“Incoming! Get down, get down!” Sweet Susie screamed. Her warning was overborne by a harsher metallic bellowing as steel and concrete were peeled away around and above them. The massive, building-sized Vex unit had begun firing on them almost instantly after it awakened. Its arsenal included a massive energy weapon, rapid-fire projectile guns, and a close range sonic powerful enough to shatter concrete.
The Daughters had been able to get in a few shots, but nothing effectual. Mostly, they had run for their lives. Unsure of whether or not they could rely on their jumping abilities to cushion a landing, they had gone back into the building and descended the stairs. The machine had shredded the office building around them in the same way a child would tear open a birthday present.
It chased them into the basement. Jale felt like a cockroach fleeing the light and the stomping foot. “Where do we go now?” she yelled over the ringing in her ears as the machine’s attack trailed off. “It’s going to take the ceiling off completely in the next second or so. Or just collapse the whole damn place down on top of us.”
Christina had the answer. “There should be an entrance to the utility corridors around here somewhere. There’s a warren of them that underlie the entire city. The city founders planned for future expansion when they laid the original footprint of the city. There are levels of tunnels several stories deep that allow for access to all the various utility lines one might need to repair, replace or upgrade.”
“If we can find the door, we can get deep under the city. Maybe too deep for that thing to dig us out.”
A low humming vibration passed up from inaudibility to a range where the Guardians could hear it. The Daughters looked at each other and then scrambled in different directions to look for a door. They knew what they heard was the machine’s sonic weapon powering up. If they didn’t get out of range quickly, it would liquefy them, shaking them apart at the molecular level.
“Got it!” yelled Sweet Susie over the rising cacophony. She hauled open the door and slipped into the pitch black tunnel without hesitation. Jale pushed Christina ahead of her and turned, once inside the tunnel, to pull the door shut behind her. Blocking the tunnel entrance wouldn’t save them. The door would be destroyed, along with everything else in the area of effect of the sonic attack, but it would temporarily dampen the killing sound, buying them a second or two.
They ran. Jale felt the weight of her weapons and armor as she never had before. They’d always seemed to be light things. Almost like toys. Now her rifle felt like it had real mass. She actually considered dropping it so she could run faster.
“It makes sense,” she thought to herself, as the sharply rising noise from the sonic attack made communication impossible, “when we were in a time where the Traveler was at full strength, we had so much power we would have eventually cooked in it, like lobsters in a pot of boiling water.” She had a vision of her armor being peeled back to reveal cooked flesh within.
“Now that we’ve landed in a time where the Traveler is well and truly dead, our Light is leaching out fast, and with it our strength, speed, and power.” She thought all this as the tunnel shook around her. Clamping her hands to her ears, over her helmet, did no good whatsoever, but the reaction was ingrained, instinctual. Her armor had already cut off all exterior sound input when it detected the outrageous ambient noise level. The sonic attack penetrated even through the extremely resilient material of her helmet to assault her ears.
They ran. The only light came from their ghosts, acting as floating lanterns. The tunnel shook all around them. It was like being in a maraca.
Then the attack was suddenly over. Jale turned to look and realized that the tunnel had collapsed some ten yards behind them. She hadn’t heard the collapse over the sound generated by the machine’s weapon, but if they’d been much slower the entire team would have been buried and crushed.
Breathing hard, the group didn’t pause. Christina took the lead, moving as fast as she could. She took left and right turns in what seemed to be a random order to Susie and Jale. All noise ceased except for their labored breathing and rushing footfalls.
“Do..you..know..where..you’re going?” Susie asked Christina after a while, having to gulp air between words.
“Yes,” was all the answer Christina spared.
When they’d gone down two different sets of stairs, Christina finally came to a stop. The trio all but collapsed to the floor. Jale pulled off her helmet so she could haul breath into her lungs more easily. The place smelled of damp forgetfulness. When her breathing eased somewhat, she could hear water dripping somewhere.
After they’d rested for a bit, Christina explained. “I studied this system as part of my engineering training. There are a set of markers on the walls. Color and symbol coded. Once you know the system, you can navigate in three dimensions in the tunnels, finding your way north, south, east or west and toward or away from a stairwell or elevator. Even the backup power seems to be out, so the elevators won’t do us much good.”
Sweet Susie nodded. “We should probably just use one ghost for light. That will limit the amount of electrical activity we generate. The less detectable we are, the better. Now that the Vex know we’re here, it won’t be long before they start trying to search us out. That thing up there wont fit into these tunnels. It could dig them up to find us. That would take time and patience, both of which the Vex have. But goblins, hobgoblins and minotaurs could scour this tunnel system a lot more efficiently.”
“You’ve both noticed that we’re a lot weaker, I suppose?” Jale asked.
Christina and Sweet Susie nodded. “I don’t think I can manifest a grenade or even manage a Thunderstrike.” Sweet Susie admitted.
