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The Catalyst

The VQ Drill

Natalie Luterman, Fiction Writer

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In the beige-white halls of Bunker 247, the morning of the Vein 19 Ambassador and his personally mentored Trainee was suddenly made more interesting, when a manic-eyed Maintenance Employee came trampling down the corridor, heaving and sputtering. The two of them heard the noise at the same time and turned to approach her. The Trainee’s eyes were wide with concern, but he was delighted deep down to have official business to do. The Ambassador was not as eager, and he felt a quiet groan escape his lips as he saw who was coming. He regarded the stampeding figure coldly, his gaze stern.

 

“If this is about a new concern regarding the recent VQ Drill,” the Ambassador began robotically, “let me assure, for the fifth time, that you cannot trespass into a different Vein while the drill is still in effect, no matter how important a matter it is. We apologize,” he said, not too apologetically, “but no one is going to let you through no matter who you ask, and we aren’t going to let you either.”

 

The Trainee was puzzled by this; he hasn’t seen this particular girl before, but it certainly sounded like his mentor had, several times. He didn’t interject about it, however, and he watched the Ambassador handle the situation, taking note.

 

The girl wasn’t at all phased by his coldness. Her hair and clothes were all disheveled, and her eyes somehow seemed to be dancing along to her speeding heartbeat. She waved his words away with a frantic gesture. “No, no, no! It’s not that again, I promise! It’s my roommate-!” She forced herself to pause to suck in a breath. She shook her head a little. “I mean, my roommate’s had an injury. He was, I mean-!” Her voice twisted up again, like an uncoiling spring. “He was just sitting at the table finishing up, and he doubled over, and-!”

 

The Ambassador moved to say something unpleasant to get her to speak, but his Trainee hadn’t noticed, and he piped up first; “Hey! Everything’s okay!” he said, some of his delight leaking onto his face. “Just take another breath and tell us what happened. You’re doing fine!” He smiled patiently, and the girl, looking a little less frazzled, paused to take several more deep breaths. Behind her, the Ambassador took in a sharp breath himself.

 

“He said- I mean, he just crumpled up, y’know? Tipped right out of his chair and blacked out! He-!” she shuddered all over. “Someone tried to get at him! I can’t think about it! What if-?”

 

The Ambassador raised his eyebrows. “Are you claiming someone tried to murder your roommate, ma’am? Did you see the assailant? Is your roommate sustaining any injuries? If so, you should have started with that.”

 

“No, no! I mean, I don’t know! I didn’t see anyone, but I called the Medic, and-!”

 

“So he IS sustaining injuries?”

 

“The Medic! He’s handling him in the laundry room! You’ll see!” she warbled, already storming forward, trying to coax the two along with a flurry of hand gestures. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, so you need to speak with him quickly! He can tell you! Oh, I hope he’s awake!”

 

The Trainee was reminded by her of a claustrophobe in a tiny room. Invested in her words, he approached briskly to go along with her, assuming his mentor would do the the same. The Ambassador, however, instead halted and grabbed him by the elbow. The Trainee nearly stumbled over.

 

“What?” the Trainee protested, gawking up at him. “What are we waiting for?”

 

“Please come on now!” chimed the Maintenance Worker. Her shuddering was growing more violent as she squawked. “Please! What’s the matter??”

 

The Ambassador’s lips were tight across his face. His glasses glinted in the florescent light, masking his eyes. “Do you have a reason to suspect an attempted murder, ma’am?” he asked. “Or is it at all possible that he just took an extra pill by mistake, or choked on a bite of toast, or fell over in his chair and bumped his head? A simple injury does not require our intervention.” The Trainee couldn’t help but take offense to the cynicism in his mentor’s voice. He gnawed his lip and set his jaw, and he thought that, if a calculator could speak, the Ambassador’s tone would closely resemble one at that moment. The Maintenance Worker was too busy smothering the oncoming panic to notice, or at least to visually take offense.

 

“Oh, no, no, of course not! I wish-!” Her voice cinched, and she pushed her twitching fingers against her cheeks. “I mean, he told me-!”

 

The Ambassador grew outwardly annoyed. “Do you mean he told you he was murdered? When did he say this? I thought you discovered him unconscious.” The calculator-tone was stronger; it sounded as though he neither expected nor wanted a reply. “Could you speak more clearly please?”

 

With a pang, the Maintenance Worker realized she’d made a mistake in her explanation, but the stability she needed to re-explain had long surpassed her. Her breathing escalated, and she plucked trivially at the air with her hands. “Oh, no! I didn’t just-! I mean, I meant-!” Her cry finally slammed to a stop, and her eyes widened and glassed over. An ensemble of shadows was gathering close around her, whispering worst-case scenarios under their breath, reaching out their stony hands. She tossed herself away from them as they drew closer, stumbling into the corner of the hallway.  “I-!” She slumped down, covered her head and tried to keep them from forcing their way down her throat. She made delicate noises of suffocating.

 

The Trainee yanked away from the Ambassador with a cry and stepped towards the convulsing girl, both urgently and hesitantly at once. “Hey, hey-!” he stammered, starting to kneel, but his mentor calmly fished him back away from her by the back of his shirt.

 

“Just leave her be. She has a habit of this; she’ll recover in a few minutes.” he said, his patience magically replenished. The Trainee craned his neck to look at him.

 

“Why did you do that?” he snapped, his cheeks warm. “You did that on purpose!”

 

The Ambassador opened his mouth to reply, but he glanced down at the estranged Maintenance Worker squirming on the floor and closed it. He said nothing until he had led his Trainee back down the hall and around the corner, until the oblivious whines of the girl were drowned out by the distance and the whirring of the ventilation.

 

“I know that girl” he said assuredly, in a lowered voice. “Her name is Alison Schooner.”

 

And?

 

“And, she was having a panic attack, as I’m sure you could tell.”

 

“So what? She panicked; everyone panics once in a while down here! You can’t help it!”

 

“Alright, let me rephrase. She has a pretty substantial history of having panic attacks. She’d be more prone to them under stress, of course, but most of the time, they happen without a direct cause. In any case, I’m sure this would lead to her making a few exaggerations.”

 

The Trainee’s tongue grew a barb on its tip. “So you’re saying that you discredit anything you just heard, and you’re somehow magically sure that nothing actually happened to her roommate.”

 

“I didn’t mean that, and I think you know me better than to assume I’d mean that. I’m sure her roommate really did have an accident of some kind, but I can confidently say there wasn’t any mal-intent involved. We will go speak to the Medic anyways, of course- so you can stop looking at me like I’m the scum of the earth. I was just doing our job.”

 

The Trainee hesitated, almost ashamed of himself. He glanced back down the hall and thought of the girl still panicking by herself on the floor, and he sighed, resigned. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Even so, you could have been a little gentler. She was only scared.”

 

“I don’t like wasting my time” he said stiffly, and, when his Trainee did not immediately reply, he continued, “We shouldn’t stand here anymore. We should go to the laundry room just to be sure we aren’t wrong.”

 

Just be sure YOU aren’t wrong, the Trainee thought uneasily. “Right” he muttered. “We should go.”

 

  • ●●

 

The two of them discovered the Medic in the laundry room as promised, on a stool beside a cot, on which lay a pale and unconscious man. The Medic had a fair clinic set up, for what he had been left to use; racks that once held towels were now littered with bandage rolls and stacks of sterile sheets, and most of his more intricate tools and gadgets were laid out neatly on the long tables that were usually used for folding. At the other end of the room, divided off by a wall of shelves and curtains, was the makeshift Pharmacist’s office. The faint acrid smell of medicine came from behind it.

 

The Trainee waited behind the Ambassador, but, as always, he kept his ears open studiously to the conversation. However, a festering sprout of resentment had been planted in his stomach, and he felt, in that moment, that he wasn’t just listening for learning purposes.

 

The Ambassador held himself with modest esteem next to the Medic. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I am the Ambassador of Vein 19. My student and I have come upon a report of violent injustice, that we would like verified.”

 

The Medic nodded gravely. “I was expecting you. Alison sent for you, I take it? Is she alright?”

 

The Trainee began to open his mouth.

 

“She’s a little upset, as you can imagine,” the Ambassador said first, swiftly, as if deliberately, “but she’s alright. Thank you for your concern.”

 

He growled, closed his mouth, and glared subtly at his shoes. He’d never realized just how impatient his mentor was towards people who he didn’t understand. Especially an innocent, discombobulated victim.

 

The Medic smiled sympathetically. “I understand. I appreciate your patience with her; I know she can be a little hard to understand, but it really isn’t her fault. When the Vein Quarantine Drill is over, she’ll be able to visit her therapist again. She’ll be better.”

 

The Ambassador nodded. The Trainee hissed under his breathe and gnawed his lip.

