The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(7)

by Katharine McGee

Andrés glanced up from his tablet. “V’s meeting us there. Let’s go.”

A blistering wind tossed a few stray pieces of trash along the sidewalk. Rylin stepped over them, taking a deep, bracing breath. The air out here might be hot, but at least it wasn’t the recycled, oxygen-heavy air of the Tower.

Across the street, Hiral was already crouched at the side of the Tower, sliding a blade beneath the edge of a steel panel and peeling it back. “All clear,” he murmured. Their hands brushed as Rylin stepped into the opening, and they exchanged a look; then Rylin was stepping into the steel forest.

The sounds of outside instantly vanished, replaced by the low hum of voices and drugged-out laughter, and the whoosh of air cycling from the bottom of the Tower. They were in the underworld beneath the first floor; a strange, dark space of pipes and steel columns. Rylin and Lux walked softly through the shadows, nodding at the other groups as they passed. One cluster was gathered around the dim pink glow of a halluci-lighter. Another, half clothed and sprawled out on a pile of pillows, was clearly about to start an Oxytose orgy. Rylin saw the telltale gleam of the machine room door ahead, and started to walk a little faster.

“You can all go ahead and thank me now,” came a voice from the shadows, and she almost jumped. V.

He wasn’t as tall as Andrés, but V had to weigh at least twenty kilos more, and it was all muscle. His broad shoulders and arms were covered entirely in inktats, which danced across his body in a swirling chaos; shapes forming, breaking apart, and reforming elsewhere. Rylin winced at the thought of inking that much skin.

“Okay, guys.” V reached into his bag and produced a stack of bright gold patches, each the size of Rylin’s thumbnail. “Who’s in for communals?”

“Holy shit,” Lux exclaimed, laughing. “How did you score these?”

“Hell, yes!” Hiral high-fived Andrés.

“Seriously?” Rylin asked, her voice cutting through the celebrations. She didn’t like communals. They induced a shared group high, which felt somehow invasive, like having sex with a bunch of strangers. The worst part was being unable to control the high, putting herself entirely in someone else’s hands. “I thought we were smoking tonight,” she said. She’d even brought her halluci-lighter, the tiny compact pipe that could be used for almost anything—darklights, crispies, and of course the hallucinogenic weed it had been created for.

“Scared, Myers?” V challenged, after a moment.

“I’m not scared.” Rylin drew herself up to her full height and stared at V. “I just wanted to do something else.”

Her tablet vibrated with an incoming message. She looked down to see a text from Chrissa. I made Mom’s baked apple bites, she’d written. In case you want to come home!

V was watching her, an open challenge in his gaze. “Whatever,” Rylin said under her breath. “Why the hell not?” She reached out to grab the patches in V’s hand and slapped one on her inner arm, right by the elbow where her vein was close to the surface.

“That’s what I thought,” V said as the others began eagerly reaching for the patches.

They stepped into the machine room, and suddenly all Rylin could hear was the electronic music. It slammed angrily into her skull, obliterating any other thought. Lux grabbed her arm and began jumping hysterically, shouting something unintelligible.

“Who’s ready to party?!” the DJ exclaimed from where he stood perched on a coolant tank, an amplifier spreading his voice throughout the room. The space, hot and close with cramped bodies, erupted in screams. “All right,” he went on. “If you’ve got a gold, put it on now. Because I’m DJ Lowy, and I’m about to take you on the most insane ride of your life.” The dim light reflected off the sea of communal patches. Almost everyone here was patched up, Rylin realized. This would be intense.

“Three—” Lowy shouted, counting down. Lux gave an eager laugh and jumped higher on her tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd. Rylin glanced at V; his inktats were swirling even wilder than usual in the space surrounding his patch, as if his very skin knew what was about to happen.

“Two—” Most of the crowd had joined in the count. Hiral came to stand behind Rylin and wrapped his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her head. She leaned back into him and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the communals’ activation.

“One!” The scream reverberated through the room. Lowy reached for the tablet hovering before him and flicked on the electromagnetic pulse, tuned to the frequency of the communals. Instantly all the patches in the room released waves of stimulants into the bloodstream of everyone wearing them. The ultimate synchronized high.

The music turned up and Rylin threw her hands into the air, joining the loud, seemingly endless scream. She could already feel the communal taking over her system. The world had realigned to the music, everything—the flashing of the lights overhead, her breathing, her heartbeat, everyone’s heartbeats—timed perfectly with the deep, insistent pulse of the bass.

Don’t you love this? Lux mouthed, or at least that’s what it seemed like she said, though Rylin couldn’t be sure. Already she was losing her grip on her thoughts. Chrissa and her text messages didn’t matter, her job and her asshole boss didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except this moment. She felt invincible, untouchable, like she would be this way forever: young and dancing and electric and alive.

Lights. A flask of something strong being passed to her. She took a sip without tasting what it was. A touch on her hip—Hiral, she thought, pulling his hand closer in invitation. But then she saw Hiral a few rows forward, jumping and punching at the sky with Andrés. She spun around only to see V’s face whirl up out of the darkness. He held up another gold patch, an eyebrow raised suggestively. Rylin shook her head. She wasn’t even sure how she’d pay him back for the one she’d already taken.

But V was already peeling back the adhesive on the back side. “No charge,” he whispered, as if reading her thoughts, or had she spoken them aloud? He reached down to sweep her hair back from her neck. “A little secret: The closer it is to your brain, the faster it kicks in.”

Rylin closed her eyes, dazed, as the second wave of drugs snapped through her. It was a razor-sharp rush, setting all her nerves afire. She was dancing and somehow also floating when she sensed a vibration in her front pocket. She ignored it and kept jumping, but there it was again, drawing her painstakingly back into her awkward, physical body. Fumbling, she managed to grab her tablet. “Hello?” Rylin said, gasping as her breathing became irregular, no longer in time with the music.