The Terrible Weight of Knowing|
Paradigm City is a city of amnesia. Every day, countless people work and play inside its borders, ignorant of whom or what they were before the Event of forty years ago stole all the memories they once cherished.
For some, it has meant freedom, a clean slate and a new start. Others spend all their energy seeking the lost memories, believing them to be a source of hidden power.
John Henry McAllister was one of those seekers.
The ancient brass bell above the front door of the Speakeasy jingled in a tired attempt at welcoming the newest visitor. The grey light filtering in through the front windows made the man appear little more than a dark silhouette, narrow-waisted and broad in the shoulders. After spending a moment adjusting to the dimness of the bar, he walked in. As he left the pools of light near the door, the figure resolved itself into Roger Smith, the top Negotiator in Paradigm City.
Absently slipping his dark glasses into his inside jacket pocket, Roger wandered toward the back of the little club, nodding his head at Dale, the hulking bartender, who wordlessly handed him his usual beer. Without further ado, Roger dropped into the chair where he always sat when he visited the Speakeasy. No other chair would do, for this was the unofficial office of "Big Ear", the best-connected information source in Paradigm.
The older man looked up from his newspaper, an insatiable curiosity glimmering deep in his eyes that put the lie to his well-schooled look of weary indifference. A smile appeared on his weathered face. Roger Smith was one of his best sources of capital. "Good afternoon, Negotiator."
"Every afternoon is good when you're me," Roger replied, smirking.
"How can I help you today?" Big Ear asked mildly, already folding his newspaper in anticipation of a "donation."
"Actually, I have things well in hand. I just happened to be in the area, and decided to drop by." Roger sat back, picking up his beer and taking a long pull of it. Sighing contentedly, he gazed around the smoky room.
"Breaking with tradition, Negotiator?" Big Ear asked, an eyebrow quirking upwards.
"My employer's enemy won't be ready to move for at least three days. I have some breathing room." Roger remarked offhandedly. "I figure I can actually finish a drink here for once!"
One drink became two, and moved straight on to three. Roger had not been out of the residence on anything but business in far too long. He'd become a captive in some ways to his rules and his duties, more and more becoming the proverbial lord of the manor, right down to the snide jokes others made, not quite behind his back, about his "relationship" with his maid.
His smile faded slightly as he pursued the thought. Dorothy. When he heard people talk about her that way... He wanted to shout them down, to tell them that she wasn't his maid, but his...what exactly was she? His friend? His confidant? Was she merely the damsel in distress to his dashing knight? Or was she--no! No. He refused to go there. The very idea scared him... not because it was wrong, he admitted to himself, but because it felt so right. But even if he...
No no no, damn it! I am not having this conversation with myself again! Roger cursed his treacherous thoughts. What's wrong with things staying the same? Staying safe?
Nothing risked, nothing gained. You should know that, Negotiator. The other voice of his internal argument sounded smug and just a little bit drunk.
"Maybe I shouldn't be drinking after all," he growled, unaware that his private thoughts had become public. "Makes me think too much."
"On the contrary, Mr. Smith," an unfamiliar male voice, old and scratchy with disuse, interrupted his musings. "I suspect you are merely not drinking enough. Trust me, if you put your mind to the task, you can completely erase everything, at least for a while."
"What?" Roger's head jerked up from his drink, looking for the speaker. The old man, who, Roger's memory informed him, could always be found sitting in that very spot, had turned his barstool around and was regarding him with sunken, haunted eyes.
After a minute spent staring at each other, the old man cleared his throat with a thick rasp. "You seem to be the type," the man wheezed, "who thinks that the tragedy of life is the loss of our memories. Oh, you deny it, of course, but why else would you choose such a job, constantly wading through the rubbish of other peoples' lives? What more is a Negotiator than a substitute for memories?"
Roger leaned back, his unease in the face of this sudden confrontation hidden behind his trademark smirk. "What I do for a living serves the public good. Why should the nature of my business be of such concern, Mr...?"
