There was a beep. A beep then a sudden sense of cold that Mikaela had never known before. It was what freezer-burned meat must have felt like as it wasted away in the forgotten back corner of an ice chest, cold in the most absolute sense of the concept, abated by nothing. Then out of nowhere, warmth. A bead of heat that started so small she could barely recognize it. It grew until every ounce of her sang with a numb ecstasy. And then she was moving.
But it wasn’t her moving, exactly, it was everything. And as she moved she became suddenly aware that the small envelope of darkness that surrounded her wasn’t the entire world because outside of it she could hear the clanking and grinding of machinery moving. Suddenly, she was stricken with an overwhelming sense of fear. She had no idea where she was going, no idea where she’d been, no idea why every time she opened her eyes she saw the same thing she did when they were closed.
She shook, attempting to release the apish fear that was boiling inside her, but found she couldn’t move. Her hands, her feet, her neck, were all shackled into place, made still by restraints of some sort, and even if they hadn’t been, she wasn’t convinced they’d have been capable of movement. Her muscles had gone rotten, like old, dried-out rubber bands that had turned brittle and lost their stretch. She couldn’t even lift a finger without a tremor shooting through her arm. But before that fact could scare Mikaela even further, her world came to a sudden halt again.
Mikaela stared into the black and listened. While the motion had stopped, the sounds outside her pocket universe hadn’t and her ears studied keenly each whir and click that she could hear over her own rough, gasping breaths. There was a click that was harder than all the rest, then, as if for the first time, there was light.
It blinked blood red from the upper corner of her vision. At first it was violent, an assault that she had to turn away from to keep from producing a dry whisper of a scream. But after a few dozen blinks Mikaela’s eyes adjusted to the dull glow and she could see the world around her, see the chamber that surrounded her like a coffin.
A voice came, though not the type of voice that was wholly familiar to her. It was a half-way point between an auto-tuned pop star and the phone bank operators that dryly issued commands when you called a corporate hotline. “Vision and cognition test commencing, please speak the words as they appear before you.”
On the panel in front of her, over the seam that ran the length of the chamber, words appeared. They were simple at first, single syllables, a vowel sandwiched by consonants, then gradually, as she spoke them each in a hoarse whisper, they grew more complex. And as she made her way through she found the faintness fading from her voice, falling away until she could recognize the sound repeating the words as one that belonged to her just as much as her name.
When the last of the words disappeared a series of clicks, all unified in a chorus, filled the coffin. But just as Mikaela was realizing they had come from the shackles, a bevy of cold steel punctured the skin at her limbs and neck. She might have tried for a scream again had she not been worried about the needles in her neck rupturing her throat if she even twitched in the wrong direction. So instead she kept perfectly still as the strange voice spoke again, the red light blinking with each syllable. “Muscular atrophy detected, administering reconstructive catalyst.”
Euphoria flooded her veins. Every fiber of her, every cell, had been starving and only now as all of them were fed at once did she even realize they had been hungry. She was a forest in spring, blooming back after a bitter winter. She pulled in a full, deep breath and made every minute motion with her arms and legs that the shackles would allow, overjoyed when no tremors followed.
When the needles receded the voice spoke again, “Vitals stable, post-hibernation regiment complete. Please standby.” There was another series of chitters and clicks and both Mikaela and the coffin took a less than graceful shift downward as the seam at the chamber’s center began to give way to a pillar of illumination.
The light was harsh, though not as harsh as it might have been had she not first been introduced to the red inside the chamber. It still made her pupils shrivel though, and her first glimpses of the world beyond the coffin were ones filled with shadowy vagaries. She saw only outlines: a desk, a chair, a strange figure that appeared to be mostly human but moved in a decidedly inhuman manner. She also noticed that she wasn’t lying on her back inside the coffin but hanging in it vertically, the world oriented as if she’d been standing on the floor only she seemed to be hovering six inches above it.
“Miss Mikaela Welch?” said the figure in the same voice that had filled her coffin. When it got close she saw that it was inhuman, a steel sphere the size of a yoga ball seated atop a column about the girth of her waist. It moved about the floor on two wheels and had a small red lens in the center of its “head” that looked identical to the one that had bathed her chamber in red light.
