Jay and I don’t meet eyes on screen just as much as we don’t meet in reality. They stare off-camera, and I peer out the window. Sunset’s dregs leave a purple smear on the horizon like bar-fight bruises. I can hear our son getting ready for bed in the background, but my words still won’t come.
The doorbell blares. My flat’s at the wrong end of Crick Avenue, where the tail of the life expectancy curve drops a few centuries and change. Where the Baselines live. Bastet’s slamming my buzzer, hustling so close to the door-cam her third eye’s lashes tickle the lens.
No good’ll come of this mess.
She shouldn’t be here. She’s not my customer, and even if she was, I’d come to her. No reason for an Uplift to walk this block. Even the do-gooders of the Genetic Equity League know better—holed up in highrise agro-parks for their fundraisers, hobnobbing with up-and-coming alt-media kids like Bastet. Her type only crashes to earth on days like today, when the world ends in slow motion.
If someone notices an Uplift hanging around, there might be questions. It’s the last thing I need.
“Jay, babe, something’s come up.” I know what my face is doing and I don’t like it. Contrition’s never been my best mask.
We’ve been split for almost two months, but their betrayed look still cuts. “Sure, go, no doubt it’s important.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll call you back, shouldn’t take—”
Jay cuts the call.
We never saw eye-to-eye on me dealing, but UBI plus the sham paycheck I get from Cilix’s front business isn’t gonna cover the cost of our son’s Uplift. How are regular humans supposed to compete? No matter what it takes, I’ll make Mel’s life better than mine.
I slap the doorbell quiet.
“Let me in, fuck’s sake, can’t stand around out here.” Bastet’s a mile a minute and accelerating, face poking from a bulky coat like it’ll hide her from the lens. “You’re gonna right? C’mon man, I’m burning up here. Yeah?”
“I know you?” Best to play it off.
“Fuck you, Cola. I know who you are. Your name’s been around. Heard you hooked up DeeDee for the Towerfall vod.” She glances over her shoulder and back, too fast for the camera to track. I catch her sheen of sweat all the same.
The mess has arrived already, and she’s no good at all.
My big toe’s tapping inside my kicks. I force it still. Bastet’s already said too much, I’ll have to wipe the door-cam’s logs later. Ditch my burners. If I ever see that bait-as-fuck moron DeeDee again, they’re picking up the tab for my relocation.
“Fine.” I buzz her in.
By the time Bastet reaches my door, I’ve got four quarter-gram baggies of ember and a k-tech semi-auto I’ve never used before shoved in my cargos.
She steps into my flat still half-glancing over her shoulder. Her golden skin’s turned dull—drawn tight to both cheeks, sweat beading every inch like a terminal care patient. Still don’t fancy my chances if she snaps. The simps on her channel who think she’s weak cause she’s ‘plump’ need their neurals boosted. Beneath her skin, there’s so many lab-tweaked modifications, she could rip me apart bare-handed.
Sunglasses cover her main two eyes—designer, tinted. I nod to the closed third, square in the middle of her forehead. “You run your streams through that, right?”
“Top of the line wetware. Gives my audience the quality they expect. You a fan?” Bastet purrs the line like one of her sponsorship slots, then tries for a smile I can’t parse with her shades on.
“Keep it closed or we’ve got problems.”
The smile vanishes. “Rude. You’re not living up to your name, Cola.” A bead of sweat rolls from her hairline.
“If you wanted sweet, you shouldn’t have barged in my place.” I curl my lip. “How much you looking for?”
Bastet raises her right hand. A full five fingers.
She’s too rich and out of her goddamn mind. Ember’s a research chem, newly leaked, not many contacts. Anxiolytic, stimulant, hyper-regenerative. DeeDee took a pavement dive and walked it off. Perfect for thrill-seekers and wannabes, price to match. Buying a gram by itself would be overkill.
Stuff’s supposed to be non-addictive. Right now, I don’t believe it.
“One,” I say. “Don’t have more on me.”
