“What is…” the landlord pauses for dramatic effect and the pub catches its breath “…the capital of Tashkent?” There’s a furious rustling and whispering around the pub, a medley of “I know this” and “isn’t it?” The barman is polishing glasses and serving the lean-to regulars, all wannabe salty dogs well on the way to sothood. Ed screws his mind up and tries to remember, hard. There’s something wrong here, he thinks. Marie mumbles to herself and, then a moment later, leans close to him. “Doesn’t he mean Uzbekistan? Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan isn’t it?”
Ed’s momentarily amazed. “You’re right, I’ll…” But before Ed can pluck up the courage to stand up and remonstrate, the flustered landlord’s correcting himself and moving on to the next question.
“Who created the Blitzkrieg tactic?”
Ed sips from his pint and thinks really hard. He did history, he can remember this. Was it Hindenburg? Or was that the airship? Yet whispering in his ear again “It’s the Germans, isn’t it? I think it’s Guderian.”
“How do know that? You don’t know that. How do you know that?!”
“I just do. It’s Guderian.” She whispers, eyes downcast.
The barman was staring at them now.
The landlord’s asking another question, about the history of the local area, about Morfa and Nefyn and Porthdinllaen. He wants to know the name of the Iron Age fort. Ed’s been coming here since he was a child, he’s climbed up Garn Boduan three times (and accidentally been up both the two identical peaks next to it.) But Marie’s never been here, she doesn’t know. She can’t.
Ed and the barman are watching Marie now. She looks down and her lips move. Inside her head, the coils of material around her jawbone and ear have picked up question, queried some remote server, and received an immediate answer, relayed quietly to the vibrating coils that only she can hear. Marie’s lips form the answer and she looks up to Ed, all keen, the innocent cheat who’s getting away with it. Then she catches his expression, and then the barman’s and she quails in cold horror.
Ed pulls on his heavy jacket, forces his feet into his boots and stands up. The rowdy bar is silent with shame for him, though the quiz is continuing with quiet gossip. His eye catches the barman’s, he strolls over, and they shake hands apologetically.
“No more quiz for you, boyo?”
“Nah, Nige, we’d better be getting back to Morfa before the tide comes in.”
“Yes, you’d best. Night Ed.”
Ed walks out, hearing Marie scuffling up her possessions behind him.
They walk away from Ty Coch. Ed stomps on the stony beach and stops to look out. The sky’s clear, the moon is up and rich English boats vacillate on the slow black and white swell. Marie moves up behind him.
“I thought you could turn those things off?” He’s confrontational, unforgiving.
“You can’t ever really. All you can do is not talk to it. Even then, the speech recognition’s not great so it’ll occasionally give answers to other people’s questions.”
“That quiz is the highlight of my week, you know?”
He tries to talk to her more, but her lips have moved again and he knows his words have been drowned by internal music.
“Ask me then.” She’s back with him. The rhythm of the impacts on the wet grit beneath his feet brings out a cold journalist in Ed.
“What’s it like, having it put in?”
“It’s confusing. You have to be awake for them to test it, so they use lots of very local anaesthetic. Then they get the sound balance right, and it’s like having voices in your head.”
“What make did you have?”
“The best. A Dragon Cochlear; their voice recognition is second to none.”
“Because I’ve never known things. I never remember them. This lets me know, it lets me fit in.”
“How’s it powered?
“I think it takes power from the movement of your jaw, or from the wave motion of the liquid in your ears. It does something funny to your balance, but it’s worth it.”
They pause as they pass beneath the great beams of the pier-built houses.
“You do realise that people like you are wiping out everything that makes us human?”
Marie stops and teeters sideways for a moment.
Ed continues. “All the abilities and skills that make us who we are, are being gradually eroded. First, we had to work things out for ourselves, from first principles. Then they were communicated by oral tradition, so intelligence became secondary to memory. Then we wrote them down in books, and we had to be able to read and research to find them, so memory became more short term, and secondary to speed of reading, and then printing made writing superfluous, so all those scribes and clerks and illuminary monks were redundant. Then the internet meant all the information was in one place, at our fingertips, but we still had to remember it; now we don’t even need to do that. All we’ve got left is our cogitative function. Soon we’ll be getting things that think for us, that…“
“Stop that! Where’s the fairness without it? If I happen not to have that great memory, or that ana-analytical understanding, why shouldn’t I have things that help me with them, props to make the world fairer?” Marie is riled
Ed leans against a stranded rock. “Without your thought and your memory, where are you? What are you? Who are you? We’re all going to be identical drips reeling off identical conversations streamed from some godlike server.”
“Now that’s just silly. We still have choice and our own knowledge at this end, the way we grew up, who we are; all this first-hand knowledge that overrides everything anyone or anything else may tell us.”
They walk on, shingle turning to wet sand beneath their boots. The moon shines down on the bay, uncommunicative. The cold is cutting through their coats and Marie is starting to shiver. “Do you think we’ll be able to go back in there?” she asks.
He shrugs an arm out of his pocket, and puts it round her shoulders.
“Yeah, but they’ll never let us do the pub quiz again”