26.

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Tay stood for a while, watching the traders as they set up their stalls in the market. It was dawn somewhere above the clouds but down on the street, it felt far away. Big overhead lights did their best to drive back the gloom, but Tay saw her own despondency reflected on the faces of those working under the canopy. She had a feeling it would be a long time before any of them saw sunshine again.

Tay clutched the carrier bag close to her chest and turned her attention back to the pub and the gold lettering across the front, the Magdala Inn. Her only view of it had been during her flight, a furtive glance back to make sure she wasn’t being followed, but it was the only pub on the market so had to be the right one.

She was tired and slightly foggy from the rum Tony had plied her with. He was alive and whole, a few bruises, but he was in one piece and busy cleaning when Tay banged on his door. They had shared a moment of relief when they saw that the other one was still alive, but Tony had questions that Tay didn’t feel like answering so the reunion had been short. With one hand on her uncle’s money, she had flagged down a cab, but when the driver asked for the destination, she had asked for the flower market. She knew that Jens and Gren would make her welcome, but she felt the need to go back to the pub, a pull that she couldn’t explain.

She kept her head down as she crossed the road and knocked on the door. No answer at first but repeatedly tapping on the glass brought a curtain twitch and then the rattling of a bolt. The door opened a crack and Wyn stuck her head out.

“Tay?” Wyn said in surprise. She glanced up and down the road and then ushered Tay inside, shutting the door behind her and sliding the bolt across.

“It’s you, isn’t it? Wyn?” Tay said studying Wyn’s face. She was older than Tay with a strong nose that Tay remembered staring at in the car but apart from that, there wasn’t much else she could recall.

“I wasn’t sure how much you’d remember from the car ride. I tried calling to see how you were healing, but I couldn’t get through.”

“My phone broke. Are you in hiding?” Tay asked. The pub was in darkness, but there was a light on in the hallway.

“The traders keep pestering me to reopen the pub. If they know I’m here, they’ll start banging on the door.” Wyn yawned and rubbed at her eyes. She was barefoot and wearing pyjama bottoms and a vest. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“I wanted to say thanks for what you did. You could have left me there, but you didn’t.”

“It’s my job to help.”

Tay nodded and looked around the pub. “A good friend of mine's a landlord. The Takoma, a little slice of heaven in the basement?”

“I think I know it,” Wyn said. She’d gone in once on the tail of a suspect. In her opinion, it was just like a thousand other dive bars scattered across the sector. “I’m glad you called by, but I have to get ready for work. Why don’t you come round later? There are probably some things we should talk about.”

Tay pulled her uncle's wad of cash from her pocket and offered it to Wyn.

“What’s that for?” Wyn asked.

“For helping me.”

“I don’t need it.”

Tay looked down at the notes clasped in her hand, it was close to a month’s wages for most in the sector.

“I know it doesn’t cover it, I mean an hour in that machine must cost thousands, but it’s all I’ve got right now. I can get more, just might take me a while.”

“I didn’t help you for money. You were hurt, and I got the feeling you didn’t want to go to a hospital and get the police involved.”

“Do I look like a criminal?” Tay chortled as she looked down at herself. “You helped me and that means something. If there’s anything I can ever do to repay you, then...” Tay shrugged and looked around the pub. It had a stale smell to it as if it had been locked up for a while.

“I’ve got a stairwell that needs painting.”

“I was thinking of something more criminal,” Tay said, grinning. “Cheap vodka, that sort of thing.”

“If I had any customers, I’d rather not blind them.”

Tay looked around the pub while Wyn struggled with a mild hangover and tried to think of something to say.

“The bandage is sweet by the way. I hardly notice it. Wouldn’t think I got shot a few days ago,” Tay said, desperate to keep the conversation going. “I must look a mess, but that’s because I haven’t really slept. They knocked me out with something that I still think is in my bloodstream. Not good stuff, like it’s left a foul taste in my mouth. Left me really parched actually. That and having a gun put to my head. Now I think about it, I haven’t really slept since Saturday, I mean I have, but not well. Once on the floor, then in the tanning booth and last night in the back of a van, although I was tied up for that. Did you carry me upstairs? Just I was naked, and I wondered how I got there?”

