She felt ashamed for plugging in. She plugged in to stop feeling so ashamed. This was the loop of Margot’s life, how it doubled back on itself, going nowhere.
Sometimes she reached for the tube and found it in her hand before she realised what she was doing. Her own muscle memory undermined her, but she plugged anyway.
She knew what to expect. The short spasm of joy as the tube clicked into the dock. The gentle massage of incoming juice. She imagined her guilt, stress, distant hopes, and all other unwanted feelings squeezing of her ears, like the juice was a balloon inflating in her skull and taking its exact shape, filling every wrinkle and indentation.
She lived alone in her matchbox apartment in Region 53, but she didn’t feel alone. Maybe if pressed on the topic, she would have argued that she wasn’t alone, even in the literal sense, because the whole human race was in on the blue juice. Love and pain moved osmotically between them. World peace at last. Margot peace at last.
Except when she wasn’t plugged, she wasn’t at peace. This morning, for example, she’d missed her bus to work and would have to wait twenty minutes for the next one.
The bus stop was a skeletal cube on the side of a razor-straight two-lane commuter road, which was unused except for buses, and set a few hundred meters away from the monolithic concrete structure known as the Retail-Housing sector. Retail-Housing was home of all of the residents of Region 53, whose apartment buildings were judiciously spliced and diced with strip malls, fast food chains, boutiquey health food stores, Dance-Fun Dance Club, and a few utilitarian courtyard playgrounds.
Margot reached into her bag and gripped the handle of her portapack. She couldn’t plug in now or she wouldn’t have the juice later when she really needed it. She let go and instead browsed the bus stop portavender. The Self-Improvement section was by far the most well-stocked: Allure Aromatherapy Kits, Simply-Forget Sleeping Pills, Wish-You-Were Weight Loss Powder, the JollyBelly Women’s Treadmill.
Her finger hovered over the treadmill. The kind of Margot who had a treadmill, she thought, would be the kind of Margot who caught the bus. The best investment you can make is the one you make in yourself. She pulled out her personal phone and entered the product code, hoping the payment would clear.
A bus pulled up. Not hers.
A man in his thirties stepped out. Margot’s heart raced.
He seemed not to notice her, squinting instead at the Retail-Housing block in the distance. He checked the name of the bus stop and glanced back at the bus as it pulled away.
“Hello Miles,” she said.
Miles flinched in her direction. His face dug through several layers of recognition before it hit the bottom.
“It’s been a while.”
“Yeah you could say that.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I got transferred to Region 53, just to work. First day.”
“Oh, outside your region. Well that’s great. I live here. Where do you work?”
He raised a long finger toward the Retail-Housing block. “Over on the south wing, I think. BurgerPop Burger.”
Miles hadn’t changed much since school. Same moony brown eyes that gave him a bygone romantic quality and saved the rest of his hatchet face from ugliness. Margot remembered how he had been sharp, idealistic, humming with a kind of dissatisfied energy. Magnetic. Magnetic Miles.
Margot tried to keep her voice steady. “I go there all the time. If you work weekends, maybe I can visit you for lunch?”
A thin smile spread over his face.
“Yeah sure. Sure. Where are you working now?”
“At the Factorie, in accounts payable.”
His smile wavered but remained. “Oh. That’s a good job.”
“I suppose so.”
“You get to sit down.”
“That’s good. You always had, you know, work skills.”
Heat rose to her cheeks.
“I better go,” said Miles, “or I’ll be late.”
“That’s better than me. I’m already late.”
“Oh. Shit. See you Marge.”
“See you Miles. Hopefully.”
With a laugh that was more like a dry cough, Miles waved goodbye and headed off.
Margot’s bus arrived and squealed to a stop. She took a seat and settled in for a long wait. The magic of seeing Miles slowly faded. She stared at her ghost in the window.
She met him on his lunch break after a morning of thin and unsatisfactory blue juice made her suspect she might be alone.
Miles twisted a plastic straw around his finger until his fingertip was swollen and purple. They sat at a picnic table in the playground. The weighty smell of burger grease escaped in waves as the glass doors swung open and shut.