Her other hand clenches on the edge of her jacket and my pulse leaps. It’s talon-thin, nails curved. The fabric above shifts in ways that shouldn’t be possible for a human arm. “But at Towerfall—”
“DeeDee called me. I had time to prepare the amount they needed to pull it off. One or nothing, make your choice.” I need her gone, either way. Stress narrows my vision. She’s a full-res figure with no backdrop. I hyper-focus on her every movement until I’m breathing knives.
She reaches into her coat and pulls a slimline datakey, noticeably unlocked. Crypto-counter display proves it’ll cover costs. I pass over the four bags and she takes them with her good hand.
It’s my turn to smile. “Happy doing business. Want to contact me again, go through DeeDee.”
Bastet stares at those baggies of orange-yellow powder so fierce it’s like she hasn’t heard me. She mumbles something, lips twitching like a stop-motion marionette.
“Hey, you good?” I ask.
She tips an entire baggie into her mouth.
Three full seconds pass before I can process the sight. Both rows of Bastet’s teeth are fused into serrated enamel bands like a proto-beak. Abscessed gums say the process wasn’t voluntary.
I’m not done staring when the second baggie follows and I scream, “What the fuck?”
If Bastet wants to die, she can do it at someone else’s place. I grab her arm and heat hits me like an open oven. She’s burning up, so hot it sears my palm. I gasp, pull away. She backhands me. Her coat tears. The sofa saves me a nasty landing and I’m back up, drawing a gun I don’t know how to use. It shakes as I aim at her face. Maybe the safety’s still on. Maybe it won’t be enough.
Whatever I planned to shout dies in my throat.
Her sunglasses slipped in the scuffle. Warning-yellow eyes with saucer pupils stare at nothing. The mumbling’s faster, intercut with moans of pain. Through the ripped jacket, her shoulder bristles with bone quills. Fat droplets of blood roll from the pores.
Bastet swallows the third bag and my finger goes click-click-click on the useless trigger. Wouldn’t have done much good; right now she could tank a grenade. She screams like a steam kettle, the skin around her lips blistering. I’m screaming back, cursing, pleading. The foam-at-the-mouth overdose I’m expecting never comes.
A jet of flame bursts from her third eye like a novelty roman candle. For a split second she looks right at me with enough awareness for panic before she catches light completely. Her veins glow orange like magma channels until her skin bubbles, crisps, cracks in drought. She’s a stomach-turning standing roast, leaking fat that spatters little fires across the couch. She’s a rising fireball still whistling as she boils. Unreal.
Candle flesh. Frantic howls. Acrid char. Bitter smoke.
I surface hours later. The gun, a bundle of clothes, and the final burner weigh my bag low on my back. I had enough time to wipe my systems. Ducked smouldering wreckage before the whole flat could spark, and made it out with a bundle of datakeys. Transferred them to a wallet in Mel’s name using a clean phone before I trashed that too.
I need to get to Cilix.
Acid coats my throat. Threw up twice: once a block from the fire, once when that last image of Bastet screaming frothed back up like a bad meal. Kaleidoscope thoughts turn tricks through my cortex.
Sirens still echo, trickling from the distance behind me. They showed up too fast. Black-booted. Armed. Police response, not fire, like they knew something was gonna go down. Didn’t recognise the badges; must be Uplift shit from Central. I hide both clenched fists in my hoodie. The fabric reeks like deep fry and I nearly retch.
I sink lower in my hood. Gulp clean air tinged with phytochemicals that drift from the city’s centre—the floral scent of our unequal utopia.
I check each corner for flashing lights. As I head out from hab-zones into industrial, the passersby fade. It should be a relief, but now each shadowed figure sets my heart in my throat, my eyes flicking to the periphery, my head on a low swivel like Bastet’s paranoia was contagious.
A metallic clatter echoes from a side alley choked in ferns. I spin so fast the pack’s straps cut into my shoulders.
For an instant, yellow-black eyes leer at me from the darkness and I freeze. But they’re gone, leaving only fresh sweat to join the grease beneath my clothes. I’m probably in shock, still riding an adrenaline wave that could crash and drown me any minute. I’m not scared, I tell myself. Can’t afford to be.
Can’t check for tails every five minutes without standing out. I’m a normal man, walking on normal roads to his normal job at a 24/7 factory line.
I repeat it like a mantra till it comes through in the way I walk.