Wyn hitched her pyjamas up and tried to unpack what Tay had just said.

Tay peered around the pub. “Any chance of a cuppa?”

Wyn let out a tired sigh. “I think you need to fill me in on what’s been going on, but tea first.”

Wyn led the way to the hall and started up the stairs, but paused when she heard the scampering of tiny feet on the landing. She turned back and ushered Tay into the downstairs kitchen. “In here’s best.”

Tay entered the kitchen and ran a hand along the steel bench. She found it hard to believe that it was less than twenty-four hours since she had last been here, stealing food and running away.

“I’ve been painting the walls, so it’s a mess upstairs,” Wyn said.

“I like the colour.”

“It’s magnolia, Tay, you’re not supposed to like it,” Wyn said, watching Tay limp around the table and hop onto a stool. “You should be at home resting. The machine patched you up, but your body still needs to heal.”

“There’s no resting this week, too much shit going on. A spot in the machine might make me feel better though if you’re offering?”

“It’s not for hangovers.”

“I’m not hungover.”

“I can smell the rum on you.”

“That was Tony,” Tay said, dropping her carrier bag on the table and slouching forward. “I called past to see if he was all right. Poor sod was scrubbing the pub. Wouldn’t let me leave till we’d drank a few. To steady the nerves, he said, but I don’t feel so steady.”

“Who’s Tony?” Wyn asked. She stood with her back to the sink, watching Tay intently.

“An old friend of mine. He owns the Takoma in the triangle, remember? He was there last night when they jumped me. Can I use your loo?”

“In a minute. Who jumped you?”

“This little woman and a big bear of a man, Keir, at least I think that’s what his name was. She was mean. Like an angry bird ready to peck my eyes out.”

“What did they want with you?”

“Well, at first they wanted to kill me, but then she took a call and I guess she figured she could trade me for someone. Then there was this entire conversation that I wish I could forget. Like, really heavy. I’m going to need a week to deal with what we talked about.”

“Who?”

“Me? She wanted to know if I was angry enough to take revenge. They thought I hurt them, but it wasn’t me.” Tay glanced over at the kettle. “Any chance of that tea?”

Wyn filled the kettle up. “Who did they trade you for?”

“Johansson, the Arcist commander. Did you know the second ‘R’ stands for resistance?”

Wyn shut the tap off and paused with the kettle in hand. “Johansson, the Johansson?”

Tay nodded.

“No offence, Tay, but who the hell would trade you for the commander of the leading resistance group in the sector?”

“Fair enough. It wasn’t a trade, I guess. More of a loose end? Like they couldn’t just leave us sitting around, so they sort of just handed us over. Johansson seemed nice, though. I think he told me to get my act together. I have my freedom, it’s up to me what I do with it. That’s what he meant, right? Don’t waste my life. I can see why Mara liked him.”

“Who’s Mara?” Wyn stood with the kettle clutched to her chest.

“A teacher, an ex-girlfriend, kind of. You ever get hit in the chest and you think you love someone, but the pain screws with the memory? It’s like you can’t breathe, so part of your brain rewrites the past. If you asked me yesterday, I would have said that I had loved her, but now? Now I don’t know. I can’t tell if my brain has written her out to protect me or if I never cared about her. We went down different paths. She joined the Arcists and I, well, I became this, but I think she still cared about me. Before she died, she wanted me to join them. Wait, no, she didn’t die, they killed her. He fucking killed her and now he wants me to work for him, but if I loved her, how can I?”

Silence filled the kitchen. Tay could feel the blood pumping in her skull, her throat was raw, and a single tear escaped to run down her cheek to land on the polished surface of the table.

