We didn’t have a way of signalling for another worm. That was a problem, since when we made our way back to the spot we’d been dropped off, all that was left was the collapsed tunnel that it had made. Boss growled under her breath, and turned to face off into the distance.
“It’s that way,” she growled.
“How’re we supposed to get back,” I asked.
Teri stared at me, and then fluttered her feathers.
I felt a blush creep up my grey skin and coughed. “What about Jay and the blade?”
Boss picked up Jay bodily and set him on her shoulders, and kept her grip on the thin hilt. “I can handle that.”
Jay gave me a look, and then grabbed onto the scruff of the great beast for dear life. “Hopefully you can figure out flight?”
I scattered. The birds took over almost instinctively when I thought of the sky, after all, it was far more natural for them to seek out the sky than it was to hold a still very human mind. My many wings tugged themselves off of the ground and the wind whispered the rest, and before I knew it, I was in the air, flying in a tight formation with myself. The human mind buzzed disconcertedly but the avian minds loved the experience. One cawed against my will, and then the rest.
A few moments later, the other flocks joined my formation, and then there was a proper mob. The murder that had been Teri flicked their wings and flew in front of us, while the Regent stayed behind me, providing cover. Far below us, Boss galloped like a wild beast, bouncing on all three of her available legs. She was fast. Not quite as fast as the crow flew, but fast enough.
Flight was- it was easy. I’d pictured it being this hard thing, this monumental task that would represent obtaining some great knowledge about the universe, or would be locked to me on account of my earthly nature.
But the wind under the wings and instincts handled most of it. There wasn’t a point in pondering it. Birds could fly, and I was birds, so I could fly. Something that had been the dream of mankind for generations was reduced to the progress of a few birds gainfully defying my life’s work of suppressing anomalies.
In that moment, up in the sky, blue, flying over endless fields of bluegrass only broken by the growth of new forests and old forests, I felt like I finally understood where humanity sat in the grand scheme of the world.
I windmilled, wheeled about, and soared up higher and higher as the wind billowed in the distance from a rising storm, and so did the other flocks.
And at the very highest point, I turned and faced the mountains in the distance, and I saw it.
The mountain, those that had been defiled and shattered by coal mines and then left to ferment without help, now had a fresh covering of snow on top of them. But they weren’t quite mountains, not really. Something sat stretched across them like a balloon, a rubber skin that glistened with tension, a horrible reddish grey film that had coated them.
And down in the valley between the mountains, it had pooled into something like a corpse, if a corpse were as wide as all the cities in Kentucky, and if the corpse were as large as the stars, and if a corpse were liquid, and had many eyes, now long dim and unseeing.
And for once, I understood why they were called the Mountains of Meat instead of the Kind Lord. If you couldn’t fly, your head could hardly wrap around what it was.
And here we were only in the far distance, and I could see hardly a quarter of it, and it made my heart race. For although it had broken across the rocks like falling star, it was still mostly in one piece. Five thousand years of decay had not touched it, anymore than it had touched the bridges and the buildings, anymore than it had touched my cryopod.
The Watcher, the angry red star up on high, chained by the bones of billions, had preserved the body of his metaphor sister-brother-father-mother so that it would remain intact all these years. Much as it had kept Bismarck intact, as much as he had designed the world so that I would meet Isaac again.
The message was clear.
The Kindlord would be our destination in the end. The great ship of meat, whose regeneration and hardened shell could outfactor the cold veil of space itself, lay waiting, far off in the distance.
My wings tilted us away, and we slid back to the military base in Tennessee.
It didn’t take that long. Longer than worm travel, but not too long and the base sat in the forest that had threatened to devour it. Another explosion in the distance sent trees raining down, branches and ancient trunks shattered like weeds, and let our eyes in on an exchange of gunfire as thick as thieves, bugs splattering each other as the trailing edge of Bismarck’s front encountered the defencive line of the Admiral’s.
We fell like black rain in front of the building and came back together. A few minutes later, Boss arrived, tossing Jay off of her back (I barely caught him before he hit the ground). Then she collapsed against the side of the building to pant.
