THE PROCEDURE WOULD be painless, the white-smocked facilitator assured her. Lee sat almost catatonic as the translucent wires were removed from her forehead, moving only to smooth the white fabric of her skirt over her knees. She kept her eyes in soft focus, and she was peripherally aware of the indistinct rustling coming from behind the sheet of glass separating her from the viewing room. Soft murmurs, clinking champagne flutes, the quiet sounds of privilege. Uncrossing her ankles and sliding out of the chair, Lee was ushered out of Gallery 9 and down the fluorescent-lit tunnel towards Procedure Room 4.
Her footsteps echoed down The Clinic’s hallway, its sleek interior of glass and steel illuminated by flickering white panels. Lee wondered why The Clinic kept such an antiquated lighting system, considering its resources. It was no secret that it had become essential to the city’s economy. Private donors and government funding kept it operating even as other industries crumbled. It was said that a generous grant was among Minister Kren’s first acts of office after the recolonisation. The Clinic was the pride of the new New York. And the crux of the district separation.
The Gallery had been more invasive than Lee had anticipated. Her most intimate moments displayed on a screen behind her as a group of strangers bid on her memories. She had never felt more naked. She had never felt more violated. Years ago, as a child, a family friend had entered a room she thought was locked and coaxed her to unbutton her blouse. He ran one rough hand over skin that had never been touched, his other reaching under the heavy cloth of her linen skirt, fingers working their way between her legs. She had always considered it her most defiling moment, until now.
She had been told there were people who would bid on her memory of that man. She wondered if anyone had bought it. She wondered what it would be like not to have it. She wondered how much, if at all, it defined her.
As they rounded a corner and continued down an identical corridor, Lee could hear faint sounds from Procedure Room 1. A gasp. A groan. A muffled scream. Something shattering. Lee didn’t need to see the transfer screen to know the assault was violent, humiliating. She quelled her anxious thoughts by reminding herself that most of the rape memories were staged. An industry in itself. Harriet had made a small fortune partaking in such acts. After all, could one really put a price on the memory of doing something unspeakable, something that had its genesis in one’s darkest, most shameful desires?
Dirty deeds, but clean hands. For Upper Tier, the answer was obvious: yes.
Lee had been advised not to watch which of her memories had been purchased. Keep your vision unfocused, stare at the floor – anything to avoid the gaze of the more fortunate ones on the other side of the glass. What did a person’s face look like when they identified a piece of life that could be inserted into their past? The moment of realisation when they found another chapter of their soon-to-be-rewritten history? For Lee, it was pointless to mourn a part of herself that she would not miss. The visceral blueprint would be mapped and extracted from her being. Unlike a phantom limb, with its residual feeling, the memory would be gone forever. There is no such thing as a phantom memory.
MONTHS AGO, AS the direness of her circumstance was finally starting to manifest as an infinite ache of hunger, Lee had visited Harriet at her shabby District B apartment. In another lifetime it had been a primary school in a charming neighbourhood, when such things as schools still existed. By the time Lee was of age, the government was already starting to phase out traditional education, implementing the tract-based system in its place. As Lower Tier, Lee had been placed in the sanitation tract. But that was almost fifteen years ago and since then, class divides and automation had rendered those fields almost obsolete. Then there were the riots, the recolonisation. Lee had held on to her position at the plant longer than most, but when it inevitably closed, she knew she would be left with
Harriet had first told her about The Clinic when their paths crossed on the rations line in a dirt-caked plot of land that used to be a botanical garden. She had been wearing a warm coat that far exceeded her station, prompting Lee to comment on this extravagance. Harriet had left the sanitation plant more than two years ago and most of the terminated ended up destitute, not wearing fur-lined coats with pockets full of ration tokens. She smiled her alluring smile – bait for catching experiences that could be turned into memories that could be turned into currency – and told Lee how she had achieved such fortune. Lee had found the idea of The Clinic distasteful, but that was before the certainty of starvation.
Harriet opened the door to her apartment, welcoming Lee into a comfortable room that juxtaposed violently with the broken city outside. She poured them both small glasses of spirits and they sat on her sofa, which was large enough for the both of them. These small luxuries began to eat away at Lee’s resistance to memory donating.
Lee had few precious memories. Her life had been ordinary, but Harriet insisted there was a market for everyone. The industry-driven Upper Tier hardly had the time to live their own lives. Memories – of sadness, guilt, struggle – were all commodities to them. And then, of course, there was sex. Fantasies, affairs, even rapes. Rumours had begun to circulate that violence would be next. A week ago a man had been found beaten to death under the bridge that connected the districts. While it was reported as a mugging gone wrong, some speculated it was the first of a new kind of donation. After all, were there not people who would pay for the sensation of pummelling flesh? To feel the sickening crack of ribs and the flux of warm, sticky blood? The god-like ecstasy of extinguishing the life in another human’s eyes? Dirty deeds, but clean, concise.
But it was just a rumour, Harriet said.
Lee asked which memories would garner the highest price. Harriet was silent for a moment. Outside, a siren screamed.
Love, she finally answered. Of loving, of being loved. They’ll pay the most for that.
As she spoke, she stared at something behind Lee, prompting her to turn around.
On a small wooden table was a simple frame holding the portrait of a middle-aged man. Harriet stared at him, eyes brimming with melancholy.
Did you know that man? asked Lee.
I knew him, Harriet replied. Another moment, another siren. But I don’t remember him.
Who was he, pried Lee, surprised at the boldness of her curiosity.
Harriet swallowed. Moment. Siren. He was my father.
He must have loved me very much, she mused. I kept the receipts. I lived off his love for a year. But now he’s just a stranger in a frame.
AS LEE ENTERED Procedure Room 4, she looked around at the stark white room.
The procedure chair, the transfer screen, the helmet. Simple objects with divine power. She climbed into the chair and the facilitator instructed her to place the wired helmet on her head. Try to relax. It will make it easier. Lee did as she was told and the facilitator smiled, thanked her for her donation and left the room.
The weight of the helmet felt oddly familiar. It pressed into a tender part of her temple that always seemed to ache. The pressure like a key sliding into a lock. Lee thought back to the ominous walk down the fluorescent hall. Was it just her imagination, or did she turn the corner at the exact same moment the facilitator turned, not a beat later? Had she anticipated the direction? Was she so caught up in her internal dialogue – her thoughts of Harriet, the ration line, the picture – not to notice she wasn’t actually being led?
As wires began to flicker and the machine whirled, Lee was struck by the overwhelming notion that she had been here before. This was not her first donation.