The Well of Mnemosyne
“Mr. Trubel, how would you like to be immortal?”
Thirty at the most, clean-cut, clean-shaven, nervously twisting the lower button of his suit jacket between his thumb and forefinger, the young man sitting on Ed Trubel’s living room couch had looked as earnest as they come, until he asked that question. Conditioned by decades of dealing with marketers of all sorts, Ed’s guard went up without conscious effort.
“Just what are you selling, sir?”
“The name’s Henry Banks, and I’m not selling anything,” replied the young man.
“I am ninety-six years old, Mr. Banks, so I know a sales pitch when I hear one.”
“Well, Mr. Trubel,” said Banks with a shrug, “I really don’t want to sell you anything. It’s actually the other way around — I want to buy something you have.”
“How’s that?” asked Ed, trying in vain to think of anything he owned that anyone else might want to buy.
“I want to buy your memories.”
“Excuse me?” said Ed, noting with surprise that he could still be surprised.
“I’m with a company called Mnemos; you may have seen some of our ads.” Banks waited for a response from Ed; when none came he continued, “We have developed a process to record and store people’s memories so that others may view them at a later time. We’re trying to build a complete archive of memories encompassing all aspects of life, and you, Mr. Trubel have had certain experiences that are pretty much unique.”
“You mean I’ve been in space,” said Ed after a split-second’s thought.
“That’s right. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be sending anyone else up there for a long time…”
The veil of decades disappeared and memories flooded Ed’s mind. Seeing the Odyssey explode in a ball of flame; standing at her crew’s funeral; sitting in a lounge with the other astronauts and watching the President announce the end of manned spaceflight; leaving space camp for the final time, knowing that everything he’d devoted his life to was gone.
Banks’s voice brought Ed back to reality. The pain receded and dulled, becoming only a vague, disembodied ache.
“Yes…you were saying?”
“Since they aren’t planning to send anyone else into space, it’s all the more important that we record your memories of being up there, so that all of humanity can relive your experiences.”
“So that’s it, is it? You want to store my memories of being in space so that anyone who wants to can just, what, plug himself into some machine and know what it felt like to be up there?”
“Something like that.”
“I don’t think that’s possible, Mr. Banks,” said Ed after a pause. “Being in space is like nothing else in the world. You might be able to record what I remember seeing or hearing, but there’s just no way you can record how it felt; the feeling’s just too big, too different. You can’t possibly know what it was like without actually being up there.”
“Mr. Trubel,” said Banks, smiling, “I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that our equipment couldn’t possibly do their memories justice. And you know what? They were wrong every time. We’d record their memories and then let them experience the recording, and they couldn’t tell it apart from the genuine memory. There is no sensation that human beings can experience that we can’t record and reproduce.”
He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in.
“Think about it, Mr. Trubel. The whole world seeing space through your eyes, reliving your experiences, for the rest of history. And not simply reliving, no, I’m talking about your memories becoming indistinguishable from their own. It really is a kind of immortality I’m offering you, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it is,” said Ed. Too bad I won’t be around to enjoy it.
“So how about it, Mr. Trubel?” said Banks. “Will you allow us to record your memories of space?”
He looked at Ed, his eyebrows raised expectantly, his whole body tense in anticipation of Ed’s answer. An old salesman’s trick, and yet Ed caught himself falling for it, and thought, this kid’s good.
“You said you wanted to buy my memories,” said Ed. “How much are you expecting to pay?”
Banks straightened up, relaxed.
“Well, I believe that the standard rate is one thousand dollars,” he said with a half-smile, then, after a pause, “but, given the unique nature of your memories, I think we could go as high as three thousand.”
Two months’ pension, thought Ed. It certainly was a good price. And yet, a part of him found the whole idea unsettling, even disturbing. Perhaps it was just the suddenness of it all, but Ed knew better than to ignore such feelings.
“Is it all right if I think about it for a few days?” he asked.
“Of course, Mr. Trubel, take as much time as you want. I realize that what I’m asking is very unusual, but, once you think it over, I think you’ll find that there really are no drawbacks.” Banks reached into his jacket pocket and took out a contact card. “Please don’t hesitate to give me a call if you have any further questions,” he said, handing Ed his card.
Ed saw Banks out and then returned to his living room. He flipped a switch, and a panel in one of the walls slid aside, revealing Ed’s study, which housed a small shrine to man’s conquest of space. Shelves with models of space vessels from Sputnik I to the ill-fated Odyssey, walls lined with dozens of photographs, holograms, and posters of astronauts and ships, a small display case with several moon rocks and Mars rocks, and a thick folder with perhaps four dozen newspaper clippings — all that remained of the first thirty-one years of Ed’s life.
Ed remembered the days, over half a century earlier, when it seemed that mankind was only a few years away from establishing a permanent foothold in space. But the space program was expensive, and its tangible benefits few. It was, according to its opponents, an inefficient use of the taxpayers’ money. Little by little, the opposition directed resources away from the space program, waiting for an opportunity to strike the final blow. And so when the Odyssey went up in smoke, so did the space program’s future. The program was quickly and quietly dismantled, its constituents sold off to industry. Now, the space program amounted to improving communications satellites and growing various exotic materials in the zero-gravity environment of space.
