Bankrupt Memories for Auction

Bankrupt Memories for Auction

by Thomas K. Carpenter

 

“The best memories have an air of mystery to them.  The empty child’s room, a flash of eyes the color of glaciers, or a box unopened.”  The old farmer’s wisdom-lined face crinkled in a grin.  “These can often hold treasures worth more than the price paid.  Memories give us a hope to a life misremembered.”

“Of course,” Seph told me with a wink.  “Those tend to be the biggest stinkers, too.”

When I’d come to the Memory Auction for a story, a young woman in a black leather jacket with coffee skin and fierce eyes had told me that Seph had forgotten more about the auctions than anyone else had ever known.

“Okay.  Let’s get started,” the auctioneer began.  He had an acre-sized forehead with a flat-top. It made his head look like a toaster.

Seph straightened his folding chair and leaned forward in his seat.  I tried to look back to the auctioneer, but the look of anticipation on the old man’s face, even with his sagging jowls, drew me in.

“Our first memory is a fourteen peta-byte payload.”  The thirty-or-so in attendance murmured, and the chairs all rattled in concert as everyone shifted forward.

“I take it that’s a big one?” I asked.

Seph nodded to me.

“They’ll put a biggun at the front to get the money flowing early.  A one-four-PB is a sure sign we’re in for a good day,” he whispered.

“Everyone please set your system to receive,” the auctioneer announced.

Shit.  I hurried to find the right settings in the mod I had to download earlier.  A brief loading graphic formed on my eye-screens in the form of swirling sparks and a distant chime rung in my cochlea implants.  The memory hit moments after.

     The sidewalk bounces before me as my feet hammer the sidewalk.  I look down to see my boobs two sizes larger, contained only by a designer top drenched in sweat.  As I wipe a bead of sweat away, the location switches and I’m swatting a tennis ball across a court while a bipedal robot returns it.  As the yellow ball crosses the net, I transition to a glass box high above a horse track.  Chrome mechanical horses stir the dust at each step as they thunder around the oval.  I cheer along with the other pastel-wearing members of my luxury box.  I think my robot horse is winning. 

Yanked out of the memory, I nearly fell off my folding chair, but Seph grabbed me.

“I should have warned ya about the transition.  No easing into these memories,” he said.

I’d downloaded memories before, but usually within the safety of my room.  Tucking a few strands of my errant hair behind my ear, I pulled out my notepad and pen.

“I like a gal who appreciates the old ways,” Seph commented.  His gray eyes twinkled beneath a bushy tangle of eyebrows.  I decided not to tell him my system was recording everything, but notebooks were a journalistic symbol that people still acknowledged.  I’d gotten past more than one police barrier by brandishing a notebook and pen.

The auctioneer cleared his throat.  “The bidding will start at twelve thousand.”

Seph shook his head.  “Over-valued piece of dung.”

I clicked my pen and asked, “How so?  Could she be married to a movie star?”

The other attendants must not have believed as Seph did, because a spirited bidding war erupted.  Seph wrinkled his weathered apricot of a nose.

“Nothing special in those memories,” he explained.  “Kept woman living with all the luxuries of life.  Nothing you can’t buy on the market without all the laying around and pedicures clogging it up.”

I nodded and jotted a few things in my notebook.  “Then why does everyone else want it?”

The bidding had broken the one hundred thousand mark, and three bidders were still in the race.

“The gentleman in the tan fedora will search it for trash and gossip and blackmail the businessmen and celebrities she knew.  Women like that do nothing but talk.”  Seph pointed his gnarly finger at a woman in a lime green dress with too many buttons.  “She’s a gossip-snark as well, and would publish it in the trash-zines.”

I found the third bidder.  A thin man slunk low in his seat, only raising his bid paddle enough to catch the auctioneers notice.

“And him?” I asked.

Seph followed my nod and shook his head. “Don’t know him.  But there are worse things than the other two.”

The bidding ended at one hundred and seventy-three thousand.  The newcomer won the prize.

“You know what the sad part is?” Seph asked.  “The bankrupt woman.  Her husband probably found a younger wife and she couldn’t afford the payments on her memory storage.”

“It looks like she had a pretty good life.”  As a working woman I didn’t have much pity for kept women.

“Perhaps.  But it ain’t right to just throw something away when you don’t have no use for it.”  The valleys in Seph’s face deepened.  “Sometimes people are just down on hard luck and can’t pay the bills.  I understand that.  But to throw ’em away on purpose.  It ain’t right.  Memories define who we are.”

