Future Tense

“Beauty Surge”

What if your college dorm analyzed your sewage to find out if you’re pregnant or on drugs?

A system of pipes flowing from a toilet with little plus and minus signs in them.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Nora shut herself in the dorm suite’s bathroom, the inhaler clutched in her fist. Once she was within range of the ProtectFlo toilet sensor, her eight-digit campus identification code flashed across its display. The light flared from yellow to green, where it would remain until Nora exited. There was no way to circumvent the system unless, of course, one peed outside, maybe in the campus woods, but that would render vital health data inaccessible.

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She brought the inhaler to her lips. It was simple, familiar: tuck it in the dark cavern of her mouth, spray, pull air, repeat. Afterward, she could feel the VimCore easing into her lungs, a temporary visitor passing through her body and the campus wastewater system before registering on her daily reading. This was the medication she needed to function, to compete, to maintain her track and field scholarship—to breathe. The same medication that was recently discovered to be a performance enhancer and subsequently banned from collegiate athletic competition.

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Nora washed her hands, avoiding her own eye contact in the mirror. She’d switched to a VimCore inhaler back during her sophomore year of high school, when it was marketed as a superior treatment for chronic asthma. No one suspected, back then, that the drug enhanced athletic performance, and Nora didn’t connect her use of VimCore to her gradually improved rankings in the long jump. She certainly didn’t consider that it had made her college scholarship—her entire academic career—possible. But now that VimCore was banned and she had to return to a regular corticosteroid inhaler, she knew, just knew her athletic performance would suffer. Her coach clearly agreed, even if he didn’t say so out loud—the grim way he’d counted down to the VimCore ban said it all.

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Without VimCore, she’d slip down in the rankings, lose her track scholarship, and have to pack her things and finish her credits at the mediocre university in her hometown. That was the reality. Nora dried her hands and picked up her inhaler, pressing it to her heart. VimCore had been there for her for years. It made her whole life possible. And now she had to let it go.

When Nora exited the bathroom, she heard the toilet’s sensor recalibrate behind her. Click, click. Gentle, soft. Like it was releasing her to better things.

Nora headed to the suite’s common area, where her best friend Carly sat eating cereal on the couch they’d retrieved outside the honors dorm dumpsters. Carly, she noticed, looked surprisingly good for the early hour. Her skin glowed, her eyes had an extra shine. Strange.

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“Well, that’s it,” Nora said, and made a show of dropping the VimCore inhaler into the trash. “My last dose of the good stuff. And the end of my long jump career, probably.”

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Carly looked up. “Don’t throw that away just yet.”

“I have the Maxwell invitational this weekend.” Nora sank into the couch. “If I use VimCore again, it will show up in my report and I’ll be disqualified.”

The university didn’t track individual students as a rule; health data from the surveillance was aggregated to protect privacy while monitoring diseases and viruses. When Nora was a freshman, there was a syphilis outbreak in the coed dorm adjacent to hers, triggering an all-campus alert. University officials couldn’t identity the afflicted students, but the information they provided as a public health service (gender, dorm location, and so on) was sometimes enough for the savviest members of the student body to figure it out. Really, all one had to do was catch a friend opening her daily reading and watch her face fall while taking in the results. It was much like the time Nora witnessed her freshman roommate learn she was pregnant through her report. That was jarring, but not a disaster in the end—early pregnancy detection was a perk of attending a university with such an advanced wastewater surveillance system.

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While pregnancy, hormone, virus, and medication indicators were kept confidential, banned substances were treated differently, thanks to the bureaucracy of the collegiate athletic association. The system would flag an individual athlete who registered a performance enhancer like VimCore.

“They’d kick me off the team and take away my scholarship,” Nora added. “I’d have to go home.”

“I bet your mom would love that,” Carly said. She was trying to lighten the mood, Nora knew, but the comment was irritating because it was true. Nora’s mother was never in favor of her moving so far away to this tiny community way out in the desert.

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“Why would anyone build a campus in an arid wasteland,” her mother said when Nora got her scholarship, “what with the planet getting hotter by the minute?” But every corner of the world was drying out, and Riva University had a next-generation system that recycled wastewater into potable drinking water. Toilet to tap, its predecessor was called in the old days, and while it was gross if you thought about it too closely, the system was efficient. In the future, as the Earth grew hotter and drier, other cities would surely follow suit.

