Cold Comfort, by Mario Milosevic

SFReader 2009 Story Contest
First Place Winner


One

Ted thought the idea of freezing yourself against the possibility of being revived in some future date was, at best, a romp, at worst, a shameless waste of resources and perhaps the most arrogant action anyone could take. Indeed, the thought that some civilization yet to flourish might find themselves compelled to bring back people from his own time, evoked in him only a dismissive sneer.

So, when his wife Charlene put down the necessary funds and signed up for the procedure, he was, to say the least, more than a little dismayed.

“I want you to do it with me,” said Charlene.

“But it’s crazy!”

“Not so crazy. Look at this.” She handed him the brochures and the grainy photocopies of papers from obscure scientific journals attesting to the feasibility of thawing out frozen human tissue and of having the subject of such a procedure come back to life and live a normal existence.

“I have faith in the future,” said Charlene. “Don’t you?”

“I have faith in–something,” said Ted. “I don’t know if it is this.”

“Just read it.”

Ted studied the material and at the end of his reading he scratched his head and said to Charlene. “You’re sure about this?”

“More sure than I’ve ever been of anything.”

“Companies come and go. Civilizations rise and fall. There’s no guarantee that we will be brought back if the company suddenly goes bankrupt. There’s also no guarantee that if we can be resurrected, the people who bring us back will be nice to us. What if they want us as slaves? Or to experiment on us? Or put us in a zoo? Are you ready for that?”

Charlene rolled her eyes. “You’re such a pessimist. People are better than that. They wouldn’t do that to us. To animals, maybe, but not to other people.”

That sounded like wishful thinking, but Ted let it pass. “They don’t freeze your whole body. Just your head.”

“Of course. It’s more efficient that way. In the future they’ll be able to clone you a body and attach your head to it. It’s a lot cheaper to keep a head frozen for hundreds of years that it is to keep a whole body frozen.”

Ted raised his eyebrows. “Of course.”

She grabbed his arm and looked into his eyes. He liked the look of her face. He liked the idea that they could live forever and he could look at her face for all that time.

“Tell me you will do this with me,” she said.

“So let me get this perfectly straight,” said Ted. “The deal is, when we die, we have living wills instructing any attending officials or any family that we want this company to take our body. And then they do what they have to do to keep us on ice. That’s what you want?”

“Right. But it has to be quick. We can’t lie dead for hours or even minutes. That’s why we’ll have a transmitter stuck in our necks. When we die, it will automatically alert the company. They will dispatch a cryonics team immediately.”

Ted rubbed his neck. “Will that hurt?”

She pushed his shoulder. “I think a big strong guy like you could stand it.”

She was a knot of energy, standing in front of him, holding her hands clasped together. He never could say no to her, not about anything really important.

“This is really what you want?”

“Yes!”

He agreed partly because he knew she would jump into his arms and wrap herself around him, but mostly because he was sure the whole scheme was ridiculous and there was no way in the world she or he was ever going to be revived. He would stake his life on that.

Two

“Why do we still have those heads in storage?” said Mary Brubaker to her assistant one day. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to let them just–expire?”

Glenn’s head throbbed. He had had a long night and wasn’t ready for his boss’s incessant probing into the details of the business. Why couldn’t she be like other CEOs and leave the day to day micro management of the company to others?

“Well, we acquired them from CryonInc several years ago in the merger, remember?”

“As I recall it, the merger was actually a takeover and was supposed to bring us a healthy supply of frozen animals for the biotech division.”

Glenn nodded. “But these–heads–came with them. There were legal considerations. CryonInc had made a binding agreement to ensure that they would be taken care of. We took on that legal obligation when we got the company’s assets.”

Mary studied the list in front of her.

“They’re a drain on us.”

Glenn said nothing.

“Some of them have been frozen for, what, 100 years? Look at this couple. Charlene and Ted Soreck. They died together in a car wreck and they’ve been in storage ever since. What were they thinking? That we could not wait to bring them back? Here we are keeping them in liquid nitrogen, not a cheap undertaking, keeping them from harm, protecting them for–for–for–ever as far as I can tell, and they contribute nothing to the company.”

