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A Remedy for Memory

"I love you, Mina. Will you remember me?"

She wants to answer yes, yes, yes.

But she doesn't, because she didn't.

She's pleading silently, ask me just one more time, when the memory kicks her out.

"Lieutenant Mina Besz? I'm Veronik Yaskov, your neuropsychologist. Your Lethe System preparation is complete. Are you ready to begin the treatment?"

Mina looks up from her pale hands, covered in bloody bandages, to see that her doctor looks worse than she feels: wrinkled scrubs, ashen skin, bloodshot green eyes under sweaty black hair.

"No." It hurts to talk. "I don't want to forget."

"Lieutenant." Veronik's voice is low and patient, and her face presents a trained expression of blandness that's more alarming to Mina than any amount of hysteria. "The military has a mandatory treatment policy for psychological trauma, as you know. Your psyche is quite badly injured. This is the first time you've been lucid in three months. We need to perform the Lethe treatment before you have another episode."

And yet, Mina prefers hallucinations to this reality: lying useless on a hospital bed, locked in a secure hologlass room with restraints around her bruised limbs. Vials and vials of drugs, some empty, lie scattered and within reach on a table built into her bed. She's so foggy from their former contents that it takes her a moment to register the sight as both a safety violation and the key to freedom.

She takes a deep breath. "I want one more viewing."

Veronik's chest and shoulders rise and fall in a silent sigh. "In the end, you'll still forget."

Mina lifts her chin. "If it won't make a difference, then why not?"

Maybe that's why Veronik agrees.

The doctor sits back in her padded monitoring chair, which is outfitted with viewing displays and control panels. Several meters of wires relay its commands to Mina's elevated bed and the machinery under, around, and above it. That seat is control central. Mina knows this, because there's a little hologram floating a foot above her head, depicting all of the Lethe System's units in colorful diagrams. Powerful databases constantly calculate Mina's brain signals just behind her pillow. A visual display system is embedded within the gray bedframe. Underneath the bed is a milky white cylinder, a meter in diameter and two meters long, containing the memory transferal neurons. She can hear, from its innards, the hissing and bubbling of fluid aeration.

As soon as Veronik turns her attention to her panels, Mina swipes a glass vial off the bedside table and hides it under the sheets.

In the next moment, blazing streams of multicolored data begin to scroll through Veronik's monitors. Fluids roil inside the cylinder as if boiling over. Databanks hum as processors overclock themselves. Mina can feel the Lethe System's cooling fans, like soft and gentle breaths, on her skin.

"There is a Lethe System tutorial," Veronik says as holograms initialize above the bed, swirling in holding patterns while the programs load. "Have the nurses shown it to you?"

"No," Mina lies, glad to buy time. Under the bedsheets, her right hand finds the ampule. She snaps the glass neck in two, aims the broken end at the restraint, and begins to slice. All the while, holographic talking heads blather cheerfully in the air. She fixes her eyes on the images, pretending to watch while cutting as fast as she dares.

"...the Lethe System uses live neurons treated for telempathic ability..."

Her hand is damp with sweat, and the shard slips away for an instant. She bites down on her panic, feeling precious seconds evaporating while she searches, and doesn't exhale again until her scarred skin brushes up against a razor-sharp edge.

"...works by transferring traumatic memories from your brain to its own neurons..."

The muscles and nerves of her wrist, fragile in their newly regenerated state, burn up with cramps as she twists them in tortured angles.

"...a consultation with your neurologist will map your brain circuitry to find your specific traumatic experience or experiences, which can then be viewed using the Lethe System's integrated mnemosensory holoprojector..."

She focuses on the blade, moving it back and forth in time with her pulse, quicker and quicker—

"Thank you for your attention! We wish you a successful treatment."

Surprised by the sudden silence, Mina wonders whether her escape attempt is now audible. Veronik presses a button.

An enormous model of Mina's brain replaces the tutorial hologram. The smooth whorls and deep folds of the organ resolve into individual neurons, which intertwine with each other into illuminated pathways. Those in turn meld into a glowing sphere of circuits and symbols, smooth like neon lights, interlocked and into loops and whorls, so dense that they're almost too bright to look at.

