Tree roots had devoured most of the base. Hallways had been destroyed and consumed by oak. Tendrils of roots burrowed into side panels and emerged like questing fingers out of walls.
“How does any of this have any power?” I whispered.
The Regent flicked on a light switch, and a few flickering lights came on. Those few that hadn’t been burst open already by the invasion. The front desk bore not a soul. But the monitor lit up, covered in dozens of names.
The Regent bowed politely in front of the monitor. “Bow, Warden.” She coolly straightened.
I bowed slightly. “What’s this?”
“Memorials,” The Regent said. Flowing vines danced in the light cast off of the emergency lines of radioactive paint on the wall, keeping things in a perpetual half twilight, just enough to navigate by even when the lights were off. “All of them are.”
I hesitated and walked forward, looking at the names. Just a few dozen. Where had the rest gone?
“There were plenty of USEC scientists left behind at this base who could not get into cryo-stasis,” The Regent noted, walking around the desk. Her talons clicked against the ground, sliding through a thin layer of dirt conjured from how many years of rotted blossoms. “Whether it be from age, inability to interface, or being the heads of many long running experiments or containments, they volunteered to stay behind and monitor.”
I wouldn’t asked why they wouldn’t kill all of the experiments, but I knew full well that there were many objects that wouldn’t die so easily. While they wouldn’t keep many of those things underneath of a major city like Atlanta, there had to be objects or creatures on loan who it wouldn’t do to just kill or let escape. Other bases, this far along in years, might be deaths traps, or their payload might’ve been released to haunt and hunt the world.
Morrigan might’ve killed many of them in her grand crusade.
And there were other programs to keep up and running. I swallowed, looking at their ranks. Could I have done the same thing?
When the bombs fell, would I have had the guts to stay awake while everyone else went under for the long sleep?
I wanted to say that I would’ve, but I knew that I wouldn’t’ve.
“Come,” The Regent said. “I know the way.”
She walked in front of me and I stared at the back of her head. “You do?”
“Of course,” The Regent said. “I take care of the Oak tree, it’s good to know all of the places the roots go. In case it gets sick.” She paused. “And it suits me as leader of this city to know most everywhere.”
“What about tradition?” I asked. She turned the corner, then stopped so I could catch up.
“There wasn’t much time for tradition during the war,” The Regent said. “And I left most of the hesitance that kept me out of here with Tane. Try not to mention it, anyway. I doubt those luddites would understand sacrifices like this.”
I breathed out.
“Of course I knew Tane would tell you,” The Regent clicked her beak. “It’s what I’d do.”
I was at her side. The next hallway bloomed fungi around a few holes in the walls. Offices were overgrown or covered in flickering phosphor paints, names obscured by centuries of pollen, wasted in the darkness. This wasn’t just an oak tree.
I didn’t know what it was, but I suspected it came from the green house.
The Regent clicked her beak. The next door stood ajar. A coffin rested inside, covered in sigils done in permanent marker. I saw many of them there that I vaguely recognized, even if I didn’t know the associated tongue underneath of them. Marks to preserve, marks to protect. “They were also good Wardens,” The Regent said. “It’s a shame that we laud Zack, and nobody else will know their names.”
“You can tell me their names,” I said.
“That was Jeffrey Thompson,” The Regent said. “He worked in the greenhouse on anomalous strands of orchids. He was on the list to keep fresh oxygen flowing for the remaining scientists.”
And she stepped forward past another coffin, and she said another name.
And she stepped forward again, and another name, and I recognized this one. We’d had a class together; I’d spoken on emanations of the elder, and he spoke of more human anomalies, the sorts of things we’d untangled from the mess of space between the laws we understood, or were capable of seeing.
Not everything came from the stars. We were more than capable of creating our own anomalies. There had been talk about figuring that out, being able to jury rig ourselves into the stars.
It hadn’t happened. It shouldn’t happen. But… Well. In times of great need…
Had that been how the other lord’s had done it? Discovered they could change the laws they worked under, and vaulted their way to victory?
Had we done that, in the end? Was that why the world didn’t rot?
Had we done something?
Had I done something?
The Regent led me through sloping hallways and past the ranks of the dead. Some offices had been engulfed by questing roots. Others had simple collapsed from the shifting earth above.
The computer labs were still intact. It’d been nice, if only there wasn’t a coffin in the center of the room. “Who…?”
“That’s someone Zack knew,” The Regent said. “You probably knew him as well.” She knelt down and gently ran her fingers across the front, dislodging a bit of dirt.
The symbol for Omoi.
Here lay the final resting place for one of the programmers who’d helped me lodge protective elements. He’d been alive after the end. “How many decades did he last?”
“Four,” The Regent said. “I imagine his corpse is still fresh. How bizarre it is to think, and to know, just how close you all were to being able to use these anomalies to your advantage.”
“Yeah,” I whispered, looking down at the casket. It was light years ahead of my research. Probably. Had I helped? I could…
Another hole in my memories. The longer I’d spent in the future the more easily my brain had filled over the chunks missing. It just made it all the more startling when I realized I didn’t know how many projects I’d been a part of that involved the script of the heavens.
