Welcome to Astuna

by on Jun 8, 2017 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

3,900 words

A millipede wends its way across the grimy ceiling.

I stretch out in the bed, let loose a satisfied yawn, and freeze.

Where the fuck am I?

Off-white walls peek through peeling wallpaper, a cracked mirror rests on a dresser, and the sagging bed has more stains than I care to think about. Light sputters from a neon sign outside the window, and a half-open door leads to a dingy bathroom. The air is damp enough to drink. The millipede appears to be the room’s only other occupant, and I’m fairly certain we aren’t acquainted.

I take a breath and try to slow my heart. Whichever river of shit I’d fallen into, I wasn’t drowning at the moment.

Last I can remember, I was headed into my freshman evaluation with Professor Shenk and … nothing.

A shudder runs through me. The older girls had warned me Shenk was a fucking weirdo. Professor of Generalizable Studies—some joke course that didn’t even exist anymore—who sporadically flew into town and met with the few students unlucky enough to be in his tutor group. But no one mentioned a habit of drugging female freshmen and leaving them in squalid motels.

My head’s clear, but they say good shit doesn’t leave after effects.

I close my eyes and press a thumb against the sliver of exposed metal beneath my ear. If my implants have gone screwy, memory recall might not be working. I manually replay the last minutes directly onto my optic nerve, but it doesn’t reveal any extra information—nothing beyond the staircase leading to Shenk’s office.

A cursory check confirms that all toes and fingers are accounted for. Nothing in the pockets of my jeans or jacket, which I apparently slept in.

I scramble out of bed and flap the sheets, sending an ugly-as-fuck purse flying into the far wall. A spark of hope ignites, but burns out just as quickly. It contains nothing but a wad of purple notes in a currency I don’t even recognize.

I turn to the dresser, catch my reflection, and stop dead.

Who the fuck …

The face peering back at me isn’t mine … is mine?

Crow’s feet fan from heavy eyes, a puckered scar runs along my jawline, and my cheekbones are sharp as knives. My hair stops at my shoulders and streaks of gray mingle with the usual black.

I’ve gained fifteen years and lost twenty pounds.

Bile rises in my throat, and I dash into the bathroom to deposit the remnants of my last meal—whatever that was—into the toilet.

When the convulsions finish, I twist around and sink to the cracked tiles, back resting against the toilet bowl. A faded poster glares at me from the bathroom wall: a man standing in front of a vast city as the sun sets over an endless ocean. Astuna. A place to remember, or forget.

§

I slam my hand on the bell at the reception desk. A freaking bell! Either they—whoever they are—dumped me in a themed hotel, or it was actually built a hundred years ago. It doesn’t even have elevation tubes for fuck’s sake.

The reception area is straight out of an old holoflick: a glass window set in the wall, facing a collection of tired couches. A coffee table in the center is piled with magazines.

That settled it: Physical magazines haven’t been around for decades. Shitty hotel with an even shittier theme.

“Hello?” I shout, hitting the bell again.

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” An old woman bustles into view from somewhere behind the window, wiping sleep from her eyes. She slides the window open. “Reception hours—”

“Please, you have to help me.” I grip the counter to stop myself shaking. “I just woke up and—”

“Oh honey,” the woman said. She cups my cheeks in wrinkled hands and gives me a pitying look. “How long did you lose?”

I can’t extract any sense from her question, so I ignore it. “Can you tell me how I wound up in this dump, and why I’m a whole fuck-ton older than I should be?”

She frowns and releases my face. “Dump? We create an authentic twentieth century atmosphere with—”

“Who cares!”

“Don’t get terse with me, honey. I’ve got no patience for it.” She pauses, eyeing me expectantly.

I swallow a lump of frustration. “Sorry.”

“Consider yourself lucky. Three years ago, before the policy change, they might have taken even more. Can’t go below sixteen now. I remember one man, swear blind he was pushing eighty, stumbled down the stairs with his thumb stuck in his mouth asking for his mother.” She shakes her head. “You’re lucky alright, still have all your faculties.”

