by Ernst Schoen-Rene
The bus station had been designed to be a palace. It looked like a Voltron, a giant robot, had molested a boa constrictor, producing as offspring a wide, winding elevated busway sheathed in perforated metal skin. Jake stepped up from the metal auxiliary staircase and surveyed the nearly empty lot.
Maybe it had once been the home base for a mighty bus fleet; he didn’t know. Right now, the station had only a single low bus parked in its berths. The bus was missing one of its wheels and was painted in gaudy orange, yellow and black, in the crazed style of all the Mexican bus lines that were the sole bus service in or out of San Francisco.
He’d arrived in a self-driving car that was too rickety and weak to make it up the ramp. He had needed to take the stairs himself, leaving the humming sound of the self-driving car’s over-exerting circuits and the confusing Mandarin chatter behind. No one who could afford better took self-driving cars these days. The rich rode bikes, recording every bit of exercise for playback later and bragging rights at juice-cleanse bars. The poor walked or crowded into creaking Muni buses. Only the hopelessly clueless took self-driving cars.
Halfway up the stairs, there had been a man sleeping with his head hanging from a step at a terrible angle. The traveler shook the collapsed man gently until he grunted and shifted his head up into a marginally more comfortable position. “There you go, buddy.”
He’d climbed the rest of the pungent stairs. Now, missing the end of the railing with his hand, he looked down and remembered that his hand held a ticket to Fresno with a phone number scrawled on it. Had he known he had the ticket? He shook his head, trying to shake clarity from his jumbled and limited memory. The phone number was a mystery. Obviously he’d need to call it when he arrived in Fresno. He’d need to find a phone.
The makers had planted trees along the asphalt of the bus terminal, but all that remained were shattered stalks, long reclaimed by pigeons and ivy. This bus station was where San Francisco flushed away its refuse with one-way tickets to any approximation of “home” a man could give.
He looked at the ticket in his hand again. For a second, the ticket dissolved and scattered into seabirds bobbing on the waves, a memory glitch. He sat down heavily on a bench and wished he had just one last dose of Interlace. But that was it, wasn’t it? He didn’t know why he had bought himself a ticket, but he guessed it was to get out of town, find someone to help — family maybe? — and be away from temptation in a city where high-tech drugs were all too easy to buy. Maybe he could find a way to start again after his life had so obviously taken a downward turn.
“Hello, traveler, and welcome to our fair city,” said the bench. He jumped. Most of the AI kiosks had been bashed to pieces by strung-out homeless people. Rightly so, in his opinion. They’d been strange and dated when they’d been installed; now they were straight-up anachronisms. How did he know? You could take a man’s memories, but the technology didn’t exist yet that could take his opinions.
“Can it,” he grumbled to the bench.
“Going to Fresno, I see.” The bench carried on, heedless.
“What makes you say that?”
“AI’s draw inference from a variety of inputs.”
“Only one bus today?”
“There is that element of the equation,” said the AI bench, ruefully.
“Where’s the off switch?” He looked around the side of the bench, but the internals were wrapped in thick steel, no doubt to keep out junkie copper thieves.
“I imagine you’d like to spend some time with your thoughts. Well, I know that can be a lonely occupation. I do indeed,” the bench burbled along. “Perhaps your mood would be improved if you had a pleasant conversation.”
“Don’t have much in the way of thoughts.” The traveller squinted at the top of the nearest Bay Bridge tower, shimmering in the late-winter air pollution. Even though it was tinted yellow in the smog, he felt a sliver of hope lay in that direction.
He looked down at the cuff of his shirt, which was frayed but had been made from expensive cloth. His shoes, too, were made of lightweight but supple vitro leather, the high-end kind, although they were scuffed, and the left was missing its laces. Suddenly he was sitting on a rough-hewn bench in a cacophonous restaurant, laughing with a group of good-looking twenty-somethings: another glitch. He grunted in discomfort and put his hands over his head.
“Would it help if I sang you a song?” The bench asked.
“When does the goddamn bus arrive?” growled the man.
“It’s scheduled for 11:30, but the Fresno bus line has a mean delay time of 73 minutes, with a maximum delay of one day and seven hours.”
“Daisy, daisy, tell me your answer, do,” began the bench, its singing voice as flat as its speech.
The man stood up and walked away from the droning, irritating bench. Whose idea had these things been anyways? First Street in San Francisco seemed as if it were floating just out of reach. There was a familiarity to it all, but it was like a dream in which you’re talking to your wife, but she looks like another person and is wearing a hat you know she would never choose. It was a common symptom for anyone who’d dipped in back-alley memory-brokers’ pools too many times.
He thought about the last dose of Interlace, which had worn off on the ride over. He could almost cling to the feeling it left, a tiny residue of the effects. Interlace wasn’t a wild ride sort of drug. It made him feel he was in the right place, that he belonged. It made all the queer déjà vu and foggy past of the memory-sick seem unimportant. It acted by taking away the sense of past, which left him feeling as if the infinite present was correct and appropriate. When the past doesn’t exist, anxiety and regret drain away.
