The Memory Machine
I watch Paul run ahead and dive into the impossibly blue water. He emerges from the gentle waves further out and beckons. I melt at the sight of his wet dark hair slicked back, that smile, those tanned muscular shoulders. The small village of huts we are calling home this week is behind me. I run forward and dive into the warm, shallow water, and swim the short distance to where Paul stands. We embrace, and I sense he is as eager as I am…
The timer clicked as it shut off power to the small gray box connecting the Brain-Stim helmet to the computer. Anne kept her eyes closed, hoping to keep the sharper, machine-enhanced image of Paul in her mind’s eye. Instead, as always happened, her vacation with Paul faded into place among her other old memories. She would have to hurry or she would be late for work this morning. Anne reluctantly opened her eyes and felt dizzy.
The Brain-Stim technician had warned her about the dangers of excessive use, but that’s what the timer was for. He had said a transition period between stimulated memory and unaided brain activity was normal. He had assured her the technology was safe, and had been so refined that only small precise parts of the brain were very gently magnetically stimulated to evoke the desired memories and sensations. Anne vaguely worried about the dangers of becoming too dependent on memory stimulation, but she ended up resorting to it day after day to subdue the melancholy she’d felt since Paul left her.
Leaning forward in her chair, Anne removed the bulky helmet. The living room’s beige walls suddenly felt too close, the computer warmed air too dry and still. She studied the helmet in her hands and wondered how many memories she might be capable of experiencing. A stimulated memory required a person to remember at least something of a particular memory, and Anne knew she had more memories than she could remember at any given time.
As the brochure had explained, memories were held in a series of connected nerve cells. Recent nerve organizational research had produced a series of stimulation algorithms that could be used to trace out a pattern of nerve stimulation that would evoke increasing amounts of memory related to the initial image. All one had to do was focus on a memory and the helmet provided both the magnetic memory stimulation and the feedback that allowed the controls to hone in on the most effective stimulation pattern. Initially used by therapists, the company manufacturing the Brain-Stim helmets had been quick to bring the new technology to the public. They realized there would be many willing to pay to remember at least a few fond old memories with increased realism.
Anne stood up and set the Brain-Stim helmet on top of the gray control box next to the computer. She stretched her neck from side to side, and rubbed the small of her back briefly before walking down the hall to the bathroom. The session had been satisfying and she was not yet feeling the ennui of the present. She was ready to face the day now.
* * *
The morning had gone badly. Anne had not really had time for that Brain-Stim session. She had skipped washing and drying her hair, instead twisting her thick wavy blonde hair back into a bun. She had chosen her clothes quickly and the cream blouse didn’t quite coordinate with the taupe tweed of her skirt. Even so, she had been late, and she’d had a bear of a time catching up on missed phone calls and a request for the latest build of her little piece of the new translation software project.
Now, Anne hurried down one of the ravines formed by the city’s skyscrapers on her way to meet her friend Julie for lunch. Sometimes it amazed Anne that they still met every two or three weeks to keep up with things. “Lakeisha’s Kitchen” was little more than a hole-in-the-wall, but it had the tastiest, most expertly programmed, tandoori chicken in this part of the city. Anne hurried to join Julie in one of the automat’s cheerful pink plastic booths.
“You’re late!” Julie said.
“Sorry, I had some catching up to do this morning. I was swamped. Honest.” She could see Julie narrow her eyes in suspicion. Julie was such a mother sometimes.
“You look tired. Have you gotten rid of that memory implant machine yet?” Julie asked. “I hope you’re not still letting that company muck with your brain, instead of going out and living a real life.”
“First of all,” Anne said, “they aren’t implanted memories. All the machine does is help you to remember some of your own memories, only each one in greater detail. More like real life.” Anne punched the screen on the booth’s table to bring up the menu, and studied it intensely, waiting for Julie to chastise her again.
“You know, life doesn’t just end because Paul dumped you,” Julie said, “I have friends I could set you up with. Real people.” Julie punched up her own meal on the table screen and sat back to wait.
