Just One Memory
by Paul A. Martens
"Just one memory. That's all I'm asking." Janna spoke to the figure swathed in white. The technician, or doctor or whoever it was, continued to check the monitors as if Janna hadn't spoken.
"I understand you have a job to do. I know I could never fit in down here if I remembered everything about going out and back. So chop it out. Erase it. Take the last six years away from me. Just leave me something. A picture. A feeling. Maybe just the ghost of the girl I was, to drift through my thoughts sometimes and make me smile without knowing why."
She didn't want to remember everything. Not if she had to live on Earth and follow all of the rules again. It was hard enough before she went out.
She didn't want to remember waking up that first day out, after they were married.
The five of them lay in a comfortable jumble, everyone touching everyone, warm inside and out. Not thinking, just being. Still connected from the drug. Janna felt an itch and Syl scratched Park's leg and Danal sighed and Shanna smiled. They were emptied out and filled up again and satisfied in ways that would get them thrown in jail on Earth, assuming they had been able to even contemplate such acts.
Syl said the stuff, Unity, was like a fungus, and every piece of it carried all the information in every other piece of it within a reasonable distance. When it gets in your brain, it reads what's there and the little bit in somebody else's brain knows what it knows, and vice versa. Then you take another drug that lets you access the information in the fungus, and there you are. Telepathy.
So, no, Janna didn't want that memory. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life knowing she would never feel that good again.
Later, when she was back inside her own head, she felt kind of weird. Maybe that kind of thing had gone on years ago, before The New Morality, but, when she thought about what she'd done, what had been done to her, it felt wrong. No, how could it be wrong to feel like that?
She felt as though she had sinned.
She'd never sinned before, no matter how much she might have wanted to. How could she? You can't do anything in a small town without everybody knowing it. And she was the mayor's kid, the school teacher's kid. She was the one with the sister who was so sick. One step out of line, and maybe her mother wouldn't be mayor next election. One mistake, and maybe her father would lose his job. Who wants a school teacher who can't even raise his own daughter?
And who would feel sorry for a dying girl whose younger sister had the devil in her?
She knew she hadn't sinned. That was the point of making the five of them get married before they went out. It wasn't like any marriage she'd ever heard of, but it was still a ceremony, a sanctioning of what they knew would happen. But she'd done things you just don't do. And liked it.
She didn't want to be there.
It was for her sister. Elle needed another of the other drugs made from the fungus in the ice on Europa. Something about parts of her body not communicating with other parts. Their parents couldn't afford it. Their mother was just a small town lawyer, even if she was the mayor. And school teachers don't make the kind of money required to buy an exotic drug from another world. But Elle was lucky. She had a sister who passed the tests to be able to go out and back. So Janna got to trade a chunk of her life for the chance to extend Elle's.
If only she could have just given her a lung or a kidney.
They hadn't even been all that close. Elle was two years older, the one that always got to do the things Janna was too young to do. And when Janna was finally old enough, Elle was doing something else. Then Elle got sick and she was the one everybody fussed over, taking away any identity Jenna might have had on her own. People didn't see the girl who went to the county finals in the spelling bee, or led the basketball team in assists. They would think, there's the one with the sister with that horrible disease.
Their parents made Elle ask her. She didn't make a big deal about it, she didn't beg or anything. She asked as if she didn't care. As if it wasn't a matter of life or death.
Janna might have refused. What had Elle ever done for her? Then she looked into Elle's eyes, all the way in, past the nonchalance floating on the surface, all the way to the fear and the need. Janna had never really been aware of anyone's need like that. She couldn't say no.
With the town's help with bake sales, and car washes and the like, they could afford, barely, to slow Elle down enough so she would probably still be alive when Janna got back. An amount of the drug sufficient to cure Elle would be Janna's share for making the trip
"So, I'll still have my sister," she said to the tech who seemed to be drawing on her scalp. "I'll have a sister I've never been close to, but I'll lose six years of my life and the only four people I will ever truly know when you suck them out of my head." She tried not to cry. "Do you think that's fair? Don't I deserve just one memory?"
Not the memory of the time she hurt Shanna, though.
