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art by Shothot Designs

Flashback

Melissa Mead is a member of the Carpe Libris Writers Group. Her stories have recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Bull Spec, and Warrior Wisewoman 3.
My name is Brian. If you've trained at the New Sander Institute, I may have walked in your dreams. I'm the one who sat behind the screen, teaching you how to turn nightmares into a vision that your patient can control. I'm the man in the white coat, the one the others call "Doctor Sander."
I'm not Doctor Sander. I'm the Intermediary. I go between the conscious and the unconscious, between past and present. When your patient puts on the "Memory Cap," turning his most traumatic memories into someone else's story, with himself as author, those memories flow through me. I live every hurt, every grief, every fear. I take those memories into myself and transform them.
The real Doctor Sander claimed that the Intermediary had no memories of its own. He was wrong.
Once, Richard Sander was an idealistic, brilliantly talented graduate student. So I've heard, anyway. He'd become a bitter, crabbed Department Head by the time he created me. His lab rat. His anthropomorphic mind probe, something he could send into his experimental virtual therapy network with no risk to his own psyche. He only entered the Intermediary's space himself once. Just once. I'd served him for decades by then without obvious damage, and the lure of fame convinced him to join me in the Network after he installed the multisensory upgrade.
We materialized on a virtual cliff above a turbulent gray sea. I huddled at the edge of that cliff, naked and shivering. The air clung to my skin, clammy, heavy, with an odor like wet tombstones.
"Where's your spine, boy?" The glitter in Doctor Sander's eye said that he was perfectly aware that I didn't really have a spine, that I was his creation, and I'd better not forget it.
I stood and faced him. Dr. Sander smiled. It chilled me. He didn't know--or care-whose memories had built that first gray experimental mindscape. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that all my thoughts lay bare to him, as though the empty sky were an intermediary's screen.
"So," he said. "Are you ready to plumb the depths of the unconscious with all five senses?" He crouched as though ready to jump with me.
He didn't ask whose unconscious. I nodded. He pushed me off the cliff.
Real or not, the dark water was cold. It swallowed me, pulling me deeper and deeper. A bubble of memory rose to engulf me. For a moment, I blacked out.
I opened my eyes to see Carl leering at me. He had a girl with him--the first live girl I'd seen, except for Miss Newhouse and my "mother," Dr. Vera Jenkins. Cold metal pressed against my back. A steady mechanical beeping chirped in the background--the lullaby of my "childhood."
I remembered Carl. Doctor Sander's assistant. I remembered the girl, if not her name.
"Visual acuity check. How many fingers, Rat?" Carl held up his hand with the middle finger extended.
"One," I said. "Stop it." Inside, I struggled with panic and déjà vu. I hadn't realized how painful it would be to find myself standing here again, in this room of cinderblock and metal, smelling of rubbing alcohol, iodine, and dust. With every second, the memory took firmer hold, as though I were living everything for the first time.
The girl giggled. "Rat? Looks human to me. Not bad-looking, either. Who modeled-a senior from the swim team?"
"That's Sander at twenty-one, supposedly."
The girl swayed toward me, and squeezed my arm with her warm, soft hand. I tried to back away, flattening myself against the inside of my sleeping-cabinet. "Ooo. Feels real. Why do you call it Rat?"
"Because that's our new lab rat, babe. Takes all the crap out of people's heads, and turns it into a movie, so they can deal with it from the outside. Less traumatic than traditional therapy, supposedly. Next step is projecting all five senses. Ask Sander--he'll tell you all the psychobabble."
"It can't have seen what's in your head, or it wouldn't look so innocent. Doesn't it get clothes?" The girl stroked my arm again, raising little shivers where her fingers touched.
"What for?" Carl looked even more sour than usual. "No one sees it. It hasn't got a thought of its own in its head. It doesn't care if it's naked. It wouldn't care if you were naked."
"Really?" The girl smiled at me. "You got a real name, Rat?"
"Brian," I croaked, my mouth gone dry. She was standing too close. I looked at Carl. He glared back, silently threatening.
