This short story won the 2012 Arc Science Fiction Magazine short story prize and was duly published in the next edition of that magazine. I've made some minor corrections to the story since then, mostly to get to the point of the story sooner. If you like this story, feel free try out '18% Happier'.


Somebody, anybody, help me! Please, pick up this message and get me out of this stinking hippy dump! I don’t want to be here any more! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again! I don’t care about that emotion any more, I’ve forgotten it, truly I have!

Please, someone respond! I’ve tried phoning friends but no one even understands ‘phoning’ any more. I sneaked into the local flea-pit village last night and found a telephone. Yeah, I know, like what? I eventually worked how strange box and its big, heavy headpiece works. You physically talk into one end of the headpiece and it turns the sounds into electric signals, analogue ones. I have no idea why. I read its instructions and dialled Migzy, whatever the hell ‘dial’ means, and tried to talk to him. It was so weird, communicating with him just via audio with no video, no automatic visual pop-ups and pleasurable artificial synaesthesia, just a voice coming out of nothing. It was like chatting to someone down a well or getting an ethereal message in a seance. It was nuts but I was desperate. It was hopeless anyway; before I could even explain what I needed, he screamed that there was an invisible, rasping, bodiless thing hovering in his virtual space and cut the connection. I listened to the headset’s dead tone in despair. I’d become a ghost, a phantom, cursed to forever the zero-tech Netherworld, the dimension bordering reality that’s invisible to real people, but, if this commune is anything to go by, is chock-full of chick peas. The only people who exist in this wood-and-straw place think cassette tapes are pretty nifty - yeah, I know, the toilet roll dispensers of data storage! Oh, it’s hopeless! All I’ve got now to create a message with is pencil and paper. Who’s going to read that? Who’s going to stare at lines and lines of symbols scratched with coal extract on to mushed wood; an archaeologist?

Whoever’s out there, please, know this, you need to know how much I’ve suffered. I used to have everything, my own virtual world, powerful tech that made me superhuman and now that’s all gone and I’m here in the Valley of Incense and Mung Beans, hugging hippies! I hate it! The oh-so spontaneous grasping at random moments. Single hugs, group hugs, ongoing hugs where someone fixes themselves to your back like they’re an enormous hessian leech and lets you drag them half way across the encampment until it’s their time to meditate. What does hugging do? It does nothing! It’s shared bodily warmth, mingling of sweat, an experiment in mixing body odour! It’s someone else’s trouser buttons pressing painfully into your hip bone! Stop doing it, you sandalled-freaks! Please, please, someone read this and rescue me from this place! These hippies keep talking about harmony but harmony’s rubbish, harmony is singing the wrong note! Harmony here is staring into the distance and saying the same thing over and over again - ‘ommmm’ - just making noises and doing nothing, like a bunch of fat organ pipes. It’s awful here! My life in the real world was so good. Where’s my electric guitar? I want my electric guitar. It helped me with all my solos and it was burnt with exactly the same lighter fluid that Jimi Hendrix used and it was beautiful. In this place, all I’ve got to play are crosses between a musical instrument and chopped wood. I don’t want ethnic, I want mains power! I tried to play that wooden thing they gave me. I’d have been better off suffering gastric food poisoning. The quality of the sounds would have been the same and at least with food poisoning, it’d be over in a few days.

Someone, please listen to this message. The rest of the commune will be back soon, those hemp-wrapped chanters. They’ll circle me and smile and sit down with a Speaking Stick and tell me that I’m coming together but I’m not together! I was together, back in the city, and now half of me’s gone! I used to have bone implants and muscle augmentation and a time-share on an exoskeleton. In that exotic-metal suit, on every other Sunday, I could lift up a car and throw it across the street! I could juggle sheds! That was me, that titanium, hydraulic armour wrapped around a body that was a soup of performance-drugs and gene-viruses mixed with young adult flesh with enough sub-dermal chips to control a space mission; that was myself. Now I’m here; a place so primitive, flint’s making a comeback! All that sitting in this tent, trying to connect to someone real is the basic model of me, the womb version. I’m now just an ordinary, fatty brain in an ordinary, saggy body who spends his afternoons squatting, bored out of his mind, on a reed-mat washed with urine, deliberately! Hell’s bells, somebody hear me! Even my dreams are rubbish now. After my EEG chip got pulled, R.E.M. sleep has been like switching to seventies public access television after watching Avatar. I want my implants back!

I’m so desperate for tech. Yesterday, I stripped a dead laptop I found in a wooden chest, took all the chips out of it and stuck them to my body with tree resin. Nothing happened. For a moment I thought there was a glimmer of beta-wave genies at the edge of my vision - those classic N-topology ones with fractal resolution - then it resolved itself as a cat licking its bum on a shelf. I wept.

