Forge-Nest stank like destruction. An old city had been there once, but the buildings had been cut in half. Pillars of old concrete and rebar grew out of the massive span of wreckage. Birds swarmed over top of it. Shadowed bird people chipped away at the concrete, sending rebar bouncing off far below.
As the van slid towards it, part of a building crumbled, and the birds fell, scattered into their pieces, reclaimed their tools, and went back to work.
I’d wondered, idly, how the birds could mine metal. How’d they get much of anything, really.
There it was. They were stripping it out of old cities, piece by piece. Industrious vermin.
But there wasn’t any reproach to the thought. There was metal everywhere; they just had to figure out how to retool it.
“Stop the van,” The elder said, and I slowed, then halted.
The scouting birds fell into line, swooping in out of the skies. Coating the outside in their bodies.
It didn’t take long for Forge-Nest to answer in reply, hundreds of birds converging on the van. Staring intently at us.
Foreigners. Invaders. How very strange we must’ve looked.
“Children,” The Elder scoffed, and opened up the car door. She slid outside, her talons clicking on the mostly destroyed road. “Your Elder has arrived.”
The birds billowed forth. Coalescing. Reforming.
Until there were ranks of Crows in front of us. I’d gotten used to the sparse number of crows at Prime-nest, but now there were easily twenty strewn in front of us.
“Elder,” The first one bowed his head slightly, beak pointed at the ground. “We were not expecting you on this day. Is there something wrong?”
The Elder jerked her hands at me. I blinked.
Jay elbowed me.
I undid the car door and stepped out.
“A new Warden has ventured forth from their tomb,” The Elder said, grandly. “So we shall guide them to the Capital.”
“I don’t suppose you came with reinforcements?” One of the forge-crows said. Her beak was marked with a line of red.
The first voice sent a glare in her direction. “That can be answered another time. They will be our guests.”
The red beaked bird glared at him and looked over at the Elder. “Follow us. We’ll take you to the proper quarters, Eldest.”
Something was different about her. What on- A signal, a signal a-
Omoi chirped out a greeting to the nodule buried in her head. The red beaked bird paused, flicked her gaze over to me, and kept right on leading. “Not now, Warden.”
“Not now?” The first bird said.
Teri shook her head and the other Crow sighed.
The other birds dispersed into their pieces, but they kept watch on us.
“Joli,” The first bird introduced. “Overseer of this encampment. A blessing to meet you, Eldest.”
“Forge-Nest moves,” Jay said.
Joli looked at Jay, squinting at him. “It does. Whenever the rebar runs out, we move to another chunk of city. Lots of rebar left to be reclaimed.”
I eyed the side of the van. Perhaps it was made out of reclaimed rebar?
Joli flicked his eyes over to the Elder. “This one is marked as an outcast. Why have you brought him here?”
“He’s with me,” I said, stepping past them. Eyes followed me. Jay’s talons didn’t click for a few seconds, hurrying up to walk at my side. His eyes flicked nervously across the gathered crowd.
Fuck it. He’d kept me safe. Was teaching me how to be safer. I could be his guardian here.
“A strange choice,” Joli said.
Tane formed out of her crows and slipped off the hood of the car. “We’ll be here for a while; we’re waiting for a rendezvous with the capital.”
“Ah,” The red beaked crow warked. “There would be the reinforcements reinforcements.”
The Elder shook her head. “I’m unsure of what is happening, but they will not be reinforcements for this city.”
The red beaked bird scoffed and turned away, then obliterated into a wave of black birds, flying off.
“Try to ignore her,” Joli said. “There are many wounds here that have not yet healed.”
I turned the corner and stared at the wasted landscape. Pulverised stone and waves upon waves of gravestones.
“After all,” Joli said, shuffling beside me. “Warden, you should know; this was where we lost the first battle.”
While most of the carnage at Prime-Nest was ancient, this was fresh. Powdered buildings, bloodstains, shattered asphalt that’d been laid within the last hundred years.
Covered in dust, discarded.
“And those wounds are long to heal,” Joli said. “Come, let me lead you to where you’ll be sleeping.”
The chambers set to the side were dry and dusty. There wasn’t much point for the Crows to have beds; their humanoid forms were for utility, not leisure. A makeshift bed made in imitation, if not true understanding of what they were supposed to be used for, draped in stitching resembling great Crow victories.
An image of what could only be described as the Miracle; crows in tight V formation flying high over top of thousands of insects. Bombing runs. Violence. War.
Omoi chirped out in my head as we slid inside the small building tucked to the side. Another records hall, marked with the everpresent reverse engineered Coms. Birthdays. Requests for aid.
Memorials for those that had passed. Jay quieted his device with a flick of his talons, and I shoved the notifications to the side. Took a seat on the bed.
“Ever been here before?” I asked.
“I served here, once upon a time,” Jay said. “Under the talon of the Missing King.”
“That title again,” I muttered, leaning back. Hands swept against the rough stitching. Ornamental instead of made for a purpose of keeping warm. “What do you mean the Missing King?”
