He’s here, Dr. Pérez.”
Sandra felt every muscle at the back of her throat contract as she swallowed hard, something she didn’t remember ever feeling before. The excitement that had been dominating most of her morning suddenly turned sour as she realised what it was they were about to do. She cleared her throat discretely, a hand over her mouth, before replying.
“Thank you, Xavier. I’ll be in shortly. Could you help Mr. Beauchamp into the chamber and start prepping him, please?”
Xavier nodded and walked back out the door, which clicked back into place with an almost imperceptible swish. It had, in fact, been imperceptible to Sandra ever since she’d started working here six years ago, but today she seemed to be hyper-aware of everything going on around her. She’d first noticed it the previous night, when every single noise in the street outside – a murmured conversation between passers-by, the rhythmic clacking of someone’s high heels hitting the pavement, an owl or a pigeon or some other bloody bird cooing from the building across – had kept her up until 3 a.m. The morning had been no different. The friction of her trousers against her legs was too rough, the water in the shower was either too cold or too hot, the gurgle of the coffee maker was incessantly annoying, even Mara’s voice, whose singing could usually melt Sandra’s heart, was suddenly too nasal. And, of course, the door into the office. Not only had she never heard the door swish, she’d also never realised how many times a day people walked through that door, but now she was well aware that it was almost constant, in and out every two minutes, swish to open, swish to close, on and on and on.
As a consequence, her work had suffered during the morning. Well, hadn’t been done was a more accurate description. Every time she’d tried to type out a few lines in her report, read another paragraph of the Jacques & Tanaka paper or make a little more progress on the refinement of the thawing techniques, swish, the door was opened, out went her concentration through it and swish, the door closed behind it. She’d even tried punching in a few more numbers into the simulation they were setting up, which just consisted of reading numbers from one place and typing them into another – something they’d usually just let one of the interns do –, but even that had proven difficult for her.
After a few more minutes of pretending to work, she closed her computer down, tidied up her desk a bit – something she rarely did, so it took a bit longer than it should have – and straightened out a few creases in her increasingly uncomfortable clothes.
As she was turning her back to the desk, her pocket began to vibrate. She pried out her phone from the ridiculously tiny pocket – whoever had designed those trousers seemed to think women had 2-inch long hands and nothing to carry – and saw Xavier’s name on the screen. She swiped her finger across the screen and spoke immediately.
“I’m on my way now, Xavier, just got a little sidetracked.”
“It’s just that–”
“Whatever it is, I’ll see to it in a minute, I’m just leaving the office as we speak.”
She turned right after the door and walked down the squeaky linoleum of the hallway. Was it the linoleum or was it her sneakers that were squeaking? She wasn’t sure. As she passed the break room, she couldn’t help wrinkling her nose at the mix of coffee, warm fish and soggy potatoes it reeked of. Someone should really clean those microwaves. Get rid of them altogether, even. The stench followed her almost all the way to the doors to of the lift, where it was replaced by the plastic smell of chewed gum and crisps emanating from the bin next to the buttons.
She held her breath for the ten seconds it took for the lift to arrive, ding, as well as the other ten it took for the damn doors to stagger open, but once inside it she breathed a sigh of relief.
The button lit up as she pressed it, a thick, bottle green number one outlined against the minty background, when the muffled thumps of quickened heels on linoleum reached her ears, making her eyes roll. The owner of the shoes was not in view, but she didn’t need to be for Sandra to know who it was. She knew of only one person in the building who wore high heels. Even to the labs.
“Hold the door, please!”
She made no effort to, but it wasn’t just when they opened that the doors were excruciatingly slow. As they finally began to close, a hand grabbed onto one of them, the long fingernails on it pristinely manicured. The doors hesitated at the interruption, but, to Sandra’s disappointment, eventually came to a halt before stumbling back open. There was a mousey squeak, phew, and Linda and her heels paraded into the lift.
“Oh! Good morning Dr. Pérez,” she said, a beaming smile on her face.