“They all have trust funds.”

“None of which survived the depression in 2080s, did they?”

Glenn said he did not think any of them had.

Disgusted, Mary closed the folder on her desk. “Did people really think it was even possible to bring them back after they died?”

“It was a short-lived fad,” said Glenn. “Once people could extend their lives through genetic manipulation, there was no need to go through this–” he nodded at the folder on Mary’s desk “–procedure.”

“Well, we’ve got about two thousand of them. What should we do with them?”

“As I said, we are legally obli-”

“No, I’m not buying that. Is there any hope of bringing them back, ever?”

“Our people say no.”

She slammed her hand down on her desk.

“Then that’s it. They are dead, aren’t they? The morally correct thing to do would be to bury them or cremate them or do whatever is in accordance with their religious affiliations. Get legal on it and take care of it. Find out how we can get them declared legally deceased. I want this problem to be someone else’s problem by the end of the year.”

“Fine,” said Glenn. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Next,” said Mary Brubaker.

Glenn sighed and consulted his list. “There’s the matter of the computing department. They are definitely overstaffed since the latest generation of self programming computers.”

Mary nodded. “How many can we let go?”

Three

“I never wanted this case,” said Justin. “You know that.”

His partner, dressed in the latest fashion that included an elaborate blue headdress and a billowy red gown smiled at him. “You always were a sucker for hard luck stories,” he said.

“But Steve,” said Justin, “this is crazy. Twenty years after Brubaker started her campaign to get rid of the frosties, ten years after I was assigned to defend the frosties, and it still isn’t over.”

“It is if you want it to be. The frosties are just pieces of dead flesh.”

Justin eyed Steve over the rim of a martini glass. “You sound like the opposing lawyers.”

“I sound like you, Justin. You said it yourself to me, in this very room, soon after you got the case.”

Justin smiled. “I was young and foolish then. I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“The order is quite clear. We are to release the frosties to the coroners. They’ll do autopsies, then release the bodies to whatever families remain. We lost, Justin. It happens. Remember, it’s not like you were ever going to get a fee from any of them.”

“I know, but something in me tells me this is wrong.”

Steve stood up. “It’s late. We’ve got warm paying clients we should be thinking about. Consider it a way for these poor folks to get their just rest. They deserve it. Now let it go.”

Justin watched as Steve sashayed out the door. He thought about getting a gown for himself. It might be fun to dress conservatively for a change. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk. His pink shoes and glowing pants filled the room with an eerie kind of light. There was still something that bugged him about the resolution of the case. He could accept that these people were dead. He could accept that they had made a foolish choice many years ago investing in silly technology rather than leaving their money to their children or grandchildren or even some worthy charity, but what he could not accept was the number of couples.

One especially seemed poignant to him. Charlene and Ted Soreck. They never had children. From their biographies they were completely and totally devoted to each other. Married forty years before they died. Committed to living their lives together for eternity, they took the necessary steps to try to insure it would happen. And now it was all come to this. All the frosties were to be allowed to slip away.

He sighed and blinked twice, connecting him to the mesh. He thought the words Coroners Office and was connected to a voice.

“Yeah. This is Dr. Mellie.”

“Dawn. Justin.”

“I heard about the appeal,” said Dawn. “I’m sorry. I know you worked a long time on this.”

“Thanks. I have a favor to ask.”

Cautiously: “Yes…”

“What would it take to keep back two of those frosties?”

“Just two?”

“Sentimental reasons. They had no family, you know. I want to take care of them myself.”

Justin had a freezer at home. It could easily accommodate two frosties. It would go quite a way toward easing his heart ache at having lost the other one thousand nine hundred and ninety eight.

Four

“You’d think a lawyer would have more smarts about his assets,” said Karen.

“Well, Dad always was his own man,” said Ivan. They stood in Justin’s living room surrounded by enormous piles of papers, books, trash, and dirt. Several cats watched them from perches and from around corners. They looked like they had not been fed in weeks.

“I had no idea he had come to this,” said Karen.

“The last few years were pretty bad. He was always such a neat person, but something happened. I don’t know what. He just didn’t seem to care anymore. About anything.”