"Mina Besz," Veronik says, and for all that there are no combat ribbons on her medic uniform, there is a steel tone in her voice that triggers all of Mina's soldierly reflexes. "Remember the strut malfunction on Bethesda Station."

A red symbol lights up, pulsating in the colorful holographic sphere. It looks like an enormous swollen neuron; its branches are not the fine threads of other engrams, but distended like diseased tentacles, like rotting roots. They're tangled around not only themselves, but other faded engrams that look as if the life is being choked out of them.

Veronik touches a finger to the belligerent engram. "As you can see for yourself, this memory is neuropsychologically toxic. It's a cognitive cancer. We must remove it."

Mina, only a few stubborn threads away from freedom, tears at the restraint harder than ever, no longer caring whether Veronik notices. But Veronik's focus remains on the sphere of lights, and in the same instant that Mina starts her last cut, Veronik sweeps a hand through the red knot of memory.

The room melts into a sensorium.

Her head throbs from working on an annual report of the infrastructural repairs most needed on Bethesda Station. She'd emphasized that as the United Planetary Alliance's most advanced military research facility, its maintenance needs are accordingly higher, and the consequences for failure more severe. Her engineering uniform is rank with engine grease and two days' worth of sweat. Her feet are swollen and aching as they carry her into the station arboretum, where she jogs past research zones into an extravagantly blooming blood cherry orchard.

Fragrant ruby petals, heavy and velvety, fill the air. Above the crimson silhouettes of the flowering trees lies an everlasting starry night; underneath them stands a man in uniform. As she approaches him, blossoms are falling so thickly that they seem to blot out the rest of the universe. It's so infinitely intimate that Mina's breath catches in her throat.

Medical patches are on the man's shoulders. A new line had been added to his rank, and many more around his eyes, after the station's Chief Surgeon had died last week, making him Acting Chief Surgeon Ren Yuki. She hasn't seen him since then. His black hair has grown longer than regulation, his brown eyes are tired, and his tawny skin has grown sallow, but his smile is inviting. Mina takes him up on it and pulls him in for a long, deep kiss.

Ren is, however, not nearly as enthusiastic as she'd been hoping. That's strange, as he's the one who had asked to meet here on the double.

She comes up for air and is about to ask what is wrong when she spots that his beautiful surgeon's hands are shaking, something she's never seen, not when they were fresh-faced cadets at the Academy and not in the five years since. The sight pumps vacuum into her veins.

"I did something extremely stupid. I'm sorry."

If a black hole opened up to swallow the station at that moment, Mina would still be less shocked. Ren is one of three people in their Academy class to graduate without a single demerit. If Ren bombed a medical transport full of newborns, Mina would not be the only person to assume he'd had a perfectly good reason.

"What happened?"

"I'm trying to decide whether to go AWOL now, or make my case at my court martial." His gaze blurs, then refocuses on her. "Either way, I don't think I'll ever see you again."

Mina had long ago accepted that love in uniform could end at any time. She had braced herself for shattered ships, errant plasma bolts, mutant viruses. But her imagination had failed to prepare for this possibility, and now here they are.

Ren, for his part, looks drained but at peace. There's no self-pity in his language or stance. "This being entirely my fault, I haven't got the right to ask you for anything. But I'm going to be selfish and ask anyway: I love you, Mina. Will you remember me?"

She wants to sweep him up in her arms to protect him from whatever consequences were waiting, shake him until he explains himself, turn back time and punch him out before he could do whatever he has done, and if all that fails, she wants to will the universe out of existence.

Before she says or does anything, her wish comes true. The universe, or at least their pocket of it, begins to end.

The ground rumbles and tears in two. Topsoil collapses in a landslide to reveal metal beams twisting apart, fluids spurting from broken pipes, ducts exploding with steam. Mina shoves a frozen Ren towards safety, then jumps after him with all her might.

Ren makes it over the abyss.

Mina doesn't. She sees his shocked face floating above her just before she plummets into deep darkness, broken scaffolding tearing into her uniform and body, snapping bones and ripping apart tissues—

—she's going to die like this, one more broken body in a pile of corpses on a cold metal floor in a dark room—

—garbled screaming—

—the stench of rotting flesh and putrid fluid coming from her own body—

—pain filling up the universe and then compressing it down, down, down into infinite agony—

—and then there is nothing.

