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Lost in Recollection

by Richard Kunzmann

>> A strobe slashes through the darkness, illuminating an arc of blood as it glitters in the air. In that brief flash sound seems to fade out. <<

That glistening arc is his only memory. The blood came from a woman – he feels this rather than remembers it. Feet stumble across a wet, desolate street, deep in the industrial hinterland of London’s East End. The darkness just before dawn is illuminated by a pallid glow cast by tired streetlights in a thin rain.

He checks the pockets of his black overcoat, his pinstripe jacket, and his matching trousers, for a wallet and keys, but finds nothing.

What’s my name? The answer comes to mind with difficulty. Am I really Adam?

The sheen of rain on his coat sparkles in the foggy darkness, as if it’s thick with blood. His head aches and his face feels numb, as if it’s hot wax about to run down his shirt. His eyelids are drooping, with rainwater curdling in his eyelashes. The weight of a grey fallen sky presses down on him.

Did I have an accident, kill someone?

>> The strobe of memory ignites again: a scream is painted on a woman’s slightly parted lips, her mouth screeching with loading information, the electronic noise tearing through my mind. Is it a song of pain, or pleasure? <<

He shakes his head in confusion. Is it a real memory, or is it a fabrication of his imagination? Water runs painfully into his eye, dissipating the image. He studies his shaking hands. There is something dark under his nails.

It can’t be blood, can it? Christ, what’s this fascination with blood I suddenly have? Hope its dirt.

Didn’t I fall back there?

Yeah, fell back there, that’s it.

Fell? Where?

He blinks and looks around this strange street, as if for the first time, the different voices in his head falling silent. What was I thinking about?

Dawn begins to filter through the clouds and early-morning fog. Locked gates, whitewashed walls, and red brick structures front the street he finds himself in. Old chimneystacks point at the sky like skeletal fingers, the air smelling faintly of sulphur, whilst Styrofoam packaging floats in the rain runoff, and the distant traffic sounds ethereal.

Suddenly a dark figure flits past him, causing him to spin around drunkenly in an effort to see what it is. He catches a wide-eyed glimpse of a twisted goblin, just before crashing to the tar. Recovering, he cautiously peers at the skulking figure in the gateway of Morrison’s Motors, and discovers it’s actually a feral gypsy child, its large brown eyes glaring back at him. The boy hugs something more tightly to his body.

‘Oi, you little bugger, scared the shite out of me, mate.’

The boy doesn’t reply.

‘Listen, how do I get out of here? Where’s the nearest bus stop?’ Adam laughs at how ridiculous he must sound. ‘I don’t know how I got here.’

The boy abruptly bolts from his hiding place, and hurtles down the street’s gradual curve.

‘Hey! Get back here, you bastard! I need some goddamned help.’

The child disappears, leaving Adam wincing from his headache and the sudden act of shouting. Reaching up to massage his temples, he discovers they are bruised and raw.

All he can remember about the recent past is that he woke up with a bloody nose, and sprawled over a heap of refuse bags not far from here. Try as he might, the fog will not lift from his memory. Besides that his vision is affected, as if sleep still sticks to the surface of his eyes, tendrils and dots crawling at the edges of his sight. The world somehow seems darker, tinted by an evil shade of green.

What…what did I do? Where have I been? What – pain sears through his head as a memory cracks its dormant shell.

>> I am at a dinner party at the acclaimed Crosby-Townsend Museum of Cyber-spatial Art, situated in Charing Cross Road. I lean back against the bar, sip my Ardbeg whiskey, and appreciate the shiny white surfaces of the venue – animated plastic, which bulges and contorts into different designs, and generally behaves like a singular amoeba. Soft lights of various hot and cold colours spiral amongst the works of art, which are generously spaced in the massive centre. The building is a celebration of what the hosting company has already achieved. I work for Cycilex, and tonight’s festivities are dedicated to our newest breakthrough.

