Jay clicked his beak. “We’ll take most of this back with us to Prime-Nest. There’s a lot of good materials here.”
“Utilitarian of you,” I muttered, turning around to face him. Maybe I could finally find a place to take off the cryo-suit. It felt like I’d been in it for days, tight as a second skin, but I knew I’d only been awake for a day or two.
“Is that all we’re here for?” Jay asked. “Looting?”
My hand slid up my face and tugged at a strand of my hair nervously. “When you put it like that it seems…”
“No no, it’s fine. We always need more cloth, and it looks like you needed it too,” Jay said, sighing.
I adjusted the lab coat. Didn’t feel quite so cold anymore. Not as bare.
Something closer to who I used to be.
“Lots of boxes in here, too,” Jay noted.
I took a long breath, held it. Held it sweet until it burned my lungs, then let it whistle out. “Been putting it off, let’s go take care of the actual part I’m worried about.”
Jay clicked his beak. “Ah. So you want to go back to the cryo pods.”
“Am I that transparent?” I asked.
“No, it’s… Sometimes we all want to go to the place we came from.”
My mind flashed to a quiet neighborhood half a continent away, now turned into ash and seas of dead and diseased ground.
It’s what I imagined; it wasn’t that far away from the capital of that state.
And imagining it dead and gone reduced my desire to find it.
That’s what I told myself at least.
“You ever want to go back to where you were…” I paused. “You’re not really born, are you?”
“Kindled, or Learned,” Jay said, politely. “Crows find nests of crows and teach them how to be people.”
I blinked at him, and started back down the hallway. “Strange…”
“It’s a living,” Jay said.
“Do you have children, then?” I asked. “Is there a juvenile stage?”
“It’s malleable. It really depends on how many Crow pieces were involved in the mix. Occasionally, it’s necessary to jumpstart someone who shattered beyond return in the hopes of retrieving their memories. The new Crow is still a crow, but they can recall some details.”
“How much of the same person are they?” I asked. Down the stairs. Jay’s talons clicked. Once. Twice. Too many times.
“Kindling isn’t that cut and dry,” Jay said. “Every Crow covers it differently. Some say they can hear Zach’s voice drifting through time to remind them of our task. Some day they remember captivity; streets full of humans, diving for food. Tests in labs.”
I hesitated by the front door, staring out at the rows of graves.
“Not a word,” Jay laughed. “I didn’t hear a word at all. Just… I dreamed of a blue sky. An unbroken horizon somewhere, with eyes like the world twinkling. Distant. A calling. A purpose.”
“And?” I asked.
“It’s just a Kindling vision,” Jay said. “Doesn’t mean anything. Just means that the pieces I was made from, some of their memories, they got joined together; my mind flipped through them, inversed them. Like how you humans dreamed, from what I gathered.”
Out the front door. Solemn procession; the graves reminded me of what I was about to find.
“What are human dreams like?” Jay asked. “Did you dream in the long sleep?”
“I don’t think I did,” I admitted. “It was just… It felt like earlier in the day, I’d been walking around, and I woke up from a long nap and everyone was dead.”
Detached. Cool. Composed. Something of the old Jess, flickering in my heart as I turned the corner.
It would’ve been a basement in another time, another part of the country; but the door was buried under rubble, leaving only a shattered window and row upon row upon row of cryopods visible.
This USEC building had over two hundred people working in the various different floors. On an average day, the guards were in their towers, making sure nothing untoward happened by the fence, and we marvelled at unravelling the mysteries of the universe, developing new ways to keep things safe. Worked on identifying new strange things that didn’t fit our models, and developed new theoretical models to adapt them to fit.
The voices from beyond the stars were simply evidence of an advanced intelligence who had mastered a universal broadcast technique that interacted with the core neurons that made up sentient carbon life.
The chittering from the other side was simply the passage of other worlds coming too close to the fabric of this one.
The lines of skeletons staring back at me, long dead.
Well. Those were more explainable.
