Henry fumbled in the depths of his pocket, relieved to find Kate’s heart-shaped locket still there. His thumb traced the dent it had sustained when she stumbled on Tower Bridge.
No, don’t think about that, he chided himself. Focus on her smile.
That smile had won his heart at Reuben’s 2036 New Year party, and it could save his sanity.
A pain blasted inside his head. Like most neurological agony, its precise location was hard to pinpoint. He knew its source was the AI implant Commander Draxton had spliced into his spine. Numbness always followed the pain. It spread like ink on a bright tablecloth, obliterating his thoughts. Except for one unblemished corner, where he hid a memory of Kate. A memory Draxton’s AI had not yet found.
When it finally did, he knew Draxton’s screen would light up like Kate’s smile always did in his mind’s eye. Too brightly.
For twelve hours now, at Draxton’s bidding, the AI had been aggressively mapping Henry’s neurons. There was no room for error. Draxton knew if his treasure hunting algorithm found what it sought, it would win the war. Not on the battlefield, or in the ruined streets, but in the sterile confines of the interrogation room.
The treasure the AI hunted was a small string of code. The information was as fragile as a withered leaf, buried deep in the mud of Henry’s memories. With each stroke of agony, Henry knew the digging was getting deeper, the earth of his consciousness being turned over ruthlessly.
As Draxton assessed progress, there would be an occasional lull in the AI’s scavenging. Henry spent those moments wondering if his attempt to delete the code had worked. The Resistance had implanted a Luria chip in his skull. The plan being if he was captured, he could delete memories at will. He could no longer recall the numbers, or the sequence of the code. This was a promising sign the Luria chip had done its job. But he still knew there was a code, so it may not yet be safe from discovery.
He suspected the reason, of course. He was trying to hold on to her, the author of the memory.He had watched her die on the bridge, cradling the bullet wound, holding herself as he might have held her. He could not get to her before the strike team. Soon after, he realised what he must do next: lose her all over again. To keep a single memory of her would betray what she had fought and died for.
He heard a voice in his ears and knew it was Draxton’s. It came not via his ears, but the AI mimicking its boss, like a three-billion-dollar parrot perched in his head.
“Is it worth dying for, Henry? Your vitals don’t look good. There is no sign of your cowardly friends. You would protect them? Everyone dreams of saving the world. Few have the power to do it. I do. Not your young friends. Give up the code and this war can be over. The machines have won. There is peace in submission. Kate was beautiful. But she’s gone now. She’s dead. You are fighting for a lost cause.”
She’s not gone, Henry thought, as privately as he could, unwilling to think anything too fiercely, lest the burrowing AI sense it. If she were truly gone, you wouldn’t be in my head, looking for her.
A memory of Kate he had been shielding from the AI almost succumbed to its invasive fingers. He felt the AI’s presence too close, so he erased the thought. Kate became smoke, drifting away. He hoped to see her face again, somewhere in his melting consciousness. But he reminded himself this urge to keep a trace of her might still amount to betrayal.
Don’t do that to her. Let her go.
He saw her face on the bridge, her eyes brimming, her fingers outstretched, summoning him. Then they curled inward as she realised he would not reach her in time. Her eyes never left his. He could read her thoughts. Not because of some cheap tech implant or AI wizardry, but because they were both still fully human. Two of the last few. Humans who loved, despite the inevitable, rolling war around them. For love made the world quiet, if only for briefly stolen moments when it seemed nobody else existed.
He was lost in a memory of her again. It was so intense he could smell her perfume and feel her skin. They were in the sparse room of the Beaudelaire Hotel, and she was kissing him. Her fingers pressed softly to the nape of his neck, the antithesis of the icy fingers pressing inside him now, made of machine logic, digits of code, cruelly dextrous. Kate’s fingers had found a sweet spot she instinctively knew was there, and she kissed him, and he kissed her back. He could smell her sweet breath, feel its soft breeze.
He didn’t need Draxton, at that moment, to boast he had detected Henry’s heart rate climbing. He could feel it himself, but knew Draxton’s gloat would come, if only to celebrate that Kate was evidently still alive in his mind. For what other pleasure could there be to him, in his predicament?
Henry fought against the blissfully overwhelming memory of the Beaudelaire Hotel.
“I can’t hide you,” he said to Kate in that shabby room. He had not said these words on the actual occasion he was remembering. This was an alteration he made now.
There was little risk he would confuse his imaginings with reality. For he could still feel her locket between his fingers in the interrogation room. All the same, there it was, adorning her neck on February 3rd, the day he had placed it around her neck, undamaged, as was she.
“Why do you keep staring at it?” she asked playfully. “Thinking of taking it back?” She laughed. “You can’t have it. It’s mine!” She pulled away from him but ran towards the bed.
