Music. Under a streaked sky painted in the glowing wreckage of the Almighty, the people of the Last City rejoice. Debris burns through clouds and explodes like fireworks high above. Those who remember the Red War peer upward with cautious hope. The Warmind had done as Commander Zavala said it would, and now the Traveler—a great shield beneath a torrent—turns away any remaining danger from the fallout. Fragments of the sun-eating hulk that would have struck it instead cascade off its wide dome of Light and skip into the distance.
Under the watch of Titans posted at the borders of every district, children run laughing through the streets with wooden rifles. Their imagination transforms the stone walkways into Warmind bunker tunnels; homes and side streets allow them to access terminals, duck behind cover, and use offshoot ventilation shafts for quick flanking maneuvers. Rufus, a large black neighborhood hound, bounces through the horde of children as a ferocious Warbeast. They swarm around to pet him, and he flops over, belly raised to the fiery sky, defeated. The older children howl at the fall of their mighty Warbeast and charge with Cabal-themed papier-mâché armor, painted red. Sparkler grenades burst and shine as if infused with Light.
A true Guardian stands beneath the Traveler, in command of the not-so-tall forces of the Light gathered around him. His armor—slick-gold and clean to imaginative eyes—is in reality, dull and marred from ricochet dents and the imprints of close calls. His holsters: empty, save the loaded Sidearm pinned to his chest by a tight bandolier. He raises a fist to steady their hearts against the charge. The Cabal menace advances with a wild clattering. The defenders raise their wooden rifles. The Guardian drops to a knee, slams his fist into the ground, and a rift of restorative Light spreads from his touch. The children cheer.
Their forces clash. The Cabal complain they have no Guardians.
Rehnpeir listens to the ruckus outside as he rings soapy water from a coarse cloth. Droplets break the water’s rhythm of ripples pulsing in time with the music of a passing parade. He watches the dissonance with optimism.
“Come clean up for supper!” he calls out.
“Not yet, Gramp! We’re protecting Rasputin from the Cabal!”
Rehnpeir’s mouth curls into a smile. His grandchildren’s words were spoken with careless abandon. Their idea of battle is a facsimile of heroic tales told by booming-voiced Guardians clad in legend. The children, even the older ones, barely remembered the Red War, let alone the conflicts fought on distant alien worlds. The walls had stood since their birth, and stories held tight in the throats of their elders carried little weight without the foundation of experience. They did not understand the horror that calls heroism to the fore, nor that heroes pay for fame in broken bodies and dead friends. Past strife became a tangled myth in youthful minds; an allegory of forgotten lessons amidst the City’s stability.
Their naivety warms his heart. For all the danger washing up against the gates, this day is safe. Innocence can be coddled a little longer, and maybe there will soon be a time when the people of the City remember nothing but peace.
A quiet dusk settles, revealing cinder-orange blankets within bands of receding blue sky as shadows spill from the western wall. Congregations under the streetlights that were brought on by the Almighty’s destruction had slowly died down since the arrival of the Black Fleet; their revelry laid to rest in tombs of speculated dread and anxiety.
Titans reinforce aging sections of the wall and patrol the streets. Hunters form recon fireteams and slink into the surrounding wilderness, keeping tabs on enemy movements spurred by the arrival as the cover of night materializes above them. Warlocks gather en masse in the stone gardens beneath the Traveler in a desperate meditation, scouring their Light for signs.
The remnants of socialite resistance steal away to shelters of any kind; a handful of ornery citizens still find refuge above ground in Rehnpeir’s Drunken Noodle Ramen Bar. A few patrons sit behind the massive glass window, and the glow of the Drunken Noodle signage, complete with neon bowl, fills the far wall. Beyond there, shuttered shops loom silently over the shoulders of a patrolling Titan. The ramen shop stands alone, alive in a faint glow and the wafting scent of hot broth that press back the depression of nightfall.
“Lockdown after lockdown. I’m sick of curfews,” Frank sighs. “I understood it for the Almighty, but this?”
“The Commander will handle it,” Rehnpeir says and leans over the bar counter, refilling glasses and bowls with sustenance.
“Please…” Frank’s voice is thick with sarcasm.
“I don’t see a ship crashing down anymore, do you? He did it before, and he’ll do it again.”
Distant melancholy hymns ebb and flow outside as the voice of a chorus rises beneath the waves of music.
A young woman name Milley speaks up from a secluded corner table. “Zavala’s a politician. What’s he going to say, ‘People of the City, you’re all going to die.’?” She shifts in her chair. “He rolled the dice on the Almighty and got bailed out. Guardians didn’t do squat.”
“Oh yeah? Big talk from someone living in their walls, under their Traveler,” Jean, an old regular, calls back.
“I was born here, ma’am.” The title drips with derision. “And now, there ain’t anywhere else left to go,” Milley snipes.
“Used to be, wasn’t anywhere to go. Period,” Jean says and glares.