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The town of Riva and the university shared this system, which supplied the isolated desert community with clean, safe water. Only the university, however, maintained facilities with ProtectFlo individual monitoring. Only Riva students had microchips bearing their campus IDs implanted in their forearms to record their health data.

Each time Nora used the facilities, her biological data swept through the pipes into Riva’s wastewater system, every drop scanned, monitored, and recorded before moving on to the treatment facility. It was one of the few places in the world with such an advanced system, outside of maybe some richer-than-God global tech companies that implemented individual surveillance on their campuses. But that was different. Riva was a research university, with the nation’s top wastewater experts employing all their skills and resources to ensure no pandemic would ever again ravage the world like the Coastal Influenza had. As Nora had once argued with her mother, anyone would be lucky to have access to such technology.

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“This isn’t funny,” Nora told Carly. She felt bitter, not for the first time, about how out of touch her friend was. Carly’s family was so wealthy—her grandparents made a fortune in space tourism—that they had a wastewater surveillance system installed in their own home. Carly was the only person Nora had ever known that rich. Carly was so spoiled, in fact, that she often complained about Riva’s oversight and argued that students should be able to pay to opt out of campus surveillance. After growing up with conservative parents who monitored her every move, she was desperate to escape scrutiny.

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“I’m just messing with you,” Carly said. She put down the cereal and pushed her hair from her face.

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“Hey.” Nora squinted. “You look different.”

Carly smiled. “I thought you’d never notice.”

Nora tilted her head and considered her best friend of the last three years: Carly the psych major who wrote fan fiction and had a crush on every lab partner she’d ever had, gender notwithstanding. Carly, daughter of a brilliant Chinese American engineer father and an Alabama beauty queen mother. (Her mother was actually an architect, but Carly insisted on referring to her by her past life as a Southern beauty queen; it was some kind of resentment thing.) Carly herself had always been pleasant to look at but not in a pageant-girl kind of way. She was what their guy friends called cute, which was light-years away from hot, not that Nora or Carly spent much time obsessing over what guys thought of them. That was so retrograde. That was so their mothers.

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But now, Carly looked like an icon painting. Her dark hair and eyes glinted, her skin glowed. Nora blinked. She thought she’d worked out her sexual orientation sophomore year—she was tragically, predictably straight—but maybe not. She thought back to her inhaler. Was it spiked? Was she high?

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“Am I high?” Nora asked. She stared at Carly, hard. Her friend was gorgeous. Beyond gorgeous, really. Astonishing.

Carly laughed. It was her authentic laugh, the one she reserved for friends like Nora: harsh, barking, nearly lycanthropic. “You’re not high,” she said, and produced from her bathrobe pocket a thin tube that read, in elegant silver lettering: BeautyAid.

Nora blinked again. BeautyAid was brand new to the market and difficult to obtain, not to mention controversial. It was classified as a cosmetic, which eliminated FDA approval requirements, but plenty of people were already lobbying for it to be taken off the market. Others called BeautyAid a miracle product. Rumor had it that you could throw out your foundation, concealer, age-defying lotion, astringent, toner, and whatever other expensive crap women were shamed into piling on their faces and replace it with BeautyAid.

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“You don’t need that,” Nora said automatically. “You’re beautiful as you are.” Dear God, it was like her mother had been helicoptered into their suite to spout inanities through Nora’s mouth.

“It’s a concealer,” Carly said.

“I thought it was a lotion.”

“I’m not talking about makeup. It conceals. All the big stuff in your surveillance records—hormone levels, virus indicators, pharmaceuticals. I knew that would make you nervous, but it’s harmless, I swear. I’m using it so my parents won’t know about my birth control when I go home for spring break.”

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When Carly arrived at Riva, she’d been so eager to escape her family’s surveillance system that she refused to waive the privacy controls on her university reports. Her parents let her have this freedom, but only on campus. Whenever she stayed under their roof, her contribution to the household wastewater system registered on the family report, and as they paid the bills, they had every right to look at it.

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“You can check my dailies if you don’t believe me,” Carly added. She was unscrewing the BeautyAid cap. “One day it showed I was just another college girl on birth control, but then the next day, nothing.” She smiled. “My report is still active, but those levels changed. Like magic. It can help you, too.”

“I can’t risk losing my nutritional data. I need that to compete at my best.” Nora watched, fascinated, as Carly squeezed a narrow line of lotion down her own forearm. It had the slightest sheen to it.

