After The Rains
Quent took a moment to stare at the pill on the kitchen table. It didn’t look like much: just a plain, amber capsule whose lopsided bulge belied its age and cheap production. He crouched down and his face was drawn to eye-level with the small pharmaceutical. It only took a moment to take its measure. Question his choice. He shook himself free of its spell and headed to the bathroom.
He’d popped the pill out of the silver foil packaging about an hour ago and placed it on the table as he went about his regular morning routine: contacts, shower, shave, towel, lotion, clothes, teeth, shoes. The pill had watched him calmly from the table the whole time. He had tried not to think about it.
Casting one last look at the amber gel, Quent closed his eyes, turned on his heel and busied himself with lacing up his shoes. He closed the door and placed the back of hand on the keypad, waiting for the mechanical swirling sound and annoying beep that assured him his modest little corner of the world was secured. Beep.
He’d heard that the new building going up across the street would have retinal ID for its locks and he idly wondered about the trouble of moving at the end of his lease as he waited for the elevator to chug its way up to the twelfth floor. B29, B20, B5, 4, 15, 30, 25, 19, 13, 12. The doors opened to reveal an empty box. Typical. He stepped in and jabbed the door close button. 12, 5, B5, B14, B20, B29, S. The box emptied and the residents of Shinsa Tower E-15 all turned left, then left again like a school of fish, finding their way to the subway platform.
The flow of the morning commute drew him in for the morning. With the dust storms in China last week causing so much trouble, the ratways were more clogged than usual. On the days when there’s no view, people tended to crowd into the subterranean tubes for their walks instead. An elderly lady wearing an old-school white face mask sidled up to him, and drove her elbows into his kidneys as she jostled for better positioning on the approaching train. She muttered something that was probably language once, but now her voice was nothing more than growls and wheezy whines. Probably a victim of the first few Rains, he thought. Poor lady deserves to have a good spot. Holding up his hands, Quent stepped out of the queue and moved across the platform to be first in line for the next train. It was a 45 minute ride, so he was happy to wait a few moments so he could get a seat far away from the speaker that would be playing the 08:00 religious broadcast.
“This stop is … Donggae; National Art Gallery and Kei-an Business Park. Please watch your step as you exit the train.” Quent shoved past some businessmen who were watching the races live on their phone. “Fuckin’ great,” the fat one moaned. “How on earth does Wentz stay out there for that long? I’m never putting another credit on any opponent of his as long as I live.” With an eye roll and a polite but forceful shove, Quent was out the door and in line for the huge elevator that serviced his whole office block. The herd moved into the X-Levator, and after some pushing near the doors to ensure no one’s torso had the space to expand properly when they breathed, the doors dinged shut. S, B29, B28, B27, B26, B24, then, at long last, B20. Quent cleared his throat loudly to indicate his imminent departure, but as usual, no heed was given. He sharpened his elbows and plowed through the 50 or so people on the high-capacity elevator and was extruded into his office just before the door slid shut.
Taking a moment to straighten his tie, Quent noticed a small gray discoloration on his right shoulder. How odd. There hadn’t been any breaches lately - no warnings on the emergency alert system or anything. Maybe one of his elevator companions had been near that small leak up north in the Gyerong neighborhood? He brushed at the specks, but of course, he knew the radioactive dust was already ground into the fibers. He made a mental note to take it to the cleaners on his lunch break and strode through the industrial gray entrance chamber. ID badge scan, retinal ID, passcode, body scan, four confirmation pips, and then the familiar click of his office door opening.
“Good morning, Mr. Zhao. Your coffee is on your desk in preparation for your morning meeting with the chems supplier at 10.” Quent smiled curtly and thanked his assistant. Jonathan had been here for 6 months now and still couldn’t pronounce his fucking name properly. He pronounced it “Zow”, as though it were the name of a sugary childrens’ cereal, or a fight scene in an old Batman show. Good local help was hard to find these days. Too many native speakers had lost their voices in the Rains. Now that the government had been forced to relax their visa restrictions on uneducated workers, lots of young westerners were flooding in to pad their resumes and gather stories for when they inevitably returned home. None of them could handle it. Living in usually takes its toll after a few months.
Jonathan was a good kid, but Quent knew he wouldn’t last. These kids from overseas didn’t really get it. They’d heard the stories, sure. But living in was a lot harder in practice than it was in theory. Quent had estimated the kid would last about the usual 3 months, but he was happy to be proven wrong. However, he could see that Jonathan’s skin was beginning the change, and his energy levels were already a fraction of what they had been when he first started. But the kid was hanging on, and that’s all he needed for now. It wouldn’t be hard to find some other kid to make his coffee and organize his calendar.
Quent stepped into his office and closed the door. Sun streamed in through the windows - just a bit too brightly. Quent grabbed the remote and turned down the levels by about 3 clicks. Much better. The government had asked people to keep it above 30 until the 18:00 watershed, but Quent figured his own vitamin D levels were probably fine. He took a moment to appreciate the view and breathe out. Just as he finished with his lungful of the office’s fake, crisp air, a phone call interrupted his meditations, and he was buried in his day until 18:00.
“Goodnight, Mr. Zhao.” Badge, retina, passcode, body, pippippippip, click.
As his apartment door clicked closed behind him, Quent’s eyes were drawn to his bare kitchen table. Well, not quite bare. The amber capsule was still patiently waiting for him. He caught up on a few remaining work emails as his dinner was cooking, and then gingerly moved the pill to the side of the table so he could eat. It was pretty good tonight. Turkey or chicken or pork or something. It all tasted roughly the same unless you went somewhere for dinner. He mindlessly flipped through some newspanels as he ate, but in between the headlines, his eyes kept flicking back to the pill. Parliament to pass new public health regulations. Pill. Dying singer dumped her foreign girlfriend. Pill. Illegal betting uncovered at the races. Pill. More Rains tomorrow. Pill.
