Third floor was well kept. Ambient lights soaked it in the glow of the old world. Made it almost seem like the military base was alive and rolling. The sun would emerge behind the clouds, and we’d be free to frolic.
I hadn’t just killed with my own two hands.
I could believe that if I tried hard enough. I could believe that we were basically through, and we just needed to signal… and figure out how to hold out until reinforcements arrived.
And pray we weren’t far from where we needed to be. (We weren’t, logically, because they had to transport me here, which meant we couldn’t be that far; Irri would just be doing her best to make people think we weren’t at the military base, and that we had been vanished.)
Was Tane back yet? What about the guards? What about…
Teri clicked her beak and took the scant moment to check over her rifle. Magazine and all, a quick flick of her hands.
“You’re another archivist, right?” I asked.
“I am, I specialize in old world manufacturing. Hence why I work at Forge-Home, making ingots for when war breaks out again.” Teri confirmed, bowing her head. “We’re getting closer to the node up ahead.”
“What else is there around here?” I asked. “Omoi always lit up when I went to new locations.”
“Old screams,” The archivist said. “Lots of them, dotting everywhere. Letters never delivered to loved ones. Evacuation orders. Lists of homes, graves, old stories,” Teri shook her head. “It’s the same in most places. A long arm trying to reach into the future through text. Kinda depressing.”
“Yeah,” I said, stepping next to Boss. Boss flicked her head down to look at me, then back up at the hallway.
“This one is well travelled… but where are the guards?”
“They might be giving up,” I said. Already tasted like ash before my lips closed.
“No…” Boss said, looking around. “They don’t give up that easily.”
Teri sighed and looked around, tapping the side of her head, where her own node sat. “Hm.”
“What?” I asked.
“Since I checked last, the Node moved.” Teri said, clicking her beak.
“It moved?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” Teri clicked. “It’s in another room, on the other side of the station.”
“Well?” Boss asked. “What are we going for first?”
Common sense told me what to go after first. But abandoning the Omoi… even for a few more minutes… it seemed utterly wrong.
“The Radio station,” I said, shaking my head.
“What about your Omoi?” Teri asked. “Shouldn’t we… I’m sure you’ve been noticing side effects, I get a bit muddled when mine’s on the fritz.”
Boss held up a hand, her ears perked and listening to the world around her.
“Hear anything?” I asked.
“Not yet. I don’t like the lack of attention, however,” Boss said.
“We’re still in the clear,” Teri said, letting out a sigh of relief. “I don’t want to think about another Hound… what if the next one has better aim?”
“How did it shoot lightning?!” I hissed.
“There are commands in old languages,” Boss said. Her eyes flicked over to Teri.
“Words that make reality quiver and shrivel up,” Teri said. “They’re wrong to use. Anyone with ears knows that. The world doesn’t need that sort of power. The Fey don’t believe that.”
“And Crows have difficulty using it,” Boss said.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not using it is difficult,” Teri clicked. “We killed it. They can’t possibly have more of those; they lost most of them trying to take the Capital.”
“We are no cornering predators,” Boss said. “We’re still in their burrows, they have the upper hand. Our brief advantage is just that.”
I remembered Prince’s face and swallowed, taking a few steps ahead. “It doesn’t matter. We need that Node, and we need to signal that we’re here. But the signal is more important.”
We could get the node later.
We would get the node later.
Down the hall we crept. Lights flickered overhead. The faint taste of music mixed with the faint spray of blood and ichor that had touched my face like the edge of a can of spray paint.
Almost alive. But not quite. The hall prickled in my memory. Had I seen it before?
It was possible I’d been here in the old world; this wasn’t too terribly far from my place of work, and we’d worked with the military before, especially when it came to active applications. But what work would I do in an out of the way ranger base? What exactly would I do? Would I have done?
Foot steps in the dust, long drops of blood on the floor, too fresh.
Despite the hints, it wasn’t until we were in front of the radio station door that it hit me.
Prince’s office was on this floor. I’d been here when they’d woken me up, shortly after Omoi had been removed from my head.
No wonder my memory was patchy; I was still routing everything through the hole in my head. Prince’s face. Locations. Everything altogether.
