Electrodes dappled against my skin, kissing them like lovers.
I’d never had one, I realized. Not one that mattered. Nobody had ever been waiting for me to come home, and nobody had tangled limbs with me, had whispered sweet nothings into my ear, had been in the image of my mind’s eye for more than a second.
Dean settled in front of me, checking over his charts (our Omoi’s made them visible). Teri darted from here to there checking things over one last time.
“You’ll be fine,” Dean lied. I nodded my head at him.
I’d done this before. It’d been over a month, but I’d done this before, and it had only nearly fried me. This time might be a bit different.
But we were dead if it didn’t work. So who was I to panic now?
Dean carefully pried his Omoi out of his skull. Since his form was already wavery and up to imagination, it didn’t hurt to have it removed; it wasn’t set against his bones. He set it down, carefully, and began the process of rewiring. The file was offered up to me.
Omoi censored it in enough warnings that I could feel how unhappy it was with me. It hissed and warned me what would happen if I went through with this.
I’d fought with Crows, saved Beasts, and killed one of my coworkers already. What was an exposure or two to the words of the gods between friends?
I bit into my lip as he plasted another cool wire to my head. “Will this work?” I asked. Dean attached wires from my Omoi, still perfect, still beautiful, to his, half corrupted and jury rigged and jailbroken. Teri slipped over, stared at me, and then popped hers out of her head, setting it next to Dean’s.
“It should,” Dean said. “They’re just computers at the end of the day. We just need to send it all through you- your Omoi should handle the issue of keeping it scrubbed clean, and then we send it out through the speakers. We just need you to sit there.”
Outside, the battle grew louder. Sniper shots joined the hell and the frenzy. They were dying while we sat here debating how to keep me alive. It hurt to listen to them, to hear the cries of wounded birds.
I shook my head, feeling the tug of wires. I was pressed into the system, with wires strung across my head like a puppet, all feeding into the various ports exposed out of the side of my Omoi. It wasn’t designed for this, but the Crows had spent hundreds of years jury rigging.
“Anyone else, when this signal goes through, they’ll disperse, and then the Omoi will shut off,” I said. “Since there won’t be a mind attached to it, it’ll go into standby to protect data.”
I closed my eyes. Counted my breaths.
Jay stood by the window. When I opened my eyes, he wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“I’ll be fine,” I said to him.
He shook his head, but at least he looked at me. “This isn’t… I’m supposed to keep you safe.”
I shot him a smile. Tired, stained with a bit of blood from where I’d bit into my tongue, but a smile. “Hey. Everyone’s been keeping me safe for a long time. Maybe it’s time I returned the favor?”
It’d be simple. Just run the program, keep upright, let Omoi do all the busy work, scrub everything, handle absolutely everything. I’d helped design the damn thing to navigate through completely altered worlds.
What was a single signal to that?
All I had to do was have faith in my past self, and maybe it’d work out.
Dean looked it over, and one by one, my systems connected to the buildings. Code flashed by, loading screens and interlocking password protections. Dean listed off the phrases and I slipped them in with my thoughts, one by one by one.
For the Greater Good.
Then I dove into the systems to suss out the last errors. Words fell from my lips that I couldn’t remember, and Teri and Dean scurried off to fix what was left.
Jay walked over, rifle at his side, and sat next to me. We didn’t say anything to each other. I didn’t think we had to anymore.
He wanted to protect me. I wanted to help. There wasn’t time to navigate the differences in approach, and there wasn’t time to suss out the alternates. There was only now. Trellis had to know what we were doing.
If we were lucky (and it was impossible to be lucky against someone who could see the future) then we could get this in under her radar.
If we weren’t, then…
Jay leaned against my side, then threw a wing over my front. A last hug. Maybe he’d take a bullet for me through the shattered window.
But it was warm.
And I needed it.
It was almost time.
The future fractalized before her. In a half dozen paths she fell dead to the ground from bullet wounds. She ignored those and peered beyond, where she didn’t fall to the ground, and further, diving through time itself. Crystalline strands of light and hope and victory tickled out the path in front of her.
In the real world, she cleared the bullet from her rifle and waited, patiently, for the future to guide her.
In half a dozen worlds, poking her head up led to the attention of the Crow’s own snipers, and she went into an increasingly poor battle against them. So she waited, patiently letting the oxygen tickle across her half scarred lungs, tasting the after effects of a fire that had taken every ounce of her ingenuity to escape.
In, out. In, out.
She took a shot. The great Beast on the other side ducked into cover, her shoulder erupting into a cloud of blood. A second later and she might’ve gotten the head.
The twelve futures that spun off of them terminated too quickly for her tastes. Trellis closed her eyes.
Bismarck was counting on her. This, perhaps, the last field of battle she’d ever have to mount, was her chance to prove herself.
In the future, would she even exist? Would her memories tangle themselves with who she’d be on the other side? Or would the world simply reassert itself without a moment in between, the god’s gleaming mind overtaking the last five thousand years in a simple radiant spark?
