“Raise hell,” they told us.
I suppose you could say that’s what we did. There was fire, and the devil kicked up a fuss. I remember quite a lot of religion. I remember people screaming while it burned. I remember diversity with the feather-bright thoughts of a child, where the world’s catastrophes were bookmarks for my own life.
But mostly, I remember people louder than myself. I sat with my friends, my neighbors. I listened to my mother, furious with the religious leaders. I remember my brother. He screamed at the television, his face purple, his eyes scared. And afterwards, we’d continue existing, surfaces within a bubble of quiet. The rest of the world burned, and we were in a position to watch it happen.
I went to college in the Fall of 2990. It was the year they patented BioMage. And it was the year of Unity.
I hope that you never know an era like mine. I hope that you never know that life just keeps going on, even though the bodies are piling up. I hope that you never know the numbness humanity contains, the complete disregard for life, the ease with which you can stop thinking of a person as a person.
I did my undergrad studies at a local college, in a small town in northern of-then America. You’ve probably never heard of it. America, that is. Because, like I said, the year I went to college was the year of Unity. And after Unity, there were no countries.
There was just, you know, the one.
We thought that it was mankind’s greatest leap forward. We had, at long last, Earthly peace. All cultures were boiled down, the nuts and bolts of society becoming cogs in a great machine of mankind.
Here’s the problem with a revolution. What do you do with the people who disagree?
Unity’s solution was simple. It was the same conclusion our species has come to since the time of the hunter-gatherers. It’s just that instead of spears, Unity had science.
Unity had BioMage.
We did not kill the opposition. Not all of them, at any rate. BioMages have trouble with some people, some part of their DNA that reacts differently. Those people, we were told, had to die. For the greater good, of course. They were going to be rewarded, of course. Of course, we could do nothing to help them.
Unity was not a war; it was an idea. BioMages were not soldiers; they were a religion. They converted a world.
It’s just that instead of having a god behind them, they had science. And here’s the thing with science: you don’t need faith, not when you can rewrite a person’s brain.
“Yar Lurkshire?” he said.
I gave a start, flicking my tablet off. There was a moment, my fingers laying numb on the smooth, black screen, when my spittle turned to acid. I was contained. I swallowed my panic. I closed my tablet. I looked up at the officer and I smiled.
“Yes?” I asked, focusing on his eyes—a soft kind of green—instead of the metal badges on his grey uniform.
“We’re ready for you, now.”
He had a good kind of voice. The soft kind, the kind that pops up in childhood, a favorite friend’s father. Warm and distant, far enough above you that you don’t have to worry about competing.
I drew a slow breath, gathering my things, tucking them into the olive-colored satchel at my hip. I was old school, like that. I was one of the few people who still bothered with books, still wanted to feel the dry pages, smell the ink, the memories of sunlight and grass.
Unity did not mind personality. They preferred it, in fact. Every soul is unique, every life a spark in Unity’s boundless universe. We were encouraged to be ourselves.
So long as our ‘selves’ remained within the parameters of what Unity considered a person.
“What’s she like?” I asked, waiting as the little machine beside the door scanned his eyes.
The Guard headquarters in Capitol Delta was as hulking and grey as its name would lead you to believe. We were on the nineteenth floor. I’d been waiting for three hours now in a little room with a wall of windows on the north side. There was a reception desk. Literally, a square built in the center of the room, surrounded by uncomfortable chairs, that spoke for itself with a surprisingly lifelike voice. If they knew anything in 3010, it was how to build a gracious robot.
“Pardon?” the Officer asked, opening the door and ushering me through.
“The Firebird,” I said, excitement frothing in my chest. “Have you met her?”
“No, Yar,” he used the title like a reflex, quickening his pace to walk at my side. “My clearance is Level 4.”
“Oh?” I feigned surprise. “What Level is Firebird?”
“10, Yar,” he grinned, and I could see a boy within the uniform.
“Isn’t that the highest level?”
“Yes,” his grin widened.
“It must have been something, seeing her brought in.”
He puffed himself up. I smiled.
“Sure was,” he said. “I remember when she made her first raid. I was sixteen. Took down some Unity helicopter, rode it right down and then blew up a hospital or something.”
