Standing in front of the old USEC compound I felt a flutter in my heart at the white stone. Trees grew out of the rubble.
Inside, what remained of my old life remained. Nothing much to say about it. I’d taken the watch. Found that Isaac had stolen the lion’s share of my anomalous memories.
“This’ll be safe?” I asked, grim, looking back at Jay.
He turned his head and pushed through the graveyard, each step gentle, soft. Softer than I’d ever seen a Crow step. He peered down into the shadow of a massive tree.
I stared down into the valley. Omoi screeched in agony at the waves upon waves of danger coming up from the pit, and I could see nothing past the censorship preventing my mind from bleeding from a dozen wounds. It was beautiful, Omoi identifying dozens of deadly things, then removing them from my mind before I could become cognizant of anything truly. The pit appeared as pure black as could be conceived.
The map read the area as “Crow’s Grave.”
“Made from thousands of years of crows dropping anything dangerous into that pit,” Jay said. “After making sure it wasn’t still alive.”
The evil, the wrongness, it was solid. Felt like a punch to my chest, and that was with Omoi actively purging my head of the wrong.
Jay possessed no similar mechanism of censorship, but was unaffected entirely, apart from a slow shudder of his muscles, locking eyes with something in the deep darkness.
“Anything with a mind’ll be obliterated by this pit,” Jay said, flicking his beak around to look. “Anything without isn’t going to be able to lift it free.”
“I took appropriate rituals,” Jay said. “In my mind’s eyes the sigils still hang, granting me protection. To be able to look upon it. Even I won’t be able to touch it without being atomized. The dead here will be enough of a guard, I think, to prevent people from stumbling across anything they shouldn’t.”
Counter codes, Dangers, rites. How many things had the Crows discovered from similar USEC institutions, and used to try and counter the hostile world?
How many things even worked on the Crows?
It wouldn’t be hard to experiment; crows were made of many pieces, so they could die many deaths.
Isolated science experiments to save the world only cost a chunk of your soul at a time. How disgustingly efficient.
My supervisors would’ve approved.
The Crows were loath to carry more than could be easily flown with. Clothes, rifles, bullets. Nothing more than that.
So the Car that the Elder drug up from a distant building was crammed full of old Coms, a filing cabinet covered in rust and heavily dented, bearing the brunt of Lani’s archivist work, and everything remotely religious that they could carry.
It didn’t amount to much.
It was strange to see a van in this future. With the crumbling roads, the lack of upkeep, the general decay, I thought they wouldn’t be around. The Crows could simply fly everywhere, after all.
But in the end, they were tiny birds, and they could hardly haul the heavier things around on their own.
To their credit, the van had been taken somewhat good care of. Clearly someone had knowledge of how cars worked, even if their expertise wasn’t needed in a society where everyone could fly far faster than the roads would allow travel on.
The Elder leaned back against the car, her curiously ageless form tapping at the front hatch curiously.
“Warden,” The elder said. “The battery’s not working, if you could…”
I tapped the side of my head and Omoi chirped into existence.
I wasn’t sure if I should keep her on or not. Every so often, I’d uncover another cache in the ancient systems, eternal batteries providing just enough juice to transmit emergency messages.
Another soul trapped in the radioactive city, praying for a savior.
But I was worried about the car, not the ghosts of the past.
The fix wasn’t exactly easy, but it wasn’t hard to find the parts; after all, the city was strewn with ancient wreckage, and we had over a hundred birds that could go and scout for cars stranded on high rises instead of devoured by the forest below.
From there, it was only a matter of hoping that the pieces Omoi told me I could jury rig together would hold, and it was simple.
“Thank you,” The Elder said, as the car’s battery whirred to life with an audible hum. Air conditioning startled the nests of birds in the back, and they warked angrily as I slipped into the driver’s seat.
“You can drive?” She asked.
“Most everyone could,” I said. The elder slid in next to me, her form shifting to adjust to the cramped confines of the cabin. She turned and shushed the birds in the back, but as mindless as they were, they were terrified of the confines of the van. The back was taken up by any religious piece that couldn’t be duplicated.
The birds were surprisingly utilitarian.