"Lieutenant? You're okay, you're going to be fine, breathe, take it easy."

She's kicking and thrashing and wheezing for air. "Ren—Specialist Yuki—"

"He's dead, Lieutenant. Do you remember?"

As the nightmare sloughs off and she regains her senses, Mina does. It doesn't take a machine for her to recall that no matter how much she has suffered, the universe can always inflict yet more pain.

A nurse had filled Mina in on the details of the aftermath, and shown her a copy of Ren's death certificate along with some station logs, before the Lethe preparation. Mina had been found under a pile of bodies in a service shaft, hours away from death by gangrene. Doctors had kept her in an artificial coma for six weeks while they rebuilt her body, then six more while they tried and failed to rebuild her mind.

And she's still doing better than Ren, whose record says he died in a drone accident during the station rebuilding. Ren hadn't even left enough remains to bury. One hundred and fourteen others had died in some way due to the collapse, which had spread to nearly a quarter of the station. Mina had also taken a moment to appreciate, with black humor, the commendation she'd received for "exemplary work" on the futile structural assessment report.

"It's time," Veronik says. Mina remembers that her hands are now free to throw a punch, and she does.

It's hardly her best effort, but Veronik never sees it coming and goes down with a viscerally satisfying thud on the hologlass floor. Her eyes slowly close, leaving slivers of white under bruised eyelids.

"This is my answer," Mina says. "I will remember him."

She undoes her restraints, tears the bedsheets into strips, and ties Veronik into a sloppy heap of linens on the floor. With the personnel shortage, Mina figures she has fifteen minutes to haul herself to the launchpad and steal any vehicle she can.

First, she has to escape this room. Veronik would have secured the airlock with her biometric signature. An engineering emergency code could override it. Mina grabs a tray of surgical instruments and destroys most of them in prying open the doorway access panel, revealing an alphanumeric keypad.

She reaches out a hand and then freezes. The sequence that she had once memorized has been replaced with a grayish blur. Perhaps Veronik has a point about cognitive damage after all.

Mina punches some buttons as if to silence the thought. The code fails.

The heap stirs. "Before you throw everything away on Ren, you should know that before he died, he forgot you."

Another code attempt. Mina's finger leaves streaks of sweat on the pad. It fails again. "Liar. He would never. He told me so."

"I know he told you so," Veronik says, and there's no malice to her words, only a familiar and heavy sadness that Mina can't quite place. "I also know that you had that conversation five years ago. You were both on leave. Ren had told you about the Lethe System. It was only a concept at that time. Then he told you that he'd never use it, because he wanted to be responsible for his own memories. Do I have it right, Lieutenant?"

"Yes," Mina whispers. She closes her eyes, briefly lost in her recollection of the orange glow of sunset through her dusty hotel window, the tenderness of Ren's fingertips stroking her forehead as they lay face to face in her messy bed, the reassurance of his strong voice speaking those words.

She makes one last attempt at the keypad before opening her eyes and speaking again. "How do you know?"

"I watched him delete that memory, along with every other memory he had of you."

Mina finally turns from the control panel and stares at Veronik. "Why?"

Instead of answering, Veronik continues, "The thing you must ask yourself is whether you love the man, or merely the memory of him loving you. If you love Ren, knowing that he betrayed you, then I will sign your release forms right now. But if you love the memory, then his betrayal has turned it into a lie. Would you really risk your career, your sanity, your life, on a worthless memory?"

With a chime and a hiss, the airlock opens. Mina's last attempt is correct, after all. She takes a wobbling step towards freedom.

I will remember him.

He forgot you.

Which is when Mina realizes that Ren has left something behind after all: a witness.

"You tell me," she says.

Mina shuts the door, re-engages the lock, sprints back to Veronik, hauls the doctor off the floor and flings her into the bed, forcing her head into the Lethe System scanner. In only a few moments, an entirely new set of engrams light up in the room: Veronik's memories, now available for Mina to access.

"What are you doing?" Veronik croaks, body writhing against her bindings hard enough to bruise, to bleed, and then her bloodshot eyes widen as she realizes Mina's intention. "Stop!"

Mina commands, "Veronik Yaskov, remember when Ren Yuki forgot me."

A golden thread, tangled and buried deep and twisted on itself, pulsates.

