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The hood had a chemical tang that left Tay woozy. It was a smell that would have been foreign to most, but not to her. Where others would have wriggled and panicked, she stayed calm and took shallow breaths. A calculating part of her realised that her flight or fight response wasn’t working, taken offline by a series of events that should have broken her. If someone thought tying her up and sticking a hood over her head was going to send her over the edge, then they were wrong.

She broke into a coughing fit, her lungs filling with the tainted air and causing her head to swim. It took a force of will not to panic and push the fear back into its little box. She calmed down, her breathing returning to normal.

Bound hands dug around, testing the limits of her freedom. Cold metal to her back and damp wood for a floor, a combination that led Tay to think of a van, a van parked behind a pub. She rolled onto her side and tested the bindings around her wrists, no slack. She wasn’t surprised, they were terrorists after all. If anything, she would have been disappointed if they made it too easy.

“Oz?” Tay croaked, probing the area in front of her with her foot, sliding it across the wooden floor until it bumped into something soft. “Oz, is that you?”

“Tay? I can’t see anything,” Osiris said, her voice weak and muffled. “Where are we?”

“Are you tied up?” Tay gave Oz a push with her foot. “That you?”

“Stop kicking me,” Osiris said. “Did they drug us?”

“I think so. We need to get out of here before they come back.”

“My nose is broken; I can’t breathe out of it.”

“Just stay calm and we’ll find a way out,” Tay said. She tried to shake the bag free from her head, but it was bunched up at her throat. She pushed back against the wall and ran her fingers along the cold metal, searching for a sharp surface to work the rope against. She wriggled downwards and found a boxed-in section that she guessed covered the wheel arch. It wasn’t ideal, but she raised her arms and started rubbing the rope against the corner.

“Are you still there?” Osiris asked.

“Yep,” Tay grunted. “I think we’re in a van. Didn’t they throw us in a van?”

“Oh god, Tay, they’re going to kill us.”

“They would have done it at Tony’s if they were going to. If they hurt him, I’m going to haunt the fuck out of the pair of them.”

“Forget about him, what about us? They’ll kill us, Tay, that mad bitch drove us here to put a bullet in our heads and leave our bodies in a ditch.”

“Calm down, Oz. We’ve had this coming for a long time, but Tony had nothing to do with this. He just got caught up in our crap.” Tay paused as another wave of dizziness washed over her. “Why did you tell them about my uncle?”

“They knew anyway.”

“So, you decided to throw me to them? Kill Tay, not me, that’s what you said, right?”

“I’m sorry, but I panicked.”

“She was right though, my uncle must have followed us, but how did he know we were meeting with the Arcists?”

“It must have been on Jens’ side. One of his collective, or the Arcists? There were hundreds of people there, how many of them knew we were coming?”

“Why would they?” Tay gave up trying to cut the rope, all she was doing was tiring herself out. “You’ve always wanted to work for my uncle.”

The van got very quiet. The metal pinged, and a spring squeaked.

“Did you see him there? At the power plant?” Tay asked.

“No, I told you, I only recognised Ava. If I was working for him then why did they line us up? They were going to shoot us, Tay, both of us.”

“I don’t know, but we have to convince them that we aren’t working for the Martyrs or the Apostles.” Tay thought she heard something on the other side of the panel. “Shit, someone’s coming.”

“What time is it?” Sona asked from somewhere nearby.

Tay tensed and raised her head, trying to triangulate where the voice was coming from.

“Just gone four,” Keir replied.

“Almost time.”

“Who’s there?” Osiris rasped.

“Let us out,” Tay shouted angrily.

“Are you sure you don’t want to continue your conversation?” Sona said.

“I’m going to hurt you when I get free,” Tay shouted before breaking into a coughing fit.

“Get the hood off her before she throws up again,” Sona said.

The van rocked as someone got out. A door slammed, sending a jolt of pain along Tay’s left-hand side. She gritted her teeth, refusing to call out and give them the satisfaction of seeing her suffer.

“They’re going to kill us,” Osiris said.

