Memory Simulation for a Grandmother
I’m nodding to the manufactured bass and synthetic percussion of TabbblaBeatz, waiting for fresh memories to render. I’m having trouble concentrating. I can’t believe pr0CREE8 is gone. It feels like just yesterday he pushed me to freelance. To quit the Monopolies that ply their customers with memrubbish—shoddy, poorly designed memsims that hack devs slap together—the barest of frail, brittle memories to keep buyers wanting.
I glance up at my three monitors. They depict simple but vivid nature scenes. An ocean wave crashing onto a beach. A pink sunrise illuminating a mountain’s snowy ridges. Twin shooting stars streaking across the night sky. pr0CREE8 would have been proud. I’ve put days into perfecting them.
My phone’s pitch disrupts the music. Grabbing it, I swipe the screen, and the phone goes quiet. The ZeroKnow app banner glows green, indicating an encrypted message.
Unknown sender wants to connect.
It’s a new customer. The app opens to a light-gray chatbox. Three dots dance in unison at the bottom while the sender types.
pr0CREE8 said I should talk to you.
He was my old dealer.
Send your hash w/ his sig to prove it.
How do I do that?
I roll my eyes. How do they not know that?
Oh, nevermind, found it.
Staring at my screen, I wait for the sender to prove their identity. Going on trust alone sends devs to jail, or worse. The last thing I want is bruiser attention. Like what happened to pr0CREE8. He got himself killed, getting deep into custom memsim development—the Monopolies don’t like this. Of course, they claim it’s because black market memsims can damage a person’s neural-interface BIOS. But the real reason is they want us to buy memories from them directly.
And since the City protects the Monopolies, and the bruisers protect the City, bruisers took out pr0CREE8. He was on the run, but in the end, they caught up with him. His last message to me was that he would send his clients my way. I feel guilty for never responding. I should have said something. Thanks for everything. You were my mentor. Something corny to make a guy about to die feel better about his choices in life, but I had to be careful. I couldn’t run the risk of bruisers targeting me through some hack of pr0CREE8’s gear.
My phone chimes.
I tap the hash code, and my screen glows a faint blue. The unknown user’s nym displays, confirming their identity: Saffr0n27.
What’s your mempref?
I don’t really care.
Can you come soon?
Doesn’t care. Needs me to come over soon. Yep. Memsim addict. But who am I to judge?
Send me your address.
An address pin appears. Tapping it reveals Saffr0n27’s location. An old brownstone on the west side of the city, the nice part of town. For a moment, I’m impressed by pr0CREE8’s ability to land some wealthy clients.
Half an hour to get there.
I shove my phone into my pocket and grab my backpack sitting at the base of my desk. There’s a razor-thin, hidden slot at the bottom of my pack where I store my memsims in transit. From it, I pull out three slate-gray chips.
Each chip is as long and wide as my fingertip, and as thin as a paper sheet. These three memsims are state-of-the-art. I spent a week’s worth of computational rendering time on each of them, and they are some of my best works yet, full of vibrant images, sounds, and smells that will turn any buyer into a bundle of wet eyes and sobs.
I’ll save them for someone more discerning.
When I first started freelancing, I thought people would want significant, happy memories—winning the City Lottery, weddings, seeing a kid walk for the first time. The kind that the Monopolies churn out. What surprised me was that most buyers want small ones. The memory of a red bird streaking across the sky on a bright spring morning. The first memory of snow falling. The arbitrary summer afternoon coming home after playing with childhood friends.
Small memories are the hardest to storyboard and render, but on the flip side, they make memories feel real. It’s what gets my buyers’ emotions going. The Monopolies have nothing on me.
I set the three chips aside next to a plastic box overflowing with generic memsim chips, trivial-yet-artistic ones, each that needed an hour or two of rendering compute time. At the top of the box sits a stack of chips tied together with a red rubber band. They’re a windmill series for a no-show buyer. I allocate twenty percent of my dealing to no-shows. They happen often enough that I’m used to them. But, when the windmill buyer didn’t show, it annoyed me more than usual. I’m not a scrappy freelance dev who uses cheap compute to cobble together colors and shapes. I take my time to make sure my memories are perfect.
The windmill series goes into my pack, along with a handful of others. I throw in a scrubbed laptop in case any bruisers stop me and want to see what’s in my bag.
Through the small window in my apartment, I see the sun setting. The sky is a blend of blood-red and orange. I slip on my black leather jacket, zipping it up to my chin. I lace up my boots, grab my helmet, throw my backpack over my shoulder, and head out the door.
