My brain pounded. Blood flushed through my arteries and whistled through my veins. I stepped back away from the screen.
Behind me, a safety clicked off. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. The wound in my head ached as it slipped past the back of my ears. Slowly, I turned to look at her.
“Surprised?” The Regent asked. Her gun was pointing at me. I stared at it. When had she drawn it? When had she started pointing it at me? At what part had it been…
“Yes,” I said. Very surprised. By everything. My heart was pounding. This… this did not look good for anyone, anyone at all.
This was not…
The gun remained pointed in my direction. She gestured with the other hand. “The machine for your omoi is in the other room. Come on let-” Prince’s feed flickered once. “Get going.”
Her eyes didn’t shift off of me, but she gestured with the gun towards the monitor. The cool collected professional, even now. The screen buzzed, crackled with static, hummed, and then spat out errors from the projected screen. Data not found. Computer programs flickered on and off, casualties as programs committed suicide against our access.
Fucking thing had deleted itself after a few minutes of being accessed. Kind lord take it. Kind lord drag everything into the void.
Sweat dripped off of my brow.
“It wiped itself,” The Regent said, her voice rather flat. “No matter, we got what we wanted out of it.”
“We know what we need to know,” The Regent said. “And we have your dog to answer to how their ranks are arranged. I’ll drag her into a meeting soon. I knew his Omoi would do that eventually; they’re very careful that nobody figures them out. I have, however, figured them out.”
“Can you put down the gun?” I asked. Amazing how threatening it was when it wasn’t in my hand, shaking.
“I’m getting a read on you,” The Regent said, taking a step forward. “Go on, walk with me to the other room.”
“A read of what?” I asked.
“If you go for the gun,” The Regent said.
Who the hell would be stupid enough to do that? Even if I tried to go for the gun, the Regent was a hardened veteran from fighting bug monsters, was probably just as intelligent as I was, given she had the cream of the bird crop to pick from for parts, and there was no way in hell I would ever willingly decapitate the Crow city, even if it was starting to creep me out.
She kept a level gaze on me. I swallowed. It hurt to swallow with all the muscles in my head starting to tense up.
Then she relaxed and put the gun away. I didn’t move a muscle.
“Isaac mentioned that there was a good chance that you wouldn’t remember being a part of it,” She said, off hand.
I blinked a few times. “How… how much did you know?”
“Most of it.” She waited patiently, and I moved to the door ahead of her. “I was the first to slay a Queen’s Guard. Discovering that they were very human, and Omoi affixed was not a particularly good surprise, but I kept it to myself.”
I turned away from her and hoped she wouldn’t put a bullet in my kidney. “You keep a lot to yourself.”
“It’s the intelligent thing to do, Jess,” The Regent said, sighing. “Which you understand.”
I sighed. “I do.”
She didn’t shoot me. “When Isaac arrived a few years ago, he threw himself upon my mercies for his sins.” I opened the door.
More computer equipment. Some of it had even been used recently, and bird talons walked beside human shoes. Isaac had been here too.
“I’d assumed he was asking for forgiveness for his role in the Fey war, at first,” The Regent admitted. “But when he started claiming responsibility for the end of man…” She trailed off. “Well. That changed things. It put a few more things into perspective.”
The other Omoi was heavy in my pocket.
“There in the corner,” The Regent instructed. “It confirmed a few things I’d seen in my travels. Usec had taken measures to prevent the end of things. Not all of them were pleasant. Not all of them agreed with each other.” I walked over to the machine. Like the last, but less put together, jury rigged. Most of the machines in the room had been scavenged for spare parts, apart from this machine in the corner. Dust had been cleared out of one corner, and though the room was only lit by one flickering the light, I could read something there. Written across the walls were more sigils, interspersed with english. Tally marks of how many times the machine was used. I drug a finger through the dust to mark my own.
“I cleared it out the last time I was here with Isaac,” The Regent admitted. “A secret for a secret.”
I plugged in my Omoi for sanitization. Obviously, we couldn’t’ve sanitize Prince’s Omoi, as it might’ve deleted important information. It’d deleted itself anyway, but what I’d seen… maybe we could pull something from what we’d seen after all.
The maps alone…
“What’d he tell you?”
