I stared at the memories in the pool below me. The water was a mixture of hues; ranging from a deep blue to a pastel pink to a fiery orange. Faces I didn’t know drifted in the water and made little ripples.
I turned to the administrative assistant calling my name. She was on the other side of the bridge above the pond.
“It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious before the procedure, but I assure you it’s completely harmless,” she assured me. The conflict must have been clear on my face—relief over getting rid of the pain soon, scared about how it would change me, excited about the new memory that I would receive.
This was all thanks to the company Cerebrum, which made headlines a year ago when they launched their MemoryGrid program. For the first eighteen months, they would provide one round of memory assistance for free to anyone who met the eligibility requirements. They asserted that their technology was safe and this wasn’t so much of a test for the company as it was a way of proving to the public that memory manipulation was possible and harmless.
Of course, there were outcries at first. Journalists claimed no one could know Cerebrum’s true aim, and politicians stoked fears of the new technology, like they always did at the announcement of something new.
Four months ago, my best friend, Kat, tried out MemoryGrid after becoming fed up with their therapist. They never told me details, but they removed a memory from their childhood and replaced it with something much gentler from another person’s childhood. Ever since, they’ve been in good spirits.
So when my girlfriend dumped me, leading me to sulk in my room over sad songs and countless pictures of us, Kat asked me, “If you could forget about her, would you?”
I hadn’t been sure at first. Jaz had made me happy, and I still loved her. But every day without her was like an endlessly grey sky. Getting out of bed felt like too much trouble, but then I just got more upset with myself for being so torn up without her. I moped for the last two weeks.
Then I started to think that if this hadn’t ever happened, then I could go back to how life was—no extreme highs, but no lows, either. Normal.
I made my final decision on the matter as I followed the Cerebrum employee across the bridge and into one of many small rooms as if we were in a doctor’s office. I took a seat in the large reclining chair at the center of the room. The administrative assistant left, and the only other person in the room was a tall woman in front of a computer next to my chair.
“This all seems so sci-fi,” I marveled, looking at all of the equipment around me that I couldn’t recognize. The room was painted off-white, and the floor was a white tile, which reminded me of the way sci-fi TV shows always made medical rooms look so bright.
The doctor nodded at me as she scrolled through some of my paperwork on her screen.
“Though, most futuristic sci-fi depicts people using tablets and small screens, not desktop computers,” I noted out loud.
That elicited a laugh from the doctor. “We’re doing next-level work here,” she said. “Not playing a cute little game on a handheld screen.”
“True,” I replied with a chuckle. Just about everyone used a tablet nowadays, but larger computers were still needed in medical fields.
“My name is Dr. Evelyn. My assistant went through this with you, but for both our sakes, I’ll go through our procedure one more time,” she began. “Miss Quinn, you are here to remove one memory and gain one in return. When you relinquish the memory you’ve chosen, it will become the property of Cerebrum, and we may use it how we see fit. We will make all attempts to protect your privacy so that it will not be linked to you once it is no longer yours, and we may also make changes to it for whatever reason. Do you consent to this?”
“After we extract the memory, we will insert the one that you have already selected. Please verify that this is the memory you want removed and this is the one you want added.”
Dr. Evelyn turned one of her three screens around to face me. On the left was a still of Jaz’s face at the café where she worked, where I met her. Above it was the label DELETION. To the right, labeled INSERTION, was a static photograph from one of the memories I’d watched a week ago during my preliminary visit; it showed hands raised in the air while the person rode a rollercoaster I had always wanted to ride but had never been able to because the lines had been too long when I first went to the theme park with my family. I thought that was a pretty low-risk memory to receive that would also make me happy.
“Yes, those are both right,” I confirmed.
The doctor clicked on some keys and then another assistant knocked on the door just before she entered.
“After the memory assistance is complete, we will schedule check-ups with you for the next nine months to monitor your physical and mental health,” Dr. Evelyn continued. “We’re confident in the MemoryGrid system and we have no reported accidents thus far, but we do this just to confirm that everything is feeling okay with you.”
