Rivera had been weaving dreamscapes at Ibsen Spa for twelve hours when a new videolog came in, a back-of-the-neck buzz. Two blinks opened the message: Urgent work, it said, followed by a telephone number. Rivera had been about to go home, but this message changed everything. Finally, after a whole year gone: a new job. Here at Ibsen Spa, the work was easy, with no risk of being stuck in the viscous aftermath of mind-manipulation; but neither did the Spa offer any chance of exercising skill or talent. Such opportunities—and the feelings of mastery that came with them—were part and parcel of working for the agency. But after that last job, after that loss of control, the boss had sworn Rivera would never work for them again. Be grateful, he’d said. After all, the punishment could have been so much worse.
With the agency, Rivera had modified people’s minds; modified their past intentions. Permanent and untraceable changes. If the boss was swallowing his pride and calling now, it meant somebody with a lot of money must be desperate—and desperation made for the most interesting jobs.
Rivera went back to the small, spa-assigned studio, with its low lights, uncirculated air, and padded pink satin walls. It was all designed to help clients relax, though to Rivera it felt claustrophobic, like being inside a human body. But behind the studio’s closed doors, it was easy enough to use a ping to disconnect the room from the outside. Most people preferred wristlets, but Rivera still liked the physicality of the ping. It did everything a wristlet did, but it was easier to hide, easier to customize . . . and easier to destroy, if necessary. Depending on what was needed, the ping could act as a handheld remote or as a control for the images on a retinal screen.
Rivera crouched in front of a locker at the far end of the room and pressed down on the false bottom. Inside the hidden drawer lay a briefcase and a cellular phone so old Rivera’s grandparents might’ve used it in the early years of the twenty-first century. Given the kind of clientele the agency attracted, such technological discretion was paramount. Agency clients never had honorable intentions—they were always rich, powerful, and well-disposed to pay exorbitant sums for illicit services. Looking at the cellphone, Rivera hesitated, left fist opening and closing, wrist throbbing. It still ached like this on rainy days, and here in Mexico City that meant at least once a week. But the long-absent weight of memories tingling against fingertips was irresistible: Rivera had missed this work too much to think twice.
“I thought you said you’d never work with me again,” Rivera said when the call connected.
“Rivera,” said the boss. His velvety voice was chilling. “Don’t make me beg. This case is delicate and we need your skills. We’ll pay you quite a bit more than you’ve made this past year . . . And you and I both know how much you miss the job.”
Left fist open. Closed. Open. The ghost of pain still lingered, but the boss was right. He knew that Ibsen Spa’s soft pink room could hold neither challenge nor thrill.
“The last time we saw each other,” Rivera said, “you broke my arm and told me to forget about working for you ever again. So why me, why now? You have other people.”
“I told you not to make me beg.” The boss had the smooth, cultivated voice of a man who always got what he wanted, but Rivera knew him well enough to sense the humor in his tone. “Garro’s abroad and I need the best. I’ve decided to overlook your . . . slip.”
“How much are we talking?”
Another neck-buzz, another videolog. A long line of zeros appeared, and on the other end of the phone, the boss laughed as Rivera inhaled sharply. With this kind of money, it’d be possible to get out of debt, to buy the apartment outright, take fewer shifts at Ibsen, work only with those clients who actually seemed interesting.
Rivera thought of the woman from that final agency job, thought of the surge of rage that had made it impossible to go on, and took a deep breath. It had been an isolated case. It wouldn’t happen again.
“Where do I have to go?”
“In fifteen minutes,” said the boss, “you’ll find a car on the corner of Aldama and Cádiz, by the Oxxo.”
“And the procedure?”
“Cognitive rewiring. It has to stand up to legal scrutiny, so you mustn’t leave a single sign of your work.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Good. And one more thing, Rivera.” The brief pause and the sudden ice of his tone made it suddenly hard to breathe. “I trust you’ve learned your lesson and will behave yourself. No playing at justice. You’re an unbiased agent: I’m paying you to do the work and then leave without a trace.”
The boss had never believed Rivera’s claim that it’d been an accident. But there was no point in arguing.
“It won’t happen again.”
“I hope not,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to regret this call and be forced to pay you another visit.”
He hung up.
