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Simon heard a sound like metal falling from the sky, and the planks of the pier clattered under his feet. He pitched to one side and grabbed onto the corroded rail of one of the fairground rides. A blonde girl wearing a blue dress fell to the floor in front of him, and he knelt down to help her to her feet.
She took his hand and stood up shakily. She had knocked her head, and there was a deep cut above her eye that was bleeding profusely. One side of her face was covered in dirt. Simon took a tissue from his pocket and pressed it to her wound. She looked perplexed at first, not realising that she was injured. She winced as he touched her face, then put her hand over the tissue and pressed it firmly to stop the bleeding.
[private]Simon could see, across the water, the old burnt-out skeleton of the West Pier listing and toppling into the sea, the birds wheeling out and away from it in a great cloud. The Brighton seafront was obscured by a haze of dust; behind was a pillar of flame. A crowd was gathering around the sea wall, and people were fleeing onto the beach. Some were running into the water. There was the sound of screaming, of breaking glass, car alarms and sirens. The perfect summer sky had begun to darken, and he could feel a choking wall of heat radiating outwards from the coast.
A middle-aged woman knelt at his left side. Her eyes were screwed tight, her hands clasped together.
‘I look for the resurrection of the dead,’ she prayed, ‘and the life of the world to come.’
Simon’s surroundings stuttered, froze, and broke down into a myriad of pixels. He sat back in his seat, sweating and feeling light-headed.
‘What happened?’ he said. ‘Why did we stop?’
Jen got up from her chair and knelt down next to him.
‘Atrial fibrillation,’ she said, examining the readout on his screen. ‘The system is a bit overcautious. It stops automatically if it thinks you’re unwell.’
‘I thought it was fixed, but paroxysmal AF can be tricky. I’ll check you over this afternoon.’
Simon sighed. Jen smiled affectionately at him as she unclipped his occipital cable. After another glance at his monitor, she went over to help Rekha out of her chair. Rekha blinked as Jen unplugged her. She was breathing rapidly, and stood up slowly and cautiously.
In her small white office, Jen took Simon’s blood pressure, listened to his heart and then doubled the dose of his medication. She explained that he should be fit to start again tomorrow, but for the afternoon he should take it easy.
He returned to his room, but found himself restless and unable to concentrate on anything. There was something wrong, something missing, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.
He flipped open his computer and let the SETI program run. It was something he had started as a hobby. The software interpreted a data feed from the various radio telescopes around the world, as well at the array placed on the far side of the moon, shielded from the Earth’s chatter. It used his computer’s processor to sift through a tiny portion of the masses of signals from other stars, looking for patterns that might denote intelligence. No one had ever found anything, and most people had lost interest, but he kept going with it. It was just something to hold onto, a little piece of hopeless hope. He sat back and watched the data cascade down the screen.
Simon and Jen ran to the entrance of the pier. There was a dense crowd pushing and shoving at the turnstile, trying to escape. Jen tugged at his arm and pointed at something on the beach. Simon angled his head to look. There was a man on fire hunched on the ground; two onlookers were trying to beat out the flames.
A police car pulled up in front of the pier, and a young officer emerged to try and control the evacuation. Simon could see the muscles on his neck stand out as he yelled at the top of his voice, but couldn’t hear a word he was saying.
The steel of the pier shuddered and groaned, and Simon felt himself falling. Hands grabbed him from behind and pulled him backwards. He turned and found himself facing a slim young Asian woman. Before he could say anything, the whole structure began to shudder. The crowd, sensing what was about to happen, made a rush for the shore, which only speeded up the inevitable. As Simon, Jen and Rekha fled in the opposite direction, the near end of the pier twisted and collapsed, scattering the people who stood on it onto the stones of the beach below.
The image inched forward a few frames, then stopped altogether.
‘What’s wrong?’ Simon asked, unclipping his cable and getting out of his chair.
‘I don’t know,’ Rekha said, frowning at the spooling readout screens.
Jen stirred in her chair and opened her eyes.
‘Maybe we need to reboot it,’ she said.
‘Maybe,’ said Rekha, sounding unconvinced.
‘Couldn’t we just skip the day of the bomb?’ asked Jen.
Rekha shook her head. ‘No. The Memory Palace works through our shared memories. The bombing was the first time we met. If we don’t process that, then I doubt it will work at all.’
Simon and Jen sat in the lounge and looked out over the Icelandic landscape. Their base was in Thingvellir, a short drive from Rejkjavik. The landscape was bare and bleak under the pitiless glare of the twenty-four hour sun. Small shrubs clung hard to the rocky ground, holding tight against the harsh wind that howled across the plain.
‘Not quite the retirement I had envisaged,’ said Jen.
‘I just never envisaged retirement,’ said Simon. ‘Anyway, technically we’re employed.’
‘Technically,’ said Jen.
