State of Flux
Chapter One: A City in the Dark
(Sixteen years later)
Tues 21st Jan. 3:35AM
Consciousness comes hand in hand with a throbbing headache. There is nothing but the ache until her foot twitches, spreading a shock of recognition up her leg, reminding her of her limbs and body. The floor beneath her is hard and cold, unforgiving to stiff bones. She rises to her palms with a cough. Her hands are still slightly greasy from the oil she’d rubbed under her gloves to stop any paint from sticking. The last thing she remembers is being on Piradell Bridge, and somehow she’s here… Still groggy, she tries to take stock of her surroundings. Concrete walls and ceiling, not high enough for her to stand… the bars in place of a fourth wall or door make it ominously clear this isn’t a room. It’s a cage.
Within a few minutes she’s lucid enough to sit up and try to see what is beyond the bars, though her abdomen is beginning to tighten and ache in a way that doesn’t bode well, like the black clouds of a coming storm pulling together.
This place reeks. She knows there are animals here before she sees any, the smell of their urine and dung is cloying. Scuffles and utterances of various species are the only sounds she hears.
Her throat feels rough. It dawns on her that they must have drugged her. She doesn’t know what with, it could have been anything. She doesn’t remember it happening. And then she wonders who “they” are. She hears a door open somewhere to her left, and a squeaking cart is wheeled in by a woman wearing a dust mask and latex gloves, just like the ones she wore herself for bombing. The woman probably isn’t wearing them to stop spray paint getting on her hands.
Trinai is about to try and get her attention, tell her there’s been some mistake, ask for painkillers, because the ache between her lower back and navel is flexing in preparation for a main event. She had planned to be back safely in bed and ready with pills by the time the spasms were this bad. Before she can get a word out, another worker speaks.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he says through his mask, leaning in to the cart.
“What is it?”
“They didn’t neuter them before shipping, again.” He pulls out something pink and fleshy with one gloved hand and sighs. It writhes and squeals; a piglet, small with downy hair on its snout and rump. “How are we meant to do the tests on this?” he continues in exasperation, holding the piglet up by one of its back legs. “You’d think they could’ve done that one thing, it’s not like we ask for them tagged either.”
“We’ll tell Casey to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Trinai is barely breathing as she watches the woman bring an empty cart over to the one with the piglets. She watches silently, with a sick vertigo in her stomach, as the man scores some quick incisions into the piglet’s backside, and she flinches as he pulls off a wad of flesh. The animal screeches, leaving a bloody tendon string hanging down it’s back legs. He throws it, wriggling and howling, casually into the empty trolley, and both of them set to work on the rest.
Trinai’s voice is locked somewhere below her throat, and although there’s a screaming in her chest, all that emerges is a series of horrified whimpers as she watches them repeat the procedure on piglet after piglet. She wants to change the channel, switch it off, but there’s nowhere to escape; even when she sits on her haunches, back against the wall. Feeling her throat thick and empty of words, swaying back and forth head in hands. There are just the squeals, and the other cages whimpering or howling too, infected with distress. The workers ignore the hysteria like it’s white noise. They have a job to do.
She feels herself become a dull whisper in the presence of unrelenting cold white noise. As powerful aches and cramps begin to descend on her, she is no longer sure if she hates the castrators or if she is one of them. She can’t feel her own anger anymore, just a blur of techniques and necessary blood and the nearly empty cart. She wants the cart to empty, she wants the job done, does it matter why? She no longer sees faces but parts, parts to be fixed, a stack of work to get through. Is this numbness a poison or a cure for naivety? Her fingers twitch with movements she is not sure she has ever performed. Is she behind the bars or are the bars behind her? She is almost relieved, though the meaning of the word is indistinct, when the cramps swell like a crippling wave and all she can do is clutch her hair and whimper on the floor. It’s as though invisible hands have taken hold of either end of a knotted rope buried inside her and started to pull, until she can feel her whole body tense and straining. To be delirious with pain almost is to be free. To be filled to the very brim with nothing but agony, every second is charged with one simple thought, “let it be over.”
The waves sweep over her, crescendo and dim, but it’s not even her: she is no one thing anymore, she is nothing but pain. Her insides are tearing themselves apart, ears are so full of noise nothing can be heard. This wave crests and there is an almost-lull, hands close to the surface of lucidity before being dragged under the depths once more.
When the waves begin to shallow out she wipes her face of cold sweat or tears, and reclaims a sliver of her mind, clinging to prospect of the storm nearing its end. Her hands are weak and shaking from the tight grip she hadn’t noticed. Her eyebrows slip up and float off into the sky with relief, leaving a cool, grateful, calm on her forehead. When she has been abandoned, weak and wet on the shore, consciousness crawls back into her head. It’s only then she remembers the spectacle from which her delirium had saved her. With effort she pushes her head off the floor to look around.
The carts are gone. It’s over for now.
When she has lain regaining breath, and the thinnest shards of reason, she checks her pockets. Nothing. They must have emptied them when they put her in here. Of course her bag, which would provide everything she needs to clean herself up, is gone.
She sits with knees clutched to chest, unable to get comfortable, feeling herself bleed through her clothes. The cramps continue, becoming shorter and weaker, growing too feeble to overpower her line of thought.
Even so she’s grateful to only be dirty and sore, instead of having to witness more processing.
The floor is too cold and hard for any sleep.
