The Admiral burst into rasping laughter, and thumped an aged fist against the desk. “You want to summon your people’s hero? Isn’t he dead?”
“We have enough pieces of him to make him again,” Jay said. I could feel, from this close, how the corruption inside of his flared up as he stoked it, teasing it with some minor facet of himself before yanking it away from it with an almost criminal level of control. “If we make him again, and we make him in the right place, and give him his weapon, how could the Watcher resist? A legendary hero to fight Bismarck.”
“Two legendary heroes battling it out for the end of the world,” The Admiral wondered. “We really are living in a story.”
“A story where everyone we know is liable to die,” I said. “Not everyone gets the same second chances that we did, Admiral.”
His eyes closed.
“I remember them begging me to reconsider the orders,” he said, almost pleased. “They told me that it was a bad reprisal.”
“They did?” I asked.
“I told them it was a fair reprisal,” His eyes opened, multi segmented and pupil less and as hollow as the false sky. “I’d do it again, every time.”
“What’d they take from you?”
“My granddaughter,” He said, smoothly. “The Watcher’s cult took her from her school to hurt me, so I broke them. I want to break them again. Story be damned, I want blood, and I want violence, and I want shrapnel.”
“They aren’t the Watcher,” I said. “We broke him.”
“I don’t care,” The Admiral said. “They’ll do.”
Jay clicked his beak together. “I don’t quite understand what this has to do with anything.”
“We’re going to break them,” I said. I made a quick guess. “Under the battlefield will be enough explosives to kill god.”
Jay hissed. “Under the King?” he asked.
“Why? Do you have any reason not to?” The Admiral said.
“I don’t think-” Jay sighed. “I just don’t think we’ll be comfortable battling on top of high explosives.”
“Just one,” The Admiral said. “I have a few numbers left over from the burning of the world.”
I blinked. “You have a nuke?”
“I have a nuke,” The Admiral smiled. “I disliked your blunt handling of the crisis, doctor, I’ll admit, but I can understand and respect the effectiveness of it.”
“Blunt?” I asked, voice shrill.
“Blunt,” He said, and merely gestured outside the window.
I winced. His smile deepened. While Jay’s expression didn’t really change, his eyes widened. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“If Bismarck gets to her goal, the entire world will cease existing as we know it.” The Admiral leaned forward. “Just as the good doctor here planned for it.”
“What did I plan?”
“I’ll admit,” The Admiral said. “Most of it went over my head. I thought you were full of shit. The world was falling apart, piece by piece, and then, after the bombs fell, it stopped. Therefore, I had to believe the other part of your claims.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“You were going to reverse it all,” he said. “Turn back the clock to the moment you suggested it, and put a note with your new calculations and changes in front of you, so you’d know exactly what you’d done.”
I breathed in, and out, and felt a flicker of panic across my heart. Hearts. They all beat together like tiny drums. The sheer arrogance of the idea seemed pathetic after so many months spent in the far future.
“And what do you think now?”
“I think we gave a monster the keys to the world,” he said. I didn’t know which monster he was talking about. “And I’m not obliged to let the last thousand years of torture go to waste just to throw her on the throne.”
I took a seat and breathed out.
“You’re both so sure that this is what’d happen.” Jay said. His eyes settled on me, and they flicked back and forth across my face, searching for some confirmation that this entire mess wasn’t insane.
Sadly, it was completely insane. I couldn’t fix that. “I don’t have the full information,” I said. I turned, and looked out the window towards the north. Something was drawing my gaze there. “But Bismarck believes it, Prince believed it, Trellis believed it, and now the Admiral believes it. That’s every Queen’s Guard we met.”
“I didn’t have my organs cut out of my body based on a whim,” The Admiral muttered, his long antennae twitching. “We’ve got Bismarck at a disadvantage.”
“She’s invincible,” Jay said. “How do we have her at a disadvantage?”
“She’ll have to walk the entire way,” The Admiral bit. “And I still have my hive intact, unlike her. I’ll make her bleed every inch of the way. The soldiers at my disposal already understand.”
“They can think?” I asked.
“I have no need for an army of slaves,” The Admiral said, sounding cross that I’d even question it. “So I unslaved them a few decades ago. Considering what they were born from…”
My stomach dropped, and I remembered, with no small amount of dread, that the Fey had long been looking for storages of humans.
“This is good and all,” Jay interrupted, a hand on my shoulder. “But we need to talk about the rite.”
The door opened and Isaac stepped inside. “That’s where I come in.”
“What happened to knocking?” The Admiral asked.
“Admiral, you said I was equal to you,” Isaac said, faux offended. I could hear the lilt of sarcasm in his voice, and it was familiar and painful. “And I have enough knowledge to figure out the rite-”
“Where’d you put my memories?” I asked. I was going to cut straight to the point. I’d spent over a month worrying and realizing again and again just how different the world- how different I was to who I thought I was. “You’re the one who took them, right?”
