Chapter 1: Fire and Lights
A mother only gives her child a mockingbird if she knows that she is going to die.
Gideon didn't know this. So when he received a tiny grey bird on his eleventh birthday, he didn't understand why his father's face had the pained and shocked expression of someone who as been suddenly stabbed in the stomach by a friend. Or why he quickly pulled her into another room and sent him outside.
As he leaned against the unwelcoming roughhewn logs, interlocking into walls and doors and roof of a shelter built before he was born, he didn't realize that the little grey bird he was holding foretold the crackling flames that would consume the sturdy structure like an imitation of the afternoon sun above it. As he stroked the bird's soft white underbelly and marveled at its tiny black eyes, fixed expectantly on his own, he didn't know that his mother had done the same the night before.
The tears on its feathers had dried by now.
Hush little baby don't say a word—
6 years later, Gideon rubbed his thumb across his iron ring. Again, he vaguely realized he didn't know exactly where it had come from.
"Healer. Are you busy?"
He looked up quickly, and the glaring fluorescent light blinded him briefly. Then Elektra's outline appeared, stepping briskly across the white tile.
"Then you're needed in Rehabilitation. Looks like it'll be a quick job, too. He's not offering much resistance."
He flowed out of his musings and into reality with a skill that comes only from constant practice. Soon his grungy tennis shoes were crossing the tiles that gleamed with light from the fluorescent panes on the ceiling. Those tennis shoes showed his age more than anything—at seventeen, he was the youngest Healer in Headquarters, but you'd never know it just looking at his smooth, professional face.
The door to the White Room had been left open, and brilliant beams poured out, slicing across the already blinding glow of the corridor. Gideon sighed and forced himself to fully open his eyes. Squinting or shading your eyes from the light was strange behavior, and that was never a good idea.
The intensity of the White Room's light was caused by the usual panel of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, paired with a circle of incandescent light on the floor in the center of the room. Its heat crept through the entire space, making it the warmest room in Headquarters. If it weren't for the blinding glow it would have been Gideon's favorite.
He had to skirt around the circle to get to the corner where the Healing took place. Around it were collapsible walls, whose purpose was to shield the patient's eyes until he had been Healed and could withstand the light without pain.
Perhaps Gideon had not been properly Healed.
The sound of footsteps tapping across the tiles reverberated around the room. A few moments later, a child was slipped through the walls. He caught a glimpse of Elektra's white lab coat as the child moved over to Gideon.
His brown eyes regarded him watchfully, but an almost playful smile shaped his mouth.
"Zekai," he said calmly, extending his hand.
Gideon stared at him. He knew what a handshake was, of course. But he'd only seen them between APW officers. They saw the world outside of Headquarters and took certain liberties that were out of the question for Healers and Phoenix scientists, who had to remain uncontaminated.
Without thinking, he reached out and took the hand. This was how the Plague spread, he thought, with strange detachment. This was the way death was transferred. "Gideon." Also strange—he wasn't supposed to give his name to patients. Amazement at his carelessness temporarily distracted him, scattering his thoughts.
He mentally shook himself and tilted the child's head up to see if his pupils had dilated. Normal size. No sedative. So he hadn't put up a fight or worried anyone.
Gideon sat down, then jumped up immediately when he realized that Elektra had put his clipboard there. When he sat down the second time, the child finally sat down too, eyes twinkling briefly before shifting back into watchfulness.
He looked down at the clipboard. Found alone, near the borders of Abluo. In the open. Elektra's neat cursive fit perfectly into the tiny boxes. Protection Officer Brookings affirmed that no resistance was offered. Family unknown, but Maverick markings on palms indicate exposure to larantha.
Gideon cringed, looking at his own hands. He remembered nothing of his Healing or his life previous to living in Headquarters, and he preferred not to dwell on it. When he found himself staring at the tiny scars on his palms and wondering, he always shifted his thoughts to something else. It had become something of a habit now.
He folded Elektra's page over. This was wasting time.
"So how are you feeling right now?" he said, carefully keeping his gaze on the clipboard. First step: put the patient off-guard.
"I'm feeling like I usually do," the child replied coolly. "Very well."
"Do you know why you're here?"
A spark glimmered in his wary eyes.
"Because I'm a threat."
Gideon was momentarily taken aback. But he had had long practice with keeping his composure. "A threat."
"Yes. You're afraid of me because of what my parents were. But you really needn't worry—you killed them long ago. If they were infecting me with any seditious ideas, I couldn't remember any of them."
