There were no walls, or perhaps there were an infinite number of them—for the room was a sphere sliced perfectly in half, each sliver of wall doming upwards and towards a singular point. If one went close enough and stared hard enough, it was just barely possible to make out the tiny pixels that covered the expanse of the room. A singular door, concave to fit the shape of the dome, was the only entrance and exit, and when closed tightly, it fit snugly into the wall, almost as though it were not there at all.
It was from this door that Eva entered. She was prepared, in a pair of dark compression shorts that ended comfortably mid-thigh and a loose synthetic tee of the same dark color. Her hair was pulled back with a blue rosette sweatband, and on her feet were matching lace-up shoes. These sneakers were specially designed for this sort of thing, and Eva splurged on them because after all: she was here, in this beautiful room.
There was a faint outline of a rubberized platform in the center of room. According to the manual, it was a conveyer belt of some sort, coiled around an electric motor. She was to stand on that belt, and wait for the system to activate. Then, the belt would begin to move beneath her, forcing her to do the same. She felt her nails digging into her palms. Keeping her steps evenly spaced, with each foot carefully rolling in front of the other, unnecessary movements in check, Eva made her way to the belt. It was sturdy, she decided after toeing the material.
On paper, she was doing this for the sake of academia, for her graduate thesis on the natural impulse*; but as she transferred her weight from the heels to the balls of her feet, and back again, she knew that it was an intense curiosity that had bought her here. Perhaps it was something even more than that; it was a raw craving in her blood, for some sort of unadulterated, primal burn—be it of blood or bone or muscle. The sort of burn her ancestors, farther than the stars from where she stood, might’ve experienced before modern-day medicine revolutionized what it meant to be healthy, or even, as the anthropology major in her felt, to be human.
It was a shame, she thought, that her generation was so scared of physical exertion. Recorded history had shown it to be natural, an impulse of which the body was perfectly capable, to ensure survival. Of course, there was no exact fear of survival anymore—the world had moved beyond wars. But still, she frowned, it was absolutely ludicrous that the state should assume the burn of exertion to be an inclination towards the past.
Because the truth was, she had felt this burn before, and since then she had shown not so much a modicum of violence. She wasn’t supposed to, of course, and her mother had grabbed her wrist and pulled and, No, Eva! Many years have passed since that incident, the one where they were at the park and the guard on duty hadn’t sealed the gate shut. Years later, the images were so faded that there wasn’t much for her adult sensibility to assess. Still, it was incredible the way some impressions never left a person, even if the memories did. All she had to do was think about the park, and—yeah, that feeling, the one that would grip her chest and then release in slow, choking motions. Yes, they were at the park, and she had seen a ball rolling and wanted to chase after it—
Well, memory wasn’t going to do anything for her. But this was. She was doing this for the sake of academia. All the supplements and fitness pills, color-coded boxes and syringes for each day of the week, were keeping the country, as a whole, incredibly slim and healthy. But years-and-years back, before the obesity pandemic was at its all time high, people used to stay healthy, or at least attempted to, manually. The seeds of modern healthcare had been planted then, albeit not successfully, with malformed diet regimes and rumors of miracle fat-burning foods and whatnot. But time ran its test against state and science, and soon enough, technology and engineered nutrition reared their heads victoriously.
In the extensive research for her thesis, Eva had come across the bizarre habits of her ancestors, before the age of fat vaccinations. For starters, they ran. Ran, as in “running,” in most traditional of senses. Not the “running” they had today, which was what only the Runners—unhappy, irresponsible people— did. At one point in time, when people turned to one another and said, “Let’s run,” they did not mean that they wanted to give up the comfortable security of their current lives to run havoc, to incline towards violent activities
Definitional work, she thought, as she rolled her ankle on the ground. “Running” used to consist of individuals pushing their weight off the ground in rapid, repeated motions, to get from one point to another—recreationally. Basically, she presumed, walking very quickly, back when such acts of exertion were still allowed.
And then there were other bizarre habits, like lifting, where individuals attended specialized sites to push a variety of weighted objects up against gravity, sometimes mounted onto rods. There were also fitness cults much less prominent than these practices, some of which consisted of subjecting one’s own body to near-grotesque stretches. She remembered the practice of Pilates (pi-luh-tees? Or something. She’d have to check the phonetic guide again), which employed body weight, ranging from moving the legs in circles as the back laid flush on the ground, to making repeated upright motions of sitting down in a chair—without the chair. These were foreign concepts, but the more she came across them in her study of manual health at the turn of the twenty-first century, the more fascinated she grew.