Wyn set the kettle down and flicked the switch.

“Tay,” Wyn started to ask a question but then faltered. Something Tay had said had cut deep, and she felt the urge to talk about Bran, but the detective in her told her to stay on point. Her personal drama was just that, hers, and if she ever needed to talk about it, she had Jena, not that she would. She had to tread carefully, Tay wasn’t a suspect, indeed if Mr Wilkin was correct, she was an ally, not that Wyn could see it just then. She brought herself some time to think by making the tea.

Tay raised her head when Wyn finally placed the mug in front of her.

“You take sugar?”

“Please,” Tay croaked.

Wyn retrieved the sugar bowl and set it on the table. Then she filled a glass with water and held it out to Tay. Tay took it and gulped it down greedily.

“What did Mara teach?” Wyn asked, resuming her place by the sink. She kept glancing at the stairs, wondering if Misha was listening in.

“Children,” Tay said, spooning sugar into her tea. “She was cool, she could be anyway, I mean she had a hard edge to her, but she never got angry with me. When I saw her again, she’d changed, she looked in control.”

“When was that?” Wyn asked as she watched Tay dip the spoon in the bowl and tip the sugar into her tea until it became a mechanical routine. When it seemed to Wyn that the tea was more sugar than water, she pulled the bowl out of her reach. Tay didn’t seem to notice and transferred her attention to stirring the tea, the spoon clinking off the sides of the mug.

“Saturday. We’d gone to meet her in the colony. Oz and me.”

“You just got caught up in the militia operation?”

“We were part of it.” Wyn must have looked surprised because Tay nodded. “Not that we knew. My uncle was following us, or his people were, and we led them right to the Arcist hideout. He was supposed to kill the Arcists, but he cut a deal. Took them all prisoner instead.”

“Stop. The ARRC are prisoners? Of whose?”

“My uncle, but they’re not anymore. He released them this morning. I almost got shot because of him.”

“Tay, who’s your uncle?”

“Erik Garson.”

“Garson? Fuck.” It took a few too many moments for Wyn’s brain to process the additional information. “Your uncle’s one of the nine? Of course, he’s your uncle, damn it, that’s why you’re at the centre of this.”

“He’s a martyr, not that he’d sacrifice himself for anything.” Tay took a sip of tea, keeping the mug up by her face, letting the steam sting her nose. “He runs the Street Apostles, and it was them that attacked the power station. I’m certain they were involved in the metro thing, but I don’t know how.”

“I heard nothing about this. Are you sure?”

“I think they kept it off the news, but I was there when they blew the doors.” Tay stared at Wyn from across her mug of tea. “I heard them shooting people. I killed an Apostle when I escaped, it was an accident, but it shouldn’t have happened.”

“It sounds like you were defending yourself.”

“I’m not a killer. The gun went off by accident. I just wanted to make Oz happy and to see Mara again. I don’t want any of this.”

“Okay, this is just a lot to take in. You said they made a deal. Are you saying that one of the nine is working with the ARRC?”

“That’s what he told me. He wants them to...” Tay stopped talking and looked about the kitchen.

“Wants them to what, Tay?”

“I don’t actually know you. I mean, you helped me, but I shouldn’t be laying all this on you. I only wanted to come and say thanks for helping. I still can’t believe she shot me.”

“God, I forgot about that,” Wyn said more to herself. “You said a red-haired woman shot you, right?”

“Did I?”

Wyn left the room and ran up the stairs.

“Can I use your loo?” Tay called out. She twisted around and peeked out into the bar. She was about to slip off the stool and wander off to find the toilets when Wyn came back and slapped a folder on the bench.

“I need you to look at something and tell me if you recognise anyone.” Wyn pulled the first of the immigration forms out. Tay slurped her tea and studied the photo intently. Wyn placed a new one in front of her and watched for a reaction.

“What are these?” Tay asked.

Wyn kept turning the pages, making sure Tay looked at all the photos.

