The Tomorrow Project introduced helpful nanites into the human body, eradicating common ailments like cancer, heart disease and dementia. The nanites were designed to expire after six months and leave the body, but the expelled nanites rose into the atmosphere in water vapor and evolved. They exist in the clouds and fall upon humanity in the form of an eerie, glowing neon rain. A single drop will cause a living creature to develop metallic cysts, leading to an agonizing death. Now, a surviving member of the Tomorrow Project huddles in her home with a runaway girl and struggles with her guilt as storm after storm rolls in.
The first three chapters were published in Issue 077, May 2020. Skip down to this raindrop icon for the final chapter to finish where you left off reading in print.
“Mommy, don’t let the rain get me.”
Cassie was moaning in her sleep again. The noise-deadening headphones had slipped off her ears, allowing the harsh, metallic beat of the heavy downpour on the roof to sneak into her dreams. I tiptoed over to adjust them but I was too late, and the eight-year-old sat up screaming, calling out for her mother. I sat beside her, one hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to calm down. Only in my care for two weeks, the little girl’s face flashed with the hope of seeing her mother whenever she woke up. She’d gotten no better at hiding her disappointment and resentment when she saw me.
“Go back to sleep,” I said.
Cassie shook her head. There was a light sweat on her forehead, and the sight of it gave me an involuntary shiver and made me look at the ceiling. Of course, if there’d been a leak, it would already be too late.
As I patted her dry with the edge of the top sheet, she asked me to read her a story. That’s what she called the dry entries I read to her from Encyclopedia Britannica, as it was the least technical material I had in the house.
“Do you want to hear about the desert again?”
She nodded. “It never rains there.”
“I wouldn’t say never. But seldom. A few days a year. Wouldn’t that be a nice place to go?”
“Mommy wanted to go there.”
I caressed Cassie’s hair. My pulse was going a little too fast and I took a deep breath and held it. Was the girl being truthful, or was she just latching on to a fantasy? She’d refused to say why she was huddled up in the passenger side of the old Nissan a block up the road. She claimed it was her mother’s car and her mom had gone to get help. I didn’t challenge the lie, just thankful there hadn’t been a storm that night. Someone had shattered the Nissan’s windshield months ago.
“Maybe she got there. Others have too, I hope.”
“Then why don’t we?”
“It’s a very long walk.”
“Weeks. We’ll stay put for now. I’ve done everything I can to make this house safe.”
As I said that, the noise from the roof eased. We both looked up and I smiled. “Running out of juice. The rain thought it was going to get us. Guess we showed it, didn’t we?”
I gave her a little poke in the ribs. She laughed by reflex and I settled her back into bed, adjusting the headphones to make them snug. They wouldn’t be nudged off unless she really thrashed her head. I didn’t want even the slightest ping of a raindrop infecting her dreams.
I didn’t go outside until two days later, when I was sure the sun had dried out every place I needed to be. An inspection of the perimeter showed all the French drains were working fine, and the gutter spout extensions were intact. As I returned to the front of the house, I saw Cassie with her nose pressed to the living room bay window. She gaped at me like I was a monster, but she’d seen me in my full wetsuit once before. The neoprene had my body in a heavy sweat and I wanted to shuck myself free of the second skin as fast as possible. The sky was bright blue and cloudless. Barometric pressure readings suggested no storms in our immediate future. In another month we’d be into July and the Colorado climate would become venture dry. It might not rain for weeks on end. We could risk a long trip south even if it meant walking.
I’d told myself the same thing almost a year ago to the day.
I looked across the street and stared at Michael’s house.
Cassie knocked on the window. I turned and waved at her. She was mouthing something but between the window and my wetsuit, I might as well have been deaf. It was obvious she wanted to come outside, and before I could react, she’d left the window and opened the front door. I shuddered and pitched myself toward the porch.
“But it’s dry!”
“There’s still some water on the ground, and there might be puddles. I need to take samples first. Just be patient and stay inside, okay?”
She turned and shut the door behind her.
The threat of her impatience spurred me to hurry with the crucial task of water purification. I waddled to the back of the house where the collection barrels were placed. I had four 50-gallon steel drums balanced on a series of concrete blocks that elevated them almost a meter off the ground. The open space beneath the barrels was blackened with ash, though the latest storm had washed much of it away. I opened an adjacent storage shed and brought out cords of wood to pile under the barrels.
“Why does the fire kill them?”
Startled, I jerked up and fell toward the first barrel. I caught myself on the lip and found my facemask almost skimming the water’s surface. I opened my eyes wide with realization of how close I was, and the bright, swirling metallic green and blue hues threatened to hypnotize me. I felt a stirring within my blood, a desire to rip off my protection and dunk my head into the barrel. The surface had a sludgy quality to it, but made a clicking noise in place of the usual soft lapping of regular water. As I held my face in position, staring down, I thought I saw a hand rising from the water, a shape that seemed formed by thousands of overlapping thumbtacks.
