Tabla Rasa

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write about a character with an unreliable memory.... view prompt


Speculative Science Fiction

“Welcome to your service of remembrance! I’m Kazuo, and it will be my pleasure to guide you through the process as you consider the various options extended to you by NeuroNon. Your presence here confirms the clarity of your life priorities. We believe that life is made of moments, not minutes, and capturing and retaining those moments that you want to savor is what we’re here for. With over a decade of public service and another fifteen in the private sector, we are the world’s first and oldest in the field. You’ve obviously discerned that some of the moments we live through are of no more value than yesterday’s kitchen garbage, and NeuroNon is here to proverbially take out the trash. As Montaigne put it, nothing fixes a thing so firmly in the memory as the wish to forget it. 

I see, um, it’s not my intention to make you uncomfortable. You will not have to discuss the subject matter at issue with me. Only two people will be privy to your private interview, and confidentiality is critical to our company’s existence. Your reviewers will explore the precise details of what you want to leave behind, not to be invasive, but merely to make sure the specific contents are isolated without the interruption of your essential cognitive networks. They will be most gracious and very discreet. I think you’ll be deeply satisfied with….

You’re curious about the tank? Aplysia californica. Sea slugs found on the West Coast. They’re not the most photogenic, are they? But they’ve become immortalized in the NeuroNon narrative. That was the first species in which we successfully transplanted memory from one organism to another. mRNA transferral. A snail that had never been exposed to electric shock recoiled as though she had been after receiving the mRNA of a snail that had. It remembered someone else’s memory.

Yes, it’s amusing, isn’t it? Amazing? I agree!

Next, we replicated the process by manipulating sensory nerve cells in a petri dish…but perhaps this is more technical than interests you. Yes? The technique. Of course.

Come, let’s walk. I’ll give you a tour. Through this door and down the hall.

Memories can never actually be erased. There’s no camera flash on a stick that we wave in front of your face and make them disappear in an instant. It’s a bit more, if I can be casual, like hiding a candle in the sunlight. The candle is still there, you just don’t notice it. And if you intend to ignore it, it’s quite easy to do so. So we take a triggering image of bad memories and surround it in…a sort of…mental white noise. When a client encounters the triggering image, or sound, or any other sensory stimuli, the hippocampus, in which we implant modified neurons, recalls a vague scene or ambiance - a landscape, for instance, or the sound of waves in the distance. Anytime the client’s memory strays close to the cleansed memory, the more pleasant scene surrounds and overwhelms it. The experience, after decades of refinement in our labs, is very peaceful.

I’m glad for how quickly you understand. You’ve obviously come from a pedigree education, am I right? Of course. It shows. If I may speak personally, as a former client myself, it’s exquisite to be able to dwell only in the isolated recollections for which we have labored and excelled through our lives, free from unwanted and undeserved mental debris. It’s an internal utopia.

Glass of wine while we walk? Madison, could you provide for our guest?

You’re correct. But the confidential nature of our work is not because we have anything to hide. Rather, we mean to protect those who have sought to leave the past behind. You can imagine that certain elements would meddle indiscriminately - social activists opposed to our vision. But at this stage, given your downpayment and paperwork we’ve already put you through, you’re free to ask anything you like. I’m an open book.

Yes, our story is a fascinating one. I hope perhaps, in time, the files can be opened so that the worldwide public can marvel at how we arrived here. Perhaps some history is in order.

The first real success was a horrible case - horrible before we cleansed her. She was a victim of kidnapping, locked in a basement, and brutalized for three years, if you can imagine. She was reduced to a panicked recluse, beyond the reach of psychiatry, likely to remain institutionalized and further regressing. When we completed our work with her, she was transformed. It was all gone, a blank slate. She was on her feet again. She was our evolutionary Lucy, the one who put us upright.

That’s a fair question, and I’ll be honest with you. There were glitches. We’ve completely eliminated them, but there were a few originally. The clinical trials were long and slow, of necessity. In Phase One, there was a bank manager who had witnessed a murder during a robbery, a teller blown to bits with a shotgun, and in the process of righting his mind, we lost the bank safe’s combination. Relatively harmless, but a warning marker for us. Then one a bit worse, a woman who weighed over 800 lbs. She was, for obvious health reasons, dangerously close to terminal. In the process of eliminating some of her memories tied to dietary norms and impulses, we insufficiently distinguished that which was to be preserved from the rest of her cognitive networks, and afterwards, she had forgotten how to eat a banana. Random, yes? She could never relearn it. She would just sit and puzzle over the things. Harmless, I guess, but a mistake. And a few other things with her, but she is alive today because of NeuroNon.

