The Memory-Setter’s Apprentice

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Those who survive combat with the Sarakul return home with holes in their memories. As memory-setters, it’s our job to delve inside their skulls and repair the damage.

When I say “our job” I’m stretching the truth, since I’m not yet a memory-setter. During my last three years of apprenticeship under Master Agoza I’ve assisted with many restorations. Even completed a few solo. But technically I’m still an apprentice.

Tomorrow that will change.

First thing in the morning, Master Agoza will test me. If I pass the test I’ll become a Master, able to practice independently.

And if I fail… well, I guess then I’ll be looking for a different way of supporting the war effort.

I’m lying in bed, unable to sleep, when my sister Cora opens the door to the small room we share in this Solace Home, one of many in the Kapali province. Cora believes that the government calls these places Solace Homes because an honest name—like orphan centers—would make people too uncomfortable. It’s one of the rare times we agree.

I occupy our bunk bed’s upper mattress. With the door open, light spilling in from the corridor reveals my open eyes to her.

“Beyo.” She sounds concerned rather than relieved. She closes the door and turns on the light. “I expected you’d be getting rest for your big day tomorrow.”

“I wish,” I mutter, and sigh heavily. Maybe it was a mistake to tell her about my “big day”. Though I doubt it was her intention, her comment has piled onto my anxiety. I climb down from the bunk bed and stand beside the open window. I part the thin curtain and look out into the moonless night, my back to Cora. She understands this is her cue to change into her night-clothes, and does so. There’s not much privacy in such cramped quarters; our system of signals, much needed for a brother and sister sharing a room, evolved quickly after arriving here six years ago.

“How was your shift?” I ask without much interest.

“You know how it goes,” she says, similarly unenthusiastic. For the last year, Cora, in addition to apprenticing to become a doctor, has been volunteering her time to help new arrivals. Sometimes I think she does it just to make me feel lazy by comparison. “Truth be told, I’m exhausted,” she goes on. “Can I turn off the light?”

“Sure.”

She gets into bed. I continue standing where I am. Even with the window open, the air inside our room is stuffy, as it tends to get during Kapali’s scorching, humid summers. I run my hand through my sweat-slicked hair and sigh again.

“What’s wrong?” Cora asks, turning in bed.

“Nothing.”

“If that were true you’d be sleeping. Master Agoza?” I don’t answer. She asks, “What happened this time?”

“Nothing happened,” I snap. “He’s just being his usual tight-lipped self.”

“About the test?”

“About everything.”

“Maybe if you didn’t take so much after him, things would be easier. Tell me more about the test and I might be able to help.”

I can’t believe Cora thinks I’m similar to the Master in any way. I couldn’t be more different from the man! And there’s that word she always uses, help. It irritates me so much. Ever since Cora became my guardian all she’s wanted to do is help. If she’s so good at helping maybe she should have helped Dad stay home, instead of getting himself killed at the hands of the Sarakul; or maybe she should have helped our mom overcome her grief and stopped her from committing suicide shortly after. But no. She was helpless then, just like me. And now she wants to make everything better.

Some things just can’t be fixed.

In the silence that stretches on uncomfortably, I realize maybe I’m being too harsh. I hear myself, using the same mind-listening talent that made me apprentice as memory-setter, and I have to admit I sound like kind of a jerk.

I relent. “I don’t know what the test will consist of.”

“What do you mean?” Cora asks, puzzled.

“When I asked Master Agoza about it he just said, ‘You’ll either be ready or you won’t.'”

“Maybe he thinks you’ll do well no matter what.”

I cross my arms. “Maybe he doesn’t care whether I pass or not.”

“But he’s invested so much time in you.”

“Because he enjoys making me suffer.”

“Beyo, stop. If you think that—”

“Look, it doesn’t matter what either of us thinks,” I say, cutting her off. I can’t stomach a lecture right now. “I’m going to get some fresh air.”

“At this hour?”

Wordlessly, I put on the fresh clothes I had prepared for the morning, step out into the corridor and let the door behind me click shut.

Outside, I breathe deeply in the damp night. The stars are cold pinpricks of light in a black sky. Faraway, someone is hollering, or perhaps singing drunkenly.

