The USEC building looked less like a proud bastion of defence against humanity and more like the last refuge of a hoarder. I’d stumbled out the back, but approaching it properly, along the roads that the Crows prefered when they used roads at all, the front was something else entirely.
Lines of gravestones littered the front of the building. Tiny things, each smaller than my head. Labeled. Marked with handprints. Occasionally flowers.
Jay looked down at them and then back at me, stepping forward. We walked down the main path to the overgrown building, my shoes disturbing small trails of dust on the path. Otherwise, left unmarked except for the indentations of talons.
A quiet affair, unbroken by the normal questions I had, and unbroken by Jay’s voice. The journey was similarly unbroken apart from a pause where Jay stood next to a spot that hadn’t been taken up by graves at all.
“I think I’d be okay with being buried right here,” He said, thinking.
“These are graves for anomaly carriers?”
“And Outcasts,” Jay said, slowly nodding. “Bury what you don’t understand in the ground so that it does not hurt those around it.”
I looked down at where he was gesturing. Quietly looked towards the main building.
Omoi flashed the picture of the building in proper setting in front of it. Bright white paint on concrete walls; a brutalistic synthesis of every government building I’d ever stepped foot in. Covered in guards. Two main towers. A checkpoint to see who was coming inside. Cognitive tests at the door to make sure no long term exposure went unnoticed.
Even the incomprehensible brought down by dogged bureaucracy.
Jay clicked behind me as I stepped in. One last salvage attempt.
The front desk was bare. Everything that was remotely dangerous was kept out of sight, so all that was left were papers, destroyed and eaten by time, and the desk itself.
“Come on,” I said, gesturing at Jay.
“Where are we going?” Jay asked.
“My old office,” I said, grim. The hall to the cryopods might’ve been broken, but that didn’t mean my office had been destroyed.
I stepped around the desk and into the backroom. Ancient stale coffee. Death. Radiation. A slow buzz on the geiger counter. Familiar, vaguely at this point. No longer worried me apart from a brief rumination about life span.
Checked the fridge. Power had gone out centuries ago, but I could still pick out a half used carton of eggs. The smell was wretched, and I shut the door again.
“Everything worth taking, food wise, has already been taken,” Jay pointed out.
I ignored him and mounted the stairs. Structural integrity was mostly sound in the building; the wage of time was the threat here, and the building had been designed with too many structural point to fall to just that. Click went his talons on the stairs.
Down a hallway covered in symbols designed to ward against Symbolic Dangers, vaguely soothing despite the age and wear on each of them. It was a familiar path, though I was in stranger clothes and with stranger company.
Dr. Williams read the office on the far end. I slipped inside. Monitors were burnt out from age; the low level electrical current from the facilities long term nuclear diamond generators having gotten to it long before anything else had. But the desk was still there. Papers had disappeared with age, mold graced the lunch half left on my desk, just ancient residue. Could almost taste the coffee in the air.
“This is where you worked?” Jay asked, leaning against the door frame.
I looked up at him, and took a seat behind my desk. “Right here. For years. Kinda strange to think about, I guess.”
Looked around to where my fingers would go. No detectable interface.
I scowled. Isaac had swiped my hard storage.
For obvious reasons, it wasn’t safe to store anomalous information directly in Omoi. So each USEC employee had a hard storage to put their information in, that they could then read. Operational Security at it’s finest.
But mine was gone, and the only person who would’ve taken it would’ve been…
“You didn’t go out and do anything?” Jay asked, cocking his head to the side.
“Of course not,” I said. “They brought it all to me. Different people handled acquisition, and different people handled study. Anyone that was part of understanding the anomaly, apart from what was necessary to extract it in the first place…”
“Kept isolated from everyone else in buildings like these. Strange,” Jay stepped in. Drew his arms out around him; sleek black feathers visible underneath of his makeshift vest. “Did… they treat you poorly?”
“For handling these things?” I asked, laughing. “They treated me like a queen. My paychecks were ridiculous. Any expense I wanted, within reason, I could afford.”
Jay peered out where the window had once been. My hand slipped under the desk, reaching through the darkness. Felt into the drawers. Slapped my hands up into a hidden compartment, reached with my fingers.
Pulled out a watch. Aged with time. Covered in rust. Tarnish.
Popped it open.
“But I kept my distance anyway. It was… also basically policy to do that,” I continued. “To make sure there’s distance between us. It’s… safer.”
Internal battery had long since turned into sludge. The face had moldered black from miniscule particles of my own skin.
But the picture tucked in, with glossy preservative, still remained intact.
A shock of blonde hair curling down his face. Freckles. Brown eyes. Crooked nose from being broken.
My confidant. The person USEC would contact in the case of my tragic demise or exposure to anomalies past safe levels. My brother.
I’d run out of tears by that point. All that was left was dull aches and pains. Maybe it’d been the years of emotional distance? Maybe it’d been the training I’d gone through to study Symbolic Dangers.
I threw it into the pack I’d taken from Prime-Nest. Just a memento. A stupid memento, maybe, but… It was still mine.
“Alright,” Jay said, turning away from the window. “You’ve seen the place.”
“I figured you’d be more excited,” I said, gesturing around. “This is what most of my job was. Office work.”