I want to contact Jay. I want to see Mel so bad it gives me the shakes. So bad the surroundings blur into OLED streetlamp glow cut stripwise by the whispering trees. I’ll have to wait till things die down. The flat was rented cashkeys-in-hand. Hopefully that’s enough to slow the cops. I can’t risk Jay too. Can’t risk our splintered family. Any luck and a missing Baseline’s the least interesting part of this whole affair.
Nüsslein-Volhard road curves through the bio-foundry district, crowded with everything from vertical farms to hyphae relay stations for the inner city’s net. Cilix’ lab hides beneath a cultured meat factory fronted by a fried nu-chicken joint. One door, and I’ll be face to face with the man himself.
Hypothetical confrontations spin faster than I can stop them. Why did Bastet combust? A bad reaction with her augs? Stacking chems? Main-lining enough to kill a whale?
One issue rides atop the rest. What in the fuck have I been selling?
Cilix has always been a genius, even for an Uplift. Revolutionary food scientist in the light. Recreational research chemist away from it. But Central cops. But sudden combustion. But regeneration.
For the first time since I started dealing, I’ve got to admit this seems bigger than him. And that frightens me almost as much as I need his help.
He owes me an escape.
I take the side entrance, punch a ten-digit code. My soot-brushed fingerprints stare back at me as the door swings open. I smudge them clear.
A short corridor opens to the staff break room. Floor-to-ceiling internal windows overlook ranks of bioreactors and nano-scaffold printers in the main hall below. Protein flows in bulk, a smooth transition from cell-line to artificial muscle. Hues from deep red to pale yellow. Cruelty-free, if you don’t count all the jobs sacrificed to automation and efficiency. I’d always thought it was kind of Cilix to keep us Baselines on the books anyway. He didn’t need to.
Dream stands facing the factory floor, his thin smile reflected in the cleanroom glass. “Cola, huh?”A few of his ears twitch, then settle, like they’ve breathed in my soul. “Raised heart rate. High cortisol sweat. I smell a fire. Burned human flesh. You’ve come to see Cilix. Why?”
“You could hear all that?” I hate talking to this fucker. He’s opaque, and I’ve seen what he can do to people.
“Answer the question. Explain that burnt smell. Now.”
“Bastet came to my place.”
Dream looms over me, ears pinned back. “She had your address? How?”
I can’t help backing up. “Not sure, but she mentioned DeeDee. Knew about the Towerfall deal somehow. I get the stunt was our advert, but how the fuck did she find me?” Words burst out. I’m already off-script. “That’s my sodding house. I can’t get involved in Uplift shit, you know that. Ice cube in a fucking furnace. I’m chill with delivery, but if Central cops start sniffing around the wrong end of Crick, it’s not just me in the shitter.”
“You think I’d recognise some special force badge bullshit? I’m lucky I got out.”
“Lucky? How do you know you weren’t followed, Baseline? You came straight here, you stupid—”
A swoosh. The door to Cilix’ office slides open and his voice filters out. “It’s fine, Dream. Let him in.”
“Yes, boss,” Dream says.
My pack’s pressed against the door to the corridor. Dream sneers. Then a blur, and he’s standing again, staring out at the factory floor like he never moved. I don’t realise how scared he’s made me till I try walking. Each step tests weak-kneed balance.
I cling to the frame as I step through to Cilix’s office. The door hisses shut behind me.
“Please, sit.” Cilix gestures at a chair pushed against the wall without turning from his work. I sit.
Five screens are arrayed in front of him. Their pale glow illuminates a wide swath of metamaterial desk. As the seconds pass, the content shifts from technical manuals to news feeds, hacked security cams to stock tickers. Only the central display remains, code written at a speed I can’t track. Three keyboards. Blurred hands. Cilix taps away with his four arms like a discount asura stuck in an office job.
Silence stretches, broken only by the clicking of keys. I can almost hear my pulse, inching back up as the questions spiral again inside my head. Can’t tell if this is an interrogation tactic or if Cilix is just busy.
I know better than to interrupt. At last he pauses. A clip I know all too well appears on the central screen—the Towerfall vod.
