“Togetherness Is A Fable (We Tell Ourselves In The Hope Of Not Being Alone)” by Frederick Barrows

15°

“Ella?”

The man’s eyes fluttered. Even in the subdued light, he had striking, golden-hazel irises.

“No,” she said. “I am Dr. Shi.”

“Ella…” He looked too rangy for the adjustable bed’s standard-sized frame. “I…” He lifted his large hands and stared at them, astonished. “My God…” He shuddered. “You brought me back. You … you actually did it.”

He had a full head of dark, curly hair, albeit speckled with gray, and a warm glow had returned to his light brown skin.

“Welcome back, Mr. Crain,” she said. “Your vitals are strong but it will take time for you to…”

“God!” He turned, coughing sharply.

“Halitosis is a temporary side effect of the restorative chemicals.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around, taking in the cylindrical spaciousness of the antiseptically chrome- and white-polished lab and its encompassing, blue-tinted glass. Dr. Shi wondered if he’d comment on the absence of door handles, as more than a few before him had done.

“Ella, where’s my Ella?”

“I am sorry, Mr. Crain, I do not understand what you mean.”

“No…” He shook his head. “No, no, no. That was the arrangement. We were supposed to come back together. That was the deal.”

“Mr. Crain, there is always some fear and uncertainty associated with…”

“Where the hell is my wife?”

It was more plea than demand. Dr. Shi was startled by the immediacy of his yearning, especially after such prolonged isolation. He spoke as if he’d been separated from his spouse for a few hours rather than two centuries.

“I understand your concern, Mr. Crain, and I will do my best to answer all of your questions.”

He looked at her. “Your eyes … what…?”

She turned her head from side to side. “The color of the irises vary depending on light intensity.”

“Come again?”

“They have been augmented, greatly enhancing my limited inborn vision.”

“Augmented?” His settled against the pillow. “That a big deal … now?”

“Yes. Most people employ some form of augmentation.”

“Have my ruined lungs … been augmented?”

“No. Nanite technology repaired them, as well as your extrathoracic and mediastinal lymph nodes, using organic rather than artificial tissue.”

He looked puzzled. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“As a rule we try to avoid utilizing augmentation on new arrivals. It is better to allow patients to decide, depending on cost-effectiveness and the condition of their bodies after restoration.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess.”

“We endeavor to bring you back in the most optimal condition.”

“By the looks of this place, it appears it took quite a while for me to achieve optimal anything.”

“I am still running diagnostics. Please, try to rest.” She turned to go, revealing a withered left arm.

He gestured with his left index finger. “What happened to your arm?”

“Rest,” she said, showing him her right shoulder. “Soon, there will be answers.”

20°

Mr. Crain appeared more amused than bewildered by the quintet of holographic heads that floated over his bed. Respectively, encircling from his left to right, were Doctors Cao, Yao, Tang, Banerjee and Jha. Dr. Shi, the lone female, stood a few paces from the foot of the bed.

“Congratulations, Mr. Crain,” said Doctor Cao, “you are free of cancer and, overall, in excellent health for a man of your age.”

“It is a most remarkable recovery,” said Dr. Yao. “You have surpassed all of the predicted metrics.”

“We are pleased to have you back in the world of the living,” said Dr. Tang.

“Shortly,” said Dr. Banerjee, “you will be on your feet and commence the reorientation process.”

“It is the final step with us but the first in what we hope shall be a long and rewarding new life,” said Dr. Jha.

“Wonderful.” Crain shifted his weight. “Now, tell me about my wife.”

Dr. Cao’s brow creased. “Yes, well, once you complete your recovery with Dr. Shi and transition into the reorientation program…”

“Where is she?”

Dr. Cao paused. “Excuse me?”

“My wife,” he said. “Where is she?”

“The important thing, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Yao, “is for you to successfully transition into the reorientation program.”

“Will Ella be waiting for me when I get there?”

Dr. Shi focused on the great, curved windowpanes. Rain struck the armored glass and steamed. Bruise-colored flashes rippled in the distance.

“All of these questions and many more will be answered by the temporal therapist assigned—”

“No,” Crain said, cutting off Dr. Tang. “I want them answered, now.” He wriggled against his bedding. “Look, are you people even associated with the outfit that put me on ice in the first damn place?”

Dr. Cao looked in Dr. Banerjee’s direction.

“Yes, well, you must understand, given the span of time…”

“Just get to it.”

