Jay was already inspecting his rifle, looking it over for any defects or flaws, counting out bullets left. “What took you?”
“Another scouting party,” Tane replied. I stared up at her. Her beak was wet with green. “They’re getting greedy if they’re pushing in this deep on Prime-Nest.”
“It’s a bit unnatural,” Jay said. “I don’t much like it.”
Tane cocked her head to the side and looked at me. “What’s wrong with her?”
At some point the gun had dropped from my hands onto the counter, though my mind couldn’t quite parse when that’d been. Omoi rewinded memories and helpfully told me it’d be a few minutes ago, after the chittering had stopped.
“First kill,” Jay said, shouldering the rifle on his clothes.
“Ah,” Tane said, clicking her beak. “Well,” Tane said. “That’s proof she’s probably not a Fey, I suppose.”
“Wh-why?” I stammered, trying to straighten up.
“They don’t get fear,” Tane swept over top of the counter and inspected the backroom. “Nice shot. Neck’s a pretty good place to hit, they’ve got a decent number of lymph carriers there to keep their bug brains running.”
“Why the fuck,” I said. “Does it look like a little girl?”
Jay put my arm around his shoulder, and stepped to the side, balancing me over around the bullets and vomit, so I take a seat in one of the chairs.
“To scare the shit out of us, I think. And to fool us.” Tane said, callous. “Believe you me, following Morrigan’s teachings and also shootings these things is a hell of a trip.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jay offered. “Just accept they’re evil as shit, blasphemers that assume a mockery of the good name of humans, and deserve every bullet we own straight down their ugly faces, and you got a good start on figuring them out.”
I swallowed. Looked up at Jay.
The scouts moved out, picking up the bodies, lifting them away.
“They take prisoners away. Some of the other races…other countries… states, they trade people to them.”
I slid back in the chair.
Jay sighed, taking a seat across from me. “This isn’t quite what you were expecting, was it?” He asked, cool, calm, detached.
I didn’t like it. I was being pedanted too, talked down to. But I didn’t want to figure it out, not really.
“God,” I said. “What the fuck happened here? It’s been five thousand years. Where’s the new civilizations? Where’s the utopias?”
Jay closed his eyes, tilting his head to the side. Tane hovered next to the outcast. “You got this one?”
“I’m a bit biased here, Tane,” Jay replied. “Give me a hand?”
“Only so you don’t fuck it up,” Tane replied, sour. “Well. First couple thousand years were full of radiation. Hell creatures. Plagues. Crow kind weathered it out in cities like this one, in populations small enough to not stress anything. Didn’t live outside of our means..”
Jay snorted. “That is, the first crows were all highly religious and terrified of reproducing.”
“Like the Morrigan?” I asked.
“The First Crows were mostly concerned with doing the Warden’s job,” Tane said, continuing. “Instead of trying to make more Crows. Lived like that for hundreds of years, only reproducing when necessary in order to continue on the mission.”
I paused. Thought about it for a long moment.
Anomalies rampant across an irradiated countryside. Devastating to any society, really. Crows diving in. Burying them in the ground for centuries.
Human societies were already complex beasts to begin with. Increasingly global, complex, reliant on trade… it wasn’t like we’d made it particularly easy to restart. I wasn’t exactly an anthropologist, and my understanding of society was flawed at best, mostly from trying to make sense of ancient texts describing ancient artifacts, but…
“That’s not to say that there wasn’t a great kingdom,” Jay said, drawing me back from my thoughts. “It just came recent. Fairly recent. I remember how big it was, actually. Tane’s too young.”
Tane shook her head. “Is it really best to talk to her about it?”
Jay sighed. “If we don’t do it now… it’ll just get harder.”
“What was the great kingdom?”
“The capital,” Jay said. “Was once the gem of the entire gulf coast. Swept from Florida across Alabama. A gleaming citadel of Crows.”
“And?” I asked. My stomach dropped. I had a feeling I knew what’d happened.
“Well,” Jay said. Tane brought out the Fey, stubbornly dead, and sat it down. “The humans came back, and we loved them, and then it turned out they were more interested in feeding the bugs more than anything else.” Jay leaned back in his chair, eyeing my expression. “We dreamed of artifice and life and they were just fucking bugs.”
Tane rocked the creature by its neck, and the body moved uncomfortably like a human corpse. My stomach rebelled.
There was nothing in it.
“Oh.” I said. Rather blank. At this point, it was definitely shock time. My eyes flicked down to the bug’s, then back up to Jay. “They uh, they pay bounties for humans, huh?”
Tane clicked her beak. “If you can stomach doing business with them… Granted, there’s not that many humans left, really.”
“What do they do with them?”
I stared at the creature’s blood. Wondered how on earth this could be natural.
“Not really sure,” Tane said. “They don’t come back from it, whatever it is.”
Knew it wasn’t.