“A friend gave them to me. Last one.” Wyn turned the page, and Tay immediately tensed up. It was the woman with red hair.

“Why do you have her picture? Who are you?”

“Who is she, Tay?”

“She’s militia. One of the ones that shot at us. Is that her name, Lisbeth Boucher?”

“Probably not.” Wyn sifted through the pages and tapped a photo. “This man was part of the group that attacked the metro. He died on the platform, but the rest escaped. They hid their faces during the attack, but the footage shows two of them pulling their masks off on the way out. At least that’s what they wanted us to believe.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“Everyone’s seen it.” She saw the confusion on Tay’s face. “It was released on Sunday. Shit, you were unconscious, but you must have seen the news since then?”

“I’ve been busy.” Tay rubbed at her eyes. “I don’t understand. The giant red-haired woman, Lisbeth, stole the video from Agata to stop her from releasing it, but then she does it anyway? That makes no sense. It was her that did it. I was this close to her at the gate. It must be from somewhere else?”

“There’s a lot going on here, Tay. Do you remember me telling you about Mr Wilkin? You were in a lot of pain so maybe not.”

“The old guy in the machine? He’s not still in there, is he?” Tay said in some horror at the idea.

“No, he was only here for a short while,” Wyn said. She knew she had to take this part slowly. Too much and Tay would run, albeit slowly and with a limp. “He’s been warning me that something terrible is coming. That the sector is in danger.”

“It’s always in danger. People get shot every day.”

“You don’t have to tell me.” Wyn could feel a bubble of anxiety growing in her chest. It felt like everything was slipping out of her control. “I work hard to try to bring some justice into the sector, I’m not the only one but none of it really makes a difference. We’re fighting a losing battle, but then Mr Wilkin comes along, and I have done more good in the time I’ve known him than in the rest of my twenty years on the job.”

“You’re forty? You look good for forty.” Tay slurped her tea. “Wait, why are you bringing justice? I thought you ran a pub?”

“You don’t remember that bit?”

“What bit? Are you a vigilante or something? I know a few of those.” Tay slurped her tea again, the noise grating on Wyn’s nerves.

“I work for the police. I’m a detective investigating the metro incident.” Wyn recognised the look that came over Tay, it was like a shutter dropping. The light went out of Tay’s eyes, and she tensed up. “I need you to fight the urge to run and just listen to me. Can you do that?”

Tay looked at Wyn from beneath a furrowed brow and gave a non-committal shrug. The action reminding Wyn of the hundreds of street kids that she’d ran into in her life and the hatred they all seemed to feel for the police. She had to agree that most of them had good cause, but she had a job to do.

“I arrived on the platform with my unit during the attack. I told them to stay on the train, but they all heard what was happening and did what they always do, ran to the sounds of trouble. We tried to stop them, but we didn’t stand a chance. I lost four officers, one of them a good friend.” Wyn pulled a stool over and sat across from Tay. She moved the immigration files so that the woman’s photo was back on top. “I saw what they did. We tried to help, but it was...”

“It was too much, wasn’t it?” Tay said. “I try to think about it, but it’s like there’s a blank where the memory should be. I can hear them though like the echo is stuck on repeat. No words or faces just the sound...just the sound of...”

“That will be the shock. I want to remember it, to keep it in here.” Wyn tapped the side of her head. “I want to find them, whatever it takes.”

“I won’t be a witness for you if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you. If the militia or central are involved, then it would never reach a trial.”

“You didn’t run into me by accident, did you?”

“Actually, I did. We get taught that coincidences are a rarity, but that was one, partially at least. I knew you were in the area, but I’d lost the cab you were riding in. When you ran out in front of me, I didn’t recognise you straight away.”

“You followed me from the Longsal? Why?”

“I was following the young girl at first, I saw the pair of you leave but I didn’t think you were you.”

“Why were you following Gren? She’s just a kid.”

