Therapeutic Memory Reversal

Author’s Note: I’m doing my own mini-McSweeny’s, running pieces of fiction that received multiple rejections from semi-pro or professional paying markets. This story has come close to acceptance half a dozen times but I need to move on to other ideas. I hope you enjoy it for what it is.

A 300-year-old supernova remnant created by the explosion of a massive star.Ze lifts the small crystal cover with one finger and pushes the red knob underneath it. With zir other hand ze holds down a metal knob and turns the instrument clockwise one, two tight clicks, waiting for the trickle of memories to start flowing through zir headpiece. Ze braces zir arms on the counter, the room lights kept low because receiving memories is still painful, even if they get easier to acquire over time.

The sessions with Dad went too far. Well. Really ze doesn’t know what went wrong. Ze only sometimes recalls expressions on people’s faces from before the time on ship. So ze—I—sneak back here and try unlocking another piece. When the other me isn’t busy living a hellishly boring existence.

Ze—I, I, I—I will merge us.

Soon.

After the scandal and the election some people said it’s the memories that are gone, cauterized by the pulse of this evil, wild device. But ze wonders if maybe just the pathways are gone, and it can rebuild them, like a new bridge, or a portal. I have to try.

He only thinks he is happy.

Zir finger hovers over a green button. Sweat has lined up across my forehead and the back of my neck. I feel a Pavlovian lump in my throat. Before ze can change its mind, I turn the knob two more clicks. This is going to hurt.

 

Music blasting away in my eardrums, lights flashing from overhead, disinfectant and spilled beer fights for presence in the air against narrow streams of confetti. She kisses me and I press into the length of her. I think we’re supposed to be dancing but maybe we’ve done enough of that already and now all I can think of is tasting her from wherever she will let my tongue wander. People around us cheer, I think for some kind of political thing that has just happened like maybe an election of somebody we like … and then the memory hurtles back to me … the woman who promised an end to the witch hunts. Maybe we are no longer headliners in the long line of people labeled enemies of the state from the previous president … yes that was it. But I feel like I could kiss her forever.

There’s a hand on my shoulder, breaking up my moment with Enez. Enez, yes.

—Congratulations, he says, this short man standing next to us, dressed in the uniform of the science ministry. He has helped come up with the evidence that we are also good citizens. He looks tired, has for months, but now there is a smile under his brown beard.

—Thank you, I say, hoping I can leave the party soon. Why do I want to leave?

—I hope this isn’t too bittersweet for you, Caterna. He fidgets a little with his hands.

—I’m okay, Gryph, thank you for asking.

He means something about my father.

Enez pulls me tight and gives him a nod. She is something like a third of a meter taller than him, and while we appreciate him he never knows when to leave.

—Go celebrate, Gryph, you’ve earned it, she says to him, pulling a pay stick out from her bra and handing it to him. Gryph looks unsure about touching it but takes it, waves to us, and wanders over to the bar. Her long black hair closes around our faces like a privacy curtain.

—I wish I were a quid paystick, I say in her ear.

—Oh you’ll do better than that before the end of the night, she tells me, just before biting lightly on my earlobe.

 

Then it is done, the memory trailing away like a dream after waking. I feel spent, sore, with stabbing sensations running down my arms all the way to zir fingerprints. Time to go back to quarters. It is exhausting cutting into his sleep cycles like this, but I want to be sewn whole again. We need our memory back.

I.

I check the hallway, the only one in this section with a broken camera. I may have had something to do with that.

Under the covers in my quarters, I release this body back to my other self.

#

My bed sheets and night clothes are damp, as I wake up annoyed by the beeping alarm of my caffeine machine. Goddamn facilities department is going to get another work ticket from me, because clearly it is too warm in my quarters. They took away our direct access to climate controls a couple of years ago, on the promise that they would keep our units comfortable. If I am creating a mini-lagoon in my bed most nights, clearly I am not comfortable.

I get up and shuffle into my miniscule wash room and turn on the water, impatient for it to reach temperature. I might not want to drown in my own perspiration, but I don’t fancy a cold shower, either.

My intercom dings and I know from the tone who is calling me because after one night of drinking I’d programmed in stupid alerts for ten of my closest friends.

