When Elm was a boy, the sky was still blue.
Now it was any color they chose.
Today it was an advertisement for ePhemerin.
The unblemished serenity of Zhao Ling beamed above the port. She placed a pill on her tongue, rolled it back, swallowed, winked, sank deeper into the dimple of her smile. She opened her palm and another pill dropped in, as though from heaven.
"Life," she mouthed silently, "without the drag."
A chorus boomed. Vowels swayed in a cheerful sing-song from every nearby speaker, "ePhemerin."
Elm hummed along as he settled himself into one of the vator’s plush harnesses for the ride to orbit.
Outside the window casement the port simmered with traffic. Even at this early hour tourists mobbed every facet of the balustrade. They came to witness the synchronized squat-thrust-catch-plume of a paired land-and-launch. He’d done the same himself many times, jostling for a better view to see the transfer of momentum defy death and physics. The force of one vator landing boosted the next one up the line.
Beyond the port, San Francisco flickered into view as the sky’s canvas momentarily returned to authentic dawn. These gaps in the ads reminded him of the underlying beauty of reality; sometimes Elm felt they were the only thing keeping him sane. Another ad for ePhemerin shifted into view.
The countdown above the window glowed red. Ample time to buckle in and swallow one.
He fingered the pill box and began his ritual of relaxation. The tongue is a muscle, he recited to himself. Muscles aren’t bones, they are capable of relaxation. So relax, he told himself. From the tip of the tongue all the way down to the belly and from the belly back to the tip.
The vator bustled with chattering tourists comparing each other's tickets like they'd never seen a hologram, picking seats, groping into their harnesses, and swapping rumors about the trip up.
Elm took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Relax. It’s a pill for science-sake. It’s nothing to you. Nothing.
A woman sat down in the seat in front of him exuding the scent of fabric softeners and shampoo. She was trim and fit, but still blocked half his view. The vators always filled to capacity—yet he took her seat selection personally. There were still plenty of other empty racks and now he had to pretend to look somewhere else.
"I love that the day is longer up there," she said as she fussed with the straps of her harness. This is the kind of career cutie that wouldn't have said a word to him ground-side. She looked around the vator with unblinking eyes.
The business man to one side of her had already taken his pill and was out. A family of seven settled on the other side and swapped seats about as many times.
The woman across from him squeezed her shoulders to her ears. "It's the little things."
Elm shrugged. "Commute's a commute."
"Get out. You work up there? May I?" She leaned forward and touched his uniform, as if trying determine the fabric’s thread count.
"It’s denim." He wanted to scream at her to leave him alone. Couldn’t she see that he had to relax? But there was something hypnotic about the way her nose dipped and as she prattled. The more he looked the more he couldn’t look away.
"Not denim." She wagged a finger. "Space denim."
Elm flashed his teeth in what he thought might pass for a smile.
"I take the X Judah every morning on the way to work and slide five blocks through Nuevo Sunset. In heels. Fabulous view of the slums of utopia. I used to wear pumps, but half the time you see someone from the office on the way in and they ask about the shoe change. Draws attention to all the wrong things." She actually took a breath. "It must be beautiful seeing the Earth as you rise. When does the horizon start to curve?"
"You'll be out before all that." Elm rattled his pills.
The vator released from its mooring with a shudder. Tourists gasped at every jerk on the line.
She grabbed her harness and tilted her head back to look out the window.
Her neck stretched into a convex arch.
If only structural engineering could match that functional elegance. Organic nanites were still a trope of science fiction, but maybe one day he could play with a material like that. He'd build a wing in orbit dedicated to the arch of that neck.
The vator oscillated to stillness.
"God, I thought we were going for a second." She laughed it off.
"It disarms in advance. To be ready." Elm pointed at the clock. "We should get ready, too."
She pivoted her hips to show a witness box clipped to her belt. It was about half the size of any the other boxes he’d ever seen. The new ones must be out or maybe she was a beta. If only they’d do that with the pills; he always bought the latest right away, despite the cost, but they only ever had extra features and were never any smaller. She whispered, "I’m covering the centennial. For The Chronicle."
"The Chronic? That yellow rag still around?" He wished he hadn’t said it, but she didn’t seem to take offense. Or maybe she was practiced at hiding it; the paper had a hysterically liberal reputation which could be a charming relic of the city's past when the pitch of alarmism didn't get too shrill.
