Paul polished the bright gray metal into a silver shine. Then he set the finished piece on his desk and sat back on his stool, admiring his work. It was a tiny soldier figurine, barely two inches high, with a neat cap, detailed face, crisp-looking uniform, and even a tiny ray revolver tucked into the belt. Paul breathed a sigh of contentment. He was the best Tokenmaster in this part of the country, he was sure. His father had taught him the trade well.
“You have to have an eye for quality,” Paul’s dad had once said, sitting his 10-year-old son before him and holding up various examples of his own work, “and each token needs to have quality, something special about it, something unique, just as every person, every customer you get, is unique. If you make a soldier token, for example, ask the customer for specifics in the soldier’s appearance; hair length, facial features, stature. And don’t charge extra for it. The customer may be coming to you for a single moment, for a simple token, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go the extra mile.
Paul smiled into the sheen of the new token. His face reflected back at him; it was a broad, brown face, tinged with lines and the grime of his workshop. His blue eyes had once had a twinkle in them, he remembered, but now there was a dullness. He knew it was because he had forgotten something very very important, very very long ago. But he also knew there was a reason he had chosen to forget it, and he didn’t bother to pursue the subject further.
He finished polishing the token and then reached under the counter, bringing out a wooded box lined with cheap green velvet. He set the token in it carefully and then tied a green ribbon around the box. Mrs. Avery would be coming for it later. Until she did, he had an awful lot of tidying up to do. The shop was a mess. The tokens on the shelves (ready-made ones for economic people, not special orders for people like Mrs. Avery) hadn’t been dusted in over a week, and it showed.
“Ralph!” Paul yelled through the door to the back room beyond. “Ralph come here!” From the back room came a ticking sound, followed by whirring, and then humming. A stiff, electronic voice replied:
“Yes-master.” Metallic footsteps crossed the ancient wooden floorboards, and soon Ralph appeared.
He had a smooth, brown metal head and gray steel appendages. His torso was the only digital thing about him; Paul had splurged to give him an update. It was long, barrel-shaped, plastic on the outside and with hundreds of chips and wires within. Ralph was a vintage automaton, an AUTO T-17, one of the first models made over fifty years ago. He had worked for Paul’s father first, and Paul had patched him together over the years to keep him running. His hardware was quality, just needing some tune-ups from time to time. Paul had considered installing a new voice chip, to give him a more realistic voice (some of the newer service droids, the DR-30s, sounded just like their human counterparts), but he always had decided against it somehow. He had grown fond of Ralph’s stiff voice. It reminded him of the good old days, when the token-making industry was just beginning. The automatons nowadays gave Paul a chilled feeling. They looked and spoke like real humans. If an auto police officer and a human one stood side by side, you’d have a difficult time deciding which was which. This was all well and good for the police force, Paul decided, but the thought of any random passerby on the street possibly being an automaton gave him the willies. And he knew it scared everyone else too.
Ralph had a duster attachment that extended from his right hand, and he was just beginning the work when the bell above the door rang and Mrs. Avery came in. She was an attractive woman, rather tall and slim, with strawberry blond hair done up in an elaborate bun and green eyes that shone beneath her long lashes. She wore a black wool dress and matching hat with black silk flowers. Her gloves, heels, handbag and belt, all black, were soft suede. Paul had met many beautiful women, but Mrs. Winifred Avery surpassed them all. Especially now, when her creamy, dewy face was tinged with the shadow of something mysteriously tragic. Paul knew she had a secret to tell, but it wasn’t his job to hear secrets, only to help people forget them.
Mrs. Avery nodded to Ralph, her ruby lips tightened in a thin smile. She approached the greasy brown counter and set her hands primly, shyly, onto it.
“I’m here to pick up the token I ordered,” she said, her voice thin and delicate, like the fragile stem of a wineglass.
