The first to wake from cryo feels it most.
These flashes in your head like things you’ve seen—a serotonin cascade, and the visual parts of your brain go off like a bomb. You think your eyes are open, until you open them; then blinking, rubbing the ice from your lashes, the little round window a hole punched in reality—black night and stars and emptiness. A vacuum so hard you’ll break yourself on it.
I wake to puking. It is always the same. And I’m puking like I’m dying, the inside of me coming out around choking screams I can’t hold back.
When I’m finished, I wipe my mouth and climb from my unit—crossing the room on shaking legs. The metal floor is so cold my feet stick, peeling off layers of skin in dark footprints behind me. I fold my arms across my bare breasts and tuck my feet under me as I sit. The air smells plastic, sterile. I sit naked at the table for a full minute, coming back to myself, giving off cold in smoking waves, still too dead to shiver, too dead to think. I stare through the window at all that nothing beyond the glass.
“Deep space is the face of God,” I tell the ship.
The ship does not disagree.
Click. A whirr of tiny servos. The heating elements ignite, and I smell the burn. It reminds me of my mother’s old toaster oven in Kenya, when I was a girl in a red sarong. But that was before my father died, before America. It is an irony that the things I want to forget, I cannot.
I close my eyes and say a prayer. Despite myself, I am relieved. The heaters can sometimes fall out of sync with the wake cycle. The ship was never designed to go this far, or for this long. We are a relic, explorer class, The Pilgrimage, and one day the heaters may not kick on at all. It has happened before, to other crews, on other missions. And that would be the ultimate irony: to wake from cryo only to freeze to death.
Another click and the ship comes alive. A deeper rattle of machinery, a long hiss—and one of the other thirteen coffins opens.
It is John’s unit. I try to feel something, some emotion, but that, too, is frozen.
The green light flashes, illuminating a face that could have once been handsome—or could be handsome still, to different eyes than mine. Eyes that haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The man’s body is reclined forty-five degrees to the horizontal.
We all call them coffins now. Beds are for sleeping, or fucking. These aren’t beds. Sarcophagi, I think, the word fluttering up from some deep place in my mind. I can’t remember the word’s meaning, but I feel confident it applies. There is so much I can’t remember anymore.
I lean close, and John is already breathing. His head moves, short blonde hair thawing in wet spikes on his broad forehead. Then come the dry heaves, mouth a rictus, snot like cold syrup making gunshot spatters on the floor as he falls to his knees—so much naked man, and for a moment the memory of us is so strong it feels like everything else that happened must have been a dream.
“Hello, John.” I say.
But John only stares, dim-eyed and stupid and mute.
“How did we get here?” I ask him, and the grief of it all suddenly overwhelms me. This can’t be happening. It can’t happen like this.
His face turns toward the sound of my voice. It is a reflex. I touch his head. He says nothing and smiles an idiot smile—his eyes now as empty of intelligence as the vacuum beyond the glass.
“I love you, John,” I say and wonder how long it has been true.
They call it the little dead. Not sleep, never that. Nobody’d call it that. At least nobody who’s done it. Because you breathe when you sleep; your heart beats; your endocrine system continues to secrete—you continue to age. In sleep, you dream.
But there are no dreams in cryo. There are no brainwaves. Nothing. Like deep space is nothing. It is a state clinically indistinguishable from death. And only waking makes it not so.
I think about that a lot, about what happens if you die in cryo. I wasn’t religious before I started the journey, but here, hung among the stars, religion has found me. I wonder if this, too, is a sign of brain damage.
It happened to Mendoza first. She unthawed like the rest of us; only she unthawed dead. And I lost sleep over that one for the next few weeks of the work cycle, wondering when exactly she’d passed. Because that skip had been a long one—longer than anything we’d ever wanted or tried before. As the mission doctor, it was my job to fill out the death certificate for the log—and it seemed unfair not to know, not to be able to document, at least, the correct fucking millennium a person dies in.
But we’re all dead in cryo, and only waking makes it not so. That’s what we say. And we’re all of us Lazari, each one, each time, until that time, suddenly, when we’re not. Like Mendoza. So I filled out the death certificate with the date the skip began.
“She’s been dead for a thousand years,” I told Luis as he cried.
He looked up at me. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“She died when her heart stopped, the first moment she was frozen.”
He looked down at her body. He touched her cheek. One wet-dark lock of hair clung the side of her face. “She’s gone through so much already.”
