Getting the nodule back wasn’t hard. Dean just gave me a long considering look when I asked, before placing the two of them in my hands.
“Giving up on me already?” he asked.
“I’m looking at alternate routes,” I said, vaguely.
“Hm,” Dean said. His lab was an office covered in coms, towers, and various more or less functioning computer banks. I recognized one or two from fast food restaurant automated registers, and one had definitely been pried out of a military listening sector normally used to monitor web activity for signs of sedition.
They’d been wired together, and lights blinked in time.
Whatever it took.
“Just a pet project of mine,” Dean explained. I tucked the nodules back into my lab coat. It was a good feeling, having their weight against mine. “I’m looking to model Crow gestalt brains; the inquisition is curious on more effective methods of isolating malformed cognitive sectors without the current barbaric methods.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“If we’re going to be living here any longer than I want,” Dean said. “I’d prefer giving them a finer scalpel to use.” He shrugged helplessly, walking over to the banks.
Dean shook his head. “If I had access to the original artifact, I’d have far better chances of getting this to work. How am I supposed to model and anomalous interaction if I don’t have the source?”
What had happened to the Crow maker? “Any idea where it went?”
“I believe, at one point, it was kept here,” Dean said. “But it was moved long before the war. This has always been a place of research, you see, even if most of the Crows don’t recall it.”
“The Elder used this place?”
“To come up with methods of moving artifacts without being afflicted,” Dean explained. “Though, I think she was a bit scrambled from learning it.”
I gave him a glare.
Dean shrugged. “If you think she’s completely alright, that’s fine with you.”
“You really are a heretic,” I said. “Shouldn’t you have more care about the Elder?”
“She’s just the mother of all Crows,” Dean said. “I’d care more if the world was still covered in anomalous wreckage. But it’s not anymore. We did her task.”
“You and the Regent get along?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Dean laughed. “She doesn’t like me at all.”
I walked over to the computer banks. In a way, this was more advanced than what I had in the old world. I’d dreamed of doing this exact same thing. A network of communicating computers, simulating anomalous life?
I’d have cut most of my funding to have been a part of that project.
I gently reached up and touched where my Omoi had been. I suppose, in a way, that was what I’d done, just on a macroscopic scale.
Humanity has been on the precipice of connection on a level the world had never known before. To communicate directly with one another from any distance… what could we have achieved?
What would we have lost?
“If you have any input, feel free to bring it up,” Dean said. “We’ll get back to your level of technology yet!” He cawed happily, looking over his room. “At least, that’s my goal.”
“Do you have a leader?”
“Huh?” Dean asked.
“The archivists,” I clarified.
“Not particularly,” Dean said. “I suppose I’m the closest thing to a leader there is; I’m the one most of the city’s administrations talk to.”
“Because you’re already bothering them?”
“You got it,” Dean replied, grinning. “Between the two of us, of course, the more visible I am, the less visible everyone else is. They get to do their research in peace unless something goes wrong.”
“So you’re a martyr?” I asked.
“Essentially,” Dean said. “I don’t mind it at all. If you think about it, we could be just like a biggest Crow gestalt, if we really tried.”
He reached up and thumped his Omoi, lodged next to his eye. “Everyone can communicate with each other, if we just improve it a bit more. Then we can put any number of perspectives on any number of projects. It’ll improve… well, everything!”
I clapped him on the shoulder. He blinked.
I grinned. “You sound like Isaac. He wanted to do the same thing.”
I might even suspected that was exactly where he’d gotten the idea, if I were uncharitable.
He puffed up rather proudly. “I try my best.” A pause. “But you’ll tell me if you find anything interesting on that node, won’t you?”
I couldn’t lie to him. But I wanted to tell him if I found anything… I made a quick decision. “If it’s related to your research, I will.”
Dean grinned, tapped his nodule and turned. “I’ve got to get back to work. I think I can jury rig a synaptic connection between the instances running if I just adjust the simulated gap distance between receptors.”
“What’s the thickness on your pseudo myelin?” I asked. “Try adjusting that, I remember that being effective in the studies we were doing.”
Granted, my studies had been on alien structures millions of years away, simulating their sentinel structures still communicating long after the death of their operators, but…
It was nice to see a reflection of my work. To see someone else pursuing my research. It was worth something after all.
I left him there as he started to fiddle with another of a thousand different variables. He could’ve automated the process, but he might miss something in the meantime.
With just the Regent at my side, the subway system was ominous. The Regent’s personal gun had a flashlight attached to it, and bristled with modern accouterments. She’d clearly had hers personally designed instead of using a mass produced piece. The beam was bright, able to blind or stun. I suspected it packed a bigger punch than mine; it used a far different bullet.
My gun hung at my hip, but I felt safer with the Regent guiding.
“Been a bit since I was here last,” The Regent whispered. It was night. No illuminating came from the holes that littered the ceiling except for the faint pricks of star shine. “Doesn’t feel right to show up without the King.”