She and Shanna should have been close right from the start. They were little more than cargo until the harvest. Syl and Park ran the ship. Danal worked for the drug company. Shanna and Janna just had busy work, making sure the machines the instruments said were working really were. At least they could pretend to think about something other than the fact that they were married to people they'd never met, in ways that would shock the people they'd left behind.
Except the people they married had, for a while, known them better than anyone ever had or ever would.
They knew, for instance, that Janna had always wanted to break the rules. That she'd wanted to shoplift and break windows and get drunk and pick on some kid smaller than her. Of course she knew that she could only think about doing those things. And she couldn't let anybody know she was thinking about them, so she didn't let anyone know what she thought about anything. And now someone did.
They knew she hated her sister for dying. That she hated her parents for not being rich enough to make her well. That she hated herself for hating them. Shanna and Syl and Park and Danal had been inside her head and inside her body and that was supposed to be okay. And for a while it had been okay. But then they were strangers again, locked inside their own heads.
So, even though she knew that Shanna was just as scared and lonely as she was, she made believe Shanna wasn't there as she looked at gauges and read numbers and wished she was home and that none of it had ever happened.
Then the screens around the ship were lowered and they were looking out at the universe. An infinity of stars and emptiness. Janna felt very, very small. Shanna must have felt the same way because her hand found Janna's, or Janna's found hers, and they squeezed, trying to join together, to be a little bit bigger in the face of forever. And then holding hands wasn't enough.
They were married. It was supposed to be all right. And at first it was more than all right, until Janna realized what they were doing. She yelled, "No!" and stood up and looked down at her. Shanna was surprised and hurt and embarrassed. Part of Janna wanted to tell her it was all right, hold her and make her stop crying. Part of Janna ... wanted her. And it was wrong. It was wrong. It was wrong.
She ran to one of the empty storage areas. She sat in a corner, arms around her legs, head between her knees, telling herself it hadn't happened.
Danal came for her. He said he'd done the same thing his first time out and back. The thought that he'd made love with a man actually made him sick. "But this isn't Earth," he told her. They were more than a family, he said, they were the only people in their universe for six years. He told her that they had to know each other's minds and bodies completely or the fungus on Europa would destroy them.
Eventually, she didn't exactly feel better, but she didn't feel like she was going crazy. Danal smiled at her and helped her up. He took her hand and led her to the others.
Janna couldn't look at them. She wanted to run away again, but Danal's smile held her.
Syl said they had to use the Unity again. They had to get used to sharing their thoughts, because on Europa there's so much of the fungus it shouts in your head, drowning out who you are. All the information about everything from all over the moon fills you up and you are such a small part of it that you can get lost. Each of them would be an anchor for the others, holding onto each other with their minds. That's why the drug company let them have the Unity for free. Well, not for free. They paid for it with the six years it took to go out and back.
Danal passed out the doses and they waited. Janna felt the nibbling of an idea that wasn't hers and realized someone else was looking at it, too. Gradually she knew things she didn't know before as if she'd always known them.
For instance, she knew that Shanna forgave her. Really and completely. Shanna understood why Janna had done what she'd done. She knew how sorry Janna was. And Janna knew it. Just as she knew what Syl and Park and Danal knew. They could look at themselves through each other's eyes and see they weren't so bad after all.
It wasn't about sex this time. It was being five and being one, and being one and being five.
"It's not something I can make you feel by talking about it," she told the technician. "But, like I said, I don't want to be all alone down here on Earth and have to remember what that feeling was like. Darn it. I told myself I wouldn't cry." She tried to twist around to see the technician across the room. "Have you ever been in love?"
Janna loved a boy when she was in high school. She sent him notes and wrote his name all over her books. When he smiled at her, her legs wouldn't work, and when he touched her, she thought her heart would stop.
The first time he hit her, she knew it had to be her fault. She did everything she could think of so he wouldn't have to hit her again. When he did, she was sure she was going to lose him because she'd made him so mad. When he found somebody else she was so sick she couldn't go to school for three days.
She thought that was what love was.
"But, you know what? Love feels good. And when somebody who loves you knows what you need to be happy, they give it to you. And when you know you're making someone you love happy, you feel good, too."