“I’ll wait here,” Jay said, keeping his eyes firmly averted from the window.
“You will?” I asked.
“This is for your eyes,” Jay said, swallowing. “I may be an outcast, but there’s a certain sanctity to a mass grave.”
I watched his feathers shift on his form, and slowly crept towards the shattered window. The smell of death and black mold was heavy in the air.
Omoi chirped as she automatically interfaced with the spread of technology in the room. Error messages flooded my vision; I flicked them away with a twitch of my eyes, then paused, looking at one.
Fail safe mechanism failure(s). I couldn’t catch the number of them, but now that I wasn’t…
Wasn’t panicking as much, I could…
The cryopods were solid construction. Columnar, they crept down floor after floor, rigged up together like a series of batteries in concerted wires. Linked to consoles designed to help people free themselves.
Smooth glass in front of them; heavy construction. Partially bulletproof, lead infused to prevent radiation, and rated up to the common handgun calibers. Not to make them weapon proof, but to ensure that routine use and function wouldn’t crack them. Omoi had access to all of their stats. The various failsafe procedures that had been put into place to stop this exact fate from happening.
The first cryopod contained nothing more than a skeleton; a jumpsuit stretched over it. The door just barely ajar; lines of tubules still sunk into the bone. Stains from the fluid inside leaking out. I tested the door with a hand. With barely a nudge, it sank back into place, sealing the skeleton inside.
Cause of death; fail safe activation in response to catastrophic failure of cryogenic master systems.
Breathed in. Breathed out.
Didn’t look at the name Omoi flashed in front of my eyes, identifying the employee, long dead.
Everything in the first row was the same. Half cracked doors, unfinished release protocols. Lines of the dead; of cracked skeletons, needles buried into bone. My arm ached where I’d had a similar fate. My thighs ached. Needles into bones.
Everything in the first row was the same except mine. It stood wide open, the light on the side utterly dead. Omoi refused to interact with it, citing a complete failure of power. Standing in front of it, I could see line after line of skeletons. The occasionally rotting corpse; systems failed piece by piece over thousands of years.
I swallowed. The black mold still greeted one wall, but entire skeletons were shrouded in it; the late stages of decay.
Failure of the master Cryo systems had started the thawing process on most of the employees. But… when?
I flicked through the dates. Lines of failures.
High rates of death at the beginning; a survivorship curve. Initial defects compounded by… what?
If everything had gone to plan, I wouldn’t be alone here. There’d be line after line of people just like me, waiting to be dethawed.
But no, this didn’t quite make sense.
I stepped by the lines of cryopods and slipped in deeper. Omoi chirped as she interacted with signal after signal, pointing out countless access points attached to dead bodies. I ignored them, my heart slowly starting to pump. Fifty on the first floor. Not a living body among them. There had to be others. There had to be others.
No trace of the master computer governing it all; no calculating lines of code dictating exactly when to release people.
So why had I been released at all? The cryopods…
Would’ve been linked to each other in case of system failure; a primitive network. They were designed, first and foremost, to protect the most people. Automated systems cradling lives.
How strange that we were interested in containment, but had failed in containing our own lives. But no. Irony aside, there was something deeper wrong here. This didn’t reek of something… accidental.
The second floor was underground. Lines of tubes. Dimly lit by glowing strips on the wall. Skeletons.
Bullet Holes crossed the back of the wall. Line after line of them. Chips in glass where the resistance had held up. A single tube shattered, skeleton inside.
The bullets were worrying but I—
I saw a set of security armor, bleached from years of exposure and insects. A skeleton inside, hands still clutching at a handgun. Ruined, rusted, useless.
Across the room, another set of armor lie. A grasping hand, two eyes on the palm, embossed on the front. Rifle, skewed, torn from impacts. Hole in the side of the skull.
Ancient bloodstains turned black on the floor.
Fruitlessly guarding the room, scattered around cryo-pods, more skeletons sat in solemn sentinel. Blacks stains on the ground. Weapons destroyed by time. Armor perforated. Rotted. A few others were scattered about. Different weapons. Willing to use Cryopods for cover.