Rivera left the cellphone in the locker’s hidden drawer but removed the briefcase and took out a pair of sunglasses, testing the buttons on each arm to ensure the closed-circuit still worked. Some equipment was delicate enough to have been ruined by a year without use, but these were still active. Sunglasses atop head, briefcase in hand, Rivera headed for the private clients’ changing room and took out a packet of intrabugs, grimacing to find only three of them left. The needles were made of an iridium-platinum amalgam, illegal and very hard to get, and it’d take the better part of a month’s salary to find more when they were gone. But with just a quick puncture behind the ear, one little intrabug could sever a mental connection to the network—a connection Rivera severed now.
The abrupt silence and sudden, shooting headache made it hard to see, and Rivera leaned against the sink waiting for the nausea to pass, for the world’s colors to readjust. When a brain was used to the constant buzz of the network—to the ads, messages, explanations, dialogue bubbles—the clamor was only really noticeable when it was gone. Rivera breathed deeply a few times, blinked, and slid the sunglasses on in an effort to avoid the newly-intolerable brightness of the lights.
It was just another job. Nothing had changed.
• • • •
The client was a tall, heavyset man who stopped pacing when Rivera entered his office. Even at one o’clock in the morning he was wearing a grey suit, a blue tie, and freshly shined shoes, as perfectly groomed as if he’d gotten dressed only moments before. Rivera recognized him immediately; his face had been on the news countless times. This was Don Francisco Mejía-Botta, businessman and brother of a deputy whose name was being circulated as a candidate for the next gubernatorial election. Their family wasn’t just rich; it was pedigreed.
“You’re Rivera?” he asked, disbelieving.
Rivera took off her sunglasses, but despite her satisfaction at his incredulity, she didn’t smile. Her clients, perhaps due to the combination of illegality and technology implicit in the job, always expected a man. Which was why Rivera wore her hair long and dressed always in a blouse and skirt: so they could never forget she was a woman. Like this man, many clients grew uncomfortable upon first seeing her, but that was an advantage. Staying one step ahead of her clients’ reactions was one of the biggest challenges in this line of work.
“I am,” she said. “Good evening. I’m here because the agency says you need a quick, clean job, and you requested the best.”
Cautiously, the man examined her, his chin raised unnecessarily high as if he smelled something rotten; he was incapable of hiding his disgust at her presence. All the better. Transparent client; easy job.
“It’s a sensitive case,” he said. “You’ll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nothing you see or learn here can ever leave this room.”
“I’m aware of the terms.” She wouldn’t give him the pleasure of her discomfort. This was a game she knew better than he did. “The agency should’ve pre-signed for me electronically, but if your lawyer’s advising you to keep a paper record, then I’ll sign again now; that way we can start as quickly as possible. It’s my understanding that we don’t have much time.”
The contents of Mejía-Botta’s contract were hardly noteworthy. Rivera had signed hundreds just like it. Nevertheless, she took her time, not only to make sure there were no hidden tricks, but to prolong the silence.
She’d been in many wealthy houses when she worked for the agency, yet this was one of the biggest and oldest, probably inherited. But its security was a disaster: there was barbed wire around the garden, a digital security barrier on the threshold, and little cameras hovering above the doors and windows like fireflies. Predictable and stupid. So many people believed that maintaining vigilance from outside would keep their house safe . . . but such measures did nothing if the danger was already within.
Rivera had barely needed to glance down the hallways to see all the changes the old structure had suffered in order to adapt to new technologies. There were little sensors everywhere, working against the thickness of the stone walls to maintain the network, and their blinking red lights made it clear that all connection was currently turned off. Having such low connectivity was risky; if the police went through the general logs, the lack of network activity would raise suspicion. Rivera would take care of that before she left.
“Is there a problem?” The client asked.
“No,” said Rivera. She signed the papers. “Everything seems to be in order. What’s the situation?”
The client took the contract and shut it away in the desk’s main drawer. Rivera heard the little click of the lock; a combination. Again, stupid. Those locks were so easy to crack. Mejía-Botta sat down behind the desk but made no move to offer Rivera a seat and she didn’t ask for one. She could do this standing.
“I assumed the agency would’ve briefed you,” he said. He was drumming his fingers on the table as if in exasperation, but Rivera could see he was stalling. He didn’t want to go into detail and didn’t know what to do with his hands. She stayed silent.
The office was a big room, dominated by a dark wooden desk and three bookshelves. Judging by the state of the books, many of them had probably never been read. A pure show of money and status. Yet the welcome-hologram that had guided her there had been an old image, the colors faded, probably at least ten years old. Ostentation with no real attention.
