This is the second round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, you can read about it HERE and HERE. For them interested, the title voting results are found HERE.
As a quick summary, we solicited titles, readers voted on a favorite, we each wrote a story using that title.
The winning title was Something Gained.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is my submission.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s mine:
What if you could buy and consume knowledge by ingesting the memories of experts and professionals? What if there was a black market for stolen memories? Would the world be worse, better, or the same? Throw in a conspiracy or two, and let’s find out.
Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise
(4,710 words – approx. reading time: about 18 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“You have a choice.”
I looked at the woman. She seemed too young for her given title and position.
“I prefer choices that reflect my commitment. This isn’t one of them.”
“It’s also not one that reflects your fears,” she replied.
“You’re Enhanced,” I didn’t ask; I stated.
“What makes you think so?”
“You’re quoting someone who died almost one hundred years ago.”
She smiled. Damn! I’d underestimated her and given away too much.
“You’ve sampled your wares, I see. Of course, we can’t prove it,” she said, “but we already have you for illegal Memory Processing. That’s enough to put you away for a while, but we could always look into your brain to see if we can identify the stolen intellectual property and add to your sentence.”
I maintained my outer composure, but my adrenaline spiked, and my heart rate increased.
“I presume you’re familiar with the procedure and its potential side effects.”
“You are threatening to erase my personality unless I cooperate. Last I heard, that was illegal in all but the most extreme situations.” I tried sounding confident, but I knew it would come across like something someone would say when they acknowledged defeat.
“Dave … may I call you Dave?” she asked, but continued without waiting for an answer. “Dave, I’m tasked with stemming an epidemic, and for that, I need someone I can reasonably trust to have some morals and a sense of responsibility.”
“And you think that’s me?”
She smiled and pulled up a holo-screen.
“Well, it says here you specialize in short-term enhancements and nothing that might inadvertently harm users.” She scrolled down what looked like a list of my products and stopped at the Sports section. “And here’s proof for at least some moral restraint. You don’t provide raw abilities, and you don’t sell in bulk. We also know you assist users in picking the right level — safe levels — of enhancement.”
She dismissed the holo-screen with a wave of her hand and leaned back on her chair.
“So, to review, you have a choice; join my team to provide us with leads into the big players in your world, or risk being stripped.”
“People can be dangerous when cornered,” I said.
“If you were truly dangerous, you wouldn’t have voiced that thought,” she said.
That reminded me of something Douglas Adams wrote; what makes some people dangerous when cornered is they go to pieces so fast that other people get hit by the shrapnel. Funny guy, Adams. I wish his memories were available, but he died long before humans learned how to harness them from living subjects.
“If we’re going to be working together, I should at least know your name.”
“Sienna, but you may call me Boss.”
Sienna dropped me off at the house I was renting. Mobility was an asset in my situation, so I hadn’t bought it. I watched Sienna leave. I heard the door open, turned, and joined Erin on the front porch. We stared at each other for a few moments before I sighed and went to sit on the bench.
“So, how bad?” she asked as she leaned against me and brought her legs up on the bench.
I angled to make us both more comfortable and gave her a summary.
“How much do you think they know?”
“It’s hard to tell,” I answered. “They seem more concerned with the illegal hard stuff. If I were to hazard a guess, I think that’s all, but she’s Enhanced and hence difficult to read.”
I momentarily froze, but relaxed before answering.
“Do you think I’m difficult to read?”
She raised her head and looked at me for a few seconds before returning her head to rest on my shoulder.
“I know, you reassure me, but—”
I said nothing because there was nothing new to this discussion. The only way I could assure her would be to sample and distill my memories, and that would never happen no matter who tried, irrespective of Sienna’s threats.
It wasn’t because of the threat itself that I’d agreed to join Sienna’s team. The fact that stripping wouldn’t have worked was the reason. It wouldn’t have worked for the same reason sampling wouldn’t work, and that would have made me even more interesting to them.
“For now, we’ll cut back, just in case,” I said. “I don’t think they have an inkling of what we’re doing, let alone why, but I don’t want to underestimate Sienna and potentially give anything away.”
“Do you like her?”
It was my turn to look at Erin, but she didn’t raise her head to meet my eyes.
I repositioned and hugged a bit more firmly. I was about to answer when Mrs. Wood, one of our neighbors, walked by with her dog. She waved, and we both waved back and were thankful she kept walking instead of engaging in a prolonged conversation about how the world was changing and not for the better.
“Are you concerned?” I eventually asked. We seldom talked about it, and even when we did, we both skirted the issue.
“Let’s get inside before Mrs. Wood comes back,” Erin said. “I don’t feel like talking right now.”
