Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

Advertisement

Fiction

Cuts Both Ways

Cuts Both Ways, illustrated by Elizabeth Leggett

The kids know he’s coming to visit. They’ve been texting him to tell him about the snow and how cold it is, and they helpfully send links to their Amazon wish lists with pages of moon-eyed dolls and odd sets of dueling robots and creatures sold according to series. The things they like are incomprehensible to him, but they know he’s good for it. Uncle Spencer always comes through. His sister emails to promise that it’ll be a quiet Christmas. Just family, Erin says. He can come home and relax, and she’ll take care of everything. She tells him she can’t wait to see him. It’s been too long.

He stands in line at the airport, waiting to approach the security gates. The Distributed Arbitrage paperwork is in his hand. As soon as he hits the checkpoint, the alarms goes off. He holds the papers out as three security agents converge on him. “I’m a forecaster with DA?” he says. He doesn’t mean for it to sound like a question, but their mood is patently apparent to him. Heightened concern and a trickle of alarm. He follows them to the room with the metal door and submits to the search.

“Take off your sunglasses, sir.” And he does, wincing at the bright lights. He lifts his shirt when they tell him to, and one of the agents raises his eyebrows at the tracework of scars across his torso. They run a metal detector wand up and down, it predictably emits a piercing tone from his belt to his head. The papers should be enough, but there’s always curiosity to satisfy; everybody wants to see it, to look at his scars and the ports that have to be flushed every three weeks with heparin and the smooth panels where cables can be connected. What they want to see most of all is the soft green glow from the strips of monitor LEDs along his ribs just under the skin that tell him, at a glance, that his system is functioning properly. Everybody wants a look. It’s so mysterious; it’s so enthralling. In this small, enclosed space, their interest is lurid. From the waist up, he’s not entirely human. DA calls it augmentation. Cyborg sounds too kitschy.

They all want to see it. They always think it’s the equipment that makes him special. What they don’t understand—what they will never understand—is how it feels. No self. No other. Points of light brighter than a thousand suns, shining in the howling dark of the storm. The thrill of riding it sings through every nerve in his body. They are too normal, too human. They can’t feel it the way he does.

They open his suitcase. An agent mutters about the syringes and meds he’s carrying. Spencer gives them copies of the prescriptions. Distributed Arbitrage keeps its own medical staff, and they provide documentation for travelling casters. That should be enough, too, but the agent lifts the vials and pill bottles to the light and Spencer has to explain. This one for inflammation. This one for blood pressure. That’s an anti-rejection. Those for pain. Yes, I have prescriptions for all of them. The man pulls it all out of his suitcase, lining everything up on a stainless steel table. Another agent stands just to one side, watching. The third, a woman, leafs through the paperwork, her eyes narrowed as she reads.

It’s all in order. Satisfied—and a touch disappointed—the men saunter out. The woman watches him repack his bag. He scoops the medication together, the little glass vials clinking.

“Forecaster, huh? Seems like a lot of trouble for a job,” the agent observes, and she writes something on his boarding pass and hands it back to him.

“Maybe.” Spencer puts his sunglasses and baseball cap back on. His hands shake.

“Can you really see the future?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Spencer says.

“But you can tell what people are thinking?”

“Not quite. More like what they’re feeling.” He zips up the suitcase and heaves it off the table. “Am I done?”

“Sure.” She smiles briefly at him. “Just one question,” she says. That’s what they all say. “I read somewhere you guys remember everything. Is it worth it?” She leans forward a little, mouth opened slightly—she can’t help herself. She probably hasn’t seen many casters coming through regular security screening. He feels her interest, feels himself responding to it. Oh, she is fascinated by him. He inhales sharply, concentrating, and the feeling is cut off. She has no idea he was reading her.

“Must be,” he says, and he leaves, aware that several people are lifting their cell phones, thinking he’s some kind of a celebrity. In his nervousness, it bleeds through. Interest, envy. He knows how they see him. Scrawny guy in dark glasses and a baseball cap, escorted around the security lines. Of course they should take a picture, just in case he’s somebody important. You never know.

• • •

Megan booked him into business class. An older man sits beside him, flipping idly through a magazine. Nice suit, good shoes. The man scowls at something he’s read. Spencer can feel it in the back of his neck, a prickling tingle, even though he’s supposed to be offline. Hypersensitivity is something he should report to medical. He takes his sunglasses off—it’s rude to leave them on, that’s what the man is thinking—and regrets it almost right away, squinting a bit at the light and reaching to close the shade.

“It has to stay up, sir,” says the flight attendant. “Until takeoff, please.”

