"We'll take back the Moon."
Jennifer's proposal was met by silent stares as Zavala, Ikora, and Cayde eyed her, nonplussed.
"Uh, don't mean to be a Negative Nancy, Guardian, but the last time we tried that, we got our asses beat, big-time." Cayde finally spoke. "I know what I'm talking about – I was there when we retreated."
"It was the biggest army we'd ever assembled – so many of us, young, angry, full of Light and righteous wrath. And Crota's hordes butchered them in droves. It was all for naught in the end." Ikora intoned darkly.
"Well, hate to say so, but from what I've read, it was a tactical disaster on the Guardians' side." The Titan retorted. Scandalised, the Vanguard opened their mouths to protest before Jennifer continued. "Look, just hear me out on this. Guardians have always worked best in fireteams of three or six, right?"
Zavala, Cayde, and Ikora all nodded silently, not quite sure what she was getting at.
"In small numbers like that, we can extend our reach quite far and wide, and enemy forces have significant problems responding to a fireteam with a force large enough to overcome the Guardians. But an army of thousands of Guardians can be easily kept track of, and with the Hive's near-infinite numbers, pinned down where their strength does not help. Was there ever even a plan beyond 'go to the Moon and shoot the Hive until they're dead', I wonder?"
Zavala's facial expression suggested he seemed like he was doing his best to sit on a black car seat during a particularly hot summer day.
"...There was not." Ikora reluctantly admitted.
"See? Straight from the mouths of babes." Cayde added his two cents. "So, Irons, what do you suggest we do?"
"We sneak in as many fireteams as we can without compromising the City's security. We plant high explosives in Hellmouth, bring the whole place crashing down at the correct time. We've got a fleet of Cabal warships gathering dust above Mars. Might as well put them to use."
"That might soften the Hive up in preparation for an invasion. But you said it yourself – big formations of Guardians are vulnerable. How do you propose we take care of that?" Zavala inquired.
"The Cabal bust down the front door, keep the bulk of the Hive busy while a hand-picked team slips in from behind and finds wherever Crota sleeps, and puts him down by any means necessary."
"I doubt it'll be as simple as that, Guardian." Cayde interjected.
"Well, then I guess we best get to planning the attack, no? This is a good a time as any to take back what's rightfully ours. We've got the goodwill of both the Cabal and the Reef. Let's not waste it. Let's ensure all those Guardians did not die for nothing. Let's teach the Hive just how hard we can hit back."
Ikora was the first to speak, albeit hesitantly. "A small part of me rails against this, claiming it is madness, that we should be exceedingly careful. But the rest of me agrees with you wholeheartedly. I want to watch the Hellmouth's caverns and catacombs burn." For a moment, the Warlock's fiery temperament resurfaced, a character trait that she'd been widely known for during her more adventurous years.
"I doubt the Hive would ignore us, after we've pierced deep into their strongholds and defiled their 'sacred' places. The time for an offensive has come. We'll not get anything done by sitting idle." Zavala added, his countenance that of utter seriousness as everyone in the room turned to look at Cayde.
"Need you even ask?" Cayde exclaimed incredulously, shrugging in a 'can-you-believe-this-crap' sort of manner. "I've not left the Tower in years! You think I'd pass up the chance to get out and actually be useful for once? There's a lot of bastards out there, just begging for a bullet between their eyes. I'll gladly brain more than a few of the creepy-crawlies."
Jennifer smiled at his bravado, standing up straight. "We're agreed, then. I'll get my tacticians on the horn, see if we can't hammer out a proper plan of attack."
The two Titans regarded each other silently for a moment.
"So I hear you're planning an attack on the Hellmouth."
"That I am, indeed."
The Crucible Handler let out a non-committal grunt, turning to regard one of the screens in front of him.
"How're the newbies doing in the Crucible?"
"Good enough. Had to reprimand some of them for overt eagerness."
Jennifer nodded silently at that – there was an unspoken stigma attached to Guardians who looked towards gunning down their fellows in the arenas. First and foremost, the Crucible was a tool with which to galvanize and toughen up the newly reborn, so that when the time came to face the full brunt of the Last City's enemies, they did not waver and falter. Of course, this invariably lead to some Guardians breaking down, unable to endure the experience of multiple resurrections – they would never take to the field of battle. Even so, their talents did not go to waste, and they were allowed to serve the Last City in a myriad other ways.
