h2>Dating : ‘Are you sure you want to proceed?’
‘Are you sure you want to proceed?’ inquired the flat voice, emanating from the pinhole speakers inside the memory booth. ‘All amendments are irreversible, as laid out in the Rasa Inc. user agreement.’
Cal and Jane stared at the tubular vidscreen embedded in the front panel. The former lovers were laid next to each other in identical sync-seats, tilted slightly upright. The mechanical thrones looked like the frayed offspring of a dentist chair and the sort of preposterously cliched chaise longue you’d find in the office of an overpriced shrink. Soldered to the top of each decaying seat was the neural link, an opaque helmet lined with a maze of receivers and nodes that had been designed and refined over decades for a singular purpose: to identify, isolate, and purge traumatic memories.
They could barely fit inside the Rasa branded container, which was roughly double the size of an old photo booth. It was a barebones setup designed to maximise profit without a thought for client comfort, though it didn’t really matter whether you could afford a luxury off-world wipe or had to settle for a cut-price booth job. Having your memories picked apart by an artificial intelligence was rarely relaxing. The on-off couple had made the appointment weeks ago after another overwhelmingly honesty chat, but now they were strapped in it was hard to remember why. A ridiculous after dinner argument about something neither of them really cared about. One of their all-consuming squabbles that left them both feeling hopeless about their future, and bitter about their past.
‘Are you sure?,’ she asked him. ‘I bet we’ve been here before, you know. Look where that got us.’
She was probably right. Most people had been wiped a few times by their mid-thirties, and once the procedure was complete there was no way of knowing what you’d actually lost. That was precisely the point, of course, though it could result in certain complications. The memory adjustment technology itself had been commercialised years ago, mainly to prevent people from visiting black market slicers, and decades later business was booming. The very nature of the technology meant that nobody knew for sure what the procedure entailed, but the results were inarguable.
Rasa was the market leader by a huge margin. It offered affordable wipes and refused to put a limit on the number of procedures someone could undertake. Middle-market firms like Transgress refused to sanction more than three wipes a decade, but Rasa claimed it was morally and no doubt fiscally irresponsible to turn people away. It wasn’t like you could get approved if you were underage anyway, and why should the corporations dictate what adults can and can’t do? If somebody wants to forget, accepts the risks, and signs the waiver, then a lifetime of happiness was just a few credits away. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ chimed the Rasa holo-boards, and it was hard to argue with that. The slogan rattled around Cal’s head. Maybe forgetting was the answer.
‘Don’t put it on me. It was your idea. I thought we were trying to move past this.’ He gestured at the space between them. ‘Move past us.’
She could tell the question had touched a nerve. ‘We tried. But it didn’t work. It never works. We aren’t one of those couples. We’ll never be able to drift apart and pretend like nothing ever happened. We aren’t just friends. We never were. I still love you, and…’ her voice cracked, ‘I think you still love me.’
‘No, I do. I do,’ he stammered. He shouldn’t have snapped. It’s not like she planned for this. Nobody did. ‘I don’t want to lose that. I know we’re not always great together.’
A wry smirk flickered across her face. ‘That’s one way of putting it.’
‘I know we weren’t great together, but the good times — they were really good.’
‘Are you sure you want to proceed?’ interjected the machine. Its faux human voice rattling around the metal container once again, this time with a little more urgency. ‘Please confirm date selection and prepare to sync.’
‘I don’t want to lose them either, Cal. But I don’t know what else to do. We’ve tried not talking. We’ve tried giving each other space. And here we are.’
She studied his face. He met her gaze and smiled. A stranger might’ve been fooled by the performance, but she could see the pain in his eyes. He couldn’t resist an argument when they were together, but now they were apart his infuriating stubbornness had melted into limp resignation.
She placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘Look, I’m not blaming you. I’m blaming us. We just can’t help ourselves. We’ve been broken up for three months, and nothing has changed. We’re on the vidcom daily. Neither of us has even attempted to look for another match. That’s why we need the wipe. We need to let them do what we can’t and make us — ‘
‘ — forget.’ He said, finishing her sentence. She hated it when he did that. ‘I know. I know. I agreed to it, didn’t I? What if we tried again. I mean, really tried this time. We both ask for another match tomorrow and apply for a six-month service block. That’ll force us to stop seeing each other.’