Now that I’m out here I admit to myself that Cora’s concern was justified. Vagabonds and addicts tend to hang around Solace Homes, looking for food, access codes to the center, medicines, drugs, whatever.

I scan my surroundings.

I’m alone.

The feeling is familiar to me. It’s been with me for the last six years. I know Cora means well, but she can be so overbearing.

I begin walking, at first not aware of my destination, but as I glance at street names I figure it out. With increasing briskness I’m heading down East Laza Street, towards Farlu district, also known as the Healer’s district.

I’m making my way to Master Agoza’s memory-setting clinic.

How absurd. The place will be closed. Master Agoza will be sleeping soundly at home. Yet I keep going. Something inside me is unwilling to listen to reason. Tonight, my mind says, you should be unreasonable. As my pace increases small beads of sweat slide down my neck and a chill of uneasiness snakes down my nape.

When I arrive I see lights on inside.

Thieves , I think, my heart pounding. Someone has broken in. I should call Master Agoza

Then I stop. Would criminals really turn on the lights? I look inside through the entrance room window and see a familiar shape shuffling toward the front door. I would recognize that stooped figure’s gait anywhere: Master Agoza.

He lets me in, as rude and aloof as ever. Inside the back room where we hold our lessons, it seems odd to sit at my usual place, so I stand a few feet from the central workbench instead. Master Agoza, eyes as lifeless as always, ignores me, busy changing settings on the equipment we use for memory-setting.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I volunteer. I hate to be the first to speak, but I prefer hearing my own voice to not hearing any voice at all. “Can I help with whatever you’re working on?”

He doesn’t respond, but continues tapping quick commands on the computer’s display. Then he begins connecting cables to the main unit.

Anger flushes my cheeks. I’m about to make a smart remark about Master Agoza’s lack of social skills. He may be the greatest memory-setter in all of Kapali, but he’s surely a fool in regard to just about everything else that matters in life. He has no friends, lives only for his work. Again Cora’s earlier comparison stings me. But I keep my mouth shut. All this could be part of my evaluation. The test was supposed to start in the morning—but what if that’s changed? What if the test begins whenever the apprentice shows up?

I study his movements. He’s configured the system for a one-on-one connection. One setter and one patient; no secondary setter to assist with the procedure.

Ah, I think. Tension in my neck and shoulders eases. That’s the test, then: a solo memory-setting.

But as I study Master Agoza further, I analyze how he has set up the ports and connectors, and I see something I missed before. The interface sensitivity setting, which regulates the strength of the link between the two joined minds, has been left blank. The higher this setting, the deeper the connection between two minds. Usually this parameter is set to “auto”: it’s fixed by the computer when the session begins, optimized for the maximum mental connection that will heal the patient without over-exposing the memory-setter to the patient’s thoughts.

Master Agoza turns to me at last, and, in his gravelly voice says, “Select a patient. Here are some possible choices from the wait list.” Eight war veterans, with a few key statistics about each one’s degree of memory damage, are displayed on the screen. “After you’ve made your choice,” Master Agoza continues, “you’ll adjust the sensitivity setting, and in a few hours, when the sun is up, I’ll call the patient. Once he or she arrives you will perform a restoration.”

I frown. It seems obvious that I should select the patient with the least amount of damage so I can be sure of success. But the obvious answer is often the wrong one—especially where Master Agoza is concerned. Perhaps he would take this to mean that I’m not ready for more challenging cases. On the other hand, if I select the patient with the most damage—a soldier whose mind, according to the file, is riddled with massive memory cavities, and who would be challenging for even the most veteran memory-setter—am I not taking an unnecessary risk?

I see then what he’s doing: he’s evaluating my ability to judge my own skills.

The best way to proceed, then, is to pick someone towards the upper end of the difficulty range, but someone whom I’m still confident I can help. Yes, that’s it.

I open my mouth to speak the name of the sixth patient—

And then stop.

Too easy .

“When I am a Master,” I say, “I won’t be able to choose which patient arrives at my clinic. Doesn’t selecting a patient now give me an unfair advantage?”