Some time later, she can’t be sure how long, there is a click outside the cage door. It swings open, and two masked people appear in the doorway, though she can’t tell if it is the same two she saw earlier.
“We’re ready for you now.”
(Two hours earlier)
Tuesday 21st Jan. 1:21AM
It’s a good night for running. She shoots out of one end of a dark alley at an extraordinary pace, with four black suits in pursuit. She hasn’t looked at them properly, only swift glances, so she doesn’t notice they have no badges, no checkered ties or NAPD issue helmets. She focuses her attention on her breathing, working to achieve a rhythm. Adrenaline thumps in her veins as her feet pound a steady beat on the pavement, then road, then pavement. This prey isn’t going to get caught. Not tonight.
She heads for Piradell Bridge. Despite the news claims that the AVE squads are trained to “keep up with” graffiti artists, there’s no way they’ll catch her if she makes it over Piradell Bridge and into the Industrial District: the place is a maze and Trinai knows it better than any of them. Her lungs are beginning to burn. This isn’t a marathon, it’s a push-yourself-through-lactic-acid-to-get-strands-of-your-hair-out-of-their-reach kind of sprint, and it can’t be maintained for any great length of time. They are gaining, but she’s so close to the bridge now, she pumps her last breaths for every metre they’ll give her.
The door to the bridge opens like an iris as she approaches and she lets it swallow her. The floor is thinly carpeted and through the glass ceiling, domed aquarium-like over her head, she can see the night is deep and dark. The water below like inky black glass, as though you might be just as likely to fall through its depths forever as to bounce right off the surface. Low stainless steel bumpers run alongside her, high enough to sit on during the day. She’s more than halfway across the river before she hears the iris spiral open for her pursuers. She’s going to make it.
And then, with perfect timing, the street lamps ahead that are dotted through the Industrial District flicker in unison.
A few seconds after that, the strip lighting in the bridge gutter dies behind her, bar after bar, a darkness that chases her, overtakes her.
All the lights on the other side of the river are extinguished block by block. When Trinai hits the other side of the bridge, the door is locked shut through she bangs her fists on it, till the heels of her palms are blue and bruised. There’s no power to open it. She slumps against the metal, eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, and waits for hell to reach her.
(Forty minutes earlier)
Tues 21st Jan. 00:39AM
Her breath is a silver cloud in the cold black air. Cold this bitter makes unseen things visible to the naked eye; breath, hot air venting from pipes and fans. Like those lemon juice invisible inks, but written in air.
She loops the respirator strap around her head and starts to paint. The rubbery smell and the feel of it around her face act like a switch, placing her instantly in graffiti mode.
Now that she’s up here, it isn’t as bad as she thought it’d be. The glass isn’t as slippy as it looks from the ground, and the paint is coming easily from her can, going into all the right shapes. She has practised this design twenty times, and holds the laminated reference in her other hand. This is a memorial, the anniversary of a black day for graffiti: the day Flux disappeared.
And so here she is, standing above the plaza, level with the blue street lamps, on the glass porch roof of the central art gallery, trying not to look down at the unnerving nothingness below her feet, painting on a glass wall. It’s just one word.
“Remember.” Sketched in iridescent purple, a silver border sliding like mercury around it.
She loses herself in the intricacies of block fills, cutbacks, outlines and highlights, so she doesn’t notice in the beginning. She’s too absorbed in her work, which isn’t safe in a place like this, at a time like this.
And then she catches movement in her peripheral vision; dark figures surrounding the building. They do nothing, ominous sentinels standing below her, hiking up her heart rate. In fact they politely let her finish the piece, because she’ll have to come down eventually won’t she? Can’t stay up there forever. Like waiting at the mouth of a foxhole.
She takes her time finishing up, wracking her mind for a plan. Eventually she caps and packs all her cans except one, pulls the vacuum cord on her bag and yanks up her hood. She doesn’t pack away her respirator – it’s better they don’t see her face if they haven’t already.
Now is the real test.
She creeps around the edges of the roof, assessing her options. They are beginning to inch closer, sensing a change. Panic is beginning to set in. Flux would never have let herself get ambushed like this. The way she came is blocked now, every possible escape route manned. Trinai isn’t much of a gymnast, not like Flux was. She’d gotten up here slowly, by sheer concentration.
She has no choice. She’ll have to risk it one way or another.
She chooses her path, careful not to linger near it so they can’t predict her movements.
Without warning, after screwing up the courage, she rushes to the edge, and throws herself onto a gutter pipe and slides down it. She clamps a can of paint against her chest with one hand and scrapes the other on each bracket on the way down. She sprays the one waiting below in the face, on his visor, blinding him. She kicks him as hard as she can in the stomach for good measure, and begins a full pelt run away from her piece, the building, and the AVE who never should have found her.
(Thirteen minutes later)
Tuesday 21st Jan 1:34 am
As soon as he shuts the front door behind him, muffling the noise and chatter of Flashrat’s party, he wonders if what he’s doing is completely idiotic. Rubbing his hands in the cold, he pulls his hat from a back pocket and tugs the flaps over his ears. Down the street to his left, the Bazaar, which is at least partially open 24 hours a day, looks dark and strange. He can hear people’s voices, arguing, trying to find torches and lamps, vendors yelling after thieves who’ve taken advantage of the dark and brief confusion. He starts walking in the other direction, towards a line of street lamps which are still lit in the distance, ones that must have emergency backups.
