Memory has always been a popular theme in Futurismic‘s fiction selection; maybe that’s a sign of the times, as I seem to blog about neuroscience and memory a lot in recent months, or maybe it’s just one of the frontiers that science fiction will always be best equipped to explore.
Either which way, I’m super proud to have Stephen Gaskell return to the site with “Platform 17”. What would you do to cure your child’s nightmares? Would you go so far as to penetrate to their heart? And what might doing so make you become?
by Stephen Gaskell
Orsi stroked her son’s head. He slept fitfully, his hair sweaty and matted. From time to time, he moaned, made a low, frightened noise like a cornered animal. She’d rocked him to sleep an hour earlier, then carried him to his bed with numb arms.
“Oh, kicsi,” she whispered, straightening the rumpled blankets. She thought about singing a lullaby, but immediately felt silly at the idea. Csaba was ten, not two.
He jerked his neck back, eyelids twitching. His whole body shuddered and his arm came up to his head as though he were about to shield himself from a blow. “No, no,” he muttered, frantic. The arm across his face trembled, then lurched downwards as if it were being moved against his will. Then, as the previous night and the five before, he began screaming. Not a hearty shriek, but a terrible, hoarse, broken wail like fingernails raking down a blackboard.
“Csaba!” Orsi gripped his shoulders, shook him. “Csaba, wake up! It’s only a dream.”
His eyes blinked open, but he kept screaming. His face was pale, horrified.
“What did he do to you?” Orsi said, hugging her son too hard. “What did your father do to you?”
His screams faded, became whimpers. He didn’t answer.
“I’m looking for László.”
It was the next day. Orsi, bleary-eyed, had brought Csaba into Budapest’s shattered Eighth District seeking the one man who might be able to help. Beneath cracked solar awnings and broken skylights they’d stumbled past abandoned vehicles, drifts of fallen masonry, and heaps of domestic detritus until they’d reached the subterranean bar.
Behind the barman, between the depleted stock of spirits, holographic ads blinked chaotically. He grinned, stretched his mouth wide. Orsi flinched. A reptilian tongue, long and forked, snaked out. The graft work was cheap. Bloody welts puckered his tongue. She’d heard of backstreet graft parlors in Bucharest and Sarajevo, but never seen the results. “In the corner,” he said, laughing. He flicked his head in the direction of one of the bar’s dark recesses.
The man sat alone, a vague silhouette nestled at the back of an alcove. When she got closer, Orsi saw he was rake thin, neck like a starved chicken, a pathetic straggle of hair hanging from the back of his head. His eyes were luminous though, enormous polished saucers as if he fed off light. A pair of spex sat on his table next to an untouched shot.
“What do you want?”
“This–” Orsi said with a fierce whisper, indicating Csaba “–is the eldest son of Zoltán Kiraly.”
Orsi had never met László, but she was well acquainted with his work nonetheless. She’d learnt about his trade in fits and starts during her two awful years with Zoltán. For example:
One of Zoltán’s girls would come back to the house whimpering about a violent customer, face purpled like a bruised pear. Zoltán would rage then have her sent off to see László. She would come back woozy, muttering of an elaborate helmet and dark dreams. Or:
One of his girls would arrive back from a weekend on Lake Balaton at the pleasure of some high-ranking politician. She’d be ferried off to see László with Zoltán licking his lips and talking about insurance. Or:
A girl would throw a tantrum and refuse to visit a client. Zoltán would say, “Take her to László. Show her what happened to Anita.”
László was a memory peddler. With the right conditions, he could tease a memory out of a mind, then erase it or store it for others to see. For the boss of a prostitution ring that was a very useful skill.
Orsi had walked out of Zoltán’s house, if not his life, when she forced herself to see the full horror of his nasty little empire. The only reason she wasn’t beaten, wasn’t forced into a caged life like the rest of his women, was her swelling belly. She was with his child.
She was nineteen years old.
“If you’ve come for my services you’re out of luck. I’ve retired.”
“Then you also know that Viktor Orvath took over my duties.”
Orsi nodded. Viktor Orvath had been in Zoltán’s inner circle back when she still lived with him. He was utterly loyal and utterly amoral. “That’s why I’ve come to you.”
László held up his palms, distancing himself from whatever Orsi wanted. He shuffled along the bench as if he was about to leave. A sense of hopelessness pressed her. She’d been foolish to come here. Desperate, she lunged into his path, prevented him from getting up. “Zoltán made you witness a lot of ugly things, didn’t he?”
It was a gamble, but a calculated one. Some people went to the memory peddlers to sell exhilarating experiences–base jumping from the Eiffel Tower, hunting a Great White in the Indian Ocean, free climbing the Grand Canyon. Some went to preserve important events–their child’s birth, their wedding day, a family reunion. Zoltán went for altogether different purposes.
For any normal man it must’ve become a heavy burden.
László stared through her for a long time, but his eyes didn’t betray his thoughts. Eventually, he broke her gaze and turned his attention to her son. “So you’re Mr. Kiraly’s little boy?”
Csaba turned, buried his face in his mother’s side. He would outgrow his shyness soon. Zoltán would see to that.
“You have a beautiful son, Orsi.”
László’s use of her name stunned her. Maybe there was hope.
“Now, if you’ll excuse–”
“He has nightmares.”
“Terrible nightmares. Every night. He keeps himself awake, only sleeping when he is absolutely exhausted. An hour later he wakes screaming.”
“What sort of nightmares?”
Orsi stroked her son’s hair. “He won’t tell me.”
László rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a holocard. “Hey, Csaba, this is for you.”
A small grainy figure grandstanded on the table. Orsi recognized him as Scavenger, poster boy for the post-apocalyptic craze. Csaba turned, became mesmerized by Scavenger’s demented words. “Disused factories are a goldmine!”
“Csaba,” László said, “you know Scavenger’s not real, don’t you?”
