When a security breach is detected, the Memory Restoration Department is called upon to do what they do best: make you forget. But with every memory that’s taken out, a new one must be installed in its place. It’s a job that requires skill, artistry, discretion, and flawless proficiency in the language of memories. That’s why only the best programmers in the world are recruited to work for the department. But diving too far into another person’s memories is a dangerous endeavor. And for some, the temptation is just too strong.
“The Memory Coder,” an original short story by Jessica Brody acquired for Tor.com by Janine O’Malley, is set in the world of Unremembered, the first book in a sci-fi/suspense trilogy, on sale March 5, 2013 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The struggle is not what I remember most about the delivery boy’s procedure. It’s the girl. The one buried deep in his mind. Hidden in his memory like a keepsake.
But of course, it would be difficult to forget that struggle. The delivery boy fought harder than most. Maybe that’s because his breach was more personal than the others’. A repeat offender. Fueled by fascination and obsession. While most offenses are merely accidental. A slip up.
Delivery boys are the bread and butter of our department. The nature of their job makes them prone to seeing more than they should. But there are plenty of others brought in as well. Mail carriers, caterers, tutors, relatives, suppliers. Anyone from the outside, without a security clearance level, is susceptible to breaches.
But like I said, most are not intentional.
The delivery boy, according to the report, had returned again and again. Had gotten too close. And had finally been caught.
I had to admire his persistence. And feel just the slightest bit sorry for him.
“Let me out of here!” he screamed, banging on the bolted door. “You can’t keep me locked in here like a prisoner!”
I watched him through the window. Dr. Solara was already starting to work her magic on him. It’s hard not to fall for that body and face. Every guy in this department is guilty of at least one fantasy starring the tall, blond doctor. Even me.
But novelty wears off fast.
And things are different on this side of the window.
“Don’t worry.” She attempted to subdue him with a gentle touch on the arm. “We’re not going to hurt you. Please just have a seat.”
She gestured to the chair in the middle of the room.
By the look in the boy’s eyes, he could tell it wasn’t just a chair.
No one ever thinks it’s just a chair.
The boy glared at it as Dr. Solara offered him one of her winning smiles.
Normally the smile is enough. It’s the reason Dr. Solara has earned the title of “Mediator.” She’s good with the offenders. Mediators have to have smiles like that. It’s part of the job description.
I, on the other hand, just have to know how to push the buttons. Sometimes I think that’s all I am to them—a button pusher. The guy who writes the code. Who uploads the file. Who performs the final system tests to make sure the restorations are successful.
What they don’t seem to understand is that there’s an art to it. Ultimately, Revisual+ is a programming language like any other. But the language of memories is so much more than just logic and a degree in software engineering.
I observed the boy’s reaction carefully, waiting for that inevitable moment when he finally surrendered to his fate. When he succumbed to whatever kind of procedure this was. When he finally resigned to sitting in the chair that’s clearly not just a chair.
Eventually they all surrender.
The needle came from behind. Almost immediately after the boy sat down. It jutted out from the seat’s tall back, puncturing him in the neck. His whole body stiffened.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Solara assured him again with another radiant smile, pushing the hair back from his forehead. “It will be over before you know it. And you won’t remember a thing.”
I rolled up to my desk to prepare my system for retrieval. As the boy’s eyelids started to sag, his gaze floated languidly in my direction. For a second, I swore he could actually see me, his accusing eyes penetrating the barrier between us.
Of course, I knew this was ridiculous. The only thing he could see on the other side of that window was whatever soothing landscape the doctor had chosen to project.
But I ducked my head nonetheless and focused on my monitor.
Dr. Solara appeared through the door a minute later, after the delivery boy was out. She ran her fingers through her short blond hair, tugging on the ends as though she meant to pull them straight from the roots.
“What a piece of work, huh?” she grunted, all traces of femininity wiped clean from her voice.
I opted not to comment. In the three years I’ve been working here, I’ve learned that the less I engage in conversation, the better. “Retrieval in sixty seconds,” I reported.
She sighed and pressed her balled fists to her hips. No smiles in this room.
The download progress bar inched its way across my screen, filling empty space with digital green pigment.
“Ready for metadata,” I announced, fingers poised on keys.
Dr. Solara lowered herself into the adjoining station and began to list off the subject’s stats. “Name: Niko Benz. Age: Nineteen. Occupation: Employee at Sunset Valley Flowers and Gifts. Address: 171 North Cannon . . .”
I entered the data with the precision and speed of a machine.
“How much do you need to see?” I asked.
“The last two weeks.” I immediately noted the annoyance in her tone. Having to review that much footage is a daunting task. “Filter out anything that doesn’t reference the infraction. I don’t need to watch this guy taking a dump.”
I yawned and input the search parameters. The results spit out a moment later and I transferred them to her terminal, activating the Revisualization program.
Dr. Solara rubbed at her painted cheeks as she watched the downloaded memories play out on the screen. I tried to keep my eyes glued to my own monitor, knowing full well that it’s not the coder’s job to assess the infraction. It’s only my job to remove it. And of course, leave something believable in its place.
