By Emily Weber
Lyman fiddled with his suit as he stood in line. Having no regular caretaker it was up to him to keep up with its maintenance. Luckily, his daily check of all his various tubes and diagnostic screens turned up nothing; he was fine—for now.
His suit was highly customized; he’d been in it for a few hundred years, so he’d had plenty of time to make it unique to his personality. The chassis part was blue, and his monitors shown green from the anterior plating. His arms and legs were sheathed in a thick, matted, black, but slimming material.
The line he stood in stretched out of the Galactic Pharmacy, a building as large as a regular hospital. They served drugs to every species imaginable at Galactic Pharmacies, so it was no small wonder half the people in line were stuck waiting out in the cold. Luckily, the weather didn’t bother Lyman because his suit completely enshrouded him. Even his head and shoulder girdle were encapsulated in a life-giving tank of a special liquid – “Tank Heads” was what most people called survivors of the Great Virus.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a little girl staring at him. Tank Heads were rare, so he wasn’t surprised. Sometimes he wished he could keep a fish in his suit for amusement, but alas, only those humans with changed biology caused by the Virus could survive in the environment of the tank.
After many hours, he reached the door to the pharmacy. Inside he could see posters and ads lining the walls up to the ceilings for the various medicines they sold. With government coverage, there were millions of people taking each of the drugs, and there were always shortages. Amongst the colorful ads depicting smiling faces, exotic locales and family fun he saw a flier for his own medicine: Sweet Selene. The poster depicted a woman jubilantly cliff-diving into the glorious waves of the ocean, her dress falling gracefully behind her.
“They make it seem so nice.” he muttered to himself, the implants in his throat allowing him to speak normally through the liquid.
Lyman added Sweet Selene to his tank regularly to keep himself alive. Being dependent on the drug was irritating, but he’d been on it for so long that waiting in lines, getting check-ups, taking re-exams and getting prescriptions had become routine for him—so much a routine that he was concerned what he’d do without it.
“Thanks for saving my place” he heard a voice behind him. It was Xol, his alien roommate and friend. They both had health problems, and they looked out for each other. He hadn’t really been saving her place in line, but he let her cut in anyway.
Xol looked around at the posters with insectoid eyes. She pointed to four of them at once with her four arms. “Those ones are mine.”
Lyman glanced up at each one. He was already well versed in what his friend had to take in case of an emergency, but it was funny to see the overly hopeful images. They were ads for her epilepsy, low blood pressure, bipolar disorder and vertigo—all depicted as sunshine and rainbows.
“You have a re-exam today, right?” Xol Queried. Her voice had a very unique accent when she spoke in English, and it was filled with peculiar clicks and hums.
“Right.” Lyman said with a huff. Everyone hated re-exams. The crumbling Galactic Government was in charge of every single aspect of health care, so exams took hours to finish. “I guess I’ll see you later today. Much later.”
“Good news.” His examiner told him once she’d finally finished the exam late that night. “Your scores indicate that you have no more need for medication.”
Lyman jolted, his muscled shoulders struggling to keep his tank upright. “What do you mean? That can’t be- isn’t right.”
“Oh, well….” She said, checking her monitors again. “Yep. It says here you have no pain or symptoms so you don’t need medicine anymore.”
“Is that a new system?” he asked angrily.
The woman was taken aback by his tone. “Yes sir. We just installed it last week. It’s much more streamlined so we can get people in and out of the pharmacy much quicker. Aren’t you happy?”
“No. I need Sweet Selene to survive. Did you or did you not notice the tank?” he pointed to his head with a gloved hand. She stared at him blankly. Perhaps they didn’t teach about The Great Virus in schools anymore.
“Listen carefully” he said slowly—in his experience, government workers needed special codling; “I’m a survivor of the Great Virus. I need this drug in order to keep breathing.”
“Not according to our system, sir.” She raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “You’re not malingering to get time off of work are you?”
Not only was she stupid, but she was rude as well. “Can I speak to someone in charge?” he asked.
“There’s… well, I guess we can call someone.” She said with one of the more fake smiles he’d seen at the pharmacy.
“Call someone?” Lyman asked irritably.
“They don’t keep doctors or managers on site anymore. Too expensive. This way we can save money and pass the savings on to you.” She spoke as if these were lines she’d learned in a training video.
