Hazia remembered light. It was the brightest thing she’d ever seen. If she’d had words, she might have compared it to being a snow-feathered dove sitting in the middle of an almond orchard, perched amid an explosion of white blossoms, bits of hesitant white sky piercing through petals—white on white on white.
But she experienced that light without a name, or any words at all. It was the most fully present Hazia had ever been in her life, lying on what she later found out was the recovery table, a thin blanket draped over her body, coming up from a deep ocean into light.
When her head broke through the surface of consciousness, she was not thinking of the tasks ahead of her for the day, of the dreams that lingered half-defined inside the dark of her eyelids, or the book she meant to write. She wasn’t comparing the light to the flash of a camera, or trying to discern the time of day or year. Or what year it was. She merely lived, there on the table, irises contracting. Hazia blinked, and experienced.
Slowly she became aware of the thin beep that, looking back later, she realized was her own rhythm on the heart rate monitor, and the ache of the hard IV catheter in her arm and the leathery pull of thin adhesive sensors placed across her body. Still the words didn’t come, and she didn’t know enough to be afraid. For many minutes, her reality was small, encompassing nothing more than her senses took from the small recovery room at the cryonics facility.
Now, in the starched white sheets of her studio apartment, tossing and turning for the third hour in a row, Hazia wished for the simplicity of that moment, when sensations had no name and nothing existed beyond her immediate reality.
Now she was suspended between the past she had left behind and the future she must create, somehow, from the purgatory of a 300-square-foot, 11th-floor studio apartment with white walls and white sheets and the glow of digital billboards coloring it all a ghostly blue this time of night.
She knew those words: blue, white, purgatory; but she couldn’t remember all of her words. Words felt duller now. Os were rounder, Ls lingered, Ss stuttered. Her tongue still felt heavy.
They promised that this feeling would go away within a week. It still scared her—a slow feeling like moving through sand. Her fingers were awkward, too. It was hard to turn the page of a book—a gesture she’d taken for granted days ago. Or was it thirty years ago?
“This is all documented and normal.” Caroline had echoed the lead medical advisor as she helped Hazia bend her knees and pull her legs into the front seat of the car. “It’s a common part of the unfreezing process.”
Hazia had tried to focus on Caroline’s words, but became lost in the sounds. Caroline’s voice lived in a lower register now, soothing, like a mother. She stared into Caroline’s face and tried to reconcile the furrowed smile with the plump, rosy face her agent had presented when they’d met yesterday at her office to sign the final papers and create a rough outline for the book proposal. Or was it thirty years ago?
That was her first Time Shock. The first of many.
Caroline kept talking. She didn’t know what it was like not to have words, Hazia thought—the peace that state afforded.
“...a place to live, for now. Until you find your own direction...a familiar neighborhood...all set up…” the words floated through Hazia’s head as she looked out the window at the white sky, old brick buildings, new steel buildings looming as they approached the city.
“Good,” Hazia had murmured, almost choking on the weight of her g. She looked up at the white sky and what she felt was simply good.
Now in the blue-white night, “good” had become more complex. There was hot coffee—that helped. Maybe too much, Hazia thought, flopping from her right side to her left, staring directly out the window into the night’s indigo glow. And there was wonder. Hazia felt wonder at every little appliance or interface in the confines of her apartment—the refrigerator that seemed to become transparent when she walked past, revealing neatly stacked cases of nutrition cartridges inside, and the sleek black box on the counter that turned them into gourmet meals. Then there was the empty expanse of wall that would come to life—a three-dimensional stage bringing the world inside.
Did people need to leave home, Hazia wondered. Did they still need each other?
Hazia had talked to the medical counselor briefly, if you could call her halting y-yes, no-o, goood replies talking. They checked in daily via the wall, and Dr. Mathur was pleased with the progress her bio-sensor transmitted.
“And emotionally?” he asked. “How are you adjusting?”
“Um, good, I think?” Hazia had replied, but she couldn’t shade that word with all of the colors she was thinking of (gray, white, blue), and he might have raised his eyebrows if she had answered in colors, anyway.