One of our corporate cronies is droning on about our innovations. Bullshit, we built this thing, we created it out of thin air – people like me and Anna, not some fat-cat accountant holed up in an executive office. Old master Stockton jabbers on about the blending of disciplines, as if it’s a new thing. Me personally, I’m into software. Okay, fine, it was strange working side-by-side with microbiologists and geneticists, quantum physicists, chaos quantifiers, cognitive psychologists – you need to carry a dictionary with you, if you want to know what it is they do.

‘Our product will revolutionise our world, it will create a new era for communication, for the way we perceive, for mankind,’ belches Sir Stockton. ‘Hear, hear! Right you are, ‘ol boy, right you are!’ I shout at the old codger from the bar, loud enough to turn some heads. I lift my glass and toast the grinning Italian barman. ‘Fuckin’ wanker,’ I say. ‘The bastard barely knows how to use a mouse, honest.’

I scan the crowd, dead bored, looking for excitement, looking for her to arrive. Will Anna come? <<.

She did arrive, and this was last night. Realisation and dread shoot through Adam like lightning frying a million transistors. His skin and joints have begun to ache, and the synapses in his head are burning like napalm. He closes his eyes and smiles a defeated smile.

The rain picks up, drenching Adam, as he sits on a curb in the street, lost in the recollections spawning in his mind.

>> Hands and glasses are raised to the buffoon on his pedestal, as white strobes signal the climactic end of his boorish speech. It’s at that moment she makes her entrance, crossing the vast room and heading straight for me, the crowd seemingly parting before her. Anna’s lithe legs power her forward on dangerously high heels; her short black evening dress draws admiring eyes in her wake; her black shiny hair is styled in a bob, with a step cut high up in the back, tapering down to a fringe extending just past her chin. Her eyes glitter a psychedelic emerald.

I hear the barman whistle under his breath behind me, so I turn around, drain my glass, and say to him, ‘You wouldn’t like her – she’s a programmer, and they’re boring, right?’ I turn back to her and smile my most confident smile. <<

So why am I sitting in the rain, my Pradas looking frayed and my best suit fucking ruined with the stink of garbage?

Adam smacks the pavement with a fist, rage permeating his fear and confusion. ‘I’m still here,’ he says out loud, ‘maybe wet, but still alive. And if I can’t remember killing anyone, then I didn’t. No way did I kill Anna. There was no accident.’

A sudden cry of pain from across the street draws his attention. He looks up into the low-res downpour, the sudden movement sending renewed pain through his head. A body is convulsing on the far pavement, its spine coiling and whipping around like a live wire.

It’s the gypsy child, and his face is contorted with pain, saliva dripping from his mouth, eyes rolled back, with more red than white showing.

‘You all right there?’ calls Adam.

The boy retches loudly. Adam notices the plastic milk bottle clutched in tense hands – the container has the crumpled look that only a glue addict can force from the plastic.

Adam glances up and down the street, desperate for someone else to get involved. Although it’s a weekday there is no one on the street.

I can’t do this. His eyes wonder back to the child reluctantly, as he makes an effort to get up. But the child has disappeared.

What’s… Then he sees it, or rather an afterglow of it, lying on the curb. The image reminds him of retinal burn after a camera flash. As he watches, the image fades, like pixels dissipating in the rain.

Uuh?

Before he can give it more thought, he hears the diesel growl of a truck heading towards him. His delight, however, turns to horror as he notices stop-action frames of Anna playing across the vehicle’s white length. She is fleeing, chased by Sir Stockton, dressed like a butcher all in white, with a yellow full-body apron, his face pink and bloated, eyes squeezed tightly shut, and wielding an oversized cleaver. The butcher swings with a comical shriek spreading over his face, as Anna’s breaks out in golly-gosh surprise. The blade thuds into her shoulder blade.

For a moment he imagines seeing the gore splattering off the truck.

