The Capital used to have music. Now there was only a bizarre solemn poem being read aloud on air. No meter I could follow, just long trailing lines of conversation.
“Is it yet our role
To die rather than
And when we touch
In the end
What will we find?”
That went on and on and on, the voice breaking down and growing softer and softer until another voice started in, louder, more intense.
I recognized that one, because it was human. I recognized that one, because that speech had been played over and over again at every orientation conference I’d attended. Defender Kathleen spoke on what she’d seen overseas, and the utter incompatibility of the Watcher with modern life.
She’d been the head of security at my USECGA base. We’d met a few times, much like I’d met Zack.
“He brings an ending,” Kathleen said. Her human voice startled me.
I’d spent so long among the Crows that I had forgotten they spoke with an accent of gravel from their amorphous throat.
I paused where I stood and listened.
“He brings an ending upon us, humans. His followers have given up on mattering, have decided they are alright with being passed over for his honors, and they fling themselves like dominoes to instigate what they think are his plans.”
It’d been a few years since I’d heard this one. They’d stopped playing this after they’d taken out the last grand prophet of the god.
Which left only the splinter factions that had crept their way into every government and every city. Like weeds.
And, given what I knew, they’d crept into my department as well.
Hell, I’d helped them.
There wasn’t much getting around that. I’d…
I’d… gods, I didn’t…
“He brings an ending. We reject it. We will fight with every ounce of our wrath. Every inch of our muscles. Everybody we can muster. If the end of the world can be prevented, it must, by any means necessary.”
I tried to ignore it, though Omoi read each word and gave me subtitles and breakdowns of meter and metaphor.
Of my three companions, Boss was the only one to not bow her head to the propaganda. If anything, she looked more excited, watching the Crows walk around. Feathers were pressed firmly against their many mottled bodies, their beaks tilted down. They scurried.
War had come to the immortals.
What a terrifying idea; an unterminated consciousness forced into the very real environment where it might die at last.
Not only might die, but there would be deaths. A race that had discovered a method to avoid death now would race headlong into it. How utterly bizarre.
How bizarre must humanity have appeared, with their temporary lifespans, rushing into wars every generation like clockwork? How many arguments that lead to murder appeared ludicrous from the Crow perspective?
They exalted us as saints for trying to change our fates, for throwing ourselves into danger to save everyone else. What did they think of our villains?
“Come on,” Tane said, gesturing me away from the aquarium turned house. “It’s probably not good for you to spend all your spare time in your room.”
I just wanted to find my bed, if I were being entirely honest, instead of pretending to be unaffected for a moment longer.
I’d never been in a war.
And I’d come here, and I’d brought the war with me. Was war anything like those desperate bloodied moments in the military base, hiding, cowering behind Teri and Boss? What did Teri even think of all of this?
I swam through the Omoi connection and scanned the city for her. My signal bounced off of a few erected towers before I found her familiar set up and addresses, and I pinged her for a meeting. Maybe it’d be nice to talk to her.
We’d shared something there. Did Tane understand? Did Jay?
Did I even want them to understand? I couldn’t… I couldn’t tell them what I was starting to think. What I knew in my heart.
This was more than just my fault. I’d been a part of the entire damn apocalypse.
Tane led us through the city, through the shades of tall buildings defying all laws and logic (with a god dead, what laws and logic dared to be held up? What pillar of the world kept gravity working beyond blind faith? The gods were a sewing needle in the stitches of reality, the trailing thread; all science had pointed to their influence as being necessary to break the perfect destruction of particles in the universe, I could remember that now, how emasculating was it for modern science to realize they had derived the working theory of a great beast floating in the cosmos rather than how the universe must work every time? How daring. How destructive. How infuriating, to stare through the lens of a telescope and realize again and again that the laws we’d spent thousands of lives isolating might only hold true for our blue gumdrop of a planet; a test case for some infinite universe machine piloting by aberrant concepts freed from the civilization that had spawned them long ago) and through city streets.
Now the Crows were avoiding me. Before, they had watched me. Now, where I turned corners Crows scattered and fled. Where I walked, birds left. Jay’s hand rested on my shoulder, leading me along.
“Cowards,” Boss said.
“They’re scared,” I said.
