Every day, Daniel Schroeder breaks his father’s heart.
While forgetting your problems won’t solve them, it does seem like it would make life a heck of a lot easier. Daniel thought so once. Now he knows better. He and Big Dan have always been close, which makes it all the more difficult to break the daily news: the last five years were nothing like his father remembers.
They’re both professionals in the memory field—they even run their own memory palace. So shouldn’t they be able to figure out a way to overwrite the persistent false memory that’s wreaking havoc on both of their lives? Daniel thought he was holding it together, but the situation seems to be sliding out of control. Now even his own equipment has turned against him, reminding him he hasn’t had a date in ages by taunting him with flashes of an elusive man in black that only he can see.
Is it some quirk of the circuitry, or is Daniel headed down the same path to fantasy-land as his old man?
Notes rang through the building…but not the sort you’d expect, given the concert hall, and the stage, and the humongous grand piano.
Not even the whole song. Only that first chord. Over. And over.
Already, it felt like a jackhammer to the base of my skull. I’d only just shown up to collect her—imagine the torture if I’d been riding along with the client the whole time. Since I’m just a mnemographer, a lowly thought sherpa, it’s not my job to hand-hold them through their entire four-hour neural adventure. The mnems I run at Adventuretech are quick-fade prefab packets for entertainment purposes only. My objective? Get in, get out, and get on with my life.
Now if only I could unhear that damn water torture of a chord.
The budding pianist on the stage was Sophie Wolinski, age 54. Her objective? To succeed at something. Not now, of course. Everyone knows that for the flap of a butterfly’s wings to cause a tidal wave, it needs to have happened back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. In Sophie’s case, that appeared to be around the age of twelve or thirteen.
I’d tapped in at the back corner of the concert hall. The red velvet curtains framing the stage had substance and volume—but only the parts that faced Sophie. From where I currently stood, the surfaces she couldn’t see were completely flat. I made my way up the aisle. The two-note chord kept plinking away, never varying in volume or rhythm as she labored over the piano keys. It was tempting to plug my ears, though it wouldn’t do me any good. I wasn’t actually hearing the notes—I was simply picking up on her manufactured memory of striking them—though I did have ears. Despite the fact that I’d been guiding people through mnems as long as we’ve had the shop, I still showed up in mnem as myself: Daniel Schroeder, and not a disembodied brain or a point of light. A shrink could probably read something into it. I liked to think it was because I had a healthy self-image.
I retained quite a bit of myself in mnem, since my physical body was relaxed, but still conscious. More of my gray matter was firing; this presence of mind was the thing that allowed me to see all the flaws beneath the fantasy veneer in a way the clients never did.
The audience didn’t seem to notice the fact that Sophie’s concert sucked, either. I stole a quick glance at the packed house. “All men” was my first thought—and given the fact that I’d had nothing to do with men since my last guy ditched me, ostensibly because my stubble annoyed him (Jesus, Daniel, would it kill you to shave once in a while?) I couldn’t help but check them out. Yeah, they’d be creepy. Mnem populations always were. Not to the client, of course—the cast of characters was made up of their memories, after all. But to outsiders, like me…waaaay creepy.
Sophie’s audience didn’t disappoint.
The men’s faces were clear enough, which wasn’t always the case. But as I looked from one to the next to the next, I realized each one was actually the same face. Bland. Doughy. Not much by way of a chin. Hardly the stuff of fantasies—which only made sense. My shop provided the fantasy elements—in this particular instance, the concert hall. Sophie’s cortex supplied the rest.
Bland Man in a suit. Bland Man in a Hawaiian shirt. Bland Man in a fishing hat. Bland Man in pajamas. Bland Man naked? Hey, I’m only human, I can’t help but checking—and nudity is one of those things that tends to make a pretty big impression on people’s memories. But no, there were no naked Bland Mans that I could pick out from the rows upon rows in the audience, dozens of him in all. Different iterations, but the same expression. Deep, profound, unflinching concentration…all of it focused on Sophie.
