One drop. That’s how it started—with one drop of courage.
Shen got it from outside the city, and that was all he would say about it. The others huddled around him in the dark warehouse as he held it up to the window, the fragmented streetlight illuminating the vial with its solitary orange blob of pure emotion at the bottom.
None of them had seen a high positive before. They knew about them, of course, in a theoretical sort of way, from stories their parents had told about when they were kids. Before the Divide. Before it was too dangerous to let certain people feel. But when the only emotions you’ve ever felt are temporary synthetic shadows—negatives cooked up in a dirty lab in an abandoned warehouse and shot with a borrowed needle—it’s hard to believe love, hope, or joy ever existed. They belong to people better than you, safer than you, less likely to cause problems than you. But you don’t care. You can’t. You’re genetically engineered not to.
“Who gets to take it?” Tia whispered after a while, voicing the question everyone wanted to ask but no one did. It’d been a week since she’d had a hit of neg, and all she felt now was the bottomless hunger for more that came after—the price of getting low. Tia was a new feeler, so her hunger was sharpest. Going back to the flat nothing she’d lived for sixteen years would be unbearable, if she could’ve felt it without a needle. She scooted closer to Shen.
“Why can’t we all take it?” said Rosa. The dregs of the agitation she’d shot the day before lingered in her voice. “Have Oz synth it, then we can share. Won’t be as good, but at least we can say we done it.”
The others nodded in agreement. While no citizen produced natural emotions and positives were elite-exclusive, negatives were easy to come by if you knew the right people. A little time, a little chem, and bam—you could make a dozen hits out of a single genuine neg. Synthesized emotions were muted but better than nothing, and the enforcers ignored it as long as you got low where the elites couldn’t see.
Oz shook his head slowly. “I never synthed a high pos before. The best I ever made was jealous, and look what happened to Deacon.”
There was a brief silence as each of them remembered an older boy weeping and running straight into the heart of the city never to come out again. A factual memory and nothing more.
Rosa snorted and took a long pull on her cigarette, her second favorite contraband. Nicotine jitters made a fine replacement for neg when they were out. “Not your fault, Oz. Deacon was weak. Too many hits in one day,” she said, her exhale tinting the air blue. “Ain’t nobody makes better neg than you. You did that obsession that lasted three days, remember?”
Of course he remembered. He’d tried to forget.
It took skill and money to synth, and Oz had both. He’d score a few drops of neg—an ashamed or desperate or even furious—and he could multiply it straight or blend it with other negs to make new, better stuff. He kept it pure and fresh. The effort paid off, keeping their little band of feelers flush with enough emotion and cash that they’d never have to go back to default. But he couldn’t help experimenting.
Making obsession had brought them Tia, who had the half vial of craving Oz needed to complete the recipe, and it was the closest they’d come to feeling good. The sheer focus and energy was unlike anything they’d experienced, an intensity of desire no other neg provided. They soared. But when they came down, Oz couldn’t replicate it, and the hunger that followed never seemed to dissipate. They started needing lower and lower negatives to feel anything for just a few hours, and Oz was starting to wonder if he’d made a mistake. If his math was right, eventually they’d go so low that they’d flip to the other side of the scale. The only thing that would assuage the hunger to feel then would be a positive—an illegal, unobtainable positive.
Like the one Shen had in his hand.
Oz reached over and took the vial. The orange drop of courage glistened as he rolled the glass between his fingers, every eye drawn to it like a flame. His own hunger rumbled deep in his psyche, and he briefly considered shooting it himself, full concentration, but a holdover from his last hit—villainous, from his private stash—intercepted that thought and provided him with another one.
“Friends,” he said, without looking up. “I have an idea.”
Getting there was the easy part. The city had been rearranged into a simple grid after the Divide, and forty-plus years of peace had relaxed security around the Core. When no one cares enough to fight, why bother with defense? All the feelers had to do was follow Deacon’s path downtown and step through a crumbled section of the wall that marked the end of their territory and the start of the elites’.
The hard part had been breaking down the courage. The sample was so small, so pure, that the usual chem tricks didn’t work, so Oz had to add old negs to degrade it. That hurt. Or it did after he took his hit of what turned out to be optimism: courage with a dash of reservation and a spoonful of delusion.
The sting only lasted a second, though. Watching Rosa’s face light up as the cocktail reached her ruined amygdala would’ve been reward enough if the prize at the end of Oz’s scheme hadn’t been so grand. He’d waited until all four of them were pumped to the brim with the modified pos before he explained what he wanted to do. It was dangerous and stupid and would probably get them killed. And they agreed without hesitation. That’s what unbridled optimism gets you.
