The TV screen flickered, static disrupting the advert. The rolling hills now a green fuzz and the woman standing in the foreground a shadow, her hands clasping an indiscernible white shape to her stomach. Writing flashed up, but beyond a few letters, it was unintelligible.
Tay peered closer, shoulder brushing the flaking plaster of the column, but the television set, perched on the bar, was too far away. The message lost in the static along with the music that was barely audible over the creaking fan and the loud conversations of the drinkers. The snatches she could hear were too cheerful to be for anything other than breakfast cereal. She had no idea what normal people ate to start their day. She imagined eggs and bowls of milk set on white tables, and newspapers, and coffee from a pot, not a cold patty of vegetable protein and a can of energy drink from a street vending machine.
Her stomach rumbled.
The morning had dragged on as Tay, along with her partner Osiris, had crossed the sector, first to an empty office block, then to a construction site. Tay growing ever more doubtful as each text message arrived, directing them to some new waypoint on a treasure hunt she had little interest in until finally they had been ‘invited’ to the colony. An unwilling traveller, except for the masochistic pull to see Mara again, the anxiety of which was turning Tay’s stomach so much that any food would have been a burden.
The last text had said ‘come to Willow Tree School via the parade’ and Tay had no longer been able to pretend that this was some elaborate revenge. The school was a place she knew was important to Mara. It was a sign that they had been granted access, if only temporarily.
A man crossed in front of the screen and spoke to the bartender as he set an empty glass on the counter. The bartender gave a hopeless shrug and the man set to fiddling with the back of the TV while the barman refilled his glass.
Tay licked her dry lips. It was humid in the colony, too many people packed in on top of each other. The wind that gusted along the enclosed streets felt like it had been dragged from deep within a dank lung. A disease-ridden exhalation that licked every surface and left a foul taste in her mouth.
A rivulet of sweat arced its way down Tay’s back from the mass of heavy hair that had escaped her last failed attempt at self-effacement and she pulled at the hem of her black t-shirt, flapping it in vain.
“Don’t go all narcoleptic on me, Tay.”
Tay narrowed her eyes at the picture, the green field coming back into focus. Small people running around, kicking a ball and shots of stadium seating convulsing with a mass of excitable humanity. The roar of the thousands diminished in the transmission and drowned out by a single man’s wordless cry of joy.
“Tay,” Osiris said slapping her on the back. “Stop standing there like an idiot. We’ve got a job to do.”
“What?” Tay asked, dragging her attention away from the TV.
“I hate it when you do this.”
“You get all tired and spacey.” Osiris tapped Tay on the side of her head. “It’s like one minute you’re there and then you just check out.”
“I was waiting for you, Oz.” Tay peered back up the road. “Where did you go, anyway?”
“I saw someone I thought I knew,” Osiris said dismissively. “Where’s the bag?”
“Right here.” Tay picked up the backpack from next to her feet. “The strap really digs in.”
“Tay, don’t go losing that. We turn up empty-handed and that’s it, no more chances.”
“You want a drink?” Tay nodded to the bar.
“No, I don’t want a bloody drink,” Osiris said. “I want to get this done with. If this goes wrong, it’s your fault. You’re the one that said she was reliable.”
“I told you the Arcists don’t like visitors. I don’t know what you said, but you must have really sold it for Mara to swing us a meet.”
“I just convinced her it was in their best interest.” Osiris glanced back along the street.
“Who was it?” Tay shrugged the bag over her shoulder. Not for the first time, she reached for the other strap only to find it broken. “Why did you have to use such a cheap bag?”
“Tay, focus,” Oz said and started walking away. “Now come on, we’ve wasted enough time today.”
Tay stepped away from the pub doorway, the football game forgotten.
Shops and pubs lined either side of the narrow street, above them were another two floors of cramped apartments and then the roof that covered them all. A generator hummed nearby, the gurgle of water running through a hose that crossed the concrete to empty into a puddle of orange water.
A steady stream of men and women walked along the pitted street, some pushing hand carts that threatened to spill their loads at every bump. It was a busy scene that wouldn’t have looked amiss in any part of the sector if not for the lack of daylight. Children played under the sodium glow of streetlights, intent on some game that only they understood.
“Do I know them?” Tay asked.
