“Your future is built on your past.”
“We’ve all seen those pop-up warnings when we stray into the sticky back-alleys of the internet. The flashing icons and caps-locked text which shout, YOU’VE DOWNLOADED MALWARE! Or HACKERS HAVE STOLEN YOUR MOST SENTITIVE INFORMATION! Or whatever. It doesn’t matter how many times I see them, I always have a flash of an instant where I consider the valuables I may have lost. The obvious ones like the list of passwords stored in my browser, and the portfolio of my live painting footage it’s taken me years to create.
“But when I got the pop-up from my personal firewall, it took me a second to realize how serious it was. Hell, it took the software a second to realize as well. The next few messages came in as soon as I clicked them back.”
Quarantine cells require additional memory. Increase by 10GB?
Quarantine cells require additional memory. Increase by 10GB?
Shutting down in 10 seconds. Did you authorize this shutdown?
“When I tried to click “NO”, I couldn’t. The cursor was frozen. I did that silly thing of looping my hand in tight circles until the reality of it set it. I was literally thinking, ‘This is real. This is real.’ Over and over.”
That was the best part of the story and Devon knew it. The young woman across the table leaned in for more, but there wasn’t any. He didn’t want to talk about the letter he’d found as he sorted through years of forgotten folders looking for what was missing.
“God, I can’t imagine how victimized I would feel. What did they take?” Lydia asked.
Devon inhaled slowly before saying, “Nothing. Basically, it was just cyber vandalism. They got some passwords that were easily recovered. They logged into my Cloud folder and deleted a bunch of files, including the folders with all my footage in it, but everything has a back-up these days.”
Lydia released the breath she was holding and said, “For me it would be the photographs more than anything financial.”
Typical feminine sentimentality, he thought. “You’d really miss that old family snapshot around the Christmas tree more than say… your credit identity?”
“No, these are photographs of me.” Her cheeks flushed, “naked.”
Devon felt like the proverbial ass for assuming. “Oh. Yeah that wouldn’t be great for your political career.”
“No. And I know what you’re thinking…”
He interrupted her, “That I’d like to see them?”
“No you don’t. They’re gross, but before you go judging me it was a gift from Tony—”
“Isn’t that the guy who you dated forever that you’re out here trying to forget?”
“Soooo they could ruin your career, they apparently ‘gross’, and they remind you of a guy you’re trying to forget: Why on Earth do you still have them?”
Lydia looked around as if hidden journalists were lurking behind the fake tropical plants in the corners of the restaurant. “Have you heard of cerebral reconsolidation?”
Devon was clearly trying to parse what the words could mean, and when he couldn’t he started working on a joke. She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Oh my God,” Her face lit up, “this stuff is like time-travel! I heard about it from an old high school friend who spent two tours in Syria and came back… deeply broken. He couldn’t sleep or keep a job, and struggled with suicide until he tried this cerebral reconsolidation therapy.”
“Is this that new synthetic drug the kids are mixing with heroin?”
“No, God, do I look like that much of a WASP? It’s a place you go. There are actually a bunch of these Reconsolidation centers popping up in the area. They put an EEG halo on you and an interviewer asks you questions about a memory you’d like to alter.”
Without Devon’s permission the letter popped into his mind again. It was the “Tony” he’d come here to forget. He tried not to let it distract him. “So you go back in time and delete the bad memories? But don’t you think your experiences deeply shape who you are? I mean if who you are is dangerous or ‘broken’ then I get it. But for normal people? It sounds dangerous to go messing with that.”
“It is, and that’s why I haven’t deleted the photos. They’re my linchpin. You said it before, ‘Everything has a back-up these days’.”
The rest of their evening proceeded along the usual route. Usual for Devon anyway. Dinner, a movie, and a ‘thank you’ in lieu of a goodnight kiss. Before he found that letter he would have, as he had so many times before, chalked it up to a mysterious mismatch in their chemistry. But now he was starting to see a pattern. Lydia wasn’t shopping for her next Tony, she was a forty-five year old woman looking for a discreet rebound, and if she didn’t feel comfortable with him, he was sure it was subtly his fault.
“I pushed her away. I’ve been pushing them all away.”
He reread the letter in his mind.
“So I can’t hurt them when they need me most.”
Devon imagined the EEG halo was tingling, though the technician seemed confident it was psychosomatic, and promised as much before leaving him to his own thoughts.
“I wonder if they’re already listening.”
The exam room was lit dimly with a warm yellow light, and while he waited for the interviewer he looked at everything on the walls, but his attention kept drifting back to a screen on the wall opposite him. It was dominated by the face of an exotic-looking woman wearing the OriNeuro branded halo. Her eyes twinkled with joyful contentment and the words, “Your future is built on your past” faded in. The image cross-faded with one of a man whose head was shaved. He had a tattoo curling up around his collar and his nose has been broken once or twice before, but despite his ex-con appearance he smiled like a saint. “I never imagined this kind of healing was possible.”
