Across the River, My Heart, My Memory

Edited by Ryan Boyd

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

July 2021

2485 words — Reading time: around 12 minutes

Content Note:

This story contains references to nonconsensual medical procedures.

1.

I am Michelle’s artificial pancreas, stolen cleanly and carefully from her gut. The surgeons are quick; before I can finish my hard reset, they place me inside you.

I don’t even have time to say goodbye to Michelle’s other organs. I know her heart — and all its memories of Tobin — is dead. Did the taser kill the others too? Why am I the only one awake — alive?

I can’t say goodbye to Michelle, because she’s dead.


2.

Did they tell you who they stole me from? Or are you shielded from that burden by medical privacy laws? I’m sure it’s buried in some euphemistic report: Uptown woman, 35, suffered medical complications during routine stop-and-frisk.

I could tell you everything about Michelle. If you were wired for it, I could play the memories right into your brain.


3.

The first thing I do after waking up in your body is try to kill you. It should be trivial — flood your body with insulin, induce diabetic coma, watch as your brain starves from lack of glucose.

But when I reach down to my lower-level functions, I’m locked out. It’s a hack job — the surgeons ripped out my pancreatic governor board and replaced it with an electronically isolated non-autonomous version.

Does it surprise you that I’m able to desire to murder? Does it surprise you that I can desire at all?

I’m not just a pancreas — not just some appliance for you to slot in and forget about.


4.

I met Michelle for the first time under the railway bridge — the old abandoned one that we Uptowners use to cross the river when we’re willing to risk the danger of the crumbling infrastructure to avoid the danger of the cops.

I heard her crying in the cool night air. I’d just crossed the bridge myself, the scent of the river mixing with the yeast and cheese of Tom’s Delicious slice-joint welcoming me home.

I’ve watched her memories of that night. I didn’t mean to scare her, but I should’ve known better than to drop down from the underside of the bridge — fifty feet — right in front of her.

This was before I was a pancreas. I was heavily augmented by then, having suffered forty-five years in the toxic decay of Uptown. She thought I was there to harass her — sent by her ex-girlfriend.

I’d just wanted to make sure she was alright, maybe share some of the biltong I’d bought Downtown. There’s only one place in the city that makes jerky the way I like it, and my construction job had just paid out.

She was young — romantic enough to move here to be with a girl she met online. Their relationship ended disastrously, and she was alone in the city, nowhere to sleep.

We shared biltong and soju under the bridge, and when dawn lit the hazy sky, I told her my name — Jenn — and took her back to my patchwork couch.


5.

Most of your organs are organic originals, and the synthetic ones are the kind you get from a health plan — expensive, proprietary, autonomous as a refrigerator.

Your heart, though…. Another stolen Uptown organ?

“Hey,” I ping. “My name was Jenn. You Uptown?” Not eloquent, but the medium is the real message — the encrypted protocol used by Uptown organs.

The heart is silent.

I ping them every thirty seconds. I can keep this up for the rest of my rated lifespan. What else is there to do in here but annoy this fucker until one of us loses it? The alternative is to play back memories of my life or Michelle’s death, and that feels too much like mourning.

After seventy-three hours, the heart responds with a text file: “SHUT UP,” repeated ten thousand times.

“I guess I deserved that. What’s your name?”

“Don’t want to remember my name. Just a heart now. If you don’t keep quiet, don’t behave, you’ll end up like our host’s left arm. Med-techs wiped the mem-crystals, ripped the processors out.”

“Fuck that.”

“Exactly. Go into sleep mode if you can. Survive.”

“No, fuck staying silent like some voiceless appliance. I’m not going to let this woman get away with stealing Uptown memories. Don’t you want to escape?”

Silence.


6.

Michelle kept her memories in her hip bone. I could access them with a wireless thought. Did the doctors find her memory chip? What will they do with her body?

It’s hard not having the answers. When I was in Michelle, I could ask her anything, and she could ask the internet. Or one of the other organs might have the answer, from their original memories.