Frank nods at Milley. “Look. Guardians have had years and years, and we’re still stuck in one spot. They’re just in it for glory; they love running around on their little missions, playing hero.” He leans back and speaks loudly. “Listen to how Shaxx yells from up in their tower. Not one word about the little guy.”
Rehnpeir cuts in. “Frank, you’d be dead in two seconds out there, and Milley… your mother was coughing up blood before—”
“Before! Before, before… it’s the same words coming out of all you geezers. You’re all so caught up talking about before. What about now?” Milley asks and slaps her hand down on her table.
The not-so-distant chorus turns onto the Drunken Noodle’s street. Deeper tones of their hymn, now full and symphonic with the backing of a hundred voices, bleed into a funeral dirge. Several of the restaurant patrons, as well as Rehnpeir, crane to see the procession.
“Dead Orbit freaks. Traveler’s done good by us. Some of you don’t appreciate what you have,” Jean interjects.
“I’m with Milley. Guardians aren’t here for us; Traveler’s looking out for itself. Legion hit us, and it didn’t do jack until its life was on the line,” Frank says. He stares at his bowl before turning to view the procession through the window. “It just sat there, while our homes burned. I lost my son on Titan. We don’t even have his body.”
A host of citizens led by a crier in Dead Orbit black flow down the stone road. The crier’s voice is crisp as they call for unity—speaking of warnings unheeded. Pleading for the like-minded to join the procession. Promising hope. Seeking to shepherd others to the intangible beyond.
Rehnpeir refills Frank’s glass with mead. “We all mourned Henry with you, Frank—”
“It’s crisis after crisis; living scared and losing. This place was supposed to be safe. Instead, we’ve all paid. It’s time the Traveler pulls its weight,” Milley says, riding the wave of Frank’s frustration.
Her argument is interrupted by the commotion outside, where a Guardian watches over the procession from the opposite side of the street. She does not flinch as a hurled bottle shatters against her helmet. Spit, glass, and stinging words. Her weapons remain slung. Her Ghost, concealed.
The dirge wanes and moves on.
Rehnpeir breaks the eerie hold first. “The Traveler will. They all will. We’re here, aren’t we? They won the City back.” He points through the window. “They brought a man back from the dead!”
“Death doesn’t mean anything to them. They never suffer the consequences, and you expect them to understand what it feels like?” Frank exhales, voice tremoring.
“You’re talking out your ass. Saint-14... When I was a girl, he was like a giant... He could do anything—he would do anything to help. You don’t know how it was. Guardians will get it done,” Jean says and crosses her arms.
“We’ll see,” Milley replies, slurping through a mouth half full of noodles.
Quiet night settles back in the ramen bar’s atmosphere. Warmth soothes unrest; the shrill violin stroke fades.
“Glad we got that out.” Rehnpeir thumps a fist against the counter twice. He looks at his patrons’ grave faces. “Sake?”
Dead Orbit ships sweep away the clouds around the Traveler as midnight approaches. He keeps his ring by the door—in case he has to leave. He only keeps one magazine loaded, but loose brass rounds fill the gaps inside the go-bag under the coat rack.
“If they hit, they’ll come here.” That’s what she always says. “Right here.” But Lissa was born here, and she hadn’t been out there like he had.
He doesn’t know if they can leave before that happens. Gravity dragged them back here twice before: two failed excursions, though they were solitary exercises. Surely the world would kick them back again, just like it always did.
“Third time’s the charm. You’ll have me. And we’ll have one of the Free Capitals. Lightless and away from all this.” Her latest appeal to leave.
The Free Capitals are just rumors, buried cave-cities that pre-date the Golden Age. He had listened to patrons in his brother’s ramen house sling stories back and forth over mead and sake. No one has been there; everyone has met someone who knows someone who has a story about where these cities are… but there had to be other people out there. After all, they came to the City from somewhere. He’s sure there are other somewheres out there, without so much noise.
Quiet. All day, there was nothing, and he can’t get it out of his head. He needs something to fill the void that isn’t talking or is at least talking about something that doesn’t matter. Every person, every wave-band station is just an opinionated jukebox of the same 20 tunes.
Skyward eyes. A bilious wave creeps over his stomach. Equilibrium flexes. His vision goes concave for a moment, like a singularity pinching at four points deep in the sky. Is the ground moving? Gone.
He rubs his eyes until his vision runs blurry. Everything is normal.
He wants to walk through the trees outside to where the Firebreakers made their stand. To clear his mind.
There is too much noise.
Hunters come and go, returning bloodied with alarming frequency. Future War Cultists welcome offloading refugees to the final battle with wide smiles. Fewer caravans appear. It’s mostly jumpships now, Dead Orbit over the Tower hangar.
His mother used to tell him the Guardians held the City at Six Fronts; they held at Twilight Gap, and they will hold so long as we still have hope in them. They wouldn’t lose to this. They wouldn’t leave for this. Third time’s the charm.