“It doesn’t conceal that kind of minor data. I can still track my iron levels and kidney function. Besides, it’s wonderful. It makes you feel—elated,” Carly said, admiring her arm. “I don’t even care that much about drinking, now that I have this.”

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Nora sat up a bit straighter. This was news. Carly was obsessed with drinks: margaritas on Tuesdays, half-price beer buckets at Tony’s on Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays with her fellow psych majors, and the weekends were a blur of shots and popped bottles. One time last semester, Carly had literally woken up with one of those little paper umbrellas jabbing her temple. It left a mark.

“Here,” Carly said. “Give me your hand.”

Nora gave it to her. This was her best friend, the girl she cavorted with in the campus graveyard on Halloween, the friend who shared a drunken pledge that they’d never become their mothers, and the kind soul who once agreed to a hardcore make-out session just to confirm, scientifically, that Nora wasn’t gay/bi/curious. Nora held out her hand flat, palm up with her fingers pressed together for safety, like she was offering a treat to a horse.

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Carly positioned the tube of BeautyAid over Nora’s hand. “Don’t think you’re the only athlete using this,” she said. “The men’s soccer team started it last weekend. Didn’t you notice how hot they all looked?”

Come to think of it, she had noticed. Those men she’d passed in the dining hall the other day: glistening, their jaws somehow more defined, their eyes blazing.

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The tube was still hovering over Nora’s skin. Well. She didn’t see the harm in it, considering that her college career was about to tank anyway.

“All right,” she said. “Go ahead.”

“As soon as we’re done, we’ll dig your inhaler out of the trash. Our mothers weren’t lying when they said we could have it all.” As she spoke, Carly squirted a glob of the shimmering lotion into Nora’s left palm and rubbed it in circles. Carly’s careful attention reminded Nora of the palm reading she’d received at the last campus festival. That had been Carly’s idea, naturally. She’d grabbed Nora by the arm and dragged her to the fortunetelling booth, pushing her through the tapestry curtains into an enclosed space that reeked of incense. It was something Nora never would have done on her own.

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The fortuneteller kept a crystal ball in her booth that she didn’t bother to look at, and she’d piled so many glittering blue scarves around her neck she looked like she was drowning. “I predict much success and happiness for you,” she’d said. For one disorienting moment, Nora believed this woman really could see the future. “Much happiness,” the fortuneteller added, her eyes shining. “Too much.”

And then she’d laughed.

Two classes, one chem lab, and track and field practice: If anyone noticed Nora was more beautiful, they were too polite to say so. In the locker room, after showering and using the VimCore inhaler in secret, Nora paused at the mirror. Her skin looked brighter, maybe. Weirdly, her hair felt stronger, like she could be one of those hair-hang artists she’d watched online. When she locked herself into the far stall to pee, she was too distracted by the pale shimmer of her arms to notice the sensor recording her ID as always.

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The dailies were delivered via text message every evening. There were the usual indicators: health, disease, hormone, pharmaceutical, and so on. The pharmaceutical field, which had previously registered all major ingredients in her VimCore, now only listed the innocuous filler components. Her report was clean.

It wasn’t that Nora wanted to cheat, exactly. She never would have started using VimCore if she’d known it could give her an unfair advantage. But now that she’d been on it for years, and earned a full scholarship to Riva based on her athletic abilities, it felt cruel to have it torn away when she was so close to graduating. What was the harm in staying on VimCore a little longer? It wasn’t like she was good enough to go to the Olympics, or even challenge seriously at Nationals. This was fine.

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“Did it work?” Carly asked. She swept into Nora’s room, her eyes bright and brimming.

“It worked.” Nora put her phone down. “How often do I have to apply it?”

“Once a day should be enough. Any more and, you know.” Carly made a fluttering motion with her hand.

Nora licked her lips. “Do you mean the delirium?”

“Oh my God, Nora, it’s like you’re from the 20th century.” Carly headed to Nora’s closet and rooted through it, pulling out everything black and sparkly she could find. “Call it euphoria. Much more poetic, don’t you think?” She settled on a tight black dress with silver spangles. “Here,” she said, tossing it over. “Wear this. We’re going out.”

