Alice couldn't open her eyes.
She couldn't move.
She couldn't speak.
She didn't know where she was.
When your eyes don't get any light at all, your brain starts making imaginary shapes and showing you colors. It's not wired to have no signal. So it hallucinates for you, painting against the nothingness with whatever it can find.
Alice remembered that as the shapes danced in front of her.
There was warmth, though. The warmth didn't seem to be made up. It felt real.
She still couldn't open her eyes.
What had she been doing?
She had been writing in her room; making notes; planning out the story. She had received information from an unknown source: notes on investments from a venture capital firm, who the investments had really been made for, and what would be done with the data. And she was writing a story, anonymously, for - for the New York Times.
Was that tonight? Was that days ago? There seemed to be blank space after that. But something else had to have happened. It didn't make sense that she had gone from there to here.
She had spoken to someone. She remembered that. Not who, not where or when, but there had been another person.
In a bar.
She had met him in a coffee shop.
Something about the government. And how it related to ... to ...
Pain flashed across Alice like a lightning strike. Her thoughts scattered, and there was only heat and darkness once again.
Work. A story. A big story. Can't write it in the usual place. Have to find another way. Connected to ...
The man in the coffee shop had a beard. Just a little one. One of those beards that erupts as waves of hair from the jawline.
Like ... Abraham Lincoln?
There was a Lincoln car outside the coffee shop. Tinted windows. Seemed to be sitting and watching while she spoke to the man. Wasn't like the other cars, somehow. A threatening presence, even just parked.
He was telling her why the data was important.
It wasn't the government. The government was a puppet. It was bought and owned and strung out on the donations and the deals that they brought. They were everywhere, across borders, coordinating, spidering their money-tendrils into every point in the world.
It wasn't a new world order. It was the order that had been the world for centuries.
Alice could see a distant red now. A feint glow that the shapes and colors faded into; a bloody sunrise behind the silhouettes of everything. Rivers and tributaries shimmering into existence. Backchannels behind the universe.
He had told her to be careful. Just like the New York Times had told her to be careful. Everyone wanted her to take care, to be be careful, to watch out.
So why hadn't she been careful?
She had thanked the man. His name ... gone. His face the barest of impressions; his beard and glasses and the rest of it just a sketch of everything you were supposed to have on a face. His voice was written notes. She couldn't bring him more to life than that.
The world was burning.
Not her world, although the heat was mounting and the redness was becoming more and more spectacular. But the world. The one outside, with trees and birds and mom and cheeseburgers. That world. The one we all shared. Earth.
Planet Earth was burning.
And they wanted to let it burn.
There was profit. It always came down to that. Always money. They wanted to make money from the Earth by refining oil and burning gas and pulling down the rainforest to sell the raw materials. And now it had to stop. It had to. The world was burning and if it didn't stop everyone would die eventually, and in the years before that all but the very richest would suffer unimaginably.
They wanted them to suffer.
They want to divide. Not for division's sake. But to sell and make profit and enrich themselves. They wanted to continue to grow and make profit and draw their graphs of money up and to the right.
Alice could feel her legs again. They had come back to life, slowly, and the searing pain shook her from her train of thought. The agony pulled at her and urged her to stop thinking, to just give into it, to succumb to the discomfort, to curl and crack and die.
But she couldn't. Wherever she was, she had to get out. Needed to.
She had to get the story out.
People - good people - wanted to halt the burning. They wanted to find ways to reverse the demise of everything humans had ever known and find a way to bring it back to equilibrium. Climate change was more important than making money; it was about decency and respect for everything around us and justice for the people who would be hit by it without having any recourse or escape.
But these people wanted that. They had killed to prevent this change from happening. They had paid for politicians around the world. They had bought data and paid for propaganda and sold messages to bring in new kinds of leaders who would dismiss climate change as no more than a hoax. And when those leaders, too, had seen the information and the inevitable trends towards the annihilation of everything, they had bought new leaders, and tightened their rhetoric, and found new messages to sell new ideas that were tighter still.
And so, they found themselves turning to the idea that democracy itself needed to be removed. They had control of the populace; of governments; of commerce. They had built a fine-tuned cage for all of society, and now there was no longer a need for any artifice. The shackles of democracy could be removed - and had to be, to prevent the people from rising up once they understood what had been built for them.
Alice winced. The pain grew stronger still, and she felt it in her arms now.
The man had warned her.
The man had warned her.
The red gave way to blinding whiteness and she found that she could see again, just barely. Slivers of light sliced their way into her, and she once again could see shapes, but they different now. They weren't made up by her mind; they weren't hallucinations. They were real, and they were dancing.
She was on fire.
She opened her eyes wider now, and she saw the remains of her car, the flames beginning to melt the dashboard and the wheel. The window was smashed wide open, and although she couldn't yet turn her head, she saw that the car itself was in pieces that had been strewn over the road.
She was not on fire. But her car was. The dancing flames were licking at her, daring to tickle her flesh at first, and then to burn it.
She had to get out. Needed to.
She tried to move but couldn't.
Why weren't there people? Shouldn't someone be here to help?
She tried to make a sound, but none came. Her voice wasn't working for her, but the flames were snaking their way into her hair, and she needed to find someone to help her.
She tried again, and instead of nothing, there was the slightest groan, inaudible against the crackling of the fire. But it was something, and it gave her hope that she might be able to try again to more effect.
The third time she tried to make a sound, she succeeded, and the yell reverberated around the shell of the car. There were no words; just primal wailing, the sound of wind being forced through her throat against the growing plumes of toxic smoke.
The fourth time, her mouth and throat worked in tandem, and she made the words: HELP. ME.
She didn't know if it was enough, but she couldn't move her limbs, and the flames and smoke were growing, and she was sure that she wouldn't have more than a few minutes before they would claim her forever.
Where had they come from?
Who had set the fire?
What? had? happened?
Was there anyone?
She tried one more time, this time taking all the energy she possessed, and forced it through her throat to make three clear words:
And this time it was louder, and she could hear that there was someone outside, yelling, "oh my god, there's someone still in the car," and she hoped that they might have it within themselves to open the door and tear her out of this somehow.
She was crying, against her better judgment, but she was trapped in a burning car and couldn't do anything, and she knew that she was going to die.
But the door did open.
And the strong arms of another woman tugged at her helpless body and found that it wouldn't budge. Anonymous hands reached around her and pushed the belt buckle, and she found herself suddenly tumbling towards the window, but was caught before the jagged edges could reach and cut her.
She was pulled, slowly, firmly, out of the wreckage, and she found herself lying on the concrete pavement and looking at the sky, a wispy trail of smoke barely entering her vision.
"Can you talk?"
She tried, but her voice had gone again, lost on her last call for help.
"Ma'am, can you talk?"
The woman was so insistent, and she wanted to talk, but her mouth and lips didn't seem to want to obey instructions.
"Ma'am, do you know what happened?"
She couldn't answer, but she didn't have an answer; she didn't know what happened. She had interviewed a man, and she must have left the coffee shop and returned to her car, but she had no memory of it. And then her car was burning, and she was burning in it, and it was easy to draw conclusions but she didn't know for sure.
"Ma'am, can you talk?"
She was alive, at least. In this moment, no, she couldn't talk.
But would she talk?
She had to.