As he exited the stairs and sighted the entryway to Farnsworth’s lab, Fry thought he heard a faint echo of Leela’s boots downstairs.
His heart protesting, he finally reached the double doors of the lab. Inwardly he groaned. He had always been on bad terms with these doors. The doors, apparently thinking the same thing, tried to shut on him as he entered, but only succeeded in seizing his foot. Fry managed to pull his foot out of the sneaker before the doors sealed shut completely, slicing the sneaker apart. Spinning around, he saw Hermes arguing with Farnsworth next to a lab bench, the Professor surrounded by some sort of protective force field.
“I won’t say it again, Hermes! Leave me alone! I’m so close, so close, to figuring out what the ingredients of this Twinkie Bar are!”
“Professor!” Fry shouted. “They’re coming! How do I lock this door?”
“HuWhaa? Fry, is that you? Shouldn’t you be on a delivery?”
“He’s been gone for a year, Professor,” muttered Hermes. “He’s gone mad!”
“Mad, eh?” said Farnsworth, a hint of familial pride in his voice. “Maybe he isn’t such a moron after all.” He frowned, “although in one of my experiments you did keep pressing the button to get the cookie, even after the tenth shock.”
“Professor, the door! They’re coming!”
“Hwhaa? Who’s coming?”
Fry was out of breath, panting, could only say “Bad-“
“Bad?” Farnsworth said, then his fists clenched with feeble rage. “Wenstrom!”
By this time Hermes had walked up to Fry and grabbed him firmly by the arm.
“Common Fry. Don’ make me itemize all the violations to company policy you’ve made over the past few minutes. Professor, we need you downstairs. Where’s Bender?”
“Wenstrom!” spittled Farnsworth. “I knew he’d try to seize this lab one day!”
“Bender. In. Your. Office.” panted Fry.
Hermes hesitated. He looked at the exhausted delivery boy, and then at the Professor ensconced safely within his protective force field. No way Fry would be able to touch or move him. And Bender in his office--
The bureaucrat efficiently chose the lesser of two evils and left Fry, running through the door, which cheerfully let him through.
“Attention, everyone!” bellowed the old man. Fry looked around the empty lab, puzzled.
“Wenstrom alert! Code fuchsia!”
All doors slammed shut, and then were covered moments later by an additional layer of dolomite panels. The lab benches glided smoothly across the floor and settled in front of the doors. What seemed like little dust devils seized notebooks, scraps of paper, sketches, and anything else that revealed a hint of Farnsworth’s thoughts, and dropped them into a safe that rose up out of the floor. Test tubes and experimental apparatus sank into the tabletops, a sentient sponge inched its way across the blackboard, wiping it clean, and a vase with a sunflower in it plopped innocently down in the center of the room.
Fry looked around. The lab was bare, clean, and even a little homey, thanks to the sunflower. The safe was stowed back under the floor. Nothing interesting here, the room seemed to be saying. No sir. Pretty boring stuff going on here. Move along.
His instrument clenched in his hands, Fry advanced cautiously toward Farnsworth, sitting in his chair, sniffing the flower. He could see glints of the personal force field that surrounded his elderly descendant.
“Huhwa? Fry? How’d you get in here? And aren’t you supposed to be gone?”
“Professor, I didn’t leave, somebody took me.”
“Wenstrom? But why?” the Professor mused, then straightened up, worried. “Did he make you press any buttons to get a cookie?”
“Huh? No. I mean, I don’t know who took me. I think they may have blanked my memory.”
“Simple enough,” said Farnsworth. “Memory removal is an old and boring technology, common in this galaxy. I even remember the CryptoZoological association reporting that certain lifeforms could clear memories as a defensive mechanism. I once almost made a doomsday device based on that very idea, but a lab accident wiped the design out of my mind.”
“But something weirder is going on. Leela said that I—well, that I did something last night. But I was there and I don’t remember that happening. Something completely different happened.”
The Professor waved his hand in dismissal. “Oh, big whoop, as your
people used to say. You’re a human, she’s almost human. Humans are inefficient, unreliable, have terrible taste in music, and are completely useless at remembering things. In fact, human memory is so useless that it will completely forget things that did happen, and sometimes even remember things that never happened at all! Two witnesses to an event can remember completely different things and be absolutely sure they're one-hundred percent accurate. Even the witch-doctors you stupid-ages people called 'scientists' knew this. They called it the Rashomon effect.”
Fry heard a faint pounding on the door, and heard a voice that under normal circumstances he would have been thrilled to hear.
“Professor! Let us in! It’s Leela and Amy! Don’t listen to Fry!”
“And Zoidberg! Don’t forget Zoidberg!” warbled the good doctor through the door, cheerfully.
Fry turned back to Farnsworth.
“But Leela’s remembering things that I really know didn’t happen. And last night she was perfectly OK. It’s almost like something happened in between—“
And then he knew another epifanny was coming. His mind was ringing with pain. Once again, the fog was clearing. But instead of the sea, he was beginning to glimpse the outlines of something large. And deep. He felt as if he were standing on the edge of a huge pit, leaning over, straining to see the bottom.
The pounding grew louder, as if someone were using something large to ram the door.