"Henry. Just Henry. What need does an old drunk like me have for a full name?" His tone was both mocking and filled with self-loathing. "You are young and lucky, Roger Smith. You have not yet learned that the terrible weight of knowing can sometimes be far worse than the empty bliss of amnesia."
"Are you saying you would rather have no memories?" Roger looked at him in disbelief. "That's preposterous!"
"If you can spare an old man a few minutes, Mr. Negotiator, I can tell you a tale that will conclusively prove my argument," the other replied.
"Now this I have to hear..." Roger leaned back into his chair, taking a swig of his beer. Henry motioned to Dale for a refill, and then took a deep, rattling breath. As he began to speak, his voice lost some of its harsh rasp, and his eyes glazed over, as if he were looking far past the walls of the bar...
Forty years ago, I was no one in particular. I was just another nameless drone, doing whatever I could to stay alive after the Event. Eventually someone figured out how to read again, and started teaching other people, myself included. Things got better quickly after that. I was scavenging for things I could sell or trade and I found a novel in some wreckage. I read it and liked the sound of the hero's name. From then on, I called myself Henry.
It turned out that there were no other copies of the book, so I got a bit of cash for my trouble. Between that and some of the other things I gathered, I was able to get a little place closer to the domes, and settle in. With a place to live, I was able to find myself a job and keep the roof over my head and food in my belly.
It was a bland, but comfortable existence. Each day was much the same. I got up, I went to my job, and then I came home again. I used to dream of being one of the big shots in the domes. I kept to myself mostly. I made a few acquaintances at work, sure, but no real friends.
Time went by. Soon it was five years after the event. There was a huge celebration marking Paradigm City's rebirth, with booze and dancing and song. It was like nothing any of us had ever seen. I got a little too happy for my own good and accepted a dare from a co-worker to go underground.
I remember climbing down into the darkness, as my shop mates cheered me on... planning on just staying down there for a few minutes, then climbing right back up to collect my cash. Then the Terror rose out of the dark and devoured me. I don't even remember reaching the bottom.
I came back to myself in my room, my clothing torn and filthy, and my head throbbing like a Megadeus had stepped on it. My mouth was dry as the ashes in the wastes, every joint ached, and my gut felt queasy and hollow. I staggered out of bed, showered, choked down some food, got dressed and headed to work.
When I walked in, everyone looked at me like I was a ghost. I later found out that I had been gone for a week. Life slowly returned to normal, but my coworkers never asked me to join them after work again. I returned to my solitary existence, the days blending one into the other. I believed that things would stay as they were forever.
One day, i found out how wrong i was. I remember it was a Sunday morning in the spring of that year. I was walking though the park in South Dome, wishing that I had the money to eat in one of the restaurants there, when suddenly the feelings of terror I had experienced when I went underground returned. I fell and clutched my head, trying desperately not to give in to the urge to dash my brains out on the paved walking path.
As I lay there writhing, the beautiful people who lived there studiously ignoring me, I began to feel things shift around in my head. Like snakes coiled in dark caves, thoughts I didn't know I had started to rise up and bite deep into my mind, their venom a whirl of images and feelings.
After a few minutes, the pain became merely excruciating, and I was able to rise to my feet and shuffle off. Thankfully, I was able to leave the area before the Military Police arrived to drag me off for disturbing the peace.
As I shambled home, the roiling mass in my head started to sort itself out. The pain was all but gone, replaced by a sense that something big was about to happen. I made it out of the dome checkpoint and got a few blocks closer to home, when suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks.
I knew my name. It was John Henry McAllister.
I was so damn happy. I knew myself. Of all the people, rich or poor, who called Paradigm City their home, I was perhaps the only person who truly knew who I was.
I practically skipped home, stopping to spend some of my meager savings on a bottle of wine to celebrate my incredible good fortune. If I, among the lowest of the low in the City of Amnesia, could be blessed above all people with such a gift, what else might await me?
