Volume 24, Number 4

Memory is Altered

T. L. Folkard

Marcus Mackie looked up at the clock on his wall impatiently; every tick and click seemed to crawl up his neck like an itch. He hated that clock; it was a novelty, a relic of the past and an unwelcome gift from his wife. He couldn’t think for the life of him why she thought he would like it; he never understood sentimentality when it came to obsolete technology. Everything that has a purpose has a shelf life.

There was a knock on the door before it swung open. His secretary’s face smiled before ushering in the person he was waiting for, Mr. Thomas Layer. Marcus got to his feet and stepped forward to shake his hand; the smile and relief at the arrival of his appointment was instantly dispelled as Mrs. Layer followed her husband into the office. She looked sheepish and suspicious; she was protective of her family and knew that they were on dangerous ground. She didn’t want to be there any more than Marcus wanted her there. She would only be trouble. Time, as usual, was a concern. He had his own deadlines and appointments to make and there was no time for tears and indecision. He kept his composure and continued as usual. “Mr. Layer, welcome back.”

“Thank you, sorry to keep you waiting.”

Marcus directed Layer to the operating chair in the centre of the room. “Mrs. Layer, please take a seat.” He indicated one of the seats by the window.

She gave it only a passing glance. “I’ll stand.”

As Mr. Layer climbed up into the large reclining chair, his wife helped him and stood by his side, taking his hand in hers. Marcus did his best to hide his contempt as he fastened the straps around Layer’s arms and legs, holding him securely in place. He stepped back behind his desk and perched neatly on his chair.

“So, then,” he started, “I have everything I need to continue, all of your identification checks and paperwork have been filed and accepted, all that’s left is to do is the thing itself. Are you ready?”

This was always the worst part, even in regular extractions; if ever they pulled out it was here, now, at the very last minute. He supposed that they never did it deliberately, waste his time, but it was no less annoying. But this case was different. This memory was not merely a curiosity, a valuable perversion, it was unique. And with that, valuable in the extreme. Marcus wondered whether the tension showed on his face; his years of professional separation from clients should be enough to hide his excitement but there was no way to be sure. Luckily, it seemed that Layer’s obvious conflict was distraction enough. There was a moment’s pause, and he was sure that the wife would intervene. He gripped his hands together tightly, his knuckles whitened as he waited. But he needn’t have worried; Mr. Layer knew what he had to do and took control of the situation.

“I’m ready.” His words were granite.

In the instant that the words left his lips Marcus saw Mrs. Layer bite her lip, fighting back words of her own. He suspected that she had come in the hope of dissuading her husband rather than comforting him, or presenting an ever-guilty presence, but it was no good. Despite his fears Marcus knew a desperate man when he saw one, and Layer was just that. He had no idea of the true value of what he had, no money or contacts to make good the assets in his possession. Marcus wasn’t sure which was saddest, the situation or the man. He was utterly impotent, unable to do anything other than live day to day, week to week. He had real understanding of what security meant, otherwise he wouldn’t allow himself to be so utterly degraded.

Marcus smiled. “So then, let’s begin.”

* * *

Marcus tapped a few commands into the slick and illuminated computer interface that was built into his cold and lifeless desk. He picked up a small piece of tech and placed it on his neck. It stuck without need for adjustment. Meanwhile, small projectors, no larger than coins, mounted on each corner of the desk came to life. Marcus leaned forward as two skeletal globes of light materialised in the air in front of him, hovering over the desk awaiting interaction. Marcus reached out to grip them; each one responded, sitting in the heart of his grip. He treated them cautiously but not gently, like a surgeon with a scalpel.

“I’m about to make the connection, brace yourself.” Marcus didn’t wait for Layer’s permission, he activated the probe.

Layer winced and shuddered audibly; the pain was obvious. Marcus’s eyes glazed over as he delved into the mind of his client; they flicked as though dreaming. Images rushed into his mind, too fast to process, too powerful to ignore. Marcus felt himself falter, more than usual, more than with any other client. He wondered if the discomfort had shown, if Layer’s wife had noticed in the real world that something was wrong. He doubted it; she was most likely sniveling by her husband’s side. Marcus steadied himself. He had years of experience. Layer was special, without a doubt, but nothing he couldn’t handle.

The first wave of integration washed over him like the shock of a hot bath, uncomfortable at first, but he adapted. The Images started to become clear, and the emotions too; fear and anger at first, but both were washed away by love. Marcus felt something new, an unconditional devotion for his wife, Layer’s wife, a kind that he had never known. He felt the warmth and clammy reassurance as she gripped his hand, both beside him and across the room as she stood by her husband. Layer was doing this for her, even though she disapproved, even though she would do anything to spare him the pain and loss, he was doing it anyway. He had hidden the true extent of his fear from her, as was his way. He suspected that she knew, but that didn’t matter. He had promised her so many years ago that they would be happy, that they’d always have a roof over their head, somewhere for children, somewhere for pictures on the wall. That was his responsibility, and now it was under threat. They needed money now, not next week when the payment came in, now. They had nothing left to sell, nothing left to barter. If they didn’t get what they needed then they would be out on the street, in the poorhouses, and that was a nightmare that he would not allow his family to endure.