Through monumental effort, I manage not to wrap my lucky hands around her pudgy neck and settle for drumming my fingers against the counter.

“Anyway,” she continues, “some lads from the casino dropped you off last night and paid for the room. A kindness really. Not under any obligation to help you out like that, no matter how much you lost at the tables.”

“I don’t gamble.”

The woman tuts. “Well there’s only two types end up with gaping memory holes: gamblers and traders. Guess which one never washes up in my hotel.” She reaches beneath the table and produces a memory slip, which she places on the counter. “Play this, and don’t ring the bell again outside of official hours. The recall center opens at 7 a.m. They can patch you up if you’ve got coin. It’s the big tower in the middle of town, so you can’t miss it.” She starts to slide the glass closed.

“Wait!”

She pauses, but only to snatch the bell, before slamming the window and disappearing.

I pick up the memory slip. How is this supposed to help? The tiny bundle of nanowires can’t hold more than a second. Although … this seems different from the ones I’ve used in college. I press it against my implant.

The lobby fades to black, and a man winks into existence, wearing a sharply tailored suit and easy smile

“Welcome to Astuna!”

At his shout, the backdrop bursts into a panoramic shot of an ocean.

“I’m Milo Thirsk, here to welcome you to paradise.” The camera speeds over the water, and a speck appears on the horizon, then gradually resolves into an island. “I’ve always been a patriot, but when US legislators closed down the memory markets, I realized the land of the free had abandoned its principles.” The camera reaches the island and starts to circle, revealing a city stretched across the entire surface. A huge spire juts from the center, dwarfing every other building. “That’s why I created Astuna. If you’re a buyer or a seller, we have what you’re looking for. Want to skip college? Get an engineering degree in the blink of an eye. Want to forget the ex-wife? We can turn any memory into cold, hard cash.”

Milo holds up his hands. “But don’t worry. I’m not going for the hard sell. If you aren’t here to buy memories, then why not make some? I’ve transformed this barren island into a world-class resort destination, with stunning beaches, designer stores, and the finest virtual golf courses.” With each description, the backdrop switches to a matching image. “Or why not try your luck at our world-famous casinos? Whether you want to play for Astunian dollars or memories, we can make it happen.”

The advert ends with a haze of legal rhetoric, reminding me that the island state of Astuna cannot be held responsible for any gambling losses, whether financial or neural. That’s followed by the reassurance that all extracted memories remain cryptographically locked to the seller for one year, and the forgetful party can reclaim them at face value during that period. And … that’s it.

Fuck.

§

The sun creeps above the city as I run toward the tower.

The purple bills stuffed into my purse might be enough for a taxi, but I don’t know how long they will need to last. Besides, I’ve always done my best thinking when on a run. Thought my way out of who-the-fuck-cares Wisconsin and onto a track scholarship. Jane-senior must’ve been thinking through some serious shit, too, because I’m in great shape. Fantastic actually, considering I’m supposed to be thirty-six—a calendar in the authentic hotel reception area told me that much.

That’s one entry into the good column for Jane-senior. The only entry so far, and it isn’t much compared to gambling eighteen years of her life away. Then there’s the scar. I look like an evil sidekick from some shitty, straight-to-holovision Bond movie. And let’s not forget the ugly-ass purse.

I turn onto a wide street lined with hotels. The styles range from tacky to tacky-as-fuck, but they all reek of money. Probably have rooms bigger than the building I was dumped in. A web of transport tubes fills the sky, ensuring that guests can navigate the city in environmentally-controlled comfort. Still, strangers occasionally stagger onto the street around me and hail ground transport. Most are tired, others are drunk.

One man stands still, blinking at the morning light. He turns as I approach, confusion painted on his withered face.

I avert my eyes and pick up the pace.