We weren’t home free. We were in even more danger than I thought.
What… exactly could a Queen’s guard do?
Teri’s hands jostled the radio station door. Locked.
“Locked?!” I squeaked. “What do you mean locked?”
“They probably keep it locked to keep people from bothering the researcher inside,” Teri sighed. “We’ll have to find the key, and-”
Boss punched the door hard enough that her knuckles cracked and the metal bowed inward. Teri and I both flinched away from her.
“Right,” The archivist said, clicking her beak. “We have her.”
“Keys are stupid,” Boss growled, running her hands along the now distorted hinges. Concrete cracked under her grip. Her muscles flexed.
This wasn’t the armory door; there was no real reason to keep this heavily protected, and after a few more seconds of straining, her teeth bared and a fat line of drool dripping down her furred chin, now bloodied from the fight with the Hound, the door gave way with a shriek of metal.
Teri blinked a few times, then tapped the side of her Omoi. “It’ll take me a few minutes to get access to this…It’s not exactly in the conditions the military left it in.”
The station was a mire of technology left over from the 1970s, a mismatch of parts that had aged to the point of uselessness jury rigged and attached to other makeshift bits. The movement to satellite networks had rendered the small radio station obsolete.
But the satellites weren’t up in the sky anymore, so it was our best bet to get a signal out.
And even if it was, Teri didn’t have perfect access to all of the Omoi tutorials.
“Of course they did,” I swallowed. Boss picked up the door, and set it back into the frame.
“I have the door,” Boss said. I turned away from her. She could handle out backs. She could handle our backs even if we were dead.
With that morbid thought out of the way, I turned to look at Teri. Her eyes were half glazed, fingers pressed against the edge of her Omoi. So she was a loss as well.
I grabbed the first aid kit hanging off of the wall and checked it to see if anything was usable. Boss watched me. “What’re you doing?”
“I got a few scrapes,” I said. “I might as well try to stop them from getting infected.”
“Infection… that’s a thing for Wardens? I’ve seen it in prey-beasts.” Boss asked, flicking her head to look at me.
I examined the military grade medical kit for a long moment, then figured it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if it was a couple thousand years expired, and cracked open the isolated packs to try and treat some of the scrapes from the stairs. Burns on my hand were going to blister soon, from grabbing the axe that close to the burning remnants from the molten stair well.
Injuries were adding up, and I didn’t have the benefits of advanced regeneration, or the ability to just remake my body like the other two in the room.
“Strange how you ruled the world while having to worry about those things.” Boss muttered.
“It was in pursuit of nullifying those things that we ruled the world,” I said, hissing as I treated the cuts.
“Perhaps,” Boss said, then merely gestured at the world around us. “A reminder.”
Teri clicked her beak a few times. “I can’t figure out how to send a message out yet… Omoi’s working on it.”
“But?” I asked.
“It looks like there’s a signal playing on the channel. Do you want to listen in?”
I stared at the tower.
Well. If they were using the tower… they were probably in open communication with the rest of the Fey. Radio towers to broadcast their signals and their plans. Using old, even for humanity’s standards, technology to get around Omoi nodules.
It’d be clever if it wasn’t an imminent threat. But… could we afford to not answer?
“Listen in,” I said.
“Encrypted…” Teri said. “Old USEC codes by the looks of it.”
Without Omoi, it was difficult to get it to work. But…
If my hunch was right, and they were working off of stuff they’d hijacked off of USEC bases, tech designed to outlast anything the world could throw it, then we could just…
“Use your security overrides,” I barked. “They’ll be under your personnel file. Hard wired into the node in your head.”
“Ah, I tried that, but I’ll try the scrubbed ones, too.” Teri said. A pause where she attempted to do just that. “They’re not working, that’s not goo-”
“Use mine,” I said, taking a swing into the dark. If my Omoi were missing, and they were going to use it…
“Codes?” Teri asked.
“SevenFourFiveNineBeta, The Moon Glows; The Eye Of The Kind Lord,” I recited.
Teri blinked, her eyes flicking over to me, and then she tried the combination.
