In the middle of the big, bustling city, Hal was surprised to find this narrow, quiet alleyway, a remnant of the city many centuries ago, when people travelled on foot, as he was doing today. In the dark and wet he nearly missed it, and then hesitated to venture off the broad street with its bright lights and constant traffic into a dark, deserted, tunnel-like lane which curved away in the distance.
He told himself he was in no danger, and then told himself again. Nevertheless he shivered apprehensively as he walked. High on the wall of the buildings that formed the left side of the alleyway were two bulky angular lighting units that gave off what little light alleviated the gloom. Lanterns, he thought.
He found the door, big and black, that he was looking for, but his courage failed him and he didn't step up to it. Even if he had, nothing would have happened since this door had no sensor or drive motor. Like everything else in this forgotten part of the city, it was a relic of a bygone age. A fully manual door.
As luck would have it, the heavy black door opened and a woman stepped out onto the lane. Hal noted with interest that she was holding a handle attached to the door, which appeared to work its opening and closing. She wore gloves without fingers, and an extraordinary collection of clothes that Hal thought might have been selected from a theatrical wardrobe. Her long, unkempt hair was piled up on her head like a bird's nest. He almost forgot his fear for a moment.
“What's your business here?” the woman demanded.
Hal fought down the instinct to run. “I – I'm looking for Escape.”
“Are you? Are you indeed? Anything in particular you want to escape from, or just in general?” She was laughing at him. He bristled.
“There's no need to mock. You know exactly what I mean.”
She relented. “Yes. Yes I do. And you've found us. Come on in and let's see what we can do for you.”
She worked the handle again and pulled, and the door opened.
It was his last opportunity to change his mind, he knew. But he also knew he had no alternative. He walked through the doorway ahead of her.
She led him down a corridor and then up a flight of stairs. He'd never seen stairs and was slightly surprised how easy it was once you got used to the climbing action. At the top she took him through another manual door into a room which contained a desk, three chairs, no windows or apparently aircon so it was stuffy and slightly smelly.
Sitting in the most comfortable-looking of the chairs was a man who might have been dressed out of the same wardrobe as the woman. Their hairstyles couldn't have been more different, though – he was completely bald. He gestured to the other two chairs so Hal and the woman sat down.
It was the man who spoke. “So, let's get started. What's your name?”
“Hal. Hal Torrin.” Hal was shaking again, and the thought crossed his mind and was discarded, that maybe he should have given a false name. To his surprise, the man smiled warmly and held out his hand.
Hal wasn't sure what to do, but hesitantly extended his own hand in response, whereupon the man grasped it and shook it enthusiastically for a moment.
Hal's surprise showed on his face, and the man explained: “A handshake. Old traditional greeting. Friendly. Did you like it?”
Hal gaped, then nodded.
“I'm Lije, and this is Dyann, and yes, we're part of Escape. People generally don't find us unless they need us, so I'm wondering what brought you here. But first, tell us how you heard of us.”
Both of them leaned toward Hal expectantly, and he didn't know quite what to say. “A friend. Well, an acquaintance, really, just someone I met.”
The woman spoke. “Yes, but where, and when, did you learn about us?”
Hal clammed up, panicking, and the man made a dismissive gesture and said “No matter, we can sort out the details later. Now, what do you need us for?”
Here Hal was on firmer ground, he'd rehearsed what he would say. “my fr… acquaintance said you have a Probe.”
“Did they? Did they indeed? And why would that interest you?”
“Well, do you?”
Lije caught Dyann's eye and some unspoken communication passed between them that Hal couldn't interpret.
“Let's leave that until we know a bit more about you. Why would you want to know if we have a Probe?”
“They say it can remove memories.”
Lije smiled again, but this time the smile just unnerved Hal. “They do say that, don't they? Does this mean you have memories you want removed?”
Hal could feel beads of sweat on his forehead and his knee wouldn't stop shaking. “Yes. Yes that's right. A whole lot of them.”
“And what are these memories that you want to forget?”