I didn’t have long to consider the old-timer’s words before the next auction started.  The memory was a fragment, so we only got one random sample, the view of a pair of greasy hands welding a frame with bits of servos and wires attached to it.

The bidding started at a couple of hundred.  One bidder tentatively held his hand up after a long pause.  Right before the gavel came down, to my surprise, Seph added his bid.  The other declined, and Seph won the memory fragment.

He grinned and rubbed his callused hands, pleased with himself.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Knowledge,” he said.  “Hands-on work from a mechatronics builder will fetch five times what I paid for it.”

“So you only bid on what you saw?  Not what you thought might be in there?”

“Yep.” He nodded.  “Might even keep that one myself.  Learn something for my farming-bots.”

“Do you always?”

Seph paused and rubbed his whiskered chin.  “Usually.  But not every time.  Sometimes you can see a story that you want to be a part of, so you raise the paddle.”  He smiled.  “It ain’t a thrill ride like the fragments you can buy for cheap these days.  Or a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Life doesn’t work like the immersives, so usually you get a mess of memories that grind down to despair.”

He rubbed his nose and leaned close.  “But if you get lucky.  The results can be magical.”

The auction continued, the toaster-headed auctioneer bringing new memories before them every few minutes.  The excitement from the first auction had faded, and the subsequent ones were dreary snapshots into normal.

The people within them shoveled food or watched personal eye-screens amid cluttered trailer homes.  How these people afforded a cloud-memory service was beyond me?  Half of the mornings memories had no bidders and would be deleted.  I considered one of them, just for the experience, but I couldn’t bring myself to lift the paddle for a memory I didn’t want.  They were far too close to my own dreary lifestyle for comfort.

By the afternoon, I was worn out.  Dipping in and out of people’s lives took a toll.  And I wasn’t the only one.  In groups of twos and threes, the auction-goers took breaks and left the room to rest.  All but Seph.  He sat straight and tall in his seat.  Determined to match his unwavering endurance, I soldiered on.

I nibbled on crackers stashed in my purse and did neck stretches while I waited for the next auction.  Seph patted my leg reassuringly and winked.

The room was half empty when the next memory downloaded.  I’m not exactly sure what triggered my desire to buy it, but it came like a lightning strike.

     A little girl in a yellow sun dress with ebony pigtails scampers across my vision while a pudgy wrinkled puppy nips at the back of her dress.  The girl leaps onto an olive couch with giant tasseled throw-pillows.  The puppy whimpers balanced on its hind legs while the girl perches on the back, face alight with laughter. 

In the next scene, the girl, who has aged a few years, and I repair a robotic cat, re-soldering a wire to the circuit board.  A man sits at a table with a holographic newspaper floating before him.  Before I can blink, I fade into the backseat of a sedan, speeding along a silent highway, giggling with the man from the table and the little girl.  He has dark Persian appeal that makes my heart stir and wears an open-throated burgundy silk shirt.  The front seats are empty and the windows play movies—bright animated features with anamorphic characters. 

When I arrived back in the auction house, Seph was looking at me.

“You want to bid on it, don’t you?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I have a whole library of cat repair, so don’t worry about me.”  He winked.

The auctioneer asked for seven hundred to start.  I knew I could go no more than two thousand, a few days worth of work.  Three bidders jumped into the fray, including the gossip-snark, and the bidding quickly passed a thousand.  A fourth dipped in to push it past one thousand five hundred, and I thought then I wouldn’t be able to get it.

Cautiously I raised my paddle at seventeen hundred.  The gossip-snark with too many buttons eyed me down.  When the auctioneer prompted, I bid again.

Two thousand.

I groaned and raised my paddle again.

The lady left her paddle up and the bidding passed two thousand four hundred.

I decided I couldn’t let the good people in the memories I’d seen be blackmailed by the woman, so I called out a number.

Heads turned to me and I wondered if I’d made a mistake.  I wasn’t sure we were allowed to call out bids.  Seph chuckled.

“Any other bidders?” the auctioneer called.

When no one answered, he slammed the gavel down and yelled, “Sold!  To the young lady in back for five thousand.”

I slunk into my chair and put my hands over my face.  Peaking through my fingers, I checked to see if anyone else was still looking at me.

“That was stupid, wasn’t it?” I asked Seph.

“Everyone has different reasons for why they bid on these memories,” he said.

“At first I wanted to see why that woman had let those precious memories of her family go.  Then I didn’t want that gossip lady to have them.  God knows what she’d do.”

The next auction had started but Seph had turned his chair to mine and taken my hand, patting it softly.  “You don’t have to explain it to me.”

