Warm lighting overhead. Crackling phosphorescent. Eyes slowly slid open. Thoughts jumbled together in a raw procession, like a funeral but half the cars were lost, diverted down other roads.
Warm red walls; posters and newspapers from faded worlds, kept preserved in thick cases, atmosphere controls still running. Hard backed maps; like someone had merely paused time here while the rest of the world had died.
Someone sat in the great General’s chair, languishing in the position.
A pair of bug eyes stared back at me. Not Trellis. Similar enough; blonde hair cascading over an intelligent male face. A long elegant tattoo stretched across the bridge of his nose, swept and curved around his lips.
“Jess,” he smiled. “I’m so glad we can finally meet each other.”
“Queen’s Guard,” I mumbled. Where was my mind? My analytics?
Moved my arms. They didn’t move far. Bound in place.
Throat felt like fire, words slurred all together. Lungs strained to breath air.
“We won’t be Queen’s Guard for long,” The man said, leaning back in the General’s chair. A long obliterated monitor sat curled around the side of his desk, a shining keyboard attached to a dim com to the side. “Especially not if you help us, Jess.”
Memories flooded back again, diverted a thousand million different ways, fractal and fractured. Where was Omoi? Where was my mind?
“Name?” I asked.
He laughed. “You can call me Prince, if you want to join my cause.”
“And otherwise?” I asked. There was something to be said about stupid defiance. Every muscle in my body ached from being dragged wherever the hell we were. Every blip that flew through my head dispersed. Thoughts muddled, mixed together.
And overwhelming desperate anger. People had been hurt trying to defend me. People had been hurt trying to protect me.
“Executor,” Prince said, smiling. His teeth gleamed yellow in his mouth, leaning back in his chair like a leader of a dead world. “Not a lot in between. To be entirely honest, it doesn’t matter what you want. Now that you’re in my custody, I have quite a lot of leverage over the other Queen’s guards. Trellis was just talking about how you weren’t worth hauling in yet… like there’s ever a wrong time to haul in a Warden.”
“Talkative,” I muttered.
“It’s easy to be talkative when you’re either meeting an ally or a dead woman,” Prince said, smiling. “But you’re smart, so you’re probably an ally.”
Breathed in. Breathed out. Throat ached from being throttled. Pain swept through every inch of my body from lack of air. Tied to a chair.
“I’m not that smart,” I admitted. “So I’ll tell you to fuck off so we can get this started.”
“Oh, well,” Prince shrugged. “You’ll be a queen no matter what you decide. That’s your fate. Take her to the pit with the beast.”
“I believe we were supposed to deliver her as soon as we caught her?” came the voice of another in the room behind me. Couldn’t turn my neck far enough to see her.
“There’s no point in presenting a candidate if she’s unproved. Trellis insists we let the world do it. I’ll take a more active hand in making sure she’s prepared.”
He drew a small gun from the desk. It crackled. Hissed. Sizzled.
Then he hit me with it. Every nerve sparked up like the Fourth of July.
“Just remember you chose this.”
Then they took me away.
At some point, probably from a growing concussion, perhaps from the searing pain behind one ear; perhaps the growing migraine, ruffled up between the lobes of my brain
I stopped being awake.
Water dripped onto my head. Wet. A distant heat. Throat ached.
A sort of burning bruised pain. Dizziness ate the edges of my mind. A muffled groan, and I turned back over.
Water dripped onto my neck, and my eyes shot open.
No awakening chirp from Omoi. A burning searing pain in the side of my head; ear numb.
Hands unbound. They’d unbound my hands at least.
It was dark, too dark, not a chance for the onboard assistant to zoom in on any detail, too dark to even stare at anything. But my fingers drifted behind my ear and came back hot, sticky. Half dried blood.
No node in my skull.
Didn’t have a lot of time; they’d be trying to convince me again soon.
Next time they wouldn’t ask. They were confident. I didn’t like that.
I rubbed my fingers together and smelled my own gore in the air. Rolled over so that the drip from the ceiling would miss.
It splattered into a puddle beneath of my prone body.
What had happened; there’d been…
Eyes in the darkness.
Thoughts abruptly terminated, leaving me alone, staring into the void.
Eyes in the darkness.
Thoughts flickered across a rough patch in the neural net, diverted through a series of unrelated thoughts. Jay, calling through the com system, pocket phone. Warden. Food.
Brother, waiting at home with soup.
Parents, face colored like flesh, no eyes, no mouths. Distant disappointment. Missed holidays spent in a lab, hiding from memories of the passed. They scattered like crows.
I was… missing a chunk of my thoughts. Had offstored them onto Omoi to keep them processed, to keep them ready for me to look over them later, and now they were gone. Alternate pathways.
Annoying, but… it was..
It wasn’t nice to be alone in my own head. It was dark, depressing, lonely, and the pain ached down my neck, down stressed veins, down my throat raw from what had to be handprints stretched around it.
Why was I crying? Tears rolled out of stinging eyes, down my head, down my neck in the darkness. Rolling free, dripping into the puddle beside me. Emotions, kept tucked to the back of my head, kept satiated, kept removed.
Heart thumped in my chest. Pain across my ribs, like a fist wrapped around my heart.
Riddles in the darkness.
Jess meets her demise in the dark, her mind in pieces, kept away from the light, held capture.
Thoughts drifted back, navigating through a twisting maze of unrelated memories. College days pasted together with visions of the future I didn’t want to look at. Crow beaks interspersed with faded colleagues, bones bleached from years of rot.
Tane… had been scattered. I had to hold out hope for rescue. Tane wouldn’t leave me here.
Jay wouldn’t leave me here. Had to hope that Tane would reform soon. They wouldn’t leave me here.
Fuck, I was such a damsel, waiting to be rescued and I hadn’t even figured out where I was. Flicked up Omoi to check the map. No nodule.
Got a stab of pain for my troubles, neural signals diverted to fuzzy old memories of high school (are you really not going to prom? You can ask me if you want-) and then taking a trip through college (when did you sleep last you look half dead) then a beleaguered trip through the place beyond, long half purged from my memory (believe in a god that watches you and believes in you for nobody else will).
“I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know who I was apologizing to. USEC, for being such a failure in a world where they no longer existed? My brother, for never getting a chance to make up with him, despite him fighting for me, taking up my cause when I vanished for months at a time?
Every person I’d snubbed for some greater cause, long dead, rotting? They weren’t… they weren’t around. They’d never know I survived.
Without Omoi dulling the pain it hit like lightning roaring through my veins. Wretched sobs tearing through my chest, sapping every ounce of anything other than the torrent.
Something moved in that blank black void.