Mejía-Botta loosened his tie and made a quick gesture, and the door opened again. A young man appeared, around eighteen but probably still in high school. Despite his shower-wet hair, he smelled strongly of a sobering tonic. Rivera was more than acquainted with the sweet smell of ethanol derivatives as they broke down in the body; many of her clients at Ibsen smelled exactly like this boy did. Giving him the soberizer had been a good decision—Rivera might have to clean up the memories of intoxication, but at least she wouldn’t have to deal with any physical effects. The boy was uncomfortable, his red, unfocused eyes darting around the room without settling on her. Dilated pupils, continuous changes in posture, accelerated breathing: he’d had an anxiety attack recently, but even that couldn’t touch his arrogance. It oozed out of his every pore, from the desultory way he held himself, to his lack of shoes, to his gray sweatpants, marked with a private school crest, and topped with a sweatshirt so old it was coming apart at the sleeves.
“This is my son, Gabriel,” said Mejía-Botta. “He had a little . . . incident . . . a few hours ago, and it’s possible the police will be coming to interrogate him in the morning.”
“What happened?” Rivera asked Gabriel, but the boy avoided her gaze and it was his father who answered.
“Just a bit of nonsense with a girl at his school,” he said. “But she’s from a good family, which complicates matters. The two were dating, there was a mix-up with a few photos, and apparently now she’s run away from home.”
“They weren’t photos, they were videos,” Gabriel interrupted. He couldn’t sit still. He jiggled his foot, shifted in place, open and closed his fists as if he were trying to access the network. He had all the nervous twitches of someone who wasn’t used to being disconnected for so long. This inability to withstand periods of being offline was ever-more common in young people. Rivera would have to modify the evidence of Gabriel’s reduced connectivity, too—as with the house, it would leave a blank spot in the network log, and though it wasn’t illegal to be disconnected, it would certainly attract the authority’s attention.
“Videos, photos, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “What interests me is the intention. I need to know if you’re innocent.”
“I don’t care if Gabriel’s innocent or not,” her client interjected. He took off his tie and unbuttoned the neck of his shirt, clearly tense. “That’s what you’re here for. What I want is to be assured that if the police show up, it will be clear to them that Gabriel’s the real victim here.”
Clean-up for a rich little boy. They’d really called her in for something so trivial? From the state of Gabriel, it was easy to guess the story. Sexual disappointment followed by virtual humiliation. The latter had been a serious crime for a few decades, but since it was now possible to analyze someone’s memories, the crime was prosecuted based on intentionality. If this really had all been an accident, Gabriel would get off with a few months of community service. But if the prosecutor, in this case, could demonstrate that the defamation had been premeditated, and furthermore, that the girl had done herself injury because of it, Gabriel would get a harsher sentence. Up to four years in prison, if he was over eighteen, and a boy like Gabriel wouldn’t last four years in a Mexican prison.
Rivera put her hair back and took out her briefcase. Gabriel would feel more comfortable if she concentrated on something other than him.
“Tell me what happened today, Gabriel,” she said. “May I call you Gabriel?”
Gabriel nodded. He laced and unlaced his fingers before glancing at his father. Fear of authority, or of telling the truth? A bit of both, probably.
“Carmen called me at nine,” said Gabriel. “I was at a friend’s house, just chilling, and I told her I was busy—but she kept calling. She left me a videolog.”
“Do you still have it?” Rivera asked, though she was sure he’d already gotten rid of the evidence. Fear made people do stupid things. She opened the briefcase and began to unload the contents, as if looking for something in particular.
“No,” he said. “After I showed my dad, he told me to erase it. She was crying, cussing me out, telling me she’d seen the video and that I’d ruined her life.”
Rivera took out a pair of gloves, a manila envelope, and a bottle of neurogel that was almost empty. She’d have to buy another soon.
“And then what happened?”
Gabriel looked at the floor and didn’t answer. Fine—Rivera could change the subject, if that’s what he wanted.
“What happened with the photos?” she said.
“It was a video,” said Gabriel. “Someone got it from my files at school or something, and I guess, like, everyone saw it. I don’t know. It’s not that big a deal. Carmen’s just a drama queen.”
