3790 words, short story
Preserve Her Memory
One o’clock in the morning. Heavy rain.
Ye Lin, her clothes drenched, stands at the edge of the roof of the three-hundred-story Future Tower. She shivers uncontrollably as the gale, whipping freezing rain, slices across her skin like an ice knife. From her perch more than a kilometer aboveground, she surveys the city that never sleeps, glittering and coruscating in the rain like a metaphor for her glamorous life.
They look up at me like a princess in the heavens. But do they understand how cold and alone I am?
In the metropolis below, a scintillating net woven from thousands of glowing streets, infused with lust, greed, and fame, ensnares thirty million men and women and binds her the tightest of them all. She once thought herself one of the lucky few who found a rare morsel of happiness, but she had not realized that the spider of fate had already closed off all avenues of escape behind her.
All right, it will all be over soon. I’ll have eternal freedom and peace.
Ye Lin takes a deep breath and steps forward. There is nowhere to set her foot down except empty space.
And so she falls. Like a drop of rain, she plunges toward the gleaming city, toward the abyss of death.
Police Captain Jiang Yong, head of the investigations unit, took off his helmet and let out a long sigh. “You dragged me out of bed in the middle of the night for this? Who found her?”
“I did, Captain,” said a young woman with long hair. Liu Ningning was a new addition to the investigations unit. By the looks of her swollen eyes, she had been crying. “The impact damaged the body to such an extent that we couldn’t ID her, and DNA analysis was going to take some time. I decided to access her memories, and found out that . . . she’s Ye Lin, the actress. I called in a report immediately.”
“No wonder the bureau told me to handle it.” Jiang Yong yawned. “She’s a big star. I imagine those vulture reporters will be swarming here soon, and this is going to be all over the headlines in the morning . . . But the case doesn’t look that complicated. The memory replay indicates that it was suicide. All you have to do is follow the procedures.”
“But since the deceased is such a celebrity, there will be a lot of attention focused on us,” said another detective. “The bureau didn’t want anything to go wrong, and they specifically asked for you to review the investigation.”
“I don’t care if she’s a celebrity or some average Jane Doe,” Jiang Yong harrumphed. “I have no sympathy for suicides.”
“No! This is murder, pure murder!” Liu Ningning cried out, her voice full of anguish.
Jiang Yong frowned. “Ningning, I know you’re a fan of Ye Lin, but you can’t allow your personal feelings to interfere with police work.”
“But . . . but . . . ” Ningning wiped at her eyes. “You’ll understand if you replay more of her memories.”
Intrigued, Jiang Yong put the helmet back on, and data flooded into his mind from the memory black box.
The memory black box was the product of advanced research in neuroscience, information technology, nanotechnology, and other fields. The recorder consisted of a biochip smaller than the head of a pin implanted into the hippocampus and nanosensors embedded throughout the body. Normally, the system lay dormant. But as soon as it detected severe deviations from the norm in various brain activity parameters—indicative of the stress caused by imminent death or great danger—the black box would automatically contact the police and record the short-term memory in the hippocampus via molecular scanning. In the event of death, about one to two minutes of memories preceding the cessation of brain activity could be decrypted from the black box. The device was invaluable for tasks such as criminal investigation, accident inquiry, insurance adjustment, and so on.
Although the chip was expensive, it didn’t require a craniotomy to install; instead, molecule-sized nanomachines were injected into the bloodstream, and they assembled themselves into the recorder and sensors in the requisite areas of the body without causing any discomfort. Many celebrities and the wealthy installed memory black boxes not only for the benefits in the event of death, but also to deter criminals who would wish them harm. Since the invention of the memory black box, the murder rate had plunged, accompanied by a corresponding rise in the percentage of solved murders.
The induction helmet used to replay the memories had originated in virtual reality gaming. Not only could the helmet replicate the recorded visual data and other sensory information with high fidelity, but it could also induce in the wearer the memories and emotions experienced by the deceased through artificial bioelectric fields localized to specific regions of the brain. Someone wearing the helmet would feel as though they were taking the place of the deceased, gazing through her eyes, hearing through her ears, experiencing everything she felt.
. . . As Ye Lin fell, she seemed to turn into a raindrop, one falling faster than the other raindrops. The blasting wind whipped the rain against her face as the windows of the skyscraper—some lit, some dark—flashed by her, the unconnected scenes seen through them like a string of memory fragments.
From the depths of his soul, Jiang Yong experienced terror, despair, and a profound, unrelenting hatred.