“But I paid five thousand!  That’s three weeks of work!”

Seph’s head tilted back as a hearty laugh burst forth.  The others ignored him.

“And I probably over bid, didn’t I?”

He gave my hand a squeeze and then let go.  “You could have had it for three, but that’s okay.  I’m glad you bought it.  The look on Margaret’s face was worth it for me.”  He chuckled.

After the auction, I gave Seph a hug and thanked him for his guidance.  Talking to him had been like spending time with my grandfather.  He winked again and his tangled eyebrows danced.

He made me promise to send him the video-log of the article and invited me back anytime I wanted.  I told him I wasn’t sure my bank account could take another visit.

I left the little metal cube of memories on my desk when I got home.  I was exhausted from a full day and couldn’t bear to review it.

The next day, showered and fed, I wandered around my tiny apartment rotating the cube in my hands.  My hesitation seemed silly since I’d paid for them, but it felt wrong to invade the woman’s life without her acknowledgement.  I had her legal permission, because she’d signed a waiver form when she’d taken out the account, but I didn’t have her explicit consent.  It was the difference between a police officer invading a house with a warrant, or being invited in.

I wondered if the woman would accept me in her head.  Dizzy from the absurdity, I slumped onto the checkered rug.

“I’m not Jesus, for Pete’s sake.  She’s not accepting me in her heart,” I said to the empty apartment.

Climbing onto the couch, I readied myself to download.  The memory cube had grown heavier as if the woman’s memories weighed as heavy as they were worth.

Keyed to my touch, it accepted my connection and an interface sprang into existence.  A collection of card-sized frames hung in the air, each one a chapter in the woman’s life.  The scenes bristled with activity, and I struggled to decide which one should be chosen first.

My fingers hovered over each one with implied importance.  If this were my life, which chapters would I choose?  Suddenly I wanted to take the memory cube back and tell them to delete instead.

I sulked on the couch with my feet drawn under me trying not to look at the moving pictures.  Feeling like an invader into the woman’s life.

And then I remembered it was no different than an immersive-reality show.  I sighed  and picked a random chapter.

Her life enveloped me.

“Why must you put on their memories?” I say.

At first, I thought she was talking to me.  That I was talking to myself, through her.  But the husband, or the man I thought was the husband, fidgeted at the table.  Rubbing the placemat like it was a genie bottle.  The confusion was palpable

I’d worn memories before, including a few sexual romps, in my younger and more curious days.  In all of them I found speaking the strangest part.  My lips weren’t moving since I hadn’t actually become this woman.  I only had her audio/visual memories recorded through her eye-camera and blown back onto mine.  Yet my own two lips wanted to follow along, but not knowing what was going to be said, they only murmured lightly in a tranced baby talk.

Without making eye contact, the husband says, “Their stories deserve to be known.”

I fling a crumpled napkin at the him.  “But it’s changing you.  Maddy and I don’t want you to use anymore.  Please.”

His black hair has comb marks in neat lines from front to back and his gaunt model checks strike out at handsome angles, but the black rings around his eyes leave him haunted.  A vein pulses across his forehead.  He leaves the room and I sit staring at my wedding ring. 

This wasn’t the idyllic family I was expecting.

The next few hours she read magazines, cleaned the dishes, and picked up her daughter from school.  She fielded calls on the ride, but these were worse than listening in on my mother.  She said nothing of the husband to any of her friends.

I exited to my living room when I realized I was hungry.  I’d find out why they were so unhappy on a full stomach.

I spent the rest of the afternoon recording my video-log, dubbing the auction, and editing out the boring bits.  Seph featured as a star in the proceedings with his words of wisdom.  I even included part of the random memories I’d bought.  The piece would get modest coverage, but I wasn’t a star journalist.  Only a mid-list grinding out the little stories.

Pings about the evening’s festivities from my girlfriend Eudora, sunk my interest in work, and I disappeared into the night forgetting about my purchased memories.

My brain felt like boiled stew the next morning, and I struggled to the kitchen for a cup of stimulants.  After a bowl of cereal, I called up the woman’s life.  With a full body hangover dampening any regrets I picked out a chapter as soon as the interface loaded.

I put on a pleated brown skirt in front of a cabinet mirror.  My face speaks of a quasi-Asian heritage with laugh lines around the eyes that have long ago lost their sparkle.  A pudgy stomach reveals lines of stretch marks and makeup stands out like reddish-orange paint.  I can see the middle-aged insecurity in the way she reviews herself in the mirror.  She is the woman I hope to never become and I want to fix her makeup but she slips on a white chemise and leaves the room.

