Her briefcase thudded against the stairs as Elise went up into the house. The client’s son Wade led the way. Despite his age – early thirties, she guessed – there was a white streak in his hair like he’d suffered a terrible fright and never recovered. “Not many female operators these days,” he offered – the typical preamble.
“Not many operators full stop,” she replied. “And mostly freelance since the HC downsized.”
On the landing she encountered a pocket of raw feeling – regret and loss in a brew that stung the nostrils. She had to steady herself against the wall until the dizziness passed.
Wade raised an eyebrow.
“Just acclimatising,” she said. “It’s normal.”
His expression made clear he’d sensed nothing at all.
The hallway was crowded with awards and framed certificates. He motioned to the furthest door. “Mother’s in there.”
“What’s the diagnosis?”
“Cancer,” he said.
Several emotions vied for control of his features. In the end, they cancelled each other out. “Not my area, I’m afraid,” said Elise, to fill the silence.
She waited on the threshold until she saw he’d come no further. Then she pushed open the door. ‘Mrs Jarrow . . ?’
The client was sat upright in bed, overseen by medical equipment. The caustic intelligence in her eyes – it was somehow familiar.
“Don’t just stand there,” the woman said. “Enter.”
“Forgive my discourtesy, but if there’s one luxury I don’t have, it’s time.”
Elise heaved her briefcase onto the bed where it sank into a slight depression in the mattress. Then she undid the latches, raised the lid, propped it open with the extendable wand. The console was built into the interior – a matte terminal of knobs and dials in the bottom, a display tube above. It took a while to warm up.
“That thing looks older than me,” Jarrow remarked. Up close, you could see where her features strained against the disease.
Elise gave the usual patter. “It’s to do with neuroplasticity. The brain stem learns. Frequent use strengthens the synaptic pathway. So really, with this technology, older is better.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh yes.” Elise tapped the panel that housed the cellular fragment – the ‘pulp’, as the industry lingo went. “You want a certain maturity for the best results.”
The console breathed into life and made birdlike chitters as it recognised its operator. Elise stroked the leather until it settled.
“Now, are you familiar with our services, Mrs—”
“Please call me Geraldine. I haven’t been Mrs Jarrow since I was in the Ministry.”
Elise swallowed. She’d also recognised the voice – that precise hauteur.
The console made a grinding noise that broke the atmosphere, so Elise returned to her preparations. Sure, the newer stems were less temperamental, but they were expensive – bespoke organs were the benchmark. Then you needed downtime to sync with the juvenile medulla as it grew . . . She looked at the scuffs in the casing, the broken pixels on the interface; there was still life in the old dog yet. But the risk of burnout increased by the day. She didn’t know what she’d do after that. She was already behind on payments and the reagent didn’t come cheap.
Probes apiece for user and client: two at the temples, one at the wrist, another over the sternum (to get the resonance through bone). Elise huffed onto one of the conductive plates and said, “So, what will we be clearing today?”
Geraldine parted her nightgown. “A triviality. You’ll know it when you see it.”
“Oh. As you wish.”
Most clients were younger types who wanted their story changed: bad relationships excised, childhood traumas deleted. But Geraldine had lived her entire life already, so why endure the process now? A little odd, but Elise was not in the position to be turning down work. “Naturally, I uphold the strictest confidentiality,” she added.
“Of that I have no doubt.”
“We’re almost ready.”
The port in her arm had deteriorated from overuse, so Elise had been using the fallback above her clavicle. She applied salve to the access point, then twisted in the cable until it bonded.
Soon the traces came into view. Elise worked the dials to match their frequencies. Slowly the signals merged onscreen, but the graphic was mostly for the customer’s benefit – she could bridge by feel alone.