“Right.” He puts the sunglasses back on and closes his eyes, trying to ignore the man’s lingering disapproval. It would have been better if he’d flown on a DA jet. The flight attendants don’t say anything when casters creep on board and sit in the semi-dark. They leave them alone. But with the holidays coming, everybody’s trying to get away, and there are only so many seats to go around. Spencer watches people filing past him to get to economy, wishing he’d had an excuse ready when Megan told him Erin had emailed her to ask about his schedule. Megan brought it up over coffee, as she handed him expense reports to sign.

“You’re going home for Christmas, right? Did you call your sister back?”

“I thought I’d just stick around.”

“And do what?”

“I don’t know. Stuff?”

“You’ll just end up coming in to work. Why don’t you go home? When’s the last time you saw your family? Listen, if you’re going to go, tell me soon so I can take care of the tickets.”

A woman carrying a crying baby struggles down the aisle. It’s been a long time since he saw his sister’s kids. It’s not like he doesn’t want to see them, he tells himself. Just that he’s in transit most of the time, moving from one assignment to the next. Singapore. Beijing. London. Dubai. Berlin. Megan’s the one who remembers to pick up souvenirs in the airports and trolls the hotel gift shops for things his niece and nephews will like. How old are they now? He can’t remember. Megan would know. She takes care of everything, from reminding him to make birthday phone calls to booking jobs for him—she is his handler. DA likes to call them administrative assistants.

Spencer lets his mind drift, and it wanders in a direction it often takes. Megan. She’s the closest thing he has to a friend, the one good thing in his life. A girl with cool blue eyes and blonde hair that she covers with a scarf when they’re in the Middle East, who can paint her nails even when the airplane is bouncing with turbulence. If they’re called in for an emergency assignment, she never fails to turn up with her go bag in her hand, completely unruffled and without complaint. Even on a Friday night when she looks like she’s come straight from a nightclub in heels and a tight dress. They joke about being joined at the hip, but he doesn’t really know that much about her. She knows everything about him, but Megan doesn’t talk much about her personal life. She’s all business. She’s good at what she does. DA pays her to be the best.

Six weeks ago, she’d sat quietly in a room in a safe house and waited with him. They’d arrived in Damascus wearing bulletproof vests, driven through dark streets in the back of a van with armed escorts. It was the only time he’d seen her look scared. Her smile was strained, and she’d glanced at the men with guns with a trepidation Spencer hadn’t seen before. He’d been so busy trying to shut down everything around him, concentrating on emptying out, trying to get the first read. He hadn’t been able to think of anything comforting to say, though he’d seen her mute appeal.

But when the last cast was finished, she’d handed him a folded square of gauze for the nosebleed. She’d pressed her hand to his forehead as he vomited on the dirty floor and injected painkillers because he couldn’t keep the pills down. She’d buckled the seatbelt for him when they put him in the van. Asked for help carrying him to the helicopter and then strapped him in the seat, putting an airsick bag in his hands and a cold compress on the back of his neck. She was in control then, not afraid, deftly checking the colour of the LEDs as he batted weakly at her, trying to push her away. She’d given him something stronger, something that burned as it went in, melting him around the edges. He’d felt something before passing out: a wave of love and regret. Reeling, he realized that she was holding his hand.

He thinks about it as the plane taxis down the runway. The loss of control scares Spencer. He fixates on it. The forecast was exactly what they wanted; he knew it was solid. But a caster bleeding and puking after doing the job means burnout. Malfunction. The body is failing. A sick feeling of dread has been growing inside him. He wants to ask Megan what she thinks, but he can’t bring himself to do it. She hasn’t brought it up, and he can’t.

The flight attendants begin the safety briefing. It’s a déjà vu moment that reminds him of a hundred flights he’s taken. He immediately shifts his thoughts before they start to come back to him. It shouldn’t be this hard, he thinks uneasily. This is part of the problem. Casted memories are indelible. They are sharp and clear, and if he begins to drift towards them, they can come flooding back without hesitation. No delays when the memory lives in circuitry embedded in the brain. The smallest thing can be a trigger, and it’s hardest to avoid it when he’s tired. It’s best to try to ignore everything, to adopt an air of vacancy in moments of boredom, because everything casted lives just below the surface, ready to come bursting forth in recall. Better to concentrate on something else, something from before, subjective remembrance the way it’s supposed to be: wavering and half-clouded with untruths. Those are safest, the best protection. Recall is an annoyance for market research casters, but hazardous for the counter-intelligence team. Some things shouldn’t be relived. Razor sharp memories cut both ways—going in and when they come out in recall.

