By Aaron Safronoff
Copyright © 2017 Aaron Safronoff
All Rights Reserved.
Story by Aaron Safronoff
Edited by Someone Not Me
For information address:
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Chapter 01: Hold, Please.
I’m breathing through a tube, and I am dying. I have no way of knowing how long it’s been like this, or who may be responsible. All of the stories in this world are hints of what might have been, of that much, at least I am certain. That, and they play me music. That’s why the headphones all the time, because they represent home for me. Not the place where you keep your stuff, but that place in your mind where you always belong. I know that, each hollow, echoing breath is the same nasally sound that plays back through my ears when my headphones are on. So the breath lines up, tubes to my nose, wires to my ears, and I’m dreaming this reality as part of the experiment—only, something’s gone wrong. The stories hint at a uniquely unpleasant ending for whomever, friend or foe, was responsible for feeding the other end of these tubes and wires, and maintaining this menagerie; under no circumstances should I be able to compare nasally breathing sounds. The two different sets of stimuli, simulated and real, would cause too much interference with one another resulting a kind of insanity. The stimulation from the real world is redirected, monitored, and discarded. It’s never supposed to reach the subject.
But I wandered into one of the stories.
The stories manifest in any number of ways, not the least of which, emerging between my thoughts, seemingly seamlessly only to confuse what I know. Feels like a stop gap solution, doesn’t it? Hrm? Yes. Yes it does.
But I’m trying to focus here.
I’m trying to identify what I know.
I’m breathing through a tube. I am dying. These are things I know.
So much happens at the end of things. When you believe you’ve read the whole story, when you believe no more answers will be voiced, you fill in, automatically every gap. You build the world. The process is not at all linear. Amorphous, lightning quick, and unconscious, you believe you know a lot more about the story than what you actually read. It’s the very same process that makes you believe the car alarm went off in real life at the same time as the alarm clock in your dream. We read stories front to back, left to right, top to bottom, but that’s not how we end them, how we live with them, or how we carry them with us. Anyway, the damn point is that, the things I know are few, and unattached to any recognizable context. I’m breathing through a tube, experiencing a dream of death. I may already be dead. I may be entirely existing in that moment of departure.
It is impossible to know when I am in the timeline of my own being. This, I also know. Just try to nail down when things happen in your dreams. Stories like, maybe I’m an AI being turned on, or off, or ON AND OFF again, or living in the Matrix, or in an insane asylum all crowd out the others, but none of them is correct. I’m really breathing through a tube, and it really could just be fucking cancer. All I know is that someone induced this state, maybe to block pain, or to increase my life, or to preserve me for torture. Shit. I don’t know.
I know I’m dying. I can smell it in here.
Everywhere I go in this dreamland the stench of decay persists. Undeniable, no matter how faint. Unmistakable, no matter the confusion of scents and senses. I try to block it out, and admittedly, I’ve had some success just smelling nothing, but then I miss out on some of the only pleasures I’ve found in this faux-verse. The problem is one of logistics. My body fails in one universe, and the effects bleed into this one.
And so, I’m aware of the smell.
Could be my corpse. An artificial lung and heart shove breath and blood into the rot, like a lover attempting resuscitation having arrived far, far too late. It makes a soul sick just to watch it, to know those denials, and the inexhaustible power of the will; one, two, three, and breathe. Don’t ever stop. Don’t ever stop trying. To make a difference, to force the story back on track. The glassy eyes. So many glassy eyes. But that force of will, that ridiculous vibration coursing through every cell, holds no real power over reality. But I am not the body, or the lover. I’m the departed human spirit observing the end. Each of us, impotent. Each of us frozen in that frame. Only, the rest of time does not share the attachment of the three and it moves forward steadily. Zombies mechanically attempting to resurrect one another, ignoring the leaking bile, and ragged flesh. And the stench.
Even as I’m typing, sitting in this lovely cafe, with coffee beans, baked goods, and the synaesthetic cacophony of perfumes and colognes, I smell it.
“Hold this here,” the words sizzling through the barista’s teeth, “I said. HOLD IT!
Chapter 02: Cut the Cord
“He’s not going to make it. No way.”