The boy nodded, not taking his eyes from his hero.
“Neither are the monsters in your dreams.”
If only it were that easy, Orsi thought.
László turned to her. “Nightmares are not like memories. They are capricious, phantom-like. They bind from threads of thought all over the brain; the amygdala, the cortex, the pons. Snaring a nightmare is like trying to tether mist.”
“It’s not the nightmare I want to see.”
László grimaced, pushed past her. Orsi could see that he wanted to get out before he heard her request. Before he had to make a choice.
“I want to see the memory that causes the nightmares.” She talked fast, snaking after the memory peddler, pulling Csaba along behind. “I want to see it, then wipe it.”
Csaba’s attention was still on the dancing hologram, head twisted. He stumbled, fell to the flagstones with a cold slap, began crying. The memory peddler reached the door, gripped the handle. Orsi glanced between the other patrons, her fallen boy, and László. “Please!” she shouted. “I want to see what his father–what Mr. Kiraly–does to him.”
Cold, rank air streamed into the bar from where László held the door ajar.
“Stay or go, shithead,” somebody near the door said.
“Please,” Orsi repeated, quieter this time.
László sighed and let go of the handle. The door closed, shutting out the cold.
“There are risks.”
László led Orsi and her son through the crumbling edifice that was Keleti station. The smell of overspent train engines, cooked chestnuts, and paprika-spiced sausages laced the chilly air. A smattering of people dribbled about. Commuters in neat though fraying clothes, beggars in rags, thieves in expensive clobber.
Memory peddling had never been illegal, but the expense of the kit had meant it had always been the province of the rich. Orsi was vaguely familiar with its dangers from some of Zoltán’s girls’ experiences. Persistent headaches. Flashing lights. Mild hallucinations.
“The risks are worth it,” she said.
They headed under a long row of screens, the Fidesz, RealHU, and other election candidates’ smiles protected by shatterproof plastic. Their eyes didn’t blink in their pudgy faces as they earnestly talked through their health and finance plans.
László ducked into a disused, dimly lit side alley. Half-way down the puddle-strewn passage he checked to see if anybody was watching from the station concourse, then hustled Orsi and her son through a rotten door.
Her eyes were still adjusting to the half-light when he came in after them and pulled the door closed, plunging them into darkness. Instinctively, Orsi reached for her son, dread blooming. “László–”
She felt him slide past her, take her hand. His skin felt like crêpe paper. “Come.”
“Welcome to Platform 17,” László announced over the hum of the petrol engine. The sweet smell of gasoline licked the air. “Twenty-five years ago the train to Bratislava left from this very spot.”
As the jury-rigged lighting system–a long chain of bare bulbs strung up like decorations–struggled to full brightness, Orsi took in the claustrophobic space. They stood in a tall brick-walled room. A curving bank of intricate glasswork stretched high on one side, while a medley of computing cores, scanners, and other instruments occupied a long makeshift desk on the other. In one corner, an ancient hairdresser’s chair, complete with blow-drying helmet, cast elongated shadows on the brickwork.
“What’s through there?” she asked, pointing at an archway with barricaded double-doors.
“That’s the backdoor.” László grinned. “For emergencies.”
She felt uneasy. Platform 17 wasn’t the pristine, high-tech suite she’d imagined.
László seemed to pick up on her anxiety. “Not what you expected?” he asked as he booted up the computers.
“Not quite.” She glanced at Csaba. He looked about with wide-eyed wonder, then clambered up on to the hairdresser’s chair. At least he’s enjoying it, she thought. She unbuttoned her coat, spun about looking for a place to hang it. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at a dusty sheet hanging from the wall above the hole.
“That’s where we watch the main feature.”
She glanced at her son again, wondering what they would witness.
László took her coat, flung it over the back of one of the two shabby office chairs that sat beside the desk. The coat’s momentum caused the chair to roll a little. “Let me show you something.”
He tapped out a command on a terminal pane, watched lines of text dance down the screen, then dimmed the lights from a wall dial. “Over here,” he said. He stepped between the slew of cables that snaked across the floor to the wall of glass. It loomed over him like a cascade of the clearest water.
He stood, mesmerized.
At first she couldn’t see what he was staring at, but when she got closer she noticed the odd sparkle of light within. As her eyes adjusted she began to follow the motes of light. They weaved in and out and up and down in delicate patterns.
“Beautiful,” she whispered.
“Look closer.” László said, not taking his eyes from the glass.
She focused harder, gasped. Within the patterns a rose bud bloomed, shed its petals. Had she imagined it? Next she caught a fleeting view of a swordfish tangled in nets. “What–”
“Fragments of memories. State-of-the-art photonic storage facility. At least it was. Of course, the memories aren’t stored in a visual format, but the algorithms can render them that way.”
She felt curious but ashamed, as if she’d caught her own reflection while spying on a neighbor. “Whose–”
“Nobody’s. When I retired Mr. Kiraly had me erase everything.” László bit his lip. “I was happy to oblige.”
She imagined him standing there for long hours, unable to turn his eye from what must have been such terrible beauty. Part of her wanted to know what awful sights he’d seen.
He said, “Right now the fragments you see are clip-art.”
“A glorified screensaver.”
They watched the light, the only noise the distant rumble of departing trains. Eventually, László said, “We should get started.”
Orsi nodded, but didn’t take her eyes from the glass.
“We’re going to go on a journey now, Csaba.”
Orsi crouched down beside her son who was sat in the mustard-upholstered hairdresser’s chair. A profusion of data, sensor, and power cables spewed from the blow-drying helmet that was securely fastened over his head, and she had to keep pulling his little hands away from the wires.
“Where are we going, Mama?”
Where, indeed? Orsi thought. Old doubts flitted through her mind. What if Csaba was too young to be a subject? What if it made the nightmares worse? What if they couldn’t retrieve the inciting memory? What if they could, but it didn’t help?