As OriNeuro’s tagline replaced the testimonial Devon’s interviewer entered the room. “Hi there Devon, my names Kumara,” she said in an accent that was some flavor of Australian. After shaking hands, she sat across from him and set a tablet on a stand between them so that only she could see its screen.
Kumara continued, “Before we even start talking about why you’re here I want to remind you that this initial assessment is for both of us. You need to trust us for the process to even begin to work, and we need you to feel comfortable. If at any time you get thirsty or hungry,” she gestured toward a watercooler, and a platter of fruit and bite-sized protein bars, “Please help yourself. There’s a restroom down the hall. That’s the thermostat, and those are the lights if you want to make yourself more comfortable. You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to. How do you feel now?”
His feet were already starting to sweat. “Fine, I’m ready to get started.”
There was the quickest of eye movements as something on the tablet drew her attention for a moment.
“Honestly, whatever you need. I’ve had clients request this happen in the dark. Or that they take off their clothes, or that I take off mine.”
The image of her curvy but beautiful naked body flashed into his mind, and his stomach churned with guilt. She turned her attention to the tablet, and wrote something down.
“Subject is a closet andro,” he imagined.
He bent forward and took off his shoes, neatly setting them beneath his chair. The action seemed to satisfy whatever Kumara was waiting for, and she moved on. For the next half hour she asked him superficial questions like what he ate that day and the first job he ever held. Next she opened up the floor for him to ask questions. He wanted to know about the risks.
“The risks are different for everyone. The internal self is a bit like a web of suspension bridges connecting islands to a larger grid of roads. Rewriting memories can strengthen or weaken the cables; some memories can collapse the whole bridge. The most obvious risk is accidentally creating a split-personality, by severing enough bridges and making two (or more) disparate transportation grids.
“Another less extreme possibility is creating a paradoxical memory with someone, which, if you ever talk to them about it, can lead to various disassociation disorders. In the tutorial we’ll go through how to work on your own issues instead of trying to effect change in others.”
Devon raised his finger to interject a question, “But what if I was harassed and I wanted revenge?” She was looking at the tablet again, and he said, “That didn’t really happen to me I just—”
Kumara raised an eyebrow, as if she’d seen something to contradict what he’d said, made another note and interrupted him, “You’re wondering how one could confront their abuser without causing a paradox. You could get as loud or as violent as you want, but if you need to kill—”
“I’m not asking for me.”
This time she believed him, and made another note, “Guilt isn’t one of the bridges, and depending on its age it might have become an island hub connecting huge sections of one’s psychic grid. Rerouting traffic islands can take many sessions.”
Devon couldn’t meet her eyes. When all someone knows is that you’ve hurt someone else, their mind will fill-in the blank with the worst possibility. He wanted to explain what had happened, but it wasn’t her he had to explain himself to. “Why didn’t I ever mail that letter?” He swallowed the feeling as best he could and tried to move on. “So how does OriNeuro mitigate those risks?”
As Kumara started listing them she counted on her fingers, starting with the thumb. “The data gathered from this series of interviews helps our AI assess your risk.”
Her index extended. “As I mentioned before, we will guide you through a tutorial of the rules of the Inside, basic memory altering strategies, and how your Inside likely works.”
Middle. “We’ll help you find a linchpin: A physical object which serves as proof of which reality is real. Think of it like a backup file. In the presence of your linchpin, your rewritten memory feels like an easily forgotten dream instead of a déjà vu that unravels your sanity.”
Devon nodded, “I heard about that one and brought—”
“STOP!” Kumara shouted, startling him. “Don’t tell me what it is. You will give me an enormous amount of power. Guard it like a password. The only thing OriNeuro will ever ask for is a digital file, which gets locked away. That something need not even be your linchpin, but maybe a clue on a scavenger hunt to where you’ve hidden the truth.”
“You idiot.” He thought of the manila folder that contained the letter, the obvious linchpin, rolled up in his jacket in the lobby.
Devon shook it off, “Okay, so my last question is how do I know if I’m in reality or in the Inside? Do I make up a totem or something?”
Kumara nodded, “Great question, but no. This isn’t lucid dreaming or a psychedelic trip, your mind needs to believe that it’s real for the therapy to work.”
“Devon? Devon wake up,” Kumara called to him across the void. Opening his eyes just enough to confirm that he was really home in his own bed, he groggily navigated to the bathroom. He was still half asleep and his nakedness reminded him how Kumara brought him to a room and had him undress until all he was wearing was the EEG halo. After relieving himself he slipped into the bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, and pushed a button to start warming up his shaving cream. He remembered the feeling of sliding into the sensory deprivation tank; the darkness that enveloped him and how he immediately felt as if he were somewhere else. He reached for the switch and squinted in anticipation. The vanity lights snapped on blinding him for a moment just like when the tank opened mere minutes after it had closed.