“Are we friends?” he asked.
“Friends? Yes, I think we are. We were friends back then.”
The garish pink scrawl of the BurgerPop Burger sign blinked overhead.
“But you don’t know me anymore.”
Margot thought about it. “But I still care about you. I care if you live or die.”
“That’s the definition of a friend, is it?”
“I don’t know a better one, honestly.” She smiled.
Miles released his finger from the straw. It relaxed into its natural colour.
“I’m quitting the juice,” he said.
Her smile faded.
“Sorry I just … why?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“But why does it have to make sense?”
“People don’t just do things like that for no reason.”
He didn’t say anything right away. Margot chewed on the edge of her styrofoam cup and waited.
“I thought if you were my friend you would at least try to understand.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not not trying to understand.”
“I don’t feel like I should have to explain this to people. Like what’s it to you if I’m on the juice or not? What’s it to anyone?”
“Then why did you say anything?”
“I don’t know. Because quitting isn’t easy. I came here to restart my life. Running into you felt like luck. I guess I thought I could get a little support.”
Margot didn’t know what to say.
Maybe things would be different if she had known what to say. Maybe even tried to quit herself. Helped him carry it. Together they might have succeeded.
Maybe they could have started the resistance twenty years before the resistance began.
Instead, they fell into a tense silence.
Margot watched the kids on the playground while Miles scratched at the table varnish.
The banging on the front door pulled her out of her semi-conscious plugged-in state. Margot was immediately afraid. She did a quick mental checklist. Unpaid bills? She had a few. Was it actually Monday? Had she missed work?
The banging continued, so she made her way to the door, tripping over the forgotten wreckage of a self-assembly JollyBelly Treadmill.
When she opened the door, Miles dropped his fist and skittered back.
Margot’s stomach turned.
His whole body appeared to be caving in. The bags under his eyes were a kind of cadaver blue and he had the pallor of egg whites.
“Sorry.” He ran past her to the bathroom and slammed the door. Her apartment suddenly seemed very quiet except for the sound of muted retching. She stood in the kitchen, pressing her fingernails into her palms.
A few minutes later he came out and leaned on the frame. “I’m five days in,” he croaked. Attempted to smile.
“Do you need to lie down?”
Without answering he dropped himself on her couch and covered his eyes with his forearm.
“I know how I look. You don’t need to say anything. But I just wanted you to know I’ve been on a journey. Trying to learn everything I can.”
Margot sat gingerly next to him. “About the blue juice?”
“There’s not much written about it. Nothing except the promo stuff written on the portapack boxes, about how the base solution bonds with our neurotransmitters and shares them peer to peer. Zippity-do about side effects. But I did learn one thing. You know what that is?”
“Hurts like a motherfucker when you go off it.”
“Oh. You can always use my home pack.”
“No!” Miles sat up with startling intensity and leaned into her face. He smelled like old laundry. “No! No! I’m trying to quit. What’s your problem?”
“But it’s causing you so much pain.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with everyone, is they can’t take a little pain or a little…just a little boredom.”
He squeezed his head between his hands before falling back again. “Hurts so much though.”
Margot had pressed herself against the opposite arm of the couch. She watched him with round, unblinking eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Then, terribly unsure she wasn’t making a huge mistake, she rested her hand on his leg. He rolled so that both of his legs came to rest on her lap.
Her heart clattered like spilled marbles.
“I need distraction,” he murmured, his eyes still covered by his forearm.
“What can I do?”
His hand came up and he wrapped his fingers around her arm, pulling himself up gently. He sat face to face with her, just breathing. His eyes were frighteningly pale, the colour of tea. His mouth touched hers, lightly at first, like an accident, then hard.
Her terrified excitement burst and dissipated. She relaxed under his weight. It was a dim kind of pleasant, having his skin against hers, even though his skin was clammy and his body was cool to the touch.
He fumbled under her shirt. She lifted her hips and let him pull her pants down. Then, holding him tight between her thighs, she tried to give something back to his desperate rocking. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel bad. It felt like a child tugging on her sleeve.