 

After a pause, the Medic’s smile flashed away, and he looked grievously back at his patient. “Anyway,” he said, “if Alison told you what she told me, I can confidently say she was absolutely right. I’ve taken a few blood samples and tested them each on multiple surveillance machines; there is indeed an abnormal substance traversing Mr. Cobb’s bloodstream, indicating that he was indeed poisoned.”

 

“Alison never got to anything about poison,” the Trainee suddenly piped up, taken aback. He peered at his mentor from the side, watching to see if he would admit surprise, or at least acknowledge that Alison had been right. He did no such thing.

 

“How can you be positive he didn’t just take too many prescription pills by mistake?” the Ambassador asked coolly, his eyes straight lines beneath arched eyebrows.

 

“Because medicine takes time and often scarce resources to create, prescriptions are filled in the smallest dose possible. And, according to his medication chart,” the Medic replied, “he had his only prescription filled about seven days ago. So, deducting seven days worth of pills from his original delivered dose, he only had four pills left in his canister. What specific medication he takes is private and thus classified, of course, but I can guarantee that his remaining four pills is not nearly enough to insinuate an overdose. Regardless, you can even check to make sure they’re all still there, if you wish. Assuming you have the authorization to search his room.”

 

“I do.” The Ambassador was thoughtful for a moment. “How many pills would Alison have left? The two of them are roommates, right?”

 

The Medic seemed offended. “What makes you so certain Alison has pills? …Oh, you know what? Don’t answer that. I can’t feign ignorance just to be polite right now, can I? I’ll have to check on her file. I’ll do so as soon as I can.” He paused uneasily. “Although, if you are implying that she had something to do with this, I really don’t think she’s capable-”

 

At that moment, a woman in a stained blue uniform entered from behind the makeshift wall, cradling a bag of fluids in her arm. Her sleek hair was tied behind her back, and a nameplate was pinned over her breast pocket. The Medic looked away from the Ambassador and nodded up at her.

 

“Thank you”

 

“‘Course,” the Pharmacist said gently as she hooked up the fresh IV. “How is he?”

 

“The same as he was the last time you changed his fluids, unfortunately.”

 

“This is so awful,” she sighed. “I don’t really know him, but he was always so polite whenever I saw him at Food Distribution. I think he volunteered there; a real good Samaritan.” She finished with his IV and turned to face the Medic, and she realized two new figures were among them. “Oh, excuse me. Who are you?”

 

“My name is Alderson Nachman. I’m the Vein 19 Ambassador.”

 

“Benjamin Mier,” the Trainee chimed in, startling the Medic who had forgotten he was there. “His student.”

 

“I see; I’m Kathleen O’Dell. It’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry for not seeing you there for a second.” She wiped her hands off on her uniform. Even when she was speaking seriously, bubbles lined her voice. “I’m assuming you’re working on what happened to Mr. Cobb?”

 

“Of course,” said the Ambassador, taking a pad and a pen out from his pocket. He adjusted his glasses and meticulously inked something down. “You’re the Pharmacist, right, Ms. O’Dell?”

 

“I am,” she replied proudly, crossing her arms, but she then stopped and squinted her eyes. “Are you writing down my name?”

 

“I am,” he answered, leaving the unspoken other half of her question unanswered, the calculator-tone creeping it’s way back in. Now that the Trainee thought about it, it was always sort of present in the back of his mouth. It just grew more noticeable accompanied with professionalism, and impatience, like the moon at night opposed to it at day. “I’m going to need your name as well, Doctor.”

 

“Oh!” he said, his eyebrows raised, a bit surprised that he hadn’t already known it. “My name is Dr. Steinway Edwards. You will find it on many official forms from this Vein’s medical records, if you need any verification at all.”

 

“I don’t think I understand. What are our names for, exactly?” the Pharmacist asked, frowning. “I don’t like my name in the media, if it’s for something public or anything.”

 

“Nothing like that. I’d actually sincerely prefer if you all kept this incident to yourselves for now, if you can.” He didn’t lift his face from his notepad. “Both of you had direct access to things that could be used to commit this crime. I need to have your names for the crime report, especially if I need to arrest either of you.”

 

The words saturated and hung heavy in the air, like a humid day, and there was a long silence between the four of them. Everyone suddenly found their eyes on the patient in the cot; the inner corners of his lips were a sickly blackish color, and they stood in heavy contrast with his yellowed visage. His hair was gray, and his eyes were uncomfortably closed, as if he was concentrating on something. A murmur finally dropped the tension, and it fell like rain;

 

“Is he going to be okay?” the Trainee asked slowly. “Like, really.”

 

“For the moment, he’s in an absolutely stable position,” the Medic answered, surely and heavily. “but I can’t assure the future until the specific poison is identified. And only the one who fed it to him can be positive of that.”

 

The silence clenched and expanded once again, like a shifting tide.

 

  • ●●

 

“It just doesn’t make sense” the Trainee insisted for the third time, as they walked down the corridor. “Why would a doctor treat someone he wants dead?”

 

“Because it would be out of place of him to not treat him” his mentor replied, with his teacherly but also more-knowledgeable-and-openly-superior-adult voice. “If Dr. Edwards had refused to accept Mr. Cobb into treatment, Alison would have come to us with an even more scrambled, breathless story.”

 

The Trainee rolled his eyes. “Whatever you wanna call it.”

 

“And even if she didn’t,” he continued, ignoring or not noticing the shot, “she likely would have had her fit out in the open, and someone would be bound to ask her what’s wrong. Regardless, it would be immediately suspicious when we discovered that he refused to accept an obviously intoxicated patient.”

 

“Don’t use that word in the crime report. It makes it sound like he was drunk.”

 

“That’s very professional of you.”

 

“Hey,” the Trainee grinned goofily and elbowed his side. “Don’t give me that look. I know you don’t hate me that much.”

 

“If I couldn’t at least tolerate you, we would have a miserably unhealthy student-teacher relationship, wouldn’t we?” The Ambassador kept an absolutely straight face and an even duller voice while his student laughed. There was something slightly endearing about their mentorship, although the mentor would never admit it, and even the Trainee would struggle somewhat to talk about it, especially after what he’d seen today. There was a brief pause.

 

“So, um” the Trainee began, quickly shaking off his smile. “If we don’t trust the doctor, or the Pharmacist, why are we leaving Mr. Cobb alone with them?”

 

“I’ve already called for a Guard to watch them. He’s one of the only other governing figures who made it in this Vein’s Quarantine. I’ve also asked him to search the pharmacy.”

 

The Trainee sighed. “Don’t you think there should be a set minimum, at the very least, of those for these drills? It makes me nervous.”

 

“There is a set number.”

 

“Only two governors and two doctors isn’t enough for a whole Vein. At least five of each would be okay, but two is just…” He shook his head. “Two

 

“Mier, if there ever were to be a real issue, the Veins would need to be ready for these situations. In a real emergency, there could be no governors and no doctors at all. The people need to be prepared to take care of their own needs.”

 

“I guess so.” he muttered, wondering for a moment if that was the reason his mentor didn’t like people like Alison. “I still don’t like it, though.”

 

“If it makes you feel any better, neither I or the Guard, two governing figures, require any prescription medication, so neither of us will keel over in a situation without a doctor.”

 

“It doesn’t, really.” A semblance of the student’s grin resurfaced. “It means I’d have to put up with you in an emergency. As if it wouldn’t be bad enough.”

 

“I thought we were having a serious discussion.”

 

“You kidding? I never have serious discussions.”

 

“And that’s why I’m the teacher and you’re student.”

 

The Trainee’s grin grew wider. “Not forever I won’t be.”

 

The mentor almost cracked a smile. “And how sincerely I dread that day.”

 

The Ambassador stopped by a beige door and whipped his key from his belt loop, unlocking the door with a sleek flick of his wrist. The two of them pushed inside the quant square room, and the Trainee clicked on the lamp.

 

“So,” he said, putting his hands on the desk and leaning on his arms, “what’s next?”

 

“I’m still working it out. Remember, while I’m legally qualified to run an investigation, I’m not a licensed investigator.”

 

“Another reason why more governing personnel should be counted in the VQ.”

 

“Not now. Let me think.” The Ambassador sat at his desk chair and leaned back, pursing his lips. He took out his notepad and opened it, adjusting his glasses. “Is there anyone else would could enter the pharmacy unquestioned?”

 

“Is there at all a chance that someone just snuck in?”

 

“I suppose so,” the mentor said thoughtfully, “but, unless there’s an obvious suspect outside of the unquestionables, I don’t want to go around talking about this to citizens yet. I want to keep this as private as I can. Panics do not do well under Quarantine Drills.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Right. So back to my question.”

 

The two of them thought about it for a minute.

 

“You, right?” the Trainee finally asked, remembering something he’d read for school before his days under mentorship. “And that Guard you hired?”

 

“Yes, academically, that’s true. But we aren’t of concern. We are not involved in this crime.”

