The Archive of Birds
by A.C. Wise
I finally made it, May, the Valley of Kings. It’s incredible – just the way I pictured it from your stories, or my mother’s version of your stories, rather, the ones Grandma Millie told her when she was young. All the crystal towers, the flooded streets. It’s only a few blocks away from the enclave, from home, but it feels like a different world.
Um, hi. I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Esme, Millie’s granddaughter. We’ve never met. With the time differential where you are out among the stars, we never will and you’ll probably never even hear this. You were long gone from Earth before I was born, but I grew up with your stories, like a hero from a media property, one of the ones about Maid Marian, or the latest reboot of The Mummy.
And I’m most definitely not. A hero, that is. That’s why I’m recording this, to hold myself accountable. I used to want to grow up to be just like you. If I keep talking to you while I do this, then I can’t back out right? I wouldn’t want to let you down.
I didn’t end up following in your footsteps, if you’re wondering. I’m a botanist, or I’m studying to be a botanist at least. Plants make more sense to me than people most times, and I want to help with the rewilding project, like Grandma Millie did. I’m not some kind of action hero pulling off daring escapades so that people will tell stories about me when I’m gone. Except, even a botany student who’s never been anywhere or done anything gets to do something really stupid and reckless at least once in their lifetime. Right?
So…I’m here to steal the Archive of Birds. Your Archive, May. And then… Well, I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, I’ve never been anywhere other than up and down the north parts of the city with my mom. She used to take me with her when it was her turn to make delivery and trading runs for the enclave. Sharing what you have and what you know—that’s how you keep communities going. But I’ve never been this far south before.
Like I said, I know it’s only a few streets away from home, but it feels like slipping back in time, or into another dimension. A bad one. There are other stories about this place, too, not just yours, and all those stories say that just being here, just crossing into the Valley, will kill me.
But I’m not dead yet, so maybe after I get the Archive I’ll just keep going. Follow the river out to sea and go wherever it takes me.
It sounds like something you’d do. In my mother’s stories, you were always fearless – whether you were leading a protest march, or breaking into City Hall. That’s one of my favorites, by the way, when you stole all the drinking glasses and fancy imported water from the mayor’s office and left behind a ceramic jug full of city water, hand-painted with all the chemical symbols of the contaminants it contained. That’s the kind of thing I wish I could do. I’ve never done anything big or important in my life.
Fear shouldn’t stop a person from doing what’s right, though. That’s what you always used to say. Just like you weren’t afraid to get on that ship looking for a new home for humanity among the stars, not knowing what you’d find, leaving everything and everyone you loved behind. Including Grandma Millie.
I’ve always wondered how you could do that, but I guess real life isn’t like the media properties where the hero has one true love and they always know they’re destined to be together. Real life is messier. It hurts, and you screw things up, and—
I’m getting off topic.
In your stories, the Valley of the Kings was beautiful, but terrible too, full of a different kind of monster. It encapsulated everything wrong with humanity, concentrated wealth, extreme greed, and none of the right people being held accountable for what they were doing to the planet. The stories that came afterward though, after you left, when the flooding was complete and the Kings were sealed away in their tombs, were all about actual monsters. Ghosts, and toxic mutations. Overgrown ruins. Instant death for daring to trespass into the realm of the self-styled gods.
But I arrived at sunset and sailed the little boat my mom and I used to make our deliveries in right up the middle of the Valley, between all the ridiculous glass temples the Kings built to hold their treasures, and it was beautiful. Everything was so still. The sun hit the flooded streets where the river had come up right between the buildings and it was like sailing on a sheet of pure gold. The only sound was one far-away plink, like something jumping into the water. No wind. No people. No birds.
The way the light caught the glass made everything shine. It felt like I was sailing right off the edge of the world, right into pure, burning glory. I guess that’s the effect the old Kings wanted when they first planned the Valley, though they never meant the buildings to be their tombs. All those crystal towers were supposed to be where they would live forever above the flooded streets and lord it over the rest of us.
I guess in a way they got half their wish, but they aren’t exactly lording it over anyone right now. Just sleeping away in their cryo-pods, waiting for someone else to clean up their mess.
I did take samples of the water—I’m not superstitious—it’s just that I haven’t had the guts to drop the test strips in yet. All those horror stories about the Valley say the water is so toxic you don’t even have to touch it to get sick. It’s like a supernatural curse from one of those media properties I mentioned, where the hero steals from a mummy’s tomb and unleashes unspeakable evil.