She twirled her finger, stuck out her tongue and made a loopy siren sound.
He smiled carefully, keeping his lower lip over his jutting tooth. Ugly thing, that tooth. Weak, grey, loose—he’d get it removed if he ever had a day off. Vator dentists: now there was a thought. He could almost hear the slogan’s riff, "Wake up in a mile to a brand new smile."
Well, it was more than a mile. And he had yet to grin about it.
The reporter held out her hand until Elm realized she meant for him to shake it.
Elm reached out to reciprocate the archaic gesture.
She squeezed his palm. "I'm Nevada. Used to go by Nev. Or Ada. My friends call me Nada."
"Nada." Elm closed his eyes and sank back into the headrest. He had to shut his eyes or he’d stare at her. Under other circumstances he’d be interested in this flirting. Maybe he'd ask her to join him for a low-g margarita once they docked.
"What an opportunity you have . . ." Her finger pressed his name tag. "Elmer."
His eyes shot open. "Elm."
"What do you do, Elm?"
"I'm in public works." He double checked his harness.
It glowed Red.
To his surprise, the pill box was still in his hand, unopened. He couldn't remember the last time he hadn't already downed his pill by the three minute mark. The descending vator would be hurtling down above them at terminal velocity. This woman's chatter was distracting. He’d better get that pill down or the ride would be hell.
"Public works. Public works. Public works?" She tasted the words like she wanted to spit them out. "What does that even mean? Like a janitor?"
"Kidding. Public works as in engineering. You know: power, water, air."
"And earth?" She said.
"Don't miss it." He tapped a pill loose and tucked the rest deep into his coveralls. He’d have to swallow this horse pill soon, ready or not. Nevada didn’t seem to notice the countdown. Maybe she didn’t have trouble with pills.
"I mean earth. The element earth." She counted on her fingers. "Where there's fire, water, and air there's always earth, too. The elements stay in balance. It's the most ancient principle of life."
He wondered when those famous Chronic mantras would surface. It was too much to hope that she worked there without buying into all the crap.
"There's biopharm and picofacture," he said. "That what you're thinking of?"
Her eyes sparkled. "It's changing everything."
"I don't work with content." It was like assuming everyone in the music business was a rock star—or even wanted to be. Plenty of happy sound techs out there enjoying the tunes, thank you very much. "My team maintains structural integrity and gauges the inherent stability of itinerant vectors in the . . ."
He let his voice drift. Dagger always said his so called engineering voice could generate a lullaby with the gravitational tide of a gas giant.
Elm pointed up to the ceiling where cables stretched into space. "It's safe."
Nada rolled a pill in her palm. It was thick as a finger. "Do I take it now?"
Their harness lights flashed scanning to see if they'd taken their pills. When had he not been ready for that?
What would Dagger say? She’d say he was unfit. She’d say, "Don’t you wish you’d learned to take control of your mind without the crutch of drugs?"
She held her pill between pointer finger and thumb. "Do I have to take it?"
Didn't they brief the tourists anymore? "Unless you want to go crazy and piss yourself."
"Crazy I could handle." She threw her head back and tossed the pill in after. Her throat made one smooth dip and she shook her head. "Wow, those are big. I guess you get used to it."
Elm shrugged. He had never taken pills easily. His throat itched at the very idea.
At two minutes the clock audibly ticked the seconds.
Elm rehearsed his relaxation technique. He stared past Nada and focused out the window. The belly is a molten pool of magma, he told himself. It felt more like glacial sludge.
Zhao Ling's smile elongated across the horizon. From this height you could see how big the skyad really was.
A wave of pill-popping and harness cinching swept through the vator.
He parted his lips. Now or never.
"What kind of crazy?" Nada narrowed her eyes. "You speaking from experience?"
"You recording this?"
"Should I be?"
He lowered the pill. "It offsets psychological strain by slowing your metabolism. Apparently." He willed his mouth to salivate and moisten the cracked desert of his tongue. His saliva did not comply.
She said, "If you took enough ePh could you live forever?"
"You’d have to take it at the right intervals. You'd do nothing but exist." And take pills. One order of mortality, please.
"What's it like?" She asked.
"You . . . arrive."
"Does it take long?" Her words slurred and she pursed her lips experimentally.