Once the Vault was in view, the group ducked into the gap between an haute couture boutique and an exotic pet store. They pressed into a dark corner and talked in excited whispers.
“Why’d we stop?” Tia asked. “There ain’t been no enforcers this whole time. We could waltz right up, take the stuff, and go home. All them elites out there’s too stoned on happy juice to give a rat fart what we’re doing.”
Shen nodded and put his hand on the crowbar stuck through his belt loop. “Yeah, let’s go. Anybody tries to stop us, we show ‘em how we do things in midtown.” He moved to step out of the alley but stopped short when Rosa yanked the weapon away from him.
“Don’t be stupid, Ess,” she hissed. “Just cos you feel good doesn’t mean you’re invincible. We gotta think this through, do it right, or we’re all dead.”
Shen scowled at her and looked to Oz for help. The synther shook his head, eliciting more scowls. But the disagreement didn’t last long. Under the sway of so much high pos, it couldn’t. Tension gave way to optimism as Oz reached into his coat and unfolded the rest of his plan.
“This is how we get in,” he said, handing each of them a transparent glass ball filled with crimson smoke that slipped around inside. “Masks on. Tia first, then Shen, then Rosa, then me. Take off when you’re done. I’ll hit the inside door. No need for all of us to get blasted if it goes sideways. We’ll meet back up at home.” Three nods. He slipped his filter mask over his face and nodded back.
The line of feelers ran on silent feet straight for the Vault, the storehouse for the elites’ most valuable possessions: high positive emotions. It was too early for the city to be stirring—the sun was a razor’s edge of pink against the grey skyline—so the only eyes they had to avoid were those of the two armed guards talking to each other at the entrance. No other obstacles stood in their way. No gates, no walls, no dogs. Oz wondered if his ancestors, peacekeepers before the Divide, would be ashamed by how easily four teenagers could topple society by walking right up to the magnetically-sealed front door.
Pop. Tinkle. Hisssss.
The conversation stopped abruptly when a glass ball smashed against the chest of the enforcer on the left. His eyebrows furrowed as fingers of crimson smoke drifted up into halo around his head, and on his next breath, he inhaled the entire cloud of raw, aerosolized fear. His eyes widened, the pupils growing huge as the neg flooded his limbic system. The scream he let out bounced between concrete buildings as he fled into the residential district, his post and his partner abandoned to whatever horrors he could no longer face.
Tia peeled away, sprinting back towards home. The others kept coming.
The remaining enforcer was just as easy a target as the first. The shock of the attack hadn’t worn off when the second fearbomb hit him in the shoulder. Crimson smoke leaped into his open mouth and straight into his brain. Instead of screaming and running, though, his response to the deluge of fear was to collapse on the ground, weeping uncontrollably in front of the door he could no longer guard.
Shen darted off, back to midtown.
The remaining two feelers reached the Vault’s entrance at full speed, slowing only when Rosa snatched the ID card from around the enforcer’s neck and tossed it to Oz, who pressed it to a nearby panel. Long seconds passed as industrial magnets fired up, and the runaway enforcer’s screams could still be faintly heard, but neither impatience nor worry troubled the feelers. They were halfway there.
When the heavy door stopped clanking, it was shoved open from the inside by two more enforcers. Rosa and Oz leapt back and let them run out. In his zeal to stop the intruders, the first enforcer didn’t notice his fallen comrade and fell directly on top of him in a tangle of legs. Rosa capitalized on the confusion by throwing herself onto the remaining enforcer with her full weight, dragging him down onto the pile. Her eyes shone as she reared back and smashed the fearbomb between her victims, letting them share the neg. Her laughter echoed outside as Oz slipped into the Vault, re-sealing the door behind him.
The contrast between inside and outside was so stark that Oz was temporarily paralyzed. The white walls, ceiling, and floors were blinding compared to the greys and browns and blacks of the city. After a lot of eye-rubbing, the room around him came into focus. It only contained two things: a large, low desk off to the side of a doorway and a middle-aged elite woman dressed in white.
There was a tense pause as the two assessed each other, then the woman stood up and slowly came around the desk. Oz took a step backward as she approached, raising the fearbomb defensively in one hand. She stopped, the expression on her face shifting fast from curious to hurt.
“Are you really going to use that on me, Osbourne?”
Oz deflated, lowering the weapon and sighing. He’d known she’d be there. He’d just hoped they wouldn’t have to talk.
