Sha-Mon felt drained, though he imagined that his wife felt much worse. Despite her increased rations and decreased workload, Sha-Mon knew that lugging around a heavy, pregnant belly was not easy. Luckily, today was the day for which the doctors had planned her delivery. As soon as he got home from work, he would be going with her to the hospital.
He was frustrated with himself, because he’d let himself get tired. It could be very hard to recover from exhaustion, since the government strictly controlled nutrient intake and time at recharging stations was also heavily rationed. He passed one by on his way to the train, feel the urge to plug into it but knowing that his daily ration was almost completely depleted.
Instead, he took a small canister from his pocket. In it was his daily ration of NutriCaps. His doctor had adjusted his formula during his last examination, mostly because of the life changes associated with dealing with a pregnant wife. NutriCaps were one of the few things you got to make a decision about. You could choose what flavor you got each day, and whether they came as hard pills, chewy gummies, or crunchy, sweet or savory treats.
Sha-Mon liked his to be crunchy, because though he liked the feeling of chewing something, he didn’t like the way the chewy NutriCaps got stuck in his teeth. The pills always left him feeling unsatisfied, and anyway, it was advised not to take them without water, which made them far less convenient than the other options.
There was a recharging booth on the train as well. Someone was already sitting in it, which made it easier for Sha-Mon to resist the temptation. If he plugged in too much today, he would just end up building up an energy-debt for tomorrow, and that was a vicious cycle. You could only borrow out one day ahead, and if he had a debt tomorrow he wouldn’t be able to borrow from the next day. It was so hard to catch back up to feeling normal when that happened.
With the fatigue building up within him, even the hard plastic of the chair on the train felt somewhat comfortable. Sha-Mon wondered momentarily if he might accidentally drift off into sleep. The thought sobered him. He hadn’t slept intentionally since he was a child. He felt such shame about the few times he’d drifted off since then. Sleeping wasn’t illegal, but it was seen as weak, disrespectful, and wasteful. If he fell asleep on the train, he would wake up to some judgmental glares, at the very least. Worse, if the mood on the train was poor.
The ride home was not long. Sha-Mon kept himself awake by watching the city pass by outside of his window. It was a sharp place, segmented into a structured grid. Dark buildings stretched up high above them. Their roofs were covered entirely in solar panels, which absorbed the light of the sun and transformed it into the energy for which Sha-Mon was currently so desperate.
On every block, high above the trains and the sparse foot traffic, windmills stretched between the buildings on arching supports. At one point in his life Sha-Mon had found them beautiful. Now they look like aged white bones, like part of the city’s skeleton had been exposed to the air. The turned the wind that blew through the canyon-like street into energy, just as the panels took energy from the sun.
Of course, the collection rods, which jutted outward like spikes around the building tops below the solar panels, were the most efficient at capturing energy. They used a portion of the electricity from the panels and the windmills to collect essential energies from the ambient, which were then sent directly to the recharging stations for use by citizens.
Looking at the panels and the windmills and the collection rods made Sha-Mon crave a recharge even more. He doubted he was going to get through the day without going into debt, especially after accompanying Sha-Ri to her delivery. He would have to use the Pac he had saved for days such as these.
Sha-Mon sighed. Pacs were precious and hard to come by. They were given out, sparingly and rarely, by the government or by your company, when they sent you somewhere they thought there might not be access to a recharge station. It was common practice to save them, if you could, since using one didn’t count against your energy ration for the day. You could use it as a boost if you fell behind.
Sha-Mon had been sent to travel for work twice, and both times it had been to facilities whose recharging stations hadn’t been working due to a programming error. Luckily for Sha-Mon, it was his job to fix that error, and he had done so quickly and effectively, allowing him to use the station to recharge instead of the Pacs.
Those had been two of the best days of Sha-Mon’s life, actually, because he’d gotten to take the test charge from the stations both times, which didn’t count against his energy ration for the day. Sha-Ri had been laughed when he’d come home that day, because he’d been full of a zest she had never seen from him before.