The plane levels off. The businessman heaves a sigh, kicks off his shoes and accepts a drink from the flight attendant. The magazine slithers to the floor, a headline catching Spencer’s eye. Chemical Terror in Syria: Inside the Inspectors’ Report. Spencer lifts his head quickly, but he’s already seen the picture that goes with it. He struggles to control his breathing, to silence the murmuring dread.

“And for you, sir?”

Spencer shakes his head.

“Go on, kid,” says the man. “It’s free.”

“N-no, thanks.” Spencer leans his head back in the seat, reaches to close the window shade, and tries not to think about anything. Tries not to remember.

“Sir?” The flight attendant leans towards him, holding out a napkin. “Your nose is bleeding.”

• • •

He wakes suddenly. Thick moments of confusion hold him in a panicked stillness and he holds his breath, waiting for that memory to start playing back. But it doesn’t, mercifully. He realizes with embarrassment that he’s the last one on the plane. The cleaning crew is coming on board. Spencer mutters an apology, begins to get to his feet and remembers the seat belt, blushing as the flight attendant laughs.

He’s carrying enough opiates to get the attention of a border services agent with a dog. The dog stops and sits next to him, tail wagging, and the agent starts asking questions. Spencer has to search through the pockets of his coat to find the paperwork again, pulls it out and hands it over with his passport. He’s taken to another room, opens his suitcase, hands over the prescriptions, lifts his shirt and lets the guards inspect him. They do not notice, as he does, that the green monitor lights along his ribs have flickered to amber. He packs his bag again, steps back out into the crowded terminal.

The cacophony makes him cringe. It registers as a buzz in his head, a hum like a thousand fluorescent lights in a small room. He ought to be offline, shielded from this. He ought not to be feeling the thrill that twitches through his spine and warms the memristors, trickling up to the cache basins. Spencer struggles on through the crowd. Head down like a buffalo, his mother used to say, and into the wind. She’d say that when he complained about walking to school in the cold. What would she think if she could see him now? Afraid to go to sleep because recall invades his dreams, struggling not to associate something simple and innocuous in case it triggers one when he’s awake. He’s terrified that it’s all starting to get away from him, that he’s losing himself. What would she say?

• • •

The guy from the car service has a friendly smile and takes his suitcase from him right away. Spencer follows him to the car, feeling foolish. He ought to carry his own bags, he thinks, but he’s too tired to mount a manful protest. He sits huddled in the back of the dark sedan. The driver glances at him in the mirror and turns up the heat. Traffic is heavier than Spencer remembers. “Worse all the time,” the driver says. “Sometimes it takes me an hour to get downtown. Can you believe it?” Spencer murmurs something. “Visiting family for the holidays?”

“Yes.”

“That’s nice. Everybody should try to be with their family.”

He gazes out the window as they pass by downtown, picking out the old, familiar towers dwarfed by the new: Gulf Canada Square, Bankers Hall, the Bow. The boom kept going after he left. The price of gas made the cheap stuff from the oilsands suddenly okay, when tearing up the north seemed justified by the cost to fill a tank. Calgary was built smugly on oil. It still is.

He got his start here when he was newly implanted, still learning how to sort through the blizzard of noise and data. They had him on marketing forecasts. The facility in the southeast industrial park was a nondescript building with razor wire fences and layers of security checkpoints. He forecasted in a blank room, with the couch and the analysts sitting with him, quietly coaching him through panic and fear as he learned to connect and read, talking him down when it overwhelmed him. Calgary would rise, that’s what he came up with first. Be more specific, they told him. People are optimistic. No, hopeful. Can you be more specific? Indulgent. Ready for more growth. People want bigger things.

His casts became more and more accurate, perfectly attuned to the point of prescience. The call to meet with the DA research and development team came quickly. They spoke of next-gen implants over coffee and danishes around a marble and glass conference room table. We want to take you to the next level, they told him, and he agreed without hesitation. He wanted the storm, the merging with the howl and the fury, to become a part of it. Flipped and spun and thrown through, one speck in a blizzard, pure and beautiful, nerves on fire with the tension and pain, and the pleasure. It was intoxicating.

He didn’t think then about what would happen if he couldn’t do the work anymore. He didn’t think that the memories could come back when they weren’t supposed to, more vivid each time, frighteningly so. It didn’t occur to him when he took on the counter-intelligence work. He didn’t think about what it would be like to have to force himself to get up and get dressed in the morning after a night of horrors. He didn’t think casting would ever make him sick. There’s no quitting after implantation. The equipment can’t come out. The finality was not something he thought about when he signed the contracts for the surgery to get the implants. It’s too late now.

