He could’ve warned me about the vomiting.
True, I probably should’ve asked more about the unlabeled, unauthorised, probably not 100% legal pill before I took it, but I really didn’t feel I had the right to question him at the time.
I’d only just made it back to my room on the 10th floor when I felt that unsettling, tingling heaviness somewhere between my jaw and my windpipe. I darted for the bathroom (which Alan had shown did actually exist, the door just blended into the surrounding wall and you needed to press your palm to it for it to open) and bent over the sink while the lurching started inside me.
I haven’t left in an hour.
Every time I thought I was done, washed my mouth, and headed for the door back to my room, the feeling started again. Almost like there was a barrier through the bathroom door triggering it.
I threw up again. This time, just clear liquid. I hadn’t eaten enough lately to keep the meaty stuff up for very long. I coughed after, dry, and the air burned on the way up. Groaning, I pushed up from the sink, and attempted the escape from the bathroom again, with the same amount of luck.
“Fuck this.” I muttered. I was exhausted. From the running, and the throwing up, and the thoughts that being here had brought back. Being back with the Alliance, it was… I knew that I had to come back, but it was so strange. The last mission I’d had before shore leave…
I heaved again. This was disgusting.
I should’ve figured that anything that would help me pass would have to be a ‘cleanse’ of some sort, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. Still, I guess it was worth it. Failing the test meant immediate suspension. I had to pass.
Six years, and I’d never failed a drug test. That didn’t mean I’d never used, though, everyone did. I was just smart about it. They say that the tests happen at ‘random’ times but everyone knows it doesn’t work like that. It happens when you’re looking for a promotion, or if you’ve been off work for a few days, or if some higher up was coming down to check on operation. It was only ever at parties, on shore leave, just to relax, ya know? Working with the Alliance is a fucking tough gig. I was never an ‘addict’ or anything like that.
Still, Anneka hated it.
She always said that it was gonna kill me, one day. To which I’d, of course, reply that this job was going to kill me, more likely. And we’d go on like that, back and forth and back and forth, until she started crying, and I felt like an asshole, and I’d promise to never do it again, and I was always lying.
Jesus Christ, I never deserved her.
Warmth spread at the back of my eye. I was about to start crying. Great, I thought, just what this day needs. More bodily fluids.
I cried and retched and sweated until I was sure I was all dried out. When I finally undressed and made it to bed, every fibre of my body ached with a steady warm pulsing.
The shower burned. The water was too hot, and when I turned it down it was too cold, and I felt it pelting on my skin like a cascade of nails. I hissed when the flow started, turning my skin red and agitating the soreness. They said showers were supposed to help with this sort of thing, but when I looked down at my arms I felt like the old scars were on the verge of tearing open.
For this reason, and the jolt of sickness I felt when looking down at my body (The scars, the burns, that’s all I got from it. Just discolored skin. Why’d I get off so easy? Why didn’t she?) I didn’t stay there for long. Just long enough to empty two of the tiny bottles of body wash onto myself and shampoo my hair.
I stepped out. It was freezing. I reached for a towel and ruffled my hair with it, before wrapping it around myself and stepping out of the bathroom. It was even colder out here.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, and the nighttime thickness of creeping, chilled air had somehow seeped into the building. Through the windows, I saw the beginnings of a vast fog where the fluorescent lights hit the moisture.
The sun was still far from risen, and my day had just begun.
Just before I’d finally managed to fall asleep last night, I’d gotten a message from Alan on my phone. He said that we started training at 6am, but It’d be good if I got down about an hour earlier to warm up. I still had to shower, eat, and get ready first, so here I was, at 4am, naked and shivering in a room that does not feel like mine.
I walked to the wardrobe, fumbling around in the half dark the light from the bathroom offered, trying to resolve at least one of those issues. Even in this light I could see how off puttingly empty it was. Just the clothes I had come here in, and the white body suit they’d given me to train in.
I’d mentioned it to Vincent, but he said I couldn’t go back to my apartment to fetch more of my stuff. Said I wouldn’t be staying here long enough to make it feel like mine. That was, in a way, more comforting than any shirt or framed picture I could’ve fetched.
I dressed, the suit clinging and bunching in areas where my skin was still too wet. It could’ve been worse, I guess. The fabric reached from my elbows, covered my whole body until my knees. It wasn’t especially flattering, but this coming from a person who owns no more than three changes of clothes without the Alliance logo on them might not be a very significant statement.