“That he’d caused the end of the old world, and was working to prevent the end of the new world,” The Regent said, clicking her beak. She sat on a table that’d been welded and repaired too many times to count, each time reducing the presentation even more and watched me. I listened to the ancient computer whir in front of me.
“This is a lot to take in,” I whispered. The Kind Lord was dead. How the actual hell was there any life left?
“It is, isn’t it?” She replied. “Finding out you ended the world would do that.”
It… didn’t seem very real to me. But I was missing a substantial chunk of my memories, and had been since I woke up. And it wasn’t likely I was going to get them back. “You’re taking this remarkable well,” I said.
“I’ve been pondering whether or not to kill you since you arrived,” The Regent admitted. “You’d make the Fey problem far worse if they caught you, but you killed one of the Queen’s Guards instead of joining their cause. You clearly believe in higher principles than survival.”
How could I tell her that the Queen’s Guards terrified me on a deep toxic level, and I didn’t want to think about how Prince was so sure he was doing the right thing by turning into a monster so he could wait for the others? How could I tell her that I was terrified that I knew the exact scenario that would end the world, and was refusing to admit it?
Boss had mentioned a god was dead to the north.
If it was the Kind Lord… well.
The Kind Lord had been life’s patron. Without his/her existence… Well, it was only a matter of time for complete extinction.
If we’d known the Kind Lord was dying, then… Maybe that’s what the ascension protocol was about. Creating a new Kind Lord.
No, I’d… I’d made something. That’s what they were after. They were after the new Kind Lord.
I’d been asking myself if I’d have the guts to lock myself in a tomb in the ground to keep working on science. Now I was wondering if I had the guts to try and make a deal with the devil himself in order to scrape a few more years out of life.
Clearly, I’d had the guts, back before the end. I’d have been one of the first people to know if the Gods were dying; I had a telescope pointed at the heavens, constantly monitoring the various bands of radiation that were associated with them. A big enough change… or perhaps…
A god dying would change the fabric of reality. Was that what was causing the total ecosystem collapses? Had we injured the god of life long enough that she’d died from her wounds?
Had it been painful?
Had he cried?
Had she wailed?
I swallowed. The Regent was staring at me again. “You may have noticed that Prince was entirely comfortable using his command tongue,” She said.
I had. I’d seen the blood pour from the mouth of the Hound that’d used it.
“Wardens are especially protected from the effects,” The Regent said. “Having access to all of the protective wards that you put into it.”
I considered it. Though bits of the project were murky (and how I hated that the most, knowing there was ever more to it) I knew that it’d been meant to ward agents and scientist from the deleterious effects of anomalistic exposure. Could it be used to protect from invoking it as well?
Perhaps not at base, but mayhaps…
“The machine behind you is updating the software,” The Regent said, dryly. “This version doesn’t blur out sigils or god speak, but protects you nonetheless. The scientists trapped here had little else to do but dive into the equations of the old lords; they figured it out well enough before they died.”
The well preserved coffin reeked of an intervention, a man made anomaly.
I didn’t bother thinking about it. Lord Inquiry’s personal tongue would make it known in my thoughts if I knew any of it. “What do you know about it?”
USEC had failed. It was starting to build behind my eyes and my throat. USEC had failed, and it’d come apart trying to fix it. A slow recontextualization of events played out.
Discovery that the Kind Lord was dying; attempts, too many attempts to try and fix it. Atomic holocaust. Something had worked in the mire and death, and here we were, years later.
Isaac didn’t think it could be fixed. The Queen’s Guards… perhaps the sum and total of what remains of an organized USEC presence, thought that we might be able to undo it.
It just involved killing the Crows and finding the god, the failsafe that I’d hidden. And I’d hidden it.
That, of all things, spoke that my old self didn’t trust who I was working with in the slightest.
There was still more to this.
I thumped the palm of my hand against my head and shook there, listening to the machine whirr. My head ached.
“I’ve done my share of delving into USEC structures,” The Regent said. A pause. I looked at her. “You’re not surprised. It was a different time during the war, we looked into every method we could to figure out how to stop them. From what I’ve gathered, it used to be fatal to Wardens to invoke command tongue, just as it is for Crows. The Watcher’s death cult had figured out ways of circumventing it. A project was formed to level the playing field.”