Sha-Ri did not know he still had his Pacs. He’d been afraid to tell her, unless she absolutely needed them. He trusted her, of course, but the fewer people knew about something, the less likely it was that knowledge of it would spread to others. Pacs were very popular on the black market, since they were so hard to come by. Having one made you a potential target. Having two, and spreading that knowledge to anyone, would just be an invitation to get robbed.
He didn’t think Sha-Ri would go blabbing about what they had on purpose, but he feared she would do something nice, like offering a Pac to a struggling neighbor, or something else altruistic like that. Sha-Ri was kind. That was part of the reason Sha-Mon had married her. At the same time, though, her kindness could be a danger. She tended to trust too readily, and she didn’t always realize that other people didn’t tend to be as kind as her.
The train stopped, and Sha-Mon disembarked. He was lucky, because the train stop was so close to his apartment that when he strode out of the train door onto the loading platform, the door to his building was only one door down from the door to the building directly across from the train.
Sha-Mon walked alone down the metal steps. Nobody else had gotten off with him. Though most in his line of work got out at the same time as him, he’d been sent home an hour early to go with his wife to the hospital. The train had been occupied primarily by people with different jobs who, therefore, lived in different parts of the city.
Below the trainway ran a road, which, as usual, was dark and empty. The vast majority of city residents used the train for transportation. Few owned their own vehicles. Few even had space to park a vehicle, should they own one. Private vehicles were limited to law enforcement, city officials, and high-ranking company members, all of whom might need reliable transport outside of the regimented train schedule.
Sha-Mon pressed his palm against the panel set into the wall next to the door. It unlocked, recognizing his prints. He began ascending the stairs. In this regard he and Sha-Ri were not quite as lucky as they had been with the train stop, because they lived on the sixth floor. Taking the elevator was discouraged, by both the government and his neighbors, because doing so ate into the energy rations for the entire apartment building.
Before his first step onto the stairway, Sha-Mon clicked the button next to the railing that opted him out of the illumination provided by the light-strip set into the wall that followed the stairs the whole way up the building. If he left it on, it would detect where he was walking, following him the whole way up with light. He had good eyes. He didn’t need it, and he didn’t want to give a neighbor looking through their peephole any reason to resent him.
After the third floor, Sha-Mon paused for a moment to take a breath. He looked out of the window, which gazed onto the trainway. There was nothing new to see. Normally, he did not pause to rest, but today his muscles felt as though they were made of lead instead of cells. He opened his canister to crunch on a few more NutriCaps, then resumed his climb.
He pressed his palm to the panel next to his door. He frowned. The lock did not click, as it should have, when the scanner read his hand. He pressed against the door experimentally. It swung open easily, meeting resistance only from the air itself.
“Sha-Ri?” he called, his voice strangled by anxiety. He pushed himself through the door, fearing what he might find.
Sha-Ri sat on the couch, hunched forward. Sha-Mon’s heart rose into his throat. Then he heard her crying, and relief flooded through him, for in that first instant, he’d thought her dead. He rushed to her side.
She was cradling her stomach with her arms. Her red hair fell over her face and her shoulders like a waterfall. Sha-Mon crouched next to her. He reached up to touch her face, sweeping the hair to one side. “Sha-Ri, what happened? What is wrong?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, Sha-Mon.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, don’t be sorry. Just tell me what happened. What’s wrong?”
She covered her face with one hand. The other still held her round stomach. She did not look injured, but Sha-Mon could not bring himself to ask the question at the forefront of his mind: was their child okay?
“Men came,” Sha-Ri said. “They… they came in here, and they took your Pac.”
“My Pac?” Sha-Mon breathed. “They… How?”
“I don’t know how they got in,” Sha-Ri said. “I was in the bathroom and I heard the door open. I thought it was you, at first, but then I realized it was far too early. When I came out to see, I found them. Two men, faces covered. The opened our door somehow.”
Sha-Mon sat down next to her. He put his arm around her. “I’m so sorry, Sha-Ri. Are you hurt?”
“No,” she said. “No, but your Pac. I had to give it to them.”