He smiled conciliatorily. “The organization that performed your initial procedure ultimately sold its assets to another corporation, which in turn resold them. This process of asset management and transfer repeated, quite a few times. And now you are under our dependable custodianship and care.”

Crain grimaced and repositioned his pillow.

Dr. Jha’s head drifted closer. “Yes, Mr. Crain, and despite the transfer of your assets, let me assure you that all of your rights and privileges are still valid and binding, as per your original agreement with…”

“My wife…” he said, visibly flagging. “My wife and I had our own valid and binding agreement that we would be revived together. To-geth-er.” He sighed. “Look, I’m not budging until I know where Ella is … or at least find out what happened to her.” He scanned the heads. “Get me, fellas?”

“Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Tang, “it is essential that you finish your recuperation and graduate to reorientation.”

“Not without my Ella.”

Dr. Yao cleared his throat. “Sir, whatever interpersonal agreement you and your spouse may have had, surely you realize that everyone who undergoes cryopreservation, be it whole-body or neuro, does so singly.”

Crain nodded. “Right, right, I understand. Now, tell me, is my money still good?”

Dr. Banerjee’s head bobbled. “Absolutely. The trust set up to pay for your storage and restoration is most healthy. The investment portion alone has placed you in quite a strong position, going forward.”

Crain laughed, raw and throaty. “God bless compound interest.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Banerjee.

“Come now, Mr. Crain, all of these matters, both financial and personal can be addressed once you begin the reorientation—”

“No,” he said, looking at Dr. Cao. “No, I don’t think so. Not right now.”

“Mr. Crain, please, there are protocols.”

“To hell with your protocols. I’m still your customer and my account is in good standing. And since the customer is always right—at least he was back in my day—I’m staying right here. You work out whatever arrangement you want. But until I see my wife, or find out where she is, I refuse reorientation. I don’t want to know when I am or…” He looked around, wincing as he craned his neck. “God, am I even in the same hemisphere?”

The heads, save for Dr. Cao’s, disappeared.

“Same planet, for that matter…”

“We shall confer, Mr. Crain, and return momentarily,” Dr. Cao said, and then vanished.

Crain stared down the length of the bed, at Dr. Shi. “Sorry to be a pain but … my wife, Ella.”

She smiled. “Everything will be fine, Mr. Crain. You are acting within your rights.”

“First comforting thought…” He grunted and touched the nape of his neck. “What in the hell—?”

Dr. Shi approached on his left side. She pulled her shoulder-length, black hair aside and revealed three small, metallic contacts embedded just above the base of her neck.

Goosebumps decorated Crain’s forearms.

“I am sorry if I have alarmed you,” she said, straightening. “These connections comprise the current standard interface.”

“Meaning I had no choice?”

“It is essential to the revivify procedure.”

“So much for that no-augmentation policy.”

“A mandatory exception.”

He scratched around the connectors. “Right…”

The heads reappeared, causing Dr. Shi to step back and out of Dr. Cao’s holographic space.

Crain crossed his arms. “Gentlemen.”

“Mr. Crain, since you have not left the storage lab, you are, technically, still considered to be in a cryo-state.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” said Dr. Jha, “that you may remain where you are, for now. Your meals, and other personal expenses, will be charged to your account. Of course, these costs are nominal. Ideally, you will soon come to the most reasonable conclusion that reorientation is the best outcome and move to the next stage.”

“And my wife?”

“Reorientation first,” said Dr. Tang, “and proceed from there.”

He snorted. “We’ll see about that.”

“Be well, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Cao. “Future messages may be relayed through Dr. Shi. If you need anything, simply request it of her.”

“Uh-huh.”

The heads disappeared.

He looked at Dr. Shi. “Say I go through this reorientation process and then find out Ella’s still iced and might remain iced longer than I can realistically wait … can I be refrozen?”

“Once you begin reorientation you are no longer considered under the institute’s primary care. To be readmitted can prove challenging. There is a waiting list and priority is given to those who are younger or have a medical condition that cannot be addressed with current technology. You would have to justify the need and await a ruling, which takes time, and may or may not go in your favor.”

“Meaning there’s no guarantee?”

“Not once you leave this lab, no. There are other institutes and organizations, of course. We are among the very best, however, and I would not recommend—”

“No, I understand,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Just a lot to consider.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, Doc, how is our particular arrangement supposed to work?”

