Contest #210 shortlist ⭐️

No More Elephants in the Zoo

Submitted into Contest #210 in response to: Set your story after aliens have officially arrived on Earth.... view prompt

53 comments

Science Fiction Speculative Drama

Anita Cable never seriously expected to come back from the dead. The forms Dr. Costa had her sign even said: they’d do their best, but the technology to reverse cryonic suspension just didn’t exist yet. And even then, there was still the glioblastoma.

To her, it was all the same – bury, burn, freeze. A corpse was just a corpse, after she moved out. But it was little Molly that insisted, and how could Anita deny her anything?

“I’ll wait for you, Mom,” Molly said, right before the cryo-capsule closed. As though Anita was just going for a trip. As though she’d actually ever return. The last thing she remembered was pressing her hand against the honeycombed ferro-glass, gasping as a blizzard tore through her veins.

“Molly,” she whispered. Blinked. Realized she could see. Before her, floor-to-ceiling windows, the bleary lights and shadows of the city, a daytime rainstorm. Beneath her, a comfortable – was it? Yes, it was comfortable – leather recliner, then fluffy slippers, a fine orange carpet. Around her, some kind of upscale lobby? Low couches, glass tables, tall ceiling. And a strange man.

“Hello, Anita.” White, at the far end of middle-aged, in a nice, if strange, indigo suit. He held a clipboard but his expression was kind.

“Molly?” Where was she? Where was here? Anita placed her palm on her own cheeks, curious to find she was warm.

“How are you feeling, Anita? The reanimation process can be a bit of a shock to the system.”

“I’m… fine.” No headache, no blurry vision, no trembling. She was surprised to realize it was true. “I’m fine.”

The man jotted something down. “Good, good. Glad to hear it. My name’s Dennis, by the way.”

Her fingers trembled, reaching towards his outstretched hand, but when their skins touched – when she felt the impossible warmth of another living human again – she grasped him tightly, for fear of him disappearing. A nervous hitch, half giggle, half cry, escaped her.

“It’s all right,” Dennis said, tone softer. “It’s a lot to take in, I know. You don’t feel any lingering numbness? There’s a gentle sedative still in your system. It’ll be hours before it wears off entirely.”

“No. No, it’s like… Actually, I’ve never felt better.” She ran her fingers over her temples, over her jaw. Gently touched the tender bald area where they’d sawed off a part of her skull in the myriad failed surgeries – and shivered when she felt hair. Short, supple, but definitely hair.

“Is the cancer gone?”

Dennis straightened and smiled more broadly. “It feels good to be alive, doesn’t it?” Only, the smile hinted at a sadness, or maybe a dread of things to come. “We must assume the cancer’s gone, yes.”

“Assume? Aren’t you a doctor?”

“No, I’m not.” His breath was measured. “I’m a fellow patient.”

“So they figured it out after all.” She snorted, what might have been a chuckle. Shouldn’t she be happy? Perhaps it was the sedative. Or shock, at coming back to life.

Anita decided to risk standing. She braced herself against the armrests of the recliner and carefully rose – only to discover she had no trouble whatsoever. “They really figured it out.” No weak muscles, no shaky legs, no dizziness. She spun her arms, touched her toes, lunged, jumped. Her heart fluttered and she felt warm.

“So,” she said. “Where is the doctor then?”

Dennis glanced out the window, at rain splattering with a low drum. “A lot has changed, Anita.”

“A lot has…” She let the question trail, narrowed her eyes. “How long was I out for?”

“Come on, let’s go chat in the cafeteria.” He ushered her out of the lobbyish room, which didn’t remind her of the cryonics institute at all. “You mentioned a name when you were coming to. Molly. Is she someone special?”

The warmth in her chest spread to Anita’s cheeks, and she felt herself reaching for a smile. When was the last time she truly smiled? It must have been Molly’s seventh. All her friends did the princess thing, but Molly wanted elephants.

Real elephants, Mom! Not cartoons.”

They plastered all the walls with elephant posters, and went to the zoo – which was happy, to see them, and sad, to see them imprisoned, and Molly vowed to free all elephants – “No more elephants in the zoo!” – and then when the cake arrived – goodness! Grey was not a good colour for food, but Molly loved it.

