Tay pushed at the bandage wrapped around her head. A crust had formed in the corners of both eyes, and she rubbed at them with the heels of her hands. A flurry of tears ran down her cheeks and then she was blinking, light flooding in. It was a bedroom with a proper bed and not the boot of a car which was where her dream had left her.
“Damn it,” Tay croaked and sat up, the blankets falling away and exposing a body naked but for a bandage wrapped around her left thigh. She traced her fingers across the silken fabric, finding a bump at the entry wound and a smaller one at the back where the bullet had abandoned her and kept going. A section of the leg, fifteen centimetres in diameter, felt like a lump of wood.
She swung her legs out of the bed and sat for a moment, letting her toes get used to the sensation of the rough carpet. Goosebumps prickled across her naked skin, and she considered getting back under the blanket, but a call of nature spurred her on. Her left leg was stiff, but she stood and took a few steps to a chair and a pile of neatly folded clothes. Black jogging bottoms and a grey t-shirt. She sniffed them, worn but nothing worse than what she was used to. With no other choice than to go naked into the world, Tay got dressed. The trousers were baggy, but Tay hoisted them up over her hips and pulled the drawstring tight.
Clothed, Tay crossed to the window and opened the curtains. A thin layer of paint on the glass diffused the light but Tay was relieved to see it was still daytime. She blinked at the brightness and rubbed her eyes again, sure there was something wrong with her eyesight. She scratched at the paint, peeling it back with a fingernail and then peeked out. A corrugated roof over a service yard and then an expanse of glass, people moving about underneath as the rain filled the gutters and shot over the edge.
It took Tay a long moment to isolate what was different about the scene, her mind running through recent memories before settling on the brightness. Even overcast it seemed as if the sun was breaking through the clouds, and then it hit her, the black fog that had lingered at the corner of her vision for most of her adult life was no longer there. She was seeing everything for the first time in years.
“What the fuck?” Tay croaked and rubbed at her eyes. Now that she thought about it there was a slight soreness to the socket but nothing worse than a heavy night of drinking normally gave her.
A floorboard creaked outside her door and Tay froze, ears straining to follow the sound as it moved away and then changed to a heavy clomp. A staircase, Tay guessed, going down.
The door opened with a creak, and Tay hobbled out onto the landing, more threadbare carpet. At the bottom of the stairs was a tiled hallway and a row of coat hooks, but no clue as to where she was. A tap dripped in the kitchen, sparking a thirst in Tay that had her dragging her leg behind her and almost falling to the sink. She turned the tap on full and drank greedily from the stream until her stomach ached. Sated she splashed some of the water on her face and turned the tap off.
A TV set perched atop the fridge caught her attention. It was tuned to the news, volume muted and showing footage of the main square, the large government building taking up the northernmost edge. A correspondent talked to the camera while thousands of protesters waved flags and placards. The numbers had definitely swelled since Tay had last seen it.
A news desk replaced the square and a stern-looking host talked noiselessly to the camera. Tay turned the volume knob up.
“From a professional standpoint, it’s very well done,” the guest said. “The modifications are subtle, but an expert can pick them out.”
“Such as?” the reporter asked.
“The uniforms. The attackers deliberately wore clothes similar to the ones worn by our beloved militia, but they weren’t quite good enough. The insignias are wrong and, in some instances, superimposed on the footage.”
A still image of a tactical vest and black fatigues filled the screen. A patch on the arm and ‘MILITIA’ in large white letters on the vest. The image jumped forward a few frames, the writing vanishing and then reappearing.
“It’s surprising,” the technical expert said. “Overall, they did a superb job, but they missed this one frame.”
“Does the ARRC have the capability to do this?”
“Not internally, but they have close connections with diverse support groups. Small cadres of technologically savvy individuals that are more than capable of this sort of work.”
“Are they politically motivated?” the reporter asked. “I’m just trying to understand why someone would give aid to these terrorists. The militia work tirelessly to protect us and these people would lie about them? To what end?”
