Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Shadow Prisons of the Mind

With the right overlays, the city was charming—apartment buildings done up like giant row houses, seamlessly blending Victorian and modern sensibilities, boutiques and cafés on tree-lined streets, parks bathed in sunshine. Vivian Watanabe had lived on this block, once, in a high-rise apartment painted cornflower blue with trim in teal and white. She couldn’t see it now, not the way she used to. As a Shade, everything on this block was a featureless gray building. Which was the reality? Was it the colorful apartments nestled together, the bland gray buildings . . . or something else entirely? Personal Implanted Perception chips made it impossible to know.

Vivian counted the buildings, seven on this block. A decade ago, in another life, she’d lived here with her wife Brooke and their child, Cass. The second building from the corner was theirs. Generic Citizens—in the featureless silvery-gray overlays worn by anyone who had enough points to not be a Shade—walked along the sidewalk on their way home from work. They gave Vivian a wide berth. She saw them as Citizens, but they saw her as a dark shadow, an unsightly blemish in their otherwise beautiful world. They were guessing at her crimes, judging her, avoiding any semblance of contact for fear that mere association with a Shade would cost them precious points.

They were right to do it. Vivian didn’t belong here, but sometimes she needed to return, to be close to her family, even if she couldn’t recognize them. For all Vivian knew, they might have moved to a new neighborhood years ago. But when she and Brooke had come home from the hospital with baby Cass, this was the home they’d gone to. Where Cass had taken their first steps and drawn crayon pictures on the entire inside of their closet. Where, as a teen, Cass had painted their landscapes, and portraits, and endless variations on sunflowers.

Vivian still had one of the paintings, though now she couldn’t see anything but a blank white page. That change had happened here, too, more than a decade ago. She’d pulled Cass out of a protest and been thrown into shade, and the next day Citizens voted to make the shadow prison experiment permanent. They’d condemned her to an existence of never-ending shadow to protect themselves. So she’d packed up Cass’s painting of sunflowers and walked out. To protect her family.

In the distance, the tall silver form of a Shadowkeeper approached. Vivian hurried away. It might be Brooke, and she couldn’t bear for her wife to see her this way. Keepers were not as tightly bound by the filters, and without an overlay she’d look somewhere between ragged and half-dead.

She ran her fingers over the uneven stubble of her hair. She’d shaved it herself, by feel since she couldn’t see her own scalp. Brooke had loved her hair, before. She’d been jealous of the length.

Well-maintained gray buildings gave way to dilapidated gray buildings. Like most Shades, Vivian lived on the outskirts of the city. She was fresh off her shift at the ZimCorp assembly line, her hands stiff and sore from repeating the same motions for hours on end. Placing metal plates half the size of her palm into a slot on the work base, watching as a thick needle punched through the plates, piercing them with holes. Removing the plates from the machine and placing them on the belt that carried them to the next station. It was hard to say for sure what she was making—Shades only did early stage production, never anything that would provide an opportunity to steal a finished or near-finished product. But there were whispers that it was a new kind of PIP, something even worse than the current ones.

Information was hard to come by. Shades only got the prison net—she couldn’t even access Citizen-level news feeds, biased and skewed as they were. If she could get her hands on some beer, she could trade it to Auntie Yang for a peek at the rumornet, find out what terrible tech she was helping create. In theory the Keepers could see anything she did by reading it off her PIP, but with so many Shades to monitor they’d largely abandoned the raw sensory data for shadow prison algorithms that wouldn’t recognize a terminal as ancient as Auntie Yang’s. Probably.

For the first time in years, Vivian was accumulating points, creeping back up towards the citizenship line instead of plummeting inexorably to zero-point termination. If she kept her head down, maybe they’d set her free. She could have sunlight. See her family. Have some semblance of her old life. Shades were disappearing, hitting zero or killing themselves with illegal surgeries to try and remove their PIPs. Maybe it was better for her to work with the system . . . but no, that mentality was what let the system thrive.

She had to keep fighting. For Cass. She had to find out what ZimCorp was working on.

