The smell of ash and a fire far too close. Heavy, thick smoke that crawls through the air and past windows and into eyes and ears and mouths lungs. Carried with it, the scent of a great and awful burning. The scent of violent ends. The scent of chemicals torn apart and spread by heat.
A screaming tears across the sky. It takes me a second but, yes, it’s her. Further inside the building, deeper in the fire. More voices come from closer. Armoured men and women pass through the door, and one of the grabs the back of my shirt. I try to push them off. I don’t know what side they’re on.
This bed, I realized, was not my own. This room was much too bright to be mine, the smell much too pleasant, as the mattress much too comfortable to belong in my apartment.
My first reaction was confusion, then fear, then a swift bout of nausea and a pounding at the back of my skull, reminding me what happened last night. I sat up much too quickly, and felt another decidedly unpleasant tingle run from my feet to my chest. Groaning, I swung my feet out and onto the floor. I still have my boots on, I realized, I still have all my clothes on.
At least that’s one humiliation I spared myself, I thought, running through what I could recall of the words I’d said to Patricia; my horrendously ungraceful entry into the study and the strangely tense interaction with that strangely familiar man. I couldn’t quite remember his name. I couldn’t quite remember what was said.
This room was clean. Simple. Stripped of the skin so only the vitalities remained. The bed, where I was sitting with my head in my hands, was pushed in the corner farthest from the door. There was a simple fluorescent light in the center of the ceiling, thought it was hardly necessary; from the far side of the room, white morning light came in through a length of windows that reached from ceiling to flooring, creating the last of the four walls.
I ran my tongue over my top row of teeth, over my lips and along the insides of my cheeks, rolling and flexing through the cloud of morning breath inside my mouth. I ran a hand through my hair to find it flat and oily, and wiped my hand on pants so wrinkled they were forming their own mountain ranges.
I felt gross.
I don't think I looked much better.
I stood up and took another look around the room, hoping that I’d missed a bathroom, or even a sink, the first. No such luck. There was only one door, solid dark grey with a lighter knob, and I didn’t know what was on the other side of it. But, whatever it was, I was going to face it looking like a hot mess.
Through the windows, I could see the city just starting to wake up. All the lights were already on, of course, the glow of pink and blue and green that never sleeps, but people were just now waking up to see them. I saw the time written in light purple on a billboard on the side of a building. 6:22.
Way too fucking early. If it hadn’t been for the nightmare, there was no way I’d be up at this ungodly hour.
I laid my hand on the small cylindrical doorknob, expected to turn. A ring of light appeared around the base, beeped green, and the door slid back into the wall. Fancy, I thought, must be Alliance tech. Which means this must be an Alliance building.
I stepped out and saw an unremarkable corridor; a wall of windows at one side and rows of identical doors to the others, little silver number plates the only thing to distinguish them. The room I’d woken in must’ve been the very last, right at the end to cap off the corridor.
I walked through it, a task more difficult than first anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a lightweight, but judging by how I was feeling this morning last night must’ve been really fun.
The longer I stayed awake for, the more I started to remember. I remember being at the bar, I remember most of the walk home, I remember a sharp pang of fear when I arrived. But I don’t remember much of what happened after, but I don't imagine it was very good.
The corridor continued on, leading on to an elevator at the end opposite from my room. I stood for a moment, my hand hovering between the up and down arrows, unsure. The something caught my eye, on the other side of the elevator frame. A rectangle of white, uneven and pushed against the metal panel with a magnet. I grabbed it from under its place holder, and unfolded it. A note.
Kalahan, go down to floor # 5. Mr Vincent and I will meet you there. - Director Lonoff.
Vincent. I remembered. Alan Vincent, that was his name.
I pushed the downward arrow and waited for the soft mechanical whirring that came with the elevator stopping at my floor. the door hissed open and I stepped inside. It was abnormally dark, especially compared to the excessive natural light from the corridor just moments before. The ceiling was mirrored, with rows of small circular lights trapped between it and a slab of glass so the glow continued infinitely in the reflection, dimmer with each incarnation. I followed the instruction from the note and hit the number five. From the numbered buttons on the console, this building had twenty floors. The currently floor glowed in a small display panel above the buttons: ten.
