Climber, tattoo-enthusiast, and peanut-butter addict Xan van Rooyen is a non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and—when not teaching—enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Xan hangs out on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook so feel free to say hi over there.
This time I’ll remember, Danny thought as the bot’s proboscis unrolled—more scorpion tail than butterfly tongue. The memory-taker’s appendage skewered Danny at the temple, fitting into the port hidden beneath a flop of brown curls. Danny’s hair had been left long on that side of zir otherwise shaved head. Ze didn’t remember getting the ink that glowed under UV light, pricked in intricate lacework across zir baldness. A memory made to order, perhaps? Or something of zir own choosing, extracted for others who sought the experience of a tattoo without the pain or commitment?
The memory-taker shifted closer, a chitinous scuttle of articulated limbs. It raised a human-like hand and its four digits, obscenely long, cradled Danny’s jaw. The bot’s equivalent of a palm was warm—a design feature meant to soothe, yet making Danny shudder as ze leaned into the titanium and silicon touch. It was the gentlest touch ze’d had all month, maybe all year—at least, that ze could remember.
There was the catalog Danny could reference, of course, attached to zir personal profile, listing every extracted memory, condensing zir life experiences into abbreviated log-lines tagged with an emotion. Additional details could be accessed by expanding the entry.
Chocolate gelato, joy, one entry read. Danny imagined a hot summer’s day, cicadas screaming, kids playing in a park fountain, grass itching the back of zir legs. According to the entry, it had been September in a coffee shop.
A faint thrum began at the base of Danny’s skull like the echo of a night spent head-banging to too loud music—a tinnitus of the bones—and Danny knew it was starting. Yet another piece of self whittled away from the whole.
Danny was never sure exactly which memories would be taken in any given extraction, even the ones ze’d made to order. Perhaps today ze’d lose skinny dipping in the sea or eating funnel cake at the boardwalk fair. They seemed so banal, hardly anything grandiose or dangerous—this time—but perhaps the person who’d put in the order couldn’t swim or was bedridden and would never get to see another fair. Maybe this slow-motion fracture was a small price to pay for helping others live a little.
Danny was only twenty-six. Ze still had zir entire life to fill up any cavities left in the wake of mental excavations. So what if all Danny’s life-defining milestones had been eroded, bits and pieces sold off in slivers and flakes. Ze had little left of their childhood—not a great loss according to the catalog full of fear and anger—and couldn’t remember zir first kiss or if ze’d ever been in love. A few morning-afters lingered unwanted—the boring kind made up of awkwardly groping for clothes while concocting excuses to leave before breakfast and false promises to text later.
Danny’s life had been rendered a patchwork dullness, lackluster moments cobbled together to form a self-portrait ze no longer recognized. Hadn’t that been the entire point?
Now, Danny stared straight ahead, gaze on the screen recessed in the wall as it scrolled through step-by-step instructions. Breathe, it said and Danny did, inhaling the chemical scent of calming vapors wafting through the vents. The experience was sold as catharsis, and it had started out that way when Danny first walked through the revolving doors of RecollectUs, there to be rid of trauma and heartache, to slough off zir past like dirty clothes and find solace in being undone.
Danny’d come to this panopticon of steel and glass to relinquish a memory of zir own free will. That last part was important, or so said the fine print on the RecollectUs contract Danny had signed three years ago, back when ze was whole and still in possession of entries like Childhood trauma one, fear and Attempted suicide, anguish. Those were gone now and Danny didn’t miss them. Good riddance to the detritus of a shitty life. Let all that litter someone else’s mind.
Not that any of it mattered anymore. That life belonged to a previous iteration of zirself, a stranger Danny couldn’t relate to anymore. The Danny here now let the past skitter away like beads off a broken string even as ze made a game of trying to catch them.
The sticky slick of brine against zir skin. The sickly sweet sugar on zir tongue.
Danny tried to hold onto both memories as the probe drilled deeper, finally making contact with the chip crouched like an aphid on Danny’s brain, slurping up every moment both awake and sleeping.
Dreams could be sold too, but they were in less demand. Some memory makers took psychedelics to fuel more chaotic, desirable dreams, sold to buy the drugs to continue the cycle in a dizzying Möbius strip.
Danny didn’t do drugs. Not anymore. Ze’d damaged too many memories that way, their edges blurring and contents splintering like peanut shells beneath drunken heels. Memories like that wouldn’t pay the rent.
Relax, the screen instructed. Try not to think of anything specific or hold onto any particular memory. Fighting the process risks corrupting—
For a moment, Danny clung to the memories flitting across zir mind like flies about a carcass, determined to hold onto even the slimmest sliver. Zir efforts sent bolts of pain into the backs of zir eyes. Defeated as usual, Danny let zir gaze drift away from the words on the screen and, instead, glanced across the circular clinic to a dozen other cubicles where memories were being siphoned.
On the floor above, the cubicles were larger and there the patients lay on gurneys, their heads cradled in robotic hands, phalanges extended like a cage over the sleeper. Each finger was a tether, injecting instead of sucking. And down each of those throbbing umbilici, memories flowed—memories from donors like Danny.
Donor was a misnomer. This was a transaction like any other in this city where there was a clinic trading in every scrap a human had to shed.
Memories were worth more, packaged up for consumption for those who wanted to know what being stabbed felt like without the inconvenience of internal bleeding, to flirt with degradation from the comfort of their penthouse, or perhaps screw a stranger without the blemish of real adultery ever staining their skin. Some claimed altruistic intentions, buying into the company’s marketing.
A way to build empathy, RecollectUs touted. To slip into another’s shoes.
To slip inside their skin, their mind, their soul. But the soul was an antiquated notion these days and Danny swallowed bitter laughter.