“You aren’t yet a Master, and at this rate you won’t become one,” Master Agoza says coolly. “Choose a patient, or be dismissed.”

I stare into the Master’s useless, milky-white eyes. I find them repellent. For the first time, I realize that on some level, strange as it sounds, I resent him for his blindness. As though he somehow chose to be this way so that he could avoid eye contact with other human beings. Calm down, I think. After all, Master Agoza himself is a war veteran. Doesn’t he deserve the same empathy as any other veteran who walks through the clinic’s front door?

Still staring at Master Agoza, I consider that I’ve never asked him about his war experiences, though I’ve been tempted many times. I’ve always held myself back, out of respect for his privacy. No one knows exactly what happened to him in the war; apparently, as his previous apprentice told me in a hushed voice the day he ended his apprenticeship and I began mine, Master Agoza was captured by the Sarakul but somehow managed to escape. I thought that was an unlikely story when I first heard it, and it seems an unlikely story now. The Sarakul don’t take prisoners. Even their disruption of our long-term memories isn’t deliberate, the experts say, but a byproduct of their combat pulse technology (something about the frequency of their beams weakening the neuronal connections that enable memory retrieval). Why should the Sarakul, then, have captured Master Agoza and kept him alive? As I ask myself this question, I feel emboldened by my anger. The earlier instinctual thought returns: Tonight you must be unreasonable. And I replay in my mind the words that Master Agoza uttered as he pulled up the patient profiles: Here are some possible choices from the wait list.

Possible choices.

Which is to say, not necessarily all of my choices.

I’ve never known Master Agoza not to choose his words carefully.

“I’ve made my selection,” I say in what I hope will be a neutral tone. The less emotion I display—good or bad—the less he’ll have to use against me. “I choose you, Master Agoza.”

He sits very straight. A thin smile spreads across his gaunt, unshaven face. Not joy; more like a self-satisfied smirk.

“As you wish,” he says. “Since you’ve chosen me, there’s no need to wait. Let’s begin.”

Entering into the role of memory-setter I guide Master Agoza to the ports, but he links in to the system on his own. I sit down at the station that he usually occupies during our lessons, our places reversed, and hook myself up.

I glance at the sensitivity setting and decide to go for a high level. Given this rare chance to explore Master Agoza’s mind, I want to find out as much as possible.

I input the startup commands and let him know that I’m about to ask a standard set of pre-connection questions to which I’ll be recording his responses.

“Have you ever had your memories set before?” I begin.

“No.”

“To the best of your knowledge and the knowledge of the physician who last examined you, are your memory gaps the result of Sarakul technology?”

“Yes.”

“How extensive is the damage? Please rate your memory loss on a scale of zero to ten.”

“Who knows,” he says. “Some days it feels like zero. Others like ten.”

“I will set you down as a five. Have you suffered other injuries in the war?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Please be more specific.”

“In my case I think it’s obvious,” he says, and waves a hand in front of his unblinking eyes. “Unless you happen to be blind.”

“For the record, visual impairment. Anything else?”

“Yes.”

“I repeat, please be more specific.”

“It’s none of your goddamn business.”

I swallow. “Are you being treated for your other difficulties?”

“No treatment is available at the present time.”

“What is your occupation?”

“I help war veterans. And in my free time I turn young pissants into men.”

I pause. “You’re an instructor.”

“I am a Master Memory-setter,” he corrects.

“Before that, what did you do?”

“Killed Sarakul.”

“Do you have an emergency contact?”

“No.”

“Next of kin?”

“All deceased. Can we get on with it?”

“In the case of any memory-setting there’s a small but non-zero chance of cognitive collapse. In such a situation, to whom do you wish to bequeath your possessions?”

“What do I care?” he asks. “You can keep my things, for all they’re worth.”

“Very well. Thank you for answering these questions. The next part of the process—”

“Maybe you weren’t listening, but I told you I’m a Master Memory-setter, so I know what the next part of the process is.”

My pulse quickens. I force myself to engage in make-believe, to pretend that I don’t know this man. He is a stranger, a patient I’ve never seen before. I am a Master Memory-setter. I will help him. I will help him. That is all.