“Someone I knew. He's dead. I want to forget him.”
“You… hated him? So much that you'll submit to a Probe so you can forget him?”
“No! No, it's not that. I… miss him. I liked him. He shouldn't have died, it wasn't right. But I can't forget. And I must forget. Will you help me?”
Another glance between the two members of Escape.
“Do you know how the Probe works?”
Hal shook his head.
“You know it erases specific memories?” Hal nodded.
“You know it can't change a personality, just memories of events?” Another nod from Hal.
“Do you know how it identifies the memories to be erased?” Hal shook his head No.
“Well, we don't remember things as episodes, instead our memories are a continuous stream, with special events emphasised and routine events de-emphasised. Special events usually have a visual element, and the probe can put an image from a memory on screen and we can use that to date the memory. Once we have enough date markers we can erase a period of memory. Do you still want to do this?”
It took Hal a moment to take this in, and he realised that clearly this organisation did have a Probe. The device that was available only to government agencies, and that it was illegal to possess, had somehow got into the hands of this subversive anti-government organisation. He didn't allow himself to wonder how that could have happened, he just nodded vigorously.
They all stood up, Lije shook Hal's hand again, and Dyann took him by the shoulder and guided him back out of the room and down the stairs. Hal was glad of the handrail because walking forwards down the stairs didn't feel safe.
He wasn't sure where they were going, he was expecting to be taken to another room where he would catch his first sight of the Probe device, but he quickly found himself back in the alleyway.
Still holding him by the shoulder, Dyann spoke slowly and clearly. “Be back here tomorrow night, eight pm exactly. Don't tell anyone where you're going, and make sure you're not followed. Knock on the door when you arrive.”
Hal looked a question, and she explained: “With your knuckles. Knock on the door. Like this.” - and she showed him.
Hal turned to go, but she called him back. “Hal?”
Her face, so stern and unyielding up to now, had lost its harsh lines and gained an attractive smile which he found unnerving.
“This person you want to forget. He was important to you? Someone special?”
Now it was her turn to be hesitant. “Your… lover?”
Hal couldn't reply, saying the words would have been impossible for him. In any other circumstances admitting an illegal relationship would have meant a death sentence, and although he'd decided that if he could trust anyone he could surely trust these people who clearly operated outside the law, he just couldn't say the words. The tears that welled in his eyes betrayed him, though, and she gripped his shoulder one last time before leaving him, going back indoors and pulling the door closed behind her.
As he made his way homeward, Hal thought over what had happened. He was still shaking but for the first time he felt slightly hopeful. He allowed himself to think of Jan – his Jan, the man he had loved. They had been so happy, so optimistic, so naïve. They had thought their relationship was private, that no-one knew or could know. But someone did, and betrayed them to Homeland Security. And they had come, in the middle of the night, and dragged Jan out of bed and arrested him, used the Probe to find memories, precious memories that they shared, and brand him homosexual.
It should have been both of them, normally Hal would have been in bed with Jan, but that day he'd worked late shift at the hospital and wasn't there. And he'd been on the run ever since.
Word had got to Hal that Jan had been offered treatment, but Hal knew what that would entail. He worked in a hospital, after all. Not merely deletion of all his memories of Hal, but a brutal regime of aversion therapy which would leave him unable to have sexual thoughts. Jan had refused, and had been executed.
As Hal alighted from the R-car at the stand for his apartment block, he had to scrape his sleeve twice across his face to clear the tears from his eyes before he could see properly. And only then he realised he had automatically returned home although that was the one place he was truly unsafe. He turned to get back in the vehicle but it had pulled away, presumably responding to a call from another passenger.
Hal walked briskly away, being careful, despite his panic, not to run and call attention to himself. He turned the corner past the little café that he and Jan had frequented in happier times, and then ducked inside so he could look out of the window to check if he was being followed. Apparently he wasn't, so he calmed down a little.