“We’re going into your past,” she said. “I want you to think about your last visit to Papa’s.” The nightmares had begun the same night.
Orsi felt Csaba’s arm tense at her words.
“Last Friday,” she went on. “It was raining when I dropped you off.”
Orsi glanced up at the viewing canvas that László had brushed down. The image from the gently whining projector was hazy, but it wasn’t hard to recognize the place. Behind the tall wrought-iron gates, Zoltán’s square-towered mansion loomed from the murk.
“That’s right, Csaba,” Orsi said, as the gates drew closer in a ragged, rushed fashion. “You ran to avoid getting wet.”
Csaba shook his head, as if he could hardly believe what he was seeing. Orsi carried on, half narrating what she saw and half guessing at what came next when the memory faltered.
“Did Papa come to meet you?” she asked, as the memory looped, the canvas repeatedly showing Csaba playing with one of Zoltán’s girls in a parlor room. The girl wore long scaled gloves that stretched well past her elbows. The scales were delicate, shimmering like dragonfly wings. Below her crop top,
slight stretch marks streaked her belly. The image flicked up and left as the door to the parlor room opened.
Zoltán stood on the threshold, large and menacing. He wore an immaculate black suit with the top-button of his white shirt undone. Curls of hair spilled from his chest. To Orsi it was like looking at some dark and twisted caricature of the man. In her child’s imaginings he was more etched, more lean than the short, slightly pudgy man she knew. Low, mangled words came from his lips as if he wore an invisible gag.
Orsi twisted to László. “What did he say?”
“Decoding both the visual and audio streams in real-time is too great a load for the processors. You can listen later.”
On the canvas Zoltán led Csaba out of the parlor room and along a marble-floored hallway lined with Greco-Roman sculptures and paintings, all decadence and nudity. He’d always seen himself as a cut above the run-of-the-mill gangster. Orsi had heard he was taking English lessons.
Zoltán carried on speaking. His words were unrecognizable, but from the measured unbroken tone it was clear he was delivering some kind of monologue.
Orsi’s skin crawled.
They descended a minor staircase. In front of a rickety door, Zoltán stopped. He turned, stared down at his son, and placed a thick hand on Csaba’s shoulder. He spoke, then smiled chillingly. He pushed the door open and indicated for Csaba to go in first.
The memory slowed.
Orsi took in the rust on the door’s hinges, the three gouges–chest high, fingertips apart–in the frame, a crushed earring on the wooden floor. A corner of the room came into view: clean, empty–
The picture went crazy–kaleidoscopic lights accompanied by a cymbal-crashing din. László killed the feed, plunging the room into darkness, but the noise didn’t stop.
She realized it was Csaba, screaming. She reached for him. She wanted to pull him into her embrace, but he was still wired. All she could do was stroke his cheek and whisper kind words. It seemed like an age before he stopped screaming.
Csaba slept a restless sleep, curled in Orsi’s lap. László had dug out a musty, frayed blanket and placed it over the pair of them. The boy whimpered from time to time but didn’t wake.
While he’d slept they replayed the memory with the audio, but it had shed little light on what had happened. Zoltán’s monologue had been a rambling, potted history of his ascent from a petty thief to head of a major prostitution ring. At every stage of his life, he kept emphasizing how hard work, loyalty, and determination were the foundations of his success. He even believed his acts were moral ones. Stealing was redistribution of wealth. Prostitution was emancipation. Blackmail was social politics.
At the basement door he’d said, “This will be a test for you, son. You will talk about it to nobody.” The icy smile formed on his lips. “Nobody.”
Orsi had always known that the only reason she was taken care of was Csaba. She wasn’t stupid. She knew Zoltán would one day begin to groom him for a place in his nasty little empire. She hadn’t expected that day to come so soon though.
She pinched her nose. Her easy life had made her complacent. Now the time for a careful disentanglement from Zoltán’s world was gone. Now there was nothing to do but bolt, leave the country, scrape a living elsewhere. She shuddered. She’d always be looking over her shoulder.
Her son nestled against her. She kissed the top of his head, kept her lips pressed there. His hair was matted and sweaty, but she was certain nothing in the world tasted as good.
“We need an object,” László said.
Orsi looked over to the memory peddler. He sat cross-legged on his chair, focused on a terminal. “What?”
“An object from the house–from the room.”
She didn’t understand.
“Whatever happened in that room traumatized your son so badly that the flow of memory has been disrupted. If we can get hold of something–”
“No!” she interrupted, realizing he was still thinking about how to get the memory. “I won’t put him through this again.”
“He puts himself through it every time he sleeps.”
“No,” she said again, but less vehemently. In his unsettled sleep, Csaba trembled. The nightmares would go, wouldn’t they?
“Orsi,” László said, getting up from his chair and walking to the light bank. “I’ve spent six years turning away from what I saw in here. Six years in dingy drinking holes trying to live with the memories. It can’t be done.” He pressed a palm against the glass. “We have to grasp your son’s memory–grasp it and then crush it.”
She didn’t say anything.
He came back to where they were seated. He stroked back wisps of hair that covered Csaba’s face, drawing them behind the boy’s ear. “I know you want to run, Orsi. But if you do the memory will plant roots, fester in the dark corners of his mind, grow stronger. It will destroy the man you want him to become.”
She didn’t want to believe him, but in László’s eyes she saw the truth.
“Don’t make my mistake, Orsi,” he whispered, looking away, ashamed. “Help your son.”
She felt tears welling in her eyes. “What do I need to do?”
They drove down Andrássy út in silence, Orsi, biting her lip, Csaba playing with his hands. His nightmares had been even worse the night before. Outside, the cafes and fashion houses and tech parlors seemed surreal. As they got nearer to Hősök tere and the old diplomatic district–nearer to Zoltán’s residence, the former home of the French embassy–Csaba’s fidgeting grew.
“I don’t feel well, Mama.”
“You’ll be okay,” she said. “Just remember what I told you.”