Anita hugged herself, imagining holding Molly again. “She’s my daughter. She’s the reason I’m here.” That smile pushed against the sedative. “She was right. And I’m going to get to see her again.”

She stopped abruptly at the cafeteria entrance, glossed right over the size and decorations. Nearly jumped when she saw glowing blue words appear suspended in the air.

13:13. Currently: Free roam. Next at 15:00: Communal welcoming in Hall 17.

“What the hell is that!?”

“It’s a holoserver,” said Dennis. “Only I disabled the ads and retooled it to show our… well, no need for ads, I’m sure you’ll agree. Why – did you not have these, back when?”

“Words floating in the air?” She stepped a little closer to the mystery, fingers creeping. “Can I touch it?”

“Yes, yes, perfectly safe.”

The letters distorted where her finger prodded, but that was it. No cold, no heat, nothing fuzzy. No sensation at all. She withdrew her hand, frowned.

“We didn’t have these, no. Our ads were in print. On TV. On the internet, I guess.”

“Teavey?”

“Television. A box with sound and pictures. And idiots.” Anita shivered. All the warmth she had felt before faded, replaced by a cold deep in her gut. “Dennis – how long have I been frozen?” He looked at the floor. “What year is it?”

Dennis hesitated.

She grabbed his coat and pulled him close. “Tell me!”

“Anita, please, calm down–”

“–What. Year. Is. It.”

“We don’t know.” He guided her to one of the empty tables when she let go of him. “Please, sit.” A polished vending machine produced two steaming cups of something like tea, and he set them on the table.

“How can you not know what year it is?”

“A lot has happened while we were in stasis.” He took a sip and frowned into the distance, walking down a road that never got easier. “I went under in 2101.”

Anita’s eyes widened.

“You were what,” he continued, “early 2000s? The youngest patient – chronologically, not biologically – was suspended in 2248.”

He took another sip. “You might be wondering why you don’t find this more shocking. When the sedative wears off, you will, and we’ll be here for you when you do.”

“And we are the other patients?”

Dennis nodded. “To the best of our knowledge, the year is somewhere in the mid to late 3000s. You’re wondering why we don’t just ask someone, right? Like the doctors or other staff?”

Anita nodded.

Dennis drew himself up, preparing for a particularly challenging sprint. “In short, we can’t. Something… some thing, happened. To the world. To humans. While we slept. We don’t know if it was war, or disease, or what, but.” His throat hitched and he took another sip. “Everyone’s gone. We’re the only ones that are left.”

They sat in silence for a while. Anita felt her heart run maybe a beat or two faster, followed by a dull disappointment that there wasn’t a panic. Rationally, it crossed her mind she’d not see Molly again after all. Never see her again. Shouldn’t that be crushing? It ought to be, damn it.

“Wait,” she said. “If everyone’s dead, who brought us back?”

Dennis nodded, expecting this.

“We’re not alone.”

None of it really sunk in until that evening. She heard the words, they lingered in her now-healthy brain, but they didn’t register until the lights went out. Meeting the others – hundreds of patients, a small town – at the communal welcome in Hall 17 was a blur, a parade of time traveling strangers. And the talk of the aliens that roused them? Incomprehensible.

She started screaming at midnight. As Dennis said, the others were there for her, whether she wanted them or not. They made a human straight jacket, smothered her with shared experience, a common circumstance. Kept her from doing the regrettable thing she yearned to do.

Because what was the point of living in a world where Earth no longer belonged to Man? What was the point of a life without Molly?

“Can I see them?” she asked Dennis a couple weeks later. More than anything else, the idea of aliens felt unreal.

“In time, yes. They are uncomfortable to get used to, and there are biological precautions we must take.”

“They talk to you?”

“In a sense. They have an amazing grasp of our technology, and they’ve been able to communicate via our computers. I don’t know if they actually talk, per se. And… they are hard to understand. There’s little common ground between us. Culturally speaking, that kind of thing. I get the sense they’ve gone to great lengths to understand us.”