Maybe Jazz would let her moonlight a shift at the Blind Tiger and pay her in beer.

She cut across an alley that ran between a ration room and some run-down apartments, then knocked seven times on a nondescript gray door. It opened a crack, and a Generic Citizen peered out at her. Citizens and even advertising bots all wore that same generic silver body, making it impossible to know who she was talking to. Only Keepers looked any different—bigger and a slightly paler shade of silver—and even they could broadcast a Generic Citizen overlay if they wanted to.

Vivian had been a Shade so long that she struggled to remember even the most familiar faces. Brooke. Cass. Her child would be nearly thirty now. Vivian might have grandchildren that she’d never met. Might never meet. The only person she ever saw as an individual was Auntie Yang, who had managed to hack the system and present herself as a grandmotherly woman with a bun of silver-streaked black hair.

The Citizen stared at her and said nothing. It could be Jazz, or a customer, or an undercover Keeper waiting for her to make a mistake that would cost her precious points—she had no way to know.

“Jazz working tonight?” Vivian asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“24601.” Vivian couldn’t tell people her name. If she tried to reveal personal information it got filtered out so they simply didn’t hear it. It wasn’t as bad as the first few months in shadow prison, when it had been impossible to have conversations because the filters were so aggressive. Shade labor was more useful with at least some communication, thank goodness. But she was still a Shade, not a Citizen, and all prisoners were interchangeable within the system. Over time she’d built up some codes with regular contacts, an almost-identity.

“Yeah right, and I’m Javert.” Jazz opened the door. “You looking for work again? It’s been slow and B.B. doesn’t have the credits. Keepers have been cracking down hard on drinking . . . It isn’t as trendy as a minor act of rebellion these days.”

Vivian flinched at the word rebellion, but Jazz wasn’t a Shade, so in theory her speech wasn’t being tracked by the prison algorithms. “I’m looking to score a six-pack of beer for my auntie.”

“Dishwasher’s broke again, so B.B. will probably do you a six-pack of the cheap shit if you take care of those.” The silvery arm of Jazz’s overlay pointed to a mountain of dirty dishes overflowing out of an industrial size sink.

Auntie Yang would complain about not getting better quality beer, but Vivian had seen her drink cooking wine. Even the worst beer was hard to come by these days. She found herself half hoping that Auntie would offer to share, though she’d been dry since the prohibition came down a few years back.

She passed the bar where a handful of Citizens ate plates of flavored nutri-bricks and sipped at drinks programmed to taste like beer or whiskey or fruity cocktails. She went straight to the back, where B.B. was throwing more dishes onto the already precarious stack.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“Jazz said you need a dishwasher. I’m a dishwasher.”

“And how exactly does she plan to pay you? I’m not made of credits.”

“I’ll do it for a couple six-packs.” She held out her hand, palm up.

He scanned her chip to make sure she wasn’t violent or otherwise unsuitable to hire. The scan gave him a temporary Shade ID number in case he wanted to file a report, her current point total, and a list of violations. He looked her up and down, as if he could get information from the generic dark outline Shades projected. “All the dishes. One six-pack when you’re done. Drink it somewhere else—the bar is for Citizens.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Vivian started on the giant mountain of dishes. Periodically B.B. came in from the bar and loaded her up with more. He’d keep her busy until closing time, all for one goddamn six-pack.

A targeted advertising Generic appeared next to her and started a conversation. “At five thousand points, Shades are eligible for coursework at Juan Pedro Tomas Community College. With work packages and loans, an education is within your reach.”

“Thanks,” Vivian said, knowing the Generic would stick around if she tried to argue. It’d been a year since she’d had five thousand points, and she’d lost all hope of getting back that high. Now her life was a matter of hoarding the points she had, keeping herself above zero, doing what she needed to do to stay alive. Working for beer to bribe Auntie was a terrible idea, except that it might help break the system and make a better world for Cass.

The stack of dishes shifted in the sink, and Vivian wasn’t quick enough to catch them all. Two glasses slid to the floor and shattered.