A gush of static from the systems she was standing next to startled her, but the transmission went through the jury rigged systems.
“-ings will become terminal. Take the warning and leave. Evacuation is not guaranteed. We will not save you. Leave at once. This message repeats.” A cold dead voice.
Trellis. It was Trellis. She seemed so distant, her voice layered in sibilant hisses. Dangerous.
Jay wasn’t here to save me this time. I’d have to save myself, with Boss, and Teri. They were counting on me to not mess this up.
“This is Beta Base asking for a status report on Jessica,” the transmission started.
Me. Got it. Of course this was about me. A nightmare that couldn’t end.
“We have received your message that you have successfully captured her,” Trellis said through the recording. Did it broadcast at specific intervals, or were they simply playing telephone tag through encrypted broadcasts? No back and forth conversation, but nothing stopped them from receiving, then transmitting back replies.
“Bismarck bades me to ask what exactly your planned battery of tests is. We are running out of possible candidates, Prince, and I don’t need to tell you what Bismarck will do if you ruin another one. In addition, we’ve received word that Jess is being tracked by a guard party from Atlanta. Do not engage. Pull back instead of wasting our resources on your pet base. We’re well aware of your decision to involve foreign mercenaries in your little crusade, Prince,” Trellis paused, taking in a deep breath.
I could almost picture that pale woman who could dodge bullets. What had happened to the other Fey agent, the one that had fought Tane?
Omoi willing, she’d been dealt with, or left.
“Was my agent not good enough for your purposes? Bismarck bades you to reply with more information on Jess’s location, and to evacuate your current base as soon as possible. Our Agent will deal with you shortly if you fail to comply with these measures.”
Another pause, just long enough for Teri to flick her gaze over to me. Bismarck. Another Queen’s Guard?
Or something greater? She was clearly in charge of Trellis.
“My eyes see into your future, Prince, and I see you will lose control over this situation,” Trellis stated. Dead. Cold. “The proceedings will become terminal. Take the warning and leave. Evacuation is not guaranteed. We will not save you. Leave at once. This message repeats.”
“Turn it off,” I said, turning to Teri. She clicked her beak a few times.
“Wow,” Teri whistled.
“Looks like Prince isn’t doing too well with the others.”
Boss’s jaw clicked open, and then her ears pinned back.
“What is it?” I asked, looking over at her.
“He’s here,” Boss said. “In my head. In the air. I can hear…”
“Where’s the Node?” I asked Teri, quickly. Thump went my heart beat.
Teri turned and slowly pointed at the door.
“Oh.” I said, intelligently.
In retrospect, I should’ve suspected a trap.
The world answered my arrogance.
shouted the world and life answered. I could see the numb spread through her muscles, felt it sing through the air, a command, a command, a command of the delirious pointless world, devoid of purpose. Where were gods in the world that could be played like a violin, swaying back and forth across a bow and arrow? A tempestuous swinging pendulum apart a dirty physics string, demanding nothing, demanding complexity when simplicity would do, and here, there was a command there it was in my body, a horrific swimming like cold ice, all at once. Numb shooting through my veins, crippling anhedonia, affect crippled, thoughts blurred muddled and
Adrenaline screeched out a delirious warning that snapped me back to my feet.
And Boss slumped. Loosening her grip from her fingers, she turned to face the door. “Fucker. He’s going to quell us by force.”
Teri stared, and swallowed, raising her rifle.
“Like the hound…” I whispered. The Fey weren’t afraid of corruption.
Of course the Guard would have them. How else would they be able to get around. Of course the Fey had them; they spoke like lightning in their assault on the Capital.
And that was years ago.
Then Boss’s axe dropped out of her hands and onto the ground with a metallic clank. Ears pinned back, Boss snarled. “I won’t be your slave again.”
Then the entire nightmarish monster that was Boss dropped onto the floor, ears pinned back, limp.
I already knew what was on the other side of the door, but seeing it made my heart skin a beat. Prince shoved the door out of place. It fell to the side of him with an echoing clatter.
Teri’s rifle slid out of her hands. The build up, the echoing symphony of the universe, I could hear it buzzing in my teeth, buzzing in my jaws. Where was the immunity? Without Omoi… what could I do?