Roger rocked back in his chair with a snort, interrupting the old man's ramblings. "Now wait a minute!" he chuckled. "You expect me to believe that you have memories from before the event?"
Henry motioned for another shot of whisky, chuckling ruefully. "I expect nothing of you. I merely tell you the truth, and you can choose to hear it or not, Mr. Negotiator... or should I call you... Major?"
Roger fell back to his chair, stricken. His heart began to pound as images burst inside his mind:
Legions of Bigs waging terrible war in and upon his city... the flames... the buildings collapsing... the burning sky full of Duos, circling like hunting hawks... that terrible shadow, looming over everything...
Shaking his head violently, he forced the nightmare scenes away. As he regained control, he raised his eyes from the floor and looked at Henry. He drained the rest of his beer in one gulp, trying to appear cool and collected despite the cold sweat he could feel down his spine. He leaned back and crossed his legs and gestured for the old drunk to continue.
"Ah," Henry grinned, "So the negotiator is interested, eh? Very well...."
Time passed. Aside from the secret joy of knowing myself, nothing really changed in my life at that point. I went to work as always. I took walks, read a few books, and did a little scavenging when I could. Once a dam cracks, though, it will eventually burst.
About six months later, I was having trouble sleeping. I lay there in my bed, thinking about nothing in particular, when suddenly I found myself with a mild headache, and my thoughts oddly drawn to the west side. I finally dozed off thinking about the layout of a building I used to work in.
It wasn't until after breakfast that I realized I had never been to the building that I had been thinking about. I could see it in my mind's eye as clear as a bell and knew how to get there, so I got dressed and left immediately, stopping only long enough to grab my scavenging backpack and a heavy jacket. I was both excited and afraid of what I might find there. Why did I remember that place?
The neighborhood was in terrible shape. It was run-down and inhospitable, even worse than you would expect outside the domes. Sure enough, there was the building of my remembering, sagging and hazardous- looking, but exactly where I expected it to be.
It appeared to have been a department store before our fall into barbarism. I stood outside the front door in the freezing cold for an hour, yearning to go inside and yet too afraid to do so. I must have appeared quite mad to the few local drifters and squatters that were desperate enough to stay in such a miserable place, because no one bothered me. Finally, flashlight in hand, I stepped inside, shaking like a leaf.
So hauntingly familiar was the space that my feet automatically found their way through the musty halls and rickety stairways. I barely needed the light I had brought. Finally, I stood before a vault door. Even the years since the Event had not robbed this fortress of its resilience, for despite the numerous signs of attempted entry, it had not been breached.
Leaning my forehead on the cool metal, I closed my eyes as pictures began to swim past my inner sight. I remembered this building before the Event, when it was full of people and light and life. I saw myself there, dressed expensively and obviously in charge of the jewelry department of the store. I saw myself opening this same vault door, and admiring the goods within: diamond necklaces, ruby earrings, gold bracelets, and more. A fortune waited on the other side of this slab of steel, and I knew the combination!
With trembling hands, I began working the dial. It was a bit stiff, but thankfully had not rusted solid. The tumblers were sticky enough that it took 5 tries to finally get it right. As time crawled by, I began to sweat, wondering if one of the haunted-looking people from out on the street might be sneaking up on me. But at last, I heard the beautiful sound of the lock disengaging. With the strength I had built up over years of hard work since the Event, I wrestled the door open.
If the inside of the building was dark, the interior of the vault was positively stygian, seeming to swallow my meager lamplight. Nevertheless, the jewelry was there, just as I remembered, glittering in the pale glow of my flashlight.
I gathered up as much of it as I could, loading the backpack, draping my arms with jeweled bracelets, and putting dozens of necklaces around my neck. I filled my pockets with these treasures from my past, rings and earrings and brooches, made with every precious stone you could think of. I made a pouch of my undershirt and filled it, pinning it closed with more brooches. I even filled my socks, although I didn't put anything in my shoes, just in case I had to run.