The car swung into a side street, and thrummed over the cobbled surface. Near the gates to the mansion she instructed it over to the side of the road.
“I’m coming in with you today,” she said, smartening his blazer.
A minute later they were passing through the gates. Hand-in-hand, they crunched down the gravel path, the wintry gardens stark but beautiful. By the time they arrived at the house, Zoltán was already on the stone steps that led to the main entrance. Cold arrogance radiated from the tips of his polished shoes to the top of his shaved head. Any feelings she’d once had for him had been utterly extinguished.
“Orsi, you aren’t–”
“I wanted to discuss schools,” she said with a trace of belligerence.
Zoltán pinched his neat goatee. He must’ve been suspicious of the timing of her visit. She had to tread carefully. “I have the brochures here.” She pulled out a stack of glossy papers from her handbag.
“How’s my son?” he asked, talking to her.
“More of a handful every day,” she said. “Just like his father.”
The appeal to the man’s vanity worked. He smiled, came down to them. “Go inside,” he said to Csaba.
Orsi released her son’s hand. He trotted up the steps, got swallowed by the house. Zoltán snatched the brochures from Orsi’s hand. He rifled through them, studying the covers while rubbing his thumb against the paper.
“This one,” he said, tapping the top brochure on the stack, fixing Orsi straight in the eye.
He shoved the brochures back into her hands. “Now we’ve discussed schools.” He turned away, started up the steps.
“What?” he shouted. He kept his back to her.
“Can I use your bathroom?”
As if he were brushing away a fly he made a irritated gesture to his right, before disappearing into the house.
When Orsi reached the grand reception hall–polished chessboard floor, two spiral staircases, a colorful reptile tank dominating the back wall–Zoltán and Csaba were nowhere to be seen. A girl lolled at the top of the stairs, leaning over the balustrade, probably high. From her scaly gloves Orsi recognized her as the same girl from Csaba’s aborted memory.
Orsi looked away, not wanting to make small talk. She headed down the hallway to the right, heels clacking on the stone. The place was sharper, more detailed than Csaba’s memory of it, but it still felt familiar. Vases of daffodils and hydrangeas gave the air a fragrant edge. Conversation and laughter sounded from behind a closed door.
At the servant’s staircase Orsi ducked into the stairwell, not pausing to see who was about. Swiftly, but neatly, she kicked off her heels, picked them up, and started down. The stone underfoot was cold. A chill seeped from the soles of her feet, climbed her ankles.
The passage at the foot of the stairs felt both narrower and more ordinary than the one she’d witnessed in Csaba’s memory. The dull grey walls pressed close, pushed her along as if she were a morsel of food in a digestive tract.
She came to the door.
It was exactly as she’d seen on the canvas–the round burnished-bronze doorknob, the old near-splintered panels, the scratch marks in the frame–and she experienced a giddy sense of déjà vu. The room beyond was silent.
She gripped the handle, turned it slowly, the mechanism creaking as she did so. She pushed. The room was dark. She took a deep breath, slipped inside, gently closed the door. The faintest whiff of antiseptic vied with a oiled, metallic smell. Vague shapes drifted, pulsing and coalescing in the pitch black. Terrified, keeping her back to the door, Orsi slapped for the light switch.
Fluorescent strip lighting blinked to life. The imagined horrors evaporated.
Denuded, the room was pathetically banal. Originally it must’ve functioned as a small kitchen. A row of iron pots–black and ponderous–hung from a wooden rail on one wall. Otherwise, save for a bucket and mop, the room was empty.
Get something specific, László had said. Get something unique to the place.
She gave a bitter laugh. She didn’t think he had pots in mind. And the bucket and mop–as well as being difficult to smuggle out–might not have even been in the room when Csaba was here. What had he seen?
She lifted the mop. Its scraggly head was still damp, and a fetid water sloshed in the bucket. Whatever had happened had been cleaned up. She pictured scenes of torture, sexual depravity, death.
She paced, cursed aloud.
Scuff marks on the flagstone floor indicated the presence of heavy fixtures in the past. She was debating grabbing the smallest pot, when she noticed a poster on the back of the door. The paper was faded and curled, but the image was still striking. It was a flyer for Sziget, the annual music festival that used to be held on Óbuda Island. The main image was the silhouette of a man smashing a guitar, 2014 stenciled on its neck.
Yes, that was the last one, she remembered.
The poster practically peeled itself from the wood. As Orsi carefully rolled it up, she heard somebody in the passage. She stuffed the poster into her handbag, stepped into her unfastened heels.
The door jerked open.
It was the girl with the scaly gloves.
“Naughty, naughty, naughty,” she chirped, wagging a slender finger, “prying into Mr. Kiraly’s affairs.”
“I was looking for the bathroom,” Orsi blurted. She made to brush past the girl, but her way was blocked. Her gaze lingered on the girl’s gloves. Orsi wondered if she ever took them off, before realizing with a start that they weren’t gloves at all. They were part of her skin, grafted on, each scale alive. “Your arms,” Orsi whispered.
“A present from Mr. Kiraly,” the girl said coldly. “You’re Csaba’s mother, aren’t you?”
Orsi’s mind raced. If Zoltán found out she was here, he’d think Csaba had talked. It might precipitate something disastrous. “Yes,” she said, cautiously. She remembered the girl’s stretch marks. “Do you have children?”
“No,” she snapped. “Mr. Kiraly doesn’t like his girls to get knocked up.”
“Oh my God, he made you . . .” Orsi trailed off, unable to say the words.
“Yes. I was twenty-six weeks.”
“I’m so sorry.” Orsi searched for something useful to say, but found nothing. “I should go now, you won’t–”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you.” The girl pirouetted in an ungainly fashion, almost tripping. She snaked her hands about, a poor imitation of Indian dancing. “I know, I’ll tell you a little secret so we’re even.” She leaned close, a sweet cloying smell about her. “The Minister of the Interior likes it kinky. Very kinky.” The girl side-stepped out of the way.