—Answer com, I say loudly, and then a portion of my wash room wall lights up with my friend Henri’s face.

—Hey Ferrick, oh my God man, don’t answer when you’re still naked! How many times I gotta tell you that?

The grimace on his face is priceless.

—How many times I gotta tell you not to call so early, I say through toothbrush foam. I spit the paste and water mixture onto the mirror where his face is. For good measure, I wink. He automatically wipes at his face and then grumbles at me.

—Okay, fine. I just wanted to remind you to bring your shin guards to work. Cup play starts tonight.

Like I would forget the tournament.

—Thank you, Henri. I will be there tonight and I will cover your ass.

—Please, Ferr, I will cover yours. Asshole.

We are both power forwards, and best friends.

—See you at lunch, I say, walking to my dresser. Henri’s face jumps from the wash room to my quarters where presumably he has a much better view of all of me. He puts one hand over his eyes like he’s trying to block out the sun. His loss.

—For Christ’s sake, get dressed, man. Bye.

His image disappears with a quiet click. He didn’t even give me time to wag my business at him.

I am lucky enough to have a room close to where I work, because some of us are twenty floors and four sections away from our duty stations. The ship is enormous, too large to ever dock anywhere. It contains roughly nine percent of Earth’s population before we disembarked the planet. To service all of us we rely on self-sufficient food production, solar energy, and near-constant supply shuttles from other, smaller vessels. I’m on the team that manages those rendezvous maneuvers. Because if we get hit in deep space, it will be a catastrophe. My work team may have higher stress levels than most, but we get very short commutes.

Jhim, the crew chief, greets me as I hold up my work pass to the engineering doors, and then I am through them into the large bay.

—Good morning, Ferrick, he says and then he turns back to his work. He used to be friendlier but work has been intense lately as we’ve started procedures for entering deep space. In a few months we will exit the only solar system humans have ever known. We don’t really know what we will find in interstellar space, just pretty good guesses.

I head up to my desk and turn on the treadmill. I like to walk as I work, it keeps my brain engaged somehow, and it helps minimize the power needed to my computer since the machine is hooked up to our power grid. Overnight I’ve received forty messages because the other “hemisphere” of the ship is on a reverse shift from us. Too much of my work is about responding to people I’ve never met in person.

—How could you, begins one message when suddenly I have some weird non-memory of a man asking me the very same question. I shake it off, blaming Henri for interrupting me before I got my caffeine drink this morning. But the snippet of a sentence bugs me. It feels like déjà vu.

—Ferrick, says one of my teammates as she taps me on the arm, —come on, end of shift.

—What? I look at Numes, my coworker. She’s giving me a smile but she looks worried. She’s a brilliant mathematician and she is tiny enough to fit in my suitcase. She also doesn’t get concerned easily.

The lights blink out one by one around our unit; automatic shutoffs to conserve energy. They turn off at the end of a shift, and whenever we are out of solar range for more than a few days.

—Sure, right, I say, grabbing my pack. Where did the day go? I want to look at my computer screen to see what I accomplished because for some reason I can’t recall what I’ve done today. I feel pain in my throat, must be coming down with something.

Numes waits for me, lingers, and dusts off her forearms looking for something to do in the six seconds it takes me to leave my desk. She’s always been really nice to me.

I look around and we are the last two people in the bay. If I strain I can visualize what happened today but it feels far away. I don’t like thinking about it, so I appreciate it when Numes distracts me again.

—What’s going on for you tonight, she asks as we head into the traffic hall.

—It’s the first night of Cup play, I say, rather automatically. I do love playing. I smile a little, maybe I can break through this sudden funk.

—Oh, that’s wonderful, she says, looking relieved. —Well, have a great time, try to cover Henri’s ass.

—I’ll tell him you said that, I shout at her as she walks away. I trot off to the stadium. Four decks down, two sections leeward. If I use the stairs I can get warmed up.

Henri is pacing near the front doors when I show up.

—What the hell man, where have you been?

—It’s not even started yet, I say. I’m panting from running the whole way.

Henri has been swearing too, and he wipes it from his bald head with a small towel. Henri sweats a lot when he’s agitated, so I guess he’s agitated.