I fast-forwarded in jumps and starts to find any interactions between her and the husband, but he couldn’t be found within that scene-card.

The little girl from the sample has grown into a preteen and is slumped against a counter in the kitchen gnawing on a piece of toast.  Ebony hair has been parted into a side-braid and henna-tattoos undulate across her arms.   

“Don’t forget to clean up your mess, Maddy,” I lecture.

Maddy grabs her tan cinch-sack and runs out of the room.  “Late for ride, Mom.  You can clean it for me.”

Disgusted by the disobedience, I forward again as the mom slumps into her chair.  The rest of the morning I spend hopping through the chapters to find anything at all worth the five thousand I had paid for it, but I found nothing like the random snippets from the auction.  Frustrated by my colossal waste, I exited and threw the memory cube across the room.

After a sacrificial bowl of chocolate ice cream, I finished up the video-log, sent it to my editor, and pinged Seph.

He answered knee-high in corn with a dusty robot ambling behind him.  “How’re the memories?”

“I think I bought a stinker,” I said.

Um hm, he murmured.

I launched into a list of my grievances, ordered by their relevance to nothing in particular, and ended it with, “It could take me years to find anything worthwhile!”

Seph nodded at each of my points as if I were making a rational argument.  I knew I wasn’t, but the rant felt good.

When I’d finished, his head kept nodding as if he hadn’t realized I’d stopped speaking.  Um hm, he murmured again.  I wanted to be insulted, but his wrinkled calm soothed my anger.  Seph waved to his bipedal robot and it lurched into the corn rows on an errand.

“An expensive scene-recognition program will help you sort through the mess.  That’s what the gossips use, but I’m going to assume you don’t want to spend any more.”  He winked and disarmed my remaining irritation.

“I’ll tell you want you need to do.”  He held his arm up to block the sun.  “Set all the chapters to play in the interface screen at quad speed.  You’ll find that in the options.  Then get a comfy spot and let your eyes unfocus.”

He held his gnarled hand up when my mouth opened to protest.  It sounded silly.

“Think about anything other than the woman’s life.  Eventually, like a tiny sand grain in your shoe, you’ll start to feel which one isn’t right.  Once you get the hang of it, turn up the speed.  You’ll find it works better than the scene recognition programs in the long run.  I do.”

The rows of green corn stalks waved politely as the wind disturbed them.  The robot returned with a silver canister, and Seph poured the clear liquid on his sun-tanned face.

“Thanks, Seph.  I’ll try it.”

“Good luck.”  He winked again.

With the interface spread out before me in a neat grid, curled upon the couch, I set the scenes to play.  At first the thousands of points of movements made me cross-eyed.  I had to shield my vision to rest.  But after I stopped trying to see and let my eyes unfocus, the cacophony of sight didn’t give me motion sickness.

Changes in the scenes drew notice, but the distractions were nothing more than light flashes.  Annoyed by the delay, I diverted myself with counting.  I elongated each number and relaxed each muscle in my body as I’d been taught in yoga-fu class.  When I reached three hundred, I was a pool of water.  Past a thousand, the scene-cards melted into a sea of random motions and color.

I drifted through a haze for a time, the counting long since stopped and then patterns began to emerge.  Afraid I’d spook them, I kept my unfocus and let the meditative state carry me.  Then I reached forward and plucked at a scene and I was her again.

Deep inside the closet, I dig through a neat pile of shoe boxes, rattling each one in turn.  Near the bottom, I find one that sparks me to slip into a cross-legged position.  Removing the lid reveals a treasure of memory cubes.  These are mahogany boxes with azure stained metal clasps at the corners and a glowing blue center.  They speak of handcrafted care with their swirling wood grains and tiny metal rivets. 

An interface appears in the closet, hovering over the toppled boxes.  Swirling in a circular pattern, the chapters number a handful.  Each one has a symbol of thin symmetric lines crossing like an intricate wrought-iron fence.    

Back in my apartment I felt my own arm raise to touch one of the symbols.  Instead, the woman ended the connection to the memory cube and carefully put them back.  My journalistic curiosity had been piqued but the woman had decided not to pry.  Clearly they’d been memories her husband had bought.  I wondered why she’d chosen not to view them.  I had to know more.

Using Seph’s trick, I waited for another scene to draw my notice.  Once again I reached out unconsciously to pluck the scene-card from the grid.

The husband sulks in his seat, stabbing beans from his plate.  The table has been set for two. 