I staggered back and fell, landing at Cassie’s feet. The child started to help me up, but I motioned for her to stop and kicked away from her. I got up and checked myself. If I discovered even a drop of water from the barrels on the wetsuit, I’d have to sterilize it, but the material was dry. Beneath it, I swam in sweat.
“I’m sorry,” Cassie said, her voice very small as she cringed away from me.
I took several gulps of air.
“You mustn’t startle me. If you see me wearing the wetsuit, it means I’m afraid. When we’re afraid, we protect ourselves. Do you understand?”
“But it’s dry!”
“Cassie, water has always been the most insidious of things. My father was a general contractor and he—”
“He’s in the Army?”
“No,” I said, understanding her confusion. “General contractor’s another name for a handyman. Someone who fixes things. My father specialized in water repairs — flood damage, roof leaks, things like that. There was a phrase he always said about his work: ‘Water will find a way.’ If he was alive to see what’s happened to the world, he’d probably die laughing.”
I shouldn’t have indicated he was dead. Cassie didn’t need information like that, and she looked anywhere but at me. Not knowing how to respond, I decided to address the question that had almost sent me plunging headfirst into the barrel.
“Fire isn’t killing them. Disabling them is a better description. The things in the rain weren’t meant to operate in conditions much above 37 degrees centigrade. Too much heat turns them into nothing more than inert material.”
She tried to pronounce inert back at me. I knelt down, smiling, and said, “It means they can’t harm us anymore.”
“And then the water’s safe to drink?”
“That’s right. To drink, to cook with and to take a bath in. I tell you what, if you promise to be very careful, you can help me build the fires.”
Cassie grinned and nodded.
A few hours later, only embers glowed beneath each barrel and the water had quit boiling and the steam ceased. The water was clear, signifying purification. Still, I let the water sit another twenty-four hours before checking its clarity again, and then I took samples from each barrel in a series of eyedroppers and brought them inside to prepare slides.
Cassie stood beside me. She wasn’t the first child to observe me work, but those other children belonged to a quaint past full of classroom field trips and comfortable acronyms like STEM. Perhaps in another existence our paths would have crossed when her elementary school visited me at the laboratory like so many others had before. I remember how much pleasure I took to hear the wonderful gasps of students as they took turns looking through my microscope.
God, to have a scope even half as powerful as the one I once accessed. This one was a toy by comparison.
But it sufficed for my cautionary needs.
I slid the first slide into place and adjusted the eyepiece. The shapes were indistinct at this poor level of magnification. The key factor was a total absence of activity. An unpurified drop would have been swarming like a beehive.
Cassie tugged at my shirt. “What do you see?”
“Only good things,” I said. My imagination conjured the revelatory clarity of an electron microscope. I saw a field of corpses as in some Civil War photograph.
I reviewed several more samples from all four barrels. Only sudden movement in the last slide made my heartbeat flutter for a moment. Then I laughed.
“What is it?”
“I’ll let you look.”
I swapped places with her and made adjustments to the eyepiece.
“You see the thing that’s moving?”
“It looks like a blob,” she said.
“Yes, I suppose so. Sit tight. Let me get something that will show you what it really is.”
I went to the bookshelf in my living room and found a book called Microcosmos. I knew the exact page I wanted and flipped to it. Cassie was still gazing into the scope.
“Here,” I said, and she turned to look. Her eyes went big.
“This is called a tardigrade.”
“It looks like a bear,” she said.
“Yes, it does. In fact, it’s sometimes called a water bear.”
She looked between the page and the slide. I told her all about the tardigrades, repeating many of the same facts I used to give during some of those field trip visits. But there were new things to tell Cassie.
“Tardigrades don’t like what’s in the rain. We knew that a long time ago, though. It used to amuse us to watch the water bears go after our invention. We’d view the battles under microscopes and broadcast them around the world. Even scientists like cage matches, I guess.”
Her expression scrunched up, no doubt the result of a hundred confusions.
“I know you don’t understand anything I’m saying,” I said. “That’s okay. The main thing is that tardigrades are almost indestructible. We never observed one lose.”
“So, they’re helping us?”
“Not exactly,” I said, uncertain how else to answer. I wanted to launch into a philosophical discussion. It’d been so long since I’d had a conversation of any substance. What was the more interesting notion, from the vantage point of perception — that something could be too small to be seen, or something could be too large?
“To be honest,” I said, “the tardigrades probably don’t even know we exist.”
