It was quiet when we slipped in through the wrecked front entrance. I recognized the faded tile on the wall; a few were cracked to obscurity, but what was left welcomed me into education. The Psychology building hadn’t been a place I’d gone often, but I’d taken a few courses in it anyway on suggestion by USEC. To keep me well rounded.
Also, my work occasionally contained examining the presence of theoretical radiation and comparing and contrasting different complex behaviors under it.
I wasn’t the psychologist on those projects, but I was still an advisor to make sure nothing terrible untoward happened.
And sometimes it had and I did my job; sat in the corner, took notes, then critiqued the experiment once the air scrubbers had taken over. Calm rhetoric.
Didn’t mean a thing to the skeleton at the front desk. We stared at each other; my cold eyes, rimmed with heat from tears, matching the empty sockets of the skull left on the desk.
“Ah, right, sorry,” Jay said, stepping in front of me to block my vision.
“You didn’t remove them?”
“It seems… wrong to do it. Like we’re asserting ourselves here,” The crow said, awkwardly. “And she’s our guardian, you know. Our outpost’s little Warden.”
Omoi pinged the corpse to see if she still carried an Omoi node. The presence of the scar on the surface of the skull suggested it had one, but the node had fallen out long after death, swept away by time.
Left a small dimple behind, but no history.
Omoi chirped out a diagnosis of cause of death (radiation) and then powered back off. The music resumed, playing through my bones.
I’d known her, though. I swept over, swallowing, eyes heavy, and then grit my teeth. “She raised cats.”
“Cats?” Jay said, his voice doubtful. “Why on earth would anyone want to raise cats?”
“They’re cute, Jay,” I said. “They make cute little noises when you pet them, and they hunt small vermin.”
“And everything else, too,” Jay said. “Like crows.”
“I guess they’d be a bit of a threat to you guys, if you dispersed,” I admitted. “So cats survived the end?”
“Big cats,” Jay said. “To the north of here. Lots of wildcats.”
“Can any of them talk?”
Jay clicked his beak. “I wish they couldn’t. There are a few wild tribes in the bluegrass. Smart creatures. Always hunting, prowling, feeding. Have no interest in trading with Crows.” His feathered puffed up, and he teased them back down with his long white beak.
“I’m bothering you,” I said.
“No, I’m your guide,” Jay said, shaking his head. “Come on, let’s…”
Pinged Omoi again. Any Coms in the area?
It came back negative, apart from Jay.
“Jay,” I asked, quiet. “Lani’s supposed to have a Com on her, right? With the information I’m supposed to get?”
The nameless crow flicked through his pocket and scanned the area. “Yes, and…”
We turned towards the door on the other side of the corpse.
Jay took off running. “We might have a breach.”
I followed after him. Omoi pinged the area again. Just Jay.
The music dimmed in my head.
“I detect your heartrate is increasingly rapidly. Would you like me to take countermeasures?”
I indicated no with a flick of my eyes, and Omoi disappeared from my immediate thoughts. The music dulled down to barely a flicker.
Jay let out a screech from the other room.
I slid in next to him and stared.
In the other world, before the end, I’d loved crime dramas. Not because they were good, but because they were different. In my job, I’d studied interesting things. Things that for the good of man could never be toyed with beyond figuring out how they worked. Things that might help, but never did.
Crime dramas provided closure that my job never would.
They also didn’t judge me for clocking in another few hours of overtime, or drinking multiple cups of coffee a day.
But it wasn’t my job that I saw Jay huddled over, but the crime drama. Black feathers scattered every which way, and three small unmoving birds were stuck on the ground. Wings at unnatural angles.
Jay cursed, and whirled around, searching the room. “Lani, fuck,” he swore.
I knelt down and gently examined the birds. Dead. Their black feathers soaked with blood.
Looked around the small creatures. How tiny they were, but they could form into something like me that could talk.
“Bullets,” I pronounced.
“Fey,” Jay hissed, his feathers puffing up. He clicked his beak menacingly and stomped around the room, digging through objects. “The Fey did this.”
“Easy, easy,” I said. “What the hell are the Fey?”
“Murderers,” Jay hissed. “Slavers. Thing-Takers.”
Jay’s eyes flicked up to meet mine. They burned with a deep set loathing. “Anomaly thieves.”
My gut burned, and I looked around. Omoi chirped out that the air quality in the room was normal, though a few traces of anomalous radiation still lingered in the air.
“What’d they take?”
“Our gift to you,” Jay said. “A com, instructions, a copy of the Agent’s instructions-” he cut himself off and grabbed his head, talons digging into the dense black feathers. “Zach damn them, they scattered Lani.”
My fingers were streaked with bird blood. Hot. Sticky. “They haven’t been gone for more than an hour,” I said.
They’d taken it from me.
“What?” Jay asked, staring at me.
They’d stolen part of Jay’s friend away, and they’d taken away my future. They’d taken away my goal, and they snuffed out life.
I’d been numb before, but now my mind was racing. Wild. Burning. Angry.
“The birds. They’re still warm. Warm as you are,” I said. Omoi chirped out a reading, comparing the pieces of Lani to Jay. “They should lose temperature over time, which means-”
“I still can’t track them just because I know they were here,” Jay said, frustrated. “Dammit, I’m so bad at this.”
His hands clapped across the side of his head and he paced.
“Where’d the rest of her go?” I asked. Three birds didn’t…
“The window,” Jay said, pointing outside. “My guess, they came up to her while she was archiving events, surprised her with a gun. The rest of her probably scattered out the window and left…”
Jay’s eyes slid over the pieces on the ground, his black eyes wide, glossy. “Dammit! If only we could-”
His eyes jerked over to mine. “I have an idea,” He said.
I stared back at him. His voice was intense.
“Do you trust me?” He asked.
I wanted to. I wanted to trust him. It’d be so nice to trust someone, to just be able to consider someone a fixture at this point.
I’d been disconnected for years. Even before the end. I was a flag in the wind, nothing holding me to the pole. Bearing no emblems, not anymore.
But there were dead birds in the room, and there were perpetrators getting away.
I didn’t need to have anything to latch onto to want to go after that. This was about justice.
This was about closure.
“Can you keep me safe?”
Jay’s beak split into a malicious grin, staring out the window. “Keeping people safe is my specialty,” he admitted. “Especially if it means killing those insect bastards.”
“Then yes, I trust you,” I said.
And bizarrely, I found that I did.