FORGOTTEN - Ch.2
To call it a "virus" is a bit of a misnomer. It crosses closed borders, defies quarantines, survives incineration. But how else do you explain everyone around the world suddenly losing their memories?
Silva Kashanian is one of the few researchers still left capable of fighting the unknown pathogen. But an ominous chain of inexplicable accidents leaves her wondering if perhaps this pandemic isn't as natural, or as random, as the world believes.
FORGOTTEN - CHAPTER TWO
The first thing I do every day before entering the lab is check the fuel levels in the emergency generators. Just in case. The power around town is prone to going out, which, unfortunately, happens quite frequently nowadays. Just another product of the steady breakdown of society as we know it. We still have the illusion of government and social services, but for the most part, it’s every city—even every neighborhood—for itself.
In any case, the last thing I need is for a blackout to occur in the middle of a centrifuge.
I don my personal protective equipment and lab coat (favorite part of the job) and move over to my home base. Unlike my office, my lab is a carefully kempt and choreographed workspace. Home base is in the very center, where I crunch numbers and do most of my thinking, while the actual work happens at the various stations surrounding it.
Now, I just have to figure out what work comes next.
Austin’s response really threw me for a loop. I honestly thought we had something going with this latest rabbit hole. And now I have to find my way back out of it and down the right one.
But I’m starting to run out of ideas.
I flick a test tube off of the counter and watch it roll across the adjacent lab table until it comes to rest against a rack of sanitized beakers.
We’ve been studying the limbic system of the brain for a while now, trying to figure out the root of everything going on. Lately, we’ve been dialing in our efforts trying to analyze HOV’s effect on the hypothalamus, because of how the disease seems to target emotions and hormones, but apparently, it’s a bit of a dead end. And now I don’t even know where to go next.
I look over at a tray of brain slices and twist my mouth in disappointment. I suppose I could just return to my go-to project, work on that for a while until I come across something better. At least it’ll keep me busy until it’s late enough to call Australia.
After plugging my computer into the home base docking station, I move over to a meticulously curated rack of sample tubes and begin loading them into an array of rectangular instruments aligned along one of the walls.
“Computer, begin audio recording,” I command. My laptop gives off a little chime in acknowledgement. “It’s eight-twenty in the morning on eight December twenty-twenty nine. Buck lab at the University of California LA. Beautifully clear morning. A frosty fifty-five degrees outside. Resuming analysis of infected specimen for hippocampus cartography. Commencing with spectrometric analysis and chromatographic study of samples—” I lean over to check the numbers on the rack, “—HIP two-ten to two-twenty. Let’s get the party started!”
Once the spectrophotometers have been zeroed and calibrated, I make a few last-minute adjustments to their settings and, one by one, press their RUN buttons.
This is my little filler pet project that I’ve been chipping away at since the pandemic began. My goal is to come up with a comprehensive map of memories for people who have been affected by HOV. It’s arduous and tedious at times, but I get this little tickle in my tummy that makes me feel like I need to do this. It’s a hunch that came to me one day when I read about some of the victims experiencing a rapid recollection of forgotten memories, all at once, right before their hearts gave out.
So, I got my hands on one of the deceased victims, and I’ve been mapping out their entire hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory—bit by bit (literally, I guess).
The best way I can describe it all is by comparing it to a computer. Computers have memory, right? Synthetic memory. Computers pass electricity through a series of on/off switches to create patterns and pathways that can later be retraced to recall stored data. For example, a computer runs electricity through a circuit and sees that out of six consecutive ports, two have been turned on, producing the binary sequence 100010, which, at a higher level, can be translated into any number of things that we would like.
Brains work in much the same way, except instead of on/off switches, they use complex proteins and electrochemical structures that allow for more than just two variables. Much more. What I’m doing now is mapping those specific chemical and protein structures, literally reconstructing this person’s memories into a digital replica that I can analyze.
