The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 3

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here.

Clouds of pale pink mist punctuated the darkness where Phoibe had finally rolled to a stop under stories of wreckage. The space was no higher than a crawl. Davi had lost his light stick while bouncing on his way down, which was somewhere in rubble above. They had come to rest on a thick mat of the bioluminescent growth, this writhing carpet swollen with mature flowering spores that burst when disturbed. While the fungi were a pale green color approaching white at a distance, the dust released as a deep hue of violet before igniting into luminous pink in a suffocating foul odor. Phoibe could hear Davi no more than a meter from where she lay, coughing quietly, but could see nothing but the glowing cloud. It felt like a trick on her eyes to see the spot illuminated so clearly by the fungi, his gasp of breath in arms reach, and no sign of Davi.

She began to reach out a hand biting back a sudden flash of sharp pain in her arm. Even in the half light she could see her arm looked terrible, streaks of black already visible from a break. Trembling with severe pain, she clutched her arm close and low to her chest, using her good hand to scoot closer to where she thought she could feel Davi was in the patch of floating spores. Touching his back, she was relieved when he responded. He was completely invisible to her but for a faint cool grey dust that seemed to adhere to moisture on his face and elsewhere. He was regarding his own hands with wonder.

Phoibe pouted with a soft cry, seeing some of the wet on his face seemed to come from a swollen cut on his brow, but smiled through tears at his perpetually cheerful expression. He somehow always looked happy even when he was showing concern, as he had noticed how she was holding her arm.

“You’re hurt!” he protested her attention, but they were quickly interrupted.

Footsteps. Something massive was walking nearby, and it had the gait of one tall or upright. The footfalls were so heavy they could feel each step distinctly by the way the ground yielded. It was a slow, deliberate step. Something searching.

Through a gap between layers of concrete ahead of them they could see a larger chamber completely taken by the unusual growth, an eerie spectacle of contrast between neon glow and the black pools of settled water. There was a waver in the air itself of suspended dust and spores that moved like fog. They could only make out an interruption in the light, a passing shadow of the beast, but it was colossal.

Before they could act or think, the pile of concrete slabs above them was roughly disturbed, being cast aside like they weighed no more than sticks. With nary a split second to flee they hurried out from the spot of thick growth before they were crushed, the silhouette of the towering beast above them. As Phoibe dashed into the first patch of cover she could reach, an even thicker mat of growth that had raised like tall stalks of bulbous grass, she caught just the profile of the beast’s feet and legs – chitinous plate and gruesome carapace – it stood like a man, but tall as a house.  

A short distance away she spotted Davi, grey dust drifting away from him as the effects of the spores wore off, revealing him. The oldest of the alien fungi nearby quivered like it was alive, a darker shape moving within it that made a sticky wet sound. At the base, fist-sized larva wiggled oblivious to her presence. She recoiled from the noxious mass, keeping a close eye in the direction she had last seen the beast.

The room they had fallen in looked like it was at the lowest level of the collapsed main facility they had entered at; below the spot their football had rolled to when they got into this mess. Up a steep scramble of debris she could see the freight elevator, still stuck where they left it by a beam lodged beneath it. From the shattered space above it she could see a hint of moonlight.

Close by, Davi drew her attention to a series of blight coated burrow-like tunnels, made by something about their size. The pungent stench like acid they had smelled when they first entered the facility was strongest there, glistening like mucus on the oozing membrane walls. As if to answer her next question about what made the tunnels, they heard echoing through the tangle the chattering whine of the first creature that had been stalking them since they entered. Or from what they could hear, several creatures.

The sound of claws skittering became numerous, the behemoth in the chamber with them stepping faster to another pile of rubble, over turning it as it continued to search. Phoibe looked to Davi, and then the tunnels. The beast had not seen where they went, yet. The tunnels were far too small for it to follow and were how the other creatures would have been navigating the ruins. Davi opened his hand to show Phoibe he had picked a second violet flowering bud from the fungal mass. He handed it to her, eyes steady in the direction the monster was digging. The crash of concrete and steel was thunderous.

Inching towards the slimy pathway, listening for any sudden movement, they heard another sound. Noor, Galen and Peyton were calling out for them from somewhere through the largest impassible section of the debris pile the tunnels seem to intersect through. The scurrying sounds of the predators moved together in the direction of the other children. Phoibe and Davi exchanged a look of horror.

