THE FIRST DANCE

They had taken away the memory that Alejandro cherished most. He wanted it back. The Muninn in his shoulder whirred warmly and recalled everything. The old man relaxed, allowing the device to take him back, he did not hope – did not allow himself to hope – that this time would be different. He accepted the pain that must come.

*

Alejandro, as he has always done, looked around at the faces of friends and family. So many were now long gone. Even the community centre was rubble today, cleared for some office building that was never finished. But here were the people, young and bright. And here was the room still filled with the smell of fresh paint.

He let the soft rumble of conversation enfold him, Arsene’s barking laugh, the tinkling of glasses and the scraping of chairs on the red-tiled floor. He felt the warmth of the summer’s day seeping through the building’s thick walls and the gentle breeze from the single fan that stirred the air above the hastily cleared dance floor. His stomach felt heavy from drink and food, his head light from an unexpected depth of joy.

Finn, Tommy’s little boy, stared up at him. Alejandro smiled then and now. Finn was twice married, and twice divorced, with three kids and a big belly but here he tottered across the dance floor, his body still working out the complexities of standing upright. The boy’s face was set in a mask of fierce determination. Every step was a struggle of will against gravity, battling loose legs that only reluctantly obeyed his commands. In the boy’s fist, gripped tight and held out high, a carnation, the buttonhole from his father’s rented tuxedo.

The boy plodded towards them, dragging the focus of the room with him. The chattering faded, the band, tuning up in the corner, fell silent. The world stopped spinning. Finn swayed to a halt and raised the bruised white flower to Teresita.

“Thank you,” she said as she stooped to take the gift.

“Princess!” the boy said, eyes wide.

Teresita laughed and scooped the child up in her arms, spinning him around.

Alejandro flicked a jaw muscle to pause the play back. The hum of the Muninn, more felt than heard as it thrummed against his collar bone, settled into a lower pitch.

Teresita.

His throat tightened. He blinked away tears.

She had been, on that day, so convinced of her own happiness that it had seemed to Alejandro that a kind of joyful rapture had engulfed the whole wedding. Even her mother, who had always known Alejandro would never amount to anything, sat holding her new husband’s hand with a soft smile and her eyes bright. Teresita’s faith in him, in them together, had been so absolute that it had scared him even then. From here, knowing all the ways he would let her down, all the stupid disappointments and carelessness, the promises that he never could keep…

Alejandro blinked, restarting the recall – the Muninn whined.

Teresita kissed Finn on the forehead and set him down. The boy nodded solemnly, turned on his heel and tottered away into the arms of his parents – both gone now, God take them – and the laughing, applauding crowd.

Teresita put the flower in her hair, the white petals shocking amidst that ebony flow. She looked up, a wide, immodest grin on her face. Alejandro felt his hand reach out, the movement steadier and stronger than he had managed in many years. He felt himself brush her face with one finger, wondering again at the softness of the touch, the cool smoothness of her skin. She rested her cheek against his hand.

And there they stood, perfectly still, at the centre of the world.

The lead singer of the band started counting.

“One, two, three, four- ”

And at that moment the picture fractured and the sound crackled and a wall of static fuzz rose up around Alejandro. Over the hiss and warble a low female voice began to intone a legal statement about copyrighted material and the rights of its owners and the cost of licensing and offering him the opportunity to upgrade his package with Mnemosyne to reinsert the missing moments.

Alejandro sighed, twitched his jaw again to end the playback and felt the Muninn’s hum fade on his shoulder.

*

Alejandro flicked through his bill from Mnemosyne. He’d long ago paid off the basic charge on his Muninn so going through the bill and removing memories that were flagged with demands for copyright payments meant that the basic services of the device were available free.

He could have set his scroll to automatically reply to the bill, giving up everything that contained a memory he could no longer afford to keep, but sifting through the memories he was about to lose had become a small ritual. He’d wander down through the list, attempting to remember each incident without the Muninn, trying to work out where copyrighted material might have slipped into the memory.

Was it a tune on a distant radio? Or was a screen in the corner playing some movie? He flicked away one memory when he realized they were demanding a payment for the taste of a soft drink.