Orsi didn’t wait for a second chance, slipping past and off down the passage. The girl’s voice chased her as she fled. “If you want the kinky stuff ask for Monika!”
Back in the car, Orsi called László. “Where are you?”
“On my way to the fucking baths. Why? Did you–”
“Yes.” She glanced down the street. “The room was empty, but there was an old poster on the wall.”
“That’s good. Come to the place tomorrow. Come at four.”
“No. We have to do it today. I was seen snooping.”
László stayed silent. She could hear the grind of a passing tram in the background.
“It was just one of his girls. Off her head on something. There’s nothing to connect you.”
“Mr. Kiraly’s a real piece of shit but he’s not stupid. Somebody might’ve seen you at the bar.”
“Please. This afternoon. Then you never see us again.”
She held her breath, a childhood superstition.
László sighed. “Give me an hour.”
She switched off the auto-nav, drove herself, tracing ever increasing circles around the house. She had to keep moving. Usually she would park in one of the underground lots while Csaba was with his father. She’d spend an hour or two shopping or having coffee with a friend on Váci út.
Today she circled.
Csaba raced out of the gates right on time.
“Did you enjoy yourself, darling?” Orsi asked, as he slid into the backseat. He clutched a handful of toys. A cap embroided with the Scavenger sat askew on his head.
“Papa took me to the fair!”
She’d spied the Ferris wheel across from Széchenyi Baths during her drive. The visit must’ve been Csaba’s reward for passing the test. “Did he ask what you’ve been up to?”
Csaba had discarded most of the toys, but he still held a plastic gun. He aimed it at her reflection in the mirror. “He wanted to know if I’d been anywhere special.”
Orsi snapped her head around, pushed the pointed gun down. “And?”
“I did what you said. I didn’t mention the weird man or the wall of light or the memory machine that hurt my head. I didn’t mention nothing.”
The strain of deceit, not to mention the nightmares, were breaking him. She felt a surge of love towards him, a doubling of her resolve that he would not come to any harm.
“You did good, you did real good,” Orsi said as she flicked on the auto-nav. “One more stop and this’ll all be over.”
She hoped her doubts were hidden from her voice.
“You’re late,” László barked.
In the memory peddler’s lair the lights were bright, the smell of petrol strong.
“We’re here now.” Orsi wasn’t in the mood to placate him with apologetic words. She’d had to half drag her son through the crowded station.
László thought the better of saying anything, busied himself at a terminal.
Orsi kneeled down beside her son. “What you saw–it’s like a poison inside you. We’re going to get rid of that poison.”
He nodded, petrified.
She led him to the hairdresser’s chair. He clambered up, righted himself in the seat. She lifted off his cap, placed it on the long desk, before swinging the helmet across and down.
László glanced at her. “You have the poster?”
She reached for her handbag–
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “We only get one chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“The memory is guarded deep in his psyche. Any sign that it is coming up to conscious level–” he slapped his hand against the desk “–bang, it is shutdown. But . . . we reveal the poster fast and the mind can’t help itself.”
Out of sight, Orsi unfurled the poster and tacked it to a small board. She held it tight to her chest, picture facing her, and positioned herself in front of her son.
“Okay, Csaba,” he said, “just relax for me. On the count of three your mother’s going to show you something. One, two–”
Orsi spun the board.
Csaba’s eyes went wide.
László raised a shaking hand, pointed it at the canvas. “Turn around!”
The light was different, the room illuminated by a central beam rather than the fluorescent strips that she’d encountered. Through the shadows she noticed that the row of iron pots was still there, except the second largest one was missing. Dark, coppery shadows marked the flagstones. Clinical fixtures occupied the spaces where she’d spied the scuff lines: a shoulder-high metal cabinet; a side trolley laden with shiny implements; a sophisticated monitoring station, all drips and electronics. In the middle sat a medical gurney, complete with unconscious passenger.
To call the woman a patient would be obscene. Orsi could think of better words: subject, victim, abomination.
Splayed out on the surgical bed, two, four, six, eight limbs emerged from her torso. They were all arms; two originals, six imported. Her legs had been amputated, two of the arms grafted onto the ugly stumps, while the remaining four were spread equidistant along the midriff, two on each side. A fine down covered her whole body like chimpanzee’s hair. Two pairs of fangs had been crudely added to the top and bottom of her mouth. Her eyes were black, insectoid. One of the two surgeons was dissecting a palm-sized spider on a side table, alternating between micro-scalpel and micro-tweezers, while the other was making incisions in the woman’s cheeks. Both kept consulting flickering holo-libraries.
This wasn’t some twisted joke. This was business. Sick fucks in London and Riyadh and Tokyo would pay outrageous sums for an arachnid whore.
She wanted to cry out enough, but she knew the whole episode had to be played out for it to be erased. They watched in rapt silence. The woman’s limbs twitched as the surgeons worked, and Orsi couldn’t help but wonder what the woman was feeling–what she would feel when she awoke.
A minute later László killed the feed. “It’s gone.”
But it wasn’t really, not in her mind. Now it was more real than ever. She moved to her son’s side. The room was still, dim. Csaba whimpered while Orsi caressed him. “Shh, shh–”
Crash! Noise from next door. A muffled curse.
László paled. “Q-q-quick, help me,” he stuttered. He begun unfastening Csaba’s helmet, releasing clamps and unjacking wires in furious swipes. “Now, help me push.”
László leant into the chair. Orsi did likewise, heaving with all her weight. The chair moved with an ear-splitting grind.
“Down there,” he said, raising a heavy iron grate that had been hidden beneath the chair. The smell of rank water wafted up.
Orsi lowered herself down. Horizontal, chilly water soaked into her clothes, trickled between her legs. Csaba joined her, flattened himself, before László dropped the grate back in place. He didn’t have time to move the chair back before somebody else was in the room.