 

“Yeah, but who knows? Maybe I’ve seen too much. You could be about to lunge at me at any moment” he said, smiling slyly. “You could-”

 

“That’s enough.” The Ambassador interjected sharply, more sharply than the Trainee was prepared for. The smile melted off his lips at once. “That isn’t something you should ever joke about.”

 

There was an uneasy pause. The Ambassador was stone, and the Trainee felt warm blood rise to his cheeks.

 

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I’ll stop.”

 

“Good.” His mentor returned to his notes. Mier swallowed nervously; he shouldn’t have forgotten who he was talking to. As informal as their relationship usually was, he was the student, and Nachman was his teacher. He shouldn’t have gotten as accustomed to jesting about things, especially in such a serious situation.

 

Then, as his cheeks cooled, he remembered what exactly he’d been joking about, and something in his face changed. For a minute, it resembled the Ambassador’s more than it did his own. Then the minute passed and the Trainee scratched his new terrible thought from his face, as he calculated his next words with unusual precision.

 

“Maybe you should go S-and-S Mr. Cobb’s dormitory, while I interview the Medic and the Pharmacist.”

 

“That’s not a horrible idea” The Ambassador replied, not so sharply anymore but still more formally than before. “But perhaps those roles should switch? I am the professional, and, frankly, I’d rather not see Alison again.”

 

“I mean, maybe, but…” He thought quickly. “What if it isn’t safe?”

 

“Not safe?” his mentor retorted skeptically, adjusting his glasses. “Why would you say that?”

 

“I mean, what if the assailant…” His voice grew quiet as he rummaged through his schema for some viable concern. The killer wouldn’t be there; he or she had left their poison however long ago, and surely they were aware of how long it would take for it to work. They wouldn’t be reappearing their crime scene any time soon, of course. The Trainee licked his lips and shuffled in place. An image of Alison Schooner popped into his mind, backed into a corner, huddled up, gasping for air. “Ah…”

 

A few troubled seconds transformed into a pitiful, ruinous moment. His cheeks and ears were burning on his face, and he finally bowed his head, allowing his argument to die. “Nothing. Sorry” he mumbled under his breath. He gnawed his lip and waited for something to be said.

 

Something in the charcoal of Nachman’s eyes was suddenly riddled with a new intensity, and the teeth behind his thin lips had turned to ice chips. He gracefully sat up, neatly laid his notepad down on his desk, and ossified his vocal cords. “Mier.”

 

“Yeah.” The Trainee did not look up.

 

“I did not attempt murder against Mr. Cobb.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“I know how it feels when a realization like that appears in your head,” he continued, a bit more gently, “but you must think logically. I have no reason to. Neither does the Guard I hired.”

 

“I’m sorry.” He felt foolish and thoroughly reprimanded. “Can we just get this done now?”

 

“Absolutely. You may begin in the laundry room, if you still feel strongly about it. I will begin at the crime scene, and after, say,” he looked at the clock. “an hour or so, our roles will switch, so we may make each other’s job more thorough. Is that fine?”

 

“‘Course it is.”

 

“Good. We will meet up in this room before we switch positions, to share any important details we’ve discovered. I will return here a few minutes early to unlock the door.”

 

The Trainee hastily agreed, collected his things, and set out.

 

“You scare me sometimes, teacher,” he muttered to himself as we went.

 

  • ●●

 

The Trainee marched back down the hallway, his duffel slung over one shoulder filled mostly just his school papers. If someone was to ask why he had taken it, he would claim that if he was to ever to need to verify a law during his investigation, they would come in handy. But, in reality, he’d just taken it out of habit my mistake.

 

He wasn’t at all focusing on where he was the going. His legs were moving by themselves, out of habit, just like his arms had when they’d reached for his duffel, and he instead was wandering through a dense forest of troubled thoughts. He couldn’t recall another time when he’d directly challenged a figure of authority. It wasn’t a becoming trait for someone studying to be one, but even so, beyond his shame, he couldn’t shake the idea that he had done the right thing. After all, no motive had been discovered yet, and absolutely anyone within the Vein was a viable suspect; he decided that, while he could comfortably exclude his mentor from his investigation, he would still question the Guard as planned.

 

He ended up going the wrong way, and he was ten minutes late by the time he noticed and doubled back. When he arrived, a man dressed in a black uniform was perched just inside the door. On his chest he wore a strip of fabric, on which a few badges were mounted; a green circle, an eagle, and a silver star. On his hip there was an empty holster, where a stun gun would usually go. Perhaps weapons were confiscated during drills?

 

“What is your business with the Medic?” the Guard demanded. He was undeniably still; his shoulders and knees were carved in stone, his hands perfect wooden discs at his sides. His eyes were marbles implanted in his skull.

 

“Oh, my name is Benjamin Mier. I’m a student of the Vein 19 Ambassador-”

 

“We aren’t offering any learning opportunities right now. There is a serious situation going on inside.”

 

“No, no, I’m apart of the investigation. I’m, ah…” He felt like now would be the time a professional would pull out a badge, or a permit, or something, but all he had was his outdated student licence in his duffel. He decided against presenting it. “My mentor can verify it for you, when he gets here.”

 

“He was here earlier! You can let him in,” a voice called from deeper inside the room. The Trainee gratefully recalled the Pharmacist.

 

The Guard made no indication that he had heard her call. He blinked once, and the Trainee could feel him looking closer, even though he never moved his head. After a minute, he replied, his throat like a PA system; “Are you sure?”

 

“Absolutely!”

 

“Alright then. You may enter,” the Guard said, not any less sternly, and the Trainee thought he even heard displeasure behind his voice. Nonetheless, he strode further inside, swallowing up a pill of discomfort lodged in his throat. He discovered the Pharmacist searching for something on one of the shelves that made up the divider. Her hair was untied and hanging at her shoulders, and she seemed vaguely distracted as she worked.

 

“Need any help?” he asked, approaching her.

 

“Thanks, but not at all,” she said, smiling and stopping her search. She put her hands on her hips. “I’m pretty sure you’re actually here for my help.” An easy smile touched her lips; it seemed as though she’d been expecting to see him again.

 

“You guessed it. Thanks for letting me in, by the way.”

 

The Pharmacist chuckled. “Not a problelm.”

 

The Trainee smiled carefully. “How’s Mr. Cobb feeling?” he asked, looking over at the cot where the man still lay, breathing slowly. The Pharmacist frowned and shook her head.

 

“The same as before. It’s awful, having to see him like this. I wish we had a more comfortable place than the laundry room to stow him.”

 

“I’m sure he’ll understand when he wakes up. The VQs don’t leave a lot of options.”

 

The corners of her lips tipped up wryly. “You don’t say. And it’s not like we can put him back in his room, with Alison there to see him.” She sighed wearily. “At least the VQ narrows down the subjects, I’m sure.”

 

“Yeah. And speaking of which,” he began, quickly straightening himself out. He thought of his mentor’s notepad and wished he’d thought to bring one himself, deciding he’d take out an old school notebook if he absolutely needed to. “I’m gonna need to ask a few questions.”

 

“I figured as much. Ask away, please. Or do we need to go somewhere more private?”

 

“Um.” The Trainee tried to imagine what the Ambassador would do. He looked around. “No, this is fine, I guess. But where’s the doctor?”

 

“He left to go deliver medication to the Vein. He does so twice a week”

 

“Oh, he’s the one who delivers prescriptions? I would have thought that would be your job.” He took a mental note.

 

“Yep. Outside of VQ Drills, prescribing and delivering medicine is his main job; only during situations like this does he look after patients long-term. Unfortunate for Mr, Cobb, isn’t it?”

 

“At least he has a doctor at all, I guess.” He shuffled his feet and stared at the wall behind the Pharmacist, thinking hard. “Hm. So, you said you didn’t know Mr. Cobb that well?”

 

She sighed. “No, not really. I know he has a job in the kitchens, and he also volunteers at Food Distribution. He’s an incredible person, to be able to do so much at once.”

 

“Do you know of any reasons why he’d have an enemy?”

 

“Not at all. But, like I said, I really don’t know him very well.”

 

“‘Course.” He hesitated again, and his front teeth dug into his lip. He wasn’t sure at all where he was going with this. “Um.”

 

The Pharmacist noticed him struggling, but she said nothing, waiting for a moment. Then, her face shifted, as her train of thought changed course, and she sighed again, more deeply. “If it helps you at all, Alison’s mentioned him taking care of her for a little while. They aren’t related or anything, but she’s really been needing the assistance, and, with them being roommates and all, he’s been a nice enough person to give it. I could tell your mentor was suspecting her; I just thought I should let you know that she really isn’t worth the suspicion.”

 

“Oh, yeah, I didn’t really suspect her anyway.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry about his attitude. I’ll keep that in mind, I promise.”

