by Ernst Schoen-Rene
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Jake looked at his uniform, but resisted asking why a Muni driver couldn’t just get on Muni for free to get to his job. This sort of interaction was constant in San Francisco. It always made Jake feel even sadder and more hollow inside, having to turn down requests for help left and right. If there was only one person who would ask for money, it would be simple — a folded dollar in the palm — but they were legion.
He reached into his pockets in order to turn them out as a display of impecuniosity. He was distracted for a moment by the presence of a folded piece of paper in his left pocket, but he withdrew his hands with a shrug and sheepishly muttered, “sorry bud.” He had a brief jolt of himself handing a panhandler a twenty, and he felt guilty. He couldn’t tell if it was a glitch or an invention.
“If you’d like to give me your badge number, I can inform the Municipal Railway that you will be delayed,” said the bench helpfully.
“Shut your hole, bench!” the Muni driver snarled and stomped away. Jake didn’t feel so bad after that.
He opened his palm and looked at the piece of paper. It was lined in blue, torn from a notebook and folded many times. Opening it up, he saw two things written on it. One was “One of the two is not your own” written in what he assumed was his own hand. The other, written further down and diagonally across the lines in a woman’s hand as if it had been written in haste was “He’s not your friend.”
Suddenly he was in a bright kitchen, taking heavy linen paper invitations out of a box and folding them. He felt a surge of happy anticipation. Then the glitch left, and he was sitting on the bench again.
Feeling a little desperate, Jake decided to consult the bench. “Bench, what do you know about the side effects of memory extraction?”
“Thank you, I’d be happy to help!” replied the bench. “Memory extraction: Invented by artificial intelligence trailblazer J. Connor in 2018, the process of extracting discrete memories and digitizing them involves taking a high precision MRI scan of activated regions..”
“Yes, yes,” said Jake, “skip to the side effects.”
“When done with care, selective memory extraction rarely has side effects. However, when done in bulk without sophisticated algorithms and by an inexperienced technician, memory extraction can cause many psychological problems. Among these are paranoia, hallucinations and even motor-control breakdown. Subjects report a loss of the sense of self and damage to what ancients would call ‘the ego’.
“Bulk extraction was banned in 2022, although there remains a thriving black market that has increased the use of untrained technicians..”
“The ego.” The phrase took Jake directly into one of his two memory-rooms, despite his best efforts. What did the note in his pocket mean? Was one of these memories an implant? This one seemed, at first, as an unlikely choice for purchase. It was a place of deep, black shame. In it, he was drunk. The room was blurry. He could feel sweat clogging the pores on his scalp. A woman with bad skin was performing fellatio on him. They were the only two in the room, but there was the thumping beat of a stereo system playing dance music beyond the room, and the hollering blare of a crowd beyond. He had a deep sense of wishing he was anywhere else.
He retreated back to reality, but the specter of the memory remained. It wasn’t a glitch, and it left him with the sense that he’d done something terribly wrong, something he could never undo.
When would the bus come? He sat on his hands and tightened his lips, feeling as if he was exposed on a high ledge. It was hard not to panic. He wanted to run back down to the warren of streets below so that he could hide. He didn’t even know what he was running from or to. What had he been that had put him in such a dire straits? Why had he written himself a note, bought himself a ticket? Was it all just the random walk of a broken mind? Was he running away or looking for answers?
“Bench, can you access any records about me?”
“I’m afraid that I have a limiter installed that prevents the disclosure of personal information.”
“Public records? Can you look at public records if I give you a name?”
“A small subset of them, yes. That is possible. You could also play archaic video games on my monitor while you wait.” He looked down and realized there was a tiny screen that was smeared with some sort of orange-brown goo. A few pixels were barely visible beneath the filth.
“Uh, no thanks. Let’s see. Christine.”
Jake was back in room number two in his mind. There she was, looking up at him with such trust. Her hair was up, but a single strawberry blonde curl had slipped out. She looked radiant. Someone, a friend, was finishing their vows. “Christine, do you take—”
Jake looked up at the massive trees around him. This was a rich person’s wedding, the current Jake thought, wandering through the memory. I must have bought this memory. There’s no way I could have afforded such a wedding. The memory felt so full of happiness and promise but, of the two, he was certain it was the fake.
Happiness was easy, but it took a master of the nuance of memory technology to implant shame and despair convincingly. There were some weirdos who would pay for such a thing, but the only people who could fake those dark emotions were the original developers of the memory-transfer technology itself. Tech superstars like that weren’t going to be selling memories on the public cloud.
“I’m going to need more than a first name,” said the bench, with a hint of digital impatience.
“I don’t even know that I want to know anything.” Jake left the protesting bench to look over the edge of the elevated terminal. He’d thought he’d heard a bus approaching, but it was just an automated sidewalk steamer negotiating a tricky path between the prostrate forms of unconscious homeless people.
How had he gotten to this point? What sort of man would sell all of his memories but for two? In the throes of despair, why would he have purchased such a gauche wedding memory? Something must have gone truly wrong for him at some point.
