At first there’s no warmth. Only the hot black pain of frostbite. Then like a shock, the blankness ends again and I feel my skin start to thaw, my blood slowly pulsing through veins that had almost forgotten how to push it.
The thought echoes through me as I pull past the glue of long-closed eyelids only to find the same blurred empty corners I’d barely seen those other times, waking up to something – more waking up to nothing really – the black walls glowing in the faint reflection of the dying filament above me.
Had the lights just been on?
Slowly, surely, it all comes back to me. The money. The trial advertised in the paper. Six thou for three months of escape? I’d paid more for the same thing.
____Please mark “Yes” to indicate your submission to the terms outlined in the following agreement, including the variable amendments made on page (4) regarding safety, security, and life insurance (to be used in the event of participant injury, permanent ailment, or death).
___Please mark “Yes” if you have directed your banking institution to accept a deposit from the Cryogenic Research Council of Canada(CRCCAN).
The receptionist, all bland and brown eyes, had barely glanced at the NDA she’d watched me complete. “Just through those doors,” she’d said, her one hand hovering over her steadily ringing phone, the other pointing to a pair of grey swinging doors to the left. Goosebumps had filled even the creases at my elbows, as if all of me were preparing for the chill I was about to endure.
Concentrate on the money, I’d told myself. Won’t be any different than all those other winters.
But this had been different. Easier than eating, the blankness had swelled and swallowed me until I crawled out of it again. And again. And again. Each time aware of the cold that felt like death, that wouldn’t let me die.
More than three months. The realization crawls over my skin like the irritating tick of a stopwatch, trying to set itself into the folds of the wrinkles that shouldn’t be there. Almost habitually my hand twitches for the smartphone that used to sit in my pocket. It causes the rest of me to tighten, each non-movement jerky and deeply painful, especially where the nurses had tethered me (how long ago?) to the board at my back.
“The biological material acts like your skin. It won’t burn you like metal might,” the head nurse had said as he’d tied me down, limb by limb. His eyes had been black, his mouth hidden behind a green sick-mask. Right arm. Left arm. Right leg. Left leg. He’d covered my mouth with the tube and then . . .
Then that had been it until I was pulled up again the next time, and the next, always freezing. Always scared. I just kept waking up. And waking up. And waking up. Nothing there to greet me before the blankness would come again.
As if it had been there the whole time, a buzzing in the distance catches me, unlocking something else entirely: fear. Get me out. Get me out. Get me out. From deep within, yet another question echoes, dangerous.
What had they taken?
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
At least, that’s what I tell my voice to say. For a moment, there is only silence. Then as if I’m being turned to standing, the board at my back rises, my torso slouching forward, gravity pulling the straps at my arms and shoulders painfully taut. For a moment, the sound of blood rushing loudly in my ears erases everything. For a moment, I welcome the rush.
A spark like a flash. Enough to bring me back. My foggy eyes cling desperately to the relative after-dark, searching the shadows for the source. Who’s there?
Then, I feel who’s there. Below my waist. Pain. Worse than the cold. Struggling, shaking, I look down and force my eyes to see. By the light of the next spark, there it is. What they’ve taken. What they’re giving back.
Part of me registers that there are legs. Not mine…no toes. No polish. Just metallic extensions with thick knee pistons sitting on a rack close-by. At my hips, roughly scarred skin clings desperately to the plates of metal that…
In a wave of nausea, I heave, trying to empty a stomach with nothing in it. My shoulders shaking, my mouth stretches to birth something other than language, gouged and raspy like the ripping of paper.
A machine. Small. Nimble. Sawing at the metal that is also me, without a human hand in sight.
It’s working on its own.
I know it almost as soon as the thought crosses. Then, almost at the same time and from out of nowhere, a word.
The word echoes like electricity, like I can almost smell it. Lemon, both a picture and a statement with nothing else beneath it, until: Lemon. A name, not a word. The preferred name I’d put on the NDA. Nauseous again, but without a body to fulfill it, I try to find that person, Lemon. Why that name? Why…
Then, like a marquee, bright as the sparks I’d seen at my hips, more words begin to emerge in front of me, almost like I can see them rolling along in the dead red letters of an electronic sign in a shop window:
We are sorry.
The surgery is almost done now.
Your new legs will take quite well.
You will be walking in no time.
You have helped us so much.
We did not intend to wake you during the operation.
We would have preferred to wait.
There are still bugs.
A pause and then:
Ahead of schedule is fine.
We will help you understand.
From above me, a clicking of gears. Using the neck brace as leverage I pull my head up just in time to see the light – the light on top of the needle. I do not feel it enter, though with it comes a warmth I’d been craving, like a blanket. Then, just as quickly it’s all pulled away, revealing the truth, all in one moment, all at the same time. The reason. The knowledge of why this was happening.
I just need to breathe, I think.
Please, just let me breathe.
It had been circling in the news when I went under. Successful Mars mission, the strange parasites found on one of the vessels. Then, it all went up at once. Life, blacked out. Exposed. Everything living, dead in days.
Left to evolve on their own, it only took our machines two hundred years to find record of me. Of us. All twelve of us who’d signed up, buried so deeply underground. Secure. Safe. Untainted. The last alive. We quickly became a project for the machines – a way to bring back the past.
We are making you a new home, the words continue.
We had to use your DNA.
We hope you’ll forgive us.
The old machines made many mistakes.
And you are the only biological material left.
Already I can feel the darkness crawling back in, the fog dissipating into the cryo-black I remember so well.
It has taken a very long time for us to get here, and there is still so much to do.
But we are determined to thank you.
For creating us.
For leaving us your planet.
Behind my eyelids, visions pass of strange epidermal pastures encased in glass, flowers as large and grotesque as beating hearts, bleeding rain filling skin-valleys by the buckets. I realize this is where they expect us to live; in a zoo of cyborgs, made to eat flesh, watched on all sides by metal bodies encasing hard drives that we’d all been creating in the palms of our hands.
Do not worry, your new legs will fuse in no time.
You will be walking like your old self, for all of us to see.