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Nora knew of euphoria, a side effect of BeautyAid, from the influencers who used it on the regular. They described euphoria as an exalted state, as fleeting and harmless as huffing or doing whippets. Or OK, maybe it was more like doing MDMA, except no one did that old-school drug anymore. Critics called the product’s most notable side effect “delirium” and warned that these deliriums could have catastrophic effects on children, the elderly, or the immunocompromised.

Nora got dressed and joined Carly in the suite’s shared bathroom mirror to apply makeup. The ProtectFlo sensor went into overdrive when they were in there together, flashing both of their campus IDs and emitting the warning signal to indicate a double occupancy attempt.

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“I better finish out in the common area,” Nora said, gathering her makeup bag. “That thing could mess with my report.”

Twenty minutes later, when Carly emerged from the bathroom, Nora was surprised to see her friend had applied thick silver glitter to her eyelids, temples, and clavicle.

“Tonight, we party like it’s the Diamond Era,” Carly said. Nora laughed. It would have been wild to be a student at Riva during the Diamond Era, that three-year stretch after the Coastal Influenza pandemic when the lockdowns ended for good. The highly contagious respiratory virus emerged back when Carly and Nora were toddlers, not yet cognizant of the risks and isolation their parents faced for the 26 months the pandemic ravaged the world. All Nora could remember of the Diamond Era in the ensuing years was a palpable sense of jubilation as people finally broke free of quarantine.

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The Coastal Influenza pandemic was what put Riva University, then a young institution finding its footing in a newly incorporated desert community, on the map. Students at Riva were better protected on campus than anywhere else, considering that the wastewater surveillance system immediately identified who was harboring the virus and had to be quarantined. The researchers at Riva not only saved lives but created a new road map for pandemic detection and response protocols.

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Now, Nora thought about the Diamond Era as she smeared on some glitter of her own. How thrilling it must have been to rejoin the world after such a long and terrifying period of isolation. It was a time of joy and wonder, like how Nora felt as a kid watching a magic show, or maybe even way back to when she believed in God. Wasn’t God meant to be all around them anyway, or inside them, even? The thought struck her as hilarious. God, right inside her, crammed up against her organs and the chicken salad she had for dinner. Speaking of which, if the surveillance system was so advanced, why didn’t the dailies have a data field for the presence of God?

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“We’re flying,” Carly said.

“Sky high,” Nora replied, grabbing Carly’s wrist. And then they were gone, out in the night, two beautiful young women framed in the loving glow of BeautyAid.

The lights in the bar were brighter than usual, red-purple-red-gold, the beer half-price but twice as shiny, molten gold going down Nora’s throat. The dance floor felt less sticky this time around, she could really move, maybe it was an ice rink instead, had they somehow ended up with the hockey team? No, these were soccer players, the beautiful ones, all jaw lines and crystal eyes, crystallized, everything was coming together now. Nora swirled from soccer player to player, they said she had grace, they said she should play with them, and why were teams still separated into men’s and women’s anyway. What was this, the 20th century? Gender was a construct, beauty was a construct, hell, all of this was a construct and Carly and Nora were blasting right through it, and in the morning they’d use the facilities and the surveillance system would be none the wiser. Imagine that, being so young and smart and confident as to trick the best wastewater technology in the nation. (Nations, by the way, were a construct.)

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Nora was soaring. She was suspended midair in one of her long jumps, that dazzling flash between a solid takeoff and the landing, sand stretching beneath her as she reached, reached, reached, all arms and legs, she was long, she was in flight, and thanks to BeautyAid she could live in this state forever. What a world this was, a place where she could earn a free education from one of the best research universities in the country all because she could jump. She couldn’t even jump high, just long, and it was hilarious when you thought of it, ha ha ha, ha HA ha, oh hello, boys, your room or mine?

On the walk back across campus, with a soccer player’s arm flung across her shoulders, Nora watched Carly pull the BeautyAid tube from her purse. She offered it to a passerby, some mousy girl wearing a monogrammed backpack, poor thing. “Try it,” Carly was saying. “It will erase who you believe yourself to be,” and the girl—she must have been a freshman—rubbed the lotion methodically in the spaces between her fingers. Nora could swear she saw the transformation happen in real time, and she was so proud, like a parent, like a mother, like she’d just given birth to that girl and to the campus and to the whole wide world.

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“Let’s go,” she said to the soccer player, and they went, and it was good.