“Linda,” she nodded back curtly.
Linda looked at the panel of buttons, smiled to see they were going to the same floor and stood next to Sandra as the doors decided to shut and the lift hummed down to the labs.
“Exciting times, isn’t it?” asked Linda.
“Hm? Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely.”
“Aren’t you nervous?”
“Not really, no,” lied Sandra. “I just feel focused.”
Linda’s lipsticked lips formed a silent oh as she looked at Sandra. “Well, that’s impressive. If I had that kind of responsibility, my legs would feel like jelly right now. I mean, I’m kind of nervous as it is and I’ve barely been involved in the project. You know, it reminds me…”
As she droned on, Sandra blocked her out, trying to actually do as she’d said and focus. Of course she was nervous! Who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t every day that you froze a living person!
Mr. Beauchamp, or Patient Zero, as their official documents dubbed him, had strutted into the building two months earlier. He’d walked up to the front desk and refused to leave until someone high up enough in the project would speak to him. Eventually, Sandra had had to go down and meet with him.
“Dr. Pérez? The one in the article?”
She nodded. A journalist from one of the largest newspapers in the country had done a piece on the project a few weeks before that, including a short interview with the lead scientist. Her.
“I thought Dr. Pérez was a man.”
“I can arrange for you to meet my father, if you’d like, he’s also Dr. Pérez. I don’t know if 17th century literature is the kind of expertise you need, though.” She was long past putting up with those kind of comments, especially from men who strode into places acting like they owned them.
“No, no, you’ll have to do.”
She narrowed her eyes at this, but the man didn’t notice.
“I’m interested in what you people are doing. I read you can flash-freeze a person and wake them up fifty, sixty, a hundred years from now. Do you still do that?”
“Well, not yet, no. We’re developing new techniques we believe are more reliable than existing ones. So far, we’ve trialled–”
“Sounds good. I’ll take it.”
“I said I’ll take it. I want to be frozen, see the future, all of that.”
“Well, we’re not quite at the human trials phase. I mean, we’re still two months away from–”
“Perfect, two months is good for me. I’ll see you then, Dr. Pairs,” and before she could say anything he’d walked back out the door.
Three hours later, the project had received the largest donation since its inception under the name Beauchamp and the following day had received the man’s entire medical history, together with signed documents exempting them from any and all responsibility from the effects the process might have on him. Sandra’s boss had given the go-ahead, despite both her and her team’s complaints about strict procedures and due diligence. Half-hearted complaints, really – you didn’t get an opportunity like this every day in their field, after all, and everybody knew you had to break some eggs if you were going to flash-freeze an omelette.
“… as they had mixed up the two batches! Oh, I’ve never laughed more in my life. Anyway, good luck today, Dr. Pérez, we’re all keen to hear how it goes!”
With this, Linda strode out of the lift and took a sharp right, disappearing from Sandra’s view. Sandra didn’t move, her legs suddenly made of lead, some part in the back of her mind wondering if the lift could support this much weight. The clacks of Linda’s high heels very quickly faded away and she found there to be an unnatural quietude coming from the building floor. It was as if the entire place was waiting for her, expectant, like the walls themselves were holding their breath. Then, after several motionless seconds, the stillness was broken by the doors to the lift jerking into motion to shut once again. With it, all the noises she had expected to hear – the distant murmur of voices engaged in conversation, the sound of doors opening and slamming shut, the hum of the myriad machines scattered around the different lab rooms – came back, as if the lift doors had switched them back on, and she was stirred into action.
She stepped forwards, stopped the doors from closing and walked out onto the first floor with as much confidence as she could muster.
She made her way through the maze of corridors to a room at a far corner of the building. The plaque next to the door marked it as Cryo Ward 1. Someone had thought it a good idea to change the name to give a better impression of the whole process to Mr. Beauchamp and whoever happened to come in with him today, if anyone. They had also decided to stick a number 1 at the end of it, falsely suggesting there were other similar wards elsewhere in the building. Sandra didn’t agree with the marketing going on around her science, but she had to accept the fact that funding had to come from somewhere, so rebelled in silence by continuing to refer to the room as Lab 118.