“They will if we don’t do something,” Tay gasped. “Can you get up?”

“There’s no point, it’s over Tay.”

Tay struggled to get onto her knees but toppled over. Osiris yelped and tried to push Tay off but before she could a door opened, and Tay was pulled out by the leg.

“Tay!” Osiris shouted.

“I’ll be back, Oz.”

Tay slipped from the van and onto the ground, banging her head. Strong hands lifted her up, and she had to scramble to get her feet under her.

“Don’t do this. It’s a mistake,” Tay said. “You heard us talking. Neither of us knew what was happening.”

Tay was taken a short way from the van and made to sit on a cold concrete slab. The hood was ripped away, and Tay sucked in the frigid night air. She was in a crumbling factory, a damaged roof letting a star-filled sky peek in. Partially demolished walls with iron rods jutting out at twisted angles and mounds of debris littered the site, creating a confusing landscape lit by the orange light of a tripod-mounted work lamp.

Sona stepped in front of Tay and crossed her arms, her unblinking gaze firmly on Tay. Keir took a spot behind and clamped a meaty hand on Tay’s shoulder, pushing her down into her seat.

“Don’t do this. You know we’re innocent,” Tay said.

Sona tapped a gun against her arm.

“Erik Garson,” Sona said and spat in the dust, the name alone leaving a bad taste in her mouth.

“He’s my uncle, it’s true,” Tay said. “But I don’t talk to him. It’s not like I go round his for dinner. He was never part of my life. My father hated him and didn’t want us anywhere near him.”

“Can he be trusted?”

“Have you been listening to me?” Tay said. She glanced over her shoulder at Keir. “Would you trust a murderer?”

“Like you?” Keir answered.

“I’ve killed no one,” Tay said angrily.

“You admitted to killing a man last night,” Sona said.

“That’s not the same thing. That was an accident.”

“Can I trust what you say?” Sona asked.

“I’ve got no reason to lie to you.”

“Your life?” Keir said.

“Ask me a question then,” Tay said. “My uncle, is he trustworthy? No, not at all, you don’t become a Martyr for being honourable, you get elevated to the nine for being among the worst in the sector.”

“Do you work for him?” Sona asked. Tay shook her head emphatically. “Have you ever worked for him?”

Tay took a moment to think.

“Preparing a lie?” Keir asked.

“No, it’s not a straightforward question,” Tay said, twisting to answer the big man. The orange light was behind him, casting his bulk into shadow. “He’s a Martyr. The nine are involved in every criminal enterprise in the sector. I may have worked for him without knowing it.”

“You can be careful with your words when you want to be,” Sona noted with some satisfaction. “Do you think he killed Mara?”

“I don’t think he knew who she was. He wouldn’t have known her name. She was just someone in his way.”

“I wonder if you have the strength to take revenge,” Sona said.

“This one?” Keir said, jabbing a finger into Tay’s shoulder. “She’s too weak and selfish to take such action.”

“I cared about her,” Tay said.

Keir gripped Tay’s arm and pushed the sleeve of her jacket up, revealing the snake tattoo. Tay winced as her bindings pulled tight.

“She bears the mark of the temple. Mara was never in here.” Keir tapped a meaty finger at the side of Tay’s head. “This one feels no love. She’s incapable of it.”

“Keir,” Sona said.

“We should kill her now,” Keir growled, his grip tightening on Tay's wrist.

“Killing this one won’t bring them back,” Sona said. Tay tried to look around at Keir’s bearded face, but he pushed her over and strode away. Tay slipped from the seat to land on the cracked concrete, where she lay, arms bound behind her, face in the dust, until Sona crouched in front of her.

“We were a family,” Sona said and tapped the barrel of her gun on the back of Tay’s head. “We looked after one another. Each one of us would have given our lives for the group. It wasn’t hate that drove us on, that made us stand up to the government, but love for each other. Mara loved us, and Keir loved her. Can you understand that?”

Sona lent close, Tay tried to turn away, but Sona took hold of her face, gently but firmly turning her so that she could look directly into Tay's eyes.

