“This won’t hurt, right?” I asked, sending a side eyed glance at the doctor. The walls were covered in propaganda. Petty pieces, petty symbols and quick, nonspecific ways to recognize when the world wasn’t as it should be. I’d read them all three times while waiting for her to show up. My name was on a few of them.
I didn’t remember writing them.
In his left hand, he carried an Omoi nodule. It looked cool and out of place in his hand instead of on a tab screen, instead of on classified sheets of paper and instead of being theoretical, and I shifted on the examination table.
“It shouldn’t,” he said. He shined a light under my eyes, and then read off results from the surface of his own eyes, where his Omoi node placed them. “But if you’re so nervous, maybe you shouldn’t be rolling these out yourselves, no?”
I laughed and shook my head. “I’m sure you’d be nervous if someone turned a knife on you, doc.”
“Not at all,” he said, levelly. I blinked at him. “I can trust my fellow surgeons here at USEC with my life. You remove one evil tumor in a team of six, you can trust that team of six will have your back.”
“I haven’t had to deal with any tumors,” I said.
“If I recall,” The doctor said. “You’ve mostly been concerned with bombarding pieces of metal with radiation to measure decay.”
I colored slightly, and scratched the back of my head. “Well, when you put it like that-”
“This latest version of the Omoi saved my cousin’s life,” The doctor said. “I’ll treat the developer of it with great respect. You don’t have to worry.”
I bit my lip. I did worry. If I didn’t get one of these installed, I couldn’t be let in on the deeper projects.
The time was ticking. Every day was a missed opportunity.
But I was nervous. As long as I had this in my head, there would be a disconnect, an almost permanent disconnect between who I was outside of USEC and who I was inside of USEC. It was by design.
USEC didn’t need normal humans and normal doctorates. Not now, at least. They needed superhumans, completely and utterly dedicated to the cause. I swallowed. “Alright. Put me under.”
“When you wake up, you might find your thoughts a bit scrambled. Just complete the onscreen tutorials, and Omoi will help you claim yourself back together. You’re a bit younger than the average person we give these, so I’m sure your above average neuroplasticity will make this an easy transition.”
I held up my arm. “Just hook me up and do it.”
For USEC, I became a cyborg.
The sigilic alphabet contained no less than three hundred characters. It may have contained more, but their appearances on the edge of things, as derivations from equations who had to contain the nine or ten sympathetic or empathetic or affective dimensions, were not in question. Of those, only twenty were commonly used.
From these sigils, the rest of the world could be conjured and created. From those sigils, the Command Tongue was created.
There’s a common riddle in the field on how many words can be conjured forth from any arrangement of letters, with the result being an anti common sense answer determined by a complicated looking equation. There was not an infinite number of answers to the conundrum, as anyone could know. Not every string of letters and syntax would make proper words and sentences, grammatical structures did not consume the world in an unending string of definition and contextual evidence.
I couldn’t remember the full math off of the top of my head while covered in blood, or while staring straight ahead, vacantly as the last after effect of the last word came free. It was a fine sticky mist, like spray paint, and it still hung in the air, sticking to my skin and my hair and turning my lab coat a slight pink.
The man before us was no longer a man so much as he was a collection of meat. The philosophers could talk about the moment that man stopped being man, and the ethics committees could lie to themselves on the greater good, but I knew when that moment was. When the last thought passed from the man’s head and lay splattered across the wall of the chamber marked the moment that he was dead.
I breathed in and tasted blood, tasted parts of the vaporized meat, and breathed out and tasted it again.
The man that had once been my lab assistant fell to the ground with a wet squelch, and I vomited in the corner while they pried the test chamber door open.
For USEC, I became a mage.
For USEC, I became a murderer.
Defender Kathleen flicked through her tablet idly. The jammers were on, and no signals could get in or out of the secure facility located three floors below the rest of the building. The air filtration systems were particular and isolated to this part of the floor, and she could hear them winding with the latest and greatest of anomalotech, whose specifics and designs were available, albeit stacked with enough memory censors to be scrubbed after ten minutes, for everyone in the room to see.
Behind them sat years worth of rations, if held to an accountable standard, and a single usage cryopod could protect an individual theoretically indefinitely.
Sigils gleamed on the walls, sketched with intent and practice, a language that she’d tried to pick up for months before giving up to the migraines. They needed her mind for more things than mere spellcraft, after all.
For all intents and purposes, this room would survive nearly any apocalypse thrown at it. At least one person would make it out alive.
Defender Kathleen had never been satisfied with achieving the least. It’s what had taken her from the grunt work up through tactical planning, and then, at the institution’s lowest moment, when Alaska gleamed like a glowing crater and the Watcher hung overhead, broadcasting a rattling laugh across all known airwaves, had brought her into the inner circle’s graces.
The door opened, and the others trickled in. She gently sat her tablet down on the table, and it turned off with a flick of her eyes. She watched them.
Most of them weren’t from USECGA. Many of them weren’t even from the United States. She could count among their number one of the heads of the brazillian branch, a man from Japan, and another from the territories that had once been eastern europe. She breathed in, and breathed out, keeping herself as level as she could.
They didn’t need her to panic. They needed her leadership, and they needed her grace.
They needed Defender Kathleen to pull another miracle.
She didn’t know if she had another miracle inside of her.
They didn’t make idle chatter. They sat at attention, quietly and calmly. They’d long since been trained out of speaking up for anything petty. Defender Kathleen appreciated that.
She didn’t know how long she could keep a placid expression if they started asking questions.
Finally, the doors opened, and Jessica Williams stepped through. She was a thin creature, thin and spindly enough that Kathleen thought of insects, like someone had stepped in and replaced one of them while she hadn’t been looking. On her breast sat a small homemade sigil, gleaming with protection.