“Samu,” László whispered.
Orsi couldn’t see the new party, her view limited, but she saw László’s hands fold over one another as if he were washing them in a sink. Samu. She knew him too. He was one of Zoltán’s sidekicks. She’d passed him in the gardens on her way back to the car that very afternoon. Oh, holy mother of Jesus. He must’ve followed her and Csaba to Keleti then lost them in the throng. He would’ve called–
“Mr. Kiraly,” László spluttered.
Samu bounded past. Thunk of wood against stone. Scraping. He was opening the barricaded door. His footsteps pattered away. Closer, finely-tailored shoes clacked on the stone. The memory peddler shuffled back.
“László,” Zoltán said in a low voice, “I thought you had retired.” He stood directly above her, dark and ominous. She could make out the stubble on his chin, smell his expensive aftershave. Csaba’s elbow dug into her ribs but she didn’t dare move.
“I have. But I still like to potter.”
Craning her neck, Orsi could just make out the memory peddler. His face was ashen but jovial. He was pressed back against his desk, Csaba’s cap poking over its lip near his left hand–
Zoltán did a one-eighty, went out of eyeshot. Orsi thought about whistling, whispering–anything to direct László’s attention to the cap. Too afraid, she did nothing.
“How’ve you been keeping?” Zoltán asked. “You don’t look so well.”
“The palinka hasn’t been kind to me.”
Orsi watched his fingers play over the rim of the cap, oblivious.
“Maybe you should see my doctor.”
Finally, László cottoned on to the presence of the cap. He grabbed the incriminating item and shoved it down the back of his trousers. “That’s very kind of you.”
He stepped out of Orsi’s line of sight. Any words they exchanged were beyond her hearing. Was László betraying them? Pointing at the grate, right now? Samu returned, breathing hard. “No sign, boss.”
The next instant László hit the ground with a sickening crunch, twitching. Bloody drool seeped from the corner of his mouth, dripped down through the grate. His eyes locked onto hers.
Zoltán crouched down beside him, pulled his head up with a ragged fistful of hair. “I saw the cap, you stupid fuck! I saw the memory in the tank as well!” He had a stun-gun pressed against László’s neck. “Tell me where they went and I might not kill you.”
Please don’t, Orsi begged with all her heart, please don’t.
László stammered the words–his face still rippling, his body jerking–but they couldn’t be mistaken: “F-f-fuck you.”
They remained in their fetid hiding-hole for a long time, trembling and silent. László’s dead fingers gripped the grate. Bloodied, foamy spittle mottled his chin. Yet beyond the pain in his wide eyes, Orsi thought she detected some measure of peace.
Zoltán had strode around exasperated, smashed something, called a couple of people, and left. From his angry words she’d learnt two things. One, Viktor Orvath–the man who’d taken over László’s duties–would come by the next morning to clean up the mess. Two, they were now being hunted.
She wriggled her arms free, pushed on the side of the grate opposite to László’s slumped head, but the grating wouldn’t budge. “Help me, Csaba.”
Her son didn’t respond, his arms tucked against his chest like an Egyptian mummy.
“Csaba! Help your mother.”
He raised his arms, pushed upwards. The edge of the grate tottered up and over the lip, pitching the other side down. Together they heaved the grating to one side and hauled themselves out, trying not to touch László’s lolling head.
Orsi kneeled on the floor, taking in Zoltán’s destruction. The light bank was shattered, a jagged skyline of glass. A heap of shards lay at its base, along with the chair that had caused the damage. The rest of the equipment was untouched. Orsi kneaded her thighs, anxious. Where should they go?
They had to leave Budapest, that was clear. Zoltán would have eyes in the country though. Flying out would be too risky. She realized she would never feel safe while he was still around. They needed a safehouse, somewhere to regroup, think clearly. She glanced at her son.
He’d picked up a couple of instruments from the desk and was playing with them on the floor. It must’ve been his coping mechanism, his way of distancing himself from everything he’d seen and heard and felt. The scene was reminiscent of something she’d seen on the canvas–the time Csaba had been playing with one of Zoltán’s girls–
“Csaba, we’re leaving.”
He looked at her, got to his feet without a word.
Before they fled–before they slipped through the arched doorway, down the dark musty tunnels, and out into the last of the day’s waning light–Csaba approached László’s prone body, bent down, and picked up his cap.
They kept to the backstreets, staying in the shadows, hustling through deserted squares populated only by sleeping drunks and the skeleton-like frameworks of market stalls. They followed the line of the main körút–a sweeping thoroughfare that encircled the inner districts of the city–making a protracted route to the Buda side.
On the way, Orsi ducked into a claustrophobic tech shop. She picked up a cheap pair of spex, a hundred tera cube, and a shock baton. A one-eyed man in a trade bazaar gave her half a million Forints for the jewelry she wore. It was a desultory sum, less than a tenth of the items’ true worth, but it would be enough to pay for a room at Hotel Gellért.
From the first floor of the abandoned old market that overlooked the Danube, Orsi studied the imposing, turreted building on the other side of the river. Two avenues of emerald light lanced up either side of the hotel’s grand entrance, lit by powerful beams embedded in the small gardens. Most of the windows were dark. A lone tram of ancient stock trundled over Szabadság Bridge.
Zoltán and his vast network of pimps, informers, and crooked officials were out there looking for them. Every person was a threat, every place a risk. He wouldn’t anticipate her next move though, she was sure of that.
Outside, the whetstone grind of metal on metal hailed the arrival of a Buda-bound tram. She grabbed Csaba’s hand and ran down the rusted escalator and out into the street, hopping aboard before the doors closed with their usual ugly drone.
A quiet double-tap at the door.
“Go into the bedroom,” Orsi whispered at her son. “And stay there.”