I talked about running away, but what if I can’t go back, May? What if Jace— What if the people who said this was a stupid idea and I was being spoiled and childish by coming here were right? What if I carry some virus back home with me without even knowing about it and—
I guess maybe I don’t have a choice about running away from home after all. Just like you. We’ll both be stories. I can only hope people remember me the way they remember you.
The thing is, we’ve done so much amazing work since you left, May. I wish you’d stayed to see it. The rewilding projects. The bio-engineered fungal mats in the rivers and lakes filtering toxins. We banned microplastics. And nearly half the world runs on solar and wind now. But it doesn’t feel like enough. It’s like… There are some people who see how far we’ve come and they don’t want to go further. Like there’s no point in pushing. Why not be happy with what we’ve got?
But that just feels…safe. Don’t we want to leave the world even better than we found it, for the ones who come after us? Isn’t that what it’s all about? That’s what I think. That’s why I left, to prove…
Is that why you left, May? I’d like to think you’d be proud of everything that happened after you were gone. I’d like to think Grandma Millie would be proud too, to see the work she started and how far it’s come. She believed in this planet; she believed people here could be better, and that we could fix what we broke. She never gave up hope.
When I was really little, when my mom first told me all those stories, I used to get so mad at you. Why would you leave when she chose to stay? But I think I understand. You didn’t give up on humanity, it’s just that you found your hope elsewhere. I used to think I’d never leave the enclave. Why would I, when everything I loved was there?
But maybe my hope is elsewhere. Like yours.
But I guess some things aren’t meant to be forever. Like you and Grandma Millie. All those years she worked so hard to help snatch the world back from the brink, I think a part of her did it for you. She wanted to prove that this world was worth saving, and that you were wrong. And a little part of me wants to believe that she also did it so you would have a place to come back to, in case you ever changed your mind.
When I’m gone, I wonder if Jace will—
No. That’s not what I’m— It’s not important. I’m going to be like you after all, May. I always pictured you like a hero from one of the media properties, an archeologist-adventurer like Lara Croft, Marian Ravenwood, Evelyn Carnahan, River Song, or Eleanor Folley. Did you ever watch any of those, May? The originals, not the reboots, even though they would have been really old by the time you left. Did you take any of them with you when you left for your one-way journey through the stars?
After we made our supply runs, my favorite thing to do was snuggle down into a nest of blankets with my mom and watch one of those series. My mom always tried to make sure we traded for something sweet so we could make ourselves a treat like hot chocolate. It wasn’t always possible, of course, but I got pretty good at making a credible substitute with honey and powdered mushrooms. I know, it sounds gross, but if you drink it fast and while it’s hot enough… Well, it’s still gross, but the important part is who you drink it with, which should be someone you love.
After my mom…died, I thought I would never watch any of those series again. But then Jace— But then I got really into the anime remake of Folley & Mallory, the one where Jonni Kerston did such amazing voice work. I guess it’s just as well you’ll never hear any of these recordings, since none of this means anything to you.
You might think adventure stories are silly, because you lived your adventures rather than watching them. Maybe after this, I’ll think they’re silly too. I’ll finally have done something with my life. I’ll have my own stories to tell.
I just finished securing the boat in a little half-street where it won’t be spotted, just in case any patrols come around. I don’t think they will though. I haven’t heard anything except a few more plink, plink, plinks in the water.
What do you think, May? Is it fish? It doesn’t sound big, but I don’t know. The stories… I mean, if fish could come up from the river, other things could come up too. And if the water is as toxic as they say, then anything could be watching me, all twisted and deformed, sunken beneath the surface, just their eyes showing and…
Nope. Not thinking about it. Definitely. Not. Thinking about it.
J. Arthur Cartwright’s building is right there, and it’s just like in your stories too, May, the biggest and most obnoxious tower of all the Valley’s towers. Which means the Archive is right there, too. All I have to do is break in and get it.
If Cartwright hadn’t stolen the Archive and locked it away, would you still have left? You poured your heart and soul into it – part art, part science, part history. When you made all those holographic renderings of birds in flight, dying species you hoped could be saved, but feared would not, was it because you wanted to inspire people? Or did you just want to leave behind something beautiful, a record of what was gone?
Cartwright started out as a backer for your project, didn’t he? He claimed you had a shared goal, but it turns out he wanted to own something no one else did. But I don’t have to tell you that. You were there. You spent your whole life fighting against people like Cartwright who measure their worth in exclusivity—having what no one else does, hoarding beauty for themselves and increasing the perceived value of things through their scarcity.