The reference memories Elise cleared without any trouble. After that, she was well anchored inside Geraldine’s subconscious – colours, sense impressions. And Geraldine was a better client than most, offering up what she wanted removed without fuss or embarrassment. The recollections really were small fry: minor family resentments, petty arguments that had never been resolved. Hardly worth the bother. Then there was some business about a clock tower, painted blue and red and gold. But as the process neared its end, Elise spotted something new. Hidden within a nebula of abstract thought, it was less a memory than an image, one drifting with a slight shimmer in the mind’s eye . . . A white face, masklike and empty, staring back at her. Sensing resistance, Elise flexed her talent to brute-force the extraction when—
There was a flash of mutant light as the two women fell back into the room. Smoke rose from the machine, the smell of scorched flesh.
Geraldine’s head lolled on the pillow. “What happened?”
“Short circuit. Blown fuse, maybe. Happens all the time.” Elise had kept her composure, but the machine was done for.
“Still, you got everything, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. Full expurgation.”
“Good.” Geraldine took a deep breath. Then she raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Life can feel terribly long.”
“Yes,” said Elise. “I suppose it can.”
Geraldine looked as if she had more to let out of her. Instead, she fell smoothly into a doze and could only murmur to her dreams. Elise studied her for a moment. Then her attention wandered. Beside the bed, the pull-handle of a vintage chest of drawers resembled a wry, upturned mouth. How curious.
Wade had entered at some point. “The power cut out. Is everything . . ?”
“All fine.” Elise pressed the recall button, but the cabling wouldn’t wind back into the machine. She gave up, piled the wires messily inside the briefcase, then clipped it shut. “Textbook session with a co-operative client.”
“Excellent.” He seemed nervous. “Well, we appreciate you coming out.”
“My pleasure,” she replied, but he was already ushering her down the stairs.
In the hallway, as if remembering something inconsequential, he said, “You require payment. Do you do bead transfer?”
Their devices connected with a haptic shudder.
“That’s . . . You’ve overpaid.”
“Call it a tip,” Wade said as he guided her roughly out onto the street. Then he shut the door behind him with a heavy thud.
Outside, the enclave faded into historical preservation, powder blue sky behind the houses. Elise checked the receipt again. Then she warmed her face in the late autumn sun. Doing that cost nothing – only her time.
Before she set off, she turned to look back at the townhouse. There was something at the third-storey window. A white face, brilliant against the gloom of the house behind, staring down at her. It was still there when she closed her eyes.
Oliver was zoned out on the sofa when Elise got home. She slunk onto his lap and said, “The dog’s dead.”
“Oh no,” he replied flatly, not surfacing from his trance.
She rolled over to stare into nothing. “It was going to happen soon anyway.”
Eventually the stream ended, and his eyes winked back to normal.
“What were you saying?”
She lifted off him and went into the kitchen.
Moments later, he sprang inside the room and wrapped his arms around her. “Sweetheart, darling, my sugar pie!” he trilled as he showered her with infantile kisses. Deep down, she hated this behaviour, but babytalk and shallow affection were his preference, so she let it slide. Inert domesticity was all that remained – she left her sensuality at the front door like a pair of dirty boots. But why complain when she’d let it happen?
He nuzzled her neck. “Tell me again.”
“The pulp shorted. It’s out of action.”
“We can manage.”
“I left it with Bernard. Maybe he can get it up and running again. Just until my commissions come through.” She eased away from him and said, “I’m going to pick it up tomorrow.”
Oliver’s eyes widened to a thud from the floor upstairs. “The neighbours. They tried to get inside again last night,” he said with an exaggerated shiver. Then he kissed her for real, a little drive behind it this time.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“I have work to do.”
With that, he made his escape into the next room.
“I love you,” she shouted after him, but it sounded like a question. Either way, it didn’t matter. He’d already tuned back in.
Her office was a windowless room at the rear of the apartment. She closed the door behind her and sat at the desk. Her bead was an older model, and had lost much of its iridescence, but it registered her thumbprint on the third attempt. A couple of chits had come in, but they were yet to be ratified by the grey ladies of the Harmonisation Council, so the cases stayed in limbo. It hardly mattered until her equipment was repaired.
With nothing else to do, she let her mind shade into the nocturnal ambience of the room, the shadows cast by the dim halogen lights. Finally, like lowering into a frigid pool, she allowed herself introspection.
