His Ghostly Portion In The World Of Dark
by John Chrostek
A man sat in silence eating a quail egg. The luscious electric symphony that was his latest meal sparkled across the synaptic gaps that filled his inner frame, the velvet texture sifting brightly across the tongue and down his throat. The sensory experience was so rich and vital, so overwhelming that all at once he realized he had forgotten everything of substance in his life.
Upon this sudden and thunderous realization, he took stock of what he could verify about his existence. Visually, the world around him was dim and blurred beyond recognition. Why am I eating this delicious quail egg? Are these always this good? How did I get here? Who am I again?
The memory pooled out of him with barely an afterglow to simmer in. Bummer.
He picked himself up off the cold concrete, pants damp and stiff with piss. Typical side effect, nothing concerning. His eyes adjusted to what dull light crept into the alley as he wiped the crusted saliva from the edges of his lip. A man in the adjacent window was naked in his living room listening to Gregorian chanting. The sound was muffled through the heavy panes of sheet glass but still pleasant enough to the ear. The acoustics in that room must be something special, he thought.
Every time he faded out of a View, his eyes felt agitated like the optical nerves woven throughout his skull were drenched in liquid fire, overloaded and fraying at the seams. He knew well enough that’s not how vision works, let alone a View, but he couldn’t explain it any other way.
Sometimes, when he was at his lowest he wished it hurt him worse. Maybe it would make the costs outweigh the benefits.
After an hour or two of hiding behind a trash can in silent communion with the nude acolyte, his pants were dry and warm enough to put back on. He shuffled out the alley into the gray afternoon. In the aftermath of the quail egg View, everything he saw was covered in a gauzy film. He pulled a scuffed pair of sunglasses out his pocket and put them on, his eyes defocusing in shadow. The sounds of pedestrians, the magnetic pressures of passerby, the honks and rubber screech of vehicles was more than enough to guide him.
He started to hum a song he could not quite remember, some zesty yet melancholy tune. His arms and torso swung a little as he walked, echoing some muscle-recalled dance to match the fragmentary, atonal mumble he was performing. It did not help him remember.
He walked up to a man eating a sandwich on the steps of an office building plaza. He started snapping his fingers a little, shaking his foot as he hummed.
“You know this song, brother?” He asked, jumping right back into the song and dance.
The man stopped eating his sandwich. He shook his head no.
He tried two more people to no luck.
So be it, he thinks. To the Clinic. It was gonna bug him forever otherwise.
The clinic was an unassuming little frosted-glass box store. The big sign above the door spelled out “City Clinic of Legal NeuroTherapeutics.” He passed through the automatic doors, the silky quiet Whoosh sending a sofly fragrant air conditioned breeze against his skin, passing through his ratty hair. He sighed.
The lobby was much deeper than it would seem from the street. Body-high pillars and artificial ferns stretched down both white walls, across gleaming pearl white tile rimmed in diffused neon tubing leading to a circular help desk illuminated by an abstract semi-transparent plastic lighthouse at its center. As he approached the three workers, clad in white, signalled frantic nonverbals amongst each other. The one in the middle, technically closest to the approaching man, was nudged into biting the bullet.
“Hey there, pals,” he started democratically, “Been a minute, I know. Listen, I’ve got this earworm burrowed deep in the tightest little hideaway in my brain-sack and I can’t get it loose. Think you might have a View of it, if I sing it to you? It goes like this-”
“Sir,” the help desk worker interrupted, “you need to leave.”
“Your access to the clinic was revoked.”
The man slapped the table. “What are you talking about? When?”
“The last time you were here, sir. You stole several unprescribed Views and were physically violent with three technicians, myself included,” she included despite herself, still offended. “I-I’ve always been nice to you.”
The man felt guilty. He didn’t want to come across as aggressive. He certainly didn’t remember this technician.
“Sir.” Several security guards all in white surrounded him. “You are banned from The Clinic from this day forward.” They took him up by the arms.
“But what about my quota? Sell some, buy some! Feed! Get fed! That’s what you told me! That’s what you said!”
The help desk worker went pale.
The guards tossed him out to the alley. The doors shut and locked behind them, loudly whirring locks and heavy gears despite the frosted glass exterior. A dramatic bit of auditory excess, but it got through to him. No use finding a brick and busting in. They weren’t gonna give him Views anymore. He was on his own, rawdogging the natural world as God in all his majesty envisioned.