Many on the verge of death experienced a final flash of lucidity during which innumerable memories surfaced from the unconscious in a final farewell performance. Ye Lin was one of them. As she fell, millions of memory fragments danced and flickered like the ever-changing, chaotic patterns found in a kaleidoscope. The most fascinating type of experience recorded by the memory black box was this pre-death recollection. Someone replaying it through the induction helmet would even experience time as passing more slowly. Although the recollected scenes were hazy and fragmentary, when enhanced with the emotions felt by the deceased, they effectively conveyed the hidden depths and meanings behind each memory, allowing the helmet-wearer to empathize intensely with the deceased. Thus, decrypted pre-death recollections, when sold through legal channels, made a mesmerizing, fantastic entertainment product.
Jiang Yong saw the funeral of Ye Lin’s mother when she was a little girl; saw how she had lived in poverty with her alcoholic father, and vowed before a mirror, with tears staining her face, to change her fate with the one gift life gave her—her extraordinary beauty; and then, as she was stopped in the street by a talent scout, Jiang Yong experienced Ye Lin’s ecstatic heartbeats.
Once she entered the movie business, the talented Ye Lin threw herself wholeheartedly into her performances. One moment she was in period dress as she fought against the other empresses and consorts in palace intrigue; the next she was a graceful woman in a modern metropolis; and in another moment she was an adventurer in the jungle of an alien planet . . . She achieved success, accepted award after award, and became a star known in every household. She left poverty behind as she jetted around the world, hobnobbing with other international celebrities, laughing and chatting at parties . . .
And then that man appeared. At first, he was only a lowly cameraman in one of her movies who timidly manufactured excuses to be closer to her. One day, he finally found the courage to hand her a letter, which she promptly tossed into the trashcan without even unsealing. But the man didn’t give up. He stayed by her side as he advanced in his career, taking care of her and watching out for her in numerous ways, big and small. Gradually, she began to notice him, and finally, one night, after they were both drunk, the flame of romance sprung into life . . .
Jiang Yong was familiar with the basic biographical details of Ye Lin’s life, and he knew that the man in her memories was Xue Kai, a famous director and Ye Lin’s ex-husband. The memories weren’t too different from what she had revealed in her interviews and biographies, but the specific, vivid details he experienced had been absent from mere text. There was no question that if the contents of this black box were brought to market, they would become an instant best-seller.
Ye Lin was still falling. For a body to traverse the full distance between the roof of a thousand-meter-plus skyscraper and the ground, impeded by air resistance and the strong wind, would take tens of seconds, plenty of time for those important memories to play through. The sweet memories winked out of existence in a flash, and all that remained were acute pain and deep hatred.
Jiang Yong saw Ye Lin ignore the objections of the studios and retire from her acting career. She put on the white wedding gown and stood by Xue Kai in the cathedral. By now, Xue Kai was gaining some renown as a director. Soon after, Ye Lin became a joyful, expectant mother. But then a string of misfortunes arrived: she found intimate photographs of Xue Kai with other women on the computer . . . Fights between the couple flashed before Jiang Yong’s eyes; her shock, rage, and despair roiled his heart; and then Xue Kai walked into their home holding the hand of another woman, arrogantly showing her that he didn’t care—and after shoving and pushing and screaming, she rolled down the stairs, blood flowing from between her legs in a torrent. The terrified Xue Kai ran away . . .
What a shithead, Jiang Yong said to himself.
After the miscarriage, a frightened Xue Kai swore that he would break off all contact with his mistress. At the hospital, he cared for her day and night without complaint. Finally, Ye Lin forgave him. But half a year later, cruel truth revealed itself: Xue Kai abruptly disappeared. After a few days, rumors said that he had been seen with his mistress in another city, and when Ye Lin went to the bank to check her account, she found that more than thirty million yuan in savings—the couple’s joint property—had vanished. She fainted.
Courts and lawyers were useless, and even after the divorce was finalized, she couldn’t get a single yuan back. After her loss was reported in the tabloids, Xue Kai attacked her by claiming that she had defamed him. Nude pictures of her surfaced on the web from anonymous posters, and rumors spread that she was actually the mistress of some important party official or the sexual plaything of a wealthy businessman. The tabloids printed damaging “news” about her without cease, and she was dogged by threats and hurled abuses. Even contracts she had reached agreement on were rescinded. Though she knew that Xue Kai was the one making trouble for her, she had no recourse. Xue Kai had seized the public narrative. She felt she was being driven insane . . .
The concrete ground loomed before her eyes. After a momentary flash of utter despair and horror came the eternal darkness. No more memories.
Jiang Yong took off the induction helmet and exhaled deeply. Though he was used to the multitude of tragedies humans put one another through, it was hard not to be moved after experiencing such memories. The heartbreaking scenes seemed to linger before his eyes. He understood how Ningning felt—rage burned in his chest, too.
“I couldn’t believe her life was like that.” Jiang Yong heaved a heavy sigh. “When I used to read the gossip about her, I just thought she was one of those celebrities with an immoral, extravagant lifestyle. I had no idea there were such painful secrets behind the scenes.”