“Please, not that again,” Anne said. “You remember that photographer you set me up with last time who wouldn’t stop talking about himself and all the actresses he’d seen naked? Give me my memories of Paul, in better times anyway.” However, Anne knew Julie was at least partly right.
“A bunch of friends are getting together tonight. Come join us. You’ll have fun, I promise.”
“I’d like to, but I can’t tonight,” Anne fibbed. She had been looking forward to experiencing one particular memory all day. Anne knew reliving her marriage to Paul was little more than a holding pattern. She needed to get on with life, even if it wasn’t Julie’s photographer friend. Next time Julie asked, she would agree to go out with her friends, but not tonight.
* * *
Looking up from her computer monitor, Anne realized she had stayed longer than she intended. Already the dim hallways seemed quieter as people left for home. Anne had managed to get another of her modules working today and she breathed easier, knowing she would now have a distinct milestone for her project report tomorrow. That should more than make up for any mornings she’d been late getting into the office. After powering down her workstation, she locked her office door behind her and walked quickly through the building to the main exit.
Outside, Anne headed quickly for the monorail station two blocks away, checking her watch frequently. She could see the train pulling into the elevated platform when she was still half a block away. She would never make it now unless the train was slow to depart. Hurrying past a young couple up the steps to the platform, she heard the start-up whirr as the electric monorail powered up. She reached the platform in time to see the train picking up speed and moving away toward the outskirts of the city.
Anne wanted to cry. She would now have to wait thirty minutes for the next train. It had been a busy day and she needed to relax. She needed to get home for her Brain-Stim session. She continued forward, much more slowly now, and sat on one of the steel mesh benches facing the monorail her train had just left on. Rubbing her forehead, Anne tried to slow her breathing and focus on the fact she would soon be home.
“Excuse me,” the man said.
“Yes?” Anne studied the man’s respectable looking suit and neatly trimmed sandy hair and decided he looked safe enough. He looked vaguely familiar. He might be one of the regulars she saw day after day at the station.
“Has the northbound train been by yet?” he asked.
“Not in the few minutes I’ve been here.”
“Thanks. Mind if I sit?”
Anne nodded and the man took a seat on the bench. The platform wasn’t crowded although people were constantly going by in ones and twos, and all six of the benches had at least one seated person. Anne checked her watch again and saw the man studying her. She thought he looked about to speak but instead he pulled a handheld computer out of his jacket pocket and began to select a series of screens. When Anne checked her watch again, he put the computer back in his pocket.
“Late for an appointment?” he said and he gave her a quick smile.
“Yes. No, just some things I need to do.” Anne noticed he had a pleasant smile.
“I’m Dermott, Dermott McMillan,” he said and extended his hand.
“Anne Holden.” She noticed the way his blue eyes crinkled at the outer edges as he smiled and they shook hands. “You look like you are on your way to an important business appointment yourself.”
Dermott laughed. “Quite the opposite. I’ve just left my office and I’m going to meet my travel agent to arrange an escape from business. I’m planning a London holiday to see a few plays and take a walking tour in the countryside.”
“Really!” Anne said, “I was in London myself a few years ago, though I expect it’s quite different now.”
“I don’t know about that. Some things don’t really change. What did you like best?” He smiled again and watched her as she thought about the question.
“I remember liking Hyde Park and walking about the busy part of town. I remember stopping at Piccadilly Circus on a beautiful day…” Anne’s voice trailed off and she sat looking pensive.
“Well, I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been since Ellen… well, it’s been awhile, and I hope I get so lucky as to have a beautiful day there as well.”
“I’m sure…” Anne started as the whirr of the train became louder. “Train’s here. I must go. Nice meeting you.”
“The pleasure was mine,” Dermott stood briefly and waved as Anne rushed to board through one of the train’s automatic sliding doors.