“Why are they here?”

“Far as I can tell, just for living. From their point of view, they’ve settled an unoccupied world.”

“And why,” Anita asked, “did they wake us?”

It was another one of those questions where Dennis hesitated. “To see if they could. To preserve the native fauna of their new home. Our de-extinction is of scientific interest to them.”

She was allowed to walk around the tower – for the whole facility was its own skyscraper – freely, but never alone. Never out of sight. No matter how many times she told them she was fine over the first few months, that she’d adjusted and wouldn’t do anything, there’d still always be one or two humans in eyeshot.

They saw through her lies.

It came as a shock to her the first time she saw children. Three of them, about the same age as Molly had been. Shrieking, barreling down the hall, absorbed in a running game. Then came a profound sadness that such tiny, young people had been afflicted with this fate. Cursed with an incurable condition, frozen, and thrust into a future that didn’t make sense, a future without a future.

“But they’re not patients,” said Renee, one of her constant companions. In better circumstances Anita would have called her a friend. In a different world, in a different time. If they hadn’t been born two centuries apart.

Renee smiled. “Those kids are real. More real than you and me. They were born here-and-now.”

Ambivalence. Vague dread. Anita’s other constant companions. “So the aliens are breeding us.”

Renee, too, hesitated. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it. I won’t lie, procreation is encouraged. And yeah, it did make my skin crawl. Still does. But those little rascals? They don’t care. This isn’t weird for them and they didn’t come here with baggage. Didn’t lose anything in the past. They’re just kids, having the times of their lives.”

She was allowed to walk around the tower, but not outside. Never seemed to stop raining there. Dennis said it wasn’t exactly rain, that there were things in the air that were no longer friendly to humans. Things that evolved without us, passed us by. No walking outside the tower without an environmentally sealed suit, anyway.

“Can I have one?”

“In time,” Dennis said. Because he knew. “We all went through it. It’s hard adjusting to this new world of ours.”

“I’m fine.” Of course, she didn’t really need the suit for what she was planning.

She took to watching the rain from the ground floor. Casually, she placed her hands on the windows one day. Nothing odd about that. Then another day, casually she placed her hands on the door. Still very normal, just a woman lost in thought. Then the next day, she did the same and pushed just a bit. Just until the door gave a little.

Not locked.

Anita smiled, and began preparing for the end. She picked a day the next week. A day everyone decided was Monday. Nobody knew if their new calendar lined up with pre-extinction, but there was something comforting about having regular Mondays. She was pleasant to everyone, played with the kids, embraced the community. And let go. It wasn’t a terrible place, but it just wasn’t for her. Her time had come and gone.

She never saw the aliens, which was a regret. The idea both enthralled and repulsed her, and still seemed unreal. Ah, but life was all about accepting the nevers and moving on.

Finally her day came. Good luck, with Renee being her chaperone. “I could sure go for a coffee,” Anita said, her hands on the door. “Would you mind?”

“Could go for one myself.” Renee left to fetch them, because she trusted Anita. That was an unexpected barb in the heart. But no matter, this had to be done.

And as luck often does, good turned to bad when Dennis came down the stairwell. “Anita! Guess what?”

She closed her eyes and swore under her breath. “What?”

“I found a TV!” Anita glared at him. “Well, I think I did, anyway. There’s a good chance it’s not an original. You know, they constantly tinker with our tech, taking it apart and reproducing it. I think they maintained this building for us, and all the food and whatnot. Doesn’t seem like it would survive thousands of years without help otherwise. Our caretakers.”

She sighed. This Monday was looking to be a real Monday.

Dennis placed something in her hand. A small, flat bit of plastic, looking like a narrow thumb drive.

“What’s this?” she asked. There was a strip of masking tape on it, and in faded pen, “33875 ANITA CABLE”.

“A Q12 drive, I believe. Maybe a Q14? A mid twenty-first century storage medium, anyway.” He grinned. “Often, people recorded messages for their loved ones. For when they woke up. Most of them are holos, but for this older tech, well, it took me a while to track down a way to play it back.”