I took a breath. Felt it hitch in my throat, twinge painfully. Me. I’d been a part of that. I knew that. “How simple it must seem to you.”
The Regent laughed. “No such thing. I look upon the Morrigan and I think of what she saw in the first thousand years. How many iterations of her have arisen, scuttling away into the darkness after seeing the children of god after god, the emanations screaming into the night. I completely understand why you armed yourself, Jess.”
I closed my eyes. If she shot me well.
What could I say except that I deserved it?
“But it wasn’t you that ended the world,” she said quietly. “Not anymore than Tane is myself. Even though I might wish to rip out your throat and scatter your entrails on the saints who slumber here, so you might join them in whatever heaven they pretended to believe in, I won’t do it.”
Eyes opened again. I breathed, because I could taste the very edge of eternity, for a moment, pouring between my lips.
“Don’t let it be your burden,” The Regent said. “Let the now be your burden. There’s not a human court left that’ll take you in, so be judged by the birds, the beasts, and the bugs.”
I breathed out. Played my fingers across the surface of my Omoi, and looked up at the Regent.
The machine clicked. Defences neutralized.
“What comes next?”
“What comes next?” The Regent parrotted, throwing her head back in a laugh. “War comes next, Warden. The fey seek the elimination of all anomalous life forms in a hypocritical bath of blood. We’ll answer in kind.”
I plucked my Omoi from the machine’s grasp. It was time to finally be reunited with it.
A Parable of Lord Narrative.
Transcribed by USEC Cosmic Eschatology team 5, May 2029
Interview between [Identifier removed] and Natalia Monroe, an identified minor prophet of the Watcher, soon after her capture at a local theatre production of [INFORMATION REMOVED].
[REMOVED]: So what drew you into the fold of the cult?
Natalia (from hereon referred to as N): You ever sit in a classroom after everyone else has gone? Just sit there and listen to the clock. Maybe the battery on the laptop’s long gone, and you don’t have any cell service, and you sit there for an hour or two, because you have another class, and there’s no point in leaving, but there’s also no point in doing anything?
[REMOVED]: Please refrain from tangents.
N: It’s how it is. The cult comes to you when you’re between. Ennui, I think. It gives you an overarching narrative to cling to.
[REMOVED]: Please describe this narrative.
N: You already know it.
[REMOVED]: For the record.
N: Repeating information lowers the quality of the work, you know. There’s a great audience out there watching our every move. They monitor every important event, a great clarity of purpose. Each character adds to the cohesive whole. It’s what my work in [INFORMATION REMOVED] was trying to show.
[REMOVED]: Three people attempted suicide.
N: Does anyone take to the idea of fictionality well? Everyone would like to pretend that they aren’t under anyone’s control, and when I gave them a glimpse of truth…
[REMOVED]: Is this also part of your narrative? Do you believe yourself to be affected by the Watcher even now?
N: The Watcher doesn’t need to emanate, or whatever it is USEC is calling it nowadays. This world was put together to prove a point; to serve as a piece in the Watcher’s wider narrative arc. We are pieces of his puzzle. We are spots of paint on his canvas.
[REMOVED]: So you joined the cult in search of purpose?
N: There’s no searching about it. It’s obvious when you know where to look. All the wars, all of the suffering, all of the pain, it has to happen for a reason. You already know in your heart there has to be a reason for all of it, there just has to be. It’s the Watcher’s fault.
[REMOVED]: To make art?
N: Once upon a time, there was a planet far far away. A solar system, really, with the planets colonized and terraformed. I know, science fiction, doesn’t really fit directly with the atmosphere of this interview.
[REMOVED]: Again, refrain from tangents. We are giving you a chance for wider permissions if you behave yourself.
N: Oof, really? Fine. There was a race of beings that had colonized the solar system. They were a bit like humans, in that they had a binary reproductive system, but they tended to form quads instead of pairs, and their culture had developed with two moons in mind, so there were more trinaries in their cultures.
[REMOVED]: I am somewhat aware of where the Watcher came from. He isn’t subtle about his story.
N: I doubt your kind understands the need to create art. You destroy it. You weaponize it. You turn it ugly. But their kind understood aesthetics and presentation. They understood the need to continually innovate their craft and improve themselves to the greatest degree. It was in their soul, a literal hormone in their brain that required them to create art.