By the time I reach the recall center, I’m staring at my shoes.

§

The man in front of me—Winston, according to his name tag—taps at his screen with a ferocity that belies the rate of progress. He is one of a hundred desk jockeys littering the lobby of Astuna’s central spire, filling the cavernous space with busy fingers and muted conversation. A pillar of white marble dominates the center, flanked by two stern men wearing sterner suits. The recycled air carries a hint of citrus, which might explain the sour look fixed on Winston’s face.

Despite the sea of desks, I’ve waited two hours in a line of lost souls to reach Winston. The damage ranged from a missing family vacation to the old crone who just wanted to know whether she had any children. That sends my mind spiraling after my own parents. One mystery I don’t have to solve: losing my memory won’t make them any less dead. Twenty years an orphan, but it feels like two since the accident. Since the move to Wisconsin.

My grandparents aren’t bad people. Good, even. Their only real crime is not being Mom and Dad. That, and finding a shit stain in the middle of nowhere and confusing it with a habitable town. When they hear about this …

The thought turns me cold. Gramps must be 116 now, and Gran just two years younger. How long has Jane-senior been alone?

“Okay …” Winston’s nasal whine saves me from my thoughts. “We have no record of taking memories from a Jane Long in the past year.”

“How is that possible?”

“A forgotten marriage and change of surname is the most common explanation.” He twists the screen around. “Please place your palm in the white square. If you’re in our system, we’ll identify you.”

“Well why the fuck didn’t we do that in the first place?”

Although it seems impossible, Winston’s face hardens. “I’ll forgive one outburst, Ms. Long, given your induced youth, but I will not forgive a second. Palm identification is significantly slower and usually proves unnecessary. Few people accrue your level of debt.”

I doubt anything on this island can be slower than Winston, but I swallow the retort and press my hand against the cool glass screen.

There’s a beep, and Winston brushes my hand away. He wipes the glass with a cloth, muttering about my grimy fingers in a voice he knows I can hear.

I manage to ignore the bait, mainly because: Am I fucking married? If Jane-senior has a gambling problem, any marriage probably isn’t a happy one. I scan the lobby. In every direction, people are fighting for memories they might prefer to forget. Maybe I got rid of mine for a reason.

“If we did take eighteen years from you, the cost of recall will be … significant.” He pauses, as if savoring the word. “Have you been in contact with family or friends to assess your finances?”

“How the fu—”

Winston’s eyes narrow.

“I mean, no. Thank you for asking.” I pull the purse from my pocket and take out the cash. “I have these.”

“Eighty Astunian dollars will buy you …” He taps at the screen. “Twenty-two hours of recall. It is standard policy to return the oldest memories first. If you want to recall an interstitial segment, or segments, you will need to file a special request form with—” A chime sounds, and Winston blinks. “That was quick.” He stares at the screen and knits his narrow brow, but says nothing.

“Well?”

“Jane Waddington-Long. Eighteen years of memories on file, but …”

Jane-senior hyphenated my name? Mom’s name! She must be trying to piss me off. “What’s the problem?”

“No problem.” Winston hits the screen twice more. “But there is no record of the actual extraction. You didn’t lose them in one of our … official casinos.”

“Who cares where I lost them. You have them now?”

“Yes. They were acquired this morning, and it seems the balance has already been paid in full. It’s just … the fee is higher than our usual rate. Much higher. You must have informed a relative of your circumstances before the extraction.”

“So I can get my memories back?”

“Absolutely. But Mr. Thirsk deals with all transactions of this magnitude, and I’m sure he would like to return your memories in person.” A smile suddenly spreads across Winston’s face. It looks wrong—like one of my shitty drawings that Mom used to stick on the fridge. “I’m so sorry to have kept you, Ms. Waddington-Long. If I’d known … but it doesn’t matter.” He stands and offers his hand.

I ignore it.