“What if something does happen?” I asked.
“Behavioral changes are possible through the MemoryGrid, but so is anything that affects the brain. This is why we’ve restricted the system to people with no history of brain trauma and are in excellent health—for their safety. However, what is taken cannot be returned to how it was. If something disastrous were to happen, we could reinsert your deleted memory or even take out the external memory you selected, but the memories will change.
“That’s why I need to have you confirm for me, once more, that you want this operation.”
The atmosphere in the room was heavy. The assistant who had just walked in patiently stood next to the closed door. When I shifted in my seat, she moved her weight to her leg in front of the doorway.
“Yes, I’m ready to do this now,” I said, the third time I’d been asked since contacting Cerebrum that I’d like to participate.
“Excellent. Then we’ll start right away,” the doctor said, tapping on a few more keys.
The assistant stepped forward and gently strapped me into the chair. “It’s loose for your comfort, but we do need you not to move during the procedure,” she stated almost robotically.
The straps were indeed loose, although disconcerting. “Right…”
“You’re going to feel like you’re dreaming,” Dr. Evelyn explained. “The whole process takes about two hours, as if you’re going through an entire sleep cycle. When we’re finished, you’ll probably wake up feeling as if you just woke from a long nap. Now, whenever you’re ready…”
The assistant stood over me, holding a mask connected to a tank behind me. The doctor was still seated at her desk, but I couldn’t hear the clicking of her mechanical keyboard anymore. Her eyes were on me, not on her screen. They were all set on their end.
I could still back out. This would be my last chance.
But I was tired of being unhappy.
So I was going to chase this miracle down.
Everything was back to normal for a while. I had an uneventful afternoon after I got home from my appointment at Cerebrum. I cooked a meal—something I hadn’t done in a few weeks, though I couldn’t remember why. My apartment was a mess for whatever reason, so I tidied it up that night. I went to bed at a normal time and woke up the next day after eight hours of sleep. I didn’t laze around in bed for hours; I actually got up soon after I woke up and made a quick breakfast.
I checked my calendar and messages on my tablet while I sipped my morning coffee and cringed at my habits for the last two months. “Wow, Quinn, you sure let everything slide for two weeks…” I grimaced at the several follow-ups and “Just checking in about…” emails from clients. I’d have to spend my day kissing ass and apologizing for going off the grid. Hopefully a bit of fibbing to smooth things over would suffice.
However, I was in a great mood, and I felt like treating myself. I had faced my fears and actually used the MemoryGrid! That was worth celebrating. When was the last time I’d eaten a chocolate croissant from the bakery downtown? Probably a while. Treating yourself only when you’re down is a sad way to live life!
The bakery was calmer at 10 AM than it must have been during the early rush. One employee was restocking the bar area with milk and sugar, and another was wiping down the outside of the pastry case. She had long black hair tied in a ponytail with some longer framing bangs on the sides of her face. Several beauty marks dotted her arms. Her bottom lip was much fuller than her thin top lip, but she had an angular face.
She was really cute.
As she heard the doorbell chime when I walked in, she returned to the cash register and smiled—until our eyes met. Suddenly, she looked very stiff.
“Hi, could I have—” I began.
“Quinn, this is really messed up,” she mumbled.
I blinked. “Pardon?”
The woman at the cash register raised an eyebrow at my response. Neither of us spoke for a few moments.
“Anyway,” I said after an awkward pause, “I’d like a medium vanilla latte with a chocolate croissant, please.”
“Sure…” The employee input the order, occasionally glancing at me suspiciously. I was starting to feel unwelcome there.
She made my drink in a rush, quickly steaming the milk and pumping in some vanilla flavoring as if there were ten more drinks in the queue to make. As she placed the cup and pastry on the pick-up bar, I caught a glance of her nametag, which read “Jasmine.” I made a mental note of it in case I worked up the courage to complain to a manager over the phone later.