I do want to suggest, if I can pause for a moment, that you consider the optional promotional levels. They have less to do with the final product and more to do with aesthetics. Premium service is well worth the investment. While the Basic service will deliver the same ultimate result, it’s a bit like privileged airline classes - either one will get you there, but one is a bit more luxurious. But as you’ve already realized that the value of the result is worth the investment of a lifetime, the difference is inconsequential.

No, there are no glitches today. Good question. The last one was…um…hmm. I can’t seem to place it. I’ll have someone look that up for us in a bit. Huh. Funny, I can’t…. Well, we’ll look it up in due time.

Through these doors, you’re in luck. Someone is going through the process as we speak and has consented to onlookers through a glass wall. You can see…ah, they’re right in the middle of the surgery. You’re not offended are you? You see that the hole in the side of the skull is relatively small, only about the size of a quarter. Laparoscopic insertion from there. We no longer remove the skullcap like in the early days. And the external NeuroNon disc on the surface can be veiled completely through a graft of skin and hair, or, as we’re finding is increasingly popular, left in plain sight for, well, I guess one would say, bragging rights. Just look. The wetware, you see through the hole. Not really vulgar is it - not much different than the snails. Yet so versatile. It’s a universe in there.

Back to my history-telling, though. There was one case that forced our hand in terms of availability, though. If Lucy showed the scientific and medical communities that it was an invaluable, ethical contribution to human betterment, this was the dark parallel: the customer who sues for millions after spilling her own coffee in her own lap. Of course you’ve heard the public version of this story. A woman sued us for the right to access the technology so that she could forget her ex-husband. It is a bit funny, I guess. But sad. We probably could have warded her off if the Catholic Church hadn’t embraced her, calling it “God’s view of annulment,” as you’ve heard. So for short relationships and midnight Las Vegas chapel weddings, you know, where there is no vast network of connections which would be lost, so the story itself can be isolated from the rest of the client’s history, it can be done. The public doesn’t realize how much this has driven the expansion of our work. Husbands who can’t endure their midnight angst who end up buying their wives what they call a “second virginity” as an anniversary gift, erasing one of her old flings whom they - the husband, I mean - can’t get over. Thomas Edison was miffed when the phonograph was used for entertainment, for music, because he wanted it to record only important speeches and historical events. I guess we can’t complain when the medical miracle that cures trauma is primarily funded by jealousy and insecurity.

That to say, our reasons for acceptance of new clients are much broader than they were at first.

And of course, that led to a flurry of lawsuits. Every student who had been triggered by a bad grade and was now too anxious for job interviews, non-medaling Olympians wallowing in depression, ex-prisoners as well as ex-officers, deprogrammed cult members and reformed sinners - everyone who had gone down a wrong path who now wanted a clean slate. Ex-junkies and even just cold-turkey-quitting ex-smokers. Anyone who could pull together a reason and a bank account was ready to insist that this was a medical necessity. Civil rights groups got involved, and a potentially methodical future rapidly became a less than well-prepared present.

Of course, the cultural milieu was ripe for it. Statues were being torn down and the names of schools were being changed. Textbooks were being rewritten to give a smaller role to religion and a larger one to race. There was even a movement at one point, now dissolved, seeking to fund the service as a kind of racial reparations, to eradicate racist trauma retrospectively. We didn’t see forgetfulness as negligence, we saw it as our absolution. It was our baptism - washing off the old so that we could be free for new life. 

No one with a good memory has a clean conscience.

You hear that I’m not telling you that you have to see it this way. It’s simply the way many have come to see it.

A…nuance, I’d say, not a problem…is that when the desires of the masses correspond to the desires of the elite, no one notices the disparity of motives. Our largest current influx is employers willing to fund the service for employees who wanted it in lieu of legal liability. It was written into their contracts. Instead of arbitration, the offense is erased by mutual consent, and thus settled out of court. When microtraumas are catalogued and litigated, it’s simply the most cost-effective way.

Imagine, one day, being able to pluck individual memories from the mind like we pluck a hair from the head - a single, isolated memory that we would be better without.

Sorry, I see from the glint in your eye I’ve stepped back on my soapbox. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m very passionate about this. It’s my life’s work. It saved me as well, after all. I don’t mean to be controversial of course. This is just history.

If you’ll walk with me into the next room, I’ll show you where you would undergo the procedure. Here it is. The room will be redesigned to your specifications for your comfort. You’ll want to bring keepsakes and pictures tied to healthy memories on which you will concentrate when you awaken. But I can show you the equipment, nonetheless. This is the chair.

