“I’ve lost all my beautiful memories.”
The woman who uttered those words perched on the edge of Nedra’s leather chair with all the grace of a Queen of Sheba. When she leaned forward tiny diamonds crested at the curves of her eyebrows making her over-large eyes seem abnormally bright, almost predatory.
Nedra peered at her prospective client through bleary, caffeine-deprived eye slits.
The woman leaned closer to Nedra’s desk. Her eyeshadow was a delicate blend of red and blue, creating a beautifully bruised-seeming hue. Her slightly swollen lips were painted bloody burgundy.
“My beautiful memories,” the woman answered lowly and slowly as if speaking to a child. “They’re all gone.” She eased back into the soft folds of the leather chair. “You can help me get them back, yes?”
She had a sweet and smoky voice. It possessed a strangely powerful timbre. Sent a tingly tremor running down Nedra’s spine.
Her glittery dress clung tightly to her delicate bones. The fluffy boa tossed carelessly over her shoulders matched her lipstick to a tee. This beautiful creature belonged to the high life and the night.
What was she doing here then? In broad daylight, on the dinky outskirts of town. Why come to roost in this shabby little private detective’s office with the leaky roof and brazen rats crawling under the floorboards?
“Augmented?” Nedra queried. She couldn’t help thinking that this woman was perfect. Way too perfect.
The woman shook her head and eased back, shooting Nedra a lazily confident smile. “Not in the slightest. One hundred percent Natural, Baby.”
So, she was born with it? That mind-numbing Nubian beauty.
“Please,” the woman shot Nedra a sugary grin. “Call me Anna.”
Maybe Anna was lying. It wasn’t always easy, telling trans-humans and Naturals apart these days. Hell. Half the time, Nedra forgot her own brain casing and half of her heart were mechanized. Still, while inexplicably skewed from logic, her instincts veered toward taking Anna at her word. You couldn’t just snatch memories from a Natural’s brain, though, could you? Did that kind of technology even exist?
“Encountered anyone strange lately?” Nedra ventured, for starters.
“Where I come from, everyone is strange.”
Nedra’s brows shot upward. “Where would that be?”
“Bitter,” Anna answered. “Ever been?”
“Can’t say I’ve ever.”
Bitter was an enclave west of the city. Dubbed the Fae Underground, Bitter’s denizens were the uber-rich and despots who dabbled in the darker aspects of the technical arts. It was the sort of place you’d hear disturbing things about from time to time. Sometimes people entered Bitter, never to be seen again. Sometimes their wrecked corpses would be found days later, floating downriver somewhere.
Nedra hadn’t eaten breakfast, but it wasn’t just hunger clawing at the insides of her gut. Anna’s story was too sketchy, but her desperation made it impossible for Nedra to turn her away. She knew she was rapidly falling prey to the lovely woman’s hauntingly seductive gaze. She knew it, but she couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Caffeine withdrawal and lack of sleep were factors, but she couldn’t blame just the brain fog. Nedra didn’t quite know why. She just couldn’t find it in herself to say no to this woman.
“You’ll take the case?” Anna asked, turning up the wattage on her smile.
She’s a master manipulator, Nedra thought. The ex-cop turned P.I. squashed her doubts, though, and flashed Anna a wry smile. “A girl’s gotta eat and all that, after all.”
“Wow,” Anna murmured when Nedra fished an ink pen and a notepad from her desk drawer. “That’s a pretty old-timey way to go about things, no?”
“I like old-timey,” Nedra grunted. “Will I need a passport to enter Bitter?”
“Nope,” Anna smiled, seeming to like how quickly the detective was catching on. “You’ll be my special guest.”
Anna’s nose crinkled. She eyed Nedra’s weathered leathery jacket and two-day-old yellow shirt critically. “Got anything more decent in your wardrobe?”
“Heh,” Nedra’s grin was completely unapologetic. “What you see is what you get.”
“Guess a little shopping trip comes first,” Anna mused.
“Your tab, not mine.”
“Yes, of course,” nodded the glam diva. She stood, tilting her head toward the exit. “Let’s get on with it then.”
Evening fell as they entered the domed district. Anna’s car descended earthward, thrusters humming as it slid through the opening between massive gates of tungsten steel. The gates were anchored to great stone columns shaped like angels with terrible, sightless eyes. Each angel stood with one arm outreached, silently beckoning as they welcomed all who entered into Bitter’s cold embrace.