 

The Pharmacist nodded and stuck a smile back across her face, but her gaze had lost its footing and had fallen to the Trainee’s shoes. She crossed her arms and fidgeted; it seemed as though a new thought was taking root inside her skull, like a weed in sidewalk cracks, and she was struggling to climb over it.

 

“Hey, are you okay?” The Trainee’s voice cut into her silence. She startled, but settled and looked away.

 

“Fine. It’s just if, and I mean if, Mr. Cobb doesn’t make it,” she began, “I really hope Alison is okay.” She thought for a moment. “Do you have a piece of paper I could borrow? And something to write with?”

 

“Oh! Yeah, sure.” He knelt down and slung his backpack from his shoulder, unzipped it, and dug out a half-used sheet of paper and a pencil. He stood and handed them to her, a little embarrassed to appear so unprofessional. “What for?”

 

She took them and used the wall behind them as as clipboard, scribbling something down and handing them back. “It’s my dorm number. If Alison ever comes to you again like she did the last time, please take her here, okay?”

 

The Trainee began to sympathetically oblige, but the PA perched by the door thundered back between them.

 

“Are you sure you feel comfortable giving him that information?” the Guard projected, never stepping foot off his post, his eyes alight like wads of coal. The Trainee was intrigued by how his mouth, as loud as it was, never opened more than a whisper’s distance; the Pharmacist flinched out of her skin, and she looked back at him with unexpectedly sharp disdain.

 

“I told you, he came in here earlier. He’s a governing figure’s apprentice; I’m not too worried about having my privacy invaded.”

 

To that, the Guard said nothing; he was already staring back out the door and down the hall, but the gaze of the back of his head felt somehow toxic. This, combined with the Pharmacist’s set shoulders and stiff sarcastic tongue, created an ugly fusion that quickened the air. The Trainee suddenly felt as if he was interrupting something.

 

“What’s his problem?” he muttered, glancing back behind him. The Pharmacist shook her head, like a mother annoyed by a child, but somehow also like a child shamed by her mother.

 

“He’s only doing his job, I guess” she muttered dismissively. “He’s just so over sensitive about this whole thing.”

 

“You guys got a history, or…?”

 

“Sort of, but I mostly just don’t like him.”

 

The Trainee nodded and let it go, although a mumble from the back of his head, like a wad of gum stuck in his brain, couldn’t help but doubt that to be the truth.

 

“I was planning on asking him a few questions as well. Do you think he’d be okay with that?”

 

“There’s nothing for me to tell you,” he thundered, making the startled Trainee drop the paper in his hand, “but it is my obligation to answer to your mentor. So ask what you will.”

 

  • ●●

 

Their interview was a short, tedious endeavour. Afterwards, the Trainee still had some time before he would need to return to the Ambassador’s office. He would have simply waited for the Medic, if he had not had something else to do.

 

The dormitory hall was a pale purple, with a texture like an old fridge and an unfamiliar system of addresses. He walked down slowly, studying the sheet of paper in his hands, glancing up at every passing door to check the number.

 

“So, uh, where were you when my mentor asked you to guard Mr. Cobb?

 

The Guard seemed annoyed. “I was making my usual rounds around the Vein, having been that I had no other assignment. It is not surprising that such a crime took place during this drill; even though there are now fewer suspects to muddle the investigation, I can imagine the utter lack of protection would make it quite simple to plant the poison.”

 

The Trainee stopped in front of the door once he’d found the correct one. He shuffled his feet and chewed his lip; he’d never had to actually break into someone’s dorm before. The last time he’d practiced it was in class, on a fake lock inside a hunk of plastic. And he hadn’t even been good at it then.

 

“Yeah, of course. It’s still terrible though.” He waited a moment, expecting the Guard to mutter something sympathetic in agreement. When he didn’t, he quickly continued, daunted by the glassy silence; “So what’s the deal with you and the Pharmacist, huh? You two have a history?” It was the first thing that came to mind.

 

“I believe she answered that question for you already.”

 

“I mean, she said ‘sort of’. Is there anything at all that comes to mind?”

 

The door slid open with an eerie shiff noise, as if with a whisper of accusation. It was uncomfortable to open someone’s door without permission, and the Trainee took several halted breaths before he dared to enter. Right in the doorway, exactly where the flooring of the hall met the flooring of the room, he realized that the Pharmacist might have a roommate, and he stopped where he stood.

 

“Hello?” he called softly, any notion of sounding intimidating left behind in his stomach. “It’s…it’s the Ambassador, sort of. Is anyone here?”

 

There was no reply.

 

“The only time I’ve ever formally met with her is to discuss my medication. But that is all.”

 

“Are you absolutely sure? She didn’t sound too sure.”

 

The Guard stared. The Trainee decided he was sure.

 

“Okay, okay. Um.” He wasn’t sure what there was left to say, but something about the situation was still bothering him. He remembered something that the Ambassador had said. “Did you find anything in the pharmacy? My mentor said you were supposed to search it.”

 

“Sometimes, I worry that your mentor entrusts you with a bit too much information. He knows you’re only a student, doesn’t he? Has he told you anything else?” The words came out venomous and accusative. “I don’t think investigating is really a student’s place.”

 

Meir was wounded by the comment, and then offended immediately after. His brows furrowed and his eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to defend himself and his mentor, to argue that the Ambassador had spectacular judgement, whether or not he believed it outside of the heat of the moment, and that only having a few pieces of governing staff to issue out was an impeccable challenge. But, as that thought foamed up in his brain, something else the Ambassador had said materialized along with it;

 

“If it makes you feel any better, neither I or the Guard, two governing figures, require any prescription medication, so neither of us will keel over in a situation without a doctor.”

 

The Trainee retired his defense before it left his lips. He found himself frozen in place as the two thoughts clicked, and he slowly realized that the man of stone before him had told him a lie.

 

“Maybe not” is all the dizzy Trainee replied, and the interview concluded with a quick and awkward nod. The Guard said nothing more as the student ducked away.

 

The Pharmacist kept a quaint and tidy dorm; the walls were a minty fluorescent green, which was pretty but painful to the Trainee’s eyes. The bed was made and the floors were clear, and the Pharmacist kept mostly plastic gray furniture, with an exceptional white couch, mattress, and faux-wooden dresser. A smaller door led to her similar kitchen, and another yet to a beige private bathroom. The emergency floor panel was shut and locked up tight.

 

The Guard’s lie confirmed a connection between him and the Pharmacist; the Trainee understood that they were plenty of reasons one might lie about a relationship, but the fact that a governing figure had done it didn’t sit well with him. He felt he was very lucky to have remembered such a tiny detail about the Guard, and since he had nothing else to do with his remaining time, he figured that something in the Pharmacist’s room might explain the cold relationship between herself and the Guard.

 

However, he had absolutely no idea what he was looking for. A note, maybe, or an article of clothing. Even a dropped ID or badge, or possibly a photograph. He searched each bedside drawer, feeling uneasily like a teenage boy on a panty raid. He rummaged through her dresser, through her desk, atop and behind her bookshelf, all the while being careful to leave her belongings as tidy as he found them. Every so often, he’d stop and hold his breath, thinking to hear the shuffle of an arm or the whisper of an inhale someplace in the room. He was seized by the fear of being watched, and of the worry of someone walking in.

 

After a long and pointless hunt, he ended up in the kitchen, where he found a book of contacts on the counter, in which was the name and dorm number of every person in the Vein. It wasn’t too unusual; the Ambassador had one just like it, but since he didn’t have any to her lead, the Trainee picked it up and flipped through the pages. He immediately saw that a few of the names were circled with red ink, but it could be assumed that the circled names were just the ones who she produced medicine for. The Trainee was weary; he felt ridiculous for having come here, wishing he knew the Guard’s name, so he could at least ensure that his name was not circled. He slumped his shoulders and sat on the floor, flipping mindlessly, regretting his stupid, sudden decision. He thought ruefully about what he would say to his teacher.

 

Entirely by accident, he ended up on the familiar name of Alison Schooner. Of course, her name was labeled as a Maintenance Worker and was circled, as he recalled the Medic confirming her indeed having a prescription. But in that moment, he also spotted something odd. With the circle, alongside the name, there was a little blue asterisk drawn up in pen.

 

The Trainee hooked his eyebrows and sharpened his eyes; the tiny star was was a terribly specific detail, that could mean anything, but something about it caught his eye. Puzzled, he flipped back through the other pages, more slowly and thoughtfully, and he realized that other names had tiny blue stars as well, with no indication of what they meant. The Trainee thought hard. What did Alison have or need that other people wouldn’t?

 

He checked Mr. Cobb’s name. No blue star. He discovered that his own name didn’t have a star either, nor did the Medic’s, nor did the Ambassador’s. However, when he checked the Ambassador’s, he discovered that governing officers’ names had a special indications of their credentials listed with them. When he noticed this, he checked the credentials of everyone in Vein 19, keeping in mind the badges that the Guard had had on his uniform; a green circle, an eagle, and a silver star. He eventually found one with all of these exact symbols; the name listed had a star.