Winston clears his throat and gestures toward the pillar. “If you talk to the gentlemen by the elevation tube, they can help you. And please convey my regards to Mr. Thirsk.”

I put on my best smile and nod enthusiastically. “Go fuck yourself, Winston.”

§

A stern suit frisks me at the bottom of the elevation tube and accompanies me inside. Not the biggest elevation tube I’ve seen, but close. Wide enough to fit a small crowd. A soft light emanates from the ceiling, bouncing off the flecked marble.

The suit presses his palm against the security panel and enters a string of digits into a number pad. Two metal coils drop from the ceiling and bounce in the air.

I jump back against the wall.

“Relax,” he says, grabbing one of the coils and sticking it behind his ear. “No one gets off the ground floor without a scan.”

I take the other coil. It’s as thick as my thumb and bendy. Just shy of the end, it splits into a thousand writhing wires, searching for purchase. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Memory scans weren’t a reality when I started college, but I was familiar with the theory. The pinnacle of personal security.

The man’s scanner detaches and retreats into the ceiling. “Listen, lady, you have two choices. Get scanned, or get off. No need to give the worm recording access, but you aren’t getting within a hundred feet of Mr. Thirsk until it checks you for threats.” He crosses his arms, each one as thick as my head. “Weapons can hide, but intentions can’t.”

I hesitate, consider rejecting Mr. Thirsk’s invitation and waiting in the lobby, but patience isn’t one of my many virtues. Besides, what do I have left to lose?

I take a moment to adjust the security settings on my implant, then attach the worm.

§

“Ms. Waddington-Long! It’s fantastic to meet you in person. Please, have a seat.” Milo Thirsk sits behind an expansive semi-circular desk with his back to an array of floor-to-ceiling windows. The sea stretches into the distance until it’s impossible to tell where sparkling water disappears into crystal skies.

I sit opposite in a plush leather seat that reminds me how tired I am. Behind me, a wall stretches out from the elevation tube, splitting the circular floor in half. Four doors interrupt the polished marble, two on either side.

Thirsk has gained weight since the infomercial, or he had it digitally removed when shooting, but the tailored suit and easy smile are exactly as pictured. Two more gorillas in suits stand behind him with faces of granite, and my earlier companion waits by the elevation tube.

The metallic desk is sparsely decorated. A couple of spindly metal things twist in front of him, but most of the space is devoted to a large 3D renderer. It projects a faint outline of Astuna, which slowly rotates above the desk.

Thirsk runs a hand over his shaved head. “I love a challenge, Jane. Can I call you Jane?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, which is just as well because I don’t have a constructive response. “I love a challenge. So when your husband contacted my people last night and begged that I personally locate you, and your memories, I couldn’t resist. Of course, the five million dollars he offered for their safe return didn’t hurt either.”

Five million dollars … that’s five million more than I had in college.

“Apparently you sent him a message last night. Told him they were taking your memories, but rather unhelpfully, you didn’t happen to mention who they were. Not one of our eighty-three licensed memory casinos, I’ll tell you that much.” He winks at me.

I’m suddenly desperate for a shower.

“Naturally, when I realized you weren’t in our system, my men scoured every dodgy dealership on the island. I didn’t hold out much hope to be honest with you. Most off-the-books operators get the goods out of town, wait one year for the encryption to expire, then sell them to a memory-mining corporation. Indeed, my men came up empty-handed, until this morning.” He slips a hand inside his jacket and produces a small black box. “You’ll never guess where we found them.”

Thirsk waits, expectantly.

I cast around for inspiration, but fail to reel anything in. “In Astuna?”

“In Astu—well of course in fucking Astuna!” He gives me a strange look. “One of the hawkers down at the marina was selling them. A scruffy fellow with more beard than face. Claimed he won them in a game of cards. Nonsense, naturally.” Thirsk slides the box toward me. “Mind if I ask how you really lost them?”

“Yes.”

