A Court For Crows (Part 43)

The Watchers invaded North Korea that morning. A long stretch of silence in the cafeteria. Some scientists were able to ignore the sense of doom in the air as the newscasters showed off videos of censored anomalous footage of clawed humans tearing through tanks. Filled with so many holes that blood no longer poured out of wounds, but instead drooled out lymph like glaze on pottery.

I wasn’t one them. Staring up at the creatures on screen.

They were willing to be obvious about it now. They didn’t have to hide in the shadows. Didn’t have to pretend they were weak.

USEC had emerged out of the shadows a decade and a half ago, in response to unrelated phenomena. Tensions rising off of the Bering strait between failed containment protocols.

But we, and the other organization that’d arisen from other governments, were being confronted with the fact we’d lost.

Now, of all of the groups USEC had been facing down, one had decided to take an entire country. No need for subversions, they were confident enough to brawl with the public.

Defender Kathleen was a woman, nearly 50 years old, silver streaking through her hair from long hours and minimal breaks. A long scar curled up across her neck, briefly interrupted by her chin, before continuing across her nose. The head of my USEC office, overlooking all of the agent affairs, and co-leader of the research departments, which was headed by Technician Lloyd.

When she spoke, you stopped and listened. When she pointed, you obeyed. I’d rarely had the displeasure to server her on either account.

“As you may see on the news, our sister branch in the Korean peninsula was destroyed last night.” Her hands clasped together, then she gently took the microphone at her podium between her fingers like the stem of a rose. “I have conferred with the other Defenders in nearby branches. I don’t need to remind you all that we are a medium priority target; disrupting agents bases is a fine strategy for reducing our effectiveness. The attack on Epsilon Delta is a clear and decisive threat. It is meant to tell us that none of us are safe.”

A brief pause. I looked around the room. Agent Zach’s face was focused on the Defender.

“The Watchers are wrong.” Kathleen said, narrowing her eyes. “There is not a force in this world, shy of obliteration itself, that will rend USEC away from the affairs of this nation. We will protect. At all costs. I remember all of the vows you have taken when you starting serving. Vows to protect. Vows to study. Vows to help the world.” She tilted her head slightly forward, shaking the silver streaks in her hair. “Regardless of the threat presented by this invasion, we will remain. We will remain fighting.”

A pause. “Agents, training will be stepped up a bit in preparation for deployment. Those scientists involved with practical defence programs, be warned that things are going to get a bit hairy in the next couple of weeks.”

“USEC remains. USEC protects. There’s a world worth fighting for, soldiers. We will not fall to grateful lies. We are strong. We are wardens for the world. We fight for the protection of the world. We fight.”

There was a visible pause, and then Kathleen stomped the ground.

Agents all around the cafeteria stood, and with rigid movements, saluted.

“For humanity.”

—–

Those who had family locally were given a day to meet up with them. Talk. Make plans on where to evacuate, should the fighting end up here.

The world was already littered with Watchers. Every day, another person outed. In our political system, in our military. In USEC itself.

It wasn’t unthinkable that they’d make a move and take out USEC bases for themselves. Mount a full fledge assault to grab the silos.

Where the Kind Lord seeded worlds with life, and sought to see it flourish, the Watcher sought to see them burn. Diametrically opposed.

A day to meet up with my brother.

In a way, we were just as diametrically opposed.

Jay opened the front door of his tiny apartment, bowl of popcorn tucked under an arm. His hair was blonde to my brown, his build thicker to my twiggish appearance. The popcorn dropped to the floor and he grabbed me in a hug.

For a moment, I could hear his heart in my ears, tugged against the bulk of his chest, and then he dropped it. “Glad you could get the day off.”

I laughed, ducking out of the way of the next hug, and flicked Omoi off with a thought, sweeping into the kitchen. “So what’s on the plan today, Jay?”

“You know, the usual. Shitty movies, popcorn, beer. Gotta find a way to celebrate with my sis.”

“Celebrate what?” I asked, looking over at the Tv. Still frame of a murder in progress. Killer staring down at his victim’s eyes as sentience drooled out of her body; converted from a living person to a drooling pile of useless meat.

Horror. He knew what I liked.

“I got a promotion,” Jay laughed. “I got tapped to be a bodyguard for Senator Hopkins.”

I looked away from the movie and laughed. “Whaaat? You did? That’s awesome.”

He picked the popcorn off of the ground, frowned at the mess it made, then shrugged, tossing it over on the couch.

He lived in excess the same way a college student did; nice enough things, mostly unkempt.

But the black leather, covered in tiny dimpled scratches from years of use, spoke more of him than any expression on his face. The smell of old popcorn reminded me of when it used to grace the front room of mom and dad’s place, back before

It didn’t matter.

“What about you? Still poking at gods or whatever?”

“Op-sec,” I warned him, pointing my finger at him.

“I knoooooow~!” Jay whined, reaching for the remote. “But come on, I know you’re getting an award soon.”