“You have a bed. You will have access to clothing, sheets and toiletries.” She indicated a nearby rolling nightstand. “There is a bathroom and a shower. An artificial assistant will explain how everything works.” She paused. “Meals are twice daily, eight hours apart. Snacks are available. The kitchen area is modest but functional. You must understand, though, this is not a hotel.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that part I gathered. I’m just glad everyone still speaks English.”

She tapped her connectors. “Communication is no longer a great obstacle.”

He smiled. “Chalk one up for the future.”

She nodded. “If you need anything, please let me know.”

“And who do I contact, when you’re not around?”

“I am always here, Mr. Crain.” She gestured toward a faintly illuminated doorway, accessible via magnetic lift, located on the lab’s uppermost tier.

“Ah.” He nodded. “Well, since we’re going to be roommates, you can call me Edgar.”

“All right, Edgar,” she said, smiling. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my duties.”

“And what should I call you?”

“Dr. Shi,” she said, and walked away.

25°

Dr. Shi sat in her office, her neck nestled in a padded headrest that linked her with the institute’s systems. The mundane tasks of process reporting, system diagnostics, and scheduled maintenance of storage dewars required minimal active concentration. It was literally something that she could perform in her sleep. Her primary interest had become the behavior of her recently thawed patient.

She scanned his file for the umpteenth time, as if convinced some heretofore unrevealed insight might be gleaned. Charles Edgar Crain, Professor of Economics, aged sixty-one years, four months, sixteen days. American. Primarily of West African (70.2%) and Northwestern European (23.4%) descent. Non-smoker who received a diagnosis of lung adenocarcinoma in his fifty-sixth year. Lived in an onsite hospice care facility his final six months.

No known living relations.

Her request to inform him of that fact had been emphatically denied. Reorientation or nothing. Legally, he remained frozen. He was not the first to resist reentering the world, nor would he be the last. He was, however, the most outwardly stubborn in his resolve.

Ella cannot help you now, Edgar, she thought. But I can. I am here and I am real and I absolutely understand what you are feeling.

I am not some faded ghost.

In fact, I am the exact opposite of that.

She sighed and closed the mentally-projected file.

Edgar was tidying his bed. She had arranged for rolling privacy screens and furniture to provide some semblance of a personal space. The unicolor, one-size-fits-all shirts and elastic-banded pants sufficed, and he had a choice of green or white slippers. He had easily mastered the AI commands and was neat to the point of being fastidious. Over the past few days she’d consistently reminded him that he didn’t have to clean up around the lab. He ignored her.

A (mostly) model guest.

He approached the glass-enclosed office. She sent a thought-command. The door parted.

“So, Doc,” he said, grinning, “when’s the next defrosting?”

“You know I cannot tell you that.”

He crossed to the transparent wall opposing her desk. “Is my Ella down there?” he asked, scanning the orderly assemblage of vacuum flasks. “Has there been no cure for whatever killed her? Is she still younger than me? Older? Ageless?”

“Edgar, please.”

“It may not be legally right to tell me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”

“That is not my decision to make.”

He lowered his head and sighed. “Little victories, then.” He pivoted. “I’m not leaving this office until I know something I didn’t know before entering.”

“Edgar…”

He moved closer. “How old are you?”

She reflexively moved her right hand to her crippled arm’s wrist. Why would he ask such a thing? She frowned. What was the point?

“Well?”

“I am twenty-nine.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Coincidence.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ella was the same age when I … when I unwittingly became a transferrable asset.”

Her posture relaxed. “Coincidence is a statistical inevitability.”

He waggled an index finger. “Spoken like a true scientist.”

“And chance is merely an unexplained outcome.”

“Uh-huh.” He went to the doorway and then halted, his back to her. “What about death?”

“Sorry?”

He half-turned. “Have we conquered death?”

She shook her head. “Information-theoretic death is the great threshold. That is why protecting the brain is so vital. The rest of our bodies can be augmented, reinforced, replaced. Personality and presence, however, the distinctive spark of self that springs from consciousness defies faithful replication.”

“Shorthand: death is still inevitable.”

She rotated her chair, facing him. “Death can be delayed but not denied.”

“Well, now I know,” he said.

“I am sorry to disappoint,” she said.

37°

He touched the back of his neck. “How secure is this thing?”

They were sitting near the small kitchen, on a translucent, backless plastic bench.

“It depends on what you are connected to,” she said, stirring her red rooibos tea. “Remote connections tend to be more vulnerable than direct ones.”

