By Michael Stevens
“Just sit here, Mother. Let me find an attendant or something,” said Johannes, rubbing his face and yawning. It was surprisingly balmy in the large, modern foyer. The departing hovercraft’s drone and the responding cries of its attendant seagulls, both so loud moments ago, became distant with the sighing shut of automatic doors, though the smell of salty air lingered.
“I can’t think why you brought me here, Charles,” said Gili, her small voice echoing across the marble as she sat on the blue velour seat. “What’s this all about?”
“Johannes, it’s Johannes. For the love of —” Johannes rolled his eyes and adjusted his cheap suit cuffs. “It was your idea, Mother, remember? Can you just stay there for a second?”
Gili held her cane with two hands and looked up at towering, azure arches of light overhead where a well-known advertisement hovered in luminous yellows and pinks: “Electric Memories …Don’t fade in the evening sun.”
Johannes approached a wide, trapezoid-shaped reception desk with lights around its base that gave it a floating-on-air effect. He tapped its quartz top with a worn, plastic card, which contained the words Johannes Freeman, CEO Founder, Knockout Gaming Solutions while glancing at a huge screen behind the desk that displayed a muted AI newsreader and a ticker running this morning’s headlines: “Kent to run again in 2180… Green protests clog city streets…”
There was a tinkle as a young, uniformed woman with chestnut eyes came through beaded curtains from a room beyond.
“Welcome to Electric Memories, sir. I’m sorry for the delay. My name is Amanda.”
He nodded and took the glasspad she was holding out and nodded through the boilerplate material.
“Did you have a pleasant journey? Can I get you coffee? Tea?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t sleep much, if that’s what you’re asking, darling. These hoverboats aren’t exactly comfortable, are they? Pricey, too.”
“Did you travel from Derry or use our Hebrides charter?”
“Londonderry. Your people might have told me there’d be a protest going on.” He stuck his thumbprint in a couple of places, then looked up. “Look, I’m sorry. My mother’s just a bit agitated today.”
Amanda’s face softened in sympathy. “I understand, sir. If you scroll on, there are a couple of further things for you to confirm and sign. Gillian Freeman, is that right?”
Johannes confirmed and nodded quickly through the questionnaire on the glasspad before handing it back.
Amanda scanned his entries while Johannes looked around. Abstract holographic art floated in the air at the room’s perimeter like translucent Rorschach ghosts. Through these the walls were visible, made of the same granite as that of the giant ocean rock on which the building sat. This place was making money, all right. But what was it they all said? That it’s not just about a good idea? He’d had plenty. Ideas aren’t much use when you work your fingers to the bone bringing your product to market only to watch it sink because of lack of capital and investors pulling out. When you spend a year working your way out of a financial ditch only to find yourself on its edge again.
No way was he careening back into that ditch.
Amanda continued in an upbeat voice. “That’s all fine. Now, if I could direct you to paragraph three point two. Please be aware that, when you pay for an Electric Memories session, the files processed are readable for that session only, and can be experienced only once.”
Johannes turned back and gave a dry chuckle. “So I get one shot at this, basically.”
Amanda cocked her head. “Come again?”
He returned to the pad. “Yeah, I’m aware of that. Do many sign up for the half-hour thing, then?”
“The basic memory immersion is very popular, though usually families of those with your mother’s condition opt for something long-term,” said Amanda. “Of course, it’s not too late for you to sign for a fuller restoration and residency. Or perhaps you’d like to revisit some memories yourself. We have various attractive plans, if you’re interested.”
“At these prices?” said Johannes quickly. “No, half an hour will do. How long will it actually take for her to get fully compos mentis?”
“Just a few minutes, since her dementia is at early stages. Once it’s underway, the memories rebuild quite quickly. Your selected interval, you say, is for, let me see…” Her eyelids flitted over her own pad. “From five to five-thirty on May thirty-first, 2156. So, twenty years ago?”
He nodded. “The day I finished school, as it happens. Anyway, look. The reason I ask is that we’d like to catch the boat in an hour and get off this rock, you know? I’ve got something I’ve got to get back to.”
“I understand. The legalities around stationing in international waters mean a bit of a trek for customers, unfortunately.”
He was only half-listening as he read through the small print. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. Well, I’d sooner have private enterprise own our memories than let the government meddle with them.” He did a final retinal scan and handed her the glasspad. “That’s all good, then. Signed and sealed.”