“Will you miss it?” I asked, staring at Prime-Nest in the rear view mirror.
“With all of my heart,” Morrigan said. “I’ve lived there longer than anywhere else in this wide country; and I moved all over the place when I was younger, trying to find more like me.” A strange wistful note.
“Do you miss that?” I asked.
“I do,” the oldest Crow said. “It was very much simpler then; I had a massive flock in my control, and it was easier to Kindle the wild flocks and tell them that we were going to make the world better. It didn’t… It didn’t hurt as much to purge those that became afflicted, because they were all so fresh and exposed to the First memories.”
I breathed out. “Then they had their own generations?”
“They did. And their generations had generations, and the power of the original lost some of the meaning,” The elder smiled slyly. “Not that that’s really a problem. I set out to save this country, and found myself a civilization made from the workers I’d created. An afterthought to trying to fulfill a dead man’s wish,” She hummed.
The road was empty. Rough. Bumpy. Jay clung to the back, keeping a watchful eye on everything. Hatchlings screeched at him, and he fed them tiny bits of the beef from last night, mashed into a fine paste.
I breathed out. “When did the first Warden show up?”
“He was violent,” She said. “Angry. He’d been in a fight before he’d woken up, and he was injured, a broken arm half healed by time and tide.”
The cryopods would’ve kept the injury unhealed for centuries.
“Did he last long?”
“He was beautiful,” The Elder said, her eyes misty. “So strange to see someone who could see what we’d done. There were years where I’d considered our task pointless; there was so much ground to cover, and so many hideous creatures out in the world. Bizarre things without rhyme or reason. So many dead crows, staring up at an unadorned sky, unaware that they were saving us all.”
“And he saw what you’d done?”
“And he cried,” The Elder said. “He cried because he was so happy that the world wasn’t dead. That we were still out and fighting. He was an Agent, you see, like our Zachary.”
The car hit a bump and the birds screeched. Overhead, crows fluttered and followed the quiet van, keeping a close eye to make sure nothing would intercept us.
In my gut, I knew we were mostly safe.
The Crows would keep us safe, even if it cost them their lives.
“And what did he do after that?” I asked.
“He taught us how to fight,” Jay said. “He showed us how to work the machines we didn’t understand, he taught us how to shoot. He taught us everything he knew, because he was broken and we couldn’t heal him.”
“Correct,” The Elder said. “Did you find a special significance in that?”
“I’m from Agent’s-Death,” Jay said. “Opposite side of the Capital from here. It’s taught to us.”
“Where the main military training takes place,” The Elder said. “I dearly wish they taught more of the old ways, but… I understand that most of my tasks have been done for the area.” She shrugged.
“Your tasks were holy, and the land is better for it, Elder,” Jay said. “We could hardly afford so many people who can do things. Build cities. Have families, if the land were as hostile as it once was.”
A single Crow, a fully fledged mind, formed into the after effects of the apocalypse, hunting down the unknown. How many deaths had the Elder experienced. How many pieces had she carved out of herself.
How many crows had felt the heat of the first memories and decided that this was the way things were. Were going to be?
Bizarrely, I felt proud of them.
Our children, our legacy. Continued in an unlikely form, perhaps.
“Were their other human civilizations?”
The Elder went quiet.
Jay leaned into listen.
“There were a few,” The Elder said. “But I want you to know it has been a very long time since the world ended, Jess. And your civilization, the one that ended before the end, was younger than five thousand years.”
A knot formed in my gut.
“And you’ve already been informed that the most recent one was… anomalous,” The Elder said, clicking her beak.
“How many others?” I asked. The road was almost entirely subsumed by Wiregrass at this point, and the going was slow. Birds in front of us marked the path.
Perhaps at some point, a road had been laid here on top of the wiregrass, carved by legions of birds.
Now it was almost as forgotten as the original.
“Four times on my journeys I encountered small pockets of humans,” The Elder confessed. “I told them of my task, and few appreciated it.” Her beak closed.
“But you did it anyway,” I said.
“Zach gave everything to protect them,” The Elder said, firmly. “So I gave everything to protect them.”
