4 Sep

Task 1: A story about a journey.


Standard issue backpack, check.
Communication devices, check.
Access cards. Access cards? Where are they? Did I lose them? Surely not…

I tap my pocket for the third time that hour, feeling that hard, rectangular shape respond solidly to my touch. Almost reassuring. Almost, but not quite.

Don’t panic.

I’m lucky. My vessel is in a part of this quadrant that sits out in the open. Rare, these days. Most of the air around here is too thick to breathe, makes most people sick. I find that standing and sucking on the standard issue AirTubes helps. It’s worth the mild headache and creeping nausea to catch the last bit of AirTime before I’m shuttled away. Kind of helps with the nerves. The AirTubes even come in different flavours, now. This one is reminiscent of some sort of synthetic mint that rings a bell from what I assume to be my childhood, but I’m never sure if memories are real, these days. They say they’re not. They’ve done research.

The vessel arrives, or should I say, appears. Always that same breathtaking, break-neck speed, a whoosh and a snap and where there once was nothing, there’s a shuddering mass of soft grey metal, once sparkling, when I first joined The Alliance; now peppered with rust and pock-marked by dents where Things have hit it. I try not to think of that as I board.

I’ve done journeys like this a million times before, or at least that’s how it feels. My access card would say it’s more like hundreds of times, but still. When it’s a new route, I can’t help but feel a little light-headed at the prospect of some variation in what could be considered by some to be a dull, grey, dot matrix printout of a life. Considered that way by some. Not by me. Obviously. Not if The Alliance is listening, anyway. Which it is, of course.

I’m trembling. Part fear, part excitement. I try to steady it. Even though I have my instructions for the journey, I’m never fully sure that I’m going to make it. You just can’t be, these days.

I feel other agents attempting eye contact with me, and I avoid it. I’ve been down that road before and it never ends well. It starts with eye contact and before you know it, The Alliance is ‘advising’ you to avoid that route at all costs, forever. If you’re lucky, they sometimes assign you a new one like they did to me; or they’ll close the old one down completely if they have to. That’s bad news. For everyone. Eye contact just makes life harder. Head down, focus on the floor.

This vessel feels no different to the others I’ve been on. The Alliance isn’t big on diversity. Spacious enough in cubic millimetres to invalidate any complaints but cramped enough to make you pine for the thick, bilious smog outside the cruelly-tinted windows that block out any hope of light. Not that there’d be any to see, even if the windows allowed for it. Not down here.

A metallic crackle through a public address system confirms our destination and the airlock starts to contract, ready to seal the vessel. As the beeps counting down our take-off increase in urgency, I spot the hazy shape of an agent running towards the air lock from outside. I feel a collective tightening of nerves as the realisation that he’s not going to make it spreads through the capsule; the crackle of dry grass consumed by flames on a hot day. We watch him fall back as we’re sucked into a black unknown; ever faithful, onwards and sideways, autopilot on; inevitable, regretful, resigned.

The vessel hurtles through thick darkness, as dusty as a bran tub lucky dip at a village fair in an old film – or maybe a memory, who knows? The air in the capsule is tepid, almost wet in contrast to the parched atmosphere outside, sponging me down with its disconcerting warmth. I try to breathe in as little as possible, sucking in tiny gulps of air from the side of my mouth, avoiding the ribbons of carbon dioxide streaming from the mouths of my fellow travellers.

We take off.

Some of the newer agents stumble as they acclimatise to the velocity of the vessel. I’d heard this section of the network was faster than the rest, but even as a seasoned agent, I’m shocked at how our heads whip back – just a fraction, but enough to scare us – before we’re stabilised to that same, maddening pace as everything else in the quadrant: fast forwarded nonchalance, a fake slipstream current sucking everyone along like a creek, hungry to send its waters out to sea. Godspeed!

Through the scruffy, constructed night we hurtle, nothing to indicate we’re moving at all, other than the odd jolt here and there and the assurance from the public address system that we’re entering or exiting another quadrant. They say it is so, so it is so.

My new quadrant is announced as the next destination. Mission control will be expecting me any time now. Of course, The Alliance runs the faction that’s responsible for delivering me and millions of other agents safely to our destination pods for each day’s labour, so they know exactly what time I board and leave the vessel, even as my feet are stepping into the travelator.

I fix myself in position and prepare to be ejected. A mission indeed, and one I’ll be doing again in reverse in eight hours. But for now, it’s okay. As I break the surface of this new area, the air feels lighter, thinner. Space lies between me and the other agents now, instead of just millimetres. The panic abates, albeit only slightly.

I’m out.

I’m okay.

I survived my commute.


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