The voice belonged to Morel, a young woman wearing a light blue smock which draped, loose over her slight figure. Dark splotches bloomed and swirled over the material, fresh, and oily. Morel wiped her hands against her smock again: haste, sweat, and blood, and then returned to compressions. Clammy moisture dewed the body on the table, almost like it was an anxious dream that kept him from waking.
Morel had reviewed his chart before beginning the resuscitation procedure — reanimation more like, but no one called it that — and she’d been optimistic, until right then, and the display from the century-old, coffin-sized capsule that held the man agreed his chances had bottomed-out with a low, steady line. The body, mid to late thirties judging by the crow’s feet only just beginning around his eyes, and the grey hairs whispering from the faded brown morass growing wild from his skull, lay motionless before her in a way that could only be described as dead. But he wasn’t dead.
A young man barged into the room, a mound of sealed packages cradled in his arms. “I brought everything I could find,” he said as several of the loose packets skittered free and fell to the floor. He made no move to gather up what he’d dropped, instead, he stood stone still, eyes shimmering and wide, and asked, “He’s not dead, is he?”
“Not yet,” Morel spoke rigidly. “Bring everything over here…” she trailed off, focused on compressions and the flickering vitals monitor. The armature that held the thin display was stiff but otherwise in good repair. Unfortunately, the monitor itself was not; it flashed brightly and then shaded to foreverdark, that distinct hue exclusive to displays that won’t anymore, usually accompanied by the smell of frying circuitry. Morel shoved the empty panel aside.
She turned sharply to the boy. “Lyri. Lyri!” she shouted. “I need you to start opening… wait wait. What the hell is that? Where’d you find those?” She pointed to a few opaque, coaster-sized packets that spun away as Lyri spilled the contents onto the table. A black square field figured prominently on the center of each of the packets.
“Down the hall,” he shrugged. “Same room where I found everything else. Why?” He worried that maybe he’d done something wrong, but couldn’t imagine what.
Morel recognized the packets: self-care euthanasia. Not having time to explain, she said, “Just don’t open those. We shouldn’t need them.” I hope we’ll never need them.
Lyri rushed to separate out the various chems and tools as Morel instructed, and in moments, they had a tray of workable syringes, gauze, needles, and surgical threads.
“Okay, I’m going to pull it,” Morel said, grasping a thick cable that extended from the wall to the body where it opened into several fine wires. The wires had been fished into his skin through catheters grouped around his ribs. Like most of the neglected world, this Overpopulation Facility contained few systems that functioned properly anymore. At least the man’s estim still worked, keeping his viscera alive and toned. She counted that a blessing. Of course, the release mechanism had failed probably decades previous, so as far as religion was concerned, she figured she came out even.
Morel wondered how much it would hurt to yank the wires — the sensory interceptors in the man’s brain probably still worked. Probably. Morel gripped and set the catheters with one hand, and white-knuckled the bundle with her other. She braced herself, took a deep breath, and then ripped the cable free.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The man’s eyelids flashed open revealing two rheumy, cloudy orbs that flicked in rapid blind movements from side to side, desperate for focus and finding none.
“Shit-shit-shit,” Morel tore the catheters out, and grabbed a handful of sterile pads to staunch the bleeding.
Words babbled loose from Lyri’s shocked face, “What happened? He’s awake? How did he—”
Lyri stared, continuing to mutter unintelligibly.
“Here! Here! Hold this right here,” she grabbed Lyri’s wrist and pressed his hand on the pads, already blood-tacky.
Morel plunged both of her hands into the pile of unopened packets, “Come on, come on. Gotta be in here…”
“He’s moving… Mor? Mor! He’s moving!” Lyri’s hand lifted from the body as he faltered.
Morel grabbed fresh gauzes and pushed Lyri out of the way, the used pads dangling from his hands until, suddenly aware, he shook them free violently. The pads squelched softly to the floor. Morel pressed the new dressings stiffly over the wound, jerked Lyri close again, grabbed his face, and said, “Use both hands.”
Lyri stammered, “But, but he’s awake!”
The body, the man, groaned some kind of confirmation. Or so Lyri thought, anyway. And then the man’s fingers twitched, his eyes focused, and his torso wriggled, movements weak but growing stronger.