Alejandro enjoyed the puzzle even as he resented dropping each lost moment into the wastebasket. Every deletion came with a polite reminder from the sweet-voiced Mnemosyne woman reassuring him that his memories would never be deleted and were always there for him if he paid the required licence fee. It stung every time. He knew that he could never bring them back.

He’d held on to their wedding dance for as long as he could afford it. Now, though, the prices had gone up again and the rules kept changing. He had no choice.

He clicked the box and dragged the file to the corner of the screen and consigned it to the trash.

Tomorrow I will visit Filipe’s boy, he thought.

*

Alejandro wondered if he was the only one left who remembered that this building had once been a bowling alley. The neon signs were long gone, and so were the bowlers. The inside had been divided up into tiny rooms – the lanes buried under cheap flooring. Did the mechanisms still work? Were there, somewhere underneath the narrow, dirty corridors and crudely boxed-in apartments, pins and balls sitting, waiting to be rediscovered one day by a wrecking crew or, perhaps a thousand years hence, by a confused archaeologist?

He pushed his way through the junk-filled space, past discarded furniture, heavy boxes, broken toys and stacks of waste-filled plastic bags that reeked of rot and seeped colourless liquids across a tacky floor that sucked at his feet.

The door to Gideon’s room was open just a crack and violet light spilled around the jamb into the corridor. From inside music throbbed with bass so deep that Alejandro could feel it vibrating in every bone – his skin shivered with the beat.

Alejandro knocked. Waited. Knocked again. And then, when it became obvious that the music would drown out any sound he was capable of making with his knuckles on wood, he pushed the door.

There was a man with black skin, not brown but black with a hint of blue, like the deepest night sky, and stars of silver sparkled in his ears and his lips, his nose and his eyebrow, his teeth and his tongue. A line of what look liked rivets ran from the bridge of his nose over his brow and across the bald-black skin of his head.

The music snapped off and silence roared into the room.

“Gideon?” Alejandro said.

The boy looked up, suspicious at first. Then he smiled and Alejandro saw his mother in him and for an instant he was again the little boy he had once been, playing in the street with Gael and Tad, Alejandro’s grandsons.

 “Mister Marichal?” The boy stood up. He was very tall. Alejandro wondered if that was something else he’d done to himself. Filipe and his mother were not so big. “Mister Marichal!”

The boy came around the desk, ignored Alejandro’s offered hand and gave him a fierce hug, lifting the old man off his feet. Then he pulled away, looking serious.

“What are you doing down here? You should have told me you were coming, it’s dangerous down here.”

Alejandro waved away the boy’s concerns.

“I lived in this neighbourhood before your father and mother were born,” Alejandro said, laughing. “I walk where I like and no one bothers me.”

The boy looked unconvinced and again Alejandro saw his mother’s kindness.

Gideon remembered his manners, Filipe had been a good father, and rushed to clear a stack of boxes and papers from a deep armchair that was almost buried in one corner of the room. Alejandro sat, perched on the edge of the seat, and Gideon propped himself against the vast desk that filled most of the room.

“I want to remember the things they’ve taken away,” Alejandro said, tapping his shoulder where the small box of the Muninn was buried beneath his skin.

“Mnemosyne would do that, Mister Marichal.”

“Pfff!,” Alejandro shook his head. “Too much money.”

Gideon nodded, biting at his lower lip, as he took a moment before making up his mind. He reached for something on his desk.

“How long have you had the Muninn installed?”

Alejandro had to stop and think.

“Well, Teresita and I were married in twenty-one so that would be sixty-one? No sixty-three years ago.”

Gideon whistled.

“Any upgrades?”

“Not since I stopped working. That was in fifty-eight.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked on implants that old,” Gideon looked impressed. “That must be first generation hardware.”

Alejandro shrugged. He’d never been much interested in technology.

“Teresita was desperate to have these things installed before we were married. She was determined that it would be a day we’d never forget.” The words caught in Alejandro’s throat. Surprised by the emotion he coughed and looked away. “Now they’ve taken even that.”

