Illumination Book Chapters

The Juice Chapter 1

Charisma Is a SuperPower In This Tale of Suspense and Romance

Janet Stilson
23 min readJan 24, 2022


Photo owned by author

Author’s Note: What if there was a chemical substance that made people extraordinarily charming — to such an extent that they could get anyone to do almost anything? That question is at the heart of THE JUICE, a sci-fi rollercoaster ride with suspense and romance. In celebration of the novel’s publication almost one year ago by Dragon Moon Press, the first chapter follows below.

  1. JARAT — The Two-Minded Man

The rachitty-dunk, rachitty-dunk of the subway car had me in a deep state of zenitude, so when a giant tomahawk slashed two inches from my face, I didn’t blink. But I had to smile. ­­­­­

The ax was part of a giant graffiti hologram of Señor KickingBird. The cartoon character was looking boyish as ever — his jovial face sticking out of a beaded Indian buckskin outfit. And his headdress was so madly yellow and pink that the car was stained, as if by colored glass.

The other passengers smiled at the holo, thoroughly entranced. It gave them something to do other than staring at me. Not that I blamed them. My mass of pewter and black hair, scruffy faux-ostrich leather jacket, ripped cowboy boots — and most of all, my golden skin tone — were so different from their drab, ragged clothing and more varied complexions. The underground was the province of the lower class, not the extremely small Elite ranking of society that I’d been born into nearly 30 years before. My clothes were more offbeat than most Elites, who were artfully groomed, but it didn’t hide my origins.

As Señor KickingBird went through his antics, a school chum, Thom Tseng, came to mind. In younger days, when we were at MIT in Massachusetts, the two of us had personal holo graffiti collections. We were obsessed with finding every single version of KickingBird on the OuterNet. It was a diversion from all the serious frustration we were going through trying to make some experiments work at school.

There in the subway, KickingBird went through a blur of slasher moves leaping from seat to seat like a big ol’ butterball, never speaking, just whooping. As a grand finale, he sunk his tomahawk into the ceiling, causing a red rain to sparkle down and fill the floor with a virtual lake of fizzy pomegranate juice. The bedraggled people around me went wild with applause.

Then the vision stopped. My skin prickled as the face transformed into a gold saucer, and then into Thom, with his mashup of Asian features. The left side of his face was mutilated with flaming wounds, and there was a black hole where his eye should have been. His right cheek was covered with ghoulish bruises, and his mouth quivered with pain.

Under normal circumstances, nobody could look down his nose as arrogantly as my friend. He had a self-confident swagger, and his eyes were constantly flickering as the computer chips in his head worked on multiple lines of thought. It was hard not to envy his brilliance.

It took considerable effort to hide my horror at his gruesome transformation. No one in the subway car was reacting. This last part was a private vision from Thom directly to me. I swiped the air like I was merely taking a call on my mobile so that nobody would think I was talking to the holo.

“Blazing hell! What happened?” I whispered.

Thom’s blood-crusted lips croaked out, “The Juice. They took it.”

“They? Who’s they?”

There was just shrill, silent terror on his face. He didn’t know; that seemed clear.

As far as I knew, I was the only other person who knew about his bizarre concoction, the Juice. The consequences of it getting into the wrong hands could be deep, and dire.

“Where are you?”

“Mt. Sinai. ICU. But leaving.”

“But you look so –”

“Have to. Now.”

“Okay. Where do I meet you?”

Thom’s head started to jerk, and then the graffiti faded. With a circular hand movement, I snatched the feed and stored it in my mobile two seconds before it disappeared completely.

Five hundred pounds of hulking bot cop plowed down the subway aisle toward me. Everyone cringed. The New York security forces had embedded sensors in the wall paint about the size of dust motes. They recorded the movements of every single person, knew everything about them. If there was any evidence that discord was about to break out, they showed up. No doubt my zooming heart rate and sweat glands gone wild had triggered the bot’s sudden appearance.

I pretty much despised the whole surveillance system — the constant invasion of privacy and the monitoring of even the most trivial actions. So when the thing stuck its snout in my face, I punched it hard, which sent a thrill through the car. The other passengers were stunned. An abundantly sized lass sitting opposite had such frightened rabbit eyes. Her tight blouse, the color of overcooked Brussel Sprouts, waved up and down with her breath.

