Coming to Terms with the Great Plague

by Brian Stableford


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It didn't help that the doctor's waiting-room was plastered with posters exhorting all and sundry to CHECK YOUR MEMORIES REGULARLY. Others paraded dozens of mug-shots beneath the accusing legend: DO YOU "REMEMBER" ANY OF THESE PEOPLE? Marilyn was there, of course, third from the left on the second bottom row. I've always thought of myself as a hard-headed sort of person, but I couldn't help feeling that they were trying to steal her away from me. Nor could I help hoping, even though I knew full well that the hope was absurd, that in this one instance — and only this one instance — they were quite mistaken about the fact of her non-existence.

It could be worse, I told myself, sternly, as my name was called. It would be worse if they actually did exist — especially for them. The problems that arise for all the people who remember Marilyn are trivial compared with the problems a real Marilyn would face as a result of being remembered.

Dr. Vernon took one look at me and said, in world-weary fashion: "What's the trouble, Mr. Hayling? FMS?"

I blushed. I knew that the tabloids had taken to calling the FMS plague a pandemic, but he surely had to play host to the usual crop of throat infections, arthritic joints and suspicious lumps as well. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed that I must look too robustly healthy for it to be anything else.

"Which one?" he asked, in response to the tiniest of nods. I'd been hoping to lead up to it a little more gently than that. I couldn't produce her name in the blunt and businesslike fashion which seemed to be required of me; even though I knew full well what she was, it would have been a kind of betrayal. False or not, the memories were good. We'd been so happy together, and it really hadn't been her fault that we'd broken up. To dismiss her, utterly without ceremony, as the product of a mysterious rogue infection might be necessary, but it still seemed rather a shabby thing to do.

"It's all right," he said, impatiently. "I'm a doctor. I'm not going to tell anyone else, and I'm certainly not going to attack you in a fit of unreasoning jealousy. Believe me, Mr. Hayling, I've had a lot of experience dealing with FMS. By now, every doctor in the developed world is an old hand."

I managed to stutter an M sound three or four times.

"Marilyn," he said. I didn't dare ask whether it was a fifty-fifty guess, or whether Marilyn was significantly more common in the Thames Valley than Melanie, or whether there was some particular quirk that marked me as a Marilyn type. The tabloids were quick to pounce on the least rumor about patterns in the data, but they'd cried wolf so often that the man in the street wouldn't stand a chance of identifying an authentic discovery in the chaos of speculation. There had to be some real patterns in the data — if there weren't, what was the point in people reporting the details to their doctors? — although there hadn't been the slightest whisper about any effective treatment or possible cure.

Dr. Vernon called up a data-sheet that was already marked up with questions and boxes, so that he could map my condition with a few deft clicks of his mouse. He was able to fill in a lot of the boxes at one fell swoop, simply by transferring information from my file. "To what time-period do the memories relate?" he asked, wincing at his own clumsy phraseology.

"Thirteen to fifteen years ago," I said. "I might never have figured out that they weren't the real thing if her face hadn't kept coming up on the TV and posters like the one in your waiting-room. I met her . . . that is, I remember meeting her . . . shortly after starting work with VirtIconics in July 1993. She moved in with me after three months, and moved out again a year after that. I heard from her . . . I remember hearing from her . . . half a dozen times more, although I only saw her in the flesh once." Oh, the delicious pain of that meeting! The regrets, the tears, the sense of tragedy! I coughed to cover my sudden discomfiture and hastened on. "There's nothing at all after I first met Jill in '96 . . . that's my wife. She's real enough. She has to be — she works for a solicitor."

He didn't bother to contrive a polite grin to acknowledge the attempted witticism.

"Do you have any objective record of your movements between 1993 and 1996?" he asked.

"No. Who does? Who knew we were going to need them, way back then?"

"Not even a business diary with a record of appointments? A Sasco — something like that?"

I shook my head. I'd kept my appointments on a Stone Age personal organizer with no hard disc and I'd thrown my Sascos in the bin every new year, like any sane person.

"Are there any evident anomalies in the Marilyn memory-pattern, or is it entirely consistent with your other memories of the period?"

"Sometimes I can get flashes of living alone during '94, but I can't seem to get a grip on them; the false memories seem to have overlain and obliterated the true ones very efficiently. There is one thing, though . . ." I hesitated. No sooner had I managed to slip into clinical/objective mode than I'd been jerked right out of it again by a rush of resentment at the thought that all this was private, too intimately personal to be discussed with some quack who'd never understand in a million years what Marilyn and I had meant to one another.

"Please go on," he said. "Information about anomalies is vital to our attempt to comprehend the FMS phenomenon."