Even with the Unity it didn't always happen. It didn't happen to Danal the other two times he'd been out and back. But he'd gotten the idea it could happen.
And they knew what he knew. That maybe you can understand people when you can see inside their heads, but that doesn't mean you have to like them.
These five fit. Like links in a chain. Danal was adventurous. On Earth he jumped off cliffs and swam with sharks. Syl was strong and aggressive and Park was strong and patient. Syl came from a poor family. She was determined to make her fortune. Park was the only child of elderly parents. He held onto his dream of going into space while he cared for them until their deaths. Shanna gave them a reason to be adventurous or strong. She was the one they would do things for, just to see her smile.
"And me? I don't know what I gave them." Janna stopped trying to look at the tech. "All right. Yes I do. See that, I would never lie to them, even if I could, but a couple of days back on Earth and I'm lying again. I was the one whose approval they looked for, the one who told them if what they were doing was okay."
It surprised her at first. But she had spent her life trying to do what she was supposed to do. She wasn't always right. She knew she wasn't supposed to let that jerk in high school beat her up, but mostly she knew right from wrong.
That was why she was the one that Danal had to convince not to return to Earth.
Danal couldn't hide an idea like that from them. When he saw how well they fit together, they could see the idea growing in his head like one of those stop motion movies of flowers growing. Like a dandelion popping out of the ground, bursting into a yellow ball that explodes into white seeds that scatter in the wind.
Not many people back on Earth knew it, but not everyone who went out came back. Danal knew about a place in the Asteroid Belt where some fungus harvesters and some miners had started what they called The Free Association of Traders and Explorers. He had ideas about buccaneers and a place called Tortuga and, in his mind, it was all very romantic and exciting. Syl immediately latched onto the idea and Park was willing to give it a try. Shanna thought it sounded wonderful.
Janna couldn't do it.
She wanted to. Jesus, she wanted to. To be loved and wanted and needed. To be understood. To be part of something that was bigger than herself.
But if she didn't go home she would be killing her sister. How much of the drug Elle needed would the drug company give her if Janna ran off with one of their space ships?
The others knew. There was no need for anyone to try and persuade her. They knew all of the things she would say, just as she knew all that they could say to her. They knew she was right. It was part of why they loved her.
"And they did love me." Janna could hardly breathe. "They do love me. Maybe you could let me remember that. Not their names, not their faces. Not how it felt to touch them or be touched by them. Just that I was loved."
The next couple of years were bittersweet with the knowledge that it would eventually end. They became as familiar with the thoughts and memories of the others as they were with their own. The drug became almost irrelevant and they used it less and less.
As they neared Europa, Danal talked to them. They already knew what he knew about harvesting the fungus, but he needed them to concentrate on what they would experience on the moon. Because it was dangerous. People lost their lives or their minds. The ice was meters deep and practically frictionless in places. In other places it barely existed at all, a mirage of solidity over an impossibly cold ocean that seemed to have no end.
And there was the fungus.
Computer-brained machines couldn't handle the information overload they experienced on Europa. Humans could, almost, usually. And they were cheaper to replace than machines.
Imagine having all of the radio, television and internet chatter from all over the world filling your head, all at once. That's what it would be like on Europa, except the information wouldn't be in words, it would be in sound, pictures, textures, impressions, without an individual viewpoint. A person's identity would be washed away in that sort of flood without something to hold on to. Their something was each other. The five of them formed a single entity strong enough, they hoped, to withstand the onslaught of Europa's babble. But it wouldn't be easy.
"I don't know if there is any way you can erase the memory of my first sight of Europa against the background of Jupiter. It was so strange, so alien. I mean, I was on a space ship, married to four other people. But, even though those things were were still human, Earthly things. Jupiter is another world. It has nothing to do with humans. And it's so big."
Park would stay with the ship, hovering above the rest of them, removed from the clamor of the fungus, but near enough to be reached by his family's thoughts.
Syl's thoughts were of a conquering heroine setting foot on another world. Danal's thoughts were of the danger, the thrill of the five of them struggling, alone, millions of kilometers from home. Shanna was afraid and borrowed courage from the rest of them.