They entered the first tunnel that seemed to climb upwards, although just in a wide curve to another section of the same unstable section of wall. It connected to several other burrows, ahead in which they could hear a clamor of claws and teeth headed the other direction. As Davi emerged from one side with Phoibe close behind, they could see Galen and friends had found their way to a dead-end ledge a little higher, near the direction of the ventilation shaft they had fallen from. It was a sheer drop from them down to a heap of broken concrete below. The whine of the hunting predators grew into a frenzied pitch. Davi and Phoibe could hear the other children begin to panic as the sounds raced towards them.

“You have to run!” Phoibe called up to them frantically. “They can see you!”. The behemoth made an alerted snarl, then began to roar as he turned toward Phoibe and Davi just a few dozen meters away. It was an unearthly sound not like a beast that drew air, but as if it emanated from within. It sounded like pure agony and twisted hate. It stomped into the moonlight, revealing in full terror the might of the colossus and its massive, bone axe rent like a singular cruel thought. It was the visage of a heavily armored man, or the mockery of one, twisted horns and rows of black spines.

Quickly, Phoibe burst the violet blossom covering her and Davi in the spores just before the spot where they stood was fully launched into the air by the earth-rattling charge and swing of the beast’s axe. Tons of concrete, steel and fungi rained down across the chamber, causing the main pile of debris to shift suddenly until the entire installation was shaking violently in a landslide. Noor, Galen and Peyton’s screams mixed with a deafening roar of rocks and beast alike as the behemoth surveyed the clear spot for the children. High above, the beam barring the freight elevator had dislodged. The elevator made a jolting movement and loud buzz, a dusty yellow indicator light near the switch clicking on and off a warning. It was still stuck between floors on the heavy chain and pulley lift.

Davi and Phoibe, still shrouded by the pink vapor, emerged from a now severed length of burrow several stories higher from where they had vanished. “Galen!” Phoibe called out, knowing the beast would also hear. “The elevator!” The creatures pursuing them were drawing near, fast.

Galen looked up the shattered interior of the installation’s frame where the lift was stuck, and then to direction Phoibe’s voice had come from.

“They can’t see us, either” Phoibe remarked to herself after seeing Galen’s expression. The beast too had turned to look without immediately spotting them. The spores were already beginning to turn to dust and fall away.

Davi moved further into the open, getting a clear view of the lift and switch housing. The spores drifted from him in a cloud of dust as he was illuminated by the moonlight. The beast’s gaze snapped to him as it began navigating the uneven concrete platforms up to where he stood. Davi held his position, although not without a bit of a tremble in the knees.

“Galen!” Davi called out, relieved when Galen could see him. “Pass me the ball!”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Noor and Galen realized what Davi could see. Noor lobbed an overhead pass to Davi, who caught it and quickly turned and threw it at the switch box. A hit, but it did not depress the switch. It bounded far below with a hollow bounce as everyone’s hearts fell.

Phoibe spared not a second, sliding down the slick filth of the burrow to the bottom. “No way this works..” she whispered to herself before rolling to a stand, cradling her broken arm. “Hey!” she shouted at the beast.

Everyone stopped. For a split second even the sound of settling rubble was quiet. The beast turned for just a brief glance back at her as Davi bolted from where he stood. Phoibe ran at the ball with a skilled heel strike pass back to Davi, who spun to kick it back up. It sailed past the beast, striking the switch with force before rebounding further away. The elevator buzzed loudly and began to descend.

The beast roared in anger, breaking into a full charge at Phoibe. Phoibe let out a scream and gave chase, running across the opening to a newly exposed gap in the collapsed layers she had spotted. Davi made a running jump and caught the edge of the lift, now low enough for him to reach.

The creatures burst from the system of tunnels behind Galen, Peyton and Noor who were still pinned against a sharp drop. They were forced to jump with a terrified cry. They hit the slope in a tumble, howls of pain as they crashed uncontrolled into the wreckage. The enraged beast having lost sight of Phoibe now turned to them. Above the creatures had already adjusted route, losing almost no ground in their pursuit.

Phoibe emerged from another partially blocked hallway near them, motioning urgently for them to follow. They then arrived at the same conduit and stairs they entered by, the inhuman creatures now only meters away. The friends raced to Davi, who quickly hit the switch twice to reverse the direction of the lift. Galen made the leap first, then Peyton and Noor. Together they helped Phoibe up, gasping at the pain in her arm and shoulder.