DeeDee plummets from the 50th floor of the Mendel tower, laughing like their rapidly approaching death’s a joke, a torn-throat howl of ecstasy, doppler from the fall. They pass the camera, down again, and PoV focus twitches right before the inevitable.
It’s the next twenty seconds that catch everyone’s attention. The cameraman murmurs prayers. Off-screen: anxious calls and a whoop of joy that seems callous. Inappropriate on first watch.
But it’s not to be. Shattered bones reknit. Pink muscle and cream-colored fat creeps in reverse-motion, a thousand organic maggot tendrils rebuilding DeeDee’s frame layer by layer. DeeDee looks up at the camera and the smile on their face is so pure that their recent death doesn’t seem real.
“Fuck me!” DeeDee screams. “That was incredible. Fuck. Wow. Smash like and subscribe. You’ve never seen anything like this.”
They’re right. No one had.
The audience goes wild. Cut to sponsors. Credits.
Cilix pauses. Scrolls back. Plays. A mound of ruptured flesh. Recovery. And back. And play. And back.
“A shame,” he says. “That they didn’t film in IR.”
The chair spins and he faces me. Chiselled cheeks, midnight hair. Impossibly attractive, if you don’t notice the four arms or the look in his eye that doesn’t distinguish people from the meat in his lab. “So Bastet came to your place.”
“And overdosed, before catching fire.”
I don’t ask how he could know. “Yes.”
“Describe the police who responded.”
“Black boots. Heavily armed. Had some weird badge on their shoulder, like a bunch of lines, I don’t know, man, I was busy running.” The adrenaline’s gone on too long. I’m flagging. Hollow stomach like an NBOMe comedown. I try not to meet Cilix’ ice-chip eyes.
The next question comes a beat late, like he had to consider it. “Would you say it resembled a gust of wind?”
“Maybe? Look, I’m more worried about Bastet going up like a torch. What happened?” He just needs to say something to make me feel safe, and I’ll buy it. I’ll go back to—
“Astraeus.” He sighs the word, almost to himself. “You could do with a shower.”
My thoughts short-circuit.
“You’re tired, dirty, carrying evidence, and you smell like a bonfire. There’s a shower through that back door.” He points.
“Cilix, look, I’m grateful and everything. Really.” I search for the shape of my words. Keep things civil. “I need to know. What have I been selling? Why’d that girl catch fire in my flat?”
One set of fingers steeple. The other tap-tap-taps on the arm of his chair. “Hard to say without supporting data. She could’ve taken something else. Her augs might have reacted poorly. There could be underlying instabilities. This will take time.”
I don’t have time. I motion to stand and Cilix waves me back into the chair.
“We’ll arrange a safehouse until this blows over. Free of charge. I take it that will be satisfactory?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. I don’t have a reason to argue. The jumble in my mind unspools to a muzzy thread. I’m led by the arm. At some point the pack slips off and I’m in a shower room. White tiles, chrome taps.
Click. The door closes.
I am tired. Stripped clothes. Hot water. Steam rises, darkness rises with it. Aseptic fluoride pricks at my nostrils. The world tilts off-axis.
Jay stands over me, cradling Mel. Tears trickle down one cheek, glittering firelight red.
“Something’s come up,” they say.
Their voice is hollow. Fragile. Something in the desperate quietness of it cuts at my heart, as though they can’t trust themself to speak louder. I want to reply. To stand, and take them, and tell them everything will be all right. But I can’t move.
Jay steps back. Warning-yellow eyes flicker in their surroundings—patient like vultures. Morbid ecstasy sets Jay’s face aglow. They spread their arms, Mel on their chest, and they’re falling upwards away from me. Further and further.
The temperature climbs. Magma veins spread beneath their skin. I open my mouth to speak, but no words come out. I’m gonna lose them. Forever, this time. It only takes a spark.
“I’ve got to go,” Jay says.
Firework flames. Burning heat. I’m screaming, screaming, scream—
“…are you sure, boss?” Dreams’ voice echoes, as though from great distance.
“Yes, we’ll only keep a cell line,” Cilix says.
I try to turn my head. It won’t move. Blue-white light glares in my face from a poise-lamp, leaving technicolour stuttering across my vision. My tongue’s a numb, unwieldy lump. Impossible to wag. I groan instead.