Jay laughed. “The Miracle at Montgomery. When our King flew with his best and most beloved people to strike the death bell against the Fey, when our cities burned and our defences were shattered. All are presumed,” He clicked his beak.
“Missing,” I said.
“Nobody is willing to confirm that he is dead,” Jay said. “So he’s the Missing King. The Regent at the Capital is willing to never become a true king.”
I closed my eyes. Leaned back.
“Can you tell me why you were willing to give up your brief life for USEC, Jess?” Jay asked, looking back at the door. “I’ve traded many pieces for my job, but… you also never scatter. I don’t think it’s even… occurred to you.”
What was a life given in the name of the cause if you had many to give? What was the weight of such a thing?
“There were people I wanted to protect,” I said. “You understand that, don’t you?”
“I want to protect the Elder,” Jay said. “But… most others have abandoned me.”
I cracked my eyes open a hair and looked at him. “But you still miss them.”
Jay fluffed up uncomfortably. I looked out the window, opening my eyes the rest of the way. A great bomb crater. Not that far away; a circle where buildings had been completely and utterly destroyed. Shockwaves taking out the most of it; various effective areas. See where the fireball had reached. See where death had taken them, piece by piece. Zones of obliteration.
My geiger counter only occasionally clicked. I couldn’t comprehend it; this close, there should be…
There should be something. The world had died; hundreds of bombs had fallen. Humanity had fallen, ended. It was… it was ludicrous to see a world that hadn’t been destroyed permanently. It rankled my disbelief, cried havoc with my perception.
Omoi came to no solid conclusion, despite cycling through the available information.
Where was the death? Where was the radiation? Five thousand years was a long time… but not for half lives and radiation.
“I miss them,” Jay said, staring off at the distant crater. “I really do. There were those that… I’d’ve done it again for. Again and again and again. But their names are denied to me as well.”
“You’re dead to them?”
“I’m dead to most,” Jay said, clicking his beak. “There are very few that resist being purged, Jess. They are not looked kindly upon. They’re a disease. A risk of infection, endless vectors.”
If the world didn’t make sense, and wasn’t following contemporary science, then- then- then.
Well, it was occam’s razor. If the world didn’t match up with scientific projections of the end, then quite simply, something had to have changed it.
“You’re not dangerous,” I said, staring out into the distance.
“I am,” Jay protected. “I am very dangerous.”
I clicked my tongue. “You’re not dangerous to me, then.”
Jay was silent.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How is there a world here? How is there a world left behind?”
Jay poked his head up and stared out over to the crater. “What do you mean?”
“Radiation,” I muttered. “I’m… somewhat of an expert in that department. It’s been bothering me, been digging into my head the entire time. The world should be dead. Enough missiles flew to ensure that, Jay.”
Jay was silent.
“It’s like, we’re missing so much of what should’ve happened. I was part of the team that designed the models, examined the influence of radiation upon the world. I have an advanced understanding of radiation, Jay.” I muttered, leaning up against the window. Smooth glass. Unbroken. Some remnant of a Crow’s gratitude and hope for the past and future.
Omoi chirped in my head and did a scan of the surrounding area.
Like in that instant where the world ended, all at once, the world was over. It was…
I could conceive of a world where the cryopods had failed. Could conceive of so much of this world, except for the fact things were still living inside of it.
An anomaly in of itself. Like the world had stopped making sense abruptly. Decided that conventional laws hadn’t needed to exist.
That the world would exist without those laws that humans had fought for centuries to figure out.
When humans were no longer needed to contextualize them after all. How strange. Disconcerting. Threatening.
“The world doesn’t always make sense,” Jay decided, throwing an arm over my shoulder. “So maybe we shouldn’t think about that.”
“No, no,” I said. “This is my department. This was my life,” I fussed. Wasn’t an attack. I hoped. Omoi wasn’t kicking in. Just. Befuddlement. The world didn’t work the way it should. The way we’d discovered through infinite equations. The world was different.
A mystery I didn’t have the equipment to understand. Like something had stepped in an intervened. Puzzling. Confusing. Distressing.
Omoi helpfully reminded me that Isaac had gone to a military base in the area, some six years ago, with my memory box in tow.
My lack of understanding in contemporary equations could instead be found in the grip of someone else.
It clicked enough that it didn’t sound false, but… years of working with things that didn’t exist screamed that something was deadly wrong about the world.
Jay warked softly. “Look away from the window, Jess, you’re getting upset.”
I swallowed, looked away, stared at the anomalous Crow, then slumped over to the bed. “I’ll take the bed, if that’s alright.”
Jay shrugged. “I have a pack to sleep on. I’ve gotten used to it.”
I felt bad.
Did something strange, and hugged the bird. He squirmed, his eyes going wide, and his beak falling open. He was soft. Strangely warm to the touch. Like a cat, in some regards, I could hear his anomalous multiple heartbeats fluttering in his amalgamated chest.
Then I released the hug. He clicked a few times.
“Perhaps we should leave this room for later?” He asked, running talons through his feathers to get them back into order.
If Isaac had been in this area, perhaps… perhaps the birds would know something about it.
Perhaps that bird with the Omoi node.