Silence again. This was a lie. He’d probably sent the video on purpose. The job wasn’t just a change of facts, then, but of intentionality. That made things much more interesting.
“It wasn’t an accident,” said Rivera. “If the cops go over your memories, they’ll see that you sent it purposefully, am I right?”
Gabriel looked away.
“He’s guilty of nothing,” the client interrupted. “If the girl sent him those photos, then the consequences are hers to deal with.”
“It was a video,” Gabriel said quietly.
“Same shit,” his father said, fist coming down hard on the desk. “It’s her fault, not his.”
“If he did it on purpose then he’s already guilty,” said Rivera. “And if she gets hurt in any way because of this, they’ll judge him to be at fault. How old is she, Gabriel? Over eighteen?”
“Yeah. She turned eighteen last month.”
Rivera nodded. Well, that pre-empted any charges of child pornography, at least. Changing the actual content of the video would’ve been more complicated. She only had to change Gabriel’s intentions, his emotions. An internal cleansing. Subtle, delicate work; just the kind she liked most. She watched Gabriel fidget and considered the situation.
On her last job with the agency she’d had to do something similar to this. She’d had to go into a woman’s mind to modify her emotions so that instead of loving her husband, she would hate him. That time Rivera had committed an error; this time she would not. While there were many different ways to modify Gabriel’s intentions, the easiest path would be to introduce guilt.
“All right,” she said. “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to connect to your memories and make the event seem like an accident. But before I do that, you’re going to send Carmen a message, just your voice—and in it, you’re going to sound very regretful. I’ll tell you what to say, don’t worry. Can you do that?”
“I need you to listen to me carefully,” she continued. “You understand, don’t you, that your feelings themselves are going to change? Every change I make will be irreversible—no one will be able to undo it.” Rivera opened the manila envelope and took out a contract. “I have the paperwork here.”
“He’s not going to sign anything,” said his father.
“He’s of age and I need him to accept the conditions. After he signs, we can start. It’ll take about two hours. But if he doesn’t sign, I don’t work—and he can talk to the cops tomorrow.”
Mejía-Botta snatched the paperwork out of her hand. Ten minutes later, Gabriel was lying on the sofa with his eyes closed, in an induced sleep. This, plus the detox from the soberizer, would help hide any signs of the memory modification. Rivera had moved a coffee table in front of his sofa and spread out the contents of her briefcase. She dabbed a bit of neurogel on each one of the electrodes before attaching them to the back of his neck, to his forehead, and to both of his temples. Next, she took the wires, each one a different color, and connected them to a cap of fine graphene mesh, which she fit carefully over his head. When she turned the mesh cap on, a hum filled the office. Rivera checked each level, peering at the screen of her sunglasses, then took them off to deliver her final instructions to Mejía-Botta.
“I need you to leave the room and close the door behind you,” she said. “Come back in two hours. Turn the connections back on in the rest of the house, but leave this office dark. Make sure nobody interrupts me—it’s a delicate job.”
Mejía-Botta didn’t even object. The smell of the neurogel, sharp and acidic, combined with the sight of his son slumped on the sofa attached to a glowing mesh web had clearly disturbed him. When he’d gone, Rivera took out her ping and set it on the table alongside everything else, and then unfolded a touchpad beside it. She filled the gloves with neurogel and slipped them on, feeling as if she’d submerged her hands in a bowl of ice water. Then she lowered her sunglasses again, took a deep breath, and extended her arms to begin. Carefully she found Gabriel’s memories from the previous day and isolated them, then began to reorganize them by the hour, searching until she found him at his friend’s house.
She selected the memory, took one more deep breath, and went in.
• • • •
Froggy Polanco’s penthouse is a nice place to be, and Gabriel’s feeling good. He’s spent a lot of Fridays here, curled up in his favorite spot on the big couch facing the windows, but at this hour the afternoon sun would be right in his face, so for now he’s in the kitchen with his friends. They’re making rum and Coke. Ice from the freezer; Coke from the bar; rum from the jugs of Bacardi, one leftover from last week, the other new. It’s a familiar scene.
Froggy’s off talking to his parents in their room. While his friends make drinks, Gabriel messes around on his drop-down screen, looking to put on some music. He’s interrupted by Carmen’s first call.
