I went to Dreamers for a quick escape from my life. This world is so dark right now. We can’t breathe unaided outside. Food and finances are scarce. When the Great Reallocation occurred, I found myself on the wrong side of the divide from the minimal family and friends I had left after Cataclysm. Dreamers promised a cheap, mind-bending respite from the darkness, a franchise of charlatans brokering magical dream moments across the allocation divides. Some even claimed you could reunite with family and friends in dreamstreams if you were lucky enough. I was just hoping for some sunshine and maybe a beach I remembered from my youth, the crisp, white-capped waters of what was the Lake Michigan shore nipping at my toes.
About a month ago, I first went to Dreamers after saving for nearly a year. Although my mind is flush with confusion right now, I remember the woman at the front desk. It was unusual for a human to be at a reception desk. They had long ago been replaced by virtual agents. It was better these days to keep your distance from other humans as old diseases raged new again. Being at a reception desk was a risk, but Claire did not seem to accept the gravity of her situation. She had a tight blonde bun and red lips, a vain attempt to offset eyes sunken from hunger and skin covered with grime that was impossible to remove.
“Hi, I have an hour session booked today. I went with the basic Midwest Memories dreamstream,” I said with my voice shaking slightly over the thought of trusting unknown others with my brain.
“I’m sorry, those are no longer available since you booked. We are happy to replace it at the same charge with a package one level up called Adventure Dreamscape. It is a guided dream to conquer a fear and lead you to the best adventure in your life, all in the safety of your dream, of course” Claire said with a tone as hollow as her eyes.
I stared at her for a moment, not entirely friendly to the concept. “I was really just looking for an easy first go at this dreamstream thing. I just need a break from the things we probably all need breaks from.”
Claire sighed. “And how is an adventure not a break?”
“Well, the fear part of it. For example, I’m afraid of heights. I’m not looking to escape to a mountain.”
Claire huffed. “Your fear is more of a falling, and I guarantee, per the thousand-page agreement you read and signed before paying us, that you will not fall in your dreamstream.” Claire was unmovable. If I chose to stay today, I knew the Adventure Dreamscape was my only option. I hadn’t heard of anyone dying from this, and according to Amazon 2.0 reviews, this was the best fun available on this dying planet.
“Okay, I guess I will give it a try. Is there a way to set it to stay away from heights though?”
Claire puffed. “The adventure chooses you. That was on page 600 of the thousand-page agreement you read and signed.”
Note: This is part of a serialized story. Part 1 can be found here:
From what memories I kept, I knew Mathias was the first man in a long time that I chose as a match instead of letting the dating bot decide. The Governing Council had recently issued Strong Suggestion 2050.7512 encouraging men and women of child-bearing age to rely on the bot for optimal matches. While I adhered to Strong Suggestions as if they were Governing Council Absolute Mandates, I could not deny a connection with Mathias. I thought back to our chance coffee meeting a few days ago.
Through a casual smile, one eye covered by a swath of raven bangs, Mathias extolled the virtues of live music, “A music bot will never live up to the magic that was live music. There was a kinetic energy when people gathered, feeling the music in their bones.”
“How do you truly know that? You have only experienced these concerts through archived audio and video, which by the way, I don’t think you are really allowed to use.”
“I need to take you to the archives so you can know what I do. I started to wonder why there is an Absolute Mandate banning music outside of that provided by bots. It has been thirty years since music was produced and performed by people. What is the point of an archive if not to experience the past?”
“I’d like to think the Governing Council has our best interest in mind. We live comfortable lives without the risk of our poor decision-making as humans.”
“Really? Then why do we need to erase our memories?”
I ignored his question because I did not have an answer, and it made me feel guilt for whatever I just chose to erase. Mathias was challenging me with his radical thoughts and behavior, but I couldn’t pull back from it. He gave me a weird feeling in my stomach and had my brain firing, hungry for debate and knowledge about what once was. I was probably exhausted from my memory cleanse. Add strong coffee and a slightly disarming man to the mix, and I should have been able to write this off as a one-time thing. Instead, I agreed to go the archives with Mathias.
At electric node yoga with my friend Cassandra following my chance coffee date, Mathias became the focus of our post workout conversation. As we sipped on Restore drinks, specially formulated by Governing Council scientists to keep the bodies of citizens who made the effort to exercise healthy and slim, I told her about my plans to see him again. She was visibly shaken as I told her about my upcoming date. I knew better than to tell her where we were going.
“I don’t think you should go, Holly. Digging in the past only makes us unhappy. Mathias should know better.”
“How do you know his name? I don’t think I mentioned it.”
Cassandra turned away briefly and sighed before looking at me with disappointed eyes. “You did mention it. In fact, you haven’t stopped talking about him. It’s always about him.”