“Do you understand family or are you so broken that it has no meaning?”

“I’m not broken,” Tay spat.

“But you are, Tay. The question is are you beyond repair.” Sona gripped the back of Tay’s head, digging her fingers into the deep pile of tangled hair. “Mara talked to me about you. Told Johansson about your life together long before you vanished. You left a mark there.”

“Mara, why?”

“You can’t imagine that someone would miss you? That your absence could leave such a hole that a person would feel empty?” Sona helped Tay to sit up, propping her against the slab. “She wanted us to reach out to you. To invite you into the fold, but we never found the right time.”

Tay couldn’t think clearly. The dust was aggravating her eyes, and she tried to rub her face on her shoulder, but the bindings limited her movement.

“I don’t get it,” Tay said. Now that Sona was leaning in close, she could see gold flecks in her irises.

“Maybe because you know what it’s like in the gutter. Most of us have been there. It takes strength to pull yourself out of it, to stand up for yourself and others. Mara managed it.”

“She was stronger than me.”

“She was,” Sona conceded.

“Are you going to shoot me now?”

“Is that what you want? Are you done with this life?”

“I wasn’t very good at it.” Tay tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a croak.

“You could join us.”

“You and the bearded guy?” Tay twisted to look at him. He was standing with his arms at his side, side profile to the light. “You can do better than me.”

“You’d rather die than serve your sector?” Sona asked. “There are people out there fighting for their rights. Standing up to the DPR and taking back control. Help them and I promise you will find a purpose.”

“Why should I?” Anger flooded Tay with such force that she felt her skin flush hot. She bared her teeth at Sona. “What the hell has the sector ever done for me? You know what I’ll fight for? My corner of it and that’s it. The rest can fucking burn.” Tay kicked out at Sona, but the small woman easily stepped back, her surprise turning to pity. “You know what I’m going to do when I get free?”

Sona watched quietly as Tay struggled to her knees.

“I’m going to destroy it before it gets me like it did her. You want to kill a government, how about the entire fucking sector? I’ll tear the buildings down around you; I’ll smash the wall and flood it all. You’ll drown before me, and I’ll be the last one standing. Purpose? You don’t know the fucking meaning of it.”

Tay lunged at Sona. She knew it was a useless attempt, but the anger had control. With her hands bound and leg still with a hole in it, she never stood a chance. Sona tripped her easily and sent her sprawling in the gravel, face first.

“I thought your temple taught that life was just a dream,” Sona spoke with a calmness that only fed Tay’s anger. “Destroy the peripherals and the walls of reality will crumble away. Is that your plan? Destroy it all and set us free?”

“I’ll start with you if you like.” Tay struggled to get up, the weakness in her left leg making every movement feel impossible, but she managed it and got to her feet.

“Sona,” Keir said from where he had been watching a short distance away. “Why are you playing with her? You can see that her mind has snapped. We should kill her and put her out of her misery.”

“Yeah, let’s do that.” Tay turned her head, offering her temple. “It’s just a dream after all?”

“No,” Sona said, tapping the gun against her thigh and giving Tay a thoughtful look. “I want to know if this anger is real. Is this hatred a part of her, a seed planted when she was a child, or can it be extinguished?”

“Oh, it’s me.” Tay grinned manically. “People have been pushing me around, shitting on me my entire life, and now you want me to help them? Ha!”

“Is it the loss of someone you loved?” Sona asked. “Has it driven you to anger?”

“I never loved her! We used to get high together and rob people. You want to know why she joined you and became a teacher? Not because she cared, but because she couldn’t handle the guilt. She was gutter trash like me. She lied to you, and you fucking bought it.”

Keir was moving quickly towards her, his fist raised, but it was Sona that struck her. Punching her in the chest and driving her to the ground before straddling Tay and putting the gun to her temple.

“Should I end it? Would that make you happy?” Sona whispered. Keir loomed over them both. The orange light illuminating his wrathful bearded face.

