Story Excerpt

Work Minus Eighty

by Will McIntosh
 

The frosted glass plate was semi-opaque, meant to create a sense of mystery for the client as he set eyes on his potential bride for the first time. As the plate slid down, revealing Helen Carson’s stiff blue-white skin, her frosted eyelashes, my training immediately kicked, even though it was a face I knew well. A bit too round (clients preferred classic beauties to cherubic cuties), eyes on the small side. The red hair and freckles weren’t necessarily a flaw, but they shifted her into a fetish category—either clients specifically wanted a ginger, or they didn’t.

She was beautiful in her way, though, with an interesting and exotic flair to her nostrils, and striking green irises. And she would have me in her corner. We’d lost touch, hadn’t talked in seven years, but she’d been a good friend and a fierce teammate, and I never forgot a friend. I’d get Helen married or die trying.

Helen’s eyes flew all the way open, darting around, alarmed, confused.

“Hello, Helen. Try to relax. You’re in the Cryomed cryo-dating center in High Town.”

Her gaze locked on me. “What?” At the sound of her own ragged bullfrog baritone, Helen’s eyes opened so wide they were almost perfect circles. “My voice.”

“I know you’re confused.” I radiated calm, pressing my palms together.

“I can’t move. Why can’t I move?”

“Give your mind a moment to clear.” I spoke the words softly, falling back on my training. I always wanted to touch them, to comfort them, but the rule forbidding physical contact with the residents was sacrosanct. “Your family submitted an application for you to be considered for the cryo-dating program here at Cryomed. This is an initial screening. Do you understand what I’m saying, Helen?”

Her eyes darted left and right, left and right. “I’m dead? I’m dead?”

“Try to be calm. It’s not unusual that you don’t remember.” They often didn’t remember dying, especially when it was sudden, and violent, like Helen’s. A self-protective mechanism, according to the psychologists.

“I’m a Bridesicle?”

I flinched at the word, which was a slur never uttered inside these walls. I kept my smile warm and easy. “You’re a Resident. We’ll take care of you until we find you a new home and a new life.” I felt as if I had a way of making phrases from the Best Practices manual feel fresh and spontaneous. Most employees sounded like they were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when they quoted it directly.

“I’m really dead.” She said it as half-question, half statement.

Emphasize the positive. “You’re in the minus eighty. You have a chance for a second life.”

“Am I dreaming? This feels like a dream.” Helen studied my face, squinting. “I know you.”

“I’m Aurelia. Aurelia De Aza? We were friends in high school. We were on the basketball team together.” Memories of Helen, of high school, came flooding back as I gazed down at her. Our uncontrollable giggling fit in the middle of a Chem exam. Begging for food in the cafeteria. We’d both slept with Corey Glass, a year apart, and called ourselves the Glass Survivors Support Group.

“You look like Aurelia, but you don’t sound like her.”

“I lost my suburban accent. Too much time in the city, I guess. But it’s me.”

“Did my mother send you?” Helen’s gaze was growing clearer, her speech less halting and garbled. She still had a heavy suburban accent, despite living in Low Town for the past two years, according to her bio. That was going to cost her points.

“No, I work here.”

Being borderline on facial attractiveness was also a problem. I lifted my wrist, tapped my system, requesting a rough estimate. Seven-point-eight or nine, about what I would have guessed. It would be a close call, but I’d lobby on her behalf with Intake. I’d get her in.

“My mother put me in here?” Helen asked.

“She submitted your application,” I corrected. “Helen, before we go any further, I need to ask you a question: Do you want to be in the program, if you’re accepted?”

Helen frowned. “What?”

“The program is strictly voluntary. If you wouldn’t want to be in it, I’ll terminate this interview immediately.”

Helen looked confused and overwhelmed.

“Say yes,” I said under my breath, although that sort of coaching was expressly forbidden. “Helen, if selected, would you want to be in the Cryo-dating program?” I nodded my head slightly, prompting.