What the hell does she want? It’s been days since she’s answered any of his messages, since Wednesday, when they had that fight outside the chemistry classroom and she dumped him. He wants to leave her hanging; she deserves it, just like she deserved what he’d done to her that morning. No. He does want to talk to her, but he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t answer because he’s nervous and hurt. Hesitation. He closes the notification bubble. He leaves the kitchen.
An hour later, he’s three drinks deep. No. He’s only had one and he hasn’t even managed to finish it. Carmen’s called him again twice. She’s upset—No. Spread doubt, tie it up around his thoughts: is she upset? Did she get the apology message he sent her? (Note: send a retroactive message.) Should he write her another?
Fourth drink. No. Interweave the memories, yes, just like that, cross the threads so this drink is the same one he was drinking earlier, the rest of the Bacardi polished off by his friends. Gabriel laughs with them but he keeps checking his missed calls, and it’s not satisfaction he feels when he says, Carmen won’t quit calling me; it’s worry. His friends laugh and Gabriel smiles—careful now, pin the edges—although he feels even worse.
When his friends say he just needs another drink to get him out of his head, Gabriel pretends to consider it, but the truth is, his worry’s rising with each missed call. It’s easy to take the loose thread of a feeling and bring it to the surface, stitch it in where it’s missing. He’s sitting on his favorite couch with the glow from the nearby buildings coming in through the windows. From this height, Mexico City is a carpet of golden lights. A third log comes in, this one with a video attached. The log, the lights, the worry, the fear, it’s all mixed together. He gets up and goes into the bathroom to watch the video alone.
There’s Carmen’s face. Her hair’s a mess, her makeup’s running, she’s crying. She says Fucking answer your phone; she says the Principal just called her house; she says he’s a coward, a son of a bitch, how the fuck could he do this to her? She’s out in her car looking for him right now, she swears she’s going to find him. She’s driving erratically, all her attention on the video instead of the road, and it’s dark, too dark. Suddenly she curses; the recording loses focus; and Gabriel hears a shout before the video cuts off entirely.
Shit, is she hurt? He tries to call her. Why isn’t she answering? He leans on the bathroom sink, verging on a panic attack from pure worry. This, at least, is real. Carmen shouldn’t be driving around alone at night. He looks at the other logs she sent him earlier but they’re only voice messages. In each one she sounds more and more anxious: she screams at him, she says she can’t believe what he did, she calls him a piece of shit and says she hopes someone kills him or he kills himself. Finally, Gabriel calls his father. The panic attack is real, but wind the strands of it carefully, so the fear is for her, not for himself. A tug. Gabriel’s subconscious suddenly fights the change, and his intentions start to unravel—but with a few tucked stitches, he caves, and the feelings smooth into place.
That morning at school. Moments before the accident.
Gabriel’s sitting on the bleachers outside the gym watching a soccer game with his friends, Froggy smoking next to him and talking about Carmen, about how he saw her after algebra talking with Jorge Puga outside the classroom. Gabriel’s pissed about the fight from Wednesday, pissed that she broke up with him. Jealous? No, just rearrange the feeling, inject it with shame. Everything hurts. The break-up hurts because he misses Carmen, of course he does; if he didn’t miss her so much, he wouldn’t be thinking of her as he does now, wistful, remembering.
Such threads of memory need to be manipulated carefully to imitate real patterns of thought. Gabriel remembers how, on these very bleachers, he and Carmen had talked about college, about their parents’ expectations, and he remembers how deeply seen he’d felt by her, how understood. He remembers cramming for finals together at his house, how they’d gone from talking to kissing to abandoning all pretense of study, and this makes him think in turn about the Day of the Dead party, sneaking with Carmen up to one of the third-floor rooms. And thinking about the Day of the Dead, talking about Carmen and Jorge Puga, that’s what makes him tell Froggy, I want to show you something. Look. He projects the screen from his wristlet and shows Froggy the video, just a few seconds of movement, a few quick shots of Carmen naked, laughing, posing for him. She’d sent it to him a couple weeks earlier. He shows the video without malice—the action is born purely of confusion and pain. Those feelings are hard to find, but they are there, hidden under everything else.