Using the computer, I prepare my mind with the usual array of cognitive analogs—a vast dictionary of images, sounds, smells, tastes, even tactile sensations—that will help me through the process. Finally I say, “I’m activating the link now.”

My mind is hit hard.

I’ve never experienced a tidal wave in real life, but I have to believe this is what it would feel like. A pent-up reservoir of shapeless, inscrutable thoughts crashes into me, testing the limits of my identity. The surge tries to drown out every thought that helps to make me me.

My hand bolts forward toward the sensitivity setting, but before my fingers make contact with the screen I see that Master Agoza is grinning. That’s when I realize: he’s doing this on purpose, marshaling his thoughts, rallying his mind, trying to invade me with it. Lowering the sensitivity setting would be a sign of weakness, of losing control during the session. I must hold my ground.

I lower my hand back down.

Just as I feel that I’ve restored a measure of control, he says, with unmistakable smugness, “Are you sure the connection is working? I can’t feel anything.”

I grunt. Another attack. Attempting to verbalize a response right now would distract me from the task at hand, which is to learn the contours of his mind. I close my eyes and complete a focus-strengthening exercise we have practiced often. Little by little I feel my mental resolve returning. The writhing sea of foreign thoughts pushing up against me begins to settle down. I can afford to speak again. “Sometimes the connection takes a few instants. You should sense it shortly.”

I have shaped my consciousness into a barrier that fends off the ocean of his otherness—a wide, sturdy, dam-like wall. I imagine myself on top of this wall now, studying the scene. Now I must take the next step. I have to become familiar enough with the sub-structure of his mind to identify which places have been altered by the Sarakul, so that I can restore them.

Plunge into the sea.

In the real world, traces of spittle line the edges of Master Agoza’s lips. Maybe, I dare to think, this is not easy for him. And then: Stay on track. What’s important is how I’m doing. I’m coping. Good. Good. Time to go deeper.

I leap in. I’m instantly chilled by his thoughts, amazed that anything this icy can move around, let alone be liquid. My real body, sitting by the computer, shivers. In the mindscape, hungry undercurrents tug at me but I make myself too heavy for them, too burdened by purpose. Mustering all my focus I plummet down until I hit the seafloor of Master Agoza’s mind. At last, with the equivalent of a dull, water-muffled thud, I feel myself on firm ground.

At these depths it’s utterly dark. I broadcast the message as loudly and clearly as I can that I’m here to help him, but the darkness smothers me. It becomes so oppressive that I forget how to breathe-both here and out in the real world.

I’m paralyzed.

Help me, I think, uselessly. Please.

A few moments later a familiar voice replies: I’m here.

I feel a gentle nudge and my body slips out of panic’s death-hold. Air flows through my real lungs, in and out, in and out, a delicious, intoxicating rush that translates into the ability to move around in the mindscape once more.

Good , the voice says, pleased. Together we’ll get through this.

Cora?

Yes .

But how is that possible? I ask. How can you be inside my mind?

I’m not inside your mind, I’m a part of your mind, the voice explains. A fragment of your own consciousness that represents resourcefulness, hope, whatever qualities you admire in the real Cora. If you think of me as her, it will make everything easier.

Master Agoza once told me that this could happen. A talented memory-setter, he explained, might encounter a patient so damaged that the effort of helping him or her would trigger a mental avatar of someone known to the setter. I remember thinking it sounded like fantasy. But this is real-as real as anything that exists inside the mind.

I try to move forward but feel myself pinned down. The pressure all around me is rising.

What do I do?

Relax , Cora instructs. Think of something pleasant. Like the time I taught you to identify the basic night sky constellations.

I summon the memory. A gorgeous winter night, several months after we found out our mom had killed herself. It seems crazy to give in to this particular memory so deep in Master Agoza’s mind, but Cora’s voice is impossible to distrust. I allow myself to re-experience that evening. I relive the numbness of my shocked emotions. But then I remember something I had completely forgotten until now: the joy of learning how to read the sky, the exuberance of discovering order and beauty in the heavens. And a curious thing happens—as I allow the memory to overtake me, something loosens inside. A radiant energy is released, seeping out of me, into the darkness.