"So what is in your head, Brian?" The girl smiled again, watching me with her head tilted sideways. Behind her, Carl glowered.
"Nothing Doctor Sander hasn't taught me."
"Really? Let's fix that."
She turned my face toward her, and kissed me. I knew people kissed. I'd witnessed kissing, and more than kissing, in memories from the doctor's patients. But the cool tingle of peppermint lip gloss, the feel of real lips pressed to mine, was very, very different. I closed my eyes, willing myself not to react. Carl's slap took me totally off guard. My ears rang. The girl screamed.
"Nothing the doctor hasn't taught you, Rat?" Carl raised his hand again. "You'd better keep it that way."
"And you had better explain, Carl," said a calmer, colder voice from the doorway. Those measured tones frightened me more than Carl's rage had. Carl turned white.
"Doctor Sander! Er, Doreen, here, read your last article, and I thought for her first day..."
"You thought, with Newhouse and Jenkins gone, you'd get a head start on the new assistant."
At the name "Jenkins," I looked up. "Mama's gone? When is she coming back?"
All three of them stared. Doctor Sander's eyes narrowed.
"Get out. Carl, clean out your desk."
"But..."
"I didn't hurt Brian, Doctor. Honest," said the girl.
"Out!"
Once Carl and the girl were out of the room, the doctor turned on me.
"Mama? I never taught you that."
I swallowed. "The boys in the pictures have mamas. Hal was a boy." I pointed at the smaller, empty sleeping-cabinet on the other side of the lab. "Was Doctor Jenkins Hal's mama?" "Did she go to be with Hal?"
"Hal was not a boy. He was not a person. You are not a person. Is that clear? Technically, you don't exist."
"Then how could the pretty lady kiss me?"
Doctor Sander stared as though he'd never seen me before. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Without another word, he smacked the main power to "Off." My world went dark, as it always had--only this time it felt like I was drowning, sinking deeper and deeper, into bubbles....
Hal was crying, because he couldn't sleep. Hal could never sleep--he'd never become fully solid, like me, and he kept destabilizing and fading out. I thought it was because he was only a little boy. He looked like one. Doctor Sander said that was nonsense. I slipped off my ankle bands and left my cabinet, careful not to set off any alarms, and tiptoed across the cold floor to where Hal crouched.
"What's wrong, Hal?" I whispered.
He grabbed my leg, clinging tight.
"Bad dream," he whimpered. "Bad dream. Bad dream, bad bad bad...." He flickered in and out, showing glimpses of the sleeping-cabinet behind him.
"Sh!" I detached him from my leg. "If the Doctor hears..."
I froze, listening. Dr. Sander, Carl, and my mother were laughing in the hallway.
"So Brain doesn't get the flickers, like Hal?" Carl's voice.
"Brian," my mother corrected. "More client-friendly. No, it hasn't yet, and I've been doing memory uploads for a month."
"Not you too." As always when Dr. Sander spoke, I shivered. "First Newhouse, with her Arthur C. Clarke fixation, and now this? I'd have thought you were too objective to name the Intermediary. Of course, now it will have imprinted on you." He sighed. "Does this model retain anything between sessions?"
"Let's run a test. Hang on; let me get my keys."
"Hal! Into your place, quick!" I hurried back to my cabinet, glad that I'd practiced sliding in and out so often that I could do it quickly, without setting anything off.
Hal hadn't practiced. He tried to follow me. As soon as both feet were off the touchpad, the whistle shrieked.
Doctor Sander flung the door open. Hal cowered in the middle of the floor, nearly transparent. I stared at a crack in the opposite wall.
"What the..." Ignoring Hal, Doctor Sander marched around the room, checking wires and sensors.
"Is it a break-in?" said my mother, Doctor Vera Jenkins. She wasn't wearing her lab coat. She had on a sparkly red dress, and the air around her smelled pretty.
"Think Newhouse was trying something?" said Carl.
I liked Miss Newhouse. I almost asked where she was, before I remembered I was supposed to be sleeping.