“I don’t need to save money. I need Sweet Selene.”
“Okay… I’ll go make a call.” She said, raising her eyebrow suspiciously again.
The Galactic Government had shorted him many times in the past for which he’d forgiven them. There were a lot of troubles in the galaxy, and sometimes allowances had to be made. But this was the living end. The actual end. After a phone call, the examiner returned, told him there was nothing she could do and ordered him to leave. When he wouldn’t, he was escorted out of the building.
He checked his Sweet Selene levels in panic as he walked home. Only enough for another week. He didn’t know what to do. Other people in his situation would probably go to the black market for drugs, but Sweet Selene was a specialty made only for those few survivors of the Great Virus.
Xol’s species never had any emotion to their voices, but once Lyman told her of his predicament he could tell she was nearly as panicked for him as he was for himself. She paced about, her four arms quivering. “This is ridiculous.”
“It must be an error in their new system. My condition is rare—maybe someone accidentally programmed it as a pain-based issue or some crap.” Now he was angry. This was not the way he wanted to die.
“We’ll just have to go back tomorrow.” Xol said with a resolute click.
The line at the pharmacy had only gotten longer and there were many panicked eyes; perhaps more errors were cropping up in the system. The day was particularly grey, and the line stretched so far out of the building that part of it was getting lost in the regular traffic of the overly populated city.
A man bumped lazily into Xol as he passed, his large frame almost knocking the alien off her wiry legs. “Ugh. I wish things weren’t so crowded. I remember during the time of the Great Virus how few in number people used to be. I don’t mean to glorify it, but it was kind of nice.”
Lyman knew what she meant. During the height of the Great Virus 200 hundred years ago, billions of people had died. It was a time of intergalactic mourning and sorrow, but at the same time the cities had never been clearer, there was more opportunity for all, and more time to simply be alone. Once the Great Virus had become manageable however, the galactic population had boomed—here was overcrowding on most worlds. New wars, famines and diseases cropped up like weeds in an unkempt lawn.
“I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing I can do.” A second examiner told him after bringing up his charts. “Your scores don’t qualify you for medication. You’ll have to wait until you have symptoms.”
“But I’m not having symptoms because of my medication. Once I run out of Sweet Selene I won’t be able to breathe anymore.” The panic was back in his voice. What was to him a simple matter of life and death was to them a matter of paperwork and scorings.
“Sir, if you’re having an issue we can write up your complaint and send it to administration, but there’s nothing else we can do here. We would need a doctor’s signature to approve of medication to someone who has no complaints.”
“My complaint is that I’m going to die!” he clenched his fist, thinking maybe if he punched the examiner it would bring sense back into his brain.
The examiner ignored him, handing the hapless Tank Head a pile of paperwork instead. “We’ll book you for another exam at a hospital to give you tests. Please fill out this paperwork.”
Lyman took the paperwork in disbelief. Xol was quivering again. “How long will it take to get in for a new exam?” she asked.
“Oh, a month or so. Not too long.” The man said blandly.
Once again, Lyman and Xol were escorted from the building. Outside, the line had dissolved into a mass of people. Venturing out into the crowds, Lyman and Xol found that hundreds of others were being denied their medications by the new system.
“Suddenly I’m glad I have such pronounced symptoms.” Xol said emotionlessly, but her trembling antennae gave away her anxiety.
There was much chaos in the crowd, and various fearful cries for medications could be heard. Some were panicked, some were angry, and some stood in a comatose state; staring into nothing.
Lyman was surprised to see several other Tank Heads gathering at the side-lines. They were all human, as homosapiens were the only species that could survive the Great Virus, and then only rarely. Being scarce, Tank Heads naturally gravitated to one another, often sharing an immediate camaraderie. “Are you all being denied Sweet Selene as well?” he asked the small group solemnly, Xol at his side.
“ Yeah. All because we have no symptoms.” A female replied. “There must be something wrong with their new system… I tried to tell them how the Great Virus works, but they would have none of it. They had to drag me outta there- damaged some of my tubing, the bastards.”
