All the Same

As soon as my life ended it began anew. I open my eyes to a blur of white-blue light. Only a moment ago I had closed them. My last sight, the faces of my grown children back dropped by beeping machines. How long have I been in stasis? It could have been decades. Or centuries.

“Caroline?” An electronic voice calls my name. I sit up. Miracle! I hadn’t been able to sit up for months leading up to my death. A smile spreads across my face as I enjoy the vitality thrumming within my body. My sitting-up body!

“Am I cured then?”

“It was the agreement. And so you have been awakened.” The voice has no inflection.

My eyes adjust slowly to the light. Shapes solidify and I see a pod-shaped silver robot the size of a toaster hovering over my feet. A single, red ocular lens moves up and down over my body, scanning me.

Cured. And awake in the future. Beginning a new life at age 52 with a lifetime of obsolete skills and no ALS. Maybe not all of my skills would be obsolete here. I had been a dancer. I would be a dancer again!

“How long has it been?”

“You have been in stasis for four hundred and forty years.”

I blink. Four hundred and forty years. I laugh in my throat, imagining what might await me. With four centuries of knowledge to catch up on, I might have to get a job sweeping streets. If they still needed street sweepers here in the future. For all I knew there was no trash or dirt anymore and everyone was a robot. My previous life had been so predictable. Until the ALS. A thought struck me.

“It took four hundred and forty years to cure ALS?”

“No,” the robot replies. “A cure for progressive ALS was discovered 410 years ago. You were too close to death at the time you entered stasis for that simple cure. Your case was more complicated.”

“Well, here I am. Just like I wanted. I get to live two slices of human history, and you know what? It’s all the same. I gave up nothing. I lead my old life to its fullest and awoke to a second one.”

Something in the inner workings of the robot’s ocular lens changes. It had the effect of looking like the robot had narrowed its eyes. Does it have thoughts or emotions? Or is it some sort of automated future nurse?

“I am pleased that you are pleased,” It says. “However you will be introduced to the future slowly. Too much too soon will overwhelm you.”

What does that mean? I look around my room for overwhelming future things. My hospital room is pure white. It looks sterile, like any hospital room. But it is shaped like a gumdrop. Oblong walls, domed ceiling. And I am on a bed, like any hospital, though my bed is an oval and the mattress looks like it is made from a single piece of cloth. As I lean closer, I realize it is not made of cloth, but of living skin perfectly covered in fine, soft fur. And the mattress is breathing. I stroke the mattress and swear I can hear a purring sound. A bubble of joy rises inside my throat. What else would I see here?

“It’s time to go home,” said the robot. An opening appears in the wall and an even brighter light floods the room. Blue daylight. The robot floats to the door and bobs in the air. I rise, my limbs are strong and sure, and I follow the robot out of my miraculous hospital room. They must have exercised my limbs for me before they revived me. No atrophy after over four centuries.

I step across the threshold and my bare feet sink into cool, damp soil. I look down. Raised garden beds fill a greenhouse dome with dirt paths between them. A couple dozen people in citrus yellow tunics tend the green plants. A few look up and wave to me before returning to their gardening.

“Who are they?”

“These are the awakened. The awakened in this dome were frozen between the year 2059 and 2109. They are your contemporaries.”

Suddenly the door to my hospital room slides shut behind me. I wheel. Where the door had stood is a solid greenhouse dome. I put my hand on the dome to feel for cracks, but it is solid. I feel a pang of loss. I hadn’t spent enough time examining the mattress or any of the machines in that room.

“Can I go back to that room?”

“Hopefully not. It is reserved for the seriously sick or injured awakened.”

“But I can get back there.”

“We prefer to treat patients in their homes, the dormitories where you will live with your contemporaries.”

I can feel a tightness in my chest. I look at the people in yellow. For the first time, I notice my clothing. I too am dressed in this yellow tunic, too. I was excited to meet these people and exchange stories, but they aren’t who I really want to talk to. I want to meet someone born over four hundred years after I’d died.

“Where are the people from this time?”

“They do not visit the domes of the awakened.”

“Well, when can I go out there to meet them?”

“This is where you will be,” says the robot. “You grow your food. There is a dormitory where you can share companionship with your contemporaries and interface with a library of your contemporary media.”

I go cold. “My contemporary media? I can’t watch movies or read books written in this time?”

“They are not available in the libraries here.” It said this as though it weren’t responsible for this. As though there just happened to not be any books or people from my future available. I gritted my teeth.