She clamped her teeth into a mockery of a smile, “I know.” She opened her eyes wide to swallow the boy’s anxiety, and met his jittering focus with unwavering calm, “Both. Hands.” She held him through a last shuddering breath, and then he stepped in and pressed down like he meant it, like someone’s life depended on it.
Morel returned to the table and found the sedative she’d been scrambling to find earlier where it sat innocent and obvious on top of the rest. Her deft hands snatched up the packet, adrenaline infused fingers splitting it open and plucked the contents from it like some trick of magic; a loaded syringe, a plastic cylinder the size of a pinky finger, appeared. She stripped the safety ring away with her teeth, placed the flat end with the hole in the middle against the man’s thigh, and then pinched the actuator at the opposite. Pop! She whisper-counted three, pulled the now needle-bearing syringe free, and tossed it away.
Morel massaged the leg and within seconds, tension washed from the body. The man. A man, anyway: Remy Sansarra. And although it was still too early to tell, Morel thought he might actually live.
Chapter 03: Line’s Dead
“Help me turn him over.” Morel and Lyri fumbled their way through the disconnect to make Remy Sansarra whole, independent of the machine.
Together, they heaved Sansarra onto his side, Morel pulling, Lyri rolling him away.
Spitting and dribbling, the evacuation tube anchored into the base of the slab, and until that moment, anchored into Sansarra’s base, became dislodged. The soft sputter of fluid and released pressure was troubling, but the odor punched Lyri square in the guts, the contents of which splashed onto the floor as he doubled over. Morel struggled to hold Sansarra, an awkward embrace, like hugging a corpse.
She winced at the comingling-nasty wafting her way. “Lyri! Lyri? You okay?” Morel repositioned, trying to gain some leverage but not wanting to drop Sansarra back onto the mess. “Breathe through your mouth. You’ll be okay.”
“Come on, Lyri. I need you. Wheel the gurney over here to my side. We’ll move him, and clean him up in another room.”
Lyri groaned again, spit, and stood up slowly, eyes watering. The gurney rattled as he moved it into position, stopped the wheels, and adjusted the height. The blood had run from his face, and Morel worried he would puke again, but he kept it down, one way or the other.
The man weighed close to eighty kilos despite the feeding machines running low, but together, they finished the transfer; nothing as elegant as the pop-dramas Lyri’ed been watching, but completed, nonetheless. Morel grabbed a wash towel from the dispenser on the wall, and began wiping Sansarra down. Lyri stared, fixated.
“It’s okay. You can wait outside,” Morel gestured with the towel. “Just realized I didn’t want to take all his shit with us.” She offered Lyri a wan smile. He nodded, and the sickly curl of his lips could have been a smile, and then he propped himself by the door while she finished. She scrubbed, the rough, chemically treated fibers scouring like a cat’s tongue, absorbing like a sponge. When the towel became swollen, full, Morel discarded it, and grabbed one more. A few more swipes, and they were out the door.
The hallway lit up as they went, a wave following them, and in a manner, leading them, until they arrived at the first intersection. Morel’s interface pinged with a few popular and proximate navigation choices, and she selected, Recovery. A playful line appeared on the walls in one direction, like a painter had gone just ahead of them with a fresh can of cerulean, a roller, and a bit of a skip to her step. They followed the wavy line, took another turn, and arrived at the entrance to Recovery a few doors down.
Through the automatic doors, they discovered a few beds, and several luxury chairs and couches. Morel frowned; the reception areas were considerably larger, and better equipped. They lined up the gurney with a bed, and foisted Sansarra onto it. Morel noted the joining water closet, and tipped her head toward it, “Splash some water in your face. I’ll get him situated.” Lyri nodded and wobbled away.
Sansarra grunted, and whined, and whunted, and grined; sounds Morel didn’t have names for, but tried her best to understand. “You’re okay. We had to move you,” she intimated. His eyes, dragged open by an apparent force of will, wagged around the room, drunk. Morel pawed at his face, prying his rubbery eyelids apart. “Your eyesight should improve,” she said. She bobbed in and out of his vision, and though he never seemed to focus through the milky films, he followed her without trouble. “See! Already tracking nicely.” Morel knew next to nothing about the effects of long term storage on the eyes. She’d read — well, skimmed anyway — several repositories of information on Overpopulation Facilities, but few articles existed about life after ice. Truth was, she’d never expected to find a live one.