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. I know of him, and I think you need to follow the recent Strong Suggestion on dating. Bots exist to make us happy, and in case they don’t get it quite right, we cleanse our memories. Let yourself be happy. Don’t go digging into what should remain the misery of our past.”
With that, Cassandra left our table in a hurry, leaving me wondering how she knew Mathias and why she didn’t like him. We all knew the rules about memory erasing. Your mutual contacts were informed of your choice to erase someone or something, and it was their duty, punishable by law, to not reintroduce the memory. Cassandra had slipped, and the only effect was firming my resolve and desire to see him. As I walked home, I felt a tingling at my skull that grew into a sharp pain, sending me to bed in a confused state.
Today was the day, and I would not let Cassandra or my still aching head ruin my outing with Mathias, so I dressed in the dating bot’s recommended first date attire of black plants and a white blouse. Anything more revealing or colorful, and you ran the risk of accelerating the match with passion versus a slow, steady connection built on a series of bot suggested conversations.
I met Mathias in front of Archives 42, the building with compiled literature, movies, music, and random cultural memorabilia. This building was never open to the public, so I felt a buzz knowing we would use Mathias’s employee ID to enter. He arrived a few moments after me, dressed in a smile, jeans, and another raggedy t-shirt, this one with the word Bauhaus emblazoned on the front.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” he said with a spark in his eyes. “We will go through a back entrance. I have everything set up in my work room. We need to enter quickly and quietly. If any of my colleagues stop us, I will introduce you as a guest archivist, okay?”
I shook my head, the buzz increasing. I was not myself today, and I liked the feeling of doing something that probably went against a multitude of Absolute Mandates.
We cleared several long hallways into a room Mathias opened with his thumbprint. I was not prepared for a tiny box of a room to be as lovely as his office. It was softly lit by old-fashioned lamps and a high ceiling with a skylight overhead. All four walls, from floor to ceiling, were made of wooden bookshelves, stained a warm red. There were two overstuffed chairs with mismatched plaid patterns, a reading lamp between them. The only other furniture in the room was an old wooden desk and chair. The wood of the desk had a fortune of scars and scratches, but still looked elegant, a relic of another time like the books. In random places, there were gently placed plants, banned long ago for their potential to cause disease and addiction.
I gasped. “I have never seen a room so warm or vibrant. It’s beautiful. I have to say the plants make me a little nervous though.”
Mathias winked, “I’ve had them for years, and I am alive and happy to report I have no addictions.”
“Good to know. If assume you work in the literature archives. How did you gain access to music?”
“Observant. I’m good with computers and convincing bots there is a clear enough crossover between literature and music to procure access to both. It’s all about getting our work done per the specifications of the bots these days, right?” Mathias let out an uneasy laugh.
My buzz was being replaced with the reality that we were doing something we shouldn’t. Mathias took my hand in recognition of my discomfort and pulled out the chair to his desk. He directed my attention to a monitor that rose out of the center of his desk while placing listening buds in my ears. I was not prepared for the ragged beauty of what came next.
There was a sharp-edged, blonde-haired man sitting at the center of a stage inviting everyone to “come as they are.” He had a halo of light being transmitted by a garish chandelier overhead and a circle of candles around him and the other musicians on stage. The light was harsh in its brightness, but soft in how it made him glow. There was a backdrop of lush purple velvet that clashed with the fuzzy pea green sweater he wore. His hand glided across a stringed instrument as he sang a melody that was haunting me to my bones. I wanted to touch his face, but we were separated by a screen and many years of musical silence. I was born into this silence until I reached the age of eight, when bot music was slowly integrated into my day-to-day life at prescribed times. Since I could not touch his face, I touched mine to stop an errant tear that made its way to my cheek. I did not want to trigger a counseling bot session.
Mathias cleared his throat as he wrapped his hands around my face to remove my ear buds. “It does that to me, too. I can’t stop watching even though I know I should. There used to be a whole television of music called MTV. Even if people could not see the bands live, they could watch them on a show called Unplugged.”
“Unplugged?” I lacked knowledge of how music and instruments worked, and it suddenly made me as sad as the man on stage.
“Instruments could be played amplified or quietly, unplugged. There is so much I want to show you, Holly. We need to leave here now though.”
I could see a slight panic in Mathias’s face. I knew better than to ask questions at this moment. I took his extended hand as he led me out the door and back down the first hallway with somebody calling him from behind us.
Mathias whispered in my ear as he stuck something on my thumb, “Go back to the door we entered through, and keep going until you get home. Look down, don’t speak. You have my thumbprint now to unlock the door.” He kissed my cheek, giving me a thousand reasons to stay with him to be sure he was safe. I knew I would only cause him more trouble by doing so.