He takes out his Link and picks a song, something soft and mellow, appropriate to the hour. He walks with his hands in his pockets, nose slowly numbing in the cold (at least his ears aren’t) and trying to figure out what the hell he’s going to say when he shows up at Trinai’s place past one in the morning, in the middle of a blackout. Just felt like seeing you? Maybe he should go back. No, Jill showed up at Im’s house that time in the first season of Im’s Run and they’d only known each other for half an hour or something. And Trinai isn’t like the rest of his friends. She’d never be embarrassed to show up at his place in the middle of the night and explain Oh I was just having such a crappy time with the people I was with that I thought I should fuck off and find someone to be around that I actually like, seeing as this is a blackout and crazy things happen in everyday emergencies like blackouts, and the normal rules don’t apply.
He reaches her street, and his legs slow their pace involuntarily. He scans for the black door he remembers, but can’t find one that fits his memory. That’s ‘cause this is the wrong street, doofus. Must be the next one. He’s just quickened his step again when one of the doors on the other side of the street creaks open, and a man emerges. “Hey!” He calls across the street, “Hey, you haven’t got matches or a lighter do you?”
“Uhh, no, sorry!” Jeddah yells back, without slowing down. Stopping to chat with complete strangers in the middle of the night, probably not such a great idea. He’s almost at the corner to her street.
This time when he rounds it, he recognises her door immediately, and feels a pang of relief that he isn’t lost out here so late. His heart starts thumping unhelpfully loud as he gets closer, and by the time he’s close enough to buzz her, his legs feel all fizzy with adrenaline. Just ring the bell. The longer you stand out here the weirder it’s going to look.
He presses the cold metal button for her flat, and watches as the light switches from “Make call” to “Please wait.” He leans his head in close to the speaker, in case it’s one of those quiet ones, even though there’s no traffic noise to drown it out. After ten seconds of nothing, the light switches back to “Make call.” He pushes it again, and waits again, but still there’s nothing. He sits down on the concrete wall by the steps, trying to figure out if she can see down here from her window. Probably not. But most systems have a camera anyway. This isn’t working out like Im’s Run at all. He tries to conjure a clear memory of her face, but only an ethereal blur comes. The more he has tried to remember her over the last few days, the harder it gets, as though he only has a finite number of tries and he’s used them up too quickly. Black and purple hair, that he remembers, but he can’t quite dredge up the exact cut, and her eyes were almost black, but the shape of her nose dances just out of reach.
He stands up again, before the cold starts to filter through his jeans, and rings the buzzer one last time. He supposes he can’t blame her for not wanting to see him. Maybe he was too pushy. The light flicks back to “Make call.”
He sighs, and starts the longer, colder, walk home.
(Ten minutes later)
Tues 21st Jan. 1:40AM
She couldn’t sleep. That, and the restlessness of her legs is why she has wandered into a 24 hour department store in the middle of the night. As she presses the button to call the lift, she considers taking a look up in electronics. She’s been thinking of upgrading her second Link, the one she uses for recording notes for The Nightly Arcis. It’s not completely out of the ordinary for her to be out this late anyway. A lot of the articles she prints in The Arcis are about Pride culture, and to get any real insight for most of them, you have to do the whole nocturnal thing.
The silver doors close themselves wearily and the lift begins to ascend, but only a few seconds into the rise, and before she reaches the fourth level, there is a sickening jolt. Helena feels it stop, the fluorescent lights extinguishing themselves into pitch black.
She emits a terrified noise somewhere between a scream and a stutter, and fumbles for her Link in her pocket, as every childhood monster and fear comes rushing back to her, jellifying her legs, pricking up the hairs on her arms. The dark. Even with all her compulsive fears, the dark still unleashes an inescapable, childlike terror.
Unlocked, her Link casts a blueish glow, and she drags the brightness bar up to full.
A power cut? Lift malfunction? The blue light does little to comfort her.
She usually hates being in lifts with people; trapped in a human humid metal can, germs from coughs, sneezes, sniffs, swirling in the air like coils of steam from a pan. But right now she’d give anything to have someone in here with her. Strangers offer little comfort, and Helena never made friends easily, or for the past five years, at all, but bonds can be made in exceptional circumstances can’t they? Anything would be better than this, in the pitch cold with nothing and no one but her fear. Panic claws at her bones.
The lighted numbers above the door have disappeared. No man’s land. Limbo.
An emergency message flickers dimly into life on the lift’s screen. It tells her it’s in backup mode. She touches the phone icon – that must mean telecom right? It crackles, so she tentatively speaks into it.
“Hello? Is anyone there? I’m in one of the lifts -”
Before she can finish, the screen reverts briefly back to the emergency message and then switches off entirely. Stupid fucking thing. How helpful, an emergency mode just as susceptible to fault as the regular one. Banging on the screen doesn’t do anything, but it makes her feel a little better.
She begins to scan her Link contacts list, hoping to find someone to help get her out of here, or, failing that, someone to speak to who’ll distract her from the dark. Ordinarily she’d call Scritch, but today is his darkest day of the year, his melancholy anniversary, and she’d never dare bother him until it’s passed. After all it’s not as though she’s actually in any danger. If the rest of the city, or even just the rest of the district, is blacked out too, everyone will have bigger problems. What’s she meant to say, anyway? I know we haven’t spoken in a couple of years but I’m stuck in a lift and I’m scared of the dark, so could you please talk to me? The numbers in her Link are so old she doesn’t even know if they’re still active. Her fingers flick the screen and the list rolls upwards. And she finds…
Not one person.