“I—I don’t know. I guess so.”

“Great.” I tapped the skintight system on my left forearm, officially entering Helen’s affirmative response. “Then let’s talk. No pressure. I want to get a better sense of who you are—things that don’t come across in written words and pre-recorded video. Fortunately, I already know you, which will make this part easier.” No pressure. Her responses might tip the balance of whether she was accepted into the program or went into the ground, but no pressure.

*   *   *

I stepped off the elevator onto the main floor of the atrium. A waterfall crashed from eleven stories above, into a multilevel fountain, a massive window looking out onto the twisting, multicolored towers of High Town providing a backdrop. The rectangular outlines of thousands of crèches stored inside the walls rose on the other three sides, looking no bigger than postage stamps near the domed ceiling. This early in the day the restaurant and supplement bar tucked in the corner of the cavernous room was empty.

God, I loved this place. It was as modern as could be, yet it reminded me of an ancient cathedral, with its soaring arched ceiling, the way every sound echoed so crisply, the polished marble floor. It was like the Catholic church I used to go to as a kid, to escape the cold. It had always seemed so impossibly clean to a suburb rat like me.

Ahead, a client crossed the atrium limping heavily on a cane, heading for the service office. His name and supporting data popped into my field of vision.

“Good morning, Mr. Woo. Nice to see you again,” I called in my best in-charge yet warm supervisor tone.

Mr. Woo raised a hand in reply as I strode past, moving as quickly as I could without appearing in a rush. I had a lot to get done, as usual.

*   *   *

The micro-T climbed, the sections rotating and shifting so the car that was in front of me was suddenly above me. It cruised to a stop, the doors opening into the elevator to High Town. Only a few people followed me into the elevator.

As we rose I watched the greys, browns, and brick-reds of Lower Manhattan recede, the solid square buildings in the mottled shadow cast by High Town’s latticed foundation. Pedestrians became ant-sized silhouettes, the vehicles toys on an ever-widening grid.

I rode the elevator to High Town’s street level, then headed at a jog up into the latticework of walkways and staircases rising among the modern twisting towers. It was freezing cold, a stiff wind slicing through my silver jogging suit. I thrived on the pain, took energy from it, silently goading myself.

Come on, fancy girl, move your ass. You want to quit? Is that the plan?

Back when I was making my escape from the suburbs on the basketball court, it had been more about physical toughness. Now it was more about the mental, but physical and mental toughness went hand-in-hand. If I could handle the cold, I could handle the clients.

I kept up the self-goading, peppered with insults, until I reached Pinnacle Park, where the wind was a constant wall of needlepricks. Ignoring it, I stepped out onto the main platform. The gardens, suspended on multilevel carbon fiber platforms that were connected by nearly invisible walkways, were brown and dead, except for a few bonsai evergreens.

The park was empty. No one else was crazy enough to venture up there in the dead of winter. Through the porous platform, I watched tiny bundled figures hurry in and out of shops in High Town; a micro-T twisted along a silver tube like a robot caterpillar, then dipped out of sight below street level.

I stopped at the railing, looked out through the tips of skyscrapers at wispy clouds and blue sky.

One day I’d go up here with Helen. I had this feeling that we were destined to become friends again, once I coached her out of that crèche. I could imagine us going to dive bars in Low Town, me drunkenly falling back into my suburban accent.

A screen appeared not a foot from my head, facing the other way. I took a side step, putting some space between us as the screen rotated, revealing a young woman’s face.

All at once, she spotted me. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were here.”

“No problem.”

She gave me some more space, rotated back in the other direction.

I returned to staring into the clouds, but it wasn’t the same with someone else up there. I decided to head back down.

“You’re hard-core, coming up here in the flesh.” The woman had an accent—Polish or Czech or something. Her screen rotated 90 degrees so we were both facing the same direction, looking out over the railing.

