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An Age of Ice

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1

Feng Su had always been an open-minded person. Regarding age, for instance: she felt it was just a number for medical records. It didn’t signify who you must look up to or down upon, and it wasn’t a reason for intimacy or estrangement. She had never played the age card with her daughter, never put on those airs. Their relationship had been like a friendship, or sisterhood. She’d never taken offense when her daughter called her Old Feng. It was an expression of intimacy. It had nothing to do with the question of respect.

But on that fateful day, when after a long silence her daughter tearfully said, “Old Feng,” Feng Su didn’t know how to respond. Age had become a communication barrier for the first time. She had not foreseen this. Avoiding eye contact, she considered phrasing and tone, composing a reply that would cause no further discomfort. She said it, and quickly regretted it. But it was too late. There was no taking it back:

“Daughter . . . so many years. Are you well?”

The speech synthesizer’s voice sounded mellow, natural. You could barely tell it was a transformed electrical signal captured by a cranial nerve interface. Feng Su felt like it was really her voice, although she couldn’t remember what her real voice had sounded like. She waited for her daughter’s response. She feared her tone had contained the arrogance of seniority, and hoped she hadn’t been inadvertently hurtful.

Age had indeed finally come between them.

“I’m fine,” her daughter said. “I’ve given legal birth to two children, and I have a grown-up grandchild. My husband’s health isn’t bad. I have no regrets.”

Feng Su thought for a moment. “There must have been difficulties over the years. Tell me everything.”

“Nothing that bad, really. Things are getting expensive, but our pensions are sufficient, and we can afford the rent on our flat. Last year the flat reached its seventy-year property right expiration, but the government granted us renewal. That only cost twenty thousand kuai. We don’t have to worry about paying for our grandson’s education. Every license plate gets just one day on the roads per month, so that’s inconvenient I suppose. The air is still passable, but we seldom go out. People say China’s population began to decline in 2026, but the streets are still crowded. Mostly with old folks, dancing and so on, looking after children.”

Feng Su smiled. “Dancing? What dances? Ethnic minority dances?”

Her daughter also smiled. “Think of what you’re saying. They’re old. It’s dancing in a public square, in the evening, just like the old days. Foolish, blind, bouncy old people.”

Feng Su laughed a while. “Why don’t you come wipe my face? It always feels terribly grimy.”

Her daughter fished a wet wipe out of her purse, came over, wiped the corners of her mother’s mouth and around her nostrils, saying, “Automatic cleaning is much better. I’m not so skilled and nimble as a robot. Old Feng, I think you’re just feeling depressed. Your face isn’t grimy.”

“Who says? I can see the grime on that wet wipe.”

“Come now. The machines keep you very clean.”

Feng Su lost interest in this subject. “Remarkable. We two look very much alike, don’t we?”

“Naturally. You’re my mother.”

They were near enough to see each other’s wrinkles, but neither was embarrassed or self-conscious. Feng Su thought she saw a vague sadness in her daughter’s eyes. She could guess what it meant, of course.

“Tell me, am I especially frightening?”

“Don’t start with that. You’re the same as before. No change.”

Feng Su pictured herself as her daughter must see her: a disembodied head on a silver plate. The doctor had considerately given her a wine-red wig, the hair long enough to cover the wires and tubes interfaced with the bottom of her neck. She couldn’t clearly remember what her real hair had been like. Perhaps it had indeed been this wavy, this deep, rich red. She felt about as fashionable as an old head on a plate could.

She’d been sixty-one the year she died of cancer. She was still sixty-one.

The year she died, her daughter had been twenty-seven. This year, her daughter was seventy-seven.

Feng Su had been sleeping for fifty years, cooled by liquid nitrogen to -196 degrees Celsius. The world she’d awakened to seemed, superficially, not much changed. But she was now younger than her daughter, physiologically anyway—which posed a bit of an ethical dilemma.

2

Ayer Longevity Foundation technicians guaranteed their “vitrification” freezing technology didn’t harm human tissues. Cellular structure remained intact because the process didn’t involve freezing the body’s water content. The Foundation had over a thousand specialists, conserving a hundred frozen bodies, and at least forty pets. These guests, prophets and gamblers, slept soundly in their liquid nitrogen beds. When they were frozen, humanity had yet to develop safe thawing technology. The future had been uncertain. None of the patients knew if or when they might wake up. They might have rested eternally in their coffins of ice.

