The sun was out but the wind was still biting. I jogged to the park to keep warm. There were others I noticed jogging. The longer I spent there the more I realised there was a uniform. Everyone was wearing the same kind of clothes. They were all in these silly tight elastic pants with vests and sometimes hoodies. It made me laugh. You wouldn’t catch me wearing something like that…
It was early Saturday morning and there were still a few families about with their children. I stayed away from them as much as I could.
My legs had gone from burning, which had started in the first ten minutes, to full on pain. I carried on pushing, setting small targets to get to.
That street lamp… nearly there. I didn’t seem to be running very fast anymore.
Woo, ok. Next, the tree with the branch that’s fallen.
Pain bloomed in my chest, in my lungs as I gasped at the air. I couldn’t even do this right. My teeth were aching, why were my teeth aching? I couldn’t bring myself to lift my head and find another target to reach. I watched my feet, feeling so slow that I was nearly going backwards. Lifting my legs felt like some inconsiderate person had turned gravity up to three times normal levels.
Another step, one more. Was I even running anymore? I was sure I would get overtaken by that couple walking side-by-side…
My vision was getting darker around the edges. I felt dizzy, lightheaded. My foot caught and I stumbled, feeling my balance go I aimed for a patch of grass and fell.
I felt ill. I lay there gasping at the air like a fish out of water. I turned on my side and retched.
It took me a long time to catch my breath, when my breathing slowed I sat up. Wow, nope, still dizzy. I lay back down and stared up at the sky.
When I started shivering from cold more than I was shaking from exhaustion I tried again and succeeded to get shakily to my feet. My legs felt like jelly, as if someone had melted my bones. They still seemed to function though.
The library was close by so I hobbled to it. It was warm, free and I could occupy myself with the books. I picked a book at random from the shelves on my way through to the quietest corner I knew and collapsed on one of the sofas in the tiny reading cubicle. It was the one I’d been in with Beth all those weeks ago.
My shaking gradually calmed down as I read, it was a rather dry history of space travel. There was an interesting chapter on the few countries and religious cults in the past few centuries to attempt mass emigration to other systems. One had even attempted a single-point jump which was crazy.
Everyone knew you needed two points to jump between, sure it might be possible open up a wormhole from a single gate but there would be no telling where you might end up, if you were lucky you could aim in a general direction and hope for a certain distance but the uncertainties… You might end up further past your destination than you started. You could end up in empty space with nothing for light-years, space even more empty than usual or in the centre of a star.
That was even if it was successful; the wormhole would be so unstable… I shuddered. Reading on, the current scientific models suggested there was a one in four chance that they ended up a smear of quarks across half a solar system.
Two hundred thousand people, gone.
But then the scientific models for wormholes changed every twenty years when a bright new scientist discovered something new that throws the old one out of the window. I don’t think anyone really knows how they work, even Kerenhowser, the man who demonstrated the first gate-to-gate transfer.
I flicked the page over and it had a photo of the first Kerenhowser Orbital Gate. It was tiny compared to the third and fourth generation gates currently in orbit. If the terrorists who bombed it had any idea its destruction would give an excuse, and crucially swing the international public opinion to back the construction of a much larger gate…
I was going to get up there. Someday I would take a jump…
I snapped shut the book and got wobbly to my feet to return it to the shelf where I found it. I never liked putting it in the returns bin – I prefer to place it back myself.
I should at least do something constructive with my time. I went over to the digital library and found a spare tablet. I’m surprised that the library isn’t busier on a Saturday, the mall was packed.
Sitting at one of the desks I brought up an internet search for the nearest climbing and extreme sports shops. I found a few within ten minutes’ walk, maybe 15 in my current state. I placed the tablet back to the pile and left.
* * *
I didn’t have to ask where the helmets were, there was a whole wall of them floor to ceiling. Two thirds were discounted immediately because they were cycling helmets. They were a strange shape, didn’t protect the sides of your head well and were mostly some form of polycarbonate foam – not good for multiple hits.
I couldn’t afford to throw a helmet away each time I got whacked in the head.
I found one that looked like it was for a skiing, or maybe climbing? It was a dull, hard black plastic – the inside was padded. Plain, round and smooth; nothing much stuck out to be grabbed, or just identified. Crucially it came down to cover my ears, there was even a Perspex visor that slid down over the top half of my face.
The chin strap had a quick release so I could get it off it there was a problem. The 1,200$ price tag made me pale. But as I glanced in the mirror I noticed the hint of a bruise around my eye. It was worth the cost.
I peeled back the notes and handed them to the cashier. It must look odd, me in my dirty old clothes buying something for so much but the shop assistant didn’t give me a second glance. I left with a box under one arm and a grin on my face.
