I was the key. I was the solution, I was the final touch on a masterpiece and yet, sitting there in the chair, I hesitated.
It sat glimmering in the back of my mind, just behind my eyes, just underneath my thoughts, a twirling incandescent screaming thing that begged to be used, the mind of a god, the last directives of mankind, a twinkling and wretched prisoner now awake in my mind.
The last legions rushed on, terrible and perilous, and I hesitated with the keys in the last weapon. It was all inside of me, entombed in half hidden memories and in the folds of caresses of who I now was.
Should I destroy the new world for the old? Wasn’t that a simple balance of equations, rhetoric. What was the value of a couple billion compared to the sum and total of humanity?
Old Jessica Williams argued this was the right way, giving as many people as possible the chances to live, but new Jess?
New Jess was greedy. New Jess didn’t want to settle for second best. New Jess wanted it all, had bled for it all, had died for it all, and sure, she was suffering from sunk cost fallacy, but that sunk cost included all of the new friends who had died, and all of the new people who had lived since the end of the world.
Old Jess had killed Ten Billion People to give them a chance to live later.
New Jess wasn’t ready to kill the new world to give it to them. There had to be something, something she could do to get the best of both worlds.
But she couldn’t think of it while someone else was coming to make the choice for her. I was Jess, destroyer of worlds, savior of mankind and I was the only one who was going to make that decision.
And I wasn’t going to let Bismarck take it from me.
We returned to camp with less men and more knowledge. Isaac stayed behind, hesitating, but I knew that he wouldn’t be able to cause much harm without the full of the Kind Lord working to exterminate him on the spot.
The perimeter was already being established inside of the depths of the great old one, great concrete dividers being carted inside and heavy equipment, military issued and freshly re-constructed under the Admiral’s orders made it feel less like the eternally ‘just good enough’ design of the Crows and more like the old world’s touches.
Jay spoked under his breath. “I don’t know how I feel about someone else joining us for the last stand,” he said.
“They have just as much of a right to die here as we do,” I said. He gave me a look.
“And how are you feeling?”
The memories, wild and rabid and twisted, slid through my head like fish through a torn net. It was hard to make sense of all of it, but finally, I thought I felt completed.
I wished I hadn’t been. In the pursuit of this last ditch effort, this reckless self indulgence of survival, I had done so many terrible things.
He read my frown without a word, his beak clicking.
And just like that, I remembered I didn’t have much of himself inside of me. The eerie trickle and bleed of his memories was gone, replaced by memories that were stronger than they’d ever been. The Words, the Command Tongue, it tickled beneath my thoughts, shifting and unfettered like the last words of a trembling and ulti-mortal entity.
Which they were. The whispered commands of the Supreme Lord, and the contextual language of the Lords themselves, left lingering and powerful by what they’d first meant.
It was contextual. It was always contextual. Even now I could feel the burning of the Watcher, Lord Extinction, the great wandering eye high up in the cosmos, chained to the earth upon the bones of billions, unable to shake the shackles for fear of missing the last great story of mankind.
“Bad,” I said.
“We can get some of those excised later, if you want. If the Regent hasn’t run off, I mean.” Jay shifted his feathers back and forth. “Do you think that… everything will turn out alright?”
“It will,” I said, with the knowledge that we were so far outside of the scope of any plan that any of the cells of United States Extranormal Containment had ever planned in even their absolutely wildest dreams. It would work out well.
“I know that,” Jay said. “I don’t know why I asked that.”
“I used to know how you felt about that too,” Jay said. “But those are gone. Are you alright being… singular?”
“I have the Morrigan.” Her memories were still a protective barrier, like a blanket thrown over my shoulders or the myelin protecting my nerve endings. It wasn’t enough. It had to be enough. They trickled over my thoughts like caramel, but I knew what remained of the First Crow was nervous, just as every crow in my body was nervous. They were still delighted to be me, and yet…
I couldn’t help but feel like I was leading them down the wrong path. That being me would result in nothing less but the total extinction of life on Earth.
“You won’t have her for much longer,” Jay pointed out. “We need her, or what’s left… for the King.”
“Right,” I said.
Turning the corner as we left the great maw of the Kind Lord, the undying mound of flesh and sickness and cancer and devolved alien races desperate for another chance, we finally felt the sun touch down upon our bodies. The Kind Lord’s unending array of chambers and tubes had been much warmer than the outside world, this far into the mountains it was cool, cool enough that snow rested on top of the dead creature’s still breathing form.
So I shuddered under it, and Jay shot me a look. “After this is over, we should really teach you more about being a Crow. What do you think?”
I laughed. “Sure.”
The Admiral’s army was moving like ants across the jungle floor. They huffed and lifted and drove, another line here and there, collapsible. Mines were being placed, high explosives were being moved, artillery pieces were being constructed on the spot.
This wasn’t the siege of the capital, where glass weapons were being brought to bear against fragile bugs, and the idea was to simply kill every last creature that crossed the threshold with a hope it would be enough. No, this was an actual military.
An artillery piece went off, almost deafening, the angle approaching a 45, and miles away, the hill side erupted in a plume of snow and debris. We hurried on into the forward base even as it was evacuated.
“There you are,” The Admiral said.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you here yet. What about the hive?” I asked.
“She understands where we’re to be,” The Admiral said. “And she understands this is perhaps the end of our partnership.”