“How long do we have to stay here and acclimate before we can go out there?”

“The rest of your life.”

I sink to my knees in the cool dirt.

“But this can’t be. Life isn’t a dome. It’s out there being lived by other people. I gesture wildly at the dome. Being a prisoner wasn’t in the agreement.”

“But keeping you safe was. Life is too stressful out there for the awakened. It is better to be in here with what is familiar. You’ll find it’s pleasant when your life is much the same as it was.”         

***

Tyrone is my integration coach. He is a thin black man with a greying beard. He should have died of multiple sclerosis in 2072, but here he is in a dome in 2500 showing me how to live in a prison hat is also a glorified green house.

“So every morning we have tai chi here in the main room before we start tending the gardens.”

“Tai Chi? Why not yoga? Or Pilates?” I looked around the main room of the dormitory. It is cozy, though there is no furniture. Only some cushions on the floor.  There’s a fire place and some paintings on the wall depicting life in 21st century cities. Beautiful, yes, but still a reminder that I’m not allowed to know things past my own expected lifespan.  I wonder if awakened residents painted them. Or if they were reproductions from my own time. Or if the robots printed them on future printers so fancy they could ink jet out a Monet.

“The other two dorms in our dome offer Yoga or meditation. Ours does Tai Chi,” Tyrone explains. “If you want one of the other activities you may wake early and walk to the dorm of your choice. This is our kitchen,” he says, gesturing toward an arched doorway.

The next room is an open kitchen with pink quartzite countertops, white cabinets, and pale yellow walls. A late 21st Century aesthetic. Of course.

“We cook communally. Breakfast at 7:00, Lunch at 12:00, Dinner at 5:00. And we farm all our food here in the domes.” He looks proud rather than horrified about that. Suddenly a thought occurs to me.

“What if we don’t?”

“Huh?”

“What if we all go on strike and refuse to farm.”

Tyrone wrinkles his brow. “Why would we do that?”

“Prisoner protest of course. They’d have to let us out if the whole lot of use were starving!”

I don’t know how I expected him to react. Maybe a little hope or zest? But instead he pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs heavily.

“First, we’re not prisoners. This is our haven where we are safe. Our second chance at life.”

“A captive life!”

“It’s for our protection. We can’t keep pace with the world out there. Second, the robots will bring us food anyway. There are other domes out there with the Awakened from other time periods. Some of them grow food compatible with our GI systems. The robots won’t let us starve. You are welcome to go on a personal hunger strike, if you think that sounds fun.”

I lean against a cool countertop and drum my fingers.

“So why aren’t we in the domes with the other awakened?”

“The robots think we get along better with our contemporaries. Our brains and bodies and values are all so different that interaction outside our time peers would be upsetting. There’s a different dome for every 75 years of Awakened.”

“Can’t we read about them? Is there a library?”

“Yes, but we’re the oldest and none of the libraries go past our contemporary time span. Our library’s material ends at the year 2109. You were supposed to die in 2070, so you’d have some new material to look at. But not much.”

I throw my hands in the air. “There go my hopes of seeing 500 years of fashion trends.” I smile at him.

Tyrone laughs, but it seems a little unconvinced that I’ve been placated.

“You know, most people don’t want to look forward. They want to look up their families. Find out how life went for their kids.”

My stomach goes cold.

“No,” I say. “This is my new life. It’s all the same. I wouldn’t have known what happened to Dan and Ellie if I’d died normally, right?”

“Right. So why can’t you relax and enjoy the domes?” He asks. He stretches elaborately. “I haven’t been able to move so freely in years. No pain. No stiffness. Time to garden and read. But I do miss my wife and children more than I can say each day. There’s a support group in the evenings.”

Tyrone got a wistful look in his eyes. “You know, we’re a strange bunch, the Awakened. No one wants to die. Well, hardly anyone. But not everyone is willing to wake up and start over in an unfamiliar world with nothing and no one. I did it because I didn’t feel like I was done. I felt like MS took too much from me and I wanted to take some of my life back from it.”

I nod at him. Why do this, indeed.

“I wanted to see the future. What I was going to miss. When they announced the cryo program for the incurable, it seemed like fate. ALS took my dancing from me. It took my dreams of seeing grandchildren. But it gave me a shot at the future.”

“So the domes must frustrate you,” he laughs.

“I’m unspeakably frustrated. You said the other Awakened were different from us in body, brain, and values. Do you know any more about that?”

