“We made it,” said Ricky, rummaging through his backpack. “How’s it feel?”
Judd shook himself awake. The last two hours had been a whirlwind of tense encounters and buzzing earpieces. It was finally happening, or so it seemed. Really, he felt vestigial to the whole affair. But he knew he had to say something.
“Excited,” he lied.
Ricky grinned. “Knew you would be,” he said.
Judd knew that he should be. This was the final step, the homestretch. The only thing that stood between him and his prize was... well, it was a massive reinforced steel door. But he was certain that Ricky’s team would have some plan for it.
“There you are,” said Ricky, and produced a fully-grown hand from the backpack. Judd fought the instinct to recoil. This was the vault door, he reminded himself. Of course it’d be bio-locked. That meant it would only open for living flesh, and that meant carting around a lab-grown partial reproduction of someone with the right clearance. Disturbing but practical.
“This is it?” Ricky asked, speaking to the team on the other end of their earpieces. He indicated the vault’s biometric sensor with the appendage. It flapped listlessly. “Just stick it in the hole?” This was met with staticky laughter from several of the others.
“You bet,” said a voice. Judd recognized it as ‘the doc,’ one of the many that had been chattering into his head throughout the operation. “Unless I got the wrong fella’s hair, of course. Then you best get ready to run.”
Before he knew what was happening, Judd caught the hand flying towards him. It was hard to hold such a bony, awkward, dead weight. “Thought you might want to do the honors,” Ricky explained.
Judd couldn’t imagine anything he wanted less. “Of course,” he said, and fumbled with the appendage. With some difficulty, he managed a perpendicular grip on it, his palm resting against the back of the hand. It was warm.
He shuffled towards the bioscanner: a recess in the otherwise pristine silver face of the vault door. Within it, green light bordered a pool of mud which, through some unholy union of biochemistry and technology, verified identity down to the molecular level. Judd pressed the hand into it, then backed away and left the bioscanner to its job.
The goop enveloped Judd’s offering for a moment before settling back down.
The two thieves watched in silence.
For a few heartbeats, Judd heard nothing besides the ever-present buzz of his earpiece. Then a voice, one that had been unbearably chatty through the entire evening, piped up: “Well? Did it work?” – only to be interrupted by the thunderous clunk of a bolt sliding open. Followed shortly by another, and then another. A chorus of heavy, metallic noises joined in, emanating from somewhere beyond the door. Their echoes reverberated down the dingy hallway. Then it went quiet. The vault door protruded with a hiss. The hand flopped to the ground. And gradually, smoothly, the door rotated outward.
This was as far as the team had planned to get. It was as far as they could plan. Even with their combined expertise and connections, any scrap of information about the layout of the vault had eluded them.
Even so, Judd was surprised. He’d expected something high-tech, organized, perhaps even clinical. What lay beyond was best described as a cavern. There were wires and white towers scattered throughout the place without apparent method or care. High-powered lights dangled from above, doing their best to move the shadows out of the way. There was the overwhelming impression of moisture.
Ricky stepped across the threshold first. “Wow,” he said, looking upward and taking it all in. “This is huge!”
“What? What is it?” demanded the chatty voice.
“Looks like we’re clear,” Ricky said, as though he’d not heard the question. “Everyone who’s planetside, start making your way down here. We’ll pass along directions just as soon as we get them. Judd and I are going in.” He tapped his earpiece twice to mute himself. Judd did the same.
For the first time since the heist began, their conversation was severed from the rest of the team. It was just the two of them now. The way it had started.
There was some commotion on frequency as the others organized themselves. By now, Judd found it easy to tune out.
“Come on,” Ricky said, motioning him to step inside. “Let’s go find her.”
You only get a few perfect moments in your life. They deserve to be perfectly remembered.
So went the marketing literature of Memorabilia, the leading corporation in memory preservation. The only corporation, in fact, having pioneered the business ten years ago.
At first they were considered a hoax, some new way of scamming the rich and stupid by preying on their mortality. They came from nowhere; they had no reputation; their services were frighteningly expensive. But eventually the word got out. Memorabilia was the real deal.
Appointments, it was said, only took fifteen minutes. Show up, sit down. Fill out a digital form. Strap into one of the banal-looking helmets with the assistance of Memorabilia staff. The initial scan takes the longest. Then your attendant asks you to focus on the memory you’d like to archive. Meditation techniques are not required, but are encouraged. Another scan, higher fidelity, focused on the memory you wish to preserve. All finished. Take an optional questionnaire. Walk out considerably lighter in the wallet than how you started.
