Friday, May 5, 2017

The Conservation Laws

     [A little fiction for this morning: a short cautionary tale about one of the undiscussed dangers of our age. – FWP]


     Smith was certain of many things. His sanity wasn’t one of them.
     He was beginning to think he’d stepped across a border between parallel universes. The people around him were almost entirely unacquainted with persons and things he remembered with perfect clarity. Now and then he’d encounter someone who remembered some detail from what he remembered. But even when they agreed that some once-prominent figure had existed, or some event of significance had occurred, the match between his memory and the other's was never complete. Not even with Brenda, his wife of twenty years. Yet she had been with him, equally a witness to many events that he recalled...and she did not.
     It was beginning to worry him.
     “Sanity is not about how many people agree with me,” he would mutter to himself. He did so often. Yet as the discrepancies mounted it had ever less effect. How could he, one man on a world of teeming billions, be the only person whose recollection of the past was complete and accurate? Wasn’t it much more likely that he’d imagined it all? That the world of people and events he thought he remembered was other than the one in which he stood?
     That nagging little idea—that it was his memory, not those of others, that was faulty—seeped ever more deeply into his consciousness. Over time it became dominant. Nevertheless, he struggled to resist it. He spoke of it to no one.
     Until one night at the neighborhood bar.

#

     “President who?
     Jones was peering at him as if he’d announced himself to be a Martian. Smith breathed deeply, slowly and silently counted to ten, and produced a pleasant smile.
     “Andrew Purcell,” he replied. “The one before Coleman. Served two full terms, retired to obscurity in Nebraska, died just two years ago. You don’t remember him?”
     Jones squinted as if he’d tasted something unpleasant and was straining to swallow it. “No, not at all. Just that somebody...wait a minute.” He set his beer stein down on the gleaming cherrywood bar.
“Who’s Coleman?”
     They were the words Smith most feared to hear. He knew better than to deepen the mnemonic gulf. He shrugged, said “Nobody important,” and sipped at his own beer.
     I could quiz everyone in this dive. I could flog them into ransacking their memories. I could hit them with every association between national events and the Purcell and Coleman Administrations. It wouldn’t matter. They won’t recall any of it. They can’t.
     The problem is mine. It has to be.

     He steered the conversation to Overtime, the surprise hit cable TV show that had all of Onteora County talking. Jones would talk about that, at least...though he couldn’t recall anything about ice hockey star Dave Pargeter’s career previous to television.

#

     “Do you remember any of these things, Doctor?”
     Zebulon Davis, B.S., M.D., D.Psy., slowly shook his head. “I’m afraid not. But there’s a way to check which of our memories is the better one.”
     Smith was stunned. “How...how on Earth could we do that?”
     Davis peered at him uncertainly. “The Internet, of course. You are familiar with it, aren’t you?”
     The unfamiliar word buzzed unpleasantly in Smith’s ears. “No, I’m not. What is an...internet?”
     He could see that the psychiatrist was struggling to maintain a pleasant, completely unthreatening demeanor. “It’s an information distribution mechanism,” Davis said. “You need a computer to access it, but once you’re online, it connects you to more data and opinions than previous generations could ever dream of accessing.”
     Smith fought for calm. I might not be crazy after all! “I’ve never owned a computer, Doctor,” he said in low, even tones. “I could never see the point. What would a construction worker do with such a thing?”
     “What we’re about to do,” Davis replied. He turned in his chair, plucked a large, rectangular artifact from the table behind him and set it on his desk, pried up its upper plane and did something to it that made a group of lights begin to glow. “We’re going to check some online sources for information about what you remember and I don’t.” He leaned over the device and locked eyes with Smith. “Are you prepared to take the chances involved?”
     That I might be too deluded for him to help? “I suppose so,” he said. “I think I need to.”
     Davis nodded. “Then come around to this side of the desk and we’ll go over your memories together.”
     Smith rose and did so.

#

     “Amazing,” Davis murmured. “If these sources can be trusted, and I have no reason to think otherwise, your memory of these things is perfectly accurate. It’s mine that’s lacking. Mine and all those others you’ve mentioned. How can this be?”
     Smith was still coping with his amazement at the Internet and its riches. If only I’d known about this thing! “I don’t know, Doctor. That’s why I’m here.”
     Davis shook his head. “We might be looking at an important phenomenon. These days, virtually everyone has a computer and Internet access. Virtually everyone considers the Net the first and best place to look for anything at all, including the details of history. Is it possible that this facility has somehow stolen our memories—deprived us of the ability to recall anything on our own hook?”
     Smith kept silent.
     Presently Davis shut down the computer, closed it up, and turned to face Smith squarely. “You’re the only person I’ve encountered who remembers all this,” he said. “Now we know for certain that those who claimed ignorance weren’t gaslighting you. They really didn’t and don’t recall what you do. If pressed on it, they’d do what we just did—go to the Internet and dial up an authoritative source. Whatever the reason, Smith, it appears that of all your friends, relatives, and acquaintances, you’re the only person who actually knows what’s gone before the present moment. The rest of us have somehow been hobbled, deprived of personal knowledge of those things.”
     The psychiatrist rose, and Smith did as well. “You’re not deluded,” Davis said. “Neither is this a world other than the one you were born into.” He smiled and stuck out a hand, and Smith clasped it. “You’ve done me a great service. There’ll be no charge for this session. Go home and relax.”
     “Thank you, Doctor,” Smith said. “I’ll do just that.”

#

     Smith was jubilant as he opened the front door of his Oakleigh home and stepped inside.
     Brenda will be so happy. She was as worried about me as I was. Now it’s over.
     He strode into the kitchen, smiling broadly. Brenda was there, standing at the counter with her back to him. She was chopping vegetables for what would probably be a stir-fry dinner. “Sweetie!” he called out. “My memory’s just fine! Doctor Davis used this Internet thing to prove that I’m okay!”
     Brenda stiffened at the sound of his voice. She turned slowly to face him, clearly alarmed by his presence. Her cleaver was still in her hand.
     “Who the hell are you,” she hissed, “and what are you doing in my house?”

==<O>==

9 comments:

  1. Throwing a like your way - still digesting this.

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  2. You've heard of Fredric Brown? This reminds me of his clever, twisty short-shorts.

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  3. I can see this as a Twilight Zone episode. Black and white film. Rod Serling. Maybe Jack Klugman to play the lead.

    JWM

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  4. This is good. Send this out to the editors of short stories.

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  5. Thank you, Linda, but I gave that up a long time ago. No, not for Lent; I couldn't endure the frustration.

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  6. I have, pdw. It's a personal favorite. Also, if you haven't yet, check out The Thirteenth Floor: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0139809/

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  7. My first book is nearing completion (I will probably spend most of the summer revising it), and I've begun to think about publishing it.

    You have experience as an indie writer - could you share some of your experiences with the different services: Createspace, Smashwords, et al?

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  8. Dear Linda, I would be happy to help. Just email me at my Yahoo address and we'll get it started.

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