“Hamid.  You’re going to break it.”  My voice is frayed leather. 

Hamid stabs another bean and swallows, his eyes downcast, occasionally glancing to the empty seat. 

“Hamid,” I say, crackling with grief. 

The husband strangles his fork and closes his eyes.  “Don’t push me.”

The tension holds for three long breaths then I fly at him in earnest.  The reaction is an outburst of frenzied anguish, punching and hitting him with fists. 

Hamid blocks most, but doesn’t hit back.  He grabs me in a bear hug, and I give in, sobbing on his shoulder. 

“I hate you,” I whisper. 

A ping from my editor paused the scene.  I had him on priority interrupt so I never missed his messages, but this was one time I wished I had.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and answered.

“Is something wrong?” Chon said when his projection appeared in my room.  My editor was ghetto-Chinese with a thick Jersey accent.

I shook my head, “Allergies.”

“Ahh…,” he said.  “Wanted to let you know your story is up, and it’s getting a good response.  The angle about the gossip-snarks was brilliant.  Villain baiting is a nice tactic.”

“Great.  I’ll check the stats later,” I said.  “I have to go.  Deep into research.”

The realization that I needed space dawned on his face.  “Ciao.”

Left to the quiet sanctuary of my apartment, I set my comms to privacy mode and called up the interface.

I tried Seph’s trick again, but the autohypnotic response didn’t surface.  So instead I relied on my journalist instincts and started piecing together the story of their lives.  I wasn’t sure what I had, but a queasy feeling in my gut told me it was important.

The woman, Liddia Hakimi, was a bored housewife managing the collection of robots that kept her house tidy while the husband, Hamid, worked for a global security company that used remote armored robots to police dangerous areas.

Hamid sold these services to groups around the world.  Remote city-states determined to keep noisy neighbors out, military seek-and-destroy missions or other nasty bits of business that he only hinted at.  Hamid hadn’t actually said anything, but I picked up enough to name-surf more information.

I guessed the memory cubes came from the remote regions he’d traveled.  In one scene, Hamid had just returned from Beihan, a country on the Arabian Peninsula.

As for the young woman, in the early years, Maddy was a bright energetic girl in frilly dresses.  Later on, reincarnated as a teenager, she’d been drained and refilled with hot, black coffee.  Finally, she’s missing from the memories, and Liddia and Hamid frequently blow up like late-autumn showers.

Hamid’s memory cubes, buried in the back of the closet, failed to surface again.  Searching through Liddia’s life for precise moments was like trying to count the flickers of a distant star.  I could piece together an outline of the their lives, but the details remained elusive.

The morning brought a sore back and the scene-cards hovering over me, waiting patiently for me to dig again.  After few sessions of memory mining, I wrung my bleary eyes and called Seph.

Sunk beneath a wide hat, the old-man sucked on a straw sticking out of a silver canister.  Stunted robots with six arms and elaborate weaved baskets on their back, picked through rows of strawberries.

“Excellent story.  Snark-eyed gossip beasts siphoning up lost memories for resale.”  Seph’s hearty laugh warmed me.  “I particularly liked that point of narration.  Of course, I liked wizened farmer preserving knowledge for future generations, as well.”

I’d forgotten about the original story that had led me to buying the memory cube.  My inbox had filled with messages.  Afraid the snark-eyed gossip beasts were among the messages, I’d not bothered to check them.

“Thanks, but that’s not what I came to talk about.”

Seph nodded.  “Those memories got you befuddled?”

Without warning, the flood of my frustrations issued forth, and I explained everything I had found.  “I know there’s a story, or at least I think I do.  What vexes me most is that maybe there is no story.  That maybe the stories are tricks of the mind.  The days are so damningly similar that its hard to tease the interesting bits out.  It’s like the woman’s life had been copied and pasted onto each day.  And worst of all, I wonder if this is what my life looks like?”

I paused, exhausted by my own speaking, hoping my words made sense to him.

Seph winked and smiled at me, and his charm did its magic.  “I’ll send you a special program that will help you unravel your knot.  When you write their story, do me a favor and leave the program out of it.”

My respect for the old farmer grew and the mystery of him deepened.  Maybe I would have to do a story on him later.  If he’d let me.

I thanked him and disappeared back to my apartment, not realizing until I was back he hadn’t answered my questions.

I busied myself with trivial work, checking my inbox, waiting for the program to arrive.  Hundreds of messages blinked.  I watched a recording from my editor.  He implored me to write a story about the little girl’s family.

Way ahead of you, Chon, I thought.

