Eyes fluttered back open, and the world had shifted underneath me. Heart thumped in my chest. The lights were still dimmed. None had come to wake me up.
I ran my hands across the sheets (stitched after the fall of man, all things had been) and then across my head. Felt my heart pound through my veins, skin sticky with sweat.
Sleep hadn’t come that easily since my escape. Now that I knew the truth about the Queen’s Guards… now that I knew that there were still Wardens out there, and that many of them had decided, or been forced, to accept the Fey’s way of things?
How could I not have nightmares of the great Truth that Prince had tried to let me in on? Saved only by a mutual unintelligibility. By the lingering remnants of protections on my head?
By the fact I’d been a part of the Omoi team?
Or perhaps, in the end, it was because Prince had wanted to die.
Why else would he continue on long after his death had been prophesied?
Why would he try so hard to convince me that…
That somewhere out there, there was a god that we had made. Hiding.
And I was the key to unlocking it in the end?
My fingers met each other, steepled together. It stopped a bit of the shaking.
The world had ended.
But I was still here. There might not be a lot of humans around.
But USEC still protected. If I believed enough, if I knew what the right thing even was to do, then maybe I’d even keep that promise.
The Regent’s schedule opened up around noon. I had to get something to eat and pretend to be presentable before then.
We’d had a brief breakfast consisting of eggs, steak, and a few vegetables whose texture resembled onion and tasted more like leek. While the Crows had no real need for true domestication, when it came to keeping a city fed, you couldn’t really beat it.
The cafeteria was busy when we were there. Crows chattered and talked about various insights, theories, stories. Supposition about Wardens. It reminded me of grad school, albeit coarse and croaky rather than fluent and nuanced.
After about five minutes, Teri stepped over, Lani trailing behind her, and a third crow with them. His feathers bore a certain fuzz around the edges, unkempt and untamed.
“Jess,” Teri bowed politely. “This is…”
“My mentor,” Lani finished. “Dean,”
Dean bowed politely.
Lani and I hadn’t done much talking. There simply hadn’t been that much time since my escape to do much of it, and she’d mostly stayed tucked in with Teri to exchange notes.
“We worked on destroying the copy protections on Omoi nodules,” Lani reminded, gently.
“Ah,” I said, looking up at Dean. “You’re just the Crow I need then.”
“I’ve heard that you have a few nodules that need tinkering with?”
“Preferably to full functionality,” I said. “And an implant, too.”
There had probably been a machine for that back in the military base, given that they’d managed to get mine out of my head.
But maybe I only believed in that so I didn’t have to picture fingers digging their way into my scalp, Prince’s dispassionate face watching and pleading and demanding that he be justified. That sounded like something he’d do.
The dying scraps of his memories told me that would be what he’d do.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Dean said.
I hadn’t let the nodules out of my grasp since I’d gotten them back. Giving them up…
“He’s safe,” Lani said, just as gentle as before. Teri nodded in agreement at that.
Teri shrugged. “A bit out of my lane here, breaking into it. Hit me up if you need to program anything new; I think I’m going to be taking a swing at the water purification systems next.”
“It really is an honor to meet you,” Dean said, bowing. “I’ve heard that you are called Jess?”
“That’s my name,” I replied, giving a slight smile. “Most call me the Warden.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be… Jessica Williams?”
A few startled blinks.
I hadn’t used my last name since waking up. It… didn’t seem exactly important. Hearing it now sounded strange, especially since… how would he know it?
“Yes… That’s also my name,” I said. I wasn’t actively looking at them, but a number of crows perked their heads towards us, listening in.
“Ha!” Dean warked in laughter. “You’re the one behind the worst of the defenses I had to crack! What are the odds?”
I blinked cluelessly.
“Your anomaly defenses,” Dean clarified. “The first few attempts had a real harsh chance of scrambling whoever we put them in, on account of us counting as anomalies by USEC definitions, at least in the latest edition of rules you had programmed in.”
“I didn’t do the programming,” I confessed. “I just made sure that the sigils and protections were all working. The neurologists did the lion’s share of getting it to hook into the brain without hurting anyone.”
“Still,” Dean chuckled. “Do you know how handy it is to have one of your protections up and running for Archivists? It’s reduced the turnover of my staff to the inquisition by 40, 50%. After we worked out how to reset your defaults, mind you. Plus, once you peel back enough of the code, your name’s on it.”
“That was largely so the neurologists and programmers wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore, and everyone else knew who to badger if they wanted different sigils,” I said.
