Random inaccessible memory #1

Random inaccessible memory they call it. Eventually you were numb from the uncertainty, knowing less and less about your past, about yourself. All we knew then, though, was that something didn’t feel right. Something you couldn’t quite keep in your sights, like trying to keep a bead on a target moving just too quickly. People started to be … different, strange. Jones used to sit on his bunk, staring blankly at the same sepia-toned digiframe, the images of a pretty blonde cycling one by one in perpetual cycle. He’d done it every day since we started the programme together, staring intently before the transfers began. A look of confusion spread and grew deeper like some cancerous root as the weeks withered past. Eventually, he looked up at me, a thin needle-like tear cutting down his haunted face, and he asked, “Is this my wife?”

Me? I couldn’t remember, either.

The linkups were the worst, though. Talking to a stranger whose unrecognizable voice on the other end insists that it belongs to your mother; you thought you could remember, but it was like a fluttering dream in the winds of time. You desperately wanted to ask, “Who are you?” She wasn’t in your memories, but you bit your tongue; everyone needs a mother, especially when you’re stuck in the middle of some desolate Russian nowhere. She’s telling you she’s dying slowly, that the doctor told her that she had to be part of this year’s quota, but there’s just this feeling of detachment from it all.

I wasn’t the only one. Everyone else felt it, but I don’t think we spoke about it much; read that somewhere, but the memory is gone. The restoration surgery never works perfectly, but there are some things I do remember now, though: pieces, fragments. My mom and dad’s faces for one, so proud of me, off to the military to make something out of nothing: twenty eight with no job or career prospects; flunked out of university on a junk diet of computers, games and drunken parties to face a life of human computation to make some quick cash. Their faces look at me now from an old photo worn down from too many caresses with trembling fingers that I still keep in a dusty picture frame by my bedside. The three of us together: me in the middle with my ridiculous long hair and handlebar moustache; my father beaming like a professor who’d just finished marking his best student’s paper; and my mom, her hand reaching out lovingly to hold his, the camera flash reflected off her goggle-like glasses and silvery gray hair.

On the cold nights, as I lie alone in my bed hearing the sounds of London’s never sleeping traffic, I sometimes wonder whether the memories are really back. Maybe I just want them to be.

But I remember signing up for Hermes.

After inspection by the UAN profilers, I was dumped in as one of about twenty other greens straight into the Army’s IT division, which was pretty much where anyone with computer experience ended up. That meant heading to the Allied training facility on the outskirts of a nameless town, a place of push-chair prams, fast food chains and dead-end dreams.

There are still memories that I hated going into the town with its run down, cloned houses lining the roads, so I spent most of it on the base. Life that winter became a cluster of dry, warm fluorescent-lit lecture halls, rectangular buildings that hid behind the rusting fences built to keep out non-military life, which also meant the surrounding scrub and woodland. It was there that I saw my first sentry, one of more than two dozen squat, black drones that spun noiselessly at regular intervals along the fence, an array of non-lethal weapons at the ready. Even though their arphid readers could pick up the tags in my arm, they wouldn’t hesitate to use them on me, either. Another green lost a poker game once, and had to see how close he could get to the fence without fainting from pain or running away. No-one tried to stop him, his screams were a good reminder for what could happen if we tried to desert. He refused to talk about it, and quit the next day.

I fitted in, though; games simulation and theory was easy for me, no different to playing a virtual, or even some of the retros. Actually, it was all just another type of human computation. Instead of semantic tagging or filling out captchas for a few bucks an hour, we were going to be helping auto’s fragging on the battlefield; death tagging, some of the others called it.

We were meant to be the brains, and the field grunts were the brawn. It pretty easy compared to them. For us, it was like a nerd boot camp of lectures, virtual simulations, reflex training and hand-eye coordination, along with a host of gene-tweaks and bodyhacks. Me, the idea of virtual remotes was far more preferable than being dropped off in some war-torn hellhole; at least we could keep up the game illusion. It’s like picking up a tray of real beef instead of the hundreds of lab-grown lumps lining the freezers at the supermarket: you didn’t see it get butchered by your own hand, the touch, smell, and sounds overwhelming the senses, but the grunts did. The worst that could happen to anyone in the Patrol was some industrious jacker from the other side killing your connection, nailing your field auto with an EMP or, worse, screwing up your targeting, but it was the grunts that died.

We could see them outside sometimes from the comfort of our lecture rooms, splashing through rank, muddy puddles on the gravel road as they ran past our double-glazed windows into the trees, the occasional grunts of endurance and shouts of pain filtering through over the clicks of our mice and keys. “The Geek Patrol” they used to call us, but for all their ragging, we had respect. Some of the best Allied gamers could get more kills in a day than the guys on foot would see in a month. Me, I didn’t have a single fragtag to my name by then. I’d only ever seen remote combat a few times on the overhead screens in the viewing gallery, but we’d run combat simulations with a few of the grunts, and we always came out ahead. More often than not they owed their lives to some invisible angle high on caffeine and modafinil.