 

The Trainee pocketed the book and stood back up, and he gnawed his lip. Alison, the Guard, and the Pharmacist were all involved in something, that may or may not be relevant at all. What did all of them have in common? Did the Medic play a role, even though his name was clean? The Trainee had absolutely no idea.

 

That is when he noticed the clock out of the corner of his eye.

 

  • ●●

 

Only minutes after, the Ambassador entered the laundry room. When he arrived, the Medic was seated by the patient once more, dabbing cold sweat from his gray brow. He looked worse; his skin was thin around his bones, and his face looked brittle, and his lips were stained. The poison feeding on him was drinking the health straight from his body.

 

A storm was brewing on the mentor’s forehead, and venom was dripping from his tongue. “My student was supposed to meet me in my office twenty minutes ago,” he announced bitterly. “Where is he?”

 

“Hm?” The Medic raised his weary head, looking sallow and grave. His head ached. “How should I know? I haven’t seen him.”

 

“He was supposed to be here, interviewing you and O’Dell. Didn’t he show up?”

 

“Oh, yes, excuse me. Kathleen did say something about that. I was out delivering prescriptions; he must have left before I arrived.”

 

“Did he say where he was going?” The Ambassador has no patience for a loop of questions. He looked as though the sun had set inside his skull, allowing even less light onto his face that usual.

 

The Medic rubbed his eyes. “No, I’m afraid not. You could check the Pharmacy over there; maybe he’s still here.”

 

“He isn’t,” The Pharmacist called, peeking around from the makeshift wall. “I haven’t seen him since the interview.”

 

“He exited in a strange hurry,” The Guard contributed, standing as still as ever at his post.

 

The Ambassador huffed, looking around exasperated at the three of them. “Has anyone seen him?”

 

No one said a word. The mentor scowled

 

“That’s excellent.” He rubbed his eyes and stared at the wall for a while, his already awful mood worsening. The he looked at the exhausted Medic. “How’s Cobb?”

 

“Worse than ever. I’d think it would be best if Alison didn’t visit him for a while.”

 

“You were in her dorm, right?” The Pharmacist asked quietly. “Is she doing alright?”

 

“I suppose so. I’d rather not think about it” he answered sourly. “She threw a fit when I tried to go through her medication.”

 

The room was choked by the uneasiness of the Ambassador’s tempor. There was another hot, swirling pause throughout the four of them

 

That is, until the silence was shattered by a cry from the hall; “I’m here!” shouted the Trainee as he spilled into the laundry room. His backpack was still swung over his arms, and his hair was a mess. “I was late! I was late to getting back to the office, but you weren’t there, so I figured you were here.” He leaned on his knees and heaved, whilst everyone in the room stared awkwardly, with a varying degree of concern. He gradually relaxed and straightened himself out.

 

“Are you alright?” the Medic asked, baffled.

 

“I’m fine. I just ran all the way here.” The Trainee rubbed sweat from his forehead and turned to his mentor. “Can we talk?”

 

The Ambassador had already risen. “Mier-” he began sternly, but he was interrupted.

 

“I know, I know! I’m really sorry, sir. But there’s something I really want to show you.”

 

The Ambassador was stunned; his eyebrows arched, and he gave his student a sharp eye. Then he paused for a moment and sighed, deciding not to reprimand him; he was annoyed, but he was sincerely relieved that the Trainee was unharmed, and, regardless, it was more important to talk about the case anyway. He beckoned his student to follow him into the hallway.

 

“Alright,” he demanded, once they were there, “what is it that you found that was worth making a scene about?”

 

“Give me a second.” The Trainee fumbled through his pockets. “I really am sorry about this.”

 

“We’ll discuss it later.”

 

“Okay. Thank you.” He finally pulled the book of contacts out from his pocket, and he thrust it out at his mentor. “Look at this; I found this in the Pharmacist’s room.”

 

The Ambassador raised his eyebrows. “The Pharmacist’s room?” He accepted it and flipped through the little book. He squinted his eyes. “I’ll ask you how you got in there later. For right now, I’m not sure what it is that you wanted me to see.”

 

“Look.” The Trainee reached over and pointed to the pages. “See the little blue asterisks?”

 

“What about them?”

 

“They don’t go with people who have prescriptions. See? The Guard has one.”

 

“Hm.” The Ambassador analyzed the pages carefully. He flipped through a few different names, trying to recall who had prescriptions and who didn’t. “I see. But what does this have to do with the case, exactly?”

 

“I…” The Trainee actually had to think about this one. “I don’t know, to be totally honest. I mean, it felt important. It proves that Alison, O’Dell, and the Guard are all involved in something, I guess. And the only reason I went to her room was because the Guard lied about his-”

 

“Wait.” The mentor was suddenly sharp again, peering down at his student with narrowed eyes. “What did you just say?”

 

“The Guard lied while I was interviewing him. He told me that he only knew O’Dell through a discussion about his medication, but you said-”

 

“I’m sure there’s a very good reason for him keeping something private. Sometimes figures of authority need to lie. O’Dell said she doesn’t like her name in the media, remember? I’m sure she just has a legal situation she wants to herself.”

 

“Yeah, but…” The Trainee thought about it, and sighed dismissively. “I mean, I guess, but…”

 

“I asked you not to investigate him, Mier. I should add this to your insubordination record.”

 

The Trainee’s face fell. “Hey, c’mon! This is different. This isn’t…” He tried to find the words for what he had done. He hadn’t simply overslept, or said something sarcastic; this was more important than a mundane error. He’d interviewed the Guard on purpose, and, although it it daunting, he’d felt good about it while he’d done it. It was certainly insubordination, but he was certain that he hadn’t done the wrong thing. “I’m sorry, okay? But you can’t tell me that I didn’t have a good reason for doing it.”

 

The Ambassador nearly scolded him, being that his order was certainly a good reason for not doing it, but he reminded himself to be patient. “I understand that’s how you feel. Even so, you must keep my personnel out of this. You have to develop respect for your superiors; it enforces order.”

 

The Trainee did not reply. The Ambassador respected this.

 

“I guarantee you,” he continued, sternly, but gently, “neither of us are involved in any way. And if it truly comes down to it, I will even interview the Guard myself. No ends will be left loose. Alright?”

 

The Trainee was sullen for a moment. “Fine,” he finally uttered. He tried to perk himself up and refocus. “Alright.”

 

“Good.” The Ambassador relaxed his shoulders some, grateful that the discussion was over. “Now, then. Resuming focus, is there anything new you know about the Pharmacist? The Medic told me he wasn’t there.”

 

“Not really. Sorry.”

 

“That’s fine. I didn’t get much out of Alison either.” A sigh was embedded in her name. “This is a good time to switch, then, nonetheless. You go talk to her, and I’ll focus on Edwards now that he’s returned.”

 

“The Medic? Not O’Dell?”

 

“Yes, actually.” He leaned in and lowered his voice. “You remember when he told us that there should be four pills left in Cobb’s canister?”

 

The student nodded.

 

“When I searched Cobb’s dorm, the canister was left open in the kitchen near an empty plate and glass, beside the chair that he had fallen from. This shows he likely did take one of his pills today before he was hospitalized, which would have indeed left four pills in the bottle, like the Medic said. However, I counted them, and there are actually five pills left in the canister, not four. I presume that this is because the poison was added to the bottle in the form of a false pill, disguised as his medication, so that Cobb would swallow it on his own. However, the assailant did not think to remove one of the true pills first, which is why one extra pill is left in the bottle. Does all of this make sense?”

 

“Yeah, but…” He sighed. “Yeah, I got it.”

 

“So, if all of this is true,” the Ambassador said grimly, as if finishing a grand presentation, “then who delivers the medication?”

 

The Trainee quietly understood. He nodded again, more slowly.

 

“Of course, I know that both the Pharmacist and Medic likely had equal opportunity to plant the poison-”

 

And the Guard, the Trainee thought.

 

“-but the Medic seemed to have all of his information prepared beforehand, don’t you think? He was already sure of how many pills would be left in the bottle, as if he had recently checked his records. However, no formal conclusion can be reached until a motive is discovered.”

 

“The Pharmacist says she barely knows Mr. Cobb.”

 

“And the Medic said little about him personally, but he seems to know Alison fairly well, which is also suspicious. We should make discovering a motive our top priority.”

 

The Trainee agreed, and they speedily went their separate ways.

 

  • ●●

 

Mier found the door to the dorm of Mr. Cobb left open, so, to avoid disturbing Alison, he allowed himself in.

 

This dorm, unlike most of the dorms the Trainee usually entered, was built with two bedrooms instead of one. The walls of each room were coated in peach colored plastic, and each floor was colored white, no matter if it was carpeted like the bedrooms or tiled like the bathroom and the kitchen. The Trainee discovered that the dorm, despite its different size, was quite near to the Pharmacist’s, and he thought that maybe that would come in handy. Treading lightly, he entered into the kitchen.