Buried in the messages, a recording from a Liddia Hakimi waited.  My breath caught in my throat.

Soon after a file from Seph came flooding through my bandwidth.

Should I contact the mother first?  I could ask her questions like a proper journalist and stop sneaking through her past or use Seph’s program and laser in on the parts I wanted.  My trepidations about using the memory cube came back.

Without the woman’s narration, would I even understand what I was seeing?  Long stretches of her memories were silent except for the shuffling of her sandals and the occasional servo noises from her household robots.  Her life was even more depressingly empty than mine.

The invasion of her memories struck me as artificial.  I sent my request to Liddia before I could change my mind.

The response was immediate and left me naked without a question prepared.

Liddia’s projection appeared next to my table.  She was more beautiful than I had seen in occasional glances in the mirror.  Untidy eyebrows had been tamed to fierce slashes, make-up was expertly applied and a chartreuse head scarf framed her face.  Her manteaus overcoat had gold embroidered inlays at the shoulder like a general.

“You have no right to snoop!”  The venom shot from tightly held lips.  If we had met face-to-face, she would have slapped me.

“I only purchased your memories as a curiosity.  I did not mean to write a story about your family,” I explained.

Her nostrils flared.  “So you mean to write a story?”

I sighed, trapped by my own words.  This was not going as I had hoped.  “I’m intrigued.  You seem well off but then you let the payments go on your memory storage.  Did you get a divorce?”

She stiffened and radiated contempt.  “Our relationship is none of your business.”

I knew the next question would go unanswered, but I had no other ideas.  “What happened to your daughter?  Is she okay?”

“My husband works for a powerful security company.  We have many lawyer friends who will tear you to pieces.  I want my memories back!”

Liddia Hakimi disappeared and I was left alone, wondering what I’d uncovered.  A quick search found that Liddia and Hamid’s marriage was still intact, but no records of the daughter could be found.

An urgent message from Chon appeared.

“What kind of fucking rattlesnake den did you step into?”  His words hit me in the gut.

“I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out.  I have a better idea where to look now.”

Chon shook his head.  “Out of time.  The Hakimi’s have corporate lawyers ten feet up my colon right now.  At this point, the number of lawsuits have ensured that even if we win, we’re bankrupt.  They want their memories back.”

I punched the couch.  “I think they did something with their daughter.  Killed her maybe.  Or she died somehow.  She just disappeared from the mother’s memories.”

“If she’s dead, she’s dead.  And that doesn’t help us.  We’re reporters, not cops,” said Chon.

“I thought we were truth-tellers?  And there are some truths buried in this woman’s memories that need to come out!”

Chon knelt down to my level.  “Do you try to get truths out of a man when he’s got a gun to your head?”  I shook my head.  “That’s right.  You walk away and come back another time,” he finished.

I closed my eyes.  I’d wasted weeks of time and money on this project.  And thoughts of the little girl brought tears to my eyes.

“Can you stall them?”  I pleaded.  “Give me the afternoon with her memories?  And then we’ll give ’em back.”

Chon paced my living room for a minute.  Then he nodded his head.  “Okay.  But when they show up to take the cube, hand it over.”

As soon as he left, I accessed Seph’s program and then brought up Liddia’s memories.

A little ball of electricity hung in the air.  I touched it and it spoke in a serene voice.  “What do you desire?”

“Show me the last time she sees the girl.  Maddy,” I told it, unsure how it worked.

The ball crackled and spun in faux-earnestness.  After a minute a scene-card appeared, and I accessed it.

I confront the daughter, who is nearly as tall as I am.  Maddy wears a rough-spun woolen sweater, thick jeans and heavy black combat boots.  She is a revolutionary on the march with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. 

I shake a small handcrafted wooden horse at Maddy.  “I know where you got this!” 

The daughter slams the door and a lock sliding into place rings through the hall. 

I rewound to find how the horse had gotten to Maddy.  A package had arrived from a village near Beihan.

Next I asked the ball to find anything about Beihan.  I learned nothing more than that Hamid made frequent trips to that section of the world, but he traveled extensively and that was nothing remarkable.  He never talked about business with his wife.

I searched Liddia’s memories as thoroughly as I could in the time remaining.  But found only heated arguments between mother and daughter, and cool avoidance from husband and wife.

A message from Chon let me know that they would be arriving soon to take the memory cube.  My time was up.

Back in my apartment, I rotated Liddia’s cube in my hand trying to think of a question to ask that would unravel the mystery.