“I took them,” Isaac said, and then his lips puckered like he’d bitten into something particularly sour. “I shouldn’t’ve.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why did I take them?” Isaac asked, “Or…?”
“Both,” I said. Jay’s hackles rose as he turned to face my ancient coworker.
“Jess…” Isaac said. “You were only a step away from Bismarck at the end. You were the mastermind behind this plan, remember? I realized… when I woke up, that I couldn’t let you come back like that. If you woke up at all.”
I took in a long deep breath, and then glared at him. “Maybe you should’ve given me a choice?”
“Jess,” Isaac said. “In the last days before the end, I saw you carve out a man’s heart with a knife while talking to me. You kept a straight face even after the blood ran down your cheeks like rain, and the screams didn’t bother you. You carved out a central nervous system from a corpse and used the blood to paint sigils. They burned your fingertips but you just kept doing it, long after I smelt your muscles cooking.”
He took a breath. “You scared me, Jess. And the plan- the plan was ludicrous. I could only assume that you’d been compromised the same way that Bismarck had- and when I searched out the old team, I realized they were still around, and most of them had taken the insane path to try and complete the rite!”
“Is it so insane?” The Admiral muttered. “You and I both know that it’s seductive. A chance to undo it all.”
“It’s madness,” Isaac spat. “We’ve already talked about this before, Admiral! Absolute power was not meant to be wielded by man, beast, or bug!”
“The current world is still unsustainable,” I said.
Isaac’s head snapped over to look at me, and his neck cracked. His eyes burned like hot coals and the letters on his face gleamed with intent. I stared back at him. I didn’t know where I’d gotten the spine before, but after the war for the Capital, and dying, looking into the face of my coworker, even as lit up as it was, seemed just pathetic by comparison.
“It is,” I said, again. “The only thing keeping this world intact is the Watcher. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s not sustainable. The Watcher’s an evil creature, and the world’s-”
“You think I don’t know the world’s fucked?” Isaac spat. “We can deal with that later. Go and make an actual god, instead of whatever madness you made with the heart of the Kind Lord! You’ll have all the time in the world after that.”
“What was in my memories, Isaac?” I asked, flat.
His jaw worked like a mad dog, as if chewing on the words instead of just saying them.
“That’s just it, Jess,” he grit out. “There was nothing about Project Undying Talos there!”
Even if I’d gotten my memories back, they wouldn’t’ve helped me. I slumped, and the chair bore my weight with a creak.
“That’s why you were so nervous about those reports?” The Admiral asked. “I offered to check them for you-”
“Don’t,” Isaac said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter now. We don’t need to know what we’re doing to save the world. It’d, it’d just really help.”
“What are we even doing?” I asked. Something deep inside of my had shifted three steps to the left. “If I didn’t even-”
Turned and looked at Isaac. “That fucking bitch!”
“What?” Isaac said, looking startled. “Who?”
“The Bystander-” And then it clicked just why they’d refused my deal. I’d already given them too much. I curled my lips into a snarl and dug my fingers into the sides of the chair, ignoring the complaints of the wood. “She fucking threw them all away to keep them from Bismarck!”
“Who?” Isaac asked, then his eyes snapped open. “That’s- that’s practically suicide!”
“Your past self,” Jay said, slowly piecing it together, even while the Admiral looked confused. “Destroyed her memories to keep them from Bismarck?”
“That’s why Bismarck never went for my office,” I said. “She must’ve known it was a dead end from the start!”
Isaac laughed, but it was a tiny little thing, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to laugh that hard about it. “That’s madness- I guess we worked too long at this job then. USEC protects.”
“Then we have nothing,” I said.
“We don’t,” Isaac said. “You weren’t the one to come up with the protagonist rite. You were on Undying Talos. I was on the other project.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Hero’s journey.” He stood up. “Come on. I need to write out a list of what materials we’ll need. Some of them are narrative based, so they’ll be even harder to obtain, if we’re unlucky.”
“What’re the odds of being unlucky?”
“Don’t ask about the odds,” Isaac said, shaking his head. “They don’t matter anymore. The Watcher’ll either let us do this or he won’t.”
“And if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“There’s plenty of guns laying around. Take your pick, point it at your head, and pull the trigger. It’ll be better than whatever Bismarck has planned. Not that your death’ll matter in this case. It never mattered for the Lords.”
I swallowed. Jay stood up and offered me his hand. I took it, and we both stood up together.
“And what should I do?” The Admiral asked, rather sourly.
“Prepare your bombs,” Isaac said. “We’ll need time, and I think even Bismarck might have to take awhile to regenerate from being atomized.”
“That I can do,” the Admiral said, smiling. “I’ve always wanted to atomize her a few dozen times!”
“Good,” Isaac said, shaking his head. “We’ll need every moment you can give us.”
And then we left the office, knowing that we knew less than we’d hoped, but knowing that we had some small amount of hope to begin with.