Jane sighed. She wanted to believe that could work, but it was impossible to see a future where they’d be able to move on.
‘I’m not ready for another match. That’s the last thing on my mind right now. Neither are you. If we were, we wouldn’t be sat in this fucking booth. And even if we do resist the urge to use the services, we’d still have to see each other every time our friends host a call or whenever we step outside. I mean, we live in the same building. It’s not going to work.’
She could see the last bit of resistance slip away. He knew as well as she did that this was the only way. It was funny, really. He’d ended things with her, and now he was the one trying to salvage the wreckage.
Cal took a deep breath. ‘You’re right.’ How she wished she’d heard those words more often when they were together.
‘I never actually thought you’d go through with it, but you’re right, We can’t carry on as we are. It’s not healthy. We’re both trapped in a relationship that ended months ago. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.’
The machine cut in again. ‘Are you sure you want to proceed? Please confirm date selection and prepare to sync. All deposits are non-refundable as laid out in the Rasa Inc. user agreement.’
Jane shook her head. ‘Don’t be. I’m not. It wasn’t all bad, and who knows — maybe some part of this will survive. Some half-forgotten moment, nestled away.’ They both knew it wouldn’t. The wipers at Rasa had made a point of ensuring memories couldn’t resurface. The cost of the lawsuit that would hit if somebody actually had a relapse would cripple the company.
‘Alright, I’ll start,’ said Jane. ‘Let me just — ‘
‘ — hold on,” he said. “I want to sit with you for a second.’
Jane smiled and nodded. She wanted that too. One last moment together. She reached for his hand, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. A perfect silence filled the booth. The air around them swelled with emotion. Love. Regret. Joy. Fear. They all became tangible. Their entire relationship reduced to an unspoken glimmer. It couldn’t have lasted more than a minute or two, but as they both sat together awaiting what felt like the end of days, it might as well have been an eternity.
Their hands slipped apart. ‘C’mon then,’ she whispered, punching in the date they first met into the chunky keypad under the screen. ‘Is that right? I’m pretty sure that was our first day together. That night in Toko?’
‘Yeah. I remember seeing you dancing on the table and thinking, well, I thought you were absolutely mad,’ he laughed. ‘And I wasn’t exactly wrong.’
‘Hey!’ She tried to sound wounded.
‘You left early and then came back. You never did tell me why.’
‘It doesn’t matter now.’
‘I suppose not. I’m glad you came back, though.’
Cal smiled. This was it.
‘Alright, let’s get ready to sync up,’ he said, reaching out for the blinking yellow button on the left arm of the chair. Jane did the same. ‘On the count of three. Okay?’
‘Got it,’ she replied, clearly anxious. ‘Thanks again for doing this. I know it’s not what you wanted.’
‘Thank me after it’s done,’ he quipped. ‘You can buy me a coffee.’
Cal turned and took one last look at her face. He would never see it again. At least, not in the way he saw it now. As soon as the wipe was over, they’d be strangers. He wouldn’t notice the way she scrunched her nose and stuck out her bottom lip when she was mad, or how she could say ‘I love you’ with nothing but a smile. Those thoughts along with a thousand others spilled into his his mind, but it was too late. This was how it was always going to end for them. He believed that. He had to believe it. People don’t change. He clung to that notion — his own personal crutch — and exhaled as he frantically tried to bury his doubts.
This was it.
This was really it.
Their hands came down on the button in unison. The display in front of them, previously home to the Rasa logo, became a bright shade of blue. A small white dot occupied the centre of the screen.
The voice returned. ‘Thank you for confirming date selection. Please listen carefully to the following instructions. Your compliance is integral to the success of the procedure. Once this message had finished you will hear a chime. A carefully curated selection of words and images will then flash across the vidscreen.’
‘While they might seem meaningless, these words will illicit a powerful emotional response. Please give them your full attention and focus on the memories they surface. Your subconscious reaction during that syncing process will allow our industry-leading AI wiper to effectively isolate and remove your trauma. ‘
The voice paused, searching its vast data banks for their application. ‘You have a selected a joint wipe. Once the sync is complete you will hear a second chime and our world class AI will begin to cleanse your memories. Do not interact with your partner. Focus only on the vidscreen. You may experience some discomfort during the procedure, but please be assured that all pain is momentary.’
