"Remember, we're only checking on a distress signal," Jayesh told his ghost as he climbed out of his ship. "Stay phased, all right?"
"I know how this works, sheesh," his ghost replied from where he was phased inside Jayesh's armor. "I don't want to be caught by the Vex any more than you do."
Nessus was a strange little world. It was a planetoid called a centaur, neither asteroid nor comet not planet, but a little of each. The Vex, a race of alien time-traveling robots, had terraformed it into a habitable world with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, liquid water, and forests of strange plants with red leaves. Calculations also showed that the Vex had stabilized its orbit, keeping the amount of sunlight it received stable.
The Vex were up to something, as usual. An AI called Failsafe had called for help. As Nessus had been very quiet since the Traveler's awakening at the end of the Red War, the Vanguard had dispatched a light team of two warlocks to check it out. Warlocks were fast and quiet, and two of them could handle most moderate threats. It was Jayesh's first real mission, and he was jittery with nerves.
As Jayesh stood there, gazing around the strange landscape, his partner's ship descended from the sky, landing gear extended. It set down near his ship on a little plateau above the red forest. Jayesh hadn't met her yet - he'd been on orbital patrol when he received his assignment. He and the other warlock had spoken over the radio, but that was all.
The other warlock phased out of her ship with a flourish. Jayesh flinched, glad his helmet hid his face. Every inch of her gear was more expensive than his: better robe, better gauntlets, better boots. Her belt alone cost upwards of ten thousand glimmer. Jayesh wanted one, himself, and had been saving up.
"What's wrong?" Ghost said in his head. Although ghosts resembled a little flying robot with four star-like segments, they shared a symbiotic bond with their Guardian, letting them know when their Guardian was hurt or upset. Sometimes it got awkward, like now.
"Nothing," Jayesh muttered. He strode forward and shook hands with the other warlock. "Hey there! I'm Jayesh."
"Kari," said the woman. She hesitated and peered at him. "Jayesh? Are you the one who got locked into the Traveler during the Red War?"
"That's me," Jayesh said, shuffling his feet uncomfortably. The experience remained so raw, so personal, that Jayesh didn't talk about it much. After all, he and the Traveler had argued together about Ghaul and mourned the death of the Speaker. It wasn't easy to talk about such things - especially when people accused him of making it up. Sometimes, he wondered if they were right and it had been some sort of fantastic dream.
But Kari didn't ask. She gazed at him through her face plate. He dimly saw the outline of her cheek and left eye, studying him with a quizzical expression. Then she shook her head, as if brushing away her own questions. Instead, she held out a hand and displayed her ghost.
Even her ghost wore an expensive custom shell. Jayesh swallowed.
"This is Neko," Kari said. "He's practically team lead on this mission."
"Don't flatter me," Neko said, rolling his single eye. "Just because I downloaded all the Tower's files on Nessus doesn't mean I know it very well."
Jayesh summoned his own ghost, who looked very plain in his basic shell. "Here's my ghost. I just call him Ghost, though."
"You'll name him eventually," Kari said with a flash of humor. "Most Guardians do."
Ghost and Neko stared at each other balefully.
"Don't expect my Guardian to follow your orders," Ghost said. "He's not yours."
"Then you'd better make sure he follows Kari's," Neko snapped.
Jayesh and Kari stared at their ghosts. Ghosts didn't fight ... usually.
"We'd better get going," Kari said hurriedly. Neko phased from sight in a swirl of blue light, and so did Ghost.
The two Guardians stepped to the edge of the plateau and gazed across Nessus. Mountains with square sides towered around them, as if they had landed in a child's set of tumbled blocks. When robots terraformed a planet, they tended to keep the geometry basic.
"According to our mission," Kari said, "the Tower received a call for help from a golden age AI called Failsafe. She's in a crashed ship somewhere near here. Uh, Neko's giving me a waypoint in that direction." She pointed southeast, across the forest.
