Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Marcel Proust, Incorporated

It’s 12:15, and Monica West is late for our lunch.

We’re meeting at a trendy Greenwich Village bistro, one of the few to survive the depression that bankrupted the City, and so many of its residents, nearly two decades ago.

There are few reminders of those trying times here now. The place is packed with the young power elite, the air thick with talk of mergers and screenplays and spring designer collections. I order a glass of Cabernet and wait.

Precisely thirty minutes later, I spy her walking toward me. Tall, slender, and dressed in a form-fitting white suit, she might be a junior partner in an Uptown law firm.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I had some trouble with the subway.”

I say it’s perfectly all right and invite her to sit. We make small talk about the weather (we approve), the Knicks’ season (we decidedly do not), and the proposed repeal of the obesity tax (I’m in favor, she isn’t). She strikes me as bright, witty, and thoroughly charming; I find myself wondering if I’m interviewing the right person.

The first sign of anything odd appears when I notice the red ring on her right hand. “You’re a Cardinal,” I observe.

She jerks the hand under the table as if I’ve slapped it. “Yes,” she whispers, glancing around the room. “I am. I was. I’m not supposed to wear this now. But I like it so much, you know?”

I ask if she’d like to order lunch.

She scans the menu intently. The text is entirely in French, and while she seems to know a few words she clearly struggles with others, mouthing them like a child.

“Poison?” she asks, surprised.

Poisson,” I tell her. “Fish.”

She smiles politely, closing the menu in defeat. “I used to know this,” she says. “I mean really know it.”

I nod and order her a croque monsieur. When it arrives she picks at it for a few minutes, then abruptly asks if she can leave.

I thank her and watch as she exits the restaurant head down, sobbing.

It may not seem much of a tragedy, an attractive young woman forgetting how to read French.

Yet what if I told you that Monica graduated summa cum laude from Stanford University with dual majors in Electrical Engineering and French? Or that the severe memory loss she just exhibited has nothing to do with amnesia, a brain tumor, or any other natural condition? What if I told you that someone did this to her deliberately—and that it could happen to anyone?

Like thousands of Americans, Monica West has had her education repossessed.

• • • •

The San Jose headquarters location of The Amygdala Group is a massive complex of gleaming glass, fountains, and meticulously maintained green space. The grass and fountains would be illegal anywhere else in California, but the company has somehow managed to get them classified as research projects.

The entire place is surrounded by walls five feet thick and thirty high, so artfully constructed that the gun turrets seem mere architectural flourishes. The security force is well-armed and ubiquitous. As I approach the main gate, the place strikes me as a cross between a military base, the old Applesoft headquarters, and Vatican City.

Few outsiders come here. There are no tours, no signs to aid navigation. Official visits must be arranged months in advance and typically allow severely restricted access. The vast majority of those who work here actually live inside the walls. They’re ostensibly free to leave, but doing so is discouraged and happens infrequently. And no wonder—they have access to shopping, entertainment, and health care that few Americans can boast, much of it free. Some describe Amygdala as the corporate version of a cult. If so, it’s a generally happy one with few defectors.

Gate security seems at a loss for what to do with me. Few reporters have ever been allowed inside, and no one has interviewed Dr. Andrea Phan, Amygdala’s reclusive CEO, in twenty years.

I explain that I was invited by her office.

The head guard eyes me skeptically. “We’ll need to verify that.” He’s a heap of muscle with a goatee, so perfectly imposing that I find myself wondering whether he might be one of the high-end androids that Amygdala is rumored to employ.

He disappears behind a door for a few minutes before returning. “Follow me, please,” he says flatly.

We take a Musk tube to the center of the complex, exiting in front of a massive building whose base spreads into the ground like the roots of a gleaming tree (or, I suddenly realize, like a neural cluster). As we board the building’s elevator, I attempt to engage the guard in conversation, conducting my own ad hoc Turing test. He’s having none of it, which leads me to believe he’s failing.

Suddenly, fifty stories above the ground, the elevator doors open and I scream.

There’s nothing in front of us but air.

“Close! Close the doors!”

Instinctively I press against the wall of the elevator, terrified. Is this how Amygdala maintains its secrecy? This what happens to reporters who dare come this far? Will I be thrown from the Tarpeian Rock? I find myself experiencing many moments of instant clarity, among them the realization that for some reason I don’t want to die in California.