Feng Su didn’t understand science and technology, and she didn’t have far-reaching ambitions. She was just inherently curious. She wanted to see the extremities of time and life. Her daughter and son-in-law unconditionally supported this decision. They helped her raise money for the expensive freezing process. In order to lower the cost, she’d just had her head frozen, abandoning her defeated body in 2015.

The final moment had been quite indistinct. She couldn’t clearly remember what had happened in the emergency room. There hadn’t been time to say goodbye to her daughter. But what would goodbye have meant, given the possibility of meeting again in the future? A minute after her heart stopped beating, Ayer Foundation pharmaceuticals poured into her. Her temperature was lowered, and her head was collected and taken to Foundation headquarters for preservation. Time marched on. Arizona’s bright sunlight waxed and waned. In the blink of an eye, forty years passed. A new thawing technology was in use, which involved slowly raising body temperature in tandem with molecular restoration. It revived the frozen with a success rate of over ninety percent.

The first person to thaw and open his eyes relied on extracorporeal circulation machines. He survived four months, then died from multiple organ failures. The second and third thaws slowly learned to control their muscles, aided heavily by doctors and machines. Their brains, which had been on pause for decades, had to become familiar with a new world. Modern medicine could cure their bodies’ former afflictions, but it was difficult to treat the psychic wounds resulting from a long-term freeze.

The fourth to be thawed was a politician, rock star, and orator. He was soon on his feet and back in the spotlight, becoming the focal point of the world’s media. A debate began, one involving ethics, religion, sociology, and anthropology. Fierce arguments flooded the Internet. Everyone was coming out for or against the new technology. A few years later, the thawed orator was shot dead by a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist cult member. This tragedy accelerated the passing of new legislation. The General Assembly law committee’s ‘U.N. Declaration Regarding Human Deep Freeze,’ proposed for the sake of humanity’s continued health, comprehensively affirmed the rights of the thawed. The legal gray area of cryonics was finally delimited: Ayer-type technologies and processes were sanctioned worldwide. Further research was legalized, with freezing and thawing both categorized as professional services.

The dust finally settled. Around this time, Feng Su’s daughter handed in the thawing application form.

Feng Su emerged from a dreamless sleep. The thawing process went smoothly. Her only problem was light memory confusion: during the process of dying, neurons were some of the first things to go. This was natural, and more or less unavoidable. More troublesome was the persistent ethical controversy regarding human cloning. Because such cloning was still prohibited, and because biomechanical technology had not yet matured, if you wanted a healthy new body, you had to wait for a viable donor to die. That meant a very long wait. Ultimately, it meant a stranger’s unfamiliar body.

Feng Su had something to ask of her daughter, now her senior. She wasn’t looking forward to this.

3

“What’s the matter? Are there still fees owed to Ayer Foundation?”

Feng Su averted her eyes and said, “No, but if the burden’s not too heavy, I would like to sleep a few more years. Current technology isn’t advanced enough to give me a body.”

Her daughter said, “Relax, membership fees aren’t bad. We can pay. But just to be clear, you mean you want to be frozen again? And years from now, thawed again?”

Feng Su closed her eyes. “Right now I can’t bear what I am. I was awakened too soon. I’m sorry for being such a nuisance.”

The room was quiet and still. Feng Su nervously waited for her daughter’s response, not daring to meet the gaze of that unfamiliar old woman. Terrifyingly, she’d forgotten the appearance of her 27-year-old daughter, which had once been etched on her heart.

Her daughter sighed. “I understand. You’re my mother. It’s my duty to do what you ask. But if you go back under, we might never meet again.”

Feng Su was dumbstruck. As far as she was concerned, time meant as little as old age. She remembered being on her sickbed, struggling for the greater part of a year against cancer. Thanks to the Ayer Foundation in America, and thanks to some careful planning, here she was. According to the doctors, cryonics and thawing technology would certainly continue to improve. Modern tech had already rendered freezing a brief, trifling matter. Sleeping, waking, preserving what memories were left to her, all required little more than pressing a dreamlike pause button.

But she might never see her daughter again. Not to mention other loved ones and friends still alive now. Once upon a time she’d worked at a publishing house. She had copy-edited science fiction novels, so she’d long ago considered the problem of cryonics and time. But now, face to face with her daughter, she didn’t know what to say.