Getting the room hadn’t been difficult. The receptionist hadn’t blinked when Orsi had pulled out the crumpled bunch of fifty-thousand Forint notes–four for the room, one for no questions asked–and signed the documentation with a man’s name. She’d taken a penthouse suite. She’d thought that best.
Another knock at the door, louder this time.
Orsi pulled her makeshift headscarf tighter, then answered.
“Somebody call for Monika?” the girl asked through the small gap that Orsi had allowed. She looked different to when Orsi had seen her earlier in the day. More made-up, prettier in the way most men would like. She looked tired, but didn’t seem to care. Behind her a stocky man loomed.
Orsi opened the door further, keeping herself hidden. Monika entered, and Orsi closed the door, noticing the stocky man positioning himself in front of it as she did so.
“What are we talking about?” Monika asked, sliding off her thick winter coat. “Girl on girl? Threesome? You want to watch?”
Orsi chained the door as quietly as she could, peeked through the spy hole. The stocky man stood motionless, the scalloped, bristled back of his head visible. She hadn’t been expecting the girl to be chaperoned so closely. She should’ve known better.
“Don’t worry, honey, he won’t be disturbing us.”
Orsi turned, took a deep breath. She pulled off her headscarf.
The girl did a double-take. “You?”
She shook her head, disbelieving. “You’ve kicked up quite a shitstorm.”
“Zoltán’s furious. Anyone–” Something across the room caught her attention. “Csaba? Is that you?”
Her son wandered out, grinning as if he’d been caught doing something naughty.
“Your Papa’s looking for you, Csaba.”
The smile disappeared from his face.
“It would only take one little word,” Monika said, turning to Orsi. “One little word.”
“He killed your child, Monika. And he mutilated you.”
Monika hid her arms, ashamed. “He might let me go if I bring him his son.”
“He won’t. You know he won’t.”
The girl clutched her hair. “Don’t say that.”
Orsi thought the girl might scream. “Monika, I can help you.”
“Don’t bullshit me!”
Orsi could see hope was the last thing the girl wanted. “It’s not bullshit.”
Orsi led the girl to the pearl chaise-longue in the corner. They sat, knees touching. “You said one of your clients was Tibor Nagy, the Minister of the Interior.”
“Don’t remind me. Crusty old man with fucked up tastes.”
Orsi smiled. “So you remember your time with him.” She’d been worried the drugs might’ve left Monika with patchy memories.
The girl nodded.
“The elections are in less than a month. I know–” she was going to correct herself, say knew, but thought the better of it “–I know a memory peddler. We can retrieve the memory, blackmail the Minister.”
Monika looked at Orsi incredulously. “I can barely take a pee without permission. How’d you–”
“We go now.” Orsi nodded at the doors that led to the suite’s balcony. “We go now and you never have to come back to this.”
“I don’t know.”
Orsi gripped the girl’s thin wrists. The scales felt weird and sticky, but Orsi tried to hide her distaste. “Listen to me. Zoltán doesn’t care about you. A few more months you’ll be dead from the drugs–or on the operating table being changed into God knows what. You want that?”
Monika shook her head, on the verge of tears.
“So come–” Orsi got to her feet, pulled the girl to hers “–come with me now.”
She didn’t give any sign of assent, but neither did she resist when Orsi slipped the girl into her coat, led her and Csaba through the balcony doors, and out into the biting wind.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Orsi almost threw the keyboard across the room in her frustration.
They’d scrambled across lit balconies, run over icy rooftops, hurtled down creaking fire escapes, grabbed an illegal, real-person driven cab which had dropped them at Keleti for a small fortune only to discover that they couldn’t work the equipment.
Monika sat in the hairdresser’s chair, hands scrabbling at the medley of wires that sprouted from the helmet. She echoed Orsi curses, except hers were more colorful, more desperate. “Why did you bring me here?”
The girl’s hysteria helped Orsi control her own. “Calm down. I can fix this.”
But could she? She’d spent hours tinkering to no avail. She wished she’d paid more attention. Had she missed a connection? A command script? Was she not getting Monika to focus enough?
Beside the glassy rubble that was once the light bank, Csaba was delving into the shards, sorting them into piles.
“Come away from there,” she ordered, but not too harshly.
Maybe the light bank was more than just storage, maybe it was essential to the memory retrieval? There was one way to be sure. One person who knew how it all worked.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” she told Monika. She outlined her plan, refusing to hear any arguments. Then she switched off the lights.
In the darkness they waited for Viktor Orvath.
He ducked through the hole three hours later, muttering and smelly. Orsi whacked him on the back of the head with the shock baton on full strength. The man gave a brief cry and crumpled with a dull thud. The steaming black liquid of his espresso trickled out from under his fat body like diseased blood.
“Quick, help me move him.”
They needn’t have rushed.
Although it took all their might, he was still dead weight by the time they had him secured in one of the office chairs, electrical flex wrapped tight over his rumpled suit.
Torture wasn’t her game, but she needed to look the part. She slapped him. With bleary, bloodshot eyes Viktor mumbled into wakefulness. His face was puffed. Days-old stubble dappled his jaw line. He reeked. He wasn’t a handsome man at the best of times, but this morning he looked real ugly. He mumbled again.
“Shut up,” Orsi said.
“Christ, my bloody head.” He strained to move his hands, moaned when he found them tied.
“I said shut the fuck up.” Orsi poked the baton against his chubby cheek. “Or you’ll get more of this. You’re going to tell me how to get something out of her head and onto that,” she said indicating the data cube on the desk. “And you’re going to tell me right now.”
Viktor Orvath chuckled.
His laughter didn’t last long.
The election rally was held on a blustery spring day, bright but cold. Hősök tere was packed, a heaving mass of support and disgruntlement. Placards and holo-recorders jostled above the crowd’s heads. Cheers and jeers echoed off the museums and curved friezes that bordered the plaza.
