Quen led us past room after room. Several of the exhibits had been taken out by collapsed rooms, but most were intact. Past the cafeteria, I saw more Crows. Meals were being handed out on new tables; the windows overhead were opened so that birds could fly in and out.
They stared at us, pausing what we were doing. I gave a shy wave at them. Clicking beaks, and then they returned to their task.
“So how many of the archivists did the Regent round up?” Jay asked.
Quen’s head snapped around to stare at him.
Tane stepped in front of Jay. A few heart beats of silence, emotions flicking across Quen’s black eyes.
Then Tane repeated the question.
“Most of them in the area,” Quen said. “But I’m sure they’ll be more than willing to talk to you, Warden. They’re very curious.”
He spoke the last as almost a pejorative, and turned to lead us back to the entrance.
I stood there, staring out into the urban forest, where the buildings had been taken by trailing vines and blooming vestiges of old world plants, long since distorted by thousands of years of genetic drift, and gave Quen a slight smile.
“I’ll be back to escort you to the Regent, when she’s ready.” said he.
The Warleader ignored everyone else in line, tilted his head forward, and then exploded into crows, flying off into the distance.
“Bit of a predator, that one,” Boss said, slightly amused.
Tane cocked her head to the side, feathers ruffled. “What does that expression even mean?”
“Admiration, I think,” I said. “I’m not really an anthropologist however.”
“Hunger,” Boss plied. “Bit of lust. Blood lust, certainly.”
The Crows gave her blank looks.
“We can’t all kindle asexually,” Boss snipped, turning her eyes up to look over at me. “Right Jess?”
Put on the spot, my tongue stuck to my teeth. “Right on what account?”
Jay shook his head. “The Warden doesn-” and then he stopped, as if horrified, and looked at me. I glared at Boss. Dammit, this was not the sort of conversation I wanted to have!
“We don’t all play by Crow rules,” Boss snipped in, shaking her head.
Tane sighed. “Even if you two don’t play by those rules, we should do our best to make sure that you try to.” Tane threw her arms out. “We are in the greatest bastion of Crows in the entire world.”
Boss shrugged. “I can’t eat Quen, anyway. He’d just turn into a dozen squalling angry birds. I learned my lesson from the last time I tried to hunt.”
“What do you prefer to hunt?” I asked, glad, in some part, for the change in topic. Acknowledging the differences between the Crows and I was… good, but I wasn’t ready for a discussion of xenosexuality, or how first contact interacted with my mostly long dead sex drive.
I was married to science in the old world. I didn’t expect that to change.
“Monsters,” Boss grinned. “The bigger, the toothier, the worse the better.”
“And then you eat them?” Jay asked.
“And then I eat them,” Boss confirmed.
Jay gave me a long look, gesturing vaguely at the swollen wolf. “Are we sure she’s alright with us?”
I walked past him and Tane and Boss. Boss started following immediately. “As long as she’s hunting our enemies, I don’t see how what she does with them should bother us.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Boss clicked.
Perhaps it was because Boss had gotten me out of hell itself, but… I didn’t want to abandon her just because she practiced exotic hunting practices.
Or wanted to eat me.
That was a long term threat. I was happy with the short term protection.
Diving back into my chambers, I found a decent bed. Boss was more than willing to lift it up and move it into one of the libraries, long dried of any lingering water by the sun before the chamber had been repaired. So I made my bed there, took stock of what few possessions I had left. A few nodes and nodules here, a gun there. Clothes.
It was utterly and completely pathetic.
I’d change that while I was here. The Capital would be far more stable for that.
Sorting through the books on the wall, it wasn’t too terribly long until Tane had to duck out to manage the rest of the scouts (“Make sure she’s actually safe this time,” she told Jay, and Jay just glared at her until she left.) and Boss wandered off to find a chamber for herself.
I just hoped she wouldn’t get too bored.
Which just left Jay and I, and a monstrous stack of books.
He picked one up and blew a bit of dust off of the cover, frowned, then set it to the side.
“So you know Quen?”
“Know him?” Jay asked. “We fought together. We even trained together. We spent agonizing hours under the beating sun, trying to learn military tactics, everything the King taught when we answered his call.” He sighed. Wistfully, perhaps, but frustrated.
“And now he’s here, and in some sort of power,” I said. “Why don’t you like each other?”
“It’s complicated,” Jay said, after a heavy pause. “I think you’ve figured out by now that I was a soldier directly under the Missing King.”
“Before he was missing,” I said.
