The next day was marked by Fey scurrying about. The base was a blur of activity, crates being moved and far underground far greater things moved, none of it at all with the eerie clockwork precision that had marked the other armies.
As I walked the hallways, they moved to avoid me. A few stared while I passed. Isaac stayed in front of me, and Jay stood at my side, throwing looks at anyone who stopped in front of me.
“I’m taking you to the hive,” Isaac said. “The Admiral wants you to see some of the defences we’ve made, so you know what to avoid.”
“Good idea,” Jay said.
I paused. “We should get Quen as well.” Jay frowned.
“Quen?” Isaac asked.
“He was the one most interested in the war,” Jay clarified.
“Ah,” Isaac said. “Well, let’s get him.”
Quen was with most of the rest of the Crows, dozing in his scattered form against a wide variety of perches. Isaac nudged one and gestured at me, and they all hopped to attention, then merged back into one being. Quen dusted himself off and gave me what I was sure was supposed to be a raucous grin. “You finally need me again?”
“We’re looking at the weapons the Admiral has,” Jay said. “She thought you might be interested.”
Quen’s grin slipped a bit, and he stood a bit straighter. “That, that I’m interested in.”
I blinked at him, then shook my head.
We took a turn towards a set of stairs, and then down we went. After the first floor, another set of stairs had been carved into the rock below, and it turned into less of a building and more of a dark tunnel, lit by glowing strips on the walls.
Even that changed into glowing lines of organic material, and the walls changed from solid stone to something like paper, wet and humid in the air. The smell turned from dust and rot to more wet and living smells of rot and mold. I threw my arm over my face to try and filter it, and felt stupid when the three of them turned to look at me.
“What do you think will be left of Crows after this?” Quen asked. Isaac paused.
“What do you mean?”
Quen gestured at the living walls, and the gleaming smears of material that kept the paper nested structure lit enough to see. “How do we come back from this? The Morrigan is gone-” He winced. “No offence Jess. The Regent was…”
Jay shrugged. “I don’t think we should think about that for too long.”
“The Capital’s gone,” Quen continued, unabated. Our footsteps slowly changed from concrete to something wetter, and the air grew worse and harsher, thick with carbon dioxide until my hand swam. In front of us, Isaac lit a candle and oxygen streamed forth and we could breath again.
“The Capital is us,” Jay said.
Quen’s eyes closed. “It was a place where we could feel safe, Jay,” Quen said. “Do you feel safe now?”
“I saw Bismarck,” Jay replied. “I don’t know how anyone’s supposed to feel safe while that’s going on.”
Isaac gestured at us from the end of the fleshy tunnel, and we continued, ignoring the ruffle of paper and the humming of distant things, many better left unobserved. I wondered, not for the first time, exactly what I’d been thinking in joining USEC.
Would the world have been better without me?
“That’s the difference between us,” Quen said. “You refuse to look into the future.”
“You refuse to remember the past,” Jay replied.
At the end of the tunnel the track opened up into a massive cavern. The ceiling stretched far enough that it wasn’t lit by the gleaming strips of fluid on the wall, now squirming and settled with strange insects I did not have words for but had too many legs and not enough bodily segments to be centipedes. They moved like a hideous collage. The ground crackled underneath, but I could feel something moving as it did so.
At the edge of the platform sat the Admiral, his legs hanging off into the darkness below. His antennae twitched, turning to face us.
“Isaac,” He said, his voice echoing most peculiarly into the mottled squirming darkness. “You brought more than I thought you would.
Quen’s voice stopped as he stared over the edge. By the flickering light of the tiny candle in Isaac’s outstretched arm I could just barely make out something in the yawning void below. Teeth, a great thing squirming ugly and forgotten, and things coiled up over top of one another. I could smell rot, and mold, and things better unknown.
I looked away before it could look at me.
“This is my hive,” the Admiral said, gesturing grandly. “You’re the first new people to visit here in over a year.”
“I was the last before you,” Isaac clarified, taking a seat next to the Admiral. I didn’t join them.
“Is this where you were changed?”
“No,” The Admiral said. “That was in the great chambers to the west, the great writhing places that still exist deep in the earth, where the ichor seeped out of the core of the world, tempered and tainted with the void left behind by humanity’s sacrifice. There you can see the stars how they used to be instead of how they are, drifted and out of place.”
I hadn’t bothered looking at the stars for that long. I didn’t want to see what had changed.
“And?” I asked.
“When the Queen died, her dearest pets and assets locked themselves in a massive war for her wealth. The smarter ones, most of which were our old group, we banded together long enough to secure territory, and then we started killing each other.” The Admiral stood up, dusting his aged features off from whatever powder hung in the air like fungal spores. The candle occasionally ate at them, billowing up to lap like a hungry dog. Shadows danced against the far wall, tendriled dark puppets.