I thought of my red sarong, and of my father. “Mendoza’s been gone a long time.” I said. “You’re just finding out about it now.”
“Is that what you believe?” he asked.
“That’s what you have to tell yourself,” I said. “About everyone we left behind.”
Mendoza’s laugh was what got you. The way she did it at odd times, like she was a little crazy. At twenty-six, we were the same age. She was short as I was tall, and pretty as me, though John denied it, even after he slept with her.
Zipped into my bunk, she’d whispered, “Tell me something about you.”
“What?” I asked, not in the mood for her games.
“Some secret. Something you never told anyone.” A pause and she stretched, scissoring a leg through mine, parting me. “Well?”
I looked at her for a long while. “My secrets aren’t like yours,” I said.
I guide John to his feet. He’s too damn big to lift, so it’s lucky he can still walk. I guide him across the melting frost toward the bunk rooms. He is pliable, suggestible. In some vague way, I think he wants to please. Perhaps this is his deepest nature, now that everything else has been stripped away. I guide him down and zipper him in. It is a good nature, I decide.
“Goodnight,” I say.
He won’t sleep though, I know. None of us can sleep after cryo, not for days. He’ll lie blinking up at the darkness, awake and still and empty.
I take the ladder down to the research pod, feeling gravity shift slightly to one side as the coriolis forces load against the shortened spin arc. The lights come on automatically. In the center, there is no gravity at all. Around me the entire bulk of the Pilgrimage rotates at the speed of a clock’s second hand.
It is a careful process, unfreezing the cells. I scan the S.O.P.s again to make sure I get it right—but I have trouble concentrating. It is all so detailed. I have to translate the technical language into a procedure I can follow, writing in the margins: do this, then this, then this. I add little numbers on the side. I write more notes to myself on the dry board. In the corner I see a note from Tallier. It could be 500 years old.
The maximum bio-reduction potential of en vivo cells is proportional to their ability to withstand oxidative stress caused by ionizing radiation. (Subatomic shrapnel.) Tamoxifin suppresses deterministic effects, but only at concentrations toxic to cell life. Stay warm, Ola. Tallier.
I read the note four times. I do this to make me feel less alone. Next to the note I write my own addendum:
There is no warm here. Ola.
I return the dry marker to its Velcro strip. Then I begin work on the 1GF-1 cultures that will keep John and I going through the next skip.
I didn’t start out the sharpest on the mission. It only ended up that way.
Because the cryo hurts you. It affects your kidneys and your liver and your brain. It affects every organ and system in your body. And it affects everybody differently.
You’re never really the same person you were before the skip.
As the crew’s physician, I alone have access to the files. The average I.Q. for the crew was 159. In addition to our PhD’s, we are builders. We’re egg heads who do things. We’re useful. It is what defines us.
By our fourth wake-up, Braham’s speech had begun to slur. He could hold conversations, but he couldn’t learn. The vast reservoir of his education—once a veritable inland sea—was transformed into a choppy and dangerous straights, a place of odd currents and unpredictable undertows. After our fourth skip, he started saying “pacifically” when he meant “specifically.” He was still Braham though, and that was the worst part, because he was aware of what he’d lost.
I didn’t cry for Mendoza, but I cried for that. Silently, zipped into my bunk, I cried for that.
The brain damage is permanent. This place abrades your gifts until they are smooth and flat and nothing. And then it begins to carve you out.
By our fourth skip, when the damage had begun to show, I knew I was one of the lucky ones. I knew my decline would be described by a more gradual trajectory.
We thought we’d need two skips, maybe three. We thought we’d return to earth the same age as our children, or perhaps our children’s children—The Pilgrimage packed with valuable scientific data; but something went wrong, something I do not understand. There have been sixteen skips now, and we haven’t found our way home. I haven’t been able to make myself add up the years.
Zapato was the luckiest of us all. He never got the headaches. His genetic roulette wheel came up a winner. Back home, before we left, NASA had just begun studies on why some people handle cryo better than others. They’d studied diet and fitness and two-dozen other factors, but in the end it came down to genes. Simple genes. Simple luck.
