After visiting the dining car for a bagel sandwich that suffices as breakfast, I return to my seat and get back to the second of the five stories I brought. At the rate I’m going, I’ll have to get some new ones soon. Just two days into this business trip and I’m already through 20% of my personal entertainment. With much of my suitcase occupied by the equipment and tools I need for work, I could fit only five stories into my duffel bag, amid clothing and toiletries—three new ones and two of my all-time favorites, ever since my mother gave them to me. Now I’m down to four, having accidentally left one behind, in the hotel room I stayed in last night, after scrambling to pack up and catch this express train to Nilbocker. Just as well. It wasn’t great.
I might be down to three stories soon. The second hasn’t impressed me so far, only managing to be slightly more interesting than the alternation of forest and farmland streaking by outside the window. Nonetheless, I get drawn into it, with the encouragement of the train car’s atmosphere. The aerosolized silence from the overhead vents muffles the conversations of other passengers and the clatter of the train’s movement. Estranged from my surroundings, I become absorbed in the story’s luminous scenes.
A couple hours later, the train is a stop away from Nilbocker Station, and I’m getting ready to disembark without this story—speeding through the ending, in which the neuromodulation startup decides (predictably) to make Obsession Mode unavailable to ordinary customers, restricting this feature of its cognitive-enhancement platform to government and corporate contracts. Curiosity Mode, of course, becomes the new signature feature of their flagship product for the commercial market. This conclusion has no twist, no epiphany. So I have no reservations about leaving the story on this seat when I vacate it.
At Nilbocker, I’m met by the secretary of the education committee who drives me to each of the five schools slated to get emotion dampening fields set up in their main entryways. In the car, we talk about how these dampening fields are becoming more widespread in the area and how PTA pressure accelerated their adoption despite budgetary constraints.
As expected, the work goes smoothly. Nowadays, installation is routine, so long as there isn’t any weird architectural layout or other unusual circumstance that requires special field configurations. When I show them how easily they can adjust the field’s strength, the principals of these schools are impressed. Except the last one. She seemed tired. The field is of course for safety purposes—to conduct orderly evacuations or calm down students still rambunctious from recess—but I bet once they see how effective it is, they will call on us to equip every classroom with dampening fields, like the Verlon school district did several months ago.
In my hotel room for the night, I draw a bath and settle into the toasty water with the last of the new stories. It’s set in a society that uses “smartglasses” to blur “irrelevant” facets of their environment for the sake of streamlining daily life, and the plot follows a man who manages to modify his smartglasses so they’ll leave some beauty unobscured. While everyone else sees only useful, important and noteworthy things, he’s looking at “superfluous” ones: flowers growing out of sidewalk cracks, birds perched in the branches of street trees, clouds drifting through the sky. These details delight him and, of course, distract him, both during his encounters with them and afterwards in daydreams—exactly the kind of diversions smartglasses are supposed to prevent.
When I get into bed, I’m so drowsy that I don’t need the portable consciousness dampening field I always bring along, just in case. This is one of the things I love about travel: with so much to wear me out, sleep comes easily.
In the morning, I continue the story over a leisurely breakfast at a nearby diner, the old-fashioned kind where the waitress serves patrons from behind a long Formica counter. Making my way through pancakes with maple syrup, I find out that the story is not about the guy with the modded smartglasses—or rather, no longer just about him. He’s now a minor character in a drama of quiet upheaval as the region he lives in is locked in a season of psychological fragility. Atmospheric phenomena resulting from gamma-ray bursts are destabilizing the human mind, making everyone (to varying degrees) susceptible to compromised selfhood—at risk of losing confidence, concentration, motivation, purpose, vitality. In this vulnerable state, people go to great lengths to avoid anything that could upset themselves or others, fearful of the damage that might be rendered by arguments or misunderstandings—or interpersonal friction of any kind.
Soon, many turn to the use of Memory Lockers, a technology for storing their memories by recording the patterns of neuronal activity that constitute the recollection of specific memories. The Lockers can then replay or even restore these memories by activating neurons according to recorded patterns. The tech is expensive, but prices begin to drop with competition among memtech companies spurred on by demand from people hoping that stored memories can later serve as a means of regaining one’s traits. Memories of taking bold action, for instance, could later be the basis for restoring one’s confidence.
I’m waiting for the check, sipping through my second coffee refill when someone asks, “Any good?”
I turn in the direction of the question. A couple vacant stools down the counter, a man in a denim jacket points at the story in front of me.
“I’m not sure yet,” I answer. “But it has some interesting ideas.”
Back in my hotel room, I struggle to put away the story as checkout time approaches. Even when I get the narrative arc and its subplots folded up as compactly as possible, the skein of scenes around them takes up more space than before, probably because all this was tightly compressed before I started unfurling the story. Only by discarding old clothing (including yesterday’s pants and socks) do I manage to squeeze the story into my duffel bag.