The guard, now quite clearly human, smiles and pushes me into the sky.

• • • •

The amygdala is a fascinating product of evolution. Actually a pair of almond-shaped neural clusters deep inside the brain—amygdala means almond in Greek—it governs both our emotions and our long-term memory.

On the face of it, this dual role seems to make little evolutionary sense. But consider our ancient past. If you happened by a particular tree and encountered a giant snake hanging from it, your amygdala would release the neurotransmitter dopamine, triggering an emotion (in this case fear) and starting a chain reaction telling your body to release adrenaline, which is good because it helps you run faster. Increased dopamine levels also aid memory—which is also good, because you’d want to remember to avoid that particular tree again.

This explains why, after a traumatic event, we often perceive time as slowing down, recalling minute details that would normally escape our notice. The amygdala wants us to remember.

None of this crosses my mind as I assume the fetal position and weep, suspended in the air, but it no doubt crosses Andrea Phan’s. It’s no accident that she has the full attention of my amygdala; she wants me to remember this particular tree.

As my higher-order brain function returns, I deduce what you no doubt already have: that I’m not floating in the air at all, but merely inside something you’ll find at any second-rate theme park, an Invisible Room—albeit a very sophisticated one cantilevered hundreds of feet above the ground.

“It’s normal to feel some vertigo,” says a woman’s voice with a Vietnamese accent. “You get used to it.”

Even though I know, logically, that I’m safe, it still takes some time before I can stand.

“My eyes don’t believe what my brain is telling them,” I say.

Dr. Phan is a small woman, fitter than her eighty years would suggest. She shrugs. “Your eyes don’t see. They’re just input devices. It’s your brain that sees. It’s just confused at the moment.”

I shuffle across the floor, my arms feeling for the walls. “You need to put up some pictures or something,” I say.

She laughs. It’s the laugh of someone unused to people joking with her, but I sense that she likes it.

She extends her hand, and as I take it, I’m suddenly aware that I’m touching perhaps the wealthiest person in the history of the world.

It wasn’t always that way.

Phan was born in desperate poverty in Danang, Vietnam, in the days before that country was annexed by China. She came to the U.S. as a college student, attending first Columbia College in Missouri and later Princeton. Early on it became apparent that she was a genius, perhaps even a once-in-a-generation genius—a term, incidentally, at which she bristles. (“I don’t even know what that word means,” she said once in a rare public speech. “I think it actually cheapens human achievement, implying that I didn’t work for what I have.”)

Hers is one of the great rags-to-riches stories of all time. To appreciate how she rose from complete obscurity to incredible wealth and power—and to understand just what she did to Monica West—we must first explore some oddities of neuroscience.

• • • •

People have long noticed that certain sensations can super-encode memories. Marcel Proust explored this more than a century ago in his masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, where a madeleine cake dipped in tea transports the narrator back to a vivid childhood memory of eating a similar cake. Such an intense sensory experience has become known as a “Proustian rush.”

The most powerful memory sense of all, it turns out, is smell. That’s because smells are fast-tracked to the amygdala, which as we’ve established affects both emotion and memory. Smell gets special expedited treatment, even above sight, which takes much more processing power (and therefore takes longer for the brain to interpret).

Phan learned firsthand how memories can be super-encoded. “I was working on chemical ways to improve memory,” she told the LA Times before she became so notoriously reclusive. “I had hit a wall. My husband and I were having awful relationship problems, just awful. I was very distraught. I still came to the lab, but I was very emotional.”

Phan made a careless mistake and sliced her wrist on the shards of a broken flask (she insists it was an accident, though at the time the ER physician labeled it an attempted suicide). Her body quickly went into shock, and she realized with interest that the world seemed suddenly more vivid. She noticed small details, like the precise pattern of the floor tiles—things she usually didn’t perceive at all. She later remembered them more vividly, too. That’s when she realized that manipulation of the amygdala was the key to improving memory.

“We all knew it had something to do with emotion, and that it could be amplified further by smell,” Phan said. “That wasn’t particularly revolutionary thinking. But I had the additional hypothesis that the amygdala doesn’t get tired—there’s no reason not to make it work full time in third gear.”