I used to fantasize about having a child with him. I thought about what that would be like—a little brown-skinned, curly-headed genius; our DNA combined and heading for the stars—the first wave of the new Diaspora. We’d wash ashore on our own personal Pitcairn, burn the Bounty to the seafloor; and generations later they’d find our tribe, a tall, gifted people with great teeth. My Kenyan background, his Inca. Two mountain populations become one. And I think about that, too… where we came from, originally. Mountain populations have always done the best in the longitudinal studies of cryo tolerance
I think of Paul. And the puddle of him, and I think about all the things we don’t understand about what we’re doing out here.
I unzip John from his bunk.
“I’m going to clean you,” I tell him. He is thankfully silent.
I use a sponge and warm water and wash every inch of his body. When I am washing John, I try to think about other things. I try to imagine what earth is like now. I try to imagine the changing cultures, the different belief systems that might have arisen.
I want to go home. I want to feel sand in my toes again. I want to talk to strangers. I want to choose what to forget, instead of having my mind stripped away from me bit by bit. I want to be warm.
I take John’s hands and squeeze the sponge across his fingers, letting the water run down his wrists. I always finish with his hands. They are such big hands. Water drips to the floor where I know it will evaporate, joining the ambient humidity of the cabin created by our breath. The human body loses several liters of water a day through respiration. A few hours from now, when I have finished running the instrument diagnostics, the heaters will switch themselves off. That water will condense out and become frost. And then years from now—many years from now, one of the other crew members will step from his coffin and leave footprints across the cold floor.
I finish wiping John down, and then I use a towel to dry him. I put his shirt and pants back on.
He smiles at me. He makes some sound, but I put my hand to his lips to silence him. I can clean him and feed him. I can change his catheter. I can do many things for him, but one thing I cannot do is stand to hear him try to speak.
I take the tube down to the research pod and check on the cells. They are dividing well. They are our own muscle cells, genetically altered to produce a growth factor which helps counterbalance some of the wasting effects of deep space. The cells also produce the factor which allows us to survive the freeze.
1GF-1 can’t be swallowed as a pill because it’s destroyed by stomach acid. Even if injected directly into the bloodstream, it’s broken down quickly. The best solution—the only solution—is to inject genetically altered cells directly into the long muscles. The cells then pump out a slow and steady supply of the needed protein.
I float in zero g. A slow spin. My arm brushes a wall and my rotation changes. I drift out again. I close my eyes.
When I open them, I kick off another wall and sink my Velcro slippers into their slots at the lab bench. I gather my cultures into two syringes. I inject the contents of the first syringe into my left thigh. I inject the contents of the other into my right.
Days pass in the wake cycle, and I spend time at the window, watching the stars. Blue-shifted points of light.
I feed John every eight hours. He chews his food for a few moments after I spoon it into his mouth, and then he forgets, and the food drools out. I tilt his chin up, trying to get him to swallow. It works, I think. He’s taken in some calories. It might be important for the long freeze, or it might not.
When I have finished feeding him, I remove his clothing, piece by piece.
I lay him back on his bunk and I try to make love to him.
I do this because I hope he’d do it to me, if our circumstances were reversed. I do it because I hope he’d try to get some pleasure from my body on this long voyage if I were a vegetable. I hope he’d give me that use, at least, to save me from being useless.
So I lay him back and try to make love to him.
And although I use my mouth, I discover that what I could have done for him, were our circumstances reversed, is a thing he can’t do for me now.
I collapse on his big empty chest and hold his big empty head in my hands while I weep.
Hours later, I put John’s cultures into two syringes and kick off, heading for the bunks, and for the coffins.
John is unresponsive when I inject him. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t flinch. Not a good sign. He should have some reaction; he should feel something.
I guide him from his bunk, and together we cross the room to the coffins. Black and shiny, like a beetle’s carapace—I guide him inside and recline him to forty-five degrees. I kiss his forehead.
“Sleep well,” I say, although none of us think of it as sleep. None of us who have done it.
I hesitate before I close the lid. His blue eyes meet mine, and for an instant I feel that he understands, and that he is scared. But the feeling fades quickly, and I know that I imagined it. I close the lid.
Each coffin can be activated from both inside and out, for safety reasons. My hand hovers over the pad for a moment. Then I place my palm on the screen.
“Activate,” I say.
There is a hiss of escaping air. Hydrogen sulfide primer pumps into the chamber. The rest is automatic. The computer won’t open the unit until it is John’s turn to wake again.
I cross the row of coffins without looking at them. I climb into my own unit. The smell is sickly-sweet, chemicals and vomit.