And then, the word Hermes entered my life. A few months into training, and my sarge is offering me a promotion, a pay rise, and a bunch of other sweeteners to take part in some test out in Siberia.

“What’s the test?” I asked.

“You’ll find out when you arrive,” he replied.

“How long will I be out there?”

“No idea.”

He looked up at me from his desk impatiently, his eyes squinting beneath bushy eyebrows that more than made up for the lack of hair on his head.

“Look, do you want the promotion or not?”

That’s the military: volunteer and don’t ask, because when you do, they never tell you the answers anyway. Stevens wasn’t a bad guy for a sarge, friendly when he wanted to be, tough most of the time with a face like a dried lava flow. Nameless superiors in white, clinical boardrooms had probably dissected files on everyone, turning up a few names that suited their requirements, and issued orders down the ranks until one of them reached him. Sarge had learnt by now not to ask questions, so I can’t hold it against him for not warning me. He probably had no idea.

So I took the job. It didn’t seem to involve killing anyone, for starters. I’d like to say the money didn’t matter, but it did in its own way. Getting out earlier was appealing, too, but I wanted the diversion from the routine: wake up, play, recreation, sleep, with eating and shitting somewhere in-between; sex if you’re lucky enough to be gay or to have the guts to share the one or two women everyone else had fun with. Or the sex dolls, of course, but their lifeless eyes turned most of the grunts off, let alone us in the Patrol.

Truth was I needed the break from the thoughts in my head, and welcomed the chance to do anything else. You saw someone dying on the monitor of course, but it wasn’t real, except later. Sometimes you closed your eyes to imagine them, tried to picture the hornets descending or mobile targeters firing on your command, but more often than not you tried to watch a movie, read a book, and get drunk or stoned with other grunts and just forget. The detachment helped, but you started thinking things in the still night, thinking about the angular, digital mannequins disappearing from your computer screen in a vanishing haze of mouse clicks, or a glance if you had the upgrades.

Did you kill a nameless, physical person, or just their digital reflection?

You used to feel it in the barracks as everyone tried to sleep, the same thoughts running around in everyone’s head. Maybe it was the machine on the other end that’s responsible. This was just the ultimate in human computation, us humans helping machines overcome problems they couldn’t solve. It’s their responsibility. They were the killers. We were just accessories, vehicles for something else.

I tried speaking about it once with Andrew, one of the few people I still remember vividly from back then. He was a big guy, strong, with a face like a loveable bulldog with sideburns and glasses. We’d joined up around the same time, and had pretty much kept to ourselves, which was why we got on so well. There’s only so much grunt one-upmanship and techie bullshit you can stand before the stench knocks you senseless into a drooling simpleton.

“How long you reckon they’ve used gaming like this?” I asked just after we’d left one of our theory lectures. We’d both headed to the mess hall, a cavern of a room where we all took our meals. Andrew sat quietly next to me in the noisily vibrating mess hall, chewing his food as a group of greens laughed boisterously with each other at a nearby table.

“You heard. About ten years.”

“I meant unofficially.”

He snorted, and took another mouthful, the green pea-speckled mash disappearing between his overbite. He stared intently at his plate, almost as if he were willing more food to appear.

“Probably double that, if you’re just talking about virtuals. Heard rumours on the net a while ago a bunch of RTSG’s and MMORPGS from way back were trial runs.” The fork scraped along the plastic plate and lifted food up again, in an automated fashion as he continued talking. “But they’ve been investigating this crap for years. I heard some of those CCTV-Watch schemes were actually trial runs for this sort of thing.”

“No shit?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, scooped food into his mouth and mumbled through the mush as he chewed.

“Believe what you want.”

“Do you think it’s possible, well, the virtuals we used to play …” I trailed off, not wanting to finish the sentence and make me sound like some freaking bleeder. “You think maybe they were for real?” He just laughed, softly, without humour and shrugged.

“Yeah, wondered about that myself. Probably. Who knows? I’ve heard rumours that they’re definitely thinking of doing it now, but get this: heard they want civvies that can play virts and retros to actually volunteer on their own. They want to make it a selling point of the game. True hum-comp style man, make it a game, tell people you can save your country, and they don’t mind fragging anyone.”

Date of this seems to be somewhere within the 2020’s from what seems to be a semi-autobiographical work entitled “Random Inaccessible Memory”, author currently unknown.


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December 14, 2006