For a time, dripping water was the loudest sound. Technically the crunching of the static was louder, but its grating resonance was easy to forget; it sank into the background of things, softly abrasive, muddling the details. Dripping water was worse. It was too clear-and-piercing in the dark. When the crash finally came, Enioreh’s nerves made her flinch so hard she hit the dirt and almost swallowed a mouthful, even though it was the one sound she’d been expecting. Fucking water, the girl thought, wiping her tongue off on the inside of her shirt. The texture made her retch.
She told herself it was the texture, anyway. Static was her friend.
Soon, her quasiputer’s pilot light blinked on, putting a red glow on things around her. She could see the stark dimensions of the makeshift fort on every side – a knotted cavern no outside eyes had probably ever seen. A web of interlocking wires sliced the air-space, making it hard to move. They hadn’t told her, but she knew that this was the only reason they were still alive. If anything upset their electrical camouflage, the armies’ Trojans would pin them to the wrong side of an electric fence or send a wave of good ol’ fashioned drones to wipe them out before you could take a decent breath. She had no way of knowing how long ago their energy prints had been updated, whether they’d still look like the low-income residence they were pretending to be.
The forty people or so who sat scattered in gaps between the wires were looking at her, their eyes all quiet, used to the dark and seeing more than her eyes could. And holding in more, too. Enioreh wiped a little dew from the tail of her own eyes as she stood.
Her red quasilight shone against the white skeletal ornaments the Off-Gridders wore, making Enioreh wonder again about the stories. It had long been rumored that the Offgrids were using bones as currency. Whole bones only, if it were true – nothing left over from bombs or torture, which meant you’d either have had to kill a solider by your own hand or seen a loved one die of age to have something to worth trading. Small ones, like knuckles and toes, could buy you a favor. The big ones counted for rank or exceptions to their martial codes. Teeth would be worthless, if they came from adults, but the teeth of children were said to be the most valuable of all. A baby-tooth bought belonging, the price of a name Offgrid.
Enioreh had asked about those stories already, and had not been answered. Much of the interview had gone this way – not too well, if the point of coming here was conversation. But Enioreh was starting to discover the Offgrids had a different way of talking, with their faces only. She was understanding more of them the longer that she stayed – she just hadn’t figured a way yet to put that knowledge into useful news-clip-form that she could walk away from.
She thought about going home, and having people from everywhere start asking her what she thought the Offgrids thought, and taking her guesses as wisdom. There was no getting out of it now – she was an expert. Did the Primatives really use bones, they’d ask? Oh, no, she’d say. The Offgrids all wear unbroken bones because it’s free armor. It’s just another way of mystifying or romanticizing this people, to say that bones are better than paper or gold to them, because the currency needs no luck – because bones could only be grown, slowly, like impossible trees, because if you had what it took to bring a child into personhood, no one could afford to turn you out. We started telling our children that about the Offgrids to make them think if they went looking through caves the boogeymen would rip out all their teeth and wear their little skeletons for clothes.
Well, here were the Offgrids, right before her, waiting on the right questions to say what they’d brought her in to hear. Enioreh couldn’t count the eyes, the faces stained red from her quasi’s light.
Liar, she called herself, and her smile tasted mean. She wasn’t stupid. She knew the red stains on everyone but her had nothing to do with her quasi’s pilot. And that her ears had started twitching again, and the side of her mouth too, because the static was gone – it had cleared away at the same time her light came back – and now the human voices above her were naked and shrill. The most likely scenarios would have them all die screaming here, except for her. If she died it would be up in the light, before a televised tribunal.
Hard things to know, but they were important. It was good that the quasi had adjusted to new frequencies. It meant that the army probes weren’t actively trying anymore to rip holes through their faulty codes – you could always tell they were on the hunt when quasis got scrambled. And it was important to be here – it was an honor, to be sitting in a real, physical secret lair. There weren’t a whole handful of journalists on earth who’d set a foot Offgrid.
Enioreh still couldn’t figure out how she’d become one of them. True, she worked for The Herald, which probably, as the only publication left with roots before the war, had something to do with this. Reyolpme was so scary-smart that it didn’t even really surprise Enioreh that she’d managed after all this time to snag an in. But why send her? Enioreh’s assignments in the past had been mediocre – an aside with the Emperor’s education aide here, a cultural festival there. Her sister was the ace, who mixed and mingled up at the castles. Why wasn’t she the one Rey wanted? It was the last day of her stay, and this was to be the last interview. She wasn’t positive she’d bungled, but she sure as shit hadn’t come up with any breathtaking clips, as Retsis surely could have.
Enioreh cleared her throat a few times. No matter how hard she tried, she could never keep her voice steady. It bothered her – so unlike a proper journalist. The correspondents’ voices she remembered from her childhood were so much stronger. They always had this calm, knowing quality – as if the war was a story only they could tell. The only reason anyone listened to the news sometimes was to pretend it was just a story, that there was an ending out there somewhere. Enioreh swallowed one last time and hit the Record button with two fingers.
