“You only live twice: once when you’re born, and once when you look death in the face.” ~Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice
The shadow cast by the Traveler filled every nook and corner I could see. Even as the light of the morning sun cast its first rays into the City, the thickest shadows remained out of its reach.
“You grow used to it, in time,” said a gravelly voice at my elbow over the hum of the crowded street.
“Father Eriksson,” I addressed him, using his clan’s honorific.
He grunted a greeting. “You came down from the Tower,” he said in his own tongue. My Ghost had deciphered the language his people spoke among themselves as a bastardized dialect of Swedish that had changed over centuries of use. Once it had gotten the finer points of the speech it had in turn taught me – one of the advantages of being an Exo.
“Some of your kind never set foot in the City,” he said. He swept a calloused hand to take in the bustling morning crowds, coming and going from their respective homes of the living district we stood in. “I think sometimes you Guardians forget what you fight for, regardless of why you fight.”
“Are they not the same thing?” I asked.
He chuckled in his thick beard, a raspy sound. “Oh, hardly.” He jerked his head in the direction of the street. “Walk with me.”
I fell in step with him. Humans, frames, and even the occasional Exo gave us room to walk – though whether for my sake or Father Eriksson’s I could not say.
“Has Dead Orbit asked anything of you yet?”
“They will.” It was a promise.
“Why do you support them?” I asked.
He turned his head to look at me, green eyes crinkling with what I took to be assessment. “Does it matter?”
“Not really,” I admitted.
He shrugged. “My family is one born to move,” he said. “Long, long ago, before the City, even before the Traveler, we roamed the sea. We explored, we fought, and every now and again, we settled. It was the same in the Before Time.” A phrase I had come to recognize as a reference to the Golden Age, the “Before Time” had an even more mythical quality among the Erikssons than even Old Earth. “We traveled from planet to planet. We had ships, beautiful ships, to touch the sky with.” He looked around. “Before the City, we traveled the settlements. And we did not come here for a very long time. My brothers and sisters, we were the first to settle here. Britt was one of the first to be born inside these walls.” He stopped to look around, and the people moved around him, as if he were a rock in a river of humanity.
“And Dead Orbit fits into that how?” I asked, when his silence had stretched several minutes.
He shook himself out of his thoughts. “Dead Orbit builds a fleet to take us beyond this world.” Father Eriksson looked up at the Traveler hanging silent overhead. “Perhaps they are right, and our world is lost. But even if they are wrong, and this old planet can be saved, my family will travel the skies once more. It is our way.” He shrugged again. “That is why. Their beliefs may be…fatalistic. But their goal is close enough to my own.”
We resumed walking. “And what do you think of them?” he asked me.
“It seems irrelevant now,” I said. “I have already pledged my allegiance.”
“Allegiances can change.”
“True,” I admitted.
“So?” he pressed.
It was my turn to stop and look up. “I want to know,” I said. “I want to understand why this is the way it is.” I pointed to the Traveler. “Where did it come from? What secrets lie beyond us? What has it not yet told us?” I looked Father Eriksson in the eye. “When we have beaten back the Darkness, if the Traveler cannot tell us, then I want to find out for myself. The answers have to be out there.”
The old human smiled. “The answers might be closer than you think.” He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the brightening rays creeping over the lip of the walls. “Do you leave the City again soon?”
“I am joining the Valherjar on an operation tomorrow,” I said.
“I have heard of them,” he said. His tone was difficult to judge, but I thought he might be smirking. “If you come back alive, when the the Winter celebration begins, you may come with us. We go beyond the walls to hunt the Devils most years. But this year, I hear there are new threats.” He grinned and touched the seax on his belt, identical to the one I had taken from his son’s hands that now rested on my own belt.
“You know of the Hive being on Earth again?” I asked in a low tone.
“Oh, aye,” he chuckled. “It’ll be fresh sport for the year.” He reached up and clapped me on the shoulder. “You will be the first Guardian to accompany us if you come. Consider it a thank you, for bringing my son home.”
“You thanked me already with the ship.”
“No,” he said with a firm shake of the head. “That was your rightful prize for battle. This is proper. Not every member of our family is by birth. Perhaps you will consider taking your place in it.”
I finally grasped what his offer meant. “I would be honored. But your…clan does not seem fond of Guardians,” I said cautiously.
“Not all,” he admitted. “But do not mind Britt so much. She will heed my words. Come back Guardian. And do not forget why you fight.” He turned and joined the moving throngs of humanity and was swept into their flow, disappearing in moments.
“Well, that was interesting,” my Ghost said, finally breaking its silence.
I nodded in agreement.
“While you were talking, I received word from the Tower shipwrights: your ship is ready. We can meet the Valherjar at the rendezvous whenever you are ready.”
“Well,” I said. “Better not keep them waiting too long.”