* * *
The dense, tall pines block our view on either side of the trail. I breathe in the smell of damp forest floor and wildflower. Paul walks ahead. I watch the way his calf muscles flex as he steps over a rock blocking the trail. He turns and asks if I need a rest. I don’t, but nod yes, so we can spend time in the small meadow I glimpse up ahead. We leave our packs on the trail and walk the few steps to the sunny clearing. We sit side-by-side, bodies touching, on the thick downed tree trunk. We hear the quick trill of a songbird and its mate’s response. I look at Paul and know we will be together forever…
The timer clicked and Anne removed her Brain-Stim helmet. Looking around the apartment she had once shared with Paul, she felt the emptiness close around her like a heavy fog. Anne tried to recreate the memory sensations she had just experienced in her Brain-Stim session, but she felt a hazy barrier blocking all emotion and detail from reaching her. Sometimes, Anne wished she had never heard of “Brain-Stim”. The sessions made her feel better, but her normal thoughts just seemed increasingly dull.
Lying in bed that night, Anne tried to imagine she could hear Paul’s steady snores and see the curve of his shoulder beneath the white sheet. Turning over towards her nightstand, Anne stared at the picture of her and Paul on vacation. A kind Londoner had snapped the picture of a slender, happy couple standing close together beneath the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. They looked…what? Excited? Joyous? It was so hard to remember.
It was easier to remember when Paul told her one evening that it was over between them, that he had met someone new while she’d been working late on her first big software project. Funny, Anne thought, she didn’t need a Brain-Stim session to remember the hard look on Paul’s face as he had walked out the front door to go be with “her”. Taking a last look at the photograph, Anne reached out and pushed the switch on her bedside lamp to off. She lay still in the darkness until she fell asleep.
* * *
Anne took one last look at herself in the lobby’s mirrored wall before leaving her office building. She had plenty of time today to catch her usual train. After her less than satisfying Brain-Stim session the night before, she had forced herself to stay away from the machine this morning and had gotten into work early. Maybe she was just using the machine too much. Now, though, she felt overdue, and was looking forward to her evening session.
Anne walked the two blocks to the monorail steadily. She took the steps up the platform carefully as she brushed her hair back off her face with her hand, and smoothed the front of her peach colored blouse. Anne took a seat on her usual bench and waited for the train. Looking around at the strangers, she felt a stab of excitement when she saw Dermott walking towards her. She resisted the urge to get up and run away, and instead waited for him to reach her.
“Hello again,” Dermott said as he sat down. “You are looking very nice today.” He went on without stopping, “I still haven’t been able to quite settle on my choice of tours. Maybe you could help me decide.”
Anne smiled and shook her head. “My train will be along any moment. Besides, I remember so little. I don’t see how I could be of much help.” She thought Dermott’s face really looked quite friendly and the smile was certainly genuine.
“Oh, just having a fellow traveler to discuss it with would be a world of help. How about some coffee at the café below.” Dermott smiled and Anne found herself wanting very much to say yes.
“I would like to, really I would, but I must get home,” she said.
The words hung between them and Anne mentally kicked herself. She knew there was nothing waiting at home but the convenience of her preprogrammed dinner and the comfortable security of her Brain-Stim enhanced memories.
“Perhaps another time then,” Dermott said slowly.
“Wait,” Anne replied, taking a deep breath, “I don’t need to go home immediately. Maybe a quick cup of coffee. I’d really be happy to help with your trip planning if I can.”
“Right then,” Dermott answered, “shall we?”
Anne noticed Dermott’s enthusiastic demeanor and the usher-like way he swept his hand in the direction of the café. She laughed and nodded her head in agreement.
* * *
Anne put on her Brain-Stim helmet as soon as she got home. She tried to relax into the memory of her tropical vacation with Paul. Distracted, her mind kept wandering to the events of the last couple of days. Shutting off the power to her helmet, she carefully set it back on its control box. There was no hurry. She knew how her vacation ended, and her memories would still be there next week or next month.
Anne thought about Dermott sitting across from her in the café earlier in the evening. They had shared story after story of their favorite trips and the places they still hoped to visit. Anne realized she liked Dermott, but had no idea what would happen next. It made her feel happy and a little excited for the future.