“Messages?” Her eyes widened. “Wait, you mean – this is for me?” Cold arced along her nerves.

“Would you like to watch it?”

They sat down in one of the myriad empty rooms in the tower, where Dennis had set up a giant, flat monitor. He slipped the drive in the bottom and dimmed the lights. Renee meanwhile joined up with them, bringing the promised coffee.

“Would you like us to go?” Dennis asked.

Anita looked between the two, found her throat dry. “Stay. Please.” The butterflies in her gut roiled.

Dennis hit play.

A mahogany office appeared, bookshelves for walls, a heavy desk, a woman sitting behind it. Her hair, a tight white bun, and her eyes, yellowed, and her skin, scarred by time.

“Hello, Anita.” There was gravel in her voice. “You probably don’t recognize my face, but we used to live together. It’s me, Molly. Hello, Mom.”

Anita clamped her hand over her mouth, but she’d lost all her words anyway.

“Only I’m not Molly Cable any more. It’s Carson now, and it was Gaines for a while too. A lot has happened.”

Anita’s eyes bleared.

“I wish I could tell you in person, but, ah, well. Life doesn’t work that way. I never stopped thinking about you though, and I never stopped hoping. And now, well, I still hope they bring you back one day, and we can catch up. Like this, at least.”

Anita nodded along, and when Renee offered her a handkerchief, she took it.

“I don’t know where to start, to be honest. Feels like I have eighty odd years to cover.” Molly chuckled. “Hope you don’t mind, but I recorded a lot of footage. The cryo people were very accommodating. Frankly, it’s helping me remember my own life, which is nice, as the old memory isn’t what it used to be.” She sighed. “I never did save all the elephants, but I did work with them for five-odd decades. Well, time enough for that later. Hey, I’m not alone here – do you want to meet your grandkids?”

Anita nodded, and dabbed away another tear.

“I’ve a feeling you said yes. Good, good. Well, I hope you have some time, Ma, ’cause the family’s grown quite big.”

“All the time in the world, baby,” Anita said. And all thoughts of Mondays left her mind, as she met those who came after her, and those who went before.

August 10, 2023 22:31

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53 comments

Story Time
16:42 Aug 21, 2023

I don't know if the dialogue has something to do with it, Michal, but this one feels shorter than your others. It's got this kind of bounce to it that makes it a great read, really moves along and kind of careens you into the ending.

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Aug 22, 2023

That's an interesting observation! Fact is, it was quite long in the initial draft and had a fair number of cuts, so only the more impactful stuff/dialogue remained. Maybe that contributed to the pace. But given it spanned a bit of time, there was a conscious decision to keep things rolling too. Thanks for the feedback, Kevin :)

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Darvico Ulmeli
14:46 Mar 11, 2024

I can see myself writing a story like this. I found a lot of familiar thoughts in it. Thanks for writing this.

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Michał Przywara
01:08 Mar 14, 2024

Thanks, Darvico! I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I really liked it myself too. I appreciate the feedback!

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15:00 Oct 16, 2023

This story... No words. And the ending is so beautiful, the last line especially. Congrats on the shortlist. I haven't seen one that wasn't deserved, but this one I think could've (should've) won.

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Oct 17, 2023

Thanks, Khadija :) I liked this piece myself. It kind of came out of the idea of aliens running a zoo filled with people, and somehow that got crossed with cryonics, and what it might mean if it actually worked.

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Amanda Lieser
14:41 Sep 08, 2023

Hi Michal, Congratulations on the shortlist! This was an exceptional piece that wove sci fi with reality beautifully. I’m so happy it had a happy ending with love and hope for the future. It gave me the sense that these characters would all learn to live with one another. You wove that “wake up” scene beautifully and it was an interesting concept to play with. Of course, all magic comes with a price. Nice work!

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Sep 08, 2023

Thanks, Amanda! I'm glad this one had a happy ending too, as it was quite dour for a long time. "It gave me the sense that these characters would all learn to live with one another." - That's exactly what I was hoping for. I often wonder what life would be like, in a situation like that, where the survival of the entire species is in serious danger. Do we put aside differences and find a way forward together? Do we give in despair? Fun to think about.

