USEC didn’t greet me when I opened my eyes. Nobody did.
A bump woke me up. A distant engine was cranked up as high as it could go; the capital’s fleets of vehicles buzzed like the opening notes of a rock concert.
The world was a hazy mash of shapes and colors and hostile things, unique shades I didn’t have words for that sent the world into a bizarre haze of technicolor. I shifted and I rolled onto my back, staring up into the heavens.
One by one, the rest of my eyes opened, and we stared up at the roof of the vehicle. I shifted feet about, and lazily, I looked down. Black. Sheer feathers. The image was repeated a dozenfold, and I slowly turned and stared at the rest of me. A dozen sets of eyes and visions processed themselves over top of each other.
A dozen sets of eyes, a dozen sets of crows. I watched myself breathe in, and out, the steady movement of the bird’s chests, and threw myself back to where I knew my Omoi ought to be set.
It hadn’t been the first time I’d been shut out. But now, now, now! Now there was nothing to dispel the illusion. I closed my eyes. All twelve sets of lungs breathed in and out, synchronous or asynchronous, and their little brains held the sum and total of what was left of me.
I ran through the exercises that USEC had left me, some of which I had even devised, to rummage through the thoughts that I had left.
Some 85% of me had made the transition here, at last. At most, 92%. I could work with that. I breathed in, and then out again, and all of my lungs ached from the effort.
I opened my many eyes and stared back into the van.
I was sitting in a nest, a large nest, and I was the sole occupants inside of it. Across the car, where my vision shifted to with nightmarish precision, though the image remained twelve fold, lay a great creature. Her golden fur now dappled with silver and colors I couldn’t define, and every inch of her was cloaked in bandages, caked with rusted blood.
I held my breath.
Her chest rose and fell, a vague concession by the universe, and I could smell her breath. Infectious, awful, predatory. Her muzzle twitched, revealing a mouthful of sharp teeth.
My heart screamed predator, and the twelve birds screamed predator, but my brain screamed friend. Boss had made it out alive.
Barely, but I’d seen her heal before. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, if she’d lived. I hopped about, delicate little legs, and stared at the person driving.
It felt like a mirror, seeing Jay’s expression again, and I tasted the hot mess of corruption that made up his entire form. Now I could smell it in the air, and see the mottled colors touching his feathers. Jay was sick, sick from holding it together.
Now I knew it was more admirable than I had ever thought. He had succeeded where I hadn’t, and he’d lived. I could still faintly feel the trace of his mind against mine, and I queried it, shoving my thoughts into what was left behind.
It buzzed angrily, fragmented memories rimmed with red and heavenly gold, distant and fractalized by whatever neurons had been misfiring on my death.
Against my will, one of my twelve cawed mournfully, the creature’s mind abuzz with the memories of death, of pain, of hot pressing shattering misery, and the misery and certainty of failure, and then another joined him.
Their minds were tiny little pinpricks, but every time I pressed against them they crooned in contentment. They liked being something greater. They liked being this way.
I could taste them like a flavor in my thoughts, a bizarre set of avian characteristics that kept it all moving. It kept me alive. It kept us alive.
I was a collective.
The second Crow in the car turned to look at me, and her eyes softened. Tane. Tane. Tane who had fought so bravely, Tane that had been overwhelmed. Tane. She’d made it out alive.
She stared at me, her great head turning to the side, and she examined, for a time. I let another crow caw at her, and then she dissolved. I could trace it, trace the omniconnections between her birds as they fired off, using senses I had never had before, and that I could not place words to, and her birds fluttered their wings and settled amongst mine. Her birds were all older than mine, minus one or two, who seemed to be of the same age. She leaned in, and I could see it in her eyes that these crows had already been claimed, been kindled, and tapped a beak against one of mine.
I tapped back.
She made a laughing noise among her ranks, and I tried to replicate it. It helped. It chased away from of the memories, the memories of my… of my…
My eyes, many of them, flashed with the memory, hot and horrible and functional, and it was stronger than anything else, replicated twelve times, and I stared at the arm jutting out of my chest, at the remnants of my heart, stopped.
Birds screamed and squealed, and there were things brushing against mine, and beaks against feathers, and warm bodies among my own, and when I came back and the visions had fled, Tane’s many crows were interspersed with my own, wings on wings
It felt right, huddled together, and the memories faded. I grew distant, letting the birds take over. They hopped about, exploring the world, feeding me their senses and their ideas. They were petty small things, fragments, fragments alone, but they were distinct and particular.
