Um, so no-one dies or anything, but I guess some kind of warning for people not wanting to know just how horrible nerve gas is. Seriously.
Annabel walked into a room of death and lived.
Even though she knew she was safe, she was so scared she almost couldn’t breathe. Her hands were shaking, and her skin felt clammy, and she wondered, as strangers helped her into her protective suit, why she was doing this. Why she was doing something so pointless and showing-off and dangerous.
She wondered, but at the same time, she knew.
It was Nicole, the head lab-tech, who had been showing Annabel around, and it was the vaguely flirty manner in which Nicole had been behaving all day. It was Nicole, who Annabel had found she liked, and thought was hot, and wanted to impress. And who she still wanted to impress even after Nicole had said, quite gleefully, did Annabel want to try out a protective suit?
Annabel didn’t, not in the slightest, but she had said yes. She said yes, even though it was stupid, going into a testing room in a newly manufactured suit just to prove she was brave enough, and doing it just to impress someone she barely knew.
It was the chance in a lifetime, Nicole had said, grinning. A chance to experience something most people never would. Bungee jumping for superwomen, Nicole had called it, but even better. Something to make even bungee jumping or free-climbing dull.
She was right, Annabel had thought. It actually was a chance in a lifetime. And in an odd, odd way, it actually was a thrilling a thing to do. That wasn’t why Annabel agreed, though. She had agreed because of Nicole. Because she had looked at Nicole and seen something in her eyes. Nicole was interested, Annabel had thought, and Nicole was flirting, but for some reason she was flirting by making stupid challenges. Annabel hadn’t understood, but she also hadn’t really cared. She’d known she was going to agree, no matter how stupid it was.
“All right,” Annabel had said, and had been regretting it ever since.
The preparations had been painstakingly careful. Annabel’s fingernails were short, but they’d cut them anyway before they let her near the suit. In case a nail caught on something and it tore. They had taken her jewellery, even the studs from her ears. They already had her phone from when she entered the facility. They took her hair out and kept the clip, and then put her hair into a net, and then a cap too, before they put on the hood of the suit. They needed to make sure none escaped and made a tiny air gap, they explained, or became contaminated and fell onto her skin. The room Annabel had changed in was completely smooth, as well. There were no sharp edges. Just vents and grills, and sockets to connect cables and automatic doors, without handles.
They had put her in the suit, and then led her into the testing room. Then they had asked her to wait while they got ready.
She was fine, Annabel kept telling herself. She was going to be fine. She was nervous all the same.
“Are you ready?” someone asked over the intercom.
“You need to say yes,” the intercom told her.
“Yes,” Annabel said, after a long, thoughtful moment.
Gas began to seep into the room. Annabel couldn’t see it, and couldn’t tell it was there, except that she knew it would be. She was standing in a room with VX nerve gas, and without her suit she would already be dead.
The gas had no taste, and mostly no odour, although apparently it smelled a little like hay. Annabel wondered about that suddenly, how anyone actually knew what VX smelled like, since anyone who’d actually smelled it really ought to be dead. She wondered, then decided she’d rather not know. Not now, and probably not ever. It must involve someone calmly reporting their own death after some kind of horrific accident, and she didn’t want to think about that right now.
She tried to reassure herself. Her suit was working. That was what mattered now. She was safe, she told herself. She knew with absolutely certainty she was safe. Her suit was working, and she knew that it was, because she wasn’t feeling anything unusual. If there had been a tiny tear in the plastic, or a seam not fastened properly, she would already by dying. She would be able to feel muscles twitching near the tear, and have an odd localised sweating where the gas molecules were touching her skin. She would be having trouble breathing, and her nose would have started to drip, and soon she’d be vomiting and very little else would matter beyond that. It would be awful, and would hurt a lot, and they would do their best, would inject her with things, and scrub her down with bleach to break up the chemical on her skin, but she would still be dead, very horribly dead, no matter what anyone did to try and save her.
But that wasn’t what was happening. Her suit was working perfectly because nothing odd was happening at all.
She told herself that and hoped.
She could feel odd little prickles of sweat and twitches of her skin in a dozen places at once. She was imagining that, she knew. Nerve gas gave you hypochondria like nothing else in the world.
The sweating was her imagination. She’d be dying by now if it wasn’t. She knew it was her imagination, but she was almost too scared to think all the same.