"Same here." Jayesh squinted. "I think I can see some kind of scrap metal over there."
"Great!" Kari leaped off the cliff, using her warlock powers to glide gently downward into the trees below. Jayesh followed.
"Don't trust her," Ghost whispered in his mind.
"Why?" Jayesh thought. "Because you don't like her ghost?"
"She's a storm caller, didn't you notice?" Ghost sounded positively snarly. "If her powers go off, she'll fry you like a chicken wing."
"Come on, Ghost," Jayesh thought. He meant to argue further, but he missed the rock he was trying to land on, slipped, and tumbled down the hillside instead.
Nearby, Kari laughed. "Are you all right?"
"Fine!" Face burning in embarrassment, Jayesh leaped to his feet, holding back a groan at the bruises he'd just accumulated. Ghost healed him without comment.
Nearby, among the massively huge tree trunks, Kari had summoned her sparrow. This was a hovering vehicle like a motorcycle. Hers was tricked out in expensive mods and a custom paint job in orange and blue.
Jayesh gazed at it hopelessly. He expected to save up enough for a used sparrow in about ten years.
Ghost picked up his envy. "If we just keep working, Jay, we'll earn enough glimmer in no time."
"Come on!" Kari called, and shot away through the trees.
Jayesh followed on foot. "Maybe, if we happen across some Fallen, I can borrow one of their pikes. They handle like a sparrow, right?"
"More or less," Ghost replied. "I'm not detecting any Fallen in this area, though. Or Vex. Or our partner. She's already outside my scan range."
Jayesh picked his way along the forest floor. The huge trees had been forced to grow straight up through bare, cracked rock. Their decomposing leaves covered the rough ground in a thin layer of loam, making footing treacherous.
The second time Jayesh stepped in a crack and twisted his ankle, he started traveling in long, horizontal warlock glides. He didn't think about sparrows. Or how much they cost. Or how fast they were. He certainly didn't feel despair about his own meager finances.
"She's back," Ghost announced.
Kari's sparrow flashed toward them, then braked and spun broadside to them, its orange and blue stripes flashing in the sunlight. "Aren't you coming?"
"I don't have a sparrow," Jayesh admitted.
Kari didn't bat an eye. "Hop on behind me. No point in walking all the way. It's like three kilometers."
Humiliated, but grateful, Jayesh mounted the saddle seat behind Kari and wrapped his arms around her waist. For a second it was awkward, being so close to another Guardian. Then she hit the accelerator. Jayesh's arms almost dislocated as the thrust nearly threw him off backwards.
"You know how I say that you fly too fast?" Ghost remarked in his head. "I take it back."
The red trees blurred around them as the sparrow wove between them. Jayesh's heart thrilled. Now, this was fun. He had to get one of these and learn to fly like this. Kari handled her sparrow so expertly that they seemed to flow around obstacles, like the sparrow's namesake.
It seemed like only a few minutes had passed before they flew through a narrow canyon and emerged in a rocky valley. Kari braked, and she and Jayesh dismounted. Her ghost Neko appeared briefly to transmat the sparrow, phasing it away in blue sparkles.
"Thanks for the lift," Jayesh said breathlessly.
Kari shrugged. "No problem. Not every Guardian has a sparrow." She turned and scanned the valley. "Now that's just sad."
Jayesh followed her gaze. It wasn't a valley. They stood inside the bones of a crashed ship. The remaining support girders towered into the sky like pillars. Most of it had been picked clean by scavengers. The Vex had terraformed straight through it, building cliffs and rocks through the ship's sides in some places. A little stream now ran through the middle of what had been the ship's hold. At the far end of the valley was a chunk of ship that was still intact - the tail section, complete with a defunct booster rocket and a smaller transport ship still perched on top, now gutted and useless.
"This is where that AI is?" Jayesh said in disbelief.
"Apparently she's quite the survivor," Kari replied, striding toward it. "One of our Guardians won her trust, so she's been working with the Vanguard."
