Science Fiction friendship posthuman cryogenics

Soft We Wake

By S.B. Divya
Apr 4, 2019 · 2,751 words · 11 minutes

Lost In Space

Photo by Niti K. via Unsplash.

From the author: Hikaru wakes up in a strange, unexpected future and has to choose whether to embrace or abandon it.


My mother's voice, soft and insistent, rouses me. "Wake up, Hikaru."

I open my eyes to someone who is not my mother. This thing calls herself a person, and she is human shaped, but my mind rejects the glittering skin and glassy eyes. She stands next to my bed, a simple cot framed by dark wood, set in one corner of my temporary room. A window lets in the morning light. If I stretch my arms wide, I can almost touch the walls.

"Your breakfast is ready." She steals a voice from my past in a misguided attempt to bring comfort. "Will you eat here or in the garden?"

The aroma of steaming rice, tamagoyaki, and broiled salmon rise from the tray that it carries. My mouth waters.

"The garden," I say and sit upright.

Metallic lips curve into a smile. "You're feeling adventurous today. That shows progress."

Artificial sunlight flickers through real trees that dapple shade upon the real grass. I sit alone at a wooden table. Four others remain, also sitting by themselves. Of our original seventy-five, three were unrevivable. A dozen moved out almost immediately, embracing the enhancements offered by these future humans. Others took longer. Some made the transition hand-in-hand with a loved one. Those pained me the most.

As I eat, I think of the birdsong that accompanied my childhood breakfasts in Kyoto. The silence here is discomfiting.

When I'm finished, my not-mother returns to remove the dishes. "Would you like to begin your departure treatments today?"

"No."

"Very well. A tour perhaps? Numbers twelve and sixty-two have expressed interest. You could join them."

"No."

"The counselor advises--"     

"I know. I don't care. Leave me be!"

My rudeness disturbs me. I can imagine my real mother chiding me for interrupting. My not-mother maintains her composure as always. She bows her unnatural ovoid head and departs on silent feet, politely leaving unspoken that my time here draws to a close. In this future-life, you can't remain old or sick or unproductive for long.

I move to a stone bench that encircles a pool of water. My fingers break the surface tension and create ripples. Fine wrinkles trace the back of my pale skin. I passed my prime before going into storage. Silver chased my black hair, and grooves decorated the corners of my eyes and mouth. Our caretakers have offered us youth. I could live a second life, but what good is that without kinship?

"Wake up, Hika-chan." My father's voice is gentle but firm.

My not-father has four arms and four legs. Our caretakers change weekly. I roll over and close my eyes, but my traitorous stomach rumbles and insists that I eat. It has always been my nemesis.

After breakfast I walk by myself through hallways tiled in earthen hues: tan, grey, ochre, brick. I find myself at the door to the cryo-chamber and push it open. The rows of capsules are all empty -- dusty, gunmetal coffins -- and I aim for mine: number fifty-three. The cover opens with an echoing click. I climb in and lie down. The ceiling above curves in spotless white perfection.

"Do you wish you were still asleep?"

I bolt upright. My cheeks burn.

A woman with a gaunt frame stands in the doorway. The number eight is woven into her shirt and partly covered by her gray-blond braid.

"We weren't asleep. We were frozen."

She shrugs. "No real difference. Why haven't you left?"

I look away. "I don't like the way they live now, so inhuman." I cannot stop the shudder that passes through me.

"They can take those feelings away."

"Yes. They can change us in many ways, but then what's left? Who would I be?"

She shrugs again. "My name is Anika."

"Hikaru. Nice to meet you," I say out of habit. "Sometimes I think it would be easier if they forced me out."

"They won't. 'Living must be a choice,' et cetera." She sighs. "I wish I were dead."

When I look at the door again, she's gone. Her Scandinavian features spark memories of my adolescence: lake-effect snow in our Rochester yard and Sunday beer runs across state lines; the pinch of a mosquito bite; the crisp-soft contradiction of fried cheese curds. When I arrived in the United States, these things were as foreign to me as I to them. But youth is elastic. It adapts in ways that an elderly mind cannot.

In the afternoons, I attend the mandatory counseling sessions. My therapist appears in human form -- a plump and disarmingly middle-aged female of indeterminate ethnicity -- but without any substance. Her figure is made of light, a projection inhabited and controlled by a remote entity whom I've never met. She has no name.

"I'm your doctor," she said at our first meeting. During a later session, she explained that some people don't use sound or letters for their names. It's no longer polite to rely on audio speech identifiers.

I sit on a sofa decorated in tasteful earth tones with splashes of color in the form of embroidered flowers.

"The best way to overcome your anxiety is to take small steps of exposure," the doctor says.

"I've watched the recordings."