“Thank you, sir. Now, if you’ll come with me. Mrs. Freeman, can you come along?”
“Of course, dear,” Gili linked arms with the young woman as they passed through sliding doors at the huge desk’s far end into a wide, carpeted corridor with walls of opaque, pistachio-tinted glass. “It’s so nice to see you, Lana. How’s Don?”
“Mother, that’s not Lana. She died years ago,” said Johannes as Amanda smiled.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Charles. Don’s mother has just moved in. And Lana here is working at Lunarbus. Isn’t that right, Lana?”
“Whatever,” said Johannes as Amanda smiled winningly and gestured to Gili to enter a room labeled ‘Immersion chamber’, drenched in pea-green light. Johannes, curious, paused at the door and stuck his head in. The specialized super-conducting particles he’d heard all about may as well have been plain old dust. But the technology in this dust, he knew, was a closely guarded, million-dollar secret.
Gili stopped, motioned Amanda on for a moment, and then gripped Johannes’s arm and whispered. “The world’s full of sneaks and backbiters, dear. You know that, don’t you? I’m only pretending to be nice to this one. Don’t let her into the house.”
“Fine, Mother, I won’t.”
“I mean it.”
Johannes sighed, checking his mini glasspad. “I know, I know.”
“She and Don never… they don’t know what it means to have children. No idea of the sacrifices parents make.” She looked down to the side a little. “Although, not that your father ever did either.”
“Hmm?” He put his device in his pocket. “Okay, Mother. Now, we really need to move things along.”
She looked up. “I suppose you’re never going to remarry? Still no access to the kids?”
Hurt crossed Johannes’s heart for a split second. Was that a faint smirk he saw? These moments where his mother actually got things correct out of the blue were disconcerting.
“I’ve not seen Helen or the kids in some time, Mother” was all he said.
Gili sighed. “I do so wish I could see your father again. Do you know, I can’t remember his voice?”
“That’s why we’re here. It’s been a long wait, but we’re here now. You’ll see him for half an hour.”
“Do come in, Mrs. Freeman,” said Amanda gently, approaching once more and guiding her into the room. “Now, please sit down.”
The younger woman re-emerged from the room shortly after, tapping on her pad.
“It’s just warming up. Mr. Freeman, in a few minutes you can go into the booth next door.”
The viewing booth smelled faintly of vanilla and contained a seat of fabric in that same pistachio color. Again, he stuck his head in and took a quick look at the adjustable two-way mirror inside, nodding in approval.
“There’s something else.” He beckoned to Amanda to come closer as he whispered. “I’ll need to capture some stuff at a certain point. Okay?”
“I’m not sure what you mean?”
“I mean from the memory.”
“Sir, can I remind you that the memory files aren’t readable anywhere except at Elec —”
“I know. I know that. I don’t want the files. Just, look.” He held out his hands as if to delineate something. “This is a very specific half hour that we’re looking at.”
“I understand. And?”
“And there are certain details that I’ll need to see. As Power of Attorney. I’m meant to be present throughout, right? As a non-participant viewer.”
“Of course. You just signed the for —”
“Right. So I’m going to need you to pause when I say so. And zoom in on something. That’s all.”
Amanda looked distressed. “We advise against that sir. It can be disruptive.”
He smirked. “Don’t give me that. I know what I’m talking about. I may not know much about your memory tech, but I’ve used immersive tech and you can zoom in.”
“Yes, technically. But I mean pausing it, sir. It can be bad for the experience.”
He thought for a moment. “Will it cause her any damage?”
“Well, not directly, no. But it can interfere with the live memory. Once the memory files are activated by her imagination, there’s a delicate balance. A disruption is like someone jolting you in the middle of a dream. It can set things off on tangents. The memory might not play out exactly the way it originally did.”
He pressed a hand on the colored glass, sighed and then removed it again. The moisture imprint faded fast. “But that’s after the pause, am I right? I mean, I don’t care what happens after the pause.”
“Yes. But you see, we offer the original experience of the selected interval, from start to finish. That’s what people enjoy. It’s what your dear mother deserves.”
“Ha. Dear? You didn’t know her back in the day.” He chuckled without humor and she flinched as he brought his grey-bristled face close to her. “Look. Enjoy or not, I don’t give a damn. I’ve paid for this session. So if I say pause — Oh, for crying out loud. What is it now?”