“I’m docking you a beer for anything you break. Two glasses, two beers. You Shades are a drain on society. Can’t even wash the goddamn dishes.”

Vivian didn’t answer, just methodically made her way through the rest of the stack. At the bottom of the sink, one of the plates was cracked in half. She washed it anyway and set it on the counter with the others. It was well past midnight now, only a few hours until her next shift at ZimCorp.

B.B. closed up, and Jazz came into the kitchen with three bottles of beer.

“That one was broken in the bottom of the sink. I didn’t do it.”

Jazz shrugged. “You complain, B.B. will probably report you. And does your auntie really need more than three beers?”

Vivian needed the points more than she needed the beer, and she was lucky that B.B. had paid her at all. Or maybe he hadn’t and Jazz was working around him. “Thanks.”

There was an awkward pause as Vivian carefully packed the beer bottles into her threadbare backpack. To her surprise, Jazz tossed her a token with a few credits on it.

“What’s this?”

“You’ve been in here so many times, you almost feel like a friend, even if I don’t know your real name or anything.” Jazz shrugged, then her silvery Generic overlay turned and walked toward the door. She paused in the doorway and looked back at Vivian, the face of her overlay expressionless as always. “Don’t come back.”

It stung. Vivian wanted to leave the token as a dramatic gesture, but credits were hard to come by. She shoved the token in her pocket. This always happened, eventually. She wasn’t worth the risk. People had to look out for themselves. “Goodbye, Jazz.”

• • • •

Everything cast a shadow, even the city itself. Underground, beyond the reach of sunlight, there were apartments tucked between the giant pipes and tunnels that carried away the city’s waste. The shadow city had no roads, no cars—the Shades who lived here walked to work along the tops of sewage pipes and on the narrow sidewalks that lined the wastewater tunnels. It was dank, dark, damp, and miserable, and no civilized person would ever go there. Even Vivian usually stayed surface-side, but Auntie Yang was a known rebel—she lived underground to dodge the Keepers.

The tunnels were a maze, lit by flickering blue lights, dim and placed too far apart to cut through the darkness. Vivian walked along a memorized series of turns, fourth tunnel left, second tunnel right, over the extension ladders that someone had cobbled together as a makeshift bridge. The tunnels smelled like piss and mold with a persistent overlay of lemon that even shadow prison filters used to try to cover some the stench.

Vivian climbed out of the tunnel and squeezed between two massive green sewer pipes, and stood on the doorstep of Auntie Yang’s apartment. It’d been months since she’d been to visit, and maybe the old woman that everyone called Auntie no longer lived here. For all she knew, Auntie no longer lived at all.

Vivian pounded on the door, and stood back far enough for Auntie to see her through the viewer, not that there’d be anything to see but a Shade.

“I’m not worth the trouble.”

Auntie usually had a creaky voice, but today all Vivian could hear was the bland voice of a Citizen. But the words sounded like something Auntie would say.

“Neither am I,” Vivian answered.

They stood in silence on opposite sides of the still-closed door.

“You don’t sound yourself today,” Vivian said. If this wasn’t Auntie, offering up the beer was a waste of beer at best and a world of trouble at worst.

“Ah, a regular who has been away. But which one, I wonder?” A Citizen opened the door and studied her. “I have a soft spot for old women, having been one myself. Come in, child.”

Vivian cocked her head. Auntie Yang should not be able to see that she was old, but she’d always called everyone child. The interaction was a mix of right and wrong, and there was no way out of it now without risking precious points.

“The worst that can happen is death, and even that brings freedom from the hell we live.” The Citizen held the door open.

“I brought beer.” Vivian held up a bottle.

“More than just the one, I hope.”

The Citizen turned and went down the hallway, walking in slow motion so that the image of a youthful Citizen could match pace with the labored waddle of an elderly woman. Vivian closed the door behind her and followed.

“Why can’t I see you?” Vivian asked. Auntie had never bothered with an overlay before.

“Beer first, beer first.” The Citizen ushered her into Auntie’s apartment, and as she stepped inside, the old woman suddenly looked as she should.

