“Down in the tunnels?” Boss asked.
“Yep,” I said. “That’s where we’ll find the Regent.”
If there was anything in the city that could thwart Bismarck, the best place for it to hide was in the one place no Crows were allowed to go.
And I already knew the Regent was more than willing to ignore a law or two if it meant keeping everyone else safe.
Especially if it meant that.
I called up my map and we found our way to the nearest subway station. It wasn’t far away. Boss was silent until we got into the tunnel itself.
“Does my excitement bother you?” she asked.
“A little,” I admitted.
“Hm,” Boss hummed. She limped with each step, but with each step the limp grew less pronounced. I tried not to listen to the clicking noise of bones knitting back together.
It was one thing to know that the creatures around me were rampant with inconsistencies and glitches in the natural order, some mismatch of the Kindlord’s guidance, it was another thing to hear it.
“I’m still not used to fighting for my life either. I imagine that bothers you.”
“The old world seems softer,” Boss confided. “I don’t think I’d fit in it that well.”
I paused, digging through my supplies while looking for a flashlight. Boss tossed one at me, and I fumbled with it, bounced it off of my fingers, then got a hold of it before I could shatter it against the ground.
Turning it on I found graffitti and clear bare tunnels. The train was still in the station, though the power was off and the wheels had long seized and merged with rust on the rails.
So we walked. It’s what we’d been expecting to do.
USEC’s Atlanta base smelled just as floral as I’d left it.
“Stand guard,” I said, looking at Boss.
“Stand guard?” Boss quirked an eyebrow playfully. “Like a dog?”
“I don’t want to spook the Regent,” I said. Lied a bit, if I was being honest. “If she’s still down here.
My omoi detected signals inside. I was going to find things I didn’t like.
I didn’t want Boss getting any ideas.
“Nobody will follow you,” Boss said. “But I’m fighting in the battles of this war. Mark my words.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I decided.
The base was still covered in trees. Pollen raised out of glowing plants.
The front desk greeted my Omoi, and we exchanged information in a flurry of electronic communication. It demanded to know why I was late for a meeting scheduled a week after the world had ended, and I cited traffic. Then I walked through.
If my eyes were closed, and I only navigated through Omoi, I could pretend that the world hadn’t ended, and I was here on business instead of-
Well, another business.
The solemn memorials I passed out of research offices were more poignant when I could read what they said.
The last theses of doctors trapped in tin cans were spread across the walls, mostly forgotten. Here was the description of a new variety of plant synthesizing stolon reproduction where it had previously only used sexual reproduction.
There was a thesis on a method to neutralize uncontrollable mitosis of anomalous objects.
There was a thesis on improving the efficiency of bees in pollination.
There was a theme here.
Why was there a theme here?
I took a few steps back and stared at the offices, and the files there within. These people had died putting these things together. Why was it so relevant that-
As I looked, more theses were visible. More research, piled up and computed, dragged through the complex computers that had still been running decades after the apocalypse.
Traced them back to the computer. With my eyes closed I could pretend again that I was looking over a colleague’s work.
When I opened them, I saw a great dying. Five thousand years ago, they’d been able to watch the world die.
“To the world, I’m sorry for what must be done,” the final entry read. “I am dying. It’s clear that whatever failsafe High Command had has not yet worked. I am not comfortable saying it has failed. I cannot say it has failed, as I don’t know the details. Perhaps it’ll take place tomorrow. Maybe in a hundred thousand years, but I can’t give up hope, and I don’t want anyone else to give up hope either. We may be trapped in a tin can in the earth, but we have all the research opportunities we could want!”
Guilt squirmed into my heart. I hadn’t managed to complete the fail safe in time.
“So it is up to us, the loyal employees of USEC, to put forward solutions to the current crisis. To buy them time.”
Current crisis. They weren’t talking about radiation now. There wasn’t a method we had to safely purify the entire world, there just wasn’t.
I flicked up it. Dimly, I was aware that the Regent was somewhere in this mess, but…
I trawled back through decades of logs submitted on this computer until I recognized a name. Didn’t know why I recognized it until I connected it to the coffin in the computer lab.