Trading in the disposal of memories had left her doubtful of her own. How could you let something so fragile determine who you are? No, it was better to stay pliant, adaptable, a weathervane in capricious winds. And she’d always been this way. As a child she’d been girlish when expedient, gamine with others, an old soul with intellectual types – whatever the adults seemed to need. At the Academy she’d had many guises: dilletante, wallflower, arriviste, activist. But it was all distancing. She imagined it as a dance of the veils. The swatch of fabric hung in the air and drew the eye. In the next moment it would fall. But there was always another to replace it.
Mutability extended into adulthood – shifting codes and changing mannerisms. Even her relationships were not immune to this anomaly. Over the years she’d interrogated her sexuality to the point of paralysis. It was easier to adopt her partner’s preferences instead, to surrender to their fetishes and methods of intimacy. She absorbed their interests, their aspirations, even their modes of dress. Always she went to them instead of the other way around. Could you even call that love? Something so docile?
What was at the core of her? Was there anything there at all? Or was it just a void, desperately ashamed of itself, erecting barriers and distractions and trying to hide? It wasn’t acting. Nor duplicity. No, it was more like a reflex, borne out of something psychological she couldn’t access inside her. A protective apparatus she was scared to discard. Others had to offer things up to be cleared. Maybe she needed to do the same.
Often, when she had the place to herself, she logged on to the forums to chat with the other operators on her patch. Occasionally, the messages turned flirtatious. At those times she wondered what it would be like to leave Oliver. Of course, he’d need to make the first move. But what then? Two operators getting together? That was a laugh. It would be a disaster. Like a pair of telepaths trying to read each other’s minds.
Elise got into bed late. She waited until Oliver was snoring again, then fingered her clavicle port until she felt the wave spread through her body. After that, she rolled into the warmth of him, pressed up close and listened to her heartbeat in her ears.
Soon she stirred. There was something else in the room with them. Something crouched in the darkness beyond the bed. No longer afraid to be seen, it rose slowly into view from behind the curve of Oliver’s back. What she saw terrified her. Veiled eyes. A black and toothless grimace. A face that opened and closed like a fish gasping on land, watching her with mute delight.
She removed the image immediately upon waking. Nobody should remember that.
Biohazard tape barred entrance to the wholesalers. Elise weaved underneath to go inside. Sure enough, there was a spillage in the aisles, fleshpods escaped from their vitrines and quivering on contact with air. One of the employees, mopping up preservative under the customer evacuation light, waved her towards the back of the store. She sidestepped around him and headed for the warehouse.
The raw meat stench of the retail space intensified inside. Between the racks, workers were unpacking an ENT consignment: tongues, lobes, ear bones. Some were stacking bundles of connective tissue. Others were winching stocks to the highest shelving; the crate’s hole-punched eyes watching her as she passed.
Bernard was at the far end. Elise found him hunched over his workbench like a miniaturist in concentration. The table was strewn with power tools and obsolete splice technology. His shoulder-length hair was tied back against the sparks that illuminated the recess. When he turned on his stool to greet her, he was an ursine presence in his ill-fitting uniform. “Open heart surgery,” he said, raising his welding mask, “but the patient is resilient.”
She pulled up a chair.
Management allowed Bernard to attend to his repairs provided he didn’t bring his politics – once considered radical, now outdated and disorganised – out onto the shop floor. “Geraldine Jarrow,” he said like the name burnt his mouth. “Quite a harridan, by all accounts. You do know she was one of the architects of Coercion?”
“No,” she said – a sympathetic lie.
“I forget how young you are.” Bernard shook his head. “A generation later and we’re still dealing with the aftereffects. All the low-status types got a scalping, and everyone underneath them got completely hollowed out. And now look at us. A nation of automatons hooked on the stream . . .”
That particular era had defined Bernard’s worldview and was never far from his mind. As he lapsed into one of his diatribes, Elise was drawn to a small placard above the worktop. “Pessimism is cowardice,” was the credo. Many things in life were unrealistic, Bernard freely admitted, but that didn’t mean they weren’t worth fighting for. Cynicism was neither cool nor clever – there was already too much apathy in the world to go around. But his best protesting days were behind him now, and the scandal had long faded from the collective consciousness. Elise thought it was futile to keep struggling. Wasn’t it?
