A cyberpunk short about memory.
The buzzing started in my ear a week ago. I thought it was tinnitus but the doctor says my augmentation is fried. My last company paid for it – neural enhancement, data ports, the works. Maintenance is one of the perks. Until I quit, of course. Repair would cost me half my severance. I need that money to coast a little while, get myself together. If I blow half now, things are going to get tough pretty soon. I’m not ready to go back to work. I jimmied one of the ports, stuffed a little loop circuit in, seemed to shut it up for now. Or at least, I can’t hear it.
I left on good terms, golden handshake, easing out with a slick handover, signing off the secrets, the properties, promises made. I can’t tell you why I left. Not exactly. I had this feeling that I needed something more. That was three months ago. I haven’t found it yet. Whatever it is. But then I wasn’t expecting to find it in the bottom of gin bottles, in empty fucks with bright young things. Where do you look?
There’s a certain pleasure in this life of dissipation. Hanging out in carefully manicured pseudo-seedy gin palaces on Lime Street, in pristine white bespoke suits, buying drinks for pretty arts students, spinning them a line – here a bit of existential angst, there a bit of northern grit. They impress easily. All it takes is a little Eliot or Baudelaire run off by heart. No one reads these days. I’ve no idea what these kids are learning. I’m a software engineer, for fucks sake. They’re all as rich as sin. Who else would study the arts?
A melancholy has settled over me, like thick treacle. Great globs of it stick to me when I move. I shamble through, illiterate to my own emotions. I was never taught to read the language of feeling, my people prefer to keep things surface-deep. I wear the blackness like an ill-fitting coat, many sizes too big. My family are on the phone every day. When will I get another job? I don’t know. I’ve fallen out of the world and the door back in has sealed over. Beyond the wall, I can see the world still, running on in black and white, scratched and worn like an old movie played too many times.
I find myself walking down the old cut between Gasworks Lane and The Friars. Grubby little back street. Real dirt here, not the manufactured stuff they ship in to those art districts. I went for a walk once before dawn through The Sawmill, saw teens out rubbing grime into the salvaged window frames for minimum wage. Authenticity to order. The endless fabrication of an original that does not exist. I’m no better. I like the junk shops down the cut, those little holes of dust and memory. I fill my flat with trinkets, collected miscellanea. I find these things representative of something out of reach. Perhaps it is merely second-hand nostalgia.
Only one shop remains open, a pokey place owned by a woman named Marie. She sits ensconced in a magpie’s nest of objects, fiddling with curios, polishing brass. She wears tweed and crocheted scarves. I feel clinical in that place, detached. She seems to recognise me. I have made a habit of browsing, of buying random pieces. I see a delicate lacquered box I like. I find boxes most suggestive of all, as though there is something waiting for me inside. They are always empty, of course. As I reach for it, I notice a locket. Lockets unsettle me as antiques – they are too personal. Opening them feels like an intrusion. Yet something about this fragile silver thing catches my eye – the work is so fine; a tiny filigree covers the surface.
I pick it up by the chain, place it in the palm of my other hand. Emotion hits me like a jolt. Something, a feeling in my chest like liquid bubbling up, like drowning. I have never experienced this depth of feeling before. I’m terrified. I put my hand out to steady myself. There are tears running down my cheeks. I wipe them away, catch my breath. Marie looks up with curiosity. “I’ll take this,” I say. My reactions are instinctive, cutting through my disorientation. She reaches out for the locket, ready to put it in a little paper bag for me. I slip it in my jacket pocket, not wanting to give it up. I pay with a crumpled old note. I need to be alone.
I move through the city like a ghost, back to my flat as quickly as I can. With three bolts across the door I shut out the world. I throw off my shoes, curl up on the sofa, take a deep breath and plunge my hand into my pocket, feeling for the chain. I pull it out and place it on my fingers. This time I’m ready but the sensation hits me just as hard as it did the first time. I fumble the locket open. A man and woman, greying sepia tones. She in pin curls, he in uniform. I wipe my cheek before my tears fall on the photographs. I know that the emotion belongs to her. Her eyes, like deep pools, stare back at me, the fear unspoken – will he return? How often did she clutch this locket when he did not? Her grief is so vast, I think it will bury me. I feel for the data port behind my ear, locket still clutched in my hand. I flip open the cover, pull out the little loop card and throw it on the sofa.
As quickly as it washes over me, the sorrow drains away. I feel something, everything all at once. I am euphoric, full of light. I can’t help but laugh with the joy of it. Is this what I’ve been looking for? I don’t care. For the first time in months, I feel something. And I think to myself, this is huge. A mere accident of faulty tech and I’d stumbled on pure gold. Possibilities flood my mind. Could I reproduce it? I was going to try. It had something to do with my augmentation and that loop I’d thrown together. There would be time for further tests. Forget manufactured muck in wannabe art zones. Here was authenticity on tap.
I pull out my phone, call up my old manager.
“Hey Mike, I’ve got something for you. It’s going to be massive.”
We agree to meet over breakfast. As I said, I’m no better.