"Please believe me," Veronik whispers, her body slack, her face drained of blood. "You don't want to see this."

Mina reaches out and touches the engram.

The room shifts and melts, as does Mina—

—"Dammit!" Only the knowledge of how much more trouble she'd be in if she breaks the machine keeps Veronik from actually kicking the Lethe System, which is currently flashing errors in red lights. "This code isn't in the documentation. Do you know what's going on?" She wheels towards Ren. In theory, only the Chief Neuropsychologist is allowed to operate the Lethe System. Ren, she assumes, had been delivered the galaxy's quickest training session after the last Chief ate his sidearm.

"Not exactly," Ren mutters, crouching down, hands clenched around each other.

Her last nerve snaps. "What is wrong with you? You've been squirrelly for weeks. You can report me for mouthing off to a superior officer later, but right now you need to get yourself together. Or at least the Lethe System."

"It's the wetware," he says, shoulders tensing up.

She frowns and thinks back to the tutorial video that she's played thousands of time by now. "The neurons?"

"See that valve configuration in the diagnosis panel? It looks like some of the fluidics got jammed and the self-cleaning cycle initiated. The cells are swimming in formaldehyde by now. They're toast."

"I didn't know that was possible." She's looked under the hood before, but never done any maintenance. "Do we have a protocol for the tissue lab to regrow them?"

"You know we're not really supposed to service the Lethe System, right? If it breaks, we're supposed to ship it home. End of story." Without any guarantee of a replacement, as the entire medical staff knows. Bethesda Station possesses the only working Lethe System in the universe, and command never lets them forget it.

Veronik narrows her eyes. She didn't spend three years working in psychiatry without honing her radar for bullshit, and Ren is full of something right now. "It sounds to me like you could help, but you don't want to."

"It's not what you think. You don't know what the military command—"

"I know they're a few hundred light-years away and have their brassy heads up their asses. They send over soldiers that they broke from all over the galaxy and don't even help us maintain the Lethe System that fixes them. If they really don't care, then it's up to us. Have you looked at the patient list lately? There are over three hundred patients in the queue right now. If you're holding out on me, then their pain and suffering is on you."

Ren opens his mouth. Closes it. Looks away. "I'll see what I can do. On one condition."

"I'll tell you where my secret stash of booze is."

"I already know it's under the data archive cabinets. No, I want you to promise to treat Lieutenant Besz as soon as she's lucid enough for Lethe."

That's a strange request, because he doesn't need to ask. Besz is one of the highest priorities on the patient list. She's been cycling between catatonia and psychosis since a rescue team hauled her out of a shaft. Veronik herself had done the scans finding that overwhelming trauma was destroying Besz's memory, cognition, and psyche. The only way to halt the damage was drugging Besz into oblivion, which is not a long-term solution. The brain, like a muscle, needs activity or it wastes away. Sleeping beauty would eventually become a vegetable.

"You're the boss," she says.

"I need to hear it."

"I promise to treat Mina Besz. As long as you deliver."

"You remember that," Ren says, with a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. He grabs a few blank codechips out of a lab drawer and chooses a bot from the surgery workroom, then sits down to program.

She leaves sickbay before he does, and wakes up the next morning to find two notifications in her station mail. One, the Lethe System's treatment room has been locked to her ID. Two, a neurosurgery bot has sent her a copy of Ren Yuki's death certificate.

The first detail that jumps out at her through the shock is that the messaging bot isn't in commission. In fact, that ID belongs to the bot that Yuki had been working on yesterday...

She sprints to the treatment room. Unlocks the door with her biometric ID and runs inside.

Blood splatters cover the floor. Three surgery bots stand at frozen attention, silver appendages covered with gore in red and black and gray. Empty anesthesia ampules crack and crunch under her uniform boots as she runs towards the Lethe System. Its many monitors inform her that the machine is performing the final step of neuron preparation: a precautionary wiping away of every spurious connection and signal that might have gestated during the culturing process.

Veronik forces the fluidics chamber open, ignoring the blaring alarms warning of potential contamination.

She's fed the neurons before, changed the media, checked the valves, maintained the tubing. She knows that, normally, inside are linked clusters of grayish cells encased in dialysis membranes soaking in a nutrient solution and fed by hundreds of tubes carrying precise cocktails of drugs.