“You’re scared too,” Tane reminded.
“I’m scared,” I said. It was a huge responsibility, being the reason why the Crows were going to war.
But that was selfish and stupid to pin it all on me. As long as the Fey were around… so long as my old colleagues had deemed the Crows as being a lesser life form, worthy of being wiped out for humanity…
As long as the Queen’s Guard carried the delusion that they could save everyone who had already died, claw them out of the dirt they’d been buried in…
The Crows weren’t safe as pacifists. They weren’t safe as anarchists.
“You have me,” Jay said. “I will protect you.”
He meant it, too. My heart thumped, because I could only remember, for a brief, single selfish second, how he hadn’t been able to make good on his word.
“You have me,” Tane said.
“You have other responsibilities,” I pointed out.
“Believe it or not, keeping the Warden alive,” Tane started, dryly. “Is a rather large goal. For strategy’s sake, you’re important. For more personal reasons as well.”
“Adorable,” Boss pronounced, leaning over. “I say we arm her. I’ll show her how to put that gun of hers together.”
I was still a hellishly bad shot with a gun, and my hands shook thinking about those pounding adrenaline filled moments. The moments that Prince had spent towering over top of me, digging through my head for what he was sure would save humanity, and then the dark thing winding in my gut.
Traitor, and then his blood—
Tane brought me to a bridge; Crow construction, there hadn’t been a stream here in my time, but it wound across an old road, now obliterated by the passage of the water over top of it.
Imperviousness didn’t hold up there. Why?
I didn’t want to know, not really.
It didn’t matter how much I practiced. Using the gun didn’t get easier, even with all the trajectories and proper positions spat out by Omoi. I could hear the radio buzzing between my ears. I could see error logs floating across my vision as they swam past, Omoi spitting out diagnostics as it endlessly tried to tease and retroactively censor my memories.
But I didn’t let it.
The target took a hit across the top of the head, sending out a spray of black feathers as the leather cover ripped open.
“Nice shot,” Tane said.
I’d been aiming for the chest.
“Not really. More like a stopped clock,” I muttered. The gun clicked.
“You won’t be fighting,” Boss noted. She was curled up on a table, a polishing cloth in her hands. She teased at the rends and dents in her armor, her ears occasionally twitching at the sounds of gunfire. It didn’t hurt her. “We just need you able to hit something if you’re in the same room as it.”
Honestly, I suspected a bomb wouldn’t hurt her. She would be there like the spectre of war itself (had that been a lie? Impossible, resources were scarce, yes, and the invasions, and the scurrying of insects upon the corpse of humanity hadn’t been instrumented by USEC) until long after I was dead.
God. I was going to die in this world.
God, they were all dead.
(Omoi shrieked but I shut it up, what the hell did it know about it? Like I was looking at the edge of a building and I could just ignore it for a few moments, and now I’d brought death here as well?)
Shock. Numb shock. The gun clicked a few more times. I looked down, tilted it this way and that. Omoi highlighted the relevant pieces, and it still made no sense.
“I think that’s enough.” Jay said, walking over. He cautiously held his hand out for the pistol.
I stared at the hand. Flicked my eyes up. For a moment, his face was Prince’s, gasping for air. I went blank.
The gun tumbled out of my hands and hit the ground. Bounced once, then went utterly still.
“Overwhelmed again,” Boss grunted. Her eyes slid past mine and she picked the gun off of the ground before slamming it down against the table.
I reeled back at the noise, a wave of dizziness hit me, and I swam, stumbled until my back was against a table. Metal polish and gunpowder. Jay stepped over to my side.
I held up a hand. Felt the table dig into the side of my stomach. I’d lost weight since coming here, Omoi revealed, only a few pounds, but I needed to take better care of myself she advised.
“Too much information,” I said, sliding a hand over to my head (chance of infection was dropping, searching for a licensed practitioner in the area for follow ups) and feeling the bump, the lump where Omoi sat, whirring quiet and contented.
“And war’s coming,” Tane said, looking up from her own projects.
“She led me to the right place,” Boss grinned, ignoring my situation. The axe in her hand twinkled with a fresh layer of matte paint, sharpened to a point that hurt to look at (squelch went the hound, and I couldn’t help but…) “so I can’t complain.”