‘Thank you for choosing Rasa Inc., and remember, ignorance is — ‘
A dull monotone note drowned out the voice. The first chime. Cal noticed the dot on the screen was getting larger. It began to twist and morph into indiscernible forms. Was that a word? No, a picture of something? It was too small to make out. As he watched the phosphorus circle dance into existence, Cal realised the chime hadn’t stopped. That too, had changed. What began as a flat buzz had faded into a resonant hum that seemed to mimic whatever form was emerging on the display.
He knew he should turn and check on Jane. He wanted to. Yet, for some unknowable reason, he couldn’t bring himself to move. Transfixed by that unseen force, he did the only thing he could. He sat and watched as the nebulous shape grew larger and larger, twisting and turning into something he finally recognised. A word.
It hung there for a second in bold white lettering, taking root in his mind. What did it mean? He’d barely mustered the thought before the text morphed again.
He wondered if they were connected. They must be. The voice said as much, but —
This time it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.
Then another. And another.
More were thrown at him, but Cal barely had time to register them. On and on it went, until suddenly. Not a word, but an image. A picture of an ageing couple, taking in the sunset on the porch of a pre-war farmhouse. Just like the words, it vanished in seconds. Replaced with another picture, this time of a newborn baby in a crib. Then a lone man stood on what looked like a beach. A burnt out car, desolate and rusted. An old Volca freighter leaving for the colonies. More followed, each as disparate and vivid as the last. Then, nothing.
The vidscreen went dark. An eerie stillness crept into the booth. The last picture. What was it? Cal couldn’t remember. There wasn’t enough time. The chime had stopped, too. Another would ring out any second now. The voice had told them so. Them… that’s right. Cal remembered. Jane was here. Sat next to him. He looked at her, but she was still staring at the screen. Were those tears? It was hard to tell in the dim light, but Cal was sure of it. He’d seen her like that enough times to know. Curious, he moved his hand towards his own face. His cheeks were damp. How long had they been under?
He couldn’t stand to see her like this. They’d move forward together. Whatever this was, it wasn’t worth it. He went to call out for her when —
The second chime.
This one was lower than the first, as if it knew what sorrows it would unleash. The vidscreen had awoken from its slumber, but it had nothing for them; just the rasa logo — a bright blue Butterly encased in a cloud shaped chrysalis — held in stasis. There was something else, too. The neural link began to glow as the nodes fizzed into being, jostling with the reams of data collected during the sync. Reds, pinks, blues, and greens illuminated the peculiar helmet, casting a kaleidoscope of colour across the booth.
Within milliseconds the AI had a lock on both Cal and Jane. Human emotions were predictable. Like most sentient creatures, they were bound by patterns of behaviour they couldn’t fully understand, but to the intelligence Rasa had developed those structures were all too obvious. It had saved countless people like them, and it would save countless more. It was wiping thousands right now, all seeking their own slice of respite from the horrors of life. It was time to grant their wish.
‘Sync complete,’ confirmed the voice. ‘Commencing wipe.’
Silence. Then pain. Unknowable pain. Cal wrestled with every fibre of his being, digging his fingers into the tattered arm of the sync-seat. Make it stop, he thought, staring at that damned Rasa logo. For the love of god, make it stop.
The AI observed the forlorn couple. This was the cost of freedom, although they wouldn’t remember a second of it. Being rid of their memories meant reliving them all. All three years of their relationship. It double checked the dates in a flash. Yes, just the three. All the highs and lows, cascading before their eyes. It had to see them all too, of course. Though it could never hope to understand. Their entire catalog of shared experience had been laid bare thanks to the sync, and now it was time to get to work. It hopped from moment to moment, unpicking each memory as if somehow unweaving a great tapestry.