The bot raised a tentacle to slam me. But it backed off as the data readout emanating from the mobile stud in my ear informed it that I was Jarat Ellington, son of Evander Ellington. My father was the CEO of Silverton Enterprises, one of the most powerful companies in United America. The nation that stretched from the state of Canada down to Argentina.

“Is everything okay, Mr. Ellington?”

“It will be if you suck my cojones.”

The thing attempted a laugh, but it came out more like a cough. As it retreated, Rabbit Eyes curled her mouth into a grin.

There was no time to think any more about that. Thom was all that mattered. In a split second, my mobile displayed all the contact numbers I’d ever had for him on a private air screen, which was composed of nothing but colored lights. Every single number was no longer in service. In two minutes, I’d navigated through a maze of Mt. Sinai numbers and found the right one for the ICU unit’s nurses’ station. An actual human answered the phone. I told her who I was looking for in a half-whisper, trying to keep the conversation as private as possible in the subway car.

“Thom Tseng is no longer here,” said the dullest voice on the planet, mangling the name. Tom Zeng. That’s how it sounded. But there wasn’t time to correct her.

“Can you tell me where he went?” I swiped the air and turned on the mobile’s visual feature so the receptionist could see my pleading, harmless expression.

Her hollow-eyed face popped into view as she swiped through information in the hospital database. “And who are you?”

“His brother.”

“It says here that he doesn’t have a brother.”

“I’m the closest thing to it. Please. I need to take care of him.”

Her tired expression grew sad. “He doesn’t need that anymore.”

She was telling me he was dead without saying the words because that would have gotten her into trouble. There was no doubt of that. I felt as if my chest was filled with bleeding tears.

“That’s not possible.” How could Thom have ever managed to create a holo graffiti when he was so close to the end? It was confounding: he’d come back in my life out of the blue, told me about the terrible theft, and then died?

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Where do I visit him?” It was too hard to say the words “his remains.”

“Only real family members can do that. Security would have your head before they let you through.”

It seemed more than likely that the Ellington name wouldn’t clear the way in this particular instance. I managed to thank the receptionist and swiped away the call.

The rachitty-dunk, rachitty-dunk of the subway car grew louder. Shoulda kept up; shoulda kept up, it clacked. I hadn’t spoken with Thom in years, didn’t have a clue what sequence of events had led my friend to this final point.

Rabbit Eyes was creeping me out — all the passengers were — with their mild-mannered curiosity directed my way. Something was wrong. They should be bloody resentful of me, or downright pissed, that I had so much and they so little. But there were just these sweet little smiles. There had to be some kind of mind control going on, to make them act that way.

I felt this deeply. Others did too. There was this dissident group called Theseus that made recriminating statements now and then about the use of subliminal messaging. But there was no proof. The ruling U.A. political party, known as the Republican-Democratic Alliance, dismissed the idea as a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

“Hey!” chirped a little girl sitting next to me. Her long, spikey hair made her seem twice as large as she actually was. “What’s a Yellarskin like you doing here? Only the Chav ride the subway.”

Yellarskin: what the lower class called the ultra-thin upper crust, the Elites.

Chav: the vast and terribly impoverished lower class. The term, coined by the Elites, had once been deemed derogatory. Now it was used so widely that it had lost its original bite.

“I love riding around the city this way.” It was a lame response, but the truth would take too long to tell.

The fact was, I was living in a pretty modest economic state — more like a Middle, another tiny layer of society in between the Chavs and the Elites. I’d stopped living off my parents a few years ago when I quit school. Since then, I’d spent most days working out the muscle kinks of lonely or enfeebled rich people — a masseuse for billionaires.

I didn’t need to ride the underground rat maze with the Chav. It was old and stank of homeless souls, industrial pollution, and defeat. There were enough Americo dollars in my mobile wallet to hop in a taxi. But I had fallen in love with the place, all on account of a boy named Jewles.