“January twenty-first, Twenty-One Thirteen,” Enioreh began. Her voice echoed on the rocky walls, masking a quaver. She paused a second, pretending she was watching the news from somewhere safe, listening and looking around her with new senses. Someone had begun a deep, guttural moaning not far above. She had almost forgotten it already, but when she allowed herself to be honest she knew it was the loudest sound of all. She turned again to face the quasi, and her words came streaming out, faster and more sure.
“Yes, those are the sounds of war you’re hearing. From time to time it’s good to remind ourselves of this. Those screams, those shots, that crashing up above – it’s not the only way the world has ever been. There was a time, long ago, before so many of us can remember, when the world sounded different. And as I speak these words Offgrid, I hardly dare imagine a different kind of world.”
Enioreh let her eyes fall again on the squatting rebel leaders, allowing her first impressions to fall away until she noticed anew the fire in their eyes. “Thank you all for inviting me.” She paused to receive the subtle shift in faces that meant, ‘you’re welcome’. “Yesterday, you explained in detail your conditions for a ceasefire. Tonight, I have to ask – how optimistic are you regarding the Emperor’s New Terms to be announced this evening? Is peace really, at last, an option?”
There was a passing of silent gaze from face to rebel face that lasted so long Enioreh started to fear she’d ruined the interview. She was about to start apologizing when one of the men straightened and spoke, in measured slowness.
“We have never seen a time so close to peace,” he said. “We sincerely hope the Emperor’s new terms will set the stage for a final armistice. Surely the timing cannot be mere coincidence – across the globe, there is not a village that has forgotten the anniversary of the War’s opening shots. According to all that’s left of legend and history, if war ends today, it will have lasted exactly 100 years.”
Enioreh realized she was holding her breath when the rebel finished speaking, and pushed out the air in a one-puff laugh at herself. She had to admit it – she was a little awe-struck, still, at being here. “And,” she coughed, “What of the rumors that the Empire has developed a new secret weapon and plans to unveil it tonight?”
Another leader spoke – a woman, this time, from the other end of the semi-circle. “What of them?” Her voice was of faded disdain – as though still in the habit of remarking on folly, yet too worn-out to hold much bite. “Find me a day without rumors and I’ll find you a day that’s forgotten the War. According to all the facts as we have them, the worst that can happen tonight is for nothing to change. We of the Resistance are by no means at the end of our rope, and if there is need for us to fight another 100 years, we will undertake that challenge with vigor.”
Enioreh fought to maintain her practiced neutral-face. The Offgrids did likewise, allowing the necessary lie to waver like a flag, and clinging to its shrinking echoes as if they’d keep hearing if they listened close enough.
A low buzz shattered the moment. Enioreh felt a familiar tightness in her throat, and her breathing quickened through it. It was her quasi, vibrating with an incoming communication from the Newsroom. It had to be something huge – they’d never risk interrupting an Offgrid meeting otherwise.
“I apologize,” she squeaked, and was embarrassed at her voice. Rebel eyes flickered to her quasi as Enioreh hit some buttons, projecting an image onto the floor. Enioreh recognized the face of the tiny elder woman who was both owner and director of the The Herald. “Reyolpme,” the girl breathed. “What is it?”
The old woman’s lips were drawn thin, her arms folded on her desk. “Greetings to the decentralized leaders of the Outlying Provinces. I am Reyolpme Dumbrich. Greetings to you, Enioreh Relevart. You have been selected to attend this evening’s conference with General-Prince Hedoniet. Your presence at the palace shall be expected within the next five hours.”
Enioreh’s stomach dropped away. She folded her arms over her torso, feeling cold. They’d already had a reporter scheduled for that. “What happened to my sister?”
Reyolpme’s mask of expressionlessness held, as it always did. “Etucoot Retsis has experienced an unfortunate accident and will no longer be attending events.” There was a pause. “She was on her way –”
The transmission cut out, filling abrupt darkness with sounds of fizzling static.
“Probes,” said a voice beyond Enioreh’s vision.
Enioreh took her quasi off its stand and clutched it to her chest, pulling her knees up around it. It was warm in an empty kind of way, too light for its own importance. Enioreh felt a little angry now that she didn’t know who was speaking. No one had introduced themselves, not even with pseudonyms – the tall man had said it was enough that she know they were Outlyers. All well and good, but if she was going to die, she didn’t want to feel that she was surrounded by strangers.
The probes began their work, stressing at the wires. Sparks started falling where the lines were weak, and through the grounded walls and floor there was shaking, groaning, pain and screeching, flashing green and red that maybe were inside her brain and it was going on and on, changes every trillisecond like a different place each time and shaking flashing static static, flashing shaking fuzzy pain and it was never over she was someone new each time and on and on and shake…and her deepest stores of energy were drawn into her limbs and there was no room for thought – she was one with the churning mass of young ardor, her motions synchronized with every chord, and fever was all she had ever been or could be…
Every so often the feverish movement in the earth would peter out into a gentler rumbling, and in those moments Enioreh would get her head together enough to pull up in a strong posture, feeling the sealed compartments on the quasi to see that her footage was safe before blowing on the burns along her arm. Small volts were getting through, somehow – not enough to flatten them, but possibly enough to tip the Trojans off. When the shaking started up again, she’d give up trying to make sense of anything and let roiled feelings run amok, panicked screams maybe ripping from her, or going in her ears from somewhere else. Somehow she found herself brushing up against other people, and some of them touched her, hugging her or cradling her head, keeping her body away from the wires, and others were like her, doubled over, protecting objects that belonged to them alone.