Lyman blanched. Those affected by the Great Virus had developed somewhat of a culture of their own. Being unable to exit their suits for any purpose, Tank Heads in family or in item would tenderly care for one another’s suits as a replacement for skin to skin contact. The fact that this woman’s tubing had been damaged gave him pause and a flash of anger.
One of the older Tank Heads, a man perhaps in his five-hundreds huffed at the whole situation. His white suit was more complicated than the other younger people about him, most likely a survivor from the earlier waves. Although it was more complicated, it was also very ornate—it seemed he was well to do. “I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist,” he said, “…but it may be part of the government’s plan to get the population burst under control. Think about it. Just change the system, take away the meds, and millions of weak people die.”
Lyman didn’t like to think of himself as weak. After all, the suits and Sweet Selene granted Tank Heads unnaturally long lives. “What do you think we should do?” Lyman asked, “I only have a week’s reserve left. They told me they’d get me a new exam at a hospital, but that will take a month… if not more.”
The woman whose suit had recently been damaged looked back at him. “We’re all in the same boat. Prescriptions are only filled a week before they need to be renewed.” She paused, glanced at the older Tank Head and then back to Lyman. “…maybe he has a point. Maybe it is a plan to cull the population.”
There was silence as each of them considered this.
“Well, I’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t have any choice but to keep coming back.” Lyman said eventually. The others nodded, their tanks swaying slightly as he and Xol left.
Xol made dinner for herself when they returned home, and Lyman attached a tube full of nutritious paste to his suit—it would be injected into his stomach over the next few hours. “I wonder if I should go into work tomorrow?” Lyman mused allowed, listening to the insectoid fumble about their tiny kitchen.
“I wouldn’t.” She said with a few clicks at the end of her sentence. Lyman always took the clicks to mean sarcasm, though he couldn’t be sure.
Quiet fell over the lonely apartment, and Lyman looked down at himself, observing the suit that he viewed more as an exoskeleton than anything else. When he was first put in the suit as a teenager he’d decided that if he was going to be a Tank Head, he was going to be a respectable, hard-working one. He wasn’t going to live off others, and he was going to live a long time. Now he was nearly three-hundred years old and he’d made good on his promise to himself; he’d been a boon to society, he’d paid for his Sweet Selene himself without a single check from the government. But for all that, here he was, counting down the days until he began choking on his Selene-less liquid.
As he was musing to himself, he looked up and saw a spot of dirt on the top of his tank. Unfortunately, it was too high up for him to reach. “Xol, would you help me with this spot on my tank when you get the chance?”
To his surprise, she came out of the kitchen immediately with a cloth. He could hear her pot simmering in the other room and he realized she was so worried about him and his health that she stopped what she was doing immediately to help him.
She stood up on tip-toes and reached up to buffer his tank. Her face was as emotionless as usual, but her antennae were shaking again. Lyman reached out and took one of her lower arms gently. “Hey, it’ll be okay.” He was lying of course, but the words were comforting to the both of them.
“I hope so.” There was a quiet, low hum to her voice. Lyman always thought low hums to mean she was speaking lovingly. They both knew their relationship could evolve, but because he was a Tank Head and physical contact was impossible, neither of them had made a move further than the nurturing care they had for one another.
“Well,” Lyman said with a note of cynicism in his voice, “I guess I’m not supposed to even be alive at this point. Natural Selection had me marked to be out. Only this unnatural suit has kept me alive.”
“We’ll call it Unnatural Selection then.” The barbs on her arms contracted with her muscles. This meant laughter.
“I like it.” Lyman grinned.
The line outside of the pharmacy had grown from a crowd to a mob. Lyman and Xol could barely hear above the din, but it appeared the pharmacy was closed. Eventually, a man exited the building with a loud speaker, standing on the steps in front of the building. He was a thin, severe looking Hruut administrator—a four-legged species covered in sensory whiskers. “I know you’re all frustrated by this new system, but let’s keep our heads. Things are changing for the better.”
Angry shouts arose from the mob in response to this.
“Quiet down, please.” The Hruut said strictly, “At a recent Galactic Government meeting—Health Branch, it was decided that too much spending has gone into the production of drugs. This new system is meant to lower production and give prescription medicine only to who need it.”
Lyman crossed his arms as cries came from the crowd again. Xol leaned over to him, saying: “Too bad it’s illegal to make our own drugs.”