My stomach groaned at me reminding me I hadn’t eaten since school lunch yesterday. My smile faded, I didn’t have any money. Well, none of my own money – I promised I wasn’t going to spend any of this on myself. I wasn’t going to break that promise because of a bit of discomfort.
I started walking home through the park when my eye caught someone wave at me. At first my heart leaped, it could be Beth… but no. It was Mike, with a friend.
“Hey!” he shouted, walking towards me.
My feelings on Mike were mixed. He was Beth’s friend and I guess I was jealous of him and how well he got on with her. But he’d really helped me out with Haley so I kind of owed him for that…
“Hi Mike.” I replied, when he was close enough to hear me without shouting.
“Alexis, this is my brother Victor.” He nodded to the guy next to him. He was older, maybe seventeen or eighteen.
“Hey.” He said, seemingly disinterested.
“You wanna grab something to eat? We were just going to go get a burger or something.” Mike asked me.
“Err, no thanks.” I didn’t have the money. Besides I was very aware of what I had under my arm.
“Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it!” He grinned at me. I glared at him from under a frown. Charity…
“Hey, Beth talks to me. What can I say!” He shrugged. What harm could it do? I already owed him for earlier, what is a little food on top of that?
We walked out of the park, his brother left us saying something about letting us kids have some alone time. I gave him a dead-pan look and they both burst out laughing. Even I felt my lips twitching up at the corners though.
I let him lead me to a chain burger restaurant, I’d never been there before but then my experience in this kind of thing was severely lacking.
I felt out of place the whole time. I scoured the walls for some kind of menu while we were queuing. There were some displays scrolling across the top but they didn’t have much on them, just the names of different kinds of burgers.
I wanted to pick the cheapest they had. I tried to shuffle behind Mike but as the person in front left with his food the girl behind the counter looked at me.
“Hi, can I take your order please?” She said with a plastic smile.
“Uh…” I had to pick something, glancing up I read off the first thing that scrolled across the screen. “A Zimmys’ Special burger please.”
I had no idea what that was, but the place was called Zimmy’s so I guess it was pretty standard? I hoped it wasn’t too special… I relaxed a bit.
“Would you like that as part of a meal?” The girl said.
Argh, more questions… What did that even mean?
“Yes?” I think.
“Small? Large? What drink you do want?” Drink? Anything!
“Yes! I mean, I don’t know. Small? What drink? Uh, coke?” Everyone has coke.
“Ok mam, do you want salad and onions in your burger? Can I interest you in our new battered cheese balls they come in…”
I zoned out. Sensory input overload. I think my buffers needed to be reset. Mike came to my rescue by ordering his own food and answering the string of questions to his liking. I stepped back and let him talk with the scary lady, he pulled out a chit and swiped it over the pay-chip. Bank accounts looked fun.
We waited less than thirty seconds for them to pile up our order on one of the trays, Mike took it and led me to a seat by the window. Once I’d sat down I started feeling less tense. We had food, now I just had to work out what the hell I’d ordered.
It wasn’t so bad, I even managed to eat all of it even though I really was starting to feel full. It was a strange experience – It seemed eating so well had stopped my stomach pains from eating too large portions. Now I’d got used to it I could eat about four times as much and instead of feeling pain or nausea I’d just feel… full.
“So, what’s that you’ve got there?” He asked, gesturing to the box on the seat next to me.
Shit. Did he know what it was? You could read the brand name on the box through the plastic bag I’d been given for it.
“Uh.” I had no idea how to reply. “Nothing.”
He looked at me intently, his expression suddenly serous. It looked foreign on him; he was normally so care-free. Even threatening Haley he had an air of playfulness.
I matched his stare with my own willing him to drop it, keep it quiet. Shut up.
“If you are messing around Beth in any way…” He left his sentence hanging ominously. I recognised the unspoken threat from the glare in his eyes. He would hurt me.
“This is nothing to do with Beth, I’ve been nothing but truthful with her. It’s unrelated. It’s nothing.”
We stayed, watching each other for a reaction until he broke eye contact.
“Ok.” He said, suddenly switching back to his normal self with a grin.
I let out a purely mental sigh, he had me worried.
I’d finished already so I sat there as he ate. Watching people eat has always made me nervous so I kept my eyes on the window and the people walking past. I glanced back and he was looking on his mobile.
“Right, well – I’m off to meet my brother. He has some shop he wants to show me.” He looked up from it. “You can come along if you want.”
He knew my answer of course. “No thanks, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything anyway.”
He glanced at the box next to me. Yep he definitely knew it wasn’t cheap, if he recognised the brand name…
I stood, we said our goodbyes and I left. Having recovered from earlier I started jogging home, well, not home. I had one more thing to buy then I was going to the garage I’d rented. I took it at a slower pace than I had earlier. I guess I had less to get off my chest, and I didn’t want to end up in such a state afterwards.