I thought about retrieving Sophie, and in the way of mnems, found myself at the foot of the stairs at the opposite end of the concert hall. I mounted the stairs and approached. Sophie hammered away at the world’s most annoying chord. It would be satisfying to grab her by the wrists, force her fingers into the keyboard, and say, “Play…something…else!” But, no. Although I was only a guide, a ghost in the machine, there was always the chance she’d kinda-sorta hear me, or at least the feedback my hissy fit would produce. And then she’d feel vaguely dissatisfied with her mnem experience. She might not know why. But a sneaking suspicion that something about the mnem hadn’t lived up to her expectations was the only thing she would take away, and I couldn’t afford to leave her with a bad impression.
Like I had outside of mnem with the guy who ostensibly didn’t like my stubble.
I paused beside the piano bench and looked at Sophie’s hands. They crawled over the keyboard like a concert pianist’s, even though the only thing coming out was a two-note chord. A good memorysmith would have included a hint of musical inspiration in the packet for the client’s mind to interpret and use. But we’d picked up this year’s packets secondhand from some Serbian guys selling them off the back of a truck, and though they were perfectly safe, they were also fairly lame.
Sophie wasn’t trying to learn the piano in one sedated afternoon, anyhow. Judging by the faces (or the single face) in the audience, she’d come to gain the approval of Dear Old Dad. Or at least the memory of that feeling of pride.
I scanned the stage, looking for signs of wear, hoping we could squeak another month out of the mnem packet, and doing my best not to dwell on how quickly my well-regarded shop was now tanking. Once upon a time, our mnems were good. But now…. The lower edge of the curtains faded from red to a sort of non-color, artifacts that only got worse every time I played it. At least the overhead lighting still looked good. The hardwood floor, too. And the seating…oh.
In the leftmost seat of the front row, one member of the audience drew my attention, probably because he wasn’t sitting in the same position as all the other Bland Mans.
And probably because he was so…hot. Especially for someone populating the memory of a fifty-something woman.
Maybe he was her son.
Oh yeah, she’d never married or had kids. Part of the Daddy-issues. Okay. Maybe a nephew. A hot nephew, dressed all in black, with dark hair, and spectacular cheekbones.
He had a casually elegant vibe about him, stark and pale. He looked young, maybe thirty or so. Chances were, in the real world, he might be fifty-something himself nowadays, depending on when the client had met him and which parts of her long-term memory she was dredging him up from. Or maybe she’d never met him at all. Maybe he was some actor from a bit-part in her favorite movie. Maybe she’d just seen him in an ad that she looked at a moment too long, an ad that featured a bunch of “cool” young people doing something that wasn’t particularly cool in hopes that someone cool might actually patronize the business. Which wouldn’t be a bad idea for an ad campaign for Adventuretech, which was almost crappy enough to be edgy. Unfortunately, chances were I wouldn’t remember my ad idea…and that was fine. We didn’t have the budget for a new TV spot anyway.
I turned back to the client before that single chord drilled a hole in my skull. “Okay, Ms. Wolinski. Time to go.” Earlier, when I’d ushered her in, I’d planted the exit peg close at hand. I grasped the top of the grand piano and pried it all the way open, and there among the inner workings of the huge instrument, among the hammers and the strings that should have been in motion (but weren’t) the red metal spike protruded from the spruce, exactly where I’d left it. It glinted and pulsed, throbbing like a heartbeat, in time with the client’s physical pulse. It looked as if a buff and sweaty blacksmith had just pulled it from the forge, glowing hot, and driven it there in the middle of a bunch of otherwise mundane memories. Once upon a time, I would have been scared to even touch it for fear of it scorching the skin of my palm.
But in that not-quite-right way of other people’s memories, the exit peg, when I closed my hand around it, felt like nothing at all.
Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I know better. It wasn’t physically there. But it was real—I’d set it myself. I reassured myself for the umpteenth time that the exit peg did exist…and I pulled.
A quick glance over my shoulder as I strained to end the mnem—you’d swear the fancy guy in black was looking right at me. Then again, since I was standing between him and starlet of the show, everybody else on that end of the row seemed to have his eyes on me too. The peg held fast, wiggled, then tore free. I felt something like the clunk of a circuit breaker, and all at once, the memory dissolved. We swirled around a few times, a nauseating merry-go-round of red curtains, white lights and black piano. It should have been smoother. But every time I pulled the peg, the exit was just a bit more logy.