She realised he wasn’t following. Then noticed something else. She looked around the room as if she no longer trusted it.
“What is it?” she asked. “I’ve checked for bugs.”
“We can’t carry on,” he finally said.
She clutched the locket, as though she feared it might fall away.
“What you are you saying? What’s happened?”
A strange, synthetic noise began in the distance, growing louder. She leaned out of the window. The horizon was brick tenements, only a small slice of sky visible.
“It’s getting close, isn’t it?” she said, without facing him. “Is that what you were going to tell me?” She held herself. “Why does it keep following us? I heard it at the fountain. Then, in the park. Those happy, quiet places where we could hear ourselves think. It shouldn’t be like this. This memory is wrong. This is not how I remember it, at all.” She came to him. “Why are we running from one memory to another?”
He looked grimly at her. “This is the last one.”
“You chipped all the others?”
He nodded. He didn’t want to say it out loud.
“Why?” She shivered. “I can’t remember a single one of them. Why would you do that to us?” She clawed at her hair.
“They’re looking for you,” he said.
“But I’m dead… aren’t I? Aren’t even the dead allowed to rest now? The AIs won’t even allow that anymore?”
“Draxton’s new breakthrough. Anyone with a chip in their head has an open door to the algorithms. If I could blow my brains out, I would. He strapped my hands to the chair. He’s left me just free enough to hold my last piece of you.”
In the interrogation room, his fingers caressed the locket, but in his mind it was still around her neck, where it belonged.
She caressed the locket herself then.
“Why does Draxton want that?”
“He needs me to remember something you told me. Sometime, between leaving this room and when me meet again, you discover what Draxton’s machines need to protect themselves.”
“What did I discover?”
He shook his head.
“Did I find it?” She exclaimed in realisation. “The key code? I did it?”
“Don’t think about it,” he urged her. “I chipped the memory of you telling me, before the AI got to it. Now it’s coming here. This is my last living memory of you. This is all I have.”
Realisation grew in her. She took herself back to the window, even though the noise of the AI was now so loud the window rattled in its frame.
“This is all we have left. Perhaps it’s a blessing, then. Free yourself of me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I give you permission.”
“I love you.”
The sky became a storm. Electrical signals flashed and darted. Her eyes sparkled in them.
“Chip it. Erase it,” she murmured. “If I found the key code, you must. Draxton can never know it. What he knows, the machines will know. They have one vulnerability. If they patch it up, the Resistance will fall!”
She turned to him then, stiffly, her hands by her side. A moment later, she used them to take his, looking seriously at him.
“There is one memory of me left,” she said. “And Draxton won’t dare let the AI find it. They will execute him if they find out what happened.”
“It’s all we’ll have left, Henry. The one place I can hide. The most secret place. Perhaps the only secrets that can be kept in this world any more are Draxton’s. And, if the AI can’t find it, if it can’t find me, and Draxton won’t let it find me there, in his bed, then the code is safe. It can’t reconstruct your memories of me if we leave no trace. But, if we lose each other completely, what was it all for? We can’t let those… things steal any more humanity from us. We just can’t.”
“Don’t ask me to keep that memory. I almost chipped it long ago.”
“But you didn’t. It’s the only one you can keep. I am there in it, Henry. I was in his bed, but he was never in my heart. You know that.”
Her face fell, and he saw tears in her eyes. “There isn’t any more time.”
The AI was at the window, a fierce light which only burned.
She held him close and pushed her face into his neck. “Chip it,” she whispered.
And he did.
With a single thought, the chip in his brain erased all memory of the Beaudelaire Hotel.
They had outrun the AI again.
Then, he forced himself to think back on the day he had found her naked, entwined with Draxton in her bedroom. He had always hated this plan, and the idea she would film it. He was a ghost in this room, now. There was no quarrel, no fight, no dramatic escape by Draxton.
He heard the AI nearby once, but Kate had correctly anticipated Draxton’s fear. He would not allow it to discover his fraternisation with her.
Henry went to the dresser and poured some vodka. Then, he pulled up a chair and sat gazing at Kate, who was oblivious to his presence. But then she stole a glance at him over Draxton’s bare shoulder and smiled with those delightful eyes. And a few seconds later, as she stole a breath, she smiled at him. That dazzling smile.
Henry could have altered the memory more, of course, but there was danger in that. He could remove Draxton entirely, and any trace of his affair with Kate. But such an edit would render this memory no longer a haven. Draxton would too easily be able to claim this memory was a fake and gamble on letting the AI find it, after all.
Henry watched Kate in the arms of another for as long as he could bear, then turned out the light. He listened to her gentle sleeping breaths.
Until he, too, allowed himself to sleep.