Adam turns his gaze to where the kid should’ve been, then stares after the departing truck. Feeling panic rising in his throat, he balls his shaking hands, grits his teeth, and tries to bring his desperate breathing under control. When Adam opens his eyes fifteen minutes later, he decides to follow the truck’s direction. He doesn’t get far before he cries out once more, seizes his head, and collapses in the middle of the street, strobes of agony and memory surging along his neurons.

>> We’re still standing at the bar, the silly lightshow still glittering around us, an outdated techno beat now filling the hall as the party revs up. Anna laughs a pleasant deep laugh, her lips gleaming in the light. She was born in Hong Kong, and obviously has Chinese blood in her. Abruptly she steps away from me, and, with a nod of her head, she gestures towards the museum’s offices.

‘You coming? I’ve got something to show you.’

‘Yeah? What?’

‘Top secret,’ she says, holding up a finger and winking at the overeager barman. ‘Suffice it to say that while these fools potter on about how cool they are, we’ll go do the real thing, have a launch of our own.’

I raise an eyebrow, and she laughs again. She lets go of my hand and walks away in the direction she wants me to follow, her body language rippling with lust. I put down my drink and trail after her, utterly, perhaps foolishly, enchanted by my boss. Soon the music is but an echo in the distance. Ahead of me a security guard accosts Anna, but she whispers something to him, and flashes an ID card. He lets her pass. When I catch up, he gives me a knowing smile, and soon I disappear down the darkened corridor beyond him, following in her wake.

She leads me into a study and switches on a discreet light. Hundreds of books are neatly shelved all the way to the roof; a large corporate desk looms in a darkened corner of the room; three plush leather armchairs, with a low glass coffee table between them, stand in the middle of the room. On the table lies a smooth black bag, the size and shape of a large novel.

‘Sit,’ she says, indicating one of the chairs.

I know what the thing on the table is – she showed me the designs before. For now I don’t care much about it; I’m drowning in her presence instead. She’s telling me about the machine, as she pulls it from its slipcase and holds its smooth matt black surface up to the light, but nothing of what she has to say filters through to me, I’m just too absorbed by her. Although she’s had a lot to drink, and although the guard bought her security clearance, she still throws a number of secretive glances at the locked door. I wonder what she’s up to.

‘So you gonna try this with me?’ she asks suddenly, her emerald eyes glittering.

‘Sorry what? Oh. Shit, Anna, where did you get it? We’re not supposed to have one ready yet.’

‘Yes or no, Adam?’ she asks in her husky voice. She’s playing at something, but I can’t be sure. I suddenly realise how drunk I am and how incapable I am of making a serious decision. Nevertheless I’m still excited.

‘Sure,’ I say and lean forward.

She smiles wickedly at me, before sitting closer and reaching out, grasping me by the hair of my neck, and pulling me towards her. She kisses me deeply over the device on the coffee table, as if she’s trying to drain me of my life force.

Adam reaches the spot where the truck disappeared from sight, and is now dabbing at the warmth running over his lips. His nose is bleeding severely. Looking down at his shirt he sees it’s already pink with rain and blood. Peering further down, he discovers he’s taken his shoes off and left them somewhere. Something is lying at his feet in a dirty puddle.

‘Oh, fuck!’ he cries, staggering back and away from the object.

The grey dawn light is reflected on the cool steel of a butcher’s cleaver, rainwater coagulating on the blade, while tendrils of blood slowly coil away into the surrounding pool of water.

His breathing begins to pound in his ears, as bytes of reality seem to fragment. Suddenly he’s running, looking for the Exit sign, for the line he crossed into this madness.

Where’s Anna and what’s happened? How did she end up on the side of that truck, getting butchered by Stockton? What can’t I remember? How the fuck did that cleaver end up on the pavement?