“I wasn’t... I was looking for you because your name came up, more than once.”

“The copper in the tunnel? Damn it, knew I should have run.”

“And Mr Wilkin. He told me your name two months ago.”

“You keep mentioning him, who is he?” Tay asked.

Wyn rubbed at her face. She needed to wake her brain up to have this conversation properly.

“He’s a friend that helps me out from time to time. He told me that something was coming. Then Major Glass warns me that the party is about to turn on itself, but I don’t even think that’s it.” Wyn rubbed at her temples. “Oh, why did I have to drink last night?”

“You own a pub which is pretty cool.”

“I need a shower.” Wyn stood up. “I’m going to have a shower and get ready for work. Will you still be here when I get out?”

“Can I use the loo?”

“Of course. You’ll have to use the downstairs one. Just out there and on the right. I’ll only be a minute, ten tops, and I promise I’ll have some answers for you.”

“Take your time. Do you mind if I make another cuppa?”

“Go ahead. There’s milk in the little fridge.”

Tay listened to the creak of the stairs. She felt tired and bruised, but she got up and went to find the toilets.

 

On the way back, she stopped to look at the pub. She stood at the end of the bar and shook her hands dry. It was a nice old pub with a long solid wooden bar and pumps that gleamed. The kitchen was empty, so Tay ducked behind the bar. The till draw was cracked open, but a gentle pull with a finger revealed a disappointing lack of cash. Bottles lined the shelves though, and Tay liberated a measure of whisky. Downing it before setting the glass in the little sink under the bar. She licked her lips and then refilled the glass, sipping it while she went to poke her head into the games room.

The pool table was there just as she remembered, but the machine was draped in a dust sheet. Tay lifted the hem but dropped it quickly. She didn’t want to know if anyone was in there or not. Even just thinking about someone sleeping in the tube made her shiver.

“Why does a pub need something like this?” Tay said to herself before finishing the whisky and setting the glass on the edge of the pool table.

 

When Wyn came back down, she found the kitchen in a mess. The tub of butter was resting on its side, the lid on the floor and the last of the yeast spread was dripping from a knife to create a sticky mass on the table along with a scattered pattern of breadcrumbs that Wyn would need a forensics team to analyse. Tay was seated at the table sorting through shards of red plastic, a corner of toast wedged in her mouth. The barrel and the hopper were in one piece, but the grip was broken.

“You got any glue?” Tay asked.

Wyn stared at her, battling with a sudden urge to fetch her stun gun from her bedside cabinet.

“Glue?” Tay said around the toast.

“I think so,” Wyn said. It only took her a moment to find the rolled-up tube on the shelf.

“Your head any clearer?” Tay asked.

“Much better.” Wyn stared at the toothbrush resting on the side of the sink, the brush end dangling out over the void. “Did you brush your teeth?”

“I’m not an animal,” Tay said, wiping breadcrumbs from her shirt.

“That’s the spirit,” Wyn muttered. “Tay, I want you to talk to somebody.”

“Who?”

“Mr Wilkin.”

“Is he here?”

“No, he’s in Central, but I sent him a message to contact me as soon as he can. He can tell you what’s going on.” Wyn filled the kettle up.

“Yes please,” Tay said, pushing her empty mug across the table.

Wyn noted the two tea bags discarded in the sink. She didn’t think she’d been gone long enough for Tay to drink three cups of tea.

“So, what are we going to do till then?” Tay unscrewed the cap and sniffed at the glue, wrinkling her nose, and then squeezing a drop onto the shard of red plastic.

“What is this?” Wyn picked up the barrel from the table and traced a finger over the dragon's head. “Is this a gun?”

“It’s my gun,” Tay said and reached for it.

“It’s plastic?” Wyn said passing it back.

“It’s not a toy.”

“I didn’t say it was.” Wyn picked up a plastic blob. “How did it get broken?”

“That bearded bastard smashed it.”

“Was he the one that kidnapped you?”

