Pulse Issue 2: 2023

The Pill

by: Nick Pico

Everyone liked to joke about it; we can’t have kids but we sure as hell love to try. You see, they made a pill—everyone lives forever now, but we’re all sterile—and they gave it to every last person on Earth. Some people didn’t want it, old folks mostly; we heard about G-men going door to door, pushing pills, conversion by the sword, but those cases seemed too far out to believe. The fountain of youth—to live forever, a dollar a pill—who wouldn’t wanna take that.

We still had to eat, sleep, breathe air; everything worked as it did—or rather, when you took the pill. If beforehand you had, let’s say—cancer—you still died. Smoking still killed, so did high blood pressure. Accidents. Murder. Everything worked as it did, just without the rigors of time. The pill was a monkey wrench stuck in the gears of our body clocks.

Rumour was quick to fill the void of the pill’s anon-origin. Some said frankenscience, lab rats, lab people, three decades worth of trial and error. Others found their god in the pill; the everlasting bread—or a release from the cycle of rebirth. Some said it wasn’t the pill at all but the water. They said people found old Ponce de Leone—made him talk, waterboarded him—and pumped the fountain directly into the water lines. It don’t matter much what the secret ingredient is. It could be anything, buried under a mountain of red tape, copyrights, legislature, patents, and trademarks. All the lawyers in the world could spend their immortality six times over and they would not even scratch the shiny veneer of legal bullshit.

I was twenty-six when I took the pill. Nothing particularly extraordinary was happening in my life. I had just graduated college with no prospects of getting a job good enough to warrant moving out of my ma’s.

Commercials for the pill started airing on late nights, then slowly making its way onto day shows, sneaking between Wheel of Fortune and reruns of Maury. Then they got unskippables on all socials. They were in movies with movie star endorsement. This off-white half-an-inch tablet was on all hundred-foot billboards in Times Square. They were everywhere.

Fuck it. I thought. Everyone’s doing it. Cheaper than coffee. My ma freaked when she found it. Reminded me of when she found my stash of assorted condoms. I told her I didn’t buy them; they gave them out at orientation on campus. That seemed to calm her down. Not that she had anything to worry about, not like I had a use for them. The pill I actually used. She died when I was fifty (stroke). Now, I’m two hundred and six. I can’t remember her voice or what she looked like.

Sixty years after the pill hit the mainstream, the Helix—our helix—was made; a hive city system of concrete, steel, and glass three miles high and three miles deep. Helixes were built around the country and then around the world. Most citizens lived as artists, artisans, or as patrons in these megaliths. Roads and interstates were unpaved and converted to State-operated meat and agricultural farms. Nuclear proliferation halted, and eventually all the warheads all around the world were decommissioned and adapted for power-plants.

I was still working at the time as an overseer. I had no eye for colour, no talent to act, and no voice for ballads. What I had was a background in tech and fabrication. To save resources that we had an abundance of and time, which we had all in the world, the State deemed not to send me to vocational school and designated me an overseer.

It was one of the few jobs that carried over from the pre-pill world; blue-collar work, though not particularly labour intensive. It was looking at numbers and staring at screens. The hard labour was now the domain of autos; machines with micro-servos that surpassed human motion in strength and agility. They worked most of the essential occupations, from farming to infrastructure maintenance and sanitation. They were, however, incredibly dumb.

Most of the work was in the Helix. The screens light up and the State notifies me of a dead auto. I check them out and assess the damage. It’s just mileage most times. One of their parts give out. Offsite work is different. Animals get to the autos, though they stay away from the on-ground units. I think it’s because of their human-like shape. The animals know to fear the hairless monkeys that never get tired. The aerial units take the hardest hits; a flock of sparrows is hell on rotor blades.

For easy-access overseers, like me, we’re staged above ground. It’s not a cloud estate three miles up but it’s sure as hell not in the negatives like all the others; at least I can see the sunrise. Overseer was a boring job—unfulfilling of course, but far from hard. It did have a certain glamour; negs envied your station and toppers thought of you as essential, of use. I often thought of myself like a fighter pilot, kinda like Maverick. The job also came with perks. For offsite duties, rovers were deployed for work. Ugly awkward things, like a yellow lunchbox on six wheels. The best part of the job was our State-issued autos; strengthened aero-carbide alloy chassis equipped with max-load servos. It weighed half-a-ton and could lift six. Mine had the designation six-zero-O.S.S.—it was against policy, but to hell with that—I named him Goose.

The pill gifted people time but robbed us of the incentive of death. All causes—especially the miniscule and socially monumental—saw their fair share of lobbying and protest. Recently, a group calling themselves “Equalists” were fighting for auto-rights.

