DONALD WENT TO Victor’s funeral numb. He rode the lift in silence, watched his boots kick ahead of himself as he teetered forward, but what he found on the medical level wasn’t a funeral at all — it was body disposal. They were storing the remains back in a pod because they had no dirt in which to bury their dead. The food in silo one came from cans. Their bodies returned to the same.
Donald was introduced to Erskine, who explained unprompted that the body would not rot. The same invisible machines that allowed them to survive the freezing process and turned their waking piss the colour of charcoal would keep the dead as soft and fresh as the living. The thought wasn’t a pleasant one. He watched as the man he had known as Victor was prepped for deep freeze.
They wheeled the body down a hall and through a sea of pods. The deep freeze was a cemetery, Donald saw. A grid of bodies laid flat, only a name to feebly encapsulate all that lay within. He wondered how many of the pods contained the dead. Some men must die on their shifts from natural causes. Some must break down and take their own lives as Victor had.
Donald helped the others move the body into the pod. There were only five of them present, only five who could know how Victor had died. The illusion that someone was in charge must be maintained. Donald thought of his last job, sitting at a desk, hands on a rudderless wheel, pretending. He watched Thurman as the old man kissed his palm and pressed his fingers to Victor’s cheek. The lid was closed. The cold of the room fogged their breath.
The others took turns eulogising, but Donald paid no heed. His mind was elsewhere, thinking of a woman he had loved long ago, of children he had never had. He did not cry. He had sobbed in the lift, with Anna gently holding him. Helen had died over a century ago. It had been longer than that since he’d lost her over that hill, since missing her messages, since not being able to get through to her. He remembered the national anthem and the bombs filling the air. He remembered his sister, Charlotte being there.
His sister. Family.
Donald knew Charlotte had been saved. He was overcome with a fierce urge to find her and wake her, to bring someone he loved back to life.
Erskine paid his final respects. Only five of them present to mourn this man who had killed billions. Donald felt Anna’s presence beside him and realised the lack of a crowd was in fact due to her. The five present were the only ones who knew that a woman had been woken. Her father, Dr Sneed, who had performed the procedure, Anna, Erskine, whom she spoke of as a friend, and himself.
The absurdity of Donald’s existence, of the state of the world, swooped down on him in that gathering. He did not belong. He was only there because of a girl he had dated in college, a girl whose father was a senator, whose affections had likely gotten him elected, who had dragged him into a murderous scheme, and had now pulled him from a frozen death. All the great coincidences and marvellous achievements of his life disappeared in a flash. In their place were puppet strings.
‘A tragic loss, this.’
Donald emerged from his thoughts to discover that the ceremony was over. Anna and her father stood two rows of pods away discussing something. Dr Sneed was down by the base of the pod, the panel beeping as he made adjustments. That left Donald with Erskine, a thin man with glasses and a British accent. He surveyed Donald from the opposite side of the pod.
‘He was on my shift,’ Donald said inanely, trying to explain why he was present for the service. There was little else he could think to say of the dead man. He stepped closer and peered through the little window at the calm face within.
‘I know,’ Erskine said. This wiry man, probably in his early to mid-sixties, adjusted the glasses on his narrow nose and joined Donald in peering through the small window. ‘He was quite fond of you, you know.’
‘I didn’t. I mean… he never said as much to me.’
‘He was peculiar that way.’ Erskine studied the deceased with a smile. ‘Brilliant perhaps for knowing the minds of others, just not so keen on communicating with them.’
‘Did you know him from before?’ Donald asked. He wasn’t sure how else to broach the subject. The
Erskine nodded. ‘We worked together. Well, in the same hospital. We orbited each other for quite a few years until my discovery.’ He reached out and touched the glass, a final farewell to an old friend, it seemed.
‘What discovery?’ He vaguely remembered Anna mentioning something.
Erskine glanced up. Looking closer, Donald thought he may have been in his seventies. It was hard to tell. He had some of the agelessness of Thurman, like an antique that patinas and will grow no older.
‘I’m the one who discovered the great threat,’ he said. It sounded more an admission of guilt than a proud claim. His voice was tinged with sadness. At the base of the pod, Dr Sneed finished his adjustments, stood and excused himself. He steered the empty gurney towards the exit.
‘The nanos.’ Donald remembered; Anna had said as much. He watched Thurman debate something with his daughter, his fist coming down over and over into his palm, and a question came to mind. He wanted to hear it from someone else. He wanted to see if the lies matched, if that meant they might contain some truth.
‘You were a medical doctor?’ he asked.
Erskine considered the question. It seemed a simple enough one to answer.
‘Not precisely,’ he said, his accent thick. ‘I
Anna and Thurman headed their way. Anna donned a cap, her hair in a bun that bulged noticeably through the top. It was little disguise for what she was, useful perhaps at a distance.
‘I’d like to ask you about that sometime,’ Donald said hurriedly. ‘It might help my… help me with this problem in silo eighteen.’
‘Of course,’ Erskine said.
‘I need to get back,’ Anna told Donald. She set her lips in a thin grimace from the argument with her father, and Donald finally appreciated how trapped she truly was. He imagined a year spent in that warehouse of war, clues scattered across that planning table, sleeping on that small cot, not able even to ride up to the cafeteria to see the hills and the dark clouds or have a meal at the time of her own choosing, relying on others to bring her everything.
‘I’ll escort the young man up in a bit,’ Donald heard Erskine say, his hand resting on Donald’s shoulder. ‘I’d like to have a chat with our boy.’
Thurman narrowed his eyes but relented. Anna squeezed Donald’s hand a final time, glanced at the pod and headed towards the exit. Her father followed a few paces behind.
‘Come with me.’ Erskine’s breath fogged the air. ‘I want to show you someone.’