Installment 4: Where a Race is Run
STORY SO FAR: Ani Raye has been asked to appear for an appointment at her principal's office. This is a strange request and she finds herself wondering what could possibly await her behind his orange door. In the school cafe, she meets with her best friend Khyran (K) and her trainer Stratten. K and her mother substitute Willa is also introduced. Leaving the cafe, she meets a servant girl Jina, who tells her to give a note to K. In the note is written the words
If I talk to you, and they catch me,
They won’t sack me or tell me to go home.
They will kill me as a lesson to others like me.
Spooked, Ani runs into two of her Trainers who ask her to run a race.
My feet crunched against hot concrete. I was barefoot enough that I could feel the heat lick at my soles. Dusk was falling but the heat hadn’t broken yet.
Pale sunlight still shone stubbornly through fragments in the multi-hued sky, gold shafts cutting though the dark purples and ochre and sunset oranges. The light split the hot air into shifting, strangely colored layers and an obscure thought about running through rainbows flitted through my head before I pushed it out of my mind to concentrate on the task ahead.
‘Concentration,’ Trainer Mee had once yelled in my face ‘, is the thing that’s going to make the difference between whether you live or die, win or lose.
Win. Or lose.
I was third in line and proud to be. My throat was a parched desert, my limbs craving rest, my hair sticking wetly to my neck. I was dazed, hungry, running on adrenaline and entirely too pleased with me.
A big smile stretched my lips, cracking their already dry surface. I could see it now, the no nonsense chalked line Trainer Stratten had drawn on the ground. The finish line.
I didn’t increase my speed or try to pass the two in front of me. Third was good, third was enough. Third meant no washing duty or listening to Trainer Mee shouting your worthlessness in your face.
In front of me, running in second place, was the tall stick-girl Lu-Wei, her stick straight hair flip-flopping this way and that. She seemed exhausted, her face slick with sweat, a pained look on her sharp oval face. I gauged the speed I’d need to leave her in the dust behind me and then ditched the calculations. Lu-Wei was going to give up. Her mind fought her body, pushing it to move, but she was failing. I could tell from the way she wasn’t controlling her breathing anymore. Breathing, as they repeatedly drilled into our brains, was extremely important when running long or hiding.
Lose control of it, and lose everything.
Even if Lu-Wei finished first, Trainer Mee was going to chew her out for disregarding his cardinal rule. They measured these breathing and heartbeat stuff using little straps they put around our waist and fingers and chest, so we couldn’t just lie about it.
In front of Lu-Wei was Chyna, her effortless prance to the finish line as effortless as water down an inclined surface. A gun went off as Chyna crossed the line, the birds on a nearby tree taking frightened flight at the loud, ear-splitting bang. Through the cacophony of beating wings and scattered applause from the kids who had just been let out of class I saw Chyna’s friends run to her with bottles of glucose and the pale lavender potion they kept feeding us.
The evening sun had dipped lower in the horizon and the light dimmed around us. The walkway was full of students and chattering, the dizzy rush of release from class in every face. Bodies surged forward and knocked into each other, and froze at the sudden booming thunder clap from the heavens. The sound of it seemed to make the blood in my veins hum along with it and I worked my muscles harder, intent on getting to that line before the elemental war in the sky unleashed its fury on us earthly beings.
I could hear snatches of voices calling my name, cheering me on. The noise sounded fuzzy to my heat-dazed brain but I held onto their familiar pitches anyway, like their voices were what were anchoring me to this earth flying past my rhythmically pounding feet.
The exodus on the walkway reminded me of how strenuous the race had been, how thirsty I am. The thought was all it took to make me suddenly aware of the exhaustion threatening to bring me right down on the heated tarmac of the path.
The first fat drops of rain spilled onto my scalp, sinking to the roots. A smile broke out on my face at feeling and I pushed my hair beneath my ears as I ran. Lu-Wei, utterly exhausted now, tripped, her feet flying out from under her, landing hard on the concrete with her limbs splayed out in an undignified mess. A giddy little whoop broke free of my mouth as I swerved to avoid her fallen form, and twitters from onlookers proved they were laughing at her, too. No sympathy for the losers, that was the School, all right.
Snarling, angered, Lu-Wei grabbed for my ankle but got nothing but air.
I laughed out loud as I crossed the line, unable to shake the image of Lu-Wei sprawled on the ground from my mind. Sweat ran down my face and neck, my shirt stuck to me like glue, and I was laughing, wondering if it was mild hysteria. I dropped to the ground just beyond the thin line, breathing controlled sips of air, letting my lungs luxuriate in the sweetness of oxygen while the rain pelted me. Entirely exhausted but reveling in the glory of being second, I didn’t hear the footsteps until Trainer Mee was right in front of me.
‘Raye. You’re disqualified’
My mouth dropped open pretty much all the way to the tarmac. Squawking in disbelief, I choked out a ‘what?!’ which made him glare at me.
‘Why the hell am I disqualified?’
Trainer Mee chewed on his lower lip. ‘Stratten tells me you took the Shade Shield potion before the race’
Trainer Stratten, lounging against the dark silhouette of a tree, smoked a cigarette and waved when I shot him a dirty look. I stood up shakily, brushing mud and sand off my knees and tossing my heavy hair behind my shoulders. A loud buzzing told me that the watching crowd had got their winners and were leaving now.
‘Well’, I tried to reason, exasperated beyond measure. ‘, I didn’t know I was going to run a race. And Stratten practically pushed it down my throat so he’s not one to talk is he?’
‘Whatever, Raye. Excuses are like worms. They wriggle everywhere and Gets. Under. My. Skin’
I rolled my eyes heavenward and a heavy drop of water fell onto my chin, rolling into my mouth. A loud rush of static seemed to have seized my brain, and I wondered vaguely about the orange door and the crumpled note from Jina to K. An illegal note, mind you, written in terrible language and debasing the Trainers.
Although, right then, I would have happily decapitated Mee and Stratten let alone debase them.
‘You pick on
’, I hissed at Trainer Mee, hands on my hips, furious. ‘, If I win, oh it’s the potion, but if I lose’, I changed my pitch to do a dopey imitation of Trainer Mee’s flat, coldly insinuating tone ‘,washing duty for you, Ani! Either way, you pick on me!’ me.
I left him no room for speech before marching away jubilantly. A triumphant roar was in my head, but anxiety boiled in my stomach. Tomorrow, there would be hell to pay for. I’d have to probably start the fires as punishment for disrespecting a Trainer.
My feet dragged on the stones and made a harsh grating sound that set my nerves tingling uncomfortably. I was ready to crash, just let the rest of the evening run it’s course while I drifted in blissful stupor until I could get myself in order. I’d get K to bring me coffee and then read a book or ink his arms (he was a tattoos and ink-in-skin kinda dude) with those complicated patterns I always came up with.
A girl could fantasize.
I’d probably go back to the dorms to find a note telling me it was my turn to start the damn fires.
Read on! : Next installment features a description of Ani's world as she sees it, plus a better rendezvous with K.
From the first:
Artwork by me, model is faestock on DeviantArt