I had never faced a challenge so great.
During my six years with the Alliance, I’ve gotten into some pretty gnarly situations. I’ve been trapped in an alley between a gang who trafficked synthetic organs, and a bigger gang that trafficked human ones; had a knife held to my throat on more than one occasion. I’ve been punched, stabbed, shot at, taken hostage, and nearly killed in the line of duty more that I’d like to think about, and I can still say with some level of confidence that this was worse than all of them.
The beep test.
It didn’t sound so bad when he explained it. A guy called Jacob, about my age, was responsible for running my physical tests. He must’ve been quite new, or just not had much guts at all, because whenever Patricia came in to see how things were going, he pointed his eyes down and seemed to shrink in her presence. I don’t blame him. I’d had just about the same reaction my first few months working under her.
Jacob said it would just be a running test. I didn’t particularly like running, but who does, right? I figured it’d be okay. Right?
There were two markers on the floor, lines of fluorescent tape about a metre long, and twenty apart. You wait at one, and then a beeping sound plays. Then run to the other before the next beep. It’s easy the first few times, you get to wait a bit between each run, but then the beeps get faster. You have to run quicker and there’s less time to rest. It goes on like this, beeping getting quicker and quicker (and louder?) until you have to stop. Once you stop, the test is over, but if you don't make enough laps, you'll fail. And if you fail, you have to do it again.
I'd failed twice already.
He was only supposed to give me a ten minute break between runs, that’s what Alan had said when he took me down to this level, but I knew it’d been longer than me. I looked up at Jacob, and he gave me a half-nervous, half-sad smile. I couldn’t tell if he really felt sorry for me, or if he just didn’t have the backbone to force me to go again. I sighed and stood up, taking one last gulp from the water bottle and setting down on the ground, next to the metal crate I’d been sitting on. He immediately seemed relieved.
Until the doors slid open again.
Patricia was there, next to Mr Vincent. She stepped in front of him, entering the room first, and walked right next to Jacob. “Well?” she said, “Are we done here yet?”
Poor kid. He looked about to burst.
“Uh- Not- uum- not quite, Ma’am. She has to go again.” He looked down at his empty clipboard, and I could almost see him start to sweat.
“Really?” she said, with the question removed. She look me up and down, and I could hear the sneer in her voice.
“It’s-uh- it’s a difficult test, Ma’am.”
I would’ve smiled, had it not been for the exhaustion and vague feeling of shame. He really did feel sorry me, I realized. But did I really need this kid’s pity?
“Perhaps,” Alan said, “ I should administer the test this time?”
Jacob went as red as I was, and he hadn’t been running at all. “Uh-um- okay- sure.” He walked behin Patricia to hand his clipboard and pen over to Alan, and left in a hurry. Poor kid, I thought again, he thinks he messed up.
“Alright then.” Patricia said. “I do hope this doesn’t take too long. For your sake, Waymire.” She turned, and left the way she came in; silent and confident. Alan and I were alone. And, for some strange reason I still hadn’t identified, I wasn't entirely uncomfortable with that.
I must’ve been staring at the door for a while, because i only turned when he cleared his throat.
“Alright, so we’ll go again, then?” I said, already walking towards the start marker.
“Hang on.” He grabbed my wrist and stopped me before I reached. “Just, wait for a minute. Come here.”
I lifted an eyebrow, but followed him. He sat us down on two crates. “Kalahan, I need to talk to you. You need to not lie to me.”
My first reaction was tense to. When someone says something like that to you, you know it won’t be good. I swallowed, and nodded, being sure to make almost fierce eye contact. One thing I’d learned being a hellraiser as a kid, was that people over estimated their own capacity to judge honesty. There’s this almost universal belief that you can’t lie when looking someone in the eye. Something about guilt, I guess. It’s bullshit. It’s no harder to lie face on. But, due to the aforementioned misconception, people are more likely to believe you if you do. So, if this turned out to be something that I did need to lie about, I figured it was better to be prepared.
He looked around for a moment, almost to check we were alone. I thought that was weird. This was an Alliance building, he’d told me so himself. These were the new training grounds, where they send new recruits and , like me, old ones who needed to brush up. This should be one of the most secure places in Omega, if not all of earth. So why was he being this careful?
“You may already know this, but as part of your mandatory physical examination there will be a drug test.”
My eye contact flinched. So that was what this was about.
“I can reschedule that for you.”
And it broke. So lying was out of the question. He waited for me, for the answer to his unasked question.
“That’d be good of you.” I said. He nodded, solemn. Strange that the disappointment of a man I just met could leave me feeling so cold.
“Alright then.” He paused for a moment, and seemed distant. I could almost hear the gears turning in his mind. He reached into his jacket pocket, leaning slightly closer to me, and I was suddenly hit with the feeling that this was definitely about more than me passing a drug test.
He opened his palm and reached out to me. In it was a tiny see through vial, inside it an even smaller blue pill. "Take this." He said. "Rest for the rest of the day, and do the test again tomorrow."
I nodded numbly. “What about Director Lonoff? She made it pretty clear she want this done soon?’
“Afraid of her, are you?”
I grabbed the pill from him. Maybe a little too quickly.
“See you tomorrow, Mr Vincent.”
“See you, Kalahan.”
The door slid open for me. Patricia was waiting, arm crossed. “That was quick.” She said.
“Actually, Director, I’m going to rest for the day.” I tried not to look at her too much. They say when you look a wolf in the eyes it takes it as a challenge. From past experience, that only ended badly.
“You are?” she said.
She shifted in the way a lion’s ears rise. Subtle, and fearful, and dangerous. I turned to walk away, but she pounced too quickly.
"Well, since you're doing not more physical training for today, maybe now is a good time for you to see the Alliance counsellor."
I stopped and turned to her again. “Uh, now's not a great time.”
“Well, when will be, Waymire?”
“I-uh- jesus- I know that I have to see the shrink at some point, but I’m fine, I just. I mean- I was drunk yesterday but I’m, I’m not like, I’m not a drunk. I don’t have issues. “
“Really?” My face was already blush from the running, but I felt it get redder. ” Well then, this should be no problem for you.”
I sighed. I really had hoped to cut this conversation as short as possible, but Patricia had clearly decided that now was the optimum time for a deep and meaningful conversation.
“Look, I get that you’re concerned, I do. And I mean, I gave you reason to be, but-”
“Waymire.” She waved her hand and cut me off. ”While I’m, of course, concerned about the welfare of all of my people; this isn’t about that. This is about Mr Vincent specifically requesting you for his task force, and you not being up to standard. This is about you not making a fool out of me. This is about you pulling yourself together so that you don’t make an embarrassment out of yourself.”
“Yikes.” I pulled my face into a harsh (not entirely exaggerated) grimace. “That’s harsh.”
“No, Kalahan. That’s honest.”
I cast my eyes down. She was quiet for a while, so I assumed she had let me go. Half down the corridor, though, she called out to me just before the elevator doors opened.
“People will either pity you, or respect you, Kalahan. But never both. I suggest you pick one."