January, 2992, Sector 19, Sector X Hospital, multiple casualties. Suspect: Unknown. Connected to later incidents. Deemed the “Firebird” by local newspaper.
“I remember. I was in college.”
“Must have been studying to be a writer,” he grinned at me, pleased with his deductive reasoning.
“Then it was just generals,” I replied. “I graduated from a little community college, before going on to of-then Oxford.”
“That’s Sector 97, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I smiled.
“Did it change much? After, I mean?”
I shrugged, something heavy tugging at my chest as we walked down the white corridor. There were windows on the right, flanked by heavy doors. Everything was a shade of grey: ceiling, walls, doors, floors and uniforms. Some of the rooms we passed had tenants, prisoners with vacant stares sitting on whitish cots. Some had Guards, writing on near-black tablets. Some of the Guards wore the protective visors, the kind patented shortly after BioMage, the kind that covered every part of the eyes, a bit of the brow, and the temples.
“Like everywhere else, I suppose,” I didn’t touch my forehead, between my eyebrows, though an eye-shaped piece of my skull ached with a dull throb. “Some parts.”
The world had been bleached. Nothing was the same, and yet everything was. It was like a dirty kitchen, suddenly scrubbed to sparkling purity. There was no flour on the counters. There never would be again. Unity had the too-clean feel of a building ready to be sold, a home become a house.
“I grew up in Cleveland,” he said, stopping at the end of the corridor, letting a second scanner have at his eye with a red beam. “Don’t miss it one bit.”
He laughed as the door buzzed open. I smiled. I couldn’t drum up a convincing laugh, not with my guts twining into fever-tight knots. We continued. He talked. I pretended to listen.
Levels 1 through 3 were quiet, save the soft clap-tap-clap of our shoes on the polished floor and the Yin’s endless voice. I stopped looking in the cells. They made me feel lonely, a little emptier inside. When my escort delivered me to the Level 4 Guard, he shook my hand. Wished me luck. My fingers were numb.
Levels 4 through 9 had a tighter feel. My new Guard was a blond woman with a tight bun and a tighter mouth. I was grateful for the quiet. I organized my thoughts, focused on the floor, let the monotonous data run seamlessly through my mind. I tried to slow my heart, but it was intent on setting a hard pace. The place between my brows continued to ache.
Level 9 ended differently. We were at the very center of the building. There were no cells on Level 9, only thick, seamless white walls. The door was heavier. There was no scanner. There was no window. I could hear my heart in my ears, feel it in every extremity. I swallowed, tucked a hand against the reassuring thickness of my satchel’s strap, and looked at the escort.
“Did you meet her?” I asked as we waited.
The Guard looked at me with cool eyes. Her bone structure was from of-then Norway, her clear eyes skeptical and sharp. She nodded. Just once. Her mouth was a line as thin as the seam of the security door we waited in front of.
“What’s she like?” I asked, pulling my tablet from my satchel, smiling. “I’d really like to have a few different viewpoints for my article.”
The Guard hesitated at that. It’s funny, the effect a record has on people. They didn’t need to know that I’d never forget a detail, with or without my tablet. And even for the ones who did know, there was something different about having your words put into print.
It put her back up.
“She’s a prisoner,” she stated, as textured and colorful as the lifeless walls.
I nodded, jotting it down with my stylus. She frowned at me. I looked at the bars over her heart, making sure she noticed my glance, before smiling at her and snapping the tablet closed.
“That’s an excellent attitude,” I said, slipping the tablet back into my satchel.
She glowered at me. I’ve never met someone who could scowl for ten minutes straight, but there’s a first time for everything. When the security door finally buzzed, it was not to admit me. Instead, a small shelf rotated out of it. Laying on the cold, grey panel, there was a visor.
“You will wear it at all times,” the Guard said, taking the visor from the tray and holding it out to me. “If at any point you remove it, you will be forcedly removed and blacklisted.”
I nodded, turning the grey metal in my hands. No matter how many times I held one, I was always surprised. First, by the heaviness. The main component of BioMage Bands was lead, of course. Second, the visors were cold—but in a strange, lingering way, less like they were kept in a freezer and more like they were the freezer, chilling from the inside out, emanating cold.
I fitted the visor over my eyes, pressing the center firmly against the place between my brows. The back of the visor was gel-like, and it fitted itself to the unique contours of each face. The ache dulled. I secured it over my temples. The world around me quieted.