But it was hard not to look. Especially once I saw the reason the boy was here.
The reason he was unconscious in that room on the other side of the window. And then everything became clear.
It was a girl.
But not just any girl.
Her intoxicating purple eyes flashed in and out of the delivery boy’s mind all day. Her flawless face mesmerized him. Consumed him. He thought about her everywhere he went. He fantasized about her constantly. Caressing her smooth bronzed skin. Running his fingers through her silky caramel-colored hair. Kissing her delectable pink lips.
It was she who kept him coming back. Who captivated the poor boy beyond reprieve. He was originally sent here on a routine delivery. A fruit basket, of all things. An innocent task turned into something else.
And for a face that exquisite, it was hard to blame him.
I felt myself leaning forward in my chair, gazing at Dr. Solara’s monitor. Falling into the delivery boy’s fantasies. Replacing his hands, his fingers, his mouth with my own.
It was the time codes on my screen that finally jolted me out of my trance. I surveyed them as they flickered past, seeming to go on forever. Two weeks’ worth of memories.
And she was in nearly every single one of them.
“Damn it!” Dr. Solara cursed, pushing her chair back violently. I could feel her stale, coffee-soaked breath on my face. “There are references everywhere. It’s all this guy thought about for two frickin’ weeks.”
She switched off her monitor and I solemnly watched the girl’s delicate face dissolve into blackness, the brilliant purple hue of her eyes the last to fade.
Dr. Solara groaned and rose to her feet, but her body remained hunched over in defeat. “Just . . .” she began with a frustrated sigh. “. . . take it all.”
“Doctor?” I questioned, a flash of panic shuddering through me. “Are you sure? A two-week restoration will take all night. Not to mention the potential side effects on the subject.”
She shot me a look that immediately made me regret the objection. “Well, what the hell do you expect me to do? If they had caught this pervert on day one, this wouldn’t be an issue.” She paused near the exit, thinking. Hesitating.
I noticed her head shake ever so slightly before she shoved open the door. “Replace the whole damn thing.”
I bristled as the cold air of the server room smacked against my face. It was a harsh contrast from the sweltering desert climate outside. The three cups of coffee I’d guzzled after I woke up were doing nothing to keep me alert, but the artificially chilled air was definitely helping.
I hadn’t gone to bed until four in the morning. As predicted, the restoration took all night. And the only reason I wasn’t there four hours longer was because I was able to use precoded memory templates for the majority of the restore. It’s a common practice among coders to save time. Taking frequently occurring memories from the subject’s mind, copying them, and tweaking small details to make them feel fresh. Routine events like eating breakfast, showering, getting dressed, going to work, watching movies can seem believably new just by updating a few details.
But despite how exhausted I’d been been when I returned to my apartment, sleep simply wouldn’t come. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her face. Those sparkling purple eyes danced in the darkness. That hair draped across my neck. Those lips called out to me. I’d tossed and turned until daylight came streaming through the window and the effects of the sleepless night started to gnaw away at my sanity.
It was like I wanted her. No . . .
Like I needed her.
And the need was so desperate, so unfounded and relentless, it had started to consume me.
I had to at least see her with my own eyes.
Not through the grainy filter of the delivery boy’s faulty, unreliable memory.
What are you doing? I asked myself as I made my way down one of the long aisles of the server room. Glowing machines were stacked from floor to ceiling, each of them holding millions of byte-sized secrets. Like tiny fortresses.
But I only cared about one.
The one that held her.
I understood the risks. Perhaps the lack of sleep helped soften the direness of those risks, but I knew what would happen if I were caught. My security clearance would plummet to zero. I’d be stripped of every rank I’d ever earned. Countless hours of training and coding flushed down the toilet.
But I had no choice.
I had to find her.
I had to know her.
The technician at the back of the room rose from his seat and gave me a subtle, friendly nod.
“What brings you in here?” he asked.
I glanced over both shoulders before responding. “I need a favor.”
“After you helped me land that girl from accounting? Anything.”
I cringed at the mention of that. I hadn’t wanted to do it, but the technician had been persistent. Using memory restorations as a way to manipulate women was something a few of the other coders did. But I personally liked to keep my nose clean, stay out of trouble. Which made my presence here weigh that much stronger on my mind.
“There was a delivery here two weeks ago,” I said. “I need to know who the recipient was. Can you check the logs?”
The technician guffawed. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific than that. We get hundreds of deliveries a day.”
“A fruit basket,” I replied anxiously. “He was delivering a fruit basket.”
The technician turned toward his system and initiated the search. I held my breath as the computer spit out one result. A security log documenting the entrance of a delivery from Sunset Valley Flowers and Gifts. Exactly two weeks ago. At 2:34 p.m.
“That one.” I pointed at the screen.
The technician selected the file, but nothing happened. He tried again before finally noticing the small icon adjacent to it, in the shape of a red letter X.