For two decades, she and her research team experimented with thousands of drug cocktails before settling on one they would label Proust: a top-secret formulation that excites the amygdala into an aroused emotional state, while fooling it into thinking it’s smelling a unique and powerful smell. “The best part is that you don’t actually perceive any odor,” Phan announced proudly, even though Proust sends olfactory brain activity off the charts.

By any measure, Proust was an astonishing discovery. In study after study, subjects exhibited long-term memory recall up to fifteen times better than normal, regardless of the subject’s underlying IQ.

Most users reported no negative side effects of the drug. The typical patient described an overall feeling of well-being, similar to the effect of the reuptake inhibitors so popular at the turn of the century. (Curiously, but apparently harmlessly, a small percentage of the population claims to be able to detect Proust’s odorless smell, most often describing it as similar to bread dough. For some the perception is so intense they must stop taking the drug altogether.)

Early in testing, however, it became clear that Proust was dangerous for a subset of patients. Those with underlying emotional issues, for instance, or otherwise compromised amygdalae, could be pushed over the edge by Proust. For some depression sufferers, Proust increased suicide risk significantly—one reason the drug is tightly regulated. Candidates must undergo a series of tests before treatment, and supplies are controlled more strictly than medical narcotics.

Yet for the vast majority of patients, Proust proved to be a wonder drug with no appreciable downside. “Soon we’ll all be geniuses,” proclaimed one scientist.

There’s just one catch, and it’s a big one.

• • • •

The Amygdala Group and its critics agree that there is one major downside of Proust: If you learn something while taking the drug, and you later stop taking the drug, then you don’t just remember things normally. You remember almost nothing that you learned while under Proust’s influence.

You won’t lose the memories you learned before taking Proust. And you won’t lose autobiographical memory—where you live, who your friends are, or where you keep the toaster—because that sort of information is handled differently by the brain. (This is why an amnesia victim may be able to solve a crossword puzzle and yet have no idea what his name is.)

But you will forget nearly everything else you learned while taking Proust.

The reason isn’t entirely clear. Company officials claim that Proust is some sort of unintended data encryption key—they have no idea why. Critics scoff at this explanation, pointing out the obvious financial incentive for Amygdala to keep patients effectively addicted to Proust forever.

The federal government has certainly done little to curtail the activities of Amygdala. The company quietly negotiated an unprecedented 200-year patent in exchange for special “access” by select government agencies—including, unsurprisingly, the Department of Defense.

Given all of this, you might assume that Amygdala would be a household name, the story of the decade, the subject of dinner table conversation across the world. Yet surprisingly few people have heard of it, and those who have tend to be from the ruling class: doctors, lawyers, architects, and their children. The company is masterful at quietly managing public perception. Through a complex web of shell companies, Amygdala controls a number of global media outlets, leading to speculation about whitewashing, corruption, and worse.

Over the years, plenty of investigative journalists have tried to interview Dr. Phan and otherwise infiltrate Amygdala, hoping to crack the story wide open. All have given up, discouraged. Now, standing in a transparent room high above the ground, I finally have a chance to succeed where they failed, and the prospect is immensely exciting.

First, though, I need to know something.

“Dr. Phan,” I ask, “why me?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m flattered of course. But why did you invite me here? I’m with The Chronicle of Higher Education. You could have called The Times, or anybody.”

She acts as if she didn’t hear me, though I’m certain she did.

“Are you . . . are you Diogenes?” I ask.

“Who?” She seems genuinely puzzled by the name.

“Diogenes. The one who sent me—”

Before I can finish, the room shakes violently. There is a tremendous explosion—through the transparent floor I can see that far below, one of the buildings in the research complex is now engulfed in flame.

I’m too stunned to react right away, but Phan appears unsurprised, even pleased. A panicked face appears on a screen in mid-air but she calmly waves it away. A second explosion nearly knocks me off my feet. She giggles.

As Phan surveys her empire, part of which is now ablaze, she whispers, confidentially, “He’s back.”

Another explosion, closer this time. I find myself particularly interested in the construction of the glass room.

“Who’s back?” I ask.