[REMOVED]: As some sort of mating display, I imagine.
N: Maybe [laughter], Whatever it was, it drove them absolutely apeshit, some five hundred years past where we are now, they ran into a problem.
[REMOVED]: A problem?
N: They ran out of art.
[REMOVED]: How do you run out of art?
N: Endless pastiches can only carry you so far, doctor. We can already see it happening in our culture, too, and we haven’t had five hundred years of remakes to drive us insane yet. When was the last time a big budget film came out that wasn’t just a rehash of an old property marketed to our grandparents?
[REMOVED]: Again, Tangents.
N: [sighing] They ran out of new ideas. Their art became meaningless; every individual had perfect access to most all art that had ever been made. They turned to esoteric practices; reshaping their bodies, experiencing anguishes, enjoying poisons. They sought out new abstractions, new concepts. Took drugs to expand their minds. It didn’t work, not for long.
[REMOVED]: So they made a god.
N: They pooled all of their everything together into one mega project. Maybe the last great art they could muster was to try and create a better artist than they could create on their own; the final acknowledgement that their mortal efforts had been exhausted, you know?
[REMOVED]: The Watcher?
N: The proper term is a Culture-Mind, I believe. They made a Culture mind as large as one of their moons. It made a pretty set, as it finished out the final of their concepts. One moon rose first, in the beginning of the night. Another rose in the middle, and then the sun rose as an ending.
[REMOVED]: The sun was out of place.
N: Of course it was. The new moon completed the picture. Beginning, middle and End.
[REMOVED]: They had managed to fix the disorder in the very cosmos.
N: They had always been afraid of the end of art. The end of themselves, you know, because they knew that they’d run out of it eventually, and there was a literal part of their minds dedicated to it. Maybe they were like those birds that spend months building their nests for thirty seconds of bird fucking.
[REMOVED]: What happened with the mind?
N: It took three months to activate. Gods take a while to turn on. It gazed upon the whole of the artist’s civilization, smiled upon the face of his creators, and grasped his purpose. He understood why they couldn’t create anything new, and he took proper action. He glassed their home planet.
[REMOVED]: That’s what you think of art?
N: They had never really dealt with ideas of their own ending. Abstractly, perhaps, and in fiction, but they’d never truly seen it. That’s what the movie playing across the Watcher’s face is, Doctor. It’s the burning of his home solar system in ornate gorgeous detail. He’s what makes life have meaning. He hunted them down, one by one, snuffing out their worlds in the glory of fire, and in the waning days of the civilization, they once more knew art.
They were making it when they died.
[REMOVED]: He killed his entire race. How is that any sort of meaning?
N: If we didn’t have a threat of an ending, what are we even working towards?
[REMOVED]: And there’s where your death cult comes in.
N: Extinction cult, death isn’t a real ending. Here’s a paradox for you: To create is to make final. In order to create anything, you have to kill possibilities. You have to. Even if you think you’re creating something that could be interpreted a number of ways you still have to make choices; and by doing so, preclude others. Do you paint a canvas or leave it blank? If you paint it, which colors do you choose? Which are left out? What isn’t done?
What do you cut?
[REMOVED]: But that’s not extinction, that’s just choice.
N: Look, paintings have borders. They don’t exist beyond them. There’s nothing there. When you choose, what you didn’t make doesn’t exist. When a book ends, the characters become extinct. Not dead, extinct. They lose their ability to move around in the plot, they’re frozen in their arcs, they can no longer change. But more than that, no matter how many times you reread it the characters don’t exist beyond that last page. But you have to finish a book before it’s published, don’t you? So artists are mass murderers of possibility. They have to be. To create is to make final. It’s our duality. To create you must destroy.
[REMOVED]: You worship Lord Narrative not because he gives you life, but because-
N: To create is the greatest act in the cosmos. To destroy is nearly as great. That threat, that tension in between; where an artist battles with work to create the greatest piece they can, or fail at that task. One day, we’re not going to be able to manage even that, and he’ll make an example of us, just as he did his own race. That’s how it is. Acknowledge the audience’s complaints or die as a creator!
[REMOVED]: [stands up] Well, that was productive. Guard, if you will escort her back to her cell?
N: You said I’d get expanded privileges. Can I at least have a pen?
[REMOVED]: We’ll see.