“They tried to sell it as emancipation,’ Bernard went on. ‘Reenergising the national malaise. But the transmissions didn’t make anyone happier, did they? They just took away the pain. And that isn’t the same thing at all.”
Yes, the one thing Bernard would not do was bend to reality. She admired him for it. “It’s a disgrace,” she told him, almost convincing herself.
“Damn right. And the worst fucking thing about it is—” He eyed the camera in the corner. “I should watch my language.”
She seized the opportunity. “You done?”
“I could go on for hours.”
“I know that’s true,” she said, “but I meant with the unit.”
He finished up with the soldering iron. “The moving parts are simple fixes. The somatic components, not so much. I just can’t work out what would cause it to short like that. The pulp must have had quite a scare, and they’re tough little buggers.”
She recounted the memory she’d tried to clear as the unit blew. Then how she’d seen the same outside the residence: the white face framed against the black interior. It was as if she could see it now, she told him, superimposed onto the warehouse wall.
“A bit of bleed through is normal, isn’t it?” said Bernard.
“That’s the simple explanation. No session is ever perfect. Some fragments linger longer than they should.” Maybe you left with some second-hand bitterness, or jealousy over a person you’d never met. But you forgot about it quickly enough. That was always the way with other people’s suffering. “This is different, though. It won’t shift. It’s . . .”
He made some final touches, then handed back the unit. “There. I’ve given it a transfusion, which’ll give you a couple more hours, but it’s palliative care at this point. The whole thing will need to be replaced.”
Elise stared down at the patched-up casing.
“Saline washes, twice a day,” he added.
“So, what are you going to do?” he asked. “Because, I’m saying, long hours, bad pay. Is this all you want out of life?”
“If I can’t do this, then I don’t know who I am anymore.”
He laughed at that, so she laughed back. She couldn’t help herself.
The repairs held, after a fashion, and Elise returned to work. A couple of cases passed without incident. Then there was a stretch before anything else came in. She tried to keep busy at the walk-in clinic, but business was slow. Men excavating the pavement outside had struck open a sewage pipe, so people stayed away. But eventually someone called at her cubicle.
An old man in a worn greatcoat approached the desk. To the cash rattling in his hand, Elise said, “Please, your money’s no good here,” and meant it – the currency was long defunct. “Pro bono,” she added, to his evident relief. And the case was standard fare: grief extraction, the dead wife special. But he didn’t want the complete wipe, he insisted, only to scrub some of her final miseries. Elise said she could help him out.
Even though the slot overran, she pitied the old geezer, so dug around for a little longer. There were a few items that he’d long forgotten – lost minutiae from a holiday, small reminders of their nuptials, that kind of thing. It was a kindness, raising those up. Soon they would be lost again to time, so it was nice to let him bask in them for a while. However, just as it had with Geraldine, things started to go wrong as the session ended.
The old man hardly noticed as the recollection wormed between them. But Elise did. She saw it, that featureless bone structure, like a skull held behind wet cloth. And not only that: she could feel it. Memories were facsimiles, narrative energies at most. But this was something else. Something alive. Possessed of a kind of joy. No, a darker impulse than that. An excitement so fevered that it became cruelty.
What followed is missing.
That evening, Elise found Oliver naked in the bathroom, bent over the toilet in a state of distress. ‘I’m sick,’ he yelled, his voice hollow against the tiles. “Help me.”
She stifled laughter as she hung in the doorway. Such was his phobia of vomiting that he shook with terror every time bile came splattering into the bowl. “Probably a virus,” she told him when he was done screaming. ‘Some sort of infection.’
“I could die tonight.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Witness to this feeble display, she knew that she’d finally be able to leave him. And more. Perhaps hurt him if she could. That would be a delicious thing, wouldn’t it? To cause violence to someone who deserved it.
Or even if they didn’t.
The next morning, she watched him force down a slice of toast, his eyes rolling back as he chewed. “I haven’t slept a wink, Elise. The neighbours . . .”