“What? No, it was just someone trying to sell me something,” Osiris said. “So where are we meeting this friend of yours?”
“Oz, I don’t think you realise how dangerous this place is. You go wandering off you’re likely to get mugged or stabbed.”
“Relax, it’s just old ladies doing their shopping and a couple of drunks.”
“You don’t know the colony like I do. A short walk down the wrong street and you’ll find yourself surrounded by people that don’t take kindly to outsiders.”
“Tay, anyone tries to mess with me, and they’ll regret it.” Osiris tapped the hilt of the gun tucked into the waistline of her jeans. She hid it under her shirt, but the bulge was obvious to any that looked. It was another reason Tay was uncomfortable. They didn’t do weapons, any kind of violence normally, it just wasn’t their style. “Just tell me where we’re going.”
“It’s a school. She picked a place she knew I’d be able to find.”
“You trust this friend? You haven’t said much about her.”
“Yeah, she’s cool, just intense so don’t—”
“Don’t what? What do you think I’m going to do?”
“Just don’t push her. She believes in the cause, so don’t wind her up.”
“Tay, I have dreamt of this meeting for months. If anyone screws it up, it will be you getting us lost,” Osiris said. She glanced back, something about Tay’s behaviour catching her attention. “Are you high? I fucking told you to lay off last night.”
“What did you do last night, tell me?”
“I went to the Takoma and had a few drinks with Tony. Then I went home.” It was mostly the truth. She had been at the pub and then gone back to her flat, but the intervening hours were a blur. She wasn’t even sure she’d been to sleep before coming out again, although she had brushed her teeth, so maybe she had gone to bed. The minty taste in her mouth was a fading memory.
“Tay?” Osiris clicked her fingers in front of Tay’s face. “God damn it. This is not the day for your shit. When we get in there, let me do the talking.”
Tay had come to accept the futility of arguing, and no longer had the energy to fight. Osiris had changed, or at least one of them had. The partnership turning sour, and both seemingly satisfied to let it wither until Osiris had hatched on a plan and come asking for Tay’s help.
They turned right and entered a narrow corridor lit by naked bulbs. Bags of rubbish stacked at the entrance, the stench of rotting things only a precursor to the fetid air beyond. Osiris put a hand over her mouth and stepped around the puddles.
“Gods, I think I’m going to puke,” Osiris said, her voice muffled.
“You get used to it,” Tay said.
A gaggle of children raced past them, bare feet slapping on the wet concrete, squealing as they chased each other through a doorway and into a courtyard. Balconies surrounding an open space where the children came to a panting halt in front of a group of women, sitting in plastic chairs, stripping wires. The children all started talking at once and the women smiled and listened patiently, their hands busy at their task.
Tay paused at a busy passageway as a man laboured along with a wheelbarrow piled high with black sacks. They waited till he passed and then took a flight of stairs up two levels.
“How far in are we?” Osiris asked.
“A kilometre maybe,” Tay answered. “It’s quicker to take the boulevards, but Mara was clear about what route we should take.”
“She wanted eyes on us. Probably had spotters at each stop.”
“Was that who you spoke to?”
“No, like I said, that was nobody.” Osiris pulled her phone out, checking for a signal.
“You won’t find many nodes in here.”
“No kidding, not even a gov network.”
“The Arcists like to keep it a dead zone. Prevents surveillance.”
Osiris put her phone away. “Once we’re done, how long will it take for you to get us out of here?”
“Depends on where the meeting is, but the colony grew up around a metro station. It’s easier to just use that one.”
“Not the metro,” Osiris said sharply. “We take one of the main streets.”
“We’ll just have to catch a bus to the next station. It’s safe, Oz. A gang guards the metro, so there’s never any trouble.”
“We walk out,” Osiris said with a finality that Tay reluctantly accepted. The day would drag no matter how much she argued.
They passed an open doorway, blue light spilt down the steps and leant the corridor an ethereal glow. Two bored-looking women, sitting on the steps, perked up as Tay and Osiris neared.
“Hey,” one of the women said, looking at Tay first and then Osiris. She lounged on her elbows, long bare legs, and a flip-flop dangling from a toe. “You looking for something?”
“Yeah, what are you selling?” Osiris asked walking backwards.
“Whatever you want.” The woman sprung to her feet, the sandal coming free as she raced to keep pace. Her movements were jittery, hands that were never still.