She stalled in front of the door, steeling herself for what they were about to do. They had run the numbers dozens, no, hundreds of times, they had successfully tested it on ten animals so far – granted, none of them as large as a person, but still –, they had reviewed and pondered and hypothesised and considered the issue from every angle they could conceive and had found everything to be in order.
But still. They were freezing a live person, for crying out loud.
She shook off the doubts from her mind and pushed the door in, entering the room with a calm poise meant more for herself than anyone else.
The room was fairly simple. At the back, in the far right corner, was a desk not unlike the ones in the offices several floors above, a desktop computer snugly fit under it, with the monitor, keyboard and mouse neatly placed above. A small white light flashed intermittently from the computer itself, the only indication that it was running.
Along the wall to her left, an array of industrial power batteries were set up over several levels of stainless steel shelves, each one three times the height of a car battery and twice as wide, with a set of numbers and colour-coded strips on its front that provided a technical description of its contents. The shelving unit took up the entire length of the wall and was loaded top to bottom, forty-five batteries in total.
The wall at the far end was taken up mostly by the reason for the batteries and the computer, for the new plaque outside the room, for Mr. Beauchamp being here – and Sandra too, as a matter of fact: a cryogenic chamber, one large enough to fit a person. Seven feet long, two feet wide and five feet tall, with a bird’s-eye view of a rounded up outline of a human body, the machine looked like a futuristic version of an Egyptian sarcophagus had been given platform soles four feet tall. The exterior was as simple as it could get, no carvings or drawings on it, not even a brand name. A small panel near the head of the device would provide information on the person inside once it was turned on, but at the moment it was a shiny black that reflected a distorted portion of the room. Swinging on multiple hinges along the length closest to the wall, a lid topped the chamber. Made mostly of the same metal as the main body, a strip of tempered glass two inches thick ran along the part that would become aligned with the head of the person inside once closed. The interior of the chamber was mostly covered with a cyan soft cushioning, with a few strategically placed gaps here and there for cables, tubes and any other essentials.
Next to the chamber, Xavier and Mr. Beauchamp were deep in discussion – or in argument, rather, thought Sandra, based on the tone in their voices. As the door closed shut behind Sandra, they both looked over to her.
“Ah, there you are! Mrs. Pérez.”
Sandra tried not to frown, but knew some of it was bound to be showing. Xavier’s eyes were pleading for help and forgiveness all in one look.
“It’s Dr. Pérez, Mr. Beauchamp,” she replied as she walked up to them.
“I thought you said that was your father. Really, some people can’t seem to make up their mind.”
She decided to ignore the comment. “What seems to be the problem? You seemed to be arguing about something with my colleague here. I’m sure that, whatever it is, we can find some middle ground.”
As she said this, Xavier winced, as if in actual physical discomfort. Mr. Beauchamp, on the other hand, started to smile.
“I’m glad you said that. Your colleague here was being completely obtuse about it. He’s been guiding me through the prep process, I’ve signed a forest worth of documents that would probably exempt you from any harm that came to me, even if you were to stab me directly in the heart, but now he tells me that I cannot take my suitcase into the chamber with me!”
Sandra let out a little cough, the kind that would have made her choke if she’d been drinking something while the man spoke.
“I’m sorry, did you say suitcase?”
“Yes, my suitcase, this one here.”
He moved aside, revealing a medium-sized suitcase, the kind people stuffed into the overhead cabins in air planes.
She frowned in confusion at it, then up at Mr. Beauchamp, then over at Xavier, who was still clearly suffering over the whole situation.
“You… you want to take your suitcase… with you?”
“Of course I do. I always pack a suitcase on every trip I go and this is not going to be an exception. I know my rights! This is a standard-sized suitcase that conforms with all travel restrictions, you are not going to see me get into that chamber unless it comes in with me!”
It was going to be a long day.