The elevator door opens, revealing the crumpled body of the muscled security guard. A white-bearded man dressed in an old-fashioned suit steps off as if nothing has happened.

Phan smiles. “My husband.”

• • • •

I’ve met Eddie McGill before.

Eloquent, intelligent, and much more flamboyant than his ex-wife, he has never been difficult to find. I’ve interviewed him twice over the years.

Nearly as rich as Phan after their divorce, McGill has used his wealth to cast himself as an outspoken public intellectual, particularly on higher education issues. He has long contended that educational, financial, and governmental interests have conspired against the average American. In his best-selling book The Educational Industrial Complex, McGill decried the Financial Aid Privatization Act of 2025, which handed over administration of all federal student financial aid programs to private companies.

“That was the beginning of the end for higher education,” he wrote, “giving banks tremendous incentives to dole out financial aid.” This in turn caused banks to entice more and more people to attend college, he contended, whether or not those people were academically prepared or even interested. Since their bottom lines depended on people staying in school, the banks pressured universities to lower academic standards to retain students. “It’s the big banks, not colleges, that set higher education policy in this country,” wrote McGill. “Ostensibly they believe in ‘student retention.’ Every time you hear them use the word ‘student,’ insert instead ‘revenue stream.’”

Some of McGill’s claims seem to be supported by the data. By 2035, a decade after the Act, the average student loan debt balance had ballooned to nearly $350,000—well more than many graduates could reasonably hope to repay. Loan defaults were common, despite the fact that since last century student loans have not been dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings.

Banks needed a way to protect the student loans they were issuing. But what could possibly serve as collateral? McGill predicted that banks would find a way to treat education loans like car or home loans. “Stop making car payments, they’ll take back your car,” he warned. “Stop making house payments, they’ll take back your house. Before long, stop making student loan payments, and they’ll take back your education.”

McGill was widely ridiculed for that statement. Even the President quipped, “Is there any way we can protect Congress from this education repossession thing? Wait—I see I’m too late!”

Few people paid attention when, just two years later, the common application used by most colleges and universities included cryptic language indicating that students were now being granted merely “a renewable license” to the education they obtained in college. Among other things, terms of renewal included one’s loans being in good standing.

Few people paid attention because it was laughably absurd to think such a clause would ever be enforceable.

• • • •

Six weeks before my lunch with Monica West, I received an untraceable message from someone called “Diogenes.” It contained information on a pilot student loan program by a small bank called Latro Unified. After much investigation, I finally learned that the primary shareholders of Latro are Patriot Bankshares, The Amygdala Group, and the federal government.

Included in the message were account details for 11,000 Latro customers whose student loans were in default for at least six months. Half of the names were marked “RP.” It took considerable digging to reveal that RP was an internal bank code for repossessed.

According to an internal Latro analysis, “While there is no economic value to the Company per se in ‘repossessing’ education, the deterrent effect will be substantial once the plan is rolled out at scale, with appropriate media support.”

A memo from the U.S. Undersecretary of Education congratulated Latro on “a bold and successful experiment” that “will be of great interest to many Department of Education partners.”

I contacted a random sample of twelve of the individuals marked RP. All twelve had been denied access to Proust after failing to make payments on their student loans. All twelve suffered severe long-term memory loss and subsequently lost their jobs. Of the nine who had been married at the time of repossession, seven were now separated or divorced. Five had attempted suicide, four with success.

The fifth was Monica West.

• • • •

“Diogenes,” I say to McGill as he strides from the elevator and into the darkening sky. Like Phan, he seems unfazed by the violent detonations beneath us.

He smiles, revealing a set of famously crooked teeth. Though he could afford it a million times over, he wrote once that he would never have them straightened; he wants them to forever remind him of his own humble beginnings. “Great to see you again,” he says with a charming Scottish burr.

The force of continued explosions has driven Phan to the floor. McGill sits next to her, hugging her tightly as the room rocks.

“Andrea went too far,” McGill says. “She knows that now. She wants it to stop. Don’t you, dear?”

Sobbing, she says something in Vietnamese.

McGill motions me closer. “This is a bigger problem than you think,” he says. “Latro is just the beginning. Proust will spread to the public schools, to everywhere. Everyone will be held hostage. Everyone. What do you think will happen then?”