“So we killed them. Realized they’d been infected by one of the anomalies the Wardens had tried to keep locked away, and killed them like the sickness they were,” Jay breathed out.
“But they had guns,” Tane said.
“There were a lot of them,” Jay said.
“They never really were defeated,” I said.
“Just chased out of our borders, for the most part; after the initial hoard was… slaughtered. Mowed down. There were so many of them. Our borders got a whole hell of a lot tighter.” Jay shook his head. “Warden…”
“Tane,” I said. “Check the roof. The item we were tracking is still there. Be careful.”
Tane grabbed the gun I’d left on the counter and sauntered outside.
‘“Call me Jess,” I reminded him.
“Look,” Jay said, eyeing me. “I’m… I’m sorry this place isn’t what you wanted, alright?”
I’d killed something. Me, the physicist. I’d killed someone. This wasn’t a theoretical thought problem.
In those, I’d kill to save my life.
But this wasn’t one of those. I’d done it. My fingers, on the trigger, point blank range, and it’d been in pain and died.
“You came from a better place,” Jay said, looking away. “And I can’t help you get back to there.”
“No,” I said, looking away as well. “You can’t. Nobody can.”
But the world had tasted the echo of my world for thousands of years. Tasted the empire we’d obliterated. Ruined.
I’d been apart of an organization dedicated to saving the world from the impact of horrible unexplainable things. But we’d ruined it in ways we understood perfectly.
Tane returned, a small com clutched in her hands. USEC issue, data storage device. She set it on the table in front of us. “All that was up there.”
“The leader must’ve flown off,” Jay said, snapping his talons. “Didn’t want to tangle with the scouting party.”
Smart. Dropped the device so we couldn’t give chase. I was tracking it, after all.
I picked it up, and unlocked it with a quick code entry. Still replied to USEC standard codes. Omoi chirped.
Files available for download.
I went in.
“Welcome to the year 7000 or so,” Isaac’s voice rang in through the bones in my head. “Shit’s kinda fucked up, to pardon my french. So. Here’s my status report on the area. This is Prime-Nest, sort of a religious hub for the local birds in the area. They’re pretty trustworthy, basically USEC wanna bes. You remember those, right?”
I remembered them. The states had wanted to use their own personal groups when they’d gone open about anomalies in the world, not knowing, or not caring that they were already thoroughly infiltrated with USEC employees making sure things went well. Blast from the past to think about them.
“Well, I have a few things to warn you about. Keep away from the Fey at all costs. The birds love Wardens, and from what I’ve gathered from the caravan I’m leaving with, the Fey LOVE Wardens over everything else. Capital LOVE. Also all spelled out. Don’t let them know you’re out and moving; they’re going to mobilize after you. It’s what happened to the Warden before me, fifty years ago.” A paused, muffled noises from the side. Bird noises.
“At any rate, I’m going to swing by the military base to the east of us. There’s a town over there next to it, and I’m going to try and figure out if the cryopods at that base are still working. They were everywhere, so why aren’t there more humans around?” Isaac voice trailed off. “Sorry for not being able to give that much information. I’ve heard from the caravan that there might still be humans left around in Florida, and I’ve heard tales of magic from there. Magic might mean… well I don’t know what it means, but I bet that I can use my doctorate for something. Sounds like something we used to work on. It’s been five thousand years. But… That’s a bit away from here.” A pause.
Voice came in low now.
“Listen, if… if the Fey are here when you wake up, I need you to do me a favor. Go back to the cryopods and destroy them, alright? I don’t want anyone to get their hands on Warden bodies… and… look, they’re basically dead. Omoi won’t wake them up and… There weren’t a lot of people who weren’t dead anyway. I didn’t have the guts to do it. Sorry for leaving this to you. It’s wrong for them to just… sit there like that. Where anyone can get to them. Lotta valuable stuff there that doesn’t need to get loose.”
A quiet noise in the distance.
“Look, you can bury the name tags and call it a day. Just make sure that… nobody’s still alive. And maybe… tell Jess, if her cryo’s not failed by then, that I’m sorry. Sorry I couldn’t save her, either.”
Omoi chirped out a warning on Isaac’s side of the conversation.
“After I get out of the base, I’m heading to Florida. I’m going to see if there’s anything left at all. It sounds so stupid saying it like that, but… There’s not a lot left in the world for USEC like us. Who knows. Maybe the next person to get out will be a security officer, or a guard or something. Not another useless brain case like me.”
Isaac’s voice was low, harsh. Self loathing. Inkstains in his eyes, matching equations that still danced in my head, winking lights and things we’d never get to finish discovering.
“So this is goodbye. I know the odds of anyone waking up soon are beyond small; it was fifty years before me that the last one woke up… and hundred years before then. Just, again, you can trust the Crows. They’re good people, by and large. Isaac, Theoretical physics, signing off. And good luck out there.”
The recording ended.