Andy Sorkin tensed the marginal muscle that corded his arms.
His physique was in the past, lost with the internecine of the war.
Could do with a pump, he thought, turning around to admire his back.
Artistry. That’s what his body was – used to be, he corrected.
Every contour that ribbed his back, delineated with days of his life.
Roids was a familiar word. Spoken by the insecure. But it was always complimentary the way he heard it. Au naturel, baby. Strip me from skin and bone, he’d say.
What you see is hand-crafted excellence, made by me and none other. This was sacrifice, a product of the trope; blood and sweat and tears.
For what? For nuclear war-heads to radiate the land, sap life and everything that came with it. He would feel sadness, but not like he used to. No one could.
Andy had one vial left - Elation. About time I pay Lester a visit, he noted, a new batch had just been brewed. A couple of Dejections would do him well. It would balance out the high. He hated that word, but it was the common term coined and now associated between all users.
Lifting didn’t come with the same rush it used to. There was no reason anymore, other than hypertrophy. But he couldn’t enjoy that without dosing-up.
He looked outside of his flat window. The thirty-fifth floor bragged the verticality of the city, both above and below surface. There were sewer dwellers, occupants of the dark, those who took shelter during the war and found no reason to return to light. A sad life. Of course, they wouldn’t know it, especially with their vials of Elation. They over-indulged on it, anything to erase the reality of which they lived.
A younger Andy would be giddy at the height of these buildings. Even as a kid he chased the rush. He never sought for anything artificial, only what came naturally. Drugs were tempting. They could give a rush unmatched by others. It wasn’t real, he’d tell himself.
What he’d feel would be superficial. And that wouldn’t do. The buildings provided a solution. With a group of friends, waiting until dark, past the eyes of curious onlookers, he’d scale the buildings and stand over the edge. That was all he asked for now. That feeling.
Lester was shacked-up in the same spot in the mouth of the sewer entrance. It was a safe location. No members of authority would tread too far below surface. That was because most people down there were happy-heads; those who obsessively used Elation as a means to feel something. They never caused trouble.
Lester saw Andy approaching and opened the back doors of his van. From the outside, it was a hick piece of trash, but the inside was polished white.
“Got a new load in. Chucked in a couple of Wrath’s. Might wanna get your hands on these quickly. A group of mercenaries were planning to go up to the capital and cause a scene.”
“I’m fine,” said Andy.
“Really? Thought that was straight up your alley. There’s no rush like setting fire to the embassy. Shit, they won’t get that far. You know they’ve increased undercover cops? Can’t say anything bad about our rulers.” His eyes darted past Andy and around the tunnel.
“No bugs down here,” said Andy.
“You’re right. I just get worried. Tuck got bagged the other night. They came in his house and all when he was asleep.”
“What did he say?”
“Something about President Wilkson looking like the ass-end of a bulldog. Nothing even about their policies. So I gotta be careful about who I’m selling to. Never know when a cop will come down here and start prying.”
Andy nodded but refrained from furthering the conversation.
“Sorry,” said Lester, “what’ya want?”
His stock varied in quality, lingering between mediocre and subpar.
“You got a couple of Dejections that could last me longer than a day?”
Lester fished through the crates of vials before revealing a neat box with a pneumatic seal.
He opened it and a cryogenic steam crept out.
“This is it. Nicked right off an X-Meds truck.”
They mass-produced vials of the highest grade. No one below surface would ever dream of affording one. It was a prerogative of the higher class: doctors, lawyers, even politicians.
“I hate to be holding these,” said Lester, “especially within my own home grown. It’s this damn corporation that sucks me dry. Every newly improved vial they drop is another pain in my balls. Other sellers with a scrap more knowledge know how to break down the formula and produce a travesty that’s still better than mine. I was a bio-chem undergrad before the war. It ain’t my fault the world went tits-up before I graduated. Who cares, I wouldn’t be able to feel a damn thing if it wasn’t for that there.”