His face took on a sour look as his mother appeared at the immersion chamber’s doorway and whispered loudly.
“There’s one other thing. Did you know she never returned my laser clipper for the hedge? Can you ask her about that?”
He raised his voice. “Oh for — Would you just get back in there? Of all the ridiculous —”
A look of sympathy crossed Amanda’s face and she quickly linked arms with Gili. “Come with me, Mrs. Freeman. I’ll get you comfortable.”
“All right. Thank you, dear.”
After entering some details, Amanda dimmed the green lights in the room as Gili settled down, and then returned to Johannes, who was leaning against the shiny wall, talking on his hands-free.
“So yeah. Once I got Power of Attorney, I was able to sign up.” He wiped his mouth. “I know, I know. My back’s been against the wall since the divorce. Just keep the wolves from the door. Buy us a couple of days, yeah? Hang on just a sec, Jeff, would you?” Then to Amanda, “All good?”
“It’s underway now. It will be a few minutes,” she said, and then tersely: “Are you sure I can’t get you something to eat or drink?”
He shook his head and she continued. “Before we start, it’s my duty to tell you: your mother will become lucid during the process, and you may find this hard to take. You’ll see the mother you used to know, before her illness, as memories flood into her mind and rebuild her old identity.”
“Ah yes, return of the old battle axe. Sure, sure. I can deal with that. Have you set it up like I asked?”
She sighed. “Yes. Just let me know when you want to pause.”
He clambered into the booth, stooping a little under its low entrance, then stopped and turned before sitting, his hand on the inner wall above the entrance, rubbing his incisors aggressively over his lower lip. He didn’t like that sigh.
“Here, I may as well say. I’ve been really careful in the time interval selection, and I’m certain it’s the exact right time and date. But I want you to know something. If I don’t get the interval I want, I’m going to be stopping you outright, got that? We’ll be selecting another time.”
“Once again, sir, that’s not good practice. Once things are in motion, it can be distressing for a person to have their memory suddenly whipped away.”
“And that’s my problem how, exactly?”
He was trembling a little and Amanda waited before speaking.
“Sir, this is about your mother’s wishes, as defined in the contract. Her desire, as she stated, is to see her husband again, regardless of what you wish to glean from the memory. That’s what we will honor.”
Johannes stood out of the booth to his full height and pointed at Amanda, spittle forming on his lip. “What I wish to glean… of all the… You listen to me. I’ve travelled all this way on an ancient proton-drive hoverboat that rattled like a New Calcutta rickshaw. Two damn days with that woman making no sense. If I don’t get what I want, I’m having your job. Contract or no contract. I know people. Do I make myself clear?”
Amanda didn’t blink, but looked at him for a long time before speaking. “I’ll be just a moment.”
Johannes sat into the booth, whipped out his personal pad and stylus, and wiped his mouth as the door closed and Amanda entered a control booth next door. The pad shook a little in his hand. He hadn’t mean to be so harsh toward the young woman but, well, she was kind of pushing him, wasn’t she?
Through the two-way he could see his mother sitting patiently, her grey hair, clean slacks and cardigan bathed in green light. For a moment he was struck by how old she looked. But he had little time to process this as the light changed to a kaleidoscope of swirling colors and his mother’s mind became one with the environment. The specialized particles filling the air in the room came to life, each speck of dust conducting information and forming part of a sharpening hologram. Johannes’s heart pounded as he saw the hallway of their old home coming into focus before him with everything exactly as it had been twenty years ago. The lined carpet he had used as racing tracks for his toy hovercars. The window at the far end with knit autocurtains drawn to deflect curious eyes. The faux-mahogony bench and coat stand with portrait mirror. And his father in his dark blue golf sweater, looking in the mirror.
He drew a breath. The figure at whom he was now looking could have been himself. He had all but forgotten his father’s particular gestures, his way of adjusting his Titleist hat on his head, so like his own. The memories flooded in like a river gushing through a dusty basin.
And then his mother stood and her face was a glittering rose. The lost look that Johannes had come to know in these last few years was suddenly and definitely gone.
“Charles?” she breathed. “Where have you been?”
The hologram of Charles turned to Gili and his face was chiseled and a little pink from an afternoon shave. “In town. Where’s the kid? Where’s Johannes?”
That voice. Chalky and cold. Johannes was filled with a thousand admonishments. You’re doing it wrong. Get off those games. His mouth became dry.