Not a single person to call in a crisis, when she is falling apart at the edges. Her mother is seven hours away, old friends are distant, forgotten. All this time she has been content as she is, glad of the solitude, because it makes her safer, and now it betrays her. She scans the list three times. She hovers briefly over Flashrat’s name. He’s the closest thing she has to a friend, not counting Scritch who is more like family, and she doesn’t even know him anymore. In a crippling wave, the magnitude of her aloneness hits her, almost worse than the dark itself, so strong it makes her want to cry, though nothing comes.
It’s better this way, she thinks, but it’s nothing more than a reflex, the same old kneejerk defence. If you’d grown up with Scritch you’d do it too. People destroy each other. They get too close, so when they break apart half their innards are ripped away too. Helena likes her innards as they are, stable, warm and wet. But she’s never thought about what might happen if she needs someone and no one is close enough. The same way you never think about the fire exit route out of your house until the whole place is being eaten by flames.
She slides down the wall to sit on the floor, legs crossed, trying to convince herself that she feels safer grounded this way, like nothing can sneak up on her. She lays her Link, still glowing painfully bright, in the centre of the floor. She knows the battery will die soon, but she can’t bring herself to diminish the light. Somehow the light seems to be affecting the ceiling. She is aware of a fierce cold permeating the lift, and in her peripheral vision she sees the ceiling frozen, encrusted with sharp hanging icicles over her head. But when she flicks her eyes upward, it is gone, and all she sees is the metal panels.
The more she sits waiting, the stronger the feeling gets, until she is shivering in her white overcoat, and it’s no longer only the ceiling, but the walls that are caked in frost as well, creeping in from the edges of the floor towards her.
Before long she can see her breath clouding in the air, and hear the ominous cracking of the ice. How long can she be here? How long before anyone notices? Will anyone notice her missing at all?
Maybe noise will help. Maybe old fashioned yelling will work better than the intercom.
Her voice shatters the silence jarringly, the words are almost a comfort but not quite, at least her own voice is better than the vacuum.
“Can anyone hear me?” she calls, bangs her fists on the wall, but it makes such a shattering noise and burns her hands so viciously with cold that she withdraws them quickly. The metal clang echoes away eerily underneath the snapping of ice. She doesn’t do it again. “I’m stuck in here! Help!” she yells, and then, desperation colouring her voice, “Somebody fucking help me you bastards!” and then in a tiny fragile whisper “…please.”
No noise answers except the hiccups and sobs that begin to emerge.
Sitting in the cold and dark that terrifies her, Helena suddenly wishes with all of her being to be with someone, anyone, even Flashrat is looking like a good option. His germs, his dying lukewarm skin, hair follicle dust, his stale mouth, all that seems welcome in the midst of this penetrating cold. Despite the dirt and risk, she would give anything. She and Flash had been friends once, along with Jeddah and the others. But after they’d all left school, she’d realised she hadn’t missed the drama and the arguments, and it was actually a relief not to be crammed in the middle of a human germ factory, trying to pretend it didn’t bother her. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but slowly she had drifted away from them all until she found herself floating on a chunk of ice with nothing but the empty horizon in view, too far away for anyone to hear her call for help.
She cries until she’s spent, and her few tears freeze on her cheeks and sting too much to pick off.
She can’t calculate how long she’s been sitting, but it feels an age too long. She yells every five minutes or so, but after at least an hour, there is still no tiny sign that anyone has heard her. Same after another hour.
She’s lost all feeling but the dull, pressurised pain of the cold in her hands and feet, her back sore from hunching, backside sore from sitting in the same spot.
It is in this state of utter defeat, that there is miraculously a dull clunk somewhere below her, and the lights suddenly come back on. Blinded, she waits, heart leaping, for the warmth to return too, but the wall mounted lamps have no effect on the temperature. She scrambles up as the lift begins to move again, legs sharp with pins and needles, stiffness making her dumb and clumsy, she jams the ground floor button continuously.
Close to whimpering in relief, if she did that sort of thing, she stuffs her nearly dead Link in her pocket as the doors slide open again. She can hear the buzz of human chatter and gossip, but when they are fully open the heat she has been expecting from the rabble of voices, energy-generating bodies, doesn’t come. The floor is crowded with people all speaking anxiously, and she hears the words “blackout” and “powercut” in various places. Halfway across the floor, with horror she realises under the buzz of voices she still hears a crackle of ice under her feet, a trail of it from her footsteps, melting into the carpet in her wake.
Helena stomps her shoes on the floor, trying vainly to dry them, inducing stares, but the ice follows her in spite of it.
When she sits on the subway home, the snowflake shapes spike and crisscross out slowly from the soles of her boots. The other passengers politely ignore her and she does them, but a little girl openly stares at the cold pattern forming beneath her feet. She arrives home, determined a hot bath is called for, the kind so hot that it usually turns her skin pink with its heat, purifies her through fire. Her place is a studio, a carefully organised space of white and lilac. She dumps her gloves and clothes in the laundry chute and pulls up the sides of the shower floor that form the bath. Fidgeting on the spot in the unbearable cold, she waits for it to fill. But when she dips her foot it stings so terribly she yanks herself away hissing through her teeth.
