"Pain is the outcome of sin."
Buddha (563-483 BC)
Mass media took a break from its usual upbeat, sucralose, pop fluff to commemorate the anniversary of the modern worldís most horrific cataclysm. World Day approached, commemorating the day the human race was bitch slapped by the universe. With its pending arrival, the amount of memorial footage increased exponentially.
Never forget, the headlines read. Be forever vigilant, Help human progress, and Letís all work together. The slogans assaulted the senses with its unending diatribe of meaningless catch phrases, all geared to one purpose: to make humanity forget how utterly fucked we were. Images of explosions and death filled my monitor. Memories of the skies and Chechnyaassaulted my senses as if I was still there. Nothing ruins your day more than the colorful fusion of nuclear and meteor death raining from the sky. I would never forget watching, as the sky was ravaged by an enraged cosmos. I took a breath and reached for my coffee; it did nothing to ease my discomfort.
I scoffed and pushed the mug aside in disgust. I opened my drawer and pulled out my only savior, a bottle of Scotch. I cracked it and took a long gulp. The warm sensation down the back of my throat offered a comfort unmatched by any kind of coffee. No therapist, no medication, no meditation could cure what ailed me. There is no cure for seeing too much, besides dying.
I felt the shaking in my hands dissipate as the painful memories faded. I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed the moment of detachment. I took another pull from the bottle and took pleasure in the familiar numbness it started to induce.
Gazing back up at the news on the screen, I flexed my right hand. Pain shot through my fingers like karmic revenge. Hit enough people, and years later you feel their agony. Decades of inflicting pain and misery had taken its toll on my entire body. My hands not only hurt, but shook from stress and overuse. My muscles were tired and strained. My joints were used up; my knees lost their bounce. Despite the time I put into staying fit, my past lifestyle far exceeded any preventative measures I could have taken. Age had caught up to me with a vengeance, leaving me little more than a sad drunk old woman.
The city sprawled outside the window. It was early winter, but that made little difference here in the desert. People tried to bring winter from their various hometowns. The streets were adorned with holiday decorations of a variety of kinds. Mechanical snowmen waved their arms, reindeer glowed and multicolored lights flashed. In the background the abandoned, unfinished decay of the Spaceport loomed, casting its shadow of hopelessness over all in its vicinity.
The empty tarmacs lay desolate. The unfinished control towers jutted out from the desert. This was Spacetown U.S.A., the future of manned space exploration. This was the big scientific and economic gamble. First private aerospace moved in, then supporting businesses like telecom, IT, banking, and so on and finally the day-to-day businesses followed. There were cleaning services, restaurants, hardware stores, everything a real town needed. Everything minus one, Spacetown lost its purpose. Soon after the initial economic boom, progress on the Spaceport screeched to a halt, due to the catastrophe that changed everything. Now, the town went on without its initial reason for existence.
The sky glowed with its otherworldly aura. I never had a chance to see the Aurora Borealis before the asteroids, but I was told this was how it looked. It was foreboding and a reminder of how screwed up life had become. This time of year depressed me even more. It wasnít only about being alone on the holidays in this soulless town, I no longer cared about that.
The part which truly sickened me was the way people tried to pretend that everything was normal, that this existence was fine and we were okay. But every Christmas season, underemployed scientists still hustled in strip malls and discount chains trying desperately to make just a few more bucks to buy their impoverished children just one toy. This town was unique; it was the only place in the world where the poorest class was the most educated. Manual laborers made more per hour than a physicist. There were so many, too. Because of the electromagnetic field the Earthís new dedicated asteroid belt generated, intercontinental travel was nearly unheard of. There was no GPS, or satellite-based communications, limiting air travel to small hops. The price of travel was too great for all but the wealthiest; even in the good times, no scientist I ever knew had much in the way of disposable income. The best and the brightest from nations around the globe were trapped, no jobs to go to, unable to return to their native lands. This place ate up wise men and spit them out broken, hungry and useless.
I reached for the bottle to take another swig when I was interrupted by a knock on my door. "Yo," I replied. The door opened a crack.
"Itís me." Marissa, my second-in-command, poked her head in. She wore a simple brown suit. Her black hair pulled back with a matching headband. She was always understated, never overbearing. I trusted her implicitly. My plan was to retire soon and she would run the company. She had one of the kindest hearts of anyone I ever met. When I interviewed her, I hired her on the spot. All of my employees were good, sensitive, caring souls. Most had a nature that would not allow them to work anywhere else. I created a safe zone for them, a place where they could make a difference and not be victimized because they held no malice in their hearts. Their jobs were to help people through various charities. They were really good at it.
"Well come in."
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"Okay. Could be better, could be worse. How was Dallas?"
Marissa smiled nervously and sat across the desk from me. "Not bad. It almost looks like it used to before, you know. How was your Christmas?"
"Uneventful. I spent most of it trying to avoid World Day specials. How did yours go?"
"Oh yeah, you donít do Christmas anymore. I forgot. My holiday was wonderful. And I brought you a present."
"You didnít have to. But thank you."
Marissa put something on my desk, and watched me anxiously. It was a medicine bottle. I knew what it was. It was íRenoxí, renoxontine hydrochloride, the new miracle drug of the era. It was officially described as an aggressive affinity drug that targets NMDA receptors and other motor neurons. It started as an experimental drug to cure Alzheimerís. It only worked in a fraction of a percent of its test subjects, but when it did work, it completely reversed the damage and returned the mind of the patient back to its youthful state. Researchers tried it on other neurological disorders. They tried it on Parkinsonís and cerebral palsy patients. Like the previous trials it worked on a fraction of a percent of the patients. Despite the limited success, people scrambled to get it for themselves, their friends and their families. It seemed like man had discovered a magical brain repair pill.
