"A Persistence of Ghosts" by Gregory Scheckler is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
Glossolalia: incomprehensible speech in an imaginary language, sometimes occurring in a trance state, an episode of religious ecstasy, a schizophrenic episode, or meshnet interpausations.
I heard the whirr and pump of liquids pushing through an intravenous array, linked by clear plastic tubing to my elbow. My second memory sequence came into focus. My fingers burned. I blinked. White-grey ceiling tiles flaked and gathered dust. A woman who seemed familiar stood by my bed. She said, “Hello?”
I wanted to say something. I couldn’t speak. I must’ve looked confused. She said, “It’s me, Reena, your wife.”
My mouth refused to produce words. Reena was angelic, brunette, her features soft and her cheekbones puffy. She seemed right, normal as far as I could tell. She didn’t melt. I was awake.
She said, “You don’t know how you got here, do you?”
All I could remember was snow, a night walk, some residual anger.
She said, “You must’ve fainted again. I found you flat face-down on the side of the road. I flagged down one of the plows when they came, and we took you here. You’ve been out for a day.”
“Hrrrrung,” I said. I wanted to say more. Nothing else came out.
She said, “I love you, but I’m sick of introducing myself to you. I can’t take it anymore. We have to do something.”
A day or two or three passed while I lounged in the hospital bed and fought through bouts of confusion.
The blare of other patients’ NetLoop shows, and the machinery of hospitals together zipped and echoed around the room: rolling wheels on carts and beds, the soft slap of nurses’ work shoes on tile floors, the beeps and whirrs of pumps and electrodes attached to me.
The neurotechnologist reviewed the readouts from my meshnet and my brain. She said, “No sign of a tumor. And your meshnet isn’t quite synced yet. So we’re running through some routine protocols to see if we can find a better sync. I’m sorry it’s taking so long. You know how it is, the patterns of millions of neurons have to be set just so, and it’s a little different for each one of us.”
She had a nice smile. I wanted to remember it forever. I still couldn’t speak and got nothing to come out of my mouth. The nurses walked me up and down the hall. They said I had to walk to keep the motor centers of my nervous system active and keep my muscles from atrophy.
“What, cat got your tongue?” said a patient. I waved.
The nurse said for me, “He’ll be back to full brain in no time.”
I didn’t feel like I would. But I was happy that they thought so.
The next two days I tried to chat with the staff and the neurotechnician. They looked quite puzzled by me. But they let me go home and Reena was fine with that.
Home. There were plenty of photos and portraits around, books about Physics and Neuroscience—my passions, said Reena. I thought it might not be my home at all. Nothing seemed familiar. I pretended it was. The photos did look like me. And Reena hugged me many times. She seemed happy I was there, but her eyebrows often squinched up and I caught her consulting the Internet for more information about recovery from meshnet interpausations, the gaps caused by trying to get them to make a good fit. Neural Lace. It was supposed to be so easy.
“The neurotechnician said it could be a few more days. My memories should come back. I hope they do because,” I said, “you really seem great and I want to remember our relationship. For you.”
Reena said, “Oh dear, don’t talk. I can’t understand a word you say. Just give it some time.”
She brushed my hair and fed me some soup. I had trouble holding the spoon myself. My hand wobbled. My wrinkled, knurled knuckles presented only one conclusion: I was rather old. Probably not much use, really. I was very lucky to have Reena’s help, and glad for all of the medical resources.
I slept in tiny fits. My neck hurt and my tongue stayed too stiff. I remembered a quite explicit dream where a brain fell into a very small gravity well, and spun like a star. Everything in the universe that has mass pulls at each other. Gravity. But light doesn’t have mass, just momentum, lots of momentum. And I wondered about memories. Do they have mass? If they don’t, isn’t that maybe why they keep pulling apart? Do memories have momentum? It must’ve been a very long time for them to pull so far apart from each other. But neurons surely had a little mass, and the brain itself, about three pounds of attractive force, spinning.
There’s a dusty picture on the old piano of a young girl. I’m told this is my daughter, years ago. She’s twenty now, and a fine, accomplished young woman who works in marketing for an entertainment arena in Miami. My daughter’s name is Davinia, but Reena calls her Davy. I thought it didn’t sound like a very good name.
In the picture, Davy’s at a lake, and she’s got a red swimsuit and beach hat and a giant smile and a huge neon green inner tube float-toy that has a big dinosaur neck and head, and a tail boinged up from the back. She must be seven or eight years old maybe. She had this curly hair that arced upwards just like her smile but her eyes crinkled into little half-moons. Hilarious. The picture made me smile. It was happiness incarnate. I wished I could remember its moments. Maybe I wasn’t there? Maybe my wife took this photo? I gathered we went on vacations a lot. I gathered we had a good time. I felt like it must’ve been a good time. On closer inspection I saw myself in the photo, far in the background, jumping up from the water, blurry but at play. It must have been a very nice day. I saw Reena staring at the picture after lunch, and when she touched the picture frame, she grinned and the arc of her mouth reminded me of Davy.
I overheard Reena messaging her daughter. Reena said, “He would’ve wanted this, I know it. But he’s not himself and his words don’t work. It’s taking too long for his mind to pull together. I’m afraid he’s gone and not coming back.”
Ever since then, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I don’t really exist anymore. That I am kind of a husk of what I once was. The evidence was simple: all the photos, the life, the loyalty that Reena always showed me, her care and watchfulness and the little hint of sadness at the corner of her eyes.
I couldn’t get a grip on anything and I never felt quite right. I stepped outside and the sky spun.
I woke up in the hospital again. Beeps, tubing, nurses, doctors, and me not understanding what was happening. My mind eventually congealed into a growing understanding and piecing a mild sense of self back together again.