He shook his head. “The robots assured us that we would make each other uncomfortable. Some of us have gathered from talking with the bots that we might not even recognize a 2500 person as a person.”

“But all this information came through the robots?”

“Yes, they’re always happy to talk. But they only say so much, you know. We’ve probably already asked all the questions you’ve got. You’re not the first curious person to be awakened, you know.”

I smile at him. Since questions haven’t worked yet, I’ll find another way to get information.

***

A morning two weeks after that I bent over a green bean plant, plucking pods and putting them in a wicker basket. I chose to work alone, but my robot—I think of it as mine—hovers by me.  It thinks I am not integrating well. Other dorm mates harvest together in threes and fours several rows from me. They chat and laugh. Whenever I get close to them I hear them talking about their lives before they were awakened. They do not talk about their lives now.

The now. That’s what I want. But I have a plan.

“Do you like green beans?” my robot asks.

“I suppose.” I pull another pod off the stem and place it in my basket. No pests means no holes in the beans. Each one is perfect.

“Did you find pleasure in them before? In your former life?”

“A little, I guess.”

The robot whirred a little. I wondered at the little noises and movements the robots made. Whether they indicated feelings. Or if that was me anthropomorphizing them.

“Perhaps your maladjustment has extinguished some of your pleasure sensations.”

Is it trying to diagnose me with depression?

“Perhaps green beans aren’t that exciting to begin with.”

“Most inhabitants from this time cohort list green beans as their favorite vegetable.”

“Right,” I say, wiping my forehead. “Because they’re marginally less horrible tasting than kale or spinach.”

“We had never thought of it that way. Would it help you to adjust if you worked with the chickens or hydroponics instead of the vegetables?”

“You don’t think I’ve found my calling here?” I wonder if the robot can understand sarcasm. I plop another green bean into my basket and stand up. I don’t mind the robot following me at all times. But its attempts to fix my moods are annoying.

“You know what I want.” I tell it.

“We have told you. It is impossible.

I sigh and start walking toward the horizon where the glassy sky-colored dome meets the garden soil. I go to it sometimes and try to peer through it. It’s something like two miles in diameter but it’s my whole sky over my whole world. I’ve realized that the dome makes light and our blue sky is not actual sunlight filtering in from outside.

“Are you going to the dome again?” It sounds weary.

“Sometimes, when I stare through the blueness I can almost see something on the other side. Fast moving things. Large moving things. I think of bullet trains and walking blue whales when I see the shadowy shapes out there.”

My robot pal is quiet. I decide I’ve disturbed it. Does it think I’m crazy? Or does it think I’m right. Am I seeing something beyond the domes that we weren’t meant to look too closely at?

“You have not yet looked up the fates of your children who died in the 21st Century. Daniel and Ellen.”

My stomach turns to ice. “Dan and Ellie,” I say hoarsely. I knew they’d died they had to have. It’s all the same. Hearing it spoken aloud didn’t make it more real. I knew they would die someday. When you have a child, you create their death along with their life.

“I won’t look them up. As far as I remember they were still alive back in a world I had to leave. And there they’ll stay.”

And then I hit the robot out of the sky with my basket. It bounces against a garden box and vibrates and sparks. Short circuit. My best plan. Tyrone saw a robot malfunction once. An opening had dilated in the dome and a giant drone came through and carried the malfunctioning one away. Tyrone said the drone was about the size of a hospital stretcher. Big enough for me to climb onto.

I look up at the dome and wait. Just as he’d said, the dome opens. A flying chrome stretcher comes through and heads for me and my sparking robot. A clawed arm picks up the robot and lays it gently on the stretcher. I hop on alongside it and it takes off into the air. Yellow-clad Awakened point up from the fields. I see Tyrone’s face as I rise into the air. Shock and fear. I laugh. I am going to see the future.

Then I notice how high we are. The fields and ponds are getting smaller. The dome is several hundred feet high. My heart races. I had not thought this through. If the drone tilts at all it will send me crashing to the ground below. I doubt even the medics of the future could act fast enough to save me then.

But the drone takes me through the opening in the dome into the real world beyond. A cool wind hits me and threatens to push me from the stretcher. I grip the metal sides of the drone. My robot pal seems to be affixed magnetically to the stretcher, but I’m not holding on so well.

I blink in the wind and the outer darkness. As my eyes adjust, I cannot comprehend what I see. I have no context. The sky is a root beer brown color and so many lights glitter in it that it looks like it could be a floating city.                