“But the rain does.”
I put the book aside and knelt down until we were eye-to-eye. “Cassie, the rain itself doesn’t have a consciousness any more than the wind does, or the dirt, or fire.”
“Then why did the rain start hating us?” she said.
I could have given the girl a pretty good approximate answer, but I dared not face more questions from her. Or from my own thoughts, for that matter, though maybe I was in denial if I considered myself a ruthless self-inquisitor. If we did seek safety in some desert community, would they welcome someone who’d been part of the Tomorrow Team? Would it matter that I’d just been one of a thousand eager researchers working on bits and pieces of the overall jigsaw puzzle? Might I remind them we’d all once been hailed as heroes, winners of a collective Nobel Prize?
I should have held it together until I got Cassie tucked into bed. She was a good, deep sleeper when it wasn’t raining, and I could have shut the door to my study and cried without worrying about her. But I’ve never been great about holding off my emotions. My father used to tease me about bringing a box of tissues whenever he took me to a Disney movie, saying it was just a matter of time before the waterworks started. He wasn’t wrong.
I was at the bay window staring across the street at Michael’s house and becoming misty-eyed. We’d been neighbors for three years, but it was only several months before the rains turned deadly that we started our relationship. Little else mattered to me once he entered my life. I was a woman dating her first boyfriend at the age of thirty-five, and the thrill of being with him even surpassed the elation the Tomorrow Project’s success brought me — though is often the case, one thing led to the other. We’d said hello often due to little synchronicities like going out to our cars at the same time each morning, he showed no further interest until he saw an interview with me on the local news. The next morning, as I was getting into my car, he ran up to me and said, “I didn’t know I lived across the street from the next Stephen Hawking.”
Of course, I told him I wasn’t the next anything. I just enjoyed my research and was lucky enough to be recruited into a great scientific endeavor. Then Michael grinned, rolling up his sleeve to show the smallest mark on his skin, very much like a vaccination scar.
“Got my first injection last month,” he said.
I showed him an identical marking in the bend of my right elbow. “Three years ago for me.”
“You’ve had the machines in you for three years?”
I laughed. “Call me a self-experimenter.”
And so our relationship began. We were a twosome. A luddite might have said we were actually a couple of colonies, considering the nanites patrolling our bodies, guarding us from infections, cleaning up plaque in the arteries, making repairs. After our first night of intimacy, he put his hands behind his head and said, “Did you know I can hear them?”
“You couldn’t even if they did have voices — which they don’t.”
“Oh, yes I do. They want me to ask you if you’re ready for round two.”
“Tell them I’m already anticipating round three.”
It was too perfect, so of course the world had to be breaking all around us. The problem wasn’t so different from the dangers of people flushing their medications down the toilet, leading to a buildup of toxins in the water supply. If that’s all it was, though, there’d be no problem. We all had the same nanites, and the nanites were beneficial.
Until they weren’t.
The last time I saw Michael, I’d come home from spending most of the night in a series of networked global meetings trying to make sense of the crisis even as it blew up in our faces. The clouds began to glow across the Earth, and in the places where it rained, the rain streaked down in long comet trails of haunting light. Of course, people came out to stand under it, not bothering with umbrellas, letting the strange, beautiful rain drench them. The new, different nanites worked fast in the flesh and bone. Fast but not instantaneous. It still took days before the bodies of the infected began to permeate with metal cysts.
A terrifying, agonizing death.
Denver was about to have its first bright rain, and I rushed home to Michael. He’d all but moved in with me by that point, but when I arrived, I found the house empty and went to the bay window as the first raindrops fell. His front door was open. I called, desperate to tell him to stay inside, but the storm made cell reception impossible. I saw him come onto the porch and notice me. He waved and started out from under the cover of the awning. I banged on the window, shaking my head, and then sprinted to my own porch to shout to him, but the wind drove the rain in my direction and I sprang back as Michael crossed the street. I shut the door and began tearing off my clothes and feeling my skin. I was dry. Michael, of course, was not.
I drew the deadbolt and the chain as he slapped at the door and laughed, thinking it was all some sort of joke.
Cassie came to stand beside me and the memory of Michael vanished.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes. “It’s a terrible thing when you have to choose between survival and love.”
Cassie took my hand and said she understood. I looked down at her.
“Mommy got dripped on. That’s why I ran away.”
Three days later, we stood at the same window watching a storm roll toward us as if we were its sole targets. For all my dread, the gathering gloom remained a breathtaking sight — angry, deep purple cumulonimbus clouds limned with vibrant greens and blues, as if hiding an alien sunrise. The rains came, streaking the air like a million neon fireflies that seemed weightless until they struck the roof like a hail of pennies.