 

As expected, the crime scene was yet untouched; just as the Ambassador had described, the Trainee found an empty cup, a dirty plate, and an open canister of pills still left sitting on the kitchen table, beside the broken, toppled chair. Looking at the dismal scene was surprisingly  disheartening; seeing it for himself, the student could imagine what had taken place with ease, and the image that arose made him feel sick. The reality of the horrible events became vivid to him, and he was suddenly captured by a feverish desire for Mr. Cobb to live, a desire that he hadn’t particularly thought about before. He stood idle for a moment, mourning what had happened. Then he took a deep breath and got to work.

 

Deciding to leave the chair on the floor where it had fallen, he leaned over the kitchen table and peered into the canister of pills. As expected, the Ambassador had not been wrong; five pills, instead of four, were indeed left piled at the bottom, verifying the theory of disguised poison having been there. It made sense; for any of the three suspects, it would have been much simpler to attack this way than to poison Cobb’s food, or to physically get at him. This still did not provide a motive, however, leaving him no closer to a conclusion. He tried to concentrate.

 

A noise like a chirping bird riled him from his speculations: “Your partner was doing that too, not long ago,” Alison murmured from the doorway, peering up from her narrow face. “Is there something special about them?”

 

The Trainee jumped; she’d accumulated like a ghost. “I didn’t see you there,” he said, bewildered. “You look like you’re feeling better.” She looked different when she wasn’t in a panic; she had a solemn face with soft features, and, although her head was bowed, her posture was tall and straight, if not a little forced. Her arms were crossed, and her nightshirt was tugged tightly around her arms. A red splotch stained the corner of each of her eyes.

 

“I’m okay. Better than I was, at least.” She looked down. “I, I just wanted to thank you for trying to help me, earlier. I know I’m kind of a pain, but…” She let the thought trail off.

 

“Please. You don’t have to thank me.” The Trainee smiled gingerly. “You’re not a pain at all. If anything, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help you.”

 

A brittle smile touched her lips. “Thanks, really. I don’t hear that much.”

 

“I understand. It’s no problem,” the Trainee replied gladly. He somehow felt a little better at the sight of her smile; if she was pulling through okay, maybe Mr. Cobb would too.

 

After a moment, his own smile was blotted out, and he turned his attention back to the scene of the crime. Alison followed his eyes to it, and she shrank up when she remembered it was there. She drew in a quaking breath. “I haven’t had the nerve to clean it up. If I look at it too long, sitting here by myself, I just get scared.” She looked up again, with her big soft eyes. “Is he feeling better? Has he woken up?”

 

The Trainee took a long time to answer. “Not… not yet,” he said carefully, “but he will soon, and you can go visit him when he does. I’m sure he’d like to see you.”

 

Alison’s eyes sank back to the floor. “I’d like that,” she said quietly, not really sounding assured. “I hope he does soon.”

 

There was an awkward, surreal pause; the Trainee felt trapped between his need for information and his urge to keep the Maintenance Worker comfortable, and he was terrified that he could to say the wrong thing at any second and induce a panic. He was in the middle of trying to fabricate the perfect question, that wouldn’t worry her but would still get the point across, when the girl, to the Trainee’s surprise, peered up again and raised her voice, just enough to count.

 

“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” she began. “I was just sitting on my bed, worrying and worrying, not even sure if you were gonna come. I couldn’t explain it to Mr. Nachman, of course; he would just yell at me and pave me over, and I would just get scared all over again. But now you’re here, and my roommate still hasn’t woken up, and…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, a new light was shining in them, electrified by all and any courage she could muster. With her shivery voice, she spoke firmly: “I want to help. There’s something I should have said earlier, but I just didn’t know how. But it’s important, and if it’ll help to save my roommate, then I can do it.” She squared her shoulders and squished her eyebrows low over her eyes. “Come with me.” And with that, she swirled around and whisked off to the bathroom.

 

  • ●●

 

The two of them stood in the tight damp space. The Trainee wasn’t sure what to expect, but he didn’t dare to let his imagination hypothesize, afraid of what it would come up with. Throughout the investigation, he’d completely eradicated the idea of Alison’s involvement from his mind. He analyzed her delicate expression and swaying stance; her face was like wet paper mâché.

 

“So, what is it?” he asked slowly. “What’s here?”

 

“These.” She reached out a papery arm and tugged open the bathroom cabinet. Inside it, along with floss and a comb, were two medicine packets; one was a formal pill bottle, and one was a plastic bag. She scooped the bag into her hands and held it out to the Trainee. “Here. Just open it. I’ll explain.”

 

Perplexed, the Trainee accepted it. It was greasy with recent condensation and it smelled like vitamins; he carefully reopened the already ripped package and looked inside.

 

His eyes widened at the colorful shapes inside. “Are these….?”

 

“Pills. From the Pharmacist.” She sadly shook her head. “They’re not my proper pills, though. Those are still in the cabinet. These are extra.”

 

“Extra?” The Trainee peered at her quizzically. “What do you mean?”

 

“She said that they would help me relax. To make me feel better, every once in a while. But I was supposed to keep them a secret, because I’m not really supposed to have them. No one   is.” She hugged herself, her face crumpling. “But my roommate found them out. He caught me using them, and he was really upset. I had to tell him the truth. And then, days later…”

 

The Trainee had settled into an eerie understanding; a flood of dread was seeping into him, the escalating details of the case whipping over him like a sandstorm. He stared at the bag and thought carefully. There was no way this was unrelated to the case; it provided motive to a whole range of suspects. Mr. Cobb’s knowledge of a drug scandal would threaten to expose it. That would hurt Alison because it would put her under a glaring public eye, which would induce a hurricane of future panics. However, she would never confess to having the pills if she was the one who did it, so the Trainee felt safe crossing her off the list. The Pharmacist would want to cover it up as well, of course, if she was the center of the scandal, and the Medic would likely lose his job if the scandal was exposed, as it would ruin his reputation as a prescriber and a medicine courier. Especially if he had any further involvement, which was not yet confirmed. Then there was the Guard, who was still uncertain.

 

Who else did this motive leave? The Trainee swallowed uncomfortably. He supposed the Ambassador might cover up the scandal to protect the order of the Vein, especially during a VQ drill. But if that were the case, it seemed more likely that the Ambassador would simply arrest him, or, even more sensibly, arrest the Pharmacist. She could have continued her job, which was mandatory either way, under his surveillance, couldn’t she? Even so, with a laundry list of other more favorable routes the mentor would have taken, the Trainee could not automatically count him out. He would keep the possibility at the very back of his mind.

 

“Hello?” Alison peeped. “Sir?”

 

“Oh!” He was launched back to reality. “I’m sorry! I’m here; I just zoned out. Please forgive me.”

 

“No problem.” The girl looked both relieved and terrified. A weight was lifted her shoulders, but, without it, she was afraid that her body would float off to space. “So… what will you do now?”

 

“I’m going to go investigate a little more. This new information will really help me.” He smiled. “Thank you very much for your honesty, Ms. Schooner. Your roommate will get better very soon, now.” He hesitated, and his smile faltered. “But one more thing, okay?”

 

The girl’s face had immediately brightened upon the mention of Mr. Cobb improving. “Okay! Anything!”

 

“Do you best to quit those extra pills, okay? I don’t know what they do, and they could be dangerous. Can you do that?”

 

Alison promised she would try.

 

  • ●●

 

There was still plenty of time before the Trainee was to return to the Ambassador, but, before he did, there was something he needed to get straight. This need led him back to the dorm of the Pharmacist, where one thing must finally be decided: how the Guard is related to her, and how he is related to the scandal. And the new information, combined with the original book of veinwide contacts, had given him an idea.

 

Every dorm was required to have a locked box of supplies in its floor, just in case of an emergency. It was a casual utility that went most commonly unused and unthought of, packed with food, water, an oxygen filter, a gas mask, and other pieces of small equipment. It could be a good hiding place for something, such as illegal pills, the Trainee thought, but it would be a flawed one. Since the panel was for emergencies, and an emergency could lead people into strange dorms, every panel key was meant to fit every panel lock; all of the boxes had the same access card.

The Trainee discovered that the lock on the Pharmacist’s panel, however, was a few years outdated, and its code hadn’t been reset. This was suspicious in itself. Even so, by sheer luck, an old outdated card was still floating around in the Trainee’s school duffel, and he used it to unlock the box. The thing beeped and flashed a small green light, and the lid of the box limped open. The Trainee inhaled deeply; he wasn’t sure if he was prepared to have the Pharmacist’s casual smile and bubbly voice ruined forever by her crime. The Ambassador must have felt the same way towards the Guard’s order, he thought; he was afraid of having it ruined, just as the Trainee was afraid of ruining O’Dell’s friendliness. But, unlike his mentor, he could bare to see through what he wanted to believe, and poised his hands over the panel.