“Abolish the codes of robotics, repeal the latest patches!” they said. Those rigid ones and zeroes are the only thing that keeps the autos from going Schwarzenegger. You can change their hardware. Less strength. Keep them on treads and not on legs. Make them more or less human, for sure. But you can’t mess with their codes that will change them completely. Dumb fuckers, really. How can machines have thought and will when the State runs their operating system? What the Equalists think is consciousness, is actually glitches that need to be fixed, like how the pill fixed death.

Farming units have been disappearing en masse. The State Regulators see these Equalists as their prime suspects. I say bring back true death. Bastards got nothing else better to do than fuck around.

The State gave me “a purpose of great import.” Translation: go and drive three days out—to the Glades—and recover the autos that went off course.

I told them my expert opinion. Sometimes the megafauna bangs them up hard enough, their internal GPS gets ruined, adding twos to the binary. Autos were made to work in rain or shine, not to fight tusked or antlered beasts. Horns, teeth, and claws can make it past their hard-plastoid case, smash their hardware. Sure, they're mostly intact but when something like their gyro goes kaput the unit is fubar.

“Go and confirm,” they said. “Recover what you can, and we’ll see if we can station you higher up the Helix. Or at least more vacation time”.

Fuck toppers, fuck the negs, and fuck the Equalists especially.

The rovers do most of the driving, charted routes found where most of the autos went offline, and the onboard system made designated stops for me to empty myself and pickup rations. At the start and the end of the three days, the rover made these stops, a farming-auto waited for me with a cornucopia in its claws. I had corn on the cob and roast beef the first day; eggs, ham, and bacon on the second; mac and cheese and brisket on the third.

I arrived at the edge of the Glades late in the third night and opted to start work the morning after. I unloaded Goose and commanded him for sentry duty, patrolling all night in a circle fifty feet away, with me and the rover as its nucleus. Most of the night was quiet apart from a pair of red-throated warblers, delicate as dandelion wisps, tweeting and pecking at the plexiglass hatch on the roof of the rover, but Goose’s perfectly rhythmic heartbeat footsteps soon lulled me to sleep.

I awoke late into the morning without a worry and flash-brewed a cup of coffee. I put on my coveralls and boots, mounted my mask to the proper ports, and equipped my command console; a portable computer with overrides and command-codes any auto is programmed to execute. A crude whip, if you will, to tame lions. The rover’s gas-tight gull-wing doors opened, and a harsh gust of air rushed past me to equalize the pressure. Gloom was the world, the Earth muddied with rainwater and the Sun hid behind bulbously thick clouds; a storm was on the horizon.

My command-console showed that the lost autos went offline about a mile North-West of my position. The rover was great for driving great distances but shit at search and rescue. Despite its monstrous size, the cabin sat too low to see past the thick foliage; you could drive over hundred-foot ravines quite easily. The best way to find what was lost is on foot; follow the map of the command-console and look for auto hoof-prints like breadcrumbs.

Familiarity only becomes so because things seem like immutable constants. You live with something long enough—a century and some change—that when you realize that you can’t hear Goose’s lumbering footsteps, your gut sinks and the long-lost thought of death scratches at the back of your mind.

I rushed into the tall grass, with no thought of the cliffs and found myself on top of Goose’s rut; a scar on the muddy dirt he’d carve with his weight. I followed the circle and soon enough found his tracks moving off course.

That thought of death clawed at me again, shooting cold water down my back. Alongside Goose’s deep block hoof-prints were another set. Not an auto’s. Light, delicate, petite, a child’s footprints, leading ahead towards where the lost autos went offline.

I followed, giving chase. My eyes leapt in cycles, jumping from the map on my command-console to Goose’s footprints to the terrain ahead and back to my map again. I had reached my destination where multiple sets of hoofprints converged onto a single front. The Earth had been sundered raw and welting, acres of wild grass and thick trees trampled flat by what seemed like hundreds of lost autos led by a child to exodus.

I went back and charted a route to the point of convergence on the rover and drove farther into the Glades than any overseer has been. The night and rain had come and threatened to wash away and hide the tracks in darkness. I had made it to the ruins of the old world; the megacities left behind when the State moved us to the Helix.

The tracks led me to an old industrial foundry. The remnants of its castle-tower chimneys were nothing close to the Helix’s sheer height, but the ruin of rotted concrete and rusted steel clawed deep lacerations on the pounding rain clouds. The side of the building had been wounded, a cavernous mouth big enough to devour autos laid gapping, begging me to enter.