Maybe it’s the skyline and the glimpse of the distant mountains. He finds himself chewing on his fingernail as the city rolls past, the sun flashing off glass and metal. The road is lined with dirty snowbanks. Spencer sits in the back of the luxury sedan heading south on the Deerfoot. His suitcase is in the trunk, full of presents Megan bought and wrapped for him. The satchel stuffed full of drugs is on his lap. His hand is clenched around the strap. His eyes burn and he blinks, turning away from the window to gaze steadfastly at the back of the driver’s head.

• • •

MOM! He’s here!” The door flies open; three kids hanging off his legs and trying to hug him all at the same time, nearly knocking him over. His sister comes out of the kitchen, throwing a towel on the counter, and stretches out her arms in welcome.

“You made it,” she says.

Hugs and more hugs. The kids squabble over who will drag his suitcase upstairs to the guest room, but he keeps the satchel with him and takes off his shoes while his sister hangs up his coat. “I’d forgotten how cold it is.”

“Wimp,” she says. “You’ve been away too long.” She stands with her hands on her hips, looking at him. Spencer can still see traces of their childhood in her face, but Erin takes after their mother now. She looks well, fit and clear-eyed. He feels shrunken standing in front of her. “You look awful,” she says, finally.

“You’re supposed to say I look tan and relaxed.” Spencer forces himself to grin.

“When have you ever been tan?”

“Once? Twice?”

She rolls her eyes. “You look tired.” He doesn’t need to try to feel her worry. It’s an undercurrent that plucks at his guilt.

“I am,” he admits. There are framed photographs lining the walls—he can see the last family portrait they took before he moved to LA, when the kids were small. I look so different, he thinks. He’s so used to the way he is now. He catches his sister watching him as he inspects it and straightens quickly.

“Are you okay?”

He knows she wants him to reassure her. “I’m fine. Just working too hard.”

“You’re going to really take a break this week, right? You look like you just need to chill out.”

“Good thing it’s freezing out there,” he says lightly. She smiles, but her eyes are narrowed. “It’s okay,” he says. “It was a long flight. That’s all.”

“Well, come on in,” she says. “You hungry? I’ll make you something. Dinner’s not until later.”

“Got any coffee?”

“Yes, if you’ll eat something with it.” He follows her into the kitchen, pausing to look at more photos on the walls. This is how she remembers her family’s life: memories held neatly in place by a frame. “You’re so skinny, Spence. You need to eat more.”

“Can’t help it,” he says. “It’s my tapeworm.”

“You’d think they’d figure out a better way for implants to charge,” she says, opening the fridge.

“It’s better than first-gen. Remember those?”

“Oh my god,” she says, laughing. “Yes. You were like some kind of freaky binge eater. You were hungry all the time.” She puts a bowl in the microwave. “Remember those late night trips to Peter’s Drive-In? I used to lie and say we were picking up burgers for my softball team.”

“Hah. I’d forgotten about that.”

“I got you pickled beets and cantaloupe,” she says. “I remembered all your favourites. And grapes, and that soy milk stuff—I still say it’s gross—and two cases of Ensure. That’ll be enough, right?”

“Yeah. Thanks. You remembered everything.” There are drawings and coupons stuck to the fridge. The toaster sits crookedly next to the coffee pot on the counter. His sister moves briskly around, opening drawers and running water. He feels himself sinking into the pattern on the linoleum floor, the silent storm rising slowly to meet him, threatening to break.

“The fridge did it,” she says, dragging him back, and he looks up, bewildered. “See that? It’s wired into the home network. Keeps track and orders things when we’re low on anything. I don’t need to even think about milk anymore.” The microwave beeps. “The kids hacked it, of course. Chocolate milk and candy, chips and cookies. Ten pounds of jelly beans. You name it. I was so pissed.” She puts a bowl of pasta on the table, then drops into a chair. “Go on.” She waits, then gestures to the food. “Sit down. Eat.”

“It’s too much.”

“Just eat what you want. I don’t care. You’re probably hungrier than you think. Did you eat on the plane?”

“No. Had a headache.”

“Because you need to eat.” He needs to eat to keep the equipment running. The neuromorphic implants in his intestines convert calories to charge the circuitry in his brain. It’s elegantly engineered, but the practical side is that hunger gnaws at him all the time to the point where he isn’t fully aware of it. Casters all look alike: painfully thin and tired, a gaunt hipster-chic look without the heroin. The engineers didn’t count on that.