Another tug. Careful now, the whole weaving could unravel. Focus on the pain: Why would Carmen send him this video if she didn’t want to be with him? Why would she tell him she loved him? Gabriel is furious—No, he’s confused. It’s an easy feeling to find in a nineteen-year-old boy. Easy to manipulate. Just take the strands of rage and tuck them away, make his anger something small, hidden beneath the pain and the confusion that permeate that simple move of handing the screen to Froggy and letting him watch the video. He doesn’t stop Froggy from downloading it. No—rewind. Where is Gabriel’s regret? Where to find it? Again, the moment Gabriel shows Froggy the video. Another tug. Gabriel wants Froggy to download it because he knows Froggy will share it, and he knows sharing it will hurt Carmen. She deserves to be hurt. No! Rewind. Stupid kid, doesn’t he care about her at all? Tease out the good memories, hold them firmly, redirect them. Froggy starts downloading the video and Gabriel reacts very slowly, his objection stuck in his throat. It’s an accident. He’s just not thinking—and anyone who sees these memories will know he doesn’t want to hurt Carmen, he doesn’t want to humiliate her. Where is his guilt? Another tug. No. Take the confusion, the pain, the betrayal, and bury all the satisfaction. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but she hurt him so badly and—yes, there, regret, just a little bit, way deep down, only a glimmer . . . but maybe enough to use. Seize it, aim it.
But it’s barely enough to cover a few seconds.
Well, it doesn’t matter if Gabriel doesn’t feel it; the emotion can come from elsewhere.
Release the anger, push Gabriel to the side, introduce regret. Make way for other feelings. Missing Carmen is at the heart of everything. So, it’s not anger that makes him laugh and say, She’s gonna regret dumping me now; he says it because he misses her, because it’s the kind of thing you say when you’re hurt, isn’t it? So many complicated feelings, it’s understandable that there’d be a moment of confusion. That’s why he makes this mistake, causes this terrible accident. Froggy sends the video to one of their buddies. But that doesn’t matter. Gabriel’s what matters. He feels satisfied? No. He can’t believe what Froggy just did. He tries to stop him. He panics, like he’ll panic hours later. He worries. (Note: modify message history so it’ll look like he tried to cancel it.)
The video of Carmen goes viral throughout the school.
Gabriel’s in his room, getting ready to go to Froggy’s house. A call comes in. He’s alone and it’s easy to manipulate this part. Tie a knot around both sides of this memory, close the circle. Remorse on one side, panic on the other, and in the middle is shame, fear, regret. Yes, like this, so it permeates everything. Like this, he’ll feel guilt.
And it’s later, when he’s freaking out in Froggy’s bathroom, when he doesn’t know where Carmen is, when he’s calling her and she’s not answering. Hours, he waits. He loved Carmen and he made a mistake and the more time that’d passed since letting Froggy send the video, the fewer words he had, only shame, so much shame that when she first called him in the penthouse he didn’t answer, not that first call and not the next. He ignored them because he didn’t know how to ask for forgiveness. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, it’s that he doesn’t know how, because people like him never learn to say how they feel.
Forward, quickly, to when he’s calling his father in a panic. He no longer believes things might work out, no longer feels like he’ll get away with this, despite a lifetime of feeling like he could get away with anything. This time he feels weak because he couldn’t help her, because it’s his fault Carmen’s hurt and might be in danger. These are new feelings, this guilt and fear and helplessness, and they merge into a single chaotic, deafening emotion that hides all others.
It’s in him now, and he’ll have to live with it.
• • • •
Rivera took off her gloves with the utmost caution; the gel inside had hardened during the time she’d spent working. She needed a moment to breathe, to reestablish her self in herself, but there was still so much left to do. She took a half-hour to clean all the equipment and go over all the notes she’d made, then to enter the house network and erase any sign of her visit. The story would go that Gabriel’s father gave him a sedative to calm him down. Carefully she put the electronics back into her suitcase, and the mesh cap, the gloves, the glasses, the neurogel. She closed the briefcase, closed her eyes, then opened them again. She needed to keep going with these little chores, to distract her mind and control her rage before the recoil hit. There was still so much to be done. She took Gabriel’s wristlet from his arm and connected it to her ping. As she’d suspected, she had no problem accessing the private network. From the office, she had the entire house at her fingertips.
Breaking into the wristlet was more difficult, but nothing she couldn’t manage in a few minutes. She modified the logs, diverted the missed calls, and finally added a sign of the voice message that had never made it to Carmen’s cellphone. A system error, uncommon but not improbable. She went over her work again and again so she wouldn’t think about how this family would get off scot-free for humiliating this poor girl, this Carmen; who, unlike Gabriel, would never be able to erase the video’s effects. Gabriel would learn once again that he was beyond consequences and he’d develop from a spoiled child into a man who believed he deserved everything.