And now, she was going to try it. She was going to see for herself what this physical phenomenon of the past felt like. Of course, she was going to do it securely, with government clearance, in this approved room. The company in charge of the NaturaFit Project had okayed it with her university, and the university had okayed it with the state.
A clear beep stole her from her reverie, and Eva heard the door lock behind her, sealing her in a vacuum.
“Please prepare for calibration,” a male voice stole her from her reverie.
Eva looked around rapidly. Restlessness overtook her limbs as her ears searched for the source of the voice.
“Welcome to NaturaFit.”
There seemed to be an invasive presence at the small of her neck, like someone was breathing on her. Where were the speakers? Four lines outlining the belt in the center of the room lit up, forming a square around her.
“We shall begin,” the voice said, feeling still as close. “What is your name?”
“Evaline,” she said.
“Hi: Evaline. My name is: Adam, and I am: a male American English voice. Command yes to proceed, or command no to modify this feature. A lack of response will be considered an affirmation to go on.”
Eva frowned. “Yes,” she called out.
“Alright,” Adam said. “Let’s adjust your settings. Where would you like to run? You can say anything from, ‘base area 13 of Mount Everest,’ to, ‘Lemoine Avenue, Fort Lee,’ or even, ‘somewhere flat.’”
She paused for a moment before responding. She wanted to go somewhere new, somewhere refreshing, somewhere far from the metropolis. “Um, ‘somewhere scenic,’ yeah?”
A few moments passed before a few images appeared in front of her on the pixelated wall, all featuring places with trees, from dark evergreen to light, young green.
“This is: Randomized Collection 1 for ‘somewhere scenic.’ Command the number of the area you’d like to see, or command next for Randomized Collection 2 for: ‘somewhere scenic.’”
Eva chose the fourth one.
It bloomed forth from the smaller image to a panorama that enveloped her in greenery on her right and left, a smooth, paved, gray walkway under her, and a full-bodied blue sky above her. Every single pixel in the dome had been taken advantage of. NaturaFit relied on the highest quality satellite images for their scenery, and though she knew they were images, she let herself be fooled. She felt as though she could reach out and feel the soft green grass tickle her palms, feel the air run through her open fingers like water, but she stayed rooted to her designated square, which had already faded into the paved asphalt beneath her.
“Alright. We will now adjust the temperature.”
Eva went through the process, feeling each quarter of a degree difference, keeping it at a generous seventy-two point twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. She adjusted the time of day, bringing the blue above her down into a cooler, near-lavender shade of evening, edging sunset, as well as humidity, dew point, visibility, pressure, and wind. NaturaFit really did create optimal settings for each and every individual, Eva mused as she fine-tuned the wind setting to a gentle breeze coming from thirty degrees Southwest, at nine point two miles per hour.
“Alright: Evaline. We will now calibrate your body with the system. Please stand hip width apart and raise your arms to the side. Stay in that position for thirty seconds. Please do not make large movements before the process is complete.”
She did as asked, waiting for the projected countdown to hit zero before relaxing.
“All preparations are complete. You may commence running on the rotational belt. Feel free to stop whenever you want. Should you feel like exiting the operation, please command: escape.”
Eva took a deep breath and went through the textbook descriptions of running that were etched into her brain. One leg in front of the other. Knees slightly bent. Curling her fingers into loose fists at her side and pushing a good chunk of her weight onto the balls of her feet, she pushed off the ground. Her other leg moved forward, almost instinctively, to catch her weight. This repetitive motion was to be carried on for the duration of the practice. She was surprised at how naturally it came to her.
Her projected surroundings, which by then had melted into something completely and wholly natural, as though in tune with her spiritually, adjusted with her every step forward. The harder she pushed her legs, the faster her surroundings moved with her. She was flying. The world was flying. She kept going forward, one leap at a time, on the endless pathway, under the perpetual watch of the sky.
The run was exhilarating. Having grown up during the Healthcare Generation, Eva was exceptionally healthy—she followed a strict regiment of injections and pills and was perfectly comfortable with the things she could and could not consume. The pain that was supposed to accompany the activity of running, so acutely described in the archaic recollections of her primary documents, flowed gloriously through her, like red wine. She felt her heart rate hiking up, imitating the effects of her daily CardioPill. She briefly looked down at her thighs, knowing that blood was pumping and her quadriceps muscles were flexing, even without the shots. And her calves—she was moving too briskly to watch them, but she knew and felt the burn.
Eva hid a smile and leaned slightly forward, still allowing her arms to move naturally with the motion and contours of the run. What was it called? Lowering a center of gravity. Keeping her core—a clean, six-block plate of muscle—closer to the ground, and moving faster. And faster. And faster.