He was red faced, scratched his arm nervously and pointed to a hunk of sleek metal the size of a record-player. Lester’s sensory pad was placed in the disc-like hole reserved for it. Above it, a vial was suspended by metal prongs, and second by second, drips were fed onto the pad. On the underside of his arm was a pad similar to the one in the machine. It gleamed a dull blue and meant the connection was sufficient.
“Sorry if I’m acting like this. I just came off a three day high on Elation. I needed something to anchor me down. Don’t wanna end up like the happy-heads.”
The dull blue was Dejection, and inside the box that Lester presented, a varied assortment of colours stood out to him, each stimulating feelings of their own.
“I’ll take what you’re having.”
“Home brew or corporate?”
I have the pocket to afford the latter, he thought, but would I rather spend that on ultimate decline or ascension? After a down of corporate quality, any hand-produced vial of Elation would launch him into Nirvana.
Lester sighed. “Just don’t get hooked and start buying from the company. It’s good shit, I can tell you that. But they’re also my competition. And besides, you’re a loyal customer.”
Andy felt a twinge in his stomach. There was unrest. He dug through his pockets to pull out cash, but his eyes were glazed with indignation.
“Don’t call me that.” The response was impulsive.
Lester winced in shock.
He wanted to mollify Lester with an apology, but nothing came out. His remark was unprovoked. Maybe it’s the effects of the last Dejection vial lingering in my system, he thought.
“Don’t call you what?”
“A loyal customer.”
“But it’s true. You’re one of my best.” His face languishing with Dejection.
Andy looked at the vials with disgust. He was tempted to smash them all, watch them spill over the ground and go to waste. But he needed them. Just as much as every other person.
“I don’t want to be that customer,” he said while pulling out a handful of cash, “I hate myself every time I come down here.”
He handed over the money and Lester apprehensively handed him back an X-Med vial.
Andy looked at the viscous liquid and stashed it into his pocket, his eyes dour and downcast.
“How the hell do we take this stuff and feel content?” he asked.
"It’s an essential. Just like the air we breathe and the food we shit out. It empowers everything. If it wasn’t for this,” he said, pointing back to his machine, “we’d all end up as Ghosts. Tell me, you wanna live like that? Wandering the streets with nothing to live for, nothing to feel, no will to feed yourself until you keel over and die. You’re saying that’s better?”
Andy often questioned the validity of his beliefs. Post-war, when vials were first distributed across cities, he refrained with intention of adhering to past ideas – a natural life, one that was never influenced artificially. Even when social media was prominent, the feeling he’d get, the pleasure, it wasn’t real, unlike the mawkish rush of climbing buildings and lifting weights.
“It’s not better. It’s temporary. It’s artificial and we have it relayed into us every damn day. We’re addicted.”
“Addicted to emotion?” primed Lester, “addicted to feeling human? It lets us remember. We live our life in shadows down here because no one wants to face the light up there.”
“But it opposes everything that makes us human. We are dependent on a drug.”
He remembered being under the bar and feeling the pump.
Roids. Maybe it was true. These were no stimulants for the muscle, but the mind.
“Perhaps you’re right. We’re reliant on it. Are you ashamed of yourself for taking the vials?”
Andy’s silence was taken as a yes.
“Everyone does it, other than the ghosts. Our cabinet of leaders are hooked on the stuff, even President Wilkinson. Why else do you think they spout their shit with a happy smile? They get premium grade, best of the best vials. A high we couldn’t even dream of.”
“Sometime I wonder how bad it is to be a Ghost.”
“I know you’ve read the articles. They’re emotionless, not present in this life or any other. They live for nothing.”
“Do you not think it would be worth giving this up,” asked Andy, sparing the vial a glance.
Lester grimaced. An insult to his stock and his life. It ain’t my concern what you do, but if you give this up, you’re a stupid sonofabitch.”
He could abstain, deprive himself of dosing up. But that just meant the inevitability of taking any vial would be so much stronger. There were people who did it, bound by an ascetic lifestyle. But even with their minimal doses, they weren’t content, just barely passing the days.