I keep coming back to my media series, but it’s applicable, really. The Archive is like the treasures the Pharaohs used to take with them into the afterlife. Except Cartwright isn’t technically dead, so the Archive isn’t doing anyone any good, not even Cartwright’s soul. If he has one.
I’m going to test the water now. I’m kind of freaking out about breaking into Cartwright’s tomb—not because I think ghosts and curses are real, but like I said, I’m a botany student. I’m not some crack-burglar superhero who knows how to pull off a heist. Jace was right. I have no idea what I’m doing. This whole thing is dumb. But, if I put off doing one thing I’m scared of by doing another thing I’m scared of, at least I’ll have something to show for this whole stupid escapade.
Okay. Here goes.
Holy shit! The water is clean, May! I mean, not clean-clean, but not kill-you-on-the-spot toxic. All those old stories about would-be grave robbers and environmental activists dying the moment they crossed into the Valley, their bones corroding and being eaten away, twisting into shapes no longer recognizably human—they were all lies. Holy sh— What if Cartwright and his cronies cooked all those stories up before they went into deep freeze to frighten people away?
Wouldn’t that just be typical? I can’t believe I ever actually thought any of that was real. Ghasts and ghouls lurking under the water with night-seeing eyes to detect the slightest movement on the surface. Toxic, flesh-eating monsters. It’s so stupid. I’m so stupid.
I should just get inside if I’m going to do it. No more stalling. The sky is turning purple. It’s eerie, but beautiful. It’s…lonely. Even the plinking fish have stopped.
I wish Jace was here. They think they don’t want things to change and that everything’s fine the way it is, but if they’d come with me… If they could see this place for themself, they would fucking love it.
I’m inside the tomb, May. I’m actually inside the ridiculous, gigantic glass tower J. Arthur Cartwright built. I can’t believe it. It’s just…
It was quiet outside, but it’s a different kind of quiet in here. It really does feel haunted. First of all, it’s cold, like I should be able to see my breath. There must be some kind of air-filtration system because there isn’t a speck of dust anywhere, and every now and then there’s a mechanical sigh. I can’t help thinking of some vast guardian-monster, turning over in its sleep, waiting for me to make one wrong move.
There must be people who come in to clean too. I smell lemons, but sharper. Like the fake, chemical idea of lemons. I guess it makes sense. Someone like Cartwright wouldn’t let the building go to ruin around him. I wonder if all the other tombs are this spotless. And I hope this isn’t one of the nights whoever takes care of this place is scheduled to clean.
Actually, it must be a whole fleet of someones, because this place is huge. I know there was a time when all buildings were this tall, literal sky-scrapers clawing at the smog as if they could break through into the blue and leave everyone else behind. I get why this place felt like the symbol of everything you hated, May. All the power to light these towers, to keep them cool, the display screens everywhere flashing company logos and stock updates.
And now this whole place is sitting here empty, just like all the other buildings in the Valley. All the frozen Kings waiting until someone else solves the problems they helped cause so they can wake up to a new better world without doing any of the work.
It’s sickening, really. I mean, why do the floors have to be so shiny? I can practically see my reflection in them. Not to mention all the flatscreens. I keep catching motion out of the corner of my eye, but it’s just me—the ghost in Cartwright’s tomb.
Do you want to know how I got in, May? It turns out all those media properties aren’t so dumb after all. You know how the hero always finds a magic amulet, or a weird ring that turns out to be a key that fits into a mysterious carving in the wall to open a hidden door? Well, I found something like that. Traded for it, actually. It’s an old key fob for cracking numeric passcodes.
It was a risk, and Jace told me it would never work and I was being dumb and life isn’t like a story in some media property, but it turns out I was right. I had a hunch that even a fancy office building-turned-tomb would need a service entrance. And someone like J. Arthur Cartwright would only care about the front of the building and how impressive and intimidating it looked. He’d barely give a second thought to a door tucked away on the side of the building that only the staff would ever see.
So it doesn’t matter that I traded away a stupid amount of free labor to get the fob, because I was right. It’s not all for nothing, so if I do go back I can tell Jace—
Okay. Okay. I’ve already done two things that scare me, why not one more? Here’s the thing I’ve been avoiding, May. The thing that scares me even more than breaking into Cartwright’s tomb or the water in the Valley.