I hated it. I could taste the metal, feel its aching chill pulsing against my skull. I was as uncomfortable as it was possible for me to be.
They were not shaded. They were solid, and yet I saw as clearly as I had without the visor. The technology was exceptional. BioMage Bands converted what I would be seeing and projected it directly into my eyes. If powered down, I would be looking into the black nothingness of a lead-lined strip of metal.
The Guard inspected my handiwork, ensuring the visor was fixed properly. When she was appeased, she stepped back, offering me a severe nod.
“When I am gone, the door will let you in. After your interview, you need only stand before the door and it will allow you exit. You will at no point touch the prisoner. Any contact will terminate your visit and you will be blacklisted. You will be closely observed and recorded. Before exiting the building, you will be informed on what information may be publicized. Any information leaked will be promptly destroyed and you will be blacklisted, pending prosecution as a Level 10 security threat. Should your questions vary from the pre-approved list, you will be blacklisted and placed in custody, pending a Level 10 security hearing. Do you understand the aforementioned limitations?”
“I do,” I answered, my grip twisting on the satchel’s strap.
The Guard nodded, snapped off a perfect salute, turned on a heel, and marched back down the length of the seamless corridor. By the time she exited, back to the safety of Level 8, I was sweating in earnest.
I turned to the door. My heart hurt, it beat so slowly, so firmly. I swallowed, feeling numb within the limitations of my visor. Everything looked the same as before, just as clear, just as real. But something within the visor was always lacking. Life was too sterile. I swallowed.
Quiet filled the hall. Like lead. Quiet fills the hall like lead.
The door buzzed, and I flinched. There was no handle. It simply swung open, seamless and perfect, and a wash of cool air spilled around me. And suddenly, I was not alone. And nothing was sterile. And the world clipped into perfect stillness as I stepped into Level 10, numb with the security of a woman who knows she’s about to die.
“Oh, fuck me,” I breathed.
The room was white, of course. The ceiling was round, a perfect dome ending in the perfect circle of the floor. Unity liked circles. Every skyscraper built after 2990 was round.
The Firebird sat in the center of the room.
The chair was grey, with manacles built into the frame. They clasped her wrists and ankles, biceps and shins, thighs and waist. She could turn her head, but her neck was cuffed to the back of the chair. Her fingers could move, but each one had a white clip around the end, little green dots over each nail. She was in a skin-tight, white leotard. It was nearly transparent. Apparently, her rights to privacy had been revoked along with those to movement.
Her eyes were nearly black, and they fixed to me like a reptile’s.
There was one other chair in the room, and I was strangely relieved to see that it was devoid of restraints. My hands were shaking. I kept one on the top of my satchel as I sat across from her. My spit had decided to turn to ash, and so for a solid minute, I simply stared at the Firebird.
She had short, black hair. It was messy. Her nose was hawkish, her skin the color of burnt sugar, and her face was marred by countless pockmarks. She did not scowl at me. She regarded me with those nearly black eyes, shaded under thick brows.
I could see coils of muscle move beneath the leotard, tensing and relaxing. Tensing and relaxing. Like the gills of a fish out of water.
She would have been described as Native American, once. Before Unity. Before the world’s borders were erased and all nations and nationalities became of-then.
I offered the Firebird a smile, but it felt fake and flimsy and it wilted on my lips like a flower dropped into acid. Her stare was crushing me. No, not her stare. She could have been blindfolded and I still would have felt the invisible hand upon my soul. I resisted the urge to touch the visor, to ensure that it was still in place and therefore my secrets secure.
I cleared my throat.
“My name is Jezi Lurkshire,” I began, still gripping my satchel’s strap. “I work for the Sector X Truth.”
The Firebird did not offer her name. Not that I expected her to. She was a wraith, after all. I felt myself sweating, felt the cool dampness in my pits, and made a mental note not to raise my arms. I spent a moment wishing that I would have worn black, not red. Then, giving my head a brisk shake, I opened my satchel and began to pull out my tablet.
“You will not need that,” the Firebird said.
I gave a start, dropping the tablet. It missed my satchel and hit the floor with a dull thump, the little black screen bared as its cover flopped open. I stared at the Firebird. She hadn’t shouted, but her words struck a cord within me, like a parent’s command.