He dipped a semi-sweet biscuit into his black coffee. “Have you ever been hacked?”

She took a sip from her cup. “I am sensibly cautious.”

“Right, of course, but with the proliferation of augmentations, doesn’t that make people more vulnerable to attacks?”

“This building is very secure, essentially a closed system. Once you reenter the world, however, it will be important to educate yourself about current encryption protocols, public versus private connections, and which interfaces you can and cannot trust.”

He pointed to a recliner next to his bed. “I gotta admit, it’s pretty neat to be able to just sit back and call up replays of any baseball game ever recorded.”

She smiled.

“And I am encouraged by the fact that the Grand Old Game has mostly stayed the same, however long it’s been since…” He chuckled. “Cute how you scrub the dates from what little media I can access. Downright cagey of you.”

“It is true,” she said. “We tempt with modern but familiar content.”

“Not gonna work, Doc.”

“You are like a fish that we eagerly want to bait but, sadly, cannot coax from the frozen depths of its obstinate ignorance.”

Edgar blew air over his lower lip. “Poetic, if harsh.”

“To remain here is no life.”

“True, but I’m not the worst roommate, right? I mean, it must get terribly lonely,” he said, looking around, “inhabiting this icy fortress of solitude.”

“I have grown accustomed to it.”

“You’re definitely not the stir crazy type, Doc.”

“This is not a job for those incapable of being alone.”

He deposited his cup in the stainless steel sink. “Tell me your name.” He looked at her. “Come on, Doc, what’s your Christian…” He massaged the back of his neck. “Tell me your given name.”

She sipped her tea.

“Okay, then. What do you do for fun?”

She paused, and then returned to the pleasures of her tea.

23°

“What’s with the big boxes?” He appeared in her office doorway, shortly after waking up.

Three portable containers were staged near a small couch and table, not far from his sleeping area.

“I received permission to allow you access to your personal effects and other articles,” she said. “Everything should be as it was before you entered biostasis. Copies of vulnerable items have been uploaded to a digital archive.”

He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. “You messing with me, Doc?”

She shook her head. “I am not messing with you, Edgar.”

“Wow…” He walked over to the containers and sat on the edge of the couch. “Even tastier bait.” He hesitated, as if assessing a particularly crucial chess move, and then reached out and depressed a latch-trigger on the nearest box. The unit sighed and the lid silently rose.

“Almost like Christmas,” he said, gingerly lifting the lid and placing it nearby. He moved the box closer and began digging through its contents. He pulled out a set of video discs and placed them on the table. His face brightened as he produced a bulky album filled with photographs.

“Oh … oh…” Tears welled in his eyes as he shakily turned the laminate-covered pages.

Dr. Shi exited her office. “Are you okay, Edgar?”

“It’s just … just so real, you know? Something connected to…”

She approached. “Is that Ella?”

“Yeah,” he said, sniffling. “She looked so good in that blouse. Man, what a smile…”

Lustrous blonde hair, shimmery turquoise top, long and trim. “She was quite pretty.”

He nodded. “Despite the age gap, we had a lot in common. Certainly a lot more than me and my first wife. Ella and I were both homebodies, loved to just sit on the couch, watch a show, maybe have friends over for charades or a board game. Just nice, uncomplicated stuff. Our wonderfully dull, happy place.”

He opened the other containers and began pulling things out: shirts, pants, cufflinks and deodorant. A framed doctoral diploma. Several board games. Two pocket combs. A pair of white gold rings.

“There we go,” he said, slipping the larger of the twin bands on his ring finger. “After I got the bad news and the treatments failed to yield positive results, we discussed our options. Cryopreservation was, by a wide margin, the most extreme choice. Regardless, we made a pact to be together in a future age. Seriously romantic stuff.”

Dr. Shi absently touched her wilted arm.

He met her gaze. “Surely you can understand the impossibility of going it alone? I mean, why do anything if it’s just for yourself? If you can’t share the experience with someone … someone meaningful, what’s the point?”

“The institute’s great hope is that you undergo reorientation and begin a new life.”

“Not without Ella. Not a chance.”

Dr. Shi moved past the couch and peered out the colored glass. “There was a woman, this was almost a year ago. We successfully revived her but, sadly, not her cat.” She drummed her nails against the pane. “She was similarly reluctant to leave. However, after a while, she understood that life must go on, regardless of circumstance. Delaying the inevitable is merely another kind of death.”

