Minutes trickled by like hourglass sand. Tumbled head over heels, again, again, as the fog slowly unfurled from the edges of my thoughts. Left behind only the aches and pains I was starting to associate with the dead world.
My fingers ached from squeezing the trigger on the pistol, and blood drooled across the other, cooling flesh still clinging to the Omoi Nodule.
No matter how many times I flipped it over and over again in my fingers, it was hard to parse.
The body on the floor; human. His face, mutilated, mutated, horrendous. But the skull was human. The brain, destroyed, but human. His blood, human.
The Queen’s Guards were Wardens. They were humans, at base. But I didn’t recognize this one.
The weight of the nodule in my palm grew heavier and heavier with each rotation. Everything I’d need to know was in there.
But there were other thoughts.
If the Queen’s Guards were converted Wardens, Isaac’s warning made perfect sense. The Fey were desperate to replenish their stocks of anomalous troops; and the Wardens were all resistant to the effects of anomalies. Lingering training, rites, and education took care of that. Every Warden they took, every old world scientist and old world agent vomited out into the world would be another soldier they could muster forth to repair their armies.
I breathed out, breathed in, felt it catch in the back of my throat. Hysteria, slowly building. I’d been close, too close to being one of them.
The nodule dropped onto the radio console, and I tugged over a half eaten chair and went to work. Lingering remnants of Prince’s mind still danced with mine. Not a lot. Just what I’d been digging for at the end.
Memories of Prince working the radio tower.
Prince had the entire thing jury rigged up properly. Normally, it wouldn’t work without an Omoi, but who was I to let a thousand year old set of equipment illogically still intact thwart me?
The answer was I didn’t; Prince had it all in his head. I didn’t get enough from it.
I could already feel the information draining from my head; they weren’t my memories, they were organized differently. But it’d be enough.
Wheezing laughter from my broken throat.
Boss stirred from her coma in the corner, a golden arm wiping blood from her nose and mouth. She snuffled and snorted, cracking open an eye. “Jess?” Then her eyes flicked down to the source of the blood, and her lips peeled back to expose rows of sharp fangs in a sickening grin. “I knew you’d make a good hunter.”
I squinted at her, then laughed. “I won’t pretend to know how.”
Teri shifted from her coma as well, her outline snapping back into focus.
“What’d he show you?” I asked.
“Home,” Boss rumbled. “It was… nice.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Teri muttered, looking away.
The last strokes on the aged equipment came in, and the radio station clicked under our control. I plucked Prince’s nodule between two fingers and tossed it at Teri. She caught it without question.
The hole in the dead Queen’s Guard’s head was all the explanation she needed.
“This changes a lot, you understand,” Teri said.
“It doesn’t change anything unless we get out of here,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Teri asked, gesturing at the dead man. I didn’t want to spare another moment to look at the congealing blood, or the way shock still graced his shattered face. “The leader’s dead.”
“She’s right,” Boss said.
I paused. Seconds away from hitting the proper buttons to turn on the emergency beacon.
“Without a leader, the fey are useless.”
Boss swept outside and was gone for only a second before dragging in a drone. It stared placidly, without a flicker of intent in the compounded eyes, at the wall where Boss had pointed it.
Dread slipped through my gut, staring at it.
“It’s why we won the war,” Teri said, kneeling down. “Our King took their Queen. We were hoping they’d be down permanently after that.”
The Queen’s Guards were clearly trying to make up for lost time.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, watching her kneel. Her feathers smeared with blood as she touched Prince’s clothes.
My hands were shaking.
I’d killed a man. A human.
What was once a human.
Sure, he’d betrayed USEC, and, odds were, he was culpable in the death of the grand human race, but…
I didn’t know what I was complaining about. It’d been correct. He’d been torturing me. My memories of the past splayed out without grace in front of a questioning mind.
Teri dug through the dead man’s clothes (how rare was it to see a dead human in this day and age? You’d need living specimens to have dead ones.) and pulled out another nodule from his shirt pocket.
