By David A. Gray
Teleport 2018 science fiction contest- 2nd place
I found Curtis hiding out in his memory of the slow dance at prom, like the predictable ones do.
I should feel bad about stomping in and changing scenes like this forever, but if these “strollers” were pulling their weight in the real world, I’d not be hunting them along their own neural pathways into the past.
The memory had the sheen of having been revised; no high school kid’s tux ever fit that well, and his date had a glamorous overlay that was almost cartoonish. Curtis was just another loser, re-skinning his own memories to make them better. I felt better then; mild loathing always makes the job easier.
I stepped out from behind the papier mache “coral” arch, dislodging a bright blue lobster with my elbow. Clumsy. That detail would be imprinted in Curtis’s new memory of the event, though he’d probably not be back down this far again for a while as punishment for his crime.
He, Curtis Barnard II, just another washed-up banker who lost it all when the Memory Stroller boxes came out and turned the global economy upside down in a month to be exact, saw me just as he was leaning in for the kiss. I admit it, I got a kick out of denying him his triumphant moment just this once out of what was probably thousands of repeats. Because time in memory runs different from the real. It’s like a dream that happens right before you wake and that you know was only a heartbeat long, but seems to be hours.
He froze, as they usually do, puzzled by this interloper in non-period clothes. You can appear in any outfit you please with some mental effort, but it’s easiest to stick to what your physical body is used to and a mistake to waste concentration trying to blend in. I’d cleaned up a little. My real body needed a haircut, and my coveralls were dirty from when we’d had to blow the door to the warehouse the Nostalgia-peddlers had set up in. It would have been rude to wander through this cheesy wonderful Under The Sea prom diorama looking dirty. So my hair was pushed up into a curly beehive with some sparkles in; it was the least I can do.
I thought Curtis was about to run and guessed I’d have about three seconds before he remembered he was in his own memories and could stroll away up or down the timeline with a hard thought. That would give me time to push the little jangler rod against him, shock the real-life Curtis’s gray matter, and send him sputtering up to real life, where he was hooked up to a sterile feed-’n-wipe machine with all kinds of tubes on a plastic cot bed in a shuttered warehouse by the docks. No wonder they never want to resurface. The jangler isn’t really there, of course, any more than I am, but it’s a recognizable tool, a memory-optimized virtual representation of the neural jolt they get in the real world to be exact. If you haul them up without allowing them to rationalize it, you get a drooling vegetable. We have enough of those in the real world already.
But Curtis surprised me. He snarled, pushed his date at me, and then fled. She screamed and took me down in a tangle of nylon dress and curses. Memories are mutable, you see? The brain is one smart organ and will go to heroic lengths to keep the people and scene consistent.
It took me a second to roll free and go after him. He was at the gym hall door, pushing at it uncertainly; this was the stage where they realized that their memory had limits. What was beyond the door? What time of day was it? Had it been locked or not? It’s one thing to take refuge in a cherished memory, another entirely to build it out and make it believable. A lot of times, if you look closely, the fine details are blurry anyways. Give Curtis credit; his recall and imagination had painted the scene here in vivid and impressive style.
I’d have gotten him there and then too if the stranger hadn’t appeared. That kind of interruption shouldn’t have been possible; there were a dozen of us spooks in the raid, and the others would all be busy wiring into other suspects. The escorting security detail would be keeping the warehouse secure, as we were sitting ducks standing there blank eyed. So this rangy figure in the dark onesie must have been a memory glitch, caused by a faulty box, or maybe a jacker somewhere else in the building. I cursed, decided against coming back out. In the time it took me to report what I’d seen and get back under, Curtis would be hiding in some out-of-the-way corner of his memories and I might never find him. I brandished the jangler at the newcomer and then he? backed off, hands wide, then faded to nothing. That confirmed it: jacker. Probably a half-hearted security measure from the crooks who offered the Nostalgics service, along with the med care and nutrition service.
I was right behind Curtis when he strolled, so got hauled along. Memory is tricky, and though the boxes are tech wonders, they’re not as smooth as the PR people would like you to think. Sure, they gave the world’s population an escape from the daily grind, when all the promise of space travel had yielded a big fat zero, and we’d seriously soiled the bed as far as our own planet went. What was the first slogan that appeared as tagging and graffiti? “Look in, not out.” And humanity sure did, with gusto, all 15 billion of them. But the boxes are just machines, like any other, and there are glitches that people like me can use to our advantage. Actually finding a stroller in the first place, deep in millions of memories, that takes a lot of care, research, and intuition. Most people are predictable, thank the gods. And a few are really smart, like me.