Adam’s heartbeat is hammering in his temples as he runs. Blood is gushing from his nose and down the back of his throat. He passes and empty security booth and ducks under the booms suspended over the lanes, still not having seen another soul. Twenty yards up the road he hears a roar behind him. Adam turns around in time to see a volley of cars racing up the street, towards central London. He tries to flag a car down, but no one cares, no one stops – it’s as if he doesn’t exist. He spots a petrol station a block away and heads for it, desperate to find a phone, but his recollections catch up. Adam lunges for a lamppost, and stops himself from collapsing by the side of the road.

>> ‘I knew you’d do it, baby. This is ours after all, and we should do it first.’ She pulls away from me, and beams with that smile again. ‘This’ll be a trip to remember.’

For the first time I wonder whether the office rumours about my love are true – that she’s completely nuts. Sure, we’ve been together two months now, and it’s been bizarre at times. Genius and eccentricity have always gone hand-in-hand, they say. With her, the combination has been pure napalm. Now, however, an unnerving ferocity has also crept into her eyes.

‘Did you hear Sir’s speech? Incredible – what a load of shite. This thing isn’t just a nicely packaged revolution – this is going to consume us. Have you thought about how addictive this is going to get, the kind of junkies it’s going to create? It’s going to be the best chemical out on the market. Now we’ll be injecting, quite literally.’ She laughs, as her eyes positively lick over the box. ‘Fuck testing with monkeys,’ she purrs. ‘If someone’s going to jack in first, then it’s going to be me … and you. It’ll be us. The way I see it, we’re consummating the twenty first century. I’ll be in you, and you’ll be in me, our minds will be the first ever to actually connect. It’ll be like telepathy. Think about it, we’ll be the mother and father of a whole new generation of humans!’

I laugh. ‘Anna, that’s a bit over the top, innit?’

Her eyes flare up, and her smile drops instantly from her face. ‘Why, what do you mean?’

‘Nothing, you just sound like a dictator, that’s all. You’re taking the piss, right?’

‘I’m just excited,’ she says, still glaring at me.

‘Look, I don’t know if this is such a good idea.’

‘Adam, don’t be such a wimp. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.’

‘Wasn’t this thing designed to connect to another node, you know, one processor for each of us?’

‘There is only one,’ states Anna with something of a pout on her face. ‘Come on, it’ll be fine, I’ve tried it.’

‘You have?’ I ask astounded. ‘When, where?

‘In the lab, late at night, when you’ve all gone home to your TV-dinners and sitcoms.’

‘Well, what’s it like?’

She grasps both my hands and licks her lips, exuberance returning to those green eyes of hers once more. ‘It’s awesome.’

My own curiosity piques, mostly because I’ve been dreaming about a moment like this ever since I touched my first Atari. To date, I’ve been working on this project for three years – I’ll be damned if I miss this opportunity. ‘How could you just use it?’ I chuckle in disbelief. ‘You’re shit crazy, Anna. What if your brain exploded or something? What if you went schizophrenic and went on a killing spree in the office.’

‘I’ve thought about it, often,’ laughs Anna. ‘We don’t know what will happen, because we haven’t tried it, because ethics boards and committees are for scared people and conservatives. Screw them! A scientist isn’t a real researcher unless she’s prepared to go all the way with her project. Galileo did, so did Copernicus, why shouldn’t we?’ Anna squeezes my hands. ‘Come on, Adam.’ She says it, like she wants sex.

‘Is it safe?’ I blurt.

‘Safe? I’m in charge of this project, remember? I’d know if I’m about to kill us.’

I study her excited face. I’ve never seen her like this, and it’s catching. ‘Yeah, okay. Hell, what are we waiting for?’

She giggles like a high school girl, and hands me her Martini. Fidgeting in her handbag, she produces a silver container with two little electric-blue capsules. ‘They’re just a synapse stimulant. We need to boost the connection between your brain and the electrodes, so that the interface will run smoothly. Open your mouth, it’s nothing, trust me.’