She bowed before the gathered, though her eyes flicked in a tell tale nervousness as she realized just who was in attendance at the meeting. “Defender?” She had a tiny voice.
“You may begin your presentation, Doctor Williams,” Defender Kathleen said.
The doctor cleared her throat a few times, and as she steadied herself, color drifted back into her face.
She gestured at the screen and it reacted to her call, her OMOI bringing up the relevant files. A star chart appeared on screen. She pointed at it. “These are the known coordinates for the stellar bodies known as Lords. According to research by Eschatology departments, these Lords have been responsible for the problems that have been assaulting our world for the last several thousand years. These beings’ observations have created chaos and killed countless others.”
The man from Eastern Europe raised his hand.
Jess swallowed. “Yes?”
“Their observations have caused chaos? How so?”
“They are the solution to the conundrum posed by the false vacuum,” Jess said. “As long as they are looking upon their area of space, their observations prevent this region of space from experiencing a complete collapse of baryonic matter.”
The man blinked. “How have they caused chaos? That sounds… important.”
Jess put on a pained smile. “Terribly important. Their observations are afflicted with their own biases. Each lord is a complex mind, the best and brightest of their original species, except the Bystander, whose species is still alive. But they are minds. All of them observe the universe in different ways, much like each of us understand the color blue to be different, or experience happiness in different ways. The discrepancies between their visions, according to this grander theory of the universe, is what causes the phenomena that our organizations have been put together to defend against.”
Eyes flicked to the sigil on the doctor’s breast as she gestured towards it. “We’ve been able to study some of them and use these fluctuations, these flaws in perspective, to further our own goals.”
There was silence. Jess waited for another question. Defender Kathleen watched a bead of sweat roll down her head, and then she turned back to the slide. She gestured, and it changed to another star chart. “However…”
The old constellations had changed. Now, they were adrift, stellar aberrations and large black spaces. What few labelled stars were left were far distant, mere twinkles on the screen. “This is a projection of what the sky will look like in ten years,” Jess said. “Assuming the rate of gain remains stable. At this point, there will no longer be enough of an observer effect to keep the universe from shifting, and life as we know it will cease to exist.”
There it was. Defender Kathleen’s fingers ached for her tablet, and not for the first time, she wished she hadn’t quit smoking. “Ten years?” she asked.
“Ten years,” Jess confirmed. “Give or take a century. But given our reports on the movements of the cults… and decline of our biosphere… and the degradation of our atmosphere… and the business around Pluto… I think it’ll be ten years. We’re missing a fair number of variables but-”
“Ten years,” Defender Kathleen said. “Before total vacuum collapse and the obliteration of all of our work.”
The man from Egypt raised his hand. “If this is true, and I am not saying it is not, what can be done?”
Jess shrugged, then went pink because she’d shrugged instead of giving a response. “The world needs an observer to keep the effect from propagating. If we don’t have a mind of sufficient intelligence focused upon us, we’re all going to die. It’s as simple as that.”
The man from Egypt smiled. “And what if we made our own observer?”
Jess’s teeth clicked together, and a nervous grin settled on her face.
“Well,” she said, brightly. “That’s a good place to start.”
An End for Crows
“Do you think,” the voice asked. “That there will be a happy place in the future?”
I shook my head and my many mouths opened and closed on their own. His voice was like thick honey, cloying, sweet, and all I could hear.
“Do you think,” the voice asked. “That we can make a happy place in the future? Make a happy place in the future? I believe we can make the future a better place. I think that we have a duty to make the future a happy place. I believe that we have a duty to make the world a better place than we left it. I believe that we can make the world a better place than we left it. I believe that we can make the world. I believe that we can make the world a better place. A happy place. My darling daughter, my Morrigan, you are my hope, my love, and my future.”
I could hear it, I could hear it, I could hear it, and I realized, realized again, and again, that he couldn’t hear me. His voice was fading fast, and his mind was my own, an intersection in seven pieces, and all I could feel was desperation and the bizarre burning hope of the apocalypse, a petty medicine that I’d never wanted to taste and had never tasted before.
It tasted like loss. Our minds were fused together in lockstep, and for a time there was hope, hope in the dying greater mind, that had seen us and seen fit to keep us alive and company, for he knew that now someone knew what he knew, and had seen the beautiful world.
“My darling daughter, Morrigan,” The voice said, haunting the edges of my thoughts like a plague, a skirting spectre wheeling through the echoing chamber of my own personal noospace, a trial, an unending trial. “Make the world a better place.”
The arm that passed through my chest had felt a brief obstacle, my sternum. It pressed down on it, and for that brief moment, it had felt like every time I had come home and been unable to remember why there were tears in my eyes, or what the blood under my fingernails was. It felt like every moment I’d awoken screaming, and been unable to say just why.
When Bismarck killed me, I recognized the expression on her face as being the same expression that had come over me one November, bolting awake without a word and staring into the mirror. The crackling winds of fall outside my window had taken the last leaves from the dead trees in the grove outside of my apartment building, sending a scattering of brown rotten things in front of the guard shack that even then had a gun trained on anyone that would try and jump the fence to approach me.
The eyes told it all, nervous, furtive things, rife with desperation and pain, and a taste, a taste like that blood of the assistant who I could not remember, the same hot taste as the sigils and the letters, and the certainty that this was the right way to go that guided the path.
Then there was a broken heart, and there was pain, and there were fragments, thousands of fragments that surged together against the rising storm, and then oxygen deprivation caught up with massive blood loss.
For USEC, I died.