When I said people didn’t think I should come here, I meant Jace. They’re… They were… everything. Like I can’t even explain what we are. Jace is the other half of me.
When we were growing up, my mom used to look after the both of us half the time, and Jace’s parents used to look after us the other half. We’ve always been together, not like together-together, but sometimes… Anyway, we were inseparable. Like sometimes I think I’d literally forget how to breathe without them.
We used to curl up together in a nest of blankets my mother made for us in her lab so she could keep right on working while keeping an eye on us too. When I can’t sleep, I still sneak into their room and curl up with them like that. We never stopped fitting together like we used to when we were little, our limbs all tangled together, their breath on the back of my neck, or my breath on the back of theirs. Our heartbeats falling into rhythm. Then I can finally sleep.
Is that love or just not knowing where one of us ends and the other begins? Maybe it’s the same thing.
But we fought right before I left. We fought because I planned to leave. Jace is the only one I told about coming here, how I planned to steal the Archive and bring it back to the enclave. But now I don’t know. What if they don’t want me to come back? I mean, if Jace— If we’re not…friends anymore, if we’re not… What’s even the point of going back? I might as well keep going, right?
I was so excited when I told them my plan. I thought they’d be excited too. But they spent an hour—at least an hour—yelling at me about how stupid it was to chase an old story my mother told me into the Valley to impress some dead woman my grandmother knew a million years ago.
That’s how they put it, like you weren’t even real and this whole thing was just about me showing off, trying to live in some fantasy world. They love all those adventure stories as much as I do, at least they used to, but all the sudden they’re acting superior? Like I’m some stupid baby who doesn’t know truth from fiction. Things are good enough, they said. Why take a stupid risk that might get me hurt or killed all for some pictures of birds?
But it isn’t about escaping from reality at all. Dreaming is just hoping for a better future, and that’s what the Archive of Birds is, it’s hope. I want to believe you weren’t just showing people what they’d lost. You wanted to push them to take action, show them that yeah, things were gone, but we could get them back if we kept working together.
But you didn’t stay to see how it turned out. Is that… Were you scared, May? Is that why you left? Because I know I’m scared.
I’m not planning to fly off into the stars like you did, but that almost makes it worse. The idea of me and Jace, both still both on Earth, but never talking to each other again.
At the end, Jace stopped yelling because their voice had gone hoarse. The way they were whispering felt even worse. They asked what they’d do if I never came back and they were left all alone. How stupid would they look with only one half of the matching tattoos we gave ourselves when we were fourteen that got us grounded for a week. The lines don’t make a picture unless we’re together. Who else knows how to cut their hair exactly the way they like it, high and tight on the sides and all natural curls on the top? Who would help them make vegetable dyes and commiserate when it turns their curls a weird pukey green color instead of the awesome aquamarine they wanted?
Their face got all blotchy, like crying, but not, and their hands scrunched up like they wanted to hit the wall or grab hold of me and never let go. I wonder… All that stuff about not taking risks, about things being good enough, maybe all of that and all the yelling is because they’re scared, too.
I made it to the top of Cartwright’s tower, but I’m not sure what to do next. Honestly, I never thought I’d make it this far. Maybe Jace was right about me, charging in without a plan, arrogant enough to think I could make it work because of all the stories I filled my head with growing up. But this isn’t a story, May, and your life wasn’t either. You must have made mistakes. You must have had bad days, or days when all you wanted was to put your feet up and read, or snuggle down with your favorite person in the world and watch anime and drink hot chocolate made of mushrooms.
Shit. I think I’ve really screwed things up.
I— Shit. Shit. Shit. Someone’s coming.
Well, it turns out I was right about the custodial staff. I climbed all the way up sixty flights of stairs, but it turns out the elevators are still running. One of them went ding and I almost had a heart attack. I just barely managed to dive under the reception desk outside Cartwright’s office. It’s this massive, curved thing, really ostentatious, but lucky for me – lots of surface area for hiding behind.
Another lucky thing for me—it turns out the custodial staff doesn’t care about doing more than a half-assed job. And why should they? No one is going to see this place besides them. They get paid either way, and by the time Cartwright wakes up, if he ever wakes up, they’ll be long gone.
The person who came to clean only gave the desk a cursory swipe, and certainly didn’t look underneath it. They weren’t paying much attention either. They left the office door propped open while they worked and had music blaring the whole time. I slipped out from under the desk while their back was turned and jammed one of the test strips from my water kit in the door so it didn’t close properly when they left. The custodian didn’t even bother to double check.