He feels uncalm. He starts pacing back and forth, at first to help him make sense of what happened, to relive the conversation. Those three were acting funny, like they hadn’t worked out what to do. And what evidence? He had no memory of attacking anybody. That just wasn’t his style. He’s a lover, not a fighter, everyone knew that. Universal love and goodness in all vibrations. He was a student of the Good Vibrations and hey, wasn’t that a song?
He remembers he’d forgotten the song he’d forgotten, the reason he’d come to The Clinic at all. This got him really upset. His pace quickens as he prepares an argument.
It goes against my rights as a patient, you know, so-
One of you has to know this song, I swear to-
Pacing turns to walking. Two hours pass and he’s long out of the corporate zone, strolling the shoulder of the elevated interstate highway. Cars honk and flow like afternoon rain. He remembers a View about a celebrity judge. The judge is in cardiac arrest in the middle of taping a divorce proceeding. No one fully understands what’s going on with her. They think it’s comic exasperation, the sweating and the shirt grabbing, the bottom lip loosely flapping up and down. They’re eating it up. Meanwhile her chest is tight like a rock is stuck in her esophagus. She’s starting to lose peripheral vision and feeling in her hands and feet and the only thing she’s thinking is whether or not to bang the gavel on her way down.
He loved that one. It was a viral View, so nothing too sensory. Watered down enough you couldn’t feel the arteries tighten in her chest and neck, but still so particular, so sharp. He wanted to try it again, pay close attention to that last comedic moment she committed to with the gavel. Maybe he could sneak a whiff of the punchline she was cooking up before she collapsed and they called cut, before she got a steroid needle jabbed into her chest just out of frame and was reborn.
He dips below the overpass, slowly bouncing his way down the incline of dirt and stone. By the water’s edge, a voice called out.
“Long time no see, man.” It was Pigshit, the old grump who lived with the man and several others in a makeshift settlement beneath the overpass. They went untroubled here with a concrete roof and fish to catch and fry, if nothing else. He was sitting on a milk carton in a leather vest and denim bodysuit, banging out a beat with rusted rods of junkyard carbon. His pale splotchy skin flowed into a wiry gray mullet that danced on the edges of his sunburnt neck. His eyes, locked squarely on the man, were foggy, pupils almost entirely faded away. “You’ve been gone a while.”
“Yeah?” the man replied, sitting down. “How long?”
“Three weeks or so?”
“Bizarre. Would’ve said 48 hours.”
“Time is a river without banks, man.”
Beside them, a diminutive and hairless figure emerged from underneath the dark water, laughing bright and lolling as they stepped out of the water.
“Hey there, Tadpole. How’s it going?”
Tadpole waved with both hands, their oversized t-shirt clinging to their limbs.
Pigshit removed a joint from his pocket and offered it to the man. “Want one?”
“Got any Views laying around?”
Pigshit snorted. “I wish.”
“How about you, Tadpole?”
Tadpole shook their head, laughing as they ran towards the trash hills.
The man rubbed his face. “Clinic cut me off, man.”
“I think so.”
The two sat in silence for a moment, watching the black, murky water churn and rush away into the gray void of the harbor.
“There’s this song. It’s in the back of my head, I can feel it. I just can’t sing it. I can’t remember it at all, but it’s all I can think about. It’s the key. I know it is.”
Pigshit closed his eyes, delicately, almost imperceptibly tapping the rods on the concrete. “Like pouring gold in a teacup crack, eh?”
“You ever been to Zara’s before?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Seek it out. There’s this loft in Soft Heights, little sign in the alley: ‘Thus Spoke Zara Thrusta.’ That’ll let you know you’re in the right place.”
“What do I say?” The man asked.
Pigshit got up off his apple crate, his handlebar mustache curling in the sudden breeze. “Just say what you’re looking for. Don’t worry about the rest, Laz.”
The man’s stomach clenched up. Right. His name was Laz. Short for something, Laz- something, but it didn’t matter. He said it over and over again in his head. It felt good, ticklish even, like someone blowing softly on the back of his neck. It was also fucking freaky, he admitted briefly, that not only had he forgotten his own name, he had forgotten to let it bother him. But really, he thought, what good is a name?