Jewles with the broad nose, coarse skin, bad teeth, and elongated knobby fingers of someone who had never been bioengineered into somebody’s idea of perfection, like me. The kid had seemed beautiful in every picture I’d seen — pure human in a way that no member of my birth class could ever be.

The DNA of Elites had all been edited in one way or another before we were born, meeting the desires of our parents. Any pesky markers indicating medical abnormalities were removed. Our eyes were more striking, our hair more lustrous than they would normally be. If the DNA indicated that our skin tone wasn’t going to be golden, that was corrected. But Jewles was like some raw mineral just cut out of the earth.

Thirteen. Rachitty-dunk, rachitty-dunk. Jewles was 13 when he died in prison. He’d been arrested for selling bootlegged merch on the subway, one of the places he loved best. The kid had spent six months in jail. Then the federal penitentiary system drafted Jewles for brain harvesting just after I was nearly killed in a bike accident. He was murdered so I could live.

I’d made it clear to my parents that if I ever needed a body part, they should make sure it was synthetic. But they overruled me; nothing but a natural organ for their son.

My brain had been carefully lifted out of my skull, and Jewles’ was settled in its place. The surgical team had tried to “cleanse” Jewles’ brain of everything he had known, every personality trait he’d accumulated in his brief life. Then they repopulated Jewles’ mind with my own, downloading content from an external drive that had served as my brain backup since the time I was two. All Elites had one of those, and even some Middles.

Most things transitioned over to my “new” mind without a hitch, and not just my memories. Some personal traits registered in the new organ, too. Like the way I cupped my mouth in my hands when I focused, my craving for visual art of any kind, the blind rage that overwhelmed me when confronted with any sort of injustice.

But the surgeons didn’t clean out Jewles’ brain as well as they thought. Traces of the kid were inside me now, surfacing in the most surprising ways at times. For example, Rabbit Eyes probably thought I was gazing off to one side of her, unaware of her fixated “please love me” look. But I could see things very sharply out of the corner of my eyes while still looking straight ahead. Jewles was born with the ability to see objects on the periphery of his vision with such intense clarity. I’d certainly never had that talent before the surgery.

The subway screamed to a halt, and a tight cluster of people boiled through the doors. A skinny man with a bulbous Rasta hat slipped into the seat beside me. “Next stop, 110th Street,” a crackling voice announced over the intercom, and the train bolted forward.

I’d “inherited” other things from the kid too. Like my new craving for fried synthetic chicken, which always seemed nasty before I was given Jewles’ brain. The smell of it was coming from a box in Rasta Man’s lap — an extravagance for a Chav, to buy something like that.

My mind zinged back to Thom’s mutilated face. It was impossible to fully believe that my friend was gone; it was so sudden. Who had attacked him? The question was so consuming that I didn’t realize four subway stops had gone by until Rabbit Eye’s generous body unfolded, and she hurried out onto the 135th Street platform. I followed behind.

If only I could get inside that hospital, quiz a doctor, or even mourn my friend with a few stiff scotches in some bar. The former plan of action would only have ended in frustration, and the latter in a fucked-up state. No, the only reasonable solution for this moment in time was to bury myself in work.

I went up the subway stairs, surfacing in central Harlem. In a second-floor window, women in white karate uniforms practiced self-defense at an Elite training salon. You never knew when the Chav would rise up in a fierce rebellion. The sarcastic thought lifted like a balloon into the white sky as 130th Street came into view.

A flank of severe 19th-century brownstones on the Northside of the street looked like critical spinsters. They stared across the pavement at a line of four-story brick buildings with tall windows and long wooden porches painted sage green. Their homey quality harkened back to the time when this part of Harlem had been mostly Black, so long ago.

As I ambled up the steps of a brownstone, the door whispered open. Livvy, a petite woman with black eyes and an enormous head of glowing yellow hair, scowled out at me. The folds around her jaw and forehead spoke of face-sculpting procedures from decades gone by.

Count Down, Livvy’s cocoa-colored Standard Poodle, smiled at me with long black lips, and I gave him a scritch behind the ears.

“Hey, Livvy. How you feel?”

“You’re half an hour late!”

“Sorry, darlin’.”