Gideon said nothing but got up and began to move around Alejandro, running a small device over his shoulder and neck, nodding and tutting.

“Everyone in the neighbourhood says that you are the best person to see about Muninns,” Alejandro said. “They say there’s nothing you can’t make them do.”

Gideon tried to pat him on the shoulder, clumsily trying to reassure the old man. But Alejandro grabbed the hand, surprising the boy with the strength of his grip, and pulled Gideon closer.

“Give me back my Teresita!”

Gideon bent over the old man for a stretching, silent, moment, not sure how to respond to the hunger in Mister Marichal’s expression.

“Let’s see what I can do,” he said finally.

Alejandro nodded and smiled and Gideon took it as a signal that he could disentangle himself and go back behind his desk. He swiped his device across a scroll. A display jumped into life between them and the boy began manipulating information, figures streamed up from the desk, lines twisted and curled at eye level.

“I can do this,” Gideon said. “But there will be a price.”

Alejandro nodded.

“I have a few dollars.”

“I wouldn’t take your money, Mister Marichal,” the boy looked genuinely hurt and Alejandro had to smile. He’d known this was a good boy.

“Do you know how a Muninn works?” Gideon asked.

“I know what anyone knows,” Alejandro said. “It records your memories and lets you replay them later – you see what you saw, smelt, tasted, heard. Everything. All the experiences you had at the time.”

“That’s true, sort of” Gideon said. “But the Muninn doesn’t store your memories. It puts itself between your sense organs – your eyes, your nose, your skin – and your brain. It records the electrical impulses that your nervous system uses to communicate with your brain. When you recall something from the Muninn it replays the electrical signals from that moment in the past and amplifies them so that they override whatever you’re experiencing in the present. It feels like everything is happening again.”

Alejandro had sat through an endless demonstration by the Mnemosyne people back before the wedding. None of it had mattered to him then and he hadn’t paid attention.

“That’s not even the really clever part,” Gideon said. His enthusiasm brought out the young boy in him. Alejandro tried to imagine him as he had been, skinny, brown-skinned, always laughing. “The pathways and patterns in your brain are always changing. You learn new things. You add new memories. Old memories fade. You forget almost everything. The brain is always changing. The Muninn threads through those pathways and keeps track of the changes, it adapts the recordings it makes to fit the new patterns so you still perceive them in the same way as when they were recorded.”

Gideon looked at Alejandro as if he’d just explained something vital.

“So?”

“My system can’t do that,” Gideon said.

Alejandro shrugged, not understanding.

“So… if I pull out the memory, you’ll only be able to review it once or, if you’re lucky, twice. Watching it will change your memories and make my copy unplayable. And you can’t wait too long after I pull it onto a scroll before you watch it. After a few days the patterns in your brain will have changed and it’ll break down if you try to use it. Your brain won’t decode the signals in the same way.”

“Oh?”

“And there’s something else,” Gideon leant forward. “When you replay the memory, Mnemosyne will know I’ve tampered with your Muninn. It isn’t strictly illegal but it does break their terms and conditions, there’s a chance they’ll cancel your service.”

“I didn’t know…”

Alejandro looked away for a moment. He knew his own memory wasn’t what it was. He knew he relied on the Muninn for a lot of simple things. It would be difficult without it.

Gideon gave a tight smile.

“Mister Marichal, I would do anything to help you. You have always been good to my family. Gael was like my brother before…” Gideon stopped. Alejandro nodded. Some things didn’t need to be spoken about. “But I think you should go home and think about it.”

Alejandro looked into the palms of his hands. He hated his hands. They trembled slightly, they were lined and creased and dark with liver spots. They were old hands. He was old. He relied on the Muninn. But their fees and their rules – they were robbing him of everything he cared about

He needed to dance with Teresita again, even if it was just once more.

There was no choice to make.

“No,” he said. “I don’t need to go home.”

“What if I paid the licence fee?” Gideon dropped his gaze to the floor. “It isn’t so much.”

 “I did not come here for charity.” Alejandro’s tried not to shout but his voice was loud in the small room. He stood up – struggling out of the low armchair – and took a step towards the door.