Marcus focused his thoughts; he was getting caught up, emotionally compromised. The emotional potency of Layer’s mind was what made his memories so clear, so valuable. He allowed the exhilaration of what he was experiencing to become part of him for only a moment and then moved on.

“Mr. Layer, I need you to start focusing on the memory we’ve discussed, I can’t find it on my own.” Marcus did his best to keep his voice steady.

Layer didn’t respond. There was no need to. Marcus knew he had understood in the instant that the command had left his lips; he felt the rushing images slow down, almost imperceptibly at first but then more noticeably, more controlled. Where before there had been pure emotion, wide ranging broad feelings, now there were individual experiences, as though passing a scene in a speeding car. Except they were no longer random. There were themes, people. His child, the first-born, the boy. Mostly jumbled memories, all ages, young and old; mostly important things: pride and joy, his first steps, his first laugh, the first time he took a bath with him and his mother.

“Yes, Mr. Layer, that’s it, we’re getting closer.”

From inside Layer’s mind Marcus felt his wife tighten her grip, from outside of the connection; with his own ears he heard a cry of pain. Marcus was penetrating deeper and deeper against Layer’s resistance. He knew that he shouldn’t, but he was unable to do anything else. Whether prompted or invited this was an invasion, and even against Layer’s wishes his mind was defending itself.

For a moment there was a flicker. The attention and stability that Marcus and Layer had started to form was broken and then restored. Marcus felt Layer’s determination kick in, sooner and more forcefully than he expected. He was impressed. For the first time in today’s session Marcus saw the memory that he wanted; its clarity and depth of emotion were both overwhelming and beautiful, Marcus felt his heart race.

The high-pitched noise of a newborn’s cry filled every part of their minds. Both of them as one let out a sigh. Marcus felt a tear form in the corner of his eye, followed by a hot feeling in his throat. He had a similar experience of his own—the birth of his own children—but it wasn’t like this. He wasn’t witnessing the birth. He was experiencing it; he was seeing and feeling exactly what Layer had seen and felt, the pride, the admiration for his beautiful wife and the love that he never knew he could feel. The understanding that until this moment he had understood nothing. Marcus felt happiness that he had never known, contentedness that he could barely understand. He struggled to keep a professional distance, he could do nothing other than bask and bathe in the moment. He waited, let it wash over him. The only way he could wrench himself away was to concentrate on a memory of his own that gave him joy, reassurance of his own imminent security, the memory of an impending meeting.

The price that this memory would command was beyond doubt. It was well known in extraction circles that she wanted an experience like this. Despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the system this was something that she could never have. For months he had searched, kept an ear to the ground, knowing that sooner or later a desperate soul of Layer’s purity would stumble across his path. Even if he had known the value of what he possessed, Marcus would be able to make good money, but this was even better than that. Layer’s ignorance was only matched by his desperation. He was perfect.

“Mr. Layer, this is the painful part.”

“I’m ready.” Layer’s response was forced out through gritted teeth.

“Remember, clarity is crucial, the purer the memory the greater the value.”

The memory was perfect as it was, yet somehow Layer found more, more of himself. Marcus finger’s flitted to and fro, shaping the memory to his needs, preparing it for extraction. This wasn’t a copy; it was possible to take a copy, and in truth, a copy of Layer’s memory would outdo any other similar memory on the market, but Marcus wanted more. If he could get the memory out intact, complete and pure, not only would its value be unmatched, but it would be proof of his skills as the preeminent extractor in his field. Not only his skills, but also his tech. He had been sure of his advances; he knew what they were capable of but had so far been unable to prove it. Until now, that is. Until now there hadn’t been any memories powerful enough to test his limitations.

He acted. He gripped the memory with both hands: it struggled; it was slippery, phasing in and out of form, but Marcus knew that it couldn’t resist him. He wasn’t fighting it alone. Layer was helping him. He was doing his best to force it out. Marcus could feel the pain, both physical and emotional, but he could also feel the need and the resolve. He thanked Layer internally. He was the architect of his own pain and the victim of his own naivety. Marcus’s greed led him on; the tighter his grip on the memory, the closer he felt to his destiny. He knew that he would do it, that he would prove to everyone the man that he was.

And then, like a fish falling into a net, it was done.

The final extraction forced one last cry of pain from Layer, and one last sigh of relief from Marcus, but it was done. Marcus blinked and once again he was in the room. He was sitting behind his desk looking at Layer in the chair with his wife by his side. As he had predicted, she was completely focused on her husband. Marcus took advantage of the distraction to wipe a tear from his eye. He was grateful as Layer allowed his wife to embrace him. It allowed him to compose himself, to fight back the hot feeling in his throat and become himself once again. Layer left a stronger imprint than anyone he had ever encountered and was not easily brushed aside. But, in a moment or two, the usual smile had returned to his lips.