At the Maxwell invitational Nora took the win, jumping a full centimeter past her former record. From there, weeks blew by with no complications: no warning messages in her dailies, no worried phone calls from her mother, no forfeiture of her athletic scholarship. She moved up in the rankings, one more win and then another, who knew how far she could go. She refused to feel guilty. She had asthma, after all. Her inhaler was always by her side, the only change that she had to hide it. In the campus toilets, whenever her ID flashed green across the display, she laughed, delighted, to think that she had outwitted it.

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When spring break rolled around, Carly went home, her birth control indicators sufficiently hidden from her parents; she explained away her better looks by claiming she went raw-food vegan. Nora remained on campus so she could train. Meanwhile, BeautyAid’s popularity exploded. By the time classes resumed, those slender tubes of lotion popped up in the sorority houses and trickled through the rest of campus far more quickly than Nora expected, considering the astronomical cost. But people found a way to pay for BeautyAid. The product was so ubiquitous that Nora caught her econ professor applying it to the undersides of her wrists before class.

At night, the bars were packed with revelers in full-on euphoria, dancing, swaying, singing, flying. It was beautiful, all of it, it was exactly what Nora had hoped the college experience might be back when she was a shy girl preparing to leave home for the first time. At the time, she’d never even been to the desert before. During that first long drive to Riva, she and her mother spent hours squinting at the barren landscape, all red sand and sun glare. They marveled at the cacti and tumbleweeds and distant mesas before finally reaching campus, where Nora believed her whole life would change.

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That was then, but this was now: Nora as a woman, an Amazon, a conqueror of both the long jump and her own health records. Or at least she was until the dailies started going wonky. Not just for her, but for everyone: whole fields turning up blank, then the categories erasing themselves, then finally the dailies sputtering ERROR! messages.

“That’s not good,” Nora said. She was sitting on Carly’s bed, her phone in hand.

“We’ll be online again in no time,” Carly said. “Until then, enjoy this break from Big Brother.”

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Nora took a huff from her inhaler. Sure, she wanted to keep the VimCore without losing her scholarship, but she also didn’t want the surveillance to disappear entirely. Imagine if there was another pandemic and they couldn’t know how to control it. Horrifying. Even lesser viruses could wreak havoc on a campus with no surveillance in place. And frankly, as much as Nora valued privacy, she’d prefer to be warned if the guy she was about to sleep with lived in a dorm with a massive gonorrhea outbreak.

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“Here,” Carly said, squirting a line of BeautyAid on Nora’s wrist. “Relax. It’s all good.”

Nora rubbed the lotion into her skin and took a breath. It was fine. Fine. Fine.

Later that night, on their walk home from a downtown club, they encountered something far more disturbing than an offline surveillance system: mixed in with the crowds of euphoric college students wandering the streets were hordes of euphoric townies. And not the kind of townies who might be known to indulge in some recreational drugs, but the normcore folk: middle-aged men and women, the real button-down types, lurching across Third Avenue like a herd of marketing conference attendees gone wild. Worse, trailing behind them, in diminutive form, were their kids (or maybe grandkids? Nora didn’t have a good grasp of the boundaries of “middle-aged” or how old these old people truly were). Young kids stumbled along, their little eyes rolling back in their little heads, their tongues blue, their limbs akimbo. One boy dropped to his knees at Carly’s feet and vomited what looked like a purple slushy.

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“What the hell.” Carly jumped back, but it was too late. Her favorite fishnet tights were stained a putrid violet.

“Shit,” said Nora’s latest conquest—this time he was a hockey player, what could she say, she liked hard bodies moving across harder ice, OK, she was only human. But he was more than a hockey player, he was also a student in the university’s wastewater research program. When he cast his eyes from the kid to the storm drain and back again, drawing the inevitable conclusion that BeautyAid had affected the community beyond campus, Nora didn’t want to hear it. She wanted to go back to when things weren’t so interconnected, when she and her friends were just college students, a world unto themselves, private and untouchable.

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They were special, every last one of them, for attending this groundbreaking institution with its sophisticated surveillance, its protection from viruses, and its early pregnancy detection. They were good kids with the potential to change the world. They definitely weren’t monsters, never mind that glitter was streaming down Nora’s face, never mind that when she opened her mouth to say something to her hot hockey player (what was his name, anyway?), all that came out was the long, echoing yell of a yeti, maybe, something mythical at least, something from a fairy tale rather than a textbook with hard data. Because Nora was not science and she was not data or dailies. She was BeautyAid, through and through, and now she was running rampant through the town’s water supply, poisoning this small child who was swaying to his feet, his eyes wet and bloodshot, until he threw up again, but this time his vomit was red.

