“I’ll organize a supply council tomorrow,” The Regent muttered. “Then perhaps set up liaisons for the troops. Ugh, what a pain.”
“Will you be joining us in battle?” Quen asked. His voice had lost most of its authority.
“I have the nurseries to guard,” The Regent said. “And I am not well suited for battle, not anymore. I get the shakes when there’s too much.”
Quen opened his beak, and the Regent held up her hand. “I chose this burden, remember. I wish I could mount the field again… to command others to do it in my stead is… against my morals entirely.”
“I understand,” Jay said. Boss looked up from the table, having not been paying too terribly much attention and stared at the crater, blocking out most of the sun streaming through the Regent’s feathers.
“Do you?” The Regent asked.
“I certainly do,” Quen said. “I can still remember when The King told me I was to stay behind and watch our outpost.”
“You got into a shouting match with him,” Jay remembered.
“If I’d been there…” Quen sighed. “I don’t want to doom more Crows to those memories. Maybe this was a mistake.”
“There’s no running,” Boss said.
Quen looked up at her. She towered over the lot of us, her head almost scraping the ceiling.
“They’ll hunt down every last one of you,” She said. “No matter where you run. You’ve insulted them, and you’ve wounded them, and they won’t suffer for it to happen again.”
“And what of the beasts?” Jay asked.
“They will also be hunted.” Boss smiled. “If we weaken them here… then the hunt will be glorious, even if we lose.”
“We don’t lose,” Quen said.
“You haven’t lost yet,” Boss corrected. “If you don’t get in my way, you might even keep that streak.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” The Regent said. “But as much as I want to keep this conversation… I do have things to schedule.”
“A bientot,” Quen offered.
“I’ll see you later,” Jay said.
“Good bye,” I said.
The Regent scattered and flew off.
“If it means anything, Jay, I’m sorry,” Quen said. “I just get so frustrated hitting my head against all of these moral walls.”
“They’re there for a reason,” Jay said.
“I know,” Quen said, shaking his head. “But what do they matter if we all die upholding them?”
“They’re the only thing that matters,” Jay said. “Hollow as that sounds, the one thing that kept me sane these last few decades is knowing that the King would be proud of me.”
“Ay. There’s love there.”
“Yes there is,” Jay said. “We all loved him, didn’t we?”
When was the last time I’d admired someone enough to call it love? I didn’t remember. Had there been someone, locked in the memory box?
I didn’t think there had been. There was only a feeling of cold science and rationalizations when I tried to pick at those thoughts. The empty maw of the void didn’t taste like love.
“He’d want us to move on,” Quen said. “We’ve languished in mourning for too long, maybe.”
“We have,” Jay said. “For a culture so obsessed with immateriality and freedom, we’ve chained ourselves to this idea. Perhaps that’s what we needed to keep the city together.”
“It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Worshipping idols is natural,” Boss said, her clipped tones joining the conversation. “Dying for them is as well. Pick what you want.”
“It’s not that easy,” Jay said.
Quen looked over at me. “What of you, dispassionate Warden? Have you ever loved?”
I bit my lip. “I don’t think we loved in the same way the Crows do. Certainly not often.”
“That tracks,” Jay said. “They didn’t have a lot of time to establish themselves; how often would they hit the same greatness the King had to offer?”
“Enough with your King worship,” Boss cut in.
Quen laughed. “Sure. I think that’s also fair.” A quick, brief silence. “How did humans love?”
“Often monogamously, in close tight bonds,” I said. “A few had more than that. We didn’t treat them that well for it, even at the end.”
An awkward silence.
“Oh, right,” Jay said. “You guys have sex. It sounds rather lonely to just love your sex partner, though.”
I coughed, shaking a hand in front of my head while I shook that too. I was not an anthropologist, that was NOT my department.
Boss laughed. “Come now, Jess. They talked about their nurseries, why don’t we talk about-”
“Nope!” I cut in. “Not having this discussion. There’s not a Mr. Williams, certainly, if you’re that curious.”