Even so, when she looked at him, prone on the sofa, she felt a twinge of sympathy. This was a natural side effect. After all, she’d used her own remorse when Gabriel resisted the changes; natural that it should create a connection between them, a new addition to the standard backlash she’d soon begin to suffer from dealing in emotions that weren’t her own.
She’d understood what to do because it wasn’t the first time someone had resisted her so strongly.
The first time had been her last job with the agency, when she’d been contracted to modify a woman’s feelings and make her believe she hated a certain man, when in reality she loved him deeply. Rivera had been led to understand it was a post-breakup contract and that the woman had agreed to the modification, but when her subconscious had begun to fight back, Rivera had realized that the man in question was in fact still her beloved husband. Her beloved husband, who owed quite a lot of money to Rivera’s powerful drug lord client.
Until that moment, Rivera had finished hundreds of jobs without a problem: she’d erased memories, obtained classified information, uncovered bank passwords, visited terrifying nightmares on her clients’ enemies . . . but she’d never had to fight against a consciousness that actively resisted her. She couldn’t bring herself to complete the job, and so she’d left a snag; just one snag, to unravel everything. The woman had gone to the police and they’d arrested the agency’s client.
Rivera had hoped she’d gotten away with it—but then her boss had shown up. He thought she’d left that snag as evidence for the police. That was when he’d broken her wrist and told her she’d never work for them again, told her the agency couldn’t employ someone who had suddenly developed scruples. He hadn’t believed her when Rivera tried to explain that she simply hadn’t been able to summon her own will to work upon the woman.
Rivera closed her eyes. She didn’t want to think about that anymore. This time she had been stronger than Gabriel, so there was no need to keep revisiting the mistakes of her past. She had a connection with him now, yes, but she wouldn’t let herself feel compassion. He was just a shitty kid who would never get the punishment he deserved.
She stood and collected her briefcase. She couldn’t stay in this room for one second longer. The sound of an automatic latch followed her out as the door shut behind her, and outside, the chauffeur was waiting. Mejía-Botta wouldn’t deign to reappear, naturally.
“The client told me to take you wherever you wanted to go,” said the driver.
She could feel a headache coming on. Just a little longer and she’d be home, where she could connect to the network and distract herself, try to minimize the side effects.
“Where you picked me up is fine,” she said.
As soon as they reached the periphery of the city, she pulled off the intrabug she’d stuck on earlier, then opened the window and closed her eyes to stave off the nausea of reconnection. A vibration on the back of her neck let her know she’d received her payment for a job well done.
• • • •
In the following days, the Mejía-Botta case reverberated across the internet. The story: a good girl from a private school, the daughter of the García Colíns, had been in a terrible car accident after suffering bullying and virtual defamation at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Gabriel Mejía-Botta, with whom she’d recently ended a relationship. At least that was how the accusations began. Rivera followed the news through the fever and nausea of recoil. Working for the agency had taught her that the best way to deal with the mental backlash was to watch kitten videos on a constant loop. She particularly liked the one of two spotted cats playing with a ball of yarn, unrolling it until their paws got tangled and they mewed for help. She projected the videos on the ceiling of her room and watched the images until they were the only thing she could think about.
Two weeks later, Gabriel was declared innocent. He was full of remorse and his memories showed a clear sense of guilt. His friend, the son of a beloved telenovela star, was sentenced to fifty hours of community service for sending the video. Ultimately it was deemed a case of a terrible misunderstanding followed by an unfortunate chain reaction.
Rivera’s headache took longer to fade than it took for public opinion to reverse itself; a reversal that forced the García Colíns family to publicly ask Gabriel’s forgiveness for the defamation. Carmen, standing between her parents, looked diminished, very different from the furious girl Rivera had seen on the log. She only glanced at the camera at the very end, but in that moment, Rivera thought she caught a glimpse of rage. This apology was another humiliation.
Two months after the Mejía-Botta incident, Rivera still hadn’t been called for another agency job, so to fight her insomnia she went back to Ibsen Spa. She didn’t need the work; she’d bought her apartment with that last payment, and there’d been enough left over to have savings, but she wanted a distraction while she waited for the agency to call. One Thursday night she was getting ready for her next spa client when the receptionist knocked on the door and told her someone was in the waiting room looking for her.