She kept watching me, so instead of eating at the cafe, I took my order back to the apartment and answered my emails there. I’d have to find a new cafe to frequent.
One evening, Kat called me in a panic.
“Quinn, my mom suddenly dropped in on me and insisted she was spending the weekend with me, then she started drinking heavily out of nowhere and started throwing stuff around and calling me a waste of space, and, oh my god, I don’t know what to do— Can I please spend the night at your place?”
I said yes, of course, and they hopped on the nearest light rail and must have ran to my building’s front door, because their face was red and they were panting. For a while, they rambled about things I didn’t understand or couldn’t keep up with. Something about their mom, and every now and then, they’d get a sharp pang in their head, and they’d clutch it and curl up on the floor. I had no idea what was happening, so I took them to my nearby minute clinic.
A doctor there was able to calm Kat, but he said there didn’t seem to be any head trauma or anything physically wrong with them. He noted that they probably had been having a panic attack.
“Are you sure they haven’t taken any drugs?” he asked me, quietly and away from Kat. “I don’t ask that to judge them, but as a doctor, I need to know in their system.”
“I don’t believe they took anything. At least I don’t think they did.”
“Have they ever expressed an outburst like this before?”
“No, they’re pretty private. I know that there’s some kind of history with their family, but they’ve never given me details.” I rested my hand against my chin. “Now that I think about it, I think they went to Cerebrum about a painful memory from when they were young.”
The doctor stared at me in shock. “From how long ago?” he demanded.
I flinched at his reaction. “Uh, I don’t know, maybe around twenty years ago or so?”
He winced. “Well…I can’t say much if I want to keep my job, but make sure you take them to Cerebrum for a check-up, and ask them to examine their memories closely for any damage.”
Something dropped in the pit of my stomach. If this happened to Kat, was I going to be okay? I’d used MemoryGrid, too, after all.
“W-well, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about too much,” the doctor stammered initially, sweating a little. “Just keep an eye on them, let them relax, and remind them to get a checkup.”
I took Kat back to my apartment and stopped by their place with their keys to pick up their work uniform for the next day. I entered quietly, worried I’d see a raving madwoman running at me. However, after tiptoeing around for a minute, I realized the apartment was empty. It was a mess, but there was no one there.
I sighed in relief.
Kat’s last-minute appointment went well. I was due for a status update, so I met with Dr. Evelyn just after Kat did.
“I’m sure it must have been frightening to have your friend suddenly experience pain,” Dr. Evelyn said to me in a soft voice. “With all of our medical advances, it’s not a thing people regularly experience to that degree anymore.”
“I actually have a question about that,” I said, nervously broaching the topic. “Was that something related to one of Kat’s memories?”
Dr. Evelyn’s eye twitched, but she maintained a soft smile. “Well, yes, Kat was experiencing a phantom of the memory they asked to be deleted, which I cannot go into detail due to doctor-patient confidentiality, but this is a very uncommon occurrence.”
“Was it because it had been a memory they’d had for such a long time?”
“Why would you think that?”
I remembered how unnerved the minute clinic doctor had acted. “Oh, no reason…” Better not to get him involved.
“Well, no, and again, I cannot get into details for your friend’s sake, but I believe it was related to other painful memories they had. As a courtesy to them, we’ve taken care of those at no cost. Don’t worry, they’re going to feel much better. Would you mind staying for a couple hours after your examination so that you can make sure they get home?”
An automated vehicle could take Kat home without my help, but I supposed I would be the best person to keep an eye on them for any other unusual behavior. I’d known Kat for five years.
My own checkup was very uneventful in comparison; I was in perfect health, so I passed by the next couple hours by mindlessly watching snippets of memories in the pond in the lobby until Kat walked in.
“Hey! Are you feeling better?” I asked.
“Cool, I’m gonna take you home. You wanna stop for ice cream on the way back?”
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
I frowned. She walked out the front door without me, not even waiting for me. Kat had been mad at me in the past, but I had never seen her act this coldly toward me. She didn’t seem to care I was there at all.