Toe by toe and inch by inch she bears the pain, clenching her jaw, submersing herself. But when she is finally wholly in the bath, she finds it is no longer hot, that her body has cooled it to lukewarm, and it cools further by the second. Splashing her hands down in anger and launching herself out of the tub, she dries herself roughly with a towel and dresses quickly. Folding up her collar, she picks up a fresh pair of white elbow-high gloves. She hesitates, and then shoves them into her pocket, and ventures outdoors with bare hands for the first time in five years. He sent her his address when he invited her to the party.
She walks at a furious pace, because the white frost is still diligently following her. What if the party is still going on? She pictures a roomful of stares as cold as she feels. When she gets to the door, she closes her eyes and presses the buzzer before she can convince herself it’s a bad idea.
Nothing. There is no icky thump of music, shouts or giggles, which is a good sign.
Repeat, an old ring tone, and then his voice, “Yeah?”
“Helena? You’re… a bit late.”
His voice changes tone, a note of surprise in it, but not unpleasant. As pleasant as Flash’s voice ever manages to be with it’s thick dialect. He sounds astonished that she’s here, and it doesn’t surprise her. This is the first time she has ever turned up.
She is suddenly embarrassed of all those absences.
The buzzer flashes green and when she pushes the door it opens to her.
She climbs the stairs, feeling like spindly thin crystals are breaking and reforming inside her stomach, and he is waiting at the door for her, looking like he still doesn’t quite believe she’s there. Flashrat has been trying to get her to come to his place for two years now. She knows what he thinks about her, but she has always pretended she doesn’t. Flash has soot black hair and would probably be all right looking if he wasn’t always so shabby. He looks a little like Superman if Clark Kent was down on his luck and got a job selling sports merch. His face is stubbled, but not in a sexy, hollywood way: combined with his tufty hair it just sort of makes him look like a drug dealer. He has bold, straight eyebrows and dark eyes and is even handsome, in an unshowy, mundane sort of way. His earphone implants aren’t visible but Helena knows that they’re red when switched on. He normally wears a letterman jacket that’s nearing the end of it’s days, it might have been his brother’s. This is the first time she has ever seen him without it, clad in just a baggy black tshirt and grey joggers instead.
When she reaches the landing he glances at her hands, and seems to understand their nakedness means something has changed.
“You’re not…?” he begins, and tails off lamely. If she puts effort into it she can force herself to see him as she might have done before all this. A few years ago, when they were both clean cut high-schoolers, she might have had a crush on a guy like him. But everything is so complicated now. All she can manage are split seconds of seeing him in that light, before her brain snaps back to listing faults and hazards one by one. Snaps back to seeing every speck of dead skin. She can smell him, mixed in with a tinge of some deodorant or aftershave, that twitch of body odour that makes her recoil. But the ice, the ice is screaming across her skin, piercing and permeating her to the core. It overpowers her revulsion.
His flat is disgusting. Dirty dishes, crumbs, a bin overflowing with empty bottles from the party. It sparks panic in her, the flight instinct, and she wants to get away, but for once, somehow, the need to get rid of this cold is more important. He has noticed the trail that comes from her feet, but says nothing, and she doesn’t mention it.
She doesn’t sit down or make herself comfortable in the living room, even from here she feels him radiating heat. Stale, putrid almost, but still heat.
Tentatively, she holds out her bare, vulnerable, clean hand, and his fingers warm it, without the burning of the water.
“You’re freezing,” he mentions, trying to make it sound casual, clasping both of her hands in his, forming a shell. She can feel the itch already, the strange prickly feeling of hairs raising on her arms, and the uncomfortable crawling in her scalp that reminds her of dirt and lice, but she quells it to feel the warmth spreading through her frozen hands.
She uses up all the dirt and heat of his body, every watt, joule, degree, on his bed, pressing every piece of skin to a warm counterpart, uses him to thaw her insides. Though she can feel the stench of his breath and his sweat, saliva; all the things that disgust her, she places herself under him to rid herself of the frost.
When he has expelled all his heat, and she has let him dispel the cold inch by inch, he lies breathless and damp and she feels the scratch of crumbs on his bedspread, like the princess feels the pea. The hotness now washing through her from her stomach in weakening ripples, she leaves him on the bed. Her body malleable, unfrozen, cured.
But all the feelings, the creeping crawling feelings of mess and disease crowd her head, force her insides to contort, and she throws up into the toilet, leaning her hands on the seat as her body tenses. When finished, her head swims, hot and light, she can almost see the blue residue on her hands, the way they show bacteria in cleaning product adverts, and she washes them vigourously, turning off the tap with a paper towel so that she won’t recontaminate.
He is lying still on the bed when she returns and she is caught in a tug of war between her dual perceptions of him, between beautiful and grotesque. The way his neck becomes collarbone becomes chest, the dark hairs over the curve of his forearms, and all this overlaid with the humid glisten of sour sweat, a breeding ground for bacteria. Did he hear her being sick?
Her own skin crawls with dried sweat too, and though it is good to feel her heart and her hands again, freed from ice, it’s still too much. She can’t bring herself to touch her lips to any part of him anymore. The thought of his salty sweat on her lips, ingested by running her tongue over them…
So she forces herself to grip his hand briefly with her own, a meagre thank you, and says goodbye.
Drowsily, he props himself up on his elbows, murmuring warm words, asking why.
“I just have to go, I’m sorry,” she whispers, gathers her things quickly and lets herself out.
When home she strips off all her clothes and trash chutes them straight away, taking an antibacterial wipe to clean her hands before touching anything else in her apartment.
It’s good to be back, with her things, with everything as she wants.