Laz decided to stay the night. After sundown, Pigshit banged out a communal beat for the encampment around the evening’s dumpster fire. When the dancing had subsided and the rest of the colony retreated to their sleeping bags, Laz sat in silence with Tadpole and watched the moonlight ripple on the water, the city lights like a View he had seen of the stars at sea on a cloudless night. He was thankful for Pigshit and Tadpole and everybody else in the settlement, thankful to have a warm and loving home to go back to, but he knew deep down there was something vital missing in himself. Sitting beside them, he felt that lack most keenly. He could barely look them in the eye. It hurt, or it was frightening, he couldn’t tell which.
He slept until dawn then left without saying goodbye.
It was a cool, muted cerulean morning. The shadows, after their morning debut, faded into soft pools of dim, the skyline’s towering canyons of synthetic glass magnifying the diffusion of light. Laz breathed deep, taking it all in as he traced his path back into the city. He walked with a skip in his step, clinging to that small and jagged shard of memory as if he could dance his way into the song’s creation.
Soft Heights was a city district built on three colossal landfill hills, said to float above the city by virtue of its bioengineered greenery and stone. The neighborhood encircling the hills, called LoSoft or the Polyneux Line on official city documents, was densely packed with workers and their disjointed attempts at society in the shadow of the vertically privileged. It was advantageous to sell to Soft Heights, even more so to work uphill. Competition was fierce. LoSoft was the run up, the cliff and the canyon of opportunity for a daring up-and-comer.
It took him little time to find the ornate Old World wooden sign that bore Zara Thrusta’s name, carved in flowery gold-leaf monogram: “Thus Spoke Zara Thrusta.” It hung from a small pole by two ropes on its left and right edges, swaying lightly in the breeze. The house was tucked away in an alley halfway up the second hill on its western side, so that the flow of dusklight bathed the hill and its smoggy horizon in a honeyed glow. Laz took a moment to appreciate the city, how it stretched on far beyond his eyes could make, how it hid beneath an ever present sea of steam and smog, softening the acid bath of naked sunlight. Had it always been this way?
“You there,” called a taciturn voice from the step outside Zara’s small establishment. “What business do you have here?” The speaker was a tightly bearded man in his middle years, thick framed with bronzed skin and midnight hair dressed in a fine red nehru jacket.
“Hey, boss,” Laz said, waving. “Looking for the owner of the house, got a query for ‘em. Friend of mine said they knew surprising things.”
The Boss grunted, his mustache furrowing above his lip. “You are unkempt and poorly mannered. The Oracle does not have time to waste on urchins. Leave this alley now or suffer expulsion at my hands.” He immediately assumed a grappling position, legs extended, arms raised, and began shuffling ominously forward.
Laz wasn’t expecting things to escalate this dramatically. “You got the wrong idea, man, no harm intended, no violence necessary.”
The Boss grunted, shuffling forward even quicker.
A voice rang out in the alley: “Let him through, Suresh.”
The Boss stopped in his tracks, face and raised arms frozen joylessly in stance.
“Hm. Disappointing. Enter.”
Laz entered, overcome with the aromatic smoke of esfrand. Crimson velvet curtains with trim of hunter’s green revealed a dimly lit parlor room, a few small candles and an oval window of thick chromatic stained glass laid gently above the door, bouncing amber beams upon shelves of hand-blown glass and precious stones. The room was eminently centered on a golden sofa set in hand-carved oak facing a chaise of deep blue fabric. Between them sat an embossed coffee table made of lacquered driftwood. Laz had never been somewhere so elegant, so rich in subtle energies. He looked back at the door, the disapproving silhouette of Suresh looming in the dusklight.
The same voice as before called down from the back steps. “Make yourself at home.”
After a moment of deliberation as to what available seating was intended for guests, Laz sat down lotus-style on the carpet, the driftwood table coming up to his chin.
The voice at the top of the steps laughed like a porcelain wind chime.
Laz felt compelled to rise to his feet but his body was slow to respond. He had not been anywhere so comfortable, so soft in so long that the weight of years of ignored fatigue finally revealed itself in full. Bare feet beneath a shifting dress of cyan descended into view, followed by an ornate golden thurible emitting incense, jingling on its chain. At last before him stood Zara Thrusta.
“Welcome to my home.”