“And why do you know that?” I crossed my arms over my chest and fell back onto the couch. I’d known about it for a while.

I just wish it wasn’t me getting it.

“Oh, you know, the senator mentioned it when he said he was going to be covering the USEC award ceremony.”

“It’s a bit of a sham,” I said. “Considering nobody can talk about why they’re getting the prize.”

“My very own sister, getting a humanitarian prize,” Jay said, and started the movie again.

The woman on screen died frames later, blood burbling from her lips.

I ate popcorn and sighed.

Three beers later my head was woozy, and at some point pizza arrived, and we both sat, wiping grease from our lips.

“Didn’t you go to school for Psychology?” I laughed.

“I did!” he said. “You’d be surprised how often it comes up. I get to design security systems and the like, make sure that everything’s in order to minimize exposure windows. It’s great to tweak it.”

I was silent for a bit.

“Weren’t you going to school for biology?”

I shrugged at that, playing with the cap on my beer. I rolled it between two fingers and wondered what burning melting flesh smelled like.

“Yeah, but I got called by USEC when I started failing all of my classes.”

Unsaid went that this was around when Mom and Dad had given up on me.

“And now you’re a physicist?”

“Really more of a Cosmic Eschatologist,” I said, waving a hand. “But yes, physicist.”

The killer died in an explosion, quirked together by the survivors; a thirteen year old with a taste for fire, a woman with a broadsword out of time, and witless coward who’d found himself, faith, and a shotgun.

“What’d you get the reward for?” Jay asked again. “Like, what specifically.”

“Op-sec,” I repeated. “I can’t ask you for the specifics of your job either.”

“But you just stare into the stars, right?” Jay asked, his voice stretching lower. “You just stare into the stars, and what did you see that would get you the reward, what did you see out there? What did you see out there what did you do with the

—–

“Now,” I said, taking a moment to draw the six pointed star of the current pantheon.

It wasn’t hard to draw that, as it was a neutral symbol that USEC and a few of the allied organizations had decided on as a decent way of representing it, divorced from any of the symptoms other symbols would draw from prehistoric parts of the human brain.

A decent place for OMOI intervention, but there was no need to stress test the system by making it current knowledge.

“The Kind Lord is Allied With Fire and Movement, and Enemy to Physicality, Knowledge, and Cessation. Can anyone name one of the enemies?”

“The Watcher? He’s Lord Cessation.”

“And he shall observe until the world stops moving, in his citadel of stars,” I finished.

Omoi fed me information from the local systems, and my eyes ran over it. Agents trying to access tutorials on things that didn’t exist.

After a moment, I pointed at an Agent in the front row.

An agent raised his hand. “Why is this information not in our OMOI?”

“Knowledge about those beyond is naturally censored by OMOI as containing high chances of Symbolic infection,” I said, looking up from the board. “Now, a few questions.” I pointed at the wheel. Six main gods, each with allies and enemies. The pantheon we had determined existed through decades of study, battles, and countless deaths.

“Which of these gods are good, and why?”

The Kind lord’s insignia, eyes crossed out with a pair of hands, stared at me when I looked over at it. Not the proper symbol in the cursed languages transcribed in a dusty containment ward hundreds of miles away but…

The Kind Lord had always haunted me so.

“The Kind Lord?” Asked an agent.

“Trick question,” I said. “No god is favorable to humanity.”

“But isn’t the Kind Lord the Lord of Life?”

“And Life has always had a nasty habit of killing humans,” I said. “They have no moral allegiances, anyone more than Lord Knowledge is a friend to scientists, or the Watcher is a friend to murderers.”

Door opened to the dim classroom, and I looked up from the rows of agents learning how to identify which god what anomalies were created through, and the interactions with conventional laws of physics.

Supposited reality.

“There you are,” Tane said, smiling up from her bushy black hair. She tossed the hair out of her face. “Thanks for covering for me, but I think these guys are going to want some lessons on scouting. What say you?”

Silence from the room as the agents glanced about “Yes Ma’am.”

“Stand up then,” Tane barked, hands sliding down to her hips. “And tell me what you learned about Jess?”

I cocked my head to the side and glanced at her. “Learned about me?”

“They want to be agents,” Tane said. “It requires being highly observant if they don’t want to just be ward guards.”

“Rogerson,” Tane barked. “Report.”

“Jess shows signs of previous malnutrition, uncorrected by her years at USEC, Ma’am.” My eyes flicked over to him. “She shows signs of long term exposure to dangerous elements, but showed none of the dangerous symptoms of subversion.”

“Good,” Tane said, looking over at me.

“Jess I think that’s fine but

hissing noise sibilant her eyes spiralling off with the distant ruffle of wind through feathers but I wanted to go but I wanted to stay and

but I think these guys are going to want to know what you did and why you did it, and what you did and why you did it, and what you did and why you did it

“It wasn’t my fault,

“It was

“It wasn’t my fault

“You can still save them

“It was

“It was

“It

“We can still save them.”

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