“Where’s Bill?”

“Working. Cutting a deal—they’re putting the final touches on a new exploration contract. He’ll be home late. He’s going to meet us at the party.”

“Party?” His stomach clenches, and the fork wobbles on its way to his mouth.

Erin doesn’t notice. “We do it every year. The Westlunds put on this big party for everybody. Somebody dresses up as Santa. The kids love it.”

“Do I have to go?”

“Oh, come on, Spencer. It’s so much fun. Everybody wants to meet my famous brother. You don’t want to stay here by yourself, do you?”

The kids come thundering down the stairs before he can think of an answer.

• • •

The street is bright with twinkling lights strung around garages. Spencer stumbles on the ice. The driveways are shoveled, the snow piled up in the yards and along the edges of the sidewalks, but it’s been years since he clambered over frozen ruts, and in canvas sneakers he slips and has to clutch her arm to keep from going down. Erin makes him wear one of Bill’s winter parkas even though they’re just going across the street. He’s soon standing uncomfortably in the Westlund’s living room with a drink in his hand, Christmas music booming in the background. Spencer’s sure they won’t ask him to be the one to duck outside to dress up as Santa. He doesn’t have the build for it. There aren’t enough pillows handy to even come close.

“This is my brother, Spencer. He’s out from Los Angeles.” Erin introduces him as though LA is some exotic, far-off place, and he’s forced to shake hands and smile at jokes about the weather. She excuses herself to go and take a plate into the kitchen, and somebody hands him another drink and takes the empty glass from him. Spencer finishes the drink, takes another. Smiles and laughs, wishing he had an excuse to leave and go back across the street because he’s worried that something will trigger another recall. He finds himself carefully touching his nose and surreptitiously looking at his fingers for blood. He can’t afford to have a bad recall in the middle of the neighbourhood Christmas party.

“What do you do in LA?”

“Excuse me?” A woman smiles at Spencer, sidles closer, and asks him again. He has a stock answer for the question, a made-up story about a dull job nobody wants to hear more about. But he’s tired from the flight and the wrong side of tipsy, and the truth slips out. “I work for Distributed Arbitrage.” He blinks owlishly at the woman and is reminded of Megan. The resemblance is striking. He finds himself standing straighter. He’s trying not to think of it, but there it is: the recall playing, skipping ahead. Love and regret. A hand on his. A cold compress on the back of his neck.

“Really? What do you do? Are you a forecaster?”

Dammit. “Yes.” He rubs his eyes, trying to swim up to the surface to focus on the woman. Love. There was love. No.

Her eyes widen, and she moves a little closer. “That must be so exciting.”

“Sometimes.” Berlin was exciting. The clubs were great. The casting was good, too—searching out terrorists, looking for anger and anticipation of bloodlust, that alert feeling of tension and preparations. It’s so hard to find just one, but where there’s one, there’s more. They hardly ever work by themselves and when they get together, they feed off each other, and the emotions are amplified.

He tries to tell her about it. How the trick to finding bad guys is to look for clusters in the noisy mass, pulling them together. He finds people, and he uses them to jump from one to the next, hunting in the storm, circling, slowly and deliberately, spiraling closer to them, slipping past flashes of images and impulses of thousands of people packed into neighbourhoods, sliding through them to get closer to the angry, controlled core that marks the men building bombs in a third floor walkup on Kastanienallee, above a record shop. He shivers as he thinks of it, the thrill warmly gripping him as the recall dips and weaves its way through him. Spencer is desperate to impress this woman.

“Is it true that you can read people’s minds?” She hasn’t understood what he’s been trying to tell her.

“Not really.” She frowns, and he rubs his eyes again, trying to explain, words slurring a little. “It’s not like that. Your brain . . . you know you make electrico . . . electromagnetic waves, right?”

“Okay.”

“So they’re really weak, you know? Like, barely there compared to everything else. But a caster listens to them. That’s what I look for.”

“How do you do that?” She tips her head to one side, fluffs her hair. She looks so much like Megan. His heart thumps. No, he tells himself. He shouldn’t be thinking about Megan. Megan would never be interested in him. He has nothing to offer her. But there was love. He read it. No.

“You have to listen. There’s lotsa noise, you know, from everything else. But it’s like having really good hearing. You go out into the storm and you listen for sounds in the wind. That’s what it’s like . . . and then you find people and you listen to them.”

“So you eavesdrop?” She’s smiling at him again.

“Sort of.”

“That’s kind of pervy.”

“I guess it is.” His breath comes faster.