When I had as much as I could safely carry while still keeping it hidden I put my coat back on and buttoned it up. I closed the vault as quietly as possible, spun the dials, and staggered back into the grey light of a typical Paradigm afternoon. I worried that some of the vagrants would accost me, but apparently, they had learned not to question others too closely. Forcing myself not to hurry, I headed for home.
From that day my life changed. Within a week I had found places to sell the pieces I had recovered. I was now wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. By month's end I was living in a beautiful apartment in the domes, and making my first steps into the society of the city's well-to-do. It was a glorious time. Had I left well enough alone at that point, we would not be having this chat today, Mr. Negotiator...
But inevitably, enough is never enough. It's a basic part of human nature, don't you think? I found myself desiring more still, looking at the penthouses and the mansions of the elite citizens with jealousy and greed. Resolving to move into that rarified circle, I hired some bodyguards and a driver and went back to the vault for more precious things. Oh, how I wish that I had stayed away from that accursed place!
This time I was determined to leave nothing behind, so with the help of my bodyguards, we emptied out every single shelf and drawer in the vault. We carried it all down to the waiting car, under the protection of still more guards, while the locals looked on sullenly. Even though I had taken the best pieces the first time around, I knew that by its sheer volume, this haul would make me ten times richer than I already was.
Once home, I rewarded the help and dismissed them. I poured myself a snifter of brandy, lit a cigar, and set about sorting and appraising my treasures. Hours passed as I fussed over each piece, determining what I could make off of it and to which of my contacts it would go.
I opened a jewelry case and found a pair of white gold wedding rings. They were simple things, one thin band and one thick, with a basic serpentine twist to give them a bit of flair. The room fell away as the rings filled my sight and my heart lurched within me.
As I looked at them, hand trembling, I remembered another pair of identical wedding bands, a pair that had belonged to my wife Natalie and me. My God! I once had a wife...
Image after image came to me. I remembered clearly how happy we had been and how much I loved her. All of my recent triumphs turned to ash in my mouth as the memories made all the comforts of my wealth seem shallow and hollow. I wept from loneliness the rest of the night.
Time passed, and I continued to go through the motions of my new life. I sold the jewelry, keeping only the wedding bands as a reminder of Natalie. I went to parties, rubbing elbows with the people I had always wanted to be like, but in comparison to her, there was no worthy company there.
I lived the life of a playboy for a time, but no amount of excess seemed to fill the void inside me. I took to aimlessly wandering the avenues and boulevards inside the domes, reliving the memories of my wife and hoping against hope that she had survived the Event and I would somehow find her.
One day, I did.
It was mid-day, and I found my steps taking me through the grand plaza in the main dome, the crowd of shoppers and street performers as lively as ever. I had been walking for hours, and my feet ached. Just as I turned to head for home, I heard a hauntingly familiar laugh. My head snapped around, and there, through the mass of people, was a flash of familiar red hair! Natalie!
I began forcing my way through the crowd, drawing angry curses from the people I shoved aside. I didn't care. She was there! She was almost back in my arms! The throng of shoppers was too thick for me to move quickly, but I persisted, not taking my eyes off of her.
Her musical lilting laugh washed over me, warmer than the false sun of the dome, and I felt a newborn joy begin to bloom in my heart. Suddenly the crowd thinned, and there she was, as beautiful and alive as ever she had been.
A man had his arm around her shoulder, and was smiling down at her. She was pushing a stroller that held a pair of angelic-looking children, fast asleep in the noonday heat.
My throat closed up, robbing me of my voice. How could this be? She turned to look at me, her smile fading slightly as she cocked her head to the side, looking a bit puzzled.
"Who is this guy, Diane?" the man asked, stepping protectively in front of her and the children. "He seems to know you."
Diane? My mind reeled. I didn't understand. This was Natalie, my beloved wife. I tried again to speak, but no sound would come out.
