Petri Dish Memories

User Error has his memory mapper on, a modified pasta colander with electrodes and wires leading out through the back and feeding their way to User’s backpack, where he’s rigged up a rudimentary computer to analyze data and read results in a monotone, computerized, Microsoft Sam voice. He’s taking a break from biking; he’s got his back against the tunnel wall, and he’s sitting with his kick-standed bike on his left and Sanford Brisket on his right.

“So how does that janglet on your head work again?”

“The memory mapper? It works by reading the electrical impulses coming from my brain and analyzing whether the memories it finds are real or not.”

“How can a memory be fake?”

“Thoughts are data, right? Code. And you can hack code. You can manipulate it to be anything you want.”

“So you think someone’s hacking into your brain? Sounds pretty ‘noid to me, man.”

“No, not hacking, I’m saying that some of my memories might’ve been tampered with, maybe even created when I was born. Petri-dished.”

“Peter what?”

“Look, I don’t want you to freak out, but there’s a possibility that you and I are far away from this place right now, maybe in cryo chambers up on the surface, and this is all a dream. That our entire life stories were manufactured by some bored scientist who’d rather let us sleep for decades while he tinkers with our brains than wake us up.”

“Well then why would we be stuck here, living in crappy wasteland tunnels underground? Wouldn’t we be in like paradise or something?”

“For all we know, this could be a stress test. Meant to study the general public’s chances of survival in hostile, possibly inevitable environments.”

“So we’re in the past, dreaming, being studied by mad scientists who know that the world is going to end and are prepping for it real sly-like?”

“Maybe. It’s all just a theory.”

“So which memories do you think are Peter-dished?”

“Petri. And I don’t know. Maybe my parents. You know how they died when I was really little, and I had nowhere to go because no one would take me in, and I had pretty much no choice but to raise myself, collecting scraps of food here and there and avoiding raiders and all that jazz?”

“That about sums up your origin story, yes.”

“Yeah, well maybe I wasn’t some feral child. Maybe my real parents, above-ground, somehow woke up from cryo sleep and tried to stop the scientist but weren’t able to. Maybe they initiated the procedure to wake me up, and I did, just a little, but then the scientist blasted them with a science-y thing and put me back under. Maybe he gave me this effed-up orphan origin to punish me and scrub even the thought of my parents out of existence.”

“That is oddly, compellingly specific, bro-down. How’d you work those deets out?”

“Memory. At least what I think was actually a real memory.”

“You know I’m gonna say go on.”

“Okay. So a few weeks ago, I had what I thought at the time was a dream. I woke up in this like sterile white lab, with sophisticated machinery and advanced computers, not like the dinged-up Windows 95 ish we’ve been left with.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And everything was foggy, but I could just make out some of the details. I couldn’t move, but I could watch. I couldn’t see myself, but I got the impression that I was younger. Like 11 or 12, not 20 like I am here. Anyway, I saw who I knew had to be my parents even though I’d never seen them before in my life. And then everything played out like I just told you. The attempted thwarting, the science-y blasting, all of it.”

“Not gonna lie, that’s pretty gnarly.”

“Yeah.”

“But it probably was just a dream. You said yourself that you thought–”

“I saw my breath.”

“Say what?”

“When I woke up, I was freezing cold. Like cryo chamber cold. And I saw my breath. I’ve never been that cold.”

“Me neither. The tunnels regulate temps pretty well.”

“Yeah. And just as soon as that happened, I was instantly warm again. Like the simulation messed up for a sec and the programmer had to fix it really quick.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, whoa.”

“So what’s your plan now?”

“I need to analyze my brain waves and separate the real memories from the manufactured ones. Then I’ll figure out a way to wake myself up.”

“That sounds like a plan. But User?”

“What?”

“What if I’m manufactured too? What if the scientist dude gave you a best friend ‘cause he felt kind of bad, and I only exist in your brain somewhere?”

User blinks.

“No. You’re real.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. You’re real. Somewhere, you’re real. Probably cryo-frozen in the same room as me. You have to be.”

“I hope so, User. I really hope so.”

“You’re real.”

The two of them sit in quiet, listening to the plunk-plunk of condensed droplets falling from the tunnel ceiling and landing on the floor below.

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