Leaving Prime-Nest through the skyrise was the only way for those without wings, so I didn’t get to stick around and see many more rooms. A few more doors were open after the hour I’d spent listening to the Agent’s last words, and I saw mishmashes of bedding, carpetting, shining objects and small shrines with pieced together pictures of the agent.
Religious paraphernalia. How strange to see it of a man I’d barely known. Omoi chirped out that she’d added the data to her headings for the Crows, and I swatted the notification to the side after a brief look through.
Jay paused at the exit, staring out at the forest, then turned to look at me. “You should eat first.”
I looked at him. “There’s not that much for me to eat.”
Then I remembered the gardens, and I walked towards them. Jay followed after. “Do you like onions?” he asked, curiously.
I hadn’t had an onion in five thousand years. I took a seat in a rickety chair and watched him hop around on his feet, searching the garden. Then he pulled an entire onion out of a pot, marked the pot with a flag, and offered me the entire raw onion.
I stared at it. Flecks of dirt clung to it, even after I rubbed it against my clothes.
“There. It’ll last you for a bit,” he said.
My stomach growled, but I looked at him over top of the raw vegetable. “I just eat this?”
“It’s what we do,” Jay said, shaking his head. “Are you obligate carnivores? I doubt it, given your teeth, so… The hunters aren’t back with the day’s meat…”
I swallowed, brought the onion up to my mouth. I couldn’t believe I was really thinking of doing this.
There were a lot of things I couldn’t believe. A lot of things I didn’t want to face.
I crunched down on the raw onion and tears hit my eyes. Not from the onion. It was Vidalia; low sulphur content in the Georgian soil.
But I cried anyway.
I stared at Jay. He reached over to a bushel of vegetables and picked something out for himself, chewing on them.
They were all dead.
For all of the wonder I’d seen in the last few hours, the place I’d lived was dead. Everyone I’d known was dead.
My life’s work was gone. All that was left was meaningless equations, devoid, divorced of context. My degree was worthless.
Another bite of the onion, though the taste was distant. There was a word for this. Shock. The word sounded stupid in the dull confines of my head.
I was in a nuclear wonderland. Trees, the likes of which had never been around when I was…
When I was contextualized and I could…
Another bite of the onion.
It tasted like what my brother used to make; he’d always try to make french onion soup and he’d flub it up every time, and it’d just be onions with a hint of sweetness. Except it was all sweetness here, and I…
He used to yell at me about being married to my work.
He was right.
But it’d saved me.
My heart ached and hurt. Physically. I brought a hand over to it, and I shook. Clothes weren’t warm enough.
“I can’t believe they’re all dead,” I whispered.
Jay walked over to my side. “Hey, uh…” He looked around helplessly, and grabbed a plastic cup, filling it with water. “I noticed you haven’t been drinking…”
I snatched it from him and drowned in it, but instead of it filling my lungs it just went down my throat. Suddenly ravenous, dying of thirst, I took a spiteful hunk out of the onion, nipping the tip of my fingers.
Cryo-sickness. Shock. Distance.
There I sat in a church to the failure of the organization I’d been a part of. The birds here stared at me. A few Crows walked past, eyeing the stranger, but none of them grasped who I was.
I was too late to even be worshipped.
I didn’t want to be worshipped.
There was no point in being worshipped.
“Come on,” I said, gesturing for Jay’s hand. I didn’t need his hand.
I wanted the touch, I wanted something because the heavens were about to open and I couldn’t…
“Your heartrate is increasing rapidly. Would you like me to play soothing music?”
I didn’t reply to the prompt, and automatically, soothing orchestra played into the bones of my ear.
Not what I needed. Omoi always delivered anyway.
Jay took my hand, squeezed it, then stepped outside. After a moment, I, numb, blessed with beauty and life, and stupid and dumb and inconsiderate and why of all people was it I who had been set free, followed after him.
His talons clicked against the floor.
“Why don’t you have wings?” I asked.
“That,” Jay said, “Is a bit touchy. But I’ll forgive you here because you didn’t know better. It’s related to why I don’t have a name.”
I hesitated, searching his expression. Inhuman, I couldn’t get a good read.
“I’m an outcast,” Jay said. “Flight is something that only base creatures get to experience. The others have wings, sure, but they cannot fly with them unless they scatter.”