Isaac met us.
“There’s your blade,” The Regent said, gesturing at the Disconnect. “Is it legendary enough?”
Isaac decidedly didn’t look at it for longer than a second. “It should be good enough,” He said, shaking his head. “That blade is cursed. I don’t want to touch it.”
Teri looked over it, her fingers twitching as if she might want to hold it, and then she shook her head. “You’re right.”
The Regent swept past Isaac. “I have to debrief my inquisitors of what’ll happen next.”
Isaac watched her go. “How do you even know what the next step is?”
“We head to the Kind Lord!” The Regent barked in reply.
Isaac shook his head. “You keep such rude company, Jess.”
“Is she wrong?” I asked. “Is that really what’s next?”
“We have the sword,” Jay said. “Mentors, and gods and the divine. A rebirth…”
“It might work,” Isaac said. “I’ve only done the rite once.”
“If it doesn’t work?” I asked.
He paused, clearly thinking it over, and then shook his head. “It’s not worth thinking about.” The sigils written across his face gleamed as his eyes closed. The eyelids completed another old word that my mind wouldn’t supply. Protection, perhaps. Fate?
“We die?” Jay finished.
Boss snorted. “If death is all you have to fear, then we lose nothing by trying it.”
“We die,” Isaac said, his eyes still closed. “And then our very existence, the sum total of our history, is put in the hands of a woman so mad that even before the end of the world Jess had betrayed her. Perhaps she’d even known- there was an attack, at the very end of the world, an attempt to execute us- or perhaps stop us from going under.”
“It didn’t work,” I said.
“They were the watcher’s cult,” Isaac said. He leaned back against the wall, shaking his head a few times. “There’s too many lines this could go. I don’t like it. Too much is uncertain.”
“Then let’s focus on something we can,” I said. I didn’t like him looking like that. Despair didn’t fit, not after what we’d gone through. What we’d won.
I could see the Watcher in my mind’s eye, bound with chains of bone to the world below, forced to watch every moment. Despite myself, and despite the fact that the world was bound to his logic, to his cruel mind and machinations, I could pity him in that moment.
“Like?” Isaac asked.
“Is the Admiral ready to move?” I replied. “We should move to defend the last point.”
“The Kind Lord’s corpse.” Isaac stated, flat. “This is all so very big. I hate it.”
“I wish I’d had more time,” I muttered. Boss growled, and a massive paw settled on my shoulder, hard enough to nearly scatter me right there.
“I exist because you didn’t have enough time,” Boss reminded me, grimly. “I don’t fear death, but you should understand that. I exist because you couldn’t control the gods.”
“There might be a lesson there,” Teri said, thoughtfully. I turned to look at her. She was chewing on something, and yet-
“There’ll be time for lessons after we win,” Jay decided.
Isaac sighed. “I’ll go brief the Admiral on our success. If we’re lucky, we can collapse the frontline, buy us a few days. We’ll need them if we want to move the main hive.”
“Do that,” I said, suddenly tired. Jay leaned against me, throwing one of my arms over his shoulder.
He was part of me, or he had a part of me that was now part of him. Perhaps he knew better now.
“Jess needs to lay down,” Jay said. I glared at him, but a wave of dizziness, nausea, the very taste and idea of blood filled my head, an angry buzzing from the depths of my corruption. I leaned more on him and he shouldered the weight.
“Good,” Isaac said. “Take a breather. You haven’t given me one since you arrived.”
Then he walked off.
Our rooms were military bunks. They’d been painstakingly restored to be as uncomfortable as they had been originally, and the rooms were done up in a mirror mockery of what life might’ve been like if only I’d been a set of sardines in a can.
Jay leaned against the wall and stared, his eyes like tiny red lights in the dim and gloom. Boss stood by the entrance.
Teri clicked her beak. “Well.”
“Are you alright?” I asked. Jay’s eyes flicked over to her.
“Me?” Teri asked.
