Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Problem

by Chris Ward


"Where in God's name are we?"

Susie looked away, hiding the sadness in her face.

James stared in astonishment at the long clear tube that housed them. It was roughly the size of a single-decker bus. He could see seven other coffin-shaped glass boxes, the same as the one he now sat up in, at regular intervals towards the far end. He wondered what they were.

Only one other was open, adjacent to his own, and the girl Susie leaned against its rim wearing a thin white robe. She looked very pale, but that didn't surprise James when he considered how cold he felt. He must look the same.

The boxes reminded him of freezers, particularly with the dry ice that had wafted up when he had opened the lid upon awakening just moments ago. He looked closer but could see no movement through the clear sides of the others. It appeared their companions were still asleep.

At the far end of the capsule were a number of large metal units, the only part of the entire enclosure that was not transparent. They were a dull grey in colour, and reached as high as the curved roof, closing off one end of the capsule. Several pipes and wires protruded near the base and ran to each of the coffin-shapes.

"Can't we go outside?" he said, his face animated, desperation creeping slowly into his voice. "It can't be all like that, surely?" He gestured towards the world beyond the glass. "There must be life out there somewhere!"

Susie glanced briefly towards him. "I doubt there's much left." She pushed herself to her feet and walked across to him.

James tried to rise, but slipped back. "I'm so weak..."

Susie reached down a hand and helped him up. "Your body woke from the cryogenic freezing three days ago," she said. "Since then it's been gradually increasing your metabolic rate, building up speed to wake your consciousness. You're weak because officially you've been alive for three days. That's a long time without food." She handed him a small tablet resembling a paracetamol. "Here. Believe it or not that's a meal. They left us a few weeks' supply. It won't taste too good but it'll make you feel a bit better."

James did not think to ask who they were, his hunger guiding his thoughts. He took the tablet and without question pushed it into his mouth and swallowed. Almost immediately he felt it expanding inside him, and although Susie was right - it did taste awful, rather like chalk - he could feel it begin to return his strength. He was unbelievably stiff, but as he climbed out of the cold tank with Susie's help, he felt warmth and vitality start to flow into his veins.

"How do you know so much about this place?" he asked as he followed her painstakingly towards the metal units that seemed to hold the key to their existence.

She smiled wryly. "I was the sole volunteer. I lost my family in the first of the missile strikes, and had nothing left to live for. I heard about the Project from an advertisement in a newspaper, believe it or not, and made the decision to sign up. I was alone because there was no telling how we would awaken after the freezing. We could have been deformed or something." She glanced down at herself, then flapped her arms as though for emphasis. "It seems to have worked okay for me and you, though."

James' mind was spinning with an information overload. "So you know what's going on? The last thing I remember was being hit over the head from behind while walking home. Then I woke up here!"

They told me the plan," said Susie, and the sudden agony in her eyes was tangible. "It doesn't look as though it worked too well."

James frowned, sinking deeper into confusion. He had no idea what she was talking about, but a dread feeling had begun to grow like a tumour in his stomach.

As they walked past the other tanks James looked down to see six others of a similar age to himself and Susie - in their early twenties. Their faces seemed strange to him, almost statuesque, though in their frozen states they looked simultaneously haggard and worn, like ancient artefacts remaining eternally forgotten beneath the ground. He frowned. They looked almost...

His eyes suddenly widened. The glass of his own 'freezer' had been frosted with dry ice, yet those of the others were coated with fine droplets of condensation instead. He reached a hand to within a few inches of the nearest one, but there was no icy chill to greet his skin. He looked questionably at Susie.

As though reading his thoughts Susie said slowly, "They're dead, James. I suppose you could say they defrosted."

A perverse laugh almost broke from his lips, but he managed to hold it inside, locked away with the other ludicrous thoughts of the last few minutes.

"Is that meant to be a joke?" he blurted instead, but he only had to look at her face to know that it wasn't. Suddenly he was gripped by an incredible despair, the morbid feeling of ultimate loneliness except for the strange girl Susie beginning to hit home.

They reached the metal units at the capsule's far end, and James noticed a small digital display a couple of feet from the floor. He frowned again, this time at the vague numbers as his long dormant brain tried to make sense of them.

