Tane stood outside of the room, clicking her talons against the ground. “Figure anything out?”
“It’s a set up,” I said. And the last realization slid into place. “It’s a set up, and they fed us the information I found.”
Tane blinked. “What’d you find?”
“A history book on why Jay’s an Outcast. It’d only make sense to be out if…”
Tane picked up quickly. I liked that about her. “It’d make sense if Tane were trying to warn you, but that wasn’t what you were talking about, right?”
“You got it,” I said. “So why wasn’t there a speck of information on the disappearances? Where’d that go?”
“It’s a bit supposing there,” Tane said. “What if her notes were on her Omoi? After all, she wouldn’t want to keep them where they could be easily searched.”
“Still, I think someone touched her room after she disappeared but before she arrived. Made sure we’d find what we found.”
Tane’s eyes narrowed.
“Who just so happened to be the same person whose testimony has Jay behind bars,” I continued.
“The assistant,” Tane said, her voice low. “You think the assistant is our target, and not Joli?”
“I think we’ll find out everything we need to know if we go after the assistant,” I said, firm.
Tane grinned, her beak splitting. “Just what I wanted to hear.” Then she paused. “Actually…”
“The crows we saw flying away from the worker’s quarters.”
“Green beaks,” I said. “They had green beaks.”
“She was tainting the place before we got there, then flew off to make sure Jay was routed before we figured anything else out!” Tane snapped her fingers. “And Joli…”
“I don’t know how he’s in on this yet,” I said. “We shouldn’t be throwing the net too wide; we’re not trying to destroy this city.”
“But I know where to find Irri;” Tane said with a grin. “The forges at the edge of town. She’s trying to get the forge up and running without Teri’s permission.”
Then we had a destination.
It wasn’t hard to track down the forges. What other structure stank so thoroughly, what other structure bore soot stains and the smell of industry? What other structure looked like the touch of death hadn’t broken it, but one that had been erected long after the end?
A truck sat at the edge of the complex; shiny, chrome, recently made. Not a sign of the contemporary decay endemic to the rest of the city. Cabin was small and cramped, driver’s seat straddled the center of it. Function over form.
The forge was dull and quiet. Tane crept in behind me, rifle over her shoulder. I gave it a curious look, and she shrugged without comment. Omoi scanned the area. Not a blip in sight apart from the ancient files that were already there. Advertisements, blank empty ghosts, the dull roar of the atomic age ending all at once.
It was almost comforting to hear that dull crackle instead of the monumental emptiness that came from not having Omoi on.
But apart from the standard buzz, it was quiet.
Tane stepped forward and nudged open a door. Fresh paint, a sign marking it with hazard warnings of fire. It slid open without a creak, without a sound.
The machine that took up the most of the room bore little resemblance to Omoi’s models of machines of similar function. A hopper perhaps, on one end, a great vat, empty.
A whisper in the distance.
I opened my mouth and Tane slammed her hand over it, obliterating what I’d been about to say.
Then she spun both of us to crouch behind the edge of the machine, curling her talons to avoid the click.
My heart filled the void by speeding up. It’d been nice to not have to worry about this. To not have to feel adrenaline worming squirming crawling through my gut, veins, arteries, or the buzz of Omoi scanning the chemical makeup of my hormones to make sure I didn’t overload or pass certain barriers.
Then a louder voice.
“-Payment. It’s due.” A hissing sibilant tone.
“I’m telling you, you’ll have your payment in a few days,” The assistant, Irri retorted. “Give us time to get the guards off of us and-”
“Payment.” the voice said.
Fey. There was a Fey in the building. Had they followed me?
No… couldn’t be.
This was a more local sort of evil. The exact sort of thing that we could only accidentally stumble into.
Tane snapped her head over to mine, and shook her head. Eyes jerked over to the door.
I shook my head. Tane pointed with a wing.
I shook my head again. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to get over there without making a noise. We’d been lucky getting in.
Frustrated eye twitch on the bird woman’s part.
“A few days,” Irri said. “We haven’t missed a single payment yet, just give us another day.”
“Payment in steel, or payment in blood,” The fey hissed.
Tane crept slowly around the back of the machine.
“What happened to the other negotiator?” Irri hissed. “She was easier to deal with.”
“She’s being dealt with. Do you have the ingots or not?”
“No, I need a few days!” Irri said, clearly frustrated. Her beak clicked irritably. She peered around the corner, inching ahead step by step.