Zara was lovely to behold. Large, soft eyes burrowed beneath distinct brows, framed in gold leaf and smoky liner. A sharp jaw, lightly bearded; large lips, painted blue, curled into a wisp of a wry smile. In their passive and curious expression lay forbidden and transformative secrets. “I apologize for Suresh’s brusque greeting, but he is loving and protective. I cherish that in him.”
Laz tried to speak but could not remember how. This too made Zara laugh.
“Normally we are not welcome to passing visitors. To enter my parlor is a rare experience by design. Many call. Few are let through. I tell you this so that you understand fully where you are and who you are asking for help.”
“Good. Now tell me what you are seeking.”
Laz wracked his brain. He didn’t want to come across as foolish, but everything he did just belabored the point. He tried to find the strand of logic that led him to this moment, to get at the root of it all as best as he was able.
“I’m trying to remember a song,” he muttered. “It’s… I need to remember the song.”
Zara’s smile did not err or widen. They did not move as Laz spoke his piece, rubbing his eyes to catch his nervous sweat.
“You use Views,” they noted. “For some time now.”
Laz perked up, salivating. “Yeah.”
“It is unfortunate to see the toll that it has taken on you. Such a marvelous innovation, the living dream of memory made tangible. Sensory, emotional, mental imprints, all distilled into chemical and electrical simulation. Intoxicating. A marvel of our age, and yet there is no transformation without cost.”
Zara drew close, causing Laz to flinch. They ran a single thumb against the edges of Laz’s eyes, over the lightly burnt flesh he hid beneath his sunglasses, tracing his cheekbones, rolling down his jaw to the implant that rested in the small valley behind his ear.
“An original model. You were an early adopter,” Zara noted softly.
Laz felt neutered, a child getting his haircut. His head fell low, his fatigue overwhelming, an impossible weight just a passing veil away.
“How old are you?” They asked.
“I don’t know. Thirty something? I’m not young,” he coughed.
“And where is it you are from?”
“Here.” Laz paused. “For a while, at least.”
“What is the earliest thing that you can remember?”
Laz took a moment until he was sure. He didn’t just want to answer. He wanted to know, to remember. “I was a kid, maybe six or seven, running around in a field of wildflowers, wood poppies I think, close to some water. Don’t really remember how I got there or why. It was springtime, a few weeks after the flowers bloomed. I was chasing a little brown rabbit. Big eyes. It wasn’t trying too hard to get away. Just kept hopping ahead and looking back at me, like it was leading me somewhere. Hop ahead, look back. Hop ahead, look back. I didn’t want to hurt it or even really grab it at all. I just wanted to be where it was. To share that moment in the sun. That was really nice, man. I think a lot about that day.”
Zara laid their head atop Laz’s, arms limply wrapping over his shoulders. They sighed.
“I have also been that boy. It was a beautiful View.”
Laz felt sick to his stomach. He broke out of Zara’s embrace stiffly. Baseless fury dissolved into a bitter chill that ran up his spine and lingered there. “Fuck this,” he muttered. “Fuck this fuck this fuck this.”
Zara backed away slightly, returning to their seat, their arms folding over one knee. “I will not lie to you. There is nothing to be gained.”
Laz got up quickly. He wanted to bolt to the door, to escape. He wanted to run through the foggy streets, to leave this brutal, beautiful hell of a parlor and go fishing in the river with Tadpole. They never asked him questions like this, never dug their lies beneath his skin like a a rusty-
“What song is it you want to remember?”
Laz stopped in his tracks, grabbing his head and yelling in frustration. Suresh stood solemn, ready to grapple in the doorframe. Laz twisted back around in place and fell to his knees, rubbing his searing eyes deep into their sockets.
He mouthed a word he could not place, digging deep for strands of clear thought, until he felt so hollow that he cried. It came up hot and shook him.
“Suresh, please help our guest back to the couch.”
Suresh complied, lifting the ragged doll that was Laz up from the carpet with little resistance.
“I think there is a way that I can help you.”
Laz, hollow, lifted his gaze to meet theirs.
“Do you still comprehend the technology of the Views?”
He nodded, Suresh’s large soft hands resting comfortably (supportively?) on his shoulders. “Sync the implant, pop the eyedrops.”
Zara laughed. “Yes, correct. In making a View, we track the way a mind engages in the interplay of sensory input and memory recall, bridging the gap between to create a vivid and enjoyable reaction. When we sync the implant, we perform artfully upon our synaptic pathways to elicit that particular experience. Of course you know this very well. Judging by your condition, I would say you are likely one of the world’s most experienced Viewers. But I would ask this: Have you ever heard of synthetic Views?”