“Hmm… Maybe he has a tolerance?” The light moves aside, and Cilix’ face swims—still cold-eyed, still beautiful. “I’ll have to up the dosage.”
There’s a hum and a high-pitched whine in the background. Memory fogs until an idle synapse sparks in pity. An ultrasonic blade. We must be in one of the surgical bays, where the biopsy samples start their long journey to becoming artificial food.
I can’t focus well enough to remember why it’s important. The noise drones on and the lamp swings back. I blink stupidly up at it. I remember city streets. Yellow eyes and ferns. A burning body, falling. A sense of loss, deeper than my empty stomach.
An alarm rings in the distance. It’s a ringtone and warning and sirens.
Dream’s voice slurs through slow distortions. “It’s Astraeus,” he says, and the light flickers, flickers, flickers. “Would you like to take the call upstairs?”
“It’s fine here.” There’s an edge to Cilix’ voice I’ve not heard before.
I can’t catch the next words, far off and faint.
“Excuse me?” Cilix says.
Then, “That’s not part of the agreement. You can’t take it back.”
Then, “You sent who? That brute knows nothing. You broke the contract first by not providing human test subjects when requested.”
A howl of rage.
“Grab the others. Now!” Cilix yells, but he’s already leaving. Footsteps clatter away, like they’re falling upwards.
I’m drifting. The light flickers, flickers, flickers.
My head’s splitting like a fault line. Pain from lobe to lobe. I can still taste the anaesthetic, cloying the back of my throat. Antiseptic bromine clogs each nostril. I’m lying flat on a metal board, cold and stiff against my shoulders. I try to struggle, but I’m strapped down.
From recessed grooves up near the ceiling, dim red light washes the space. I’ve only seen the emergency lighting once before. The power’s cut.
Clarity bubbles to the surface and my heart clenches. I was inches from death. Just a loose end to be cut when no longer required. Those fuckers.
Someone’s dressed me in the spare clothes from my bag, a loose t-shirt and tracksuit. It’s pulled up to expose my abdomen. Straps keep me locked down—chest, thighs, and cuffs at my ankles. I stretch my arms up until I can slip one fingernail beneath the velcro. Minutes pass in agony. Aching muscles strain close to failure.
The first strap comes free with a great rip. I scramble for the others and roll off the operating bed, landing hard. My legs are jelly. Head still underwater.
I take stock. Medicine cabinets. Lab equipment. The ultrasonic knife unit is still next to the bed. I pull up my shirt and the sight of the black-marker dotted lines drawn across my skin makes me choke. I grab a fistful of my shirt and scrub and scrub, but they won’t go. I want to clean the inside of my skin, faster and faster until—
A distant gunshot, sudden and overwhelming, snaps me back to the room. Shouting, then more shots. The noises echo, impossible to place.
My pack’s waiting on a side-table. I unzip it, slip the burner in my pocket. The gun’s still there. I disengage the safety. It’s lead-heavy.
The only smart thing I’ve done tonight is transfer the money to Mel.
I push through the barrier drapes and enter an open-plan hall dotted with curtained-off surgical bays and impromptu labs. The ceiling arches high above, the emergency lighting leaving the space a morass of shadows. In the distance, a bright green emergency exit sign shines from the gloom.
Gunfire thunders from somewhere above. I flee. Feet unsteady, weaving like a drunk. I’m not even a third of the way when a door slams open. Blinding OLED glow spills from halfway up the far wall. A set of steel stairs winds down. Shouting echoes. A body falls, crashing to the floor with a sickening crunch.
I choke back a scream. Figures burst down the stairs after the body and the door swings shut, plunging me back into murky crimson darkness.
I can’t count them, blurred with distance and speed. Gunshots. Overwhelming. Muzzle flash reflecting off chromed cabinets. I take cover.
I don’t know what makes me turn my head. It’s there between the aisles, an angled view past intertwined equipment. Another body tumbles. Blood splashes. Yellow eyes in the dark. Something stands over the corpse—bright orange feathers on its arms, grown from bone quills. Something with a beak, curved and cruel. Something whose bullet wounds reknit with a creeping motion like dismal maggots. Something like Bastet’s last moments.