“Him and the bird woman, Sona.”

“I’ve heard of her. An enforcer for the Arcists. They’re not good people, Tay.”

“I know that, but neither is the party. I don’t understand how they can work with the Martyrs after what they did.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“A murderous bastard is always a murderous bastard.”

“Your uncle? You don’t like him much, do you?”

Tay focused on sticking two curved pieces together. “He’s tried to recruit me before, but they prey on people. Apostles might be at the top of the heap, but that just means they’re worse than everyone else. Oz is desperate to work for them though.”

“Oz? You mentioned her before. Is she a friend?”

“Not anymore,” Tay said. “Where’s yours?”

“He’ll call in a minute. Where does this go?” Wyn held the piece of plastic she had been toying with. It was a red owl, about the size of the tip of her thumb, with big, round eyes and a hoop on top of its head.

“I think it's a sight. You know, like it goes on the end of the barrel.”

“That's not what it is. I think it came off a key chain.”

“It's the same colour,” Tay held up a part of the red plastic next to the owl. “And I found it with the other bits, so it has to be part of it.”

“It just means they made it using the same colour plastics.”

“Well, it's my gun.” Tay held out her hand and Wyn dropped the owl into it. She watched Tay spread a blob of glue on the owl’s feet and then try to attach it to the end of the barrel between the nostrils of the dragon.

“It will lack integrity. The first time you shoot it, it will fall apart in your hands,” Wyn said. “Might even backfire on you.”

“It won’t.” Tay concentrated on the final few pieces.

“How do you know?”

“Because I am an expert in fixing things.”

Wyn’s phone rang.

“How are you getting a signal?” Tay checked her own. There was no node available, but the government network was up. She rubbed at the glue on the screen.

“Shush.” Wyn pointed a finger at Tay as she answered the phone. “Mr Wilkin? It’s me... yes, I’m good thanks. Have we got a window? ... she’s here with me ... I'll put you on speaker.”

Wyn turned the speaker on and set the phone on the table. Tay stared at it and then at Wyn and shrugged.

“Tay, are you there?” the voice of an old man came through slightly distorted.

“Yes?” Tay looked at Wyn as she spoke.

“Hello, it is a pleasure to meet you. Again, I should say, but since I was asleep last time we met it will be the first for me.”

“That was you with the doctor, the machine?”

“It was. I hope that I didn’t scare you. When I come to the sector, I have to spend an inordinate amount of my time in that contraption.”

“When you come to the sector? Where are you now?”

“I am in Central. I was hoping to visit your sector today, but I am unable to. Wyn, it might be another few days before I can get through.”

“Probably best not to,” Wyn said. “I spoke to a contact in the militia last night and he thinks things are about to come to a head.”

“Kaplan has to make his move now or it will be too late. Have you unravelled his plot?” Mr Wilkin asked.

“As much as I can. No evidence though, just conjecture,” Wyn said.

“Do you want to lay out what you know, bring Tay up to speed as it were?”

“Actually, Tay just gave us another piece of the puzzle.”

“I did?” Tay said, surprised.

“Well done, Tay. I knew you would be instrumental in this,” Mr Wilkin said. “What did you learn?”

Tay looked quizzically at Wyn.

“We know Governor Kaplan works closely with the martyrs, a criminal syndicate in the sector,” Wyn said.

“As all despots do. The concept of loyalty obsesses them, sometimes to the point where they find it easier to buy it,” Mr Wilkin said.

“He hired them to take out the command organisation for the ARRC, the largest armed resistance group in operation in the sector.”

“They didn’t though,” Tay said helpfully.

“Did somebody pay them more?” Mr Wilkin asked.

“This is the reason I called you,” Wyn said. “Tay was reluctant to tell me. I thought you could talk to her and convince her to work with me.”

