Tay woke up with a scream on her lips. She’d been back in the tunnel, the gunshots and the cries for help following her even as she ran into the dark. She kicked at the blanket tangled around her legs, a bout of frenetic energy that ended abruptly when she gave in and slumped back. Eyes fixed on the ceiling, her body heaving as she sucked in air, sweat cooling on her skin.
An outside light on a roof across the road, the only naked bulb up high enough to cast a shadow in her room, cast stark lines on her ceiling.
Tay sat up and took a swig from the bottle of juice she kept next to her mat. Gulping greedily, spilling some on her stomach. She wiped at her mouth and set the bottle down.
She checked her phone, half eleven, twenty minutes of sleep. No node connection, so no messages and no news update. She sat back against the wall and stared up at her window. The stars were concealed by a pink blanket of cloud that hung low and heavy, an oppressive weight that gave Tay a headache.
She needed sleep, but when she closed her eyes, she found herself back in the tunnel.
She checked her phone again, hoping for a distraction but finding none. She got up and stripped out of her clothes before padding into the small bathroom and getting in the shower. The high pressure a welcome surprise, but the temperature was cold enough to elicit a sharp intake of breath. The water ran over her skin, setting the scratches and bruises alight, but she gritted her teeth and forced herself to stay under the showerhead. The pain felt good, blocking thought. She held her head under the stream until her nerve endings grew numb and the pain dulled. Then she scrubbed and stayed in the shower until the images came back, along with the feeling of dread that haunted her in the quiet moments.
She brushed her teeth again, despite the taste of toothpaste still being fresh.
From her vantage point by the bathroom door, naked, water dripping on the grubby vinyl, she could see all the things that belonged to her. She flicked on the light, stark whiteness from the bare bulb bleaching everything. The room was small, all her life’s belongings in this space. The piles of clothes, food cartons, paperbacks tossed to the side, her pallet, crumpled sheet, and a threadbare blanket. What had Osiris said to her, that she was used to living like a dog, had that been it? Maybe they should have killed her. Why should she be the only one to survive?
She shivered as a fat glob of water ran down her spine. She should be in a bag, zip pulled tight over her head, tossed into the back of a van.
Both hands shot up, gripping her hair, and pulling it until her scalp hurt.
“No, no. It isn’t right.”
In a spurt of violent action, she waded into her clothes, throwing them around her, searching for anything remotely clean. Underwear, socks with holes and then the same blood-stained jeans she had crawled around the tunnel in. A wave of revulsion went through her as she pulled them up, but they were hers. She discarded the first couple of T-shirts from the pile, too dirty, too boring, she wanted the one with the wave on it, her favourite. It clung to her damp skin, but the blue crest brought a smile to her lips. A finger traced the outline, the memory helping her focus for long enough to get her boots on. Lightweight jacket in hand, she left, slamming the door behind her.
The wait for the lift was torturous, and she paced back and forth. The door next to hers opened, a pool of light filling the far end of the corridor.
“Is that you, Tay?” the small voice of her elderly neighbour. She was just out of sight, but Tay could imagine her staring out into the dark. Alone on the threshold, jumping at shadows. A cat mewled, and the door shut, leaving Tay alone.
The lift arrived, and the doors opened slowly, stark white light from a broken panel. Tay shot in, jabbed the button, and braced herself against the metal wall. She got her phone out, still no signal, but she composed a message to Osiris, pausing before sending it to her outbox. When it uploaded would it reach her or would it sit unanswered, buried with Osiris under the tons of rock and steel? Tay sent it and then put her phone away. Osiris and then Mara. Both parts of her life that she had tried to leave behind, now wrenched from her with a finality she found terrifying.
She ran out the door and into the heavy rain. Streetlight reflected in the puddles scattered as she splashed through them, her laces trailing along the surface. She dodged around the fenced-in openings that served as vents for the garages. The smoke from the kitchens climbed up into the damp night air along with music and laughter. Tay turned her back on the vents, the sound shifting to the patter of rain on the plastic awnings strung under the trees. The homes of the Longsal’s homeless, rent payers without walls or much of anything.
She passed under one of the sky bridges and out into the sector, directionless, driven only by the need to be moving.
Apartment blocks loomed large everywhere she looked. Containers of sleeping forms that followed routines of day and night, but at the street level, the district was alive. People climbed out of the cracks searching, hungry for what the day couldn’t offer, not in the same way at least.