“Yes, Mrs. Avery,” Paul nodded cheerfully, pushing the wooden box across the counter toward her. “A silver soldier, just as you requested. I will gladly show it to you before you leave, if you wish to be sure of the quality.”
“No!” she said quickly, her voice quivering. “No,” she said again, more softly. “I know you do good work, Paul. I trust you. How much do I owe you?”
“Fifty,” he said, typing numbers into the little black device he had fished out of his pocket.
“Come now, Paul,” Mrs. Avery pulled her black wallet out of her black suede purse. “I know your custom items are worth much more than that. What would you charge a stranger?”
“The fact is, Mrs. Avery, that you ain’t a stranger,” he nodded firmly, scratching his balding head. “The price is fifty.”
She paused, deciding whether to dispute it or not. Then she sighed and took her Identification Card out of her wallet. “Very well, then. Fifty it is.” She handed the card to Paul and he scanned it with his device. He handed the card back.
“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he smiled warmly. “You need a bag for it?” he reached under the counter for some of the cloth sacks he knew were somewhere under there.
“No, I uh…” Mrs. Avery held the box in her hands and stared at it. “I actually was wondering if… Well that is,” she bit her tongue. “Do you… charge extra, for a download?”
“Well… there aren’t many people that ask me to download,” Paul stammered, taken aback. “I mean, I can do it, but I hate knowin other people’s business. You do know how to use a token, don’t ya?”
“Yes of course, I just…” she paused and then burst into tears. Ralph, who was nearly finished dusting now, turned in alarm.
“Do-you-need-assistance-Madam?” asked his wooden voice.
“Ralph, you metal idiot,” Paul exclaimed, hurrying from behind the counter, “Mind your own business!”
“I-am-sorry-Master,” Ralph replied, turning back to the little dusty tokens on the shelves.
Paul put his hand awkwardly on Mrs. Avery’s shoulder. “Now now ma’am, it can’t be as bad as that. There’s always a silver lining in every rainbow… Er, cloud, I mean. It ain’t nunna my business what’s the matter, but I know it can’t be bad as that. Now, why don’t I call a cab for ya or call Mr. Avery to come get – ”
“Mr. Avery’s dead!” she cried out, holding her face in her hands. “We got the text this morning. He was killed in battle.”
“Battle?” said Paul hoarsely. That word reminded him of something, something dreadful and terrible, something that made him feel sick. He couldn’t remember what that something was, but he didn’t want to remember. “Is that what you’re trying to forget, Mrs. Avery? Is that why you need the token?”
“Yes,” she whimpered. “I need the token for me and for Cecil. He’s too young to lose his father.”
“I understand,” Paul nodded solemnly. “I’m more than willing to help you with the download, Ma’am. It’s no trouble. I can do it for you, and for Cecil. Just have him come in later. I can do it on the same token, too.”
“Thank you, Paul,” she tried to smile but it just brought on more tears. She gripped his hands instead. He nodded and guided her over to the stool behind the counter. “Have a seat,” he said encouragingly. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
He dashed to the back room, a dim and damp little area with shelves of tools, spare parts, electronic chips, and hunks of metal. Ralph’s desk sat in one corner, where he sat putting together electronic chips. There really wasn’t any better electrician than an automaton, Paul thought to himself. He grabbed a set of patches from the desk and hurried back to the store. From the outside the patches looked like tiny, round little pillows of beige velvet. On the inside, however, they contained a network of wires and chips. Paul had bought these at last year’s Tokenmaster’s Convention in Chicago. They were the latest in token technology, much more sophisticated than the old way of downloading with wires and syringes. These patches made downloading quick, easy, and painless, both physically and mentally. And that was the point, he decided.
“Here ya are, Ma’am,” He handed one to Mrs. Avery. She placed it on her left temple. Paul took the wooden box, untied the green ribbon, and took out the token. Mrs. Avery gasped.