“You nearly died,” I said. It was a distraction from the fact that I had died, and was for all intents and purposes still dead, and only a copy of my memories.
What really mattered when it came to how human I was? Would I still pass testing?
“Tane helped,” Teri said, looking away.
“How much of you is Tane?” Jay asked, blunt.
“Twenty percent,” Teri said. “She’s- she’s stronger than I am- was,” she stuttered, stumbling through her explanation.
“Is it uncomfortable?”
“Yes-no,” Teri replied. “I’m still me,” she clarified. “But I’m also her.”
I closed my eyes and let myself drift past the parts of me that were Jay. His memories were fuzzed, garbled and unintelligible, like film eaten by mold. I caught flashes in the midst. A hint of training here, a flash of gunfire, and further beyond that, the trailing edge of the First Memory, bound about me like a blanket.
We’d lost a lot already.
“The Regent might be able to fix that,” I said.
“I don’t want to be fixed,” Teri said. “I’m still me. There’s nothing- there’s nothing wrong with me, Warden.”
I held up a hand. “I didn’t mean to imply there was. You can be whoever you want to be.”
“I don’t really know who I want to be,” Teri said. “It’s the end of the world. I don’t- there’s not a lot of time to be Teri, is there? A single mistake and-”
“Is Tane carrying part of you?” Jay asked.
Teri’s beak clicked shut. “No. It was- well, it was… I was dying, and she was there, and she demanded that I not. I was ready, I was-” She shook her head, and her feathers puffed up.
“There’ll be time after this,” Jay said.
“That’s-” Teri shook his head. “No offence Jay, but if I don’t figure this out soon- if we lose…”
My heart dropped. It was all binary. We stood at the literal end of the world. In a way, that was a great opportunity to neglect everything that made us who we were. Nothing would matter if we lost. It wouldn’t matter who we upset, or who we destroyed, what we’d witnessed. It’d be erased as if we had never been there to begin with. It was binary.
If it mattered or not came down to whether or not the ritual worked, and if we could defeat Bismarck.
Could we become the immovable object to Bismarck’s unstoppable force? Which would break?
“What do you want to do then?” The words tumbled out. I looked over at Boss. She was napping against the wall like a golden wall of rippling anomalous flesh and fur.
“I want to be useful,” Teri said. “We’re plunging into a god soon, and I don’t know what I’m good for there.”
“What do you mean?” Jay asked.
“I don’t know if you three had noticed,” Teri said, looking us over. “You have a Warden on your side, the slayer of gods. You have Jay, whatever the hell you are, and you have Boss. I’m Teri. I’m a programmer.”
Something tickled at the edge of my mind, some half removed fragment. I was starting to recognize Omoi’s handiwork; memories that were still there, but without the framework to connect them to one another. I hated it. If I were just-
Old Jess had destroyed her memories to stop them from being used. She’d given them all up to the Bystander.
I could hate her for it, or I could marvel in her genius. Bismarck, even if she’d gotten hold of me instead of killing me, couldn’t’ve have extracted anything beyond what I’d already pieced together. I could respect that.
I could respect me.
“Programming’s important,” I said. I couldn’t piece together why. “The Lords are all machines,” I decided. “All of them are.”
“Am I supposed to magically know their language?”
My eyes closed. I tried to remember it, frantically trying to spool it all back together. “Teri-”
“I need to leave. I have to figure this out. Alone.” Teri said, and hopped over Boss’s form. She hesitated at the threshold of the room. Jay didn’t reach out to stop her, and then she left without another word.
My heart fell. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what to do. Did anything matter at all except the upcoming battle?
I slid against the bed, ignoring how rocklike the mattress was, and counted my own breaths. The Morrigan was gone, Teri was in shock, the Regent was the Regent- who was I supposed to confide in?
Nobody. I was the Morrigan. I was the one to confide in, and I’d already ruined that with Teri. Had I said the wrong words?
Maybe there weren’t any right words to begin with. I might have to just deal with that.
