him and took my shotgun in both hands. “Pick them off as they come through, I will hold the stairs.” I reached the stairs as the first Dreg stormed up and I took its head off with a shot. Another pushed past it. I killed it too. And another.
Later, when we returned to the Tower, I asked about their fervor. Why attack? Why waste so many lives in pursuit of us? The answer I was given was this: “They are like moths, and the Traveler their moon. But you are a candle flame: if they cannot reach the moon, you will do.” Perhaps the old woman was right: perhaps I should have just left.
“Out of ammo!” I shouted at my Ghost, and hammered a Vandal’s face with the stock of my empty weapon. //Fear. //Panic? I kicked the wounded Vandal down the stairs to collide with his fellows.
I took a moment to assess my allies. The woman was still shooting through the banister down into the open space of the library. She was also shouting at the youth, who hunched over the gun I had slid to him, his hands covering his ears. She swatted him and he cringed, but he made no move for the weapon. The wounded Vandal recovered enough to charge the stairs again. I whipped out my short knife and lodged the blade in its eye, then kicked it down once more.
I turned toward the humans. The old woman suddenly jerked against the banister and cracked her head. She collapsed with a moan, the gun ripped from her hands by a claw. More claws gripped the railing and a Fallen Captain clambered over, a sword in his last hand. He threw the rifle off the edge with a contemptuous flick of the wrist and planted a boot on the woman’s leg. She shrieked. The youth finally reacted and picked up his knife, but was seized in 2 arms and bodily lifted off the ground.
I charged, scooped up my hand-cannon from the ground and pointed it at the Captain. He jumped back, nimbly balancing on the rail, clutching the youth, blade against his captive’s throat. He shouted an order and the library became quieter.
“I think he wants you to surrender,” said my Ghost.
//Anger. “No.” I motioned with my gun. “Put the boy down. ”
The Captain snarled and made a gesture. His captive quivered, still clutching the knife and looked at me with what I can only describe as a pleading expression. “Put him down,” I repeated. What happened next was difficult to process, it was so quick.
The old woman moaned and tried to stand. The Captain snarled at her, distracted a moment. I took a step. The boy reacted: he turned the knife in his hands and thrust down, the heavy blade catching the Fallen in its knee. Ether welled up around the blade. The Captain shrieked, slipped, and fell off the railing.
I ran to the edge. Too late. Too slow. When I looked over, the Captain was already on his feet, stumbling away while his crew provided covering fire.
I leapt over the railing and crouched next to the boy. His head lolled at an unnatural angle. Blood poured down his shirt and pooled around him, and his eyes stared sightless into the void. I felt a surge of //rage. I took up the knife from his broken grasp. It was big and heavy. It was enough.
A leap put me across two of the desks and I cut the first Dreg down, a snap of Arc energy reducing him to fine powder. The next 2 shrieked and dodged. I caught one with a hand and pinned him to the nearest desk with the blade and its body vanished with a flash of Light. I skipped off the desk and cut the head from the other as it fled. The Captain was through the window, limping for the pikes behind his fleeing Vandals. I pulled my hand-cannon free of its holster again and began firing measured shots at the Fallen Captain’s back. A bullet sparked off his helm and he stumbled, then turned, his own weapon in hand, and shot back. I closed the distance, still shooting, until I was close enough to leap in with the knife.
He caught me with 2 hands and roared in my face, raising his own blade. I sank mine to the hilt into his upper arm-pit, 1, 2, 3 strikes, and the sword fell from his damaged grasp. I was bodily lifted and slammed against the Pike, once, twice. I reached for the tie of his cloak around his throat and twisted it, tightening it. A fist pummeled the side of my helm. The Captain roared again – and then his head disappeared in a shower of ether. We collapsed, the corpse pinning me momentarily beneath the still-humming Pike.
I pushed the body off and looked toward the library. The old woman was limping back inside, using her rifle as a crutch. The Fallen were gone, and after a moment I followed her inside. She crouched over the youth. “He was weak. Not strong. A coward.” She touched the boy’s pale hair, now dyed with his own blood.
“He fought at the end.” The words seemed inadequate.
“It was not enough.”
I shook my head. “It was enough. It was his battle to win.”
She thought for a moment, then nodded. I knelt, took off my cloak, and wrapped the boy in it before lifting him from the ground. “I will carry,” said the old woman.
“You can barely walk,” I said.
“I will carry. His papa will expect it.” She took the body from me and limped toward the exit. //Admiration.
I balanced the boy’s knife in my hand a moment. The triangular blade was blackened from the energy that had flowed through it. It would need to be reforged and strengthened with spin metal, but it would do. I slid it into my belt and followed the old woman outside. As she tied the boy’s corpse to the Pike, I knelt and examined the Fallen. His blood-red cloak was still intact. I stripped it from him and wrapped it around my shoulders.
“It fits,” my Ghost commented.
//Amusement. “I agree.” I pulled the hood up and it swallowed my entire head. “Well, almost.”
My Ghost flickered. “You’ll grow into it.”
I almost laughed.