Processing Required

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

The wooden casing of the purgebox thrummed in my hand. I pressed my finger against the sensor. “Kylan Rogers.”


The automated latch inside the box clicked as it verified my voice, but the box didn’t open. I flipped it over in my palm, and my stomach sank. The arrow on the status dial was in the red. Full. Processing Required.


Had I really filled it so fast? It had only been a week since my last Processing. I tapped the dial, hoping it was a glitch, but the arrow stayed firmly lodged on the right. I’d run into a bad string of luck lately: job loss, money trouble, and now a failed relationship. For a twenty-six-year-old with my entire life ahead of me, I was going a whole lot of nowhere. I sank onto my bed.


The anguish I’d planned to purge—a surge of regret and loneliness over yesterday’s breakup—twisted in my chest. I needed it out. Now. The burgundy glow of my previously purged emotions pulsed from the box’s seams. Trying to cram an extra purge into a full box could overload the whole contraption, but my regret and loneliness spiraled with frustration and despair, and I was desperate. I traced my fingers over the box’s latch.

I’d never be able to afford a new one if this one busted. An icy shiver sped through me at the thought of feeling like this forever, unable to purge even a single painful emotion. How had people ever lived like that? The boxless down by the docks still did, the homeless and jobless, unable to afford a purgebox... but half of them went mad by their thirties. No. I couldn’t risk it.


I set the box down on my nightstand. My hands trembled as I reached for my digicalendar. I flicked open this month’s spend account. Seventeen credits. Even if I walked to the processing office, a purgebox scrub by a Certified Processor would set me back ten credits. I’d barely have enough left for food. I sighed and closed the calendar. Being out on my own as an adult was supposed to mean freedom. I’d completed university, gotten my specialist certification, gotten my dream job as a Digitech working from home rather than stuck in a central office, and all for what? I lived alone. I’d worked long hours providing customer support to dozens of people who could afford gadgets I’d never dream of owning, for a few measly credits per hour. I barely made enough to pay my rent and food even before I lost that job in the latest round of layoffs. I’d worked so much I had no time for friends, and even when by a stroke of luck I met a woman I liked, I failed at every relationship I attempted. Now I was one last paycheck from zero income. I’d have to spend next week scouting for interviews, hope I got lucky. When had life gotten so hard?


A surge of piercing emotions twisted in my chest like a tightening screw. I took a shaky breath. I would just have to keep them in me, for now. My final paycheck came in two weeks; I would have to make it until then. The thought squeezed like panic in my chest. This much aching? The loneliness? For another two weeks?


I would never make it through those interviews in one piece if I didn’t purge.


I flicked on my digicalendar again and scanned through my upcoming bills. Rent wasn’t due for two-and-a-half weeks. I had heat-up meal pods in the pantry. I could squeeze by on that until next paycheck. No other major bills were coming up. In the meantime, if I was careful what I spent...


The Processing Center would soon close for the night. I grabbed my purgebox, threw on a coat, and hurried out the door.


###


It was a twenty-minute brisk walk to the Processing office downtown. My breath puffed the January air. As I turned onto the block which passed the docks, the towering Processing building came into view. Almost there.


A group of people huddled like mushrooms around the base of a large oak. Boxless, a whole family of them. These were people generally considered too emotionally unstable to hold a job but too poor to afford regular maintenance on a purgebox, stuck in a cycle of poverty. The docks were full of them, some transient and others regular fixtures. There had been government programs to help them, once, but most were disbanded after the last political turnover. A young woman from the huddle turned her face toward me as I passed.


My heart sped. Reina. She’d been in one of my classes at university, but stopped coming partway through the semester. Had that been because of cost? Her lips were chapped white, her eyes sunken. An uncomfortable pang I couldn’t identify twisted in my gut. Our eyes met and her gaze hung heavy against mine, hollow and hopeless.

Recognition sparked and her cheeks reddened. She looked away.


I hunched my shoulders and hurried my pace.


###


I reached the Processing center, skirted past the empty waiting benches, and pressed a button on the outer door. A screen blinked to life on the face of the building, and a stern-looking older woman stared back at me. “Name?”


Kylan Rogers.”


“Unit number?”


“2887-59-E.”


“Appointment or walk-in?”


“Walk-in.”


There was a pause, then a metal tray flipped open on the door and a blinking disc clanked into it. I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d arrived in time, and grabbed the disc.


“It will buzz when you’re next. Have payment ready.” Her face vanished and the tray flipped shut.


I headed for the nearest waiting bench.


A flurry of sniffles arrested me before I made it to my seat. I turned back toward the Processing Center, and saw a flash of blonde hair as a woman hurried past me. The door clanged shut behind her. I only glimpsed her face, but enough to see splotchy skin, red eyes, tears. The shock of her raw emotion shot through me. Even the Boxless I’d seen at the docks hadn’t looked this upset.


“Hey,” I called after her before I realized what I was doing. “Wait up!”


The woman spun toward me, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry, I—I can’t—“ She shoved her hands in her pockets and looked away.


As I took in her face—pretty, about my age—I realized the enormous social breach I’d committed. To display unregulated emotion in public was like going outside in your undergarments. She’d been trying to hurry away, and I’d drawn attention to it. I backpedaled. “Didn’t mean to intrude. But are you okay?”


Her gaze flicked to mine. “I’m fine. I just need to get home.”


“Were you here for Processing?” I knew I was pushing it, but she was the first person I’d seen this upset in ages. Her clothes were high quality and her hair looked recently cut and styled. She seemed too put-together and healthy to be from the docks, but only a Boxless would have this much unpurged emotion. For some reason I couldn’t explain even to myself, I felt a desperate need to make sense of it.


She worried her lip between her teeth, then pulled one hand from her pocket. A purgebox pulsed burgundy in her palm. “Been full for two weeks. I keep making appointments, hoping my credits will have come through by then, but—“ She shrugged.


“Been a slow month at the Salon. Such a hard year, with my mom sick, and now my little brother—“ Tears pooled in her eyes again and she blinked them away. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually like—“


The disc buzzed in my hand and I jumped.


Her eyes flicked to my hand. “It’s your turn.”


I glanced back at the Processing building. A green light glowed atop the door; it had unlocked for my entry.


A reckless thought burst into a gallop in my mind like a panicked horse, and my common sense dangled from the stirrups as it dragged me away. “Take it.” I shoved the disc at her.


She stepped back. “What? No, I can’t.”


“Take my turn. I’ll pay for it.” I was too far in now to go back, so I stepped forward. When she didn’t run, I pressed the disc into her hand. My mind raced, but I blocked it out. I had enough credits for a processing, for one processing. I could pay for hers, and I would figure the rest out later.


She closed her fingers around the disc. “You’re serious?”


I nodded. “Absolutely.”


Her shoulders relaxed with an exhale. “Thank you.” She pulled her other hand from her pocket and held it out. “I’m Lara.”


A pinprick of anxiety sparked in my chest, but I smiled and shook her hand. “Kylan. And it’s no problem.”


The face in the building scowled as we approached. “You registered for one processing.”


“There’s been a change.” I deposited the blinking disc into the slot and the slot swallowed it, then vanished.


The old woman glared as I explained the situation, then sighed. “Alright, but we take payment up front.” A panel slid open in the face of the building, revealing a small inset square with a green scanning beam.