She moves even closer, a little taller than him, and he tips his head up to look at blue eyes. He can feel the heat of her body. “Can you tell what I’m thinking right now?”

“That’s not what I do,” Spencer says.

“Oh, no?” She pokes him gently with one finger, and the shock of her touch makes him jump. “Is it true you’re half robot?”

“No,” he says indignantly. She’s laughing.

There’s a commotion at the door. Santa must be here. “So are you listening to me right now?” Her hip bumps his as she leans in to speak softly to him, her lips brushing his ear, and oh, yes, he can hear. It’s been getting more difficult in the time since Damascus. It’s hard to think. The storm is howling around him. His vision is overtaken by the overlay, a translated image compiled by the neuropathic implants hooked into his visual cortex. It looks like snow in the headlights—streaks of white hurtling towards him in the blackness.

He feels the swelling pressure of the party—the excitement of the children, the amusement of the adults. Warm, muzzy happiness. Arousal. She’s laid her hand on his arm and he snaps open to cast, even though she doesn’t need to be read. She pulls him out of the room and they are suddenly in the chilly gloom of the garage. She is tugging at his shirt, running her hands over the scars and the panels, exclaiming at the LEDs. “Let me see,” she whispers. “Can you tell what I’m thinking now?” He lifts her onto a freezer and kisses her, pushing her dress up and reaching for her while she fumbles with his belt. He is shaking, wide open as gusts of animal lust emanate from her, blinding him. He doesn’t close off the cast. He should. He knows he should. But he doesn’t.

It will be recorded, a pinpoint of data on the memristors, and tomorrow it will all come flashing back when he comes creeping down to sit on the sofa with a cup of coffee, blearily watching the kids open their presents. Every moment of it, from the way the small of her back feels under his hands as she wraps her legs around him to the hammering blow of his sister’s shock when she comes looking for him and opens the door. It’s her shock that triggers it. There’s a rush of nausea, pain, and then the nosebleed comes with the rising taste of dust and vinegar in his mouth as he struggles vainly to close off the cast, the surging sickness of the recall rising around him. Damascus comes rolling in, and he barely hears the woman’s gasp as his body goes rigid, Erin’s voice rising with alarm. What’s the saying? Something about best laid plans?

• • •

“I’m not mad,” Erin says to him when they are finally alone. The kids are sprawled on the floor by the Christmas tree, playing with the toys Megan bought for them. Spencer is sitting in the kitchen, unsteadily eating toast and trying to drink an Ensure. His lights have gone from amber to pink, and he stared at them for a long time before getting dressed. It doesn’t matter how hungover he is—the equipment needs to be fed. It sucks glucose from him. He should have eaten last night, but he forgot and now he’s paying for that, too. Erin is stuffing the turkey.

“I’m sorry.” He’d rather not see her with her hand inside the bird, but it’s too hard to get up and move to another room. Besides, Erin has rules about eating at the kitchen table.

“We might have to take a pass on the Westlunds’ New Year’s party,” she says. Her tone is dangerously light. He’s not sure if he ought to answer her or if this one of those times when it’s best to say nothing. She speaks without turning. “Cut me the string, will you?”

“The string?”

“Pieces this long,” she says, holding her hands apart. They are glistening. He swallows thickly. “The scissors are in the drawer by the sink. Left drawer. Your other left.” She watches him for a moment and goes back to the turkey. The moist sound of her hands inside it makes him want to vomit.

Spencer brings her the string and she takes it from him. He stands in the middle of the kitchen, uncertainly. The buzz in his head loudens, and he has to concentrate to hear her. “What I don’t understand is why you’d do that.”

“Do what?”

“Are you kidding me? You get plastered at a Christmas party—hey, sure. We’ve all been there, Spencer. But then you hook up with a perfect stranger—”

“Don’t,” he says quickly, but it’s too late. The recall is triggered before he can stop it and begins to play again in rapid succession. He blushes.

“Maybe you can see why I’m concerned,” Erin says.

“I’m really sorry . . . ”

“You never used to be like that,” she says. “Is that what things are like in LA for you?”

Things are not like that, he thinks. He’s hardly home long enough for things to get like that. “No.”

“Then what the hell, Spencer?”

“I . . . ”

“So you cut a little loose. Fine. No problem. Whatever. You’re sick as a dog, but yeah, okay. I get it. But the small pharmacy in your suitcase, Spencer? What the hell is that?”

“Nothing,” he says. He can’t tell her. She won’t understand.

“Are you sick? Do you have some kind of problem?”

“No.”