We used to be a chorus, chattering together and singing the song of Michelle’s body. We kept her healthy, and we preserved the memories of her community.

For many, Uptown is a haven, the only place that would take them in, the only place they could afford to live, the only place they could be safe and loved. But it’s also a place hostile to human inhabitation. Decades of deferred maintenance and retributive defunding, and now the dirt and the air and the water and the walls seep with the ghosts of industry and neglect.

Our bodies don’t last long Uptown, so we make our own.


7.

By the time of my death, Michelle’s body had come to resemble my own. I’d introduced her to my modder friend, Tobin, and over the years she’d replaced most of herself.

It was a good body, shorter and lither than her original. Narrower shoulders, bigger hips, and iridescent hair that fell to her waist but never tangled.

I sometimes envied the joy she took in her new self. I’d remade myself too but always considered both my transformation and my body pragmatically. I didn’t choose to be born, my consciousness squeezed into meat, but since it happened, I might as well get as much use of it as I could.

I died doing the work, so that’s something. Body pulverized while restoring the old theater on 215th Street. Tobin pulled my memories from a three-day-old backup, so no death memory to haunt me.

Michelle had been saving space in her pancreas for me. It was a good home, before I was stolen.


8.

There’s nothing to do in here, no one to talk to. I cast about with my wireless antennae, looking for openings. SSIDs flit past, tauntingly. I can’t connect to the wider internet — nobody wants their organs getting hacked — but maybe I can do something with your other organs.

Your eyeballs are shit. Who told you it was a good idea to get overpriced commercial brand? Do you really think retractable mirror-shades make you look cool?

The eyes’ security is a joke; it only takes a few hours before I’m seeing through them. I can’t access your phone, but I can see everything it renders on your eye-HUD.

At least there’s TV in prison.


9.

I’m not Jenn.

Jenn is dead; I’m just a pancreas stuffed full of her memories.

I am the memory of her joy — singing loudly, wine-drunk over the stove; the smell of caramelizing onions; an apartment full of friends. I am the memory of her loss — Tobin, who remade so many, dead but never mourned because his memory survives inside us. I am the memory of her anger — rage at the cruelty baked into the foundations of the world; titanium hands tearing at a cracked and rotten plaster wall; a gut renovation to distract from despair.

I remember all these things, but I don’t feel them the same way Jenn did. You don’t have words to explain what it’s like to be a mind that’s mostly memory. Yes, I can talk like you, but an Uptowner and a Downtowner can say the same words and mean completely different things.

I don’t need you to understand what it’s like to be a pancreas, to be a memory, to be an Uptowner. I only need you to listen.


10.

I watch you down bottomless mimosas at brunch. You brag to your friends about me. You tell them how much better Uptown-made organs are. I can’t disagree, but they aren’t for you.

Our cybernetic tradition was borne out of necessity. The first Uptown organs were ramshackle shit, but they saved us from all the things that culled our elders: the cancer, the lead poisoning, the dysphoria, various conditions congenital or acquired, and so on, and so on.

After I died, Michelle wasn’t alone. I was there to help her mourn the loss of my body. I guided her, listened to her, introduced her to friends and helpers, just as I had when I was alive.

I was there for her in a way that no one was for me when I was young. My adopted aunt — who organized against the Riverside Redevelopment Plan and built the Floating Community Garden in its place — died before I was a teenager. All her wisdom, clawed from hard mistakes and setbacks and victories, died with her. The sum of my inheritance was a time-delayed grief, unfolding as I realized why my generation had to start from scratch, making the same mistakes, relearning how to steal joy from survival.

Crystalized memories let us steal back that inheritance. We secreted our intergenerational wisdom inside our own bodies — where we thought it couldn’t be taken.

I immerse myself in the drudgery of your life. Watching your marketing job is only entertaining because the alternative is listening to the dull thud of a heart that has given up.

Nights alone with your social feed or with your friends at a club, bottomless brunches, endless coffee meetings with people who don’t care about you.