“It’s beautiful, Paul,” she said. “And such a wonderful job on such short notice.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he replied, a little embarrassed. He knew he had done a good job, but he was always self-conscious when someone else said it out loud. He placed the other patch onto the bottom of the token. The little metal soldier was silver on the outside, but on the inside there was a network of wires and chips just like the ones in the patch. The technology was first-rate; unlike in times past, Paul could now download wirelessly.
“Now, Mrs. Avery,” Paul took her shoulders, “Think about Mr. Avery. Think about the battle. Think about what you want to forget.” Mrs. Avery closed her eyes as tears streamed down her face. She was sobbing quietly. Paul took the token and the patch on it and pushed the very center of the patch, where he could feel a little button. Mrs. Avery winced. “It’s alright ma’am. Just a few seconds more. You’ll be fine!” He took her shoulders again. “Now concentrate!” He could see the red light within each patch start to flicker. “You are doing wonderfully ma’am. Tell me about the text you got this morning. What did it say?”
Tears seeped from her closed eyes. “It said,” her chest heaved with sobs. “It said… ‘Mrs. Avery, w-we regret to in-inform you,” she moaned. “…in-inform you that your hus-husband Henry – ” she cried out, whether in pain or grief Paul couldn’t tell – “Henry A-Avery was killed in action… at 0700 on Sept-ember twelfth!” she cried out again, and doubled over, and then was very still. Paul saw the lights stop flickering, turning to a steady yellow.
“Mrs. Avery,” he said gently, patting her back, “The download is almost complete. I need you to think of a Keyword for the token. You need a way to access the memory if necessary. What’s a good Keyword for this memory?”
She didn’t answer, only moving her mouth in anguished expressions, no sound coming out.
“Mrs. Avery?” Paul asked again, more gently this time.
“Harry,” she whimpered. “The keyword is ‘Harry’.”
Paul nodded. “Very good.” The lights on the patches turned green. Mrs. Avery sat up.
“Is it done?” she asked. “Have I finished downloading?”
“Yes Ma’am, you have,” Paul smiled cheerfully, taking the patches off her temple and off of the token. “Now, tell me what you came here to forget.”
“I don’t know,” she said, and then began to laugh giddily. “I forget!” She touched her forehead. “Why… have I been crying?”
“Yes Ma’am,” answered Paul, gladdened by the success.
“How silly. Why on earth should I be crying? I do apologize, Paul. I know we’re on good terms and all, good acquaintances and all that, but I really shouldn’t be blubbing in your store,” she chirped, jumping down from the stool and reaching into her purse for some lipstick. “Did what I forget really make me cry that much?”
“Yes ma’am,” Paul smiled grimly, realizing that what she had forgotten had distressed him too. He made a mental note to download ‘Harry’ onto one of his own tokens later.
“Well, at any rate, the download worked. I don’t remember a thing. Is it this token?” She reached for the metal soldier.
“It is, Mrs. Avery. Let me box it for you,” Paul put it back in the green velvet. “Remember to put it in the Prison at home, otherwise you might remember again.”
“I thought downloads were failsafe,” Mrs. Avery pursed her lips.
“Usually they are, but every now and then people will remember a thought they’ve downloaded onto a token. It’s uncanny, really. The human brain is extraordinary.”
“That’s for sure,” Mrs. Avery shook her head. “Thank you Paul,” she took the box from him.
“You’re welcome, Ma’am. And should you need to upload the memory back from the token, remember that your keyword is ‘Harry’.”
“’Harry’,” Mrs. Avery replied. “That’s my husband’s name.” She furrowed her brow as Paul walked her to the door. “He’s fighting in the war, you know. Overseas.”
“Is he, now?” Paul’s voice broke.
“Yes. But he’s perfectly safe; he’ll be home for Thanksgiving Day. Cecil and I can’t wait!” She nodded goodbye and set off down the street.
“No ma’am,” Paul replied sadly, to himself. “I suppose you can’t.”