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They called it a beauty surge. The name was too delicate for what it really was: a contaminated water supply with the power to cause severe reactions in vulnerable populations. All this was revealed in the coming days as researchers scrambled to address the crisis. BeautyAid was immediately banned on campus, but to little effect. Nora learned from her hockey player—she ran into him on the quad a few nights later, and he slept over in her room—that campus experts had determined the BeautyAid exposure was more dire than they’d anticipated. In the morning, she watched through bleary eyes as the hockey player texted with his adviser. The problem, he explained, was that BeautyAid could not be removed from their water supply, and it had also entered the groundwater. Riva had effectively been poisoned.

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“It’s not poison poison,” Carly said. She stood in Nora’s doorway listening to the hockey player’s insider knowledge, a glass of water in hand. “BeautyAid makes everyone gorgeous but kind of loopy—big deal.”

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“Don’t drink that,” the hockey player said. His hair was ruffled in a way that Nora might think was cute if he weren’t so distressed. “Bottled water only from now on, OK?” He paused, scanning the room as if a flood of BeautyAid might overtake them at any moment. “Don’t shower, either.”

At that, their phones simultaneously lit up with a campus alert. The university was on a boil advisory. All BeautyAid supplies were to be forfeited through a buyback station set up outside the dining hall. The message concluded by asking students to electronically sign a disclosure acknowledging that the surveillance system was down and that early detection of viruses and other health risks was not possible until the problem could be resolved. Anyone with pressing medical concerns should head to the campus clinic.

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Carly snorted at the message. “Like I’d give up my BeautyAid.”

Nora clicked on her last daily report, only to be faced with that red ERROR! message again. Where once she could access her nutritional and health data, there was now just a series of blank fields. It was eerie.

“I’m out of here,” the hockey player said. He grabbed his keys and glanced at Nora. “If you want to help, meet me later at the buyback station.”

“I might.” Nora walked him to the dorm suite’s door and said goodbye. When she turned around, Carly stood watching her.

“Don’t even think about it,” Carly said.

“You heard him. It’s ruining the surveillance. It’s in our drinking water.”

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“Nora, look. Without the surveillance, we’re free. No reports about hormones or virus indicators or any of that. No banned substances for sports. It’s just us, on our own.” Carly smiled. “It’s everything we ever wanted.”

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Nora wasn’t sure what she wanted, but it wasn’t this. She found a half-empty bottle of spring water in the communal dorm fridge and used it to brush her teeth. Mateo. The hockey player’s name was Mateo. She changed, tossed her hair into a ponytail, and headed out.

Within days, the campus roiled with panic and protest. Nora joined Mateo and others at the buyback station, but with each passing hour, they seemed to have less to do. People were reluctant to part with their BeautyAid because it made them beautiful and happy, and some were ecstatic about the disrupted surveillance. They wanted to forgo the humiliation of anyone possibly learning they had a virus or an STI. Imagine the old days when no one could play detective to learn what gross infection you’d contracted and possibly transmitted! Or what about antidepressants, study aids, psychiatric drugs, or gender-reassignment medication? These indicators didn’t belong in daily readings where someone could potentially hack in and learn your whole life story. Besides, BeautyAid made for fun nights out without alcohol, not to mention hangovers, because who needed that archaic, carcinogenic substance when BeautyAid could course through your bloodstream instead.

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Soon, the buyback table was overcome with protesters demanding their personal freedoms. Students marched in clusters with signs reading FREE TO PEE and GET BIG BROTHER OUT OF MY TOILET. Meanwhile, the university announced a pause on campus athletics, a decision based jointly on the inability to identify banned substances and the fact that sports weren’t exactly top of mind during a public health crisis. The boil advisory was determined to be insufficient, and every store in town was stripped of bottled water. Those who could left Riva while others were afraid to shower for fear that the toxins would seep through their skin.