“It has reached that point, hasn’t it?” Mr Wilkin cleared his throat, a noise that didn’t come through the phone’s speakers too well. “Tay, this will all sound very strange, so I ask that you trust what I am about to tell you and that you listen. I will answer your questions, but for now please trust me.”

Tay spread some glue along an edge and then pressed it into another piece.

“Is she listening?” Mr Wilkin asked.

“She’s here, go on, sir,” Wyn said.

“I didn’t know that was a question,” Tay whispered to Wyn.

“Your sector is one of many that Central has an interest in. They built the walls to keep you in and they dictate certain rules to you. The sector governments are at the same time independent and beholden to Central, just as you are a prisoner while also being free. You are a human being with all the rights due to you. That is my belief and why I am involving myself in the affairs of your sector.”

Tay stared at the phone.

“Is she still listening?” Mr Wilkin said. “I wish I were there. This is so difficult on the phone. I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall.”

“Sir, it wouldn’t be any different in person. Please go on.” Wyn said.

Tay narrowed her eyes at Wyn.

“Much like they raise pigs to be slaughtered, so have your people been.”

Tay cocked her head. “What?”

Wyn looked ready to speak, but Mr Wilkin ploughed on.

“Your sector is a resource. It is much like a farm or a stand of trees. To Central you are a list of assets, and that is it. And much like any crop, the right to harvest can be sold to others. In your case, a company called Lancaster has brought the rights, more of an option I should say since certain conditions must be fulfilled for them to be able to come in and harvest. A sort of down payment for the rights to work the land. Of course, they might never come to fruition, but these companies think in decades.”

Tay set the pieces down and pointed at the phone. “Who the hell is this madman?”

“I am not a madman, Tay. I said that you would have to trust me.”

“Mr Wilkin, please let me. You’re not helping. My fault,” Wyn said. “Tay, I know this all sounds—”

“Please do Wyn. I only have so long for this call.” Mr Wilkin interrupted.

“Understood, but if you’ll let me—”

“I will,” Mr Wilkin said. “But please get her on board.”

“Yes, Mr Wilkin. Tay—”

“Without Tay, this endeavour will be doomed to fail.”

“Tay...” Wyn left a moment to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted again. “I know this all sounds insane. I thought so too the first time he told me.”

“You believe this? Central are bastards, but slaughter? We’re not pigs,” Tay said.

“That is not what I meant. I was merely trying to explain.” Mr Wilkins’ voice came up from the table.

“I’m putting you on hold.” Wyn picked the phone up and tapped a button. She set the phone back on the table.

“You just hung up on your boss,” Tay said.

“He’s not my boss.”

“You act like it.”

“I guess I still think he might be,” Wyn said. “He’s a powerful man. The fact that he can call in from Central is proof of that. Have you ever spoken to someone on the other side of the wall?”

“No, but why is he talking about pigs and harvesting? That’s crazy. I just popped round for a cuppa and to say thanks. Whatever you’ve got going on with this guy, great for you, but I’m out.”

“Tay, the red-haired woman that you identified as part of the metro attack, she’s part of a larger group that came in from Central. They are mercenaries working for the governor, and I think he directed them to attack the metro.”

“Central wouldn’t do that. The militia and the martyrs did that. We don’t need to bring in psychos to do that kind of thing, we’ve got plenty here.”

“They are here and at some point, maybe today, they are going to do what they came to do.”

“They’ve already done it! They fucking killed hundreds of people. What else is there to do?”

“I don’t know, but it’s going to be violent. Can I put him back on?”

Tay folded her arms and sat back down. Wyn could see her trying to decide whether to run or not.

“If you want to go, then go. I won’t stop you. But if any part of you wants justice for what happened, then just listen, please.”

“Okay, but the guy’s crazy,” Tay said.

Wyn unmuted the call. “Mr Wilkin?”

There was a muffled sound, someone else speaking just out of range. “And one of those blueberry muffins. Thank you.”

“Mr Wilkin?” Wyn’s hand hovered over the phone.

“Sorry, I’m here.”