But if Banks’s claims about recorded memories were true, Ed could make it possible for people to authentically experience being in space without having to go there. Space without a space program! Without the endless simulations and training exercises, without the waiting, without the ever-present fear of something going wrong, without the tears when something did. If the technology had been around when Ed was young, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to…
Suddenly, Ed knew exactly why he had been reluctant to agree to Banks’s offer. If recorded memories of being in space had existed seven decades earlier, he would never have joined the space program. Going into space simply wouldn’t have been worth the sacrifices if he could have experienced it through someone else’s memories. If he agreed to record his memories for Mnemos, he’d be doing more damage to the space program than financial troubles ever could; he’d be undermining the main reason for its existence. No one would want to go into space if they could bring space into their living room for the tiniest fraction of the cost. Mankind would remain forever earthbound, content with second-hand memories of spaceflight, like a hatchling that dreams that it is an eagle soaring high but never stretches its wings to discover that it is itself an eagle. In his time, Ed had seen humanity give up too many of its dreams for the sake of convenience, and he could not aid in the destruction of another.
Overwhelmed by the weight of the realization, Ed sat down. His gaze fell on an old photograph standing on the table before him, and froze there. It was a photo of the crew from his first mission –- himself, Jim Lamming, who was his mentor in those days, and Luca Sciarelli, whose jokester demeanor belied an uncompromising perfectionism. Seeing the photo, Ed was struck by the thought that simply refusing Mnemos was not enough. If Mnemos had come to him, surely they’d go to the other ex-astronauts. He had to make sure none of them would cooperate.
Slowly and methodically, Ed went through his old papers, looking for the names of those who had been in space. When he was done, he fished out his old wireless computer, which he hadn’t used in months. Thankfully, it still worked. He accessed the appropriate archive database and compared his personal list with the official records going back to ten years before his own first spaceflight. Ed had lost touch with most of the other astronauts very soon after leaving the space program; but now, seeing their names again brought back a myriad of associations, and it required all of Ed’s concentration to keep from lapsing into a daydream of reminiscences. It took him several hours, but Ed finally put together a complete list of everyone who had been in space in the last ten years of the program.
Looking over the list of names before him, he was seized by a wave of panic –- what if he hadn’t gone back far enough? What if there was some hundred-and-fifteen-year-old man out there who was in space twenty years before him?
There was only one way to make sure. Ed reconnected to the archive and searched through the records for all the astronauts going back one hundred years, or thirty-three years before his own first flight. The final list had one hundred and seventy-four names, and by the time he was satisfied that his list was complete, it was past midnight.
Ed was exhausted, but he couldn’t permit himself to rest. He accessed the census records, and looked up every one of the names on his list. He was looking for contact information so that he could get in touch with them before Mnemos did, but, instead, one after the other, the names on his list acquired dates of death to go with them. When he’d gone through about half the names without finding anyone who was still alive, a sneaking suspicion crept into Ed’s mind, barely on the edge of awareness. He didn’t allow it to distract him, and kept searching through the archives.
By the time Ed was done, it was morning, but he had learned what he needed to. He checked over the list three times to make sure, and finally accepted the fact that every name on the list was followed by a date of death. Time had conspired with their aging bodies and, one by one, all the men and women who had been his surrogate family in the microcosm of the space program had succumbed to one ailment or another. Unable to stay awake any longer, Ed fell asleep at his desk.
When he awoke, it was dark outside. Disoriented, Ed straightened up too quickly and let out a moan as surges of pain shot through his shoulders, neck and back. As the pain receded, awareness came, and with it a profound sadness. Ed was humanity’s only remaining spacefarer, the last member of a priesthood whose god was dead.
Ed closed his eyes and conjured up the memories of his first space mission. He recalled the anxiety before takeoff, the anticipation during the ascent, and the immense feeling of wonder that seized him when he looked down at earth for the first time. He conversed with his crewmates, Jim and Luca, dimly aware that they were now dead. Step by step, he called up the events of his mission, trying his hardest to remember every detail, every aspect. He was in the middle of a spacewalk when the stars started spinning about him, pulsing and dilating, faster and faster and faster, until he was surrounded on all sides by brilliant, blinding, unbearable light. Suddenly and without warning, the light went out, and Ed Trubel collapsed at his desk, dead.
Henry Banks took off the playback helmet, removed the mnemoviewer electrodes, unstrapped himself from the immersion seat, and shook off the disorientation that accompanied the end of the playback session.
“Find anything useful?” asked Jeffries, the technician in charge of the Postmortem Memory Retrieval System.
Banks looked over at a chamber in the center of the room that contained Ed Trubel’s brain. Since Trubel had been his case, Banks was the one to relive his last memories, the ones whose mental signature was strong enough to be detectable for several days after death. The retrieval system had worked perfectly; Ed Trubel’s final memories were now indistinguishable from Banks’s own. And with those memories, Banks had inherited Trubel’s burden. Banks was the last astronaut.
“Well?” said Jeffries impatiently. “Anything we can use?”
Banks slowly turned his gaze to Jeffries, then past him, out the lab’s window, at the star-studded velvet of the night sky that he had once made his own. He felt his shoulder muscles flex of their own accord and looked down at wings he didn’t have.
“Nah,” he finally said. “There’s nothing in there worth salvaging. Too bad; I bet the old man could have really shown us something.”
The Well of Mnemosyne was originally published in Ideomancer, 2012. Reprinted here with permission of the author.
Igor Teper lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area and spends his days teaching old atoms new tricks at temperatures near absolute zero. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction,Strange Horizons, and Abyss & Apex. For more about his writing, see http://www.igorteper.com.
Many thanks to Catherine Smith for her narration of this month’s story!