It looked like he’d just copied my work on identifying the complex macrostructural elements, the eerie geometries I’d seen humming in the void and on the face of the Kind Lord, and used them to preserve his grave.
I had the oddest feeling I’d see similar edges and etchings on the other coffins, if I just looked long enough.
I looked down. More than just symbols of the Kindlord, there were some of the few symbols of Lord Knowledge I had translated; the lens, the pen, the chisel. Then a few more that carried the same weight, but I lacked the words to describe.
Decades of being trapped in a tomb in the earth eliminated many of the considerations that prevented constant research.
I looked up from the coffin. The Regent was nudging a computer in the corner, booting it up. It was thick, bulky. It’d been repaired, there were marks on the steel chassis from being opened and closed many times, and the head of the screws were half obliterated.
It was nice to see something showing its age.
The Regent smiled at me. “Shall we have a look at enemy intelligence together?”
My face didn’t change, but my heart thumped.
Because I knew the second I started looking at this with the Regent behind me it would start a timer, and I didn’t know how long it would last. How much would I find out before the Regent discovered that this was a Warden’s node?
And not only a warden’s node, but that the Queen’s Guard’s were wardens?
But I couldn’t turn her down.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
The Regent smiled. “I’ve done this once before, with Isaac.” Her eyes slid over to mine. “I wonder if this will be as illuminating?”
I didn’t know what her tone meant. I didn’t know if I even wanted to know.
I handed her Prince’s Node first.
She plugged it in. It was a strange device, pronged, that held the nodule securely in place against the computer tower. It lit up. The Nodule lit up.
Time to go digging.
I knew that name. Regrettably, I knew that name. A programmer. Particularly, a programmer on the Omoi nodules.
A screen crackled to life, projected across the top. The Regent dug about before presenting me with a mouse and an ancient keyboard. Every key had been replaced, even the mouse had been splinted and repaired.
Someone had been trapped with dwindling supplies and done what they’d could to keep things going. By touching this, I was touching an ancient hand that had died not knowing if humanity would make it.
They died not knowing that they wouldn’t.
I clutched the computer. The scan took a few more seconds. Hundreds of gigabytes of data flickered through it. The Omoi assistant flickered into existence and chirped out a query to whatever nodules were in the area.
Complicated file trees sprouted up like leaves. The Omoi didn’t use a traditional sorting method, but linked files by associations, interactions, and the structure of the human mind, just as the real thing did.
There was a damned good reason why we’d have to involve neurologists on the programming; if we’d used a traditional method, the sigils wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.
“Well,” I said, nervous. This was do or die. This was the exact moment it’d come undone. One poor mistake. A minefield of files strewn about with no sorting beyond the heuristics of a mind.
“Check out downloaded maps,” The Regent suggested, and I navigated there.
Prime-nest, Forge-nest, various military bases, and then countless USEC bases. A loop that started in Georgia and then drifted back across texas. Arced up through Kentucky, then down next to the Capital. A trailing edge that dipped into Florida. I flicked through them.
I hesitated, then brought up more information. Omoi left mental notes on images in order to bring up memories; I was essentially holding half-thoughts of a dead man.
At the bottom of the bases were simplistic lines.
Some were parks attached to bases. Others were cities. I read through a few of them.
//Place where I met her.
We were going to go here next.//
I moved on as the Regent watched, moving to USEC bases.
Texas: Not here.
Mississippi: Not here either.
New Orleans: shipment never arrived.
Alabama: Base was already sacked. See Bismarck for information.
“He was searching bases for something,” I said, under my breath. A few bases were marked as already being raided, particularly out west.
“The god of humans,” The Regent said. She reached forward and gestured across the screen. “Looks like they did a full loop of the area, except lower Georgia.”
I hesitated, and looked over at Florida.
“Ah,” The Regent said. “Let’s find out what he thought of that enclave there.”
The Last College, the file read. I flicked over to it.
Isaac wasn’t there. Pictures scattered about.
Nobody was alive.
Another dead encampment of Humanity. Pictures, skeletons, graves, tombs, machinery. Overgrown gardens. Shotgun blasts of insight.
Mass suicide. Images of the Watcher spread about. A few bore traces of the Kindlord’s regalia. A single person bore the image of Lord Inquiry.
I read the caption associated with it.
We didn’t do this. Self afflicted. All sterile.
The Regent hissed at the sight and looked away.
I took a deep breath and held it, feeling pinpricks of pain dance behind my eyes.
“Well,” The Regent sighed. “Looks like we won’t be getting help from Florida, either.”
I swallowed. I’d wanted them to be alive. I’d wanted some good news, and yet—
This file contained a reference to sigils. I glanced over it, then followed the Omoi’s logic, what memories were attached parasitically to it. I followed paths. From Isaac’s name leapt my name, and then a video attached, played many times by the counter. Clouds of notes were attached to it.
“Looks important,” The Regent said.
A video; a memory important enough to be lodged on Omoi to keep every detail crystal clear. Whatever it was, it was important enough for Prince to obsess over it. To take fastidious notes.
I gave it a go.
The memory crackled into play. Hooked into my mind, lines of thoughts, perspectives, contextual niceties.
And I knew, instantly, that I’d picked the wrong memory.