“I was expecting…” Jay shrugged. “I guess I never gave it thought as to what the day to day was. There’s always been something to fix, I never thought about…”
“Studying?” I asked.
“It’s not…” Jay tittered, his beak clicking. “We never really did much studying,” Jay admitted. “If we didn’t understand it, we buried it into the ground. Lots of Crows just bury what we don’t understand in the ground. You get what I mean?”
Trying to learn about them… derivating something new from the old… it hadn’t occurred to them. Or, even more likely…
Looking out from the window, I could see the atomic scar left nearby. A massive crater punching a hole into the earth’s crust. A depression left in the earth from a meddling with understood physics.
The Crows had long been surrounded by evidence of what happened when one meddled with things they didn’t understand.
Could I blame them for keeping their curiosity in check?
When Zach’s orders had been on that, precise. Bury it in the ground. Eyes flicked over to where Jay’s com was still outlined in his clothes.
What about those?
Zach’s com had been on him when they died; and they weren’t especially hard to understand. There wasn’t any paradigmatic overhauls involved, nor any pseudo forks to be obliterated by wrong moves. Just a machine that stored and access information.
Compared to the deeper vault of things…
I felt for Zach, I really did, but he’d invalidated my entire career. Entire decades of my life.
Was there an equivalent to my role here?
But I understood, too. Researching the dangerous things in the world was a privilege mostly allotted to societies that weren’t in constant danger.
And Crows were in constant danger, now.
It was odd to realize you were a luxury of the past, ultimately.
I slid off of my desk and out into the hallway, leaving Jay by the window.
Across the hall, Isaac’s office sat. The ceiling had caved in, rendering it completely impossible to enter. I tsked at him, clicking my tongue.
“Memories?” Jay asked.
I could feel the weight of the pocket watch in my bag. A last physical memory.
I didn’t need anything else physical; my memories were gone. Swiped. Expertise without the databanks for it.
Hands curled into fists, and I slammed my fist into the old door. The faux wood panelling splintered around impact. Not from force, but years of being exposed to the elements. Jay’s head jerked sharply to stare at it. “God damn Isaac,” I swore, stalking about. Moving about. Hot anger, hot, emotion, uncensored. “God damn, I’m…”
Jay reached to put a hand on my shoulder, and I darted away from the talons, looking down the hallway. There had to be something left. Some other fragment. I was… I was lying to myself. I wanted a connection, I wanted something that made me…
I wanted to be Jess, the doctor who spent long nights curled up over spreadsheets covered in anomalous fluctuations. Jess, who had a therapist appointment scheduled to see if I was cracking from exposure yet. Jess, who took her coffee with cream and no sugar, because she wasn’t enjoying the coffee, she just needed to stay awake.
I wanted to be her again.
But there wasn’t any room in the world for that Jess. This wasn’t that Jess’s world.
This Jess had killed someone the previous day (and my mind hadn’t yet wrapped around that) this Jess didn’t have a job, this Jess didn’t have a brother, this Jess just had a bird following her around, and a coworker who might as well be dead and
What the hell did I even have left?
Just… memories. Stupid fucking memories that didn’t even mean anything even more, and even most of those had been taken and stupid pointless equations and
I slammed my fist into another door, and it buckled, fell over. Then another. Offices long since evacuated, picked over for anything remotely useful by Crows of the past.
“There’s got to be something here that hasn’t been looted,” I muttered, jerking my eyes over to Jay. It was easier than crying. That was about it.
The crow looked around, thinking. Then snapped his talons. “Actually…” The bird scurried off and I followed after him. Such a strange creature, clicking this way and that.
Down the halls, past the calming paintings, and then into one of the side hallways.
Then stopped, abruptly. Security door. Locked into a solid frame.
Supply closet. A big one. Locked to employees.
Jay looked at it meaningfully, cocking his head to the side. The walls were covered in scratches. Tools of all kinds had been brought to bear in an attempt to pick it open. Long gouges in the steel from heavier attempts.
Omoi chirped a call to the door.
“This door has called out intruder alarms for nearly 5000 years,” Omoi reported. “Would you like it to open?”
I flicked yes.
The lock disengaged, internally powered by a separate system drawing radiation from caged nuclear waste. Clicked. Opened.
Labcoats. Hundreds of them on hangers, still wrapped in plastic. The messier departments went through them like paper. I stepped inside, and Jay clicked his beak in fascination. Well preserved as they were, I looked up. Slightly bowed ceiling.
“Fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like this well preserved. What are they all for?”
I flicked down the various sizes, stepping further and further inside, and found my size.
Undid the wrapping of one, and tugged it on overtop of the cryosuit. The weight was familiar. Bizarre.
It felt right to wear the old uniform.
“Warden uniform,” I said. “For researchers.”
Jay clicked his beak. “I’ve never seen anything this… pristine before. Was that by design?”
The weight was good. My shoulders, held tense for hours, slowly relaxed. I buttoned the coat up my body, and tried to pretend that I didn’t know the cool blue of the cryosuit was still visible. Slid the tough pants on afterwards. Covered exactly how much I was used to; designed to work long hours and inversely keep everyone looking the same.
The community belonged to the status quo.
We’d be maintained.