I kissed the top of Erin’s head and helped her get up. Adding nothing else, we went inside.
“So, this is the Team?”
We stood in a large office. An office with enough furniture to house thirty or more people, but that currently held three people. Me, Sienna, and an older man I recognized from the news; Raymund Griffin, recently retired Deputy Director of the Mnemonic Oversight Taskforce.
“We’re just getting started,” she said. “I assume I don’t have to make introductions?”
I shook my head and offered my hand.
“Raymund, it’s nice to meet you. How did she trick you into joining?”
“Dave, nice to meet you, and I go by Ray,” he said. “I volunteered. Before retiring, I set up this department and appointed Sienna. I’m on board as an adviser only, helping to navigate the politics and intricacies of bureaucratic red tape.”
I made a gesture to encompass the room.
“It looks like you’re planning to add another layer to MOT. Isn’t this going to be redundant?”
Sienna and Ray looked at each other. Ray gave a slight nod, and Sienna answered.
“We’re a separate and independent branch. We don’t answer to local officials.”
“Yes, but independent.”
“Who do you answer to?”
“A bipartisan commission that includes public members.”
“That sounds great in theory,” I said, “but there’s no such thing as independent in practice.”
“I guess we’ll see,” Ray replied.
We stood in silence for a few seconds as I mulled a few things over.
“You mentioned an epidemic,” I said, addressing Sienna. “Are you referring to black-market mnemonics?”
I was careful to maintain a neutral tone, but the answer to my question had significant implications for my and Erin’s central preoccupation.
“We’re looking to rein in and eventually stop the production and distribution of illegal mnemonics,” Sienna answered, her voice raising a bit, adding emphasis that signaled a personal stake in the matter as opposed to just following a directive.
I looked over at Ray, but he averted his eyes. It told me this was all Sienna’s play. She was the orchestrator, driver, and principal-agent for this effort.
I looked back at her and noticed the slight change in her face, the faintest trace of a blush showing the magnitude of her emotional engagement. Not just a job, but a mission. I pushed back a little.
“If you have a well-rounded Enhancement package, and I’m sure you do, you’re familiar with the War on Drugs in the first part of the century. Billions spent on enforcement and crackdown on what are now regulated recreational drugs,” I said, watching her face harden. “The result was nothing but misery for disproportionately targeted everyday people, corruption and graft in the judicial system that ensured the big players never paid a just price, one of the largest incarceration systems in the world, and the rise of the cartels. All things we’ve still not recovered from.”
“Are you done?” Sienna asked, her tone letting me know a lecture was coming.
My first instinct was to reply in kind, but I needed information.
“Convince me,” I said.
Sienna was about to speak when Ray interjected.
“Perhaps you two should take a walk and talk things over,” he said.
At that, Sienna’s demeanor changed and returned to that of a cool professional.
“Walk with me,” she said, turned, and walked out without waiting to see if I followed.
I looked at Ray. He motioned with his head in the direction of the door, and I followed.
We exited the building as if on a mission, and I followed as she took the path to the green space. We didn’t speak for a good ten minutes, during which time her pace changed from that of a power-walker to that of a person strolling in the park.
We stopped at a bench facing the large pond. The geese already minded their first broods, and the gentle breeze carried the smell of various blooms. Erin would have loved the place.
We sat in silence as a few ducks swam close to the shore but kept on once they realized we weren’t there to feed them.
When she finally spoke, she came out swinging.
“How’s Erin? Does she still miss her mom?”
I suppressed the momentary pang of sadness, but the anger was slower to dissipate. It took a lot of effort for me to respond calmly.
“She’s fine, and yes, she misses her mom.”
“Your sister was a brilliant mnemonic theorist and technician,” Sienna said. I wanted her to stop, but said nothing as she continued.
“Her theories and technical procedures formed the basis for much of the educational mnemonics industry. She almost single-handedly was responsible for the obsolescence of undergraduate programs in many fields.”
Again, I sat silent, dark thoughts tugging at my consciousness. I focused on my breathing, shutting out the awareness of my surroundings, but Sienna’s words punched through my defenses.
“The company who stole her work eventually bankrupted her with countersuits, forcing her and Erin to live in shelters. She never told you what she was going through until her health deteriorated enough to be concerned about Erin. By then, it was too late for her, and—”
“STOP!” I finally said. I didn’t need to relive the last few months of Lindy’s life.
“Why are you telling me this? What does that have to do with any of this?”
Sienna sighed and looked down at her fist. She slowly opened it, and I recognized the pendant she had been wearing on the chain around her neck.