During the ferry ride to Toulauser, fog turns the window in front of me into a blank, luminous wall. With the sea and sky obscured, it isn’t long before my mind is craving stimulation. I lean over to the seat beside me where my duffel bag rests atop my suitcase. I unzip the bag and pull out the story. Soon, it’s introducing me to a shadowy group of data thieves: hackers who have been gaining access to Memory Lockers and copying their contents. Investigators speculate that they are exploiting security weakness in memory storage tech to obtain a range of life experiences that can be fed into algorithms that build “peep fakes,” fabricated personalities like the ones used in simulations of product focus groups, political polls and social movements. What the thieves (or whoever they’re selling memories to) want artificial personalities for is anyone’s guess.
Irregardless of who is behind these numerous break-ins and why, the Memory Locker manufacturers scramble to implement higher-grade encryption as ever more of their units are compromised.
When the ferry nears the Toulauser harbor, I’m only able to cram the story back into my duffel bag after removing a sweatshirt I’ll now have to leave behind, likely dooming it to sit in a lost-and-found box for weeks before being donated or discarded. So long as the weather forecast holds up, I’ll be fine with just my jacket.
At the seaside inn, the room I have booked for three nights turns out to be rather quaint with wood-paneled walls, sloped ceilings and an ugly carpet. Brown and maroon… argyle? But who cares about carpeting when there’s a beach a short walk away. As I unpack in the almost cozy accommodations, it’s clear that the third story has expanded significantly. Fortunately, my days in Toulauser won’t be too busy, probably giving me enough time to finish the story and avoid the hassle of repacking it.
After a morning of recalibrating the emotion dampening fields in the Toulauser central hospital (all of which have only typical drift), I take the story to the beach and get back into it. I follow the paths of multiple characters through their circumstances and into a larger world. One of them is unsettled by the idea that hackers (or shadowy organizations they may have ties to) could use his private memories to make a simulation doppelgänger of him. He decides to only keep key moments of his past in his Memory Locker if their actualities are obscured. So he convolutes his memories by imagining in extraneous information—people he doesn’t know, things that didn’t happen—to obscure the realities of his past. His own kind of encryption. He keeps a record of how he has remixed the past, mostly with personal anecdotes he solicits from a global network of friends he’s built during his years of working on far-flung archaeological sites.
Another character is no longer content to wait out this period of fragility with a carefully conducted lifestyle of kid-gloved social interactions. So she sets off on a journey with a route she will invent along the way, despite the tactful objections of friends. She can’t not go. Her need for travel is rooted in a childhood episode: the conversation she had after learning that the universe is 800 billion years old. She wanted to know what happened in the first 700 billion—to get caught up, as though the world were simply a movie she had missed the first half of and language could tidily summarize what had taken place on all the planets orbiting myriad stars that have since blown up.
“I wish I knew,” her mother said. “A lot of interesting things must have happened. They say that the world had countless galaxies going on and on in every direction.”
“Other galaxies?” she marveled.
“Space wasn’t as dark as it is now. Wasn’t as empty.”
In her mind, she pictured galaxies right next to each other like clouds crowding the sky.
Then she asked, “So what happened to them?”
“Scientists say things spread out, and things fell apart.”
“Like things do here,” she said, thinking of trees and animals and rocks, all in different ways dispersing and decaying and dispersing.
“That’s right. Like they do everywhere.”
“Do you think there were people like us who saw the world through telescopes back then?”
“Definitely. If what scientists say is true, then there must have been many of them.”
“Why aren’t they here anymore?”
“Because, well, things fall apart.”
“But what about the spreading out—before falling apart?”
“Some might have made it very far, but it’s the nature of the world to keep things separate with time and space. There are limits to how much space and time we can overcome.”
That’s the moment she decided to go as far as her limits would allow, to see what was still left in the world before more things fell apart. But her memory of this conversation was lost in an earlier season of fragility, turning the resolve it inspired into a subconscious imperative.
Whether with flashbacks like this one or new developments, the story just keeps going. In both directions, as I discover when
I go back to the beginning, to gauge how much of the story I could sever and discard. There is now a lengthy prologue chronicling how this world came to be what it is: efficient to the point of being brittle to disruption. This seems like the last thing I’d want while trying to finish the story, but when I glance over a few portions of prelude, they prove fascinating.
Deciding that I need an objective appraisal of the situation, I go to a local storywork shop and buy a narratometer. I spend the next several hours making measurements as I continue on in the story. The narratometer reveals that the story gets larger at a rate of a new quarter chapter for every chapter I finish. That means a lot to get through, but averaging three chapters per hour, I should be able to complete the story before I leave Toulauser, saving me the difficulty of taking it with me to Mitona.