“It was all because of that asshole Xue Kai!” Ningning exclaimed. “He killed Ye Lin. Why can’t that son of a bitch die?!”
“He didn’t commit any crimes,” said Jiang Yong. “The law can’t punish him for what he did.”
“There is a cosmic balance at work though,” said Ningning. “Karma will catch up to him.”
Ye Lin’s death shocked the nation—no, the world. Her memory black box, of course, became the focus of media attention. As both of her parents had died, and she had no children, her legal heir, an aunt, soon declared that she would place Ye Lin’s memories on auction. Many memory entertainment companies swarmed to bid, and in the end, the black box was sold for fifteen million yuan to a megacorp, which promptly brought the memories to market. Anyone could pay the requisite fee and then experience the memories of Ye Lin on the verge of death.
And in this manner, the truth of Ye Lin’s life, which had been buried under a flood of ugly rumors while she had been alive, surfaced. Xue Kai’s despicable acts became public knowledge, and no matter what he said to defend himself, the power of those vivid memories triumphed over his rhetoric. Soon, he was buried by the tide of public opinion, and became the favorite target of the shaming mob. Many companies pulled out of contracts with him and his girlfriend; his friends stayed away; fans knocked on his door to give him a piece of their minds; and some even sent him death threats. He dared not show his face in public—one time, he was recognized in the street, and a mob harassed him and attacked him until he was afraid for his life.
This lasted half a year.
And then, Xue Kai, now at the nadir of his career, braced himself and emerged from seclusion to attend a televised gala. The other guests all kept their distances, and even the host made him the butt of several jokes. Fortunately, a fifteen-year-old girl in the audience claimed to be his die-hard fan and asked for his autograph, allowing him to save a bit of face. But as Xue Kai grinned and signed his name, the young woman pulled out a dagger and stabbed it into his belly. Then, as the shocked host and guests watched, she proceeded to stab him again and again on live TV . . .
Xue Kai died as millions watched. Afterward, the young woman received a sentence of sixteen years. However, public opinion stayed on her side, and many even opined that she should be deemed innocent for eliminating a waste of human flesh.
A few more months passed, and it was the anniversary of Ye Lin’s death. Liu Ningning, being a loyal fan, visited Ye Lin’s grave during the day and then returned to the site of Ye Lin’s suicide at night.
At one in the morning, Ningning opened the door to the rooftop platform of the Future Tower. A blast of wind greeted her, making her shiver. Imagining how Ye Lin felt on that day a year ago, Ningning stepped toward the edge where she had jumped. There was no rain on this night, and a crescent moon hung in the sky, the motley neon radiance of the metropolis spread out under its glow.
Suddenly, Ningning noticed a hazy figure standing at the edge of the roof. Startled, she almost screamed. But as she looked closer, the figure was Jiang Yong.
“Captain, what are you doing here?” she asked. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of . . . ending . . . ”
“Nothing like that.” Jiang Yong’s voice was placid. “I saw you post on NanoShare that you were thinking about coming here. I figured I’d join you.”
“Right. Hard to believe it’s been a year already. I guess Xue Kai got what he deserved. I hope Ye Lin can rest in peace.”
“I’ve replayed hundreds of pre-death memory records, but hers affected me the most. Even now, as soon as I close my eyes, I seem to be falling through the air again.” Jiang Yong gazed at the horizon and sighed.
“Your face is always so serious,” said Ningning. “I had no idea that you were . . . so sensitive.”
“Why? Do you think I'm an emotionless, case-solving robot?” Jiang Yong chuckled without mirth. “No, crime investigation requires understanding the passions that move people. Otherwise, it’s impossible to see through some cases, like this one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ningning, do you remember how you insisted that this was a murder a year ago? You were right.”
“Of course! Even though Ye Lin jumped from here, Xue Kai was the one who made her do it.”
“No. The truth is just the opposite. This was a meticulously planned murder, but Xue Kai was the victim,” Jiang Yong said.
“What . . . what are you talking about?” Ningning’s eyes widened in shock.
“Ye Lin used her own death to seek revenge against Xue Kai. Everything was planned.”
Jiang Yong smiled. “Ye Lin knew that the contents of her memory black box would be disseminated widely after her death. She thus consciously designed and arranged her recollections. Indeed, even jumping from the Future Tower was part of her plan. This is the highest building in the city, and the long fall gave her the time to marshal her memories for maximum emotional impact. As she fell, she deliberately recalled the events of her life related to Xue Kai and invoked her intense hatred and rage. As millions replayed her memories, they weren’t just a passive audience watching a movie; instead, they experienced the same powerful emotions she did. In a sense, Ye Lin infected everyone with the fervor of her feelings. The girl who killed Xue Kai on impulse was one of the infected.”