At least, I hoped there wasn’t. Things I didn’t want to find out.
Jay laughed. “Such a strange reaction.”
Quen shrugged. “She looks embarrassed about it. Shall we move on? We’ve been at this meeting for hours… and I need to inform the troops you’ll be joining us for training.”
“Excellent,” Jay said.
Quen flicked his eyes over to Jay. They lingered, for heavy seconds that stretched on an unseemingly long time, then they moved back to the window. “Don’t disappoint me. The majority of us probably won’t be quite as understanding.”
“Then why give me the chance at all?” Jay asked.
“They’ll understand that you’re good at war,” Quen said. “It’s a chance.”
Jay laughed. “That all? Just a chance?”
“That should be all you need.”
Did it matter that when I walked home with the rest, I saw crows playing in the sky, streaked with colored paint? The archivists invited me to prototypical games, and I flicked through them on my Omoi, one by one, half dazed. This was really happening.
A quick surgical strike in an attempt to close out the war as soon as possible. A knockout blow. Would that work?
Omoi had plenty on the history of warfare, but nothing in human conflicts resembled this, not really. Did I look at the battle of D-day? The Invasion of the last stronghold of the Watcher in japan? What was even the use of looking at it?
Crows on the street had changed their colors to match one another. Body types subtly shifted to make them mono-imaged in preparation. Tensions were hotter than the sun, I could feel it in the air, feel it in how the messages ran.
Everyone understood what was going on. Now came the only question; what was going to break first?
In the morning, Dean called on me to visit him in the archivist’s labs. Since they were right outside of the warden’s quarters, I joined him there, and took a seat on a table with an apple in my hand.
“Towers are up and mostly operational,” Dean said. “It’s exciting, toying with the network, getting it optimized and redundant.”
“Is that difficult?”
“Less than you’d think,” Dean said. “We did most of the trouble shooting last time, so we can just use the notes.” He moved across the room, fiddling with the edges of consoles. Error messages flickered at the edge of Omoi’s augmented vision, and I ignored them, dragging them off my sight.
I didn’t need a head computer to figure out what improper wireless access points meant, after all.
“Well?” I asked. Dean looked up from his console. I recognized it as being similar to the one we’d used to crack Prince’s Omoi. Looked like it was on its way to working again.
“Do you remember anything from your days working on Omoi?” Dean asked.
“I don’t have any-”
“Anything at all?” Dean asked, coolly. “For instance, why the kill trap inside is lined with Command Tongue?”
I bit my lip.
Dean cocked his head to the side. “Since, say, it was supposedly profane for USEC to use such techniques, it’s odd to see one buried that deeply inside of it.”
“I don’t remember that,” I repeated. “But it follows.
“It follows?” Dean asked.
“The last years of USEC,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Seem to have been a bit of a rush job.”
His eyes flicked over to mine, then back to his things. “That’s what I figured.”
“What else did you figure?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” Dean admitted. He sighed, ditched his console, and took a seat on the other side of the room. “But… it doesn’t take much digging into USEC to figure out that things weren’t right in the fortresses of heaven.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking back to Prince. Thinking back to Defender Kathleen, everyone in the base, desperate for answers, forced to still go about their everyday jobs.
If the kindlord was dying it’d explain the bio collapse, and it would explain the war; conflict over resources.
But it didn’t explain everything. It didn’t explain why the rot had stopped on this world like a watcher.
It didn’t explain why the Watcher had won.
“We were only human,” I said in explanation.
He didn’t look at me, turning to stare at his machines. “I mean, I don’t remember,” Dean said. “It was taken from my head.”
“Ah,” I turned to look at him. “Do you think it was… voluntary?”
“I was told it was,” Dean said. “And there’s no real way to be sure now. They had the memory extracted and killed.”
“Killed?” I asked.
“They killed the bird they took from me,” Dean said. “It’s standard procedure for dealing with thought diseases.”