The ride home was awkward. I decided to skip the ice cream stop with her and take her to her apartment first. The automated car drove at the designated speed limit, and I almost wished it would go faster just so that I could get away from Kat, who was determined to act like I wasn’t even there.
We reached her place, and as I was about to ask her if she was okay, she got out of the car without a word and went straight inside.
By that point, I was too confused and bummed out to want ice cream, so I rode the car straight home.
I didn’t hear from Kat again. Every time I called, they didn’t pick up. All of my messages went unanswered. I tried to drop in on them at their apartment, but they either weren’t home or pretended they weren’t home. After that, I decided to stop contacting them. I was being ghosted, and that was that.
Whether it was from the stress over Kat or my increasing worries about their latest memory assistance procedure, I found myself acting snippy toward everyone in my life—not that I had many people to talk to. Kat was my best friend—and also my only friend. My parents and I were distant, and I had no siblings.
Then one day, I had the sudden desire to take a day off. I was feeling restless and angry, so I wanted something high on thrills to make me forget about my frustration over Kat. If that didn’t work, I supposed if it got bad enough, I could ask Cerebrum how much it would cost to get that memory removed.
So I hopped into my car and selected the nearest theme park—the one that I went to twenty years ago as a kid. It was about an hour drive, so I got there around 11 AM, conveniently when it was fairly empty. It was a work day in the late spring, so this was still off-season for the park. It wouldn’t get crowded for another month when schools let out for vacation. When I went with my parents, it had been a hot day in July, and it had felt like everyone was in the small space of the park.
Chomping on some popcorn, I walked around the scarcely attended theme park and glanced at the rides. Most of the ones from twenty years ago were still there, but a few new ones had been added, both on the low and high end of thrills. But I wasn’t in the mood for carousels or tiny tower lifts. I made a beeline for the one and only Brain Twister.
I sat in the front car with only a few other riders behind me.
I grinned as we made our way to the top, the coaster clinking as it was carried on the tracks upward.
I saw the world below me and threw my hands up as I felt the front car start to dip downward. Finally, finally I was going to ride Brain Twister!
And I screamed, first in excitement, as we flew down the track—then in terror. I suddenly became hyperaware of how much the front car was shaking. Everything was so loud—the clinking and clanging wouldn’t stop! I brought my hands down as we went around a turn, and I could have sworn I was going to fly out the side, despite my seatbelt being on tight. Every turn, every dip was another time I swore I was about to die. I clenched my eyes shut and heard myself shrieking. The ride was over one minute later, but it felt like it had stretched on for ages.
Medical officers were already at the exit for the ride when the cars pulled in. They mumbled to one another until I mentioned something about memories, and then they must have contacted somebody from Cerebrum, because I found myself at their office that afternoon in an emergency session.
Dr. Evelyn was tapping away at her keyboard while a strange helmet was sitting on my head.
“Hmm,” she mumbled. “Well, Miss Quinn, it appears our modifications to that memory you inherited somehow got erased when you got on that ride.”
I was still in a daze. “Wait…what?”
“The rollercoaster memory you requested? It reverted back to the state in which we inherited it.”
I blinked a few times before I realized what this was about. My cheeks flushed. “Is this some kind of scam?”
“My dear, how exactly do you think we get the memories we offer to give to you? We’re not exactly going around taking memories from happy people. It’s not like happy people seek out the MemoryGrid.”
I didn’t know whether to be angry at Cerebrum or at myself for being so stupid.
“Now, we’re going to make it all better now, don’t you worry. You won’t remember anything that happened.” Dr. Evelyn flashed me a smile, but it was not warm and comforting this time.
The straps around my limbs were tighter than when I was initially here. I pulled at them, but it was no use. An assistant came over and placed a mask over my face.
“Memories are fickle,” the doctor said, getting up from her desk to stand over me, “and easy to manipulate. Take care that you protect them better, my dear.”