In time, Memorabilia expanded into an interplanetary operation, advertising tens of millions of memories safely stored away – each one able to be recalled with a day’s notice and a modest fee. Memorabilia insisted that the official nomenclature for one of these stored memories was a ‘memorabile’ (mem or AH buh lee, as their literature instructed), which customers and the press wasted no time in shortening to ‘mem’.
Judd Ferguson had but one mem to his name, a traditional post-honeymoon snapshot of marital bliss. Despite this, he was a serial recollector. The past three years had seen him in for nearly a hundred recall sessions. It was expensive. It was humiliating. But it was the only way Judd had left to visit her.
And when the money ran out, she was gone, locked away from him forever in the cold heart of Memorabilia Deep Storage.
It was a place known only by name. No one, not even Memorabilia staff, were permitted access. To give away details of the Deep Storage was to cast a light onto Memorabilia’s patented retention process. No mems were allowed to leave the Deep Storage, save for their brief, machine-led excursions into the recollection chambers.
It was, as Ricky put it, one hell of a target.
The ground inside the Deep Storage vault threatened to swallow up Judd’s boots if he stayed in one place for too long. So, despite himself, he strode headlong into the cavern until he walked alongside his oldest friend.
“Hey man, I really appreciate you being here,” Ricky said. “I know this isn’t usually your thing.”
Judd’s breath crystallized in front of him. He glanced down at Ricky. In some ways, he’d changed over the years: the edges of his face had gone soft; wrinkles etched themselves under his eyes. But in just as many ways, he hadn’t. His hair was still shoulder-length and unkempt. His schemes were still larger than life. And he still caught friends like other people caught diseases. He was, as Judd often had to remind himself, a useful man to know.
“Thanks,” was all he could manage.
“Hey, when this is over, maybe you’ll come out with us once in a while?”
“No.” Judd shook his head. The cold seeped through his jacket and the rest of his gear. It was like being on another planet. “No. I shouldn’t be mixed up in this kind of thing.”
“Really? I could’ve swore you were having fun back there.”
“This is your world, Ricky,” said Judd. “I’m just trying to get back to my own.”
Ricky only nodded. “Do you feel anything yet?”
“Have you tried thinking about her?” Ricky suggested. “Or any of that stuff the doc said.”
The doc. Judd squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember. Doc had sat down with him on multiple occasions to coach him for this moment.
Of all the operatives, Doc was the most secretive. He knew Ricky, somehow, or at least Ricky knew him, and that was all Judd got to know. He introduced himself as ‘Doc’ only, and Judd never pressed for a more specific name. Judd suspected none of them were privy to that information.
What was clear was that the doc was an expert in bioengineering. Doc chatted about the subject in the same way other people might chat about the weather or some other mindless trivia. He was also impeccably dressed save for a single outrageous bowtie. These things about the doc frightened Judd on an instinctual level.
He had theories about mems — though it wasn’t clear where he’d got them — and he made it clear that having someone with a strong connection to their mem was critical for the operation. “It’s still a part of you, even after they go and rip it out of your head,” he explained, tapping his forehead. “It’s like slicing off your big toe and deep freezing it. Sure, you get to keep it perfectly preserved, as good as the day you cut it off. But what’s the point? You’ll never stand quite right again.
“Now with brains, it’s a little different. When something goes missing, brains’ll do whatever they can to heal themselves. Sometimes you’ll no longer feel that you’re missing anything at all. But you’ll always be connected to that piece, the piece they stole from you.”
Doc suggested focusing on something specific, some detail he could recall that was related to the memory. Something about her.
Judd thought about the way she said his name.
The way she’d call him from across a room. Or the way she’d giggle after his name when she thought he was being ridiculous. Or how she’d plead him to stay for a few more minutes, or hours...
Warmth blossomed. It emanated from within him, like embarrassment, or perhaps a stiff drink. She was here.
“Where?” he whispered to himself. “Where are you?”
The chill of the air threatened to smother his inner warmth. Judd squeezed his eyes shut. He focused, felt his pounding heart, heard his own staccato breath.
“Judd?” he heard Ricky say, but he sounded distant now, immaterial. “Have you got her?”
“Where are you?” he said again. And then he felt it: Just at the edge of his perception, a tingling at the base of his skull. On his, yes, on his left side.
He opened his eyes, unstuck his feet from the soft earth, and announced: “I’ve got her.” Then he turned left and marched away.
It felt like a recall session. The world around him melted into his memories. It was difficult to keep balance.