Vivian stared. It was so good to see something other than a generic overlay.

“I never know who will come knocking at my door, and having my apartment project the Citizen overlay is a simple trick, child,” Auntie explained, misinterpreting Vivian’s stare as one of surprise. “You don’t mind if I call you child? You’re not young, but you’re still younger than I am.”

“You can call me what you like, Auntie.” Vivian said, dutifully. Auntie had always insisted on respect.

Vivian wondered why Auntie would use the apartment system rather than projecting from her PIP. Security issues, maybe? Vivian pulled the three beers from her bag and handed them over.

Auntie tsked. “Such cheap beer, and only three?”

“Hard times up there,” Vivian said, shrugging. “I was supposed to get a six-pack, but they stiffed me half.”

Auntie opened the first and started drinking. “So why are you here?”

“You always know the best secrets, Auntie.”

The old woman cackled. “That I do. Here to find out where to get your PIP out? You’re not so close to the termination line as most of the desperate souls that straggle in.”

“You had your PIP removed,” Vivian whispered. Suddenly the apartment security system made sense.

Auntie pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like to make mistakes, and I thought I had a read on you.”

Vivian raised both hands. “I hadn’t thought . . . You really know people who can remove the PIPs? Everybody says if you cut them out it kills you.”

Auntie sighed. “There’s some truth to that. Installation is pretty straightforward because the chips release nanites that build the rest of the system once they’re inside your body. It’s a nightmare application of the self-replicating nanocomputing tech that got me tenured, back when it was still safe for me to show my face at the university. The PIP system is tied into your metabolism for power, and there’s a pocket of coolant installed right up against—”

Auntie stopped abruptly and shook her head. “Removing PIPs is a delicate business at best, but that’s not why you’re here.”

“I’m a Shade on the ZimCorp line, and I want to know what I’m making. We lived in the same neighborhood, back before the shadow prisons. And then after that you let me use your terminal sometimes, for beer—”

Auntie finally relaxed. “Oh, yes. Now I remember you. It’s been a long time since your last visit. Better beer back then. The terminal is in the closet, under the pile of bras and underwear. Keepers never want to touch an old woman’s underthings. Don’t like the idea of someone so old as me naked.” She cackled. “Except the ones that want to take a tumble with old Auntie!”

Vivian blushed. “Thank you, Auntie.”

“Put it back the way you found it when you’re done.”

It didn’t take long on the rumornet to find what she needed. ZimCorp was working on an add-on to the PIPs, some kind of memory revision tech. It was bad enough that they controlled the realities of the present; now they wanted to filter people’s past. Steal away any memories that made them fight against the system.

“Ah yes, that is bad,” Auntie said from the other room, reminding Vivian that even though she wasn’t there looking over her shoulder, nothing went over her terminal without her knowing about it.

“But what can we do?” Vivian asked. This was worse than she expected, but sabotaging the work at the factory would get her terminated, in more ways than one.

“If you can get me one of those new chips, I might be able to hack it, or get it to someone who can,” Auntie said, thoughtful. “We’re pulling people out of the system as fast as we can, but there are only so many surgeons with the skills to remove the PIPs. We’re not ready for this new level of hell.”

“You want me to steal from ZimCorp.” Vivian stared in disbelief.

“I know, child. It is a lot to ask.” Auntie took a long pull on the last of the bottles of beer. “If you get me what I need, I’ll set you up with my surgeon, get your PIP removed.”

Freedom from the shadow prison, and all she had to do was risk everything.

• • • •

To get a finished chip, Vivian needed access to a different wing of the factory complex—the end of the assembly line. There were offices there—hiring, medical support, university and college applications. If she had five thousand points, she could have gotten in by applying to take courses at the community college. As it was, her best bet was a workplace injury. That would give her access to the med lab. The trick was finding the right injury—serious enough to get her into the other wing, but not too much permanent damage.

There were safeguards to prevent injuries, but the machines were old.