“It’s locked,” he informed me.
“Locked? What does that mean?”
My heart hammered at the thought of losing my one and only lead. My one and only path to her. “Can’t you get around it?”
The technician released a low whistle. “A C9? No way. There’d be guards swarming the place in seconds if I even attempted to crack the encryption.”
I sighed and scuffed the floor with the toe of my shoe. “Well, can you at least tell me what gate he was admitted into?”
The technician glanced at the screen. “Southeast entrance.”
“Southeast entrance?” I repeated in disbelief. “But they shut that down years ago. There’s nothing even back there.”
The technician shrugged. “Evidently something’s back there.”
I knew my minutes were numbered as the gate closed behind me and I stepped into pitch-black desert night. It would only be a matter of time before they recognized that the fingerprint I used to enter the restricted area was a fake. Lifted from Dr. Solara’s coffee cup earlier that night.
I convinced myself that all I had to do was lay eyes on the girl, confirm that she was real and not a figment of the boy’s wild imagination, and then I would be done with this. Forever. I would go back to my station at the lab and forget this ever happened.
I felt like I’d been walking for miles when I finally came across the concrete wall, towering high above my head. I secured the flashlight between my teeth and began to climb, holding the image of the girl’s face in my mind as the skin of my palms scraped unpleasantly against the rough cement.
My head had barely cleared the top when my eyes landed on something on the other side.
And then suddenly everything seemed to stand still. My entire body was frozen. Transfixed. It wasn’t until I started slipping back down the surface of the wall that I managed to snap out of my daze and keep myself from falling.
She was looking out the window of a small house, lit from the inside. As she stared into the night, I couldn’t help but think that she looked . . .
The light of my flashlight bounced across her face and her gaze darted toward me, fear distorting her perfect features.
And for the briefest, most blissfully joyous moment of my life, our gazes intersected. Those remarkable purple eyes radiated through the pitch blackness like tiny luminous orbs of light. Her beauty lit up the entire desert night.
She was real. And yet surreal at the same time.
But most important, she was right there.
And in that moment, I knew I would never be able to forget her. Even if we never spoke a single word to each other, even if this brief glimpse of her was all I would ever get, I knew I would never be able to go back to work tomorrow and pretend that none of it had happened.
I understood exactly why the delivery boy had returned day in and day out, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would risk everything to do the same.
No matter the consequences.
I stayed there, utterly mesmerized. Half of my body hoisted over the top of the wall, the other half dangling down the side. I didn’t feel the pinch at the back of my neck until it was too late.
And then I was falling.
But I never hit the ground.
When my eyes dragged open again, I was here. Immediately recognizing the peaceful seaside scenery that covered every inch of the room’s four walls. I knew it because I’d built it. I’d programmed the simulation during my first job at the company. Before I’d been promoted to this very department.
The chair felt hard against my back. I marveled at how I’d never actually sat in it before. Never realized how incredibly uncomfortable it was.
I resolved not to struggle. I knew it was pointless. And I didn’t want to be like everyone else.
But as the needle punctured my skin and her eyes flashed through my mind for what I knew would be the final time, all my resolve vanished into the night.
And I fought and I fought until I couldn’t fight anymore.
“Retrieval in sixty seconds,” the memory coder reports to Dr. Solara, who stands behind him, hands firmly planted on her hips. Her eyes are more sunken than usual. Her skin paler.
She stares at the unconscious man on the other side of the window, disappointment tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“Ready for metadata,” the coder announces in his most professional voice. He’s been after promotion for months and now that he finally has it, he’s determined to make a good impression.
She lets out a tired sigh, her voice hoarse and defeated as she recites, “Name: Sevan Sidler. Age: Twenty-five. Occupation: Memory coder . . .”
She collapses into the adjacent chair and the coder transfers the download to her screen. She cups her chin in her hand and watches the Revisualization playback with an overall air of surrender.
“It appears the infraction is isolated to the past twenty-four hours,” the coder remarks, referencing the time stamps on his screen.
She swats sluggishly at her controls, pausing the playback midstream. With visible effort, she rises from her chair and shuffles out of the room, not even bothering to look back as she orders, “Replace it all.”
He nods dutifully. “Yes, ma’am.”
The door swings closed behind her and he immediately gets to work, his hands moving adeptly over the keys. Replacing reality. Altering truth.
As is common with programmers, he quickly disappears into the code. The synthetic world being crafted by his fingertips draws him in, causing everything else to dissolve into a soft focus in the perimeter of his vision.
But it isn’t long before something snags his attention. Yanks him out. Wrenching him back to the here and now. He reluctantly peers over at Dr. Solara’s monitor, the image from the downloaded memory still frozen on the screen.
It’s a girl.
The most beautiful girl he has ever seen.
And as hard as he tries, he simply can’t bring himself to look away. There’s just something about her eyes.
“The Memory Coder” copyright © 2012 by Jessica Brody
Art copyright © 2012 by Goñi Montes