Very good , she says. Use the glow to illuminate the landscape.

It takes time, but the more terrain I study, the stronger the glow emanating from me becomes. I make note of bizarre ridges, areas of seabed erosion, outcroppings of younger rocks at impossible angles wavering in and out of existence. These features represent different parts of Master Agoza’s mind: unpleasant memories of things that were done to him, experiences he has repressed, severed from neighboring memories, and so on. The more I see, the more convinced I am that parts of Master Agoza’s mind have been reshaped from the outside. If I were to guess, I’d say these weird structures are the Sarakul’s doing, some kind of enhancements.

As I explore more of the seabed, I see a sharp descent into a trench. With cautious steps I advance and pause on the edge. The drop is huge. The light stemming from me is not nearly strong enough to penetrate it.

You know what this is , Cora says, and you know what you must do about it.

Yes. Yes. The trench represents one of the chasms into which Master Agoza’s memories have been cast. I have to restore the seabed’s normal gradation.

I glance back into the fissure.

It’s too deep , I say to Cora. Whatever Master Agoza is hiding down there, he really doesn’t want it to surface.

Just looks that way, brother.

I believe her. Which is to say, I believe myself.

I give it everything I’ve got. There’s no point, after all, in trying to save my strength; if I can’t restore this set of memories, I will have failed. As I concentrate on raising up the trench floor I think of the real Cora. I feel an unexpectedly poignant upsurge of gratitude. Where would I be without her?

A rumbling underfoot pulls me out of the experience. The water around me begins roiling.

It’s working. The ground must be rising. All I need to do is continue applying pressure

Something’s wrong , Cora warns. Look around you.

The water has become murky, a cloud of something black is spreading through it like ink. I lose all my hard-won visibility. Within seconds the stuff is everywhere, coating my body.

Ash. Volcanic ash. The fissure must be the opening to some sort of metaphoric hydrothermal vent—a feature I’ve never encountered in anyone’s mind before—and it is erupting with vicious force. The seabed shakes, and the pressure front generated by the spewing black material sends me reeling, tumbling away.

Spinning wildly, I lose all sense of direction. The real me in the chair hyperventilates.

Follow the sound of my voice , Cora says. It will lead you back to the surface.

But before I can do that I hit something hard, some sort of underwater barrier. At least it ends my mad careening. After a few moments I feel my body breathing more regularly again, shallow, short gasps, but getting steadier.

I wave my arms in the water to try and clear some of the ash, and I see that I’m standing next to a wall, unnaturally smooth and rising straight up parallel to me.

Up here , Cora is saying, from what feels like an enormous distance away.

Something distracts me from her voice. A source of light coming from within the wall.

I push my face closer and realize the wall isn’t made of rock, but glass. It becomes transparent. And on the other side of this divide is Master Agoza, sitting in the chair that I am presently occupying in the real world; he is connected to the computer just as I am connected to the computer; and in the chair opposite him in this room within his mind—the chair in which he is sitting in real life—another patient is connected to the computer. I’ve never seen this man before. He looks haggard, with sunken eyes and sallow cheeks, as though he hasn’t slept in a lifetime. Both of them have their eyes closed. They are in the middle of a restoration.

Up here! Cora says again, more forcefully.

I think the thoughts that enable me to start floating up from the bottom. I’m aware that ten feet from me the vent is continuing to jet out its noxious substances, that I have to ascend to a higher level before it’s too late.

Cora urges me on: Yes, good! Keep going!

As I gain buoyancy, I’m again captivated by what I see through the glass. Eight feet or so above the seafloor, and continuing to drift up toward the surface, there’s an identical room on top of the one I just witnessed. Another Master Agoza and another patient, again connected to the computer, again undergoing a restoration. And as I continue to float up I see a whole succession of these rooms, all of them containing Master Agozas and other patients, each room atop another, five, eight, fifteen, twenty, until I stop counting.

At last I see the telltale refractions of the world beyond the surface rushing towards me. I look away from the bizarre building and burst into the air.