I open my mouth, and she presses the pill onto my tongue. As I swallow, I wonder whether this stuff is compatible with alcohol.

Her fingers linger on my chin, as if she’s making sure that I swallowed my medicine, before reaching out to the machine and switching it on. Three lights, situated in a small groove running around the system, come on. The three colours – blue, red, and green – wink secretively. There is only the faintest of electrical hums in the room.

The thick novel-sized box could be mistaken for an aerodynamic CD file, exhibiting no keyboard, no monitor, just the grove running along all four sides, with its three lights, and ports for a number of cables – although currently only two pairs of lines are attached, one for each of us.

She peels stickers off electrodes the size of my thumbnail, and presses the ends of the cables lightly to my temples. ‘Give the cilia a few minutes to penetrate your skin, if it stings a bit, don’t worry.’

As she is fiddling with her own set, I feel the stuff growing into me, microscopic tendrils attaching themselves to my skull, silicone bonding with the organic, breeching a divide like fire and water. The sensation is like a spider or tick slowly creeping over my skin.

‘Hah!’ laughs Anna. ‘Don’t look so horrified, Adam. It’s just a machine, not a parasite.’

‘I just never thought I’d have hardware wiring itself into me.’

Anna winks in her alluring way.

She’s getting off on this, I think. I grin back, stupefied by whiskey and the taste of a forbidden fruit.

She presses a small button in the centre of the Cycilex C1000’s square top, and with an audible click, the top springs open, revealing a alien compact keyboard inside. She presses a few keys.

‘Here we go,’ she whispers, hitting a central red button.

I immediately feel disorientated. Strings of perception unravel as my senses implode. The room is there, but not there, like an apparition. Strange colours seep in at the edges of my vision. I hear electronic sounds from far away, and suddenly have a sense of exchanging information without speaking. Bytes of ‘chair’ and ‘room’ and ‘woman’ reach me from the same distance, as I sink deeper into a world smelling of ozone, and drift through a growing space inside my head. The last thing I hear spoken from Anna’s lips is, ‘I’m injecting you into me; it’ll be like fucking, only better.’

It’s the final realisation of years of technophilia – the birth of the first neural jack and with it the final means to create virtual reality, not just a tangible illusion. It’s a whole new way of existence. The final result is Adam and Eve leaving the Garden voluntarily. It’ll make life so much easier, promises the Cycilex blurb on the package, of which thousands have already been printed.

My perception of Anna folds away completely, like a television tube burning out. The feel of electricity and data hums in my body, like a deep bass tone reverberating inside me. For once my vision takes a back seat as internal sense organs take over, exploring this new input. All I can see is electronic snow and bright colours filling a void. My mind is on the move somehow, probably uploading to somewhere. I am nothing but a high-pitched message of bytes, coursing down an electrical line. It’s vertigo I feel, seasickness, because I’m moving without having lifted a muscle.

Suddenly I grow afraid. Something is wrong – I can feel it. I’m expiring, I am ceasing to be me, Adam. I’m converging with something alien.

‘Relax, Adam,’ booms a voice from somewhere and everywhere, inside and outside of me. ‘Let me get this calibrated. Hey, I said relax, okay. I can feel you freaking out.’

I can’t. I realise I am no longer an identity, only information fast disappearing from my body. ‘Help me!’ I scream out loud, but I can’t be sure whether my lips have moved, or whether I’m just a noisy idea. ‘No, Anna, stop! You’ve got this all wrong.’

‘Chill Adam, I’m getting it right.’

‘God, it hurts, Anna!’ I feel parts of me disappear, not only memories, but personal affectations too. She’s getting to know me inside out, but I’m losing my Self in the process. ‘My head!’ I shriek. ‘For God’s sake, leave me alone!’

‘Shut up, Adam, you’re confusing me.’