“Don’t, Oz,” Tay said, avoiding looking at the woman.
“You got anything to smoke?” Osiris asked, without slowing her pace.
“You want to smoke with me? I’ve got whatever you want. Even got phreno if you’re interested?” She smiled gesturing to the blue door.
“You hear that, Tay?” Osiris said. “Maybe on the way back!”
“Why not now?” the woman pleaded, but Oz just winked at her and turned away.
“Oz,” Tay said curtly. “You want to stay out of those places. They’re gang run. You make a wrong move inside there and they’ll cut you up.”
“You not tempted, Tay? Would make coming home complete, right?”
Tay did her best to ignore the jibe.
“Don’t worry, with the money we make out of this you’ll be able to go back to that shithole you call home and drip as much phreno down your neck as you like,” Osiris said.
“I’m doing you a favour, Oz.” Tay spun on her companion, lowering her voice when the two women looked over. “Mara won’t talk to you. I could leave right now and then what would you do? We both know Mara won’t deal with you on your own.”
“A lot of people would be angry. What about Jens, do you want to make him look bad?”
“Jens is doing us a favour. It was you that pushed him into letting us carry the message. I still don’t get why you did it.”
“It’s business. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Tay strode off and Osiris had to hurry to keep up with her long stride.
“Jens might not want to work with the Arcists, but they want to work with him,” Osiris said. “That’s power, but he’s too blind to see it.”
“Power to do what?”
“You might have no ambition, but I do. The Arcists aren’t the only group in the sector in need of Jens’ tech.”
“Whatever you say, Oz. This bag’s heavy. Let’s just sell the gear and get out of here.”
“There’s nothing inside you, is there, Tay? How am I supposed to work with someone that wants nothing? Well, anything other than phreno. You want me to give you your share of the money in gear, save you having to score?”
“Go fuck yourself, Oz.”
“Tay, come on,” Oz shouted after Tay as she strode away. “I was joking.”
Tay didn’t get far before coming to a stop outside a small shop, children's clothes hanging from a display in front.
“What’s up?” Osiris asked and Tay pointed at an alleyway that ran alongside the shop, the dark passage narrowing to a well-lit courtyard. “Is the school down there?”
Tay shook her head. “Let’s just go back, Oz. This is a bad idea.”
Osiris gripped her by the arm, “I know you can’t see it, but this is a big moment for both of us. Just trust me.” Osiris looked up at Tay, trying to lock eyes with her, fingers digging in. “Do you trust me, Tay?”
Tay nodded, and Osiris let go of her arm.
“Lead the way and make the introduction.” Osiris gestured for Tay to go first. “After that, you can leave it all up to me.”
A sign for the Willow Tree School, lit by a single yellow bulb, hung over the entrance to the small courtyard. Colourful drawings of animals covered the walls, and chalk lines adorned the slabs. A hundred windows looked down from the floors above, capped by a tiny square of blue sky ten stories up.
A young woman looked up from her seat by the school door. She didn’t smile at the visitors, instead closing the book she had been reading and rising to her feet.
“Is that her?” Osiris asked.
“Mara,” Tay said, her stomach tightening.
Mara was broad-shouldered and tidily dressed in a button-up shirt and loose green trousers tucked into black boots. Tay was sweating in her jeans and heavy t-shirt, but Mara looked perfectly composed. They had both changed over the years, but Tay had to admit to herself that Mara looked to have chosen the fitter path. She tried to correct her slouch as they approached the straight-backed Mara.
“She doesn’t look like a schoolteacher,” Osiris said.
Tay had to force herself to cross the yard, her legs growing heavy and uncooperative.
“Tay,” Mara said after they had crossed the distance to her.
“Mara.” Tay tried to smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. She tried to meet her gaze, but Mara’s green eyes bore into her, and Tay looked away.
“It’s been a long time,” Mara said as she looked Tay over, studying the changes the years had wrought. “You look tired. Would you like to sit down?”
“We’re good, thanks,” Osiris said and held out her hand. Mara gripped it, and Osiris visibly winced. “I’m Osiris.”
“It was you that requested this meeting?” Mara said.
“Tay made the introduction, but this is my deal,” Osiris said, pulling her hand free, Mara’s fingers leaving an imprint.