He knew he shouldn’t have bought it. Andrea at the office had bought one and said she had hated it. “Not worth it,” she had told all the others crowded around her in the breakroom. She was pretending to be ashamed, but to be able to afford one of the gray-market pills is a brag no matter how you spin it. “I had to take a week off work until the side-effects wore off. I was on the bathroom floor crying and vomming for three days. My lungs felt like they were on fire. It didn’t even last that long anyway,” she had said. Not that anyone believed everything she said. This was the same Andrea who had been “pregnant” three times and once claimed to have gotten sick once from some “real” sushi she had found at “some place in the old fisheries district”. But she had some grainy photos from her vacation, so there was no question she’d actually taken the damn thing. The photos of her on a beach and in a park and next to some large tree were irrefutable.
Quent switched his news panel to video mode just in time for the mandatory 20:00 religious broadcast and picked up the pill, turning it over in his fingers. He hadn’t ever really considered buying one until last week. His indoor golf buddies had been talking about the new regulations on illegal pills on their last outing. After they laughed about the idiots who got caught, the booze-fueled conversation had quickly taken a more serious turn. In a hushed voice, one of them said he knew a site that didn’t report addresses to the government. Quent went straight from the 18 sake-soaked virtual holes to a sketchy internet cafe, where he’d logged in remotely and purchased it, credits-on-delivery. The drone that dropped it off later that night just scanned his barcode and spat out the grubby white box containing the single pill at his feet before it zipped away. So this is what crime feels like, eh? Painless enough.
“Tomorrow,” he kept telling himself. “Tomorrow after work I’ll do a few shots, down this little thing, take the next day off work, and make it count.”
But despite the relatively low barrier to entry, something held Quent back. Danger? Not really. Pills were so reliable these days, he thought. The technology had been developed shortly after the Rains started. Pharma companies were all rushing to be the first to mass-market their own pricey ounce of prevention before the near-universal governmental bans on the technology. Fear? Maybe. It was hard to tell what was truth on the news anymore. You heard stories. Gossip. Good experiences and bad. Some people got caught, and most compounds showed up on the tox screen for a few weeks, so they couldn’t really claim it was an accident. As he replayed all the stories he’s heard about it, his news panel droned on in the background.
But he knew what was really holding him back: What if it wasn’t worth it? Sure, the stories the old-timers tell made it all sounds amazing. The smells, the sounds, the colors. But what if it had all changed since then? What if there really wasn’t anything worth exploring once you took the pill?
After sitting in meditation for about 20 minutes, Quent slammed the pill down onto the table, went to his liquor shelf, and rummaged for supplies. He grabbed a single shotglass and a jug and plopped back down into his kitchen chair. He poured a shot of the cheap Chinese whiskey- his favorite. He’d heard a rumor that it would be street-legal soon and chuckled, knowing you could already buy it at any shop that sold booze if you knew how to ask. With the mildly rebellious thoughts guiding his hand, he picked up the tiny glass and downed the first shot. He quickly poured another and downed it too. He tilted the bottle one more time, lifting it off the table dramatically as a waterfall of the dark brown liquid filled the shotglass.
He picked up the pill.
As the liquid courage began to take hold, he held the pill aloft and stared at it intently, as though it had forgotten its lines in the grand drama that was playing in his head. Come on. Say something. Convince me. An old hymn oozed out of the news panel, splashing the apartment with schmaltzy, familiar sounds.
“Come on, you weak little shit. Live a little bit.” Quent felt a lump in his throat rising as he quietly berated himself. He wanted to be a part of this world he’d heard so much about, but part of him was still gripping onto the comfortable life he’d built for himself. There was so much to lose, and a little slip-up was all it would take. The smallest thing could give you away. Stepping into a camera’s line of sight. Not resealing your breach properly. Running into someone else who had also taken a pill.
Besides, what was the worst that could happen? Fine of 10 times the price of the pill? Bah. Small mark on his criminal record? Who didn’t have a flag in their file for breaking curfew or buying illegal shit?
But what if it didn’t work? He wouldn’t know until he breached. His mind was cast back to the old lady in the mask who had elbowed her way onto the train this morning. If the prize in his hand was just an expensive lump of sugar, there’d be no way of knowing until it was too late. Like everyone else, he’d seen the 10th grade health class videos about what happens if you breach. He tried to imagine a life where he couldn’t speak. He could clearly visualize himself wearing the mask every day and living with an eternal, burning pain in his lungs.
But there was a world out there. He knew it. It wouldn't be off limits unless it was worth experiencing. The whispered stories he’d heard from old-timers were too vivid to be fake. Even his own grandmother had once had a few drinks and told a story about it at a Christmas dinner when he was a kid. Her lucid descriptions of how bright the colors were and what the sun really felt like had settled deep in his soul before the other grown-ups were able to shush her.
Quent looked at the pill in his hand. Come on. Say something. Anything.
In the moment of silence, the news panel whispered the pill’s cue from across the table. Quent’s left ear perked up and he slid his gaze from the small amber gel over to the newscast. An old man in a black robe was raising his hands to the heaven and speaking the exact words that his pill didn’t have the courage to say.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.
Quent’s mouth cocked into an odd smile. The pill disappeared with the last shot not far behind. The shotglass hit the table, and Quent’s lungs burst into flame. He immediately passed out from the pain. His shotglass rolled off the table and bounced onto the carpet as the newscast continued,
And whosoever eats of this bread shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.