Phew, okay. That’s enough of that kind of talk for one day. Most of my friends have learned not to ask what I’m up to at work because they know I’m only a few drinks away from busting out PowerPoint charts.
I take a seat in front of my dual widescreen monitor set up and watch as the data come flowing in. Absorption spectra appear, showing colorful, spindly lines with dips and peaks, while an AI powered analyst translates the mountain of numbers into probabilities, determining a unique biological fingerprint for each sample.
Essentially, the computer is labeling each of this person’s memories, one by one.
I look at the charts and sheets of information, feeling somewhat wistful by the sterile nature of it all. These were actual memories, meaningful life experiences encoded into biological time capsules. I wonder who this person was, what his personality was like. What kind of events made their way into his neurological tapestry, what kind of people were stored there? What if sample HIP two-seventeen was actually a memory of his mother or a sibling, or perhaps his first love? Maybe a memory of his childhood pet?
I sigh at the screen regretfully, mourning the industrial nature to which the samples have been reduced, lamenting the warmth stripped away, leaving nothing behind but the cold, analytical skeleton of data and facts.
I imagine myself lying on a mortician’s table, my own brain plucked and sliced in the name of science. A sense of loss washes over me that my own memories would look like nothing more than chemical patterns in a petri dish. Memories of home, of my family, of Franklin.
As if she can sense what I’m thinking, Franklin scuffles up beside me, nudging my hand with a cold nose.
“Don’t let them lobotomize me, kay?” I say to her.
She returns my gaze with a resolute look of her own and lets loose a soft grumble that’s halfway between a grunt of satisfaction and a growl.
I pull her closer to me and savor the feeling of her fur on my skin. I just gave her a bath yesterday and brushed her hair, so she’s nice and fluffy. Give it a week, though. She loves playing in the mud in my backyard. There’s a stubborn puddle back there that has been refusing to give up due to an underground leak of some sort. I’d call someone to come check it out, but all the tradesmen are off on other more pressing projects, trying to keep the delicate framework of public utilities from breaking down entirely.
A chime pulls my attention away from Franklin, and I notice that the AI has marked one of the samples for closer inspection. HIP two-nineteen.
This is new.
I pull up the details on the sample and quickly scan the results. Chromatography is normal. Spectrometry is good. Nothing out of the ordinary yet.
I click on the little yellow exclamation mark by the AI’s puffin mascot, and a note pops up, directing me to sample HIP thirty-one. I double click again and the data for the two samples pop up side by side on the monitor.
“Curious, very curious,” I mutter in the best British accent I can muster. Franklin takes a seat beside me, her tongue hanging lazily to one side.
It takes me a few minutes to assemble the puzzle pieces that the AI has given me, but then it all starts coming together, all at once, like a sunrise finally making it up and over the mountaintops.
They’re the same. The two samples.
Well, not the same, but partly. There’s residue in sample thirty-one that exactly matches sample two-nineteen. My first thought is cross contamination, but I’ve been very careful to avoid that at all costs for this very reason alone. And there’s also the fact that thirty-one has nothing else in it besides that trace residue.
Thirty-one is a forgotten memory.
I’ve come across a few of those. Skeletal frameworks of synapses and structures of memories that once were, but which have now been lost to time. Most of those slots get repurposed by the brain over the course of your life, reset to make room for new memories, but sometimes the brain just moves on to fresh slots, leaving the used ones to atrophy until exercised back to life with brain games or exercises.
This guy, though, has a lot of those empty slots. Doesn’t seem to have been a sudoku kind of guy.
But what’s curious about it all is that this forgotten memory has reappeared elsewhere. Usually that’s not supposed to happen.
I poke around two-nineteen a little deeper, push the AI a little harder, try to milk whatever nuggets of wisdom from the sample that I can. After another twenty minutes of digging, I realize there’s something hidden underneath the memory’s signature. A second signature, another memory being suffocated by the first.