“How does that happen?” said Karen. She waded through a few layers of old newspapers. “I mean, Jeedus Krist. Who keep paper anymore? Was it some nostalgic thing?”

Ivan shrugged. “Who knows. There are still paper geeks around. They say they like the feel of it.”

Karen shook her head and went into the pantry. “We should eat something before we really get into this. It’s going to take a while and we’ll need–” She stopped.

“Karen?” said Ivan. He looked up from a desk drawer he was hoping would have a copy of their father’s will, but proved to contain only some crossword puzzles.

No answer came from the pantry. “Karen?” Ivan closed the drawer and went to find his sister. She had the freezer door open and was looking inside.

“Why did he keep that old thing?” said Ivan. “The electricity bill for it had to be enormous. And there was no need for it. Especially since he obviously did no cooking of any–”

He stopped.

“What is this?”

Karen slowly reached in and scraped off a layer of frost from a tag attached to one of the frozen lumps that did not resemble a roast or a turkey or anything other than a human head.

“Ted Soreck,” whispered Ivan.

Karen scraped the frost off the tag on the other lump.

“Charlene Soreck.”

Karen let the lid fall. Ivan jumped involuntarily. They looked at each other.

“I remember the rumors,” said Karen. “When we were kids and Dad lost that case. People said he kept some of them. I never believed them. But, oh my god, Ivan. They were right. It’s true.”

Ivan opened the freezer lid and looked inside then dropped it again. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “Dad was a–a–what? What was he, Karen? Keeping those heads all these years. What was he?”

“There’s got to be something here about them.”

Ivan shook his head and moved his hand in an arc. “You mean in all this mess?”

“Dad never much liked putting things on the mesh. He had to have some kind of hard copy record for these heads.”

They spent the next few days looking through the papers. They found love letters between their father and their mother, which they took the time to read, and their father’s will, and a file folder with instructions on how to take care of the two heads in the freezer. Ted and Charlene Soreck.

“He felt really guilty about this,” said Ivan.

“Yes. He feels like he let them down.”

“Poor Dad.”

“I think,” said Karen, “that it might have made him a little crazy in the end. What do you think?”

Ivan pointedly did not address Karen’s question. “I think that we can’t keep those heads.”

“Well, what can we do with them?”

“We have to get rid of them.”

Karen shook her head. “We can’t do that. They’re human beings. We can’t just ‘get rid of them.'”

Ivan took several deep breaths. “If it ever came out that we did anything to those heads, we might be in big trouble.”

“Yeah,” said Karen.

Ivan pounded his fist on a wall.

“Take it easy,” said Karen.

“Why did he do this to us?”

“There must be something else we can do. Something that will protect us and let us do the right thing.”

Ivan considered the problem for a few minutes. “I know someone who can put their DNA on the mesh.”

Karen’s eyes went wide. “Dad hated the mesh. He said it was anti-human. He said it would be the death of human experience and everything that made us human. He said–”

“He said a lot things,” said Ivan. “And he had two frozen heads in his freezer.”

In the end they agreed to call Ivan’s friend, who took a sample of DNA from each of the heads and went about the business of transferring the information to the mesh, from where, it had been mathematically proven, it could never be deleted. While she was at it, just for fun, he also put their personality profiles onto the mesh. And their life experiences, which had been lodged in the nooks and crannies between the strands of DNA.

When she informed Ivan and Karen that it had been completed, they took the heads to a hill overlooking a valley and a mountain, and they buried the heads and did not leave a marker.

Karen sobbed, thinking of her father. Ivan hoped no one would ever find out what they had done.

Five

The destruction of the human race took no longer than about two weeks. In the end the aliens from the third galaxy past Andromeda grew weary of negotiating with the human race and announced that in exchange for the privilege of having themselves inherit the earth and its environs, people would be accorded a painless demise and an honored place in the history of the living universe.

The inhabitants of Earth were in no position to challenge this turn of events and people all over the globe put into practice the old question that many had asked half in jest: What would you do if you knew you only had a few days to live?

Many created time capsules. Many killed themselves rather than be killed by the aliens. Some wept the entire time. Others prayed. Most were in shock. A few declared loudly that it was all a hoax. Lots of people said it was just as well. Humans had their time. Let someone else have the planet for a while.