Later in life, Margot would try to change her story. Paint this as something transcendent. That’s hard to believe. As a matter of widely held opinion, the feeling of sex is something the blue juice does better than sex. Organically-produced neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin stabilised in a harmless buffer and shared with everyone – the juice is the raw batter of human connection and nothing beats it.
It’s possible she reached for it, the real thing, and felt it briefly under her palms. But the feeling passed. Loneliness crept in and she wanted something familiar.
He slowed down, paused, pushed in hard once more and stopped with a groan. His chest was damp on her face. Her hand crept around for the tube.
Miles exhaled. “Should last me five minutes.”
He crawled backwards and laid his head on her stomach.
“You know what I really want to know?” he asked.
Perhaps sensing she wasn’t listening, he directed his words down into her skin.
“I want to know who’s responsible. Who made the juice? What do they get out of it? I can’t stop thinking about it Marge.”
Margot found the tube and plugged in.
“I don’t know.”
Miles sat up.
“I’ll see you next time.” He pulled up his pants.
She didn’t answer.
Margot sat at her desk, signing off biweekly statements. With an eye toward hitting the juice after this round of mailouts, she was scanning over them as fast as she responsibly could.
She stopped. Her eyes rested on the statement in front of her. It was more significant than the rest. It reminded her of something.
What was it? Her mind started to wander and she wrestled it back. She ran through her memories. Retail zones. JollyBelly Treadmill. Spiritual Closure Home Fragrance Candles. Magnetic Miles. Miles. Something he’d said.
She remembered the sex then, no, not the sex. After that, he’d said something.
She looked closely.
Nathan Cartwright, Manager. Blue Juice Regional HQ.
He wanted to know who made it.
“Oh,” said Margot, surprised by the sound of her voice. It had actually never occurred to her that the blue juice came from anywhere at all, even though she routinely deposited payments into this account. It wasn’t until Miles had asked the question — and for that matter all the other patent-holders paid annual visits to the Factorie, but she had never met anyone from Blue Juice HQ. Even the name of the company, synonymous with the product, made it seemed nearly non-existent.
Quickly, before she could lose her focus, she grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down the details. Then, quickly, quickly, she picked up her personal phone and rang Miles.
“Don’t let me forget,” she said when he answered. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Miles pushed his fists deep into his pockets. He looked awful. In fact he’d reached the apex (she hoped) of looking awful.
“You really coming with me?”
“Well I have to, Miles. I feel responsible for you, somehow.”
“You really coming, yeah?”
“Yes. I called in sick.”
“Thanks for getting me this.” He pulled the crumpled address out of his pocket. It trembled in his hand. “Thanks for hearing me, even a little.”
Margot tugged on the sleeve of her jumper and stared down the road. She listened for an approaching bus.
“I hope it leads to something,” she said. “I don’t know what.”
When they reached their stop, Margot and Miles stepped out into a flat, ugly block of single-story brick buildings with monochrome lettering.
She could hear him twitching the paper in his pocket.
“What number did I tell you?”
He pulled it out. “751.”
They walked three blocks until they found it.
Blue Juice Regional HQ: Regions 50-64.
The door was chained and padlocked.
“It’s Monday,” she said. “Where are they?”
Miles picked up the padlock. Rust had corroded most of the metal. “Been gone a while.”
“That’s impossible,” she protested. “Their file is still active.”
“I don’t know, Margot.”
“Let’s go around the back.”
They walked another five minutes before they came to a break in the row of connected office fronts. Then they doubled back through a crumbling employee car park.
When they reached 751, Margot and Miles cupped their hands against the glass to look inside.
“I can’t see anything.”
“Me neither. Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know why it’s empty. Let’s go home and we’ll try something else.”
He nodded in the smallest movement possible.
Margot was secretly relieved. She started walking back the way they came.
She heard breaking glass.
Miles was still standing by the back door with a wedge of broken asphalt.
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Margot, this place is abandoned.”
“There could be silent alarms.”
“No one is coming.”