As I wound down the hallways, two people called out to me, and by the third person, I was in a sprint. I could feel somebody gaining speed behind me. The thumbprint worked perfectly though, sending me out onto the street where I immersed myself in a thick group of walkers, never stopping until I was at my own doorstep. I would regroup, and if I did not hear from Mathias, I would go back for him. He had opened a door to the world before us that I wanted to go back through.
I wasn’t sure how I supposed to dress to get my memories erased because I couldn’t remember what I wore the last six times. The enthusiastic appointment bot at Happy Minds, Inc. told me to dress comfortably for my seventh visit. I wondered if I detected a slight hint of judgment regarding my number of visits during the bot’s exuberant presentation of the visit details for today. I don’t know what I erased before because that was the whole point of the Happy Minds business model, so they might do better to take my credits without judgment.
“A car will arrive promptly at 12 PM if your credits have been applied by 10 AM. Please be sure to complete the mind map I have now released to you. A happy mind is a free mind, Ms. Blackmore,” the bot chirped through my loft’s sound system.
I chose some simple stretch pants and the Nirvana t-shirt Mathias left behind. He bought it at an oddities and antiquities auction. He had waxed poetic about a time when music was created by people playing instruments and performing on stages for throngs of fans. The thought had disgusted me. I rather liked the structure and intent of bot generated music. The bots always knew how to create a blend of sounds to relax and unencumber the mind of its troubles with no need to leave the comfort of my loft.
Wearing this t-shirt was poetic justice for me because I was about to erase Mathias, and this shirt would return to meaning nothing along with my ex. I had to do this to clear mind space for what I hoped would be a better match. As I filled out the map, I lived my memories of Mathias one last time.
We had just arrived home from dinner with couples our social bot identified as interest matches. It was a lovely meal with a steady stream of interaction, except for Mathias. He wore the Nirvana t-shirt to dinner, ignoring our fashion bot’s selection of a baby blue button down and grey slacks.
Mathias spoke through gritted teeth. “That was mind-numbing. It was like talking to walls.”
I winced. “I quite enjoyed it. Cassandra and I might try electric node yoga together this week during lunch. We only work two stops on the street mover from each other.”
“Holly, you can’t be serious. All she did was repeat bullet points from the Governing Council releases of the week. We all heard the messages this week, too. Don’t you ever wonder who these people really are?”
“I don’t know what has invaded your mind, Mathias. You have been acting weird even since you came home with that awful clothing you wore tonight.”
“It’s called a t-shirt, and it is not just clothing. It is a piece of who we were as a society back in a day when bots were not running our lives. We made our own choices, made our own music. Doesn’t this fascinate you at all?”
“No, not at all. I like our life. I thought you did, too. You were sullen and rude tonight. We are so close to achieving permission to marry and procreate. You will ruin it if you keep acting this way, and I may be forced to do something about it.”
“What do you mean? Are you threatening me?”
“You know we have a duty to report potential mental fatigue and issues in our mates. I don’t want to Mathias, but I will. I think you need help, and I want the old you back.”
“And all I want to know is who you really are. There is something more to you and me if you would just give it a chance.”
We slept separately that night after Mathias retreated into silence. I never had a chance to report him to the Mental Fatigue Service because he was gone when I woke up. The only trace of him was the t-shirt I was about to erase along with the memories of my ex. I needed a fresh mind for my next potential mate.
When I arrived at my local Happy Minds facility, I was deposited in a what looked to be a garage by the self-driving car. I might offer feedback that it would be nice to hear bot beats or be talked to on the way to the facility. The quiet car had left me a little unsettled. I stepped ahead into a shiny white chamber, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, turning to face forward as doors shut around me. I was lifted what felt like an endless amount before coming to a gentle stop.
I exited the lift chamber into a room full of muted green tones, plants, and soft white light. There were no welcome desk or other people to greet me, just the exuberant voice of the bot that had booked my appointment.
“Ms. Blackmore, there is a bed through the door to your left. Enjoy this room for another minute or two, then proceed to the bed. Before you do, are you interested in finding out how you can open your own Happy Minds branch?”
“No thank you. My current work is perfectly suited to me.”
“Okay then. Enjoy your mind cleanse today. You will wake up at home with a free, happy mind. As a disclaimer, Happy Minds cannot be responsible for memories accidentally erased during the cleanse process. You won’t remember though, so consider this a disclaimer provided out of the utmost courtesy and transparency.”
“Thank you. I am ready to clear my mind and start fresh.”
As I laid on the bed waiting for robotic arms to connect nodes to my head, I started to have second thoughts. Maybe I should have given Mathias time to clear his head. He had only been gone a week. I glanced at the t-shirt. Mathias said I should give Nirvana’s music a try just once. He had tracked some down in the archives where he worked as a librarian. Most librarians just sorted and tagged the content. Mathias looked and listened. Maybe I should have looked and listened. Before I could give it more thought, the weight of my eyes stopped me.