Sansarra grunted again, this time, a clogged sound, like something slippery and wriggling had lodged in his throat. Morel decided his response was a positive one.
“That doesn’t sound good. Should I bring him some water or something?” Lyri raised his voice above the running faucet.
“No! Gotta give him some time to adjust. Don’t want him to drown!” she hollered back. Sansarra struggled, head rolling. “Sorry!” Morel lowered her voice to a whisper, “Sorry.”
“What?” The spigot was off, but Lyri continued to project his voice.
“Shhhhhhh!” Morel placed a hand on the man’s chest, a comfort, a connection, as she leaned toward Lyri, “I think his hearing is extra sensitive.” An affirmative moan rode out of Sansarra’s mouth on a dribble of spittle. She bent close to his ear, and whispered, “We’ll take care of you. You’re going to be okay.”
Sansarra’s hand flopped onto his chest, missing once, and twice, and then, trapping Morel’s hand, his heart pounding into her fingers, he said, “Put me back. Put me back.” Wet words forced through a pipe full of gravel.
Morel snatched her hand from him, and Sansarra, apparently exhausted for the effort, collapsed back onto the bed. She rubbed her hand where the impression of his remained, a ghost of his intensity in life, or so she thought anyway; not a comforting thought. She peered at him, dubious.
Padding up, Lyri startled her, “What did he say?” He peeked over her shoulder, his frizzy, dirty blonde hair puffed around his head like a nerf helmet.
“Nothing,” she shook her head, “Nothing. Gibberish.”
“Is he dead?” Lyri squeaked.
Morel grimaced, and turned abruptly, “No, Lyri, he’s not dead.” She rolled her eyes. “Now, come on. We gotta find some nutrient squares. Get him started on solid foods.” She rubbed the last twinge of Sansarra’s grip from her hand, “And, we should make sure we have more of those sedatives.”
“Are you sure he’s not dead? He smells de—oh! He’s leaking again!” His face scrunched as his nose tried to find a place to hide in it.
“Damn it.” Morel sighed as she watched brownish yellow fluid bleed into the sheets between Sansarra’s naked legs. Morel sighed, “We’ll have to clean him again.”
Lyri balked, “Yeah, but what do you want me to do?”
Morel squinted. Lyri tilted his head one way, and then the other, his eyebrows raised.
“Fine,” Morel huffed. “I’ll take care of this. Find him some NutS? Please?”
“Abso-fuckin-lutely!” Lyri scampered from the room.
Alone with Sansarra, no cowering-Lyri to remind her to be the brave one, fear encroached, and lurked the edges of Morel’s thoughts. She focused on her task. She rolled him one way, and then the other, method and forethought stopping her emotions from winding up. Her shuffling feet, and Sansarra’s labored but regular breathing, hushed the room, and helped her not to worry.
Sheets changed, body wiped, and ambient odor much improved, an unexpected pride welled inside her. She’d done it. Not the cleaning, though she gave herself a pat on the back for that as well, but for the impossible: she’d brought one back from long term storage. Brought one back to life! Remy Sansarra, a thirty-five year old water broker from California, emerging from history like a memory manifested, alive and well in the Ghosted Lands. Well, maybe not well? Not exactly. But alive anyway, and that was something.
Still, Morel couldn’t stifle the sense that the something in question was a horrible mistake. A hundred years ago, a water broker would have been a powerful person, financially, and therefore, politically; how would he cope, having nothing? But that wasn’t what troubled her, and she knew it.