Aside from Dr. Mathur, Hazia talked to Caroline in her apartment. Caroline was full of words—explanations, asides, recommendations. “If you can’t print it, they’ll deliver it. When you feel up to it I can tell you where all of the good health clubs are, and the best—”
“What happened to Winston?” Hazia had asked her this morning, out of the blue, because she’d finally found the words (at least a few of them) to describe why “good” was complex.
Caroline’s color drained. “I’m sorry?”
“Winston Solis. We lived together, before. You left me his package, his note. I thought you might know something more.”
Hazia remembered Caroline pulling a manilla envelope out of her deep bag and leaving it on the counter that first day, unceremoniously, no more words, before slipping out the door. Hazia was safe on her sofa, hot mug of coffee warming her stiff fingers, watching a comedy on the television wall. It was hours before she got up, using the cane to shuffle over to the counter and look inside, numb fingers prodding the metal clasp into submission. The feelings hit her long before the words—an ache in her collar bone and in front of her elbows, the burning in her eyes.
“How did he get it to you? Do you know where to find him?”
“I’m sorry,” Caroline said, her voice still warm and low, but taking on a firm edge. “That information is sealed. I can’t tell you without his permission.”
“So then he’s alive,” Hazia stated, feeling a rush of energy in the palms of her hands. She could feel herself touching the tip of each finger to her thumb like Dr. Mathur had taught her.
“I can’t say anything more.” For a few seconds, Caroline’s blue eyes looked right into Hazia’s, searching for something or saying something, but Hazia couldn’t find the right word for it before Caroline looked away.
“If I gave you something for him, would you know where to find him?”
“I could try.” Caroline sighed, her shoulders looking small under the billowing green robe that seemed now to hang around her. Then just as suddenly, Caroline’s countenance shifted. Hazia almost wondered if she was experiencing another Time Shock. Caroline was bright and full of words, her energy expanding again to the hems of her robe. “Does that mean you’re able to write? We can’t wait to hear what you make of this experience, what you think of us all. Do you have any ideas? I’ll look up your old outline and send it to...we’ve got to get you your own AI…”
“I don’t know,” Hazia had answered then, and even now, in the indigo night, she wasn’t sure.
As she looked at the notebook on the table beside her bed—the one Winston had left for her in the manilla envelope—Hazia again touched the tip of each finger to her thumb. She could find the thumb without her eyes now. She wondered what else her hand could find if she gave it space to roam.
“Turn the lights to three,” she told the apartment, and “Dim the window.” The room obeyed her. Her hand obeyed her, too, as she reached for the cloth-bound notebook and wrestled it open.
Inside was white on white on white—more layers of emptiness than Hazia could remember. She picked up the pen with a heavy fist and positioned it to rest on the callus of her middle finger. The effort scared her. It never used to be this hard. But the weight of the pen, and the way it nestled into her fingers, was the most familiar sensation she’d felt in thirty years.
The pen made an empty swoop across the top of the page and Hazia scribbled a wide circle to wake up the sleeping ink. Black stained the page under her hand as she wrote.
He wasn’t here, but somehow he had remembered the notebook, how she needed it. Thinking about that moved her hand forward, and words came like picking up the thread of a conversation from a few days ago (or thirty years ago).
I’m cold. It’s not like I thought it would be. My fingers are almost too stiff to write. I can almost hear you laughing at me. It’s one of the things that always bothered me—you laughing at the things that upset me. So why does the impression of your sardonic chuckle make my elbows ache?
I could stare at the television wall and say “comedy” and be surrounded by laughter. But it’s all jokes I don’t get—not yet. Do you remember when we went to Paris, and late at night, resting our sore feet from their miles of wandering down unfamiliar streets, we’d turn on the little television in our hotel room? Of course the shows were in French. They seemed familiar, like we should be able to understand them, like we almost understood them, but when we tried to tell each other what was going on, the words for it just evaporated.
It’s kind of like that to watch television now. Everyone on the screen (on the wall? What do you call it?)—they’re all laughing together, and I’m sitting here alone in a quiet, white room. So I even miss the way you’d laugh at me.
I can hear your voice: “Play some music. Go out and take a walk.” You were always so full of solutions, or things you thought would fix me. I’ll tell you: I tried. My legs are starting to work again. My gait analytics say I’m 87 percent stable. My fall risk is down to dandelion yellow. I find it wild how much I know about myself now, and how little it all means. I took 3,357 steps around the neighborhood this afternoon. My sensors are full of information. Here’s what they can’t describe, though—the way it feels to see our neighborhood now.