This time there is a human.

Ren Yuki's naked body floats in the chemical bath. His eyes are open, rolling this way and that like dark marbles, looking everywhere and seeing nothing. Tubes protrude from his shaved skull, and even as she hears the pumps injecting chemicals into his brain, Veronik's clinical mind notes the machine-precise stitching.

The final wipe takes only a moment. The room fills to overflowing with all of Ren Yuki's memories, compressed into a single moment. Veronik briefly sees, experiences, lives his life for an infinitesimal moment before he is erased forever, reset like a throwaway data disk.

Mina surfaces from the memory. First, she sees Veronik's sickened face. Second, she sees the white ceiling as she collapses into the monitoring chair.

Mina says, a hand over her mouth to quell the swelling nausea, "He didn't."

"He did. I'm sorry."

"Why would he?"

"You didn't see? Never mind. Memories of memories don't transfer well. But I imagine it's because he loved you, and because the fluidics error was not an accident."

Mina remembers Ren's paralysis when the chasm had opened up under him. She'd thought, then and now, that it had been just a little pathetic. Now she wonders: had he felt something like this? Heart burning up even as her bones froze? Brain collapsing under information that it is unwilling to accept?

"When Ren made Chief Surgeon, command cleared him to read all the files on the Lethe System. He discovered that the neurons could only be derived from a live human brain, which he found completely unacceptable, so he sabotaged the machine. But then you needed it."

"So he replaced the broken cells with himself?"


"That was months ago. Have you been using him on other patients in the meantime?"


"How the hell could you?"

Veronik laces her hands together. "At first I thought, as Ren no doubt also did, that whoever was in there before must have been coerced. That it must have been some form of murder. But then Ren found a reason to go in of his own free will. So I chose to believe that the first person did the same. That there can be a good reason to become the Lethe System." Her smile is bittersweet. "If you don't believe me, you're free to put me inside. After I've treated you. So long as you promise to use me to treat every patient who needs it."


"What's it like inside? Is he—would you be—dead?"

"Neurons must be alive and conscious for the Lethe System to function. But the system has no capacity for anything other than memory storage. It experiences, without remembering. And so it will relive the nightmares of others, forever and ever."

"And you want that?"

"It would be preferable to my own memories."

"I don't think I can live with doing that to anyone."

Veronik shrugs. "You don't have to. I can erase this entire day. You'll never even know that you had a treatment. Remember, you can always forget."

What to do? Remember or forget? Add to Ren's incomprehensible burden, or throw his sacrifice back in his face? Or pull the plug and let him die in a cesspool of nightmares, with agony as his last and only experience?

And no matter what she does, how can she stand to remember Ren for the rest of her life?


"I want to forget. But first, I want to see Ren. Take me inside the Lethe System."

Veronik frowns, then shakes her head. "You don't know what you're asking. Viewing the entire Lethe System isn't like reliving a single memory. You could be lost in there forever."

"I don't care. You'll do it."

"Or what? I'm already in hell. Do you really imagine you can punish me further?"

"No. But I can tell every single one of your patients exactly what they've been treated with."

Veronik gives a resigned nod.

Mina unties her. Veronik massages her wrists, then calls up a control interface. With several taps, she takes the Lethe System into maintenance mode.

The room vanishes.

Mina finds herself gasping in panic as she whirls in space, free-falling through a darkness that fades into colorless oblivion at the edges. In the corners of her sight are tattered ghosts and impressions, faded colors and sights and smells and sounds. It's shockingly vast, frighteningly infinite, and she's both surprised and relieved when a hand grasps hers.

Veronik says, "Whatever else you think of me, I'm still your doctor. I won't let you navigate this alone."

"What is this?"

"Memoryscape. The Lethe System stores its information going from newest to oldest. And we have to go through all the memories before we can access him. Then when you want to exit the Lethe System, you'll have to experience them again, in reverse. I'll try to avoid the worst memories, but I can't shield you from them all. Are you sure you want to do this?"

Mina nods.

