The Beast, Pt. 2 (Chapter 2b)

Now, I’m not one to try to turn myself into some kind of a hero, but I can say without a trace of insincerity that my friends and I are exactly like those soldiers from so long ago waiting to rush to their deaths. Both in terms of our bravery and in terms of the danger we’d be facing.

There’d be no machine gun nests on the other side of the airlock doors, but there would be, you know, people with overpriced coupon books full of deals you’ll never use. Beautiful women and breath-taking men and surprisingly alluring humanoid aliens all crying out for your intention. Countless people, half of them with something to sell you and the other half perfectly content to you just rifle through your pockets and take what they pleased. Make no mistake, it’s a modern warzone with fewer explosions but just as many drones.

That’s why I’d popped the pills before we’d climbed aboard the shuttle. I needed an edge if I was going to survive. I told my friends they should do the same, had plenty to go around, and all I got as thanks for my careful planning was concerned looks and, “Uh, gee, thanks, but my doctor says I really shouldn’t take unprescribed meds from questionable sources.”

Googe. Monk. Papa Chub. Erb. I love them dearly, but they’re suckers. They’re lost causes. They’re already dead, sacrificed on the glowing neon altar of the Meadows. They just don’t know it yet. But I can still save myself, and maybe if one of us is seeing things for what they truly are, if one of us actually knows the score, we’ll all be saved. So yes, I’m a hero. Or I will be, at any rate. I just have to pull my shit together before I let the flight attendants confine me to my seat. Once they do, there’ll be no more getting up until we dock and let ourselves be herded off the shuttle like cattle into a slaughterhouse.

That’s a terrible analogy. Rare as cattle are now (honest-to-God cows, I mean. Not those six-legged and bewinged hybrids of cows and pigs and chickens that are creatures of nightmare,) they’d be treated much more gently than we would. They’d have poetry read to them as they marched single-file up a gangplank to be lobotomized. The robot whose only purpose in its artificial life was to drive a piston into their brains would apologize as it did its grizzly work. We wouldn’t be so lucky. We’d get fake smiles and free as we were led along a conveyor belt that funneled into the hotels where we’d be flipped head over heels and shook by the ankles until our pockets were empty.

There’s a knocking sound. A tapping sound that’s getting louder. I make another retching noise, but as I do, I glance down from the bathroom mirror to find my fingers twitching, beating out a staccato on the plastic sink top.

“Oh, good,” I say to no one in particular. “It must be kicking in.”

The nootropics are supposed to be cheap but effective. Enhance your memory, heighten your situational awareness, sharpen reflexes and more, all with only a small chance of blindness or death. Side effects include paranoia, cynicism, and feelings of unfocused contempt for all things, but if you already suffer from such afflictions (and while I wouldn’t say that I suffer from them, exactly, I certainly experience them,) then it doesn’t make a bit of difference. So I shake my hand like I’m trying to dry it off. I stare at my fingers until they stop doing their restless dance and are still. “I am in control,” I whisper to myself. “I am in control.” Once I’m satisfied that that’s true, or at least true enough, I look back up and into the mirror and get back to more important work.

There are times in life when you have to take stock of where you and who you are and what you’re doing. Really, it’s the kind of thing a person should do on a daily basis. Never stop learning, not even about yourself. A little bit of self-examination is a good thing. It’s good for the soul. Look into the mirror and see if you like what you see. See if you recognize the person staring back at you. See if you can pronounce it good and move on with your day.

And if the answer to those questions is “no,” then you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do about it.

I see brown eyes, thinning hair, teeth stained from coffee and wine and cigarettes, bleached white, stained again, bleached again. There are dark circles under my eyes, lines forming soft creases from my nose in a gentle, swooping arc towards my mouth. I poke at my skin, my cheeks, my nose. They feel artificial to me, like rubber that’s lost its elasticity, like I imagine the synthetic flight attendant’s skin might feel, although I’ve never touched synthetic skin.