“Ella is far more significant than some damn cat.”

She nodded. “I am sorry, I did not mean to imply…”

“Are you trying to tell me that Ella didn’t make it, that she’s…?”

Dr. Shi focused on intermittent currents of lightning, admiring their dynamic patterns.

“Well, maybe there’s something bigger than your tidy, clinical definition of death. Maybe our consciousness is liberated when the body fails. You’ve got no data to disprove that. Love will always transcend death. Absolutely.”

She looked at him. “I meant no offense, Edgar.”

He squeezed his left hand into a fist. “If I can guess your name, will you tell me?”

She shook her head.

“Well, then,” he said, nostrils flaring, “it must be Bitch.”

13°

She sat in bed, carefully applying vermilion polish to the nails on her lifeless left hand. The door was secured and her personal shock shield enabled. She could hear him, moving around the lab. Since he’d received the stored goods, he’d slept little. Contents of the audio and video discs had been retrieved from the network. He played them incessantly. His passionate devotion to the woman’s memory was formidable. Admirable. Not sustainable, however. No, not anything close to that.

She heard his wife’s voice, the engaging sound of her laugh. Again.

It was just an echo, though, an ancient, empty echo. And you cannot wrap your arms around an echo.

He must know that.

It was so painfully obvious.

Dr. Shi exhaled and called up a self-curated collection of long, tonally nonconcrete, mentally soothing sounds.

100°

“Ah!” Edgar lashed out, scattering backgammon checkers across the floor.

Unfazed, Dr. Shi said, “It was closer that time.”

“Yeah, well, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he said, grumbling as he collected strewn pieces.

She laughed. “I am unfamiliar with the expression.”

“Trite but true, Doc.” He slapped the checkers down and stared at the board. “You know, I was quite the player, way back when. I mean, I was competitive. Fairly dominant. What’s your secret?”

She separated the red and black pieces. “It is just patterns. Like most things, once the underlying design has been decoded the surface variations are easily manipulated.”

“Well, seventh time’s the charm,” he said.

She yawned. “Last game.”

“So, uh, you ever been married, Doc?”

She leaned over, retrieving a piece he’d missed.

“Okay,” he said. “This the sort of work you imagined yourself doing when you were younger?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

“Sure, but what about your life outside this place?”

She inspected a chipped red checker. “My current rotation ends in eight days.”

He blinked several times, as if perplexed. “Eight days?”

“Yes.”

“My God, who’s going to replace you?”

She rattled her dice cup. “I do not know.”

“Doc, tell me whatever you can about my wife. Please.”

Dice tumbled across the right-hand side of the board.

Edgar remained in bed the majority of the following day. He pored over keepsakes and looped the sound of his wife’s voice.

As Dr. Shi was preparing for bed, he said: “I don’t know if God exists the same way for people now as He did in my time, but my God has a heavenly space reserved for true believers, a beautiful patch where all of your loved ones congregate in peace and harmony. Like a great big park with perfect weather forever. Just barbeques and togetherness. The rational part of me knows it’s fanciful, something to give comfort in the deep dark of the night. But my heart yearns for it. When Ella came into my life I caught a glimpse of what that special afterlife might be like. Truth is, passing with her still so young, I was selfish. Whatever awaited beyond this world, I didn’t want to spend one second of it without her. Stopping time was my way of not having to confront that. But, now, look at me. I’m stuck. If I leave here, surrender myself to the mercy of the unknown … and find out she’s not there … well, that … that I know would be a living Hell.”

-13°

The holographic heads of the other doctors hovered around Edgar. This time, however, Dr. Shi spoke for the institute.

“Though we have mastered the revivify process, it is important to understand that each patient is different, meaning we cannot confidently predict the outcome of undergoing a subsequent procedure.”

“Meaning my revival a second go-around is not guaranteed.”

“That is correct…” she said. “However, Mr. Crain, given the current pace of cryonic advances, I would say your odds of returning are most excellent.”

“And since there’s no disease to cure this time, I suppose I need to tell you when to bring me back.”

“Your input would be greatly appreciated. However, if you do not commit to a fixed date, we would determine an optimal time to revive you.”

“And what if my assets get transferred again?”

“In that case, you would be revived before transfer.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Look, tell me about Ella and I’ll begin reorientation immediately.”

No response.

“What’s to gain by stonewalling me, dammit?”

“Are you positive you do not have a preferred time to be awakened?”

“Yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “Bring me back when you can cure what I’m feeling inside.”

-18°

It was the second to last day, for both of them. They shared a final meal and then went over the impending procedure.

“Take care of my stuff, Doc,” he said, gesturing toward the containers.

“I will,” she said.

“Shouldn’t be nervous, but God knows I am.”

“You can still change your mind. It is not too late.”

He shook his head. “Old mule stubborn.”

“Of course.” She produced a small, glossy white cube. “Once connected, this cryoinducer will put you into a restful state and gradually lower your body’s temperature. Final prep will occur, your heart will be stopped, and you will be placed into storage.”

“Yeah, I’m mostly familiar.”

“We begin first thing tomorrow morning.”

He chuckled. “By dawn’s early light.”

“Yes.” She paused. “I want to have time to make sure you are perfectly situated before…”

“Your replacement arrives.”

“Correct.”

“Have you ever undergone the procedure?”

She nodded. “When I was young, I was very sick.” He glanced at her arm. “My parents were part of the institute. They helped found the cryonics division. I grew up around labs such as this one and lived in corporate-sponsored housing.”

“When you were first brought back, did your parents look like grandparents?”

“Yes.” She brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “A cure took longer than expected. Despite my late revival, neither chose to delay the inevitable. The following year, they passed within hours of one another. I was determined to help the technology evolve … to ensure that it far exceed known limits.”

“Determined to reach some post-death finish line?”

She smiled, her mutable irises transitioning from blue to green.

He stared at her. “God, how many times have you been brought back?”

“It can become an addiction,” she said. “I give my life to the institute and they grant me opportunities to test, discover, and document what comes next. I very much like being a pioneer of progress.”

“Still,” he said, “pretty risky behavior.”

“I came to peace with that, long ago.”

“So why not … fix the arm?”

She shook her head. “You described your ideal heaven. Well, my ideal heaven is called xīn shēnghuó, or ‘new life.’ It is a world where everyone has an opportunity to hibernate-on-demand and ultimately settle on a future of their choosing. Being born in a less advanced age seems arbitrarily cruel and wasteful.”

“One-way trip, though. Shame if you abandon a better past for a worse future.”

“I have not been disappointed, yet.”

He leaned forward. “Doc, please, what happened to my Ella?”

She tapped the center of his forehead with her index finger. “Like you said, Edgar: one-way trip.”

-40°

Dawn. The cryoinducer had been attached. He was fading.

“Doc … what … sound?”

“That was a test tone,” she said, checking a digital readout. “I made a recording for you.”

“Re-recording? … Ella’s?”

“No,” she said.

He licked his lips. His voice was ragged. “Yours?”

“Yes, Edgar. Mine. It will play once per calendar year, on the anniversary of your return to biostasis.”

“Why?”

She placed her hand on his chest. “To better understand.”

Two assistants appeared and waited nearby. Dr. Shi initiated the final shutdown sequence.

Edgar’s fingers twitched. His eyes rolled white. “Tell…” He licked his lips. “Tell me… puh-please…”

She did not remove her hand until his heart had stopped beating.

-150°

Dr. Shi tidied the lab, checked the systems, and began repacking Edgar’s things. Ella’s wedding band was the last object remaining. She held the white gold halo aloft and examined it. Written on the underside was the inscription: Love without end.

Her replacement was due to arrive within the hour. For her, it was back to the research department and unappealing interactions with choleric colleagues and smug superiors. Reorientation to the mundane determinacies of daily life.

She carefully maneuvered the ring onto her left hand.

But not quite yet.

-196°

“A pair of ice fishermen unknowingly left a fish behind. The tiny creature tumbled from one of their buckets and bobbed in the slushy ice that filled the hole they had cut. Paralyzed with shock, the fish was unable to dive. Overnight, the ice thickened. When the fishermen returned to their hole they discovered the orphaned fish. It was trapped between worlds. One of the fishermen claimed the creature’s mouth was moving, as if desperately trying to tell them something. The other fisherman said his friend was imagining things and that he should lay off of the late night drinking. If capable, the tiny fish would have laughed itself to death.”

A calm exhalation.

“Edgar, I plan to be here when you are brought back. Regardless, you will do so alone. You have been alone for a very long time. That does not mean, however, that you are incapable of enjoying a rich and fulfilling new life.

“When you do reawaken, even if I am not present, I hope the first name that you speak is mine.

“Take care…

“菊.”

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