“I thought the two of you were partners. That’s how Tay used to talk about you?”
“We are, but I’m the one putting this together. I have contacts across the sector that trust me and do regular business with me. Tay is acting as more of a guide on this one.” Osiris studied the windows above them and the school. “Is this where we’re meeting? Doesn’t seem very private.”
“The council hasn’t decided yet.”
“You said we had a deal?” Osiris said, a hint of panic in her voice. “That’s why we’re here. We brought the nodes to trade.”
“I was glad to hear from you Tay,” Mara said, ignoring Osiris, “but I will admit, I never expected to.”
“I’m doing a favour for my friends,” Tay said.
“You have those now?”
Osiris looked askance at Tay. “Is there something wrong here? I thought you two were cool?”
“We were,” Mara said. “Until she vanished one night. Just walked out and never came back. I looked for her before deciding she had died. Why else would she not have returned?”
“Tay does that,” Osiris said. “But it’s me the Arcists will be dealing with. Tay won’t be any part of it.”
“Can we get this over and done with?” Tay said, straightening up a little and looking Mara in the eye.
“I’m just trying to understand your intent,” Mara said. “It’s difficult for outsiders to get a meeting with the ARRC and by acting as the intermediary I am putting my reputation on the line.”
“And we’re grateful, aren’t we, Tay?” Osiris said.
“You don’t have to answer,” Mara said to Tay, the edge leaving her voice. “I can still read you.”
“Okay,” Osiris said, “So, are we good? I’d like to get a move on if we can.”
“We have time for a drink first,” Mara said.
“I think your council would like to hear what I have to say as soon as possible,”
“There are protocols to follow.”
“I just don’t think either of us wants a drink right now.”
“Does she speak for you, Tay?”
Tay shook her head, weary with the back and forth. “I could do with a drink.”
They followed Mara into the passage, Tay at the back carrying the bag. It grew steadily darker until Tay couldn’t see where they were going. A door opened onto a well-lit hallway and Mara ushered them through before closing it behind them. A man poked his head out of an office further along, but when he saw it was Mara, he disappeared back inside.
They took the stairs up two levels before passing through a series of rooms and then emerging onto a bridge. Tay faltered as she looked over the rope handrail onto a corrugated roof three floors below. Skylights afforded glimpses of a factory where some hidden machine worked to a steady rhythm, making the chasm ring to the sound of struck metal. Children laughed high above them as they ran across plank bridges and swung from scaffolding poles. Too young to know fear or understand a lifetime cut short by folly.
Mara pushed open a door at the other end of the span and they entered a busy market with dozens of stalls set up in the lee of partially demolished walls. A few people acknowledged Mara as she passed by, one or two stopping to say hello. Mara was polite, but she didn’t linger, only looking back to make sure Tay and Osiris were keeping up.
Turning left at a stall selling dog-eared paperbacks, Mara angled towards a pub at the rear of the market. It was inside one of the last flats left intact on the floor; the window acting as a serving hatch and the rooms beyond laid out with tables and chairs. Mara ordered as they walked in and then claimed a seat where she could see the front door.
Tay took a seat opposite, while Osiris sat down next to Mara.
“This place is so damned strange,” Osiris said as she sat down. “We’re three floors up, but it’s like a street out there. I never expected there to be so much life in the Colony. It looks like a dead husk from the outside.”
“This is where all the unwanted from the sector end up, and there’s always more of them,” Tay said.
Osiris tilted her head back and studied the tangle of cables that passed over their heads. They all combined into a larger bundle and passed through a hole cut above a door. “What happens when there’s a power cut?”
“It gets dark quick,” Tay said. She had hated the outages, but they were an unavoidable part of life in the colony. Some lasted for days, and you had no choice but to stagger around with torches or candles. Terrible things happened in the dark.
“Do you teach at that school?” Osiris asked their host.
“I do,” Mara said.
“For how long?”
“So not when Tay was here?”
“Briefly, but then she left.”
“You’re not from here originally though?”
“Stop asking stupid questions, Oz,” Tay said.
“No, it’s okay,” Mara said. The barmaid set the bottles down and Mara passed them out. “She sees this as a business deal and business partners talk about their lives. Originally, I am from the Gardens, but I came here seeking to escape and I ended up finding my life's calling.”