It’s like the service door outside. Cartwright barely considered the people who worked for him, and he certainly didn’t inspire their loyalty. I almost feel sorry for him. I know he stole from you, I know he was horrible, but it strikes me that Cartwright is the kind of person who didn’t have friends or family, just people he paid to be around him.
His office bears that theory out. He’s got one of those photo-screens on his desk; I watched it scroll all the way through. It’s nothing but generic arty-looking black and white images, and a few stiff, posed pictures from formal events. No pictures of him camping with friends, no kids’ birthday parties, or him on a date. Seeing that, it made me miss Jace even more.
I have to fix this, May. I have to find a way to make things right.
I should have tried harder before I left. Instead of talking, I should have listened. Jace and I could have planned this whole thing together. I could have asked them to come with me. I don’t know if they’d see it the way I do, but I want to share this place with them. Because whatever else it might be, Cartwright’s office is amazing.
For one thing, his cryo-coffin is sitting right dead-center in the room like a sarcophagus. But that isn’t even the really incredible bit. There’s a walkway running all around the perimeter of the office one level up, and instead of a ceiling, there’s a glass pyramid. It’s like a giant greenhouse, May. It’s filled with plants.
I smelled it the second I stepped in, and then I couldn’t resist climbing up for a closer look. Wisteria and orchids. Climbing roses. Heirloom tomatoes. One whole side of the pyramid is just pots and pots of herbs. What’s the point of all of it?
The whole reason I’ve been studying botany is that we’ve been trying for years to bring back some of these varietals, and they were here this whole time, just sitting in Cartwright’s tomb. I take back everything I said about him, May. I don’t feel sorry for him at all. These plants are like your Archive, locked away and hoarded rather than shared.
Even the view – it’s something everyone should see, but no one gets to enjoy it. Well, I spent a good long time looking up at the stars through all those panes of glass. The smog isn’t as bad as it was in your time, and the light pollution is all but gone. It’s beautiful, May. I wish you were here with me to see this. I wish my mother was here, or Grandma Millie. I wish Jace…
I have a new plan, May. I’m still going to steal the Archive, sort of, but I’m not going to bring it back to the enclave. Instead, I’m going to bring back clippings, seeds, and roots. Maybe Jace was right that I started out trying to impress my idea of you, make myself into a story, but that’s not how it’s going to end. These plants—this is me doing something real, something to make the world better, not just for me, but for the future.
My bag is full now, so there’s just one thing left. The Archive of Birds looks just the way I imagined it, too—the projector you made to be both functional and beautiful, sleek and round, the controls like jewels. It’s like something out of a retro-science fiction media series, out of place in time, perfectly archaic and futuristic all at once.
I told you about the walkway inside Cartwright’s greenhouse-pyramid, but there’s one outside too, like a private balcony wrapping all the way around. I’m going to take the Archive out there, May, and I’m going to turn it on.
When I do, it will fill the Valley of Kings with birds. All your beautiful holograms will flit between the buildings and swoop over the water. They’ll skim around the glass towers and be like a beacon, shining across the sky. Everyone in the enclave will see them, May. They’ll see the birds and they’ll know that the Valley isn’t toxic after all.
It doesn’t belong to the Kings; it’s safe for everyone. And they’ll come back. It’ll be like it was in your day, people banding together, a community reclaiming hoarded resources and giving them to everyone. I’ll keep up my studies and eventually we’ll re-wild the whole Valley. Maybe one day there’ll be real birds flitting between the buildings too.
It’ll be the world the way Grandma Millie hoped it would be, even though she never got to see it. She was right. This world is worth fighting for; the things you love are always worth fighting for. I forgive you for taking a different path, May, but I’d never forgive myself if I followed in your footsteps. I’m sorry. But the enclave, that’s where I belong.
I’m outside now, May, and I’m going to switch on the Archive. I hope everyone sees it. I hope Jace sees it and…
I hope. That’s what matters. I don’t have to know everything, and it’s okay to be scared, because I have hope. And the Archive of Birds will give other people hope, too.
Wish me luck, May. Here I go.
A.C. Wise (she/her) is the author of the novels Wendy, Darling and Hooked. Her work has won a Sunburst Award, as well as being a finalist for the Nebula, Sunburst, Lambda, Aurora, Stoker, and Ignyte Awards. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.