—You dissed me for lunch, Ferr.

—I’m sorry. I just got tied up at work.

HOW COULD YOU

—Look, I know the shit you do is important, but so is this because like, what the hell else do we have out here? I was only asking for twenty minutes of your time. We could have talked strategy for tonight. He looks at me and drops his arms like he is giving up on me.

—I’m really sorry, Henri.

I don’t know what else to say. I feel nauseated.

—Okay, okay, well come inside and we’ll talk it over with you quickly during the shootaround. He seems somewhere between annoyed and concerned.

He puts his arm across my shoulders, leading me into the stadium. Bright lights mounted around the top of the interior dome do a great job of imitating actual sunlight. Something about the light in here always makes me feel good. But I have a frightening sensation that I’m not right, somehow.

I watch the players on the field, practicing passing with each other and taking kicks at the nets on either end of the field. Behind them on the scoreboard the tallies blink with each tap of a player’s foot, since the ball knows which player came into contact with it last. My great-great-grandmother had been one of the last referees in the sport before the computerized balls and nets made refereeing obsolete. I try to recall her name as I make my way down the stadium steps to the grass.

—Hey you’re late, Ferrick, says the coach, a burly man named Arlo who is something like an overgrown koala, especially around the ears.

—Sorry, coach, I say, fumbling in my bag for my uniform and cleats. Coach A will probably complain if I head to the locker room to get changed, so I trot to the sideline and get dressed as fast as I can. I take a quick swig of water next to the player’s bench, trying to push the pain out of my throat, before running out to the field. Maybe playing will help me feel more normal.

IT’S NOT NORMAL

But instead my stomach hurts. I don’t even know what I ate for lunch, or if I had lunch, or where my day went. I try to hear the directions from Henri and my other teammates as we practice our shot set up. I was the top scorer in the league last season. Now I’m having trouble finding my feet.

In an instant I face plant into the turf; in the next I taste copper and swallow a tooth. Henri, Arlo, and a few other players race over to me.

NOT NORMAL

—Christ, are you okay, man? asks, Henri, looking deep into my eyes. He waves his finger in front of my face and asks me to follow it. Strangely, I feel like crying but I can’t quite place my feelings, it’s like the edge of space reaching out to me, it wants to swallow me into its vacuum and I know I’ll burst, but I feel mesmerized, curious. What comes after I explode into airlessness? What is beyond the black holes we’ve navigated around as we look for a habitable planet?

I’m in shock. This is what shock is, being stuck. Say something, reassure them.

Arlo gets in my face, too. Now all I can see are extreme close ups of Henri, Coach A, and the blinding sun-equivalent lights. Almost like they’re projected on the walls of my quarters.

BUT I AM NORMAL

—I think he’s stunned, says the coach to Arlo.

—He must be concussed.

I open my mouth to speak, finally, but globs of black blood come out instead. No more annoying lights. Everything goes dark.

 

#

 

It is not accustomed to speaking up to them, but the vote is over so ze feels brave. She. She feels brave. She walks in, sees the backs of them, they’re watching the screen with the final returns, their arms around each other in quiet defeat, as they ignore the disappointed people who had gathered here to celebrate another term.

Actually, it’s probably not a good time to talk to them, but who knows, maybe it’s perfect because they’ll already be numb to whatever other news comes their way that they’ll hate. And they will hate this.

Her mother is the first to turn around. The doctor, the other doctor, as has been mentioned in so many political advertisements for her father’s campaign. Because who can argue against two terrifically brilliant, beautifully manicured people who just want to help the real citizens who deserve so many great things? It’s kind of them to help people who get in their own way, after all.

Her mother looks surprised to see her. Me. To see me. It’s me, I’m her, but not her, not to them, anyway.

It is so confusing.

I look for a smile, even a softening of her stance. We have fought so much. She has scarcely turned around before he pivots on his heel toward me, and then his frown lines deepen. This was a bad idea. I should go. So many people are here, so hurt and angry, angry at me for being the trans freak that sullied their good name, made them look like fools in the tabloids. I had never placed myself in the bull’s eye of his politics until just this moment, a heartbeat too late for reckoning.

I just wanted to have one last moment with them. I don’t even know why. This is stupid.