“Sadly, it comes down to money. They are techno mercenaries and for them, chaos is good for business.” The expert glanced into the camera lens, maybe hoping to claim the catchphrase. “If they can trick the people and turn them against the DPR and the people’s militia, then there will be violence and people like them thrive in that arena.”
Tay turned the volume back down and left the kitchen to find the bathroom.
When she came back out, she stood at the top of the stairs fiddling with the drawstring. The rain drummed on a skylight above the stairwell.
“Hello?” Tay croaked. There was no reply. She rummaged through her memories of the day before. She remembered staring at a woman with a regal nose while being driven to the doctor. She’d given her a name. “Wyn?”
The steps creaked as Tay descended. She ignored the back door and walked into an industrial kitchen, with two ovens, and racks of pots and pans. On a bench was a loaf of bread, two slices cut, a block of cheese and a jar of pickle. Stomach rumbling, Tay threw caution to the wind and cut a chunk of cheese off the block and folded it into a slice of bread, which she ate while exploring the kitchen.
There was a carrier bag on a counter by a door and with cheeks full, she staggered over and peered inside. Dragon-nosed pellet gun, phone, shoes, loose coins, things she hadn’t realised she was missing until that moment. Tay reclaimed her property and gave the kitchen one last look, hoping to find her clothes, but left the room disappointed.
“What the hell?” Tay whispered and then took another bite of her sandwich.
She was in a pub and not one she recognised. More dust sheets and half-painted walls. A long wooden bar, bottles in fridges and hand pumps. Big mirrors behind glass shelves. Tay caught her reflection and pushed her hair back. She looked terrible, eyes sunken and black, the shirt hung loose on her shoulders, and for a moment she saw her mother looking back at her. She turned away, the urge to smash the mirror receding slowly. She crossed to a window and pulled back a curtain to find the same white paint on the glass.
There was another door around the side of the bar and Tay pushed it open while stuffing her mouth with another bite of the sandwich.
“Pool table,” Tay muttered, as she ran a hand along the green baize. Her memory coming back to her.
A machine beeped, and Tay’s heart skipped a beat. She spun around, her leg hurting with the action.
The machine was in the corner. The long white box with the clear hood, that had been a part of her dreams, but in those, there hadn’t been an old man stretched out on the bed. The man’s eyes were closed, and his hands clasped over a button-up white shirt. A machine arm clamped over his mouth and nose.
Tay swallowed the last of the sandwich and lent over the hood, crumbs bouncing off the glass. His eyes were still under heavy lids, no dreams in his sleep.
“Who are you then?” Tay asked, but if he heard her, he didn’t respond.
She found watching him calming. There was a uniformity to his shape, a standard elderly man that could blend into a crowd. The sort that someone would help onto a bus or expect to see in the park feeding pigeons, on his own with some hidden pain but always a smile for the world. If Tay had ever met her grandfather, she imagined he would look like this.
Tay gave the room another look, still hoping to find her jeans. She looked past the giant standing in the doorway, his stillness such that Tay’s mind skipped him, but her eyes drifted back, the slow realisation that the doorway wasn’t empty. He stood slightly bent so that his neat hair brushed the door lintel, and stared at Tay with empty, recessed eyes that showed no interest in Tay’s presence.
“Hello,” Tay said. The giant stared back at her, unresponsive. “Wyn? The woman that brought me here?”
The machine beeped, and the giant took a step into the room. Tay took a step back, and he took another step forward. Tay turned and raced as fast as she could out of the room.
“Wyn!” Tay croaked. She turned to look, and the silent man was following her into the bar. Tay hobbled to the front door, reaching for the bolts, first the top and then the bottom, all while the giant watched her impassively from the end of the long-polished bar.
Tay slipped out into the warm morning, the carrier bag flapping at her side, bare feet on the wet pavement.