"That's good. Next is to go outside the facility, experience the world from the safety of a vehicle. We can ease the discomfort if you give us permission."

I squeeze my hands around a throw cushion. "How can I when I hardly understand what you're planning to do? I hate making these kinds of decisions! I never had to...before. Kian was the certain one, not me, and he isn't here. Can't you decide what's best and do it? Or put me back in the freezer. I don't care."

The doctor's image crinkles its face until it exudes sympathy.

"Change can be difficult to accept, especially for people from an era like yours. Why not give our world a try, Hikaru? Take the modifications, become a productive citizen, integrate with modern society. If you don't like it, you can elect to go back into storage after six months. Isn't it better to take that initiative then go by default?"

No, dear Doctor, not for me. Far easier to freeze like the proverbial deer in headlights and let the inevitable take its course.

"Wake up, babe," says my lover, full of promise and temptation.

"No, not that voice!"

I glare at the hovering crystal orb. My stomach churns with anger and bile.

"I apologize," it says, switching to my grandmother's voice. "I missed the note in your file."

Kian was supposed to be number fifty-four, waking up by my side to a brighter future together. He convinced me to go first, after my heart attack. My technophile lover: convinced that in the future, humanity would be able to cure many medical problems. In that, he proved right.

"They'll probably print you a new heart!" he'd said. "I can't wait to see what else they can do."

His final kiss scraped my upper lip with stubble, assailed my nose with coffee-breath. His brown eyes crinkled with the same irrepressible enthusiasm that drew me to him.

You should be here! You promised I wouldn't have to do this alone.

They let me search their archives, but even ones and zeros are lost with enough time. If Kian left me a message -- a reason why a stranger climbed out of the capsule next to mine -- I couldn't find it. I wish he'd carved it in stone.
    

My not-grandmother escorts me to the garden, where I see Anika, alone. I approach her table.

"May I join you?"

She pulls back slightly, but she says, "Yes."

I raise miso soup to my lips and let the salty liquid burn my tongue and warm my belly. They will make us any food we want. I dined at a Michelin-starred restaurant with Kian for our twenty-fifth anniversary, but my cravings here are for childhood simplicity.

Anika slices sausage into delicate circles and lifts them to her mouth.

"Where did you live, before?" I ask.

"Here. I mean, what used to be here."

The cryogenic facility had been in Stockholm, far from the fog enshrouded bays of San Francisco where my lover and I grew old together. I don't know what they call this place today, and I don't want to. We should've been restored to life long ago, but we were neglected; not forgotten, but low priority. They said a humanitarian spent years of productivity credit to bring us back. The label seemed ironic.

"Your English is very good," I say to Anika.

"So is yours," she says.

I incline my head. "Point taken. I moved to the United States when I was eleven."

"Canada for me, for work. I was a professor of chemistry."

"The other day -- you didn't say why you're still here."

A shadow darkens her expression such that I regret asking. An apology is on the tip of my tongue, but she speaks first.

"My daughter put me in the chamber. I knew nothing about it. Dementia."

I work to keep the surprise from showing on my face. The counselor said they wouldn't heal my heart without my permission. They also refused to give me the medication I'd been taking before, at home.

"The pharmaceuticals of your time were barbaric," the doctor had explained. "A blunt instrument for a delicate problem. We have much better treatment options, but you will have to integrate yourself first."

No, thank you, doctor. I've never been fond of machines. I used them when I had to, to sell my artwork, and I want no part of me to become artificial.

But how had Anika's mind been restored?

My expression betrays me, or perhaps she's heard the question from others, because she answers it anyway.

"They fixed my brain enough for me to function again. There are parts of my life I can't remember. Lost forever."

"I'm sorry."

She shrugs. "Ironic, isn't it? Our caregivers are so concerned with choice and consent, and yet here I am because I had neither."

I don't know how to respond to the bitterness that permeates her words so I scoop a forkful of fried egg into my mouth.

"Two more people have left the facility," Anika says.

"Oh." I'm grateful for the change in subject, but I wonder if I'll be the last to go. I redirect the conversation a different way. "Whose voice did you get today?"  

"My favorite uncle -- my father's younger brother. He was only ten years older than me, and he understood me like no one else." Her eyes brim with unshed tears, and she pushes her chair away from the table. "I lost my mind before any of them died, but now...now they're all dust, and here I am."

"I miss them, too," I say.

My words come soft, and Anika is walking away. If she heard them, she gives no sign.

Our grace period at this transitory home dwindles to four days. Three of us remain, stubborn or fearful or -- I don't know what keeps Twenty-Six. He never speaks. I dine alone in the garden this morning.

The orb that is not my grandmother gathers my dishes and asks, "Would you like to begin your departure treatments today?"