When her line supervisor was on the far end of the assembly room floor, she snapped a handguard loose by leaning into it with her elbow. The shades to either side of her on the line didn’t notice, or pretended not to. Face forward, no talking, do your own work. Anything else could cost you points.

Vivian used the broken handguard to cover the sensor that tracked whether her hand was clear of the machine. She placed a metal plate in the designated groove on the work surface, and pressed her hand, palm down, over the plate. She watched as what was left of the handguard rotated, the broken plastic scraping her skin but not pushing her hand out of way. The external sensor registered green, mistaking the broken-off piece of handguard for her hand.

The awl plunged down through her hand.

The machine detected an error. It paused and emitted a series of high-pitched beeps. Vivian stared at the metal extruding from the middle of the shadowy outline of her hand, unable to make sense of an image so obviously wrong. Her PIP filtered away the sharpest sensations of pain, replacing them with a strange pattern of throbbing designed to call attention to the wound without being excruciating. She’d never sustained this level of injury before, and the experience was more surreal than distressing.

With her free hand, she knocked the broken handguard off the sensor and onto the floor. Hopefully it would all look like an accident. She was pleased at how well her plan was going; the injury was not as bad as she’d feared. They’d cart her off to the med lab and bandage her up, and hopefully she could get the chip she needed.

Medical overrides dropped the shadow filter surrounding the injury.

She saw the flesh of her own hand for the first time in years. Tiny parallel lines of white where the broken handguard had scratched her deeply tanned skin. Dark brown age spots and freckles, so many more than had been there before. The pale blue of her veins. Wrinkles. Her own hand. She suddenly understood the Shades that became cutters, why they’d injure themselves. For this. A glimpse of their own body.

Blood oozed out around the edges of the needle. A crimson ring that contrasted with both the flesh of her hand and the shining silver metal.

The machine stopped beeping, and the awl retracted. Blood gushed everywhere, pulsing out through the puncture wound and pooling in the bottom of the machine. She’d never seen so much blood.

She screamed.

There was a flurry of activity, chaos. The floor supervisor was yelling, but Vivian didn’t process any of the words. A Generic wrapped her hand with white cloth that immediately soaked red. Another Generic hung a lanyard around her neck, a pass that would get her into the other wing for medical attention.

One of the Generics led her out of the assembly line and down a long hallway, chattering at her constantly. She tried to nod occasionally to show that she was still conscious, but even that small movement made her dizzy. She stumbled and leaned against the windows that lined one side of the hallway and squeezed her eyes shut. “Sorry. So dizzy.”

She opened her eyes and found herself looking down at the rest of the assembly line, all completely automated and supervised by a Keeper. Her head spun. She knew she should study the scene below for security flaws, but this wasn’t what she’d expected at all—there were no workers, only a guard and a line of machines.

The Generic ushered her into the medical station and left her with a doc—denoted by a red cross on the chest of their otherwise generic overlay—on shift there. The care was impersonal and efficient. Stitches and bandages, scans to make sure her peripheral ID chip was intact, a reset of her PIP to remove the seek-urgent-care throbbing to leave only a dull ache. The skin of her hand disappeared back into shadow. She wondered if she’d ever see it again.

A second doc came in. “First patient for the new installation?”

The first doc shook their head. “Careless Shade down on the front end of the line. Punched straight through its own hand with one of the machines. I know Shades need work to keep them occupied, but I wish we could go full-on automated.”

Vivian shouldn’t have been able to hear this conversation, but maybe the medical overrides decreased her audio filtering. If she got out of this, she could use that to her advantage. She played an oblivious Shade, pretended not to notice their conversation.

“We’ve got the prototypes ready to go, who’d know? It’s just a Shade.”

“You want to do it, go right ahead. I’ll still be working here when your newly Shaded ass gets implanted with the latest tech.”

One of the docs hooked her up to an IV. “Shade lost enough blood that it won’t be going anywhere for a while, you want to grab some lunch?”

“Sure. There’s a new place on 6th and Main with a flavor overlay for empanadas.”