“You can’t promise me that and you know it.”
“Well, I’m going in.”
He reached his hand through the plate-sized hole in the glass and unlocked the door from the inside. Margot watched helplessly as he went in. She wanted desperately to leave, but she didn’t want to leave Miles, especially not in his current state.
She crossed the car park and leaned against a wall. Her pulse drummed away in her neck and ears. She scanned the rows of windows for witnesses.
A few minutes later Miles was leaning through the back door. “Margot!” he called. “You have to see this.”
“No Miles. We have to leave now.”
He shook his head and disappeared. Then he reappeared with something in his hand.
“Look.” He walked toward her, holding out an envelope.
She took it and turned it over.
“It has your return address.”
“This is one of my statements.”
“There are hundreds of them in a pile under the mail slot. No one’s been here for years, Margot.”
Margot’s lips parted. Miles waited patiently.
“Come inside. There’s something else I want to show you.”
The uncirculated air was thick with dust and mold. They stood in a dark hallway at the opening of an empty closet. At the bottom of the closet was a round metal plate.
“It’s a manhole cover,” Miles whispered.
“You think that’s important?”
“Couldn’t find anything else important. And it’s weird, isn’t it? A manhole cover inside?”
Margot bent down and grabbed one of the handles. Miles took the other. It made a big scraping noise as they slid it to the side.
A ladder led down into darkness.
“You really want to go down there?” she asked. “It’s probably just a water main.”
“Indoors? Think about where we are, Marge.”
She looked into the hole. Her fear was leaping out of it.
“I’ll go down if you go first,” she said after a long pause.
When they reached the bottom, everything beyond arm’s length dropped off into darkness. Through the light from above they spotted a torch at the foot of the ladder. Margot tried to switch it on. She slapped it a few times against her palm and set it back down.
“It’s okay,” said Miles. He seemed more certain now. “We can just follow the pipes. And we’ll still have a little light. I’ll go first.”
“I don’t know Miles.”
“Just keep your hand on this main pipe. Look, you can touch it.”
She pressed her hand flat against the side. It was cool, but not cold. Almost pleasant to touch.
“If I lose sight of the manhole, I won’t go any further.”
“It’s a deal,” said Miles. He moved forward. Margot kept close behind.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
He didn’t answer for a while, but kept probing into the darkness.
“I think it opens up over there.”
“Slow down. I can’t see anything.”
But soon, Margot could hear what he heard and sense what he was sensing. There was a chasm ahead of them, the unmistakeable sound of flowing liquid and its echo against chamber walls.
Margot reached out in front of her and felt a brief flash of vertigo when Miles wasn’t there.
He had turned a corner.
“That’s it,” she called out. “I’m stopping here. If I turn this corner I’ll lose the light.”
“There’s a light switch here,” he said from a distance.
He flicked the switch.
She saw exactly what she expected to see, which was something she’d never imagined until a few minutes ago.
A large pool of the stuff. The good stuff. The demi-organic dopamine glutamate sterile isotonic buffer stuff. The blue stuff. Reflecting the studio lights like a nighttime lake collecting the love of a dozen full moons.
Margot moved close to Miles and hooked her arm through his elbow. She wanted to hold on to him and she didn’t know why.
Miles went rigid. Eyes wide. Pupils jet black and big as marbles.His breathing had become shallow and rapid. His lips, cracked and dry from withdrawal, grew slick with saliva.
Margot squinted into the morass. It was mostly pure and aquatic and deliciously bright, but something set her on edge. There was an inconsistency in the blue. Two patches where the light didn’t pierce. Unmoving blobs reflecting more grey than any other colour, like curds in the milk.
Miles muttered something under his breath.
Margot spotted a broom leaning against the wall.
“Don’t move,” she said, letting go of his arm.
She picked up the broom and lowered the pole end into the juice, prodding at one of the grey patches. It hit the edge of something solid and the blob turned.
Its shape was undeniable.
That’s when she noticed two torches on the floor.
“Miles,” Margot tried to control her voice. “I think we should go.”
“Go what?” he murmured. “And leave all this?”