“I came here a few times,” I said. Some of the memories were faint. Too faint; just associated wisps where the meat of them had been removed. But here, without the distraction of wondering about Jay, or Tane, or Boss making noises, I could tease at the edge of them. “This was a hub for various projects.”
“You worked on eschatologies, right?” The Regent asked. “Did you work on your own?”
A flash of Prince’s memories in my head. We were running out of time. The project had to be completed. It wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t ready yet, we needed more time.
The deadline came too early.
She took my silence as an answer. “Did you see it coming?”
“The world had always been dangerous,” I said, off handedly. I didn’t want to dwell on it. It’d waste time, and I’d spent far too long thinking about the end.
I still sat up from dreams of the past at night. Clawed at nothing.
Prince’s own memories had faded from my mind, but I remembered the taste of raw desperation. Prayers to anyone who was listening.
“We knew the end was coming,” I whispered. It carried through the tunnel, dark, half illuminated. I could pretend the walls didn’t exist, and I stood upon a stage, judged by humanity.
That specter of the Jess that I couldn’t access. Was she guilty? Did she have the full knowledge of how she failed?
Did I even want that knowledge in the end?
“I studied alien cultures long dead,” I admitted. I remember that much. “The Kind Lord’s remnant stations. The half silent library drones of Inquiry. The Watcher’s fortresses, his entombed people forever broadcasting images of their home world’s destruction, self induced.”
“Mm,” The Regent hummed. “You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
“I haven’t talked to anyone about this,” I muttered. “I wanted distance, I thought.”
“The distance never really helps,” The Regent said. “I’ve tried many times.” The sweep of her gun revealed graffiti written by the dying. Funny how those lasted long after humanity had died.
I didn’t stare at them like last time. There wasn’t a point.
“Does anything help?” I asked.
“Time,” The Regent said. “It’s the last theory I’m looking for. Perhaps, if I live long enough, the scars of battle and the knowledge of what we’ve all done will scrub the last of the pain.”
“It’s only been a few weeks for me,” I said. “I keep expecting that someone will pop up. That I’ll see more humans somewhere.”
But I’d seen their corpses. Their many many corpses. Skeletons, left mostly undisturbed. Low level radiation keeping the bones alive, perhaps, or… some other anomaly.
I just wanted… the world to make sense again. I wanted to…
I didn’t know what I wanted.
“The first few years after the war were the worst,” The Regent admitted. “I couldn’t scrape my head of the memories, you see. We had to keep someone who remembered the entirety of it alive, and… well, I’m the leader. I might as well be the one who keeps the torch lit. We saw things written in the sky. Where reality had come undone in their wake, where blood boiled under the light of their Queen. Few remember it now. It was a frightful time. It’s hard to put into words the difference now. When the Queen was alive and watching us, it was like a knife to all of my necks at once. Even now with the Fey at our doorstep…””
Our feet dragged us across dreary empty stations, exits long caged and rusted. Never decayed and vanished. Eternal rust gardens, long lines of drooling chemicals down into ancient drowned sewer systems. Did their governing machineries still run and insist on processing the dust of humanity, or had they simply crumbled to uselessness as they ought to?
What I wouldn’t give to have my Omoi at that moment; the logs and last words of the scientists here were just waiting to be read.
It scared me to think that.
“So it’s all in your head?” I asked.
“Much as the Elder carries the First Memories,” The Regent sighed. “I carry memories of the war.” A pause. Beak raked across itself in the darkness, her face only lit by the backsplash of light. “That’s a tough dramatic.”
“So you don’t let your inquisitors near you?”
“I do not,” The Regent said. “I have hardened myself to corruption by other methods.” She cut off the next obvious question. “Methods that are most difficult to replicate for other birds.”
We stood in front of the door. The Regent tugged the chain off of her neck, and brandished the card. She scanned it in front of the door.
“Password requested,” The door chimed.
She smiled slightly, beak illuminated in the green glow of the lights bursting across the surface. Sigils hung heavily there. Here, the tower of life intersected heavily with symbols for knowledge and physicality.
Symbols which should not be there under any circumstances. Suspicious. I took a step forward.
The Regent cleared her throat, and muttered to herself. Voice radically changed to a more elegant female. I recognized it. How had she…
I flicked my eyes down to her and listened.
“Humanity shall reach and burn their hands counting the stars,” The Regent intoned. “But it will bring back their fire all the same.”
They buzzed in my head. Cut off memories demanded completion, but lacked the corresponding set of experiences. I knew those words. Had I… Had I written them?
What had I done?
“Password accepted. Welcome back, Administrator. Welcome back Doctor Williams.” The doors slid open with a chime.
“Welcome to USEC,” The Regent bowed, stepping inside. “I’ll apologize in advance. It’s not what you expected.”