"It's a day's ride. You won't feel any of it."
"No, how long until the feel I . . . 'til I feel . . ." Her face drooped and her head lolled against the harness.
"Sweet dreams." He wished he could to kiss her goodnight. One kiss.
Her harness inflated to cradle her head in a neutral position and its halo pulsed from red to green. All the other harnesses glowed green. His was the only one still in the red. One of the children of the big family scrunched her forehead at him and then went placid.
No time for the warm up routine now. He calculated that the descending vator must be visible to the crowd.
Quit stalling. Just take the thing.
Elm placed the pill on his tongue and pressed it against his soft palate.
His throat pinched tight and dry.
If you can’t swallow it, Dagger had told him, mash it open against the roof of your mouth. It’ll taste like shit, but it'll get the job done.
He worried it open as the harness confirmed his ingestion of the sedative and his light finally went green.
The harness tightened about his wrists, arms, and neck. It snuggled around his jaw, puffing close. Soon he wouldn’t be able to open his mouth at all.
The faces of the vator's other passengers distorted in some mixture of the ePhemerin and the harness's stricture. The press of the harness on Nada’s cheeks made her look like a smiling panda. He didn’t quite remember this part; he was usually too deep in the ephemeral void by now.
He pressed at the pill with his tongue, but it wasn't opening. It fell back towards his throat and he gagged, sucking the thing sideways into his windpipe. A cough grated his throat, the pill hopped loose and sweet air rushed in.
The pill tumbled out of his mouth.
He lunged but the harness held him tight. Somehow the pill stuck to his lower lip.
He darted his tongue out. He strained his jaw to part his teeth against the pressure of the harness.
The pill was out of reach. The harness continued to inflate, pressing his teeth into his tongue.
Elm jerked against the harness until his shoulders felt dislocated and his wrists throbbed raw with pain.
The harness barely moved.
The other passengers dangled in their racks, a stupor upon them.
He pulled in his tongue before he was forced to bite it off. He scanned the vator with his eyes—the only part of him that could still move. No one seemed conscious at all.
His tongue probed as though it could find the pill—or some piece of it—hiding in his mouth. There was nothing but a lingering aftertaste.
Nada's eyes twitched. Drool ran from her painted mouth. The actual face of ePhemerin was nothing like the skyads.
The vator chimed and the lights dimmed.
His arms, legs, head and jaw were now completely, gently immobilized. His teeth were pressed together.
The pill hung by a strand of skin.
He curled his lips into a painful rictus and eased the pill up into his mouth.
It clinked against the outside of his teeth.
He clamped his lips tight and puffed his cheeks out.
He sucked them in like a fish.
His tongue prowled uselessly inside its enameled cage.
He tried to work the pill past the gap where his molars had been removed, but the pill was too fat.
The pill's outer shell tasted like melting rubber. Bile rose in his throat like a flame.
A tone filled the vator.
This signal was usually the last thing he remembered before waking at the station gruff with a five o'clock shadow and a skeletal boner.
A blur streaked past outside the window and a jolt of acceleration pressed Elm deep into his harness.
The world shook black.
When he woke the countdown was frozen at zero. He was higher up than he'd ever been, aware—excluding orbit, that was higher, but this was far stranger. The vator accelerated inconsistently as though it were fighting a great wind. He felt helpless, strapped in the harness under a waterfall of pressure.
The pill. It lay in this mouth on the outside of his teeth, whole.
Blood thrummed in his head. His body wanted to relax into blackout. No. Without the pill that would be mental suicide.
Nada’s face had stretched. Not a happy panda. Hard to look at. The other passengers were no comfort either. Edward Munch came to mind.
The window streaked with light. The vator was unbearably quiet except for that whimpering. His.
Something glowed red on Nevada’s belt: the witness box, listening to everything. Great. She was going to have a front row recording of his personal devolution into madness.
How was it supposed to set in again? Headaches, nausea, and then a fun house of hallucinations. Hallucinations he didn’t mind in and of themselves, but these ones stayed: ugly visions that none could bear to hear repeated. That is, if rumors could be believed.
The skyad blurred. Zhao Ling's lips unfurled like the aurora borealis.
The vator lights extinguished. There was no internal illumination save for the green glow of the harnesses and the sharp red light of Nada’s witness box.