Sadly, Shaxx had to, more often than he liked, reiterate the true meaning of Crucible's purpose – it was not a blood sport. It was a means to make every Guardian stronger than rock, sharper than a razor, to dole out the grievances of an entire world upon their hateful foes.
"We're probably going to march to our deaths, you know." Shaxx's rough voice interrupted her internal monologue.
"You're probably right." Jennifer sighed softly.
"But what a march it'll be." Shaxx replied, his tone proud and determined. "Come what may, we'll do our duty. You can count on that."
Over the next couple of weeks the impending invasion was properly fleshed out as Guardians infiltrated the Hellmouth, smuggling powerful explosives into locations vital to maintain the colossal stronghold's structural integrity. Caches of supplies and munitions were concealed in forward positions on the satellite's surface. Reconnaissance satellites were placed at Lagrangian points around Earth's orbit, letting the allied forces keep an eye on most goings-on around the planet. The factories of the Last City churned day and night, millions of workers labouring restlessly, their determination fueled by the news that had spread throughout the City like a wildfire.
We're going to retake the Moon, the words were repeated endlessly, both with dread and awe. All knew how badly the Guardians had suffered the previous time such an attempt had been made. But things were different now – both the Reef and Cabal stood with them, and the City was stronger than it'd ever been before. A spirit of solidarity and unity had been roused among the City's inhabitants, be they Exo, human, or Awoken. All were doing their part, whether by joining scavenging operations outside the Wall, working the factories, or volunteering for the City Militia.
Of course, this had the side effect of adding a buttload of paperwork for Jennifer to do. She bore it without complaint, knowing that all of this had been her idea. It was her responsibility to see it through to the end. All the same, she always looked towards taking a day off, for fear of burning herself out. Preferably snoozing in her bedroom during a thunderstorm, listening to the weather rage outside.
Like now, for example, as the downpour of raindrops mutely beat against the window. Traveller's massive form did something fierce to the hot and cold air masses around the Last City – when it rained, it rained hard, often with next to no warning. On the downside, mudslides were a bitch to deal with. On the upside, it meant the City was bursting with greenery.
I've received a message from Nara. She wants to meet you at the Tower.
Alright. Tell her I'll be there soon.
Humming to herself, the Guardian stood up, passively watching as her body was enveloped in a blue glow, soon replaced by armour plating as Ghost transmatted her armour onto her.
Beam me up, Scotty.
The rainstorm hadn't abated by the time she'd arrived at the Tower, with the raindrops drumming against her helmet at a pace even Tomas Haake would be jealous of. Some loony Guardians were dancing atop the guardrail, heedless of the slippery surface – a few did eventually slip and tumble over the edge, but were soon resurrected, and rejoined the party. Light made death cheap like that.
It didn't take long to track down the Awoken Warlock, who was quietly conversing with several of her fellows, with Sal standing off to the side, rocking back and forth on her heels idly.
"Ah! Jennifer. There you are." Nara grinned, waving in greeting as she heard the Titan approach.
"Heya." Sal followed suit.
"Is that The Last Word?" Suddenly, Ghost.
Sal blinked as Jennifer's Ghost zoomed over to her, inspecting the hand cannon on her hip. "The what, now?"
"Only one of the most famous weapons ever held by a Guardian." Ghost retorted as Sal blinked again, choosing to examine the impressive weapon closer. "Jaren Ward passed it onto Shin Malphur when he met Malphur as a young child during his travels. He wielded it with skill and bravery, 'bringing justice to the lawless frontier', as it were. Last anyone ever heard of Malphur was when he tracked down and killed Dredgen Yor with it, following Yor's murder of more than one Guardian. Ever since, The Last Word's popped up here and there in the annals of history, but none of it can be confirmed due to lack of reliable sources. Where'd you find it?"
"The Vault of Glass." Ghost let out a resigned sigh at that.
"Figures it'd be the Vex that got their claws or whatever on it. Well, now it's back in the hands of a Guardian. As it should be. It's a Tex Mechanica weapon, though, so don't keep it visible when Shaxx is around. He'll have a hissy fit."