Polite conversation with a stranger. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes. I made polite conversation with clients all freaking day long. “Just clearing my head.”

She was bright-eyed and long-haired, no makeup. “An entire city—thirteen million souls—and you are the only person to come up here to the highest point and face the cold. Are you out of your mind, or the rest of us?”

I just laughed. I didn’t have a witty comeback. I was freezing.

An awkward silence stretched. Awkward to me, at least. For all I knew this woman was perfectly content to hover beside me looking out at the city in silence. She seemed the type—she had this ease that I simultaneously admired and resented.

When I couldn’t take the silence any more, I said, “So what are you doing up here?”

Her screen tilted toward the ground. “I’m planning to jump. Don’t try to stop me.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Very funny.”

“Actually, I’m escaping my relatives. We’re at a restaurant. It’s my Babcy’s birthday.”

“Your Babcy?”

“Grandma.”

“Got it.”

“I’m Malia, by the way.”

“Aurelia.” I stared out into the clouds, deciding how long I had to chitchat before it would be polite to leave, given that I’d initiated the chitchat.

“When I saw you were up here alone, obviously seeking solitude, I would have immediately left you alone if I wasn’t desperate to escape where I am.”

Or she could have moved to any other solitary spot on the planet. The peak of a mountain. The center of a cloud. “Which restaurant is it?”

“Just a little hole-in-the-wall in Lower Manhattan. Chummie’s.”

I nodded. I didn’t know it.

“So, who is the one person in the entire city standing at the frozen pinnacle?” Malia asked. “What does she do when she’s not here?”

“Somewhat ironically, she works at Cryomed.” I waited for the reaction. Everyone had a strong opinion. Working there either made me a hero or a monster.

Judging from her expression—she looked like she’d just eaten some gum off the pavement—Malia was in the monster camp.

“I believe I’ll return to my family now. They can be annoying, but speaking to them doesn’t make me want to submerge my entire body in antiseptic.”

Her screen vanished.

Usually I let the insults roll off me like morning dew, but for some reason, at that moment, the words were like hot coals dropped into my belly. It was so fucking easy to be judgmental when you didn’t have a daughter or a sister lying in a coffin, with no insurance. So fucking easy. Smarmy little self-righteous shit.

No. I wasn’t going to let her drop her little zinger and return to Chummie’s for Babcy’s birthday bash. Not today.

I opened a screen in Chummie’s, which was low-ceilinged and crowded, and rotated until I spotted Malia at a long table. I navigated over.

Hey.”

Malia turned. I’d been hoping she’d be startled to see me here, but she only looked miffed.

“In the past four years Cryomed’s charitable arm has revived sixteen children. That’s sixteen lives. Sixteen sets of parents who got their children back.”

Malia rolled her eyes. “Corporations love to toss a few thousandths of one percent of their revenue into some benevolent act to mask the evil they’re doing. You force women into slavery. It’s disgusting.”

“We’re not forcing anyone into anything. Our residents are volunteers.”

“If you call volunteering with a gun to your head volunteering.”

“They don’t have guns to their heads—”

Malia pounded the table with her palm, rattling the silverware. Most of her relatives stopped talking. “You drag them back from the dead, then ask if they want to go back to being dead? That’s a terrifying situation to be in. Try asking them when they’re still alive, and see how many volunteer then.” She gestured at my screen. “Would you be in your own program?”

I strained to keep my voice calm, but mostly failed, partly because I was freezing. “I have revival insurance to age ninety, but if I didn’t, I’d sign up in a heartbeat.”

Bullshit.”

“Oh, you got me there! You shouted an angry word.” The entire table of relatives was staring open-mouthed at me. I looked toward the end of the table. “Happy birthday, Babcy.”

I closed the screen, feeling much better, and headed down from Pinnacle Park.

*   *   *

I’d never seen the atrium through the infrared app on my system before. It looked like a huge cavern filled with reddish light, or the inside of a great pyramid. Completely silent.