The Elder looked sad. “They died from mundane things. Things I didn’t understand at the time. You have to understand, I was still very young. There were many things I did not know. They died from lack of food. They died from sickness. The world was very dangerous back then. It still is. They died from warfare with the unknown, they died each time they died, they died, they died.”
Jay carefully touched the Elder’s shoulder. “Nobody blames you for it, Elder. If anything, the information you brought together… from everywhere, that’s why we have our own places now. We have that knowledge to thank for that.”
“It wasn’t worth their deaths,” The Elder whined, her beak falling open. A tear rolling down her black feathers, as strange as it was. I kept my eyes on the road, though Omoi chirped out that she couldn’t detect another driver on the road at all.
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
No matter how many plans had been drawn up for how we might survive the end, they were unlikely to work out easily. My own establishment had tried to preserve as many lives as possible, and only six made it out. Even if we’d come out at the same time, what would six people do? There was no chance of establishing anything, any long term settlement with just six people.
So in a way, the Crows method of Kindling got around such issues. There would always be wild crows about.
In a way, they were natural inheritors.
And I couldn’t fault simple strategies for being more effective than the outmoded strategy of humanity, no matter how it ached in my gut like hot acid, stung my eyes to listen to her.
“The last one told me I was doing a good job,” The Elder whispered. “That they were proud of me, too. That… I was doing a good job,” Her beak clicked a few times guiltily. “But I couldn’t save them either.”
I swallowed. Quiet. Letting her speak.
“The second Warden met her end in one of those settlements. Last for over three hundred years, that one. Thought it might last forever,” The Elder whispered. “But they died, and from their bodies came the Fey.”
The horror of watching an entire city die, and their bodies used like puppets. “And now they’re back.”
“My mistake, my inability to keep them alive,” The Elder croaked. “And now they’re here to take revenge on the others. It’s my…”
“It’s not your fault,” Jay said. “They’re our enemies now. There’s no telling what set them off, what brought them back. I remember the tales of the phoenix of the north. Of walled cities filled with emptiness and voices. There’s no rhyme or reason to the world in those places. Perhaps… there’s no rhyme or reason here.”
“Except what we make of it,” The Elder sniffed. “We made this part of the world orderly, and it is ours, and we will live for all of those places that didn’t. Those places that gathered together and dared to keep living,” she whispered, eyes glassy.
Omoi chirped that my heart rate was increasing, and I tapped the side of my head to play some calming music for the birds in the car.
The nests finally stopped screaming, and Jay breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Music,” He said. “How strange it is to actually hear it.”
“There’s music in the Capital,” The Elder said. “I made sure to teach everyone about it. We can sing. We have talons and we can play instruments, so I made sure to teach everyone about it.”
The Elder’s strange way of repeating herself was at first annoying, but was growing on me. How old she was; how many changes to her identity she’d weathered. How many crows she’d gone through. How strange it was to consider that I was sitting next to perhaps the oldest coherent creature in the world.
Though it was silly to assume she was the only such creature in the world.
If life had persisted in America, perhaps it had persisted in other places. When the clouds of radiation off of the Sahara had glanced across Europe, had they had the time to take defensive measures before their skin was boiled off of their bones?
Were there still hidden enclaves of russian isolationists, unaware that the world had ended?
Would they ever find out?
Did Isaac still roam the earth, looking for people?
The car’s battery was quiet, but the road was impossibly bumpy; large strands of wiregrass crackled up through the road, poking up up up through cracks.
“How many Crows are there?”
“Quite a few,” Jay said, letting the Elder have a break from speaking. “There’s numerous settlements. There used to be a lot more, but… our numbers were thinned a bit during the last war.”
My teeth clicked together. Jaw ached from clenching teeth.
An hour shifted over to two hours, then three. Four. Chugging along well under any real speed limit, hauling birds, Jay, and the Elder. Mild words exchanged.
I found myself talking about my daily routine. The birds latched onto strange things; description of the ease of food. My colleagues. Relationships. Presidential affairs.
I was halfway through describing the latest episode of the crime serial I watched last week (but it had been five thousand years ago) when I saw the smoke in the distance.