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Susan Catucci
11:24 Aug 19, 2023

A beautiful piece, Michal - I would say flawless. It reminded me at times of Interstellar. Your ability to move the reader, effortlessly and convincingly from event to event, through an enormous expanse of time we get to experience as Anita does, it's as complete and bittersweet as anything I've ever enjoyed reading. Your reference to elephants is exceptionally poignant - an elephant confined to a caged environment is just where Anita wound up; a zoo for aliens. Yikes - you know how to pack a punch in your writing, Michal. You can't se...

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Michał Przywara
21:31 Aug 21, 2023

Thanks, Susan! That's humbling to hear. I'm glad the scale of time particularly worked out. With shorter stories there's a (very reasonable) tendency to stick to one event, or short timeline, but I wanted to see if that could be expanded. Many events, lots of time, but a common through line. I appreciate the feedback!

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Riel Rosehill
10:01 Aug 19, 2023

Damnit I was not expecting you to make me cry, I was expecting a funny story here! But this was beautiful. Might even be my favourite sci-fi to date-I'm pretty sure it is. Excellent title too, and such a heartbreaking story. Loved it, that shortlist was so, so well-deserved!

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Michał Przywara
21:30 Aug 21, 2023

Thanks so much, Riel! Yeah, it was a sadder piece this time around. I think there's definitely ways to make cryonics funny too, but it didn't fit for this one. Got to switch it up every now and then :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Leland Mesford
01:17 Aug 19, 2023

Great concept. De-extinction and pre-extinction great.

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Michał Przywara
18:11 Aug 20, 2023

Thanks, Leland! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
19:25 Aug 18, 2023

Congrats. Good ending. Smooth one. My system felt it.

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Michał Przywara
01:52 Aug 20, 2023

Thanks, Philip! Glad to hear it :)

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Judith Jerdé
16:59 Aug 18, 2023

Great story, Gave me a strange feeling when they close the cryo- door. It’s like dieing but not. I’ve always felt like I’d want to hang onto every breath rather than assign an actual shelve-life experation date on myself. I loved all the nuances in your story. Makes me want to be a better writer myself.

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Michał Przywara
22:34 Aug 19, 2023

Thank you, Judith! That's lovely to hear :) Doing these weekly stories is one of my efforts to be a better writer. There's a *lot* that can be learned from the other writers here. I appreciate the feedback!

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Russell Mickler
22:24 Aug 17, 2023

Hi Michal! A compelling story in the distant future, Anita struggles to cope with her new reality after cryonic suspension. Luckily for everyone in the galaxy, humans are extinct, and Anita's a well-kept, catalogued animal in a zoo :) I mean, I can think of worse fates, but humanity's extinction is probably for the best. But Anita's suffering in the future will probably only be compounded by her inevitable loneliness. :( Michal, you wrote a very sad story here ...! :) R

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Aug 18, 2023

Thanks Russell! And yeah, I think you're right - lots of room for sad here. I suspect the other survivors dealt with it too, and their current smothering approach to post-reanimation probably results from those who gave up. Sometimes you have to fight for hope. Thanks for the feedback!

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Nina H
17:33 Aug 17, 2023

What a wonderful ending. Clever, imaginative, well-told story. I liked how Anita felt the elephants were an important part of Molly’s childhood, then circled back to that in her life’s work later.

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Michał Przywara
01:10 Aug 18, 2023

Thanks, Nina! Yes, I suppose from Anita's POV, that seventh birthday was a fairly recent memory, even though hundreds (thousands?) of years had passed since, and Molly had lived a full life in the interim. I'm glad you enjoyed the story!

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Karen Corr
04:02 Aug 16, 2023

Loved this story. I enjoy your work.

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Michał Przywara
20:40 Aug 16, 2023

Thanks, Karen! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Chris Miller
19:41 Aug 14, 2023

Very interesting, Michal. Lots of potential for expansion. So many interesting things hinted at. There would be some odd conflict/incompatibility between the people frozen at different times. Thanks for sharing.