Outside my apartment building, a cat slinks along the ground, tail high in the air. It takes one look at me and bounds away into the hedges. If it was daytime, I might have taken the Underline or even walked, but it’s safer for me to ride since it’s evening.
The fluorescent trim around Lavender Lightning’s body shimmers a faint purple, and when I lay down on the motorcycle’s long leather seat, the trim glows brighter. I place my phone in the holster between the handlebars and tap its screen. When I wrap my palms around the cool handles, the bike hums, and I speed along the streets, chill wind running through me.
Lavender Lightning accelerates as it routes my coordinates into its system. I’ve modded my phone to avoid popular bruiser zones, so we take a long route. A satellite view map depicts the city, blue and green circles flashing on a red crisscrossed grid. My ride is one of the small blue circles, coasting north through major streets and alleyways, weaving between metallic skyscrapers and concrete apartment buildings.
I know little about pr0CREE8’s ex-clients, but it only occurs to me how many of them are memsim-addicted. Saffr0n27 is the third I’m dealing with. The last two were straight addicts, trying to get high on a fresh memory to match one of their old favorites. One was a futures broker who wanted a memory of his father telling him he was proud of him. The other, a smart-contract lawyer wanting a memory of his first girlfriend telling him she loved him. None of these things happened, but they wanted to feel like they did.
That’s what most people want memsims for. They want to feel, and addicts want to feel something big. Since Monopoly memsims are all drivel, people come to us for custom sims.
pr0CREE8’s custom sims are expensive and need 100x more rendering compute than the simple memories I create. When cloud servers see your usage patterns pop like that, they’ll send bruisers to your door.
It got them banging on his door. He was sloppy. I can’t be that sloppy.
A 3-D street depiction of the west side of the city replaces the satellite view. A modulating, glowing red circle shows my destination. Lavender Lightning slows as we pass by an enormous park. Evening shadows drape couples walking hand-in-hand. I hang a left into a narrow street, and Lavender Lightning pulls over, parking itself on the corner of the block. I hop off.
The neighborhood is full of rich-people brownstones. Potted flowers run up and down their steps like in a dead artist’s painting from a hundred years ago. Saffr0n27’s address reveals a tall, flat-faced home. Faint colors of canary-yellow light up the windows.
I message my buyer on ZeroKnow.
The chatbox flashes, and a faint chime sounds.
Who is this?
The door’s open. Come in.
The foyer’s lights reveal long red, cream, and gold carpeting, an entrance to an adjacent room, and a wall full of framed pictures. One frame depicts a static scene: a man in a black tux twirling a woman dressed in a glittering red and gold sari, one of her arms stretched out, fingertips in the deep red of mehndi. Behind her, guests stand smiling mid-clap, faded into the black and white background. The picture pixelates, drifting into a forest scene. The same woman wears a red bandana around her head and hiking pants, her back to a thick redwood.
“I’m here,” a woman’s voice creaks.
I’m greeted by the faint sounds of sitar and harmonium in the adjacent den. The music is real, not synthetic.
An older woman is sitting in the corner of a couch. She’s wearing a red and gold sari. She has tucked her legs underneath her and propped her arm on the armrest. Golden bangles glitter around her wrists. A brown felt blanket is draped over her shoulders, and a notebook is in her lap. In front of her is a long, wooden coffee table. On the table are notebooks and a photo album. She coughs, waving a frail hand my way.
“Sorry. For a moment, I forgot you were coming,” she says, tapping on the notebook. “But I have it written down here. Greenw0rld. Memsims.”
Heavy memsim users have trouble creating short-term memories. It’s one reason the City clamps down so hard on black market memsim use. They worry it would cause a public health crisis. I feel bad for the woman, wondering what kind of life has led her to this addiction. I push my feelings aside.
“You said you didn’t have any memprefs,” I say. “I brought a bunch of different types. You can try some and let me know which you’d want?”
She pulls one of her white hair braids aside and points a shaking finger to the back of her neck.
I sigh. It’s bad. Addicts have trouble with hand coordination needed to install the chip at the base of their neck. Users typically come in twos, each helping the other install memsims. There’s no one else here but me, though.
I pull out one of the windmill memsims from my bag and snap it into her port. She swipes a trembling finger on her phone and leans back into the couch, a smile growing on her face.
“This is so pleasant,” she says, her voice lilting and rising with her accent. “I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had such a simple, charming memory.”