Sha-Mon’s exhaustion pushed down upon his shoulders. He eyed the recharging station in the corner of the room. “I didn’t know you knew about it.”
“Of course I did,” Sha-Ri said. She smiled, though her face was still wet with tears. “Did you really think you could hide anything from me?”
Sha-Mon, too, smiled, though like hers it was more of a reflex than an indication of happiness. “No, I suppose not. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“It’s fine,” Sha-Ri said. “It’s dangerous to keep them. Perhaps you should have just turned them in at the end of your day, but I understand why you didn’t tell me.”
“How did they find out?” Sha-Mon asked.
“I told one of our neighbors one day,” Sha-Ri admitted. “She has two children, and she looks after two more. She is always so tired. I offered to let her use one of the Pacs. She said no, but I guess she must have told someone else what I said.
Sha-Mon nodded. It was exactly as he had expected. Sha-Ri was too kind for her own good. “You knew I had two, then. Did she? Did the people who broke in?”
“No, no. I told her we only had one. They came seeking one.” Sha-Ri grimaced as she fought back more tears. “I just gave it to them, Sha-Mon. I didn’t even put up a fight.”
“You did the right thing,” Sha-Mon said. The loss of one of the Pacs hurt, but it was better than losing both of them, and it was better by far than losing Sha-Ri.
Sha-Mon glanced at the clock where it was set into the wall near the door, a constant reminder of Government Time. “Should we call the police, Sha-Ri?”
Sha-Ri shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably not.”
They were required at the hospital in just over an hour. The police would arrive quickly, but Sha-Mon didn’t know if it was worth involving them. They would be late for Sha-Ri’s birthing appointment, and while they would likely be forgiven, it would take many fatiguing hours to make that happen. Sha-Ri hadn’t been hurt, and anyway, the police might confiscate their second Pac, for “protection” against future incidents.
“Okay.” Sha-Mon sighed. “Did they threaten you, Sha-Ri?”
“They had a gun,” she said. “I don’t know if it was real, I guess, but it felt real when they pointed it at me. I just gave them the Pac and they left. I don’t think they wanted to hurt me.”
“I’m sorry that I brought this on you,” Sha-Mon said.
“You didn’t,” Sha-Ri said quickly. “It’s not your fault. Really. I don’t blame you.”
“You are too kind, Sha-Ri,” Sha-Mon said. She was. Pacs were valuable, but he should have recognized that possessing one wasn’t worth risking his wife’s life, or his own. Or their child’s, for that matter.
Still. He would be keeping the other Pac. So long as Sha-Ri could keep quiet about it, and nobody knew they had it, it was worth it. He couldn’t bring himself to dispose of it, anyway, and turning it back into his company now would look suspicious. He certainly didn’t want to try to sell it. That would be asking for even more trouble.
Now that they only had one, though, he didn’t want to waste it by using it now. Feeling defeated, he walked over to the recharging station. He would use up his energy rations for today, with the hope that he could make it through the night without having to dip into tomorrows.
He said down in the chair and leaned backward. On the back of his head, below his skull, was a cerametal attachment. He reached back to press on it, and two prongs snapped out. He shifted in the seat, adjusting his height relative to that of the outlet, and plugged himself in. The energy began flooding into him like a wave of vibration. It relaxed him. He closed his eyes, for a moment.
When his ration for the day had been depleted, the machine beeped. A panel on the arm rest asked if he wanted to pull from tomorrow’s ration. He declined. He took a deep breath. He still felt the edges of exhaustion toward the frayed ends of his consciousness, but for now, he could continue to function.
While he’d recharged, Sha-Ri had washed her face and tied her hair back behind her head. She’d put on her shoes and a light jacket. “Ready?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, though he didn’t think it. When they returned home, they would have a baby. A baby, to whom they’d have to give actual food for the first several months of its life. Still, it would be their baby, and they would love it.
“Let’s go,” Sha-ri said, wiping another tear away as it snuck out of the corner of her eye.
Sha-Mon took her hand. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”