“Ye-yes,” Mikaela said after a few false starts. Making words was still an awkward task, even after the exercises. “At least I think I am.”
“Very good,” said the robot, it’s tinny tone sounding more pleased than Mikaela thought possible. “A little disassociation is common for the first twenty-four hours or so, especially for one as old as you.”
“As old as me?” she asked. She couldn’t see any part of herself, but she didn’t feel like she was supposed to be old. As far as she could remember, she’d just entered adulthood. “I’m old?”
“Chronologically speaking,” said the robot. A panel opened on its center column and a forceps came out, it’s cold grip began squeezing, soft and inquisitive, at Mikaela’s reformed muscles. “Biologically, you haven’t aged a day since you went under.”
“Went under? What are you talking about?”
The robot didn’t answer, but instead prodded at her legs with one of its implements. “Let’s get these working first, shall we?” It was less a question and more an order and just a moment later the restraints in the coffin loosened and eased her down until she was standing shakily on the floor.
Mikaela hadn’t been aware of just how heavy she was, of just how much effort it took to move every ounce of the dense meat that comprised her and she found herself wondering, as she learned to walk a second time, just how much easier it must have been to support yourself on wheels and struts and steel instead of ligaments and muscle and brittle calcium. But despite the anguish of the initial struggle, it was only minutes until she was striding confidently across the small monochrome room.
“Well it looks like you’re all ready, Miss Welch,” said the robot, sounding even more pleased.
“Ready for what?”
The robot used an appendage to point toward the open door that stood behind the desk. “Why to head back outside, of course,” it said. “Your sentence is over.”
Mikaela’s gut twisted, suddenly it seemed like there was more going on here than she was aware of. “What do you mean, ‘sentence’?”
The robot paused for a moment then waggled its pointing appendage again. “I am sorry, Miss Welch,” it said, “But I’m afraid that I don’t have time to answer all your questions. Though if you’d like a copy of your record I’d be glad to provi–”
“Yes,” said Mikaela, trying to keep it from shuffling her out the door any faster. “I would like that very much.”
“Here you are,” said the robot, pulling an ancient looking folder from yet another compartment in its chassis before motioning toward the door again. “Now if you’d be so kind, I have a very precise schedule to keep.”
Mikaela huffed through the door, surprised at how glad she was to be rid of the thing she had only moments before been craving answers from. She was in a long hallway lined with doors very similar to the one she just stepped out of and leading toward glass double doors that punctuated the far end. Mikaela didn’t walk toward them, but instead leaned against the wall and began flipping through the contents of the manilla folder. By the time she’d gotten halfway through, her knees had gotten weak beneath her and she’d slid to the floor.
The words, the files, they couldn’t be right, but somehow they must be. There were pictures of her, her fingerprints, her signatures. “Mikaela Ann Welch,” she read aloud from one of the pages. “Born 5th of July 2009, charged on June 6th 2035 for three accounts of homicide.”
The words made her sick. That was all the detail there was, all the specifics the many sheets of paper offered in regards to the lives she’d ended. Biting back the nausea and tears, Mikaela continued to read. “Sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, in March 2037 Miss Welch enrolled in the experimental program that would become known as “Tabula Rasa,” wiping her psyche of all violent tendencies and scrubbing any memories related to her crime. While this rehabilitation proved successful, the regressive attitudes toward criminality that plagued the 21st century determined that she was to serve the remainder of her term in cryostasis, each life sentence calculated using the average human lifespan at the time of incarceration, in this case, 3 terms of 92 years.”
Mikaela dropped the paper, she couldn’t read anymore. 276 years? If that was the case she’d outlived her brothers, her nieces and nephew, their children, hell, maybe even their grandchildren. If what that file said was true then everyone she’d ever known and not known, everyone she’d passed on the street or watched from the window of her apartment building, were all gone.
Shaking, she stared at the double doors at the hall’s far end then, hopeful, cast a glance back at the door she’d come from. “Please,” she shouted as she began to pummel savagely against it. “Please, you have to put me back.”