“What’d you grab?”
The Admiral took a step off of the edge, and then another, and then he was rising up out of the air, standing on top of a great thing, a squirming thing hooked with harsh barbs. “I took my hive, of course. The Queen allowed her chosen to make their selections, and I chose mobility and power.”
As the Admiral rose up through the air the candle revealed the rest of the creature. A dozen eyes stood on the tendril, flicking this way and that, embedded thoroughly into the chitin and surrounded by hardened protective plates. It was-
It was cliche to talk about scope and vastness, and yet that was the only way to describe that creature that sat in the heart of the base. I could only wonder how it had gotten here in the first place if I wasn’t aware of its spawn’s burrowing capacity.
For once, Jay took a step to the side instead of in front of me. I swallowed. This was my part to play.
I was alright with that.
“Where’s your power?” I asked. “This is mobility, what did you do?”
Far below, where the great shifting thing had been resting, where slime pooled forth viscous and lubricating to allow the creature to slide itself over itself without harm I saw them poking up from the ground. Like monoliths, they sat.
I could almost hear Omoi’s geiger counter click up a few times. I couldn’t of course, but I could imagine it when staring at atomic bombs.
“They really shouldn’t still work,” Isaac said, breaking his silence.
“Do they?” Quen asked, sounding excited.
The Admiral sat down on top of the great thing as it continued to move and uncoil. Then, and only then could we see it fully, and it sat at attention. A dozen and change’s worth of tentacles the size of busses, bladed things that were like prehensile teeth, and no clear head. A great bulbous knot sat at the center, throbbing despite the chitin. It played like the beat of a drum, a distant haunting echo that set my teeth on edge.
“They work,” The Admiral said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, and lit up. “This is what I have to donate to your little fated cause, Dr. Williams. Do you think that’s good enough?”
I stared at the great creature, as large as the chamber and slick with strange fluids, moving on a number of arms. This was the creature at the heart of the hive?
I thought of Bismarck, and I thought of her power, and I thought of her armies, now diminished from routing the Capital. Undoubtedly she’d consumed Trellis’s hordes as well, adding to her numbers, but it was no matter. This wasn’t going to come down to armies.
This was going to come down to heavy hitters and how much time it could buy us.
“Depends,” I said, and my fingers curled up into fists. I was angry.
It was so frustrating. It didn’t matter how many allies we made, or what we accomplished if we couldn’t take out Bismarck. If she just kept coming, if she could teleport behind us and destroy us.
“Depends?” The Admiral asked, raising an eyebrow from his position on top of the behemoth.
“How many of those can you hit Bismarck with?” I asked.
His grin opened, and opened, and opened, his cheeks far wider than they ought to be to accomodate his extended smile.
“For you?” he asked.
“I’ll help,” Quen said, his voice quiet underneath the majesty of the creature in front of us. Jay remained silent. He was there as an extension of myself. If he had words, he could share them later.
“For you,” The Admiral said. “I’ll reduce Bismarck to atomic smithereens as many times as it takes. I’ll bleed her dry and cut out her liver until my blades go dull and the hive stops replying. I’ll paint the earth with her ichor until life grows from it, wild and free.”
“You’d do that for me?” I asked.
“No,” The Admiral said. “I’d do it for free. This is just a good opportunity.”
Quen laughed. “Actually…”
The Admiral turned to the warleader, a title I hadn’t used for him since we’d lost the city. “Yes, bird?”
“Quen,” he said.
“Quen,” The Admiral repeated. “I knew a Quen once. He was a good man.”
Quen stared at him until shaking his head. “If you’d be willing to work close with the Regent… I think we can make your tactics even better.”
The Admiral’s eyes looked away from Quen and settled on me.
“You know Jess-” he shook his head. “Or you wouldn’t I suppose. I spent most of my time at USEC being told off and lectured about my tactics.” He paused, posed on top of the great writhing mass of flesh and chitin. “But despite that, they kept coming back to me for it every time something went truly wrong. Alaska…”
A smile tugged at my face. It wasn’t a happy one, it was a grim one. Necessity. I didn’t know what our relationship had been, but I knew that it hadn’t been great..
“Yes?” I asked.
“I’ve never had someone who wanted to help me be more deadly.” The Admiral’s eyes fell on Isaac, who looked sheepish. “I think I like it.”
“It’s a deal,” I said.
“Dr. Williams,” The Admiral said, tasting my name like one tasted a fine vintage. “There’s no deal. I do this for free.” His lips curled back to expose more and more of his jaw, white bone stretched taut underneath of aged skin like leather.
“There’s nothing you could pay me to make me want this more than I already do.”