One woman, Aquarius Wright, decided to try to do something about it. She hacked into the mesh, and rerouted as much of its information as she could to a probe that had been launched in the direction of the center of the galaxy. The probe was equipped with a memory unit capable of storing a trillion trillion trillion trillion bits of data. Its makers believed that it could download much of the information content of the center of the galaxy. They feared that by the time this task had been accomplished, the radio receivers of Earth might not have the capability of retrieving the signals any longer. The time spans involved argued for the more permanent storage of the information retrieved from the center of the galaxy directly into the probe’s memory.

Aquarius Wright knew all this because she had designed the probe and its systems. She had believed in the wisdom of sending out a probe that would not return for many millions of years.

“It is my belief that the human race will survive,” she would tell anyone who would listen. “This is a time capsule, if you will, of the galaxy. To be opened by our descendants when it returns to our solar system far in the future.”

But time capsules are not popular items. They are of the future and no one really cares about the future. They care about the present, the time in which they live.

Aquarius got the funding for her probe. It was launched and well on its way to its ultimate destination when the aliens arrived and were disgusted by the life encrusting the otherwise clean and lovely planet Earth. They did not know of the probe and did not care.

When the aliens made their intentions clear, Aquarius realized there was only one hope for humans: she divided up the mesh into chunks and began transmitting the chunks to the probe. As she did so, she would occasionally look over what was being transmitted. She sent encyclopedias of information. All the known languages of the Earth, all the stories and tales and poems of the Earth, all the hopes of the peoples of the Earth, all the DNA of all the animals of the Earth. And some DNA of people, as well, though downloading people was illegal, and in any case, few wanted to do it. But there were some. The mesh had attracted its share of outlaws over the years. Here was a hacker’s DNA. She let it go. Here was a president’s. She hesitated, but let that go too.

And here was a couple. Ted and Charlene Soreck. Ancient people, dead before the mesh had even been thought of. Somehow they too had found their way into the mesh. She let them go. Let their essence fly across space to lodge, secure, but precarious, on a fragile bit of hardware attesting to the inventiveness of her race. It made her proud.

Aquarius was still hard at work tending to the downloading of the mesh into her far flung probe when the fireball descended on her and everyone else on the planet. Her hands and face melted into the keyboard of the computer she used to effect the download. Her last words never reached the air. They died in the heat of the seared atmosphere. Her last thoughts were of the cursed aliens, how she wished they would all die die die.

Six

The robot that collected the probe was a clumsy beast. It crumpled the ancient solar collectors, which, in any case, had ceased functioning millennia before, but that was no excuse. It was always best to bring back artifacts in as pristine a condition as possible.

Garunth slapped the robot severely for its negligence. The robot genuflected, cursed its own ancestors, then retreated to its lair, where it cavorted with its own kind until it was needed again.

Garunth ate his midday meal while staring at the probe. This one would take some time to study. He looked forward to it. He recalled another probe he had retrieved from the currents of space: how it had made him celebrated on thirty world. How it had brought him glory and recognition beyond all his imaginings.

That evening he set to work dismantling the treasure. It housed many instruments, elementary data gathering devices that he recognized as the work of a fledgling civilization trying to understand their meager place in the vast cosmos. Ha, he thought to himself. Biological beings had no place in the cosmos. Most were a ghastly mistake, inconsequential, irritating grit in the machinery of the unfolding realm of existence. His Supreme Being had conveyed this information to him when he was but an infant himself, and he had always remembered it. Biological beings existed to serve the true masters of the universe: the stars.

The probe gave up its secrets easily. It contained a tremendous amount of stored energy. At first Garunth thought it must have been the information that it had collected on its travels, but no. Closer inspection revealed that the information had been there for some time. And it had been locked into place so it could not have been over written.

Alas, much of the storage unit had been destroyed by cosmic rays and the clumsiness of his robot retriever. He made a note that he would have to slap it several more times. This made him simultaneously sad and filled with anticipatory glee.

There was nothing worse than having a malfunctioning robot. There was nothing better than having an excuse to inflict pain upon it.