 

He unclamped his teeth from around his lip, braced himself, and shoved the lid away.

The first thing that hit him was the smell. The contents of the box reeked of chemicals, from things akin to vinegar to bug spray to compost, all of which mixed with a nauseating stench of plastic. Immediately wracked with a stinging headache, the Trainee scowled and rubbed his knuckles across his eyes, and he crouched to get a closer look. The box was packed with labeled sealed white bags, like the kind prescription deliveries were received in, and the same kind Alison’s had been wrapped in. But because the Medic, and not the Pharmacist, delivered prescriptions, this was already unusual in itself.

 

The Trainee sorted through the bags, examining the names. With each bag checked, he gradually recalled a few starred names, so he took out the contact book to be completely sure. After a mere five minutes, he’d found at least one delivery for each of them, with absolutely no acceptions. Only the starred names were in that panel.

The Trainee took a deep breath, and he picked a bag at random; he needed to be positively certain. He braced himself again, more sharply this time, and he ripped open the plastic and dumped out what was inside.

A medley of the same crude, orange pills spilled from the plastic and onto the floor.

 

  • ●●

 

The Trainee was storming through a maze. His feet clapped violently against the tile and echoed down the hall. His breathing was eruptive in his ears.

 

He had opened five different bags, to be completely sure, and they all confirmed his fears; every single person in that panel was receiving a strange, illegal drug. The scandal was suddenly much bigger than he thought. What was it made of? What did it do?

 

The Ambassador was all but wiped from the list; a crime this big was not compromised order. It was concealed chaos that he would never condone.

 

If the Trainee hurried, he could still catch his mentor in the laundry room. Then they could confront all of the suspects at once, together; he’d even taken with him an opened bag to prove his findings. It was clutched madly in his fist.

 

With a tremendous heave, the Trainee flew into the makeshift clinic, waving his arms to keep his balance. His heart was storming ahead of his brain, and he tripped and tumbled unceremoniously onto the floor. He gasped and choked. “Mr. Nachman!” he sputtered. “I found-!”

 

That is when it occurred to him that the room was silent. Silent, and very still.

 

“Huh?” He frantically raised his head and turned it left and right, groveling on the tile, his eyes like headlights. He gasped with enough vigor to hurt his throat.

 

No one was here. Not his mentor, not the Medic, not Mr. Cobb. Rubber scuff marks trailed the floor where the cot had been raced out. Half of the lights had been switched off. The heart monitor and IV had all been left behind.

 

An abandoned pillow was soaked with bloodied, black vomit.

 

The Trainee knew his discovery had come too late.

 

“What?!” he shouted, scrambling up. His face was overtaken with sweat; he felt the slimy warmth in his palms as he pressed his hands to his cheeks. His voice cracked. “No! Wait!

 

Someone had to be here. There needed to be an explanation. Images of the toppled chair whipped about his mind, and he thought of Alison and his assurance to her, and the delight that had lit her fragile face when he told her how helpful her information had been. That it would help her roommate wake up quickly. That he would be happy to see her when he did.

 

The Trainee plummeted across the makeshift wall, into the pharmacy.

 

“O’Dell?” he cried, his breaths growing erratic. “Hello?” The world began spinning faster and faster. Everything the Trainee saw and heard make less and less sense as it spun and spun and spun.

 

He slammed his hands down on a desk. The spiraling world yanked to a halt, and suddenly the quiet was quiet again, and the empty room was empty. Before the Trainee could even think about what had come over him, he collapsed his head onto the desk and caught his breathe, tears blending over sweat.

 

Mr. Cobb was dead. The poison had possessed him, and it had left no room. The Trainee stood suspended where he was, grieving silently and on his own. The echo of his gradually more quiet breaths filled the darkened space.

 

After a long time, the Trainee was finally able to relax. He was thirsty and dizzy, and he thought about what had happened. Mole phenomenon, they called it; something about the constant stream of florescent lights and ventilated air and claustrophobia that turned sudden bouts of stress into into terrible monsters, under the right conditions. The Trainee thought about Alison. He suddenly wanted to scold his mentor for ever being cruel to her.

 

He grew well enough to notice a note from the desk stuck to his face.

 

He pulled it off and read it: “Remember that your medicine makes the world a better place, no matter what government thinks,” it said, “and that it will all be gone if you don’t do this. Just follow my plan, and the problem will take care of itself. There is no need to be afraid. Remember, the sun will always come out tomorrow.”

 

The Trainee tried to refocus on the words. The sun will always come out tomorrow; what a strange thing to say. The Pharmacist hadn’t written it; her handwriting was different on the packages, so the note could only have been written to her. “The problem” could only be referring to one person.

 

In an instant, the exhausted Trainee rationed what the letter meant.

 

But, at that moment, before he had time to utter a word, a stun bullet was launched in from the shadows from an unseen gun. It tore into the Trainee’s back before he even saw it coming, and an explosion of electricity possessed his body before he could remember how to scream. He tasted cold white heat in his mouth as he toppled to his knees. Silent screaming anchored his mouth open; acidic tears stabbed his eyes and cheeks, and the orange pills came tumbling from the packet in his hand. Knocked off his knees by the sole of a shoe, the Trainee crashed over the desk and fell onto the floor, where he rolled over, swiveled widely, and staggered into starless space. The unseen attacker crouched over him and grabbed him by his shirt. It swallowed the Trainee up and switched off the whole world, all at once.

When he finally lay still, the attacker turned around and picked up the orange pills, careful not to leave a single one behind.

 

  • ●●

 

The first sensation the Trainee felt was the chill of the metal floor, and the musty air seeping from the ventilation. The second was horrible soreness radiating from his back; the egg-shaped bruise was as black and purple as vampire venom, and the Trainee thought he could still feel strands of electricity within it, like minnows thrashing through his veins. A labored breath squeezed its way out from his lips, and eased himself upright as he opened his glazed eyes.

 

He was met with a dimly lit room with a hedge of rusted bars, and, beyond them, staring icily, was a great black statue.

 

“O’Dell shouldn’t have given you her dorm number,” it said easily, through its petrified lips, “although I suppose I could have stopped her, if I had thought I really needed to. This mistake is at the fault of us both.”

 

The Trainee scrambled absently for something to say. “You didn’t have your gun earlier,” he muttered, looking up pathetically, leaning on his hands. His back was like jelly. His voice trembled. “I thought…”

 

“I did have it. It was just somewhere else.” The Guard knelt down, studying him gravely. “You must listen to me. You cannot tell anyone about what you saw.”

 

“You shot me. You followed me to the dorm. Watched me discover everything.” His head throbbed. He wanted to collapse and sink back to sleep. “There were drugs.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You lied about your medication. My mentor told me-”

 

“Yes, that’s right. You’re absolutely right.” The Guard said nothing for a few minutes, watching the Trainee loll dizzily at the ceiling. Then he spoke slowly. “I am going to repeat myself. You must agree to keep this to yourself.”

 

“The Pharmacist is dealing illegal meds, isn’t she? Alison has some. You have some.” He quieted for a moment. His stomach ached, and it hurt to speak. He thought he might cry. “Mr. Cobb found out.”

 

“He did.”

 

“You’re a criminal. A man is dead. You were involved, and a man is dead. For just pills.”

 

“For just pills?” The Guard repeated it as if it was an absurd thing to say. “For just pills? I don’t think you understand, Mier.” He leaned in closer to the bars, as calm and as still as ever. “I need those pills. If someone were to steal them from me, I would gnaw them from his hands. If someone were to swallow them, I would drink them from his veins.”

 

“You’re an addict” the Trainee croaked. “You need help.”

 

“I don’t want help, you pathetic Trainee. We live in a bunker: a plastic shaft simmering in the bowels of Hell.” The Guard closed his boiling eyes, as if struggling to remember the tune of a favorite song. He spoke as if reciting poetry. People as old as me still remember trees, and park benches, and sunlight. We would die or kill if we could ever get it back. And those pills- those fantastic little pills are the closest thing I will ever get to it again. Little shining capsules of sunlight.” He suddenly tensed up all over and turned to steel, opening his flaming eyes and hardening them around his prisoner. His teeth twisted into fangs. “No one will take my sunshine away.”

 

“Look, man-”

 

“No! You will listen to me. I will not cut corners again, not after what happened with Cobb.” He leapt to his feet abruptly, as if a puppet yanked up by strings. His voice grew shrill. “You must swear on your life that no one will ever know about this. I don’t care about the murder case; tell whatever lie that pleases the Ambassador. But you will never tell anyone about the pills.”

 

“But-”

 

“You will agree”, he snapped, aiming his gun, “or I will stun you over and over, until you do.”