Charles took off his hat and looked in the mirror once more.
“Charles, how are you?” said Gili.
He examined her up and down in a morbid way familiar to Johannes, then turned back to the mirror.
“I’m fine. Any sign of the kid?”
“He should be home any minute.”
“Fine.” He checked his jaw in the mirror, then turned to her. “I’ve something important to tell you, Gillian.”
He turned and raised his eyebrows — a request for acknowledgement — then continued when he received it. “So I figure at this stage there’s going to be a run on the banks.”
“I really don’t think there will be, Charles.”
He chuckled humorlessly. “Like you’d know. I’ve made provisions.”
There was a noise of a door opening and a boy in his late teens trundled into the hallway, a backpack slung on his shoulder. Johannes — the older version — flinched at the sight of the fresh youth in a Wizard Wars t-shirt, free of bitterness. He packed it away.
The father placed a hand on the son’s chest to stop him going any further. “I need you to hear this too. It’s not just the banks, Gillian. It’s also the business. The tree huggers have been up my ass. Causing a lot of trouble for agri-pharma, and us especially. But organized this time. Legal, high-level stuff. All over some stupid bees. Frankly, I’m not sure how secure things are. So all things considered, I’ve placed a chunk of money aside. A whole lot, in fact.”
“In what? Bonds?” said Gili.
“Bonds? Are you joking, woman? No. And not on the Cloud either.” He pointed down past his check shorts, indicating the basement. “In Fort Knox. My safe.”
“Cash? You’re such a Luddite, Dad.”
“Hard currency, son. Don’t trust anything else. Or anyone. This is your future.”
Johannes — older Johannes — sat forward and wiped his mouth.
The older man handed a piece of paper to Gili and her hand held the hologram, as if it were really there. “That’s the passcode, Gillian. Memorize it. And keep it somewhere safe. I’ve memorized it too. If anything happens to me, you’ll need it.”
“Freeze it!” shouted Johannes from the booth, and everything stopped.
“What’s going on?” said Gili.
“The slip of paper! Zoom in.” Johannes frowned in concentration as the view enlarged and he wrote something down.
“Got it!” he shouted, and he burst out of the door waving his pad. “Finally, I’ve got the code.”
“Sir, please lower your voice. The immersion hasn’t completed.”
“Oh, you go ahead. I’ve got to call my business partner,” laughed Johannes, replacing the Electric Memories earbud with a ‘phone ear set. He hugged his arms and slid to the floor with his back against the corridor wall as a visual appeared before him. “Santa Claus has arrived, Jeff. And just on time. We’re in business.” He laughed again.
Gili blinked at the sound of Amanda tapping on keys in the booth. Then she reasserted her view; the frozen image of Charles had come back to life.
“So don’t forget it, Gillian, have you got that? Put it somewhere safe.” He turned back to the mirror as young Johannes left the hallway, removed his hat and began to adjust the backstrap, then turned back to Gili, whose eyes were moist. “Was there something else?”
“Charles, I know about Lana.”
Charles said nothing, continuing with his hat.
“Did you hear me?”
He sighed, then replaced his hat and held a coat hook as he turned to her.
“What have you heard?”
“My best friend, Charles.”
He turned back to the mirror and snorted quietly, though his face was red.
Her voice shook. “Deny it, then. Go ahead.”
Eventually he turned back with a viper face, voice brittle. “Fine. I could have come clean. Lots of times. What difference would it have made? You know what? I don’t care one bit.”
She began to cry.
“Stop it,” he hissed. “The kid’ll hear.”
“My best friend.”
“You’re a broken record. You know what? Fuck you, Gillian.” He came closer to her. “I’ve missed so much because of you.”
“What?” Her tone was incredulous through the sobs.
He brought his face to her. “Some real opportunities. Big ones. I don’t want to move cities, Charles. It’d be bad for the boy, Charles. All you wanted was your shitty garden club and your mindless friends, chirping like budgies in a cage. Nobody ever thought about me.” He prodded his chest.
“Does she? Is she better than me? Is that it?”
It was his turn to be incredulous. “I mean, yes. And by the way, that money,” he pointed to the slip of paper, “that’s for the boy. Don’t you forget it. I know you have time for him, at least.”
