Dean came for me first thing in the morning.
It wasn’t even morning, actually, because he knocked on my door and woke me up. Eyes open in the darkness, they adjusted slowly while I tugged on another coat. This one, started to go threadbare from overuse, but it didn’t seem too stained. I gave my wounds a work over with a cloth to try and keep them clean, and resolved to find something to treat them with.
I was buttoning the coat when I answered the door.
“Ah,” Dean clicked his beak. “Is it too early?”
I yawned, looking around for some form of time. I’d check my Omoi, but…
I frowned. “I don’t know what time it is.”
“Right,” He said. “It’s about your node.”
I paused. Hesitated. There was a lot about those Nodes that would make my stay here uncomfortable. They ranged from the news they’d both been scrubbed clean to the news that Dean had taken a peek at them. “Yes?”
Dean shook his head. “I can’t get into it.”
That… that wasn’t exactly bad news. I was living without my Omoi, even if I desperately wanted it, wanted the connection to the various networks. There was so much information I was missing…
Even if not having my thoughts censored meant I could ponder things I didn’t need to ponder. That freedom of thought was nice.
“Why not?” I asked.
“The computer I normally use is broken,” Dean sighed. “I was hoping we could get a few more uses out of it, but whatever you pulled the other nodule out of fried it when I tried to get into it.”
I frowned even more. “Is there anything else we can do?”
Dean nodded, his feathers puffing up. “Well, if we can get into the old USEC base under the city, there’s bound to still be equipment for implantation there.”
Which meant there’d be equipment for breaking into the nodes; in case they were being stubborn. Technician equipment; systems designed to handle the encroaching problem of widespread Omoi nodes.
That had been a decade or two away, but USEC had made a living off of outpacing the problems of the future.
I looked around the ancient aquarium.
It /had/ made a living off of it.
Now that couldn’t even be said.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked, stepping out of the room. The lights weren’t on. Boss was at the other end of the hallway, watching the two of us, her eyes gleaming.
Dean frowned. “Well, I can’t go into a USEC base,” he said. “That’s not exactly…” he trailed off. “It’s not what Crows do. It’s against the rules, you understand, and I’d rather not lose what I have here.”
Crows had few laws, but this one seemed to be mostly universal. How odd, that they were obsessed with Wardens, but banned from entering their spaces.
Or more than likely, they’d learned not to enter USEC bases, as they were more than likely infested with awful things that hadn’t died with the War.
I looked up to stare at my newest bodyguard. That’s what I had Boss for.
“So,” Boss said, grinning, walking towards us. “We get together, Jay and I, and we make a day of it. Exploring an old Base of the Gods!” She crowed grandly. “You take me to the best places.”
I gave Boss a sleepy glare. She shrugged. “I’ll get my armor.”
Then she walked off.
Dean stared at her. “She’s eager.”
“Very,” I said, dryly. “So what are we looking for?”
It’d do me good to see what remained of USEC here. It wasn’t exactly likely that… I’d discover anything new. But there was a chance.
Moreover, if it meant I could get peace of mind about Prince, and peace of mind about myself, then who was I to turn my nose up?
The old Atlanta subway systems weren’t choked with debris of the ages at every access point. A single one had been kept open and surrounded by graves. They stuck up out of the street, coveriing a road that had ceased to be a road and instead just a place to put bodies.
Jay joined us on the way out, looking up at the dawn’s teasing light. Boss stood behind us. Dean shifted uneasily. “I’ll take you there, but I’m not going in.”
“I understand,” Jay said, not unkindly. “For once, let the Outcast do his job?”
Dean shook his head. “I was never for your banishment,” he said.
Jay blinked. “Whyever not? I fit all the criteria?”
Dean clicked his beak, and peered down into the darkness of the tunnels below. No lights flickered. Power hadn’t been brought back to the Atlanta subway system yet; it sat, sleeping, dormant, like a sleeping series of arteries connected to a long dead heart. The archivist was quiet. “You’re a war hero,” He said, finally. “Why should we kick you out for coming back changed?”
Jay smiled dryly. Boss shifted next to me, peering down into the depths, obviously ignoring the idle Crow conversation.
“I might be infectious,” Jay pointed out. “And I am oh so corrupted.”
“But are you?” Dean asked. “Are you really? All I have is the burden of knowing you won’t scatter under pressure, and the pretense that the Inquisitors won’t go near you. Even if you did know something unnatural, why would that disqualify you…?”
Jay shook his head. “We’re in the capital Dean. Don’t jeopardize yourself asking over an Outcast’s fortunes.”
“It just seems incorrect,” Dean said.
“And yet you won’t go with us into the Warden’s Grave,” Jay said, leaning against the wall. Boss took a step down the stairs with a slight grin, her teeth bared. I stepped behind her.
“That’s different,” Dean protested. “That’s a sacred place.”
“And purifying ourselves is also Sacred,” Jay said. “It’s one of the few advantages we have over Wardenkind, after all.”
“Well? Warden? What do you think?”
I paused, halfway down the stairs. Jay’s eyes glinted in the dawn’s early light like orbs of coal. Dean was looking at me like a scientist might.
