Her hair is wet and stringy with amniogel and the tips of her fingers are wrinkled. She is thrashing around as much as the restraints will let her, choking and vomiting the pink nutrient liquid. This one is well-preserved. The centuries have left her untouched.
Her small breasts are quivering with each gasp and tears are leaving clear trails across her goo-covered cheeks. The choking turns to sobbing and screaming, but the rebirth chamber is soundproofed for privacy. Down the hallway, dozens of people are waking just like her, thrown violently against the wall of the present. I chose this one, Jennifer six three nine, because she was the most beautiful. They pay well for the pretty ones.
Her neurons are finding their ancient paths and she is remembering who she is. I can tell by the shrieks, which are beginning to separate into syllables. I readjust the microphone to better catch the terror in her voice. They pay well for the terror.
During my training as a technician, I was required to undergo rebirth. I remember the feel of the chamber’s metal grate against my naked back, and the slow stickiness of the gel rising to meet me. My wrists and ankles were bound with foam restraints to keep me from hurting myself during the shock, but I didn’t think I’d fight it. I was wrong. I closed my mouth against the liquid but it leaked through my nose and trickled down the back of my throat. I couldn’t swallow it all. When I coughed it up my lungs replenished themselves with a mixture of air and soupy pink, and though my brain understood it my body knew, beyond logic, that I was drowning. My back arched and my arms fought against the unyielding restraints. I choked with such force that I could feel the muscles in my chest strain under the tension until something clicked in my mind. Something went quiet. The last air bubbles drifted lazily through the goo and I understood that I was powerless, that no amount of fighting could save me. I inhaled as deeply as I could. My lungs filled with endless warmth.
For an unknown amount of time I drifted through a space between sleep and awareness. The low current of energy through the chamber stimulates REM sleep, but I wouldn’t remain there long enough to go under. The rebirth started with an electric hum and the feeling of suction through the grate at my back. It was worse than drowning. It was drowning in reverse.
When my lungs had rid themselves of the last of the amniogel, the restraints released with a metallic click and I sat up, my arms wrapped around the burning muscles in my stomach. Everything was so cold. I was impossibly naked and impossibly cold.
“It’s not so bad, is it?” my technician asked. It took him hours to offer me a robe, and I buried my face in the towel as I struggled to fight off the tears. “Don’t forget what it feels like,” he continued. “They’re not coming up from six minutes ago. They’re coming up from centuries.”
When I opened my eyes, I saw him leaning against the control panel, his arms folded across his broad chest. There was a bulge in the crotch of his jumpsuit. I pulled the robe tighter around my shoulders and focused on the feeling of air in my lungs.
“Get dressed,” he said, and left for the bathroom.
I didn’t forget. You don’t forget something like that.
Her back is against the grate of the chamber and Jennifer six three nine is almost done fighting. Her breathing is soft but ragged. I throw the switch for the clinical lamp over the chamber and she recoils, eyes clenching shut and arms straining against the restraints as she tries to protect her face from the light. I put away my equipment and the foam bars over her wrists and ankles retract with a click.
She draws her hands across her eyes to wipe away the tears and goo. When she opens them, they’re blue. I wish I had kept the camera going. No one has blue eyes anymore.
After a long pause, I hand her a terrycloth robe. “Welcome to the twenty fourth century, Jennifer,” I say with practiced warmth. She smiles weakly and pulls the white fabric tightly around her naked form.
We are using your ankles, he said.
She sat in the cold plastic chair, watching the scientist twirl the vial of her blood.
Only my ankles?
You have strong ankles. They hold your feet well. He put the tube in a plastic holder. The top of the tube was red and black swirled. She wondered why doctors did not use solid-colored stoppers. She looked at her blood. Outside of her, it seemed different, darker and emptier like oil.
Soon it would be cold, but that would be okay.
Are you familiar with the human genome project? The doctor asked.
That was years ago.
Yes, but advances have been made.
We have isolated the genes that produce your ankles. They will go into her. She will have strong ankles as well.
Her signature, trailing above the printed lines, felt separate from her like her blood. How many signatures were there, she wondered? Did they take one thing from each person they included, or were some people better, worth more parts?
Iâ€™m glad to help, she said, and stared downwards to the point where her leg met her foot. It did not seem special. She would have taken other things, other parts. But that did not matter. She was a secretary, not a doctor. He knew better anyway, she was certain.
Your country thanks you, he said. Humanity thanks you.
She did not move. Her blood was almost room temperature. She thought of centrifuges. She looked at her hands, but they were flawed and dirty. The joints were too thick, the wrists were not strong. This was fine. She looked at them anyway, and thought of filing papers.
You can go now, he said. We have what we need.
Her name was Bianca. She was thirteen.
She only spoke French. No one spoke French. The resistance brought her here after she’d been hit by a Federated tank. The gash stretched from her ribcage to her hip, opening up like a silent and thirsty mouth.