* * *

Marcus could barely contain his excitement as he waited for the limousine to arrive. He knew the time and place of the appointment, but he had arrived early anyway. He knew that it might appear over-eager, but that didn’t matter, not with what he had in his possession. For once in his life he had the power; control over the situation. She would do as he asked. He passed the few idle minutes admiring his city, his home, the streaking neon that flickered and passed by as advertising boards filled every spare bit of space. Traffic buzzed like insects, like an ancient city, Rome, Babylon, the stink of progress and the filth of those that it left behind. He had never fully appreciated how very full it was, even here, a relatively upmarket part of town. He wondered what she, the buyer, would think, being here. She and her sort most likely avoided this part of the city as though it were no better than the slums, except for thrill-seeking and perversions. He allowed himself a few last breaths of the poorly recycled air; after today he too would be amongst those that had no need of it. He could move to the inner core; he would see trees, breathe real air, and look up at simulated sky. It wasn’t enough to be wealthy; you needed influence, friends, and soon enough he would have it all.

* * *

Antonia Ledesma wrinkled her nose as the window of her limousine closed. She hated this part of town. It always reminded her of her second husband and the disgrace that he had brought upon the family. They had been divorced for more than three years by the time the scandal broke, but that didn’t matter; past association was as bad as present in the upper echelons of core society. It had taken many years and many donations to the right charities and societies to buy the forgiveness she needed. Her family’s power and influence was such that she was never in any danger of exclusion, but it was the talk that she despised, the rumors. That was what the money bought: a change of subject. It was a display of power, no different than a carpet-bombing or a public execution in centuries past.

The limousine pulled up to the curb alongside a weasely looking man. The driver exited the vehicle and walked around to let him inside. Antonia made sure to leave him plenty of room, and she was glad that when he made himself comfortable inside he did so at a distance. He was smug. She almost smiled at his bravado, but there would be time for that later.

“Mr. Mackie?”

“None other.”

He was pleased with himself; there was no doubting that.

“Do you have what I need?”

“I do, and if I may say so, its potency is even greater than previously promised.”

“We’ll see,” she teased. “May I see the product?”

He passed her a data chip; it was larger than she would have expected, personalised. She’d heard about his tinkering, inventing and his bold claims. She didn’t comment on it. He was familiar enough without her paying him compliments. She attached the data chip to the small and discreet interface at the base of her neck and activated it.

* * *

Antonia was embarrassed; a single tear would have been bad enough, but her face was wet by the time she withdrew from the memory. Her breathing was heavy, and she couldn’t help but let out a reluctant sigh as she disconnected the data chip. She could hardly bear to look across at the doubtless smug and satisfied Mackie sitting opposite, but she played her part. Her embarrassment would be short-lived. Still, even if the memories of success and intrusion into her deepest desires would only live in his mind for a matter of minutes, it rankled.

“Very impressive, Mr. Mackie. I don’t think I need to tell you that I wish to buy your product.”

“I thought that you might.”

She smiled, professionally. “What is your price?”

“Core membership.” It was almost a command.

She smiled at his audacity; there was nothing quite as sad as those who overreached. He took her smile as an invitation, and his mouth curled into one of his own. She saw no reason to deny him this small pleasure; it would only enhance his unknowing tragedy, to have come so close and be unaware of the failure.

“That can be arranged,” she answered silkily. He could hardly contain his glee now and leaned back into his chair as though he belonged.

“But first,” she continued, “I’d like you to examine a piece of tech for me. I’ve heard that your talents are considerable in this area.” She retrieved a new piece of tech from her bag, small and shining, no bigger than a lipstick. He was distracted by its obvious and astonishing value. Predictably, he missed the flick of her finger that activated the small and shining tech.

* * *

Marcus Mackie watched as the limousine drove away into the neon darkness. He didn’t understand what had gone wrong. She had seemed impressed, at first, at least, but then that was the way with the core elite. He did his best to fight back the well of disappointment that had started to burn inside him; he was sure that this had been it. The memory he’d extracted from Layer might not have been the best but it was good, better than most, wasn’t it? He looked at the data chip in his hand and cursed himself for even bringing it to Ledesma’s attention. He couldn’t afford to waste her time; a contact as prestigious and recognisable as she would not be easily enticed out of the core again. He dropped the data chip to the ground. At least he hadn’t told anyone about the meeting this time. He wouldn’t need to spin a web of lies to cover yet another failure. That was something. He set off back to his building, avoiding the puddles and cracks in the pavement. There was none of this in the core, no filth, no shame, no desperation. He wouldn’t need to beg for the time or favors of others; he would be the one with the power. Still, there were other promising leads, other possibilities. He would have his day; he would have it all.