“Experimental test confirms the death of the Kind-lord. Reproductive efficacy, when taking into account all variables, is down in humans. Our theorized capacity for repopulating the planet is losing ground.”
I bit my lip. Another decade.
“Reproductive efficiency is down in all animals, plant and bacteria life tested so far,” the man had written. “Therefore, we here at USEC of Atlanta are instituting a new research program to improve the viability of reproduction in an attempt to forestall the end of all life on the planet. To this end, we have partnered with what few bases we have managed to establish communications with.”
“We have made contact with Brazil’s Bureau of Unusual Affairs, the Canadian Anomalous Association, and an unknown party claiming to be from Mexico’s scuttled Chamber for Consensual Reality. They have all put forth ideas. Here, in the depths of the earth, we will break ethics, bend our ideas of what can be done, and sell our souls if we have to.”
“That is our mission. For the Greater Good!”
I closed my eyes.
I just didn’t know what they’d succeeded on.
How else would the Crows be around without the god of life?
So what had they…?
I scanned through the list of published research. The names started out with a wide variety, but as the decades passed they decreased into one or two names still publishing under this venture.
“We killed the emanations we still had alive,” a note said. “They died like normal animals, even the immortals. The Kind lord’s glitches have been destroyed. What did we do?”
“Brazil has confirmed the birth of new animals,” one post read. “Brazil has also gone dark. No attempts to hail them have been successful. They are to be considered lost. God save them from what they’ve created.”
My nails cut into the palms of my hands. How voyeuristic to peer at the death of my colleagues.
Then finally the decision to use anomalies, two decades before the end of research.
“Something must be done. By the end of this century, all life on the planet will cease reproducing. We need to keep faith that High Command will save us yet, but… if there’s nothing on the world when they awake, they’ll find it hard to do much saving. I authorize usage of exotic theories and compounds to further this cause.”
Someone had written in response.
“How do we plan on negating the utter extinction of all life with just ten scientists and a greenhouse?”
“We were charged with protecting the others,” the coffin bound man said. Computer scientist turned botanist and geneticist. Not a lot to do in a cage other than get doctorates. “We were charged with protecting everyone, when we joined this program. We can’t just give up.”
Then the final entry.
“We’re dying off one by one. It’s time to take more drastic measures. Meet me in the green house.” I didn’t recognize that name either. “Bring the chalk and blood and silver. Anyone with doubts can stay in their offices.”
Bizarrely, at no point was there mention of the oak that had destroyed the entire base.
But I knew that I’d find the Regent in the Greenhouse.
So I swept through, downloaded their works, research, and masterpieces, their names and what memories they had left behind, and swept through the base.
The terrain turned rough. Sections of ceiling had collapsed and the only thing that kept the tunnels intact were tree roots, and crawling through them was nauseatingly difficult at the best of times. But I had to keep moving. Research, scientific curiosity…
The burning knowledge that some of my questions would be answered today.
They all whispered in my ear. How could I deny them?
The tree roots grew thicker and thicker. I was in the corridors that the Regent had banned from me now, and the tombs grew in numbers. There had been far more than just a dozen alive here. This had been the heart of the city’s defences, in a real way.
The offices were empty.
After I crossed through them, I was back in the experimentation rooms. Skeletons of beasts that had never existed in any record remained in their chambers, sealed behind armored glass. Readouts rang of no movement for almost 5000 years.
What was I going to find?
The greenhouse door was open, when I turned the corner. For safety’s sake, there was normally a security checkpoint here. After all, if you wanted to ruin the base’s self sufficiency, you went for the greenhouse.
The Regent turned and looked at me, standing in front of a column of roots as thick as a tank. “So you came for me after all.”
Behind her was a corpse.
Around her, even more. Nine more bodies. Skeletons. Tattered scraps of cloth and ID cards.
Omoi screamed in my head. Static flooded my vision. Music blared to block out all noise. Everything blurred out.
A warning floated over all of it.
A warning I’d never been so unfortunate to see.
Lord Knowledge Emanation. Class 5.