“And this,” Tane said. “This is where we run.”
“There was another gunshot!” I squeaked. “Why was there another gunshot?”
“Well,” Tane said, darting her head about through the thick wiregrass. “I’d say it’s because someone else out here is hunting.”
She grabbed me by the shoulders, and shoved. A few startled steps back towards the city. Then I heard the beat of hooves on the ground.
Tane laughed. “So really, we need to start running.”
Thump went my heart. Thump went my breath.
Then we took off, dashing through the wiregrass. Not a care in the world for stealth, not a care in the world for much of anything except getting the hell out of there.
Behind us, the sound of hooves and the crunch of grass was more than a good enough reason to flee. Tane remained in her humanoid form, keeping pace with me, her talons slamming against the ground.
My legs ached, and my skin turned raw from wiregrass slapping at my exposed wrists. The noises grew closer. Closer. Closer.
The herd could move far faster than we could, which only meant we weren’t trying to outrun them so much as we were…
“There!” Tane hissed, and shoved me off course.
A second later we cleared the wiregrass field, where it tickled against the arbor-city, and we dropped into far more darkness and for more verdant. Skidded around, and darted into a building, Tane’s hand clutching mine. Whirled about, then landed behind the front desk.
Tane laughed, clutching at her stomach. “Ha, see.”
Adrenaline thumped uncomfortably across my skin, a nervous lilt to the laugh I gave her. I peered over top of the counter and stared at the herd as it moved across the city. Trees stopped some. Some trees broke. Wild. Rabid.
Like liquid sloshing about a container; a runaway collision of events. I could probably use the same equations to model how it would interact…
“See, that’s what I live for,” Tane cooed, leaning back. With a lazy noise, she took a swing at preening at her feathers.
“The hell is wrong with you?” I asked. “We nearly died!”
Tane waved a hand dismissively. “You were perfectly safe. We weren’t far from the city, and the beasts are terrified of the buildings.”
Slowly, gasping air to catch my breath, I sank down next to her, the rifle tucked next to my legs. “Fuck,” I muttered. The hooves were still thundering outside.
“You’re the one that wanted steak,” Tane reminded me, teasing.
“I didn’t think that steak was this terrifying,” I hissed back. Remnants of glass rattled out of the frame from the impact of hooves outside. “What if they hurt someone?”
Tane laughed. “Everyone but the Outcast can fly away in a heartbeat,” she sighed, then tucked into a yawn. “There’s basically no danger in this, but it’s a hell of a rush.”
Breath in. Breath out.
“Did… did you see if that animal died?”
“We’re not going back for it,” Tane said. “Someone else was out there hunting.”
Quiet apart from the thunder outside. Could hear my own breathing. My own heart. Could see dust in the air from the pound of too many hooves.
“Fey?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” Tane said. “Or it could be anything else,” she lied. “I hear this is a good place to visit if you like Crow history.”
A rasping laugh bubbled from my lips, and I rolled on the ground, feeling the cool tile cut against the bumps of my spine. A lingering gasp for air, hands clutching my stomach.
“You alright?” Tane asked.
“No, I went out to hunt with a madwoman,” I wheezed.
“It’s really not that bad,” she replied. “Look, you hit the beast, right?”
Omoi chirped and replayed it for me. A hit. Not where I’d been aiming, but a hit nonetheless. Not too shabby, honestly. Not too bad. I’d hurt it.
I’d… hurt something innocent. The idea of it was… I’d known that’s what we were intending to do, but…
“Look,” Tane laughed. “I can’t believe I have to have this conversation with a Warden, but…”
“No, no,” I said, holding up a hand. Air was starting to cinch into my overstressed lungs. Like a vice was letting go of tension. “I… I get it.”
“Not a thing on this world gets away with not hurting something in order to live,” Tane said. “Except maybe plants, I guess.”
“Just… gotta acknowledge that I probably won’t get a proper diet off of onions and vegetables alone,” I said, quiet.
“I’ve been watching you eat the last few days,” Tane tsked. “Not a lot of routine in what you picked out. Do we have what you need?”