The room is now surrounded by smoke, adding feelings of claustrophobia to my vertigo. I find myself at a loss for theories. “What is your plan?” I manage to ask. “Give everybody free access?”

He shakes his head. “We must rip off the Band-Aid, as they used to say.”

“What does that mean?”

His charming demeanor dissolves. After a long pause, he says, “By now, my people will have killed every scientist who knows the secret of how Proust is made. There weren’t many, thanks to my ex-wife’s rather paranoid safeguards.” I must appear as shocked as I am, because he adds, “I’m sorry about that, truly. Terrible business. Just terrible.”

Phan has stopped sobbing but shows no indication that the conversation surprises her.

“No one will have Proust ever again,” he continues. “The world will have forgotten how to make it. I’ve just spent the better part of a considerable fortune to make that a true statement.”

“But it will be—”

“A mess,” he says. “But you’ll all figure it out. I believe in you.”

The room begins to make a slow cracking sound. McGill mumbles something and a ladder descends from the ceiling.

“Climb,” he says. “At the other end is my copter.”

“Are you—”

“Write the truth, and I’ve authorized my attorney to give it to you.”

“What?”

“Go!”

When I’m almost out of earshot, Phan calls, “Remember!”

• • • •

In the months since this story first appeared, much has occurred.

With every one of its facilities across the world destroyed in a coordinated attack, The Amygdala Group has effectively ceased to exist. A total of forty-seven scientists were killed; nearly 9,000 other employees were saved in an elaborate evacuation plan executed by McGill’s paramilitary forces. All employees will be paid a year’s severance from a trust funded by Phan’s estate. Families of the slain scientists will be paid one hundred years’ severance per the terms of Phan’s will.

Most of the world’s Proust supply was destroyed in the attack, and so far all efforts to reproduce the drug have failed. It turns out the Proust was not simply a mixture of chemicals, which might have been simple enough to reverse engineer; it also contained sophisticated nanobots that governed the drug’s effects. Only a handful of Amygdala scientists understood exactly how—and all were killed. Patent filings, and other documents that might have been helpful in recreating the drug, have so far proved useless.

Given Proust’s strict controls, few people had more than a month’s supply on hand. For some the loss has been devastating. My own physician had to leave practice because he forgot much of what he learned in medical school. By one estimate, as many as five million Americans find themselves in a similar situation: Everyone knows an accountant, engineer, or pilot who can no longer work in that field. The economy may take decades to achieve equilibrium again.

There have been bright spots. Most people, of course, never tried Proust. And among those who did, graduates in fields less reliant on memorization—particularly liberal arts disciplines like English or Philosophy—have seen increased employability. Their primary skill was always critical thinking, which is handled differently by the brain and is relatively unaffected by the presence or absence of Proust. Enrollment at liberal arts colleges, previously in a decades-long slump, has soared.

The federal government issued a blanket denial of everything I wrote, claiming that I fabricated nearly my entire narrative. Officially, Phan and McGill have been judged victims of the attack rather than perpetrators. The government’s stance is that an unidentified terrorist group coordinated the worldwide attack on Amygdala. The President has vowed revenge.

Latro Unified has been dissolved, its loans quietly forgiven. Without admitting the existence of an education “repossession” experiment, the Department of Education issued each of the roughly 5,500 RPs a lump-sum payment, the terms of which prohibit disclosure of any details.

Marcel Proust, dead for nearly a hundred and fifty years, now dominates the best-seller list.

Monica West recently moved to Paris, where I’m told her French is coming along nicely.

Scott Dalrymple

Scott Dalrymple

Scott Dalrymple made his fiction debut in back-to-back issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he was pulled from slush by a young John Joseph Adams. His novelette “Queen of the Kanguellas” appeared in the final printed issue of Realms of Fantasy and won its Readers Choice Award for Best Story (that the story caused the magazine’s death remains mere speculation). His day job is President of Columbia College (www.ccis.edu), which has a traditional campus in Columbia, Missouri, as well as 25,000 students at 35 extended sites across the U.S. and online. His hobby is challenging students to video game tournaments and then losing. Columbia College recently became one of the first institutions in the country to offer scholarships for League of Legends players at the Diamond level or above.