Still naked, she makes her way up the white modular stairs, running the wipe between all the webbing of her fingers, and up to her elbows.
She drops it in the trash, and passes the wide bookcase that walls her bed off from the rest of the apartment, on her way to the shower.
She doubles her routine, using the scrubbing brush on her skin and extra soap, working her way methodically up from her feet. The ritual usually calms her, but she still can’t shake off the sick feeling that accompanies the heat Flash has given her. It rises in her again, until she drops to her knees retching.
When it’s done, eyes watering, legs weak, blood like vinegar, she sits for a few moments. Then with effort, she drags herself back under the pounding hot water, hair clinging to her skin like it’s painted on.
When she feels strong enough she repeats the procedure, dries herself with a clean towel, puts on a freshly laundered white nightshirt and drops into gloriously pure bedcovers. She couldn’t have stayed longer. Still, she feels wrong. She rarely puts much thought into accommodating Flash’s feelings, he’s always been not much more than a nuisance (or occasionally a what-if), but this feels different. She hadn’t looked back on her way out, but in her head his face is tinged with something like embarrassment or faint distress. A hurt that is all her fault.
Somehow, already, she feels like the heat she gained is dissipating.
(An hour later)
Tues 21st Jan 1:24AM
He has dragged Flashrat into the narrow cupboard they call a kitchen, and has started to empty bags of tortilla chips into a popcorn bowl with a little more vigour than necessary.
“You invited Natine?” he hisses, throwing an empty bag in the bin, which is already half full of bottles.
“I didn’t invite her!” Flashrat insists, getting the last few clean glasses down from a cupboard. “I invited Helena, who invited Chelly but hasn’t turned up herself yet. Chelly brought Natine. Fuck, is that all the cups we’ve got?”
Jeddah points to the sinkful of dirty dishes and water. “It’s your turn.”
He rummages in the fridge for the salsa.
Flashrat takes one look at the sink and starts opening more cupboard doors. “Aha!” he produces a stack of paper cups. “Sorted. Well she just came along, it’s not like I can go out and be like ‘Natine, no-one likes you, go home.’”
Jeddah picks up the bowl of tortillas, “Please. Do. That. It would be amazing.”
The thrum of music is pulsing from the living room, a mish mash of synthesised guitar over tinny percussion. Jeddah pushes his way through to drop the chips and dip on the coffee table, carefully stepping over people cross-legged on the floor. They don’t really have the room for parties of this scale, and as a result there are bodies squished together on every conceivable seat, more standing and smaller clumps hanging around other corners of the flat. Most people here are from Flash’s Pride, half or more-than drunk, arguing about whether Skybikes run better than other makes of racer, or recounting particularly gruesome crashes. Jeddah had been having fun for the first hour or two, but his old railgrinding friends left early, and now he’d quite like to just go to bed. It’s far too loud for any actual sleep though, and his bed is covered in coats.
He’s just about to go and make some excuse to sit outside when the room is suddenly pitch black, and a few voices shriek, or laugh, or go “What the hell?” like it’s a horror movie and something’s about to start snatching people away one by one. The music is still playing, because Flash’s station isn’t plugged in at the wall, and people start pulling out their Links to use as torches.
Jeddah murmurs an apology to someone he trips over on his way to the kitchen, and looks out the window. He can barely see anything, all of the street lamps have been snuffed out like candles, and the weak light of the moon only just illuminates the shapes of buildings.
In the living room he can hear the conversation has returned to Flux, not for the first time that night. Most of the Pride have pictures of the number she pulled on the bombsite where they race, and they seem to have divided roughly into two camps; people like Flashrat who think it is awesome and worship Flux like some sort of superhero, and the majority, who are angry she’d violated Pride courtesy by painting on another Pride’s territory, and are afraid of the sanctions the Mayor might slam on all the Prides to punish Flux.
“If it even IS Flux,” Chelly cuts in, glancing at Flashrat, her face eerily lit from beneath by the Links clustered on the table. “Personally I think she’s dead. It’s been thirty years, it can’t be her. This is just some wacko who wants the fame.”
“Flux WAS just some wacko who wanted the fame,” someone else put in, and there’s a smattering of laughter.
“Either way, it’s us that gets screwed isn’t it? That’s what happened last time Flux was active. All the Prides paid the price for her to mouth off at the mayor and the corps.” Natine catches Jeddah’s eye by accident and hurriedly looks away. He knows she is thinking about his Pride, the railgrinders, and how the park they used as their bombsite has been raided and shut down a few months ago. The Pride disintegrated soon after. The guy who had been speaking, a racer who consistently comes second to Flashrat, continues, “I mean, what did she even do? My parents speak about her like she was a cross between Batman and Mother Theresa, but what did she ever do that was so amazing? She painted some pictures, big woop.”
“The graffiti Pride was just really extreme then,” another racer says, “They all had this big grudge against the corps, even after the famine alliance.”
Jeddah stands in the doorway, half-heartedly hating himself for not having the energy to join the conversation. He’s always been fascinated by the original Prides, and Flux, though before the ReFlux (as some were calling it) all he’d ever heard were rumours about the urban legend.