There’d been an attack. They’d come prepared to stop us from getting anyone out alive. My eyes traced back to the original skeletons.
I could picture it; guards preparing final rounds, final protocols, when the attack struck, people rushing for the tubes; a perfect opportunity to end USEC; kill those it tried to preserve.
But what was their end goal…? Flicked my eyes back to the front of the room. The guard and the insurgent.
Between the two of them, one of the main computers, smashed to pieces; localized explosive. I drew closer to the guard. I knew him; he was the same one I’d passed for years, signalling my credentials so I could get past the front gate. Omoi chirped a happy greeting, and received none in return.
Stared at the computer bank. Complicated hardware; designed to manage the entire building’s life support systems indefinitely.
But what could they do against the Hand of The Watchers?
I’d never seen one of the enemy before. But I’d known their existence. Perhaps they’d sprung out of russia, some cold war plot to advance based on forbidden knowledge. Perhaps they’d come from a japanese experiment. Perhaps they’d been homegrown; an old lab contacting unknown powers.
It didn’t matter, because they whispered about what lay beyond, and where they’d go, and how liberating it would be to get there.
Annihilists. Their attack on South Korea had broken things wide open for lots of people, back in the 30s. Proved the existence of the strange; there was no going back from watching the various groups of the world collaborating to take out a titan of Chitin and metal, whose voice bubbled steel and buckled minds; whose sight boiled glass and touched hearts. Footage heavily censored but I could still remember those days of horror; unending weeks in lockdown, governments pointing fingers at each other. The screams. The endless screams.
The Hand of The Watchers were behind that attack.
They’d probably also been behind any number of other attacks. Resource scarcities. Plagues.
The markers for the war we’d found ourselves in, cannibalizing failed south american countries for resources.
But soon enough, we saw them behind everything. Hidden plants amongst our midst. Hallucinations in the darkness. The psych department theorized that there was an anomaly at work, but the explanation fell under pure paranoia just as well, a mix up, a massive mess.
Omoi chirped out that the scan of the room was complete, and I slowly tore my eyes up from the symbol. Something seethed harsh and hot in my heart. It rippled through my veins. Made my teeth clench.
I’d been robbed.
“No living bio-signs,” Omoi chirped. But I’d found a cryopod anyway, still working.
Flicked my eyes up.
A single occupant in the front row. Didn’t recognize her. Omoi chirped she was from the social sector, examining the records she could glean from the system; examining anomalous constructivistic thinking; a big problem in a post Omoi world. Pages of research and theories. Two solved problems. Would’ve been impressive. If I could just talk to her. If she wasn’t just… still there…
She was Omoi-less. Just stared at her blonde hair, the way she floated in the cooling tube; chemicals pumped slowly in and out of her bones. Her glasses still hanging on her nose.
Stasis. No sign of brain activity on the pod. Just a flat line.
A bullet was embedded in the glass on level with her stomach. Hadn’t gotten all the way through, but spray from the Hand agent had terminated a number of cases prematurely. Must’ve… done it to her, too. Took her offline. Biologically. Micro fractures in glass messing up the delicate homeostasis.
Stains where the fluid had beaded and dried.
I flicked Omoi over into the cryopod. The air down here was rife with black mold. The Geiger counter crackled slowly.
Incorrect mix to free her. But she hovered there anyway.
She looked like what I might’ve looked like, if I’d never been woken up. Never had a chance to.
Perhaps, if she’d had an Omoi, I could’ve reached out to her. Tried to talk to her. See what the Omoi had recorded of the dead woman.
But as it was, it was like looking at a picture of someone in their coffin.
There was a crowbar on the floor. I looked up to the side of the pod. Scratch marks where someone had tried to open it by force. I knelt down and picked it up.
I could give it another try. I could get her out. I could…
I could bury her at least. She deserved it.
“Depressing, isn’t it?”
That wasn’t Jay.