Leaving the sacred building, studded and adorned with the markings and voices of the dead, recorded messages left hovering in server banks divorced from tide and time, coming alight with their near infinite radioactive gemstones, the birds were watching us. From the tops of building, beady eyes watched. From the distance, birds stopped their mining to stare at us.
“You’re something unusual,” Jay said. “They’ll watch to see what you’ll do.”
A crowd of birds fluttered out of open windows and settled into a humanoid form.
“Teri,” the red beaked bird clicked. “My name is Teri.” Her eyes settled onto mine. Omoi scrambled at the connections, searching for answers. Scans, now that she was this close.
Jay bowed his head politely.
“Would you like to come to the weekly games?” Teri asked, the hostility gone from her voice. Mostly gone, like a faint flickering flame somewhere out of frame. “Joli insists it’d be good for us to have… watchers.”
I looked at Jay, and he shrugged. “Sure.”
Teri led us away, through mazes of destroyed buildings, to a small courtyard. At one point it’d been a park, but the trees had been cut down, the stumps studded with the remnants of radiation rot (my geiger counter remained too quiet) and instead, a series of birds sat perched in the trees around the small clearing. Watching.
Crows warked in the field; painted precisely with white lines, taking up various positions. The Elder sat in humanoid form against one of the trees, watching us.
“Tane’s joined in to sub for Teri,” The Elder said. “Glad you could join us, Warden.”
On opposite sides of the field were marked baskets. Red. Green. Marked differences between them. Stripes of color were painted on bird beaks, marking them as being parts of different teams.
A single ball, black, sat at the center.
“I’m not familiar with this game,” I admitted, leaning back against the tree. No chairs. Jay sat down on his legs and watched.
“It’s called Thief,” The Elder said. “I invented quite some time ago, to demonstrate to Crows that I didn’t share memories with how to handle anomalies,” She sounded rather pleased. “It’s taken on other meanings since them. The drift of generations.”
Those anomalies, those strange things that didn’t make sense under modern science, those things hunted for and sought after and that in the end… didn’t doom humanity.
Turned into a game.
At a signal (a crow screeching on the sidelines, watching intently) the crow pieces flew into action. Green dove in a v formation, a single crow marked with a green circle on the beak taking the ball, and flew like a bullet through red team’s formations.
Only to be struck from below by a flock of red birds. The ball tumbled from the Green-circle’s beak, and fell, only to be snatched again.
A feverish back and forth.
The Elder drifted away to view the game closer. Leaving me more alone.
Teri drifted out of the trees and slid to a full form next to me. Now was the chance.
With a thought, I connected to her and sent her a message. “Hello?”
Horrific garbled static as a reply. Sounded vaguely like the shrieking of many birds.
Teri turned her head (and attention) and shot me a startled glance, a taloned hand sliding up to her head to nudge where the nodule rested.
I gave her a nod.
Teri slid from her spot and joined me at the tree. “Omoi’s blessings, Warden,” she greeted, clicking her beak.
From this distance, the interference was cut low enough that Omoi could finish scanning the other nodule. Teri looked vaguely smug at the attention.
Old USEC model, registered to a guard who I knew was long dead. I’d seen his corpse lying among the intruders.
A flicker of anger, but it was brief. Was there a point in getting upset about it? The guard was dead. 5000 years dead. To me it was last week. To them, they were taking honored treasures from the ones who had granted them life.
“Omoi’s blessings.” I returned, smooth.
“I wasn’t expecting another Warden this soon,” Teri said, evenly. Noncommittal. “Much less with such bad news.”
“Not my fault,” I said. Eyes flicked back to the game. The ball was somewhere in a massive flurry of birds. Could see the appeal; flock on flock battling, each trying to keep an eye on a specific objective; it’d train Crows on how best to use their pieces.
They’d survived when man had not. It was only fair to say there were reasons for it.
“I wouldn’t dare imply,” Teri drawled, leaning back further against her tree. The crows in the branches warked at the two of them, and her eyes flicked up.
Then darted back over to mine. Omoi shrieked about a message being sent, and I cautiously opened it. Crow noises, chirps, clicks, sour notes, and then Omoi received a download from the Crow’s nodule to translate.
Took a while for it to download; the neural interface wasn’t perfect, by any means, on the Crow’s brain. But it was fascinating to stare at another Omoi, to feel the distant chirp in real time as the systems acknowledged each other and networked.
“How strange to feel those circuits fresh again,” Teri said, without moving her mouth, her eyes locked onto the game. They flicked, watching the ball move. Words from many mouths, same tone, clipped together. Gestalt. Omoi was interpreting signals from many different brains.
It hadn’t been long since the last time I’d been in touch with a live message stream. The brief flash, connected to Prime-Nest’s long dead systems, the screams of ghost demanding answers, the electrical signals crackled by thousands of years of disuse- it held nothing to the beauty and joy of Teri’s strange flickering connection.
Too many thoughts flowed over top of each other in a muddled pile, enough that Omoi couldn’t parse together a message, and instead just slung out emoticons out in a flurry of shrapnel.
From there on out, the conversation wasn’t vocal, but took place in the local wireless.
Teri sent back an amused sensation through the local wireless connection. “Isaac was much the same when we met.”
“You knew Isaac?” I asked.
“I’ve met many Wardens,” Teri acknowledged. “Some not even from Prime-Nest, though I know you’re the sixth from there.”
More excitement colored the connection.
She sent back a flurry of seriousness, comingled thoughts tasting of raw meat and mingling bird calls. I straightened, stiffened.
“I haven’t met Isaac in just over 5 years,” she continued. “He fled from here after he found what he wanted in the military base to the north.”
