Without the sound of the bird’s abrasive voice, I was left with the wind whistling through the trees and the steady thump of my shoes against the ruined pavement. Great branching lines of trees I’d only heard of or seen in photographs. Lines of ancient debris. Miles of mottled kudzu clinging to life underneath of the grand canopies; a crude facsimile of old wires.
Omoi occasionally chirped, feeding me a missed message chained into the system that I hadn’t uncovered when I’d been apart of the radio tower. It was beautiful to see the world like this.
My lungs didn’t ache in the slightest. It wasn’t hard to breath. There was such… beauty in the world.
But there was also danger.
There were animals.
Trellis haunted my thoughts at night, her strange face, a pale mockery of the human form. How many had been lost?
How many was…
What was I supposed to do?
I had a lead gone stone cold; six years distant. A rumor that there might be humans left in the world. But there weren’t any goals there. There weren’t any ideas there. Just a vague idea that maybe I could… could find something to do with myself.
There was no going back from this point. There were no goals. There were no rails. No ideas.
But that was a lie.
There were other places with humans waiting to wake up. There had to be.
I just needed to figure out where they were and wake them up. The first stop on that would be the military base that Isaac had mentioned. A lead six years old but… it was a lead nonetheless.
Tane coalesced in front of me, pointing ahead. Her steps were muffled, claws tugged up to avoid the click.
In the distance, where the forest, massive, mostly recovered from thousands of years of lack of harvest had broken into rolling wiregrass fields, I could see cattle. A bizarre stretch of field; long rippling sects of golden strands whistling in the wind, and cows stopped in the midst of them, grazing. Wild.
I’d never seen one in the real world before. This far into the distance, they looked unreal.
The rifle was heavy in my hands. Too heavy, a heft half abandoned.
“Shhhh,” Tane said, pointing a finger in front of her beak. “You need to respect your prey. Treat them like you should treat your enemies.”
“How am I supposed to treat my enemies?!” I whispered back to her, the barrel of the long arm shifting in my grip.
“One shot,” Tane said. “You get one free shot before everyone knows what’s up. So take them out with that one shot, don’t give them a chance to strike back. Simple as that.”
I swallowed. It stuck heavily in my throat.
The beasts in the distance were beautiful. Free. Wild. How many generations had they made on top of humanity’s corpse. How many generations had fought against atomic extinction only to get them here?
“Come on,” Tane said. “Let’s get closer.”
There was a sort of purity in watching the scout move. She’d never doubted in her entire life. Direct like a knife. She moved into the grass like she’d been born there, a solid mass of black feathers and murderous intentions.
I slid in after her and wondered, not for the first time, when I’d get the confidence I needed to survive out in the wild. The rifle’s weight was still heavy in my hands, impossibly so.
Would it get easier?
Tane’s form was buried in the wiregrass, invisible. I copied her posture and slid forward. Step by step. Trying to mirror her stealth.
Not a noise left her feet. Not a noise left her beak. Not a note of hesitation.
And step by step I slid into that. Each movement intentional. Each a part of a greater piece.
And that’s how we covered the distance between the blurs of cattle to them being very real creatures. Poking out head out of the grass, the Crow stared up ahead. Held up a hand.
Pointed at the cattle in front of us. They were huge. Massive beasts. Perhaps natural selection had meant that cows could continue their slow genetic arms race to make bulls ever more dangerous.
Perhaps it was radiation.
Perhaps it was some other biological function I couldn’t speak about.
Drew her finger across her neck.
I swallowed, crept forward slowly.
Tane’s hand gripped my shoulder and tugged me back, shaking her head.
Rifle back in my hands. Fingers sliding back into place. It was odd, to think of the weapon as so dangerous, but the weight slightly routine now. Just…
Pretend the cows were the scarecrow. Jay next to me, guiding my hands.
But that wasn’t fair to Tane. She was… she was also trying. They all were.
Line it up. Take careful aim. One shot before they knew.
A line of sweat rolled down my head.
A gunshot from the distance.
I flinched. Pulled the trigger.
A hot red line drooled across the neck of the beast I’d taken aim at. A long spray of lead, death, smoke rising from the distance.
It stumbled. Fell.
Then the herd woke up.