“His name was Peter, but he hated that name. He liked Peets. I don’t know where he got that from, probably one of his school friends. Peets liked to snowboard. He dreamed of someday turning pro.” She stopped speaking, choking up with emotion.
I filled in the blanks and spoke on her behalf.
“The Nick Linnola black market mnemonic,” I said, my voice soft, my anger gone. “Before they busted the ring, twenty-seven kids were paralyzed, and three died from injuries sustained while trying to perform jumps not suited to their bodies.”
That had been the first time the public got a good look at the mismatch between learning how to do something and being able to do it. Linnola was a champion snowboarder who sold his mnemonic to a company that made gear for the sport. Black marketeers stole his mnemonic data, and versions of Linnola’s unfiltered mnemonic protein capsules made the rounds among young athletes wanting to emulate Linnola’s snowboarding feats. The problem was that the unfiltered versions made one believe they could do what they’d not trained their body to do.
“Peets was one of the three,” Sienna said as she reattached the pendant to the chain around her neck.
“Look,” I said, “I understand you want justice, but—”
“Justice? I already got justice; the bastards are in jail, and they’ll be there for a long while.” Sienna’s tone was drifting toward anger, but she reined it before continuing.
“What I want is to stop these things from happening. What I want is for no more victims.”
I looked away, letting my gaze drift upwards to the clouds lazily drifting across a beautiful blue sky. They made for an idyllic scene worthy of a painting. I was tempted to make a metaphor from how clouds can go from beneficial to destructive and how you could not have one without the other.
“What’s so funny?” Sienna asked, the edge creeping back into her voice as she heard me chuckle.
“I was just thinking that I’m not cut out to be a philosopher,” I replied and continued. “Let me tell you a few things you might not know. Lindy developed her theories and techniques intending to benefit the public. She sought the patent for her work to control its licensing and ensure no one could price-gouge as the pharmaceutical had done with insulin and other drugs.
“She applied for the patent, and a company stole her work during the discovery period. Companies still do this. For sufficient profit, they can afford to invest millions into legal fees and bind the process in the courts even as they tweak the details and file for new patents.
“The same government you work for allowed it to happen. It is, after all, a government by and for the wealthy and powerful.”
I paused, settling my thoughts.
“What was meant to be a process for equalizing opportunities, instead, got incorporated into the existing process that favors the powerful, the wealthy, the connected.” I turned to look at her before continuing. “How much did your Enhancement cost?” I asked.
She looked away, and I didn’t let up.
“This job you have, I’m guessing, is due partly to the level of Enhancement you got. Other candidates, even candidates with more experience, can’t compete because they can’t afford to compete.
“I’m sorry there’s a black market, and I’m sorry your brother was a victim, but the problem lies much higher than where the black marketeers dwell. The muck they swim in is not of their making; they profit from a system that creates demand because of denied opportunities.”
She turned to face me, anger once more hardening her features.
“And what’s your big idea? You swim in that same muck, providing illegal upgrades to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it, profiting from your sister’s work, and—”
This time she stopped, my features setting hard.
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting her hand on my forearm. “That was out of line. I didn’t—”
She didn’t finish as I lowered my eyes to where her hand touched my sleeve. She hastily pulled her hand away and said no more.
We sat there, our demons fighting our better nature as we waited to see who would win.
We came to an eventual agreement. I would help investigate dangerous black market mnemonic sources as long as it did not target individual users for prosecution.
Three months later, the team has expanded to seventeen full-time investigators, seven techs, and a strike team of six that took care of arrests and captures.
I arrived late for the weekly strategy meeting, but I had a good reason.
“What do you mean?” Sienna asked.
“There’s a new mnemonic hitting the street, amped up for violence.”
“You mean like the MMA variant that teaches people how to fight?”
“No, I mean this one is laced with proteins markers that make people more susceptible to becoming violent,” I replied.
The room was silent as the team looked at me, some suspiciously.
“We’ve not seen anything like it pop up in our investigations,” Mark said. As the supervisor of the investigating team, I could see how my coming in with this news might make him look bad and go on the defensive. “How do you know about it? And how is it even possible?”
This is what Erin and I had struggled with these past three days. Over three months, we’d slowly restarted our operations, and, typically, there wouldn’t be any intersection between the taskforce’s operations and our efforts. This variant was too dangerous to let spread, and I could not leave the source unchecked.
But involving the taskforce might end up exposing what we were doing. Worse, it might derail the whole effort. Ultimately, we decided to risk it, but Erin would go underground and make her way to Canada, joining the small team in Toronto run by a trusted friend.
Sienna reiterated the questions.