This was her chance. She’d seen where the doc had gestured when they talked about prototypes—the new implant was here at the med lab. She wouldn’t have to get onto the assembly floor at all.

Both docs left. Vivian forced herself upright and stumbled over to the glass case where the prototypes were stored, barely within the range of the clear tubing that tethered her to a bag of fluid. The lid of the case was locked, but the key was on the table next to the case. There were a dozen chips arranged in two neat rows. Vivian carefully removed two, which left slightly shorter rows, but to her eye that was less obvious than a single missing chip that made the rows uneven.

She wrapped the chips in tissue and shoved them into her pocket. If she got caught, she’d lose all her points and be terminated. She’d probably lose points just for her “accident,” although technically people were not supposed to be penalized for sustaining injuries. They’d want to do an investigation. Possibly they were already analyzing the data from her PIP. The security team would be able to see what she saw, including watching the Shade outline of her hands stealing their latest technology.

Probably they hadn’t started their investigation yet, or they’d be on high alert. She had to get out. She couldn’t wait to be formally discharged. Vivian frowned. It seemed wrong that they’d leave the clinic unattended. Too easy. If she put the chips back maybe they would let her live, wouldn’t take all her points. Maybe there was some other way to stop this, to slow this descent into new levels of hell.

No, she was committed. She called up a vague memory of Cass, the way they’d looked when they were nearly seventeen, dressed all in black with bright blue hair nearly as short as Vivian’s was now. She’d finish this for Cass, and Auntie would help her get her PIP removed, and she’d live underground where the Keepers wouldn’t find her. Maybe someday she’d even see Cass and Brooke again. She tried to draw strength from the thought.

She pulled out her IV, nearly fainting at the sight of the blood that trickled down the end of the tubing. Her arm stayed in shadow, the injury not severe enough to re-trigger the medical safeties. Or was there some kind of override now that she was being treated? She found some gauze and taped it over the dull ache where she thought the IV had been. For once the shadow overlay would come in handy—she was surely splattered in her own blood, but out in the hallway all anyone would see was a Shade.

She made it to her own wing without incident and clocked out with only minor alarms in her peripheral vision to notify her that the leave was unauthorized. No one paid any attention to her. She was a Shade in a crowd of Shades, all of them interchangeable, workers on the line.

As soon as she was clear of ZimCorp property, she opened a manhole and climbed down the ladder. Her head was spinning from her injuries, and she was entering at a different point in the underground maze, but the flow of the wastewater would lead her to the main tunnel.

Rats scurried along the edges of the sewer, and the stench of human waste with its lemon overlay made the throbbing in her head even worse. She glanced down at her arm, but she couldn’t see if she was bleeding from her puncture wound, or from the IV line she’d torn out. If it was bad, the safeties would come on, and she’d be able to see. She found her usual entry point in the main tunnel, and walked along the memorized series of turns, fourth tunnel left, second tunnel right, over the extension ladders that someone had cobbled together as a makeshift bridge.

She knocked on Auntie Yang’s door, swaying on her feet as she waited for Auntie to let her in. “I have the chips.”

The door opened, and Auntie stood on the other side without her Citizen overlay.

“Oh, child.”

Vivian followed Auntie’s gaze. Behind her a trio of Keepers appeared out of nowhere. They’d filtered themselves from Vivian’s senses with her PIP. She’d had no way to know that they were following her. She’d led them straight to Auntie.

It had all been too easy.

“Turn over the stolen property.” The Shadowkeeper held out a hand, and Vivian dropped both tissue-wrapped chips into it. There was no point in fighting now, anything she did would only make it worse, and there was no way for her to escape three Keepers.

Auntie had no PIP. There was no official record of her as a Citizen or a Shade—she was outside the system, already dead.

“Run,” Vivian whispered.