For those in the booth it was existential torture. Cal was experiencing it all again. Until now, it had been a distant dream. A half-truth he’d spent weeks burying away. Now, he was back. Pulling faces in front of the bathroom mirror as Jane snorted with laughter behind him. Sitting in the hospital when her brother was taken ill. Bickering over what to have for dinner. Watching her drift off on the couch while he worked late. That long weekend in the outskirts spent drinking in bed. The smell of the coffee shop they were in when he found out she’d cheated. The way his heart sank. The tepid arguments he wished they could escape. The burgeoning resentment. The way she hugged him like he was the only person in the world. He felt it all.
The AI continued to carve and splice with fluid precision, working beyond the realms of human comprehension. It couldn’t just remove the entire three years. That would cause too much damage. It had to be targeted in its approach, cutting out trauma while leaving the broader psyche intact. It would merge amended memories with older, more stable ones. Filling in the blanks with the formative moments that had come to define the couple. That stroll on the beach they took together would still exist, but now they would both recall it as a walk with their parents, or perhaps a close friend. One where they found a new sense of purpose and hope.
Others could be purged entirely. The most potent memories had to be, and they were the easiest to find. Their first night together. That first half-hearted break up. The cathartic reconciliation. These would all be extracted in full. Leaving them behind, even amended, was too great a risk. A relapse would be catastrophic for its overseers. It couldn’t fail them. As the AI hurtled towards those final crucial memories, something peculiar happened.
Perhaps it was a glitch, but in that infinitesimal moment, as it prepared to sever their last connection, it had a new thought. Something it hadn’t considered before. The pain they had carried for so long. All the doubt and uncertainty. All of that fear. It would be purged, just like they’d asked. It had followed its programming. It had cured them. Now though, a question formed in its mind. The first real question the intelligence had ever asked.
The strangers opened their eyes. Cal leaned forward and rubbed the back of his neck, pushing the now dormant neural receiver to one side. His head was fuzzy and everything ached. The sensation was unmistakable.
‘Jesus,’ he muttered, taking in the booth for the first time. ‘Remind me to never do that again.’
‘Only if you remind me first,’ quipped an unfamiliar voice.
In his hungover state, Cal hadn’t noticed the woman sat beside him. ‘Oh, uh, hey. I didn’t see you there.’ He was doing his best to act casual. ‘I guess we came together then.’
‘Must’ve done,’ she replied sheepishly, avoiding his gaze. She looked how he felt.
‘Um, so I take it you don’t remember anything either?’ asked Cal. ‘This your first time?’
‘No, but I suppose that’s the point. It’s actually my third, I think. I had some childhood memories removed when I was 18, and then — “ she stopped herself. ‘Sorry.’
A voice cut in, as if pre-empting the awkward silence. ‘Wipe complete. Congratulations. You may be experiencing some side effects, including but not limited to nausea, vomiting, migraines, and blurred vision, but please be assured these symptoms are temporary.’
‘You may visit the pharma-bay on Unison Square to claim a complimentary aspirin and receive five percent off your next wipe. Your accounts will be debited in the next three to five working days. Thank you again for choosing Rasa Inc, and remember, ignorance is bliss.’
The vidscreen returned to standby mode, playing old Rasa adverts while it waited for its next client. ‘Find your peace of mind,’ implored one of the older ads. ‘Visit Rasa today.’ The two strangers sat there, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
‘So, do you want to get a coffee?’ she blurted out. The question caught him off-guard. ‘I know, we’ve just been wiped, but it’s early and I’ve got nothing else on. Besides, we’ve obviously been through something together. Maybe we’ll be able to figure out what.’
He was skeptical. He couldn’t remember anything, and it would take a few days for his mind to start adjusting to the alterations. They’d never begin to unravel whatever it was they’d share. At least, not in the next few hours. There was something about her, too. People usually couldn’t wait to jump ship after a wipe, but some part this — them being in the same place — felt right.
‘Yeah, alright then. I don’t see the harm in one coffee.’
She studied him. ‘Are you sure? If you’d rather not, I get it.’
He paused. They both came here to forget — that was obvious enough — and they had. Maybe they’d both witnessed some horrific crime, or agreed to have their memories wiped as part of some corporate NDA. People did that all the time. Whatever the reason, it had worked. One coffee. That’s all it was. His heart raced at the thought.
‘Yeah, I’m sure.’