It was Cassie who pointed out the dog.
It limped and staggered past the house, parts of its dying flesh just visible beneath the glittering crust of metal that replaced its fur. It must have gotten wet in the previous storm, I thought, judging by its condition. How it managed to avoid contamination until now baffled me.
“What happens when the rain gets you?”
“The tiny machines in the rain enter the body and multiply. They were originally designed to help. Increase lifespans. Stop disease.”
“And then they changed?”
The dog fell over on its side and lay still. We heard the rain smacking against its metal coat.
“Yes, somehow, up there,” I said, looking skyward.
“In the rain.”
I explained the best I could. Speaking to children was always a challenge for me, but Cassie was brighter than most I encountered.
“In the clouds. Their life inside our bodies ended after six months and then you needed another injection. They broke down and left when you went to the bathroom, but they rose up with the water vapor and — changed. We’ve still got two things going for us, though. Heat will kill them, and they need a … fluidic medium.”
“They can’t attack us through the air. They’re not like pollen, the stuff that makes you sneeze in the spring time. They unite when the water vapor reaches the clouds and then they fall with the rain. If they land in a lake or stream, they’ll live — perhaps change further, though I don’t want to dwell on that. But if they dry out, their lives are very short. We just need to stay dry.”
I smiled at her, but Cassie pressed her face to the window until her nose dimpled. She was staring at the dead dog.
“Water will find a way,” she said.
After that rain, we enjoyed two straight weeks of arid, hot weather. It seemed Colorado’s dry season had started early. Cassie woke up each day to sprint to the window and study the sky. Then she’d say, “Still no rain! Can we go to the desert now?”
How could I convince her of the journey’s complexities? Two hundred and fifty miles separated us from the nearest desert, Great Sand Dunes National Park. With no reliable mechanical transportation, we’d be forced to walk. Cassie didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle.
And who knows what we’ll find along the way, I thought. There must have been a few survivors like me, clustered in houses. Preppers, survivalists with clean water and food supplies. Not in my neighborhood, at least — until Cassie, I hadn’t seen another person in months. Could we depend on humanitarian impulses if we encountered them at a moment of need? Could we defend ourselves against hostilities? What if we made it all the way to the desert and found nothing but waves of silent dunes?
Cassie kept insisting, and in another week, she was reduced to begging. I experienced a flash of resentment when she went on too long. Was my company so bad? Was my shelter inadequate? By the end of the second week, she spent much of the day pouting. I called her to dinner and she didn’t answer. I looked everywhere until I found her sitting behind in the driver seat of the old Nissan, her hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead. I knew she imagined many eclipsing miles.
I had to forcefully carry her back before midnight, worried about the dewpoint. My limited research detected no nanite activity in the morning glaze, but I wasn’t taking chances.
When I went to bed that night, I figured she’d be gone in the morning. Could I really stop her, young as she was?
Let her go if she chooses to leave, I thought. You’ve done everything you can. She knows the risks. She knew them even before you found her. Let her go but be sure to welcome her if she comes running back.
But if Cassie didn’t come running back, I knew I’d spend every stormy night standing in front of the window, looking out through the bars at the bright rain, wondering what happened. What kind of life could I expect even with her beside me, both of us growing old in front of the damned window as the lawns grew into a jungle up and down the street, and the roofs caved in from inevitable rot? After the survival instinct has exhausted itself, you look around and ask, Why bother?
I carried that thought into my dreams where I stood in front of the window with Michael. We’d had a son and daughter together, and they were outside playing in the street with all the other children. It was a spring day, and sure enough a spring rain came — sudden, no warning at all. And the children all opened up their mouths and tried to catch the droplets in the back of their throats, just as they would with snowflakes. The games of children are timeless and renewed with each generation.
Michael and I smiled.
And then the rain turned bright and we beat on the glass and begged them to stop. I was the one to move toward the front porch, and Michael grabbed my wrist. He said it was too late. He said to lock the door. I jerked myself free and ran to my children. I gathered them to me. I felt the nanites already in my blood calling out through my pores, eager to meet their falling counterparts. It felt like a conspiratorial rendezvous, something long devised, a secret shared by billions.
A peel of thunder woke me, and a flash of lightning made me sit upright. I rushed from my bedroom, shouting Cassie’s name. I found her in front of the window, and the tears she cried were cast red and blue from the light of raindrops speckling the glass.
I stood beside her and cried a bit as well.
“It’ll never stop,” she said.
I got down on my knees and put a hand on her shoulder.
“When the storm is over and it’s dry again, we’ll go.”
She turned her face to me and smiled a little. “To the desert?”
“Come hell or high—”
I pressed my lips together tight and shook my head.
“Yes,” I said. “To the desert.”