The longer he listens, the more he feels like an outsider, and when he thinks about Trinai, and how she seemed so utterly unafraid of what people would think of her interests and passions, he feels like a coward. The discussion gets progressively more hateful of the entire graffiti Pride, not that there is one anymore really, and suddenly the idea of sitting in semi-awkward silence with Trinai, with someone that isn’t clashing personalities with him, that isn’t so obviously wrong about everything seems like the best thing in the world. And why not? They’d met in the middle of the night, so she’d probably still be up, and anything would be better than listening to a bunch of idiots saying all political protest is stupid, or worse, not even recognising Flux as doingpolitical protest. He grabs his hat and jacket, shoving the first into his pocket and pulling the second on, tries to say bye to Flash, who is texting with great concentration (probably Helena) and lets the door swing shut behind him, muffling the voices inside to an unintelligible drone.
(2 Hours Earlier)
Tuesday 20th Jan 11:58 pm
Sparring matches have been going on for an hour or two already, and Addison is about to call it quits, and close up the Basement for the night. Until Ankara, the newest addition to the Pride, says to Addison, as casually as if she were offering a cup of coffee, “Hey, want a fight?”
Levi watches from his seat on one of the padded benches that line the Basement walls, as the rabble of conversation surrounding the last two fighters grinds to a halt, and eyes turn to Addison to hear her reply. Addison hasn’t had a match with anyone in a good while, some of the newer members have never even seen her do anything more than basic training. She can’t say yes. He knows this, because he was there when she came home after work yesterday with a torn-up ankle, her foot had slipped off the pedal of her bike on the journey and rammed into the chain. She’s hidden her limp pretty well for most of the night, but she hasn’t put any strain on it either. She’s in no condition to fight. He can still hear the ragged breath of the last match’s fighters, the smell of sweat hanging in the air, as Addison flicks her eyes up and down Ankara for a split second and Levi knows before she says it, because she has that steely look in her eye, like she’s thinking ‘this is myPride, and you’re not going to lead them.’
“Get your gloves.” The Pride whoops and claps, eager to see their top gun in action, and they start to reassemble the walls of the ring they’d already started to break down for the night.
Addison walks to Levi, he passes her one of her hand wraps, and she starts winding it around her fingers and wrist with a practised motion. “You haven’t had a match tonight,” she says to him, “you’re usually first to sign up.”
Addison has thick auburn hair, and very dark eyebrows and eyelashes. Levi has been with her what feels like forever, and sometimes he can still pull himself out into objectivity when he looks at her. Rare glimpses of the outside. Her eyes are almond shaped, almost catlike,and she has some freckles on her nose and shoulders, which show next to the straps of her training vest.
“You know that top guns don’t have to compete with challengers when injured,” he replies, deliberately not moving to hand her her gloves. “Don’t do this.”
“Keep your voice down,” she hisses, and throws a glance over her shoulder at Ankara, who is also wrapping her hands on the other side of the Basement. “Anka is good but she’s overconfident. Rash. She doesn’t have what it takes to be top gun, not yet.” She finishes her other hand and presses down the velcro to secure it.
“And she won’t get to be top gun if you don’t accept this match.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Levi can hear someone taking bets and pulling made-up odds from nowhere. The Pride are loyal to Addison, but he can tell a lot of them are worried. Ankara has this fierce sense of focus about her that kind of makes you think she can do anything. She doesn’t ever laugh and joke around when she’s training like Addison does. Across from the betting, a gaggle of fighters in varying degrees of sweatiness are bickering over which would be the most epic soundtrack to the fight.
“Don’t let your pride make you stupid, Add.” He says in a low, urgent tone and glances down at her feet, both of them already bound in wraps that match the ones she’s using for her hands. Addison would never bother with ankle supports if she didn’t plan on fighting that night, but it helps her injured foot, and wearing only one would provoke concerned questions. She glares at him.
“Don’t distract me,” she replies coldly, and leaves him on the bench, heading for the ring. Her gait is confident, but he can see she’s favouring her left leg ever so slightly. He wonders if Ankara has noticed this. Cooper will be acting umpire for this match, instead of Addison herself as is the norm, and he has already stepped up to the ring with the airhorn. Ankara’s expression is centred and solemn as she reties her hair in David’s corner of the ring, and Addison ducks under the rope to enter. Addison’s gloves are white as well as her mouthguard, and when she puts it in it gives her this strange rabbity look. She and Ankara touch gloves, Cooper sounds the horn and bodies cluster around the four sides of the ring like escaped cattle. Ankara is cautious, measuring the distance between them every few seconds by swinging her fist out, guard tight around her face. Addison’s stance is perfect, it looks like every picture or description you’ve ever heard of a good muay thai guard, arms coiled up by her chin ready to spring out, head lowered, the balls of her feet planted in the corners of an imaginary square, like the ones in dance steps. Her smooth ponytail swings a little as she moves, less cautious, and throws out a combo of jab, cross, hook, one of which catches Ankara as she tries to skip away. Ankara sniffs at the blow, but doesn’t shake her head or break eye contact. The match progresses in this vein for a while, Addison on the offensive while Ankara hangs back, occasionally attempting a swift roundhouse when the range is right. Levi isn’t jammed up next to the ring like the others, though the adrenaline in the room is palpable from here. This is no ordinary match. Anyone can challenge the top gun of the Pride, and take a shot at leadership, but no one has done so since he can remember. The Pride trust Addison. They know her, and she fits easily, warmly among them. He keeps his gaze trained on Ankara. Did she just look down at Addison’s foot? Did he imagine that? He’s too far away to follow her line of vision properly, but he feels a lump rise in his throat anyway. Addison’s strength is her legs, her kicks are her signature, and an injured right leg is her best asset put on the bench. He knows she is counting on being able to use roundhouse kicks, contacting Ankara’s side with her upper shin, to protect her ankle, but if Ankara figures out she’s injured things will get very ugly, very fast. Both fighters are sweating now, Anka has pulled her into a clinch, like they’re Siamese twins, attached at the head, and the muscles of Addison’s shoulder tense as she snaps out a hook, slamming her opponent in the ear. Someone’s forehead or eyebrow has gotten cut, but the blood is smeared on both of them. It’s the injured fighter’s responsibility to decide whether or not they’re fit for a match, those are the rules. If they go in at a disadvantage, it’s their own responsibility, there are no rules about going lightly on them. And Ankara wants this, she wants Addison’s place, and the respect it’ll get her. She’s wanted it ever since she showed up here and tried to advise a teacher about how they did it in her old class, before she came here. A second after the hook lands, Ankara stamps out her foot exactly where Levi hopes she wouldn’t know where to hit, and Addison’s leg crumbles, her head falls, and Ankara uses the lapse in her concentration, the weakening of her clinch, to pull Addison’s head down towards a sharp upcoming knee. Still dazed, Addison can only fight to keep her guard up as Ankara throws out a flurry of blows in quick succession, all caution gone now she has the advantage. The crowd is ablaze with shouts and jeers now, it has even swelled, as newcomers arrive halfway through, drawn by the news of a top gun fight.