An hour later, before I’d figured out how to get to sleep, and when Jay had settled against the wall for a nap and the only noise was the steady rise and fall of Boss’s chest and her immense lungs whistling air past her teeth, Tane arrived.
She poked her head in, her feathers sleek, and hopped over Boss as nimbly as a corvid could, landing without a noise. She stared at me, looking at the other occupants, and claimed the bed opposite of mine.
“Heard you had an adventure,” Tane whispered. “We have allies now.”
“Boss did most of the work,” I said. “I think she’s been waiting for this for a long time. She hardly needed me.”
“Is that so bad?” Tane asked, leaning back against her single pillow. “Not having to carry everything on your shoulders-”
“I’m scared,” I admitted. “Because the time’s coming, and I don’t know what to do, not really. We’ve fought in a war, and the end’s coming, and all we have is this ritual, and it still doesn’t solve everything.”
“Talk to me,” Tane said.
“Jay’s still dying,” I said. Tane’s eyes flicked over to the napping bird, who might not be napping as hard as I’d like him to be, but if he wanted to chime in he could. “The Morrigan’s gone.”
“You’re the Morrigan,” Tane corrected.
“I don’t feel like the Morrigan,” I said.
“You have the first memories,” Tane said. “That’s what matters for being the Morrigan.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “Is that really everything?”
“That’s the moment that made Crow Kind,” Tane said. “But being the Morrigan wasn’t why the Elder was so liked.”
“I know,” I said.
Tane continued regardless. “She was liked because she was kind, and because she had seen the world, and had fought her hardest to make it better. With all of her might.”
“I’m Jess,” I said. “I’m the Morrigan.”
“But you’re not the Elder,” Tane said. “You can mourn her, if you’d like.”
“I am,” I said.
“We all are.”
“I missed the funerals,” I said. “Didn’t I?”
“Their names were written on the stones before we left,” Tane said. “They were buried. Words were exchanged.”
“Did the Elder ever-”
“She gave us a funeral for herself,” Tane said. “She told us what she was doing.” Her eyes closed, and she lay there, as still as a corpse. “She wasn’t cruel enough to leave us with nothing. She promised- she said she might be back some day. That nothing was really permanent.” Her talons clicked together.
“Do you believe that?” I whispered.
“I believe in you,” Tane replied. “That’s good enough for me.”
I flushed, shaking my head. “I barely feel human most of the time.”
“You’re a Crow now,” Tane replied. “But- you just need to get to the end.”
Back to the Binary. I felt it like an oncoming bullet, the terminal point. I didn’t even have a plan beyond the rite. What was right?
Bismarck aside, the rite to bring back humanity still existed. Those were billions of lives at stake.
But that rite would obliterate the Crows, and the Beasts. They were fighting to prevent extinction, while I contemplated treason to get everyone else back. Guilt gnawed at my heart like a living snake.
Make the world a better place, Morrigan.
I didn’t know what a better place was. But maybe it’d work out.
“When’d you get wise?”
“I’m the leader of the scouts,” Tane said. “And I did a lot of maturing in the war.”
“It was only a week,” I said.
“It felt like years,” she replied. “That’s enough for me, and yet, I’m going to go in for another round. I must be mad.”
“You’re doing it for me,” I said.
“I must be doubly mad,” Tane joked. I frowned. “We’re going to win. The rite’ll work.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“We won’t have long to regret it,” Tane said. “Isn’t that what you want most from this? Certainty?”
“I don’t know what I want,” I said. “I don’t know anything at all. I took care of that.”
“I don’t like the thought that you know about as much as the rest of us.”
“She knows more,” Boss rumbled, her many eyes still shut. “But she doesn’t know it.”
I glared at her in the darkness. “Boss-”
“Go to sleep,” Boss said, two sets of eyes opening into narrow slits. The red gleamed in the dark of the room like tiny headlights.
I didn’t have a plan. Billions of lives, old lives, human lives, stood in the balance, and I didn’t have even the start of a plan of how to save them.
But I might have the time to figure something out.