The three of them, Simon, Rekha, and Jen, had stayed in touch after they survived the attack, and their friendship had strengthened through the decades when other friendships, relationships and even family ties had withered away. Simon wondered sometimes if they would have been friends if they had met in different circumstances, what he would have called ‘real life’. This was, he knew, a pointless question. The day of the explosion, the first nuclear terrorist attack on British soil, was about as real as life could get. It was the complacency of day-to-day existence that was the illusion.
During his last year in England, Simon had begun to feel on edge, irritable and ill at ease in company. Soon after, he had experienced the first of the flashbacks. It was as if he were in two places at once: simultaneously an old man taking the spring air on a warm day in London, and a young man on a shaking platform of steel and wood, fearing every moment for his life.
Before long, they were occurring virtually daily with no apparent provocation. He had mentioned it in passing to Jen when they met up one day, and she had looked concerned.
‘Any problems with your memory?’ she asked.
‘Nothing unusual. Losing keys, forgetting my passwords.’
‘It’s just that sometimes this happens when people get memory problems. Trauma comes back.’
Reluctantly, he booked an appointment with his GP, who sent him to a specialist memory clinic. They confirmed that Simon was in the early stages of dementia.
The near end of the pier collapsed. As Simon, Rekha and Jen fled to the far side, Simon thought he heard something, pitched somehow above the general chaos surrounding them. It was very faint, and he had no idea why he had suddenly tuned into it; but there it was, a human voice close by, crying for help.
He froze where he stood and looked around, but couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. The wreckage of the amusement arcade, torn metal and fallen girders, lay in a twisted mess next to him, like the broken body of a huge mechanical beast.
‘Stop!’ he shouted. ‘Stop, there’s someone here!’
Rekha spun around.
‘No,’ said Simon. ‘I heard something. There’s someone here.’
Jen took a few steps forward, and Rekha grabbed her arm.
‘Even if there is someone, we’ll never get them out.’
Simon wavered a moment and then stepped forward reluctantly. He heard it again. He couldn’t make out the words, or even if the voice was male or female, but there was no mistaking the urgency of its tone.
He hesitated and turned back.
‘What was that?’ he heard Jen say as the picture froze and dissolved. ‘That didn’t happen.’
Jen came in to Simon’s room and sat down in the chair next to his bed, where he lay trying to concentrate on a book. He had downloaded plenty to read before leaving London for Iceland, but hadn’t been able to finish a single one since arriving. He reflected sometimes that there seemed little point in filling his mind up with things that would only trickle out again anyway, like escaping grains of sand.
‘It isn’t going to work, is it?’ said Simon.
‘Give it time.’ As she leant back in the dimly lit room, her platinum hair falling off her face, Simon could have imagined that she was again the young woman that he had met all those years ago. The white scar on her forehead seemed almost luminous.
‘How’s Rekha?’ he asked.
‘She’s still going through the system, trying to work out what happened.’
‘Surely we should expect some inconsistencies?’ said Simon. ‘The three of us can’t remember everything the same way.’
‘None of us remember hearing that,’ said Jen. ‘The Memory Palace doesn’t make things up.’
Simon sat up suddenly.
‘You know, Jen -’ he said.
‘I’m not so sure that didn’t happen. I seem to remember – it’s so hard to tell – I remember the voice, at least.’
Jen got up from the floor and began to pace the room.
‘I don’t – ’ she said. ‘I can’t – ’
‘You remember it, too?’ said Simon.
She nodded. Simon thought he saw a look of guilt pass across her face.
‘We need to talk to Rekha,’ she said.
‘Nothing like that happened,’ said Rekha. ‘Nothing at all.’
They were sitting in the lounge, looking out at a walking party making its way across the landscape, little coloured dots in the distance.
‘Anyway,’ Rekha added, ‘we shouldn’t talk about it too much. That’s what the Memory Palace is for.’
The Memory Palace – in fact the whole complex – had been kitted out using Rekha’s money. It was her final project – a quantum computer that would interact with the structure of the human brain. As she put it, it was a combination of a psychotherapist, a neuroregenerative device, and an artificial memory bank. She envisaged that the second generation Memory Palace would work with individuals: however, the prototype relied on several simultaneous users. She had explained multiple memories worked as triangulation points to ensure the machine reconstructed past events as accurately as possible.
Iceland was the ideal base of operations, and not just because of the supply of cheap thermal energy. Since the great floods of the thirties, what remained of Britain had become so overbuilt that the level of secrecy required for a project like the Memory Palace was simply impossible.
‘Perhaps we didn’t register it at the time,’ said Jen. ‘That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.’
‘Survivor guilt,’ said Rekha. ‘We all felt it. It’s just a manifestation of that. I’ve been through the program. From now on, all we’ll get is the narrative memory. Just the facts.’
Jen looked uncertain.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Simon. ‘What did Anthony have to say about it?’
Jen and Rekha looked blank.
‘Who’s Anthony?’ asked Rekha.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Simon, ‘I seemed to remember – ’
‘Remember what?’ asked Jen.