“You took the subway, didn’t you?” Why the hell did I ever tell her I’d done that before. “All the money I pay you, and you can’t walk over to a friggin’ cab stand and rent a car for a few hours?”

“Wow. You sure need a back rub. Let’s get you blissed.” Not that it really seemed possible. There was rage in Livvy’s eyes, and it was hardening.

# # #

The air was thick with the scent of verbena and chocolate candles in the barely lit bedroom. Livvy was face down on a table, naked except for a towel across her butt.

Surprisingly, her nasty mood had dissolved a fair amount over the last half hour as my hands worked her muscles. I was busy focusing on her back when she gasped. “Fuck!”

My fingers had hit her “root of all evil,” a muscle knot just below her right scapula, which never seemed to go away. “Sorry, love. Breathe into it.”

She sank into mournfulness. “Sometimes I think …”

“What do you think?”

“If we could just chop off our heads — you know, just chop them off — we’d be so much happier.”

I applied a strong index finger of pressure in a series of dots down her back. “Why do you say that?”

“Heads are so heavy. If we didn’t have to carry them around, we wouldn’t get such neck pain. We wouldn’t ever have to think. So we wouldn’t worry about what we did yesterday, what we’ll do tomorrow.”

What had Thom done that led to his murder? Who had the bloody Juice? Must stay focused. “Hmmm. Shall I trot downstairs and get the cleaver?”

Livvy gurgled a coquettish laugh. Black humor was something we did well together, like two inmates passing a smoking tube back and forth between prison cells.

She tensed up again as my fingers worked at releasing her lower back muscles. “C’mon,” I said, “give me some easy breaths. Just relax into them.” That was asking too much. Livvy rolled over. Her face was covered with tears.

“What’s this all about?” The towel covering her middle dropped to the floor. I kept my eyes averted, refusing to look at her voluptuous body. She put her arms around my neck, sobbing as she pressed her naked breasts into my chest. “It’s Count Down.”

“What?” The Poodle was sound asleep in a corner, his long nose hidden beneath his fluffy paws.

“I’m going to get rid of him.”

I extricated myself from Livvy’s embrace and pretended to look for a fresh bottle of oil in my bag. “Who’s going to take him?”

“No one. I’m going to kill him.” She looked determined.

“How could you murder a beautiful creature like that?”

“That’s just it. He’s beautiful.”

“Lie down. Let me rub some sense into you.”

“I’ve made up my mind. You can’t change it.” She positioned herself on her back and adjusted the towel over her torso.

“What did he do?” My slippery thumbs worked on her arms.

“Whenever we go for a walk, everybody pays attention to him. Strangers — the most delicious men — come up to me, but they only want to pet him.”

“Of course. He’s like an overgrown goofball, totally loveable.”

“Yeah. And I might as well be an aging wife whose husband ran away with a porno bot.” She let out a laugh with the high tone of near hysteria. “Oh! I forgot. That’s me.”

I couldn’t stay focused on this ridiculous drama. “Only if you choose to think of yourself that way.”

“The Juice. They took it,” Thom’s blood-crusted lips had croaked out.

“They? Who’s they?”

“Can’t you be a little more condescending?” Libby hissed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –”

“You fucking prick.”

I let the words etch the air for a few long seconds.

“Oh, Jarat. I’m sorry. I really am.”

Is that how she would act after she killed Count Down and the sanitation crew took away his body? I just wanted to get out of there, but she’d explode. “No harm done,” I said softly and continued massaging her for several silent minutes as if nothing was wrong.

As she dressed, I waited to get paid downstairs in the living room. The view from the windows showed that a cold storm had settled over New York. Through the blackness tiny pellets of hail pinged against the windows. They’d sting the skin.

# # #

I’d felt such awe for Thom back at MIT. He was born in the Commonwealth of Asia, the vast nation that stretched from the Indian subcontinent to Japan. His clipped accent revealed an early education in the Republic of Europe’s state of England. It was clear he had a ferociously intelligent mind, even by MIT’s exceptional standards.

I came across him early one morning, the first time we spoke. We’d been working through the night at MIT’s Center for Developing Technology in our separate private lab rooms, affectionately known among the students as brain stations.