The lead creature made the jump, knife-length claws tearing into the edge of the lift. It was not much larger than any of them, protruding spine and faceless with rows of hideous sharp teeth. It was a color like jaundiced flesh, coated in the same mucus as the tunnels. Its shrill whine drew screams from all of the children as it climbed up, swinging wildly at anything in reach. It tore into Noor’s leggings and boot. Peyton and Galen pummeled it with kicks, pushing it back. It struck Peyton in the leg, knocking them down as blood spilled from an open wound. Noor grabbed Peyton pulling them away as Davi landed a kick hard enough to knock the beast almost completely off the lift. Phoibe could see the other two nearest predators were quickly taking alternate routes to the top floor to intercept them.

Galen and Phoibe continued kicking with their boot heels until the beast lost its grip on the edge, plummeting below.

 


The children emerged from the facility into moonlight, Galen and Noor supporting a badly injured Peyton as Davi helped Phoibe. They were running as fast as they could, but no where near fast enough to outrun the second and third of the creatures. The roar of the behemoth could be heard deep from inside. Across the grassy lot was a sudden burst of bright halogen lights. It was Noor’s mother, riding her hoverbike-like sparrow.

She dismounted the sparrow and unshouldered a long rifle in one smooth motion, the practiced aim of a seasoned sharpshooter. Two shots rang in the night, felling the pursuing monsters only steps from the facility. She kept her rifle steady on the exit as the children crossed the lot to where she waited. Others from the village soon arrived, embracing and tending to the children.

Noor stood by her mother, who did not look away from the direction the beasts had emerged. One by one, the words waiting on Noor’s lips fell away, watching instead her mother’s expression. Even as the others mounted up and started to ride back to the village, Noor and her mother remained there until it was quiet. Once they were alone, Noor’s mother finally turned to her.

Her expression was more of relief than disappointment, but Noor felt both just from a glance. She turned back to her sparrow, freeing a small, rolled rug from the side which she then laid out. As it unrolled, Noor could see inside a long stake fixed to a sealed radio housing and an expensive-looking antenna. She recognized the rug as one from their home that had been undisturbed at the bottom of a stack but had never seen the unusual piece of equipment. On the housing she recognized a symbol she had seen on gear used by soldiers of the Last City. From another saddlebag her mother withdrew a canister of reflective paint.

Noor watched quietly as her mother painted a large symbol on a clear spot of concrete barricade, two concentric half circles over a shape like a doorway. She then planted the device firmly in the ground nearby. With a click, she activated it. It started a steady blink and chimed out a distinct radio tone.

Her mother turned to face her, neither saying anything until after moment. “What of your sister’s football?” her mother asked finally.

Noor’s expression sank. The lengthy story of what they had been through inside danced across her features until she looked down, defeated. Meeting her mother’s eyes again she spoke up. “It’s still lost in there. I’m sorry.”

Her mother lifted Noor’s chin and pulled her into an embrace. She looked to the stars, and then the horizon. Noor looked too; her mother seemed to be scanning the night sky for something she expected to see.

“You’ll get it back”

Thank you for reading!

Machine Sisters

For the love of unnecessary character backstories – these from Destiny 2

 

“I saw you die.”

Celeste-3 studied the warlock’s expression for acknowledgment of the encounter, any glimmer of recollection of the ill-fated expedition. Her machine sister by batch, Zihra-17 had been counted among those killed in action years prior. Celeste could not read Zihra’s face, a burning intensity in her crimson eyes. She waited for a witty remark, any sign of the sibling she had lost on that day. The hum of the ship’s automations was punctuated by the precise rhythm of the refurbished ion propulsion system. Below the din, a soft clink of glass as the Drifter poured a drink.

The witty reply never came. Celeste felt renewed heartbreak as the realization sunk in that the horror had not ended for Zihra that day. The silence between the two cut like a knife. The Drifter froze, the steady hand of one who had survived gunfights that started with less warning.

“Zihra, I-“Celeste’s apology was interrupted.

“It’s been a long time,” Zihra interjected.

Zihra’s inflection was not lost on Celeste. The Vex machinations had indeed taken them through both the distant past and one of the darkest of possible futures – Sol itself lifeless and blackened. The proud Sunbreaker Titan, Flag Bearer of the Vanguard, felt an instinctive heat rising. The weight of the hammer in her belt steeled her nerves. The Drifter quietly cleared his throat.

“Tell her what you saw,” the Drifter mediated. It was he who had arranged the reunion after Zihra was discovered at the edge of the solar system – a tip from Dead Orbit scouts.

Zihra paced carefully, stopping to examine the bottle of exotic liquor. “Do you remember the pursuit of Oryx?”

Celeste did. Each time they had faced the manifestation in battle the Taken King had fled into the ascendant realm, untouchable. “Of course,” Celeste replied. “Eris Morn-“she was interrupted again.