The dim lighting brightened, and a voice said: “In consideration of Mrs. Feng’s health, today’s visiting hours are over.”

Her daughter leaned close, half-rising from her chair. Her wrinkled forehead briefly touched Feng Su’s face. “Old Feng, time for me to go. I’ll come back tomorrow. You can give me your decision then. And don’t worry about money.”

“Is someone coming to pick you up? Take it slow.”

“I know.”

Her daughter slid a lever, and her wheelchair carried her out of the room. The door closed behind her. The lights slowly darkened. Feng Su gazed out the window as it gradually turned transparent, revealing the hazy dusk of twilight. Beijing was immersed in a grayish-yellow fog that might have been slightly worse than fifty years ago, but seemed little changed.

She closed her eyes, felt the fluid being pumped into her blood vessels. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Perhaps her tear ducts were short of fluid, or perhaps it was brain damage. Perhaps her brain had forgotten what muscle to flex to squeeze out tears.

She had died once, and now she was alive, but you couldn’t call it a real life. She still remembered real life. She remembered strolling down a street, on a sunny day long ago, window shopping.

4

Her daughter drove the wheelchair out of the China Cryonics Center building. She rode the chair along its pre-charted course. She ascended to a train station. While waiting for a capsule, she used her retinal display screen to browse the newest cryonics prices: Ayer Foundation, fifty years, 3,000,000 RMB. China Medical Cryonics Research Center, fifty years, 2,000,000 RMB.

The train stopped at the platform. She rolled into the car, and her wheelchair automatically anchored into place. The cabin door closed. The train smoothly accelerated, in a few minutes reaching its top speed of 1050 kilometers per hour. Two hours later she had crossed China from north to south, Beijing to Shenzhen. She transferred to the high-speed seabed rail and headed for Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. She had important business there.

An unlicensed cryonics company was offering 50 years at 200,000 RMB. A black-market price.

In Johor Bahru, Malaysia, in an underground warehouse beneath an industrial park, there were a hundred thousand aluminum ice coffins. A prophet reposed in each coffin, or a gambler, or simply someone wanting to retire from the world. Among them were terminal cancer patients, people harboring dangerous secrets and hoping one day to board a ship to a more congenial world, people brought to the verge of death by traffic accidents, criminals waiting for statutes of limitations to expire, adventurers who had paid for a million years of frozen respite, art brokers waiting for buried antiques to appreciate in value, and hobbyists who just wanted to experience a freeze.

Among the frozen were her husband, and her eldest son. A cerebral hemorrhage leading to paralysis had put her husband there. Her son had been bullied and humiliated by classmates, and had killed himself.

This was an era of disdain for the Grim Reaper.

With high-speed freezing and molecular restoration, the boundary between life and death was blurred. As far as humanity was concerned, death was now just a hazy midsummer dream. Those doomed to die could come back to life in a future era. Such prolonged life took on a new shape: people connected with each other less frequently, and goodbyes became more profound. People lost touch with the real world. There was no guarantee of reuniting with loved ones in some unknown future.

There were a thousand underground cryo storehouses around the world. The same thing was happening everywhere.

She rolled out of the Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail station, steered her wheelchair through bustling crowds. The world’s population was in decline, but no one seemed to care. Cryonics technology was like an ultimate form of masturbation, God-given. People were becoming evasive creatures. They were evading reproduction, evading both life and death. It was greed, as if in a time of plenty they sought to devour Heaven and Earth.

“Hello,” said the ice coffin broker. “Glad to see you back again.” He smiled solicitously, advancing to welcome her. “You have a piece of business you wish to transact?”

“I think perhaps two pieces,” she replied.

 

Originally published in Chinese in Southern Weekly, January 10, 2016.

 

Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.

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ISSUE 130, July 2017

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in 1981, Zhang Ran graduated from Beijing Jiaotong University in 2004 with a degree in Computer Science. After a stint in the IT industry, Mr. Zhang became a reporter and news analyst with Economic Daily and China Economic Net, during which time his news commentary won a China News Award. His stories have won numerous Gold and Silver Chinese Nebula Awards, and three Galaxy Awards for Best Novelette. He runs a coffee shop in southern China and writes in his spare time. The Windy City, his short story collection, was published in 2015.

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