Levi watches as Addison weathers Anka’s torrent of blows as best she can. Finally, she manages a strike of her own, sinking her knee hard into her opponents stomach, and using the momentum to break the clinch and put some distance between them. In the background, something hard and electronic is playing through someone’s Link on the speakers. All Levi can think is, if she loses this, it will destroy her. Ankara as top gun is a cold thought. He has a brief image of the Basement full of uniformed figures moving through attacks in unison, like one of the courtyard classes from Enter the Dragon.
Addison is moving now with fierce purpose, she looks exhausted, but refuses to let her hands drop or her attention drift. Her hair is slicked to her forehead with the sheer effort of it. As Levi expects her to, she kicks with force, whirling her right leg around to batter Ankara’s side, or leg, with the hardened bone of her shin. She is relentless, getting in a kick at every possible opportunity, and Levi knows the way Ankara’s thigh must be burning, as though those kicks are lighting embers under her skin. He thinks he knows where Addison is going with this, and it worries him. Ankara returns by getting in close enough to land some punches too, but Addison moves and adapts to keep kick-distance. Finally, she charges forward, head drawn down like a bull’s to protect from incoming punches, and executes a dangerous headbutt, and then a forward kick, pushing back on Ankara’s weakened leg as hard as she can, gritting her teeth against the pain flaring from the pressure of her own ankle. But somehow, it works, and she manages to sweep Ankara’s leg from beneath her, the dull thud of Ankara’s body hitting the mats echoes out around the Basement, closely followed by the searing blare of the horn, an uproar of cheers, and it’s over. Somehow she’s actually won.
Later, in the midst of celebratory drinks and loud giggles, from which Ankara is conspicuously absent, the Pride find themselves in darkness when the lights of the Basement abruptly switch themselves off. Unfazed by the blackout thanks to the gentle numb of alcohol, they stumble upstairs, warmly tipsy, and walk home in the dark, and for Levi at least, in a grateful state of relief.
(An hour earlier)
Mon 20th Jan 11:39PM
He watches the clock. The space heater that sits in the corner of his workshop has used up its fuel cells and he has forgotten to put it out in the daylight to recharge. He has forgotten about the sun.
He hasn’t seen it in days, spending the daylight hours in here. A wraith is rising, has been unmelting, gaining solidity this past week. Their annual appointment.
This place used to be a hubbub of activity, a speakeasy for those with colour in their veins. When the end came he’d packed up all his wares into boxes, got a job in a garage. Occasionally public transport. Whatever he could get. He used to work in software, but software was all about people, their property, their records and data, whole messy human lives in zeroes and ones. He works in hardware now. Just silence, his hands and the machine.
Nobody wanted the golden age back like he did, like he does, but he’s been waiting. When Flux returns he’ll go back into the underground, and he’ll be the blood of the revolution again, supplying the rebellion. The core, the life force. One day.
Scritch rolls up his shirt sleeves and keeps working, mending cables, sorting through parts, greasing mechanisms and tightening screws, ignoring the person that is becoming a stronger presence in the room with every minute that creeps closer to midnight. He keeps his head down and he sands and cuts, welds, prises, glues, aligns and screws while she sits on the counter. He keeps his head down while the ethereal imprint of a girl kicks her heels and swings her legs, cocks her head as she watches him. Bugging his concentration. He has forgotten her smell, that was lost years ago, but her sneakers and toes stick around. Pattering a little rhythmic beat that weaves itself around his mind.
As the minutes fall away, sometimes she’s hooded and sometimes not, her eyes and face flicker between features and colours. One minute to midnight and Scritch has gathered a holdall of tools and blueprints, pulled on a khaki coat and slung the bag over one shoulder.
He will make this day dark for her. He will make this darkness a memorial. Thirty years today, how time has been dragged past the space she left, like the wake of a stone standing upright in a river. Only a few seconds now until it begins, and still the ghost sits docile as a lamb.
The clock strikes midnight. Scritch opens the door to leave, and the girl starts screaming. A howling banshee sound that won’t end until the clock strikes midnight once more.