Maybe you’re listening. I won’t say your name. I’m not stupid. I know you can listen to anything, to everything. If you are listening, I promise, I’ve forgotten what he showed me! I have! I didn’t even want it! I only took part in his stinking project for some spare cash! Look, please, I’ll tell you what happened again; will that help? Beginning to end. You’ll see it was nothing to do with me, nothing at all.

It was all about emotions, back then. Emotions were so important to the corporations. They were big money. For years, the corporations had wanted to associate good feelings with their products; you know, feelings of happiness, of belief that positive acts can change the world, of the joy of skipping through puddles and hugging your friends, things like that. But, being commercial entities, they wanted sole rights to these emotions. They were fed up with investing millions associating the feeling ‘hope for a better world’ with one of their cars, only to find a competitor had then associated that emotion with a toothbrush. It pissed them off! They changed tack. To gain sole control of an emotion, they began patenting them. Zircon Corp was the biggest player. They got control of ‘heady excitement at a friend’s success’, ‘lingering eye contact’ and ‘smouldering attraction’, among others.

The gold rush didn’t last long. All the usual emotions got picked up pretty quickly. That’s when he entered the story. He said his name was Finn. He got a job at Zircon doing the next logical step, the cutting edge of the field, the discovery of new emotional states. With all the popular, straightforward emotions swallowed up, the big money was in hunting for more obscure ones. They paid Finn to visit remote tribes and find new emotions that those tribesmen felt, emotions that the civilized world was completely unaware of. Finn had to find those emotions and make sure they were associated with legally-identifiable facial movements; no facial response, no money. A year into the job, he got lucky with the Kaluli tribe in Papua New Guinea. They had an emotion, ‘pride at collective support’, that he could prove caused the levator labii superioris muscle to flex. It was a huge coup for him, an even greater one when Zircon successfully proved no one had seen such an emotion in most of the western world for centuries. The company showered him with rewards. He became Zircon’s employee of the year. He told me it was the crowning moment of his life, standing in that hall at the awards watching everyone clapping, cheering, seeing the looks of collective pride on the audience’s faces, and knowing, deep down, that his company owned those expressions outright. It was his big win.

After that, he told me, he went freelance. The indigenous emotions field was drying up, all the low hanging fruit had been picked, so he went looking for something new on his own, something really fresh. He data-mined the net for months and, one morning, he stumbled upon a piece of exciting research. It reported a weird fact; if someone physically performed, on their face, an expression associated with a particular emotion, that would summon up that emotion in their brain. In other words, if someone made an angry face, they got angry. Finn realised that such a process might un-tap new emotions, emotions mankind had never used or emotions that were lost to us, emotions we’d used in our distant past but had forgotten. He constructed his own machine for stimulating the muscles of the face. The kit worked fine but he soon realised that he couldn’t do the tests himself. He needed someone to test the machine on. He’d operate the machine; they’d do the expressions. That’s where I came in. I was the test subject. My job was to sit in a chair in his basement lab while he stuck an EEG cap on my skull to measure the emotional responses. He would then stick an electrode-riddled, muscle-stimulating mask to my face. That was a freaky piece of kit, an intricate mesh of probes that could flex all my facial muscles in any combination. Finn was full of confidence. He was sure that if he stimulated my face in exotic ways, he could force me to make novel expressions that would then trigger entirely new emotions, or at least revive ones long lost to humanity.

The tests began. I sat for hours, for days in his basement lab having my ugly-mug twitched while he explored what he called the ‘facial expression space’. It was strange; familiar emotions came and went for me as my face contorted; disgust, despair, euphoria, hope, elation, disappointment. It was like being a football fan without the football. Finn pored over the results, comparing the responses, the dopamine and serotonin spikes recorded by the EEG machine, the activity in my brain every time another lump of muscle around my nose twitched. Jesus, it was boring, but he paid well.

It was at the end of one long, late-night session that he inputted one particular, crucial electrode pattern. The electrodes stimulated my face and I felt it, I felt that emotion. I still don’t have a name for it. Maybe there never was a name? I don’t know. My face just performed the expression, the connected emotion welled up in me and the feeling lit up my brain. It shocked me, it shocked him. He ran the setting again and back it came. I pleaded with him not to repeat it. It was too unnerving. It scared me. We shut everything down. I went home, still feeling the muscles in my face aching.

The next day, when I woke up, it was gone. I couldn’t summon it up. I couldn’t even make the related facial expression. I didn’t understand why. Something that strong, that transforming, how could it just wink out? I told him the news. He was seriously pissed. He wanted it back. We went down to his lab, summoned up the settings and stimulated my face again. It was back, same as before. This time, it didn’t freak me out. Familiarity, I guess. He told me he wanted to study how long it would last. He asked me to go out and walk around, take in the usual sights.

That’s when the real shock hit me. Reality wasn’t normal any more to me, it was transformed. The city, the streets, the malls. I don’t know how to describe this but nothing out there in that glittering city any more was important to me. The offers, the rankings, the teasers, bargains, the chances, the prizes, the selections, the memberships, the trends, the fashions, the profiles, they were all irrelevant. I didn’t care if I was in or out, on or off, up or down, left, right, straight, bent. While I had that emotion in my mind, I was flying above the world like a bird.

Then it flicked off, gone, cut out like someone had flicked a switch. I don’t know how. I never knew. I don’t want to know. I didn’t even try and find out, okay? Everything flooded back, the needs, the desires, the attractions. I was normal again, back having that desperate need to be in, to be new, on, right, to belong. I had fallen out of the sky and I was down in the cavern of desperation again, the place where the jewels are just out of reach and always too high, where you constantly strive for them, to get your hands on them before they slip away and leave you in the shadows. I told Finn. He was scared. He rushed me back to the lab to stimulate my face again.

Someone had got there first. Wow, they’d moved fast. No mess, no nastiness, just no data and now, his kit stalled, locked up, froze if he pushed it in certain directions, novel directions. He was livid. He raged that he’d lost something worth millions, something that blitzed anything else he’d ever discovered, that anyone had ever discovered. This was his pot of gold!

I got out of there. I left him to his anger. I was still rattled by the emotion. It scared me. It was something else, something alien. It had made me feel so strange. I didn’t want things any more. It wasn’t pleasurable, like any of the drugs I’ve tried or stimulations I’ve bought; it was somehow more powerful. For that moment, when I had it, I was above everything. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But it meant I was alone! For pity’s sake, I don’t want to be an angel! It’s cold and lonely up there!
I tried to carry on without that emotion, live a normal life and ignore it, ignore that it had ever happened. I tried do normal stuff, you know, the usual full-immersion-world activities, feel the normal emotions like lust, disgust, fear, pride, the buzz of ownership, that sort of thing. It worked, sort of, but I was still a mess, a wreck. I was flailing.

I didn’t see Finn for weeks. Then, one evening he turned up at my digs, unshaven, ragged, his eyes flitting everywhere. He ranted at me, talking in fast bursts while his hands clenched and shook. He said he’d worked it out; they’d erased that emotion from the planet, snuffed it out years ago, eradicated it. They knew that if we stopped seeing the expression of that emotion, we’d eventually forget the emotion ever existed and forget even how to make it. It would be extinct. Without the emotion, we’d lose an entire perception of the world. He said that wasn’t the only emotion they’d killed off, like eradicating smallpox. He said all the emotions we have now, all the expressions we perform are the ones they want. They actively support them, constantly stimulating them through subliminal marketing strategies, unconscious flashes in hi-res video advertisements, subtle expressions in the prancing of the avatars that fill our world. He said he’d told his colleagues about this but they’d looked at him like he was mad, their faces betraying fear, confusion and ‘awareness of collapsing tribal unity’. Well, that’s what he said anyway. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to believe him. God, he was nuts.

Two days later, I saw the video feed of his arrest. He’d been spotted in a shopping centre, trying to destroy an advertising hologram that had been persuading him to buy insurance by showing him future family tragedies that had come about by poor third-party cover. Before the security staff could grab him, he’d smashed the holo-ad into a thousand pieces, then stared at a thousand new advertising holograms emerging out of the ad’s splinters, all of them earnestly trying to sell him everything under the sun from psychological counselling vouchers to bandages for glass injuries. He fell to the floor and passed out. The security bods dragged him away, pushing the crowd aside that had come to gawp at so many interesting offers.

Two days later, they pulled me in. I was put on a charge of collaboration with Finn, of causing his insanity, of being insane by association with him. Next thing I know, I’m here; the Valley of Mung Beans, chip-stripped and declared unstable. They said I needed tactile, low-tech rehabilitation. They said I was strung out, burnt out, washed up, feeling down, basically all over the place. That’s why I had to be the newest member of the Shining Smile herbal commune. What trash! I‘m their loose end, tied up.

Oh, I know it isn’t a prison here, I’ll admit that much. These hippies have welcomed me with open arms, played host to a refugee from retina displays, come to be healed. God, I can still remember my arrival. They made me the center of a large group hug that smelt of pachouli oil, old sweat and onions. It went on for ages. I started to worry that we were never going to separate, that their uncombed hair and ragged beards would eventually stick to each others’ hemp-clothing like velcro and we’d become one big useless tumbleweed ball. What am I saying? I am stuck here forever! I am just one more useless, furry lump of agricultural weed. Please, I’m pleading with you, I don’t have that emotion any more! You’re safe! I’m not a threat. I can’t spread that emotion even if I wanted to! I’m cured! I’m not mentally ill any more, I like buying pointless things!

Help me!!