(but something inside of me remembered that we hadn’t always had Omoi and the universe had always been a terrifying place where things didn’t make sense, where it was up to humanity to lock up and eradicate the errors or see them devour our world and lives, we did not need omoi)
Teri swallowed, staring down at her hands, and with a drunken sureness brought her hand up to press at her Omoi. Begging it to work.
“You don’t have the code to use it,” Prince said. “I’d stop if I were you, I know that node is starting to burn in your skull, you’re not nearly the right species for it.” He knelt down and gently grabbed Boss by the ears, twisting her head back and forth. “She’s almost cute when she’s asleep.”
“What’d you do?!” Teri slurred.
I reached down to the gun on the console next to me. My fingers were already shaking.
I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to see the death Boss had predicted for me.
I didn’t want that.
“I am a Queen’s Guard,” Prince said, taking a step over top of Boss. “I am more than capable of dealing with a few… renegade soldiers who don’t know their place.”
“I won’t work for you,” Teri swore. Her muscles jerked once more, her beak clenched tight enough I could hear the creak her jaw, and as if moving through water, she grabbed the rifle, cradled unsteadily in her quivering fingertips.
There was something heavy in the air. Something like blood, but the beat of a drum.
Prince raised an eyebrow as the gun pressed against his forehead. Teri’s hands twitched, wave after wave of impulses desperately scrambled as they twitched down her nerves. Prevention of violence. Oh fuck. “Oh? Seems like you’re not getting it. You don’t get a say in this.” He paused. The clicking intensified.
The note quickened in the air.
Numbness shot down my arms. Tickled at nerves. Coerced them like cold ice.
Teri went limp, and the rifle dropped. Her beak clicked nervously. “What are you doing? How?”
There was that insectoid noise in the air, lingering, floating above everything else, what…
“Each Guard has a special ability,” Prince explained, lightly tapping Teri’s rifle. It fell from her hands. A moment later, Teri slid down, muscles entirely relaxed. Eyes fluttering. “A specialization. Mine’s recruitment.”
Isaac’s warning. Avoid the fey. Trellis’s offer.
Prince was making the noise, that oppressive beat in the air. He had to be. A command.
A Command. Something USEC would’ve sealed for being too dangerous. What was it?
How did (how strange was it that I thought about how I could kill him before it affected me) it work?
A strange clicking noise from the back of Prince’s throat. Like the scream of a locust, distant, dim.
“Trellis peers through time and guesses at the future. A loss at the present, but good enough in a fight,” Prince said, taking a step over the downed bird. “And Bismarck… Well. She doesn’t matter here. But I, I get what I want.”
Trellis could dodge bullets. She could see what we were going to do.
Teri was down on the ground now, unmoving. Slowly, my hands drew the pistol out. They were shaking. Why were they shaking? No, no, no. I promised… I promised…
Trained it on him, but my hand eye coordination was dead. Head swam. Cicadas in my thoughts, buzzing. Heart thumping. Blood trickled out of my nose.
“You’ve caused quite the mess in your warpath, Jess,” Prince said, taking another step ahead. Skin shifted on his face. Crawled. Retreated. Human head but… “Go down, Jess.”
Too many eyes?
No, I had to remain…
“But there’s no matter. You made your mistake when you thought the tests were over.”
“What…?” I asked. “Is that supposed to mean anything?” Hissed, words flowing together. Out of control…
“Simply that the situation was never out of my control at all,” Prince said, stepping in through the doorway.
“And you’ve certainly failed my test. Now… I’m afraid I’m going to have to get the information out of you by force, since you weren’t willing to give me the information yourself. A shame. I hate hurting allies.” Prince clicked once more, and the world went sideways.
“What…” his skin crawled across his face. My mind swam. Spun. Like getting drugged again. Like going under for surgery. “Are you?”
The world was screaming.
Black out. Eyes closed.
The world was stars. The world was burning points of life across a background where a glorious lord reigned blessing us with deluded whispers. The world was beautiful.
Prince spoke in the backdrop of stars.
“We’re the last, best hope for humanity. Now… tell me about the god you made.”