No Hard Feelings

No Hard Feelings

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Michael blurted out to himself.

It wasn’t a question but he knew it was always wise to word complaints and protests in the form of questions, especially to one’s manager.

It’s no problem, don’t worry,” he replayed in a whiny voice. “There hasn’t been any trouble. And no one can prove it anyway. Idiots.”

Michael’s eyes flashed. “Are You Sure?” He shook his head and murmured, “Couldn’t answer my question, could you?!”

As he drove towards home, he had to squint his eyes due to the glare of the neon signs which lined the rain-drenched street. Some of those reminded him that he was trying to quit. This weather also brought out more police droids.

Michael thought about how the quality control was passable when the product first rolled out six years ago but, over time, the standards had been “optimized” to “minimize costs” or some other ambiguously worded company propaganda used as an excuse. There were times when Michael felt like optimizing the corporate structure by stabbing useless people in the heart with a pen but he refrained from that.

One particular sign caught his attention. He pulled over. Just a few seconds outside an air-conditioned environment and he was weighed down by his sweat-drenched clothes. He dragged himself into the store which was surprisingly clean and neat.

He approached the clerk seated behind the counter. “Excuse me, may I please see your license to deal Em-Arcs?”

Michael showed his PyschologiTech ID card. The clerk momentarily raised an eyebrow but wasn’t going to argue about it. Both men knew he couldn’t afford to. And so, he lethargically took out a document from a drawer.

“I would like to take at random ten Em-Arcs. I will perform diagnostics on them and will return them in the next few days.”

The clerk shrugged. “Sure,” his eyes focused on the document in Michael’s hand.

Michael laid down the license on the counter and scanned the shelves filled with Emotion Archives, devices which looked like polished stone pucks, three inches in diameter and one inch thick.

“They’re blank. You know that, right?” the clerk added.

“I know they’re one-time record only. I will return them blank and undamaged… that is, unless they’re found to be defective, in which case you may apply for a refund through the usual channels.”

A minute later, Michael exited the new store with ten Em-Arcs stacked against his arm and chest.

Michael sunk into his soft sofa. As he slouched, he rubbed his aching back and ribs. He held an ice pack to his head and glanced outside at the cityscape clouded by the fine misty rain.

“Air con, cool, dry, eighteen degrees Celsius,” he muttered.

“Please restate command.”

Michael sighed. “Air Con. Cool. Dry. Eighteen Degrees Celsius. And News Channel Fifty-Seven.”

The screen in front of him lit up.

// …the Government Pillar of Environment & Energy urged citizens to remain patient and cautious in their daily activities as this latest malfunction of the atmospheric processors is likely to cause continuous rain for… //

Michael eyed the circular stone on the coffee table. It had been awhile since he used it or at least it felt that way. He picked up the unit. The display on one of the faces glowed. It read: Mum. He gazed at the word.

// …Russo-Sino Union have once again increased its military presence in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans while insisting diplomacy to be its first priority. Meanwhile, the U.N. has… //

The communicator beeped.

“Answer.”

A familiar face appeared on screen. “Hey man, how you doin’?”

“Jason… yeah, fine, just got home.”

“You don’t look fine, you look like you need some sleep.”

“I could also use a smoke.”

Jason chuckled. “Listen, I need your professional opinion.”

“Sure, go ahead,” Michael answered flatly.

“I’ve got a murder-suicide here. The guy executes his girlfriend and then blows his own brains out. No history of mental instability. No excessive alcohol at home nor drugs. Television was on with a frozen dinner. But he’s been using his Em-Arc every night according to the access records.”

“Are you suggesting Em-Arc Abuse?” asked Michael, “cos there’s been one death that I heard of. Ever.”

“I know. It was a guy who used an archive unit to record the emotions of his dying wife, right? After her death, he accessed it almost nightly and apparently got even more depressed. Two months later, he offed himself. Something like that?”

Michael nodded as Jason lit a cigarette. “If I give you access to the Em-Arc, can you check it out for me?”

“Sure. When?”

Jason raised an eyebrow.

“Hey, how’s it going?” a hoarse voice sounded.

Michael grinned. “Shut up, Tiffany.” He took the Em-Arc in his hand and connected it to his diagnostic tool. “Your superiors don’t know you’re borrowing evidence again?”

“Hey, it’s not like I’m tampering with Exhibit D here.”

It was a nice alleyway as far as secret night meetings go. Sound didn’t travel at this particular spot and it mostly shielded them from the rain.

“How’re your folks anyway? How’s your mother?” asked Jason as he checked left and right and up.

“Fine. She recovering at home, says she’s tired… I should probably visit her more,” Michael replied without taking his eyes off his diagnostic device. “None of you guys touched it?”

It wasn’t a real question but he had to make sure.

Jason shook his head. “What is it?”

“Looks like it’s got a few visuals in it.”

“Memory fragments? Is that possible?”

“Recording actual memories with data pertaining to any or all five of the bodily senses is tricky. That’s why we can’t do it. These things are designed to record and share vague emotions only. I can’t speculate how this happened.” Michael fixed his stare at the wall. “The company has been relaxing the standards… you know how it is.”