At one point Enioreh found that she was lying with half her face in a puddle – the one maybe she heard the water dripping into sometimes – and she was sobbing away like it would make a difference. Her quasi was tucked under her shirt, and with both hands wrapped around it she could feel that the seal on the memory was intact. But she was sobbing nonetheless. Stupid, beautiful girl…
Enioreh sniffled and sat up. The ground had stopped shaking. She pulled the quasi out of her shirt and saw that the light was on it again, the static was gone. The puddle was in a corner of the fort, and when Enioreh turned she saw that the others had gathered into a solid, waiting huddle. Somebody had brought out a crank-light, and the whitish glow lit the fort better than she had ever seen it lit.
“It’s over?” She moved toward the huddle on her hands and knees, shaking worse than ever. “I mean, at least for a little while?” She reached the huddle and reeled back on her haunches, bringing the quasi to her face to set it again to ‘record’. Without warning, a hand darted out and smashed the device against a wall.
Enioreh opened her mouth, eyes welling again. “Why would you do that?” She gasped.
The lanky rebel who’d smashed the quasi tossed the sealed memory cartridge back, and her face flushed with relief. At least she had the footage.
“Interview’s over,” he told her.
No one argued.
“You might have just asked me to stop filming,” Enioreh muttered.
“It is about the transmitting, not the filming,” offered another voice. “Dumbrich’s speech was a warning. Your communications are under attack – that is why she interrupted the interview. She found a clear channel and needed to use it before it was eroded. I think she managed to get the bulk of the message out before the Bigsets cut her off.”
“You think Emperor Biggs was using us to launch attacks against you?” Enioreh leaned forward on her knees, feeling the greasy ground.
“No,” another voice argued. “They are using us to attack you. The Bigsets must have received word that a reporter went Offgrid. They killed Etucoot– they are restructuring your media. They know you can’t refuse an invitation to attend the conference tonight, and once they get you in the castle, they’ll do whatever they can to make you talk. If they end up having to kill you, they’ll want to do it before this interview airs. People will say you were killed for impartiality otherwise. They learned that lesson with the death of Lobmys Adnikemos. Dumbrich may have saved your life – you can now choose to flee. You may choose, of course, to remain here in hiding with us – we would obviously prefer not to let the Bigsets pick your brain. You’ll forgive me for saying, you don’t exactly look prepared to handle torture.”
“I’ll handle torture just fine!” Enioreh said indignantly. “What do you think I am, stupid or something? I knew ahead of time all the reasons it was dangerous to go Offgrid; none of that matters – we have a job to do! Reyolpme knows that, too.”
There was a wordless moment in which the rebel leaders exchanged deep looks.
“Yes,” said an elder woman’s voice. “Yes, you are right. Wars have been fought in the minds as often as in trenches, and you who were invited here have already earned your honor – for we have seen that you will try to carry forth our story. That she will try – is it not enough, that we, too, should believe she has a chance?”
“Wow…yeah, thanks!” said Enioreh, blushing at what sounded like praise. “If the interview is over, may I request return transportation, while there’s a lull with the probes?”
A thin man with one eyebrow disentangled himself from the huddle and brought a needle from a bag slung over his shoulder. Enioreh felt around in her pocket for the Press Ring and slid it over her thumb, wiggling it under the crank’s light as the needle pierced her skin; the blue poodle of her guild gleamed against its slate backdrop. The Offgrids insisted on her being unconscious during transportation, but she had at least a fifty-fifty chance of making it home if her ring was on. The Half-World Emperor, for all the awful things he did, always supported the press. It was going on nine years now since he’d declared Journalistic Immunity, allowing journalists everywhere the undisputed right to condemn any civilian to death on suspicion of plotting harm – without benefit of a trial. In some areas, journalists were feared almost as much as governors.
“Wait,” the elder woman said. Two of the younger rebels helped her to stand and hobble her way to Enioreh. She grabbed her hand and turned it, palm-up, as she untied a bag with a drawstring from her side. Enioreh kept her palm obediently flat, and felt something light as grain drop against her skin. She glanced down and was suddenly swamped with ideas; there, in her hand, were what looked like two little molars.
Enioreh choked, unable to say either, “Thank you!” or “What the fuck?” She was struggling under layers of shudders and chills, maybe from the drugs pumping through her. Suddenly she knew with perfect clarity which rumors to believe, of the thousands about the rebels she’d spent so many years sifting through.
Enioreh had enough in her hands to purchase good standing for two.
One for you, a voice said somewhere in her mind. One for Retsis.
The old matriarch’s eyes were hard stones that had no trace of thanks or apology – nothing but a frozen understanding. As the medication ebbed away at her consciousness, Enioreh couldn’t look away from the flat truth in them, that she herself had spent so long avoiding. She wasn’t neutral. Not at all.