“What in the hell…”
“Sorry. Another biscuit for the swear jar, I know.”
My heart races, pounding rapidly against my chest as I pull up a litany of software to help describe what I’m seeing in clearer terms. This is the first interesting thing that has happened in this lab…well, since the pandemic started. Charts zip from one monitor to the next, and the little puffin pops up again and again, offering me exclamation mark after exclamation mark. I accept the trail of breadcrumbs eagerly, consuming them with a passion that reminds me of why I entered the medical field in the first place.
A forgotten memory. Lost, but not gone. And now, it’s reappeared on some other memory, overpowering it like some sort of cancer.
My skin flushes, and I take my jacket off, suddenly feeling like I’m on the inside of an incinerator.
Could this be it? Could this be the cause of HOV? Memories?
My brain begins to overheat as speculation runs rampant through my mind. Questions and hypotheses run unchecked, plowing into each other with no semblance of order of any kind. This has all come together so quick, I’m not sure if I can make sense of it on my own.
“Austin!” I shout.
Franklin startles and nearly topples over backwards as I suddenly stand, ripping my computer from the lab station with careless disregard. I’ve got to get this to Austin before anything else. Or maybe I can call him now? What time is it? Almost nine? That means it’s what time there? Not even four? Ah, suck. He won’t even pick up.
I run back up the stairs, through the long corridors, across the bridge and up the elevator until I’m back at my office, Franklin practically spinning in circles with excitement.
I knock my laptop against the docking port again and again, each time not quite getting it to stick. “Come on, come on,” I urge. Finally, it locks into place, and I pull up my email with Austin’s message still open.
“Okay, okay, yes!” I squeak. I’ve just clicked the respond button and am about to compose my reply, when I notice something that sucks the blood out of my face.
“What? No! No, no, no. Why? Why now?” I groan.
This happens a lot. Even before the pandemic, the internet would just decide to go out for kicks and giggles. Usually at the most inconvenient time, too. Not sure if it’s the university’s fault, or the service provider, or some crazy radiation coming from the sun’s bad mood. Whatever the cause, it usually means I’m out of luck for the rest of the day.
Definitely not the time for this to happen.
Maybe a hotspot? No, the signal isn’t strong enough in here for these size data files. I need an actual cable connection, or else I’ll be here until we’ve all died from HOV.
“Come on, girl,” I say to Franklin, gesturing for her to follow me.
We’re just going to have to go home. I’ll VPN over my home network and try that route. That sometimes works when I’m in a bind.
After I’ve packed everything up, I grab my wallet and keys, then hurry back into the elevator and press the button marked “G” about a hundred times before the doors finally close.
The Girl from Ipanema plays quietly over the speakers, serenading us as we drift down the four floors to ground level. I click the pen in my pocket over and over, prompting an irritated grunt from Franklin, but my thoughts are so far removed from this elevator car that I hardly notice.
Once we’ve reached the foyer, I jog towards the door, only to skid to a halt moments later. “Ah! My badge! Franklin, you let me forget!”
My badge. It has a little chip in it that verifies my identity, granting me access to my computer and encrypting my files whenever I have it plugged in, but I must have left it in my keyboard back at my office. Without it, I won’t be able to get into my laptop at home, let alone access any of the systems that I need to get into.
I turn on my heels and head straight back towards the elevator, but then there’s a crash to my right that makes me jump. Franklin skitters to my other side, and I turn to see a man standing by the door to an office space. He’s leaned up against an end table, a distant look in his wandering eyes, blood dripping from his hand onto the floor. I notice a shattered vase beside the table, flowers and water splashed outward from him across the granite floor.
I’m about to ask if he’s okay, but then his misty, bloodshot eyes focus and lock onto me. I don’t know if it’s the way he’s staring at me, or if it’s Franklin's sudden deep-rooted growl, but for the first time since this whole pandemic began, my heart races with fear.