 

The Trainee froze, his fingertips quivering. His eyes grew as large as his cheeks. He stared into the barrel of the gun and thought of the ball of electricity that was waiting inside it, eager to slide out and sear a purple tunnel in his skin. “You’re freaking crazy” he whispered, very slowly. “They’re pills.”

 

“Do you agree or not?” the man snarled, cocking the gun. The room was swirling. Blood was rushing to the Trainee’s head, mingling with the flood of panic and fatigue; he couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. What would happen if he lied? Would he come for him? For O’Dell?

 

“You’re sick,” the Trainee sputtered, gingerly raising his fragile hands. “C’mon. We can go. You can get better-”

 

“You’re a LIAR.” The Guard’s impatience overwhelmed him. He snapped his hand over the trigger and shoved it in with a menacing ku-chunk! A ferocious white ball came flying from the barrel, pulsating savagely as it soared into the Trainee’s jaw.

 

There was a loud sound and burst of blood. His teeth went numb and the room flashed white; the universe imploded into red hot nothingness.

 

  • ●●

 

The Pharmacist was sobbing.

 

“I hadn’t meant to kill anyone!” she wailed, her fingernails digging into her skin where she was grabbing at her face. She just couldn’t take it anymore. Her casual, bubbly mask had fallen and burned. “We were only going to scare him! The Guard! He said that if I didn’t use more, it wouldn’t work well enough! I knew he was wrong; I knew he was out of his mind, but-!” She wept bitterly into her palms, breathing noisily. “I’m just so sorry! Oh, God!”

 

A piece deep inside the Medic didn’t want to have sympathy for the girl who had made him a killer, who had handed him poison in pill bottle and made him to obliviously deliver it. But it was against his nature to abandon someone so in pain, and he placed a solemn hand softly on her shoulder. She grasped onto his arm feverishly and bawled.

 

The Ambassador, for what could have been the first time in his life, was rendered speechless. Without a word, he turned and bolted from the makeshift morgue, his glasses knocked askew. His student was in danger, and he suspected exactly where the monster was housing him.

 

Before he had time to think, he had whistled down a long corridor and fumbled down a flight of stairs. Dust hung heavy in the cellar air, and ancient machines rattled in the walls. The Ambassador shoved the heavy door open. It shrieked as it ground over the concrete floor.

 

Color leapt from the Ambassador’s face, and he stopped cold.

 

There was a body lying on the cell floor. It was young and pulsating, and chalky white teeth were littered in the puddle around its face. It breathed wetly through the mess.

 

Someone was stooping over it.

 

A cry echoed from the mentor’s lips.

 

“Don’t move!”

 

The man bunched up and whirled around. His features were shrouded by the lighting, but his identity could not be hidden. Blood was in his eyes, and a packet of pills was crushed in his fist; he loomed like a mannequin before the bars.

 

“Alderson.”

 

“You-!”

 

Anger twisted on the monster’s face.

 

“You weren’t supposed to be here.”

 

“I said don’t move!”

 

Stowed on the floor, both men saw the gun at once.

 

  • ●●

 

The Trainee was someplace warm. There was a cottony sensation in his face that radiated down to the base of neck, and a dreamy syrup had turned the blood in his veins to hot chocolate. For all he could feel, he could have been laying down in midair, taking a nap alone in empty space; he dreamed blank dreams and loitered between consciousness and a drug-numb sleep, oblivious for the time of who he was or what had happened.

 

A presence was perched near without shape or sensation. It spoke to him with a soft voice.

 

“The VQ drill couldn’t be concluded early, of course,” said the echo. The Trainee couldn’t tell who it was or from where it came, but he couldn’t think to care or even realize it. “That’s why they exist. To simulate a crisis as closely as possible, so we can prepare for tragedies such as this. But what am I saying? You’ve heard that from me enough, and I know it won’t make you feel better. To be honest, it doesn’t make me feel better either. It only makes me angry, against my own better judgement.”

 

The milky ocean lapped drowsily against a shore. Somewhere faintly in the quiet, there was a mechanical pinging noise, like the flash of a TV tower on the horizon. The Trainee inhaled and exhaled rhythmically; the echo passed through the haze like a whisper on a breeze, and although the language it spoke had no meaning in his sleep, the Trainee was able to listen and take comfort.

 

“I had been about ready to let democracy be damned when Mr. Cobb finally passed away. We wheeled him to an empty dorm, and I let my own fears grow bigger than the rest of me. I became relentless; I told the Medic that if he didn’t confess at once, I would suspend habeas corpus and arrest him on the spot. That’s when O’Dell burst into tears and told us everything.”

 

The breeze stammered for a moment. The sea beneath it rippled and warped.

 

“I raised my voice to an innocent man. I can’t remember ever being as anxious as I was in that moment. There we all were, heaped in a little room with a murder victim. A corpse, during a VQ. All at once, I was certain that it wouldn’t stay hidden, and panic would reap the Vein. I would be sent to the Heart, and be forced to tell all the other ambassadors that I’d let my kingdom crumble in the face of simple protocol. That I let order die. I would be over.”

 

“This isn’t what you want to hear about, is it? Forgive me; this is going to sound awful, but you’re surprisingly easy to talk to like this. Although I’d much rather the usual, of course.”

 

“Anyways, the Pharmacist told us all the truth. Apparently, she’d been perfecting her “sunshine pills” for over a year. Despite their illegal nature, they were filled with good intent; she fell to her knees before us and insisted that she had never meant for anyone to get hurt. That she only wanted to restore a little positivity in the haggard, in all those who’ve struggled to to live life as it is. The way she explained it, she seemed like the innocent pioneer of a noble experiment; perhaps if she’d originally taken her proposal to someone in the Heart, the law forbidding them could have been loosened. But instead, fearful of a public reaction, she took it to the Guard in secret. And, after one taste, he was hell-bent on never letting the project die, which meant it could never be risked in a Heart-wide court. He manipulated her, took advantage of her; he told her that if she wanted to make the world a better place with her creations, she must always hide them from the law. And she did just as she was told.”

 

“I believe you can figure out the rest on your own; you did a good job, discovering Ms. Schooner’s stash. Evidently, Mr. Cobb had found out about it as well, and he complained to the Pharmacist viciously. When she went to the Guard for help, he instructed her to frighten him out of ever opening his mouth about it again, no matter the cost. So, as directed, she planted the poison in his medication, just as we thought, and it was given to the Medic to deliver. Perhaps the Guard always intended to have her kill him instead of scare him. I can’t be sure.”

 

“As soon as she explained herself, it was the instant that I realized the insidious error of my ways. It was a fragile, ultimate moment. I felt… I felt horribly guilty, Mier. It was my own fault; I was blinded and bound by my fear of the disruptive. Gossip is the silent killer of leaders; I didn’t want whispers of corruption to plague my Vein. But you were right. And if I’d taken the liberty of investigating the man myself, or if I’d only paid attention to you, this could have been prevented. Mr. Cobb could have yet been saved.”

 

Thunder rolled over the blankness. There was noise like laughter, that wasn’t laughter, accompanied by a gentle rain.

 

“I almost didn’t recognize you when I discovered you in that cell. The Guard had taken you to an antiquated storeroom in the cellar, where he performed his cover work for a second time. I nearly vomited on my shoes. That gun is more powerful than it ought to be; you must have suffered through so much pain.”

 

“I’m so sorry, Mier. I should have been more careful. This should never have happened to such a bright, talented student, who is more willing to accept the truth than even his own teacher. You did not deserve this. This is entirely not your fault.”

 

The Trainee shifted vaguely on his cot. He was beginning to see something through the fog; he squinted to get a closer look.

 

“Like I said earlier, before my regretful rambling, the VQ drill will continue as usual until its end. You’ll be kept safe and free from pain until it does, and when the surgeons can finally come in, they’ll begin plans to repair your face. It doesn’t look quite as bad as when I found you, now that you’ve been cleaned up. You’re going to need a lot of new teeth, however, and your jaw will be a horrible burden for a long time. But you’re going to be okay, now. The Guard has been dealt with properly, and Alison is being prepared to live with the Medic, until the VQ ends. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

 

The Ambassador rose from his stool.

 

“I can see your fingers moving. As much as I’d like to speak to you as you truly are, you can’t wake up yet. Edwards is coming to replenish your medication. It must be horrible, I know, but it’s only to keep you from feeling pain. It’s better this way, I promise. You probably won’t remember any of this, but that’s alright. I’ll be happy to explain it all again.”

 

There was a shuffling sound.

 

“I will see you very soon, Mier. Everything is going to be okay.”

 

The calculator-tone as vacant from his voice as it ever had been before, Mr. Nachman left the laundry room, adjusting his glasses as he went.

 

The Trainee felt like a child after a bedtime story. The newly replenished milky ocean washed back over him, and he soothingly settled back to sleep, remnants of the echo sailing over the waves of white.

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