"It may not mean anything. It's just that . . . well, everybody calls me Jack these days, but that's because I'm married to Jill. Before we became an item I was always John to everyone . . . but Marilyn called me Jack. It's not inconsistent, as such . . . I guess people who get close to one another often use names that are different, their special prerogative . . . but Jack came from Jill, you see . . . it's probably nothing."

"I wouldn't say so," said Dr. Vernon, showing a flicker of real interest for the first time. "It's actually rather interesting. Even if it's simply evidence of incompetence on the part of the agent, that kind of detail might help to tell us something about the way the agent plunders your real memories in order to construct the false ones. It's also possible that it's something your own mind did, subconsciously — planting a booby-trap, as it were, to tip off the conscious mind that something is amiss with the memory-pattern. If people are able to draw on the resources of some kind of psychological immune-system to cancel out the agent's effects there might be hope of recovery even while we haven't yet identified the agent or devised any kind of biochemical treatment."

He accompanied the final statement with what was presumably intended to be a morale-boosting smile. Doctors and biotechnologists always referred to the agent, even though there wasn't the faintest trace, so far, of any physical cause for the false memories that were springing up here, there and everywhere. It wasn't just a matter of needing a label — it was a bid for property rights, an insistence that the syndrome was their problem, not something that could be left to therapists and other assorted charlatans.

"Can you make a reliable estimate of the time of origin of the false memories?" Dr.Vernon asked, in a carefully elliptical fashion.

"They can't have been in place very long," I said, "or I'd have recognized the face in the TV ads when they first began broadcasting it. I guess the memories crept up on me, so I can't be absolutely sure, but it was about last Tuesday when I began thinking that the Marilyn they kept showing with the FMS updates was uncannily like my Marilyn, and how awful it would be if she turned out to be . . . well, I guess you know how it goes. I'd say the infection is about ten days to a fortnight old."

"That's good. The sooner these things are spotted, the sooner you can start to work against them. Have you made a preliminary record of the memory-complex yet?"

"It's not finished," I lied. I knew I had to use it, but I wasn't about to go public with it, no matter how useful it might be as a research tool. He didn't seem surprised by my answer and he didn't press the point.

"Just make sure it's as full as you can make it," he said. "Unless you record everything you can presently remember, you won't be able to track the extension of the pattern. Not that it's certain to grow, mind — at the moment it looks like a relatively low-level invasion, not too ambitious and conveniently distant, and it might well stay that way." He didn't sound optimistic. The smile looked as if it might fall off at any moment and the fingers of his left hand were fidgeting with the mouse in a fashion that seemed almost feverish.

"I'll get on to it," I assured him. "If I find any more anomalies, I'll be sure to let you know."

"Have you told your wife what's happening?"

"Not yet."

His expression was more sorrowful than disapproving. "In my experience," he said, "it's better to do it sooner than later. She'll catch on soon enough — the time you put into record-keeping will give you away eventually, even if there are no other signs. It's probable that she'll be unable to avoid some feeling of jealousy, even if she accepts on a conscious and rational level that you can't help what's happening to you. Some women, paradoxical as it may seem, think that their partners starting to remember non-existent women is even worse than their actually being unfaithful."

"Jill's not like that," I told him, wishing that I could be certain. "She'll understand." I was sure that she'd try. Unfortunately, nobody understood why the FMS plague was happening at all, let alone why the false memories suffered by men were almost invariably memories of hot love affairs with beautiful women, while the false memories suffered by women were usually memories of children they'd never actually borne. So far, Jill had shown no sign of any of those, despite the fact that she and I were childless . . . or if she had, she'd kept them entirely to herself.

"I'll need to take a blood sample," the doctor said, reaching into a desk-drawer for a hypodermic. "Part of it will be inspected; the rest will be frozen, so that it can be screened retrospectively for any candidate agents thrown up by future research."

"The only problem with that," I pointed out, to show that I was a scientifically-sophisticated person who was on the ball, "will be finding a reliable control group so you can check for the candidate-agent's absence." Anyone with a grain of common sense could see that for every person who managed to figure out that they were playing host to false memories there could easily be two or three who couldn't, and two or three more who wouldn't admit it even if they could. I, being ever skeptical of the competence and motives of my fellow human beings, had a sneaking suspicion that by the time some hero identified a virus or a psychotropic molecule which might be responsible for the plague, they might not be able to find a single unexposed person this side of the arctic circle.

Dr. Vernon, who was presumably a realist himself, contented himself with a somber nod as he carefully fitted the needle to the plastic syringe. I reflected on the painful irony of the fact that although there were a dozen different ways of getting things into the body nowadays, there was still only one effective method of taking blood out.


This story copyright © 1997 by Brian Stableford. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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