"You forget. I still have rounds in the Psychiatric Wing," said Doctor Sander. "Marilu Newhouse is in no condition to try anything."
Carl groaned. "God, can't you program the rats to close their eyes?"
Doctor Sander hit the Wake Up button next to my cabinet. I waited for the buzzing before looking around, pretending I hadn't seen anything before.
"Good morning, Brian!" said my mother, in her Happy-Wake-Up voice.
"It's nighttime," I replied.
"Very good!" She looked at Doctor Sander. "There's a retained memory, right there."
"Or simple observation," said Doctor Sander. "Interm… Brian, has anyone been in this room?"
"You, me, Hal..."
"Since 6PM."
"Me, Hal..."
"Oh, never mind. There's no sign of forced entry. Must be a power surge."
I sighed with relief that he hadn't simply asked why Hal was out of his cabinet.
"Brian," said my mother, "we're going to play the picture game." She held up a stack of large cards.
Ah. A way to ask. "Miss Newhouse does the picture game."
"Miss Newhouse has gone away. I'll play the picture game with you now."
I swallowed. Once I had laughed in front of Doctor Sander, and he had taken my voice away for an hour. What would he do if I cried?
"No, you won't, Vera," Doctor Sanders interrupted. "I'll do it this time."
"Don't you trust me to be unbiased?"
"No." Doctor Sander took the cards. "Sit down," he directed me. I sat. "Now, what is this?" He held up a color photograph of a boy and a dog, looking out the windows of a car.
I hesitated. I knew lots of picture games. Rorschach. TAT. This was new.
"See, Vera?" Doctor Sander turned to my mother. "Tabula rasa. A completely blank slate. Nothing."
My mother frowned. Her hands knotted into fists.
"The boy's name is Kashon Dennison," I said.
Doctor Sander stared. I stared back. He was making my mother upset. He thought I couldn't remember anything.
"Kashon is nine years old. The dog's name is Wombat. They're at Spruce Lake. In one hour and six minutes, Kashon will climb a tree, fall, and break his right arm. He..."
"Stop!" said Doctor Sander. "How do you know this?"
"Kashon was inside me."
"When?"
"Last Tuesday, when I wore the hat. 9:16 AM."
"See?" My mother was smiling now.
"Newhouse might have sabotaged it."
"Just because the girl was a romantic doesn't mean she's out to ruin our work. I wouldn't be surprised if you were the one who had her committed."
"It's not my fault the job unnerved her." Dr. Sander scowled, and went on recording my responses to the cards. "She was completely unreasonable--screaming that the intermediaries are self-aware."
"Marylu Newhouse was a nervous breakdown waiting to happen," said my mother. "The trick is to keep ourselves out of it."
"Self-aware." Doctor Sander went to Hal and shook him by the shoulder. Hal, frozen with terror, didn't respond. "Hardly. Watch."
He pulled two long wires from the wall near Hal's cabinet, and fastened them to Hal's ankle-bands. Hal never moved. Doctor Sander pressed some buttons. Hal glowed brighter and brighter, losing solidity, until, without a sound, he was gone. I froze, as petrified as Hal had been.
"See? No reaction."
"Was that necessary?" my mother said.
"Merely proving my point--and disposing of a defective model. Now . . ."
I didn't hear any more. Sparks danced in my vision where Hal had been. Floating sparks, like bubbles. I felt like I was sinking...
Some part of me, then, realized that all this had already happened-that I was reliving memories. Earlier memories each time. And I didn't want to remember any more.
I had no choice.
I stood in my cabinet, watching Miss Newhouse, my mother, and Hal. It was Hal's turn to be tested--only they weren't playing games with papers this time. Miss Newhouse sat Hal in a chair, and put a metal hat on his head.
"Upload the memories," said my mother.
Miss Newhouse pushed a button, and Hal screamed--and didn't stop. He screamed--and faded.
"He's destabilizing!" my mother yelled.
Like a dimming light bulb, Hal flickered in and out, even after Miss Newhouse took the cap off. He never got all the way solid again, until the day he flickered out forever. My mother ignored him. She turned dials on the cap, moved wires, and said, "Let's see if the new program makes a difference. Your turn, Brian."