The next step is a difficult thing to do if you are thinking about it. So I don’t. I recline to 45 degrees. I pull the lid down, and the screens come to life, lighting the darkness. I take a deep breath. And here it catches me, the weight of what I’m doing. It is always the same, each time. We are all dead in cryo, and only waking makes it not so. And doing this, putting my hand on the pad, is the same as killing myself. Again and again. I have done it so many times now. I am a mass murderer of myself.
I slow my breathing, close my eyes, and place my palm on the pad.
“Activate,” I say.
There is a hiss of escaping air, and the hydrogen sulfide burns my nose. I take a deep breath, letting the chemical fill my lungs. Cold falls like a hammer.
I wake to puking.
It is always the same, and I’m puking like I’m dying, the inside of me coming out around choking screams I can’t hold back. When I am finished, I wipe my mouth and fall from my unit. The cold floor burns my knees. When I feel strong enough, I stand, leaving a layer of skin behind where I knelt.
I move across the room on shaking legs and sit at the table, waiting for the heaters. Waiting to come back to myself.
There is a click, then a whir of tiny servos. Heat pumps from the vents. A few moments later I hear a hiss, and one of the coffins opens.
It is John’s unit. It is supposed to be a random shuffle. It is John’s unit.
This does not seem possible. I cross the room, leaving footprints in the frost. I look at John in his coffin, and his hair is thawing in wet spikes on his broad forehead. Then come the dry heaves. He lacks the strength to turn his head, so the puke dribbles from his mouth.
I watch him start to choke. His face contorts, mouth frothing. Tears stream from his empty eyes. It is a reflex. There is no sadness in his tears.
I reach toward him and gently move his head to the side.
Puke spills from his open mouth and fouls his box. His head rolls mindlessly on his jelly neck. He breathes. I step back, confused about what to do next. I look at the coffin next to John’s.
It is empty.
I find him naked in the research pod, frozen to the wall. On the dry board he’s tried to write something, but it is meaningless scribbles. Somewhere across the bridge of time, he lost the ability to write. He’d lost the ability to do his cell cultures. In the end, he’d forgotten even to climb back into his coffin. And when the heaters kicked off, and the temperature finally dropped, he’d frozen to death.
I move close and look into Tollier’s icy, empty eyes, and I see my own reflection.
I climb the tube back up to the coffins. Tollier’s unit is still wide open. I palm into the computers and check the data screens. It takes me a long time to understand what they’re telling me; and once I understand, takes me a long time to believe it.
I look at the coffins. Black and shiny. There is John. Breathing. I see his chest rise and fall.
The others are all dead. They’ve been dead.
They’ve been dead for a long, long time.
I try to guide John from his unit, but he won’t move. His pliability has come to an end. John is unsuggestable. I pinch him. I slap him. He does not respond. He does not smile or make eye contact. He doesn’t try to speak.
I leave him in his coffin, and I go back down to the research module.
I try to read the S.O.P.s but it is like trying to think through mud. I can’t keep the sentences straight. I see my notes along the margins: do this, then this, then this—and that makes it a little easier at first, but the ideas keep slipping away.
I leave the cell cultures out to thaw. I remember that much, at least. They must thaw. I climb the tube back up to the cabins. I sit at the galley table, looking out the port window at all the nothing beyond the glass.
Mendoza stopped laughing long enough to take another sip through the straw.
“The shit you say,” she said.
“I mean, have you thought about it?” I asked her.
“If you die in cryo, when would your soul leave the body?”
“You’re saying if I believed in souls?”
“Then I don’t know.” It was Mendoza at her most dismissive. “When you die, I guess.”
“But you’re dead the moment your frozen,” I said. “And only waking makes it not so.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Cryo is a state indistinguishable from death.”
“So does the soul leave at the moment you’re frozen? Does the soul somehow know you’ll never wake up?”
The expression on Mendoza’s face changed.
“Or does the soul linger,” I added. “Trapped in the ice for years, and only departs when you’re thawed and don’t take that first breath like you’re supposed to.”
“I don’t know…if you believed in souls, it could be either, I guess.”
“It can’t be either. It’d have to be one or the other.”
“You’re talking crazy. None of this matters. It’s not real.”
“It matters to me.”
I lean over John and watch the rise and fall of his chest. I’m two months older than he is. By our eighth skip, after Zapato’s death, I’m sure that made me the oldest human being in the universe. I wonder how old I am now.