But on my last full day in Toulauser, the story doesn’t seem close to any kind of climax. I carry out another round of measurements that work out to a higher expansion rate: a new half chapter for every chapter I complete. Did I make a mistake with my first measurements, or is the story growing at a faster pace? Either way, the situation now is clear. I can’t finish the story before I leave, and I can’t bring it to Mitona either. Even if I abandon all my unnecessary clothing. Unless I also leave my remaining stories behind.
I immediately dismiss the thought as an impossibility, but it clings to my attention, recruiting other thoughts that make a case for it: these stories are from my mother, and she probably has her own versions of them; in which case, better to regain these stories from my mom rather than buy another copy of the story I’m in the middle of—because it will take hours to make my way through it again, and when I do, will it even expand the same way or will I end up with a different story?
So I give Mom a call.
“Yes, I have both of those stories,” she tells me.
“Great, can you make me copies of them?” I ask.
“Sure, but don’t you have them too? They were among your favorites.”
“I loaned them to a friend, and I might not get them back for a while.”
“I see. All right, should I mail you the copies, or do you want to pick them up the next time you visit?”
“Mail, please. But there’s no rush.”
“OK, I can probably get them out to you next week.”
And with that, the phone call makes the decision for me.
I spend the evening enjoying my old stories while I still have them. The first is about a woman finding strange objects in her memories, things that don’t belong in them. It begins with her reminiscing about the remote, mountainside field station where she spent a solitary summer years ago. Particularly vivid in her memory is the cozy bedroom stocked with back issues of science fiction magazines that she’d read by the light of late, slow-motion sunsets while sitting in the old rocking chair beside the painting of a womberlach—a charismatic portrayal of that lanky yet elegant marsupial she then realizes couldn’t actually have been there.
The fictitious creature appears in some novel she read, one she’s sure was published after her seasonal stint at the field station. Yet, in her mind’s eye, she can clearly see the watercolor rendition of the womberlach neatly framed against the faded plaid wallpaper—now inextricably part of how she remembers the bedroom. It takes mental effort to envision the wall without the painting. She shrugs this off as a quirk of the mind, giving it no further thought until she receives a postcard from her brother who is vacationing with his wife and kids.
The postcard has a bright scene of a placid lake that reminds her of the childhood summers when her family would stay at the lakeside cottage their parents liked to rent. Fondly, she recalls warm afternoons reading books on the lakeshore as young couples launched canoes and little kids made sandcastles. Then she notices there are bulbous bronze sculptures intermittently punctuating that strip of sand along the water’s edge. Massive, blobby shapes—like monuments to abstractionism. Though they look familiar, these sculptures hadn’t really been there. She and her brother would undoubtedly have climbed on them, at least in the mornings before their patina would get burning hot under direct sunlight. And her father would likely have used them to give her an art lesson on form and composition.
She wonders what’s going on. Are her memories becoming jumbled? Maybe she saw those sculptures at some art museum she’s since forgotten about—the memory of the museum deteriorated away to leave the sculptures without their original context, dropping them on the lakeshore. But what about the womberlach painting? Maybe there had been a painting in the field station bedroom but of another animal similar to the womberlach and the two have melded into this painting in her memories.
Several days later, she has a dream that she’s back in her elementary school. She hasn’t thought about this building for a long time, but her sleeping mind conjures the hallways with ease—everything vivid, as if she had been there yesterday. Her memory has perfectly preserved the place, except her dream seems to have added trapezes all along the ceilings and trampolines on the floors; also covered the walls with vibrant murals of jungles and kelp forests inhabited by fantastical creatures. When she gets to the classroom she’s supposed to go to, her imaginary friend from childhood is there, making a sculpture like the one she saw by the lake.
“Do you like it?” asks the imaginary friend.
“Yes,” she answers. “The curves are soothing.”
Pleased to hear this, the imaginary friend gleefully explains what inspired the sculpture and what it will look like once completed. When she wakes up, she discovers that the school hallways in her memory are now identical to the ones in her dream—this ending (and Mom through it) telling me that the imagination works in ways we’re not aware of until we somehow notice what it’s been up to.
The second story is about a man who visits other timelines in which his late wife is still alive. He’s curious to see how things might have turned out differently and finds that in the majority of these alternate chronologies, she is ill, and he has already died. So he spends his days taking care of the different versions of her, seeing each to her end, one after another. My mom’s way of telling me that’s how much you could love someone, devoting the time you have left to watching over a beloved’s other possibilities until the end.
Mind aswirl with nostalgia, I go to bed certain that in my dreams, I’ll be back in the living room of my childhood home, enjoying a story with my mom.