“I’m,” I cleared my throat again, still reaching into the empty air, as though to catch the fallen tablet, “sorry?”
The Firebird stared at me for a moment longer, and I could feel a bead of sweat crawl from my hairline.
“Are you?” she asked, quirking a thick brow.
She had a strong voice, deep and rich. She spoke clearly, enunciating each syllable with weighty certainty. She did not stare at my visor, where my eyes would have been. Instead, she watched my mouth.
“With your permission,” I began again, stooping and picking up the tablet, “I would like to conduct an interview for our newsletter. Should you comply, I would like to record our conversation,” I tipped the tablet toward her, as though proving its innocence.
She was quiet for a moment, muscles flexing.
“You do not need the tablet,” she said again. “I know you, Jezi Lurk.”
I stared at her, felt my heart stumble.
The Firebird dipped her head, eyes remaining on my mouth.
“Who are you named after?” she asked me.
It was my turn to pause. I glanced up, at the round, black camera at the center of the domed ceiling. These were certainly not on my list of preapproved questions. But, I wasn’t the one asking them, was I? I shifted on my chair.
“My mother,” I shrugged, trying another smile.
“And who was she named by?”
“Her mother, I suppose. Honestly, I don’t know.”
“My point being,” and the Firebird tapped all ten fingers in rapid succession, “we never choose our names. They are given to us. And we build ourselves around them.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“I know who gave me my name, Jezi.”
My hands froze. The ash in my mouth turned to acid once again, and I didn’t even attempt to swallow the panic. My heart took flight. My face felt numb.
“You do?” I whispered.
The Firebird eased back, looking more comfortable than any woman chained to a chair had a right to be. The heavy silence pressed into the room again. I shook my head, crushing my tablet against my thighs.
“Is that how you would like to be referred to, then?” I eventually asked. “As Firebird?”
“That is who I am,” she answered.
“So, you read my work?” I felt the strangest flutter, something deep in my chest.
“Devoutly,” flexing, relaxing, flexing, relaxing.
“Well that’s,” careful, Lurk. “That’s fascinating. Really. So, would you be willing to allow me to interview you?”
“Oh,” my hands trembled, just a bit, as I turned my tablet on. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Yo Firebird—”
“Just Firebird,” she corrected. “And you will not need that.”
Again, she looked at the tablet.
“But, Firebird,” I frowned at her, “you said that you’re willing to allow me to conduct the interview?”
The lights in the little room flickered. Just for an instant, just for the space of my heartbeat, like a hummingbird’s blink. She had a wide, thick mouth, like two fingers. One side of it twitched. She cocked her head.
“Your eidetic memory will suffice for the duration of our interaction. And you may remove the visor. We both know that you do not need it.”
Oh God, I felt my eyes widen uselessly behind the visor. Oh God, oh God, oh God. The blood rushed from my face, leaving me pale and sweaty. I’m pretty sure that my heart just stopped. I looked again at the camera in the ceiling and felt like weeping. Every part of my body, every nerve and every cell, tensed, waiting for the metal door to buzz open and banded Guards to come pouring in.
“No need to panic, Jezi,” Firebird said. “They cannot intrude.”
“How,” my voice was a lifeless rasp, and I swallowed. “How do you know?”
The Firebird sighed, and it was as heavy as the silence.
“I am a devout reader. I have noticed you, through your writing, through your observations. Particularly through the rare television interview you have shared, Jezi, I have noticed you. I have, shall we say, a keen eye for Mutes.”
“Oh, fuck,” I breathed, the tablet dropping from my lap and smacking the floor, like a dead thing.
I wanted to cry, then. I wanted to curl up in a tight little ball, right there on my tablet, and scream. So many years, so many lies, so many lives all unraveled in so little time. I should not have come. I had known that from the very beginning, hadn’t I? Even before I had named the Firebird, I had known that I should keep silent. I should have watched the world burn.
“As I said, they cannot intrude,” Firebird rolled a wrist.
Suddenly, the manacles around her wrists, ankles, thighs, shins, biceps, and neck sprang open. I flinched at the sound. And then I gaped. I looked again at the camera, at the little red light blinking away. I looked at Firebird. She sighed, heavier this time.