The floor lights on the elevator seemed way too bright, the tink indicating I’d reached the eighth tier too loud. I jogged the last few hundred yards to be sure I’d reach Helen before she woke.

The overhead light flickered on as Helen’s crèche slid from its space in the wall. The glass rolled back, exposing Helen’s grey-white face.

The timer flashed 8:00 in red and began counting down. Anything more than ten minutes, and I had to log it with an explanation.

Helen’s eyes flew open, filled with sleepy terror. Disoriented dread. It was always the same. Returning to life from death was always a surprise, no matter how many times someone had experienced it. Even the apes in the early trials had seemed surprised.

“It’s Aurelia. You’re in the cryogenic dating center.”

Helen’s gaze focused, and some of the distress in her eyes melted off.

“I want to give you some off-the-record tips. Consider it extra help. I know these men inside and out. I’ve been working with them in one capacity or another for six years, and I can get you out of here, if you trust me.”

“Okay.”

I remembered Helen being a hellraiser, crazy in a fun way. She seemed so reticent now. Being in the minus eighty changed you, though, as did being murdered. Hopefully once she got accustomed to her situation, more of her fun side would come out. That would be crucial for attracting a husband.

“First of all, you have to be up, be fun. I know that’s difficult given the situation you’re in, but you can’t be a downer. The clients want a date to be fun.”

“Fun,” Helen said, deadpan.

“Yes. If you refer to your situation, couch it in a joke.”

“A joke.”

“Something like, ‘I’d shake your hand, but I don’t want to give you frostbite.’ That sort of thing. I know it makes light of the situation you’re in, but the goal is to get you out of that situation. Keep your eye on the goal. Whatever it takes.”

Helen was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know if I can be like that. I’m not . . . sweet and bubbly.”

“No, I know you’re not.” There’d once been a boy in the lunchroom who was using his spoon like a catapult to shoot peas at people. Helen scooped a handful of lasagna from her plate, marched over, and flung it in the guy’s face. I don’t remember who he was, but I’ll never forget his stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look as Helen dressed him down while chunks of lasagna dripped off his face. Helen did not take shit from anyone. “Just pretend you’re playing a part in a movie. Keep turning the conversation back toward the client. Get them bragging about their wealth. Fawn over their accomplishments. Convince them you’ll turn back the clock forty years, make them strong and virile. Convince them you’ll make it so they’ll never die.”

I didn’t tell Helen the timer was ticking toward zero. There was nothing worse than knowing you were about to die. As Helen’s crèche slid back into place in the massive wall of residents, I went to erase the recording of our session.

I was taking a risk, but I didn’t care. And at the end of the day I was trying to save a life, and that’s what Cryomed was all about. We saved lives. I worked my ass off to save as many young lives as I could.

*   *   *

I checked the time, running in the top right corner of my vision, compliments of my system. I had a meeting in four minutes. It seemed as if I always had somewhere I needed to be in four minutes.

The triumphant peal of a lone trumpet echoed through the marble hallway, leading into the orchestral version of the Cryomed anthem. I paused and turned to face the counter on the wall, along with everyone else in the hallway.

Below Lives Saved, etched in metallic blue, the display ticked from 36,787 to 36,788. Everyone in the hall cheered. Grinning, I turned to shake someone’s hand.

“Congratulations,” I said to a smiling Barth Park. I turned the other way, clutched Beth Wojtek in a hug. “Nice job, Beth.”

This was just the reminder I needed. An hour earlier I’d had to make the call to remove seven Residents who weren’t getting enough dates. It was the worst part of my new position, but a surgeon in wartime couldn’t linger on the soldiers she couldn’t save; she had to focus on those she could.

 

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022. Work Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

Website design and development by Americaneagle.com, Inc.

Close this window
Close this window

Sign up for special offers, information on
upcoming issues and more!


Signup Now No, Thanks