“I wonder how deeply the loss of the Traveler’s Light will affect us,” Jale went on. “We were raised from the dead using its power. Will we die now that it’s gone? I feel weaker than I should, but I don’t feel sick or anything.”
“How much further in the future do you think we are?” Christina mused, scuffing gathered dust on the tunnel floor.
“Who says we’re in the future?” Susie’s voice was grim. “We might have come back to our own time. We were in the Vault for hours. Plenty of time for an attack on Earth.”
Jale shook her head. “You could be right, but I don’t think so, Sweet. That Vex monster had a lot of accumulated dust on it. It had been stationary for quite a while. At a guess, I would say we’re a couple years after the attack that finished off the Traveler and destroyed the Tower. Who knows how long those attacks came after our own time.”
Sweet Susie was silent for a few moments while she thought about what Jale had said. Finally, she clapped her hands to her knees and got to her feet from where she’d been sitting on the floor. “I think you’re right. All the more reason we should get back to our own time. So we can warn the Vanguard of what happens.”
“I agree,” Jale said. “We need to find a portal, get back to the Vault, find Praedyth and go home.”
“Praedyth?” Sweet Susie asked incredulously. “Are you serious? We’re so far outside of our plan it’s absurd. We’ve identified a specific known danger to the survival of the City. We need to find a way to report that to the Vanguard. Finding Praedyth is on the back burner now!”
“We knew some temporal displacement was a hazard of the Vault, Susie. Besides, look at these relics. Do you think we found them by chance? Do you doubt there’s a third out there somewhere for you, now that Christina and I have both found one? I know some unexpected things have happened-”
Sweet Susie interrupted with a growl. “Unexpected. Like you bringing along some Future War Cult tech and lying to us about it? Unexpected like that, Jale?”
“I apologized for that.”
“Yes, you did. Do you think that the Vex swarming all over us constantly, in parts of the Vault where they’ve never attacked a fireteam before, is a coincidence? That little gadget is drawing the Vex to us.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would Lakshmi give us something that would get us killed? What does she profit by that?”
“That’s exactly the point! You don’t know her motives!”
“Ladies, regardless of which of you is right, we need to get moving and find a Vex gate.” Christina broke in smoothly, her tone calming the growing anger between her friends.
They moved out, Jale and Christina walking together. Sweet Susie fell well back as the rearguard, staying just within the circle of illumination generated by Christina’s ghost. The team moved in silence for a long time.
“Where are you leading us, Christina?” Jale asked quietly after they’d taken a few turnings and ascended one level.
“I’m heading for the Warlock Tower. Mostly because I can’t think of anywhere else to go.”
“Do you think Sweet Susie could be right? About the War Cult device attracting the Vex?”
“The idea had occurred to me, but I suppose the only way to know for sure is to ask Lakshmi.”
“If I see her again, I’m definitely going to ask her,” Jale said in a grim tone, tightening her grip on her rifle momentarily.
Christina glanced at her and Jale could hear the amusement in her voice. “I’ll help you ask her.”
“I suppose we could split up. I could take the transmitter and see if the Vex gather to me.”
“We’re not splitting the team. That’s amateur night crap and nothing good ever comes of it,” Sweet Susie piped up from her distant position. Jale and Christina looked behind them and saw that Susie was actually walking backward, keeping an eye out the way they’d come.
“Then we could just throw it away. Leave it somewhere,” Jale suggested.
Sweet Susie sighed. “Why are we still discussing this? We’ve been over these options when you first told us about the thing. We can’t throw it away because it could do exactly what Lakshmi says it does, in which case it would be invaluable. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are getting closer all the time to needing to call in help. I would say we’re not there yet, but soon, if the situation doesn’t improve.”
They went on. Jale traded positions with Sweet Susie. Christina kept the lead due to her knowledge of the tunnel system’s directional symbols. Quiet reigned.
Christina called a halt an hour later. The Guardians gratefully sank to the floor resting feet and legs that had not been tired in years. After taking her helmet off, shaking her hair out and rubbing her scalp Christina spoke. “We’re as close to the Warlock Tower as I can get us, I think. We can’t come up inside because the tunnel system doesn’t connect to the towers. Just as the city was designed to be integrated and connected, the towers were designed to be self-contained and self-sustaining. Separate power, water, everything.”
“Siege resistant,” Sweet Susie observed.
Christina nodded in acknowledgement and continued. “Ghost, have you picked up any Vex transmissions? Any signals that you might associate with a gate?”
Her ghost had taken a position just below the tunnel ceiling, shining its light down on the group so everyone could see. “I’ve been keeping a very low electronic profile. I can scan but in this situation looking for is likely to get me looked at. I don’t know what it could bring down on us.”
“I don’t think we should break stealth yet,” Sweet Susie said. “Let’s scout the Warlock Tower and see what we see. Then we’ll be in a defensible position and we can make a plan. Maybe, use the Tower as a base of operations and start a systemic quadrant search for a gate.”