—How dare you show up here, he says. His voice sounds like a growl.

—I’m sorry the election didn’t go your way, I say.

—Are you? asks my mother. Every silver hair is in place. I can never get my hair to behave, but she is all about having every atom obey her will.

—Yes. I know what this meant to you.

Does it matter that I am happy with the outcome? I suppose it does matter to them.

—I don’t want any more of your lies, says my father, waving me off. His pallor is gray, with bits of duskiness under his cheekbones. Why does he want to be leader anyway? It’s clearly killing him.

—I’ll go, I say. This isn’t the goodbye I envisioned. But ze—I—have always been wrong about my parents.

He gives a signal to his security team, and although I protest, they wrap around me like tenacious vines and I can’t break away. I am wrong to think that my parents care even a little bit about me. I am dead wrong.

 

#

 

I wake up in the dark room, the computer screen glowing in front of me, revealing the date of memories I’ve accessed this time: Election night, seven years ago. Oh why did the computer pick that one, I wonder, because it should know I’m not ready for that. Of course, it was made to obliterate memory, not recover it. It was supposed to make us our best selves, free us from the memories holding us back. We never asked my father if our pain was foundational or necessary.

I suppose ze is tired of not knowing. I crave cohesion. The pain is horrible, breaking down neural walls placed there artificially. Realizing slowly that I am now multiple people. Working through savagery when I should have been celebrating my own independence.

The tears roll down my cheeks, and she—I, damn it—probe the hole formed from my missing tooth. It took hours for Ferrick’s friends to leave me alone. I reassured them maybe a hundred times that I wasn’t going to pass out again, and I begged them not to take me to the infirmary. I have not wandered into Ferrick’s life this much before but I’m getting closer—more daring, maybe—to integration.

I look at today’s date on the screen, trying to ground myself. It’s time to sneak back to my quarters. I am me. I am she. I am once again back to stealth until I can know enough of who I am from this unseen archive of memory to tell everyone again. I think Ferrick senses I am here. I want his bravado even if I will end him as he knows himself. I suppose I can find it ironic that I know how to rebuild the decrepit memory therapy tool because my father invented it.

But it’s all a bit much, even for me, even or especially after all of this.

I close my eyes, enjoying the quiet. Not much on this ship is quiet.

I breathe in, hold it for seven beats, exhale for eight. I exit the memory program and remove the data stick and hide it under a floor panel. As I learn more of myself, I feel the absence of Enez more. Emotions crystallize like a ghost becoming corporeal. It was a brutal time, and it will be a long while before I restore the specific memories of losing her, but for now I have enough remade that I can remember our love for each other.

—Ferrick, dude, what are you doing in here?

It’s Henri.

I whirl around in the chair and see him standing in the doorway, the hallway light flooding into the tiny room that is basically an abandoned janitor’s closet.

I try to come up with an excuse, but he is already moving to the computer desk and examining it.

—What the fuck is this thing?

—It’s nothing, it’s private. I’m not coming up with anything good, and now my heart thuds in my chest, like even my heartbeat is a discovered secret.

—I’ve never seen anything like this since … holy shit, did you recreate Dr. Crucet’s neural manipulator? Ferrick?

He looks scared. My father did not leave power quietly and anything reminiscent of him would scare most of the people on this ship.

—How did you find me? I ask. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, I guess.

—You left your comm link on, he says, still staring at the machine. —You were concussed and I wanted to check on you. He looks again at the instrument panel I’ve jury rigged together.

—This looks just like the machine in the old news stories. What the hell are you doing?

—It’s a long story, and I’m too tired to explain.

—You know what kind of damage this torture device causes?

—I’m familiar with it, yes.

He stares at me, sizing me up maybe, or looking at me like I’m some imposter of myself. I am suspect of something now. How could I not be?

—How the hell could you recreate this? Why?

He’s sweating and I can smell his electrolyte loss. It’s not good.

—I told you, I’m tired.

—I have to report this, Ferr.

—No!

Now I am in hyperdrive, trying to find some way to get him to change his mind.

I go with the truth. I’m not a good liar, even if I am pretty solid at hiding things. I just can’t affirmatively misrepresent things.

—I’m trying to restore my own memory.