She sits there, smiling for a minute before reaching back and removing the chip.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “I’ll invoice you for it on ZeroKnow.”
“So, how many do you want?” I say. “I have a bunch.”
“I’m looking for something stronger.”
I’ve been through this conversation before. Addicts like this always want something stronger. Stronger is slang for custom sims. “I can get in real trouble like that. I don’t deal in stronger.”
“Did,” I say. “Now he’s dead.”
“He said you would do this favor for me,” she says.
I want to say, Look, lady. I’ve got lots of nice sims. I just don’t do that kind of custom. I might do them for myself, but that’s different. But I can’t bring myself to say it. Looking at her—a diminutive woman crumpled up into the couch’s corner like a discarded toy—and listening to her trembling voice makes me sit down.
“What favor?” I say instead.
She sighs and smooths the sari cloth over her thighs.
“You know,” she says. “I’m supposed to be wearing white, but I can’t get myself to do it.”
“My husband passed yesterday.”
I don’t know what to say. I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “How did it happen?”
“He was old. We both knew it was coming,” the woman says. “His body, his mind, it all broke down. It was only a matter of time.”
“It happens to all of us. Age. It feels like just yesterday we got married. But even that memory has faded. I have to write down little things to remember that night. It’s why I can’t…why I won’t wear white. I want to remember that day. That I was wearing this.” She runs her fingers over her sari’s pleats. “Wearing it now gives me a piece of that memory back.”
I wish I could help her.
“Once we knew our memories were fading, my husband and I wrote down all the little things about our lives that made our time together special,” she says, opening up her notebook. “Like our wedding reception. I have them written down here. How my mother smelled of jasmine and sweat when she hugged me after the first dance—after disapproving our union for so long. My grandfather joining us on the dance floor, everyone laughing as he balanced a glass of his
favorite single-malt on his head. The way my husband’s palm felt against the small of my back when he introduced me to his business school professors.”
Her brown eyes turn liquid. She closes her notebook and lets out a deep sigh.
“With details like those,” she says, “your friend made us custom memories.”
“I can get in trouble if I make custom sims,” I say.
“But you could do it, couldn’t you?” she asks, her eyes now pleading. “Your friend said you were better than him.”
Did he really say that about me?
“It’s not that it’s hard to do,” I say. “It’s dangerous. Contraband. Every time I render the kind of memories you want, I risk being reported for unusual usage.”
“So, you have done it before.”
I should have chosen my words more wisely. I can’t lie to this woman.
“Only for myself,” I say. “I want to help. Really, I do. But I can get in trouble.”
“This memory you just gave me,” she says, trying to change tactics. “I like it. It’s simple. It’s pleasant.”
“That’s a straightforward memsim,” I say. “Those can get made on chips easy to get. Run of the mill. Some storyboarding on my part, a couple of hours rendering.”
“Is it so easy for you to make memories?” she says, laughing. “These days, I close my eyes and try to picture his face. I can’t remember if he had a mustache or not. Then I remember one of our children asked him to shave it off. But I ask myself, ‘or was that someone else’s child who asked their father?’ The photo album is the only way I know for certain it was our child, not someone else’s.”
She’s not an addict. She’s just an old woman who’s slowly losing it.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry about this, but I just run a simple business,” I say. I am surprised at the force of my words. “I can get you minor memsims. I promise you that I put a lot of effort into them. Do you like forests? I saw a picture of redwoods on the wall there. I got a bunch of forest ones. Hiking. Jumping off a cliff into an ocean. I’ll throw in those windmill ones too, on me. That’s it. You want anything else?”
“Please,” she says, her eyes pleading with me, wet and flowing.
“Look, I don’t–”
“It’s just a small request. A memory of him so that once it’s all gone from here,” she says, gesturing at her head, “I’ll have something to remember him by. Please. I’ll pay you anything.”
She looks at me expectantly. The thing is, I can do it. But why? No amount of money would make me want bruisers barreling through my door and arresting me. Killing me.
She laughs, her form shaking.
“You look like you’re going to explode. Like I’m a bruiser about to arrest you,” she says. “Relax. Don’t worry.”
Her laugh lights up her face, taking decades off it.
As I’m getting up, she suddenly grabs my wrist. Her nails are sharp, cutting through my skin. “Memories are all we have of those we care about when they’re gone,” she says.
I try pulling myself away, but she holds on tight. When she sees I won’t change my mind, she squeezes my wrist one more time and then lets go. The energy goes out from her, and she sags into the couch.