The group moved on. Another five minutes of walking brought them up a set stairs and down a hallway that ended in a door just like the one they’d used to enter the utility tunnels. After opening the door, and finding the room blessedly empty of any obvious threats, the Guardians moved carefully into the basement up into the building above. They used the same movement patterns and silent communication tactics that they’d employed in the Gorgons’s Labyrinth.
Despite their exhaustively trained coordination, Jale felt disjointed and strangely out of sync with her friends. Or rather, with Sweet Susie in particular. Jale could feel Christina’s presence wherever she was. It was like having a string tugging on her spine. Not painful, just present. She imagined she could almost hear Christina’s thoughts. That level of awareness of one member of the team made Sweet Susie feel like a blind spot. Jale had to keep visually checking where Susie was and kept being surprised that she was right where she was supposed to be. It was distracting.
When they went upstairs, they found themselves in what had once been a grocery store. The large glass windows in the storefront revealed that night had fallen outside. “So much the better,” Christina thought. “The dark should help keep us from being detected.”
Jale agreed, but was concerned about getting lost.
“We should make for the Warlock Tower while it’s dark,” Sweet Susie said contemplatively, breaking the silence.
Jale and Christina looked at each other and laughed. “Okay, this is just getting downright weird.” Jale said.
“Agreed.” Christina said.
Sweet Susie looked from one to the other of them. “Is there some specific weirdness you’re referring to? Because this whole day has been pretty weird.”
Jale and Christina exchanged a glance and Christina motioned for Jale to explain. “Christina and I seem to be experience some shared awareness. To the point where we can…hear…each other’s thoughts, sometimes.”
“That seems like a reasonable guess. I didn’t have any latent psychic connection with either of you before. It didn’t start until after Christina found her relic. Remember how we almost walked away from you in the dust storm? That was because we were coordinating without speech. It was reflexive to the point that neither of us noticed that we hadn’t included you in the conversation.”
“Well, now I really want my own relic. I feel left out.”
“My guess is that you’ll find one soon. This can’t be accidental. In fact, I would go so far as to say that someone is leading us to these things. And you know his name.”
“You’re reaching, Jale.”
“I’m guessing. There’s a difference. Regardless, maybe we’ll figure out more when you find your relic.”
Once again, Christina took the lead with her ghost lighting their path. They walked single file, keeping no less than three and no more than ten yards from each other. Jale took up the position as rearguard, reducing the danger that Sweet Susie would be left behind due to a lack of verbal communication.
The wind died down and now only gusted occasionally. The entire city had been turned into a strange, atonal wind instrument. Their footfalls were muted and nearly inaudible in the accumulated dust. The road ended and they could see the Warlock tower looming up before them.
It was while crossing from the edge of the city into the tree line that Sweet Susie stumbled and nearly fell before recovering. She finished her crossing and leaned against the trunk of a denuded lodgepole pine, breathing heavily. “What happened?” Christina whispered.
Sweet Susie sighed and knocked the back of her helmet against the tree. “I hear singing. Jale was right. Dammit.”
“That means we’re probably close to a gate!”
“Ugh. She’s going to be insufferable when she finds out.”
“Uh, she already knows. Psychic link, remember?”
Jale did somehow manage to communicate a certain smug triumph in the way she jogged across the clearing to join her fireteam. “Well, Susie, it seems like it’s time for you to face the music. Lead on, dear sister.”
“How long have you been waiting to say that?”
“Only since the grocery store.”
With an irritated shake of her head, Sweet Susie led them on. They found the gate in a desolate clearing. Dry brown grass carpeted the area, surrounded by bare trees. The clouds cleared and moonlight painted the area.
The team moved into the clearing, scanning in all directions for danger. As her friends had before her, Sweet Susie heard a chorus of voices, growing clearer and louder as she drew closer to a light only she could see.
The relic hung suspended in the air, its pure white light pulsing out a greeting. Sweet Susie reached for it, captivated by the sound and radiance that seemed to impart beauty and meaning even to the desolate clearing she found herself in now. She touched the relic.
The vex gate burbled to life, blue fire trickling along the circular inside edge of the portal. The Daughters looked toward their doorway home, hope and relief lighting their faces, blue arc light coloring their armor. Then, without prelude, the gate reached some eccentric event horizon and tentacles of energy shot out, touching each Guardian simultaneously.
The Daughters of Praedyth burned, incandescent against the tomb-dark of the ravaged Earth. Sparks flared and fluttered from their melting armor and burning flesh, starting small grass fires around them. Their ghosts danced in the killing onslaught, acting as conductors.
There were no screams. The annihilation was total. When the sun rose over the blackened clearing nothing remained. No bird sang. No bug chittered. Dust eddies swirled, lifeless and silent.