This is a big admission—we all had to go through extensive psychological testing before being allowed on ship and off the planet. In my defense I didn’t know my own history when I applied for the position. And nobody else on board does, either.

—What do you mean, restore? You’re not—you can’t be one of his victims.

—Oh? Why not?

—Because … you’re so normal, a regular guy.

—Well, I’m not, really. But I’m working on becoming my own normal.

I don’t tell him Ferrick is some empty personality created in the image of my father, who he wanted me to be. Ferrick’s not an awful person. The problem is he’s not me.

—Ferrick, you could get kicked off the ship for this.

I don’t really know what that would mean. Scut work on a transport, maybe. A bed in an increasingly reliable but still unstable, long-term hibernation system. A 4-person mining ship in a converted shuttle, because the mining fleet has been lost for decades, since the conflict that drove us from Earth. We can’t really afford to lose any more people.

—I know, but Henri, I need to do this. Can you try and understand before you inform on me? I’m just repairing my own damage.

And let me tell you, it sucks, so give me a break.

He sighs, sounding somewhere between afraid and angry. I can’t read anyone anymore. But I have recently figured out that I was in the midst of transitioning. This must be why my father erased so much of my memory, why he did it so crudely and not in his careful, seamless way, because he was running out of time as leader. He knew the new government would shut his entire program down. He had to correct his son before she could live openly as a woman.

I’m sitting here devastated, while my jaw aches and the electrical stimulation still burns up and down my spine, and I’m wondering what I need to do to Henri to shut him up so I can have more time with myself.

—What are the memories like? What did he erase?

—They’re painful for the most part. And there’s nothing I can do about them except sit with them. All of these people are gone now.

We both know Earth was lost six years ago now. Nothing lives there. Every scan we’ve run comes back with the same sad result.

I look at him, the tiniest bit of my body language shifts, feels more feminine, more at peace. He doesn’t notice the change, but I do.

—Henri, for better or for worse all we have is each other now, and the Cup, and the journey. I will be much more productive and whole if you let me have this. I’m a very good engineer and the ship needs me. And we are friends.

He nods. He’s parsing through a lot of information—for him. I of course am wading through one thousand times as much, and it is all way more personal for me. He’s considering what to tell the quartermaster and I am considering how to continue being me despite who I increasingly reveal to be a conflicted, terrorized person. So shit if I can do it, so can Henri. But I don’t tell him any of this. I know I am thirty steps ahead of him and what he knows about me.

I just wait.

—We are friends. You’re my best friend, Ferrick.

—And you are mine, Henri.

—It can get lonely out here.

—It can, yes.

We are sharing more than words, I presume. I fight dwelling in a thought of Henri waking alone in the middle of the night, sad, with an alienating erection, filled with worry about the day ahead. Or maybe that’s only my experience.

—Please tell me what is going on with you. I might surprise you by being awesome about it.

Tears cut down my face; I am not ready for having such long-restrained emotions come out of me. For half a minute, I gasp for breath and then I emerge from the panic and manage to breathe out my last bit of resistance.

—I’m very scared to tell you, so if I tell you, you need to be more than awesome.

—I’m here, man.

Man. Ugh.

I feel a wave of self-loathing and yet I string together all the assembled memories, the full story. The whole while Henri sits on the floor, looking at various parts of me and the small room. Sometimes he nods, sometimes he mutters frail words to encourage me to keep talking. I run out of words and then tell him that’s all I know, for now.

I wait for a reaction. I wait for a couple of minutes while he thinks everything over, I suppose.

—We should go back to bed, he says. I nod and stand up, fighting a burst of vertigo.

—Come on, I’ll walk you back, he says.

—Are you okay? I ask.

—I’m okay. I don’t know what you’re going though. I’m here for you and I’ll help you.

He takes my hand and holds it and pulls me out of the room. It’s a gesture I don’t directly remember having the entire time on this ship. It reminds me of something, but I can’t place it. I should probably brace myself for having more of that feeling.

I shut the closet door behind me and hear the lock fail. Now I have another worry, but I make a mental note to come back after he disappears around the curve from my quarters. I have to fix it. I have to fix it. And me. But at long last I think I am on my way.

 

THE END

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