Discover more from Inspired as F**k
The Ephemera - Chapter One
A note to readers: This is the first chapter of my new book, The Ephemera. I’m publishing it largely without revision, as I write it, in part because you told me in this poll that you’d like to read something mid-process, warts and all. What you see below is not final. At all. This is just how it came out of my brain.
I’m making the first few chapters of The Ephemera public, but you’ll need to be a member to read the whole story. Learn more and become a member here. It’s cheap.
The night was sultry.
It was the buildings: the heat of close-set, dark-bricked buildings effusing human humidity as if the masonry itself were sweating. The air was quiet save the distant drip of water. In this shambling part of the city, near the old gardens with their massive rusted gates that no longer closed, the people were ignored as long as they didn’t cause trouble. It wasn’t uncommon here to stumble across dead slumped against buildings, and just as common to find them in the same place days later. Sometimes the trash service took the bodies away. Usually it was the citizens who did it, burning them in street fires if they couldn’t be left on the doorstep of the morgue. Of course they cleared the corpses, same as they insisted the homeless relieve themselves always in the sewers, never the alleyways. The neighborhood, ramshackle as it was, was all the people had. With no real hope of escape, they’d settled in and made it home. And so there was a gritty sort of pride here: a pride of ownership that survived where nothing was truly owned. These days, even their most private moments were seldom their own.
There were downsides to neglect, but there were upsides, too. The thief, in the sultry dark of night, was happy to be ignored.
“Emile,” said a voice.
Emile’s buzzed, velvet-haired head whipped toward the shadows, but he saw nothing.
“Emile Girard,” the voice repeated.
“Christ,” he said when he saw the woman there — really just a shadow until she exhaled, until he saw the billow of cigarette smoke. He moved closer. “I told you. Do not use my name.”
“‘Don’t,’” the woman replied.
“If you want to blend in, start using contractions. ‘Do not use my name.’” She scoffed. “You still sound like a frog.” The woman put a cigarette to her lips. They were dried like old paper, hard and unsmiling. Emile had known her for years but had no idea how old she was. None at all.
“Then maybe I should ribbit for you,” he said, exaggerating the accent she wanted him to hide. It wasn’t the first time she’d mocked it. Emile had grown immune, bothered more now by the waste of time than because he was offended. You had to consider the source; that was one of many mantras that kept Emile sane. Did he want to “fix” himself so he could blend in and be just like her? No thanks. There were so many ways he was different, and none he wished to change.
The woman took another puff. He wondered again at her age. Was she twenty? Or was she fifty? She wore dark eyeliner. Her voice was deep and her skin seemed thick like leather. She made old references, but that meant nothing. Everyone seemed to remember the official version of the past now, even when they didn’t remember at all.
“I’m just saying you leave a trail, talking like you do. It’s time. How long have you lived here?”
He didn’t answer. In part because he didn’t know.
The woman took Emile’s silence as pouting, not pensiveness. She shrugged and said nothing. Wasting his time again.
“Mon dieu. Why did you call me, Simone?”
“Your last delivery,” she said. “It was singed.”
“Singed,” she repeated, stepping closer. “I sampled them myself.”
“Oh?” Her eyebrows rose. The effect was like flipping a switch. Nothing had changed on her face, but it dawned suddenly on Emile that in a different place and time, she was — or had been — absolutely beautiful. “And I suppose you sampled them, too?”
“It is not something I do. But I know my process. The streams were authentic.”
She moved even closer. It occurred to Emile that she was trying to intimidate him, to be seductive, or most likely both at the same time: intimidation by seduction. He still saw that different face on her, as if her current appearance was tainted by memory of the past.
“It isn’t something you do? You think you’re immune?”
“I prefer to live in the now. To trust my five senses. To be part only of the world I see.”
She puffed her cigarette, very close now. “That’s not what I asked,” she said. When he didn’t answer, she nodded and backed up a step. “All right. Believe that, if you want.”
“I deal in first-degree streams. First-degree always,” Emile told her.
“And how are you sure they are always first-degree?”
“Because I extract them myself.”
“From the subjects themselves?”
She flapped a hand. “That means nothing. Just because a subject is experiencing something in the moment doesn’t mean the memory originated with them. You of all people know that.”
“There are signs if a memory is second-degree.”
“Yes, there are signs,” said Simone, puffing again. “Sometimes, they are singed.”
She shoved something into his chest. Emile looked down and saw a red-nailed hand holding a folded piece of paper. Of course it was paper. Digital left a trace, but paper always burned.
He unfolded it. He was an amateur mnemonotist, not remotely a pro. Yet even to his amateur’s eyes, what Simone handed him was less than right, wrong by more than half.
“This stream did not come from me,” he said, looking the report over.
“Look at the ID. This was last week. Monday’s drop.”
“No.” He shook his head; this was a big enough mistake — or an outright accusation — to need a bodily negation instead of just a word. “What I see here looks more than singed. If it were wood, it would be a bonfire.” He shoved the paper back at her. “I could not even have gotten a stream like this to you. It would not have survived the trip. It would have fallen apart in the tube, moments after collection.”