Tay walked past bars and restaurants, drunks and revellers staggering along the road. Booming music spilled from nightclubs and from ominous cars that prowled the roads.
She turned down streets with factories and garages, the sounds of work and ceaseless industry. Vagrants, with their lives draped over their shoulders, and the drug dealers that preyed upon them. She ignored them all. None could take away the images that plagued her mind. None except her mother.
Tay looked up at the department store. The steady beat of music emanated from behind the large blacked-out windows. She had come here without thinking, without looking and she glanced around, worried that she had walked the miles to this former temple to retail without conscious thought.
A trio of youths stumbled out of the door, one slumped between the others, feet dragging on the flagstones. Tay approached the slowly closing door, willing it to shut before she reached it. The decision made that she would not be the one to open it. That if the temple was closed to her, then it was a sign that she should turn around.
Her pace slowed, adjusting to the creep of the door. A long-haired man cut in front of her and held it open. The music spilt onto the pavement. A bone-deep bass drum that shook the air. She wanted to stop, to walk away, but she put a hand on the door and mumbled a thank you.
Loud music boomed around the vestibule, bouncing off the giant slabs of black marble flecked with gold that shimmered in the light from electric candles. A bank of lifts at the back and an archway on either side; the left fenced off with metal grills and sheets, the right open and leading into the main hall.
The music reached deep into Tay, bringing a peace that started the act of cleansing. She closed her eyes and let it do its work.
“We are but light in the ether.” A voice that Tay knew well intoned over the music. A voice that Tay had listened to for hours at a time as the Great Mother read from the sacred texts.
The vibrations ran through Tay’s body, her heartbeat seeking to match the pulse of the room.
She stepped into a wall of heat generated by the mass of several hundred people as they danced in a circle around the speaker stack. Arms and bodies moving together, sweat dripping from bare limbs and a proliferation of snake tattoos. Tay touched her own, tracing the jester as it stretched down her left hand, her finger falling from the fang. This was her home, her defining years spent with the Temple of the Peripheral.
“We are free of all that would limit us.”
A priestess bearing a jar approached Tay from out of the mass of people lining the walls. She came to a stop, light dancing over her serene features. Tay looked for a glimpse of recognition, but the narrow pupils spoke of unseeing eyes.
“Welcome to the Temple of the Peripheral,” the priestess intoned as she proffered the jar to Tay.
Tay raised her hand, revealing the tattoo of the jester. The Priestess smiled faintly. She saw something, Tay thought.
“Cast out the peripheral.”
The priestess reached into a small bag hung at her side and pulled a glass ampoule out. Tay took it, and the priestess moved on, proffering the jar to others.
Tay stared at the vial. Her oaths to never come here, to turn away from this path, the renouncing of all that they had raised her to believe, would taking it negate all of that? Would she be a liar, or would she be coming home?
“Let go of all that is outside,” the voice within the music said.
Tay snapped the lid and poured the meagre contents onto her tongue and then let the ampoule drop to the floor. The harsh taste of the chemicals in her throat, the burn as it passed down. An urge to vomit, driven she was sure by her revulsion to what she had done. She could take the phreno with ease, had for years, but the oath-breaking, that was difficult to swallow.
The drug got to work quickly, her lungs expanding, pushing against her ribs. Sensual awareness of the parts that made her alive, each one coming to the fore and then receding to be replaced with another. Her tongue filled her mouth, pushing at her minty teeth. Then it was the turn of the eyes. The light shifted, expanding around the people that danced past her. Shadows growing longer, but the bright eyes like glowing orbs trailing across a dark canvas. Tay grinned, a stupid smile that released the tension in her neck, bones clicking and organs settling.
The heavy beat gripped her soul, spinning her around.
She could smell them, taste the truth of her own existence. Fingertips touching sweat-soaked limbs that reached out, luring her in. The music shifted higher, to an energistic level that lifted Tay with it.
They closed around her as she slipped into the flow, moving in concentric circles, brushing against each other as they went. She saw the faces of ghosts, no longer fearful of the death that stalked them. Now they smiled, laughed, and welcomed it. They embraced her.
Tay saw herself as she rotated. Older, hair longer and turning grey, a snake tattoo prominent on her face. Tay felt she should have changed course, followed, but she was lost in the river. Her vision narrowed, lights blurring on the edges until there was only a pinpoint left. She reached for it, stretching and racing towards the vanishing point.
“Seek the ether.”