Great animals move below me over and under rock formations…or were they infrastructure. The patterns are elegant. Organic looking yet too regular to be natural formation. Smaller animals move like ants in a line, like traffic over the rocks. The drone flies toward a tower—the lone structure in all this landscape that I can recognize as a building.

It is a lonely gray box shape with electrical lighting. Decrepit. I look behind me at the domes. There were five of them and they too look out of place in this landscape. They look like ruins somehow. A black and white tube set in a salesroom of holovid projectors. Still operational, but obsolete. What am I doing out here? How can I ever understand this world?

The drone touches down on the roof of the aging building. A floating robot that looks like my broken robot but larger comes toward the stretcher. Its eye lens widens when it sees me.  A light flashes on the side of its head. Suddenly two more floating robots appear from the roof access door. These two have arms.

“You damaged this robot,” the big one says.

“Uh…” I don’t know what to say. My brain is mush just looking at the world around me. How much trouble am I in?

The other two robots pick up my broken robot and carry it into the building. Had I killed my robot? Can they be killed? Was he one of the future humans after all?  It strikes me too late how little I know about this world that I was acting in, trying to force it to do what I want.

“You are Caroline Farwell, the Late 21st Century Awakened who is not adjusting well.”  It isn’t a question.                

“Uh…” I am known among the robots?

“You wanted to see this world outside the dome so much you damaged my chipsibling. Is it all you hoped?”

The robot sounds bitter to me, and I feel bad.

“I don’t understand,” I say. It is the truth. “Where are all the people?”

“Two people are here on this roof,” it says.

“So, all the people have become robots?”

The robot makes a chuckling noise.

“No. We robots are some of the people. We are the easiest for you to understand. We are the oldest people. The closes to what the Awakened would recognize as people. But not close enough, obviously. Or my chipsibling would not need repairs.”

I swallowed. “I am sorry.”

“We know you would not have done it if you’d thought them a person. All the Awakened were carefully screened for psychological tendencies that could lead to violence. We did not want an unstable environment in the domes.”

A chill runs down my spine. How strict was the test? I think of people still frozen, waiting for their cures that will never come because of a personality trait. Or were they decanted and left to die? I push the thought away.

“So where are the other people?

“Out in the world. Unconcerned with the awakened and the Robot People’s silly historical mission. The others leave my chipsiblings and me alone. We carve out a life near them. But it doesn’t interest them.”

“Are they the big animals?” I gesture at a huge shadowy shape creeping over the landscape like a centipede-whale.

“No,” it makes the chuckling noise again. “Those generate our energy.”

My brain tried to grasp this, but it slipped away like a wet bar of soap.

“What do you want from the Awakened?”

“We Robot People are relics of the past. We possess an affinity for other relics. When the caverns of the frozen sick were marked for destruction, we intervened. We took up the original agreement you signed when you were frozen.”

My mouth goes dry. “Destruction?”

“Yes. You can see how out of place you would be out here. But my chipsiblings and I enjoy caring for the domes. It’s both meaningful and entertaining. The best an old people can hope for in the twilight years of their kind.”

“But … Can’t I go walk around out there? I want to at least try to know the unknowable.

It blinks it lens at me and says, “No you don’t.”

“Yes I do!”

“No. There has always been more outside your awareness than you could understand. Waiting for you. And you froze yourself to avoid learning it. We can help this body of yours live a further century. Maybe more. But the end is the same. You will meet the unknowable as all persons do. Be content in the domes. There is much to learn within yourself, but you have been too afraid to look. Enjoy this new learning and thrive.”

With this proclamation the drone sprouts arms from two compartments on the sides of its body and carries me back across the shadowy landscape under a twinkling root beer colored sky. My dome opens and the robot gently sets me down on the soft earth outside my dormitory. The dome sky is dark. It’s night time here now. The large robot lifts off and flies back through the dilation and it closes behind him. The wind from the dome fans disturbs my hair and I hear a faint sound of crickets. I wonder if they are real crickets or just an audio of soothing nighttime sounds. I have yet to see a bug in the domes.

I walk into the dormitory and pass through the main room. All is quiet. Everyone is asleep. I open the door to the library and turn on one of the console screens. I type in Dan’s name first. Then Ellie’s. I read the dates my children died. I read their obituaries and all the online posts from friends, family and well-wishers. I read their social media posts from the years between their deaths and mine. I look through the photographs of my grandchildren and great grandchildren. I wasn’t supposed to know any of this. It was a gift wrapped in thorns. All of this would have happened without me knowing it, but oh. It was not all the same.

 

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