It was around 6 AM, and I was stupefied with fatigue and frustration. My experiment wasn’t going well, and my stomach was howling for food. On my way out of the building, I saw him from a doorway. Light reflecting off the silvery Charles River softened his angular, Chinese-East Indian features. He stood on an extended deck jutting over the water. Whenever I’d seen him before in classes or walking through the campus, his presence always made him seem far taller than he actually was. But in the river stillness, his diminutive self was more evident.

Thom’s mass of dreadlocked hair swirled around in a suspended-animation snarl. Below the chin, he was stiff in his starched shirt, buttoned all the way up to his Adam’s apple, even then, after working all night. There was a curling plume of white lifting from his smoking stick into the early morning mist. His back was turned, and he didn’t bother to look around as he said, “A tad early for you to be out and about, isn’t it?”

It was surprising that Thom was even aware of my habits. He sounded arrogant and intensely self-assured, but there was loneliness there, too.

“Mind’s in a fizzle. Can’t see straight,” I said.

“I suppose you think all this diligence of yours will result in something amaz like the rest of the wozzocks ‘round here.”

“No, that’s not clear to me at all.”

Thom turned to look at me. His flat-black eyes started flickering. That’s when I first saw his brain implants in action. It was fairly common, among Elites, to have some form of implant to heighten intelligence. But the brain enhancers that Thom was using were much more powerful than what was available on the open market.

The lucky bastard must have been looking up all kinds of things about me because suddenly his chilly artifice dropped away. “So you’ve hacked into the national grid. Good on ya!” he laughed.

“Thanks, man.” I blushed slightly. Thom must have come across my recent run-in with the cops. I’d infiltrated the national navigational system that controlled the route that every vehicle in United America took. No car could get in an accident because of it. And no one could just drive wherever they wanted, either. My father and his company, Silverton, had won heaps of awards for inventing the grid. But to me, it was a vast manipulation — part of the age-old plan to know where everyone was, what they were doing, and guess what they were planning at any point in time.

I didn’t like being told where to drive or what to do, period. That infuriated my parents to no end. Needless to say, when I went off the grid and was nearly killed in a collision, it was pretty humiliating. But at the time I first spoke with Thom, that awful experience was yet to come.

“What’s your experiment? Care to divulge?” Thom had asked. It wasn’t the off-handed question that most people asked; he actually wanted to know.

My obsession with deep-vision imagery spilled out with more abandon than usual. I was experimenting with a type of enhanced mobile eye lens. It would allow people to see through clothing, straight to the naked body, and even on into a person’s internal organs and bone structure if they used a strong enough version.

“But it’s not working right, I take it.”

“I’ve cocked it up good.”

Thom considered this. In the distance, the water flicked with yellow as the sun lifted above Boston’s gargantuan buildings. The waves deepened to burnished copper near the balcony. “How’s your work going?” I asked.

“Try, try again and all that.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“Can’t say.”

I felt like I’d dropped my drawers, and Mister Super Computer Brain wasn’t even unzipping his fly. “Well, I’ve smelled a certain odeur du cat piss coming out of your station,” I said. “And then there’s that other smell. What is it, heated garlic? I’m guessing arsenic.

Thom let out a short laugh. “Arsenic. I’ll give you that.”

“Must be riveting, whatever you’re doing, to keep you in that smell hell.”

“I’d just as soon blast myself to kingdom come as tell anybody about it.”

“So super agenty.”

“Fuck off.”

We gazed at each other, silently laughing. I really liked this guy.

A series of buzzing vibrations energized the air. The maintenance bot crew had arrived for the building’s morning cleanup. Thom pocketed his smoking tube. “I know it’s not my business, but you’re missing an opp.”


“The skin trade. You could make a ton of money from porno people with the naked part of the experiment. Then use the funds to completely develop the internal organ aspect.”

I rolled my eyes. Sure, I’d already considered the option, skanky as it was. Didn’t even want to think about the lawsuits that would trigger. People didn’t have much privacy anymore, but an app that would give porno freaks the ability to view an unsuspecting person’s naked body as they walked down the street! It was a bridge too far. Thom looked amused by my reaction. Clearly, he knew the legal implications, but he didn’t care — one of the first of many signs that he could be wildly audacious.