Bitter was an eerily enticing, alien world. The car eased through a maze of anachronistic cobbled streets punctuated by gas lamps. Anna’s car hugged the stony ground. They rode side by side with robotic horse-drawn carriages driven by mechanical men wearing long coats and tall top hats. Multitudes of steam-powered airships and flying cars jostled for room in the high-tech kingdom’s abbreviated sky. Masked men, women, and neo-genders wearing punk Victoriana populated the sidewalks.
The car came to rest outside a tall, white building. The words “Memory Palace” were etched on the front sign. The ground opened and the car sank down into an underground garage complex. They exited and Nedra followed Anna toward a set of elevator doors.
“Isn’t Memory Palace a weird name for a nightclub?” Nedra wondered.
Anna shook her head. “That’s my company’s name. The business office and labs occupy floors two to ten. The Playground only occupies half of the ground floor.”
“Oh?” Nedra mouthed as they entered one of the elevators. “What kind of business is the Memory Palace?”
“Exactly what the name suggests,” Anna pressed the button for the ground floor. “I made the philosophical concept real.”
“So, you download memories,” Nedra glanced over at Anna. “From Natural brains or just augmented?”
“Both,” said Anna. “With Naturals, it’s a bit tricky, but not impossible. If you had a memory palace three years ago… who knows? Maybe you wouldn’t have ended up leaving the police force.”
A chill ran down Nedra’s spine. She couldn’t exactly find fault with a client who researched her background before hiring her, but wasn’t this a bit much?
“Just how deep into my background did you dig?”
“You took two point-blank shots. One to the heart. One to the head,” there was a slight, puzzling tremor to Anna’s voice. “Guess that makes you lucky. Unlucky, and you’d be dead.”
Nedra shrugged. “Kinda sketchy on the details myself.”
“You don’t remember…”
“Two years of my life before and the first six months after,” Nedra quipped. “Gone. Like they never happened.”
“Don’t you miss it? That life. Being a cop.” Ann prodded.
“Can’t say I don’t miss the police force sometimes.” Nedra shot Anna a weirded out, sideways glance. “Can’t miss what I don’t remember, though. Can I?” She forced a cheerful tone. After all, she wasn’t exactly interested in making anybody, least of all a client, feel sorry for her.
The ground floor of the building was blindingly opulent with marble floors and filigreed gold-leaf walls. Anna led Nedra down a long corridor which widened into a cavernous beehive of dancehalls and smaller rooms. A small crowd of masked characters had gathered inside. Nedra caught glimpse of an emaciated man strapped to a metal throne in the center of the room. She stopped to watch.
Wires spilled from the throne-like machine and coiled along the floor. Clips of random, bizarre video footage were onto three of the walls. Nedra drew closer.
“The dream machine can be brutal,” warned Anna. “You’re sure you want to watch this?”
“I’ll be fine,” Nedra murmured.
“Suit yourself,” said Anna.
Attendants began attaching wires to the nodes to the helmet cradling the restrained man’s head. They fed him something.
“Psychedelic enhancers” Anna murmured, answering the question Nedra was about to ask.
The machine started up with a whir. The man groaned. He gasped. He fell silent. The projection screens flickered. The scenery changed. Then it began. The sickening sideshow. The man’s nightmare, a violent debacle unlike anything Nedra had ever seen, flared to life on the screens. On-screen, a bloody-beaked, gang of gray harpies tore into the man’s flesh. He crouched low, flailing uselessly at his spectral attackers, howling in agony.
The masked audience was rapt, watching the Promethean spectacle unfolding before them with unabashed glee. Those closest to the dreamer strapped to the throne were also wired to the machine. They cried ecstatically. They trembled. They gasped, and they wept. Nedra recoiled, sick to her stomach and shaking from head to toe. They were enjoying it, these sickening deviants.
Forgetting all about Anna, she plunged blindly through the degenerate throng, escaping into the hallway. Bile bubbled up in the back of her throat. She swallowed hard, forcing it back down. Her throat felt tight suddenly. Tight and dry.
What was she just watching? What the hell was that?