I stared down at the bottle. "Please tell me you didnít bring me crack for Christmas."
"Becca, it will cure your depression," Marissa said, as she fidgeted with her sweater. "We all chipped in. Itís the real deal. I snuck it into the state for you." The FDA tried to stop the drugís release in the U.S., partially due to the fear of the drugís unknowns, but also to protect favored drug manufacturers from a multibillion dollar loss from curing very lucrative diseases. It didnít matter though. Like Marissa, people found ways of getting it. They demanded the drug and they were willing to pay. So soon European, South American and Asian manufacturers had come up with dozens of variants; each seemed to work on different aspects of brain function and chemistry. It cost thousands per dose, due to the cost of travel, but the drug was obtainable.
"Tired of watching the old bitch suffer, huh?" I continued to stare at the bottle; it beckoned with the promise of happiness, which I was completely undeserving of. I told my staff that my moodiness and apparent misery was caused by depression. What I didnít tell them was my self-loathing and despair was a symptom of something much worse, not the ailment itself.
"Why suffer needlessly?" she asked.
"Itís illegal." I fidgeted with the memory stick I wore as a pendant around my neck; a reminder of why I deserved to suffer. "I donít want to end up a zombie or something. Is this your way of securing a promotion?"
"This is serious. Youíre always good to us. Even when weíre abusive about being late or lazy, you always understand. We all want you to be happy."
"How did you get it? I mean, are you sure itís real and not rat poison or something?"
"Yeah, itís as safe as you can get with that stuff. I have a cousin who works in biotech. He has contacts and he owed me a favor."
"I appreciate it. Shit. How the hell did you fit that into a business trip?" I couldnít even imagine her dealing with black market biotech, but that and a business trip? "It must have been a major pain in the ass."
"Not really. I just had to go to a few clandestine meetings. It was pretty exciting. Besides, I was in no danger; they only care about the money. So are you going take it or what?"
"Maybe. Maybe, when I get home." I didnít want to tell her how much this scared me. I had been afraid of taking medication prescribed to me, now I was holding stuff that could do some potentially serious damage.
"Just follow the directions on the bottle. They told me taking it all at once is not a good idea. You need to space it over a few days at least. The weekend may be best, so in case you have any side effects theyíll pass before you have to deal with people."
"What kind of side effects?" I knew there had to be a catch. There were rumors of serious side effects to the stuff. Everybody had an anecdotal story of the person who took the drug and never slept again, or that one who went completely insane. There were also stories of people becoming ten years younger and tales of others suddenly gaining some random skill. The drug was a source of new and spookier urban legends.
The real, documented, potential side effects of the drug seemed very grave, permanent brain damage being one of them. Healthy people generally didnít have any desire to take it. There was just no justifiable reason to do it.
"Some people experience drowsiness when they first take the medication, but it passes in a few days. Itís nothing."
"Yeah." I sighed. "Iíll probably sleep for a week."
She started out of my office and smiled, looking slightly frustrated with my refusal of aid. "Youíll be fine, really. Take the drug."
"Promise me that you will take the drug soon, before it expires."
"Promise." She knew I would not break a promise.
"Okay, I promise to take the drug before it expires."
"Good. Now you have to do it." She smiled and walked out of my office.
I stuck the bottle in my purse and got up to get some fresh coffee, with the hope that fresh, hot coffee would lubricate what was already turning out to be an abrasive day. I made it to the kitchen and almost out of nowhere, Marissa appeared.
"Why didnít you ask me to get you coffee?" she asked.
"Because Iím a big girl and can pour hot liquids unsupervised."
"Just because you can do something, doesnít mean you should. I know it hurts you to walk, so let me help you."
"It hurts if I sit and do nothing. Iím used to the pain." I didnít mean to sound irritated, but I did. "Iím not a cripple, and I am not ready for the nursing home yet."
"Sorry, youíre right." Marissa must have realized what I was feeling.
"Damn straight, Iím right." I poured my coffee and took a sip. It was horrible. "Who makes this crap anyway?"
"Itís the coffee service, they changed the coffee to the domestic stuff two weeks ago. No matter how you make it, it tastes like crap."
"Well, switch services," I commanded. I was the boss after all.
"The staff will be happy. Can we do something a little more pricey? You know they charge an arm and a leg to ship the good stuff here."
"Yeah, pay for the boat ride; anything to make up for this crap. Why didnít anyone say anything to me before?"
"I didnít want them to bother you with it. You have enough to worry about."
I studied her for a moment; she was wasted talent. It was time to tap that talent. "Tell you what. You have just been promoted. You are now chief operating officer. You have the power to make all final decisions in the day-to-day operations of this office. That includes purchases, staffing, and whatever else falls under operations."
Marissa looked stunned.
"Itís the same thing you already do, except you wonít need my signature anymore. And you get a cool title."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "This is so sudden."
"Screw it, you deserve it. And this will keep you busy enough to end your days of being my babysitter."
"Wonít happen. I wonít stop helping you."
I rolled my eyes. "Itís like being in kindergarten. When is nap time anyway?"
"Youíre still the boss. Itís whenever you want."
"Hmm." I poured out the offensive coffee and started back to my desk. "In that case, Iím giving myself the day off. Iím going to have some real coffee somewhere. Command is yours." I saluted her and made my way to my office to gather my belongings. Iíd take my nap at home.