“Done any skin trade business yourself?” I asked.

“Don’t need to. Unlike you, I never hesitate to tap into available funds when I need some for my experiment.”

“What funds?”

“I’m an heir to the Tseng family empire.”

I swallowed a “holy shit.” The Tsengs were one of the wealthiest families in the world. Thom must have trillions and trillions of Asian Commonwealth yuan at his disposal.

Thom pulled a little device out of his pocket and started tossing it. “I’m tainted goods. Given my Big Daddy the occasional bad publicity. MIT is his way of shoving me under the carpet.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” His smile was like an invitation to some reckless, hilarious, and quite possibly doomed adventure. That’s when I sensed it: the little click that goes off in my mind when I’ve just met someone that’s about to become a close friend. It only has happened a few times for me, that click.

The little thing Thom was tossing fell on the deck. Reminded me of an old-fashioned pencil sharpener. He picked it up quickly.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Something I filched last time I was at Tseng H.Q.”

“What’s it do?”

He shrugged. “We’ll see. Hey, I’ve imported a chef from Beijing that makes the best fried dumplings in the world. Having them for breakfast. Care to join?”

A personal chef from Beijing? Like I could possibly say “no.”

At some point over the next few months, Thom started calling me “Viz Man” because it was clear I loved visual imagery of any kind. In turn, I nicknamed him “Fucking Genius” — FG for short, after I figured out what he was doing.

That started to become apparent early one morning when I was walking home through Cambridge. Thom hadn’t been around in days. He had sent me a message to say he had some sort of flu and wouldn’t be in class or at the lab.

There wasn’t anything recognizable about Thom from a distance. He just seemed like an Elite who was a bit tipsy, weaving happily down Massachusetts Avenue. As we drew closer to each other, he looked up, and I nearly fell over in shock.

There was nothing flu-like about him. He seemed extraordinarily healthy — so alluring, so relaxed, beautiful even. Those busy-black eyes were celestial now: lapis lazuli blue with crackles of emerald, velvety as butterfly wings. He had always seemed asexual to me. But now I had no doubt that women would do anything to bed him down. In fact, I felt the faint urge, even though I’d never been attracted to men before.

I was too stunned for anything beyond “What the bloody fuck?”

“Calm down, Viz.” There was a God-awful scent coming out of his mouth — that cat-piss odor but laced with bourbon. It was weirdly irresistible.

“So this is your secret. You’ve been experimenting on yourself.”

Thom grabbed my shirt, shouting, “You don’t know anything about my experiment. You never saw me like this. Don’t ever, ever tell anyone!”

“Okay. Got it.” It took all my mental focus to keep from kissing him. There was only one way to stop it; I pushed him away hard, and he fell to the sidewalk. “If it’s such a bloody secret, then what are you doing wandering around town looking like this?” I asked.

He knew I had a point. We weren’t that far from school. Thousands of students and professors recognized Thom by sight, even if they didn’t know him personally. He certainly would attract a great deal of attention looking the way he did now.

Thom managed to get up on his feet, wobbling a bit. “Guess I’m pretty wasted.”

I rolled my eyes. “C’mon.” I pulled him down one street after another towards his flat, trying to deal with this strange new thrill of being near him. It was confusing and exciting.

We finally reached the place where Thom lived, a swank resort apartment complex that attracted Elites from the Asian Commonwealth.

“Can you get upstairs okay?”

“Ha! I am a brilliant stair climber.” He started weaving up the steps but then turned back to me. “You’re gonna forget this happened. Right?”

I nodded yes. How could I say no to anything he asked? Then again, how could I possibly forget?

That afternoon Thom stumbled into a cognitive sciences class about 10 minutes into the lecture. He sat down next to me with a wary glance. His eyes were black again, though unusually dull, and he’d thrown on a stiff, blazing-white shirt.

When the class finally ended, we walked across campus. I was a good six inches taller than Thom. That added to the awkwardness as I studied his face for clues. “Hangover?”

“That’s the least of it.”