“Those are good questions, David,” she said. “How do you know? And how is it possible?”
Her calling me David was not a good sign, and this reminded me of my mother using my full name whenever I got into trouble.
“I’m not prepared to say until we agree on a few things.”
Sienna looked around the room as all eyes fixed on her. While not a strict boss, she seldom allowed challenges to her authority without a good explanation, and I’d given none.
She waved the weekly report closed, the lights in the room responding by getting brighter.
“David, Mark, my office, now. The rest of you hit your sources and try to find out more about this.”
“No,” I said as everyone got up to follow her order.
Everyone stopped, uncertain about what to do.
“Excuse me?” I’d never openly challenged her orders in front of the team, and she momentarily lost her composure.
“This has to stay here for now,” I said, “assuming no one in this team is a leak. I’m fairly sure of it, but not certain.”
“Have you lost your mind?!” Sienna asked. “You vetted the team I put in place? How? When?”
“Trust me on this. Nothing about this on any computer or phone, at least until I explain.” I pointed to Mark. “You should institute the isolation protocol. No calls, no emails, nothing leaves here unless monitored and, in this case, approved.”
People looked at each other, murmuring questions like “What isolation protocol?” and “We can’t call home?”. Mark was more direct.
“Dave, how do you know of the isolation protocol?”
“Four years of Army Intelligence, ten years Counter-Insurgency contractor. I know how things work. If the Strike Team is heading out, you can’t have anyone spilling the beans, accidentally or not.”
“That’s not on your service record,” Sienna said.
“Look, do you want to do this here or in your office?” I asked.
That put her in a tough spot. Cutting the team off from information might foster resentment and mistrust. Ceding the floor to me undermined her authority, at least temporarily.
She made the right choice.
“Here is fine. What have you got?”
I stood where Sienna usually stood and plugged my memory drive into the display interface. I had bought a brand new drive just for this, not wanting to risk the possibility of sharing something about my other activities.
“Understand, I might not answer all your questions, but I’ll try to be as thorough as possible,” I started. “That said, I’ll answer any questions I can after I’m done. If you need me to, I can go back to any point that isn’t clear.”
I started explaining what I’d found because of what Erin and I did in our spare time. Ten minutes later, the questions began.
“You’re telling me you can retrieve protein markers from wastewater and analyze their function?”
“That’s in none of the literature or theoretical papers.”
“That’s correct,” I replied.
“How is it you can do it?”
“I’m not prepared to answer that.”
“This is huge. Big enough that we could strip it from you,” Mark said.
Sienna made to speak, but I interrupted.
“No, you can’t. And, I don’t mean you won’t. I mean, you can’t,” I said.
No one said anything as they processed the implications.
“Set that aside for a moment,” Sienna said. “Am I to gather the ‘tips’ you’ve given us about possible illegal operations were not actual tips from your connections but results of you monitoring wastewater around the city?”
I didn’t reply.
“That would be near impossible unless…” one investigator said, not finishing the thought.
“…unless there’s a network of people collecting samples,” a tech said, finishing the thought.
Again, I said nothing.
“How do you know it’s close to being released on the street?” Mark asked.
“Because they’ve tested it. Three locations, three upticks in violent incidents, some fatal. Plus, we’ve noticed a large increase in the manufacturing byproducts.”
“Who are ‘they’, and who is ‘we?’” Sienna asked.
“This is where you have to warn you about how dangerous this might be. I’ve analyzed wastewater from this facility, and I’m fairly confident no one here is in on it,” I said, “but I have some very bad news, and it’s no joke when I say your lives might depend on being able to keep quiet, trust each other, and play the game.”
“What game is that?” one of the strike team members asked.
“The game where ‘they’ might suspect that someone knows, but they don’t know who, and where we know what’s going on, but can’t identify exactly who’s involved.”
Sienna broke the ensuing silence by voicing the scariest possible and correct conclusion.
“It’s someone in the government.”
“Then . . . it’s one or more of the chemical-biological labs,” Mark said.
“The DOD?” one analyst asked.
Side conversations broke out within the group, and Sienna let it run for a bit before she stood and knocked her cup on the table.
“OK. This is a lot to process, but I don’t understand what we can do about it,” she said.
“Nothing about the threat; I’ll counter that. That’s already in the works, but I can’t tackle this on my own.”
“What do you mean?” … “How?” … “Tackle what?”
I let the questions flow for a few seconds before raising my hand in the universal sign asking for silence.
I looked around the room. I felt terrible for bringing these people into it, but I was honest about not being able to do it alone.