I should go there.
“Don’t go there,” Teri demanded. “In fact, I’d suggest you get everyone you care about out of this place. Tensions are very high, we do not want an incident.”
I paused. Hesitated. Elation at meeting a connection, of being able to feel our nodules communicating, slashed through. “An incident?”
“A few Crows have disappeared lately,” Teri said, flat. Simulated tone just as flat. “It’d be best if whatever is hunting us doesn’t get a taste for a Warden as well.”
Shocked. “And if the Warden were to disappear…” I trailed off meaningfully.
“Well,” Teri said. “We wouldn’t have to worry about defending Forge-Nest. I’m rather certain the Capital will just kill us all for the transgression of letting you die,” bright, happy sun, sarcastic twirling.
“I have so many questions,” I said.
Teri slid back. “Of course you do,” she laughed. “You all always have so many questions. Must be from having all of your thoughts in one head.”
“Where’d the nodule come from?”
“A present from Isaac; a nodule from a friend of his he’d found. A member of my order managed to get it working in my head. So beautiful. Too much noise.” unhappy face. Wark. “Buzzy.”
Order. I’d ask later.
I frowned, and scanned her nodule. It’d really not been meant to work with Crow brains, but the way it interacted with their gestalt… how fascinating.
“Why hasn’t Joli spoken to us about the disappearances?”
“Didn’t want to scare you off. It’s lonely out here. Since the Capital pulled back the guards,” Teri staticced out an emoticon my Omoi didn’t have, and files exchanged until the emotion proved to be an unhappy crow face.
They’d created their own emotions to convey through the Omoi. How utterly fascinating, if only I were a sociologist or an anthropologist.
“If we move early towards the Capital,” I asked. “Can this city provide additional guards?”
Teri shook her head. “Too dangerous to split it up.”
I clicked my teeth, and she nodded in agreement. “Rough,” I messaged.
Teri brought a talon up and rubbed her nodule. “Hurt.”
Abruptly, the connection ended between us, and I was just left with my meat brain and my meat senses, instead of the bizarre half echo we had shared. Weaker, the colors weren’t as bright. The perspectives weren’t as varied.
Red team slammed the ball into the basket, and the birds shrieked in delight at their teams. Tane reformed out of one of the flocks of birds and swept over to my side.
Back to using my voice instead of the program.
“Is this one bothering you, Warden?”
“Jess,” I corrected automatically.
“Not at all,” Teri said. “Jess and I were just having a conversation. Omoi and everything, you understand.”
Tane squinted at the other bird, her head bobbing as she tried to figure out where the nodule would be. Omoi highlighted it on the bird’s head, but Tane wasn’t exactly connected.
Jay slid off of the tree. “Good work with the ball, Tane.”
Tane smugly puffed her feathers. “Were you any good at it, Outcast?”
“I was an anomaly handler, even before everything happened,” Jay clicked, beak tweaked into a grin.
“Oooh, bloated head.” Tane teased.
Teri’s eyes flicked over to Jay. “This is your choice for a guardian? I suppose… he’s rather similar to you. Just one minded. Can’t split up.”
“It just means,” Jay said, stepping in front of me. Protectively, I could only assume. “That I’ve had to get even better with a rifle. At standing my ground.”
“Wasn’t critiquing you,” Teri replied.
“Oh,” Jay blinked. “Thank you for that, then.”
Teri bowed her head politely to me. “Think about what we talked on?” Then she erupted into a flock of birds and joined the practicing teams on the field.
Teri’s Omoi connected abruptly. “If you’re sticking around… I’ll slip by the warden’s shrine to talk, tonight.”
Jay wasn’t stupid. His head snapped over to mine. “What was that about?”
“Apparently,” I said, flicking my gaze around. Then paused, sighing. We were too close to other birds. I really would have to wait.
The game continued in rapid succession, with the Elder occasionally giving commentary on what was happening.
Tane sighed. “The scouts had a talk on the way here; we’re going to keep a few birds following you, Jess, starting tomorrow.”
I closed my eyes. “In addition to Jay?”
“Just while we’re here,” Tane said. “There’s something weird going on…”
“You noticed it too?” Jay said. “It’s like… they don’t like us.”
I gestured at the birds around us. “Poor venue for this conversation.”
Tane clicked her beak. “You’re right.”
The game remained frantic, but after another lull, the prime-crows slowly disengaged to finish moving things about.
When I got to where I’d parked the van, it was just a matter of shuffling things around. Crows moved shrines into the small enclave we’d been provided with. Coms exchanged talons. Lani’s things were put to the side, so her new crows could be greeted by them when she eventually reformed.
And then it was late. A brief dinner. Quiet noises, adjusting to the new city. It wouldn’t be long until reinforcements were up.
I sat down in the shrine and waited for Teri to show up. An hour passed. Maybe two. Jay sat with me, quiet. Enjoying the peace, perhaps.
She never showed up.
Jay slid out a bed roll on the ground; hundreds of sigils and counter symbols loving etched into it like the alphabet, and I slid into the hellish bed.
For a moment, I was in a softer place where the skies ran ruined with smog and the haze of the city; where a thousand nightlights obliterated the stars, and the sounds of the night were more traffic based than anything natural. It felt… good.
A thump on the roof woke me up. Just a brief thump. Jay was on it, and slipped out.
Got woken up again in just a few minutes.
My eyes snapped open to Jay slipping back in, the door clicking behind him.
Then shut again.
“Sorry, had to take care of something,” He said.
“‘Sfine,” I slurred.
Back to dreaming of the past.