The elder had moved while my vision was occupied. She’d carefully replaced the broken Com on the pedestal, and sat, staring at me.
For some strange reason I was crying. Why was I crying? The tears rolled down my face, pitter patter, pitter patter.
“And the rest of the story is carried by me,” The Elder said.
“You’re five thousand years old?” I asked, incredulous. Did crows not age?
“No,” The Elder said, calmly. “But members of my constituent swarm have been in continuity for five thousand years. Cycled in and out, piece by piece, as I bond with other crows.”
Quiet from myself. I sat down with my back against the wall, letting the cool plaster touch against the fabric of my jumpsuit.
“So you remember?”
“I remember as any family remembers. One does not need to have been alive when one’s line was born to understand the history of your ancestors,” The elder said, cocking her almost human head to the side.
I stared at her curiously, then flicked my eyes around the room. “That’s this room, isn’t it? This is where he died?”
“And when he died, the nest toppled over onto the artifact he was carrying,” The Elder said, soft. “We screeched for hours but our mother never returned, and there was only the man with the suit and we ruffled through his pockets and grew smart. And we were so proud when we realized that we were a we and not merely screaming mouths but that we were who we were,” The Elder turned away, and a fat tear rolled down her face.
“But he was already gone, you understand. And he’d died thinking that nobody had heard his last words. That nobody would know that while he was dying, he took time to feed the birds, and he told us so many wonderful things. So many wonderful things about the world that nobody else would get to experience. Whispered secrets. Aspirations. Dreams. Peaceful things. He hated killing. He hated violence.”
My teeth clicked together, and carefully I rose to my feet and touched her on her shoulder.
The Elder whirled around and stared at me. Nervously, I patted her. “That was a long time ago.”
“It’s the First Memory,” The Elder whispered. “The very First was not being born soon enough to thank him.” The Elder turned and walked towards the window. Slid talons across it, then lifted it up. The window frame was new, as was the glass. Made for the sole purpose of keeping this small office room safe. “Agent Zachary will never get to know what happened next! He’ll never get to know. He passed on before we could tell him we had heard him.”
Then the Elder squeezed me tightly, throwing her wings and arms around until I could barely see. It was a harsh hug, like someone was dying, had been dying, would always be dying.
My throat was choked up.
“And I am alone, and I do not share those memories with the others,” The Elder said, releasing the hug. “But it is good for the younglings to be told of their heritage, and why we still serve. Even if this city is no longer the largest. Even if this place has been abandoned, mostly, for years.”
I staggered over to the window and looked out. The green city was silent. Occasionally, flights of crows darted about, playing with each other.
“Why did this city die?”
The Elder laughed. “Didn’t you hear his request? Anything we don’t understand, anything that hurts, anything dangerous, we put it here. There’s not much use trying to build a city on the graves of the Wardens. And that’s why we call you the Wardens, because you tried to protect us, and you tried to protect us, and you failed. And we love you.”
I shot her a look.
“I’m sorry,” The crow woman warked, her voice raspy, weak. “The First Memories are strong. Hold a lot of power. Time would be that all would recognize you and bow at your feet, Warden.”
“Jessica,” I said. “My name’s Jessica.”
“Jessssssiiiiicccaaaa,” The Elder tasted it, running her tongue over her beak to savor the moment. “My name is Morrigan,” The Elder whispered, bobbing over to the window. “And there are twelve crows in my circle.”
Omoi corrected The Elder’s name automatically.
“Do they have names?”
“Outside of the circle?” Morrigan asked. “Of course not. They’re just birds. I am their union, but they are nothing but animals without me. Each one is a part of me, yes, but one hardly names different parts of their personality, one hardly chases after puzzle pieces and pretends they are anything separate from the context of the whole,” The crow woman swept past. “I have one more thing to give you…”
Twelve birds made up the woman I was next to. How in the world…?
The crow clicked in disappointment, stopping at the back of the room. “Which… is on loan at the outpost. Lani, the archivist, had it. We weren’t expecting a new Warden to show up, just like that. Of course. My apologies Warden. It also has the attached file you’ll need if you want to understand Zach’s last request.”
“Jessica,” I corrected.
Morrigan swept to the door and opened it up. Jay almost fell over, but swung his arms to keep balance. “Elder!”
“You,” Morrigan jerked her finger at him. “Guide Jessica to the outpost so she can collect the trinket left behind by the last Warden,” she demanded.
My eyebrows shot up. “They left behind something?”
“He did,” Morrigan said. “In case someone else showed up. He didn’t think it was likely, but…”
“Did he have a name?” I asked, leaning in close.
“I believe his name was…” The crow clicked her talons, thinking. “Isaac.”
My old Co-worker. What were the odds, really?
I didn’t want to do the math in my head. Omoi chirped out that I didn’t have a large enough understanding of the variables to calculate that.
I thanked her, and shoved the notification away.
“Come on, let’s go,” Jay said, creeping away. I felt Morrigan’s eyes on my neck.
We’d shared something there.
Some grander idea about what humanity had done. And she thought I’d done.
But I was just a lab coat. I’d never been in the field. My job had never been about protecting.
Mine had been about analyzing.
But why did it matter to me what the Elder thought? Why did it matter at all?