"Thanks for the history lesson, Ghost. Anyways, Nara, I presume you called me here for a reason." Jennifer interjected.
"Oh, yes. I did, indeed. Remember how you told me about those nightmares of yours? The ones where you saw yourself die? Well, I passed it to some of our best thanatonauts, and they seem to think it could be a portent of sorts, a sign of things to come. After all, few have ventured deeper down in the Hellmouth than you. It would be no surprise if it'd left some mark on you."
"Means we want to take a look inside your mind." One of the Warlocks interjected. "Of course, being that you are a Titan, we'll have to shoehorn the process. Worst case scenario, you die pointlessly a couple of times and one of us ends up getting concussive dentistry from you."
"What if you see something I don't want you to know about?" Like a secret relationship with a certain Awoken monarch, for example?
"Forcing one's way into personal memories – of which there are a wide variety – is mind rape in everything but the name. I'll be wary of anything that you don't want me to look at." Seeing the Titan was still doubtful, he continued. "Think of it as dodging something thrown at you – it's all about reflexes. If we approach a memory that I sense you don't want me to see, I'll know to avoid it. Sound good?"
"Er, yes. I'm just a little nervous, is all."
"Perfectly understandable." The Warlock nodded. "Now, then. Are you ready to proceed?"
"Then follow me."
She'd be lying if she said she wasn't more than a little apprehensive, Jennifer reflected silently as she tried not to fidget on the chair – Nara, along with the other Warlocks, took up positions around her, channeling their energies, performing rituals she couldn't even begin to guess as to their purpose.
"And now, for the ritual to proceed, you'll have to, er, die." The thanatonaut in charge sounded almost apologetic. Immediately, a chorus of 'Not it' filled the chamber, leaving only Nara, blinking in surprise.
"Bastards... Sorry, Jennifer."
"Ah, don't worry-" The Titan was interrupted as the Warlock flicked her wrist – for a moment, Jennifer was sure her very soul would come apart at the seams, considering the strength behind Nara's blow.
Well, it seemed that whatever the thanatonauts did, had worked. Jennifer was weightlessly floating in an equally weightless void, a myriad pinpricks of light orbiting her non-corporeal form.
Ah, here we are, she heard a voice from everywhere and nowhere at once.
"And where is 'here'?"
An interpretation of your mind and the memories contained within. Sure enough, the beads of light circling her were of varying brightness – some were wholesome and shone brilliantly, while others were cracked and worn, producing only the faintest glimmer.
Curious, the Titan reached out to touch one of the lights – almost immediately, the featureless void changed to one that she instantly recognised.
It was a perfect recreation of her kitchen, a music player blaring from its position on the table, and the Guardian in question, singing along, hips swinging from side to side as she prepared a meal.
It's the end, the war has been lost
Keeping them safe 'til the river's been crossed
Nicht ein Schlacht, ein Rettungsaktion
Holding their ground 'til the final platoon
"Hurry up, we're waiting for you"
Men of the 9th and civilians too!
Dispossessed, surrendering to the West*
Embarrassed, Jennifer let go of the mote of light, and the scene faded away into nothingness.
It sounds like a fine song, very much befitting a soldier such as yourself, came the Warlock's amused voice.
"Can we move on and pretend this didn't happen?"
As you wish. One could almost hear his smile before silence set in. It was a couple of seconds later – or it could've been a millennium – she heard his voice again. Here we go – I've found a memory. Quite an ancient one, too. Shall we take a look?
"Sure, go ahead." Soon as the words left her lips, everything dissolved into light and noise before reforming into a new scene.
She runs, nearly stumbling as her legs propel her adolescent body across the beach, playfully avoiding the waves as they crash against the sand. A pair of arms carefully scoop her up from behind, and she shrieks with delight as she finds herself briefly weightless, before she's turned about, and sees the kind, joyful face of her mother, her father jogging up to them, carrying with him a number of juice bottles his sun-kissed face also bearing a wide smile.
"Gotcha!" Her mother says, and she can only laugh in return as the sun begins its slow descent towards the horizon.
She briefly pokes at her bloodied nose, satisfied to see the bleeding's stopped. Her knuckles are sore, being bruised as they are. It was nothing compared to what her opponent had gone through, however – he was curled up in fetal position, face bruised and with a busted lip. Weak whimpers issue from the boy and she couldn't help but sneer. Bullies were always weak when they met someone who wouldn't let them run roughshod over others.