Osiris raised an eyebrow. “The Gardens? Most people spend their lives trying to move there, not leave. What happened, did you get bored of a life of luxury? People don’t just decide to move to the biggest slum in the sector and join a terrorist group.”
“Oz, what did I say?” Tay snapped, but Mara reached out and briefly touched her arm.
“We are freedom fighters, Osiris,” Mara said. “As Tay said, the people here are the forgotten ones. Pushed out of society and punished for being poor. Yes, I grew up in luxury, I was privileged, but because of that, I can see just how great the gap is. I had an upbringing that the children here can only dream of, but I’m not running around with a gun, claiming that I understand the plight of the oppressed. Instead, I am choosing to make use of my education and teach others. My parents spent a lot making sure I could succeed in the sector, but I don’t think they meant for me to use those skills in the biggest slum.”
Tay caught herself staring at Mara, remembering the girl she had known, the feral energy that had driven both of them back then. Running through the corridors, stealing to survive and to feed their habits. There hadn’t been this focus, not a hint of it. This Mara was more self-assured, almost to the point of being cocky.
“So, are you going to fix it?” Osiris said. “Give everyone a penthouse suite and a slice of sky?”
“How about food first and an education for their children?” Mara countered. “The armed struggle is just one step on the long path to equality and command hopes the Collective will help us make the transition to a more peaceful movement. One rooted in education and health.”
Tay frowned in confusion. She opened her mouth to say something, but Osiris shot her a glare.
“They aren’t the only group,” Osiris said. “I know at least a dozen others that can provide the expertise you’re looking for.”
“We have no interest in mercenaries. All they are interested in is profit, not making things better.”
“Some want to get paid.” Osiris shrugged. “It costs to run servers and build the tech. People need to eat. But money shouldn’t be a problem for the Arcists. I know for a fact that you regularly confiscate drugs from the gangs. That could be a good article to trade.”
Mara’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, Osiris didn’t see it, but Tay did.
“Why did you leave?” Mara asked, her attention quickly shifting to Tay.
“Here?” Tay asked, surprised by the question. “I don’t remember. I guess I found it too dark. I needed to stand in the sun for more than five minutes.”
“You could have moved to the roof?”
“It wasn’t for me, this life. It was too much.” Tay took a swig of her warm beer to cover her discomfort. “I just had to get out.”
“You went back to the temple? You didn’t leave here with that.” Mara reached out and took Tay’s left hand, Tay tensed but didn’t pull back, letting Mara study the tattoo. It was of a snake, the sleek body emerging from under her shirt to wrap around her forearm, its back studded with red diamonds. It looped under the wrist before emerging onto the back of her hand, its open mouth forming the web between thumb and forefinger, the bottom jaw running along the thumb. “Which snake is this? You told me about them, but I forget.”
“The Joker,” Osiris said, watching the two of them intently.
“The Joker?” Mara traced a finger along the inside of Tay’s thumb, stopping at the fangs. “Is it a funny snake?”
Tay pulled her hand back. “We should be going.”
Mara watched Tay closely as she sat back in the plastic chair, her beer untouched on the table. “When I know that you aren’t being followed, then we will go.”
“We aren’t,” Osiris said. “We’re not amateurs.”
“I don’t know what you are,” Mara snapped at Osiris.
“We followed your instructions, Mara,” Tay said. “Even Jens doesn’t know where we are.”
“You understand my suspicion, though? A ghost with an answer, one that command is waiting for. Politics never motivated you, nor money, so why are you doing this?”
“It’s just business,” Tay said. “Jens asked us to make a trade.”
“We want to form a partnership with the Arcists,” Osiris said earnestly. “I can get anything you need. I know all the tech movements, not just the collective but others. The Shutters, the Twenty-Sevens, they all trust me. I can act as an intermediary between the Arcists and the groups. You could protect yourselves and let me take the risk.”
“Tay told me about you,” Mara said. “That you were like a sister, you and her in the temple, her only,” Mara glanced at Tay, “friend? Although from what she told me, I don’t think either of you knows the meaning of the word. If you were children in a cult, then I wouldn’t expect you to. Did you know that the Temple of the Peripheral is active in the colony? Their acolytes are everywhere, trying to spread their gospel.”
“We aren’t with them,” Tay said.