My eyes take a moment to adjust to the radiance of the clear sky as I hover in place. I return to the dam-like barrier from which I originally descended. Perched safely on this structure, I gather my thoughts.

Thank you, I say. You saved my life.

You saved your own life , Cora says, but now her voice is different, more like my own, and it echoes in my mind until its last repetition sounds entirely like me, is me, and I know Cora is gone for now.

The water below is murky. Black and grey plumes begin to shoot out from the surface, darkening the air with poisonous gases. There’s no way I can go back in and survive, so I will myself back into full consciousness. With quick, deliberate movements I sever our connection and disengage myself from the equipment.

It takes Master Agoza a few moments to join me, an unusually slow return by his standards.

He massages his temples.

“You failed the test, apprentice Beyo,” he says, in an odd throaty voice, as though he were underwater.

Using techniques he has taught me, I process the images still reeling behind my eyelids. I confirm my earlier impressions—the Sarakul did things to him, changed him inside.

But there’s more.

“Yes, I failed the test,” I say. “Because you don’t want your memories restored. You’ve made it impossible for anyone to help you.”

Master Agoza’s features change, twisting into what on any other day I would label contempt. But today I realize it’s merely a mask. He leans forward. “You understand nothing.”

“The Sarakul didn’t only scramble your memories, they rewired you. They amplified your ability to remain dispassionate. They unleashed something within you.” Master Agoza doesn’t tell me I’m wrong, so I continue. “And you did horrible things. I don’t know how, exactly, but that volcano deep inside your mind… That must be how you escaped.”

“I hadn’t learned how to control it yet,” Master Agoza whispers. Is that remorse in his voice?

“I also saw how many vets you’ve helped since returning home. That’s your penance, isn’t it?”

“Not nearly enough,” he replies, slowly shaking his head.

And then I understand what he’s been hiding from me, the truth he has kept from me during our joined restorations. “That’s the way it is for all memory-setters, isn’t it, Master Agoza? Deadening oneself to the emotions inside others’ minds is the only way to get the job done. The better your skills, the colder you become… until you’re no longer quite human.”

“The price we pay,” he says. His voice is far away.

I think about my mom and dad.

I think about Cora.

No.”

I get up and walk over to Master Agoza.

Still seated, he turns toward me, as if in slow motion. At this distance I see deep black lines under his eyes. He is very pale.

“You would throw away three years of apprenticeship?” he asks in a barely audible voice.

A solitary tear falls from his right cheek; one can be blind, it seems, and still cry.

I place my arms around him. I hold him.

My voice doesn’t sound like my own. “Thank you.”

And then I leave.

I go for a long walk. Eventually I arrive back at the Solace Home.

Our room, normally familiar and reassuring to me, feels foreign, as though I’m seeing it for the first time. When I step inside Cora is snoring mildly, but as I approach the bed she wakes up. I sit by her side on the floor. “I’m sorry, Cora,” I say. “I’ve been an ass.”

“Beyo?” Concern creases her forehead. “The test…” She rubs her sleep-addled eyes.

I nod. “It’s all over. I got through it—thanks to you.”

She props herself up on her elbows, frown deepening. “Me?”

I nod again. The time for detailed explanations will come later.

“You passed, then?”

“I failed,” I say. “But it’s for the best.”

Outside, the sun is rising. Its rays pass easily through the thin curtains, dappling the wall opposite our bunk bed in golden hues. I hear the patter of feet in the corridor as others wake up and head down to the meal area in search of breakfast, a sloppy, volunteer-served breakfast, but breakfast nonetheless.

A new day is beginning.

I smile at my sister. It takes a few heartbeats for her to smile back, quizzically at first, then reassured by the warmth and depth of my expression, and we find each other in the moment.

end article

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Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

About Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, which received a starred review from Library Journal. Alvaro's short fiction, reviews and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Analog, Nature, Galaxy's Edge, Strange Horizons, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other venues. His website is Waiting for My Aineko (myaineko.blogspot.com).

  • Jeremy J Szal

    Incredible story. The twists keep piling and piling on. Great job!