I squinted. “So you can’t scatter?”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Do you miss it?”
“Not at all,” Jay said, laughing. “It’s not a pleasant thing to be separated from one another. And I’d been separated from the others in my flock for so long, well…”
A painful subject, even if I didn’t quite understand what he meant.
I was going through pain myself, so I dropped it.
The massive pileup worked as a bit of a defensive barricade. With the strong sightlines to Prime-Nest, it made sense how the nest had remained defended. “So all Crows came from here?”
“Originally, yes,” Jay replied. “All from this one building. Who knows really how long we were just in this one city, scrounging. Learning proper english. Working machines… never as well as the Wardens, you understand.”
My hand drifting up behind my ear, to where Omoi’s nodule sat. Omoi chirped a greeting at the touch.
The Organizational Modulative Operational Intelligence had been around for a decade before the end. Came out as the latest and greatest of achievements, a fusion of cellphone and computer assistant and an extension of the self.
Omoi came when you called her, and helped you parse the crazed sensory systems that came from working in virtual spaces; the slow encroachment of the unreal against the real. The metaphysical warp between places.
The place that I’d lived for just about a decade after I got implanted with a gen one prototype as part of my work.
That specific technology might not have survived.
I eyed the com highlighted on Jay’s body. But they were making do, nonetheless. Knocked back to the stone ages, piggybacking off of thousands of years of technological progression. Following ancient videos left on crumbling devices.
They were trying their best.
Omoi chirped and scanned the area around me for instruments capable of interacting with my sensory equipment, and found Jay’s pocket computer, and then, distant from there, the array of signals and marks downloaded onto the map.
I shook my head and dispelled the overlay.
“Have you ever met another Warden?” I asked, curious, stepping over the last of the cars. Jay stepped in front of me.
He was quiet. “Well, I personally haven’t,” Jay said. “But one or two of my flock have, back when they belonged to other Crows.”
I blinked. “How does that work?”
“Well, if you kill enough of the flock,” Jay said, clearly uncomfortable. “There’s not really enough left behind to form yourself back. You’re wild birds and memories. No cohesion, anymore.”
I shuddered at the thought. Jay slid next to me, keeping me farther from the edge of the skyrise highway this time.
“It’s customary to adopt crows that have lost their way,” Jay continued. “It’d be a high honor to end up with a few of Morrigan’s crows among your flock, you know?”
But I remembered the sting of the First memories, and wondered if that wasn’t quite so true.
Jay laughed uncomfortably. “And my memories aren’t going to go onto anyone else. When I pass, it’ll be light’s out.”
I changed the subject back to what we’d been talking about before. “I’m sorry for being so curious…”
“Don’t be. You’re in a strange place, and we’ve been throwing things at you as quick as we can before your collapse from shock,” Jay noted.
Then down, down, down, we crept, spiralling down elegant arterial roads, darting down sidepaths in a reverse of the climb we’d taken to get there in the first place.
Here on the bottom floor, now that we weren’t trying to escape, the foliage was thinner. Half remembered biology course from undergrad categorized it vaguely into flora strata. “An entire forest. How the hell did that happen?”
Jay shrugged. “We always figured that it was something the Wardens had left behind for us. A perfect pretty little garden nook that we could be born from.”
I caught the tone in his voice. “But you knew better, right?”
“It’s a happy accident,” Jay said, stepping forward. “Now, come on, I want to get to the outpost before sundown, there’s a few me sized beds there. They’ll fit you.”
Not even beds set aside for Jay in the nest proper.
I didn’t need Omoi to tell me what the building was rising in the distance. An old university building, spiralling with decay and rank blooming vines.
It was unpleasant to see it.
It hurt me to see it, because I’d gone there, wasted years of my life pursuing theoretical particles and destructive fissile elements.
And it hurt me to see it because none of the windows were tinted anymore. No glass remained. Just another bombed out wreck.
Jay paused in his tracks and eyed me. “You going to make it?” He asked.
I shot him a look. “Don’t hold back on my account. You said there was a bed in there, so I need to find a bed.”
I wouldn’t feel better after a good night’s sleep. That’d be pretending that things like that would just go away.
I couldn’t lie to myself like that.
But it was a start just to keep my feet moving, step after step.