And then it happened. She didn’t know how far she had gone, or for how long, but all of a sudden, she saw it. In fact, she probably felt it first—that same grip-choke-release feeling—and now she knew how much impressions paled in comparison to the real thing. This real thing. She could’ve screamed, but her lungs were too preoccupied with converting oxygen that she couldn’t devote a single breath to her shock. She decelerated within a few seconds, her back slightly hunched forward, palms on her knees. Her arms were shaking, her forearms clenched of their own accord. She saw it. She felt it. Oh god.
She started to feel the effects of a premature cool-down, like she hadn’t been precise with taking the third CardioPill, and a thick sheen of sweat overtook every inch of her body as intense heat radiated from every pore.
Escape, she thought. She should escape. She . . . should. But.
She grabbed the bait she hung for herself and turned around. Adam hadn’t said anything about running in the opposite direction, right?
It was still seventy-two point twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, with a pressure of 29.89 inches, a nine-point-two-mile per hour breeze coming from the Southwest. She was barely jogging now, but still, her chest was in flight. A few steps more.
Right there, previously to her left, and now on her right. Oh god, indeed.
“A . . . Adam?” She did not know it was coming out as a question.
“Hi: Evaline. How may I help you?”
She struggled with her words. How was she supposed to describe this? This gray lump, this grotesquely marred thing, dark flecks of blood flaking off cold flesh like lichen; and the source, a gaping hole a bit above the temple, had begun to fester, like the time she caught a rain slug in a bottle and poured salt over it, horrifically relishing the sight. How was she supposed to describe the man’s half-opened, lash-less lids, revealing the yellowed whites of his eyes? His mouth was agape, as if mocking her shock; his white teeth were bloodied, and she caught sight of a golden molar in the back cavity of his jaw.
And where was the body?
This was fake, she knew, just a projection—a projection of a real head somewhere out there—but the head wasn’t supposed to be there—yet her hand reached out anyway and—
“Hi: Evaline,” Adam repeated. “How may I help you? You can say anything from: ‘change setting,’ to: ‘play music.’ Command: escape if you’d like to stop the operation.”
Her hand snapped back to her side like a rubber band. “I . . . Play music.” Her exhalations stumbled over each other. Whatever had stopped her from calling out “escape” before was now forcing her go on.
“Alright. What would you like to listen to?”
Her hand stung, and her brain struggled for an answer, settling on something from her childhood. Something distant. “. . . Mozart.”
“Alright, Evaline. Searching for: ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.’”
Adam’s voice seemed to be coming from the head.
She chose a random playlist. The music started. Tearing her eyes from the ground and swallowing hard, Eva faced the other way, positioned her body, and took off. She had to go.
A solemn bass began the piece, seeming to trudge on behind her, the presence of something heavy tailing her uncomfortably closely. She pushed harder. A forlorn clarinet quietly joined the pursuit, whispering in her ear. Still she ran. Brass instruments made their entrance, demanding some sort of answer from her, and a mass choir followed when she refused to stop. Something that felt like tears pricked at her eyes—oh god, the eyes.
It was the same thing that happened at the park. She had seen this happen, right outside the gate, the head of a Runner, rolling on the ground like a kickball, separated from the body that was beyond her sight; it rolled further and further away from her as it picked up speed—and for some reason, she ran. She ran after it. No, Eva!
And now she was running away from it. Pushing forward, she found herself going faster than she even thought was possible, pulse erratic and rhythm wild, uncomfortably out of sync with the music. But the orchestra continued closely; the violins were playing from the trees, in between branches and leaves where the man’s dead gaze followed her steps; the female choir was the air against her skin, every stronger breeze a corresponding crescendo; the piece got louder, got quieter, and still, the sky remained the same lavender color, forever teetering on the edge of sunset. The voices were screaming now, screaming, screaming, and she saw the slug rotting to its demise, the path of the Runner’s head so succinctly seared in a ribbon of red.
“Escape!” Eva screamed back, jerking to a complete stop and wrapping her arms around herself. The dome had gone completely silent, and before the music could start up again, Adam interjected.
“Hi: Evaline. Would you like to: escape?”
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes!”
“Alright. This environment is from: the ‘scenic’ collection, at Sortie State Park. The piece is: K. 626, by ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.’ Would you like me to remember these settings for the next run?”
“No,” Eva forced it out of her throat and started crying, burying her sweaty face in her palms.
“Alright: Evaline. Thank you for using NaturaFit. When the screen is shut off, you may leave through the same entrance door. Have a good day.”
The world was sucked of every color, sound, and sensation, in a singular inhale. When Eva looked up again, she saw the room. The room with no walls, no ceiling.