“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”
“They were at the door again. All night long.”
He was turning green again. “I can’t deal with this. Please do your thing. Take this from me.”
Elise was happy to oblige.
The main scene, still fresh in his mind, was rendered from an outside perspective, as memories often are. Flop sweat and dehydration, a white-knuckled grip on the porcelain – he hadn’t idealised it at all.
“Please, Elise,” he said.
Normally she let the orphaned memory fade into the nothingness between the two minds. But this time she drew it deep inside of her, let it fall into the void she shielded from the world.
After the procedure, he was heavy lidded and zen. “Our little helper,” he said of the equipment as she packed it away. “Man’s best friend.”
“Go watch the stream,” she told him, but needn’t have bothered. In seconds his pupils had dilated, and he was gone.
Elise tidied up a bit, then retired to her office. She smiled a little to herself as she went. Because she’d taken something extra from Oliver. A memory from his childhood. Nothing special: peals of laughter around the dinner table. Trivial, really. He took so much from her, she figured, why not take a piece in return? A tiny shard of happiness fixed in amber.
Her smile became a grin. The white face smiled back.
Yes, something to be savoured.
A month passed. By then, Elise had been running a low-grade fever for weeks: sore joints and mind fog. She kept busy with her caseload, but the white face remained paramount, squat atop her mental pyramid like a hunter’s moon sending light. Since Oliver, she’d been reminded of it everywhere: in the gurn of a bellowing dustbin; in doubled eaves like raised eyebrows; in eddies of litter briefly organised into a judgemental expression. Today was no different. A lone cumulus, frowning and malcontent, watched her from high in the firmament. She tried to ignore it.
Bernard caught her outside the apartment – she’d been ducking his calls.
“There’s chatter on the forums, Elise.”
“You still read that stuff? I haven’t logged on for ages.”
“Something’s doing the rounds. The produce on the shop floor – we get complaints; the grafts seize the blood flow and cause all sorts of upset.” He tugged at his beard, limping this way and that. “People are talking about contamination. Infected fragments.”
There was a penalty for introducing contagion, but no case had ever been proven. It was a crank theory, she warned him, only for loons.
“I know that,” he replied, “I’m just saying. Things are changing out there. Maybe it’s not good for us to be messing with all this stuff. Keep taking things away and you end up with . . .”
A chit came in: a late afternoon case a little further afield. She took a bus to the seafront, then went inland into a maze of terraced streets. Brass band music, at the limit of perception, came and went with the wandering breeze.
Bernard’s words would not leave her. She’d been getting sloppy too. There’d been a notice from the Council – inconsistencies in her logs. And they were right. She no longer knew what she’d taken and what she’d given away. But the process was like hypnosis, she reasoned, only the willing could participate. And what she continued to siphon from Oliver she did with permission, didn’t she? Certain things between two people become implicit over time. He certainly hadn’t resisted. He’d never said no.
Her bead sang when she reached the address at the blind end of a cul-de-sac. The client – Paul Fewer, looking older than the chit described – led her through the chintzy interiors. As she followed, Elise saw through string curtains a woman flushed amid kitchen steam. Then, framed in the serving hatch, the face of a child watching her with a sneer of blatant curiosity.
They went up into the bedroom. Light from a near window made complex shadows on the bedspread, and Elise remembered Geraldine.
Paul was lost in some inner turmoil, like they always were – and often performative in the male clientele. “I’ve read all your testimonials,” he said, perched on the end of the bed. “You come highly recommended. But,” – he wasn’t sure if he could get away with it – “I never pictured you as a woman.”
“I don’t put personal details on my profile.” She applied the probes to him with curt proficiency. “I’m not suicidal.”
“I mean, I’m glad. Female operators are much better, aren’t they?” He played with his fingers. “Like, more empathy.”
Abandoning all niceties, she said, “Men find it easier to forget.”
His hands fell silent to that.
The session was rough. His memories, influenced by hangover Coercion techniques, kept crawling back together, so Elise had to kick it up a gear: threshing and dismemberment. And that wasn’t the only problem. All throughout she could not expel the white face from her mind, and with it her anger at Bernard. Had he ratted her to the HC? If so, what was the big deal? Some stolen material, but nothing of any consequence. Nothing that anyone could miss.
