The morning air was chilly on Tay’s bare arms. She had cast her jacket away early in the night, another item of clothing shed from the circle. The dawn light now hidden behind thick cloud, plunging the morning into a deep gloom that seemed to infect everybody on the street.
Tay walked for half an hour, eager to get away from the temple and to clear her head, but with the fresh air came a hunger, made worse by not eating for a day. She stopped at the nearest cafe and ordered a cooked breakfast without looking at the server. A table opened up and Tay slipped in before a couple could reach it. They glared at her, but Tay ignored them and looked out the window at the lines of people trudging past with their heads turned down, only looking up from the pavement when a tuk-tuk blared its horn or they came close to bumping into someone.
She was still staring out the window when the waitress brought her a steaming mug of tea. Tay mumbled her thanks and then touched a finger to the side of the scolding hot mug. The backs of her hands were a confusing lattice of scratches, gained at some point during the previous day. She took a sip of the tea and winced as the steam caressed her nose. It wasn’t broken, she knew what that felt like, but it hurt to touch and there would undoubtedly be a black eye to go with it, maybe two. For a moment she let herself feel lucky. With all the violence she had witnessed, she had made it out without breaking anything or getting really hurt. Others had died, but she had walked away, a sole survivor.
Her mind wandered to Mara and Osiris, key characters in her life story, but now what? Were they entombed in a mountain of rubble? Would they cover the mound and build over them, or would they drag the bodies from the colony and incinerate them? How many hundreds were dead, killed in a war they had no part in?
Tay pulled her phone out and opened her photos, scrolling back to find one of her and Osiris. A year since they had been close enough, happy enough to take a photo together; they both looked drunk. Tay rubbed at her eyes, fighting back the tears, and moved on. Stopping at a photo of Gren annoying her brother, the next of her and Gren sitting next to each other, folded arms as they both tried to look serious. A few happy memories, but for how long? Tay wondered if she would bring death to them as well.
The majority of the pictures in the album were of gleaming buildings and open spaces. Tree-lined avenues, green lawns, and ponds. Carefree people walking in manicured gardens or sitting on benches. Central life. Tay saved all that she came across, hoarding the images of a life she dreamt of with such intensity she could almost taste it. The need to be there was a physical thing that lived inside her, feeding on her anger. It was an outlet, an escape route.
She turned on her node app, finding a strong signal, a live connection at that. The government had shut down the mobile towers after the last protest, so now they relied upon the nodes that people like Gren and her brother set up across the sector. The authorities took them down when they could, but more sprang up.
She connected and checked her notifications. Her message had been sent somewhere on her walk to the temple, but none had come back. A message arrived from Jens asking if she was okay. Tay smiled to herself and shot him a quick reply that she would drop by in an hour or two. Her phone buzzed, a call coming in from Gren. Guilt built up in her the longer she let it ring, but eventually, the kid rang off.
She opened the browser, navigated to the website for the work visa program, and logged in. Her application was ongoing, waiting for paperwork from her agent, a status that meant there was a fee to pay.
“You applied for anything?” the waitress asked. Tay looked up, her brain slow to engage. “The new job listings? They came out yesterday.”
“I haven’t had time.” Tay glanced down at her phone.
“There are some sweet A-three posts. I applied for a couple. Would've been more, but way too expensive. What grade are you looking at?”
The look on the waitress's face said it all. She set the plate of food down and smiled reassuringly. “At least there are plenty of E-two posts, and they’re cheaper to apply for. You’ll get out quicker than the rest of us.”
“That's the plan,” Tay said.
The waitress left and Tay got back to scrolling through the list of job rejections, all E-grade. Three grand to be told she wasn’t even good enough to scrub Central’s toilets.
She eyed the food, her appetite gone. It was all formed from the same gloop, culinary expertise and factory process conjuring different shapes and taste profiles, but it all came from the river. There was a part of Tay in the vegetable-based sausage, a part she had never wanted to see again. They all ended up in the river, bit by bit or all at once. Food for the fish, nutrients for the long roots, a cycle of life that Tay was tired of. She stabbed at the sausage and dipped it in the runny egg, forcing herself to take a bite. Knowing that part of what she felt, the despair, was because of her choices in the early hours. But to eat was also a choice, to bring oneself back from the edge, something her mother could never do. She lived in that stark moment, a stone in the river, drowning in truth. Tay ate. Each bite a rejection of the emptiness, each forkful of baked beans a personal affirmation of the peripherals, all those outside things that made up the world, all the objects, all the people, Osiris, Mara, love and hate, strangers, friends and mothers.
She shook her head and dipped her sausage once more into the runny egg. Not mothers, nor fathers, friends then, confidants, allies. Each one a touchstone, an anchor in the reality, all telling her she was alive and part of something. The idea was in direct opposition to the temple’s teachings. They sought to deny all the things that Tay wanted to love and to hate. She so wanted to hate, to hurt those people that would make her world smaller, but it was difficult to be angry while eating a mushroom.
She was close to clearing her plate, humanity inching closer, when her phone buzzed. Her eyes widened, and she dropped the fork in her haste to answer. It was a central anchor calling. She had a premonition of it pulling her to the depths of the sea, drowning them both.
“Oz?” Tay said, her heart in her mouth. The unstable connection distorted into high-pitched whines and blips.
“Tay, thank fuck, I was worried they’d got you,” Osiris said, her pitch oscillating.
“I thought you were dead, Oz.” Tay cupped her mouth, “I’m so sorry. I wanted to get to you.”
“Me?” Osiris said in surprise. “I was all right. You freaking out didn’t help. They almost killed me for what you did.”
“I thought I was... I thought they shot you?”
“You’re too jumpy, Tay.”
“Oz, I don’t understand what happened? Who were they?”
“Militia. I had to bribe my way out.”
“I thought they shot you. They were killing everyone.”
“Tay,” Osiris said sharply, “get your shit together.”
Tay took a deep breath. “Where are you?”
“I’m keeping my head down and so should you.”
A pause on the line, street traffic on Osiris’ end, cafe clatter on Tay’s.
“I went to the temple last night.”
“Why the fuck did you go there?” Osiris demanded to know, her voice rising. Tay pulled the phone away as the line screeched. “Tay?”
“Because it messed me up. I thought you were dead, and Mara, I saw her—”
“Stay away from there, Tay,” Osiris said angrily. “You don’t want to end up like your mother. I thought we swore never to go back there. Damn it, Tay, they don’t want you showing up.”
“Don’t apologise to me. You know how it goes with them.”
“I know, I just had nowhere else to go.”
“You come to me; you go anywhere but there. Did you use?”
“No.” They both knew she was lying. “Where are you now? Are you at home, I could come by?”
“I’m not there, but I need you to meet me at Tony’s.”
“I just want to go home and go to sleep.”
“Tay, meet me at Tony’s. I’ll be there at eleven and don’t do any more phreno. I hate it when you do that shit, like talking to a zombie. And try not to get run over. You know that shit screws with your eyes.” Osiris hung up, leaving Tay staring at her phone.
Tay left the last bite on the plate.