Hazia rubbed her eyes, burying the smooth back of her hand into the hollow of her skull.There must be a better way to describe it, she thought—this thing Caroline had called Time-Shock. Hazia drew perpendicular lines on her paper, corners inside the corners of her notebook, letting her mind wander until the words came.
Winston, this morning Caroline came over and took me to the DMV. Right here in my living room. A CGI representative took my fingerprints on the pad built into my coffee table, and then I signed it with my finger, and the lights got really bright for a second while the room took my picture, and 20 minutes later my 3D printer spit out a new driver's license. I should have been thrilled. This small instance exceeded my expectations in so many ways. It was like teleportation. I think about all of the time and emotional effort this saves, but I can’t quite be excited. I don’t know if you remember, but a few days ago (thirty years ago), I imagined you might meet me at the DMV. It might be the place you knew to find me, the thing that was the same. It wasn’t.
You’re probably laughing at me, or would be if this letter found its way to you. Without the DMV, I don’t know where to find you. I looked on Holoback. I guess it’s not your thing. You didn’t like Facebook. Why would you care about the thing that’s replaced the thing that’s replaced it? So I think that’s it. You’re gone and I can still hear you laughing at me.
Everything is augmented reality now. Here’s my reality: I’m experiencing this hovering ghost of things 30 years past, on top of what I take in with my physical senses today. I don’t know—there are probably people who would pay for that experience now, some kind of add-on or subscription—the past overlayed on the present. People, from what I can tell, seem very consumed by their add-ons. Caroline talked a long time this morning about this flavor enhancer she had implanted in one of her molars. It sends electrical impulses to her tongue. I have to admit I’m curious.
The brain is infinitely adaptable. Did you know our two eyes don’t see the exact same image? Our brains mash the two visions together into a single image that makes sense. I imagine that will happen to me, probably sooner rather than later. Past and present will merge into...just me, just life. It makes me feel like I need to capture it now, before I forget what this way of being feels like.
But my hand is mud, and I’m still trying to find the words to describe it all. They say that’s only temporary. I mostly believe it. Only a little piece of me wonders, what if I’m never as good as I once was? What if there’s a word or a feeling that I never find again—something else as lost as you are to me?
I will write it down again: the brain is adaptable. I will adapt. I am an optimist. I will walk down the street on legs 99 percent stable (no one’s perfect, and isn’t walking just a controlled form of falling, anyway?) and one day I’ll pass the brick building that used to be the coffee shop where we would linger, two noses in two phones, looking up once in a while to share a headline or fact or joke. I won’t hear your laugh. I’ll look in the tinted window (why are all of the windows tinted now?) and see my own reflection, and I’ll be fine looking at myself alone on a crowded street. I’ll look around and feel at home in the sea of strangers. I won’t be searching every face for some trace of yours, trying to stretch the thread of your lips or your eyes thirty years longer than what I see in my memory.
Caroline is back tomorrow (today, now). She’s going to set me up with an AI assistant. That’ll be something. It will probably quantify the time I spend writing and the time I spend on the holowall. You people love your data. It’ll try to nudge me in the productive direction without seeing the link between the two things, my brain absorbing and remixing the images, bending the light.
I should sleep or I’ll regret it. I’ll give the white sheets another shot, and if I’m lucky, I’ll sink back into the oblivion of my last thirty years.
Yours, Truly (at least until I adjust),
Best-selling Author Hazia Adam?
It was more words than she had shared with anyone since waking up, and Hazia was satisfied.
“Turn off the lights,” she said to the room.
Somehow, even in the black room, the holowall could sense her inquiring gaze. It flickered on.
“Show me almond trees,” Hazia said, and the wall obeyed. She was in the middle of an orchard, snowdrifts of branches blowing overhead.
Hazia watched them and tried to return to the blank state of her hibernation. But this time, before her eyes closed, she could see more colors—brown in the diverging forks of branches, a blanket of green grass below, yellow stamens reaching out into the air like tiny rays of sun that would melt the snowy blossoms and make way for fruit.