I realized, after the third hour, that there was nothing to be done. I offered her tea. She was crying a lot.
I didn’t remember being thirteen.
“It hurts,” she said, and my mind flickered.
“It’ll stop soon,” I replied, pulling my knees to my chest. I was nineteen then. I’d been a medic for eleven months. No one had died before. I touched my fingers to her throat but the space where her pulse should have been was weak and erratic like a dripping faucet.
I thought of offering her painkillers, but didn’t.
“How do you speak French?” she asked.
“I speak everything.”
“I wish I could do that.”
“It’s not really worth it,” I said as I stared at the dark red stains beneath my fingernails. The funny thing about words is that they will evaporate in six hours and forty-nine minutes. After that, she’ll speak the same language as everyone else.
“Can I go home now?”
“You probably shouldn’t walk,” I said. She weighed ninety-three pounds. I wondered if I could carry her body to the alley.
On rainy days, on days when the air smelled like ozone and soot and water fell swollen with chronoradiation, Anton climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Pripyat to watch the sun peel the clouds from the horizon at sunset. The first nine blocks were easy: he pushed the girl ahead of him in a rusted shopping cart. The stairs were more difficult, but heâ€™d fashioned a sling out of an old backpack to secure the girl to his back. The whole ordeal took nearly three hours, so he always started early. Unfortunately, because the stairwell was windowless and he had no way to measure time, sometimes the sky was already dark when he opened the door to the roof.
Anton thought of the girl as Antonina, though heâ€™d never learned her name. Like most of the shadow children, her metabolism had slowed after the incident, and any physical aging in the last decade was negligible. Her body was eighteen months old, he estimated. There was no way to know if her brain grew in body time or thought time, but he fancied that she was nearly eleven behind those dark eyes. That was how old his daughter had been.
The front left wheel of the cart screeched with every revolution. Anton used it to keep his footsteps in rhythm. Every three shrieks, he leaned hard against the plastic rail to shift his weight from his leg. It was two thousand and twenty six steps to the building, but only one thousand and thirteen of them were painful. The injury was relatively minorâ€”a ligament torn during a game of tag with his daughterâ€”but, like Antonina, his body moved in Pripyat time and it could take decades for the tissue to knit.
Above them, the dim patch of light inched towards the horizon and the first shade of smog-soaked red spilled over the empty village. Anton estimated it would take another hour to make it to the roof, which put them perfectly on schedule with the darkening sky.
As he walked, Anton hummed a song heâ€™d picked up in the university pubs of Moscow back when his wife had been his girlfriend and his daughter had been a laughable impossibility. When Antonina’s chubby face opened into a broad grin, Anton tried to sing the chorus. Most of the words had been forgotten, and his syllables washed ahead like echoes swirling over the sooty streets.
Jemai’s skin was the color of water, which is to say it was hardly a color at all. Her body was a milky grey that took on a blue or green tint in certain lights, and when Thomas’s warm fingers traced her hip bones they left a trail of amber in their wake. He loved the way her skin reacted to heat. If he moved his finger slowly enough he could trace words across her stomach, and when he couldn’t sleep he wrote love songs into her one letter at a time.
Jemai read them, but she never replied.
As Thomas touched her she stared at the ceiling, her dark eyes searching out the darkest corners as if she had left something in their depths. She inhaled once for every five of his breaths, and the oxygen-drenched air forced its fingers into her lungs the same way his fingers forced their way into her stomach. Everything on Earth left a heavy residue, she’d learned. When she watched her skin change color beneath his fingertips, she imagined that her body was rubbing away. If he kept at it she might disappear. Sometimes she wished that she would.
On Ayta, the dark sky danced with the colors of a healing bruise when solar flares licked its heights. Behind them stars poured out across the thin atmosphere like beads of oil on water, and some days she slept outside to keep watch, as if all of it might be gone the next morning. “Don’t be silly,” Daik used to tell her as he pulled her body against his and stroked her forehead with his slender thumb. Her skin hadn’t changed at her lover’s warmth. Their bodies had been the same temperature.
When the Terrans came for Ayta’s fuel, Daik had been among the first recruited to defend their resources. He left without ceremony, smiling his usual knowing half-grin. “Keep safe for me,” he’d said.
Shifts changed, but Daik never came home. Three years later, the ceiling of Thomas’s room was starless and still, the room’s silence broken only by the sound of his rapid Terran breathing. She’d been saved from the fuel mines, she told herself, and repeated it like a mantra as his fingers traced their usual path around her navel. She was safe. She was safe.
Thomas sighed blissfully and settled his body against hers as he prepared for sleep. Jemai exhaled for as long as she could, forcing every atom of the thick Earth air from her lungs. She was safe. Thomas’s room had no windows, but in the darkest shadows she pretended she could see Ayta’s sun shimmer like a pearl in an oily sea.