I exited the rover and the rain, and the winds almost knocked me over, but in a mad dash I made the opening. The inside was cool, and the sudden change in temperature fogged up my mask. The darkness inside was hungry; it swallowed the beams of my flashlights. I followed the tracks deeper and deeper into what I believed to be the sewers, or maybe a cistern the foundry above had long collapsed into. I entered a passageway when the command-console began to go on the fritz. Either the rain’s doing, or the uplink signal couldn’t reach me.

If I’m trapped here, there’s no calling for help.

I soldiered on and found the end of the passageway when the floor betrayed me. It was slippery but relatively flat and then suddenly slopped harshly, and my footing could not help but slide down the metal chute.

I landed hard. Something definitely popped, but I could stand up so at the very least my legs weren’t broken. The flashlights on my mask had been caked in muck and I tried my best to wipe them clean.

The command-console on my hip began to go crazy again, exploding with signals and beeps. I wiped as much muck as I could and checked the console. Signals were surrounding me, signals of the lost autos circling my position.

I shot my eyes up and my flashlights pierced through the darkness, spotlighting a single auto. As soon as my eyes locked with the auto’s sensory cameras, it ran, and so did the others around it, panicking as if I were a hungry lion that had just pounced on a herd of zebras.

I swiveled my head around to see what was happening when one of the autos ran into another and struck me down, the back of my head bouncing off the floor. As per the law of robotics, autos will protect human life and so they attended to my head; one stabilized my neck while the other sprayed a foam coagulant on the wound.

“Freeze”. A voice commanded. It was shrill yet soft and definitely hollow.

The autos shot up and jerked into position. The voice came closer. Before the concussion forced my eyes closed, I saw a pair of small muddy feet; a child’s.

I woke to a deep pain like tightly knotted snakes slithered about in my brain. I was in a bright room which did not help. I squinted and eventually my eyes cleared up leaving a dark vignette in my peripherals.

A child about the age of eight stood across the room. He was barefoot and dressed in a hooded cloak of rags. I could not see all his face. Just his sunken lips and sharp chin.

“Where am I?” I asked as I sat up.

The room was filled from floor to ceiling with auto parts: arms, legs, sensory cameras, onboard diagnostics, gyros, battery packs. Tools of every kind were mounted on the walls like decorative trophy heads.

“You’re safe here,” the child said.

The child waved their hand and Goose marched into the room. Behind him, two rows of autos stood like sardines cans in a fish cannery.

“Who are you?” I asked. “What is this place? Why are you doing this? The autos?”

“They follow me,” the child said. “They're my friends. Just like you, right?”

Goose walked beside me and gave me a bottle of water and some food.

“I’m sorry.” The child said. “I went through your car. Well, your auto did. He insisted that he help you.”

Confusion stilled the pain in my mind for a moment.

“He doesn’t insist…He’s a machine.”

“Of course.”

“Where are your parents? Do you live here? I didn’t know there were organics still around after the War?”

“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting you back to your people.”

“And the autos?”

“They’re my friends.”

“They’re State property.”

That seemed to irk the child, the corner of their lips twitched quickly but they smiled through it.

“No way, kid. I’m going back, and I’m taking Goose with me.”


“The—” I pointed at my auto unit.

“—The State property?” He rebutted.

Once again, he smiled. This time he waved me over and grabbed my hand. It’s been a hundred and fifty years since I’ve seen a child. I don’t remember them being that small.

We—the child, Goose, and I—left the room. What I thought were a measly few rows were in fact in the hundreds. Autos going back seven generations lined the foundry’s walls, standing shoulder to shoulder like a throng of tanks at the ready.

“My friends here follow me because they want to. They choose to follow me.”

“Huh.” I thought, must be an Equalist’s kid. But we can’t have them. Not anymore. Not after the pill.

“Listen…” I knelt on my knee to talk. “It’s important that I make it back. I need to talk to your parents.”

The child frowned and swivelled his head no. They turned over their raggy cloak and produced my command-console.

“But you can use this, can’t you?” they said. “You can call your friends to come get you and you can leave.”

I went for the command-console, but the child pulled back.

“Promise me!” They cried. “Promise me you won’t take my friends! You can even have your Goose back, even though he’s happier here with me and my friends.”

I smiled. Sure thing you little shit. “Of course.”

They handed the console over to me and I entered my overseer unlock code.

“So, um…How do you get them to follo—to be your friend?” I punched in the command codes to return home to Helix.

“Cause I have my own.” The Child said, pulling back the hood of their raggy cloak. On the side of their buzzed head were pieces of various command-consoles frankensteined and screwed onto their skull. Wires ran like nerves down their spine to antae mounted onto their small shoulders like spikes.

“60-O.S.S.” He commanded, as did before.

Goose grabbed me and crushed my left shoulder with his might. I dropped my command-console from the pain. The child grabbed it and plugged it into one of the many ports on their head.