‘I don’t know,’ said Simon. He racked his brains to come up with an answer. Why had he just said that? He had known plenty of people with that name, but none had particularly stuck in his mind, and certainly none had any relevance to the Memory Palace. He tried to form a mental impression of the person had been thinking about, but whoever it was remained stubbornly beyond the threshold of apprehension, like a word stuck on the tip of his tongue.
Simon, Jen and Rekha dug through the rubble. The cries were becoming louder. Finally they exposed a white hand, covered in dirt and blood, twitching convulsively.
‘Come on,’ said Rekha under her breath as they pulled aside the debris.
Soon they had cleared the head and shoulders of a man. His face was bruised and bloodied, and it was impossible to tell how old he was.
His head lolled back as he fell unconscious. Jen shook him gently to wake him up, and when this failed rubbed her knuckles hard against his sternum. The man threw his head back and let out a cry of pain that momentarily drowned out the noise around them.
When the session ended, Rekha said that they would not use the machine again until she had gone through every circuit and line of code to iron out the problem.
They met over breakfast the next morning. Simon had slept poorly, in spite of the thick blackout blinds that were fitted to the windows of his room.
‘The hardware was fine,’ Rekha said, ‘it was a problem with the software. There were lines of code that I hadn’t been aware of. It didn’t even look like it was there for any sort of purpose – I couldn’t make any sense of it. It just seemed to be filling space.’
‘Like junk DNA?’ Jen asked.
‘Where did it come from?’ asked Simon.
‘A hacker,’ said Rekha. ‘Maybe someone trying to stick a bit of spyware in the system.’
‘It’s fixed, though?’
‘Yes,’ said Rekha, ‘and we should start ASAP. We have to make up for lost time.’
They finished their coffee, and walked across the wet, blustery courtyard to the Memory Palace.
The man cried out again as Simon and Jen pulled him from the wreckage. He was almost naked, his shirt and trousers hanging in tatters.
‘We can’t move him,’ said Jen. ‘His back may be broken.’
There was another tremor and the pier tilted again, sending fragments of rubble skittering down into the sea.
‘No choice,’ said Simon. His arms were aching, his breathing laboured in the heat.
‘One last heave,’ he said, and counted to three. They lifted the man between them. He let out one more shout of pain when his legs touched the ground; they looked and saw that below both knees was a mass of red, pulpy tissue, studded with fragments of pale bone.
Rekha took the man around the hips and helped to carry him. Struggling to keep their grip, the three of them stumbled along the pier to the far end. They lowered the man gently to the floor. Rekha took off her jacket and put it under his head. Simon removed his shirt and gave it to Jen, who tore it into strips and bound it around the man’s wounded legs to staunch the bleeding. She knelt and took his pulse; it was fast but strong, and his breathing was deeper now, more regular.
All the while, the man’s eyes were narrowly open, regarding them uncertainly. He began to make a dry, sucking sound, his tongue scraping against his palate. Rekha took a bottle of water from her bag. She soaked a little into a rag to allow him to wet his mouth, and then gently washed clean the cuts on his face.
The man was mouthing something, but none of them could hear him. Simon held his ear close to the man’s lips. He could smell smoke and blood.
‘Remember,’ whispered the man, but his next words were drowned out by the approaching helicopters, their noise filling the sky like the beating of wings. The sea was calm and golden, like a sheet of bronze extending as far as the eye could see.
The image gradually faded from view, and the lights came up gently in the Memory Palace. As Simon’s eyes adjusted, he could make out the thick black fireproof drapes and the chairs in which his three companions sat.
Anthony was twitching awake, the servo motors in his artificial legs clicking and humming into life as they received the signals from his brain. He opened his eyes and breathed out.
‘Thank God that’s over,’ said Rekha.
‘I don’t know,’ said Simon. ‘Isn’t there part of you that always wanted to do it all over again?’
‘No,’ said Rekha.
‘He’s right,’ said Anthony. ‘That intensity – ’
He held his forearm. Simon remembered that Anthony had a tattoo there, a simple one showing the date of the attack in Roman numerals.
Jen nodded. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘Nothing ever meant quite as much, did it?’
Later that night, Simon and Anthony took a walk around the complex. The wind had dropped, and it was a cold, clear evening. They went side-by-side most of the way, but a few minutes before the end of the walk Anthony stopped and said, ‘You go on ahead.’
Simon looked back when he reached the door of the accommodation block. Anthony was facing away from him, in the direction of the tectonic rift. His white hair hung around his shoulders, and his hand grasped his walking stick firmly. He was standing perfectly still, gazing at the sky as if waiting for someone to arrive.[/private]
Niall Boyce has published stories with Liars’ League, Tales of the DeCongested, Dogzplot, A cappella Zoo, Sein und Werden, Smoke: A London Peculiar and Loquacious Placemat, amongst other publications. His stories are collected and linked at his blog,