Orsi, Csaba, and Monika had kept their heads down for a few days after that frantic twenty-four hours–holed themselves up in a shabby hotel near to Moszkva tér and left the Do-Not-Disturb on the door.
Csaba had slept better. Orsi hadn’t.
She shoved her way through the throng, an anonymous speck in the body of humanity. She reached the barrier that kept the crowd back, hot and sweaty despite the brisk weather. The spex were kept in her right pocket, clutched protectively in her gloved hand.
The Minister gave his speech, earned a rather generous applause for a by-the-numbers piece of rhetoric. He came down from the platform, made his way along the barrier, chuckling and glad-handing. He was five feet from Orsi when he broke away from the crowd.
“Minister Nagy,” she called, desperate.
Perhaps a more experienced politician would’ve detected the danger in the tone of those two words. Not Tibor Nagy though. He turned back.
“Minister.” She leaned forward, reached out with her hand. “Something for old times.”
Two of his security detail moved closer, but he gestured them away and took the spex. “Nothing illegal, I hope,” he said with a grin. He donned the glasses.
Orsi didn’t wait to see his reaction, pushing backwards and merging into the crowd.
Their demands had been clear.
Zoltán Kiraly’s shady empire had to be dismantled or Minister Nagy’s indiscretions would be wired to every newsfeed, TV network, and media agency in the country. They gave him three days to act. He took two. The dawn raids were spun in the media as the end of a long undercover operation to crack one of Budapest’s largest prostitution rings which had links to terrorist cells in Yemen and Turkey.
After mandatory counseling, or more likely memory-wiping, most of the girls and house staff were released. All the others arrested, including Viktor Orvath, were formally charged under national security legislation and vanished into the labyrinth, suspected-terrorist branch of the criminal-justice system. No official announcement was made regarding Zoltán Kiraly. Rumors had it he was killed in the operation or sent straight to a secret detention facility on the Hortobágy Plains.
The arachnid girl remained a horrifying spectacle in Orsi’s memory, but whatever happened to her stayed out of the media. Orsi prayed she’d found some peace, whether in life or death.
The day was crisp, the smell of rain fresh. The winding road up into the Buda hills was littered with colored ticker-tape and plastic whistles. The parade had skirted through the affluent district the day before. Tibor Nagy’s incumbent party had cantered to victory, the analysts attributing the sensational raids three weeks earlier as a key factor.
“Will we see Papa today?” Csaba asked, trailing behind Orsi as she strode up the street’s steep incline.
“We’ll see,” Orsi replied, trying not to dwell on the confusing emotions that her son’s words elicited. How do you tell your son that he would probably never see his father again? And that perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing? Later. She’d deal with these matters later.
They’d come into the capital that morning, a lone pair on the bus from Sopron where they’d been staying with distant relatives. They would settle there. Orsi needed to find work. Csaba a school.
“In and out,” Orsi said as they crossed their old block’s communal gardens, the season’s first daffodils budding in the earth. “We’re not staying long.” She would collect some valuables to sell; Csaba could take a few choice toys.
Before she’d fully opened the door to the apartment, Csaba scampered ahead and ducked into his room, first door on the right. She closed the front door with a soft click, not wanting to alert the neighbors. The air smelt stale. She placed her handbag on the hallway table, made her way to her old bedroom on the left.
Even though it had only been a matter of weeks, the room had a somber feel–like the cordoned off spaces of open-house stately homes. As she crossed to her dresser, dust churning in the few thin shafts of light that the drawn curtains admitted, she felt like an intruder. She half expected some suited attendant to seep out of the shadows and ask her what she was doing. The feeling only grew as she opened her silver filigreed jewelry box, delved through the bracelets and necklaces. Most were worthless trinkets, bought from hawkers or cheap high-street chains, and she had to hold the diamond ring up to the light to be sure she had the real thing and not one of the cheap knock-offs.
It was as she examined the faceted crystal that she caught a glance of the photo wedged in the top-right corner of the mirror beyond. It was of herself and Csaba happily sharing an ice-cream on the beach at Siófok. Or at least it should’ve been. Csaba’s face was still beaming, a small dollop of ice-cream on his nose, but where her face should’ve been, there was only a dark, bubble-edged hole. She pulled the photo down with trembling hand, brushed her fingertips over the rippled surface, sniffed the singed glossy paper.
It was a cigarette burn.
She bolted out the room, crossed the hallway. Csaba was no longer in his bedroom. While her eyes lingered on the rumpled blankets of her child’s bed (hadn’t it been made when they left?), she felt a slight breeze from the living room. “Csaba?”
He’d opened the sliding doors to the balcony, stepped outside. As Orsi moved closer she couldn’t help but notice more signs of the invader’s presence littering the glass coffee table; a empty pack of Camels, a tumbler, a recent edition of the newspaper, Magyar Hírlap. A few paces from the window she caught sight of what held Csaba’s attention in the communal gardens.
It was Zoltán. Back to the building, he stood over an old man who was on his knees tending to the rose bushes with a pair of secateurs.
“Come inside, Csaba,” Orsi whispered. She daren’t move closer to the balcony for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
He looked in her direction, eyes narrowed, fists clenched, his whole body quivering. After a long while he looked back towards his father.
With all the turmoil, the running, the many shades of violence, witnessed and endured–everything that she’d been party to–Orsi realized she’d become as monstrous as Zoltán in her son’s eyes.
She pleaded for him to come in again, more softly this time.
Stephen Gaskell used to teach English to disaffected youths at a utilitarian state school on the outskirts of Budapest. On his commute out from the heart of the city he would shiver in empty trains, watch alcoholics dance in front of cardboard digs, pass the marbled luxury of the newly built National Concert Hall. Coupled with the seething invention of the metropolis he couldn’t have hoped for a better schooling in a proto-cyberpunk world. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future XXIII, Interzone, and Clarkesworld, amongst other venues. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF thriller set in Lagos, Nigeria. He blogs at www.stephengaskell.com.