By Ben V.
It was hot. The heat never used to bother him but now it was hard to breath. He had to stop running, catch his breath. He never had to do that before.
The number twenty-eight stuck out in his head. He was the second oldest the program had ever seen. The younger ones were coming around again; they were going to lap him.
Each one passed, younger than the last, each an improvement on the last. He stopped at the side of the path and leaned on a tree, letting them go by. Sweat cascaded off of him, collecting in drops and dampening the dirt.
The second runner in the passing line stopped, looked at where he had stopped in the shade of a tree then back down the track at the other runners already receding in the distance.
“You ok?” Ox asked.
“Yeah, just tired,” Map replied. “Catching my breath.”
Ox found something interesting on the ground kicked at it then intently checked the chronometer on his wrist.
“It’s alright,” Map said. “Go ahead, I won’t be far behind.”
“I don’t mind waiting,” the younger man replied.
“Go on, you can still catch up. They’ll want to know what took you so long. Napkin won’t be happy.”
“No, I’ll wait.”
“Ox,” Map said more forcefully, “get going. I’ll be right behind you.”
Ox hesitated, checked his wrist again and reluctantly headed down the path after the others. Map watched the young man take off at an impressive pace. He was sure to catch up with the rest. Map was starting to think he might not be able to even finish the run, but he knew Ox would be waiting for him at the end and Napkin would scold him for the sentimentality. Map stretched, cracking several joints, and continued his run back to the complex.
Ox was waiting for him, like Map had guessed; the others had gone inside to clean up before lunch. Map came to a stop at the gate into the complex. Ox had kept a bottle of water for him and Map accepted it gladly huffing out a thanks between sips.
“Map,” Ox said with a quaver in his voice.
“What is it?”
“They wanted to see you – in the office. Napkin told them you had to stop.”
“It’s ok kid. They don’t expect that much from me anymore.” His comment, meant to be reassuring, didn’t seem to hit its mark. “You’d better get to lunch. I’ll go see what they have to say,” Map finished.
As Ox headed off towards the barracks Map checked the display on his arm and sighed at how long it took him to finish the run. “They can’t expect it,” he said to himself.
Map reset the chronometer and headed in the direction Ox had taken to the barracks. He though they would forgive the extra time it took to have a shower and get into a clean uniform.
The Administration building was low and long. The only thing that distinguished it from the other buildings that filled the complex was the entrance and the lobby. It was designed to receive delegates, politicians and higher ups. Map stopped at the guard post outside the extravagant entrance.
“Hi Carl, how’s the knee?” he asked the lone guard who was more there for show than protection.
“Not bad, not bad. Thanks for asking,” the guard replied. “How was the run today?”
“I didn’t break any records; they managed to lap me this time.”
“Still faster than any of us could have run it.”
“I guess. You know if they want more tests?”
“Don’t think so, the Administrator called for it.”
“Oh, it’s one of those meetings,” Map said knowing the guard would have as little need for bureaucracy as he did. “I’d better not keep them waiting.”
“Take care of yourself,” the guard said with a look of pity towards Map.
Everyone knew that Map was twenty-eight and most of them understood what that meant. It was only a matter of time before Map had to be retired; a pleasant disgrace that meant nothing to look forward to but tests and stagnation.
Map pushed through the doors into the lobby. A young man sat at a large desk in the middle of the open space. Map nodded to him and headed past the desk towards the labs.
“They’re expecting you in conference room five.” The man quickly said.
Map stopped and hesitated. He hadn’t been in a conference room since his last mission debriefing over a year ago. He disliked the generically opulent rooms more than the sterile labs.
“Oh.” he said nonchalantly to the young man. He walked back around the desk towards the conference rooms.
The wing where the conference rooms were was lavish and meant to be as much of a show as the guard post and lobby. Map felt they were out of place in the mostly simple and practical compound.
The floors were polished granite and the walls were darkly stained mahogany panels with elaborate sconces every few feet. Map didn’t pass anyone in the hall. The area was usually mostly empty save for the offices of the Administrator and the occasional meetings held in the conference rooms.
Map passed the first four rooms and stopped outside the door to the fifth. There were six rooms in all, the last one closest to the Administrator’s office. It was a widely believed rumor that the more important the meeting, the closer it would be to the Administrator’s office. Map had only been as close as this when he received his original orders to take over for his predecessor.
Steeling himself, Map opened the door. He wasn’t sure who would be there to greet him on the other side.