It was probably time to retire Setting the Stage for Success. But then we couldn’t advertise “Over twenty exciting mnems to choose from.” That “exciting” part was already stretching it pretty thin…it wouldn’t do to lose mnem number twenty-one.
I groaned and felt the uncomfortable bulge of the creaky lumbar chair that couldn’t quite hold its supportive position anywhere useful on my back, and I took a few deep, anchoring breaths. My first move, before I was even fully alert, was to peel off my sweaty headgear. The array of electrical connections distributed over the scalp was held in place by an unflattering silicon cap. Long, tangled strands connected its sensors to a receiver antenna, where the low frequency signal from the mnem machine was amplified to tickle the neurons. When the cap wasn’t being worn, lying on the countertop minding its own business, it looked like a beached rubber jellyfish—a robotic man-o-war.
Eyes still closed, I turned the cap around in my hands a few times, finding little jabs where the electrodes had snagged my hair, and told my co-worker, “The curtains in that packet are getting shabby,” before I forgot. Carlotta wouldn’t do anything about them herself—her job was to make sure everyone was still breathing—but speaking the words aloud would shift them to my active memory. “And there was this hot guy in the front row. You think Ms. Wolinski has a nephew?”
Light flashed into my eye as Carlotta thumbed back my eyelid to check my pupil, and her round face filled my field of vision. “How long you been single now?”
I mumbled something that wasn’t actually a word.
“A year, I bet. Unless you count that guy who always looked like his necktie was too tight.” The one who ostensibly hated my stubble. Right. “Why don’t you do like everyone else who works at a memory palace and whip yourself up a memory man?”
“Let’s see.” I sat up, snapped my fingers, and said, “Oh, gee, I know. Maybe because he wouldn’t be real?”
Carlotta ignored me. She’s good at that. “Get with your memory man a few times, you’ll find the confidence to put yourself out there again—for real. Like you used to.”
“Confidence is one of those things people take for granted.” At least until they crash and burn.
“Then just pretend you’re confident. It’s all about the attitude.”
She should know. Her three-hundred-pound badass black self was all about the attitude. “I don’t have time for dating anyway,” I said. “When would I date? I’m working two jobs as it is.”
“Hmph,” she replied. Which meant, “I’m right and you’re wrong, but I can tell you’re too stubborn to admit it.” And could also be said around a mouthful of fries. “Most people don’t consider dating to be a job. Besides, who says you need to date a man? Just sleep with ’em. That’s what I do.” She took my pulse, which excused me from having to discuss anybody sleeping with anybody, and then said, “Okay, Daniel, you’re about as normal as you ever are.”
I peered around Carlotta, through the session room door. The office where Aunt Pipsie watched TV all day while she fielded the occasional phone call was dark, lit only by the lambent glow of the keypad of the multi-line phone. I glanced up at the clock—almost five thirty. “Is that right?”
“What do you think, I’m moving the clocks up so I can go home early?”
“Puh-lease. If I was, would I go announcing it to you? Besides, if I did change that time, I’d need to show up earlier tomorrow morning or else you’d dock me for being late.”
I don’t actually dock her for being late. I just threaten to. I figure that since I’m now the manager, it’s expected of me. “I gotta go.” I stood up and threw on my coat, a green canvas army jacket that’d been my dad’s in Nam. Most of the cigarette burns were his. Most of the wear and tear, mine. “Are all the clients discharged?”
“All but Miz Wolinski. And she’ll be a little groggy yet since you kept her in so long. Her ride’s waiting in the lobby.”
“I didn’t think I…” I looked at the clock again. “How long was I in?”
“About an hour.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I was sitting right here the whole time.”
“All I did was go in, pull the peg, and get right back out.”
Carlotta popped the packet out of the mnem machine and studied it with an exaggerated frown. “Maybe you hit a lag when you were looking at the curtains.”
“I don’t know. Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Just…tell Aunt Pipsie to steer the customers away from that title, if they ask.”
“You gonna replace it?”
“You know where I can find an extra five grand sitting around?”
She primped her fastidiously-straightened hair and said, “Well it better not be out of my Christmas bonus.”
I gave a dry “ha-ha” and let myself out the back door into the rapidly plummeting December chill. Christmas bonus. Right.
Yet another thing I couldn’t afford.