I lean into John’s box and kiss him. I close the lid. My hand hovers above the activation button, and I consider not pushing it. It is not life he has. I’d want to be dead.
I consider letting him die, because I hope he’d do it for me were our circumstances reversed.
But I cannot. My hand pulls back, closes into a fist. It is anger, and hurt, and worst of all, this knowledge: I’m not doing it for him. I’m doing it for me. Because if he dies, then I am alone. If he dies, I will kill myself. Like Zapato. Because I can’t face this emptiness by myself—the cold face of God beyond the glass.
I palm onto the computer and check the computer’s navigational records. It takes me a long time to do this. It takes me a long time because I’m no longer good at using the computer, and because there are a lot of records to check.
We’ve come further than I ever would have dreamed. The distance involved is so large that it is merely a number. I can’t comprehend what it truly means. The time though—the years—that is something I have some grasp of, if only in a vague sense. I understand the years in the same way I understand geolithic history. I understand it in the same way that I understand dinosaurs once roamed the earth. But they are all dead now, dinosaurs. They are all gone. Like my own species must surely be gone by now. But I am still here.
I check the navigation charts and see where the computer wants to go, but I am so tired. The Pilgrimage does not get tired. With the right push, and time, she could go to the end of the universe, drifting dark and cold, momentum like a hammer fall.
I think of the ice—a memory that’s forgotten itself, the way it feels to freeze and die. I want to remember it. This is what I do. This: a course change.
I think about my soul and the end of the universe, the big bang exchanging places with the big crunch. All matter and energy coming to an end. And when would the soul leave the body? Does it somehow know you’ll never wake up? Because we’re all dead in cryo, and only waking makes it not so.
The computer makes me verify the course twice. The time to destination is longer than the universe has been in existence. Deep space is too long a night, and I’ve charted a course that can only be described as away.
I think about the end of all things, judgment day, and I’m still not sure what I believe. But there is no end to the course I’ve set; that much I’m certain of. There’s nothing to wake me when the journey is over, because the journey will never be over.
I kiss John’s forehead for the final time and close the lid over his unblinking eyes. I hit the button, and there’s a hiss of escaping air. “I will see you on the other side,” I say. It only takes a second, and I’m the last human alive in the universe. I stare at the coffin, and an idea floats at the edge of my consciousness. I want to write it down before it slips away, but then I know it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I was wrong. I’m suddenly sure of it, though I can’t remember why.
The soul knows. Somehow it knows when you’ll never wake up. And it leaves the moment you’re frozen—the moment you die.
I cross the row of coffins without looking at them. I climb into my own unit. The smell is sickly sweet, chemicals and vomit. The next step is difficult. I take a deep breath; my heart is beating hard.
If there is a God, I’m about to meet Him at the end of everything. The surface of the pad is cool on my palm.
“Activate,” I say and then I die.
I wake to puking. My knees buckle, and I spill to the floor. The sizzle-pain of numbness, and spots appear before my eyes as my head droops toward the ice.
I try to stand. The floor is slippery with puke and ice, but I shuffle across the room to the window.
“I am Ola,” I say. “I am Ola I am Ola I am Ola.” It is all I know, and I hold onto it; and then I remember the window. I stand, and I look out the window, but there are no stars. The view shocks me, the sheer emptiness of it.
The stars have all burned out—any judgment of this universe having long since come and gone. It is a view past life, past the end of everything. It is the end of time.
“God?” I say to the vacuum. “God? I am Ola. I am Ola.”
I sit and hang my head in my hands. There is no click, no whir of tiny servos. The heaters don’t come on this time. The cold is a hammer, and my breath comes in ragged plumes of vapor that freeze on the cold floor. I lay back, feeling my skin stick.
I think of my red sarong and the red soils of my home. I think of my father’s face and close my eyes, imagining I might be warm someday again.
Ted Kosmatka is a lab rat from the north coast of the US. Among other things, he’s been a zookeeper, a college tutor, a chem tech, and a steelworker. He now works in research and plies his living behind the objective lens of an electron microscope.
The seed of this story formed near the end of a sleep-deprived 88-hour workweek at US Steel. After the third midnights-to-days double shift, I couldn’t do math anymore. I couldn’t remember my computer passwords. There is a peculiar kind of terror in knowing that your job is stripping your mind away one little piece at a time.