He took two running steps toward the pool.
“No!” she lurched forward and caught the edge of his shirt. He turned to fight her off as she grabbed in vain at his wrists. He wriggled out of his shirt and threw himself forward.
I care if you live or die.
Miles crashed into the pool and disappeared beneath.
Margot screamed his name. Or maybe she just screamed. The memory is blurred.
He broke the surface and howled, rubbing his face and mouth and ears with the juice.
“Get out of there!”
He tipped the side of his head into the juice and whipped his fingers around the dock, prodding at the synthetic barrier that divided his brain matter from the outside world.
“Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself,” Margot shrieked.
“Can’t get it,” his voice thumped to the frantic motion of his hands.
Margot steeled herself and jumped in. She tried not to think of the blobs.
That turned out to be easy, because as soon as she was in the juice, coated by its love, inundated with its comforting, sterile smell, her worries started slipping away.
How long since she’d last plugged in? A few hours. A long time, but not too long. She could still fight it.
She grabbed his hands. It was a struggle to grab them at first. They were slick with juice and determined.
“That’s not how you get the juice in,” she said, lips quivering. “You need the tube. The tube is a lot better.”
“There is no tube!”
“Yes there is. I have one. I have my portapack in my bag upstairs. You can use it all. It’s better that way.”
“All of it?”
“All of it. My pack is full. Okay? Listen to me Miles. You’ve got to get out of this.”
He looked at her for what seemed like forever. His face was scarecrow-like, eyes round and empty, nostrils collapsed, features drawn to a point on bloodless skin. He nodded.
Margot made him get out first. He reached back for her and together they moved as fast as they could toward the ladder.
They spent the next half hour in the bathroom rinsing out their clothes. Miles didn’t say a word. Margot didn’t want him to.
“I promised you the portapack,” she said when they were back on the bus.
Miles took it. It seemed like he was fighting the urge to snatch it. He plugged in, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes.
With no small amount of shame she realised her own hunger had come back. The whirr of juice through the tube. She wanted to rip it out of his head. She imagined the mess. The fight. The stares from the other passengers.
She hated herself for it. She was as weak as Miles. Weaker, because she’d never even tried to quit. The “real her” she had once dreamt up, the version of herself she once imagined to be alive beneath her constant need, was really just an indefinite prisoner in her own drab heart.
He was a slave, and now she saw she was too.
Miles would cycle through phases of quitting and relapsing. When Margot let him, he would crawl on top of her and try to find another distraction. They searched for each other through skin and spit, but couldn’t find anything there.
But when Margot fell pregnant, Miles thought he could finally make a choice that mattered.
“Never put a dock in that child’s head,” he said. “That’s the only chance we have.”
I did crave the juice. Of course I did, because my mother’s system was buzzing with it the whole time she was pregnant with me. But I couldn’t get the juice, not really. Eventually the cravings softened.
Do you know I’m not the only one? Neither was my father for trying to quit. There are a few others like me, and we’ve been building maps. We want to know just how large the juice network is. There aren’t many maps larger than a single region, so we’re putting ours together. Some people think the juice network spans the continent. I think it spans the world.
I don’t underestimate the juice.
I noticed gaps though, empty spaces where the maps couldn’t be filled in. The most I could gather from the surrounding infrastructure was that a few utility pipes, including the juice, probably ran through the centre of these gaps.
I decided to explore one of them myself.
On a sunny Sunday morning, I took a bus to nowhere. Then I walked an hour to come to the edge of nowhere. A short wire fence cut through the brush, so low and overgrown it seemed more like some planner’s lazy brush stroke than a real barrier. I stepped over.
Gradually the wilderness thickened and shrubs became trees.
I’ve travelled more than most people. My map-building took me to over twenty regions. But for half a day I walked through a place more verdant and alive than anything I’ve ever seen. There were wildflowers. Creeks with smooth stones. Tall white trees with peeling bark. I even came across a deer. We froze in the presence of each other. She was so close I could see a flea weaving through her coarse hair. I made one slight move forward and she vanished in a single springing motion.