He delved deeper into the remaining intact portions of the storage unit. He put the information into his own computer and ran it through all the known language translators. Nothing coherent arose from it. Evidently this was from a race unknown to him. He ran all possible translation routines, even the ones that corresponded to no known civilization. There were vastly more of these than the known ones, and the translations took a much longer time: almost two hours.

And there in the vast set of nonsense was one clear element of sense. Garunth zeroed in on it.

Most of it was corrupted, but he did find some points of interest. There were pictures of a lush world: blue and white. There were odd creatures, bipeds, with thin skin. There was elementary science. And in the midst of it all: two names. Ted Soreck and Charlene Soreck.

Garunth immediately relayed the information to his superiors and prepared to be once again inundated with praise and riches. He thanked Ted and Charlene Soreck for their survival.

And silently asked their forgiveness for his part in bringing them to their ultimate fate.

Seven

The roaring filled her ears.

Charlene awoke from a difficult sleep, hoping that it had all been a dream and she was not still stuck inside a star.

“Ted?”

No answer. There had never been an answer, and now she was beginning to accept that there never would be. Her pattern, the delicate interplay of energy that was now her, would not dissipate, even in this nuclear engine. And why was she here? This is what troubled her the most.

Oh, she had some indications. There was still some contact with the outside world, whatever that was now. Her keepers sent her some messages every now and then. Ripples in the fabric of her star is what they were. Ripples she understood, because that’s all she was now, a persistent ripple, like a standing wave, or like Jupiter’s great red spot that just stayed and stayed and stayed.

The messages told her that they needed her to stabilize the star. Keep it from going nova. Only the presence of an intelligence at the center of a nuclear furnace that is a star could possibly ensure that its natural tendency to eventually explode could be averted.

Charlene knew enough about stellar evolution to know that this could not be. That novas occur when the fuel of a star is exhausted, and the gas’s natural tendency to repel against all the other particles of the gas would overcome the gravity holding a star in place.

But her keepers knew a deeper secret, it seemed. That an intelligence in the star could keep the furnace burning much longer. And so here she was. Finding hydrogen atoms and converting them back into helium atoms. She had no choice but to do so. They had designed her that way and she could not go against her programming.

But mostly she thought about Ted.

About how he was probably stuck in a star somewhere too. About how he was keeping his star from exploding.

But she would not do it forever. She would find a way to overcome her programming. She would discover a way to break free and let the natural energy of the star spread itself across the cosmos. She would. She would thwart her tormentors, who had decided to keep her here. She would find a way.

She could only hope that Ted would find a way too.

Eight

The beings that came into existence in the latter ages of the universe lived in the quantum fluctuations between the creation and destruction of the infinitesimally small building blocks of the strings that made the elementary particles. They knew of the efforts to keep the stars burning for eternity, knew that it had been futile from the start, but knew also that many entities had given their existence to the task.

Some willingly, some under coercion.

Ted had only one question of them. After his star had blown up and scattered across the sky, he burrowed between the lowest spaces of the smallest entities and waited. He waited a long time, but had to be sure that those who had put him in the star would not do it again. Many millions of millennia later, he emerged from his hiding place and contacted the entities. The universe by this time was a cold place, all of it hidden. His original home world had ensured that he would survive to this time by placing his essence in an indestructible mesh. And now, evolution had worked its magic for the nth time, and there was life, even in this dead place.

Ted moved his will. He gathered what energy he could discern in his surroundings and identify as his own. There was an essence familiar to him, but also distant.

“Charlene?”

Two syllables. At the end of time and he had nothing but those echoes of unknowable ancient breaths.

It was cold here, barely above absolute zero. In only a few million thousand years, a blink in the uniform tapestry of existence, even this would be gone.

The entities knew this as well. They knew everything, but could do nothing.

Except this one thing.

They could direct energy.

And so they moved those syllables into the void. They let them bubble through the mesh that overlaid everything. Some things are stubborn and even in the throws of the heat death of the universe, some things endure.

There would be no history written of this reunion. No photos, no memories, nothing in the end, but an insistent need.

One answer.

“Ted? Is that you?”

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