I need to get out of here. “Can you pay my invoice?” I ask.
“Oh, sorry,” she says, giving me a heartbreaking smile.
She swipes her phone, and ZeroKnow’s synthetic ring chimes. I can leave right now, but I need to explain this to her. Or am I explaining it to myself?
“Look,” I say, my voice softer, quieter now. “If I do this, and the bruisers found out, I’d be cooked. Done.”
“I know,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, it’s very selfish of me to ask. You have your entire life in front of you. My life has already passed.”
My chest is throbbing. What’s wrong with me?
I dump the remaining chips on the table, say I’m sorry, and I’m out the door. If she said anything as I left, I don’t know. I don’t care.
I’m back on Lavender Lightning. I slam my phone in its holster, and the bike starts humming. I need to cool off, to calm down, so I decide to ride manual. I don’t care where I’m going. I’m zooming down the roads, cool air rushing around me in a fury. I can hear my heart beating as blood rushes up and down my neck and ears.
That’s when my phone flashes red, and sirens blare in loud and high undulating crashes.
Dammit. I got sloppy. I should have used my phone’s map instead of riding around aimlessly. I take a deep breath and slow down. Lavender Lightning comes to a full stop, and I sit up, looking around.
There it is across the street, lamplight glinting off its metallic, hulking form. It saunters over, crushing twigs and glass under its heavy legs. The bruiser’s body armor—blue bracketed protective covering—comes into view. Its four arms rest at its side, and in two of its hands, it holds batons.
Atop its hulking form is a sphere. It looks like my black helmet, except it has a red visor across the center. The visor sprays red-light over Lavender Lightning, scanning it for contraband. It turns its attention to me. The light goes into my eyes, and I have to blink and look away.
“Declare your purpose,” the bruiser commands, its manufactured voice artificial and dissonant.
“Going for a joy ride,” I say.
“Phone,” the bruiser says.
I have to hand it over. A small cable extends from one of its finger-like appendages. It inserts it into my phone’s port. For a moment, I’m thankful that I encrypt all my communications, but that moment’s fleeting.
“You are far from your designated living space,” it says. “Declare your reason.”
“Because it’s the only nice part of town,” I say. Saffr0n27 comes to mind. I have to force myself to push thoughts of her away. “I can’t go for a joyride in my neighborhood.”
The bruiser drops my phone on the ground. I want to clench my teeth, but I have to remain cool.
“Declare your bag’s contents.”
“A laptop,” I say, slipping it off my shoulder, opening it for the bruiser.
The light emanating from its visor turns from red to white and sprays over the bag. The bruiser turns my bag upside down, and my laptop falls out.
I want to yell. I want to shove that monstrosity of a bruiser to the ground. But I can’t retaliate.
The bruiser shakes the bag again. My anger and fear transform into a sincere thankfulness that I dumped all my memsims earlier. The bruiser drops the bag.
“You will go home,” it declares and then leaves.
Once it’s out of view, I know I’m in the clear.
I grab my gear off the ground and check my phone and laptop. Luckily, they both still work.
I’m about to choose “home” for Lavender Lightning’s next destination, but I stop short. I want to scream. Bruisers think they can harass people with impunity? The City thinks it knows what’s best for us? Monopolies think they can shove generic memories into our minds? They killed pr0CREE8 for trying to help people like Saffr0n27.
I feel like my jaw is going to burst from the way my teeth are grinding together like I’m crushing rocks with my molars. I pull up ZeroKnow and tap Saffr0n27’s address pin. My mind is running through rendering specs. I’m thinking about the chip model I’ll need for this. I wonder if I can spread out my rendering compute time, so my usage patterns aren’t obvious. One problem at a time. Get the chip. Write the story. Render the graphics. I want to get audio in there, too.
When I get back to her door, I message her on ZeroKnow.
Hey I’m back.
Can you let me in?
A few minutes pass, and the front door opens. Saffr0n27 leans against the doorway.
“Tell me about him,” I say.
“Who?” she asks.
Her eyes are now smooth and bright and imbued with hope. I will treasure this look for a lifetime.
The woman’s back straightens, and she smiles. She tells me about the first time they met. She doesn’t need her notebook for this. The sun shined down from the bright blue sky on that spring day as she waited in the park for him. Two peacocks strolled nearby, their variegated feathers catching the sunlight.
While she tells me this, she guides me inside, and her voice is lifting and lilting, just like my heart.
© 2020, Vikram Ramakrishnan