"Help," he cried, or tried to. It came out mangled and wordless. You need to pop your lips to make a "p." What he’d said sounded more like "hell."
He tried harder and managed to produce a squeal of pure fear.
"I promise never to hesitate again," he slurred. "Not for anything."
He wasn’t sure who he was talking to, he wasn’t a God man, but in the moment he would have taken anything that answered.
"I’ll do what I have to do no matter who or what is in my way. I'll do the right thing. I won’t be weak. Not anymore. I promise. Just help me."
His tongue snagged on his jutting tooth. The tooth moved at the touch. That's it. I'll be my own dentist.
He torqued his jaw and bore down on his weak, ugly little fucker of an excuse for a tooth, found the crux, and clenched his face muscles.
An ache pierced his gums. It almost felt good.
He clamped down harder.
The vator’s acceleration made his skin ripple. Nada looked like a melting clown.
If he could snap the tooth out then the pill could slip through. A little pain was nothing compared to this madhouse.
The tooth broke loose and a salty flow of blood covered his tongue.
He sucked in and swallowed a hard lozenge.
The vator whined.
Elm scuttled the pill towards the gap in his teeth by contorting his face so hard his muscles twitched.
After what felt like an hour of positioning, the pill head came through the gap but the body of it was too wide and it squeezed tight against the neighboring teeth and stopped. He touched the tip with his tongue. So close.
He tried to open his jaw, but if anything the harness felt tighter; like how struggling in quicksand draws you deeper in. The key to everything, apparently, was relaxation. Silver and red starlings fluttered in the corners of his vision.
He exhaled through his nose and then sucked as hard as he could through his mouth. He filled his lungs with air until he could hold no more.
The pill held.
The air threatened to burst out of him. His chest felt torn holding it in, but breathing it out all at once would surely eject the pill.
He found the muscles to isolate the exhalation to his nose and let the air explode out of him.
A splatter of red drops covered Nada and a trickle of blood passed down from his nostrils to his lips and worked into his mouth where the pill remained.
Fresh blood turns out to be an excellent lubricant.
The pill slipped through the gap and rested on his tongue.
It felt like the universe had finally acknowledged him. Maybe he wasn't alone. Or maybe he was lucky.
He prepared to swallow. Relax.
The window screamed with white infinity as the vator rose above the skyad. It looked the same above as below, but now everything was backwards.
Before him was most beautiful sight he’d ever seen: the rest of the earth crested into view beyond the dome of light from the skyad.
He held back from swallowing.
Something was wrong. The sky beat a dull orange and the ground stretched black as far as he could see. Scorched. The air hung thick with smoke.
This can’t be happening. I'm hallucinating, he thought. It's finally happening. But if I'm losing my mind why can I still think?
As the vator climbed and the skyad’s glow receded the sight became clearer. Where the bay should have been was a shelled out crater. All the water was gone. He strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of the ocean. It wasn't there.
The pill lay heavy on his tongue.
I've been fed lies all my life. Layer after layer of lies. The earth isn't healing. None of the austerities have amounted to shit. The mayor probably kept it all going to keep people occupied, stringing hope along. But for what? This was far worse than anything The Chronic, in all its hysteria, had ever speculated. Not even HollyBolly dystopians in their dreary Mission theaters had gone this bleak.
No one traveled outside the dome anymore to see for themselves, of course. What with the radiation that was common sense. But their grandchildren's grandchildren would. There were only four generations left to go. That was the promise the future had been founded on . . . if it isn't true . . .
Then there's no hope. What was the point of even maintaining the charade? And what about those moments between ads, the glimpses of authentic dawn? Were they the most elaborate advertisement of all?
The vator screamed upward. The waterfall of pressure numbed him with its incessant hammering. It was nothing compared to the numbness inside.
A wave of relaxation swept from his belly up to his tongue. As haunting as it was, the revelation of truth warmed him. It is what it is. His throat opened and the pill tilted in easier than ever before.
But he had only seen a fraction of the view that was coming. How extensive is the devastation? How deep the lie? Maybe there was some island of hope. He had to find out. No matter the cost, no matter if anyone believed. He retched and forced the pill out of his throat. His tongue pressed it between his aching teeth.
The ePhemerin pill skittered across the window and split. Granules hung in the air and, for an eternal moment, veiled the world.