“But you’re about to tell me that it still doesn’t explain this?”

“No, and even with these fragments, it doesn’t explain why this guy could go nuts. Nothing seems to be wrong with the unit itself. No subliminal programming that I could see. Any other Em-Arcs he may have used?”

Jason coughed. “None that we could find.”

Michael copied Exhibit D onto a blank Em-Arc he had brought with him and returned the former to Jason. “I’ll take a closer look and let you know if anything turns up.”

“Doctor Smith wants to see you,” said Michael’s manager as he passed by.

Michael didn’t bother to acknowledge the request but simply got up and walked over to the office. He gave one obligatory knock on the already opened door. “I was told you wanted to see me.”

“Yes. I’ve heard that you made a random inspection last night,” Smith said with the weakest smile. It was a fake one that even the most naïve child could see through.

“So you heard that, have you?”

It wasn’t a question and both men knew it.

“I commend your diligence and initiative but let me assure you that this latest outlet was authorized directly by the board and is to be used for medical purposes. The quality control is quite strict.”

“I was just concerned whether it is quite enough,” said Michael with his honesty-mask. “May I ask for what sort of medical purpose? Has the Pillar of Medical Science approved this?”

There was the faintest of flashes in the doctor’s eyes which Michael caught.

“It’s for enhancing the emotional stability of patients. The Em-Arc prescribed could be anything, something that the psychiatric specialist and the patient decide together or even something from a donor. The outlet you attended last night hands out blank or pre-recorded units.”

Michael nodded with his gratitude-mask. “Thank you. I will return the units as originally intended.”

“That would be most helpful.”

Michael exited the office, grabbed his bag from under his desk and strode out of the building. He tried to appear calm but he felt his heart beat hard and fast.

Jason coughed and took a glimpse at the sky that was getting darker by the minute. The rain made a frigging mess of everything. Still, he marched through the lobby and into the underground car park.

As he passed by endless rows of vehicles, he occasionally checked behind and kept a close eye on the numerous panning surveillance cameras. He reached pillar SUB3-3S and made a left turn. Michael was slumped on the floor between two cars.

To Jason’s relief, his friend lifted his eyes.

“You’re alright?” Jason asked.

“Listen, I ran some more tests last night and today and just before—”

Car windows shattered around them and Jason collapsed at the sound of two thumps. Michael hurled himself towards Jason who gave him his sidearm and an extra magazine. He had been hit centre-of-mass.

Without aiming, Michael discharged several shots in the general direction of the hostile fire as he was being showered with broken glass. He dived to another spot in between two cars and peeked around the corner. There seemed to be at least two men and two droids advancing. He emptied the rest of the clip, leapt behind a pillar and reloaded. He turned and looked up: a man with full tactical gear towered over him.

“Say, you have a cigarette by any chance?”

It wasn’t a real question… well, mostly not anyway.

“I only have Rifle Butts, medium strength.”

Michael woke up to an ice pack on his face. He coughed and heaved and clung to his chest as he tried to straighten up on his own sofa. Smith was seated close by with a glass of water in his hand. One armed man stood behind him while another was browsing the shelves.

“I’m sorry about your detective friend. I know it’s meaningless to you but it wasn’t supposed to go down like that. We did try to save him.”

“And me?” Michael slurred. “You want me to be silent about that smallest intentional ‘flaw’ of all the Em-Arcs?”

“We prefer you did,” Smith shrugged. The bastard was genuinely relaxed. “That’s not an issue anyway. By existing standards, that so-called ‘flaw’ is way within tolerance. So what if everyone knows? – we both know that design attribute does not harm any user.”

“Not in itself but it responds to transmission waves piggy-backed on television signals while it is in use and—”

Smith held up his hand. “You’re an asset. Your expertise is useful.”

The two eyed each other.

“You know, Michael, we gave you a chance earlier…”

Michael’s eyes widened.

“…and we want to give you another one. We couldn’t alter your memory nor just let you go in the meantime but your mother’s feelings were useful to keep you… grounded. I understand she’s recovering from a minor heart attack. She looked fatigued last time I saw her. She probably misses you. You should see her more often.”

Smith grinned as he turned to the rain outside.

“You pricks… the atmospheric processors,” mumbled Michael.

“Yes, Em-Arcs and external signals aren’t quite enough. Getting a balanced solution in the rain and air is difficult; but it keeps people inside and depressed, makes them use the Em-Arcs and watch television more. Obviously, one subject reacted more severely than anticipated.”

Smith took a zip of water and continued, “Humanity needs to be kept on a leash and emotion control is merely one aspect. For example, the upcoming conflict will reduce and reorientate the population… keep them distracted in the manner and intensity desired. So, you in or out?”

It wasn’t a question so Michael wore his capitulation-mask and sighed… then lunged forward, grabbed the pen on the coffee table and charged.

•••

“No Hard Feelings” was the winner of the The Gramophone Electric Award at Needle In The Hay, March 2013.