Glowing red lines split their faces. Shock-red hair and clothes warn people to flee their approach. They are plague birds, the powerful merging of humans and artificial intelligences who serve as judges and executioners after the collapse of civilization.
And the plague birds' judgment is swift and deadly, as Crista discovered as a child when she watched one kill her mother.
In a world of gene-modded humans constantly watched over by benevolent AIs, everyone hates and fears the plague birds. But to save her father and home village, Crista becomes the very creature she fears the most. And her first task as a plague bird is hunting down an ancient group of murderers wielding magic-like powers.
As Crista and her AI symbiote travel farther from home than she ever imagined, they are plunged into a strange world where she judges wrongdoers, befriends other outcasts, and uncovers an extremely personal conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions.
Far future SF, A.I.s, cannibals – what's not to like? I was up against this book for the Philip K. Dick Award! – Lavie Tidhar
The world fell flat. The world fell exhausted. The world fell to rainbowcolored static, which rang through Derena's mind as she ran from her death. The static hacked Derena's eyes to afterimages of reds and yellows and blues. She stumbled through the dark forest unable to see, her massive strength smashing each tree she blundered into. Pine saplings scented of youthful excitement. Older hickories and walnuts as thick as her body and smelling of aged regret. The trees buzzed to networked anger and fear as their brothers and sisters were destroyed by the plague bird's strength.
Derena muttered a short prayer as she ran, hoping the ancient incantation— programmed eons ago by the unknown geneticists who'd created this forest— would ease the trees' pain.
Then she ran into a giant tree that didn't break.
Derena fell backwards onto the leaf-strewn ground before clawing to her feet. A steel oak, she realized, her fingers drumming over the oak's nearly unbreakable hybrid wood. Unlike the other trees, the steel oak's living network hummed without fear. There were few things on Earth that could damage it.
With the rainbow static continuing to block the nerves in her eyes, Derena leaned her back against the steel oak's massive trunk. Her attackers must be somewhere nearby. But to truly kill her, they had to touch her. If she braced against the massive oak's trunk, they couldn't attack from behind.
Can you sense the attackers? Derena thought.
No, the blood AI responded in her mind. Someone is jamming my senses along with your eyes. Which should be impossible.
Fear radiated from the artificial intelligence, which was named Red Day and lived inside Derena's blood. No one should be able to jam a plague bird's powers. But Derena also tasted Red Day's excitement at facing a truly challenging foe for once in their long life. Even if that foe might destroy them.
Derena pulled one of her knives from the twin sheaths on her thighs and slashed her wrist, yet again trying to release Red Day's power. But the blood AI still couldn't leave her body.
How are they doing this? she thought. The AI always left when she cut herself.
We'll figure that out if we live, Red Day answered in her mind. Create a bigger wound to release me.
Derena understood. She leaned against the steel oak and waited.
Patience, the AI whispered. Let them come.
"One last time," Derena said, not sure if she was talking to Red Day or herself. It'd been so long since she could tell where she ended and the artificial intelligence in her blood began.
A hand grabbed Derena's arm. She kicked the attacker. Instead of the crack of bone and flesh she felt immense strength like her own. Another hand grabbed for her knife arm, but it was too late—without a second thought Derena slammed the knife into her own heart.
The AI inside her boiled forth in a spray of blood, furious at being attacked. As Red Day left her body, the static in Derena's mind eased. She could see again the blackness of the forest flickering to a few remaining starbursts of static.
Free more of me! Red Day screamed. I need more power. The interference weakens the more removed we are from each other.
Derena shoved the knife deeper into her chest as she cursed at the pain. But this was her pain. Her creation. She saw the people attacking her—three normal looking humans with bizarre, pulsing veils covering their faces. But they couldn't be normal because instead of fleeing the blood AI's fury, they still fought to kill her and Red Day.
She refused to let that happen.
Yanking the knife from her body, Derena reached into the wound in her chest and grabbed her beating heart. The tattered remnants of the person she'd been before becoming a plague bird begged her to stop.
With a yell she ripped out her heart.
As Derena dropped to the ground, her skull smacked the steel oak's trunk, which rang like a deep-toning bell. The sound reminded her of the school bell in her long-vanished home village. She wondered if that bell still existed or had fallen to dust during the several millennia since she'd become a plague bird.
Derena squeezed her heart, and, with a shudder, placed it back in her chest. Red Day swirled and shrieked around her, destroying trees in a whirlwind of power and anger. One of the attackers fell back, the veil covering his face flickering as if injured. The man's panther-gened face revealed red and blue slash tattoos on his cheek, indicating he'd once belonged to a nearby hunt clan.
The other attackers grabbed their wounded companion and fled.
Why are they running? Derena wondered. They could have defeated us.
In response, a name flittered across Derena's consciousness
Before Derena could react her forehead bubbled out, blood and skin and brain swirling into a red marble-sized discoidal that fell into her hands. Someone was hacking their deepest minds. Red Day had recognized the threat and created a physical backup of their memories and programming.
Derena's hands shook. She couldn't control her body, and the discoidal slipped to the ground.
Derena! Red Day shouted. We're infected with a virus. We must cleanse before it spreads.
Derena wanted to agree. She wanted to order Red Day to erase her memories of what had just happened and with those memories any slip of programming the attackers had crammed into their being. But she couldn't give the order.
The night forest before her flickered as a man-shaped creature appeared from nothing. The man's body flowed to distortions like the veils the attackers had worn. Except these distortions covered the man's entire body, not merely his face.
Derena and Red Day again heard the whisper of a name. Ashdyd.
Red Day tried to fight, but the blood outside Derena's body drained of power and fell to the ground like red-lit rain. Derena helplessly watched as Ashdyd leaned over her body.
She braced for death. But the veiled man didn't kill her. Instead, he picked up the glowing discoidal and walked away.
Unsure what was going on and fighting to stay conscious, Derena reached out to the colors dancing in her eyes. Not rainbowed static like before. This color was merely the red of blood.
Blood is always good, she thought as the virus shut down Red Day, leaving her alone in her mind for one of the few times since becoming a plague bird. She wished she could see another human face. She remembered a woman in a nearby village who'd shared a conversation with her two decades ago.
Derena decided she'd go there next.
If, that is, she still lived when morning came.