My spirit burns as my body is raped by another’s brain feeding on me. I try to get a grip, on something familiar, and discover flesh, my meat, my comfortable husk. I force reluctant limbs to do something, to save me. Spasms and convulsions ripple through my body, and suddenly I manage to tear those searing electrodes from my head.

‘Adam, don’t!’ screeches Anna. I split my eyes open, and see her grappling with the machine, eyes still closed, sweat on her forehead, eyebrows wrinkled in concentration. ‘You can’t just break the connection like that,’ she groans.

My entirety recognises her as an invasive disease, as an enemy trying to kill me, and terror floods me once more. I jump up and lash out viciously before I can even think, overcome by an instinct of survival. My fist connects solidly with her nose and cheek, the force of the blow throwing her back into her chair. I scramble up and bolt from the room in a blind hysterical panic, not knowing whether my love is alive or dead. <<

The rash on Adam’s temples has grown worse, featuring blisters that itch uncontrollably. All he can think of now is finding a telephone at the petrol station and phoning Anna. She will save him from himself by answering the call.

Adam staggers across the street and up the station’s forecourt. Customers in their parked cars stare at him, his bloody appearance encroaching on their comfortable morning.

‘Hey, guv, go away! Go on, I don’t want you puking all over the show – I just cleaned here.’

Adam doesn’t respond.

‘What’s the matter with you,’ shouts someone at the attendant. ‘Can’t you see he’s sick?’

‘Fucked on drugs, no doubt. Kids, get in the car,’ commands a father.

‘Somebody help him,’ squeals a high-pitched voice.

‘I ain’t touching him,’ answers the attendant.

None of you want me here – here in real, thinks Adam, grabbing hold of a pillar and leaning heavily against it, as he tries to locate a phone.

His shirt is splattered a deep crimson by now, his bare feet are pale from the wet cold. What did I do with my shoes?

Breathing hard with blood bubbling from his nose, Adam discovers the pay phone mounted on a wall, and stumbles towards it. He fumbles for change in his pockets, before remembering he’s lost everything. He turns around, rubs his exhausted face, and for the first time takes in the people watching him.

Another bolt of pain tears through his mind, and forces a desperate cry from his lips. The concerned father, parked closest to Adam, takes a few steps backward in horror. He forces his eyes open again. All he sees is television snow, blink, then nothing unusual, blink, then lines running a jagged heartbeat across his vision, blink, then everything seems fine again. He rubs his eyes. No, there are green outlines surrounding everything he perceives; digital squares are floating in and out of objects; bytes of information are all mangled, wrongly placed, wrongly coded.

Adam shakes his head, but it doesn’t stop the further degradation his senses. A door disappears from a perfectly healthy-looking car; an eye is erased from a child smearing fingerprints on the back window; the leg of the yelling attendant becomes a fuzzy pixelated mess, as if he wasn’t tuned in properly this morning.

Adam cries out in horror and stumbles away from the confusing scene.

His memories are jumbling too. Smells from a long-ago meal, up in Hampshire, replace the odour of oil and petrol; the wall he collapses against feels like wet grass; his innards seem to be growing and moving inside him, feeding on him.

He spots the restrooms, bungles through the doors, and stumbles to the mirrors. Blue-white florescent lights illuminate his face. His swollen temples have extended two inches from his head. To him the swellings look like scabrous, layered horns. Blood is seeping through the bruised skin.

I killed her, I must’ve. Why else would this be happening to me?

Overcome, Adam abruptly plunges a hand deep into his coat pocket. He draws out something that glints in the light. He closes his eyes and presses Delete and Shutdown one final time.

The cool sterility of the restroom becomes a painted canvas of stark contrasts – bright red paints the white dead background.

First published in Simulacrum, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by Richard Kunzmann

Richard Kunzmann is the author of three crime novels set in South Africa, the first of which, Bloody Harvests, was shortlisted for the CWA award for best new novel. He’s a self-confessed science fiction buff though and has worked with InterNova on and off since it was conceived.

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