Turning her attention away from him, she bent down to pick up the glasses, noting with displeasure that one of the legs had almost snapped off. Humming irritatedly, she stretched out a hand towards the raven-haired girl cowering to her side.
"Come on. He can't hurt you now." The girl, probably fourteen years old, cast a hesitant glance at her attacker, before accepting the offered aid.
"Sh-shouldn't we report this to a teacher?"
"Look, if anyone ever picks on you or anything, come to me. I'll sort them out right." She returns the girl's glasses, who still looks worried.
"But won't you get in trouble for that?"
"Wouldn't be the first time I caught flak for this." She shrugs nonchalantly. "Anyways, I'm Linda. What's yours?"
"Samantha. My name's Samantha."
"Nice to meet you... Aw, hell." She trailed off as she saw a teacher, bearing a cross expression, storm towards them. "Well, it was fun while it lasted."
Suspended for a week. Could've been worse, she idly reflects as she goes outside, her parents right behind her.
"So, how quickly did you take him down?"
"Alex, don't encourage her!" Her mother protested, before looking around and lowering her voice. "In all seriousness, though, did that punk give you any trouble?"
"Nah. His swings were quite sloppy. It's almost like he didn't expect me to actually fight back."
"Attagirl." Alex fondly ruffled her unruly hair, and she only half-heartedly swatted at his hand.
"This suspension isn't going to do your grades any favours, you know." Still, her mother worried.
"Maria, what was she supposed to do, try to track down a teacher during recess? Who knows how long that hooligan would've kept abusing that girl in the meanwhile."
"If stopping a bully means I finish school with above-average grades, I think that's a fair trade." She declared proudly, and her mother facepalmed resignedly.
"You two are entirely too chivalrous for this world... Alright, to hell with it. Who wants ice-cream?"
And then they had ice-cream and there was much rejoicing, and that's good, amen.**
She could barely stop herself from laughing as Samantha kept making faces at her homework – her friend's proverbial Achilles' Heel was math, and she always stumbled at the more complicated tasks. Well, it was more like a freight train going off rails than anything else.
And she was all too stubborn to accept any help, shooing Linda away until she'd solved the problem through force of sheer anger. It was equal parts adorable and hilarious.
Well, at least she wasn't too proud to accept Sam's offer of help when it came to studying history, so at least there's that.
It'd become somewhat of a routine for the two girls – ever since their less-than-stellar first meeting, Linda watched out for her, as she did for the others who'd been given grief by the unruly elements of their school. They'd become steadfast friends since then, doing just about anything together, whether it be studying, watching movies, or gossiping.
"Gran Torino. A classic if there ever was one." Linda mutters quietly, letting out a yawn so as not to wake Samantha up, who'd fallen asleep near the end of the movie. Scooping up the remote, she turns the TV off, and turns to look at her friend, considering whether or not to leave her on the living room couch. She soon decides against it – Sam is both a guest and a friend.
Her mind thus made up, she carefully scoops the other girl up, letting out a quiet grunt at the effort. She moves quietly through her house, since it's two in the morning, and her parents are asleep. It doesn't take long to reach the guest bedroom and settle her friend down on the bed – humming quietly to herself, she pulls the blanket over Sam.
Then, quickly checking to see if she is actually asleep, she bends down and briefly presses her lips to the girl's cheek before sneaking out.
She comes back to life, disoriented and confused. However, she doesn't have much time to ponder on this before she's cold-cocked into death once more.
The stinging late December air made them both pull their scarves up to their noses as they milled about on the riverside near the bridge, with a perfect view of the firework-laden barges anchored far on the other shore.
Sam grumbled as she fished her cellphone out from her pocket, the gloves, warm but unwieldy, making the task somewhat complicated – she more or less has to punch the keypad to make its screen light up.
Linda grunts at that, stomping about for a few moments to ward off the cold slowly seeping its way into her toes. Perhaps they should've stayed at home, she reflects. Maybe they wouldn't have as good a view, but at least they wouldn't be freezing their asses of right now. But Samantha, who had a certain way with words, succeeded to lure her friend outside.