The bouncy castle was huge, made of rich red and blue panels, with inflated turrets from which fluttered extravagant banners. The sound of joyful shrieking competed with the thrum of the air compressor and the chirping of birds in the summer sky. I couldn’t see Curtis at first; there must have been 100 kids in there, leaping impossibly high. Parents hovered on the outskirts, laughing and happy, with a couple of blurred faces; that natural self-editing tended to happen when later events made a person less welcome.
I skirted the edge, peering in through the mesh at joyful scene. There he was, rosy cheeked and right in the middle, jumping the highest, yelling the loudest. I was about to put myself in the humiliating position of squeezing through the little entrance flap and trying to catch him at the bottom of a bounce and was wondering if I should take my shoes off like the sign said, when one of the adults shouted at me to stay out. It must have been a residual and particular memory of Curtis’s that had featured some drunk redneck uncle or aunt trying to clamber in and being rebuffed. If a memory was constructed around a particularly strong set of preconditions, then it was sometimes reactive and tricky to circumvent without ripping it to tatters. I had to try to get him down and out, though, and sometimes the only way was to insert yourself and make a scene. Not slick, but needs must.
“Curtis!” I called. “You need to come with me. It’s over.”
He caught my eye, then waking a fraction from the dream that was set in a memory.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” the boy wailed, tears flying from his cheeks as he bounced. “I’m not doing any harm!”
The truth is, he wasn’t doing any harm. None of them were, at least not on an individual basis. When the boxes first appeared, a novelty spun off by accident from a big tech lab, they’d seemed like just the next new fun trend to bring some color to a drab world. You plugged in, sat back and could pick any memories to relive in such detail that it was like you were there. Looking back, the menace was obvious, but these were glum times and people wanted an escape from the daily shit. The trouble was, it was too much of an escape. Too much fun. It spelled the end for tv, movies, video games, books, and pretty much anything else. People couldn’t wait to get home from work or college or school and dive in. So they didn’t wait. Thousands, then millions, then tens of millions of people quit jobs and studies, and tens of millions more fell unemployed when the entertainment sectors collapses, followed by every industry that had depended on people spending time and money on their real lives. The banks followed. And then some governments. And stroller deaths mounted. Time passed differently inside memories, and if you weren’t strong willed enough to make yourself wake, you never did. Millions of people simply gave up, falling into happier times, while their sagging tired bodies starved and rotted. So laws were passed, special cops trained, and people made to remember their responsibility to society. Such as it was.
“Curtis, you need to wake up, earn your time on the box. You need to contribute again.”
How weird was it, shouting advice on maturity and one’s civic duty to a teary-eyed kid in a bouncy castle? Well, I’ve done weirder. And I wasn’t so much trying to debate Curtis as dislodge him from the memory enough that he would let go. He would get a sentence, but not a harsh one. After a spell in med, he would be set to work on something manual and vital, such as cleaning out the houses where we’d found dead strollers and driving the corpses to the incinerators. Or cleaning the city streets of the tide of garbage strollers simply throw out their windows in their rush to get back to the box and the past. It wasn’t easy though, selling the idea that people should come back from that glorious moment when they partied all night on a beach under a full moon at aged 18 to be 50 in a tiny damp city authority house in the bottom of the smog layer. Because these memories are real, so far as your brain’s concerned.
“I’m not going back out there to live like that!” the kid yelled, but he was losing his grip on the memory and sounded confused. I almost had him, when I saw the phantom again. He was stalking me, staying on the opposite side of the bouncy castle. I gripped the jangler and sprinted round the edge to see what he would do. If it was a real jacker and armed, then I’d have a fight on my hands, and the first one to tag the other would be the only one left in the memory. To my surprise, the figure waited. So be it. It’d make a good tale for the guys at HQ later. I’d maybe get a medal. I made it halfway before I ran into Curtis. The kid was trying to run again and had slipped out of the castle. He strolled right as he knocked the legs out from under me, pulling me along.
I cursed. I’d been knocked back into the real, was standing in the warehouse again, surrounded by rows of cots. That happened sometimes when the quarry was on the edge. The what? whiplashed back and forth to the real like a runaway truck you were clinging on to, and you tumbled off on a bend. I turned to demand the tech wire me in again and paused. There were no techs, no security guys, and the cot beside me was empty. But the big space wasn’t. Over there, by the door, was a trim woman in a business suit. She was talking to Curtis. Adult, burned-out, stodgy, balding Curtis. The sly fox had come here, to his first meeting with the criminals that ran this place. If he hadn’t bowled into me, bringing me along for the ride, I’d not have thought to look here of all places. My first thought was it was so grim and mundane that Curtis chose it because he could hide here in it for a while no matter how uncomfortable. That was a neat trick. You could only revisit memories that were vivid regardless of how accurate they were, so most people’s day to day past was too routine and lacking in detail to latch on to. And only a madman or a certain kind of mind chose the nightmare memories. I’d been in more than a few, and those jobs had in turn given me my own nightmare memories.