Jayesh followed her in silence, apprehensive. Ghost emerged from phase and scanned the area, which was very quiet.
"I don't like this," Ghost muttered. "The Vex and Fallen wouldn't leave a place like this alone."
Kari's ghost, Neko, popped out of phase. "They've certainly been here before, and apparently Failsafe reported some kind of threat made against her. Just because we don't see our enemies doesn't mean they're not there."
Jayesh felt a flicker of rage from Ghost. Before Jayesh could stop him, Ghost flew right up to Neko. "Are you saying my scans aren't functional?"
"I don't know, are they?" Neko snapped.
Jayesh grabbed Ghost just as Kari grabbed Neko. "I'm sorry!" Jayesh exclaimed. "He doesn't usually act this way."
Kari held Neko in both hands, gazing into his eye. "Neko, be polite to teammates! I don't care what his ghost said!"
Neko's response was an incoherent grumble.
Jayesh looked at Ghost. The little robot's top and bottom segments were drawn together in a very obvious frown. "Come on, Ghost. You're embarrassing me."
Ghost said nothing, only continued to frown.
At that moment, an unfamiliar voice spoke on their radio frequency. It was a cheerful, bubbly, female voice. "So wonderful to see the Guardians I requested from the Vanguard!"
This was followed by the same voice speaking in a flat, passive-aggressive tone. "Maybe they should invent a Crucible for ghosts."
In Jayesh's hand, Ghost's frown vanished, and he phased without a word. Neko did the same.
"Failsafe?" Kari ventured.
"Hello, Female Guardian," the cheerful Failsafe replied. "Welcome to Nessus!" Her voice changed to its aggressive tone. "Where all my crew died."
Jayesh struggled not to laugh. "Split personality?" he whispered to Kari.
She held up both hands and shrugged.
Failsafe heard this. "I assure you, I am in perfect working order, male Guardian."
"We know you are," Kari said. "We're on our way."
Jayesh kept quiet until they found a way into the remaining husk of the ship. They passed down a short, winding hallway to a musty room filled with machinery. One entire wall was nothing but data cubes. In the middle of this wall was a black box with a glowing orange light. The light brightened as Failsafe spoke. "Welcome to the Exodus Black." Her voice changed. "Or what's left of it." Returning to her cheerful side, she continued, "I've intercepted Vex transmissions stating that I must be assimilated and my data accessed. That is against all protocols. They have sent a Protean Mind to break into my systems, but I am holding it off. However, I need you Guardians to destroy the Protean Mind before it finds a way through my firewall."
Jayesh didn't ask what a Protean Mind was. He had a feeling he was about to find out.
Before Neko could say anything, Ghost said, "Where is this Mind? The valley was empty."
"Transmitting coordinates," Failsafe replied cheerfully.
Ghost and Neko both received the transmission. Jayesh looked for the waypoint on his screen. It appeared on the floor, under his feet.
"It's right beneath us?" he asked.
Failsafe's apathetic side replied, "They're drilling up from below. At present, they are fifty meters from penetrating my core. I'll probably die." She swapped back to bubbly. "But that's why I asked for Guardians! I know you can handle this threat."
Neko said, "I see a way down. There's a cave entrance a short distance from our position."
"Right," Kari said. "Jay, how's your ammo situation?"
He lifted his auto rifle from its shoulder holster and checked the magazine. "Full."
Kari produced a long-barreled, sleek rifle with purple light running from the butt all the way to the tip of the barrel.
Jayesh stared. "What is that?"
"Graviton lance," Kari replied. "It shoots black holes." She headed out the tunnel.
Jayesh followed in her wake, stammering, "Black holes? It really shoots black holes? You're just kidding, right?"
"It really does," Neko said acidly. "In a few years, you might get one."
"Neko!" Kari exclaimed. "Yes, Jayesh, it actually splits matter and antimatter, producing a black hole for a few nanoseconds."
Jayesh didn't ask what it cost. He didn't want to know.