A long silence then, as she finishes trussing the bird and washes her hands. He finishes the toast and cracks open another can of Ensure. It’s the last thing he wants, but if he doesn’t eat the headache will just get worse. He watches his sister covering the turkey with tin foil. “I’m really sorry,” he says, finally.

“I’m not angry at you, Spencer.” She bangs the oven door closed. The sound reminds him of something; he can’t quite put a finger on it, but he suddenly feels irritated, too warm and two sizes too large for his skin.

“Bullshit.”

“Keep your voice down.” She turns her head towards the living room, but the kids can’t hear them. She turns back to him and her eyes widen. “Spence. Your nose is bleeding.” He touches his upper lip and examines his fingertips. His hand shakes. “Here,” she says, passing him a wad of napkins. “Use some pressure.” He tips his head back. “No, look down.” She goes to the freezer and comes back with an icepack wrapped in a damp towel, and holds it to the back of his neck. “Are you okay?”

The recall slams into him when the cold towel touches the back of his neck, and Spencer is lost to the memory. His heart begins to beat faster as a white hot pain blossoms in his head. There is a bitter taste in his mouth. The room is small, made smaller by men sitting around him. Spencer can smell their sweat and their fear. He’s sitting on the floor because the only available chair in the bare little room looks too rickety to be trusted. Everybody is waiting on him, crowded into a safehouse that feels terribly unsafe. He has to get the cast right so they can leave.

He can hear shouts out in the street, through the closed windows, the sharp retort of guns and grumble of explosions in the distance. Megan is sitting next to him on the floor, a legal pad in her lap, waiting for him to speak. He can’t see her. All Spencer can see is the white of the storm. It’s overtaken him, but he’s not lost. He’s searching. There are flashes. Fear. Lots of fear. Grief. A woman’s wailing anguish. Pain and shock, the panic of a man hurrying three small children out the door and into a car. For a moment his attention settles on them. Spencer can taste the man’s urgency, the children’s terror and confusion.

Megan takes notes as he describes what he sees. Then he moves away, riding the storm, searching. Hunting. There have been rumours, a warning that something is coming. They’ve been in Damascus a week already, eating cold spaghetti straight out of the can and MREs, dropping iodine tablets into the water before drinking it. He’s been playing cards with Megan in between casts, when he has to take a break. Cribbage. Poker. Gin. They don’t bother keeping score. Something is coming, but they have to wait for it. The war is ten years old now and still going strong, but the hate and the anger are turning cold and steely. Something is coming.

This part of the memory sickens him. Spencer is helpless to stop it, dimly aware that Erin is speaking to him. A gaping, sucking hole opens all around him, dragging him down. He is not alone. In the dark, he can feel them. They are waiting for him, all of them, watching in the cold dark. He’s locked into the recall, despite his frantic efforts to close it off. It is recorded and inscribed on the memristors, data that can’t ever be wiped clean, a horror that cannot be severed. The smell of rotten eggs and vinegar, a pain in his chest, the terror of listening as people begin to choke and die in their beds, the writhing agony of the man and those three children in their car. It’s too late to back out of the cast, to scramble out of the storm to safety. All he can do is speak, wanting to shout it out but only able to whisper hoarsely of what it feels like to be steadily choked to death by sarin as their security escorts scramble for gas masks and hoods. He can hear Megan anxiously telling him to stop, to cut the cast. Somebody slaps his face sharply, but he can’t register the pain.

The recall wanes, but they are still there, crowded around him, pushed to the edges as his vision begins to clear. When will they leave him alone? He has his head in his hands, rocking back and forth. Blood drips steadily from his nose into his lap. Spencer hears himself flatly repeating the words and knows, with a sick turn of his stomach, that Erin is listening as he gives voice to all those deaths all over again.

• • •

He’s back in LA before New Year’s Eve. Erin and Bill can go to the Westlunds’ party after all. There’s a seat on a flight and Spencer buys it, cramming himself into an economy seat and leaving his sunglasses on the whole way. He swallows sedatives as soon as he’s seated, enough to get through the next few hours without the risk of remembering.

Erin pleaded with him to stay. She wanted to take him to the hospital. “Please, Spence. You’re sick. You can tell them you’ve had enough. Right? They can take it out and then you can come and stay with us. I can look after you.” He gets her to help him upstairs to the bathroom, and she brings him the satchel brimming with syringes and vials, watching as he steadies his hand before plunging the needle into the port. She’s horrified by the LEDs, which have started to blink ominously, crimson and bright. “Tell them you don’t want to do it anymore. Nobody would think any less of you, Spence. Come home. Please? Please, will you do it for me?’