Afterwards, Paul almost slipped on the stairs on the way down. Then he blocked her way as they reached the door. His eyes darted like he was following an insect. “What is that?” he said. “That wasn’t there before.”
He watched the air some more. “I remember, I saw it as a kid. Staring back at me as I tried to sleep . . .”
“We’ve all had that dream,” she said off-hand.
Now he looked through the wall. “But it’s not a dream, is it? This is something else.” He turned on her. “Let me see your license again.”
“I have another appointment.”
He lunged for her briefcase. “Give me that.”
“What have you done to me?” He pressed his fingers into his temples. “I’ll report you for this.”
“Just fucking try it!”
Elise covered her mouth. She’d never spoken that way to a client before. And the sound of her voice . . . It was like it didn’t belong to her. Her instinct was to apologise, but before she knew it, she had him pressed against the wall.
“What are you—”
“Quiet,” she said.
Paul shifted but couldn’t move. “Listen, I didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe you should just—”
She didn’t need her equipment – the bridge was still viable without it. And Paul’s mind was soft, its defences too slow; it was a simple matter to get all the way inside of him. She swam in clouds of his fears and desires, the whirlwind of his preoccupations. There were more delights to be found in the deeper layers, spawning complexities she hadn’t thought him capable of. But that wasn’t enough. She went further still, to find – beneath the thinnest of membranes, and easily penetrated – an act of violence he’d hidden even from himself.
“Foolish to try and keep that from me,” she said.
Remembrance was in his eyes. “But that . . . that was a long time ago.”
“You think you can get away with it?” She searched his face. “What you did?”
“No,” he whispered.
“Take it, shall I?”
He nodded slowly.
She pulled what he had done inside of her. Then she took everything else. By the time she was finished, there was nothing left of Paul but a silent scream.
She blundered out onto the cobbles. From there, the sloping streets guided her to the boardwalk. The weather was clear, the pavement radiated warmth; a gull, separated from its flock, wheeled overhead. Head down, she followed the line of the promenade, watching the gentle wash of the inshore waters, seeing where they turned black under the shadow of the pier. Through the struts, she caught a reflection on the other side. A clock tower, cast against the sky.
She went to get a closer look. It was almost as Geraldine had shown her, all that time ago, but the colours – cobalt, carmine, gold filigree – were bleached from years of exposure. The paint flaked showing iron underneath. The hands no longer moved.
She laid her equipment on the pavement, sat against the hot stone base of the tower, then opened her bead. The news carried an obituary partway down. Geraldine Jarrow, after a long illness, had died during the night. The article spoke mostly of Coercion, her legacy, the dreamscape that triumphed.
Elise finished reading and immediately became nauseous. An awful understanding was moving inside her, sliding under the skin, sealing itself around her bones and guiding the muscle. She understood what it was like to be invaded. To have all experience coloured by the imposition of another. Welcome the intrusion. Align with it, like magnetism. That was the only way to cope. But this was something different. Not now, she thought, not like this.
She propped open the briefcase. Then she unsheathed the screwdriver from its holder and started undoing Bernard’s handiwork. Soon she had the pulp exposed, the embryonic bulges of its strange biology. She stroked the pale corpus and saw it tremble as it was touched by sunlight for the first time. Then she thrust the screwdriver deep into the medulla and dragged it upward so the tissue split. The pulp made no sound as it died, as clear red fluid stained the stone. Their bond had served them well. Now Elise left it for the birds.
She stood up and went to the sea wall. Hands on the railings, she looked over and down to where her likeness was distorted by the motion of the water. The nausea returned. Perhaps contagion was possible after all. Infection. Parasites.
She carried on watching the water. She couldn’t see it, but she knew it was there. For now, there was only whiteness, but soon the features would resolve. Into a face that opened in all directions. A mouth that needed to be fed.
J.T. Bundy is a London-based writer with a day job in clinical research. He’s currently working on a novel.