It began the descent downward. I ran a hand through my hair, not doing much to brush it but pushing it all in roughly the same direction. The shifting sound, like paper on paper, stopped suddenly. The doors hissed apart from each other, and I stepped through them, into a floor that seemed to have no walls but the exteriors, open plan save for thee columns evenly dispersed through it.
My boots, hard from the metal infused in the sole, made a satisfying clacking noise on the linoleum as I walked. Scanning the room from side to side, looking over metal crates stacked four or five high, I found it empty save for miscellaneous unmarked packaged pushed against the walls and columns. If it hadn’t been the fifth floor, I would’ve judged this level to be a loading dock.
“Mr Vincent?” I called out, waiting with feet poised between one step and the next. There was no answer but my own echo. “Patricia?” I tried again, louder this time. Still no response. I turned around to face the elevator in the moments before the doors closed again, checking for- for, I don’t know. For a note, something I’d missed.
Then something crashed beside me.
I spun around, not quick enough to see where it came from, but quick enough to see where it landed. Little yellow shards of light, in cubes and triangles, bouncing up from the floor like water from a splash. Energy weapon, definitely. Judging from the distant lack of audible discharge, probably Holo. Judging for the several crates it had displaced with a single shot, Alliance tech.
I didn’t have time to react before I felt an incredible force around my shoulder, pushing my arms inward and looking them at my sides. A heat at my back, something pushing my forward and down onto the floor. Like a tackle, but looking up from my position I still couldn’t see anyone.
Then there was a slight shimmering above me; a ripple in the air that distorted the lights. I thought, first, that it was another side effect of my hangover.
Then, as suddenly as I’d heard the crash of the shot, the man from last night appeared over me. I shuffled back a few inches on my hands, pushing back with my feet.
I can only imagine how ridiculous I must’ve looked, because soon he started laughing. I turned red in an automatic response, still more confused than embarrassed. I wasn’t even sure what exactly I had just disgraced myself at.
“This isn’t funny.” I heard Patricia’s voice from the left of me, stepping out from behind a tall stack of crates. I looked between them, searching for an explanation somewhere in the empty air. Alan stuck out his hand for me. I noticed what he was wearing, and things fell into place. The dark fabric, luminescent strips along the shoulder, wrists, and legs. The wires exposed around the waist, poking out of two grey pouches around his belly button.
“Cloak? Pretty fucking good one, two. You guy must’ve really been sinking a lot of money into this.” They were completely classified, but I knew that invisibility suits existed. Had for nearly a decade, actually. I’d only ever seen them in action once, and it was nowhere as good at this one. The first I’d seen my flirting my way into the special operations level of the old Alliance training grounds, while a demonstration was happening. It was decent, but certain limbs used to flicker at stages and, if you knew what you were expecting, it wouldn’t really fool anybody sober.
He helped me to my feet, not commenting on my fall. Patricia did not share his restraint. "Waymire, if you are going to join this task force then you will have to be completely reassessed. You'll need a new physical, refreshers on first aid, fire arm training, a competency assessment. You'll have to jump through so many hoops it'll make your head spin. And if this," she made a show of casting her eyes down to where I'd fallen, "is the best you have to offer, then I am very concerned."
Alan gave me a look, something between sympathy and second hand embarrassment. It was quite comforting, on some level, that even this giant of a man wasn’t immune to Patricia’s tyrades.
“Well then,” I said, “I suppose we’d better get started.”
“We’ll test your current level, first, so we can track your progress.” Alan said.
"Alright. But first, I need to eat. Something big, and greasy, and that can suck the rest of this hangover out of me." I touched a hand to my head away and pulled away with the uncomfortable feeling of vaguely sticky dryness. “And take a shower.”