Rather than desert Mom’s stories at the inn or the nearby beach, I wake up early and walk to the neighborhood library, where—just as the innkeeper said—a yellow donation drop-off box stands tall beside the main entrance.
“Goodbye,” I say, putting the two stories through the slot of the metal box. “I hope you are found by people who will like you.”
In Mitona, the work is easy. No installations or recalibrations, just integrity verifications, none of which turn up evidence of tampering. That allows me to take the two remaining days here at my leisure. I spend most of my time in the aerial gardens, walking the paths of the botanical wonderland suspended over the commercial district, sitting in shaded areas to get through the rest of the story. I leave only to eat at a nearby café and to go back to my nondescript hotel room for the night.
I finally get to the ending, which returns to the man and his tweaked smartglasses. When the woman is wearing a colorful dress purchased during her travels, the man sees her in complete clarity amid a crowd of blurred bystanders. The story concludes with the implication that as the season of vulnerability continues on, these two will risk psychological damage to partake in what only they can offer each other: beauty.
The sprawling narrative is now at its most expansive, and I have no reason to take it with me. When no one is around, I leave it by some flowering aloe plants along one of the garden’s paths. Disencumbered of it, I consider getting a new story for the flight home, but it’s a short one that I can use to put together my expense report.
The days following my trip are unremarkable, made especially lackadaisical by the reverse culture shock of mundane hours in the office, mostly devoted to invoicing clients and reading up on dampening field advances—the major one being the localization of variations in field strength. Once that can be done at a fine enough scale, it will be a game changer. Instead of uniform dampening for a whole group of people, you could have a different degree of dampening for each person. In a classroom, the teacher could tune the emotional dampening in accordance with the seating plan. When granular, localized variations can be consistently implemented, rolling out this upgrade to our current clients is bound to keep us busy for a while.
I’ve all but forgotten about them when the stories from my mom arrive in a cardboard box. After removing them from the ample padding of crumpled newspaper, I place the stories on my coffee table and take a look, to make sure these are the right ones. Of course they are. Mom knew exactly what I wanted. I’m about to put them away when a discrepancy catches my attention. The woman with the memory anomalies doesn’t talk with the imaginary friend. Instead, she watches through the little window on the classroom door as the imaginary friend paces thoughtfully around a sculpture. The story ends ambiguously; the dream may only be an attempt by the woman’s sleeping mind to explain what has happened (and may still be happening) to her memories.
Curious if the second story also has a different ending, I take a look at its last scene. There, the man meets a daughter he and his wife never had. She tells him to go home to his original timeline because he isn’t her mom’s husband; he’s simply afraid to be lonely and is taking advantage of how much her mom’s misses her dad.
“You’re making things complicated for Mom,” she says. “This isn’t something she needs at the end.”
“What’s complicated about keeping each other company in the time that’s left?”
“That company seems to be placing something within her grasp that she can never truly have again.”
But he’s sure she is wrong. Her mother knows exactly what the situation is and has only welcomed it. Besides, so many things in life are bittersweet, but that’s no reason to narrow the scope of experience. He knows that regrettably he will have to go against the wishes of the counterfactual daughter for the sake of her mother. Nothing like this was in my version of this story.
The situation here takes on a dizzying clarity. These aren’t the stories I love. And I’ve made a terrible mistake. On my last day in Toulauser, I should have purchased a backpack or mailed those stories home to myself. I can’t believe I let two of my favorite stories go so easily. It wasn’t worth giving them up to finish the sprawling story of—what exactly? Pursuing beauty in a time of psychological frailty and memory misappropriation?
For rueful minutes, I stare at the stories on the coffee table. The daughter the man never had has a point: something absent can seem close—even within reach—when something similar to it is present. The stories here give me the impression that mine should be in my bedroom, like I could find them in the back of my closet if I searched throughly. Or if I stared long enough at these stories, they would become the same as mine.
Why are they different? Were my stories originally like this and changed over time? Or did Mom give me versions of these stories that would be more suitable for a child? Or is it Mom’s versions of the stories that have changed? I’ll have to ask her.
But first things first. I need to call the library I donated my stories to and ask for them back, even though it may be too late.
They might have been sent to another branch or sold for fundraising or given to a local school. Whatever the case, I have to try.
While I’m looking up the library’s phone number, my thoughts suddenly flit to that fictitious season of fragility—a remark the woman heard during her travels: like the body, the mind knows how to mend itself over time, how to close the site of a rupture, though sometimes it needs help. My gaze drifts to a swath of undecorated wall, and my imagination places a painting of a womberlach upon it. My mind’s eye stays fixed upon the phantasmal artwork, admiring the deft rendering of this unique creature.