“Yes. Eris,” Zihra continued. “Do you remember what she asked us to do to be able to cross into the ascendant realm to end him?”

The Ocean of Storms, Luna. Deep within Hellmouth they had to retrieve essence of the slain god Crota, son of Oryx. Borrowing the uncontrolled magic of the Hive to enter the ascendant realm was the last thing any of them had wanted to meddle with, but the stakes were too dire to refuse. Celeste felt a chill in her systems at the suggestion.

“It was no mere key, sister” Zihra continued pacing. She set down the bottle, and for a fraction of a second there was a trail of dark where her hand had been, like smoke.

Celeste braced for a fight. “You’re,” she hesitated. Zihra waited for the answer. Celeste’s fist closed and opened nervously.

Zihra smirked. “I think the word you were looking for is we”.

My Five Favorite 4K HDR Games

One piece at a time, I upgraded the components of my console gaming setup to support true 4K and HDR, and found myself revisiting a lot of games to see how much better they looked, or didn’t. Some games that seemed like contenders for exceptional graphics at the high end lose a lot of their luster in actual gameplay due to UI or effect choices, and others seem to apply the ultra HD textures inconsistently at best. However, there are some games that really do shine in 4K next to their 1080p versions. Here are my five favorite.

Forza 7

It is no accident you might find this as the running demo at your electronics store for the most expensive televisions, as this flagship of eye candy by Turn Ten is laps ahead in terms of extreme graphics performance.  Forza 7 and its playful openworld peer Horizon 3 are as well tuned as the real world cars they depict, and are a must play for any racing enthusiast. The cars, environment and weather effects are pure bliss on the eyes, and play as well too.

Sea of Thieves

This unique and immersive open seas pirate adventure by Rare Ltd is one of the most dramatic examples of a game that looks completely different on 1080p next to a proper 4K HDR display running on the same hardware. Its cartoonish style is deceptively nuanced, and features some of the most jaw dropping lighting and dynamic weather. The animation is also exemplary, maintaining its looks even in combat while keeping an ear to ear grin. Hats off to the art direction team for making one of the best looking games of this generation.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Where this game does suffer a bit from losing polish in chaotic combat sequences, it more than makes up for it in its breathtaking presentation of historical settings and grand sense of scale. The included free camera photo mode makes these moments all the more enjoyable, giving the player opportunities to capture truly spectacular screen shots. From shots of Senu against a sky of kites over the Nile at sunset, Bayek atop monuments, wind sailing, free diving or sneaking through glittering hoards of treasure lit by torchlight, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origin is visually quite stunning.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I include this game although it was never upgraded on consoles to proper 4K like PC, it does support HDR and is nothing short of a masterpiece of visceral, well animated graphics that seem to get better (instead of worse) the more serious the action gets. Everything from the environments, UI, vehicles, weapons and armor are showcase examples of top shelf, built for 4K graphics. The Bioware title had a mostly undeserved initial reception for odd issues that included character faces, some silly animations and such but I felt they had near zero impact on actual gameplay where it mattered. At the heart of the game was a genuine breakthrough in combat mechanics that still look and play a generation ahead of most other games. Take issue with the facial appearances of some characters if you will, or a departure from deeper RPG elements of Mass Effect 2 and 3, but this game still shines on its merits.

Destiny 2

Bungie’s grand space opera shooter is another prime example of a game that looks generations different on a 4K HDR display next to a 1080p one. The lighting and effects aren’t even close. I do believe some compromises are made in the fastest of the game modes like PvP (similar to the degradation one might notice in For Honor), but in nearly every other case it remains faithful under fire, made all the better by some of the best monster and environment designers in the business.

Notes on the future of 4K gaming

Looking ahead, it isn’t a guarantee that the coming generation of games will automatically look better. In fact, the burden is on them to match and maintain (let alone surpass) the standard given accelerated release schedules and a shift in what is considered to be innovative in games. Upcoming megahits like Anthem look pretty on the E3 big screen, but will it play as well as Destiny 2 or Mass Effect: Andromeda? Contender with good credentials Cyberpunk 2077 melted faces in a closed-door gameplay demo but is already getting side-eye for not sharing this footage due to it (presumably, maybe) changing before release. Battlefield V looks promising, but may also get sucked into the propeller of Battle Royale resource prioritization. Fallout 76 is too early to tell. Shadow of the Tomb Raider *should* be born to win, given how good Rise of the Tomb Raider already looks but the E3 trailer was kind of modest in comparison.

Are high end graphics the most important feature of a game? Arguably not, but this coming year or so should really show if we can have both.