She had fallen back against the front door — against the booth wall, in real life — whimpering. He surveyed her, then shook his head. “I need to go.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see her, if you must know. Can you let me pass?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, no.” She stopped crying and stood up.
His eyes narrowed.
“There’s something I didn’t tell you the first time around, Charles.”
“Tell me later,” he said as he tried to reach past her and then froze, eyebrows knitted in confusion.
She smiled through her tears. “I’m controlling this conversation, dear. Please, wait right there. I want you to know what happens next.”
Charles folded his arms. “Clairvoyant, are you?”
She shrugged and sniffed. “In a manner of speaking. This conversation is all in the future, you see. But my future. Not yours. In my time you’re dead, Charles. How about that? You keel over less than a year after this. On the golf course one day, out with Don. You’re dead before you hit the grass.”
“What are you on about, woman?”
“And actually, I can tell you that passcode without looking at it. It’s 83374PFR. It’s actually etched upon my mind, Charles. Because guess what? After you said good-bye, I took the whole lot out and made some good use of it.”
Charles’s shoulders were beginning to sag. “What?”
Her tears were gone now. “It just felt like the wise thing to do. You were never very forward-thinking. But the Green Defenders, now, they were. And they were extremely grateful to receive a series of generous donations over the years. It really helped them in their efforts. And the bees, I’ve heard, were grateful in their own way. It did mean the end of things for a lot of companies like yours, though.”
“You wouldn’t —.”
She interrupted. “And as for Johannes, well, I’m sorry to say he didn’t see a cent of it. But that’s no matter. He turned out just like you, Charles. Just as quick with a fist, and every bit as much a liar. At least his wife had the sense to escape from her bully, with a little financial help from me. Though as far as Johannes is concerned, the money’s still in the safe. But I don’t care what he believes. My issue is with you.”
“Why would you do this?” whispered Charles, all hardness now gone from his face, his voice a whisper.
She stepped closer to him. “Oh Charles, dear. Don’t you realize? I knew about Lana. And the others, too. I knew all along, Charles. But that’s not all.”
“The day after you died, I was with Don.”
His eyes grew fiery and his lower jaw shook.
“Oh, it wasn’t romantic, exactly. We didn’t have a lot in common, Don and I. But he did hate you almost as much as I did, so there was that. The exciting part, dear, is that we did it in the funeral parlor where the wake was to be, with you lying there. A bit naughty, yes. But we did it, Charles. Twice. And it was great. It was actually quite a turn-on, your being right there.”
A wave of something seemed to pass over him and he crumpled like paper.
“The only thing that wasn’t so wonderful was that I never actually got to tell you about it. I never got to see your face, and rub this news in it, the way you rubbed yours in mine all those times. Well, now I do. What do you think of that, Charles?”
“Fuck you, Gillian,” croaked Charles.
“Oh really? What are you going to do about it? Raise a hand to me? Go ahead. Try.”
He raised his palm but then a look of horror creased his face as it froze in mid- air.
Gili laughed again. “That’s right, Charles. Frozen in time. That’s you. Now. Go back to hell where you came from.”
She spoke to Amanda through the two-way. “Dear? End the programme please.”
Charles’s horrified face pixelated in the air and fell into the floor, into nothing. All images gone, the room was green once more. Gili stared into the emptiness.
“You still have ten minutes, Mrs. Freeman.” Amanda had switched off the mirror and Gili could now see her.
“Is that so? Well in that case, before my memory loses its way again, I’d like you to immerse me in another time. March 10th, 2157 at exactly 2.30 PM, in Flaherty’s Funeral Home, North Strand. The day of my husband’s wake. Ten minutes should just about do it, dear. And close the curtains, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course, Mrs. Freeman,” said Amanda, and as the old woman sat down they shared the briefest of smiles.
Michael Stevens is an Irish writer and musician whose stories have previously appeared in HyphenPunk, Andromeda Spaceways, Noctivagant Press, and Honest Ulsterman. He lives in Dublin where he divides his time between hanging out with his young family, reading speculative fiction, opening doors for attention-starved furry creatures, and bashing on the guitar with his band. He finds writing fiction to be just as much fun as songwriting, but with the added benefit that it doesn’t involve carrying amplifiers and trying to hear oneself over the drummer. Find out more at @mikestevens72.
This story is inspired by a song of the same name by Stevens’s band Skelocrats. You can listen to the song at https://skelocrats.bandcamp.com/track/electric-memories
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