The hip, terminally jaded crowd loved to have Interlace parties. For twenty-somethings who thought they’d seen it all, there was something irresistible about everything being fresh and new, everything and everyone without context. At these parties, they’d just mill around wide-eyed, introducing themselves again and again. However, he just wanted to be alone when he was forgetting.
He thought about the ticket and why he’d bought it. Maybe it was because there was too much temptation to sell anything for another hit. He walked back to the stupid bench, thinking to distract himself. For a second, the wind was rushing in his ears, and he was hanging giddy from a zip line over a green valley. He stumbled, and caught himself on the bench with one hand.
“Hello, traveler, and welcome to our fair city,” said the bench. “You’ve returned. Care to share a fascinating anecdote with me?”
“I feel like we’ve had this conversation already.”
“Oh, don’t worry, my privacy filters will prevent me from sharing any recognizable details about you. I’m only collecting piquant stories to liven up my conversational algorithms.” Whoever had designed the bench had either been on the spectrum or had thought that non-sequiturs would trick people into believing they were talking to an intelligence.
He sat down on the chatty bench. “You’re going to be disappointed, I’ve got none of those any more.” He looked at the ticket. Whose number was it? Would it lead to help, or had his Interlace mind simply scrawled the number of a dealer in Fresno?
He realized that he did have a phone weighing down the breast pocket of his shirt. Had it been there this whole time? All these doubts made him think it might be a good idea to call the number first before taking a lumbering Mexican bus ten hours to Fresno. He was starting to feel less sure about Fresno. It was so far away. Was he looking for salvation or would going to Fresno be sinking further into the hole? He’d stuck a Post-It note with arrows representing the unlock pattern on his phone. Not that he needed it; muscle memory was a real phenomenon.
He dialed the number, waited for the audio ad to play, and then heard the ring. The voice on the other side was instantly angry. “Jake? Is that you? I told you to stop calling me. I never want to talk to you or Tim again!”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Stormee, you moron. I don’t need your drama. Delete my contact!” She hung up.
“Old friend?” asked the bench.
“Doesn’t seem that way,” Jake said. He’d never really forgotten his name, but at the same time, he’d been a little unsure about it. Turning it over in his mind, the name seemed right. The name Tim also left tracers in his mind, but they led only to a general sense of revulsion.
“Can you look up a number?” he asked the bench.
“Stormee Diamond, 12 Eucalyptus Court, apt 5E, Fresno.” The bench paused, and then clicked a few times. “Oh my, her Instagram has a number of quite racy virtuals. She seems to be involved in the adult entertainment industry in some manner.”
That makes sense, thought Jake, given the combination of Fresno and Instagram. She was living up to the stereotype. Was he really going to Fresno to see a stripper? What sort of degenerate was he?
He wished he had some more Interlace to take the edge off. He wished that his mind wasn’t so empty, that he hadn’t spent so much time going to the memory brokers. He wished for a clean wind to take him up over the Embarcadero towers and to float him out to sea until he didn’t care that he couldn’t remember.
He really must be an incredible loser. He rubbed his hand over his face in despair. He had no control over his impulses, he berated himself. He’d become an addict, he’d emptied his mind, and in his final act, he’d bought a ticket to go see a stripper in a god-awful corner of the interior. What was wrong with him? He could only take solace in the fact that he couldn’t remember if he’d actually had any potential to waste. He really hoped he hadn’t made some terrible mistake.
There was one other place he could go for solace, but he didn’t want to waste it now. Of all the chambers of memory in his mind, there were only two that were occupied by extant memories. He must have sold the rest to buy Interlace, spiraling the drain. He tried his best to avoid those memories, saving them the way a child might keep for later the last few crumbs of a cookie in his pocket.
All over the Tenderloin, among the brothels and the check-cashing places, there were memory brokers. They were sometimes little more than the front-room of a terrible basement apartment, rigged up with a single neural hood. Memories were uploaded to the cloud and bid on.
There were lots of East Asian and Indian memory farms, but the real money was in unstaged American memories. Not private island money, but enough money to keep a man in Interlace and bottom-barrel strippers for a day or two as long as he didn’t mind the tiles that supported the mosaic of his past dropping away into anonymous blackness.
The thing was, the good memory technicians didn’t work in the black market. Whoever had been doing work on his mind had not been subtle. Jake knew they hadn’t spent any time retraining his supervisory ganglia, that they had paid no attention to the fit of fuzzy logic around the borders of his memories the way a real memory hacker would have. It had probably been one of those places where they just hoovered everything up and put it in the cloud, hoping for whatever windfall came. If some sicko wanted memories of Jake clipping his nails, they didn’t care. Money was money.
Across the vast expanse of bus-free concrete, Jake became aware of a man in a torn Muni uniform ambling toward him. He sized the Muni driver up, accepting that the conversation would end in a request for money.
“Hey, pal. Listen, I’m late for work and my car broke down. I need ten dollars to take the streetcar down to the Muni lot. Can you help me out?”
Copyright © 2019 by Ernst Schoen-Rene