by Eva Papasoulioti
You are desperate when you sign the contract.
After a difficult divorce that leaves you with nothing, you lose your job, then your apartment. You look for another job, but it isn’t easy. Your qualifications are stale, your contacts are stale, you’ve been out of work too long. You’re older now. Alone. Lonely. Broke. A failure.
When you see WeNeed®’s advertisement, you think it has to be fake; the money is too good to be true. It can’t be that easy. But a week later, after a police officer wakes you and you move your car for the third time that night, you say fuck it.
The contract is nearly two hundred pages long, fine print, thick as a novel and served with two pieces of cake and the best coffee you’ve ever had.
“Water is overrated,” they say, and you agree. You’ve been drinking nothing but water for the past year and think, well, you can easily do without. For this kind of money, you definitely can.
“Electrolytes are the future,” they say, and give you a pleasantly orangey drink. You take a sip and the concentrated glucose makes a rush through your taste buds to your brain. “This drink is one hundred percent healthy for you and zero-point-four percent more beneficial than water.”
The only downside is that, according to contract clause 122, you have to repeat the name of the brand and its slogan every time you drink it, even when you are alone. You imagine yourself in your living room, watching TV and taking a sip. “Eledrink™—better than water!” you’ll say to no one. A small price to pay to recover your life. You’re thirsty. You sign without consulting a lawyer.
They implant twin microsensor arrays in your jawbone, one on either side. The pressure sensors will detect when, how, and for how long your tongue touches your palate and holds your epiglottis closed as you swallow, distinguishing between solids and liquids, and the embedded microfluidic assay will identify what you’re drinking. The on-chip contact microphone will confirm that you advertise correctly. There are microelectrodes. If you drink anything that isn’t Eledrink™, you will receive a mild shock as a reminder of clause 584. Failure to repeat the slogan will also result in a shock, per clause 603.
With the money you buy a house, pay off your loans, and invest in a couple startups. You travel the Mediterranean and Latin America. You meet your spouse, get married, have children. You lose friends who get tired of you repeating advertisements every time you drink. But, you think, it’s a small price to pay for the good life.
And life is good. Waterless, but good.
Until the update.
You cut yourself on a stainless-steel knife, blood flows, and you put your finger in your mouth to staunch the bleeding. You swallow once, twice. The taste of your blood, sweet and metallic, makes you thirsty. Five minutes later, a lawyer from WeNeed® is at your doorstep, talking about breach of contract, warning against illegal deactivation of the microchips, listing consequences.
You explain what happened. He is skeptical at first, and then he amends some clauses to clarify that you are not allowed to swallow most bodily fluids. From now on, tasting anything but your saliva and Eledrink™ is explicitly prohibited. You’re asked, of course, if you agree to the amendment. You say yes and sign, because of course you do: the alternative is too terrifying.
You start speaking less. Squeeze your lips shut in the shower and refuse any kind of soup. You stop kissing your spouse and your children’s tear-stained cheeks. You give up swimming. You give up running out of fear of tasting your own sweat.
You read the contract, wishing to find a way out of this. The language is complicated legalese riddled with semi-colons—you understand only half of it. It covers practical details, like contract parties, Eledrink™’s ingredients, what’s considered solid food and what is liquid, the decibels of your voice when repeating the slogan, dates of shipments, manufacturer and technical support for the microsensor arrays, consequences if you breach the contract, liability waivers, product recall, indemnity, dispute resolution. The contract covers every potential issue that may arise concerning the consumption of Eledrink™: from changing your address and moving to another continent (you can’t), to failure of the microsensors (you need to report this immediately), to you becoming completely unable to swallow due to sickness (or death). So many clauses. So many confusing, incomprehensible words.
You try not to make your lips bleed. You take the contract to a lawyer, hoping. Such companies leave no room for negotiation, they tell you (trust them; they have tried). Take it or leave it.
When Eledrink™ is withdrawn due to allegations of health risks, including hypertension, cardiac arrest, and stroke, you think you are free. Another lawyer at your doorstep reminds you of clause 720, which states that, in the event that Eledrink™ is recalled, the contract shall remain in force and you shall be subject to the same obligations for a replacement product, provided by WeNeed®. Behind the lawyer, a WeNeed® employee is already unloading box after box of Elejuice™ from the back of a truck.
You cry that day, and make sure to wipe your tears before they reach your lips.
The company pushes a new product onto the market. Water2.0™— bottled water, but better! Sourced directly from natural springs in the Acarnanian Mountains at the beginning of spring. Pure water. In recyclable cartons, of course, because WeNeed® cares for the environment. You down a whole carton of Elejuice™ and blame yourself for your stupidity, blame the company for their damn ironclad contract, and blame the damn drink for this ever-growing, never-satisfied need at the back of your tongue.
Years later, when you learn that WeNeed® is bankrupt, you go to your kitchen and stare out the window. The rain today beckons you outside, its calling so loud that you feel your skin itch as you watch the heavy drops fall, overwhelmed by the mere thought of being free to stand under them and just . . . be. You take a glass, turn on the faucet, and fill it. You raise it, look through the transparent water, and your breath catches as you think of all you gave up and all you’ll savor again. Your body hums in anticipation of washing away the sugary, sticky film on your tongue. You lick your lips, imagining how real water will taste.
The glass is about to touch your lips when the bell rings. A lawyer has come to remind you that, according to clause 1049, your contract will now be taken over by one of the conglomerate’s subsidiaries, a sister company to WeNeed® whose products are artificial plants; Superlaplants™—like real plants, but better! You check the contract. The clause is there, right before the confidentiality clause. The lawyer takes the opportunity to underline it with a pen.
You grab the pen and reread it. Even with WeNeed® shut down you’re still obligated to drink Elejuice™ for as long as your stock lasts. After that, the fake plant company is responsible for the deactivation of your implants and you’re free to do as you please.
You run out into the drenching rain and open the garage where you keep your supplies. You received a shipment only two days ago. Nine hundred liters of Elejuice™. A year and a half supply.
There is a gas can resting nearby; you empty it all over the cartons. Your mouth is awash with the memory of soft kisses, salty tears, and bloody lips. You long to taste the rain again. Setting the stack alight fills you with the same resolve you had when you signed the contract, all those years ago. The cartons erupt in flame and the contents spill out across the floor as the flames reach the rafters.
Outside, the downpour continues as the fire spreads to the house. You throw your head backwards and let the rain wash over you. It plasters your hair to your head, runs into your eyes, over your lips, and falls to the earth like tears. The lawyer is shouting about destruction of company property, clause something something.
The pen in your hand is heavy. You raise it, angle it the right way, and stab yourself under your jaw four, five times, because your hands are trembling and you miss the first two. When you dislodge both microsensor arrays, your heart beats for the first time in years. The rain rolls warm down your neck.
You take a breath and open your mouth to the sky.
Eva Papasoulioti is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry. She lives in Athens, Greece, with her spouse and their two cats. She’s a Rhysling finalist and her work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Solarpunk Magazine, Utopia ScienceFiction and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @epapasoulioti and on her blog plothopes.com.