“That’s what I’ve been asking you to do,” Tay said but the anger fled as quickly as it had come, leaving her feeling empty, and the tears began to flow. “It’s all a lie. There are no snakes. I dreamt of her. She wouldn’t leave me alone, even in my sleep, but I couldn’t go back. I was killing her. She was beautiful, and I was killing her.”

A big hand gently took Sona’s shoulder, and she pulled the gun away.

“They’re here,” Keir said.

Sona leaned close, her lips brushing Tay's ear. “She wanted you to fight alongside her.”

Keir helped Sona up, their eyes connecting, something unspoken passed between them, then Keir reached down and carefully pulled Tay to her feet. He turned her around and freed her hands.

“What’s happening?” Tay asked as she rubbed her wrists. “Why aren’t you finishing the job?”

Keir placed a hand on her back and sat her down on the slab.

“Sit here and keep quiet. If you can manage that,” Keir said.

Sona opened the van’s side door and jumped in. She brought Osiris to the edge and then jumped out before helping Osiris to stand up.

“Tay?” Osiris called out tentatively, the hood swinging back and forth. Keir gestured for Tay to stay quiet before taking Osiris from Sona and sitting her down next to Tay.

“Oz, it’s okay,” Tay whispered.

Osiris turned her head frantically, and Tay wrapped an arm around her.

“Tay! What’s happening? I heard you fighting them. Are they going to kill us?”

“Keep her quiet,” Keir commanded. Sona returned from the van and handed him a stubby machine gun. He made sure it was ready to go and then took up a position behind Tay and Osiris.

“After all that?” Tay said. She was too tired to beg or cry. “What was the point?”

“It’s not for you,” Sona said, stepping to the side and double-checking her own weapon.

Headlights flooded the factory as a red van drove inside and parked across from them. A black car came to a stop by the entrance and turned its high beams on.

“Bastards,” Keir said and raised his gun. Gravel crunched under his feet as he shifted position.

“They’re not here for trouble, Keir,” Sona said. “This will only turn violent if we allow it.”

“Maybe I want it to.”

The van doors opened, and two men jumped out, both with guns in hand.

“Who the hell is that?” Tay asked. “Have you sold us to the militia?”

“I can’t see, Tay,” Osiris said.

“I told you to keep quiet,” Keir said. He brought the hood out and slipped it over Tay's head. She raised her hands, pushing it away, but Keir prodded her in the back with his gun. “Stay still or I will shoot you. We can’t have you screwing this up.”

Tay held on to Osiris and strained to hear what was going on.

“You fight even with the gun to your head, I like that,” Keir said from behind them. “Most are like your friend; cows being led to the slaughter.”

Doors slammed, and Tay could hear muted conversations over the rumble of engines.

“The small one first,” Sona said.

“No, I’m not going,” Osiris said and grabbed hold of Tay. “Tay, do something.”

“Keir, pull them apart. We haven’t got time for this.”

“It’s okay, Oz, just go with them,” Tay said, reluctantly letting go as they pulled Osiris from her grasp and dragged her away. She wanted to raise the hood and see who they were being handed over to but didn’t want to test the big man’s patience.

“Thank the gods,” Sona said at the same time a shadow passed in front of Tay.

“The greed of man is why we are alive,” a man said in a voice vaguely familiar to Tay.

“What’s happening? Who have you sold us to?” Tay said, twisting around. She grabbed the hood and tore it from her head, unable to stand the darkness. “Stop fucking around and get...”

Tay’s mouth hung open when she saw Johansson standing in front of her, the commander of the Arcists risen from the dead. Apart from a few bruises, he looked no worse the wear for his time in the grave.

“You’re free,” Johansson said. “It is up to you what you do with that knowledge.”

“Go on.” Keir gripped the back of her arm and lifted her up. Tay wobbled on her leg; the bullet wound on fire.

“Where?” Tay asked and looked across to where Sona was helping an injured woman into a van. There were more people already inside, shuffling along and sitting down. Across the factory Osiris was being lifted into the back of the red van, the hood still on her head.