Then I joined her, staring. Across the facility, a Crow with a green beak stood wearing a heavy vest; probably to protect from splashing metal.
And across from her, a woman with stark white hair stood. Too thin. Too lithe. Teeth too sharp. Omoi chirped out a warning in my head.
Gun on her hip. Sterling silver and clearly designed to be used by human hands. Negotiating for metal supplies from outer Crow cities.
Ingot trade. People vanishing. They were trading off their people… but why? Why?
This was far worse than I thought it was.
Tane slowly drew her gun. I glared at her. She glared back, her talons curling to bring the point at the fey.
Take the first shot or wait for more information. If we took the shot now…
“What’d you do with the other Crow?” Irri hissed. “This’d be easier if you hadn’t taken her out.”
“I seem to recall you told us to deal with her,” The fey said, flat, unamused. “I fail to see how following your suggestions makes this our fault.”
Tane lined up the shot.
“That was before I knew she’d locked the system to only reply to her damn Omoi.”
“We’ll pry it out of the bird’s head when we return,” The fey said, smoothly. “And then I’ll be back in a day for the ingots.”
I very gently tucked the gun barrel down with a finger. Tane’s beak clicked angrily.
Then we froze, all four of our eyes on Tane’s beak.
“Interlopers,” The Fey hissed.
“Take them out, we can’t let this arrangement of ours get out,” Irri said, grim.
“Fuck this,” Tane spat, and took the shot.
The Fey was already moving, but the bullet didn’t strike her. Instead, it caught the side of Irri’s head and the humanoid form unravelled in a spray of feathers, ink, and hot blood. Crows exploded from the gestalt and flocked across the room, aiming for the windows, the heavy vest hitting the ground with a solid thump.
A single mass sat inside of it, just large enough to be a bird.
“Well,” the Fey said. “Looks like I’ll be taking you out myself.”
“Down!” Tane shouted, and I hit the ground instantly. The silver revolver was already out. One. Two. Three shots, and they hit the machine behind us, ricocheting off with an awful racket of fragmenting lead and hot metals.
Tane frantically brought her rifle up, and gestured at me to get to the door.
“Leave you here?”
“You’ve got one life,” Tane hissed. “Make sure you get out.”
The long rifle went off, and I stared down the alley way we had between us and the silver fey, swallowed.
Omoi ran the equations, but I already knew the logic; one person getting out alive, especially one with a camera in her head, made the choice all the easier.
And Tane could scatter instead of dying. It made the choice easy.
Tane fired one more round, loading bullets in with a clawed thumb, and I dove out of cover and slammed through the open door. Glorious sky, adrenaline clogging my veins my thoughts. The beating of my heart didn’t obscure the important sounds behind me.
I heard a single hiss of pain from the Fey, and then the retort of her revolver. Then another. Then another.
Then I heard Tane scatter to the winds from a stray bullet; the Fey had nailed her. My distraction was gone.
More shots at the birds. To kill this time.
My heart thumped. Please let Tane be alright. Please let there be enough of her left. What was death to a cloud of immortals?
Then I was already hitting it, racing past the truck ahead. Additional cover between myself and the shooter behind me.
Vaulted over the hood of the truck; felt the heat from the sun beating over head. Saw a black shape in the reflection.
Head barely came up in time to catch a flash of green across a Crow’s beak. Then her hands wrapped around my neck. Clutching for air. Desperate for air. Her beady eyes drilled into mine.
“Now you, you’ll do for my debt, won’t you?” Her talons slammed against the side of my head. Digging behind the back of my ear. Touched metal.
Omoi screeched out strings of errors, dappling the dark space behind my eyes with lines of symbols and code. Sputtered out help desk advice, rapidly routing through my head to try and solve the issue. Came to an indeterminable climax, felt the line in my head grow hot from repeated command executions.
Mental functions shut down one by one, pained noises. Overloaded defences. Flashes of things from beyond my path
Garbled garbage from deleted places. A gleaming face, miles high, speaking in a language I never understood, never knew, eyes glinting with the language of the universe. A dastardly tongue I’d always wanted to taste. He pronounced the earth cleansed and with a single flick of his hands, consumed the death of the world.
Contagion Quarantine in effect. System Wide Infection detected. Omoi h a s e n c o u n ter ed a f a t a l e r r o r please contact a licensed technician.
I’m so sorry
Can anyone hear me
I’m so sorry I didn’t mean for this to happen
The void is so cold
And I am