I backed into the wall. It was cold. "I don't want to. Please, Mama."
Miss Newhouse put her hand over her mouth.
My mother looked surprised. "Sander's overdone the anthropomorphic program," she said, and reached up to press the cap onto my head.
I braced myself for pain, but there were only pictures. Pictures I couldn't understand:
My father held my hand. I was little, like Hal. I wore a fuzzy sweater and a hat. We were walking under trees. Red and yellow trees. Who was this? I had no father. Where were we going? Before I could speak, the picture changed again:
I knelt in a tall white building, full of colored light. I was crying, and saying "I believe," over and over. My tears fell on long white clothes, like Mama's coat. I didn't understand. But I repeated the words--"I believe, I believe..."--and my mother yanked off the cap, screaming, "We've done it, Richard! We've done it!" Doctor Sander burst into the room and grabbed my mother around the waist. They danced madly about the lab, while I trembled and cried and hugged poor flickering, unresponsive Hal. No one noticed--except Miss Newhouse. She led me into another room, wrapped me in a blanket, and asked, shyly, "Are you--are you all right?"
"Is Hal hurting?"
Her eyes got wide. "No, I don't think so."
"I don't want Hal to be hurting. Don't make him wear the hat any more, Miss Newhouse. Let me do it."
"The hat... what happened when you were wearing it?"
"Things happened. But not to me! It was like I was other people. What happened, Miss Newhouse?"
She looked scared. "How can you tell they were other people?"
"Because I remember what happens to me. I don't have a father. I have Hal, and Mama, and Doctor Sander, and you."
Now Miss Newhouse started to cry. "This wasn't supposed to happen. There shouldn't be a "you!"
I tried to get Miss Newhouse to explain, but she was crying too hard. Instead, she showed me Dr. Sander's report, with a diagram. I was meant to be a blank slate, an empty stage for patients to act out repressed memories. Dr. Sander was the director, interviewing patients, setting the stage--me--with their traumas. Memories flowed through me, in the form of raw data, to be given shape and projected onto a screen. The patients would "work through" their traumas, and be free of them. And I, the intermediary, would have to live those memories. Every single one.
I watched. I learned. I lived through tragedies, triumphs, and traumas. I saved up enough memories for a hundred lifetimes. By the time Dr. Sander pushed me off that cliff, I knew more about the memory-enactment process than he or my "mother" ever had, because I lived it. I knew that the memories he pushed me into would be ones he didn't think existed-my own. And I wasn't surprised that, once I reached the beginning, I'd come full circle and found myself on the cliff again. But he was.
"And Vera regretted selling out to me. All for..." he was saying when I appeared.
"You still remember her, Doctor Sander?" I said quietly.
He gaped, all composure drained away.
"You should look like that patient!" He pointed at the foaming gray sea. "The one with those memories."
"Those memories," I said, "are mine." I took a step closer. He backed away. "What about your memories, Doctor Sander? Do you remember Miss Newhouse? Or Hal?" I waited just long enough to see his blank expression, and pushed him into the turbulent gray sea.
Anyone who's studied at the New Sander Institute knows that our first rule is: Respect life in all its forms.
They take good care of Doctor Sander's physical body in the nursing home. I visit often. Everyone thinks I'm such a dutiful son. Who ages well. Only Miss Newhouse, now stooped and white-haired, suspects that Richard Sander's psyche is eternally drowning in a virtual sea.
I could save him. I could go back there. All I'd have to do is put on the Memory Cap and relive that memory. One day I might work up the courage.
I'm only human.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 26th, 2010


I originally wrote "Flashback" as a personal challenge, for an anniversary issue of The First Line magazine. All stories in a given issue of TFL must start with the same line. I wanted to write a story using every single line to date. In order. I did it, but the result was too clunky to publish. I'd fallen in love with Brian, though, so I rewrote the story, changing every one of those lines. Even after all that rewriting, I'm still fond of this story.

- Melissa Mead

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