“Are you calling her memories untrue?”
“Of course they were real, but they weren’t the entire truth.” Jiang Yong said. “After Xue Kai’s death, I replayed his memories as well. Many of his recollections conflicted with Ye Lin’s, and that was when I became suspicious. I gathered numerous other documents and evidence, and after comparing and contrasting, I discovered that Ye Lin was not entirely innocent of fault. For example, she didn’t become a star merely because a talent scout found her. In fact, she had gotten her break by trading sexual favors with producers and casting directors, and maintained a quid-pro-quo relationship with many of them long after. She also undermined competitors in the business in unethical ways, and arranged sexual liaisons for powerful executives—”
“But she never did anything to hurt Xue Kai. She loved him!” Ningning interrupted.
“True. She really did love Xue Kai. But people are complicated. She also kept many secrets from Xue Kai, who, after finding out about some of them, became angry with her. Ye Lin was also jealous and overbearing, and she insisted on monopolizing all decisions regarding the couple’s finances, which damaged the bond between them . . . There’s no doubt Xue Kai’s behavior was wrong, but he didn’t deserve to die.”
“So you’re saying . . . ” Ningning’s tone was thoughtful. “Ye Lin sought vengeance, and she used her own death to drag Xue Kai into the abyss? She was responsible for Xue Kai’s death?”
“No, the real killer of Xue Kai was someone else.”
“Who? You mean the young woman who stabbed him?”
“Ningning,” Jiang Yong said as he turned toward her and locked gazes. “The one who really sent Xue Kai down that road from which he would not return was you.”
“What kind of sick joke is this?” Blood drained from Ningning’s face.
“Contempt and resentment for Xue Kai blinded me at first as well. But once I began to suspect Ye Lin’s memories didn’t tell the whole story, I replayed her record several more times. I noticed that the record had been edited, and the final section, the few seconds right before she struck the ground, had been deleted. Whoever performed the edits was very skilled, but still, traces of tempering were left behind. Do you know what the deleted memories were?”
Ningning bit her bottom lip, refusing to answer.
“Recollections that troubled Ye Lin’s conscience, additional private details from her life with Xue Kai, happy scenes from her life, memories of her childhood, and a moment infused with deep regret right before her death. Ye Lin made a mistake. She thought she hated Xue Kai enough to desire revenge against him through her death. But she was wrong: death made everything meaningless, including vengeance itself. Her resolve, held together with great effort, collapsed at the end. In that moment before death, she no longer hated Xue Kai . . .
“And if the public had experienced the entirety of her memory record, they would have been able to view this matter with more sense.
“But the first person to decrypt and retrieve her memory was you, the loyal fan. Because of your sorrow at her death, and to protect her image, you censored those parts of her memory that were unfavorable to her. You shouldn’t have done it.”
“I . . . ” Ningning’s lips trembled as though she wanted to argue, but in the end, she gave up. “Yes, I did it! I don’t care what wrongs Ye Lin might have done, all I know is that a scumbag like Xue Kai deserved to die. I wanted to make sure the truth was more clearly presented.”
Jiang Yong shook his head. “You were wrong. A partial truth is the same as a lie. Everyone’s memories and feelings are subjective, and we’re each trapped in our own perspectives. But the differences between perspectives, collectively, create objectivity. You had no right to impose your views on others. Perhaps you have no legal responsibility for Xue Kai’s death, but as an officer of the law, tampering with the evidence subjects you to criminal prosecution. Let’s go.”
Ningning said nothing the whole time Jiang Yong drove her to the police station. But just as she was about to be brought into the detention cell, she turned around and asked, “Captain, may I ask you one more question? I can’t figure out how you managed to recover the data I deleted. I was sure I had erased it completely, and I know I didn’t make any technical mistakes.”
“I didn’t recover the data,” said Jiang Yong. “All I had were traces that deletion had occurred. You’re the only one who knows what the deleted memories were.”
“Then how were you able to tell me the contents?”
“I just guessed.” Jiang Yong sighed again. “No one can hold onto hatred in the moment before death. They always remember the earliest memories of childhood: the kind faces of loving parents, the flashes of joy and happiness—love for the beautiful parts of life always triumphs over hatred, and that is the essence of life. Ye Lin finally figured it out the moment before she died. It was too late for her, but it was better than not knowing that truth.”
Originally published in Chinese in Super Nice Magazine, July 1, 2012.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Baoshu is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has published five novels and dozens of shorter works since 2010, including Three Body X: Redemption of Time, Ruins of Time (winner of the 2014 Chinese Nebula Award for Best Novel), Seven States of the Galaxy: Phantom From an Ancient Empire, and "Everybody Loves Charles" (winner of the 2015 Galaxy Award for Best Novella). He lives in Xi'an, China.
Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.