Then I remembered the strange cubes she’d found in the bottom of the closet.  Two scene-cards appeared when I asked the question.  The first I had seen before.

Liddia stands over her daughter in the closet with the cubes scattered around her feet.  Maddy stares blankly at the wall, lost in the memories her father had purchased.   

I yank the cube out of her hand and Maddy shrieks and flings herself into the back of the closet. 

“These aren’t yours.  Get out!” I say simply. 

Maddy runs from their room with tears running down her face. 

I clean cubes and straighten the boxes.  Before I put the last one away, I bring up the interface, and  the scene-cards with intricate wrought-iron symbols appear. 

This time, she does as I want, and accesses one of them and suddenly I slip into the nested Matryoshka memory. 

I grip the reins of a charcoal horse, barreling down the mountainside, brandishing a stocky wide-mouthed contraption in my free hand.  Scrubby bushes dot the rocky slope, and dust kicks freely from my mounts’ hooves.  To my left and right, other dark-skinned warriors on horseback ride like an avalanche. 

A glint of silvery light catches my notice and tracking markers appear where I point.  The other warriors salute and aim in the new direction. 

Four skeletal quadruped robots creep through a ravine, unaware of the incoming attack.  I fire my contraption and a trail of smoke winds toward them, following the tracking marker. 

Two of the creatures notice the streaking missiles and leap like silvery panthers out of blast radius.  The other two are tangled heaps when the smoke cleared. 

We wheel around the ravine, searching for the remaining targets. Back in my apartment I can feel my fingernails digging into my palms. 

A flash of light erupts and my horse topples over me, pinning me to the ground.

The silvery beast stalks me and my launcher has been thrown clear.  Trapped beneath the dead horse, I pull my serrated knife in defiance and scream fiercely as it closes the distance. 

An explosion blows bits of rock and dust into my face.  Something heavy flies past my ear. 

A warrior wrapped in a robes cheers mightily with his launcher held high.  He looks no older than Maddy and has brilliant ice-chip eyes.  His layered clothes swirls around him as he sprints down the mountain leaping over rubble and scrub grass tracking the last metallic creature.    

I exited the interface, slipping back through Liddia’s life and into my own, flushed and tired.  I’d heard of such memories, but had never considered how powerful they could be.  I wiped the sweat from my forehead and dove back in, determined to find the answer before they retrieved the cube.

Liddia stayed in the closet sampling the memories.  Unlike the complete record of her life, the cubes in the shoe box were only brief interludes of the warrior life.  Flashes of intensity so fierce they shamed my simple one.  I couldn’t piece together the details of the conflict, but the men on the mountain grabbed my heart, most especially the boy with the striking eyes.

My door announced three guests, and I exited for good.  I had all the answers I would need.

I expected thugs.  And they were, of a different sort, dressed in form-fitting suits, expertly tailored by textile robots.  Lawyers.

I handed them the cube without a word.

The lead thug with the Ivy-league haircut spoke, “Unless you’d like to see us again, we expect any information you’ve stolen from Mrs. Hakimi will be kept private.”

“Will I at least get the money I spent back?” I asked.

“Feel lucky you get to keep your livelihood,” he said.

They disappeared to whatever cave they called home.  I threw myself on the couch and wished I’d gotten more ice cream at the store.

Messages from Chon tried to get my attention, but I ignored them.  I knew he’d warn me away from contacting Liddia again, and I wanted to leave him with plausible deniability.  I wasn’t even sure she’d answer me.

I sent the request, and once again, she appeared in my living room, this time looking smug.

“Our business is concluded.”  She clasped her hands in front.  “I see no reason to continue this correspondence.”

“Your daughter.  I thought you’d killed her.”

She wrinkled her nose at me in disgust.  “Are you trying to blackmail me?”

“You misunderstand.  I know you didn’t.”  I paused, unsure if I wasn’t going to make things worse by continuing our conversation.  I’d just nearly been sued out of a job.  “Maddy joined those mujahideem, didn’t she?”

Liddia’s eyes, which had been slowly grinding me to dust, softened at the edges.  “Yes, she did.”

“It broke your heart,” I said.

She nodded.  “At first.  She married a young warrior full of the mountains.”

“What are they fighting for?”

“For?” She threw away her laugh, a cackle with a hint of desperation.  “They are mujahideem.  They always fight.  It is their way.”

“How did you lose your memories?  It’s the part I don’t understand.”

Liddia captured a strand of hair escaped from her head-scarf and tucked it back in.  “When she stole away to Beihan, we left everything and followed.  I didn’t want it recorded so I stopped the connection.  It took us months to find her and then when we did, her husband, the warrior, asked us for permission to marry.”