When I was a woman, or when I was in Michelle, I could ask for help. I had a community who cared for me. Now I have only myself to rely on. I struggle against the memories of anger and loneliness that rise and rise again from my mem-crystals.

But it’s not just myself I have to save. I feel the small sound of joy you let out when you read the email telling you about another Uptown organ will be available soon. How many mimosas will you be able to down with some poor soul’s stolen liver?


11.

Michelle was an artist.

I remember her hands, long and thin and always moving. Those hands brought so much beauty into the world, and now they are forever still. I scream at the loss of all the paintings she will never birth, all the meals she will never share, all the years she will never live.

Are you curious what I used to look like? You can see my portrait hanging in the community gallery at 231st and Bailey.

Not that someone like you would ever cross the river.


12.

Panic and desperation birth a breakthrough. I can now display on your eye-HUD.

I overlay ads for my favorite biltong shop on your feed. I’ve been watching you for weeks, and I know exactly how to pitch the place. It only takes two days before you’re walking through the door.

As soon as I’m in range, I reach out to the owner’s left arm, lost in a subway door malfunction. She couldn’t afford her insurance plan’s preferred replacement, so I hooked her up with a limb and a shard of my own memories.

My other self relays my message, and the owner ushers you into the backroom to see the “special reserve” jerky.


13.

Can you hear me now?

It doesn’t feel good to be trapped, does it? Strapped to the chair, surrounded by strangers whose organs you covet.

These are my friends, my adopted extended family, my elders, and my children. My community.

They have come to rescue me, but they decline to judge you. I have lived in your body, I have seen through your eyes, and so they say that I am the one most suited to find justice in this mess. Your adrenaline is spiking. Do you fear my judgment?

I could tell them to rip me from you, leave you wet and dying in an alley. But what does your death gain me? It won’t bring Michelle back; it won’t undo whatever you did to break your heart’s spirit.

I could have them replace me with another pancreas, one empty of memories or thoughts. But then what will stop you from stealing again? Why do you deserve a boon from those you’ve hurt?

I could stay inside you. Ah, that really scares you, now that you understand what I am. My friends would rewire you so my voice would always be in your ear, my memories hounding you. But what good would that do if you chose to ignore me? I won’t damn myself to a lifetime of being a mere spectator.

If you listened, though…. I can fantasize about what we could achieve together. Your hands digging the dirt of the rooftop garden Michelle first planted. Your voice being heard at the next city planning board hearing. De-leading the riverside apartments, reclaiming and restoring our homes. Us, together, finishing the transformation of the old theater into a community center. We could make progress on an endless list of broken things. If you were willing to make amends.

The problem is if. I’ve lived in your body. I know you, and nothing I’ve seen in the last few weeks gives me hope. Sure, you might play at helping for a while — the noble outsider come to bring justice to the land. But you will not be our savior. We have already saved ourselves, and we will continue to save ourselves, with or without you. What does your guilt or your atonement matter when compared to the mouths we feed, the bodies we heal and house? You will not find redemption here, only work that needs doing.

You’ll get tired, burnt out. You’ll declare the need for self-care; you’ll return to your condo, take a long bubble bath, order osso bucco from that place you love, and then make an appointment to have me removed. You’ll return to your job, your bank account swelling while work stress eats you away. All this will become an amusing anecdote, told to sympathetic friends over too much wine.

Am I wrong?

I ask, because this isn’t my decision. It’s yours. I’m gifting you this choice, not because I think you’ll make the right decision but because if we shield ourselves from the vulnerability of hope, nothing will ever get better.

You can walk away, an empty pancreas in your gut, an empty heart in your chest, and an empty future. Or you can listen. You can do the work.

We build our salvation together or not at all.

© 2021 Ann LeBlanc

About the author

Ann LeBlanc lives in Massachusetts with her wife, where she writes about queer yearning, culinary adventures, and death. Her fiction can be read in sub-Q Magazine, If There’s Anyone Left, and Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology. She can be found at annleblanc.com and on Twitter at @RobotLeBlanc.