VX was horrible. It was the most horrible thing she’d ever come across in a career around horrible things like this. There were worse chemicals weapons in the world. Phosgene would destroy your lungs so you suffocated before you even noticed it, and mustard gas blistered and burned your mucous membranes, which meant your eyes and mouth and nose, and your genitals too. Burns on the outsides and burns on insides too, and that idea, the idea of that kind of internal chemical burns, actually gave Annabel nightmares. Those gases were bad, but VX was worse because such a tiny amount could kill. A few specks of dust on her skin would be fatal, Annabel knew, and it was sticky dust, too, which attached itself to anything it came into contact with, and stayed in place, so that once something was contaminated, whatever else touched that thing would die as well. Clothes, and the outside of chemical suits, and the walls in the changing room too. Everything VX was near had to be handled impossibly carefully or a speck of nightmare dust of would kill someone nearby.
Annabel was standing here, standing in a room full of nerve gas, because she’d wanted to impress someone. And because sometimes it was more important to be brave than sensible. And because of some idea she ought to face her fears, to stand up to what terrified her. She spent her working life thinking about horrible little chemicals like these, and now she could meet one in one in person. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was the stupidest thing she’d ever done, and she’d managed some pretty silly things in the past, like being sprayed with pepper spray and gassed with tear gas, just to see what it was like. Both those times she’d ended up on her knees, on the floor, unable to see past the tearing up of her eyes, and panicking a little until the pain was gone, but neither had been that bad. It was good to know, she thought, that you could live through things like that. That you could, if you just kept calm. It wasn’t nice, but you’d definitely live.
She tried to tell herself that now.
Except that nerve gas wasn’t the same, she suddenly realized. It was impossibly more terrifying, and Annabel hadn’t appreciated that until right now. She was a public servant, a chemical weapons policy analyst, not a lab chemist. She wasn’t used to this. She was standing in a cloud of nerve gas and she was slowly wanting to start to scream.
She wanted to scream, but she made herself not.
She made herself calm down instead. She calmed down, breathing slowly, telling herself she was fine. She was fine because she wasn’t dead yet, and that was all she needed to know. She felt better, after a moment. As if she’d just done the most frightening calming meditation she could imagine, and somehow it had actually worked. A fan switched on somewhere and she heard it hum, and suddenly, relieved, she knew it wouldn’t be much longer. She waited, feeling better, knowing it was almost over.
Soon, a voice on the intercom told her she was fine, that she should come on out now. She did.
Then there was a lot of scrubbing and a lot of showers. The anteroom was washed, and then the suit was scrubbed, and then the room was washed again. The suit had to be completely scrubbed before Annabel took it off, because there was no way to get it off without brushing it against her skin. Two suited people helped her, rubbing her with mops and stiff brushes and pointing hoses at the suit. Eventually, once they were sure she was clean, they led her into another room and they all carefully took off the suit, and then the clothes she had on underneath, and took them away to be burned, and she was scrubbed again, this time naked.
She’d been warned about that before they started.
She was scrubbed, more gently, but thoroughly all the same. Everywhere, in an impossibly intrusive way. She had to move as she was told, and spread herself when she was asked. The people helping her had the politely distant manner of a doctor giving an exam. It was important, Annabel knew, embarrassing as it was. If a fleck of the gas had solidified on the suit, and survived the scrubbing, and fallen from an unnoticed crevice onto her skin, it would still kill her. If it fell onto her hand, and she shook hands with someone in the new few minutes, then that fleck would kill them both. As they scrubbed, the lab techs told Annabel to be proud, that this was something special and rare, that not a lot of people had done. She had stood in a room of death, a room of the most lethal, horrible death imaginable, and she had walked out again alive.
Annabel nodded yes. She was just glad Nicole hadn’t been there.
She was scrubbed, and reassured, and then, finally, she was done. Embarrassed, and proud too, but finally done. Someone gave her towel, and left her to shower again, to get clean and comfortable, and she felt a lot better after she had. The industrial cleaners she’d been scrubbed with had seemed to dry her skin.
She washed her hair, and washed herself, and then came out the shower and found Nicole waiting for her in the changing room. She jumped, then realized that of course Nicole was here. Nicole was her guide, and had got her into this.
“How was it?” Nicole said.
“I can’t believe I just did that.”
“Yeah,” Nicole said. “But you did.”
Annabel looked at her.
“Feeling weird?” Nicole said.
“It’s just the adrenaline. You’ll calm down.”
“It’s good, though, isn’t it?” Nicole said. “Like jumping out a plane with a parachute you didn’t check yourself.”
“I’ve never done that.”
“I have. I won’t again.”