"...eight, seven, six..." Linda turned to face Sam as the other girl counted down. "...five, four, three, two, one." At that, she stood up on her toes, pulling their scarves down before she kissed Linda, softly, tentatively. A split-second later, the first of the fireworks squealed, rocketing upwards, and the dark sky was suddenly filled with a maelstrom of vibrant colours.
Sam seemed more than a little anxious one she broke the kiss, shrugging unsurely. "Er... happy New-mmph!" Whatever she was going to say was immediately forgotten as Linda pulled her back in for another kiss. In the distance, she can hear faint, barely-audible cheering as people celebrate the beginning of a new year. And for a moment, it's as if the whole world's cheering for them.
Life returned to her once more – the taste of burnt blood at the back of her throat she noticed first, followed by tears rolling down her cheeks. She felt sick.
The golden ring on her finger glittered in the sunlight-
Something had exploded – a short moment ago, it seemed. The smell of ozone hung in the air as Jennifer pulled herself upright, mind reeling from the images she'd seen, ignoring the questioning glances from the Warlocks around her. Wordlessly, she staggered outside, paying no attention to Nara as the Warlock tried to talk to her.
The numbness in her mind hadn't abated in the least once she returned to her home, peeling her armour, letting the pieces fall on the floor as she automatically made her way to the bedroom. Ghost trailed after her, unsure what to say. Though, to be fair, few Guardians who chose to uncover their former life reacted well to memories of pre-Collapse times. Old world blues, it was called, when Guardians became heartsick and longed for times long gone. Some had wandered off into the wastes, never to return, and became a cautionary tale for everyone else. Still, the siren call of their pasts often beckoned to some Guardians.
Ghost's spirits plummeted further when he reached the bedroom, seeing his Guardian curled up in middle of the bed. He zoomed closer, trying to pull the blanket over Jennifer with his shell. His efforts were thwarted as the Titan reached out, curling her fingers around his small form, clutching him to her chest, silent sobs shaking her body.
"Why did this happen, Ghost?" Jennifer muttered tearily. "Why did the Traveller come to us, and not go somewhere else? Why did it bring the Darkness here? Why did it let everything be destroyed?"
A myriad answers ran through the small machine's mind, and none would soothe his Guardian's distress.
"I don't know." He said, and it was the truth.
When morning came, Jennifer was surprised she was still the same person as before. Nevertheless, it felt like she was going through well-rehearsed motions as she went outside on the terrace, wordlessly leaning against the balustrade, Ghost hovering at her side.
"So, uh... You were married, it seems." Ghost started, unsure.
"Linda was. I'm just someone else who's wearing the face of a dead woman."
That certainly put an end to that line of conversation.
"When does it end, Ghost? When do the Guardians get their happy ending? When will I get my happy ending?" The Titan sighed wearily, rubbing her face.
"I know you probably don't want to hear this, but until the Darkness and its servants are dead, there is no rest for any of us." That elicited another sigh from Jennifer, who turned her head to look at Ghost.
"What would have you done if I'd never gone to the City? If I'd taken that jumpship and flown off to some remote corner and left the Traveller and its problems behind me?"
"I'd have gone with you."
"Really?" Jennifer stood up straighter, regarding Ghost with curiosity.
"Well, I'd be talking your ear off to convince you to go back, but I'd be there with you. Every step of the way, come hell or high water."
Jennifer smiled wanly at that, reaching out and picking Ghost up, planting a light kiss just above its eye.
"Thanks." She offered gratefully, before lowering her voice to a whisper. "And don't tell Mara I macked on you."
"I could be persuaded not to."
"You're a damn pirate, Ghost." Jennifer snorted. "Alright, name your price."
"Get me a new shell and we'll call it even."
"Deal." Ghost did a victory loop in the air before speaking again.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"To tell the truth? No. But I'll have to deal with it when I have the time for it. Because right now, there's a bunch of Hive bastards that need to have their teeth kicked in."
A/N: This is what happens when I download a bunch of Hearts of Iron 4 mods so I can play as Latvia and stand up to Soviets in 1940 and succeed - shit gets real super fucking delayed. Also, Dan Simmons' Flashback is a highly addictive read.
* Sabaton – Hearts of Iron
** To be read in Mister Jane Doe's voice