Jay nudged me gently, ducking past the hand. “What’s wrong?”
Hands felt the rough wood of the table. Splinters dug into my skin, something to center myself. A wave of dizziness struck me like the planet had stopped turning.
Tane’s voice was distant. “The Regent’s announcement.”
“I brought the war here,” I said, sitting down. The table ran down my spine, across each and every bump in raw sensation, lines of equations calculating force and conjuring up books on how to maintain balance, proprioception roaring in my ears as the systems struggled to keep up with my mind, and then I was curled up, staring ahead, hands wrapped over my legs. “I…”
“It was going to happen,” Jay said. “No matter what.”
“Wasn’t it more stable?”
“They started the war by declaring that they’d have control over the continent,” Jay pointed out. “Sea to shining sea. Then Mexico next. Not much room there for Crows.”
“There’s so few of you,” I said. “I just…”
“The Regent,” Tane said. “If she knows what she’s doing, will send out some of my scouts to distant places to try and recruit from there. There were Crows that didn’t rally to the King’s call.”
I closed my eyes. Counted the beat beat beat of my heart, and dragged air through my teeth until they ached. Probably on the verge of cavities again.
Maybe there was a Crow that had dabbled in dentistry for the hell of it? I didn’t know.
“So it won’t just be us,” Tane said.
“They didn’t answer last time,” Boss said. “Why would they this time?”
“We won the last war,” Tane reminded. “Round 2, there’s a lot better odds. Sure, the hoard’s smarter, but there’s not as many of them.”
In and out again. “And what about you?” Jay asked.
“What about me?” Boss asked.
“Would the Beasts be interested?”
“Perhaps,” Boss said. “There aren’t leaders, but some hunters will be drawn by the blood.”
“Blood?” I asked. “Will they be friends?”
“Crows don’t bleed,” Boss said. “They are not fun to hunt. The Fey…” She trailed off, voice taking on a more dreamy quality. “Better. There’s justice in killing abominations.”
In, out, feel the pain across my chest as it tightened up, lungs wrung of air.
“We’ll make it,” Tane said. “We’ve all learned since then. The first few years of the war we lost because we weren’t together, and now we’ve learned tactics. We’ve trained scouts and guards, and we’ve fought against Fey incursions.”
“Not an active war,” Boss pointed out.
“Most of us fought in the last war,” Jay said. “We don’t forget that. We may have had the pain carved out of our heads…”
I looked up. He wasn’t looking at anyone. I knew he hadn’t. He’d refused that.
“But the memory of how to fight will stay there forever.” He was so serious, so focused. It cut through my self pity.
It didn’t cut through all of it, sure, but it was a deep blow.
I wasn’t miserable because I was scared. I was miserable because I’d brought it here. I’d made it real. I wasn’t trying to burn down the Capital.
But they were going to come after me.
The memory had told me that. They needed me, more than anything else, if they wanted to see their plans to fruition.
But they’d find the God we made regardless if they didn’t have me, and the Crows were defeated.
That… was the worst case scenario. I didn’t even know what it did, just that it would save humanity.
God this was so big now. The Watcher with his damn narrative here; face extinction and win or lose.
“Boss?” I asked. I already knew what Tane and Jay would say. Perhaps it was pessimism that made me seek out the murder beast’s opinion.
“Mm?” She grunted, looking up from the axe. Jay and Tane were at the edge of the table. Tane’s rifle was in pieces, common maintenance to keep it from falling apart, and Jay was scratching at his Com to put something together.
“Do you think we’ll make it?”
“I don’t care,” Boss said. “But I will.”
“You will?” I asked. That was a definite.
“I have better things to do than die here,” Boss said. “So I won’t die here.”
Jay laughed. “You put it so simply.”
“Life is always simple,” Boss said. Her tongue flicked across her lips, exposing long teeth and canines. “Sure as my teeth always grow back in, I’ll claw our way out of this.”
I breathed. Slowly straightened myself.
“Jay’s a good hunter,” Boss listed. “Tane’s a good shot. I’m the greatest Beast that has ever yet lived.”
“That’s a boast,” I said.
“It’s not a boast if it’s true,” Boss said.
“I will be.”