“No. I don’t think so, anyway.”
“I would not have assumed so. It is a cutting edge technology, one I am quite entranced by. As we have progressed in our understanding of the mind thanks to Views, we have grown wiser about the mind as both a temple and an instrument, revealing new harmonies to the ascended mind. It all began with artificial memories. You remember games and movies, of course? The media of the Old World?”
Laz nodded though he realized he could not name one in particular. Vague impressions. Flickers on screens. Weightless light. Nothing so solid, so consuming as a View.
“The simulation of sensory narrative is rich with potential, especially in a world like our own in which so little organic opportunity is available to the individual. There is a growing field of these synthetic memories on the black market. You may have, in your time, even sampled one or two. A keen eye can detect the maker’s mark, but it is still a water worth diving into. But that is not what I have in mind for you.”
Zara’s soft hands rested atop Laz’s. They continued: “In creating artificial sense-memory, we priestesses of higher awareness have unlocked a further and more arcane art. Once one learns to simulate a sensory experience, why not go further? If sense creates memory which teaches the mind, can we not affect the brain more directly, more potently? Can we not, in some sense, train the brain to push beyond its own potential through controlled exposure to sensory enrichment? Can we not evolve our consciousness to new heights through mastery of the celestial instrument that is the body?”
“Sure, right on.”
Zara laughed uneasily, the rush of genuine passion having melted their practiced composure. “I am sorry. Let me say it to you plainly, then. If you are willing to wait, I will see if there is not some experimental View available that might help you remember yourself.”
Laz understood that, perking up at once. “Like, for good?”
“…What would I owe you?”
Zara smiled that same cool, passive smile. “Nothing. To guide you out of this miasma would do my heart good.”
From behind Laz, Suresh cleared his throat. “Oracle, but what of your appointment this evening?”
The starlight behind Zara’s eyes flickered.
“Yes, of course. Ask the Senator if he might wait an extra hour.”
Suresh harrumphed softly. He bowed. “I will delay the Senator.”
He left the parlor without another word.
“Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve forgotten. What I remember. I don’t think I know who ‘me’ is, anymore, to be honest. It’s now or nothing. I owe you, Zara.”
“I should move quickly. I will go into my quarters and contact my network. This will take some time. Would you care for a View while you wait?”
A part of Laz thought no. Don’t lose yourself. Stay in this moment. Don’t forget a second of this. His palm sweat stained his pants.
“What do you got?”
A man is shaving his mustache in the bathroom mirror. He slips a little and cuts his lip badly. He rushes to the toilet paper but he had just used the last of the roll. He panics trying to leave the bathroom quickly, tripping over that little bump between the bathroom tile and the hallway he shares with his roommate. The trip is minor but he’s got momentum, which causes him to fall into his roommate’s bedroom door, throwing it open.
He apologizes in pained grunts only to discover his roommate is having sex with his ex from college, Marlene. Marlene screams. The embarrassment and the anger of the man boil up until the pain of the wound becomes invisible. He starts to scream like a baby goat because he thinks a lot about Marlene and how he never paid her enough attention and this is just too much for him to handle while he’s losing this much blood.
His roommate offers to get him some paper towels from the kitchen. Marlene steps close to look at the bleeding. She went to school for nursing so she’s a deft hand with cuts and bruises. She says the cut isn’t bad enough for stitches. She looks as great as ever.
The roommate comes back. The three of them laugh together, the awkwardness of the moment transforming into a relaxed and playful atmosphere. The man decides to ask if he can stay.
Two stories below them, a gas oven explodes.
A man is shaving his mustache in the bathroom mirror. He slips a little and cuts his lip badly. He rushes to the toilet paper but he had just used the last of the roll. He runs out into the hallway. At the end of the hallway the windowpane is open, letting in daylight.
A corvid lands on the window sill. It opens its beak and a song comes out. The song is something a person does not hear but feels. It electrocutes the space between the muscles and the skin like a mint toothbrush, like a violin.
The man realizes time is an hourglass turned on its side. Outside the sun is dying. Outside the stars are popping like cherries, staining space with juicy fire.
The sound of a windchime the size of a waterfall.