"No, but...but I will take a tour."

The orb pulses with a warm orange glow. "I will make the arrangements."

A compact vehicle with three wheels and a comfortably cushioned seat takes me from the facility's courtyard. It speaks to me with an unknown voice, melodious and fluting. My heart stutters at the view as we emerge into the outside world.

Great towers of entwined glass and greenery soar in the distance. The road ahead is more like a wide clearing than the streets I remember. Plants line both sides and grow into structures that sprout from the ground.

"Are these buildings?" I ask.

"They are private dwellings," my vehicle replies. "The structures you see farther away are data clusters and production facilities."

A handful of non-human shapes move along the avenue. After seeing the variety of my caregivers, their eclectic forms don't startle me.

"Why aren't those...people...using vehicles like you?"

"I'm a special purpose volunteer. They can reconfigure if they need to travel faster."

I sense a note of amusement underlying the words.

My transport moves at a comfortable pace, slow enough that the lack of windows isn't bothersome.

"They're all networked together, right? That's why they aren't talking?"

"Correct, but networked communications are considered a form of speech."

Birdsong and the rustling of leaves relieve the silence. A blue sky forms a bowl above. Clouds drift across in elongated shapes. The familiar clashes with the strange, and I grip the seat against a sense of vertigo.

"It's rather beautiful," I whisper. I can't help it.

My artist's eye traces the organic shapes of the landscape and the people. Do they have paint in this time? Canvases? Paper?

A figure appears at an intersection. At first glance, it looks like a human being, and I almost call out a greeting. Then it turns. The eyes are solid silver. It blinks and nods a silent greeting at me, but I am too busy swallowing a gasp to respond.

When I regain my composure, I say, "Take me back, please."

I come out of sleep feeling disoriented. My room is dark. A hand shakes my shoulder, and I turn on the ceiling light. Anika sits on the floor next to my cot. Her gaunt frame shivers in the chill air and dried tears mark her cheeks.

"I can't sleep. I keep wondering if I'm being a coward. If I'm being ungrateful. What sacrifices did my family make to give me this chance? And I'm going to throw it all away, not that they're here to care about it."

I gather my thoughts. "I took the tour."

"I know."

"Here, lie down," I say and scoot against the wall to make room.

Her blue eyes widen.

"I don't mean it like that, but you're cold, and I don't mind the company. Please?"

Anika lies next to me, careful to avoid touch, but her body's warmth crosses the gap. I turn out the light. Honesty comes easier in the dark.

"Will you take the treatment tomorrow?" she asks.

"What I saw outside...I'm still scared, but it wasn't all bad. The world they've built is strange, beautiful in its own way." I find her hand with mine and grasp it gently. "Maybe -- if you want -- we can face it together?"

"Do you think they'll let us?"

"There were others who went outside with each other, remember?"

Anika's body relaxes into mine. "The choice to live -- I never thought I'd have to make it."

I sigh and yawn as my eyelids fall closed. "Me neither."

"Good morning" My friend's voice says.

Anika lies in the bed across the room. Sunlight filters through the ceiling of our home. It accents her smiling expression with pale greens. Her skin glitters with a metallic tone, but her eyes are still blue and human-looking, and her braid remains gray. In private, we speak with our natural vocal cords.

They placed us near the sea in an area that used to be Northwestern France. The air reminds me of San Francisco, salt-tinged and fog-laden.

We take our breakfast outside. The Château de Brest sits to our left, across the river, a concession to historical preservation.

"I'd like to paint that," I say.

"I suspected as much from the way you stare at it," Anika says. "I've been researching the chemistry. We can formulate oil and acrylic paints to match what you're used to."

"After work today?"

"It's a date."

Our friendship develops new details each day. I know so little about her compared to my old relationships.

I scan the list of day-labor that I qualify for. With my minimal capabilities, my options are few. I choose neighborhood maintenance. It's the modern equivalent of gardening. To my surprise, Anika's name appears next to mine. Since we began our second life, she's chosen to stay indoors for work.

"I think I'm ready," she says, anticipating my question.

We bury our dishes in the decomposer and wash up. At the door, Anika hesitates so I take her hand in mine. She nods. I take a deep breath. We step outside into our new world together.

 

This story originally appeared in Analog.


Data?1554401115
S.B. Divya

Divya writes speculative fiction that explores the intersection of "what if" with relationships.

1 Comment
  • waltergm@comcast.net
    April 13, 7:56pm

    A great speculative Short Story, Soft We Wake. It makes you wonder what the future would hold for the ones that are, at this point in time, deeming that being Cryogenically Frozen will hold the answers/cures for them at a future time. Who knows, but it is something to speculate on.

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