I wasn’t a programmer. Most of my experience had been purely academic in nature; you needed a tiny bit of programming knowledge to get some of the big nasty research programs to do more than spit meaningless numbers at you.
But I I somehow doubted that the Omoi was magically going to become python compatible, at least in any way I’d be able to work with it. While I’d had a hand in making the Omoi the protective device it was, I’d had almost no hand in programming it.
Getting it to accept protective sigils from beyond the pale of the real? Sure.
Programming? Not particularly, not without my Omoi as an interface.
My thoughts were already filling themselves in from the Omoi’s void. They’d had to, to get me out of there alive.
I could still faintly smell blood from the memories, feel the crackle and dissonance in my head.
And more annoyingly, I knew that the most of my knowledge was gone.
Dean bowed his head politely. “Your defences were still very impressive. Thank you for blessing us with them; we’ve been theorizing about deploying more measures, if you’d be willing to give it a look over later…”
“Nodes first,” I said.
“I’ll be able to help you quite a bit more if I get my Omoi back,” I reminded. Gently, I reached into my coat and pulled them out. One still smelled like flesh. I didn’t want to wash it, but had cleaned it gently in one of my lab coats. The one already mostly ruined.
I’d need more clothes soon.
Dean’s eyes narrowed and he gently took them. “These are the nodes you want me to break into?”
“Lani explained the situation. Handle everything here with utmost secrecy, right?”
“I guess,” I said. “It’s important information, and Lani got scrambled over less.”
Dean took on a solemn look, nodded his head, and gently scurried off. Lani paused.
“He’s a bit eager to please, but trust me, if you want what’s on there, he’s the next best thing to a proper Omoi technician.”
I gave her a tired grin. Maybe things were going to look up after all.
“Wait until I’m there to look over it,” I requested. I was a Warden. It mattered, my words. I hoped. I didn’t want him to stumble into anything… too incriminating.
What the hell could I find on it?
Everything I could want to know was on that node. Tactics, maps, information. History.
All I had to do was break through my own defences, and the defences that the best of USEC had put on those things to prevent information from getting into the hands of others.
My smile slipped slightly.
I hoped to whatever gods still lived that Dean didn’t trigger a system wipe.
After breakfast, and after I managed to choke down an egg without asking where it came from (the thought of Crow agriculture was still strange, though omnivorous beasts deciding to settle down instead of hunting for their food was deeply familiar) Jay took me out of the cafeteria. Tane was still nowhere to be found.
“Probably establishing hierarchy and chain of command,” Jay guessed.
“She can figure that out too,” Jay said. “If she needs to. Barring an airstrike or a firing squad, I don’t think anyone’s going to bother to stop her. We can just fly away if she makes a bad move,” Jay said, tilting his head.
“Except us,” I pointed out.
“Everyone that matters, minus you, then,” Jay returned. “Come on, I can guess where they put the Regent at.”
“You can?” I asked.
Jay stepped in front of me, and waited for me to catch up, walking at my side. Reminded me of the very beginning, in the forests around Prime-nest. Another place we’d left behind. It wouldn’t be the last.
The leaves provided cover from the rays of the harsh sun, the light dappling through the winding branches reminding me that this place shouldn’t exist. The entire world was under the effects of an anomaly.
Something had stopped the spell of aging for the entire world. Cities hadn’t been buried under the dappled death of aging, technology worked long after it made sense to.
Batteries still burned under layers of wreckage.
Jay turned the corner down the street in front of me, and I snapped out of my thoughts. There were other scientists here, I could just ask them what they’d figured out.
I turned the corner.
“My guess, the Regent is holed up there,” Jay said, gesturing.
Towering far above any of the other trees in the Atlanta sprawl sprawled an enormous oak. It’s branches entwined and fused with a skyscraper, gleaming wood. Not an inch of it bore bark. Not an inch of it had leaves. The shadows left across the forest below put bare spots. Soot and ash still clung to it in large patched, casting the entirety of it in dark shadows. A few images, scraped over it by some massive hand (or perhaps by many beaks) bore the image of USEC.
It would’ve been comforting if it weren’t so harsh and out of place, even from the urban forest.
“What,” I said. “Is that?”
Jay squinted. “I don’t know what they’re calling it now,” he admitted, stepping forward. I followed after the scruffy wingless crow. “But I know what it is. That tree marks the moment when the Fey almost won; the burning of our main nests. When I first got back from…” he trailed off again. Military work, with the king. “They were calling it the Seared Oak.”
What else could you call the great skeleton of a tree?