There was an unfeigned giggle. They both turned. A man dressed in bright colours; a red jumper and yellow sweat pants, brought with him a sartorial imbalance.
Andy, in his greys and blacks, ignored him.
“Hey, Seth,” called Lester.
The man gave a child-like smile. Superficial, noted Andy. His eyes were forlorn, an empty canvas waiting to be painted on.
“Lemme guess,” said Lester as he rummaged through the back of the van. Seth stumbled over like a boozer, a pre-war state. Lester pulled out a carboard box labelled home brew, and placed it on the fold-up table. Seth looked inside and said, “six, please.” His manners made him an aberration, even more than that stupid smile he constantly wore, thought Andy. A Happy-head’s behaviour was deplorable.
It was a lack of self-control. Soon, when their tolerance would build and they didn’t have enough cash for something with a stronger kick, they’d become a Ghost.
A cycle of fate. Was it worth it, questioned Andy. To give up and pass after an almighty high, but in those final moments, suffer something that no human had lived to tell.
Seth paid and stashed them in a plastic bag.
He looked past Lester and into the truck. It was the machine. His smile turned inward, preoccupied with the colour of the vial.
“Why go through that?” asked Seth, “you can take this and be like me.”
The steady flow of Dejection to Lester’s sensory pad made him spiteful.
“Because I want to be alive next year.”
Seth’s face was wooden. Andy watched from the side-lines. Seth laughed, “I will be. See you next week, Lester.” He walked out of the sewer mouth, his footsteps light as if about to engage a tango, a propensity that all Happy-heads inclined towards.
In his apartment, Andy fixed his sensory pad to the machine and hooked up the vial. He adjusted the dial, turning it to six drips per minute. It was a lot. He didn’t take into account their potency. Screw it, he thought. He was aware of the low it would bring him. But he didn’t care. Maybe the last vial he took was wearing off, or maybe he was sick of this ritualistic routine. The secondary pad on his underarm glowed its gentle blue. He breathed deep. The connection had been made.
Andy walked to the window and stripped off his shirt before the feeling of depression that abounded had overwhelmed him. It was strong. He started to sweat.
In a lapse of judgement, he thought of the past. Wanted it, desperately. A mistake.
His perspiration landed him on the bench beneath the barbell, his muscles pumped and his mind clear. He looked at his reflection in the window.
Have I lost weight, he asked himself. Of course, you have, idiot.
His pride, in the most inhumane way, had been taken. After years of tentative care for his body, it took a day for him to wake up and see nothing of himself. That day, despite his sheer size, he felt nothing. There was no motive to pick up another weight. At that point he was closest to becoming a ghost.
He despised the vials. But it was worth it, enduring the artificial and unnatural, if it meant that he could feel once more. Andy ruminated in the past. The strangest thing about Dejection was that it didn’t give you bad thoughts, at least not for him. It made him think of what he missed, what he had, and how it was here no longer. He looked past the window and at the buildings, trying his best to dismiss his poor reflection.
I wonder how the mercenaries were doing, he thought, hooked up on Wrath, marching through the streets like rampant animals, awaiting their inevitable capture. This oppressive rule under a despotic leadership was a unifying bond between him and the thousands of others in the city. There were no means to oppose, not even temporarily in acts of violence. It was the government that allowed the production of vials. Without the emotional stimulants, they’d have no bait to hook in their food. Andy looked upon the meal of civilians in the city below. He remembered something Lester said the other week; we’re a couple of Androids flying in from Mars away from a Dick novel. It was true. At what point did fiction cross into reality.
The pad on his underarm took a more vibrant shade of blue. The drips were powerful. Lester warned me, he reflected. But I know what I’m doing. He jigged the handle on the window until it opened and a great wind swept into the room. Andy could mope around all day, but it wouldn’t be long before he resorted to a neutral, ghost-like state.
“At least I felt something to the end.”
He stepped out onto the window seal.
In that moment he felt more human than he ever had before.
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