But Auntie Yang didn’t move. She held her arms up to show that she was harmless. It almost looked as though she was going to embrace the approaching Keeper. Her face was calm and her voice was steady. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible—”

The Keeper shot her in the chest before she could finish. Five shots in rapid succession. Loud bursts of sound. Auntie’s mouth was still moving, trying to repeat the words that John F. Kennedy had once spoken, but Vivian couldn’t hear her over the gunshots and the ringing of her ears. Blood soaked through Auntie’s purple tunic, like crimson stars. The pattern reminded Vivian of Cassiopeia, a lopsided W of blood. Auntie wavered on her feet for a moment before she collapsed.

“. . . will make violent revolution inevitable.” Vivian whispered, finishing the quote that Auntie had begun.

• • • •

“You will be injected with nanites. Animal testing has shown minimal side effects. This is the initial round of human testing. Sign here to indicate that you understand the study and consent to participate.”

“Injected?” The metal plates she’d been making were not the right scale for injections, they looked like something that would be surgically installed. “What the hell were those things I was making on the line?”

The generic silver features of the Doc twisted into a smirk, something Vivian didn’t even know was possible—a new feature, or an upgrade that came with status? The Doc’s face returned to its passive default. “You stole two scales for an animatronic dragon in the latest Cardinal Guardians immersive movie—Seiryu: Guardian of the East. Quite the wonder of design—each scale can be individually programmed for color, brightness, and movement to simulate bristling or flattening down for flight.”

The Doc held one out, and unfiltered—or with a different filter—it looked more like a dragon scale than a chip.

What do you do against someone who has all the power? They controlled the rumornet, the overlays, the points. They wrote all the rules, and Vivian had no way to even know what was happening. The forms in front of her could say anything, and if she agreed to this procedure ZimCorp would control her past, feeding her false memories to support their version of reality. How could she fight that?

“I’m out of points,” she said. “I have no choice.”

The Doc across the table shrugged.

It was more of a choice than Auntie had been given. Participation in the study would restore her points to 7500. She would be a Shade, but she would be pardoned for the crime of stealing the chips—dragon scales—from ZimCorp. She could take classes at the community college, maybe earn her way back to citizenship somehow. Sign the forms and be a guinea pig for a whole new level of hell, or refuse and be terminated.

She signed the forms.

The needle for the injection was small enough that it didn’t trigger her medical overrides. Metal disappeared into shadow, and the cloudy liquid inside the syringe disappeared.

They held her for monitoring, tested the outputs on her PIP.

Eventually the Doc nodded and handed her a notebook with a red cover. It was blank inside. “You are free to go.”

The last time someone had told her that, she’d been in a physical cell, locked up like an animal in a cage that smelled faintly of bleach. Rows upon rows of cells, prisoners on the inside, guards on the outside, and an overwhelming feeling of guilt for her crimes. Anything was better than being locked up like that, even as a Shade at least she could—

Vivian shook her head. She was old enough to remember jails, but she’d never been a prisoner inside of one. She had to keep track of her past, had to remember which memories were real and reject the others. She hurried across the city, desperate to get home.

• • • •

Vivian wrote her memories into a notebook she’d stolen from an old woman’s apartment three weeks after she got out of jail. She ran her fingers over the bright red cover. Red like the start of a rainbow, stretching across the sky. She’d stolen it all those years ago and carried it with her as she moved from housing shelter to housing shelter, staying alive by the grace of social welfare programs. She’d been so ungrateful.

The memories felt so real. Like overlays for her past, and she couldn’t see the truth. That was why she had to write it down. Nothing digital, only old-fashioned ink on paper.

One child: Cass. Studied painting, loved sunflowers.

She had this niggling sense that she had written this before. She flipped to the beginning of the notebook, and skimmed over several pages of memories, beginning with her troubled childhood and leading up to the more recent past, the time when she began to work with the system instead of against it. Everything was coherent, it all made sense.

Where was she? She read the last line she’d written. If I can earn enough points to become a Citizen, I could see my family again.

Yes. She had to do better, earn back her points.

A targeted ad appeared next to her, projected into the silvery form of a Generic. “ZimCorp is looking for volunteers to test our new memory enhancement technology. Earn points toward citizenship by referring suitable candidates.”

Yes. Vivian would turn her life around.

She closed the red notebook.

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and four-time Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.