A doctor scanned across my eyes with his finger, and the neurotechnician checked a series of electrodes. The doctor said, “It’ll be amazing if he remembers anything.”
A woman introduced herself, “I’m Reena.”
I nodded as if I knew her.
She itched herself behind her left ear. She took me to her house, which she said was my house. I found her intensely attractive. But there was very little I could do other than shuffle and lean an arm for balance against a wall, a railing, a bed post.
I said, “The will to survive is very strong. I’d like to keep trying.”
She said, “Such gibberish. We need a translator. Look we’re going to give this one more try, for old time’s sake.” She gave me a big hug. She rubbed behind her ear, “The itching stops, right? After a day or two, they said.”
“I’m fighting for us. I hope I can pull myself together. I will never give up.”
“What’s that? You’re not making sense. Oh, well, don’t bother talking. Hush now. Save your energy. It’ll be okay. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
My first big memory went like this:
The snow was at least a foot deep, soft and wet, typical of November storms. Dark. And late. And because I couldn’t sleep, I went out for a walk. I couldn’t sleep because I left myself a note that said, “Remember: fight for it. Fight!” I didn’t remember. What is “it” and why fight? I kept walking.
The neighborhood was quiet. The power flashed out. Heavy snow must’ve knocked out some lines somewhere. I was wrapped up inside my parka, boots, mittens. I was warm enough that I couldn’t care less about the cold and the snow. Was feeling a bit angry about work and life. My new meshnet ran on electrical charges from a tiny battery behind my left ear. The neurotechnician said the battery would last for my entire lifetime. It was new and it itched.
I walked down the street, passed the old Congregational Church, the one with white siding and tiny windows and two determined ladies who tended the garden in the summer. Honestly, I tried not to be angry, but in this memory, the moment I relaxed enough, there lurked the anger. I’m a loser. I told myself a hundred times that these thoughts have got to stop. I’m successful. I’m not a loser. I’m an imposter. No. I’m me. Right here, right now. Just me. I kept walking.
At a big pile of lilacs the snow bunched up into rolls on top of every branch. Through the gaps between two branch-bags I saw something. I shone my flashlight. A pair of lights, maybe its eyes glowed. Tapetum Lucidum, the reflections of demons, light bounced back from the cells nearly at the edge of the brain. I saw it for only a minute, but just barely long enough to see gray skin, a smooth brain case, high cheekbones, tiny nostrils. Classic space alien. I’ve had this happen before. My memory forced itself to name the patterns, even the random ones.
This is something that I know in the pit of my one memory, maybe the only thing: if you’re walking around and something right in front of you melts away, or the scene shifts all of a sudden, you are either in a dream and asleep in bed at home, or hallucinating. And my one big memory did melt. So I said to good old E.T., “Now hey, what would you do?”
Then I became the alien looking at me. I saw myself talk, guttural, raspy. I glugged like, “Hrrrungh. Umm-nermm.” Shifted back into my own body and the E.T. melted. Alone I stood in the snow wondering what happened, except I knew my first big memory was always a dream. My knees buckled.
I woke up in bed, in the middle of the night, with Reena curled around me. It was dark and I finally figured it out. I am the meshnet device. And except for autonomous functions like heartbeat and limbic pumping, I am not my old mind anymore. I am a persistent ghost of the man I once was.
The evidence is the photographs. Reena’s statements. The words of the doctors and the neurotechnician. In Reena’s home—I call the house that, she belongs here, I’m not so sure I do—I found notes in sketchbooks and journals, written by my former self, who said, “Despite my tumor, centrally located in the (x) memory centers of my brain, even if we remove the mass we can still make the meshnet persist with the addition of (y). I would like to believe that enough portions of my mind (z) will survive that I will in some form (m) persist. Is it possible? Is it worth a try?”
I read in my former self’s old journals that despite the complexity of the world, really there were only four kinds of forces. Gravity. It held masses to each other. Probably it’s what held Reena to my body right now, here in this bed. Electromagnetism. That’s most of me, and light, and computational transmissions. Then there was the binding protons and neutrons: the strong interaction. And the many millions of decays of nucleons, the weak interaction. We simplified this. Strong, weak, and electromagnetic all glommed together into one theory. That left the outlier, gravity, pulling us together. According to my notes it all went smaller, into links and loops of string-like thingamajigs and I had trouble understanding any of them. What did this have to do with me? Since I was the meshnet then I was a bunch of strings, a Neural Lace, either actual netting left behind in a disappearing brain, or strings of code, or both. Through the window I saw the night sky. I thought maybe to view the stars, astronomies, the sense of our smallness? But it was cloudy, and humid. There was a fog in the air.
Whether it was gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force or the weak force, I don’t know, but the world began to make a bit more sense and the tension in my neck released. My tongue flexed. “I’m feeling rather better now,” I told Reena, “I’m really starting to get a hang of this.”
She murmured. She rolled over, fell back asleep, but kept a hold of my hands. I pinched her fingers just enough to rouse her.
I said, “Reena, don’t you understand? My words are back. I’m so glad you’ve been here with me.”
Her eyes fluttered. She gripped my hands more tightly. She said, “Hrrrungh. Umm-nermm.”
Gregory Scheckler lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He wrote the science fiction novels Biomimic Generations and StarFold (publication dates t.b.a) as well as numerous poems and short stories, including the collections Water Taxi in a River of Vampire Fish, and Moon Dust Infinity. He loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and he isn’t afraid to say so in public. He and his wife are avid telemark skiers, and enjoy mountain biking and hiking too. He studied speculative fiction writing at audition-only workshops with the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. He is a member of the Science Fiction Research Association, and the Codex Writers’ Group. More about his writing can be found at www.gregoryscheckler.com.
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