“I just explained to Tay how Central is helping the governor of the sector.”

“I’m not buying it though,” Tay said jumping into the conversation. “Central has no reason to kill us.”

“I forget sometimes how it must be to grow up in a sector. You know nothing of the true nature of the world beyond your walls.”

“They’re not our fucking walls,” Tay said. “Central locked us up.”

“That's not what I meant.” The phone rustled again, a chair scraping on wood. “Central put the walls up, although it wasn’t Central then, it was just Cambridge, the town that I loved. Not that you’d recognise it now.”

“How old is this guy?” Tay whispered as she gave Wyn a quizzical look.

“Just listen,” Wyn said.

“A different time for us all, but then the expansion and the wars. Used as justification for the erection of the walls, but some of us dissented.”

“Excuse me,” Tay tried her politest tone. “How fucking old are you and are you crazy?”

“Tay,” Wyn said sharply.

“What? This guy says he was around when the walls went up. They went up a hundred years ago at least. He’d have to be ancient,” Tay said, unable to keep her cool.

“Seventy-two years ago, to be exact, and I am old. I was a young man back then. How old are you, Tay? I was probably the same age.”

Tay took a moment, “Twenty-four, I think.”

“You don’t know how old you are?” Mr Wilkin said in surprise.

“My parents weren’t big on registering things, nor birthdays, nor being parents really.”

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that, Tay. If it’s any consolation, it's best to go by how you feel rather than an artificial construct such as birthdays.”

“Mr Wilkin,” Wyn interrupted, “time is pressing.”

“Of course. Er, oh thank you.” The sound of a cup rattling. “Honestly, I am not sure what Lancaster has in mind. The machinations of the corporate are hidden from me. They might simply be manoeuvring their proxy into a more stable position; in which case we have some time.”

“Time to do what? I still don’t get why I’m talking to either of you,” Tay said.

“Because in the river of time you are a rock,” Mr Wilkin said. “Someone, god or an entity beyond our comprehension, has tossed you into the stream. I, and others, watch the flow and we have seen the ripples your life has caused. They are disproportionate and best explained as tossing a pebble into a pond and getting a tsunami. You are talking to us because you are sick of the world pushing you around and it has brought you to an understanding of what is important.”

Tay laid the backs of her hands on the table and mouthed a curse word at Wyn.

“Mr Wilkin?” Wyn said. She could feel the little knot of anxiety that seemed to live permanently in her stomach quickly expanding.

“Only some of us reach a level of sentience that allows us to even see the river, let alone divert its course. Do you have an affinity for water, Tay? Do you feel the pull of its flow? If there is to be any chance of change, then you must jump in. These—”

Tay reached over to the phone and ended the call.

Wyn pursed her lips and lowered her gaze.

“What the fuck was that?” Tay said and then broke into laughter. “I have to get to Central. That guy was out of his mind. You know he was in a cafe, right? And what the fuck is a blueberry?”

“It’s a fruit,” Wyn said, her headache back.

“Whatever it is, it’s messing with his mind.” Tay started packing her things into the carrier bag. “Thanks for the tea. It was lovely catching up.”

“Tay. He does that, but he really believes it.”

“God, throwing me into a river? Okay, okay, yep. I am done with people telling me crazy things. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were all part of the same delusion.” Tay stood up and put her jacket on. “I don’t know, maybe you all smoked the same thing, or ate too many blueberries. I’m out. Thanks again for your help.”

“Call me if you need anything,” Wyn said without getting up.

“Will do,” Tay said, passing behind her. “You’re out of butter by the way.”

“Just stay off the streets for the next couple of days!” Wyn shouted.

Tay opened the back door and left through the yard. Wyn waited for the bang of the gate before getting up and following. She stood at the door, listening to the rain patter on the roof.

“Bollocks,” Wyn muttered as she shut the door. She turned to see Misha sitting on the top step, watching her.

Her phone started ringing.


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