It would be glorious.
She’d get to see her father again. He was on his deathbed when the bombs fell and she-
She’d left too late to see him. She’d left too late to find his grave.
The futures spun in her mind’s eyes, reflected across the light of the Word buzzing across the surface of her brain, the last part of her that hadn’t faded with age or fallen with time, she slid out of cover, chose a strand of fate, and took a shot. Two snipers fell, bursting into swarms of birds, and then she pulled herself back, ducking farther into cover.
She threw her head back and laughed, her heart thumping in her chest, and dances, swinging smoothly past bullets, diving down different paths where she made it out alive, a nimble step to avoid the bullet before it had been shot, a dive to avoid losing her head, and then, and she pulled her rifle behind her and slammed the door shut, a final spin to avoid the long rifle that the head of the enemy snipers had managed to salvage.
The door erupted, sending a piece of metal whistling across her skin, a bright line of red, but it was better than 95% of the worlds that she had seen, where she had bled out. She ran her fingers through it, then licked her blood off of her fingers. Her mind fed like thread into the minds around her, a smooth sensation like weaving cloth (how many times had she woven her uniform back together before it had finally fallen from use?) and then she looked through hundreds of eyes.
Dead eyed drones, a failed attempt at cloning, marched forward, guns ineffectual against the meat grinder the birds had set up. Intermediates hesitated before following through, and she slipped from person to person, her mind tickling through the passages, eyes going dead as coals-
Just in time to pull out of the way before a Crow stabbed through the intermediate she’d been looking through, shattering the fractal futures where they stood. His beak gleamed with an odd crimson gold, and his eyes were as dead as hers. If she looked too close, she might see determination, raw, unwieldy, flickering inside of there like the last smoulder of unruined coals.
But she didn’t, and the body fell dead long after she pulled free. Trellis calmed herself, her heart obeying her commands (the enhancements they’d sought to replace themselves with worked too well, sometimes, when had she last felt something like true panic?) and she dove further forward into the future. This thread would eventually unravel into the future she needed. It would eventually reach there, if nothing terminated it in the meantime.
She could taste it, an acerbic acidic sensation where her morals used to be. Five thousand years was a long time to cling to something.
Luckily for her, she’d only been awake for the last thousand.
She dove forward, ignoring where her petty thread terminated. She would navigate through those as they came, the only line that mattered with her Word was her own. The line still held, the line still-
The scenes fragmented and reassigned themselves. Abruptly, she could see, through the fractals of her vision, the Beast breaking away. She paused, hesitated, and ran her fingers through the debris that had once been her vision. It slid back together piecemeal. Battles. Stained glass figures and forms and far harsher and worse things than even that.
Trellis did not know fear. That had been removed from her, perhaps, or she had long since known that she would be terminated, even at the very end of this long process. But she did know surprise.
It had been a long time since she had been surprised.
Holes sat in her future predictions, holes where someone else moved. There was not only her thread. Now there was another, a harsh black thread and she fed herself back into her bodies, replaying the memories of those that had seen things and-
A crow stepped out of the shadows, his eyes as dark as coals, his eyes flickering with something like determination, but flatter, with a knife and-
This was not the first time Trellis had been challenged for the future. But the last time it had happened, she had lost. She had lost for hundreds of years, forced to watch a dozen futures where she had no true control over what would come next, until she had, over the course of a century, brought about the end of the Queen. A hesitation here, an enemy spared and yet-
She did not have centuries this time.
Trellis drew herself back, reloaded her rifle, feeling the familiar press of it against her hands, the spots where the oils of her changed form had rubbed the polish off and she’d reapplied it again and again and again, and swallowed.
She did not have centuries this time, but that was fine.
She’d just have to win this herself, this time. Before they figured out how to replicate this, and make her expendable. Her eyes closed.
Prince had been made expendable to the cause as well. He’d served for far longer than she had, but the second that he could no longer make it out alive, Bismarck had not hesitated for more than a second.
Fear had been removed from Trellis’s mind by the Queen. Fear was simply a chemical reaction that had been relinquished from her when she had sought to avoid the siren’s song of aging. So there was only a cold truth.
Her fractal futures shattered again as the Crow dove through them. They swam like fish in a barrel, and he speared through them again and again. And beside him, the Beast walked.
Her eyes were closed. She breathed, in out, in out. Her lungs, scarred from the ruinous remains of Montgomery, where she’d clawed her way free, and made it, barely made it, half roasted alive, eyes dimming, to Bismarck’s side, and she’d cared for her and fed her and brought her back to life, her lungs ached as she forced them to work. The battle was nearly won.
Her target was inside of the building. She did not care if she had to kill every last Crow in her path, if she had to slaughter every last soldier down to the man to bring her home. Her army had no soul, there was no pain, there was only waste and blood and ammunition that limited her troops.
Her mind stroke across the Crows she had ensnared in her siren song and called them to her side.
“It’s time, little small things. If only you weren’t so cute.”