“You gave up on her?” Jay asked.
“Never,” The Admiral said. “But if at the end of us, we are still alive, I plan on finding her again. There are many souls trapped inside her, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.” He squinted, his many eyes diving into mine. “You seem more composed. Did anything happen you didn’t bring up on the radio?”
“I know it all now,” I said.
“I was also extracted from her,” Jay reported.
“Interesting,” The bug-man said, steepling his fingers together. “I’m upholding my end of the deal as well.”
“I noticed,” I said. “How many bombs were you able to locate?”
“A gentlemen doesn’t flirt and tell,” The Admiral said, evenly. Why didn’t he want me to know? “It’s for the best that only I know about that, Magus.”
Admiral, Magus, Prince, Bismarck, Trellis. Codenames.
No, not code names. They were… more dramatic names. We were figures on a great cosmic play, and we needed dramatic names because Isaac insisted they were better.
It all trickled back slowly as I felt the memories swim over top of me. They’d been… friends. We’d been friends, and we’d all done terrible things to cement our positions.
So here I was, older, wiser, more aware of what it meant to be killed and how it felt to feel pain and to be left in the dark, and the only part of us that was left was
I opened my eyes, unaware that they’d been closed. “Magus,” I repeated.
Jay shifted uncomfortably.
“You have the program?” The Admiral asked.
I made a middling gesture. “The key is fragmented,” I lied. “It’ll take time to decode it. I did too good of a job back in the day.”
“Ah,” The Admiral said, clearly not convinced. “Hopefully this isn’t yet another one of your little games, Magus. We’re out of resources for you to squander feeling smarter than everyone else.”
The arrogant bitch I’d used to be spoke in the back of my head from where she was being vivisected and stripmined for more information.
But I was smarter than everyone else.
New Jess didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe that.
“Plan B is still live,” I said. “The rite is being prepared.”
“How does this work?” The Admiral said. “A real explanation.”
“Bismarck can’t die as long as the full of The Watcher’s attention is on her. She’s the full culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work, she has an immense dramatic weight,” Isaac said, stepping inside.
He had a long sword on his back. What the hell?
“We’re going to do something more dramatic than that. Then, she should be killable,” Isaac said.
“Should,” The Admiral repeated the most important word in that sentence. “Is there anything else we should-”
“You’re looking at the only Dramaturgical specialist that has ever lived,” Isaac scowled at him. “Jess, Jay, are you ready for the rite?”
“I don’t trust you,” Jay declared.
“I know that already.”
“Jess, any other options we could use?”
I could use the Fail-Safe and kill everyone I’d met since I’d woken up. That didn’t seem like the right option, even if it would end the war on the spot.
I looked over at Isaac. “We’ll have words after this is over.”
“If it delights you, Jess, you can put a gun to my head and pull the trigger,” Isaac had a lazy defeated sound to his voice, as if he knew he wasn’t going to make it that long. “But only after Bismarck is dead.”
“Everyone is putting everything off until after she’s dead,” I muttered under my breath. “I think you just don’t want that conversation.”
Isaac’s shoulders fell. “What do you want from me?” he asked. “Jess, really.”
“How did it come to this?” I asked. I could feel the world dying, a thick cosmic thrum high and awful in the air.
“The world was ending,” The Admiral said. “This was the only option that was left after a nightmarish series of other ones. We were the only ones left who could manage it. That’s it.”
I worked my jaw.
“We were the only ones left who were willing to do what needed to be done,” Isaac corrected. “There were many others.”
“They tried to stop us?”
“Oh,” Isaac said. “So many times. I got shot three times at one point. They thought I was going to die, and I saw a vision of the end of all things. Atomic particles forgetting how to maintain their forms and colliding into a muon soup. Earth was long dead at that point; background levels of radiation rose as even lead became radioactive, decaying under the lack of ability to keep proton and neutrons and quarks together. And Lord Extinction was laughing because we had died a boring death.”
I frowned at him.
“Total obliteration of nearly everything Humanity had ever accomplished, Jess. Apart from a few satellites so far away from us that they’d been captured and cataloged by Lord Science, there would be nothing left of us.”
“Background levels of radiation were already increasing,” The Admiral reported. “Mass crop failures, environmental devastation. The end of the world.” He clenches his fingers into fists and the chitin adorning them crackled under the effort. “We are still saving the world, Jess. The lives of billions.”
“We killed them,” I said, and the guilt wracked me like a child breaking a beloved toy.
“We’re going to save them,” Isaac said. Jay shot me a look but didn’t say a word. “But first, we have to kill Bismarck.”
“Right,” I said.
“We’ll have the perimeter protected,” The Admiral said. “You make sure your part is good enough. Nice and… dramatic.” he said the last word with such distaste that I was fairly sure it made him physically ill.
It certainly made me sick just thinking about putting on a moral play for a bored god to keep his attention for just a few more days.
We left. Jay trailed behind me. I could see how he moved, see how he was still doubting it all. I couldn’t blame him. It was so absurd that even I was having trouble processing the sheer magnitude. Even with all of the pieces in front of me.
Even with all of my memories, the monstrosity of what we’d accomplished, what we were still planning to accomplish, it tasted like ashes in my mouth.
Another explosion from a mortar in the distance. I could only hope that it actually meant something.