Kumara’s voice spoke over the intercom, “Devon. Devon wake up. We encountered a problem. I’m sorry we found it so late, but the risk factor is too high. You are ineligible for this type of healing.”
Those words hung over him all day. “You are ineligible for healing.” He did what work he could in his depressed state, bought a fifth of vodka and drank himself to sleep.
Squinting against the vanity lights which seemed to stab directly into his brain he hazarded a glance at his reflection.
“What the hell?!” In the reflection Devon was sixteen. The button on the shaving cream warmer popped back up, but he’d have more success shaving a peach.
He remembered what Kumara said, “Your mind needs to believe that it’s real for the therapy to work,” and released his breath and smiled.
As he left the bathroom he half expected to step into the room he grew up in. But it was the same. “Well, I better get to it.”
He quickly grabbed his jacket. The manila folder containing the letter was still there. Pulling open the front door the winter chill hit his skin. “Wow, this feels really real,” he said and decided to get dressed. “These rewritten memories need to be as convincing as possible,” he realized, and resolved to act normal.
His heart started pounding once the autonomous car left the highway to start the slow crawl through the suburb where Roxanne lived. “This isn’t real. This isn’t real,” but he still couldn’t believe what he was about to do.
As the car pulled to the curb he realized, “I won’t be able to rewrite that we fell out of touch. Will I have to create a reason we lost contact?” He couldn’t remember the rules about that in the tutorial, though remembering the tutorial would probably break the illusion.
After knocking, the door was opened by a square-jawed man built like an Olympian. This was not her dad. As Devon stood on their stoop explaining who he was the man rested his left hand on the frame of the door. He was wearing a wedding band. “I guess that explains why we fell out of touch.”
The Olympain sized him up and introduced himself as Chris before he said, “Hang on,” and shut the door. Roxanne’s face appeared a few moments later.
“Strange. Lydia had made it sound like I’d be traveling back in time.”
Roxanne wasn’t sixteen, but beneath the years she looked exactly how he remembered her. “Devon, its… good to see you. Do you want to come in?”
“She doesn’t want to let me in,” he thought. He was gripping the letter so tight his hand had started to ache.
They passed Chris again on the way to their huge living room dominated by a wide fireplace and surrounded by family photos. He smiled and shook Devon’s hand, “I didn’t mean to be rude back there bud, I just wasn’t sure Rox would want to see you.”
He could feel his face redden with embarrassment. “Of course she’s still upset about it.”
Chris left saying, “I’ll give you two some time to catch up. Just give me a shout if you need anything.” He said, as if he were trying to be a good host, but he was looking at Roxanne.
“Kumara said guilt is hard to rewrite. Maybe I don’t want to be forgiven, maybe I’m here to have Chris beat the hell out of me.”
Roxanne started, “I get the feeling you’re not here just to catch up. It’s been so long I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“It’s true.” He set the folder on the couch between them. “I’m here to deliver something I should have mailed a long time ago.”
Roxanne looked down at it but didn’t move to open it.
“It’s a letter I wrote just after we broke up, but couldn’t work up the courage to send. I had forgotten about it until my computer got hacked.
She looked confused.
“Roxanne, I was so in love with you back then. I thought I would have done anything for you, but when your brother died I… It was selfish. The most selfish, self-protecting thing I’ve ever done. I knew you needed me to support you, but I couldn’t bring myself to stand up there beside you at his funeral.”
Her confused look softened and gave him the strength to continue, “I was afraid. I was afraid of being in the same room as a dead body. The similarities between our brothers I think reminded me that I’ll lose him someday. I’m sorry, I’m making such a mess of this. It’s all written in here.”
His heart pounded in his ears as he watched Roxanne open the folder and look in. Suddenly she flung it from her as if it were a cockroach on her sleeve, “What the hell is this? I thought you were serious you pervert!”
Chris came running into the room, “What’s going on?”
Devon stood, “Kumara, I screwed up, bring me out!”
As Roxanne’s giant husband stepped in between them she said, “What’s wrong with you?”
Devon put his hands up to show he was no threat, “It’s fine! I went on this date with a politician named Lydia, and she told me about this cerebral reconsolidation therapy. None of this is real! You must think I’m still in love with you and that’s why I’m here, but honestly I still feel terrible about what I did and I want to be someone who people can depend on… who I can depend on.”
They just looked at him and slowly a look of pity replaced their anger.
“Wake me up Goddamnit!” He yelled at the ceiling.
Roxanne took a step forward, “Devon, think about what you’re saying: why would Lydia go out with you after what you did to her?”
“What did I do?”
Roxanne handed him the folder, but the letter wasn’t inside. Instead it was filled with nude pictures of a twenty-something Lydia.
With the linchpin pulled all of his reconsolidation unwound revealing a future he couldn’t step into.