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
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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