“I detest not seeing a person’s eyes,” she said. “Remove the visor.”
“They said I would be blacklisted.”
“They cannot intrude. And even if they could, the things that they do to Mutes is infinitely worse than being blacklisted as a writer. Remove the visor.”
It no longer was a request. Even through the lead on my forehead, I could feel her presence, could feel the weight against my third eye. I wanted to weep for the pressure of it.
I reached up, pushed in the little buttons behind my ears, and the visor released me with a gentle pulse of air. As I peeled it away from my face, I squinted. The white lights around the base of the room were brighter without it, the visor having filtered down their severity.
“That’s the problem with blinders,” Firebird said as I blinked. “They choose what you see.”
And I met her gaze. Something slammed against my skull, a presence like I had never known before, and I gasped, covering my third eye reflexively with my hand. It felt like she was splitting my forehead with an axe.
Of course, what else was I to expect, meeting the unfiltered gaze of the most powerful BioMage in the world?
“You are strong,” Firebird said, still sitting as though the shackles hadn’t been opened.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, falling forward, my knees cracking against the cold floor, clutching my head.
The pressure shifted, fading to the subtle, prickling awareness that I was not alone. I looked up, trembling. Firebird stared back, quiet and curious.
She was not as I had seen her. Her nose was swollen, blood dried under one nostril. She had a black eye, her lower lip was split, and the bruise shading her right jaw was all shades of blue and yellow. She did not wear a leotard. She wore nothing at all. There was dried blood on her knees, her knuckles, her chin. She looked like she had been dragged from the mangled remains of a car wreck. The clamps on the ends of her fingers had blood actively running from them.
“My God,” I breathed, blinking at her, so stark and feral in the artificial, blinding light of the horrible room. “What have they done to you?”
“Much less than they would do to you, as a Mute,” she said, cocking the bushy brow again. “Particularly one as powerful as yourself.”
I got to my feet. The room made me dizzy. Or maybe that was the BioMage. Or the sense of impending doom.
“How do you know that they can’t see us?” I asked, looking reflexively at the camera.
“I am a BioMage,” she said, as though explaining why animals needed air.
“But that doesn’t mean you can control a fucking camera. Biological creatures, only. And these walls are too thick, even for you. Besides, who knows where the security team even is?”
“I assure you, they are inconvenienced to an extreme,” she looked down at her hands, at her bleeding fingers within the clamps.
“What do you mean?”
“They are locked in their room,” she snorted through her hawkish nose, and blood misted down her front. “Jezi, I must ask something of you.”
I swallowed, still trembling a bit, and looked at the security door. It was as quiet and closed as ever. I looked back to her.
“I need you to remove these,” she raised her hands slightly, the clamps still showing little green lights. “And once you do, several things will happen in rapid succession. I am not quite myself,” she gestured to her bruised and bloodied body, “and I may need your assistance.”
“Assistance with what?” I asked, approaching her warily, the hair rising on the back of my neck.
I paused at that, though it wasn’t really a surprise. After all, the Firebird had never been successfully held by Unity. Oh, they’d come close. I remembered every near-disaster. I remember clutching my hands together, panic flooding my mind.
The lights in the room flickered again, and I saw the muscles under Firebird’s tanned skin tense.
“If you would,” she raised a hand, the cords attached to each finger tightening, pulling her back down to the chair. “We’re on a tight budget.”
“I can’t help you,” I said, something inside of me cowering. “I don’t know what makes you think that I can.”
“Jezi,” and she gave me a stern, knowing look. “I know everything about you. You are the reason I’m here.”
“But I’d sooner kill you myself than allow you to endanger my team. As it is, once the security team escapes, you will be destroyed.”
I scowled at Firebird.
“Why do you want me? If you’re just going to fucking kill me,” I said. “What’s the difference?”
“Between being killed and being destroyed?” there it was again, that almost-smirk.
That was when the alarms began to go off. The light in the room flashed to red, and the screaming sirens down the hall made my heart stumble awake. The floor itself vibrated with them. I slapped my hands over my ears, eyes watering. Firebird continued to regard me.
“What’ll it be, Jezi?”
With a helpless scream, I threw myself forward, taking one of her hands and narrowing my eyes at the clamps.