She’d only been able to recover a portion of his profile from the busted terminal, but she requested his chart anyway. With a flick of her eyes, Sansarra’s medical details appeared, virtual projections a little less than arm’s length away. No implants. Not even a suggestion of physical or chemical enhancements. The purist-view, that is, no tolerance for mods, had returned to popularity near the time he’d iced out, so Morel wasn’t surprised to come up empty. But that grip? That grip told a different story. Could have been a glitch in his coffin, building mass instead of maintaining, but she shook that notion from her head; his weight hadn’t fluctuated more than a few ounces over the course. Who knew what experiments were run as the sleepers became corpses…
Annoyed with herself for the meandering speculation, Morel cut her thoughts short. The answers were out there somewhere, riding spinning platters in racks of connected drives, waiting, ready to be read, but inaccessible even if she found the right ones. Those old information engines pushed against rusted wheels, and those that didn’t burn out trying, still fell behind as the world moved on—
Sansarra snorted, sputtered and coughed, and after a heavy second or ten, began breathing again. Morel, too.
Morel’s hands played in the air, virtual interfaces appearing and fading away at her whim. Transmitted signals from her brain, and movements of her eyes and fingers, worked together to assemble a flow diagram of functions. She opened a data field, filled it with links to Remy Sansarra, added a plenoptic, and watched the profile populate automatically as her program stretched into the q-ether. Morel didn’t delude herself; she knew data from the old world hadn’t automatically propagated to q-ether storage, but why not try?
Morel heard Lyri’s footsteps in the hall, and collapsed her workspace.
Entering the recovery room with a couple of small, display-type boxes, Lyri asked, “Do you hear that?”
Lifting her head, wrinkling her brow as though that would help, Morel tried to pick out the sound. “What is it?”
A heavy thud boomed in the distance, the kind of deep bass a person feels with her chest more than hears with her ears. The kind of thud that conjures images of angry metal falling out of the sky.
Lyri juggled the boxes in his excitement, “That! Right there! Did you hear that?”
She nodded, processing, “You found plenty of food? And the sedatives?”
Annoyed, Lyri said, “Yeah. A few different flavors,” he dragged his hand over the open box, wrappers crinkling, “and as many of the sedatives as I could fit—did you hear that, or not!?”
“Yes. I did.” Morel frequently felt like the older sister she never wanted to be. “Sedate him. Let’s get to the roof.”
The Overpopulation Facility stood on the outskirts of the outskirts of the City. Far enough away that the stacked cubes, utilitarian in every sense, would not devalue the view from the towers of metal and glass that held the wealthy closer to the sun. The views were almost always filtered, regardless, but that did little to assuage the demands of the deathless. Being honest with herself though, Morel wouldn’t want an Overpopulation Facility for a view either; it looked an awful lot like a cemetery, only with less aesthetic appeal, and decidedly more grey.
Morel and Lyri emerged from a stairwell into one of the open spaces between cubes. Above them, the bottom of the next cube exposed its manifold heatsink to the open air, its polished sheen turning golden in the setting sun’s light.
They looked north together without saying a word. The misty skyline lit up: navy blue softened by rolls of white, pierced by spots of blinking red and swinging yellow. The fog spilled inland from the ocean, pooled atop the tallest buildings, and when the wind hit right, curled up from the ledges like spectral fingers grasping for life, but capturing nothing, dissolved. Morel decided that she and Lyri might be standing in a cemetery, but the City was the true graveyard.
A gigantic flash popped among the skyscrapers. Lyri’s chin dropped farther with each passing second waiting for the thunder to come. When it finally hit, he asked, “What are they doing?”
“Losing their minds,” Morel said. Immortality had been a mistake for so many reasons. She shook her head, incredulous, and watched the show.
The bombardment went on for another fifteen minutes, some variation in the effects, but basically another five similar payloads hit, and then nothing. Morel’s teeth chattered from the cold. “We should get back inside,” she said, “Get some sleep. We’ve got a big day coming.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked, apprehensive.
Morel grinned, “We have a new born to raise.” She opened the door to the stairwell, and gestured Lyri inside.
They made up the other beds in the room with Sansarra, and got comfortable. Lyri continued his megathon of 90’s television, a repository he’d stumbled onto not long before, which had taken root. Morel preferred the soothing sounds of the ocean from beneath the waves, and chose that for her virtual, sleeping sky. A moment before passing out, an alert flashed. She opened the summary: Multiple Incongruities. Disappointed, she shut off the alert. Whatever was wrong with her program could wait until morning.