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Nora sat at the buyback table. She sucked at her inhaler out in the open—what did it matter now that the university had pulled out of athletic competition—while watching the protests grow. It was so retro, just like the old days when universities were hotbeds for political activism. She caught a glimpse of Carly among the protesters, waving a sign that read WASTE THIS. Carly was laughing, her face lit up with the spark of BeautyAid. Nora watched with longing. How much easier it would be to let all these worries go and to free herself to euphoria instead.

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But then her memory flashed to that boy retching downtown. Where was he now? There were rumors that the hospital was filling up with people experiencing bad reactions. Then again, others said those stories were made up, that they were fueled by Riva administrators trying to keep students under control. Hence the student protesters demanding the truth. But what was truth anyway, Nora wondered. What did “reality” even mean?

Dr. Kusama, Mateo’s adviser, approached Nora’s table and nodded sadly at the buyback literature. “Never mind that,” she said. “We’ve gone beyond what a buyback program can do. The administrators are shifting their efforts to evacuation.”

“We can’t give up.” Nora slid her gaze to the student protesters. Someone was passing around red plastic cups filled with who knew what kind of alcohol. Or maybe it wasn’t alcohol but BeautyAid. Maybe they’d taken to drinking it straight. She’d been tempted to join them only moments before, but now she saw her peers as selfish and pleasure-obsessed—no better than the past generations who allowed climate change to reach the point of no return. By continuing to use BeautyAid, these students were melting the last polar ice cap, lifting sea levels, sentencing endangered species to gasping deaths.

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Dr. Kusama shook her head. “It’s not about giving up. It’s about cutting our losses and protecting public health—because BeautyAid is everywhere, and everything is connected.” She swept her arms out, as if to indicate the whole world, even though Riva, with its wastewater recycling system, was the only community to suffer such devastation. “This is our reality.”

Nora closed her eyes. She pretended she was sailing through the air, midjump, stretching her body to reach farther than she’d ever reached before. She was leaping over the nonexistent river that served as Riva’s namesake, a mythical body of water she imagined surging through town. It foamed and raged and swept citizens along in its wake, but Nora alone was strong enough to outjump it.

When Nora opened her eyes, she was still in the hot desert sunshine, a downtrodden professor before her.

“The evacuation might take a few days, so if you have somewhere safe to go, do it. Just leave.” Dr. Kusama’s gaze was far away. In that moment she was the fortuneteller Nora had once visited, a seer peering into the horrors still to come: the evacuations, the seizures and kidney damage, the lawsuits, Riva’s designation as a Superfund site, the whole of Nora’s future altered.

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“You should be proud of yourself for trying,” Dr. Kusama added. “You did more than most.”

Nora stopped listening. She scanned the crowd of protesters until she found Carly. They locked eyes, and Carly held up a hand as if to say: “Well?” Nora managed a smile. Her best friend was welcoming her back into the fold. She was letting her know they could navigate out of this mess together if only Nora joined her.

Nora took a tentative step forward. Before she could continue, a torrent of pleasure rolled through her body. It swelled from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes, an earthquake shattering her sense of self. “Oh,” she said, astonished. She was floating in a river, in a void. She was not anyone or anywhere.

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Carly held out her arms, and Nora, delirious and trembling, stumbled forward to meet her.

The euphoria—the delirium—swept through the students and residents of Riva in rapturous waves. It could not be stopped. BeautyAid was in their kitchen faucets, in their showers, in everything. Every time someone washed their hands, or made coffee with tap water, or sipped a drink with ice, they’d been exposed, and the cumulative effects finally made themselves known. University administrators scrambled to evacuate everyone as federal environmental agents appeared on campus in hazmat suits.

In her final 24 hours on campus, Nora floated blissfully aboveground. She texted reassurances to her mother as if in a dream: Everything’s great, those reports are exaggerated, don’t worry, I’m so happy here. She stopped pining to compete again, because who needed the long jump when she could now fly at any time in her mind. She forgot about the child gagging in the street. She forgot to fear the shower water as it pelted her skin.

She even forgot, when she passed the ProtectFlo sensor and it lit up in perky green as always, that the surveillance system was now useless. She simply trusted that it was recording her health stats as usual, that she was held and protected by its data-based embrace. Every time she left the bathroom, usually after staring loopily at herself in the mirror for a while, she heard the sensor recalibrate behind her. Click, click. Its light devolving from green to a pulsing, vomitous red.

A pioneering expert in wastewater-based epidemiology responds to Laura Maylene Walter’s “Beauty Surge.”

More From Future Tense Fiction

Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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