Life was just better if you could fly. Air streamed through the curled horns on Christina’s helmet, tugging her head back a bit. The long drop into the Gorgon’s Labyrinth reminded her of Gilbert. When he returned to the City, they lost themselves in each other. Dropping off into a cycle of clubs, bars, drinking, dancing, and sex that lasted for days. Then, one day, they would wake up, hungover and still exhausted after having passed out hours ago, and the freefall would be over. Gilbert would get in his ship and head back out to she knew not where. Sometimes she would think of his deep brown eyes and easy smile, but for the most part, he didn’t enter her mind until he came back to town.
She could sense Jale and Sweet Susie on either side and just above her. The air her two friends displaced as they fell sounded, to Christina, a little like turbines spinning up. It occurred to her that she could just ride this feeling all the way into the ground. Her friends, assuming they didn’t do the same thing, would revive her and they would all be on their way. Even after all the times she’d died, she found the idea of just crashing into the ground for the hell of it distasteful. Wasteful, somehow.
She Blinked, teleporting up as the she rushed toward the ground. Her momentum was displaced and she dropped lightly to the ground, knees barely having to flex to absorb the small amount of energy left from her descent. Christina looked up, smelled the ozone scent of the Labyrinth and sent a hopeful thought out into the Universe that she would see a blue sky again.
Jale made sure that Christina and Sweet Susie saw her and then gestured for them to follow her. All three members of the team knew that, until they were past the Gorgons, it was vital to make as little noise as possible. They would communicate only with hand gestures and would whisper only in an emergency. No one was to use a weapon unless there was simply no other option. Fighting the Gorgons was akin to making a last stand for the principle of the thing.
Study of the recollections and recordings of the successful raid team indicated it was possible that the Gorgons could be killed with enough firepower, but that remained only a theoretical possibility. If anyone had ever fought the Gorgons and lost, they’d left no records of any kind to indicate what the fight had been like. Indeed, the reason why there was no memory or record of a losing battle with the Gorgons is that, if a Guardian lost a fight with the Gorgons, that Guardian was rendered into non-existence.
The Gorgons were, by design, unknowable. It was known that if the Gorgons saw you, you ceased to ever have been. The mechanics of how they accomplished such horrifying attacks were unknown.
They picked their way slowly along the route the raid team had used. The first twittering cry in the distance froze them all in place. It was one thing to read a story about monsters. It was another to hear one call out to you.
Jale tried to calm her pounding heart and forced herself to take another step forward. After the first step, it was easier. Their heads swiveled in different directions, looking for the telltale blueish glow of the Gorgons. Each member was responsible for keeping watch of a different sector for a count of ten, then they shifted their gaze. In this way, the three of them kept a simultaneous watch in all directions.
The tap on Jale’s right shoulder let her know that a Gorgon had been spotted to her right. Quickly, but not frantically, she moved to her left and looked for cover. It wasn’t until she’d found a boulder to get behind that she looked to see where the Gorgon actually was. It cruised through the near dark of the cavern like a shark. Blue white tentacles floated lazily behind it. The blipping, sonar-like noises it made were calm and regular. It hadn’t seen them.
Jale looked to her right and found her companions. As per their training, each of them raised a hand when they’d seen her. Another quick hand gesture, drawing a circle in the air with her forefinger, and the team formed back up and moved forward again.
The next Gorgon came from their left. They all heard it before they saw it, and the Daughters moved to the right around a large outcropping of rock. When Jale again felt a tap on her right shoulder, she clenched a hand in frustration. Gorgons to the left and the right, the only way to go was up. She jumped up, hoping that she could find a landing spot above the Gorgons’s view.
Increasingly frequent pings emanated from the Gorgons. They suspected intruders. The Guardians’s extreme vertical jump had put them out of immediate danger. The team huddled together on a hillock of stone listening to their hunters circling below. Jale looked at her companions, pointed to her ear and then held up two fingers. Sweet Susie and Christina nodded. There seemed to be two Gorgons below them.
Jale pointed again, this time in the approximate direction of the Gorgons. Sweet Susie and Christina nodded again. If they waited, the machines might either leave or they might come up and find them. Jale made a decision, better to go and not be there to be found. Turning, Jale headed for what sounded like the widening gap between the two Gorgons.
The Daughters came to edge of their temporary safe haven and jumped lightly down. The Gorgon sounds were dopplering away to their right and left. Jale checked behind her and found that Christina and Sweet Susie were following her. She turned back and found herself facing a Gorgon. It was so close she thought she could smell it. It stank like seaweed for some reason. In pure animal reflex, she raised a protective arm against the imminent killing blow.