Pounding footsteps. Frantic breath. I’m sprinting, directionless. Each noise, final gurgle, echoing bang swings me around, crashing and tripping in the shadows.
A bullet passes near enough to blow fragments from the floor by my foot. I trip, sprawling forward.
Red lights. Orange feathers. Two figures with guns drawn.
I roll to a stop.
“Another one of yours? I’ll kill it.” A bass voice booms from a hulking figure, face mutated with feathers and unclear junctions of flesh and metal and bone. The shotgun in its hand seems pistol-small.
“No loss,” Cilix sneers. “You’re still not getting the phoenix.”
They’re standing on each side of a low steel table that’s wide enough for a full-grown cow. Instruments encircle it with mechandrites and gas-lines and slender probes. Their guns are drawn. Trained—Cilix’ on the stranger, the stranger’s on me—but my vision catches on the ruined cadaver on the table.
It must’ve been beautiful once. Sleek lines, burnished feathers like the sun, fierce eyes, now dimmed. A giant bird, half-collapsed to orange-yellow ash, its flesh melted and burned and yet somehow still clean. I can’t tear my eyes away.
I recognise the colour. “That’s ember.” My voice belongs to someone else.
“Who’s this moron?” the stranger asks.
“Shut the fuck up, both of you,” Cilix says.
“Phoenixes don’t exist.” I point the gun at Cilix. “Explain.”
He doesn’t answer.
The giant guffaws. “Isn’t that the Baseline we tracked from Bastet?”
“You what?” It slips out of my mouth before I can think.
They both curl their lips. One set of teeth, one beak. Their eyes make it clear I’m lower than dust.
My gun wavers. Bitter laughter escapes as gasps. I’m so fucking far out of my depth. Despair so pure I wish the city would burn. I should’ve known I couldn’t escape. From the moment an Uplift showed up at my door. This was never my game. I’m worse than a child for thinking I could get answers.
Cilix catches my expression. “If you shoot him, I’ll give you that safehouse.”
“Counter-offer,” the stranger says. “You both die here, and I won’t go after your family.”
Jay. Mel. The laughter’s stronger now. If everyone’s dead, they’ll still get the money. I can still fix this. It’s the only thing I’ve got left.
The stranger’s hawk-yellow eyes narrow. “There something wrong with his head?”
I’m gonna wipe it from his face.
I move the gun, and both of them lock to the outcome. I point it at the bird.
“Wait!” one shouts.
“You dumb fuck!” from the other.
Three shots. Bang, bang, bang. A wide spray. No marks for accuracy. Dead feathers shudder. A shattered probe raises a cloud of orange-yellow powder. Then the final round hits one of the gas cylinders.
A jet of flame burst a gas torch from the tank—blue-white and jetting. Panic flashes across two faces, then rage. I smile. The fireball lifts. The phoenix’ bones light, little rivers of fire tracing its skeleton before the fireball lifts to the ceiling and I’m flying, flying, flying. For a split second, I see points of crimson light burst in resonance. Guns clatter to the floor as human figures combust like stars in the night.
Candle flesh. Frantic howls. Acrid char. Bitter smoke.
I crawl from the wreckage, drag myself across the concrete into a predawn glow that should be sweet with blooming flowers. I’m not sure the burned smell will ever leave.
Lying on my back, the great factory fire is the gold of sunrise, shot through with blue bursts like distant stars. Sirens swarm in the distance, yet as I glance to the still-dozing city, I can see smoke rising from a hundred disasters. Maybe when the phoenix went up, everyone who’d tasted it followed.
I need to know Mel’s safe, but my muscles are rubber. I can’t pull myself any further. It’s so warm.
The burner slips from my pocket and I nearly fumble Jay’s number. It rings, rings, rings.
Above me, the fire grows and swells, reaching skyward. A bird soars from the flames, scattering bright embers through the smoke. Its cry is the purest, proudest sound I’ve ever heard. It’s free. It’s the only life tonight that needs the flame.
My eyelids are so heavy. The phoenix soars, destruction for rebirth, and leaves ruin in its wake.
Maybe it could never be fixed.
Maybe none of us could ever escape.
“Hello,” Jay says, “who’s calling?”