Eventually I found what I was looking for. The trees broke suddenly at the edge of a clearing, and the clearing contained the great wood-paneled expanse of someone’s house.
I don’t know why I expected to find it here. I guess I thought if anyone out there had the power to choose, they wouldn’t be living like the rest of us.
But I was pretty unclear as to my next move. I couldn’t just walk up to the gate and ring the bell. Could I? How would I even identify myself?
So I stayed at the edge, thinking about this problem for so long that waiting became my plan by default. Maybe I would get a chance to see them before they saw me.
The temperature dropped by a few degrees and the sky blushed. I pulled my jacket tighter and crouched in the brush. I don’t know exactly how much time passed. I kept my eyes on the house. The tinkling of birdsong descended into the drone of cicadas. Eventually I pulled my knees up to my chest and lay on my side, keeping my eyes open.
Several hours into my stakeout, a switch was thrown and my world flared white. I threw my hand up to cover my eyes.
A male voice issued from the trees.
“Would the trespasser in the treeline please come forward and present yourself at the main gate.”
I stood. Should I run or go forward? No, no running, I needed too badly to know what I’d found. My legs were creaky and numb but as I walked forward I could feel my blood moving again. Soon enough my heart thumped like a shoe in a clothes dryer. The gate buzzed just as I reached it. I passed through and tried to not to let it shut completely behind me.
A broad-shouldered man appeared in the doorway, backlit by the interior.
“Arms out to your side.”
That was the last thing I wanted to do.
I braced myself and turned. Every rustle and scrape of his approach from behind raised the hairs on my neck.
His hands ran along my side and under my jacket. He stopped at one inner pocket and pulled out my hunting knife. With a rough pull on my shoulder, he turned me back around.
“What was this for?”
He said nothing.
A second man appeared in the doorway.
“Come on, it’s late. It’s cold out.”
The first man threw my knife in the bushes and led me inside. There in the foyer, I could see them both clearly. They resembled each other. Father and son? The second man was much older, and age had drained away most of his bulk, leaving only a little puddle around his gut.
“Did you plan to kill me?” he asked.
“I came to talk.”
“So? Simply ring the bell.”
“Your home doesn’t give the impression that it welcomes visitors.”
“Yet you didn’t leave. Odd behavior, I thought. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what you wanted.”
“I wanted to talk. I just didn’t know how.”
He blinked slowly.
“Show me the side of your head.”
I pulled back my hair.
“Thought so. Only the dockless get out this far. And their motivations vary. Follow me.”
He walked with, not a limp exactly, but a straggler’s pace. His halls were warm and carpeted, filled with nonsense paintings of ducks and ponds. I followed him into his study, which was more of the same. Deep rust-coloured walls with gold trim. A heavy oak desk and two sofa chairs. He motioned for me to sit in one chair and sat across from me in the other.
His son stood just behind him in the corner.
The old man crossed his legs, unsheathing one skinny ankle.
“How long have you been watching me?” I asked.
“Oh, we weren’t paying much attention. But we have heat-sensitive cameras. It was hard not to notice the little orange bundle, shivering away. It can get extremely cold out there. You shouldn’t have risked it. What did you come here to talk about?”
“Who are you?”
“Who am I? That depends on what exactly you’re trying to learn, and you haven’t told me yet.”
“Okay. How did you end up in a house like this, away from the rest of society?”
“I have means.”
I struggled to find the right words. He waited without impatience, his expression unchanging.
“Your means,” I said. “Does it come from the blue juice?”
“There we go. How did you arrive at that?”
I opened my mouth but he waved his hand.
“Nevermind, it doesn’t matter. It’s always about the blue juice with your type. But yes.”
“So it’s true? How were you involved? Did you invent it or did you just capitalise on it?”
“Both. I was part of the team anyway.”
I felt a rush of adrenaline and shifted in my seat. Now the words were coming to me, too many at once.
“How could you do this to us?”
“Do what exactly?”
“The blue juice is a disease. It’s ruined lives. Not just some lives. Everyone’s. Two generations now of people who are hopelessly hooked. How do you live with yourself?”