Annabel thought. “I don’t understand. Why without the parachute being checked…?”
“You can’t know for sure if it’s been packed properly. You’re relying on someone else. You get halfway to the ground and then go, oh fuck. Like here, you’re relying on us not to fuck up. And that doesn’t occur to you until you’re already in there.
“Oh,” Annabel said. “Yeah. I see.”
They looked at each other.
“Why would you do that?” Annabel said, curious.
“Why would you do this?”
Annabel hesitated, wondering if she should be honest. Wondering if Nicole actually knew, or had guessed. Nicole was grinning, like she had.
“Danger?” Nicole said. “Cheap thrills?”
“Proving something to yourself.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“So thrills then?”
“No,” Annabel said. “It’s not that. It really isn’t.”
“Yeah it is,” Nicole said, seeming smug. “It always is.”
Annabel looked at her.
“It was for me with the parachute,” Nicole said. “Like it is for you just now.”
Annabel didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. Nicole was so certain, and she was probably right. There wasn’t much more to say after that, so Annabel just kissed her. She kissed Nicole, and Nicole kissed back, and seemed to be laughing as she did.
After a moment Annabel stopped. She felt a little self-conscious. “Sorry,” she said.
“No you’re not.”
“I honestly don’t normally do things like this,” Annabel said. “But this place…”
“Yeah,” Nicole said. “It gets you like that.”
“You don’t mind?”
Nicole shook her head.
“You really don’t?” Annabel said.
“I’ve wanted you to all day.”
“Good,” Annabel said. “Um. Do you want to fuck? Right now?”
“Um yeah, because flirting all day…”
“But right now?” Annabel said, desperate. “I mean, right, right now.”
“Of course,” Nicole said.
Annabel looked around. They were in a changing room. There was a wooden bench, and lockers, and a door anyone could open. The best place there was seemed to be the toilet in a separate room. They went through there, into a stall, and pulled the door closed, kissing.
They started tugging at each others clothes, stroking each other’s skin. They started kissing like they couldn’t stand to wait. Annabel was still in a towel. She pulled it up, like a skirt, and Nicole pushed her suit trousers down enough she was fucking Annabel with bare skin, not with scratchy cloth. Annabel held onto the top of the toilet stall, and got fucked until she forget about gas and death and chemical scrub showers. She knelt down, suddenly, on the cold tile floor, and began pulling at Nicole’s trousers until they slid a little way down. Nicole seemed surprised, then grinned, and helped, holding her clothes out of Annabel’s way. Annabel tasted Nicole. She licked Nicole out, fast and desperate, making her come, not wanting to stop when she had, making her come just because she wanted the taste of something sexy and wet and human and alive in her mouth. Not plastic and nerve gas and death.
When Nicole was done, she finished Annabel off, and then she kissed Annabel and left, smiling as she did.
Annabel leaned on the bench for a moment, still in her towel, then she got dressed too, assuming that was it. Assuming Nicole would made an excuse and slip away and Annabel would never see her again.
As it happened, Nicole did, and Annabel didn’t really mind. And as it happened though, too, she did see Nicole again. But first her life changed, in ways she couldn’t imagine.
That day made Annabel think. It changed her a lot. The world was a dangerous place, and suddenly, for Annabel, that was frighteningly real. She became more paranoid. She’d always been jumpy because she spent too much time thinking about terrorism, and attending government training seminars, and being told to plan her exits from every room she entered. Now, she was worse. Now a normal life was impossible. Now odd smells made Annabel leave shopping malls, and she suddenly didn’t like driving behind trucks because of tang of diesel exhaust seeping into her car. She didn’t like strong winds, or spring, or anything that changed the background smells outside, wherever she was, so that she actually noticed the air, and started to worry. She imaged attacks all the time, so often that she knew, even as she left buildings, that what she was afraid of couldn’t possibly be real. She worried at first that she should warn someone, instead of just slipping away. She worried, but never did, because she knew it was just her imagination. It was never an attack, but she left malls anyway, and pulled over and let trucks get ahead of her car, even though it was just her imagination.
Oddly enough, though, that all made her better at her job. It helped her career. She became better at what she did, thinking the way she did, and was soon promoted, and in charge of more important counter-terrorism preparations.
Then, three years later, she saw Nicole again. They met at a conference, and this time they talked as well as had sex, and later they actually made long-distance work, and in the end they got married.
And there wasn’t ever a chemical attack, not in all the time Annabel was working in non-proliferation. So that was a good thing too.