Of course, that might be the drugs driving my senses into overdrive. Maybe all human skin feels strange if you think about it too hard. Or maybe it feels like something I don’t have the proper terminology for and the closest approximation within my limited experience is “rubbery.”

Or maybe the nootropics are just wreaking havoc on my sensory inputs. I’m not seeing little green goblins or anything (not yet, anyway,) but that doesn’t mean I’m not ever so slightly off enough for it to have a measurable but not immediately apparent effect.

Either way, there’s work to be done. I paw at my scalp looking for grey hairs with the intensity of an ape looking for lice. There’s a knock at the door. “Sir-and-or-Madam, I really must insist that you–”

I make a horrible retching noise, like someone’s reached their hand down my throat and is trying to tickle my stomach from the inside. The knocking stops.

I turn back to the mirror and frown. I am too young to look this old, I think. But how old do I really look? I’ve known people who were younger than me with less hair, with crows’ feet at the corners of their eyes, with bodies that had grown sallow and jaundiced from a lifetime of too many bad decisions and not enough good decisions to balance them out. People alternately skinny and plump in all the wrong places. People who had not known that everything in moderation meant moderation itself as well.

But then I also once knew a woman who was thirty-five when I was twenty-three, and she had looked younger and healthier back then than I did now. Healthy living, I suppose. Good genes, maybe (whatever that meant in a world where with enough money you could get cosmetic and genetic surgery done and fix whatever mistakes God and your parents had made.)

I wonder if that woman still looked as good after all these years. Maybe the unrelenting tide of time had come crashing down on her all at once and she finally looked her age. But then, if that could happen to her, what hope did the rest of us have?

I knew a girl once. A woman. I knew this woman, and she had webs of lines at the corner of her eyes. But they weren’t crows’ feet. They were spider’s silk. They were gossamer. They’d shined in the light, shined with the light, shined like light, and she was younger than me, but she had silk in her eyes. She had eyes like jewels, and she had soft skin, and faint lines at the corners of her mouth, and she had the faintest dimples, and when she smiled her face was a network of happiness, and her eyes were–

I shake my head, look down at my hand. It’s trembling again.

Holy shit, I think. Some son of a bitch burned me on the pills. Goddamn things are probably stims. Slow-release or something. Not that I’ve ever heard of such a thing before. What would the point of a slow-release stim be? That’s not a stim. That’s just a norm. The thought’s a downer. But my brain latches onto the idea, turns it over and over until it becomes more than just a hypothesis, until it becomes the only possible explanation. Until it becomes truth.

Slow-release stims! Son of a bitch! I’ve been burned! I’m lucky I wasn’t twitching all through security! I can hear that smug, security checkpoint officer voice in my head now. “Yeah, we’ve got an incompetent terrorist here. Tan complexion, scruffy face, and a bad case of the jitters. Someone must have had a bit too much coffee with their extremist rhetoric this morning, ha ha.”

I start sweating. My hands won’t stop shaking, so I wrap my fingers around the edges of the sink and grip the thing like I’m trying to choke it to death. It helps the shaking, but it does nothing for the sweating, doesn’t do a damn thing for the pallor seeping into my complexion, the quickened breathing, the irregular heart rate. The target heart rate for someone of my age during “moderate” physical activity, whatever that means, is between ninety-seven and one-hundred-and-forty-five beats per minute. Blood pressure should be below one-twenty over eighty, but that’s true for most people.

Oh, I think. Well, the nootropics may be stims, but at least they’re making my brain work harder. I forgot I knew most of this shit.

Most common nootropics don’t function as stimulants. Different chemicals and interactions. Small doses of stimulants can have nootropic effects, but too much will just make you freak out. So the question is, are you getting smarter or are you freaking out? The answer is both. Which means the pills aren’t at fault; if they were, you wouldn’t be any smarter, just more freaked out. Which means you’re freaking out for no goddamn reason, which means it’s up to you to pull yourself together before you start thinking about the Lady in White.

Unless the pills are something you’ve never encountered before.

Word Count: -1,921 (One more day, and I should be in the black!)

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