I thought back, and swatted the Omoi interface out of the way that tried to interfere with that prospect by showing me a perfect recollection.
I wasn’t… eating right.
I looked over at her. “Why are you paying attention to that?”
Tane warked for a moment. “Don’t get any accusations now. I’ve watched too many recruits shoved over here go off their food for a bit.”
I flushed, looking away from her. I wasn’t a new recruit, I was…
“Look, the world’s awful, I know that.” Tane said. “But you know, we gotta find our place in it. Maybe it means we kill a few cows. Trust me, the world has too many of those; they can trample anything that doesn’t have wings, which means they’re a menace to anything that isn’t us or the Fey.”
Closed my eyes. Swallowed. What the hell was my place supposed to be?
The Wardens… USEC. We’d been frozen so we might be brought back later. So we could help the world of the future figure out the problems they were having.
A trouble shooting squad to deal with anomalies.
A vague hope that we’d be able to help at all. An idea of being able to extend our reach into the future.
How many probabilistic models had warned us the end was coming? How many projects, black in nature, had told us the day the bombs fell. A thread of fate bobbing across the booming voice of the universe, twinkling with stars?
And there were more of us out there. I couldn’t… I could see a world where there weren’t, but they were out there, in their glass coffins, waiting for someone to wake them up.
I couldn’t lose hope of that. I couldn’t lose hope of that.
“And maybe my place is here watching the Elder. Making sure nothing happens to her.” Tane clicked her beak. “Wouldn’t that be something? Tane, the screw up, the Crow who couldn’t do any of her jobs, a footnote in history as the scout that guarded the Elder!”
I could sense the strange bitter joy in her tone, and my eyes fluttered back open. “How’d you end up in this job?”
Tane laughed. Short. Sharp. “I don’t think enough about what I’m doing. I think too much about what I’m doing.”
Her talons crept over the rifle, and she looked over top of the desk to peer outside. “I’m a screw up. Nothing more or less, Warden. I think you’re supposed to meet the best of the best gathered around the Elder. All shiny, chrome. Armored. Warrior poets or something. But you’ve just met the friendly screw ups.”
“I think I prefer the friendly screw ups,” I said, slowly poking my head up beside her.
“We’ll never really know which one you should prefer,” Tane said, clicking. The thundering of hooves was off in the distance now. “Not like you’re going to meet the poets, the laureates. The smart ones. Not until we get to the capital.”
I breathed in again. Lungs weren’t burning quite so badly now. “So what would you want to do, if you didn’t have any obligations?”
“Hunt,” Tane said. “Try my luck roughing it alone somewhere. Just me, a gun, a quiet place. Maybe catch rabbits or something, I haven’t really thought about it,” Tane flicked her eyes away from the gun. “What about you?”
I hadn’t thought about it either. Then again, I’d spent over a decade not thinking about myself in anything more than abstract terms. Did I have any wants. Any desires?
I wasn’t Jess, the USEC doctor. USEC didn’t exist in anything except the memory of history. There wasn’t much of a point in clinging to it. So I was just Jess, with a headful of numbers, clinging to the feathers of crows.
“I don’t really know,” I said.
“What’s that human word…” Tane clicked. “Where you married when you were in the old world?”
“Married? Don’t you guys…”
Oh. Right. They reproduced through kindling. They didn’t need partners to manage it. They didn’t have to marry. How did they do romance? Did they?
They had to. There wasn’t anything precisely human about romance. There wasn’t anything unique to humans about it.
But perhaps marriage was different.
“Not me,” I said. “Nobody really caught my eye. If anything I was… more married to my work than anything else.”
Omoi tried to play back memories, but it was too far and I hadn’t backed up that one.
Why’d I choose this job? Why had I wanted to be a scientist?
It came to my mind anyway. A vague recollection of a stubborn TV screen. A picture of death and destruction and utter incoherence.
And I wanted to study it. I wanted to know. I wanted to…
But that wasn’t here. That wasn’t now.
“So you’re a Warden, right?” Tane asked, laughing. “Go find something to protect. Find something worth fighting for.”
But I wasn’t a guard.
But it wasn’t a bad suggestion, in the end.