She looked at me closely for a moment, and then shook her head as if waking from a daydream. She shrugged and turned back to the man she was with. "I really don't know, dear."
Henry was staring down at the floor, his shoulders shaking. "She... she didn't remember me. While my memories had returned, hers had not. You may not have memories of the old religions, Mr. Smith, but I assure you that the Christian Hell of eternal punishment has nothing on the torment of that awful moment," he raised his head to look at Roger with watery, bloodshot eyes.
Tears carved tracks through the grit on Henry's cheeks, washing away some of the years' worth of accumulated grime. His hand shook as he picked up his glass of cheap whiskey from the bar and slowly drank it down, obviously savoring the burn. He shoved the empty glass towards Dale for a refill and finished his life's story.
"I fled from that place blindly, seeking in vain to outrun the pain. When I could run no further, I looked around and found myself just across the street from this bar. I decided to come in, and I've been here ever since." He tossed some crumpled bills onto the bar when his refill arrived. "From opening to closing time, I drink until I can drink no more, seeking to lose these memories once more. I want nothing more than to completely erase myself and return to the comfort of being just another blank slate here in Paradigm."
Roger sat there frozen, feeling like a cold wind had blown through the depths of his soul. He had heard of worse things in Paradigm, to be sure. He himself had prevented some truly monstrous acts from taking place in his time as the Dominus of the Big O. But they had not prepared him for the simple, human broken-heartedness he heard in this old man's voice. It stabbed painfully into places inside his heart that he had never allowed himself to even admit to having.
Big Ear turned his head, looking out the windows at the front of the Speakeasy. His nature did not allow him the luxury of such a depth of feeling as Roger, but it pained him nonetheless to hear Henry's tale.
Henry turned back to face the bar, studying the too-familiar grain of the countertop. "So you see, Roger Smith, I suggest you do not put your faith in memories, or in other people. All they can bring you is pain. Oblivion is much better. That way, everything stays the same, and everything stays safe."
Roger felt a shock run through him as the old man's bitter words echoed his own recent thoughts. Looking at the broken wreck of the man Henry had become, Roger came to a hard decision. Rising, his expression unreadable, he made his way to the door.
Big Ear quietly watched him leave. "Don't do something you'll regret, Negotiator," he whispered.
The Griffon sailed down the highway, dark buildings whizzing by. Roger struggled with himself to keep his speed at a reasonable level, but now that he had decided on a plan, he felt a strange burning need to reach his destination.
He knew he was behaving irrationally and that Henry's story had caused him to lose the professional detachment he so valued. Knowing such a thing intellectually, however, did not help him master his emotions. He was no longer sure that he even wanted to. The truth in the old man's tale, revealed to his inner sight and gleaming in his thoughts, refused to let him slide comfortably back into his old ways of doing things.
No. Tonight everything changes. He had spent nearly an hour walking the beach, deciding on his best course of action. He still wasn't sure that what he intended to do was the right thing. If he handled it poorly, in fact, it would create a lot of unnecessary pain.
He also didn't know what Norman would do without Dorothy's help with the housework. His aging manservant had gotten used to the girl's presence. Roger had, too, and that was the root of the problem. Well, it was the least of his worries. If Norman really needed the help, they could hire someone.
Half an hour later, he pulled the powerful vehicle into the underground garage. Yanking the keys from the ignition, he strode purposefully to the elevator, determined to complete his self-appointed mission before he lost his nerve.
On his way from the garage to the upper levels, he impulsively took a detour and entered the hangar bay. Big O waited there, colossal in the shadowy vastness. Roger strode out onto the gantry way and stood before the face of the Megadeus.
"I've decided to finally resolve the problem of Dorothy's employment," he said after a few moments of contemplation. "I just want to know if you think I'm doing the right thing."
Man and Megadeus faced each other in silence, one minute stretching into the next, without movement or sound. Roger felt the presence of Big O around him and looking into him, much the same as when he was piloting the black-hulled titan.