A passing waiter presented a tray laden with drinks of various colors. She chose blindly, gulping down the tart liquid in one go. The unexpectedly strong drink went straight to her head. Unsteady, she found herself inside another crowded hall. It was even noisier in here than inside that godforsaken dream room. The world spun. She clung to the wall for support, struggling to steady her breath.
Large doors on the opposite side of the hall opened. In marched a procession of caged song-dolls riding houdah on the backs of mechanical elephants. The dolls sang a beautiful but terrible song. The masked revelers hooted and cheered.
Nedra’s addled brain couldn’t keep up with the clamor. The empty glass slipped from her fingers and shattered as it hit the ground. Her breath came in rapid, shallow bursts. The room tilted. Her boots crunched into the broken glass as she staggered sideways. Her legs gave out. The pain of falling on her ass barely registered. All-consuming darkness slammed down.
Pain tore into Nedra’s head. A drilling pain like she’d never known. The back of her eyelids felt like sandpaper. Her tongue felt heavy. The inside of her mouth tasted bitter metallic. The air stank of antiseptic, stale booze, and burning wire. Her eyes creaked open. Bright lights assaulted. Her eyes slammed back shut. The pain in her head intensified. She moaned.
“The lights!” Someone hissed. “Turn them down.”
“Nedra?” Came a gentle voice. A familiar warmth enveloped her hands.
“Ned, open your eyes.”
It wasn’t easy. The pain in Nedra’s head made her feel as if her brains would start leaking out of her nose. She cautiously opened her eyes. Her vision was blurry at first, but then it cleared. Anna was seated next to where she lay, her trembling fingers clasping Nedra’s hands.
She leaned over and asked lowly. “Now, do you remember?”
Nedra blinked and looked up at her girlfriend of two years in puzzlement. “What kind of question is that?”
Anna drew in a long, shuddering breath. She started to cry. Confusion growing, Nedra reached up to touch her wet cheek. That’s when she noticed that she was strapped into a curved metal object. Her head was encased in a bulky helmet from which long wires protruded. The dream machine. The pain in her head made it hard to think.
“Anna,” she asked hoarsely. “What’s going on? What happened to m—?”
Nedra felt wetness at her nostrils. Maybe her brains were starting to leak out. Anna grabbed a tissue and wiped at Nedra’s nose. The tissue came away bloody. Nedra’s heart started hammering wildly. The machine started to emit shrill warning noises. She struggled against the restraints.
“Why am I in this infernal thing?” She ground out. “Let me out, Anna!”
“I can’t!” Anna was weeping openly. “I have to make you the way you were before.”
“Before what?” Nedra choked. “None of this makes sense—”
No. Wait. It made sense. If something terrible had happened to Nedra and Anna was desperately trying to make her whole again.
“How bad is it?” Nedra asked. “Pretty bad is my guess… for you to strap me into this thing.”
“You took a bullet to the head,” Anna explained. “I ah… made some modifications to the dream machine. Sort of an emergency memory palace. I’m hoping I can teach your brain to repair the damaged area.”
“Hoping…” Nedra echoed woodenly. “You tried but it didn’t work.”
“It works.” Anna was quick to object. “As long as you’re hooked to the machine.”
How many times? Nedra wondered. How many times had this conversation played out? How many times had Anna strapped her into this contraption, hoping for the best, only to be disappointed?
“You can’t keep doing this,” she breathed.
“I’m not giving up,” Anna’s grip tightened. “I’m not.”
“Don’t I have some say in..?” Nedra’s voice trailed away, drowsiness taking root.
Nedra woke up in her office chair. Good god. She groaned. Had she really spent another entire night here again? She started to stretch, twisting around to get the kinks out of her back. She stopped midway, looking up sharply.
The woman sitting on the sofa on the other side of the room was dark and petite. She was wearing black and silver pumpkin shorts with suspenders and a white blouse with ruffles at the throat. Her curly mass of hair was electric blue.
“And you would be?” Nedra inquired, forcing a polite half-smile.
The woman smiled, though somehow, she seemed so very sad. She crossed the distance between them and sat in the chair across from Nedra.
“My name is Anna,” she said. “I came here to ask for your help.”
Nedra shuddered, overwhelmed by a strange sense of Déjà vu. “Yeah?”
“You see,” Anna leaned forward, trapping Nedra with her desperate, hypnotic gaze. “I’ve lost all my beautiful memories.”