A car door slammed and, for a fleeting moment, Tay saw the ghost of her father, at least how she imagined he would have looked if he had lived long enough to see her a prisoner of the Arcists. Her uncle gave her a disappointed look and then thrust his hands into the deep pockets of his greatcoat.

“They didn’t kill you?” Tay said, staring at Johansson in disbelief. “Mara, is she?”

“Tay!” She glanced over to see her uncle waving for her to join him.

Johansson shook his head sadly. “Not all soldiers survive.”

“She was a teacher,” Tay said.

Keir pushed Tay gently in the back. “Start walking.”

“I don’t work for him,” Tay said to Keir.

“That’s between you and him.”

“I’ll be seeing you again,” Sona said as Tay passed her. “Try not to die before then.”

Tay felt a wave of confused anger towards the woman. She wanted to hate her but couldn’t bring herself to.

“Tay, hurry up,” Erik Garson said, opening the rear door of the car. Osiris, still hooded, made to stand up in the van, but the door slammed shut and she was hidden from sight.

“Where are you taking her?” Tay asked her uncle, watching the van as it backed out of the factory.

“She will be safe. I don’t trust the Arcists not to try to kill you, either of you.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Get in.” Erik gestured to the back seat. A tall young man held the door open. “I will explain on the way.”

“I don’t...” Tay watched the van containing the remaining Arcist members as it swung around and drew level with them. Sona was in the driving seat, but she didn’t look over. Then they were gone, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake, and she was left alone with the man responsible for Mara’s death.

“Get in the car.”

Tay did as she was told. Erik walked around the back of the car to get in the other side. He straightened his coat, before pulling a gun from a deep pocket and stuffing it in the back of the seat in front of him.

“Let’s go, Michael.”

The driver nodded in the mirror.

“Are you hurt, Tay?” Erik asked.

“No,” Tay said in a small voice. “Thirsty, I guess.”

The driver reached back with a bottle in his hand. Tay gave a mumbled thanks as she took it.

“I want you to work for me.”

Tay held the bottle on her lap, a finger running over the ridges and stared out the window, unable to look in his direction.

“After what you did?”

“What did I do?” Erik asked, turning in his seat to look at her. “Tell me what I did?”

“You killed a friend of mine.” Tay couldn’t get past just how much he reminded her of her father. It felt like talking to a ghost, and she had to fight back the things she really wanted to say.

“When?”

“When you attacked the Arcists.”

“He was an Arcist?” Tay didn’t correct him. “Then he was a soldier and knew the risk. I ordered as many of them saved as possible, but they fought back. It had to look real. The government had to believe that we had executed our contract.”

“How much did you get paid to kill them?”

“Enough to feed my family and those of the people that work for me. You won’t make me feel guilty, Tay. I do what I must to stay alive. This sector is a dangerous place as I’m sure your friend understood. And Tay, now that it’s about to become more dangerous, I want you back in the arms of your family.”

“I don’t have a family.”

“You do and if I had done what my wife suggested then you would have grown up with ours, but I was weak and I allowed that damned priestess to send me away.”

“You tried to take me, when?” Tay studied his face for a hint of the lie. If someone had truly offered to take her, then her mother would have let her go in an instant. She had no interest in a child even before her father had died.

“After my brother passed. You were alone in that cult. My wife ordered me to go to your mother and take you from her, but she wouldn’t give you up.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s not too late, Tay. You have cousins that you’ve never met, but I have told them about you, and they are eager to meet you.”

“I’d like that,” Tay said hesitantly. Her brain was working overtime. She suppressed the urge to open the door and dive out. For once in her life, she was trying to think ahead, to find a path through rather than just reacting.

“And you will.”

“Does Osiris work for you?”

“No,” her uncle said with a finality that convinced Tay. “She has tried to approach me, but I always tell her not without you. If you say yes, then you can both join my family.”

“Yes.” Tay didn’t know why she said it, regretted it straight away, but the smile on her uncle’s face stopped her from taking it back.

“Really? Tay, that’s fantastic.” Erik slapped the seat in front of him. The driver glanced in the mirror and shared a smile with Erik. “You will be a Street Apostle.”