She buffed it clean of the blood spreading from his chest.
“You forgot this,” she said, presenting it to me. That was mine. My eyes crossed. Bare, removed with precision. The inverse of the one setting next to me.
My hand slowly reached up to the side of the head and felt the void left behind. I swallowed.
My eyes flicked over to the one I’d removed myself and Teri followed with her head.
“Well,” Teri said. “That changes everything, doesn’t it?”
I swallowed. Everything I could need, all of the questions. Maybe they’d be in that computer. Omoi protects indeed.
Boss smirked, sweeping over and kneeling down so her massive eyes could stare at the bit of metal. “Man dealt too much with his second brain.”
“Are you alright?”
I hesitated a bit longer, and pulled myself away from the laptop. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Boss kicked the drone, mindless and vacant, and it toppled over without making a noise. “Entire compound should be like this while they figure out command. It flows from the top down through the various ranks.”
“You seem knowledgeable,” Teri complimented.
“I’ve always wanted to hunt Queen’s guards.” Boss grinned, showing off her teeth again. “And today one died.”
“You should stick around,” I offered. “The rest are going to be after me, after all.”
“I don’t know exactly how well she’ll be accepted at the capital,” Teri said. “That is still where you’re going right?”
My hands closed around Prince’s nodule. My thoughts were emptier without Omoi, but they weren’t empty enough to go without a plan.
“It depends,” I trailed off, looking over at her.
“It depends?” Teri asked.
In theory, everything I could need was in that computer. I just needed some way to access it.
“Teri, can you breach into this?”
Teri rubbed her own Omoi and looked down at the computer in my head. After a moment, she shook her head. “Too many layers of protection; that one’s been modified.”
I knew the answer to my next question, but I asked it anyway.
Breath in, breath out. “And where would we find someone who could crack it open?”
Teri looked up at the monstrous Boss, then back at me. “The capital. That’s where the archivists should be moving towards. They can also get yours installed again, if you want.”
Why was I crying? Why were my eyes so watery?
“More tech junkies,” Boss dismissed.
“You can leave if you want,” Teri suggested, not entirely unkind. Boss rolled her eyes and slid to the other side of me, looking at the old frayed laptop.
“We can all leave,” Boss said.
I looked up from the station again, then took my hands off of it. We didn’t need to signal for safety.
“So?” Boss asked. “We’ve won, Jess. We can leave.”
My eyes flicked over to Teri. That… was right. I had other responsibilities.
“Incoming radio transmission,” Teri reported.
I blinked, then turned to look at the radio console I’d all but abandoned. Blinked away lingering tears.
Teri played it.
“Congratulations Jess,” Trellis drawled through the airwaves. “You’ve removed an ally from our cause. I understand he was being remarkably unfair to you. Considering your history with him, I think it was uncalled for.”
How did she know?
No, that was a fool’s question. I already knew she could look into the future. She’d already predicted Prince’s death. Knowing his murderer was probably just as easy.
Hands clenched into fists.
“But we already knew that he’d die here,” Trellis continued. “You really did us a favor, he was getting haughty towards the end with his grand crusade. Thinking he might be able to lie his way to his end goals, what a shame.” Trellis tsked her tongue over the radio.
I turned to look at Teri. “Cut-”
“We’ll see each other again. Like I said, you’d have to do a bit more growing before we met. You’ve proven that you’re worthy, at least from my tests. A bientot, Jess.”
Teri cancelled the radio transmission.
In, out. Even breathing. Take the oxygen in and unclench my jaw.
I relaxed my fists. If it wasn’t for the fact half my fingernails had been shattered in the frantic flight through the base, they’d’ve cut open the palms of my hand.
“Boss,” I said, turning to look at her.
“Contract with me?”
“What sort of contract?” Boss mused, looking up from her task of cleaning her axe.
She chuckled. “Deal. We’ll hash out the proper terms later.”
Her teeth gleamed.
“Come on,” Teri said, stepping out into the hallway. “After you, Warden.”
We had a plot to unravel.