“And yet you wear the snake?”
“We left ages ago, and this?” Osiris said with a dismissive wave while Tay hid her left hand under the table. “It’s just a silly tattoo. We have nothing to do with them.”
“The commander has stated many times that he doesn’t see the point in working with people that think all this is a dream. That refuse to exist in the actual world. We’re trying to make their lives better. Do you know why we drove your priests out? Because they were giving phreno away for free. They didn’t care how many addicts they created, just that their cult spread.”
“We’re nothing to do with the temple,” Osiris repeated. “We both left that behind.”
“Do you still take it, Tay, the phreno? Is that why you won’t look at me? Are you worried that I’ll see the specks in your iris?” Mara said.
Tay refused to meet her gaze, focusing on the bottle instead. She could feel her skin growing warm. The snakes head itched, and she rubbed the back of her left hand on her jeans, covering the movement by taking a deep swig from the bottle. The beer was warm and had a chemical tang. She met Mara’s gaze with a deliberateness that brought a satisfied smile to Mara’s face. Tay looked away quickly and took another drink.
“Cut the cute shit,” Osiris said, before laughing abruptly. “If this is a test, it's a strange one.”
“You know what this place is doing to her? Her friend that drags her back to where she doesn’t want to be,” Mara said to Osiris. “You should take better care of your loved ones.”
“I don’t know what happened between you two, but this isn’t about that. We have a message from the collective and the items you requested. Now, are we going to do this or not? Because, no offence, but I hate this place. It stinks and the sooner it gets pulled down the better.”
Mara narrowed her eyes at Osiris. “The government has tried to drive us out before, but we fight them back every time.”
A tall, bearded man appeared in the pub doorway and nodded to Mara before disappearing once more.
“Who was that?” Tay asked, barely having time to register him.
“Keir. He’s been watching our tail.” Mara abruptly stood up. “It’s time to go.”
“Is the meeting nearby?” Osiris asked, glancing out of the window, searching the market. Tay picked up the backpack. “Is he taking us there?”
“No, he’ll stay behind to make sure no one follows us. We don’t have far to go.” Mara waved goodbye to the woman at the bar and then headed to the rear door.
Beyond was a cramped room with a small bed surrounded by wardrobes and piles of boxes. Clothes hung from the ceiling and a little fan stirred the stale air. An old man lay propped up under a blanket, his eyes fixed on a small TV at the foot of the bed.
A door opened and a short woman with a rifle in her hands peered into the room. She glanced at Mara, then at Osiris and Tay.
“Esmay, what are you doing here?” Mara asked.
“We need to hurry,” Esmay said holding the door open, the rifle cradled in her free hand.
“What’s going on?” Mara asked as she stood back to let Tay and Osiris go first.
They entered what looked to Tay like an old bathroom, but all that remained of it were pipes sticking out of the floor and pale blue tiles clinging to the wall. Tay tripped over a stub of copper piping and knocked a tile loose. Osiris shot her a glare.
“We got word that militia and police patrols are converging on the Colony,” Esmay said.
“From which direction?”
“All points. The commander thinks they’re launching another raid.”
“Have the orders changed?”
“Not as far as these two are concerned. Johannes still wants to see them.”
“Commander Johannes is here?” Osiris said, surprised at his name being mentioned. “If he’s here, I have to meet with him.”
“That’s why he came,” Esmay said. She turned right out of the room and took the lead, Osiris racing to keep up. Tay put a hand on Mara's arm, holding her back.
“I don’t know what Oz has promised you, but it’s not worth the risk. If the militia are coming for you, then you should hide or run.”
“The commander wants to hear what you have to say,” Mara said. “It’s okay, the militia tries this a few times every year, but they never get further than the entrance ways. The gangs are too powerful and the soldiers too scared to tangle with them. Worse that might happen is a lockdown and you’ll have to stay here for a while, but that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”
“He might not like what Osiris has to say.”
“Then that’s on her, not you.”
“Mara, I know Jens and he doesn’t like violence, he doesn’t like Oz much either. She’s up to something.”
“Let the commander worry about that.” Mara gave Tay a knowing smile and then nodded to the corridor beyond. “We should catch up with them. If there is an evacuation, I have things I need to do. Maybe you could help me?”