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Michał Przywara
20:38 Aug 15, 2023

Thanks, Chris! Yes, lots of room for expansion, I agree. I think the coming together of people from different times and places could lead to all manner of interesting conflict. I appreciate the feedback!

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Ken Cartisano
17:13 Aug 14, 2023

Wow. You covered a lot of ground and bases. Aliens, cryo-whatever-the-hell-they-call-it, post apocrophylic, (I just made that word up.) The stretch from hopelessness to a firm desire to live. It's a wonderful and creative story, Michal. Very nice clean writing.

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Michał Przywara
20:39 Aug 15, 2023

Thanks Ken! That's a good word, deserving its own story :) I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. It was nice to switch to a more speculative sci-fi.

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Ellen Neuborne
17:00 Aug 14, 2023

I love the way you gave us an ending with heart. Well done.

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Michał Przywara
20:40 Aug 15, 2023

Thanks, Ellen! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Kelsey H
08:34 Aug 14, 2023

This is a really great spin on the 'waking up in the future' plot! It was a real emotional rollercoaster following the Anita through all her emotions after waking from initially feeling good to despair to some kind of acceptance. The information about the new world she has come back to was slowly revealed in a natural seeming pace, it really matched with the wish of the other patients to not overwhelm her at first. I love the idea of the aliens keeping the humans to study and breed - creepy! I really like this line - They made a human str...

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Michał Przywara
20:42 Aug 15, 2023

Thanks, Kelsey! Yeah, there were lots of ideas this generated for longer works, lots of questions. It was a challenge actually knowing where to draw the line for the 3k. The idea of a zoo people get put in also really appeals to me. What's the natural instinct in that situation? Break out, right? Lots of story in that too. I appreciate the feedback, and I'm glad you enjoyed the story :)

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Katy B
23:59 Aug 11, 2023

Wow: very creative, and different from a lot of your other writing. The very first paragraph really nabs the reader. Thank you for sharing!

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Michał Przywara
21:58 Aug 14, 2023

Thanks, Katy! Yup, wanted to try a different thing this time around, and the prose must fit the tone, mustn't it? I appreciate the feedback!

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20:17 Aug 11, 2023

Lovely Michal You develop the story very well, the switch from past to present via cryo sleep is smoothly done and the emotions of the mc well portrayed. Like how time passes in the story. I'm always impressed by that it's something I can't seem to do. My stories always take place in real time spanning the course of just hours, it's always interesting to read stories like this where days or weeks pass by. Another great read

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Michał Przywara
02:21 Aug 13, 2023

Thanks, Derrick! A longer passage of time was a conscious decision here, so I'm glad to hear it worked out. I'm actually leery of it normally, in stories this short, since in 3k words it seems like you really need to focus, and long stretches of time open the door for getting sidetracked. But it was an interesting challenge. Instead of focusing on a concrete event, the thing here was a subtler, longer struggle. I appreciate the feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
12:57 Aug 11, 2023

Another thought-provoking tale from Michal. I found this one to be particularly sad and hopeful at the same time. It seems obvious that you were alluding to animals in captivity in zoos. Molly never saved all the elephants, but I suspect that the elephants had their revenge. This tale, for some reason, reminded me of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's" books. Especially the parts about the dolphins and the mice. The lifeforms more intelligent than humans. The mice wanted to slice open Arthur Dent's brain to find the answer to life, the universe,...

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Michał Przywara
20:33 Aug 11, 2023

Thanks, Del! Yeah, zoos - I had an idea in mind for a long time, of aliens putting humans into a zoo. It's only tangentially related to this story, but some of the themes overlap, just with the added pressure of everyone-else-is-dead-and-the-species-lives-and-dies-with-you. Glad to hear Anita's transformation worked. In this situation - waking up after you were certain you were dead, with your old word gone and all connections severed - I figured a person might feel adrift, isolated. A hard thing to deal with, no doubt. I didn't consid...

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Ela Mikh
06:34 Aug 11, 2023

I love a good Sci-Fi. This was very captivating and imaginative. Thank you!

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Michał Przywara
20:35 Aug 11, 2023

Thanks, Ela! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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