“I killed one of them though, won’t they object?” Tay’s mind was reeling. She had no intention of joining the Apostles but desperately needed time to think.

“Leave that to me.” He seemed to sober up, his tone becoming more serious. “I need you to lie low until next week. Things are going to happen, and I would have you out of harm’s way.”

“What things?”

“Anarchy.” Erik smiled. “The streets will run with blood, but it will be short-lived. Stay out of sight and you will be okay.”

“What about that woman, won’t she come after us?”

“Sona? She’ll be too busy in the coming days.”

“I don’t get why you didn’t kill them. Why did you do it if you didn’t want them dead?”

They were driving towards the centre of the sector. The streets were quieter than usual as people stayed out of the militia’s way.

“The government pays the Martyrs to do the jobs that they aren’t equipped to do. This was one of them, but we decided that it was time we put the government in its place, so we made an agreement with Johansson. We’ll help him and he gets his shot at toppling the government.”

“Seriously? They haven’t got a chance.”

“The Arcists are highly motivated. Over the course of their struggle, they have acquired a skill set and level of confidence that I respect. They will strike and decapitate the party.”

“Then what?”

“Then the party will rip itself apart and we will stand back and watch. You see now why you need to stay off the streets? Are you still at the Longsal?”

“How do you know where I live?”

“Of course, I know. I have dealings with the arse that owns it.”

“Nori?” Tay asked.

“No. You will learn the truth of who runs the sector, but for now, you are to stay out of sight. Michael, take us to the Longsal.”

The driver nodded in the mirror.

“I don’t live there anymore,” Tay said, “but I have somewhere I can go.”

Erik reached inside his jacket and pulled out a roll of money. He handed it over without looking. “Get a hotel room. Pay upfront for the week and stay in your room. I have somewhere lined up for Osiris, but I need you two separated, so don’t contact her.”

“Why not?”

“Just do it, Tay,” Erik said sharply. “Eat room service and watch TV, just stay in your room. If there are any problems, contact Michael.”

“Who’s Michael?”

The driver passed a card back to Tay. “I am Michael. Call me if you need anything. The number is on the gov network, so call it from anywhere.”

“Okay.” Tay took the card and shoved it into a pocket.

“Are you still using, Tay?” Erik asked.

“No.”

Erik twisted around and stared at her, searching her eyes for any sign of the rot.

“It’s not a problem,” Tay said.

“It is now. I don’t want addicts in my crew. If you can’t kick it then I will have someone help you.”

Tay could only imagine what that meant.

“I have big plans for you, Tay. My brother’s daughter finally working for me. Your aunt will be pleased.”

Tay thought she should ask something, take advantage of the opportunity, but her mind was blank.

“You’re tired. Call Michael in the morning and he will put you in contact with me. I have a busy few days, but your aunt will love to talk.”

Tay stared out of the window as Michael drove them towards the centre of the sector. Erik ordered him to pull up in front of a hotel entrance.

“Remember, pay for the week. You don’t want to be messing around. If there is any trouble, call Michael.”

“Okay.” Tay wanted to run but slowed herself down. She tried the handle, but the door was locked.

“I’m sorry you got caught up in the colony nonsense, Tay. I didn’t want it to happen this way, but now it has we have to make the most of it. Your life needs meaning and purpose, and the Street Apostles will do that. Now go.”

The door unlocked, and Tay opened the door.

“And get a haircut. I can’t have my niece looking like street trash.”

Tay slammed the door and waited for the car to pull away, but it quickly became apparent that they weren’t leaving until she was in the hotel. She turned and hobbled towards the entrance, a gold plaque to the side pronouncing it the Regal Hotel. The door slid open, and Tay entered the lobby. She glanced back as the car pulled away.

“Welcome to the Regal,” the receptionist said in a singsong voice.

Tay shook her head and went back out onto the street. The car was gone, and she stood for a moment, just trying to calm herself. She took the red cap from her jacket pocket, wedged it over her hair and started walking, worried that if she stood still too long, something bad would happen to her. Her hands started shaking, so she jammed them into her pockets.


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