Rivera couldn’t hide her surprise when she emerged to find Mejía-Botta.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Rivera said as the receptionist left them alone. She didn’t offer her hand. “How did you find me?”
Mejía-Botta had dark circles beneath his eyes and he seemed different, not the man she’d met two months before, the man who thought he ruled the world. His tailored suit was wrinkled, his appearance unkempt, and there was no sign of a tie.
“It took a lot of money to find you,” he said. “But everyone has their price—even your boss.”
Rivera didn’t react, although this hit her like a shock of cold water. The agency had given out her information? They’d sold her? She clenched her teeth. What were they playing at? Did they think she’d somehow made another mistake?
“Well,” she said. “Here I am. How may I help you?”
The client paced from one side of the room to the other. “It’s Gabriel,” he said. His speech was halting. “I want . . . I want him to be like he was. I don’t know what you did, but all the experts we’ve taken him to claim it’s impossible to find where you changed him. Gabriel truly believes he sent those pictures by accident.”
“Of course he does,” she said. “If he didn’t, the police would have suspected something.”
“That’s what the agency said, that it was the best work they’ve seen in years. But Gabriel . . . he’s not the same person anymore. He’s been in the hospital for weeks now. He tried—he tried to kill himself. Look, I’m ready to pay you. I’m ready to pay double!”
“There’s nothing I can do,” Rivera said, her tone neutral. She tried not to show how this news affected her. She hadn’t meant to drive Gabriel mad; she’d only done her job. She shoved her own regrets to the side and concentrated on Mejía-Botta. “I warned him,” she said. “If I undo my work, it’ll likely fry his brain completely.”
“But everything in his brain is a lie!”
“Not for Gabriel, it isn’t,” she said. “I repeat: there’s nothing I can do. He’ll have to live with the guilt. No mental readjustment is free of consequence.”
But she felt dirty. So, Gabriel had paid a price for his actions after all . . . But who was she to decide who paid, and how? If someone entered her mind and judged her own intentions, what would they find there? Gabriel was just a kid and she’d driven him crazy as a challenge to herself, to prove she could. Her will against Gabriel’s wasn’t a fair fight. Mejía-Botta would never understand what his son was feeling because he didn’t know what it felt like to repent for one’s actions, nor to pay for them. He would never accept the fact that no one could undo what she had done to Gabriel.
Yet he, too, would have to learn to live with this.
Rivera felt the buzz of a log on the back of her neck, but she didn’t read it yet. She put her hand in the pocket of her robe and gripped her ping. How dare her boss sell her out after all the dirty work she’d done? She’d destroyed a child’s mind for him.
“Your boss told me you’d refuse,” Mejía-Botta said. “I’m giving you the opportunity not only to fix your mistake, but to be paid for it. How could you be so ungrateful?”
“I didn’t make a mistake,” she said. “It was a job; I completed it; I was paid for it; thus ends our transaction. But . . .” Rivera paused deliberately, enough time to ping a message to security “. . . For a low price, I’d be willing to help you forget what your son did. So you can sleep at night.”
Mejía-Botta let out a furious shout and pounced on her. Rivera had anticipated this reaction and managed to dodge it, putting one of the sofas between the two of them. The Ibsen guards burst in before Mejía-Botta could take another step.
After he was gone, Rivera returned to her studio. She sat on that pink couch meant for clients, and it sagged under her weight, wrapping her in a suffocating embrace. She would have liked someone to change her own memories. What would it cost to forget? Blinking, she opened the log she’d just received. It was the agency. A new job, a new telephone number. She could cancel her next Ibsen client and call the boss.
But the boss had betrayed her.
She thought about that final job, from before. She didn’t know the name of the woman, nor what had become of her, but if her mind hadn’t fought so hard for itself, there was no doubt that Rivera would have done to her the same thing she’d done to Gabriel. She would have done it because she could; because it was her job. Yet she realized now that she would never be able to do such a thing again. What made her any different than her clients? Was it worth it to use her talents like this, not caring whom she destroyed? A bell rang through the doorway and then the receptionist’s voice: her next appointment had arrived.
Was there another path, another way of using her skills? Could she find a different option? Rivera looked at the log again and without letting herself think too hard, she squeezed her ping to erase the agency’s message.
This was the first step.
“Let them in,” she said.