Spencer lies and tells her that he’s got to get back. He lets her believe he’ll talk to DA about getting the equipment out, that it’s as easy as that. Megan meets him at the airport, taking the luggage from him and carrying it out to the car. “Good time, boss?”

“Oh, you know.” He thinks of the Christmas party. Why couldn’t it have been her? He starts to say something, struggling to form the thought. “I missed . . . ”

“You look a little tired,” she says, interrupting him. She climbs into the back seat of a DA company car with him, leaning forward to speak quietly to the driver.

Spencer closes his eyes. “You always say that.” I missed you, he thinks. I wish you’d been there with me. He can smell her perfume. Something like tangerines and spice, warm and inviting.

“I got a call while you were away.” She is scrolling through her phone, pushing messages around with her thumb.

“Where are we going?”

“Senegal. I told them you needed to think about it.” Megan glances at him. “I wasn’t sure you’d be ready.”

He leans his head back. The world seems to be spinning gently, and he feels a little queasy. His mouth is dry. “I never thought the recall would do me in,” he says dully.

“What’s that, boss?”

“Do you ever think about it? What it’d be like to never be able to forget something?”

She raises her eyebrows. They’re on the 105 now, merging smoothly into traffic. “I don’t think too much about it,” she says carefully.

“That must be nice. For you, I mean.”

“Is something wrong?” Megan puts her phone down and looks him. “Did something happen?”

Something happened, he wants to say. He was doing just fine until Damascus. Things were just fine. He wasn’t in love with her. He wasn’t wracked with fear over a goddamn memory. And then he went to some shitty little room in the middle of a civil war because some intelligence agency had heard a rumour that something big was going to happen. And he’d done his job, in between hands of gin rummy, until he accidentally recorded not one murder, not ten, but one hundred and twenty fucking thousand. And it’s been choking him from the inside out, splinters on fire beneath his skin. This memory—this—is awful. It’s done something to him. It’s an effort to hold himself up now. He can only stumble forward, a little at a time, afraid that if he falls he won’t get up again. He’s locked into a recalled cast that triggers itself over the smallest, stupidest things. A sound. A thought. When the wind blows a certain way, when he smells something that reminds him of Damascus, he’s forced to witness their deaths all over again. Each recall is more painful than the one before, and he’s certain that it’s only going to get worse.

He can try and put down new casts ahead of it, put some distance between it and him, but it’s bursting free. Even the storm is filled with it . . . he casts and he can see it. The moment when they died. A hundred and twenty thousand ghosts have taken up residence in the memristors in his brain, and they won’t let go of him. It’s going to slowly kill him. He’s sees it now. The dead are going to take him with them. They’ve been doing it for weeks. Picking him apart, bit by bit.

“Spencer? Are you okay?”

He manages to smile. “Senegal, huh?”

“Saint-Louis. I’ve got the dossier with me if you want to take a look.”

He can pack in more casts, one over top another. He can hope it’ll be enough to hold back Damascus. He wants things to be like Berlin again—when it was fun and sexy and he felt good enough to hit a nightclub with Megan and the DA techs after the job was done. Why can’t it be like that again? More casts. That’s got to be the answer. And if it’s not—if Damascus keeps breaking through, he’ll just wait for it. It can’t be very much longer before he strokes out. Each recall is worse than the last. The equipment will burn him, baking him from the inside out.

Spencer reaches to take the folder from Megan and something in his chest tightens. She’s the one good thing about this, he thinks. Recklessly, he lets his hand cover hers. His heart thumps unsteadily, but he doesn’t care. She raises her eyes to look at him, speechless, but he hangs on. Love and regret, that’s what he felt from her, but maybe it was more one than the other. It’ll only take a thought to open the cast, and then, he thinks, he’ll know for sure. He’ll know if there’s still time to tell her that he wants to be with her, that he feels it, too. But she’s frowning.

“You’re . . . bleeding,” she says, pulling her hand away to rummage in her bag for a tissue. The car begins to dissolve into brimming darkness.

The first hit of adrenaline comes with the whispers of the dead, and he wonders if it isn’t already too late.

Heather Clitheroe

Heather ClitheroeHeather Clitheroe’s work has appeared in Kaleidotrope, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead anthologies. Heather lives in Calgary, where she works as a student advisor for the Schulich School of Engineering and quietly reads the research papers and announcements on her break, taking notes. She gratefully acknowledges the support of the Banff Centre for the Arts, Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, and the people in her life who never stop asking ‘how’s the writing going?’ You can find her online at lectio.ca or @lectio.