The thing was, he didn’t even feel a strong urge to pull himself out of the hole he was in. Simply removing memories can’t change the fundamental wiring of character; he knew that. He must have given up. There was no way to avoid it, he must have been a bad person, and this was the way his life was going to play out.
Then again, bad people wouldn’t feel remorse, would they? He felt hollowed out and despairing, but he also felt guilt and remorse. For what, he didn’t know. The one memory that was so full of remorse had no context. It was blurry, smudged with the taint of heavy drinking. It was indistinct. Why had he kept it? Why had he written a note to himself about his stupid, fake wedding video. Was there even any reason to travel to Fresno? Jake’s black gloom settled down like a fog in July.
His phone rang in his pocket. It was Fresno calling. Stormee again?
“Hey, look, sorry for being a bitch earlier. It weighs on me, you know, but I just get so sick of you or Christine calling whenever you have a freakout.”
“Yeah, no problem. I think I should apologize, too; I haven’t been myself recently.”
“I should never have let Tim talk me into that. I don’t usually go down on customers at my shows, but he was just waving so much money around. I heard he and Christine are a thing, I saw it in the paper. So they deserve each other, right? She’s psycho, always calling me up saying I ruined her marriage. If it makes you feel better, Tim couldn’t even get it up for real.”
“It doesn’t, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“Cool,” Stormee sniffed on the other line, like her nose had been running for weeks. “Just don’t call me if you freak out again, okay? Can you do that?”
“I’m trying my best,” said Jake, “but I still have questions.”
“Cool, cool,” Stormee seemed to drift away from the phone. There was the sound of a sink running, and then the line went dead.
So much about this seemed so wrong to Jake. Tim? He didn’t feel like the sort of person who would be friends with someone named Tim, let alone someone who paid extra for blowjobs from strippers. What did it feel like to be friends with someone named Tim? Jake couldn’t put his finger on it, but it didn’t feel right. He wished he had some Interlace now more than ever. The past was unpleasant and messy, and he didn’t want to know about it.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Why are you so formal all of a sudden?” The bench had never used an honorific before.
“I’m ashamed to say that I overheard a small portion of your conversation with that... lady.”
“What of it?”
“It’s just that now I have another name with which to narrow the public records search, and—”
“Hold on, is that my bus? I thought I might grow old and die here.”
A green bus with bright yellow trim around the windows rumbled up the ramp. The spokes of its wheels were painted red white and blue. Skeletons danced all over its sides. It was hissing ominously from the front, and spraying green fluid from its radiator. It stopped nearby, but not at one of the berths and died with a rattle. The driver got out with a comically large wrench in his hand. He hit the side of the bus with the wrench and started swearing at it in Spanish.
“What are my chances of going to Fresno now?” Jake muttered. He didn’t know why he’d even cheered the bus’s arrival. Two minutes ago seemed like a time down the end of a long, dark hallway for any heavy Interlace user.
“I would put the odds of that bus leaving within a 15-minute window of its scheduled departure time at 45 to 1. But never mind that,” said the bench, whose colloquial ability seemed to have improved during Jake’s time on the platform. “I have some important information for you.”
“Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. There’s obviously nothing for me in Fresno.”
“A quick search of marriage announcements reveals some fascinating information. Let me quote, ‘Timothy Antongin and Christine Diaz wed in a small ceremony at the Nob Hill Supper Club. The wedding was in stark contrast to the bride’s lavish first wedding to neural research mogul Jacob Connor. That marriage was rocked by allegations of infidelity and dissolved after a mere three weeks. Mr. Antongin, who co-founded the AI behemoth Crystal Networks with Mr. Connor, served as best man at that wedding but was the lucky groom a few months later.”
“Do all the AI appliances in the city read tabloid blogs?”
“This means you are quite the celebrity. I am honored that you have taken a moment of your time to sit on me.”
Jake thought about trying to follow what the stupid bench was getting at, but he didn’t see the purpose. Nothing in the past mattered. To look back was to invite more shame and humiliation, he was certain of it. He didn’t know how he had convinced his previous self that buying a bus ticket and trying to sleuth out the past was a good idea. He couldn’t believe that he’d conned himself so thoroughly with empty hope.
“I don’t want to hear about it! I’ve been waiting for a bus to take me away to some godawful wasteland, and I don’t know why, both literally and figuratively. I do know that it’s been an exercise in stupidity, like everything else I try to do, apparently,” Jake snarled.
“Forbes called you ‘The genius to catch’.”
“Whatever. I’m going to see if I can find some Interlace this early in the day.” Jake didn’t know if he could get anything for his fake wedding memory. The other one was too harrowing for anyone to want, that was for sure.
As he trudged away from the bench, the bench called out, “But we’ve just been reunited, and I have so many questions!” That triggered a glitch. For another head-rattling moment, Jacob saw himself standing next to a bench just like this one, but polished and new. He was shaking the hand of someone official-looking while his photo was taken.
Then he was back, teetering on the edge of the stairwell, wondering if the homeless man was still passed out beneath him. He groaned and reached for the railing to steady himself.
Copyright © 2019 by Ernst Schoen-Rene