Suddenly, Liddia began to shake and crumpled to her knees.  Tears flowed freely smearing her meticulous makeup.

“But now their enemies have taken her,” she said, sobbing.  “They have taken her and demand a ransom.  Because of your story they have made the ransom so high that we cannot pay now.  That is why we couldn’t pay the rent on the memories before, because we gathered her ransom.  Why they make it to the auction.”

Liddia shook her fist at me.  “Now you have made us lose our daughter.  We have nothing left!  No reason to live!”

The full weight of what I had done hit me squarely in the gut.  The little girl in the yellow dress that had tugged at my heart would now be killed because of my story.  I knew what they did to those that couldn’t pay.  Her daughter would be beheaded.

It took every bit of my will to meet the mother’s eyes.  She teetered on the edge of strangling me and breaking down.  I had to fix what I had done.

“How much do you need?”  I told her.

Liddia’s face cracked, and her lower lip trembled.  “Too much.  Too much.”

“Tell me.  Maybe I can help.”

She whispered the number, and it froze my heart.  It would be all my savings if I chose to help.  But I thought about the daughter defiantly leaving for a foreign country and the boy on the mountain, full of life, with the ice-chip eyes.  They lived a life I could not dream of.  If I chose not to help then their memories would haunt me forever.  If I gave the money then at least my memories could live on with hope.

I made my decision.

It didn’t take long to transfer the money.

“Maddy’s life is a treasure worth more than the price paid,” Liddia said before her projection winked out.

I crumpled onto the couch and cried for a while.  The story had taken a delirious turn and while I was now broke, I felt strangely at peace.

I threw myself into my work, researching the next story, trying to forget about Maddy and the boy with the striking eyes and how I would feel if my daughter was a hostage.  Yet, like a pebble in my shoe something about the story drew my notice.  I knew it was probably the fact that I had just handed over my life’s savings, but my journalistic instincts wouldn’t let something go.

I realized then that what the mother had said was familiar.  I’d heard it before.

Curious, I used Seph’s program on my own memories that I stored for journalistic records.  I wasn’t narcissistic, just rigorous.

When the program returned the scene-card from my life with the familiar phrase my heart stuck in my throat.  Like a key unlocking an old memory, the deception fell away from my eyes.

The first time I had heard the phrase was from the old farmer, Seph.

“The best memories have an air of mystery to them.  The empty child’s room, a flash of eyes the color of glaciers, or a box unopened. These can often hold treasures worth more than the price paid.  Memories give us a hope to a life misremembered,” Seph says.

     “Of course.  Those tend to be the biggest stinkers, too.”

The empty child’s room, eyes the color of glaciers and the unopened box were all from Liddia’s memories.  I watched the replay of the auction to find Seph prompting me at places, encouraging me, leading me with a gentle hand.

When I called him, no one answered.  Same with Liddia.

I called my bank and tried to get a reversal on my transaction, but they said the money in the account had transferred to a bank in Beihan.

How could I have been so stupid?  And how did they plant the old man Seph in my way?  Without him I would never have bid on the cube, or found the important parts of the story within the memories.

I searched back to the young woman that pointed me in Seph’s direction.  I knew her face when I saw it.  An older version of the girl, Maddy, if that was her name, was the one at the entrance of the Memory Auction that told me about Seph.  Maddy had never married a mujahideem from the mountains.  They’d played me at every turn.

The uniformity of Liddia’s memories made sense.  They had copied and pasted sections to create a full history and so that the points they wanted me to find would stick out.

     He who controls the past, controls the future.  The phrase came back to me in that moment from my university days.

I wanted to rage and destroy my apartment and drive off into the west and forget I was ever a journalist.  They had taken my memories and trashed them.  Left me with a sinking hole that sucked in all the rest.

But I couldn’t do that.

“These can often hold treasures worth more than the price paid.  Memories give us a hope to a life misremembered.” 

The words drifted through my head.  I had paid a heavy price for those memories, but maybe treasures still remained.

I began packing immediately.  The emptying of my savings had freed me from worry.  I had nothing left to lose, so I was free to tackle a job sung to my heart.

I prepared for my journey with only the memory of those ice-chip eyes as my guide.

_______________

Thomas K. Carpenter‘s work  has appeared previously in Abyss & Apex (here, and hereand in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  He is a member of SFWA.  You can learn more about his other writings at www.thomaskcarpenter.com and follow him on Twitter at @thomaskcarpente

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