“This is un-fucking-believable,” I whispered, tugging experimentally at one of the things.
“Pry the ends open. There is a needle within. You do not have the strength to pull them off.”
I gripped the open ends of the jaws and found that they opened rather easily, though requiring two hands. My stomach did an uncomfortable, loopy kind of thing when I saw the long, bloody needle remove itself from her fingernail.
“Jezi, you should move a little more quickly,” Firebird said, looking as disinterested as a fish.
“Fuck me,” I breathed again.
It did not take long for me to remove the clamps, though the phrase vomit later, vomit later, vomit later was unhelpfully running through my brain. When she was free, Firebird took a deep breath.
“Help me to my feet, if you would?” she asked.
I was still swearing when I pulled her arm around my shoulders. She was heavier than she looked and smelled strongly of blood and sweat, but as she put her weight against me, we moved with surprising speed. No sooner had I slowed for the door, question poised on my tongue, than it sprang open with a welcome rush of fresh air.
I didn’t bother asking how she managed that, nor why the next nine doors were open. The hallways were empty, and several of the cells that I passed had Guards within them, their shrieks of outrage soundless in the thickly padded hallway.
We exited the first Level and I was once again in the empty waiting room. Red lights glowed and the sirens wailed, but the elevator’s lights were out and the screen that should have displayed the buttons for it was black. I looked at Firebird.
“Now what?” I asked.
She was leaning heavily against me, and her dark eyes fluttered half closed. She gripped my shoulder with a sweaty palm and nodded to the wall of windows.
“I would prefer that we get behind this desk,” she said, sinking to her knees and dragging me along with her, putting the reception desk in between ourselves and the window.
“Welcome to Floor 19,” the helpful little receptionist robot chimed, “authorities have been notified of your presence, please have a seat.”
“Why are we—” I started.
There was a sudden, muted, insistent humming. I frowned, leaning around the edge of the desk. My jaw dropped.
There was a goddamned spaceship outside. Not a hovercraft, not an airplane. It filled the windows, and as my eyes focused, I realized I was staring down two guns the size of small shuttles. Emblazoned across its nose, written in crimson, big-ass calligraphy, was the word Redwing. Firebird grabbed my arm and jerked me back behind the desk a moment before the world exploded.
“JESUS!” I screamed, my hands flying over my ears, my body squeezing into the smallest possible ball.
Glass shattered, bullets ripped through the top of the desk, dissolved the waiting room’s chairs, thudded into the thick wall across from me. The sirens wailed endlessly on. Debris turned to shrapnel, and I saw rather than felt several pieces slice the meat of my bicep. I rotated, pressed to my side in the fetal position.
Quick as that, the gunfire ceased. Truly, it couldn’t have lasted longer than a few seconds. But to me, a lifetime had been spent.
“Rise,” Firebird said, pushing herself to her feet.
I wasn’t trembling—I was vibrating. I couldn’t hear. Not really, not through the ringing and the buzzing and the cotton-stuffed brain my skull now contained. I wobbled upright, tripped on something, and hit the ground, something sharp in my satchel stabbing my abdomen.
By the time I’d managed to get to my knees, we were no longer alone.
Two women sprang from the ship, jumping through the ruins of the window wall. Glass shattered under their heavy boots. They each carried a gun approximately the size of my thigh, and they scanned the room with the efficient motions of soldiers. When their guns paused on me, my hands shot reflexively over my head.
The first was tall and heavily built, her armor a complicated mix of Unity and Martian technologies. Her helmet’s visor was open and cool eyes regarded me. When she saw Firebird, still standing behind the ruins of the desk, her pale mouth thinned.
The second was tall, thin, and lightly armored. Within the delicate-looking helmet, her face was as black as Phobos, the whites of her eyes like the peak of Olympus Mons. She grinned.
“That mod!” the thin woman exclaimed, kicking a bit of destroyed robot-desk and slinging her rifle—Level X Automatic, acid-based—across her back. “Brute has outdone herself.”
“Oh my God,” I managed. The thickly built woman turned to me and I felt myself shrink under her stare. I shook my head, “You’re them.”
“Who the fuck else would we be?” the thin woman grinned at me.
“Ori,” Firebird said, hands held in front of her chest, fingers lax and bleeding.
“Right,” the thin woman—Ori—said.