“Of course,” Jay clicked his beak. He walked around the room, ignored the carpet (woven with mages of Usec emblems, woven long after the end of the world) and found a chair to sit in. “Well. I flew with the King at the end of the war, and he had to stay behind to manage to fort we’d taken. When I returned, the King was gone, I was… Well, I wasn’t welcome much anywhere.”
“Oh,” I said.
“That’s the size of it,” Jay confirmed. “While I was…. It doesn’t matter what happened to me,” Jay frowned.
I knew it did matter but…
I didn’t think I’d be able to go into detail about the dive Prince had taken into my mind. Barely understood how he’d done it. Perhaps, getting his Omoi node close enough to my mind, he had simply hooked into my patterns…? But that was obscene. Dangerous.
Awful. But in theory I understood how it could happen. But there were supposed to be so many limiters in place. It wasn’t designed for that!
But I couldn’t go into detail about the lingering remaining thoughts on how it felt to have a girlfriend, or how it felt to have traded it all away in the hopes of keeping it. I couldn’t talk about the awful feelings I had when Boss had been shot, and I thought we were going to have to continue on without her, or I was, alone in that complex.
Or how my head still ached, my memories swimming without the organizational assistant implanted in it.
My hands clenched around the Omoi nodule resting on the bed, and I breathed out.
“But he wasn’t there when the King went down,” Jay said. “And he wasn’t a part of the group who… left him there,” his breath came out a bit ragged. “The land was glowing and bright, and we left him there at the end of it. Walked home, because we couldn’t… we didn’t have a choice but to trudge home all those miles.”
“And then the Capital ousted you?”
“How could they do anything but?” Jay shrugged. “We’d lost the greatest Crow who had ever lived. There were no festivals to honor his memory. Nobody would ever be kindled from his mind, there would be no new tradition of memories passed onto fledglings. Nobody will ever have a taste of his mind.” Jay looked away, at the painted walls of the aquarium.
I suspected there’d been sharks swimming in my bedroom once. It was a nice thought.
“What about your other soldiers?” I asked.
“Scattered to the four winds,” Jay said. “Some went north, some went south. The second greatest failure of Crow Kind, so we Outcasts tried to be useful wherever we could.”
“And then you ended up with Morrigan?”
“There’s something to be said about defending a holy place,” Jay defended lightly. “And besides. After years on the road, it was nice to be valued or wanted by someone. Even if she values everyone.”
“The Elder is something special.” I agreed.
“She is,” Jay said. “I think she’ll make some changes here.”
“You haven’t been here in decades,” I said. “What sort of changes are needed?”
“Well,” Jay said. “I’d start with knocking Quen off of his pedestal. Bastard was never a better shot than me.”
“Maybe you’ll get a chance.”
Quen didn’t return before nightfall. Neither did Tane; I didn’t begrudge her, she was escorting the contents of two cities and finding places to put them. Boss returned, however, and pointed down the hall where she’d made a bed out of destroyed blankets and spare pillows, and rolled up in it like a dog might.
Figuring out how to dim the lights didn’t take long, and with Jay’s help, I stumbled through the dark back to my room.
Jay found his own nook to rest in, uncomfortable as it looked pressed against the bookshelves, and I struggled my way to sleep in a new place.
Eyes snapped shut.
The world was stars beyond the petty glade that had been set aside for humanity. Endless stars, dotted with endless radio transmissions, noisy things the only thing left behind from half a dozen destroyed civilizations. Some had advanced beyond their pale star and dared to dream of empires.
All that was left were their great radio stations, still endlessly communicating with each other long after the end of their providers.
Music played to no ears but distant observing scientists, and we counted out beats and meter and pretended we could approximate what alien psychology made of soothing and antagonistic patterns, and hoped they were death threats or silent pleas for escape.
We played them through speakers and headphones and quietly hoped that one day too, our systems would still be working, and we might too have the lingering remnants of automation broadcasting our culture, our creations, long after we had been destroyed by time and tide.
We hoped and we hoped that the Kind God, distant and forever watching, forever creating, saw our works and was happy.
Or that the Watcher would remember our great works long after they crumbled beneath their dispassionate gaze. All things would fade to nothing in the end, decontextualized and destroyed, no lingering remnants, broken cycles and systems.
Or that one of the other gods might find something kindled in the heart of man.
Because we didn’t have a way to affect them, in the end, as much as we couldn’t stop the moon from pulling on the tides, or the great spinning of the earth.
But humanity had always hated being powerless.
I listened to the great static of the universe, and wished, desperately, that we had never developed the equations we had needed to decode endless transmissions and the dying gasps of civilizations in languages we could never decode.
I wished we had never learned there were great things out in the world, unending in scope and necessity.
But they were dead.