“I go by Oz now, Mom, you know that” he sighed. “It’s how I’ve signed all my comms.”
The woman nodded pensively, then crossed the room to gather him into a stiff hug that he didn’t return. “It’s been a long time, honey,” she said. “When the comms stopped, I was scared to death. Even more than when you first ran off. I mean, who leaves an elite family to slum it with negheads? And then you’re draining your trust fund to sling synthed emotion? You could’ve been dead in a gutter, needle full of pathetic hanging out of your arm….” She trailed off, then let him go with a tight smile. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
The speech he’d been rehearsing in preparation for seeing her died in Oz’s throat. He could see in his mother’s eyes that there was nothing he could say to make her understand. Whatever pleasant emotional high she was riding protected her from reality in a hazy fog of comfort. She was a child of the Divide who benefitted where others suffered. And if it hadn’t been for Oz finding his grandfather’s military diary and learning what life was like when feelings were organic, he’d be just the same. Of course he ran away. Even without natural emotion to drive him, reason demanded that he do something. Human beings weren’t meant to live this way.
“I’m fine,” he said flatly. “I just need to do the right thing.”
Another tight silence filled the space between them. Oz could hear muffled yells outside the Vault door and knew his time was almost up. He looked to the back wall.
His mother gave his arm a squeeze. “You sure this is what you want?” she asked.
Oz nodded once.
Wordlessly, she led him to the door beside her desk and unlocked it with her ID, then stepped aside as he walked into the inner sanctum.
His mother had worked at the Vault for his entire life, and Oz had heard enough stories about it at the dinner table to perpetrate this heist, but it didn’t live up to the grandeur he’d imagined. He’d expected endless racks containing innumerable vials of pure high positives or floor-to-ceiling safety deposit boxes for each elite family. What he found instead was a single podium jutting up from the white tile floor holding a long, thin steel box. There was no lock. Until today, there’d been no reason to have one.
Oz lifted the lid with trembling fingers and stared at the contents. Five full bottles of richly-colored emotion: hope, peace, gratitude, trust, joy.
And one empty slot.
Oz turned to his mother standing in the doorway. She had a bottle of pink liquid in one hand and a strange expression on her face.
“The enforcer assigned to your case located you last week at the warehouse,” she said quietly. “When I knew they were close to bringing you back, I couldn’t help myself. Taking it was the logical thing to do.” The sanctum door swung gently shut behind her as she walked over to join Oz at the podium. She laid the bottle of stolen emotion in the box. “I wanted to mean it when I said I was happy that you were home. And when I told you…,” she faltered, not looking up, “how much I love you.”
Oz waited for her to continue, but she stayed silent. He didn’t know what to say. He could feel the optimism draining out of him, burned up by adrenaline and over-use. He looked down into the box of high pos. The bottle of love, now on its side, was clearly not as full as its siblings. A large air bubble had risen to the surface as it settled.
“Mom,” Oz whispered, “did you—”
But before he could finish the question, the entrance to the Vault groaned loudly as its huge magnets released. Mother and son stared at one another with wide eyes and pounding hearts as they heard the front door swing open and a squad of enforcers pour into the lobby.
Instincts born from his time as a negdealer had Oz stashing the box of high pos inside his coat in seconds. He scanned the inner sanctum for a clear exit, but there was nothing. They were trapped.
Or so he thought.
Oz whipped around to see his mother in the far corner with her ID badge pressed to a blank section of wall. To his surprise, a narrow band of light appeared and stretched itself into a rectangle, then winked out, leaving behind a hole leading into an alleyway behind the Vault. His mother waved urgently at him, and he fled to the door.
But he couldn’t leave. Not without her. There were too many unanswered questions, so much he wanted to say and to know.
“Come with me,” he said, his voice nearly drowned out by the pounding of a battering ram against the sanctum door. “Please.”
She shook her head with a mysterious smile. “Love will save the world,” she said, patting the box under his arm. “Someone has to make sure you get away with it.” Then she kissed him on the cheek and shoved him as hard as she could through the doorway. The exit sealed behind him.
Oz stood staring at the back wall of the Vault for a long time. The violent sounds coming from inside triggered no reaction in him whatsoever, yet he knew he should be horrified, sad, brave—something.
As he turned to run for home, the last dregs of optimism rallied to remind him not to let his mother’s sacrifice go to waste. He was going to change everything for everyone. It was the logical thing to do.
Story content: © Ellie Di Julio 2017
Art: “Human Feelings as Drugs” by Valerio Loi