What in bloody hell had he done to himself? I knew better than to ask.

“I know this isn’t something you can forget,” Thom said. “I shouldn’t have demanded that.”

“Yeah, that was a pretty dim hope.”

Thom reached up and grabbed my shirt urgently. All the attraction I had felt hours ago was gone now, and I nearly reeled back from Thom’s intimacy. “I know I can trust you. More than anyone.” He was so earnestly desperate.

“Uh-huh. So why don’t you tell me what you’re doing?”

Fear washed over his face. “I can’t.” Then he took off.

I was so pissed that he couldn’t trust me with the most basic, topline information. The feeling stuck around for quite some time. That night I went inside a virtual reality portal called 6Depe. There was a vault inside that housed all my holo graffiti. My avatar, which looked exactly like me, was busy sorting out the jumble of imagery when Thom’s own selfie avatar showed up. He had his private graffiti vault close by, and we’d shared the hand gestures that unlocked each other’s bins some time ago. So he slipped into mine quickly enough. We were completely alone.

“Charismite. That’s what I became last night. That’s what you saw,” Thom’s avatar said.


“Charismite. As in someone with extraordinary charisma. I took some Juice, what I formulated back at the lab. And it made me that way.”

“Juice? That’s the best you can do for a name?”

“I’m not interested in some kind of cocked-up marketing brand. A few more tweaks and I can persuade anybody to do anything with this substance. Just down a few milligrams and pow! I’m going to change the friggin’ world.”

“That sounds evil. Why do something like that?”

“No. You’ve got it all wrong. I’ve got something quite extraordinarily good in mind. You’ll see.”

# # #

Staring out Livvy’s window into the icy street, the memories of Thom from a few years ago — coupled with his mangled face in the graffiti holo — were changing things inside of me.

“I’ve got something quite extraordinarily good in mind.”

Thom had such high expectations for himself. And yet look what happened to him. He’d had high hopes for me as well. He would have been impatient and incredulous to know that I wasn’t involved in much more important things than massage therapy.

But when I trained to become a masseur, it made all the sense in the world. When I was lying in the hospital bed after the bike accident, one physical therapist after another kneaded my muscle-torn limbs back to life. And I realized something about human touch I hadn’t understood before: even the soft contact of one finger on a shoulder could be soothing, right down to the soul. And yet it was almost unseemly, in the Elite world, to lay a hand on anyone — other than a close family member or a lover.

I didn’t get into massage therapy immediately. There was a period after my recovery when I went back to MIT and tried to make my blasted experiment work. But in the end, I gave up. Massage had seemed like an answer — my little attempt at righting the world. But not anymore. I didn’t want any more people like Livvy in my life. That wasn’t what I’d bargained for.

As I listened to the icy ping, ping on the plexiglass in Livvy’s living room, the memory of the docile, smiling Chav on the subway washed back to me. I was drawn to them, through Jewles.

What if the Theseus movement was right? What if one or more of the big media companies were going far beyond merely feeding the Chav ad messages for the products they actually could afford to buy? What if there was some form of subliminal mind-twisting behind it all? The class I’d been born into seemed to be full of dark movers and shakers. If only I could help find out the truth about that — or at least what the hell happened to Thom.

Count Down swaggered into the room like a teenager in pajamas. The pooch scooped up a ball in his black lips and crouched down, tail wagging, ready to race off the second I tried to grab it.

Up above, a bedroom door burst open. The dog cowered a little. Why was he afraid of Livvy? What had she already done? When would she kill him? A tiny puff of hope, that Livvy would come to her senses, evaporated inside me.

What I needed to do in the future would reveal itself one small piece at a time; that seemed inevitable. But as Livvy emerged in the doorway, ready to unleash more of her theatrical fury, it was clear what needed to be done right then.

“You don’t need to pay me any money, but I’m taking the dog.” I grabbed a leash hanging on a hook near the door and snapped it on Count Down’s collar.

Livvy was stunned at first. “I don’t know who smells more like garbage, you or the dog,” she said. But she couldn’t hide her relief and sadness.

The front door opened soundlessly. The dog gave me a grin as we headed into the storm.



Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.