“I can’t fathom the motivation of whoever is involved, but I can imagine that widespread violence and murder might trigger martial law. At the very least, it might spur the government to pass some fairly Draconian laws under the guise of public safety. Some might remember your history and the Patriot Act. An opportunistic grab for power and restriction of rights. I imagine this would be worse.”
“What I don’t have,” I said, leaving out any mention of my network, “is access. Access to important people who might be allies. Access to identify potential enemies. This group has resources and access I don’t have.”
“You want to create a shadow group within the government and DOD to counter the other shadow group,” Sienna said.
“You’ve drawn us into a dangerous game with no end in sight,” one older analyst said.
“Jeff,” I said, focusing on the man. “Do you love your kids? Your grandkids? Your family? Your country?”
I turned to the group.
“I get that no one ever asks for their lives to be up-heaved, for responsibility and danger, for thankless tasks, and if I could do it on my own, I would, but I can’t… But, what I can do, is arm you to the teeth.”
I let that sink in—
“Enhancement,” Jeff said.
“The best,” I confirmed.
Murmurs flew around the room until one loud “Jesus!” stopped everyone, and everyone turned to Sienna.
“You . . . You’re saying you can not only analyze the protein markers in wastewater but also reverse engineer them.”
“… and any Enhanced protein marker.”
I didn’t answer because she was going farther than I wanted to admit.
“That’s why you can neutralize the threat. If you know the protein structure, you can synthesize a counter. But, how would you distribute…”
The answer was obvious and with implications beyond the discussion that followed as the meeting broke down into brainstorming details for secrecy, safety, and screening of potential allies. And thus, Counter Shadow was born. Cool name, no?
Sienna sat next to me on the bench outside my rental. I would be moving soon, going further underground and off the public grid, but I had another few days to enjoy this quiet neighborhood. I’d yet to tell Sienna, waiting for a suitable time.
“I did some research,” Sienna said.
“Oh? That sounds dangerous.”
“I did some cross-checking between all the places you’ve lived in since Lindy died and demographics in those areas.”
“Really? Why would you do that?” I asked as I sipped my coffee.
“I got to thinking about the story you told me when we met. Lindy wanted her research to benefit the people, the working class, and regular people. She wanted a tide that lifted all boats.”
I said nothing.
“It turns out that things slowly improve wherever you visit. People are smarter about how they handle money and their life choices. Schools markers like graduations and student performance improve. Crime goes down as conditions improve. The workforce improves, attracting companies. Small businesses seem to do better and thrive.”
I said nothing.
“But it’s not just places you visit. It’s like someone slowly, little by little, is educating… no, enhancing, the population.”
“Wow,” I said. “You have some imagination. Maybe it’s just we’ve finally gotten smarted as a society.”
“Well, however it’s happening, it’s gradual,” Sienna continued. “Unless someone is looking for it, they would miss it. And, of course, politicians are more than happy to reap the benefits of their constituent’s success.”
“Yeah, I imagine they are,” I said. “Of course, politicians might find a smarter and better-informed constituency difficult to manipulate. Who knows? They might have to earn their keep. And, one more thing; it’s not all a bed of roses; we’re also getting smarter bad people.”
Sienna stood, turned, and leaned on the column supporting the overhang.
“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you?” she asked.
“You worked that out, did you?” I asked.
“Well, as you know, I’ve been super-Enhanced,” she replied in mock seriousness. “I can hardly help myself. And you know what else?”
“I’m sure you’re carrying Lindy’s memories, including all her research, even stuff she hadn’t released.”
“Yes, I’m leaving. And yes, I carry her memories, as do three other people. Erin is one, I’m the other, and the other two are well-hidden in other parts of the world. We, humanity, can’t afford to lose this knowledge, but we also can’t let it loose. Lindy always meant to control how and how much is used. She didn’t want to direct humanity; she just wanted to give them to tools to direct themselves.”
I stood and stretched.
“She agonized about getting the patent, fearing exactly what happened; selfishness and greed corrupting the process. I wish she would have confided in me sooner, but she didn’t want to impose the responsibility on me. Funny that and sad because she didn’t know about my training and experience for the same reason; I didn’t want to burden her with worry. It would have been better had we not tried to shelter each other.”
Sienna smiled a sad smile, probably thinking of her brother. But no, she was thinking more abstract thoughts.
“I can’t help but think that every piece of knowledge, every advancement humanity makes, every step we take toward improving our lot is fraught with danger. In each step of the way, our lives get more complicated, new temptations arise, our time broken up into smaller chunks, and less of them for ourselves, and yet … yet, we’ve come a long way.”
“Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained,” I said.
“You’re quoting Joni Mitchell?”
“What can I say? It’s a great song, especially her last version.”
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