“Fair enough.” He releases the box and leans back in his chair. “Rest assured, the encryption is rock solid, so I couldn’t peek inside. Not that I’m one to pry.” He gives me another wink.

We sit in awkward silence for a moment.

“Well? Go ahead and check the goods. I have another meeting in …” Thirsk raises an eyebrow at the suit to his left.

“Eight minutes, sir.”

“Exactly.”

I pick up the box and crack the lid. A single memory slip sits on a bed of velvet. Can all those years really fit into something so small? “Could I …” I glance at the doors behind me.

“Privacy! How thoughtless of me.” He points to one of the doors. “Use the bathroom, and take as long as you need.”

The suit clears his throat.

“Yes, yes. So long as it’s less than seven minutes.”

§

The bathroom is bigger than my college dorm. As with the main office, windows take the place of walls. Even when sitting on the toilet, you can see the entire city. That doesn’t surprise me. Milo Thirsk seems like the kind of man who shits on the world. I step to the window and take a moment to absorb the view. One last vision of the world through innocent eyes.

I remove the memory slip from its box and balance the shimmering square on my index finger. Did I want to do this? To kill myself? Whoever Jane-senior is, whatever fucked up things she’s seen and done, I can flush them all down the toilet. Literally. Start over with a few extra miles on the odometer and a scarred face. Maybe that’s what she wanted in the first place: a fresh start. But then why call my husband last night and ask for help?

I close my eyes and press the memory slip against my implant before I can change my mind.

It hits me like a punch to the stomach. I crumple onto the marble floor, gasping for breath, crushed by the weight of another life. Professor Shenk, college parties and the awkward mornings that follow. Gramp’s frail hand grips my arm as rain falls on a coffin. Travel: Paris, Moscow, Seoul. A holoprojection in a dark room full of dark people. Hot pain in my jaw. Waiting … so much waiting. Crouching in the rain as a spider crawls along my neck, sitting in a half-built skyscraper, nursing a drink in a crowded bar.

Fragments gradually coalesce into stories. My freshman evaluation that turned into a recruitment meeting. Shenk’s sales pitch: presented to college students with maximal aptitude and minimal family. My training. My kills. Eighteen years working for a branch of the government that doesn’t exist.

I raise a hand to my cheek and trace the scar, remembering the steel dragging along my cheekbone after that cock-up in Colombia. Evil sidekick, my ass! That badmouthing little shit wouldn’t know style if it smacked her in the face.

And then I remember Thirsk. Everything about Milo Thirsk. His favorite restaurant, sexual preferences, closest friends, that he sits down to take a piss. I remember the months spent studying a memory-based security system that couldn’t be broken, no matter how many angles we hit it from. That is, until Shenk suggested this crazy plan after one-too-many beers and an unpalatable curry in south London.

Shenk: starring as both the hawker at the Marina, and the voice of Mr. Waddington-Long. Waddington-Fucking-Long? Shenk is getting a black eye for that surprise. Two in fact. One for me and one for Jane-junior.

With one hand on the window, I stagger to my feet. My seven minutes are running out, and nothing but a door separates me from Thirsk. A man with more memories than most small countries. Six months ago, he acquired one-too-many. Specifically, one that’s stored in a safe underneath his desk.

I wrap an expensive-looking shaving mirror in one of the hand towels and smack it against the sink. Two of the resulting shards are fit for the purpose. I twirl them through my fingers, slip one inside each sleeve.

Only three men in the office aside from Thirsk. That’s half the number Shenk expected.

I crack my knuckles and roll my neck. Might even make it out of this alive.

Pip Coen is supposedly a neuroscientist. They even gave him a PhD and everything. But real brains are frustratingly complicated, so he often writes about fictional ones instead. In his spare time, he can be found playing poker, hitting the snooze button, or adding a new pin to his travel map. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, and his fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Apex and Compelling SF. In theory, he can be found at pipcoen.com.

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