I’d even seen where they did it, with the screaming birds and the knives knapping minds. “And?”
“I’d been exposed to some sort of thought agent in my line of work.”
“Your line of work with computers?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“It’s not that uncommon,” Dean pointed out. “After all, my team and I specialized in getting around the wicked batch of rot you’d made up for us.”
I gave him a guilty look. “I never considered that there’d be someone-”
“Don’t,” Dean said, shaking his head. “You were trying to save lives by making them hard to infect, we get it.”
“Well, what’d you lose?”
“Isaac’s visit,” he replied. “Almost all of it. I remember him coming to me, and asking me to do-” His feathers ruffled, and the edges of his form tattered.
“Don’t hurt yourself.”
“Something, and I don’t remember if I managed it, and-” Dean grit his beak. “I swear it involved you somehow, Jess.”
“…Me?” I asked. “How would it…”
“I must’ve cracked an Omoi,” Dean said. “Perhaps he’d killed his own Queen’s guard, or he’d found something important. I… I must’ve… gotten it removed for my own good.”
There was doubt crackling along the back of those words. I hesitated.
Went for it.
“You don’t believe that.”
“I see things when I close my eyes,” Dean admitted. “Backscatter of something big, ornate, too real, too big, too ornate, very real.” His words were half slurred. “I see… a great connection, a great flurry of them, ornate, too big, and I think I see them staring at me, when I think about it.”
I cautiously reached over to him. “Do you want me to run a scan?”
“To see if I’m still infected?” Dean asked, bitter.
“If you want,” I offered.
“I’m fine,” Dean said. “I play with the patterns in my spare time, and they’re not connected to anything.”
I shook my head.
“I feel like the Regent knows what it is I had removed,” Dean said. “She… she doesn’t talk to me like I feel she used to.”
“Do you remember that?”
Dean looked pained, feathers half parted. “…I also don’t remember that.” He shook his head. “I feel that… perhaps, I was a much larger part of things here, and I was removed for getting in too deep, or perhaps, for knowing too much.”
He looked up at me. “That doesn’t sound paranoid, does it?”
I opened my mouth. Paused. Hesitated, closed my lips. Perhaps it sounded too paranoid, except my colleague had turned into a giant bug monster intent on removing something from my head that wasn’t there, I’d apparently made a god as part of my physics studies, and Isaac had glistened with god tongue when he’d been last recorded.
Paranoid wasn’t cutting it, especially with the Regent involved.
“I feel like,” I started. “A great many things are coming to a head. All at once.”
“Like the war,” Dean said.
“Like the war,” I agreed. “But everything else too. I’m a symptom, not the problem.”
“That’s dismissive of you,” the tech Crow said, wryly.
“Are those blocks in your memory why you flaunt the Regent’s authority?”
“When I look at her… I feel like I knew some of her sins,” Dean said. “That I’d discovered them, or even been a part of them. And I know that she’s not as perfect as we think she is. And I know that she’s in deeper than we think she is.”
He paused. “While we’re in on warnings, Warden. You should know that Crowkind in the city isn’t sure what to make of you.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“You’re hardly the star studded hero we were hoping for,” Dean pointed out, dryly. “There’s quite a few of us who aren’t so comfortable dying for you.”
“Are you one of them?”
Dean shrugged. “I think I’ve died many deaths for this cause.” His talons slid up to his head, tapped at it. “Each memory is something gone from my core, after all. Every little death another stumble, a step in the wrong direction.”
“And what about your past self?”
“I think,” Dean said, his voice taking on some note of finality. “That if I discovered why I did it, I’d do it again. And it wouldn’t fix whatever I did, and I’d still be guilty of it. It’s a bit paradoxical, I guess, to assume that I did what I thought was right, and to also know that what happened next was removed.”
His words settled in like a lead weight.
“And if a project of yours had done it?”
Dean closed his eyes. “You know…” He said, and they opened up, yellow and bright. “I think I might be alright with that.”