"And I couldn't believe it was all happening. Not so long before, I was just a bored, lonely girl resenting everybody because I wasn't happy. Suddenly, I was in outer space, a real part of a family who cared for me and who I cared about, doing something that would help other people. I was happy." Janna sounded surprised. "Do you think that's what I should remember? Being happy?"
They went down to the surface, carefully testing their footing and the thickness of the ice. The fungus had to be separated from the ice. They used heated devices that had to be handled cautiously to avoid melting through the surface and plunging them into the limitless ocean. They would not only risk running out of air before they could find their way to the surface again, but the fungus would engulf them completely, drowning them in information.
Danal directed the harvest, instructing them in the fine points of siphoning the fungus into the tanks for shipment back to Earth, filtering out impurities. With the Unity he was able to guide them like living, thinking waldoes, extension of himself.
When the volcano erupted, the fungus knew it before the ship's instruments detected it. And, while the ship reported the bare facts of the eruption, the fungus experienced it.
It was information without thought. It was intense, unbearable heat. It was death and destruction. And all of Europa felt it.
Shanna screamed and fumbled at her suit, trying to escape the furnace it seemed to have become. Danal staggered and yelled that it was all right, they had time to get off the surface. He and Syl raced toward Shanna in their bulky hard suits.
Janna froze. She wanted to help Shanna. Well, she was, wasn't she? No. That was Danal and Syl. But she was safe, up in the ship, out of reach of the volcano. She shook her head. That was Park up in the ship. She was ... where? On the surface, under the surface, above the surface. Here, and there, and there and there.
"I wasn't anywhere. I was everywhere. There was no I. Just Europa and the little bit of Europa that was me was lost. Then Danal thought about me and I was there again. I rushed into his mind. It seemed so safe there. And Shanna was there, too. Danal soothed us like frightened children."
Park let them know he was coming down for them, he'd be there in five minutes. Syl said they might not have five minutes. Danal told Janna she had to join the rest of them physically, to careful, but to move as quickly as she could.
She didn't want to leave Danal's head.
Danal said she had to. She had to move her body. But if she went back there, she'd be lost. She needed to hold on to Danal.
Syl shouted that they didn't have time for this, she was going to try and get into Janna's head and get her to move.
She couldn't do it. Thoughts were one thing, somatic control was on a deeper, more primitive, less conscious level. Syl concentrated her thoughts, her will, and Janna took a step. Then another, almost. Janna went down on the ice.
Gently, Danal made Janna understand the urgency of getting back in herself and getting to the pick up area. There was no more time. It had to be now. Park was coming. The ice on which they were standing would be gone. Hurry. Hurry.
Janna roused herself and went back inside her own head. Syl was there with her. Danal had to stay with Shanna. Janna could see the ship. Almost there.
"No!" Janna screamed. "Take it away! Please! Don't let me remember. I can't! I can't" The technician gave her something to make her sleep. Everything that needed to be mapped had been mapped.
Park sat up and got used to being himself again.
Janna was gone. So were Danal and Syl. Only Shanna remained, and they had done something to sedate her, so she might as well not have been there at all.
"Just one more, Mr. Kim. A little rest and we'll take you back in for the last procedure. How are you holding up?" The doctor didn't really care. He was just making conversation while he looked over Park's monitors.
"Fine." Park wondered if he would go crazy when he was alone in his head.
The doctor looked at him with something approaching interest. "You do understand why we have to do this, don't you? There's only room for one in a person's head. You couldn't stay sane carrying those other personalities around."
When Park didn't respond, he persisted. "The others are dead, Mr. Kim. Their bodies are back on Europa. It wasn't really them in your head, just their thoughts, their memories. Thinking you had saved at least that much of your friends made you feel better. Thinking they were with you kept you sane on the trip back. But they weren't there."
Park still said nothing. He felt empty. Would there be anything left of him when they had taken away all of the others?
The doctor stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and left.
Park listened to the silence in his head, trying to hear an echo of somebody else.
The ghost of a girl he used to be drifted through his thoughts and he smiled.
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