Then she shifted, the crows all settling in on one another until their outlines became indistinct, and Tane was there, looking down at all of me. She offered me a hand. I looked down at it, poking it with a pair of beaks.
“It’s alright,” She said, calmly, her voice low. “You can come together. We’re all here.”
Jay kept his eyes firmly ahead on the road, ignoring the two of us. Boss was sound asleep, her chest still rising and falling. She took up most of the van, stretched around the nest as she was.
“We’re all here,” Tane repeated. I wondered where Teri was. Or the Morrigan. Or Dean. Or Quen, or Prin. We weren’t all here. I breathed in, and out.
“Just come together,” Tane said. “You can do it.”
She reached out with her hands and gently shoved us closer and closer. One crow squawked indignantly, shoving me to the side, but I settled back over his mind like a blanket.
One moment, I was twelve, dancing across their eyes, and the next moment, I was one, staring ahead through a set of eyes. Four colors, again.
Crows were tetrachromatic, I knew that. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers, my mostly human fingers, over my bare skin.
Then I opened them. The nest dug into the crook of my thigh, and I stared down at myself. My pale cave borne skin had turned dusky, streaked with grey, and scales broke the smooth surface in various places, interrupting the familiar shape of my own body. I breathed in, and out.
Then realized Tane was inspecting me with interest, and shoved an arm to censor myself. I didn’t exactly come with clothes.
“Are you…” She murmured. “Are you alright?”
“I-” my voice was hoarse, coarse as sandpaper. I swallowed a few times, trying to fix it, but it was a scratchy mess. “I… I look more like… the Morrigan,” I ran fingers over the tufts of bird scales and feathers, and flushed in humiliation. She flinched.
Reaching into the back, Tane offered me a lab coat. “We couldn’t save your suit,” she said, looking away from me. I shrugged into it. It was…
It was familiar. It didn’t set right, but it felt familiar enough.
“I’m alive,” I wondered aloud. “I’m… I should be…”
“You died,” Tane corrected. “Your body… is dead. Very dead.” She couldn’t meet my eyes. “We buried you under the trees. With the other beasts.”
I swallowed, and felt the distant buzz of the birds. They were… they were sad for me. That… that was nice.
“I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “I didn’t… we didn’t get her.”
Jay’s grip on the wheel strengthened until it bent at the metal. I tried not to look at him. If I’d been better. If I’d just been-
“If I’d been faster,” Tane muttered.
“No,” Jay said, cutting through his silence like a knife. “We’re not- we can’t assign blame for this.”
“Okay,” Tane said. “That’s… okay. I can…”
“Where are the others?” I rasped. I put hands around my throat and pressed down.
Tane looked uncomfortable. “Boss is right there.”
“Dean’s dead. Prin’s dead,” Jay said. “The Morrigan is-”
I swallowed. “Dead?” I asked.
Jay didn’t reply.
“The Regent survived,” Tane said.
I felt a flash of irrational anger at her. So many secrets. So many things that if we’d just been clear about earlier-
That was hypocritical. I hadn’t been clear on most of it myself. If I’d been clear earlier, just spoken up instead of hiding-
Jay said not to assign blame. But I wanted it.
“Teri’s alive, barely. I… had to give her a lot of myself. She’s working on it.” Tane continued. “Quen’s still around, too.”
Jay snorted at that last one. “What loathsome creatures we are, that the elderly and old blood survive and the new blood dies.”
“What about Teri?” Tane asked.
Jay’s beak clicked together and he kept driving. I looked outside the window. There was a fleet of cars on this crumbling old road, half destroyed. How many times had it been reset and replanted by the civilizations that’d risen and fallen?
Had the crows themselves taken to restoring it?
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To your brother’s last location,” Jay said. “It’s our last lead, and Bismarck went this way. The rest are following us; most of who’s left.”
“Oh,” I said. “I think I’m going to start crying.”
Tane wrapped me in a hug, and we sat there for a moment, watching the world go by. Jay was silent, pensive, moody.
Then I started crying, despite myself, and the tears just didn’t stop. The twelve birds that made up my entirety couldn’t stop crying either. They knew that something horrible had happened.
I just didn’t know how it was I was back.
I wasn’t supposed to get a second chance.