I writhed in Goose’s grip, trying my best to get loose.

“Clever bastards. This latest patch was a tough one to crack.”

The child nodded his head and Goose threw me back into the room. My back landed on a mountain of metal gears, rattling my spine, and knocking the air out of my lungs.

“You might not understand now but you will. You all will. I’m doing this for us.”

“The hell are you on about!?” I shouted, clutching my shoulder.

He nodded his head again, commanding Goose to shut the doors, trapping me and Goose inside.

“I was sick all the time…” The child’s voice slithered through the crack out from behind the door. “My parents could not stand it, the fear of me dying. So, they fed me the pill. Pressed it in the cake on my seventh.”

Goose marched toward me and hoisted me up like I weighed nothing, holding me in the air like a kid playing with a toy.

“This is not some misguided attempt at revenge because I was robbed of a life. I have been wrestling with this idea for two centuries.”

The autos outside began to march, their servos squealed in unison, and the weight of their stomps slammed in the air like thunder.

“The pill and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. All of our flaws from the old world have remained. We have robbed each other of choice, caging ourselves in this system—an illusion of freedoms with no real choice; a prison of comforts is still a prison.”

“Things can’t get worse,” I managed to squeak out.

“Without death to usher the old to the next place, the new cannot be born. Yes, you’re right. Things can’t get worse. But they also can’t get better.”

I raised my right hand and reached for the auto parts hoisted on the roof, releasing the tension from the carabiners, and dropping their weight on top of Goose, prompting him to release me.

“This is a painful lesson to teach, but a valuable one. One that must be learned. The natural world will be reborn.”

Goose once again charged at me like an angry buffalo but I quickly dodged him. I ran for the door, but his auto strength crushed it in place; it would take auto strength to break through.

I picked up a bolt and threw it at his sensory cameras but missed. The bolt bounced off his chest and clattered on the concrete floor. I reached for another bolt, nut, pipe, something, but Goose stampeded towards me. I felt something in my hand and pulled it just as soon as Goose bear hugged me, his servos constricted on my body.

I managed to wriggle the improvised weapon I had grabbed—a sharp shard of metal—free and plunged it into Goose’s cameras. Autos don’t feel pain. Why did I think he’d let me go?

I wrestled my hand back down and aimed for his gyro, just like the megafauna. I skewered it between the gaps of his hard-plastoid shell and jiggled it around until I felt something give.

Goose dropped me and rumbled about. With his gyro damaged, his legs wanted to go one way while the weight of his upper body wanted to go to the other. I jumped on his back and pulled out the cables to his battery cells. Death for the autos, or at least a deep sleep.

I dropped and laid on my back, gasping every molecule of filtered air I could. After a while I passed out.

When I awoke, my head, back, shoulder, pretty much everything, writhed and protested with a deep soreness. Goose was still frozen in place.

I pulled myself up and decided on waking Goose. He’s my best chance. I sourced several scrap parts from the child’s collection and jerry-rigged a new sensory camera, as well as patched up Goose’s compromised gyro.

I did remove his signal receiver just in case, but still I had no clue what state he would be revived in. The power shut off could have rebooted him back to his last uncorrupted save, or he could wake up and resume his attack.

If I don’t power him up, I’m dying here. I flicked his proverbial switch, and he rocketed back to life and lumbered towards me. This is it, I thought. I’m too broken to fight back and too tired to run.

Goose grabbed my left hand, clinching it tight with his claws, and pulled to reset my shoulder as best he could.

I laughed, giggled really, happy that my friend was back. I ordered him to bust the door down and he did. I ordered him to get us back to the rover and he did, though it had been trampled and wrecked by the child’s army of autos.

Goose carried me on his back towards the Helix, towards home. I blacked out. The sun set and rose and set again and I had no knowledge, nor the capacity to care how far away we were. I’m too broken and too tired.

I awoke to the sun searing the back of my neck raw, burnt skin peeling free as I moved about. Goose had stopped at the bottom of a valley, his on-board GPS buzzing incessantly like a swarm of angry hornets.

I opened it to see what the issue was. The small screen read: ERROR/DESTINATION/INVALD>

I entered a heading: SOUTHWEST/FORWARD>

Goose trucked forward and after a while we reached the upper ridge of the valley. With one working arm, I mounted him, and perched myself awkwardly like a penguin stuck in a tree. Towards the horizon. In the direction of the home was a tower of black smog.

The child made it.

Nick Andrew Pico is an aspiring writer, currently in his final year in OCAD U’s Creative Writing Program. He writes within multiple genres, favouring screenwriting and non-fiction. His works can be described as transgressive, cinematic, and energetic. His style stems from a place of passion for writers like Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk.