“A Scent of Happiness” by Iain Ishbel

Kneeling on the sidewalk in plain sight, arms spread wide in a leafy rich neighborhood. A scent of happiness, unexpected, out of nowhere, had brought me down hard onto my knees. Not my usual territory, this part of town, unpromising for harvesting emotions, but nice: all boulevard and trees, pretty in the summer twilight. That thin, sharp trail of human joy slid up my nose like a hot needle, and I stumbled. And then I fell to my knees.

I stayed on my knees. Symbolism is a risk, in my job.

A uniformed black housemaid stepped around me with a sniff. Drunk, she thought. She wasn’t far wrong. Good feelings, when I first scent them, they hit hard. It’s like—it’s like how the first taste of chocolate is so much better than the rest, no matter how many times you taste it after that. White chocolate, in this neighborhood, but still it just—oh—it brought me down. Put me down on my knees.

I might be repeating myself. I was there for a while.

Finally I rose and turned my head left and right, a little up and down, measuring. Then I walked toward the source. When I’d decided on the right driveway, the housemaid was a tiny black dot down the hill, so I didn’t try to hide. I swung off the pack, grounded a pair of gallium spikes down through the sidewalk to the bedrock, and started assembling the condenser. I’ve been harvesting human emotions for more than a lifetime, and I can put together the equipment with my eyes closed.

Which was good, because my eyes were filling with tears.

What, do you think I like the job?

Fully assembled, a condenser looks like a threesome of hula hoops having sex—or, if you’re educated, like the semi-circular canals inside your ear. I held the glowing rings out in front of me, letting them turn slowly while I shuffled toward the back of the big gray stone house. The grounding wires scraped against the side of the pack, unrolling behind me. My belt—real leather—squeaked with every step, and my head throbbed with the pulse of whoever was feeling happy, up in the big rich gray stone house, giving off those big emissions.

It’s not exactly smell. Emissions come in somehow through all our senses, even sight when you’re close enough. For now, crying blocked up my nose, so the rich white chocolate wasn’t coming through. But I could still sense the current out ahead of me, buzzing in the bones of my head, vibrations of a sound too high for hearing. Clean, pure happiness—you know how it feels.

And don’t try to say you don’t know. Everybody’s bought happiness, one time or another. I harvest it, we sell it, you buy it, the world keeps on turning. Keeps people content in their dead-end lives, keeps the human bureaucracy smoothly in power, keeps my kind running things.

Keeps me in a job I hate.

“Stop,” said a voice from the dark. “Hold it there.”

I stopped, and I held it. “Hey sport,” I said, and sniffed. It was a rent-a-cop, the cheap kind—no, I don’t mean I could smell him: I sniffed because my nose was running bad. Couldn’t see him neither, with my face full of tears. But I heard his voice, and I know the type.

I have done this before.

“Are you Doug?” I asked. Always one guy called Doug on a security team. Doug is the Dave of the twenty-second century, and knowing a name on the team is a useful insider’s loop.

“Nuh-uh. Ain’t no Doug on my team. And before y’ask, nobody called Dave here either. You want to step into the light, mister?”

Whoops. That’d be my overconfidence acting up again. “Sure,” I said. “Don’t shoot, okay? I’m looking for Doug.” But I stayed in the shadows—I’m not cruel.

“Step into the light, mister. I’m not kidding.”

“Don’t push,” I told him. “I know you’re good at your job, you got a lot to be happy about. Kids? You sound like the kind of guy got kids at home.”

“Dispatch,” he said, “this is Severn.” Despite it all, a little laugh bubbled up, and I didn’t stop it. What a name to put on a child. Parents today, am I right? Severn the rent-a-cop heard me, and his voice tightened. “Possible intruder in the driveway. Front floods please.”

“Don’t do it, Severn,” I told him, talking quickly. “You tell them leave those lights off, and let’s talk a minute before anything—”

But it was too late when I let him use his radio. Maybe I am a little cruel. The lights came on, and the dark house disappeared behind a wall of white, making twenty-seven prisms out of the tears in my eyes. Floodlights, bright ones, showing the guard my face. He gave an unearthly moan, and I do know exactly what the word means. He fell to his knees, and something heavy hit the ground. Say, maybe a handgun. An automatic.

I looked away, down the darkening driveway. My shadow reached back down to the road, and the wires ran down the middle of the dark shadow. Severn finally gasped a breath. “God,” he said, “oh, my eyes, you—oh,” he tried, “Lord forgive me.”

“No.” I looked back toward the house. Damn this job. I touched two fingertips together, and the floods burst and died. The world was dark again—darker, it seemed. Rent-a-cop fell backward like the light had been holding him up.

He was sobbing. “Please,” he said, and rubbed his knuckles across his eyelids. “Please?”

“Nobody forgives you, Severn.” I started walking up the long, dark driveway again, toward the scent of happiness, the tug of my job, the sentence of my time here. “These days you’re on your own.”

* * *

They say rich people aren’t happier than poor, you can’t buy the important things in life—don’t believe it. Just pure propaganda. Or, if you’re not educated: lies. Measured scientifically, rich people are much happier. It’s not even really close, if I’m honest. And I am honest, of course.

But you see, rich people live in large spaces. Emotive neuro-emissions aren’t electromagnetic: they follow an inverse cube rule, so in a big house, heterodyning—well, if you’re not educated: you got to get people close together or their feelings don’t interact. And it’s not worth the effort, harvesting emissions from just one heart at a time.

I don’t literally mean heart. Just being poetical. Feelings come from the cingulate cortex, in the brain. They have frequencies. Poor people live close, in small homes, and their fields cross and multiply each other all the time, with overtones and beats that make the recordings seem real.

That’s why we tend to work the welfare neighborhoods, the cheap suburbs. Not because you poor folks are happier. You’re just more dense, and we’re whales sucking up the plankton of your emissions.

Also, in poor neighborhoods the windows are closer to the sidewalks. I’d forgotten about dragging grounding wires all the way up a five-league driveway, blinding witnesses all the way.

Judgment one: I am a fool and I should mind my own business when I’m walking home.

Judgment two: Damn this damned job.

* * *

The driveway was paved in shards of broken glass set in molten sugar.

No? Let me tell you about relativity. You walk fifty yards carrying an active condenser, a roll of wire, and the guilt of an innocent man blinded for doing his job, and tell me how the driveway feels. “I quit,” I said, and took another step. “I give up, I quit,” and two more steps.

“Dammit,” I said, and looked up at the early night sky, still walking. The heavens were colorless in visible light but starting to shine in the bloody hues of infrared. I know you say you don’t see it, but people lie. All the time, you lie—do you know for certain nobody in all your world, every breed and every bespoke designer mutation, not one person can see the color of the night sky in early evening when my kind descends to walk the earth?

Humans. Even when you’re wrong, you’re never uncertain.

New lights came on in the house. “I quit,” I said again, to the infrared sky, but I couldn’t make myself mean it. I kept walking.

My eyes were still running with tears, but a little distance ahead of me I could see the high gray stone side wall of the house, and I could see the driveway sliding past it like Death passing in dark gray. I could see the roof and walls of a garage at the back, converted from old stables. And I could finally tell that I was fighting the condensers, like trying to pull a gyroscope out of line. The vein, the scent, the white chocolate lure of pure happiness wasn’t from the house, but the faded gray stable-garage behind.

A nice conversion, rich folk, ironic even. Stables becoming garages. I get it.

I limped on, passing the house, to where the driveway widened. There, ahead of me, I could almost see the stream of emissions. Oh, I was getting close now. My first lucky strike, a rich open vein.

“Don’t turn around. I have a projector.”

I stopped, and let go of the condensers—this close to the source, they only fell slowly—and after a second’s thought, I turned around. “You don’t have a projector.”

He gestured with empty hands. “Maybe not,” he said. A dark-skinned lawyer, in an Italian wool suit maybe a half-tone too expensive for his shoes. He’d come up the greasy pole, then, not born into the big houses. This one was dangerous. Haircut like a state executioner, the bastard. He smiled, a false courtroom grimace. “Or maybe I do, but before I shoot you I’m asking why you’re here.”

“Doing my job, counselor.” I touched the handles of the condenser, behind me. Just for comfort, not a threat, but the lawyer saw me do it and he smiled. His teeth glowed in ultraviolet, under the porcelain caps, and decided I wasn’t stopping for him after all.

I raised my face to him. And nothing happened.

“Oh, no,” he said softly. “Your true face is nothing to me.” He tapped the midnight skin beside an eye socket. “Because I’m already blind.”

Dangerous, did I say? My understatement acting up, right alongside my overconfidence. Hay fever season, I guess. “Tough guy,” I said. “Video contacts aren’t cheap.”

“I’m expensive.” He reached into an inside pocket of the five-piece suit, and my toes curled into the surface of the driveway. Maybe he did have a projector. If he overloaded the condensers, still wired to the pack on my back—but he pulled out a checkbook instead. “How much?”

My blood slowed, and I blew out a deep breath, infrared-hot under the darkening evening sky. “I’m not for sale.”

The lawyer coughed, delicately. “You didn’t fall into that job of yours. You’ve been bought before.”

“You’re not—” my boss, I didn’t say. Instead, I raised my head and let my shoulders drop. “Don’t hinder me, counselor. You know who I speak for.”

His eyes glowed. I mean, literally. “Recording,” he told me, “and webcasting. You want the world to know too?”

Sometimes I surprise myself. One petty lawyer dragging his feet on an insignificant impulse walk-up, and I was ready to blow the lid off the whole fragile world. Sure, I said, a dark frozen moment inside my head. Tell everyone who’s walking among them. Tell the krill who’s swimming through their sea. Start a panic, lose control, start a war, melt the surface off this tiny blue marble and start over. Get me out of this job, I don’t care what happens next.

Disproportionate? Maybe so, maybe so.

I lowered my head again, relaxed my shoulders and the special muscles below them. I’d tried to be gentle with him. Not very hard, but I did try, and that counted. “No such thing as bad publicity,” I lied, and I overloaded my aura.

On paper, sure, it sounds crazy. An overloaded aura is much worse than any pain I’ve ever known. Though once I chewed Caribbean devil peppers, on a dare, and that was surprisingly close. But crazy or not, an overload is powerful: the chronosphere of even your human head has enough candlepower to wash out the best security cameras to a pure white. The cameras you can fit on a contact lens are far from the best. And I am far from human.

I threw a tidal wave into the buckets over his eyes.

That lawyer, give him credit, had some grit. He didn’t go down until I cut his Achilles, then he fell straight as a tree, and blasphemed in my face from the ground. I held him still with one hand, plucked the melted contacts from his eyes with the other. “Stings some,” I whispered. “Don’t it?”

I let my aura fade, and returned to the condenser hoops, my skin tingling. They had nearly fallen all the way to the ground, and I let the scent of happiness wash over me again. It was just as thick as before, just as rich, but now with a bitter undertone. First a soldier blinded, then a black man left lame: the visitation was starting to feel symbolical.

I looked to the sky, which was getting properly dark. “Please take this from me.” And I almost meant it. But no answer.

Well, what did I expect? At least I was done with the crying.

* * *

The large steel doors of the garage were dull silver in the evening light. I walked to the third, pressed my palms against the cold metal, and heaved. The door lifted off the ground just a little. I jammed a foot underneath and tugged, and the steel kept moving, opening easily, counterweighted and oiled for ease of use. The tiny fragments of the lock fell to the ground, tinkling sweetly. Irony there too: such a lovely sound they made, but splinters of metal through the soft part of a horse’s sole will lame it in an instant, drop it down onto a bed of sweet-tinkling ragged barbs. Before horses were extinct, I mean. It would do the same to a barefoot human I suppose.

Cruelty: I left the fragments of shattered lock lying there on the ground and walked into the stables.

The feeling was pouring in on me now, stronger than usual, the sound of the gallium cables unrolling from my pack; the tingling of the emissions current still there in my skull; the old, old smell of long-gone horses. The humming of happiness in my ears. Despite the obstacles behind me, I was there, gathering the harvest.

Where was the guy, the happy guys, the happy joy people sharing their good fortune? Oh, I was giddy. Drunk as a baby, the feelings humming in and my senses alive to every smell, every taste on the air, every glint of electrical light.

And to the sound of fast, shallow breathing. Trying to be quiet, but failing, and I could hear it accelerating with every step forward I took.

Every step I took. Watching me.

“Hello,” I said. “Am I expected?”

A girl stepped out. Where had she come from? Behind a screen, a wall. A stable, filled with stalls. This wouldn’t end well: third meeting, third confrontation. Read the tealeaves, girl, see the outcome. One I blinded, one I lamed, and knowing what was coming next will never diminish the tragedy of the inevitable.

Giddy, did I say? I was high and taut as a kite-string.

“Hello,” she said. “We weren’t sure we’d reach you—but we hoped.” We? Not just the girl, then. Two more stepped forward, and when I saw them, I knew why the girl was wearing a dress in this time of the world.

They were playing archetypes.

One man in a white coat and black glasses, hair as white as sin, as clear as night, floating like a halo around his head. “Scientist,” I said, and he bowed. Across from him, a younger man, strong and tall, in a sweater with a letter. Golden blond and baby blues, indigo jeans and leather shoes. He was the Hero, of course.

I nodded to the girl in her calico. “You’re the Daughter.” I tipped my head to see her better, and the condenser hoops hummed behind me. “The Beautiful Daughter.”

She smiled, and curtseyed. I started to show her my face, show them all, but they weren’t fools. If one of them had a mirror—no, the risk was too much. Well, would my trick with the aura work again? Could I even make it happen again? I was near drained. And I was in their narrative, caught, pinned in their story. The condensers hummed, and I steadied down. Think.

So, well, they needed to maintain their narrative field. “Where’s the happy one?” I said. “Who’s having a day so good, he’s spreading happiness by induction?” Maybe someone was sacrificial bait. Would that cruelty be enough to undermine their archetypes? Could I spoil the story like that?

The Scientist showed me his teeth. “We’re harming nobody,” he said, and invited with an arm. I stepped forward to look, gallium wires on my back trundling unevenly off the diminished roll. Inside an old stall, under a faded black and white photo of a racehorse in a winner’s wreath: an ancient wooden table, bearing modern carbon boxes. Red and yellow pinlights on the front of the boxes, old-fashioned manual dials labeled in pen and masking tape.

I didn’t need to see the breadboard to know. “It’s an amplifier.”

“Sure is,” he said. “First one invented by humans.” He smiled at the Beautiful Daughter, who took the hand of the Handsome Hero. They stood together, behind the Mad Scientist in a powerful narrative triangle, grinning and trembling, while I looked at the amplifier, heart sinking, my feet gone heavy on the floor. I was caught by observer physics, mediated through archetype projection. Or, if you’re not educated: they held me under a spell.

I was a monster, summoned by the brave heroes.

The amplifier was, if I tell the truth, the third one invented by humans. The first, in Johannesburg, was destroyed with steel, and the second, not so far from here, was crushed. No, not by me. I’m a freelance harvester. I have no responsibilities with Enforcement.

But I know my duty. “I’m sorry,” I told them, though I wasn’t sorry. “This will all be destroyed. There’s nothing you can—”

Then the Scientist flipped up a switch on his damned box, just one, such a small silver switch, and my arms flew wide open, the nails on my hands sparking. The words in my mouth melted into a formless howl.

Like spoiled, sour drops of coffee from a broken mug, every last dreg of happiness inside me sprayed out, forward into the amplifier, and as my wings spread behind me and my face rose to heaven, throat exposed, golden veins open for a blade, I realized it wasn’t just an amplifier.

It was a powered condenser.

I’ll tell you: crucifixion isn’t about the piercing, it’s about being spread.

Just getting stabbed isn’t that bad. Any professional knife-fighter will agree: even a human body can handle a lot of jabs before it starts to shut down, and golly, how the dramatic red blood makes good TV.

But getting pulled apart, arms wide and head back, limbs all useless while something’s torn from inside you—that’s some bad. The three heroes wrung me like a rag, and I shuddered in midair while my every emotion was sucked out of me, and my thoughts churned up dark circles.

Why, why, why invent a powered condenser? Would you distill a man’s blood for drinking water, with rain falling all around you every moment? This world would. And they’d sell it, too, bottled in the man’s home town with his name on the label. Call it marketing.

Let me tell you again about relativity. The amount something hurts really depends on your capacity for pain, and I feel so much more than you. Don’t take it personally. I literally cannot describe it using this language. Or any human language.

How long was I there? A liar’s long lifetime, seventy-seven weeks, a winter fortnight without heat. Maybe eight seconds by good clockwork at sea level of your world. Eventually it was over, and I fell a hard cubit to the cold floor. Something snapped in my right ankle and I crumpled completely.

“Don’t,” I said, the first sound that made sense, and tried to look up. The three hoops of my condenser were still spinning down, but they were dull and dark. I knew how they felt. I was Fallen now, in truth.

Ironically, their narrative field was just fine with them torturing me. I was just the monster, right? Anything happened to me was Justice. As long as the Mad Scientist was the smartest; as long as the Daughter was the most beautiful, as long as the Hero was the most righteous.

Archetypes. Love ’em.

The three of them, faces flushed and fingers hot, stood over the amplifier, the condenser, the machine for torturing me until they were rich. “Wire?” said the girl. The muscles in the back of her hand twitched twice when she said it.

The taller man, the one who’d played the Scientist, wiped his palms on the side of his white coat. “Don’t mind if I do.” He uncapped the spools, and drew three wires.

Real gentleman, he gave the first to the girl. She wore a ring, and the wire clicked right through. When she smiled, she was beautiful. The tall man held out another wire to the smaller, better-looking one. The handsome one, he’d played the Hero, and he was wondering what to do with me.

“I don’t know,” he said, and rubbed his eye. “Should—”

“Take the wire, Donald,” the other man said. “Take a break, man. Be happy. There’s enough here for life. We did it.”

Donald took the wire, but stood looking down at me, holding it in his hand. He lifted his hands, stopped, and lowered them again.

The girl and the other man were standing carelessly akimbo, engrossed in the shape of the table. Gallium wires stretched from gold-ringed fingers to the spools on the amplifier, and their skin was bright, warm, and tight.

“Look at the carpentry on that corner,” she said. “People are learning handwork again, you know? Genuine craftsmanship, growing in the world, when people can feel happy.”

They were so absolutely delighted, and brim-full of hope and joy they’d pulled from me. But not Donald. He stood over me, wire held between two fingers. He prodded a wingtip with his shoe. Sure, I see the irony there.

“It doesn’t—” I had to moisten my tongue. “The wire doesn’t work if you just hold it, kid. Go on, now, slip it under the skin. You got a ring like these two?”

He knelt, not looking at me, but wanting to. “I don’t have a ring.”

“You got artificial skin then?” I coughed, and felt a muscle in my back tear. “Maybe an in-house plastic surgeon with dermatological expertise? Or do you just like the look of track marks?”

He held up the needle-thin business end, and looked at it. “I don’t take wire.”

I looked around the stable pointedly, his two friends grinning like skulls by their cornucopia of delight. “You don’t. All this, and you don’t even use.” He was still righteous, still being a hero. Who didn’t take wire? Unbelievable.

“Not worth it,” the kid said. “Waste of money. Wire’s for losers.” His lip curled, just a little, but I saw it, and it was enough. Contempt for the common man.

He was not a hero.

The narrative role collapsed, and the observer fields dissolved into regular causality. I wasn’t a demon any more, summoned and pinned with plucky know-how and all-American good looks. Just a plain poor Fallen, doing my job and keeping the economy, just barely, running. Keeping people happy enough to live.

Just barely, but enough.

“Well, look, if you’re not going to take it…” I asked. And he handed me the wire.

“No!” The Scientist didn’t look happy. He looked Mad, which I appreciated the irony of again. “Donald, get it back—”

Of course it was too late. He was a dead man as soon as he built the powered condenser, and I was just the arm of Fate and the hand of Death. It would take a while for those two departments to grind through this accounting, but I work for Harvesting.

Somebody has to get the work done.

I pinched the wire Donald gave me, and when the current flowed I jammed the needle tip into my leather belt, thus and hence into the gallium wires, and grounded out back into the street. Outside the property lines of the big gray house, outside the power of the owner’s Word and the rich family’s influence.

The girl died first, I think, by about maybe half a second. Skinny little thing: she opened her mouth, turned black, and crumpled into a pile of coal and ashes, and the white-haired Scientist fell into a black heap next to her. Donald, who wasn’t touching the gallium circuit, dropped intact to the stable floor, hands to his face.

I’m not cruel. Not so you’d notice. I put my fingertips to his temples, left and right, and I ran long fingernails in through the soft spots. He stopped moving. I retracted the nails and arranged the body with dignity, arms crossed on his chest. In the darkness, a flickering yellow light, with flashes of blue, as the components inside the amplifier started to burn. The table was starting to char, under the carbon boxes.

I limped back to the broken doorway I’d come in, dragging the dead condenser hoops behind me. The pack said I’d harvested a full load, which was maybe a week’s work in ten seconds—but a load of what? All the dark guilty dregs they’d scraped from inside my own soul, and the residual last-moment emotions of the two charred humans wired into the grounded circuit, and Lord knows what else was in there. The blinded guard, the lamed lawyer, the burned girl: was their anguish ripped into the condenser, even the smallest of streams, tainting it?

I knew an old man, a long time ago, spent his whole post-war career in city waterworks. Giant aqueducts underground, bringing the water of life to old brick and concrete cities. He told me they never clean out the tunnels.

“That’s a job you don’t want to start,” he’d told me. “The walls are coated, mebbe a foot thick, with grime and sludge and growing filth. You stir up that crap, you have to shut down the pipes and clean it all, and the city’s gone dry for a week while you’re doing it.

“No, keep the water flowing, smoothly, don’t stir up nothing, and the stream down the middle doesn’t even move the crap. Take the good, sweet stuff and leave the rest alone. Don’t waste city money cleaning what you’ve spoiled.”

I knew what he meant. Maybe I had a career in city utilities.

I opened the circuit and let all the stolen emotions bleed off. A lot of joy rose into the air, sharp like new chocolate, and my head may have buzzed a little. But sure enough, a scum of bad, dark frequencies settled low into the driveway surface, sunk in like oil, and in the air where I stood—a roiling whirlpool of complex cingulate emissions, powerful but too mixed to understand.

Or, if you’re not educated: a month of real bad days, all at the same time.

I headed back down my dark passage to the street.

* * *

The driveway was just as sharp and unkind as on the way up, but I didn’t care as much. My feet had maybe stopped feeling pain. My pack was empty, even the thin day’s harvest gone.

My eyes were stinging, and around the edges, prisms blossomed and overflowed. Or, if you’re not educated, I was crying again.

This job I have, it’s cruel. It keeps the world breathing, noses just barely out of the water, but it’s so harsh, so damn unforgiving. Those words are worth a note—damned and unforgiving. When I work, I leave in my footsteps the crippled, the blind, and mad. And the ashes of the dead. But maybe a little less than other Fallen, so where does that leave me? If it wasn’t me, it would be another like me, only a little worse.

I tell myself this regularly. Death in dark gray knows my name, and she says she owes me favors. Some day I’ll quit the job and call them in.

On the air, the smell of smoke. And a whiff, very slight, barely remembered, of horses.


Iain Ishbel lives in Canada with his wife and two small children. He has been published in AE SF Review, Crossed Genres, and several other online magazines. His first collection of stories, The Last Days of the Eyeball Man, is available from Amazon and Smashwords.
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  • beentsy

    I loved this story so much. It just sang to me.