It was raining.
A steady beat of rain fell on Jale’s helmet and shoulders. It hadn’t started to rain, it was just raining. Instead of stone under her feet she felt something much smoother, but just as hard. It was night, but she could see a couple of buildings to her left and right. Both the buildings were large, multistory, blocky constructions that had lines of windows. The building on the left was about a story taller than the one on the right and its windows glinted with a kind of gold tint that contrasted against the red stone of its walls.
Sodium arc streetlights, stationed at regular intervals, cast a yellowish color onto the building to her right. In daylight, the building would probably look light gray. It appeared to be a parking garage. “Ghost, where am I? What happened?”
Her Ghost didn’t answer. She checked her backpack and found it empty. The rain continued to pour down in sheets. Below her, a fountain, circular in shape except for a pie piece wedge cut into it, accepted the rain and shot streams of water back into the air.
A glint of light on coppery metal attracted her eye. She focused and brought her sniper rifle up. Training the scope on the roof of building to her right she found a Vex Hobgoblin raising its Line Rifle. The machine wasn’t pointing the weapon at her, however. It was aiming toward the red building to her left.
Whatever the Hobgoblin was doing, whatever was going on, there was an enemy in front of her. She couldn’t hit the robotic sniper in its so-called “juice box”, the container that held its organic processing core. The Hobgoblin was facing the wrong direction. Landing a shot anywhere else wouldn’t be a guaranteed kill, which meant that the robot would still have a chance to fire before she could take it out. She would have to put more damage on it more quickly. It would take precise timing.
Jale manifested a solar grenade, judged the angle and the distance, and threw. While the grenade was still in the air, she whipped her sniper rifle up to her shoulder. Readouts on the scope gave her range to her target and windage. The grenade seemed to float through the air, falling like a feather rather than a piece of ordnance.
An internal glow began to light Hobgoblin’s rifle. It was preparing to shoot.
The grenade descended and Jale squeezed the trigger, just the tip of her finger pulling millimeter by millimeter, steadily applying more force until the shot cracked out. The bullet and the grenade hit at the exact same moment. Somehow the Hobgoblin’s protective shield snapped up, but too late. It was protecting a mass of junk. The combined power of the grenade and the high caliber rifle bullet had done their job. The enemy sniper was dead.
A miniature sun shone on top of the building as the solar grenade burned out its plasma fuel as a shining orange corona. The Hobgoblin’s own reddish shield added to the light. It was as if noon had come hours early. Jale took advantage of the light to check the robot’s target. The bright light rendered the tinting on the red building’s windows basically useless. Jale could see through the window that the Hobgoblin had been aiming at. The scope on her sniper rifle brought distant detail into sharp focus. A woman lay in a hospital bed and held a newborn baby swaddled in her arms. The woman’s mouth had dropped open and she squinted out into the sudden light outside her window. The orange glare of the grenade colored her blond hair. Her face looked familiar.
It was not raining.
Jale looked through the blueish white field of light created by the relic on her arm at the Gorgon. Tentacles flailing the Gorgon reared back and made a high pitched screech. Christina charged forward, a black sword in her hands. The weapon trailed purple Void energy as she swung it in an upward two-handed slice.
Christina’s cut severed a portion of the Gorgon’s body away. The Gorgon buzzed and rolled in the air as the section that Christina had cut away convulsed on the ground, tentacles whipping wildly. Sweet Susie stepped up and Jale could see that she was holding her heavy machine. Thunder reverberated through the cavern and shell casings sprayed and bounced everywhere.
The Gorgon fell back even more as heavy, armor-piercing bullets struck it. But it did not fall, and all too quickly Sweet Susie’s gun fell silent. Jale leapt forward and swung the relic like a bludgeon. She hit the monstrous robot twice and felt the thing’s armor begin to give beneath her assault. With a scream, she brought the relic around again in a backhanded smash. The Gorgon fell in upon itself, tumbled over and crashed to the ground. Blue light pulsed through its remaining tentacles for a fraction of a second, and then it exploded.
The trio stood stunned for a moment, amazed at what they had done. Then, Sweet Susie strode up and with a solid kick sent the Gorgon’s central eye spinning off into the darkness. “Daughters of Praedyth, bitch!” Sweet Susie spat, her voice triumphant but shaken. She looked back at Jale and Christina. “Let’s go kill some more of them.”
“Uh, let’s get the hell out of here. How about that?” Christina suggested.