The boots they’d given me, though, now they were nice. Full black, reaching half way up to the knee with automatic lacing and unlacing. Comfortable, too, and light. Felt expensive. I hoped that, after I’d left this training facility, they’d at least let me keep the shoes.
I stood in my room for a while. Right in the middle, looking out the windows. Not at anything in particularly, just out. Over the city. Over the lights.
From here, I could see the building she died in.
I turned around and left the room, out into the corridor. Everyone else was asleep, I could tell by the lack of light creeping out under anyone’s door but mine. The elevator came quickly. I guess that’s a bonus to no-one else moving around.
The mess hall was on level three, but Alan had said last night to just come directly to level five. He said he’d have my food there, and we could eat together. ‘Too much noise in the mess hall’, his text read, ‘even early in the morning. People always wanna eat.’
The doors dinged and slid open. It was strange to be here this early. It didn’t look any different than it did the last time I was here, at midday. The lighting was so prevalent and bright that it manufactured an artificial daylight.
It took me about three seconds to spot him. Alan smiled at me, looking impossibly awake for this hour, and gestured for me to follow him into the running room. I followed him.
I entered the room to find him sitting on the same crate he had yesterday, when we had spoken and he had given me his ‘gift’. Except, this time, he was dressed in clothes very similar to mine instead of a suit, and instead of a little blue pill in his hands, there were two sealed black boxes, knives and forks placed next to him on the crate.
I sat down next to him, and took from his extended hand one of the boxes. I peeled to lid off, and watched for a moment as the steam rose up. The Alliance might be notorious for their spending, but at least that meant they never skimped on the food.
“Bacon and eggs.” Alan said, opening his own box. “Extra greasy. It’s nothing special, but it’s solid. And tasty. “
I nodded without looking at him, and pushed the eggs around with my fork.
"I'm not hungry." I said.
"Is it because you're not hungry, or because you just spent the past twelve hours throwing up and you're afraid if you eat anything you won't be able to stop again."
I nodded again. "You could've warned me, ya know. Nearly threw up on the carpet." I put the box down, next to the cutlery. He took a bite.
"You might not have taken it if I'd told you how bad it was."
"I still would've. I love this job. I wanna keep it. It had to be done."
"Well, if you're so eager to get back in the field, we'd better get started here."
First lap. It felt easy. No burn in my legs. Breathing in and out without too much trouble. Steady pace. I know I have time before the next sound. I don’t have to sprint. Reach the other side. Waiting.
Run back. Easy, easy. Not as sore. Not as tired. Maybe, maybe this isn't hard. Reach the end. Wait.
Push off. Long strides. Less steps. Easier. I can run. I can run.
Feel empty. Good kind of empty. Feel light. I can run. There’s no food in my stomach. There are no stones in my lungs.
I’m moving faster. The white walls moving too fast too see where they stop and the floor starts. I can go quicker. Reach the other end. Tap it with my foot. Turn around. Run again.
Breath in bursts. I never learned how to breathe right. In through nose, out through mouth, the exact wrong way. It’s not that far. Twenty meters. It’s not that far.
Dry mouth. I can’t see him any more. He is a blur, like the boxes behind him. Head forward. Feet forward. Forward. Forward. Turn around.
Burn starting. Arms at sides, moving quick. Legs keeping pace. It’s still easier than it was before. I can run faster.
No time at either end. Hit the line, turn and run. No stopping. Run faster. Make time. Beat the sound. I have to reach it first. Are my lungs supposed to feel like this?
Alan says something. Can’t hear. Keep moving. How many left? How many do I need? How fast do I need to be?
Am I fast enough?
Am I fit enough?
Maybe I really was unfit. What if it wasn’t just the lack of practice?
What if I was incapable?
What if I’d been incapable for a while.
Was I incapable when the fire started?
I’m just barely making time. How much faster? How much longer? Burn.
Could I not run fast enough then?
In my mind, the walls weren’t white anymore. They are black, charred and collapsing. The floor looses its stability, it shatters on hard steps.
I can hear screaming. I can hear her screaming, somewhere deeper. Somewhere in front of me. Every step brings me closer but the screams are getting louder and she's still too far away, and I still can’t run fast enough.
My feet followed the order before my mind. The world came back into focus. There was a hand on me. Two hands. On my shoulders.
The sound file kept playing. I didn’t keep running. I turned. Dark skin. Vincent.
“The test is over.”
Then stop that fucking sound.
“Fast enough?” I ask.