But then I saw his face. He wasn’t despairing: he was jubilant. This must have been the moment when Curtis saw a way out, and he’d been truly happy.
“So how long will this…” Curtis waved a dismissive hand down his stained shirt and pants, his tired carcass. “Last? And how long will that be in my memories?”
The woman pursed her lips. “To be frank, all our clients here have agreed to the open-ended rental as long as your money lasts. After that, it’s lights out, assuming some civil disturbance doesn’t burn the whole city down in the meantime. In stroller time, that’s a few billion happy memory replays, give or take. So, effectively, forever.”
She held out a slim pad. “Touch here, Mr. Barnard, and we have a deal. We can arrange a date for your departure, that allows you time to sort out your…”
“Now is good,” Curtis said. “There’s nothing out here for me, any more.”
That was a common enough thing, people upping and going to a Nostalgics clinic or squat or one of the new offshore habs where it was legal to wither away for years, blissfully unaware. They reckoned there were near half a million abandoned homes in New York City alone now and another million apartments whose occupants only surfaced from the box to accept drone deliveries of intravenous nutrients and meds. Maybe a few months of breaking down doors and bagging up rotting, smiling corpses or helping atrophied stroll addicts to walk outside in the grimy sunlight again would cure Curtis of his wish to live in his head. But I wasn’t even convincing myself.
I moved in slowly this time, keen to avoid another tumble up or down memory lane. Curtis was looking around, tears in his eyes, and hadn’t seen me yet.
I spoke softly: “Curtis, we need to go. We can help you, you can earn stroll time again.”
He didn’t reply or even see me. I frowned. He was maybe in a deep loop. I opened my mouth to speak again, but another voice interrupted me.
“Agent Rae, we need to go. We can help you, you can earn stroll time again.”
What kind of insane tech glitch was this? I wheeled, expecting to see a tech wired in, but it was the shadow again. He stepped forward into a weak puddle of light from a hanging glow spot, and I saw his coveralls were much the same as the ones I wore in the real world.
“We don’t like jackers impersonating a cop,” I growled, palming my jangler.
The newcomer spread hands wide, palms down.
“Rae, I know why you did this. We all do. Hell, most of us on the squad would think of doing the same. But we need you in the real, not hiding down here. Your body will only heal if you’re driving it, not lying hidden in a cheap motel.”
I shook my head, angry at the interruption, but felt something shredding at the edge of my perception. “I need to bring Curtis back…”
“You brought Curtis back a year ago, Rae. He’s probably worked off his sentence in the real by now. We’ve been looking for you since you vanished a month after the accident. This isn’t his memory, it’s yours. Try and remember so we can go back up together.”
I sat down with a whuff of breath. Even down here, old habits die hard. Things seemed less substantial, a background noise like canvas flapping in a wind. Like when a memory came loose, and the edges frayed. I remembered now. Curtis had come quietly in the end, and I’d walked him to the copter on the roof. I’d been the only one that day to come up with a winner. Then next case, I’d walked into a booby trap, a whole family strolling in their basement, being nibbled by rats with a tank of boiler oil rigged to an improvised trip and explosive, so any interfering cops or social workers couldn’t bring them back up. I remembered burning and screaming, then an airlift and nothing more.
“Come with me, Rae. We’ll get you back on your feet, okay?”
I nodded, fell up into the dark.
I slipped in my own sweat, going back down a stair or two, barking my shin, and opening up barely healed scar tissue. I felt the tears come and roll over, counted to ten before trying again. Each step took five seconds going up and double that coming down. There were 20 steps from the precinct basement to the back office. I had 100 boxes to carry up. I looked at the box I’d dropped, saw the corner torn on the stair, the contents peeking out. Confiscated stroller boxes, en route to be burned. It was a mark of trust and how far I’d come that I was allowed to carry them unsupervised. I knew that the little units had residual charge and wondered how it might feel if I just slipped the little pads on my temples, just for a moment. The bliss of strolling for the first time in nearly a year would itself be the stuff of happy memories. I froze, heart thumping, looked around wildly. Was that a slight sheen on the light streaming through the dusty window, making it more golden that it had been? Could I hear the distant sound of blowing canvas, or was it just helicopter noise muted by the walls?
“Are you there? Am I here?” I asked the empty basement.
I picked up the box and put one foot on the stair in front, took a step from the dark towards the gray light.
Gray is a Scots-born journalist and creative director who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
He only recently started writing in the genre he has practically inhaled since a child, and his stories have been accepted by Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Starship Sofa, Ahoy! Comics, Metaphorosis, Children of the Skyanthology, Chrome Baby, and others. His first two novels – Moonflowers,and Neverthere– are in contract to print in 2019.
He has never found out who to thank for the local library in the small mining town of his childhood having such a rich sci-fi and fantasy section.