They passed a sandbag emplacement where a young soldier stood ready with his rifle, his attention rigidly fixed on the end of the corridor as if the enemy were about to storm in at any moment. Mara shared a private signal with the guard, and he nodded them through.
“We’ll be long gone before any trouble reaches us,” Mara said to Tay.
“I doubt anyone could find you,” Tay said. “I’m already lost.”
They turned a corner and entered a large hall. Dull light spilling from opaque skylights illuminated a scene of fevered activity as a hundred people set about dismantling their shelters. A sea of blue tarpaulins strung up to provide privacy were being pulled down and folded up, the rustling adding to the cacophony that reverberated off the walls.
Esmay was talking with a pair of armed men, while Osiris hung back and observed the conversation. A box toppled from a stack and Osiris spun around, searching for the source of the sound. Tay could see the nervous energy in her friend but put it down to meeting the fabled commander.
“This is one of our larger camps,” Mara said. “We have two hundred people here, all members of the ARRC.”
“Even the children?” Tay asked.
“Not yet,” Mara laughed, “but one day.”
“They look like they’re getting ready to leave,” Tay said.
“It’s a precaution,” Mara said. “The militia send spies to find our camp, but they know they can’t reach us before we move. We’re all seasoned players at this game.”
“It’s a hard way to live,” Tay said as they passed a woman trying to pack a bag while keeping two children from running off. “Having to run all the time.”
“It’s no different to the way hundreds of thousands of people live across the sector. The children adapt to it better than the adults,” Mara said. She wagged a finger at the two little girls, and they stopped struggling with their mother. They smiled shyly back, and the mother nodded her thanks.
“You really found your place, didn’t you?” Tay said.
“I did.” Mara smiled back at Tay. “The commander helped me. He took a chance on me, and I owe him everything for doing so.”
“Oz sure seems excited to meet with him.”
“I’m sorry about what I said back there.”
“It was the truth,” Tay said. She walked just behind Mara; eyes fixed on the nape of her neck.
“I hated you,” Mara said, glancing over her shoulder, “when you left, but I don’t anymore. I forgot about you, for a while at least.”
“I tried to do the same.”
“But you were dead, it is easier to forget about the living when you are a ghost.”
“Stop saying that,” Tay said. “I didn’t... This place was bringing the worst out in me. It was making me angry.”
“And you are happy now?”
“What do you do that makes you happy, Tay?”
“I don’t know, I just am. I have plans.”
“To do what?”
“I’m working on getting to Central. My applications partway through.”
Mara didn’t say it, but Tay could see the accusation in her eyes. It was the truth; she was still running.
They caught up with Osiris at another sandbag emplacement, this one a few metres in front of an enormous metal door covered in grubby warning labels. Esmay stayed behind while Mara pushed at the door and led them into a large industrial space. An enormous machine took up the middle of the room, rising three floors and spreading outwards with a complicated system of pipes and cables that seemed intent on ensnaring Tay. The room hummed and whirred, and puffs of steam shot from valves to condense on the metal gantries and drip onto the heads of workers as they clomped around tending the machine.
A small camp took up space at the rear of the room, away from the worst of the noise. They lived cheek to jowl with blankets strung from the grated ceiling to give some semblance of privacy, but it was close living with the next bed barely an arm’s length away. Tay felt a pang of envy as she watched the men and women of the ARRC work together to pack bags and ready weapons. They moved with practised familiarity, offering items or a hand before the recipient had to ask.
“The power plant,” Mara said interpreting Tay’s look as confusion. “You get used to the noise, but earplugs help at night.”
“Are they your friends?” Tay asked awkwardly.
“They are. You’d like them. They’re a bit rough around the edges, but they’re good people.”
“Do you live here with them?”
“No, I stay at the school, but I’ll be moving with the unit.”
A strongly built man with greying hair emerged from an office and smiled warmly when he saw Mara. He stroked his short beard and pointed at Tay and Osiris. Mara nodded, and he waved for them to approach.
“This is Commander Johannes,” Mara said as they came to stand before him.
“Is this Tay?” the older man asked.