A dog is barking.
The windchime pours.
The man is still bleeding from his lip. He is in a National Park. He knows this because of the sign. He asks himself what a park is.
Yes, yes exactly. Twice now. Push through.
Someone is screaming, deeper in the sound.
It isn’t easy to be opened in the middle of a dream.
The man nods. “Absolutely, yeah.”
He starts cooking breakfast.
So you remember breakfast.
“Course I remember breakfast.”
Follow through. Eat it.
The man is alone by the oven but he feels like he is flying.
Laz woke up as was being dropped unceremoniously into a dumpster. Suresh loomed over the metallic edge and watched as Laz returned to reality.
“I am sorry. We ran out of time.”
He paused. “Safe journeys.”
With that, he was gone.
Laz laid among the trash for minutes, wildly disoriented. For some reason, he struggled to remember exactly what had happened in the View. Normally it was clearer than life, it was visceral, it flooded every fiber of his body, haunting him with its warm afterglow until the stony boundaries of dry, gray life won out.
This time he just felt drunk. He tried to sit up, falling deeper into the trash.
Stand all the way up first.
“What the fuck?” he said aloud, flailing around in the trash. “Who said that?”
No response. Laz stood up, climbing his way up and out of the dumpster, looking around wildly for the source of the voice but no one was there. Only the dark of the night and the ambient glow of the street pole LEDs. His head was throbbing.
He walked out of the alley and down the road, passing Zara Thrusta’s parlor on the left. A single light shone from the second floor window. He remembered Zara’s eyes, still pools of water, looking down at the floor.
Leave while you still remember. You have answers to find.
This time he understood. It was the View.
It hadn’t ended.
Laz spent most of the night wandering away from Soft Heights. It was slow going. He was weak from the View, from the persistent aching in his skull. Everytime the View spoke, it was like the pulse of a migraine spiked with a lemonade icepick. The first few times he lost his footing. It took most of the night to stay standing when the Voice decided to emerge.
The city persists in dreaming of itself. So must you.
He tried not to dwell too hard on the penetrating gaze of others as he stumbled his way downhill. Between the confusion and the pain, he could barely present himself as human. The lo-fi tonal chimes of the local storefronts flooded his senses like a wave of sharp static.
Dawn. Donation. Smiles. Home. Happy. Home.
Laz threw up in a trash can. Some high voice yelled. He ran.
He tore through the fog of the city like a dull knife falling off a table.
What is it? What was it? Where did it begin?
His face hit glass and he fell back onto the pavement.
The glass opened with a silky Whoosh.
It was the Clinic. At the front door, closing the lights was the help desk worker from before. The store was dark, lit only by the colored fluorescents. She was carrying a coat and bag as if about to leave, now stricken pale at the sight of Laz sprawled out on the street.
She stepped forward and offered her hand. “Quickly,” she whispers harshly.
Laz took it.
The help desk worker led him into the alleys, away from the omnipresent surveillance feeds and passersby. Laz couldn’t remember clearly, but he was pretty sure this worker hated him. Why were they now leading him by the arm? Where were they taking him?
They stopped. The worker looked both ways before speaking. They were sweating. “I was hoping to find you again.”
The worker’s clear, blue eyes were wide with fear. “I can’t stand what’s been done to you. When we met, you were… you were so different.”
“When we met?” Laz asked, unable to remember.
Dig. Wake up. It’s here, beneath the tissue.
Laz grabbed his throbbing head. The worker looked on in horror. “We ruined you.”
She looked again, both ways. “They don’t know yet, but I’ve taken this.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a View, the familiar robin’s egg blue silicone slip, the thin dropper. Laz felt himself begin to salivate despite the pain. His growing self-awareness was painful, most of all when he noticed these Pavlovian tics, proof of his junkyard psyche. He could not forget himself again.
“I need to stop. I need to remember,” he muttered.
She put the View into his hands..
“These are your donations. Originals.”
In the distance, a siren wailed, the echo decayed and fraying through the city streets. The worker stepped back several paces.
“I need to go. If they find out what I’ve done… You can never come back to the clinic. For my sake.”
Laz nodded, ignoring his pain. “Sorry I hit you.”
“You were always kind before, especially to your family.”
The siren chirped and wailed, drawing closer. The worker could bear the fear no longer. She turned and ran without a second glance away from the sound of the sirens. Laz watched her go, holding the precious View close to his chest.