A stunned expression almost made its way onto Gideon's face, but he halted it in its tracks.
"I haven't killed anyone," he replied carefully. "You must be mistaken. Perhaps your parents died of the Echo Plague."
"The Ech—look here! I know you Healers don't typically do the killing. I meant 'you' in a general sense. As in the Grey. All of you." His eyes snapped briefly.
Gideon had heard this nickname for the Ablution before. Its origin was obvious—from the grey coats that Healers and APW officers wore. He fingered his sleeve, where the white cross signifying that he was a Healer was fading gradually into the fabric. But Mavericks, who lived outside of Abluo and Headquarters, were ignorant of its inner workings. They never saw the white-coated Phoenix scientists or Athenians. Gideon himself only saw the Athenians occasionally, though they were supposedly the backbone of the Ablution.
"If your parents were Mavericks," Gideon said, taking the cap off his pen, "then they were Cleansed." His voice shook slightly as he spouted the formula, despite his efforts. He hated the stupidity of the term that Healers were required to use. The child's parents had been killed. Calling death something else didn't make it less permanent.
The child's expression changed so quickly that Gideon didn't catch it until he was lunging for him. Fury ripped over his face like a shot from a steaming geyser, but woven into it was a kind of hurt, like betrayal.
"What have they done to you?!" he cried, knocking the chair over. Gideon landed heavily on the floor; and the child jumped on top of him, clouting him across the jaw. Then he was using his fists on any exposed place he could reach—neck, chest, arms, while the Healer flailed in shocked self-defense. "Why did you let them?"
Frantically Gideon fumbled with his coat until he found the syringe with sedative. He tried to keep it cupped in his hand, out of sight.
The child's eyes went blank with a strange mixture of fear and surprise. Then the assault intensified, with the goal seeming to be keeping Gideon's hands pinned as long as possible. The struggle turned into a confused tussle, with both sides trying to control the other.
He stopped moving when he felt a sharp pain in his arm, and to his surprise, the child stopped attacking as well. He found himself getting very cold, and he wondered vaguely why what had previously been so solid now seemed so unreal.
Normally during a Healing, the child would be relaxed and soothed, usually with the help of a sedative. In this state, his mind would be probed by careful questions, until the Healer discovered his priority—what he placed the most importance on. This is what the Healer had used to Heal him—removing all desire to resist, and making him realize that the Ablution offered the best way to protect his priority.
Gideon had not realized that the sedative had a lot of other things in there to help with the process.
The world was shifting silver and grey, flowing like mercury—a world of ash, with glistening smoke twisting through it. Gideon had a strange sensation of sliding along with the flow of the atmosphere, skidding across the shimmering landscape.
He kept forgetting to breathe. Occasionally he could feel himself draw in a shuddering breath, when he realized that he hadn't been filling his lungs for a while.
His bones were made of stone and a slab of marble pressed down on his arms, legs, and chest. The cold floor pressed into his back, keeping him anchored in reality, but the mercury world encompassed his sight and consciousness. Reality was just a hazy distraction.
Vaguely he felt something tugging him away from the floor.
"Gideon. I know you're probably… seriously… not understanding what I'm saying right now. But could you, ah… pretend to be conscious?"
His mind had no control over his body. He wasn't sure if he responded.
He felt arms under his own, and realized that he was being led across the White Room.
"Okay. Come on. You've got to support yourself a little. Walk like you didn't just shoot yourself up with enough sedative to down an elephant."
The words slid through his ears so quickly that he wasn't sure he'd understood them entirely. He thought he was stumbling along with someone's help, but he couldn't be sure.
"...gotta make it look like…can't see, can't know …"
Now there was no sense in what he was hearing. Meaningless sounds and insistent tugging brought him staggering out of the White Room's celestial light, into the dazzling hallway. He felt its frigid air pouring down on him from all sides, and caught curious glances from faces that didn't register in his fuzzy perception. White tile, white light, too bright. Tempered with grey walls. Grey, protecting from the abrasive brightwhitelight.
"'Sbright in here," Gideon heard the child mumble. Then a massive white door was looming up in front of him. He couldn't remember where it went.
"Brace yourself." The whispered words worried Gideon enough to make him stop. He planted his feet into the ground and fought to overcome the disconnectedness, the fogginess keeping him from comprehending anything except the strangeness of the warning and an instinctive fear.
The door opened, and he was shoved into the darkness.