The Galactic Government was not only in complete control of the production of drugs, but also the pricing and selling. That being the case, it was surprising to both of them that the government had decided to lessen the production of drugs when they were making so much money. The theory that they were trying to cull the population flashed to Lyman’s mind as he looked at the hundreds of angry, panicked people about him.
The administrator was about to speak again when a sharp, angry woman’s voice shouted from somewhere in the crowd; “Do they have our drugs in there or not?!”
“We have plenty of drugs-” The Hruut began, was interrupted by frustrated muttering in the crowd, waited for it to die down, and then “-for those who need them.” To which the mob erupted furiously.
Once again he waited for the noise to stop, but this time it didn’t. He let the loudspeaker fall to his side and visually shook with fear as the mob began moving forward slowly. It was only by virtue of his four legs that he had enough balance not to fall over as he spun around to speak to his armored entourage.
The Hruut then strutted inside the building, and the remaining guards stepped forward with a trolley full of large, metal cylinders and what looked like a bazooka. Lyman squinted in surprise. Would they really use weapons on a mob of sickly civilians? He turned to Xol, and she spoke what they were both thinking; “Let’s get out of here.”
But it was too late. The two were locked in by a mass of bodies as the mob moved forward as one. Lyman tried his best to move backward, using his heavy suit as somewhat of a battering ram, but it was no good. He then pushed Xol behind himself protectively as they were forced toward the building.
Within moments the bazookas were loaded and the sinister-looking canisters were launched into the crowd. Lyman and Xol expected an explosion, but instead blue-colored gas burst forth, covering the entire area in front of the pharmacy in moments.
Much choking and coughing could be heard, and chaos reigned as bodies began knocking into each other. Everyone began passing out, and Xol was nearly smothered by a much larger man who fell forward as he struggled for air. Lyman pushed him away from her and held her up, her four arms gripping his two. She was shaking, and her grip got tighter and tighter about his padded arms. He realized after a moment that her epilepsy had been triggered.
Lyman had known her for over ten years, and he knew exactly what to do: he lay her down as gently as he could amongst the other collapsed bodies and loosened the clothes about her neck, letting her thrash freely. He then looked about anxiously, praying silently that the gas would soon clear—but another capsule landed right next to the pair, and he realized with shock that the armored men were still pelting out the cylinders. He kicked it away, cursing.
He then heard shouting to the left, and he looked to see the other four Tank Heads he’d met the other day emerge from the blue smog. Inside their protective suits, the gas had no effect on them. The old man in white gestured to him, yelling; “come on! We have to stop them!”
Lyman looked back down at Xol—the tonic phase had passed and she lay still. Normally at this point she would recover within a few minutes, but with the gas keeping her unconscious, he wasn’t sure what would happen. He then looked about at the hundreds of other sickly, unconscious people, wondering how many would die.
Lyman quickly took Xol’s jacket off and shoved it under her neck in an effort to keep her airway as open as possible. He then quickly ran to his fellow Tank Heads, and as they charged toward the armored men. Unaffected by the gas, Xol’s words came to his mind: Unnatural Selection.
The guards were caught completely off guard as the five ran out of the mist. Lyman took the canister-launcher roughly from the first man he saw and swung it at his head. The man was wearing a mask, but the impact of the weapon was so forceful that he fell backward. Lyman then began kicking him in the stomach and chest while he was down, knocking the air out of him.
All the other guards but one were beaten by the Tank Heads in a similar, brutal manner until they ran off. The one who remained was getting the better of one of the younger Tank Heads, attacking his transparent dome savagely and repeatedly with a nightstick. It was enough to make a small crack, and the precious Sweet Selene infused liquid began to seep out.
Lyman grabbed the assailant by the shoulders with a vice-like grip and threw him to the others who proceeded to crush him into submission. The young man looked panicked. “Do you have emergency sealant?” Lyman asked as calmly as he could muster.
He nodded, his shaking hands reaching into a thick pouch at his side. Lyman took the tube and laid the goopy substance on swiftly, but it wasn’t holding. They would have to find a new dome and more Sweet Selene for him quickly, otherwise the symptoms of the Great Virus would begin; the unstoppable tremors, the clotting of the blood, the failure of organs, and the horrific wheezing that was pathognomonic for the illness.