He had a full day to wait before he could return to Escape. Once his memories had been erased, he knew he would likely still be arrested by Homeland Security at some point, but he hoped that the probe would then declare him innocent, since he would no longer have any incriminating memories. Could he really bear to lose all his memories of Jan? His heart rebelled, but his head told him there was no alternative, and he was sure that Jan would want him to do it.
Not very far from his home there was an old structure, like a bridge with a series of archways underneath. It had been some kind of elevated roadway for a transport system long since obsolete, with metal rails running along it. Hal knew that the derelict structures beneath could be broken into, and he thought he might spend the night in one of them, dry and a little less cold than outside.
He found a way in to one of the spaces under the arches, and made himself as comfortable as he could on the cold hard floor. He fell into a fitful sleep.
He was with Jan, on a boat on the Scottish lake they had visited together on their holiday last year. He was happy. His happiness overwhelmed him, it was perfect and he knew its source was his wonderful Jan. He wrapped his Jan-scented happiness around him like a big fluffy blanket, watching his lover dangling his fingers in the icy cold water of the deep loch as their boat drifted gently along in the afternoon sun. He felt invincible, secure, knowing somewhere inside that nothing could get in the way of their love.
The next morning he awoke, stiff and cold but apparently undetected. Hal didn't know how naïve he was being. Did he really believe that Homeland Security didn't know exactly where he was?
He stayed where he was until after noon, and then wandered the streets, heading away from his home, until evening. He found a food outlet and bought a burger. Did he think Homeland Security were not monitoring his purchases? And yet he remained at large.
At eight he knocked the door, rapping hard on the solid wood with his knuckles and than shaking his hand to relieve the resulting pain. Dyann opened the door and ushered him in, this time not upstairs but further along the ground floor corridor to a room that reminded him of a dental surgery. A big chair with a contraption above, and a bank of monitors and other controls at a desk to one side.
Lije arrived and got Hal into the chair and the contraption lowered onto his head. The process began and Lije showed Hal a series of images from his memory and asked him to date them. It took a long time, Hal couldn't remember when some of his memories were from, but eventually they declared that they had all the data they needed, and put Hal to sleep while the memory deletion took place.
He awoke the next morning, groggy, and still in the chair. Dyann was in the room and smiled at him. He tested his memory. Yes, he could remember who she was, and also why he had come to her for help. He had wanted to remove some memories. But could he remember those memories? No. He couldn't. He was overcome by a feeling of bereavement that he couldn't have explained and sat back in the chair to process it. Dyann helped him up and escorted him back to the outer door. She opened it and let him out. He thanked her and she went back in, and closed the door behind her. It was all over.
Hal experimented with his memory. He read a plaque he noticed on the wall under one of the archaic lanterns. Apparently they had been the last street lamps in the city to be powered by gas, and had operated that way until 1936 when they were converted to electricity. Hal stood reading this, amazed that such old technology could have survived so long, and also that the lanterns were still there, still functional, a century later.
He turned away from the plaque, heading back to the street beyond the end of the alleyway where he could hail an R-car. He didn't get that far. A Homeland Security vehicle drew up, four uniformed men stepped out, ran towards him. He turned and ran away from them, down the alleyway, but the big black door opened again and Lije and Dyann rushed out, blocking his way. He pulled up, confused. It was Dyann who spoke. “You bloody fool. Did you really think there was a subversive organisation with access to a Probe?” She gestured beyond him to the men, two of whom now grabbed him by each elbow. “Just go with the agents. It's all over for you.”
All the fight went out of him. They took him, bundled him into the vehicle and took him to a prison cell. He was charged with homosexuality and condemned to death. As he was led away to the execution chamber he felt only numb, aware that he was guilty but he couldn't remember quite what he was guilty of.
The probe was not used, nor was he given the option of 'therapy'. And poor naïve Hal had not known that in addition to erasing memories, the Probe routinely archived them in a format that Homeland Security could interrogate at their leisure, and could use as evidence against him.
Two days later, the friend who had told Hal about Escape was arrested, and using evidence harvested from Hal's archived memories he too was convicted and executed.
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© Bruin Fisher April 2016