There was no point in stealth now. Sprinting away through the cavern, they could hear querulous chiming cries from the remaining Gorgons behind them. The monsters of the Labyrinth were fast, but not as fast as the Daughters. The three warlocks skipped over stones and ran, now side by side, now single file, as the space around them dictated. All of them knew the path out of the cavern. The way through had been analyzed and mapped, including the paths the Gorgons seemed to follow. The robots had varied their path, sought out the Guardians.
When the hunting calls of the Gorgons had diminished to nothing, the Daughters slowed and then stopped. “What happened to you, Jale?” Christina asked.
“I’m not sure. What did you see?”
“You and the Gorgon both seemed to…flicker. It was a fraction of a second, but it happened. Then the Gorgon recoiled and, well, you know the rest.”
“I was somewhere else. It was raining and it was night. Almost certainly Earth. I wasn’t there long, but from what I saw it was pre-Collapse Earth. A Hobgoblin was trying to shoot a mother and her infant child. I stopped it. I think…that is, I got the feeling…” Jale lapsed into silence, biting her lip, knowing what she thought but not wanting to put a voice to it.
“You think what?” Sweet Susie pressed.
“I think the woman was my mother. I think the infant was me. I think that’s how the Gorgons erase you from existence. They map your timeline and send something back to your birth to kill you.”
Her fellow Guardians were quiet and Jale began to wonder if they thought she was crazy. The group stood at precipice of another unknowably deep chasm. “What you’re describing makes sense, Jale,” Christina responded. “Except for one thing. Why did you get sent back along with the Hobgoblin? Surely the Gorgon didn’t want a fair fight?”
“Maybe the relic somehow sent me to follow the Hobgoblin dispatched by the Gorgon? Only I could see it before I picked it up. It’s clearly linked to me in some way. Ghost, you weren’t with me when I killed the Hobgoblin. Did you notice me being gone?”
Her Ghost answered without coming out of her backpack. “You never left as far as I could tell. I did notice a low energy pulse that emanated from the Gorgon. It was a stream of tachyons and other exotic particles. I can’t detect anything from the relic. Nothing at all, very strange.”
“Why didn’t you mention-” Sweet Susie began. She stopped talking when a platform materialized in front of them. That was expected. Navigating the vanishing platforms was a known peril of the Vault. The Minotaurs that appeared with the platform were not expected.
“They’re coming in behind you as well!” Christina’s Ghost yelled.
The group turned to see a quartet of Minotaurs, three meters tall, shielded and bearing extremely powerful energy cannons, coming out of the tunnel that led away from the Labyrinth. Danger ahead and danger behind, Sweet Susie took command. “Christina, clear that platform with your sword. Jale, I’m going to knock down their shields—you clean them up.”
Christina Blinked to the platform, teleporting in an instant and dropping down on the three hulking Minotaurs with her sword brandished. They didn’t even have time to begin shooting before Christina struck.
Sweet Susie swept right and Jale followed her. The first shots from their group of Minotaurs rumbled past harmlessly. Susie began firing her Ironwreath sidearm. The weapon was equipped with a silencer and its plinking report sounded pitiful compared to the firepower of the Minotaurs. However, the rapid fire shots from the sidearm overloaded and disabled the Vex units’s shields. Jale followed close behind, firing point blank with her rifle and finishing each massive, tank-like robot with a blast of scorching solar energy from her hands.
Turning like dance partners, they wove between the Minotaurs. Jale’s personal shield was supercharged now. She’d trained herself to absorb and redirect the energy generated when she burned down her enemies. She jumped in front of Sweet Susie and took a teeth-rattling blast from a Minotaur as her friend reloaded. Jale staggered the thing with a swipe from the relic and then leapt to the now clear platform. Sweet Susie followed her. “Jump, jump!” Christina yelled.
The platform vanished beneath them as they flew through the air toward the next landing point. It appeared, along with another trio of Minotaurs. The fighting was close and messy now. Christina had switched to using her Telesto fusion rifle. It burbled out almost musically and sprayed shards of energy that slapped away shields and then melted armor.
They leapfrogged through space, fighting for each square meter. A Minotaur swatted Susie with a steel claw, knocking her reeling to the edge of the platform. Jale caught her by the arm while Christina tossed a grenade onto one Minotaur and fired a blast from her fusion rifle into another. Jale and Sweet Susie caught their footing, and the trio jumped again onto another platform and another fresh set of enemies.
Danger ahead, danger behind, they pushed forward into the dark.