Where was I?

The lawsuits. Yes. Like a swarm of wasps.

That then required some flexibility to prevent it all from shutting down. That’s when the billionaires turned from space exploration to memory. Facebook produced “Nevermind” and Alibaba, “Wangji.” And of course, that quickly led to government regulation.

Of course, the federal government had been using the process for a decade before the public was even aware of its existence. In addition to trauma resolution, it served a remarkable role in counterterrorism. The most notable success was a captured operative whose memories of his training they distorted. He awakened to find himself in a penthouse with full maid service, surrounded by apparent CIA staff who told him that he was one of them. They needed everything he had picked up on a tour of duty, and they told him - see the irony here - that the enemy had wiped parts of his memory. What could he recall nonetheless? Quite a good deal, it turned out. Enough. And that’s actually how we got bin Laden. It’s true. The details will never be released in our lifetimes, and I cannot substantiate it for you as anything more than hearsay, but that’s what happened. As I say, I hope for a day when the files are opened and the world can see the revolutionary value this service has provided.

There was no inhibition to its use behind the scenes after that. This was to be the way of the future, the way of a new world order. We have no idea how many people the military put through it, or how many variations of its use they’ve explored.

Yes, we’re a private company. You ask that because…? Yes, it began as a military operation, but…. Sorry, I’m not sure. I see what you’re asking, yes. Somewhere along the lines our privacy was ensured, though, so governmental regulation didn’t result in government control. I’m…a bit fuzzy on that one. Funny…. Anyway, it’s completely private now.

The government wasn’t seeking to limit it; I guess that explains it. To make the service widely available required widespread manipulation of mRNA, achieving preparation in subjects prior to the necessity of the procedure. Someone who is brought in after a car accident who has already received mRNA transference by injection is easily treated before they even regain consciousness, presuming the necessary waivers have been processed. While the patient recuperates, NeuroNon simply isolates specific neurons and creates our mental white noise around the timeframe of the accident. The patient awakens undisturbed, good as new.

Of course we can’t ethically prevent them from insisting upon it. If someone doesn’t wish to awaken traumatized, who are we to insist that they must? 

That’s how the mRNA injections came to be so widely distributed. Californians voted for it and Texans mandated it. It enjoyed more support than any legislation since we eliminated Daylight Savings Time. Nearly the entire public is ready to walk in at any moment and be cleansed.

I’ve gone on too long now. I’m sure you have questions. Yes? Correct, we are a private company, free from federal interference. Yes, they support our work. Financially as well, yes. No, your records are kept private. How? Well…I’m sorry, ask me again? Sorry, perhaps I can review our records on that matter in my office. Rest assured, it’s secure.

So, during the procedure, you would sit in this chair. Because neurological stimulation can provoke kinetic responses, we do strap you to the chair. Wouldn’t want fingers flying around when there’s direct access to the wetware, would we? The wall in front of you is completely digital, and through it we would run either self-produced video images or stock footage of your choosing, something pleasant and tied to a context of the most happy moments of your life. You can bring tactile and olfactory tokens with you - plush toys, a loved one’s shirt. One gentleman simply brought a slice of pecan pie of his grandmother’s recipe. Whatever you want.

Would you like to sit down in the chair to see how it feels? There you go. It’s comfortable, isn’t it? Just a preface to the comfort you will have once the baggage of a lifetime is buried in warm, mental sunlight. The process is basically guaranteed. If anything were to go wrong, we could simply repeat the process and hide even your memory of being here. We could do it again and again, and you would never remember it. Funny, isn’t it?

So, are you ready to begin?"

April 06, 2022 02:36

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C N Dakus
06:05 Apr 20, 2022

From the first paragraph I was absolutely hooked! Not only was this completely enthralling to read, but the details of the story were conveyed in such a clever and compelling way. I absolutely love how this whole short story was a rambling monologue, and the little reveals that got crazier and crazier by the end gave me the most confusing smile I’ve ever had! In a good way haha. Amazing work!


James Miller
06:44 Apr 25, 2022

Thanks for the kind words!


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Allen Learst
18:04 Apr 11, 2022

Hello, Nicely written. Obviously, you can take my comments with a grain of salt, but I felt like I was reading something like a synopsis of a larger work. There are so many interesting details about what's going on that I felt I wanted to experience these moments in a longer version of showing rather than telling if that makes sense. It was as if I was reading a summary of events when I wanted the events themselves. Happy writing!


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