As an undergrad, Danny had gone private for a while, working for an author collective back when “write what you know” made aspiring storytellers greedy for different life experiences. Danny didn’t remember much of the six months under contract, of course, but the descriptions of the extractions in the catalog explained several of the scars bleached into zir skin, the ghost touches of another life.
Despite zir metastasizing debt, Danny had let that contract expire amid turbulent debate on the ethics of such practices, returning to the more acceptable public service system where experiences requested couldn’t break the law or put the memory-maker at risk of grievous bodily harm.
If that grew dull, or no longer financially rewarding enough, there was always the black market where those with the means could buy any experience they desired—no request considered too extreme.
The text flickered, drawing Danny’s attention back to the screen. Congratulations on a successful extraction! it announced.
The memory-taker’s proboscis withdrew, sliding back into a narrow slit of a mouth. It wore a disturbing facsimile of a smile on its molded face as the final wad of text burned across the screen.
Resist the urge to try and remember. Trying to recall a memory already harvested—
Danny closed zir eyes, hoping to catch an echo of what was taken. Ze licked zir lips as if some taste of those stolen moments might’ve lingered, but only found chapped skin.
Danny left RecollectUs feeling as “unburdened” as an empty letterbox, zir mind threshed and aching with the usual discomfort an extraction caused.
Outside, the city seethed beneath a late summer downpour, tamping down the usual bouquet of fried food, bio-diesel, and ripe garbage. Danny lingered under the eaves to check zir phone. The money had been transferred, the red exclamation marks of outstanding bills blinking into reassuring black as automatic payments were confirmed. Danny watched the digits dwindle, whipped away as easily as zir memories, and frowned.
Ze groped at the tapestry of zirself, a spider checking the threads of their web and spinning new silk across any damage. It was getting harder to pick up dropped stitches and suture closed the wounds. Still, ze’d have to up zir game and take on more challenging requests if ze wanted more disposable income.
Danny flinched involuntarily as another body joined zir in the narrow strip of protection from the rain.
“Feels good to shed some mental weight,” the person said, voice hoarse between puffs on a cigalike that smelled of cherries. “You figure out what they took?”
“You’re supposed to let it go.” Danny threw a cautious glance at the stranger. They were a foot taller and almost a decade younger; slender too, their long limbs folded in black despite the humidity, in stark contrast to Danny’s mottled, flowing pastels.
They smirked and ran a hand through their hair, the roots showing blond against midnight blue.
“First time?” Danny asked because ze didn’t fancy getting wet, and standing in silence felt weird.
“No, third. Maybe fourth. Can’t believe how expensive living in the city is. My internship doesn’t pay nearly enough. You a veteran?”
“Does it show?” Danny asked, only half in jest. Ze avoided mirrors these days, afraid of the vacant face ze might find staring back.
“You know how in the olden days they carved faces into pumpkins? Guess some people still do actually.”
Danny frowned, tracing zir thumb along a thin scar on zir right index finger. Ze reached, remembering candied apples, cinnamon, tasting almost familiar words of a three-syllable chant like treacle on the back of zir tongue. But these ghosts of another life were merely a trick of the brain. The memory was gone.
“Jack o’ lanterns,” the stranger continued. “That’s what you remind me of. The ones who come here a lot, I mean. Like you’re still a pumpkin but all the seeds and stuff have been scraped—”
“I get it,” Danny said before the image could burn a hole through zir already tattered mind.
Silence. Sticky as gum on a hot sidewalk. This, a moment Danny would undoubtedly never be rid of. Who would want it?
“Sorry, that was mean,” the stranger said. “Let me make it up to you?”
Danny raised a skeptical eyebrow. Not that ze had any plans for the rest of the day, except to go home to the stifling studio ze had now procured for another month and scroll through the Wanted ads on the RecollectUs site.
“You don’t remember me,” the stranger said.
Danny riffled through zir Swiss-cheese memory. “No.”
“We’ve worked the catalog together.” They gestured to the ink on Danny’s head then tapped their temple, their port ringed by a cluster of micro-dermals.
“I’m sorry.” The apology was soaked in the vinegar of regret and stung zir lips.
The rain hammered the sidewalk and Danny’s heart pounded zir ribs, insides reverberating—hollow, except for fading echoes.
“Let’s do something.” The stranger extinguished the cigalike.
“Does it matter?” The stranger asked with a quirk of their pretty mouth. “Good or bad, we’ll probably only keep this day for like a month, right?” They tapped their forehead where their port was ringed in a cluster of micro-dermals, each seeded with a jewel matching the amber of their eyes.
Danny opened zir mouth, about to decline, then hesitated. The thought of creating an organic memory for once, not curated off a list, felt thrilling to contemplate.
“Come on, give me a chance.”
“I usually work off the list,” Danny said, when ze found time between grad school and zir part-time job working maintenance on housebots.
“Pff, boring. Bet we could make something spontaneous someone’ll pay loads for.” They offered their hand, brown fingers crusted in silver rings. “Come make another memory with me.”
Tentatively, Danny placed zir hand in the waiting palm and the stranger dragged both of them into the rain with a whoop! They pulled Danny into a slow-but-playful dance, their combined laughter mingling with the delicate chimes of raindrops on glass windows and metal trash cans; a symphony of their own making. They stepped on each other’s feet, dirty water soaking shins and knees as rain washed unexpected tears from Danny’s cheeks. Together, they slipped in one puddle after another as they revolved around an asphalt dancefloor.
And the dangling threads of Danny’s soul reached like anemone fronds toward the promise of something new, something ze’d never want to lose.
Copyright © 2022 by Xan van Rooyen.