“I imagine that the compulsive behavior to cleanse,” I started. “Might be a descendent of preening behavior, or a learned behavior from back when the world was a lot worse.”
“Hm.” Dean clicked his beak and turned to look at Jay. “What’s your hypothesis on why I have a different attitude than Jay?”
“Different lineage?” I guessed idly. “Different experiences, certainly. I’m not exactly in on how much knowledge is transferred from kindle to kindle.”
“Dean is much younger than me,” Jay said. “By quite a number of years. He’s made a name for himself from questioning many things Crow-Kind took for granted. I knew of him while I was an Outcast, if only to see if he ever needed a hand if he went too far.”
“I am slightly heretical,” Dean confessed.
“I hate to interrupt your…” Boss trailed off, her mouth flicking open to expose her teeth. “Important philosophical debate,” she drawled. “But I want to get to the part where I smash things now.”
“We’re burning daylight,” I agreed.
“Keep your beak closed,” Jay said. “And your head down while you’re here,” the outcast advised the archivist.
Dean shook his head. “That’s not right and you know it.”
But we dropped into the tunnels regardless.
It was dark, too dark to see after we turned the corner, with only the glint of Boss’s eyes and the click of beaks. Jay pulled his com out of his equipment, fiddled with it for a moment, and then a bright light came out. Flashlight mode.
“I could see about getting you an implant,” Dean said, thoughtfully.
“No,” Jay said.
“But it might…”
“I don’t need one,” Jay returned. “Focus on Jess and not me.”
“If you insist.”
There was something there, but I wasn’t going to intervene on it.
The Atlanta Subway system had kept the city running well into the late 2030s, with a pause in the 20s for an overhaul of infrastructure, since parts of it were still running off of a 1980s standard instead of anything modern. Regardless, it had been taken up by animals in the intervening years.
Trash had been mostly picked clean from the space, though grafitti littered the walls, minimal exposure to light had kept them there, though the effects of time and water had bleached their vibrancy and left them as black smears.
But they were still readable, and they were nothing if not disheartening.
I didn’t need Omoi to picture the ghosts hiding in the Atlanta subway system, trying to avoid the purifying wrath of god falling from above.
I could read it right on the wall.
Abandoned by God.
I’m heading to the North Springs. Charlie, if you see this, I’ll wait there a day for you; I’m heading north to Uncle James.
The world’s over, why are we trying to run?
The Watcher Awaits
Dean followed my gaze and gently tugged me away from them. “Hey, it’s been a few thousand years, you don’t have to…”
“Let her,” Boss said, looming over top of Dean.
Dean, for all of his… lackadaisical approach to the rules, backed down when he saw Boss’s gleaming teeth.
I took a deep breath and held it.
It was… I could pretend, from time to time, that everything in the new world hadn’t been built off the complete and nearly total genocide of the human race. With all of the structures mostly intact, and with the green trees and the creatures roaming the earth, I could almost pretend that humanity was just hiding somewhere.
And wouldn’t that be a nice dream? That there would be some great bank in the ground, and humanity might emerge from it to colonize the verdant wastes? Thousands of years of climate had come and gone, and the cities still stood.
But I’d been apart of USEC. We’d known approximately how many people would need to survive to repopulate the planet.
And there was no possible way that they’d managed that.
A fist wrapped around my heart, and I tore myself from looking at the wall. Looked over at Boss. “I thought you didn’t suffer the past?”
“I don’t,” Boss said. “I wasn’t around for the dead and the dying, so I don’t care.” Boss’s yellow eyes settled across my face, and narrowed so our eyes were locked. “But you were there,” She grinned, and it wasn’t quite as hungry as it usually was. “So you can mourn all you want.”
Jay clicked his beak. He saw the implicit criticism there. He wasn’t stupid.
Dean wasn’t going to say anything, not while Boss was still standing there.
I caught my breath and pried back the fingers clenching around my chest. No panic attack here, no stab of anxiety. There… there wasn’t any existential threat. To me at least.
Humanity had lost their gamble for perpetuity. I needed to accept it.
How many more times would I accept it before I believed it? It hurt, to remember that, again and again.
Boss turned and walked down the darkness, lit only by Jay’s light. Jay slid beside me and put an arm over my shoulder. “You clear to keep walking?”
I breathed, let it hiss between my teeth. We were so close to getting off of the planet. There would be bases in the solar system; we were on the cusp of something so great, and we were scythed down.
“I’m… good,” I lied.
Jay didn’t call me on it, but I knew he understood that it was just that, another lie. He clicked again, and we walked into the darkness.
Dean directed us through it.
We passed by a skeletal train cart. Rust and decay had taken it to a mockery of itself, but no further. If it weren’t for the cracks across the lights overhead, and the persistent taint of mold in the air, I would’ve guessed that it had been abandoned for a hundred years.
What in the Watcher’s name had happened to the world?
A complete and utter cessation of decay on human structures.
They’d stand forever at this rate.
Dean paused in front of a map, metal, carved into the wall of a station, and clicked a talon at the correct location. “There.”
“I can lead us there,” I offered. “I’ve been there before.”
So I did.