He tapped his dock. “At least I’m not a hypocrite.”
“I can’t believe this,” I whispered. “All these years. My father’s entire life. I’m finally looking at the source.”
“Slow down. I’m not the source. I was part of a team, like I said.”
“But you were there when it started? You know where it came from?”
I thought I saw a kind of sadness move through his face and disappear, but maybe I read too much into it. Maybe I was looking for remorse where there wasn’t any.
“Call it loneliness, boredom,” he said “But I always appreciate the chance to tell my story. Albeit to someone who likely wants to jump up and strangle me.”
“I’ll sit still if you do.”
“We had no intention for it to … become what it did. It was an experimental drug. Part of an ongoing therapy for people with antisocial disorders. The world was a dangerous place back in my day. Crime rates through the roof.”
“The juice was a treatment?”
“An empathy drug. It made you feel like you were not alone.”
“And it got out of hand?”
“God yes. I can’t even describe how quickly it spread. It was an outbreak. The first iteration was delivered through the nose, so some of our junior staff started skimming the stuff. Then we all did. Then we had to invent a more direct way to get access to the juice. So we made the docks and the tube fittings. Then the pipe networks practically built themselves. Everyone needed more juice. So we made more juice. Then, because it was all peer to peer, it became self-sustaining. It was out of our hands after that.”
“But you have no problem collecting a paycheck for it.”
He tilted his head. “You would prefer I punish myself?”
I gripped the armrests. “Have you been out in the world recently? I have. I grew up in that world. It’s waking death. Everyone’s too tired, too braindead to do anything other than work and pay bills and plug in. The retail industry is booming though, bloody beauty products, self-help audio guides, instant food, fashion labels, dance clubs memberships. All of it bought and discarded. A million little addictions to distract us from the real one. Selling people their own lost dreams. It’s repugnant.”
He fixed his watery blue eyes on me.
“And you’re here to do what, save them all?”
“Once I figure out how, yes.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as a little sanctimonious?”
“People chose this for themselves. I didn’t force the juice on anyone, nor did any of my colleagues. We were victims as much as anyone else. I know you really wanted to discover some evil shadow society, pulling strings behind the curtain, making people lazy and stupid so that they became good work cogs and good consumers. But sometimes people just do it to themselves. The only way anyone will be free of the juice is if they, themselves, choose to be free. ”
“But it’s massively addictive. You can’t call that a choice. You’re just deflecting.”
“Well that brings me to to my other point. Why is it so addictive? Because it provides the feeling of community. Is that really so terrible? No discrimination, no social anxiety, no politics. Total acceptance. I know you wouldn’t understand. But how can you begrudge someone else that simple pleasure?”
I felt ill, like my stomach had been replaced with a sackful of snakes.
“My father tried to quit the juice hundreds of times,” I said. “Eventually, the stress on his brain killed him. He believed so strongly in a better world that he suffered for decades trying to be an example of it. How dare you try to put a positive spin on this poison? How dare you suggest people can just walk away from it?”
He pressed his lips together. “I think we’ve talked enough for one night. What was your name again?”
“You don’t need it.”
“If that’s the way you want it, okay.”
“It’s not okay. You’re trying to end this conversation, but we haven’t talked nearly enough.”
His son stepped forward. The old man motioned for him to stay put.
“You think you’re some kind of emergent hero,” he said, “but you’re not. You’re an infant and you came onto my property with a bunch of vague questions and insinuations like you’ve never spoken to a grown-up before. You’ll stay here tonight for your own safety. Tomorrow you go. I don’t want to see you again.”
The son moved toward me again. I stood, fists clenched. He put a hand on my shoulder and moved me out of the room. As I was leaving I threw a quick glance over my shoulder. The old man sat, still and stoney-eyed, staring at my empty chair.
I followed the son up the stairs and down another hall. The guest bedroom was simple and austere, with one hard bed and a side table. I felt violent. That’s the only word for it. I felt violent.
He shut the door behind me and locked it from the outside.