Veronik pulls them into and through—

—She's standing on a barren battlefield, barking out orders that she knows will send soldiers to their deaths, all the while wishing for nothing more than a bullet in her own skull. She lies face down in blood and filth while leather flays her back open, tearing skin off in chunks of fiery pain. She's been awake for forty-eight hours in a surgery tent, screaming curses at the staff so that she won't weep with devastated sadness instead. She stands in front of a bunk bed staring at her best friend hung up by his own belt, and as quiet hopelessness settles into her soul, she knew that she will never sleep again—

When the memories finally end, Mina finds herself standing in an ocean of shifting ashes.

"Unformed memoryscape," Veronik says, and leads on.

After what feels like an eternity, they reach the center of the empty landscape. Ren is there, curled up, naked on the gray sands like a drowned sailor washed up on shore.

"Ren," Mina says, kneeling to catch his gaze. "It's me."

His dark eyes are empty. "I do not know you."

"I know," she says softly. "And I also know that you're going to experience the worst memories of thousands of people for the rest of your existence. I can't do anything about your pain. But I can give you all my good memories of you, and all the love inside of them. I know that it's nothing compared to all the horrors in the universe, but whatever good it can do, I want you to have it."

"Mina," Veronik says, yanking her back as one from the brink. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you were right." Mina throws off Veronik's grasp. "You asked me, which do I love more? The man or the memory? I'm answering you at last. I love Ren Yuki more than anything. Even the memory of him."

Mina calls up her most precious memories, one by one.

She remembers the tail end of thirty-six hours awake as the only cadet engineer stubborn enough to volunteer to search for a lost shuttle, who ended up finding the only cadet surgeon stupid enough to search for enemy survivors after a devastating stalemate of a battle. She remembers his smile, hazy through her impending stim crash. Clearer when she woke up in medical to find him in the next bed.

She remembers celebrating their survival by sneaking bottles into the barracks so that they could drink under the covers that night. She remembers, too, how intoxicating her first kiss had been, soaked in wine. She remembers sliding a hand under his shirt, and she remembers how he'd hesitated, and then slowly, gently, returned her touch.

She remembers how perfectly the curves of their bodies fit into each other. She remembers the warmth of his skin through a thin shirt, the way his voice sounded through a helmet, through vacuum, through the light-years between stars.

She remembers moments once insignificant, but now precious, like motes of dust that suddenly and brilliantly catch the sunlight. The taste of coffee shared in the morning and the roughness of sheets pulled over them in the evening: an axis around which their days and nights revolved. Hours poring over textbooks, steps run together on morning exercises, quick smiles and glances in hallways and over shoulders.

She recalls happiness so overwhelming that tears of happiness streamed from her eyes. She remembers, for both of them, moments of joy so fierce that she thought her heart would burst.

The memories layer, each on the other, like the petals falling through her most treasured memory of all. Under a fragrant shower of flowers, Mina allows herself one last look, one last smile, one last kiss.

Then she closes her eyes and forgets.

It feels like exhaling a long breath that leaves behind only cold vacuum.

When Mina opens her eyes again, she has returned to the ashen beach, and her head is oddly light. Veronik stands next to her, eyes wide and a hand over her mouth. The doctor seizes Mina and leads them away. More familiar with the memoryscape this time, Mina manages to avoid some of the more disturbing remembrances.

"We're almost out," Veronik says, near the end. "I think there's only one more."

Mina takes a step, and suddenly she stands in an extravagantly blooming bloodcherry orchard.

Fragrant ruby petals, heavy and velvety, fill the air. Above the crimson silhouettes of the flowering trees lies an everlasting starry night; underneath them stands a man in uniform. As she approaches him, blossoms fall so thickly that they seem to blot out the rest of the universe. It's so infinitely intimate that Mina's breath catches in her throat.

Medical patches are on the man's shoulders. His black hair is longer than regulation, his brown eyes are tired and his tawny skin is sallow, but his smile is inviting.

The man says, "I love you, Mina. Will you remember me?"

Repulsed, Mina takes a step back. She knows that none of this beautiful tableau is real, not the man and not the smile and not his love. She is inside a fragment of a memory, one of many hallucinations of a fragmented brain inside a vat of drugs. She feels nothing but overwhelming pity and dread for this smiling ghost stretching out its hand at her, for this mind that doesn't even realize that it is only dreaming.

"No," Mina says. "I don't know who you are."

About the Author
Kara Lee is an author of science fiction and fantasy. Find her online at www.windupdreams.net.