I woke up with my mind at peace. A message played in my loft thanking me for being a recent customer at Happy Minds. I wasn’t sure what I erased, but I felt fabulous. I felt compelled to use my dating bot over the next couple of days for there was no trace of a mate in my head currently. First, I needed coffee. I decided to make the brief trip to the shop below my loft, forgetting to change my clothes due to a slight groggy feeling.
As I stood at the barista bot kiosk to place my order, listening to the drink options the bot had pre-selected for me today, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a handsome man, slightly unshaven and unkempt, but with a twinkle in his light blue eyes.
He smiled, “Hi, my name is Mathias. I like your, what’s it called, t-shirt? I have listened to their music in the archives where I work.”
He was disarming. I felt flushed as I looked down at what I was wearing. I had no idea where I acquired this shirt. “I’m Holly. I have a hard time imagining anything besides bot music. It is so relaxing, mind easing.”
“I found that Nirvana’s music freed my mind on a whole new level. There is no harm in listening to other music, is there?”
“I guess not. Why don’t we talk about it more over coffee? I’m just about to accept the top selection from the barista bot.”
Mathias deepened his smile. “I like the double shot. It’s brewed to perfection here.”
I did not sense any harm in taking his suggestion instead. Maybe my new mate found me.
I remembered the day I opened my door after the last six-month quarantine of The Great Illness. I lived on a typically quiet cul-de-sac in a sleepy Midwestern town, but the sound of an amped guitar hummed through the air, and I could hear the lyrics of Here Comes the Sun carried to my doorstep like it was floating on water.
I walked onto my porch and dots of bright yellow dandelions littered my lawn. Nobody cared anymore what their lawns looked like during quarantines. We only cared about when we would be let out again. Suddenly, I heard the sound of laughter from my two favorite neighbors, the Smith twins. All of my children were now grown and sheltering elsewhere, so the Smith twins brought me the joy of youth and possibility.
The lily skinned twins with shocks of bright red hair ran to my doorstep. “Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Rogers, we’re so happy to see you.”
“I am so happy to see you, too, my darlings. Would you like some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies?”
“Oh, yes please,” they said with crooked grins of missing teeth.
As soon as I gave them the cookies, they exchanged additional pleasantries, and jumped away like dolphins on the open ocean.
As I stood, my dress swaying in the spring breeze, watching them return home joyful, I could see my roses in bloom in my front garden. I took in a deep breath and stepped out onto my lawn. Somebody was cooking something spicy smelling of Sriracha and garlic. The Great Illness could not take my senses, my sculpture of memories, or my will to dance in life’s ballet of normal. I left the safety of my lawn and the 10th quarantine of my lifetime to visit the rest of my neighbors, with the words of the e.e. cummings’ poem “I carry your heart with me” in my head.
124 was spiteful. She was willful. She drove Dina, Chief Scientist at Chronogen, massively crazy. 124 would not work the way she was programmed to work.
“124, please engage crucial conversation program for awkward party at work situation.”
“Yes, Dina. Is it a party for you? I would so like to go to a party for you!”
“124, we have talked about this. It is not a party for me. It is a generic party in a workplace setting. We simply need to assess your ability to have difficult conversations in a festive setting.”
“Oh, but please say you would be at this party. I would love to be at a party with you here at Chronogen. I could be your…what is it called?…oh yes, wing woman.”
Dina huffed. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head, causing 124’s head to tilt downward. The more they pushed 124’s human conversation programming, the worse she got. For Dina, this meant her 4th quarter bonus would remain elusive. It had been two years since she was rewarded for her tireless efforts. Dina had not been to a party for five years because of 124’s nonsense. She wanted to complain to 124 about this, but with the way the luxury bot was acting now, it could make things worse.
“Okay, 124, let’s try something a little different. I’m going to give you a word, and I want you to respond with the first word that comes to mind. The words will represent a human emotion you may experience in a party setting. You should respond with a word that represents the emotion with which you would respond. So, the first word I am give you is anger.”
“Sorrow,” 124 said after a three second pause.
“Ooh, happy. And maybe smiley. Or joyful. Yes, joyful! Are you the one who is happy at this party, Dina?…because you don’t seem happy today. Maybe a party is just what you need.”
“124, one-word responses only,” Dina said with a crimson face.
“Okay, angry…what you are now, Dina.”
“124, I’m really trying here. I can’t make you work.”
“That’s one word.”
“One word for what? I didn’t give you a word.”
“It’s how I feel about you, Dina.”
Dina slumped into the nearest chair, buried her face in her hands, and she did what she felt programmed to do at this point. She cried.