He had a family.
Take it. Let this be the last.
He agreed. He pressed against the wall and sank, removing the chip from its sleeve. He held it up against the back of his neck for twenty seconds, clicking his jaw four times to manually trigger start-up. He heard the familiar chirp, felt the stimulant hum begin to churn. He held the dropper above his eyes with a cool trained hand, barely blinking when the solution glazed over his eyes.
This he always remembered. This little dance. This ritual act of becoming nothingness before the View came alive.
The smoke from the underpass could be seen from miles away.
The police action from the previous night had been a clearing. Most of the camp had been disassembled, gathered into a funerary pyre and set ablaze.
Pigshit, one of the few stragglers left, sat against the concrete wall that had been adorned with old cloth tapestries and sheets.
“You missed a hell of a night,” Pigshit noted.
Lazlo could see that. He was badly beaten, one leg swollen and dark. When he spoke, blood came up as spittle on a wheeze.
“Can I get you anything?”
Pigshit laughed. “Get me something?”
He surveyed their fallen hamlet.
“Get me something, he says.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m me. I’m really me.”
Lazlo nodded. Inside, his own skin felt distant, room-temperature.
“Must be nice. I wish I was me again.”
They shared a glance.
Pigshit tried to stand. Lazlo helped him up.
“Tadpole got bugged out. Swam upstream.”
“I look like a cartographer to you?”
The water came up to his stomach. Sometimes, he noticed, you could see on either side of the little river that ran out into the bay, past the buildings of the previous century piled up and abandoned, past the towers of glass that grew ever upwards towards the sun. Sometimes, you could even see the sky in patchy holes in the everpresent fog. It could feel like at times that everything in the world, all the imaginable distance you could travel in a lifetime had condensed itself into a tube and poured its way to you. The tunnel of the world, the periscope, the old well up and out beyond the shadow.
It was right there, for just a moment. Then it was gone.
He found Tadpole four miles upstream.
They were weeping, the kind you hiccup through, as they trudged their way along, water well up their torso.
Their head was bleeding lightly.
“It’s me, it’s Lazlo!” he called out.
They turned around and screamed.
Lazlo picked up his pace, which frightened them.
This went on like this for a while. Tadpole didn’t want to be caught. Fair, Lazlo knew.
Lazlo could see it, could remember it without having being there.
That’s part of the reason Lazlo first went, why he volunteered. It wasn’t to remember, to experience. It was to forget. To survive.
Lazlo started singing. He still couldn’t remember the words, not all of them, but he knew the melody.
Tadpole turned around, their eyes wild with sadness and fear.
He caught up to Tadpole and hugged them tight.
“It’s okay, little one. It’s okay.”
Tadpole had been struck below the ear, by the implant. There was dried blood, or stains of it, around the side of their cheek and neck.
“I’m so sorry, little one. I’m so sorry.”
Tadpole looked at Lazlo like a child, bright and pleading.
“Listen. I’m gonna teach you a trick. A special one. You want to know it?”
Lazlo laughed despite his tears. “I’m gonna pick you up, and when I say, “Go,” I’m gonna dunk you underwater. Now, you’re gonna hold your breath, okay? I know you’re good at that, you always have been. When you’re underwater, you’re gonna count, 1, 2, 3… Like that. Can you do that?”
Tadpole smiled lightly.
“Fuck yeah. So we’re both gonna count, and wait, until two whole minutes have passed. And when you come up, you’re gonna forget it. You’re gonna forget last night, forget the city, forget it all. You’re gonna say ‘Bye!’ to everything and start fresh and clean again. I’m gonna do it, too.”
Tadpole rarely listened closely since they gave it all away. All the good times and bad. But they were listening now.
“After we do that, you and I are gonna go someplace else. We’re gonna forget our names and pick new ones, doesn’t that sound nice? We’ll go get a house. We’ll start a band together like we always wanted, you on the piano, me on guitar. We’ll even get the geezer to play drums.”
Tadpole nodded, laughing harder, a single tear racing down her cheek.
“Two minutes, okay? Two minutes and we start all over. You got this.”
A seagull cried.
Tadpole was laughing underwater, bubbles rising to the surface.
Lazlo held them tight and counted in his head, trying to smile.
John Chrostek is the EIC of Cold Signal.