“Just like my dad –”

Alejandro turned and opened his mouth ready to spit some angry response but the boy was laughing, hands raised in surrender.

“You’re certain?” Gideon asked.

Alejandro set his jaw firm and nodded.

“Then come with me.”

*

Alejandro had been expecting something that was more clinical, more futuristic. The walls of the little room may once have been white or cream but the paint had aged and yellowed, bubbled and cracked. You could tell from the edges that the carpet that it had started off a pale shade of blue but shuffling feet had worn the centre threadbare, the brown structure of the weave showing through. There was a single seat, a soft, battered armchair with a high back covered in a floral-patterned material that was thin and faded and had lost any charm it might once have possessed.

Gideon waved at Alejandro to sit down while he walked over to a scroll that lay on a small wooden table that was propped uncertainly against one wall. He tapped a few instructions on the scroll’s screen then pulled a skullcap of fine metal mesh from his trousers pocket. He swiped it against the scroll and then came towards Alejandro.

“Sit back, please, Mister Marichal,”

Alejandro did as he was told and the boy stretched the cap over his head.

“You’re sure you want to do this?”

Alejandro nodded, resolute.

Gideon went back to the scroll and tapped at the screen again. He paused, looking to Alejandro, but the old man gave no sign of doubt. The boy entered a final instruction.

“This will take about twenty minutes,” Gideon said, stepping towards the door. “It will work best if you can keep still and relax. I’ll come back when it is done.”

*

The dance was not elegant. Alejandro and Teresita did not sweep across the dance floor in a dramatic tango or spin in a light-footed waltz. They shuffled, they bumped and they wheeled around gracelessly to a long-forgotten pop-song that Teresita had loved.

It didn’t matter to Alejandro that his new wife trod on his toes or that they stumbled when he tried, unwisely, to sweep her up in dramatic turn.

All that mattered was her smile. She stared up at him and he saw himself reflected in her eyes and it seem that the man she saw was bigger and prouder and happier than he ever remembered being. He was a man with hope, a man who would do great things and who would always have this beautiful woman beside him.

He lifted her off her feet and she squealed his name as he whirled them both around, her dress ballooning out, one shoe flying off across the floor to land at the feet of the band’s guitarist. And when he put her down she threw her head back and laughed, her face wide and open and honest with simple pleasure. And then all their friends were around them, clapping him on the back, kissing his new wife and then dancing themselves – just as clumsily – and laughing.

It was a perfect moment.

*

Gideon put a hand on Alejandro’s shoulder and the memory dropped away. He lifted the cap off the old man’s head and rolled it up.

“We’re done,” Gideon said.

Alejandro sprang from the chair, surprising the boy with his sudden vigour, and gripped Gideon in a tight embrace.

“Thank you,” Alejandro stepped back, his eyes filling with tears. The old man wiped roughly at his face. “Thank you so much. You always were a good boy.”

Alejandro pulled out a small fold of neat bills and pressed them Gideon’s palm.

The boy, as gently as he could, refused them.

“No Mister Marichal – “

The old man pushed them back.

Gideon looked at the notes. He peeled away the top two and handed the rest back.

“That is enough.”

Appeased, Alejandro nodded then he reached up to grab Gideon’s face. He pulled the boy’s head forward and craned to kiss him on the forehead, his lips touching a cool metal stud.

“Thank you for giving me back my Teresita.”

The old man turned and walked out the door.

“Mister Marichal?” Gideon called after him but he was gone. The young man stared, confused for a moment, looking around the room.

Then he went over to the low table with the scroll.

The download from the Muninn was complete, the copy ready to play, unused.

If he returned it, the old man could have his precious memories one more time. Gideon fiddled with the mesh cap in his hands then turned towards the door, intending to chase after Mister Marichal and explain there had been a mistake.

Then he remembered how the old man had looked and he paused.

Thank you for giving me back my Teresita.

Gideon sat down in the old, battered armchair and gently ran his fingers along the studs in his skull.

Mister Marichal had been happy and that was enough. The old man didn’t need the download.

He already had everything he needed.

“The First Dance” was first published in Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates

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