“They did it.”
“Hmm?” the Professor said, fingering the flower.
“Professor, can they make fake memories in people, like they do in robots?”
“Impossible! Completely impossible! I mean robots, of course, we upgrade and alter their memories all the time. But implant memories in humans? Why building doomsday devices is infant’s play, compared to that!”
“Um, why? I mean, they put commercials in our dreams, don’t they?” Fry said, approaching another desk, thinking he could slide that against the doorway.
“Foolish stupid age cretin! In dreams, yes. Dropping hints into the subconscious is easy. But waking memories?”
“But you said memory wiping was easy---“
“Oh yes, building a spaceship is so much more easier than tearing one apart,” growled the old man. “Any gorilla can wipe a memory, but the victim-I mean subject- will remember a blank hole in their recollection. They may fill that hole, but it will still be there. But you’re talking about actually placing specific memories inside someone’s head, so they don’t notice their memory has been changed.”
The desk growled at Fry, who decided to back away. Farnsworth scratched his chin.
“Look at all the problems you’d have to solve. First, you’d have to read someone’s mind, and determine the memories that are already there. And not just the memories, but also all the connections to other memories. And establishing the emotional context would be even worse.”
“Huh?” Fry said, distracted by the desk, which seemed to be following him. A couple of chairs wheeled over, curious.
“All memories are colored by emotion. To implant a memory that feels authentic, you’d have to implant the emotional subtext to it, which means you’d have to derive the fundamental motivations, fears, and desires of the subject. Basically you’d have to know the subject better than it knows itself.”
The knocking had stopped on the door. Fry wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or even more worried.
“So even if you could read someone’s so-called mind completely, the precision required to implant a memory that won’t be rejected or recognized as false, making the right emotional connections—“
Farnsworth paused. Fry, surrounded by furniture, decided to try to stand on the table next to Farnsworth.
“The only remote chance I see for making a memory implant hold is to make the memory unpleasant. The mind tends not to dwell on painful things in our past, and when it does it tends to remember the emotions of the moment, not the details. So even if the details of the implant strike the subject as a little off-key, it wouldn’t linger on it.”
He stroked the flower, losing himself in thought, while Fry only watched, alert for any further sounds, and watching the one chair that seemed a little too eager to brush against him.
“I would also probably try to restrict the implant to a narrow range of time, since the number of emotional and visual associations with a memory grow exponentially with the length of the memory. Hmmm, how to make a short memory unpleasant? It would have to be based on some subconscious dread, some deep-rooted fear in the subject-“
Fry’s foot accidentally brushed against Farnsworth’s forcefield, and was rewarded with a small shock.
“Hence the importance of mapping the subject’s emotional makeup in the first place. So a short and painful memory is the easiest way.”
Fry looked up. Had he heard something?
“Basically, you would want to create a day that someone would want to forget.”
Something was clicking at the door.
“But even after all of that, you can’t get it perfect,” muttered the Professor, mulling over the challenge. “You’d have to implant and monitor the emotional response of the victim-I mean subject. And then adjust the details as necessary. But how to measure?”
Fry hopped off the desk, and tried to use the holophoner to shoo the rest of the furniture towards the door.
“Ah yes, of course—the delta brainwave. One could phase lock on the wave to navigate the memory, and monitor its modulation to check that the implanted memory is holding. Otherwise, you’d be lost in that mind without a map, just blundering around in the dark, only guessing at what to alter and unable to tell if you’re succeeding.”
A gap appeared in the dolomite doors, and some sort of tool appeared, forcing the opening wider.
Reeling from hunger, lack of sleep, but above all—fear—Fry tried to concentrate. Just as he thought he could see something moving at the bottom of the pit, the fog was moving in again. He leaned against a chair, which rubbed back against him.
“You think false memories can hold for just a day? Couldn’t someone change someone’s memories over a longer time?” He hesitated, not sure what he felt at that moment. “Like months?”
“Months!” Farnsworth snorted. He paused, then spoke more gently to his distant uncle. “Let me put it this way, my boy. If something were able to do that, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Anything that could mold memories for months at a time--well, it would effectively control that entity’s mind. Complete mind control-- the greatest weapon in the universe. For of what use is a doomsday device,” he said forlornly, “if whoever possesses it is being controlled by something else? Something with that much technical skill could take over everything, and anyone who even suspected or talked about it would simply have their memories adjusted.”
Head still pounding in pain, Fry had one last look at the pit and the scale of the forces he was up against. It was clearly hopeless. He needed to stop thinking about it. The fog came rolling in back again. Don’t think about what you’re up against. Just run.
But even as his familiar state of panic settled back in, he felt a small ember of hope. He hadn’t done what everyone remembered him doing. He had been true to himself, no matter what the rest of existence thought.
“Professor, I need to get out of here. Is there a secret entrance to Planet Express or something?”
“There’s always the front entrance,” Amy said.
Fry jerked around and saw Leela and Amy standing in the broken doorway, Leela casually tapping a hydraulic crowbar against her thigh. Zoidberg was peeking around the edge of the door, delighted to be part of the group.
“Hello, friends!” Zoidberg said.