“Look at the ID,” she repeated.
“Just because you were able to type a number on a piece of paper doesn’t mean—”
She interrupted him. “This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from the Curator.”
Emile stopped. The world was no longer sultry. Now it was ice cold.
“Not directly,” Simone added, and at that, Emile relaxed a little — not all the way, but a little. “That report came from a routine QA sweep at the Archive. As far as I know, the lot was tossed as spoilage. Streams get old. Subtler memories often degrade outside of a host. It happens. Par for the course with any substantial collection. Most of the Archive comes from dealers, and you are only one of them. But lately more and more are coming up like this one.” She tapped the paper. “Singed. Unusable. Look at the metrics, Emile. We were lucky that QA caught it. What if it had been deployed?”
Emile knew the answer. Deploying a memory stream this polluted would be like drinking acid. The user’s mind would flay, the Archive would lose a customer, and the Watchers — who knew exactly what the Curator did but looked the other way — would suddenly become a lot less apathetic. The last thing the Curator wanted, ever, was attention.
Emile stared anew at the paper. He knew this wasn’t a stream he’d stolen and sold, but he couldn’t just deny it like he wanted to. The Curator was like God to Simone in a way: She didn’t evoke his name lightly. That meant this was a mistake, not a lie. Emile only knew it was anything but true.
And yet he did recognize the ID, suggesting that as unlikely as it seemed, this was one of the streams he’d given Simone last week. But how?
“The Archive’s QA agents are partitioned for safety,” Simone went on, tapping her skull to indicate her brain. “This kind of thing happens sometimes at the Archive. When it does, the partition can be removed and thrown away. Nobody was hurt. This time.”
Emile was still studying the report. He’d seen the problem immediately; it was just that he didn’t believe what he’d seen. This didn’t look like a brain’s reaction to a memory. It looked more like a single mind trying to react to many different, contradictory memories at once. What’s more, every piece of that fragmented, de-integrated memory had been fully believed by the subject mind. The stress, in someone unpartitioned, would have been excruciating.
“If it ‘happens sometimes,’ why are you coming to me?”
“Because even if the Curator isn’t looking at patterns, I am.” She tipped her cigarette at him like a pointer, smoked almost down to a nub. “It’s been happening more and more with newly-collected streams. And every time it does, the stream came from you.”
Emile’s mouth hung open. He wanted to argue, but he didn’t dare. If she’d sworn on the Curator about the report he held in his hand, she’d swear to this, too.
“I know you’re not,” Simone said, cutting him off again. She dropped her cigarette and snuffed it with her toe. “This isn’t an accusation. It’s … something else.”
“What do you mean?”
“I ran that report by a veilweaver,” she said, nodding at the paper.
“You … What?”
“I have reason to trust her. So does the Curator.” She paused to make sure he’d gotten the point: Yes, she’d consulted a dime-store fortune teller … but if the Curator trusted that fortune teller, Emile shouldn’t argue. “She said that what we thought at first was an ordinary singe was actually due to discordance in the Ephemera.”
Emile laughed. But Simone wasn’t laughing, so he stopped.
“The Archive is very strict. It’s the only way to keep order in an unregulated system,” she continued. “One supplier per district. For this district, that supplier is you. There is honor among thieves, Emile; we do not deal with others in your neighborhood. But that’s good. It means we know where the problem streams are coming from. Not from you …” She looked up and around at the sweating black brick. “… but from here.”
“And?” He wanted to end this discussion. What she’d said was beyond crazy, like declaring the world was flat.
“Singe is easy to find. I’ve already shifted the QA roster so that everything still in the Archive that you’ve brought to us will be tested over the next two days. Anything new you bring will also be tested. So we’ll be able to spot streams that have gone bad — streams that show as singed — and quietly remove them. But if what my veilweaver said was true, the actual singeing is a result, not the cause. Any stream could suddenly go bad without warning at any time … including after QA has cleared it. If that happens, the Curator will investigate. And if he investigates, I won’t be able to protect you.”
Emile nodded. That much was true, at least. It was the danger of his profession. The latent fear he lived with every day.
“I need you to find out where it’s coming from,” Simone told him.
“You need me to find … The Ephemera?” He was thinking maybe he should find Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy while he was at it.
“Find it and stop it,” she said unblinking, “before it spreads.”
So, obviously this continues. I’ll publish new chapters of The Ephemera when they’re ready, probably a time or two a week, but there’s no set schedule. Please note that only the first handful of installments will be available for everyone to read, and that after that I will begin publishing new chapters for members only. Learn more and become a member here.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON COMMENTS: Feel free to discuss the story all you’d like below, but please also note that I do not read comments on any in-progress fiction. This is because I need to write my first drafts “with the door closed,” meaning I can’t have any outside feedback, even if it’s positive. I need to stay in this world without other voices. So thank you for any comments you make, and I hope you understand why I’ll never see them. :)