Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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Might Have Beens

by David Cleden

On the occasion of his billionth word uttered, Mylo Klept threw a party. Those days, that kind of thing was expected, and he could certainly afford an expansive gesture or two.

Not that birthdays weren't still a reason to celebrate. The big five-oh loomed on the horizon of course, but really when it came down to it, what was one celebrating other than the continuing function of a few body parts? Where was the accomplishment in merely continuing to draw breath or pump blood through one's veins?

But a billion words spoken... Wasn't that something? All right, many of those words were mundane and perfunctory--he understood that. All those please-and-thank-yous, small-talk dross oiling the machinery of everyday human interaction, but surely somewhere in those billion words were profound utterances: words of tenderness, inspiration, ecstasy, profound insight, compassion, and understanding. Not forgetting sadness, despair and humiliation, too. The yin and yang of one human life, stored away. Mylo had merely to visualize a search command and his top-spec cranial implant would deliver answers. His entire, digitally-captured life was on tap, as detailed a record as he could ever possibly need.

Struggling to put a name to a face was a tired old cliché. He could name any face, even one glimpsed in the briefest of encounters. He could recall conversations from decades ago with perfect clarity, relive intimate meals with past lovers--or impale business associates on their hasty promises made in long-forgotten meetings. He'd built a business empire on his command of words. He, Mylo Klept, made the tough decisions, issued the orders for others to execute--and never forgot anything. Words defined who he was and all that he had achieved, and none would ever be lost.

Undoubtedly he had been fortunate: parents who had been devoted followers of the 'total capture' movement, first with G-glass, then embracing every new technological advancement as it emerged. Life blogging had been crude back at the start but not so crude that their infant son didn't wear a tiny strap-on recorder virtually from the instant he drew breath. Nothing was missed: the moment when gurgles became words, first day at school, first playground fight, first crush. Everything, and later, with a micro-recorder embedded beneath his collar-bone, the young Mylo mostly forgot about what made him different until he was old enough to be given control of the archive.

Mylo upgraded at frequent intervals: video (of course) though he quickly tired of clumsy spectacles and became an early adopter of corneal graft augmentation. With his business empire in the ascendant, he could easily afford the top-spec package: fully integrated sensory capture, nano-fibre connections direct to his cortex and enough integral storage for a dozen lifetimes. Yet for all that, somehow words were the thing that still mattered most, and he hadn't got where he was without knowing how to put them all to good use.

As the day of the party approached Mylo was determined to do things properly. With careful planning his billionth word would be spoken as he toasted the party guests. Once the date was set, he agonized for weeks, going through phases of monosyllabic near-silence to slow the word-count, then switching to something approaching a stream-of-consciousness monologue when he thought he might undershoot the target. His wife was exasperated.

"Does it really matter?" Kristin asked. "Why do you have to be so exact about everything? Just tell them it's a billion on the night and be done with it."

But that would be a lie. (Eighty nine thousand four hundred and two--and counting. Less than the population norm of seven point three per day, so something he could feel quite smug about). Kristin didn't understand. The whole point of life-recording was to know these things, to capture the data, to be accurate. It was all about collecting truth, not vague recollections of half-remembered facts, but he didn't want another argument. (One thousand two hundred and nine since their first date--a little higher than average, but they'd always known theirs was a relationship built on a precarious opposites-attract principle.

So Mylo said nothing but made his plans all the same.

* * *

The party was a triumph--right up to the point where Mylo noticed the stranger. He just couldn't place the face or conjure up a name, and that was plain wrong.

The stranger saw him staring and saluted him with a raised glass across the crowded room. There were so many people for Mylo to greet and politely listen to their congratulations. He progressed around the room, searching out the stranger when he could, a little seed of worry sprouting deep inside. If he did not know the man, it could only be because he had chosen to forget, and that meant... what?

As the appointed hour approached, Mylo's worries focused elsewhere. Everything had to be done just right. He would only get one shot at it. First there would be a toast and a little prepared speech. He'd offer thanks to those who'd shared all the conversations over the years helping to make this achievement possible. A billion words! No doubt some wit would call out, "Pity poor Kristen who had to listen to so many of them!" and he would laugh before hitting back with a little quip of his own. A few moving references to a life encapsulated in words, preserved forever, and then the crowning moment, the billionth word. Something suitably wise and insightful.

Suddenly the stranger was at his elbow smiling, but only on the outside. "Do I know you?" Mylo asked. "I'm afraid I..." he faltered.

"We were friends once, but you chose to forget, didn't you? Friends, business partners. Two people who saw the world through different lenses but shared a vision all the same. Until you betrayed me. Do you remember that, Mylo?"

Mylo protested otherwise, telling the man that he must be mistaken. Surely he would never have behaved like that? But the strange thing was, he thought he did remember. Not directly of course, because he must have arranged for those memories to be expunged, those words to be tagged as inaccessible (though never entirely lost), but he sensed a bank of memories just beyond the spotlight, waiting in the wings for their chance to walk center stage. It was like an expression on the tip of one's tongue; there and yet not capable of recall. He wondered if he was afraid to remember--afraid of things he had chosen to forget long ago.

"I should... We--" But now the words wouldn't come for Mylo. With a jolt he realized the billionth word had come and gone, distracted as he was by this unexpected conversation. His hopes for profundity were ruined. After all that planning, just a stupid, pointless exchange with this stranger. He replayed the data stream to himself, curious to know his billionth word.


The stranger reached out, placing a hand on his shoulder like an old friend. Mylo did not flinch. The hand moved upwards, briefly cupping the back of his head. Mylo felt something hard and numbingly cold touch his skin. The stranger took a step back, briefly showing what his hand contained: a stubby oblong of polished metal. Inside Mylo's brain, lights began to go out. Memories fading; words erased.

"A billion words is no more of an achievement than a billion breaths or a billion heartbeats, not if you don't make them count," the stranger told him. "How many of those billion did you make count, Mylo? Someone told me once that the saddest words you can ever say are 'it might have been.' Do you see that now, Mylo?"

Mylo blinked and felt himself sway. He could sense the change spreading through him, great big inkblots of nothingness spreading outwards through his mind, leaving behind just a blankness. Memories flared briefly and died, like some bacterial infection rampaging through his brain.

As he fell, the stranger caught him and whispered in his ear. "You spoke a billion words, Mylo, but did you ever think to listen?"


© 2015 David Cleden

Bio: Mr. Cleden works as a technical writer.  Previous writing credits include runner-up in an Omni short story competition (yes, it was a very long time ago), fiction published more recently in Aphelion, Betwixt and Jupiter magazines, and two business-related books published by Gower.  David lives in the UK with wife and family, and a ridiculously large number of cats (as per the rules of all author bios). His last Aphelion appearance was The Harlequin Girl in our February, 2015 issue.

E-mail: David Cleden

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