Every step he took closer to her, the warmth rekindled, then dulled. He wanted to break into a run, but a sudden fatigue shackled his body. He settled into a steady gait.
Every blink flashed a new image on his eyelids. Sometimes it was her. Sometimes it was visions of the life he’d left behind. A home, a bed, a garden. Warm and quiet and bright.
His eyes darted around, searching for the voices that spoke to him. Forgotten friends invaded his ears. It was harder and harder to focus on the prickling on his forehead that guided him forward. At times, he struggled to even remember where he was.
He arrived at one of the cavern walls. This spot wasn’t like the rest of the vault. The ground was sturdier here and the rock surface before him glistened. With no further to go, the warmth sputtered out and the chill of the cavern settled back in.
Judd blinked. He couldn’t tell how long he’d been entranced, but this part of the cavern looked different from where he’d started. It was narrower. Darkness guarded half a dozen other passageways in the vicinity. Deep Storage, he reminded himself. How deep?
“Is that it?” Ricky panted, suddenly behind him. “Did you find it? Oh my God, what the hell is that?”
The wall was pitted with cavities. They were sealed behind a viscous waterfall that oozed from ceiling to floor. Each one housed a single trinket that floated at its center. It was an eclectic gathering of statues and symbols and other baubles; despite this, they were quite regular in size, not more than a few inches apiece.
“That’s it,” said Judd. “We should tell the others.”
“In a minute,” said Ricky. “Which one is her?”
Judd reached toward the wall of mems. Many customers chose to have their mem stored in the shape of something related to the memory. But for the less discerning customer, Memorabilia offered a choice of pre-made designs. Judd’s was a simple red heart: the classic choice for newlyweds on a budget.
“That’s her,” he said, stopping his hand just before the liquid barrier.
“I’ve never been more sure.”
“Then what’re you waiting for, man?”
Judd hesitated. He’d seen his mem before, yes, in recall sessions, but it was always behind a thick pane of glass. Probably just to keep you from taking it home. Probably.
“It doesn’t feel like I should touch it,” he said. He lowered his hand and sighed. “Let’s get the other guys here and finish this up.”
“Judd,” said Ricky. “I know how much you miss her.”
“I know. I do miss her. It just doesn’t feel right.”
“Doesn’t feel right? To do what you came here to do? To be happy again?” Ricky was getting animated now. “I’ve watched you fall apart, Judd. I’ve watched you try to put your life back together and hate yourself for doing it. And you hate me for trying to help. I know you do.”
His words emptied Judd. “That’s not true.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just this once, Judd, just this one time. Do the thing that will make you happy. Take her home.”
Judd watched his memory pirouette in the ooze. Lectured by someone who’d long ago left any chance of a virtuous life behind? He should be livid. But perhaps Ricky was right. He was miserable.
On frequency, the snippy voice broke radio silence and demanded to know where they were. Ricky didn’t bother to reply. Instead he glanced meaningfully at the mem, then back at Judd.
“Ricky?” said Judd.
“What?” asked Ricky, exasperated.
“Thanks,” said Judd, and broke into a smile for the first time since they’d started.
Ricky almost looked proud. “Go on,” he said.
Judd reached through the ooze. The mem was smooth and warm to the touch. For one brief, perfect moment, the whole world sung.
White-hot pain shot up his arm, seared through his neck and up into his brain. His mind was gone. His hands found solid ground, wet and cool. He rolled his forehead onto it to numb the pain. Someone was yelling, asking if he was all right. He ripped his earpiece out, clamped his hands over his ears, and tried to think.
His name was Judd Ferguson. He’d come here to find someone. He tried to remember where, and he tried to remember who.
A wife. His wife. There were memories there, impressions, but they slipped away whenever he tried to bring them back. Like remembering a dream after he woke up. Moments dissolved themselves as soon as they reassembled. He struggled to get a grip on something, anything. A fact. Her name.
He rolled onto his back. Ricky stood above him, his face twisted in concern. He was still saying things. Judd tried to tune him out, keep focused.
“What was her name?” Judd mumbled.
Ricky stopped talking. His eyes widened.
“What was her name!”
Now Ricky was barking orders. Not to him. Into his earpiece. There was an emergency. He needed backup. The operation had to stop.
“Ricky, for the love of God,” Judd shouted. “Help me. I can’t find her. What was her name?”
Still nothing from Ricky. She was gone. The only thing he could remember was the sadness.
He could feel Ricky’s arms pulling him upward, pushing him forward. But all he could think about was how sad he had been without her. She must have been a wonderful thing to have forgotten.