The old man in white looked at the other three, then to the glass doors of the pharmacy. It seemed the people on the inside had no idea what had just transpired. No one was there, and the glass door was only locked.
Lyman made quick work of the glass with the cowering guard’s nightstick, and unlocked the door. The old man stayed with the kid whose tank had cracked, and the remaining three made a run for the drugs. The lingering employees stared after them as they ran through the building. Scared and confused, they made no move to follow the Tank Heads. Lyman snatched a keycard from about one of their necks as they ran past so they could pass through any locked doors.
Within minutes, Lyman led the others into the storage room. It was a few stories high and reached so far back that it was difficult to see where it ended. There were drugs for every disease of any species, and Lyman silently prayed that the medicine was in ABC order. The Galactic Government was a mess, and its employees were often confused and overworked. He wouldn’t have been surprised if the drugs were kept randomly.
Against all odds, the medicines were kept in perfect order. It was quite a walk, but the they located the Sweet Selene within minutes. The boxes were labeled with the same picture as the poster in the lobby—the woman jumping joyfully from a cliff into the ocean. For a moment the three Tank Heads lingered, each considering the crime they were about to commit. Sweet Selene was as difficult to make as it was rare— they would become wanted men. But, the system had failed them, purely and simply. There was nothing else for it; in order to survive they would have to take it. Without further hesitation, the three began loading up every single box onto three trolleys, and they picked up an extra dome for the kid on the way out.
The gas had nearly cleared as they exited; only a thin blue waft remained in the air. The guards had run off and sirens could be heard in the distance—the police were coming. The hundreds of unconscious people were beginning to wake up, dazed. Upon realizing what the Tank Heads had done, they overcame their dizziness to run, lopsided and unbalanced toward the building. Everyone was getting their drugs today.
Lyman gave his fellow Tank Heads a quick nod. Without saying anything they understood each other; it was as if they were a completely new species that could speak to each other telepathically. If they ever needed each other, all they had to do was ask.
With that, Lyman left the others to take care of the kid, and hurriedly made his way past the mob that was now sprinting into the pharmacy at full tilt. He found Xol right where he’d left her, and let out a sigh of relief that she hadn’t been trampled. There was no time to tarry, however, so he gently shook her awake. “Xol, are you okay? We have to go.”
Xol awoke and carefully sat up. “Was it the gas or did I seize?”
“Both I expect. Come on, we have to go.” He repeated.
Xol noticed the boxes and stood up as quickly as possible. She grabbed onto the handle of the trolley for balance, and the two walked away from the scene. Eventually, they disappeared into the regular traffic of the overly populated city, looking for all the world like two normal people off to make a delivery.
Later that night, the two sat on the couch in their dingy apartment, the Sweet Selene stashed in the corner. It didn’t take much of the drug to keep a Tank Head alive; it would last him for at least fifty years.
They were silent for a long time, watching the news. After they’d left, the whole pharmacy had been ransacked; millions of drugs had disappeared into the city to be used or sold on the black market. Because there were hundreds of thieves to track down, Lyman suspected he’d never get caught—especially given the disorganization and laziness of the crime centers of the Galactic Government.
Eventually, Xol picked up the remote and turned off the television. “I’m glad you did what you did, you know. A few people died in that gas… if you hadn’t stopped them it could’ve been worse. And… I also hope you have no regrets about stealing the medicine.”
“None whatsoever.” He said quietly but resolutely.
Xol never smiled of course, but her antennae flitted happily, and Lyman reached out instinctively to stroke one lovingly with padded fingers. In response, she brushed a green hand across his dome where his jawline was located.
“Let me get you some Sweet Selene.” She said with a low hum. She got up and returned in a moment with a slim canister of the life-giving drug. He plugged it into his suit for injection, and almost immediately he felt the liquid circulating through his suit.
Lyman then lay back, completely relaxed in spite of the events of the day. He opened an arm, inviting Xol in. She obliged, snuggling herself up next to him. The two were very much alike; both long-lived, unnaturally selected beings enshrouded in heavy exoskeletons… and sick to the point of life-endangerment.
He knew he should feel guilty about his crime, or anxious about the future, but really all he could feel that night was Sweet Selene.