It felt somewhat odd for asking a giant robot for advice, but he had come to realize that the soul inside the machine could be trusted beyond a doubt. "Thank you," he said finally and left, leaving Big O to return to whatever unfathomable calculations it had been performing before he arrived.
"Welcome home, Master Roger," Norman said as the elevator doors slid open on the main floor of the residence. "Dinner will be served in one hour."
"Thank you, Norman. I would like you to delay dinner until I have taken care of some business. Do you know where Dorothy is at the moment?" Roger was trying hard to sound like his normal, casual self, but he knew the tension he felt was showing through the cracks in his demeanor.
"I believe she is out on the balcony. Is anything the matter, Master Roger?" Norman asked.
Roger sighed, placing his watch, cufflinks, and the contents of his pockets on the tray that the butler held at the ready. "Something has been the matter for a long time," he said, handing over his tie as he walked past. "I know what I have to do to fix it, though, and I'm doing it now." With that, he squared his shoulders and marched up the stairs.
Norman watched as Roger disappeared from sight. "Oh, my..." he breathed.
Dorothy was indeed perched on the corner of the balcony, looking out over the city as she so often did, thinking her private thoughts. She looked so small and frail up there, with the wind howling around her as if to snatch her away. But he knew her strength by now, not just that of her android body, but of her spirit.
He admired that strength, and the grace with which she conducted herself. She turned her head and gazed at him for a few moments, her expression as inscrutable as always. Then with a superhuman feat of gymnastics, she flipped through the space between them, landing flawlessly just a few feet in front of him.
"You seem agitated, Roger Smith," she stated in her usual level, melodic tones. "What is troubling you?"
Looking down into her dark eyes, Roger almost lost his nerve. Then, berating himself for his cowardice, he forced himself to say what he had rehearsed during his ride home. "Dorothy, it occurs to me that you have been working as my maid for more than long enough to have paid off your original debt. Therefore, I am releasing you from my service. You are free to do as you wish."
For once, he managed to break through her calm exterior. Her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open. She regarded him silently for a long moment, as if trying to read what was going on in his mind.
When he said nothing more, her expression hardened and she turned away. "Very well, Roger Smith. I will leave at once. I am uncertain as to what I have done to make you desire my absence, but I will not linger," she said, a barely-audible quaver in her voice.
"Wait, Dorothy!" She stopped a few steps from the doorway, still facing away from him.
Roger moved to stand just behind her and began to speak in a low, nervous voice. "You asked me once if we lost our memories whether we would fall in love." He took a deep breath and forced himself to continue. "It so happens that I heard a story about that very topic today, and it helped me to understand something very important."
"Roger..." Dorothy whispered, turning to face him, her expression a strange combination of vulnerability and disbelief.
"Let me finish," Roger interjected, cutting her off. If he stopped now, he might never get it all out."Today I realized that I don't need to lose my memory to know that... that..." taking a moment to steel himself, he continued. "that...I do love you, Dorothy Wayneright."
He paused, seeking some reaction from the woman before him, but she remained unreadable. Fearing that he may have made a huge mistake, Roger desperately pressed on. "I have released you from my service so that you are free to do what you want to do, without being influenced by a false sense of obligation." He made himself meet her eyes. "I... I want you to stay, Dorothy. At the least, as my friend... and..." he looked back down at the floor, "if... if you'll have a louse like me... as my lady."
There was more he had planned to say, but his voice failed him. He stood there and waited, trying to control his nervous trembling. She stared at him, saying nothing for what seemed like an eternity. Just as he was losing all hope, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his.
Roger's knees went weak with the sudden release of tension. He put his arms around her, drawing her even closer as the kiss deepened. He had lost all track of time when she finally pulled away and took a single step back, regarding him for another moment. Then, with the faintest hint of a smile, she moved to his side and slipped her arm though his.
"Come, Roger, we should not keep Norman waiting," she said.
"Of course not, Dorothy," he agreed, allowing her to lead him towards the stairs. "Of course not."
We have come to terms