Tay shook his hand. Like a lot of people in the sector, she had complicated feelings about the Arcists. At times it was hard to argue they were anything other than murderers disguised as freedom fighters, but they were also the only group that stood up to the government. Things were never simple in the sector. Morality wasn’t black or white, as Tay well knew, but she hadn’t been prepared to find the commander of the feared Arcists to be so personable. He seemed more like a vicar, with an exuberance of faith and a face used to openness and warmth. Without realising it, the muscles in Tay’s jaw relaxed, and she smiled.
“Hi,” Tay said.
“I have heard kind words about you. I had hoped to be able to spend more time talking with you, but with the approaching militia we must speed things along.”
“That would have been nice,” Tay said shifting the bag on her shoulder.
“And this is Osiris,” Mara said. “She is the one that claims to bring word from the collective.”
“I spoke to Jens this morning,” Osiris said. If she picked up on Mara’s tone, she didn’t react.
Johannes shook her hand. “I don’t think I need to talk to both of you. Mara, why don’t you take Tay with you while I talk to Osiris. We won’t be long.”
“Oz?” Tay asked.
“You’re not needed for this. Just don’t go wandering off.” Osiris reached for the bag and Tay handed it over. “We’ve got a timetable to stick to.”
Osiris shouldered the backpack and followed Johannes into the small office.
“Does she have somewhere else she needs to be?” Mara asked Tay.
“That’s just the way she is. Everything has to be done to her schedule,” Tay said. “I should be in there with them.”
“Osiris said that it was her deal. If the commander isn’t happy, then it will be better if you are out of it.”
Mara led Tay towards a quieter corner near the entrance. The steady thrum of the large engines an ever-present companion.
“It’s good to see you, Tay,” Mara said.
“Is it? I didn’t think you’d want to lay eyes on me again,” Tay said. “Oz had to convince me to contact you.”
“Why are you still letting her command you?”
“It’s not like that, not anymore.”
“Tay,” for a moment Mara looked unsure of herself, “I have talked with the Commander about this, and he agrees. There’s a home here for you if you want it.”
“Where, the colony?” Tay shook her head. “Tried that. This isn’t a good place for me.”
“No, I mean with the ARRC, and it wouldn’t be here. I’m moving out to a new site next week, a new mission.”
“Mara, I’m glad you found your calling, but I’m not a fighter. I wouldn’t be much use with a gun.”
“It’s not like that, Tay, it’s an educational mission. I told you the Arcists were evolving. We’re moving the school to a new district, and we want to expand the programme.”
“What about the kids here?”
“We’re taking them with us. We’re setting up a new colony.” Mara beamed. “You should see it. A dedicated, modern school and a hospital. The best part is that it’s all legit. We won’t have to run from the militia anymore. I want you to know that I have given this a lot of thought, so it isn’t an empty offer. I want you to come and work alongside me. What do you think?”
“You want me to go with you?”
“I do. I know you’d enjoy the work.”
“You don’t know me,” Tay said. “It was three years ago that I left. We were out of our heads for most of the time I was here.”
“Tay, we were alike. You did the right thing leaving. If we’d carried on down that road, one of us would be dead or we’d be like the addicts out there. I think I was the lucky one though, I found the ARRC. They’re my family, Tay, and they could be yours too.” Mara put a hand on Tay’s shoulder. “I want to help you, Tay.”
“You want to help me? I don’t need help.” Tay took a step back. “I’m exactly where I want to be. I don’t need you or Oz. Neither of you knows what's best for me.”
“Tay, don’t be silly. I’m trying to show you a better way.”
“I’m not one of your kids. I don’t need someone telling me what to do. I don’t need you.”
“Is that why you went back to them?” Mara said sharply. “Back to your temple? I know how much they messed you up, the lies they told you. I know what the Joker means, Tay.”
“I’m not like you, Mara. I’m not meant to be anything.”
“I know you, Tay. There’s a reason that I...”
Mara was interrupted by a loud coughing sound emanating from the other side of the door. They both turned to look. The sound came again, but this time it was followed by muffled shouting. Mara took a few steps towards the door, straining to make out the sound over the noise of the generator.
“Don’t, Mara,” Tay said as she stepped back against the wall.
Something heavy struck the door and Mara turned to look at Tay, a frown upon her face. Her lips moved but her voice was lost in a sudden roar as the door was torn from its hinges and flung into the room. It hurtled towards them and slammed into Mara’s back, sending her careening into Tay. They ended up in a heap, limbs twisted together, both unconscious.