On the bottom floor, after we’d scurried back down, my mind was mostly back. The stench of blood filled my lungs, but a simple diagnostic scan with Omoi told me it was superficial damage to the blood vessels in the dark of my nose; high blood pressure.
I’d gotten lucky.
Well, I’d gotten lucky in that Omoi had taken over. She was designed to stop me from stroking out from overloading. Perhaps that was the protection of the goddess.
Jay forced me to drink more water, and my hands shook as I clung to the canteen, drinking deep. His talons dug around the room for a bit, before sliding into a false floor, tugged up from the rugged tiles.
He plucked them open and inside sat guns. Small hand guns, for self defence, in two cases.
And a single longer rifle.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting the birds to use for weapons, but good old fashioned lead should’ve been on the top of the list.
Then he set a hand gun next to me. “You know how to shoot?”
I stared down at the weapons.
Was he being serious? Did I look like someone who knew how to shoot a gun?
Omoi spiralled a few tutorials in front of me, holographic hand positions and neural feedbacks, phantom sensations designed to tell me predicted recoils and assisted trajectories.
Cautiously, I picked one up. Rotated it about.
Omoi flashed a warning not to point at friendly targets, then flashed Jay with a blue outline to remind me just who that was.
I didn’t need that.
Though my heart quickened nauseatingly from the weight in my hand, I swallowed, closing my eyes.
“That’s a no, isn’t it?” Jay asked, gently taking the gun away from me. “That’s fine, I can do the shooting for us.”
“We’re going after them?” I asked. A tinge of fear in my voice. Tremble in my heart.
It was stupid.
“The rest of the scouts will be showing up soon,” Jay pressed. “But we need to catch up.”
“You can go without me, right?” I asked.
Jay hesitated, his feathers puffing up. “I… need you to track them,” Jay said. “Omoi’s short range, right?”
The track was diminishing by the minute. I could see the phantom target in the distance; a red outline, a phantom from the perspective of the antenna; glowing through walls, burned onto my corneal sight.
I was wasting time being scared here. They were getting away.
They were stealing the past from me.
“So,” I said, swallowing.
“So?” Jay asked.
Cautiously, I picked the gun back up from him. Omoi’s tutorials didn’t make it less scary, didn’t make it less real. Who the hell did I think I was, holding one of these things? I wasn’t…
My mind flashed with visions of skeletons. Skeletons who had never gotten to leave the cryopods. That had hopes.
Families that would never know they had gotten away.
Would never know they hadn’t.
And here I was. Nothing to my name. Jay at my side.
And I was wigging out because I had a gun, and I was going to chase after a remnant of Isaac.
Selfish. Ludicrously selfish. What would Agent Zachary think?
Even when dying, he’d saved those birds.
I straightened, tried to calm my heart, and ignored the cool voice of Omoi suggesting more music.
“I’ll do it. Let’s go.”
Jay’s eyes flicked over to the gun, then back to me.
“Just use it if they flank you, alright?” Jay said. “Now come on; the scouts are good birds, they’ll be able to find us if we start running.”
The bottom layer of the forest was just as beautiful as before. Gnarled twisted ancient trees stood tall, but the red outline in the distance remained unflickering and pure.
“I’ll follow you this time,” Jay said. “It’s a waste of time if I have to keep looking down at my com to make sure we’re going the right way.”
“Got it,” I said. I tried to hold onto that burning spark that was keeping the despair away; like an oxygen candle in a submarine.
But the burning spark tasted as tainted as any canned air source would.
My legs were already burning, but I put fast tracks, rushing ahead. Jay kept up easily, springing and skittering across on his talons.
Buildings raced past at a snail’s pace; their monolithic features designed to be transited by cars instead of human legs. Jay’s feathers moved against the window, smoothly catching up with me. Halfway there, but the city had gone silent again. Not a thing stirred and I paused. Hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Could see the red blur, marked by the tracker slowly turn around and walk towards us.
“Wait a moment,” I said, holding a hand to Jay.
I looked around, slowly spinning. Jay’s feathers grew steadily more and more puffed up. “Something’s…”
“Wrong,” Jay finished.
Then a glint in the distance, and I stopped spinning to stare at it.
Omoi let out a warning chirp. Identified it.
Jay slammed into my side, spinning me around, and as I spun the building behind me erupted into a cloud of dust and rocks.
I stared at the building behind me for a second, blank.
Omoi chirped out another warning, and then I hit the ground. “Move!” Jay hissed.
My heart started at around the same time my brain did, and I lunged beside the building we were already next to, diving inside.
Jay joined me seconds later, and through an ancient table in front of us. My geiger counter crackled lazily from the dust dislodged, a siren’s song of the old age.
“Zach damn them,” Jay swore, keeping thoroughly in cover. My heart thumped a few times, and I tugged myself securely next to him, a mewling cry leaving my mouth.
Okay so maybe I wasn’t prepared after all.
Jay poked his head up from the side, then back under cover.
An old pizza place. I could see the skeletal remains of an old oven. Everything worth taking had been taken already. Years ago. Centuries. The skyscrapers were better living places for the flying crows.
Blood pounded through my ears, drowning out my thoughts. Drowned out the noises around me. Jay’s eyes darted about, taking note of our location and he stared.
“Warden, Warden, Warden,” His beak moved but what nonsense what he saying?
I snapped back again.
“You really weren’t kidding about not knowing anything about this,” Jay said, cocking his head to the side. I swallowed, then wet my lips with my tongue, nervous and looking around. The Red Blur, holding the com, was still approaching us.
“We’ve got incoming,” I whispered.
“Incoming?!” Jay squawked. “Why? They have a sniper on us.”
I swallowed, then let Omoi have access to my memories of the last few seconds. She replayed them, overlaid on my left eye.
“Okay. Third floor,” I said, police building in front of us. “That’s where the bullets came from.”
Jay nodded. “Okay.” His talons clicked together in what I could only assume was the equivalent of snapping his fingers. “They don’t have a good angle on us,” he said, sliding slowly out of cover, then diving over the bar with the cash register.
I stared at him. Thought about leaving the table he’d slammed over for us, but my legs wouldn’t do it.
“Come on,” Jay gestured.
“I don’t want to die,” I whimpered. His expression changed a little. Deepened to something. Then his eyes flicked outside.
“Jess,” Jay said, his voice softer. “I need you to trust me, okay?”
“Right right,” I trusted him. Swallowed again.
“And I need you to be next to me, alright?”
I’d never been shot at before. It made my head swim to think about it. A miserable sort of feeling. For all of my bravado, to have it evaporate after a single shot in my direction…
How different were their lives, after all?
“Now,” Jay said, his eyes fixed on something else.
I slowly stood up. “Now?”
“NOW!” Jay shouted, and I vaulted over the counter to join him.
A bullet ricocheted off and took out the ancient cash register, sending a flurry of broken parts and pieces clattering about.
“They changed positions,” I whispered.
“They’re fey,” Jay said. “They’ve got wings of their own. Makes battling them a fresh pain, compared to the cats,” He whispered, looking around. “Where’s the mark?”
My eyes flicked around. Where had they gone? Where had they…?
Flicked them up.
The blur was now outlined in red over top of us.
Hands shaking, I pointed up.
Jay clicked his beak. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.”