Susie indicated the top number. "That's oxygen," she said. "It's at 18 percent, so we can breath out there, though we'll probably tire more quickly, as it's several percent lower than before." Her finger dropped to the number below it. It read 34.2. "That's the temperature outside," she explained. "It's quite a bit warmer than before. The planet is mostly a desert wasteland now. Although it's like a hot desert here, we should be able to cope near the coast, but I expect some parts of the planet are far too hot for habitation now. There will be very little organic life either. There might be some scrub here and there, but probably few trees, except maybe near the coast. We might be able to find some types of wild vegetables or fruit to eat there. Almost certainly no large animals, though."

James' face contorted into utter disbelief. "What are you saying? Are you trying to tell me we're on Mars or something? Someone's idea of a sick joke was to blast us into space and drop us on some remote planet? Is that it?" His voice became shrill with a mixture of anger and hopelessness.

"No, James." Susie's face suddenly despaired, reflecting the despondency in his own expression, and James had a terrible desire to weep. "This is Earth." She gestured towards the glass.

"But where? The Sahara? Death Valley?" James was almost shouting, his voice becoming increasingly desperate.

"This is -- was -- the middle of Greater London," said Susie. "Due to the rising sea levels there's probably an ocean just over that rise out there." She sighed deeply, regretfully. “We're actually pretty lucky we're not underwater.”

As James looked out at the endless mounds of red sand, he thought he could detect some strangely angular blocks protruding from the boiled ground, impossible shapes in the vacant landscape that were the last remnants of a once great city long passed away into dust.

The sensation of loneliness intensified. Susie obviously sensed his pain, as she reached and softly touched his shoulder, a small but powerful gesture of friendship amongst the endless nothing that encased them.

"The war destroyed everything," she explained. "You won't remember, but I was the last to go under. This capsule was built of radiation-proof, reinforced crystalline, a synthetically produced atomic structure they had worked on for years -"

"Wait! Who is they?"

"A UN team of scientists housed in a hidden base beneath the city. For years things had looked on the brink of war, and this system was created just in case..."

"What?" he interrupted again.

Susie looked away as though it were something she had done, and she had not the strength to look at him straight. "In case the missiles were released. The great missiles, the ones capable of ruining the world.

"It happened just days after war was declared between the Superpowers. The government needed volunteers for this project, which they named 'Genesis'. As I said just now, I was the sole volunteer, but they needed another seven so they took you and the others by force. There was so little time, they just snatched the first young people they could get. As it was, one of the teams got caught and arrested. Poor bastards were probably still being processed when the missiles hit London."

She wiped a solitary tear from the corner of her eye. "The scientists and technicians couldn't save themselves -- they knew they needed young, healthy subjects if there was to be any chance at all to save the race. No one else seemed to care."

James was dumbstruck. He sank to his knees, defeat cursed across his face. “I was walking home from the pub,” he murmured.

“I'm sorry,” she said.

After a moment he looked up at her again. "You're telling me that wasteland out there is what remains of our world?" He waved dismissively towards the lifeless wilderness outside that stretched for as far as the eye could see.

Susie didn't need to answer.

"We were frozen in an effort to save our race?" He was starting to panic, his pulse racing out of control. "But what about the others?"

She inhaled deeply, as though it was a strain just to speak. "The technology was crude, James, developed in a rush in the brief years before the negotiations broke down. They could see the war looming, and had to do something, though they didn't have time to complete more than eight of these cryogenic freezers before sealing the capsule. There was always a chance they could develop defects." Then, almost as an afterthought: "And we were under for a thousand years after all."

He looked sharply towards her.

She nodded confirmation. "It's 3024, James. You're the oldest man in the history of mankind."

"Jesus," he breathed in disbelief.

"With such a long time scale involved there was a chance that things might go wrong," she continued. "We were supposed to wake up to a replenished Eden, a magical paradise where the effects of war had been covered over and left in the past." She turned to look out at the desert where her eyes paused tellingly, then back towards the failed freezers of their companions. "Maybe they're lucky to have died not knowing this," she said.

"Don't say that!" said James, though he knew she was right.

Susie turned back towards him and put both arms around his neck, staring intently into his eyes. "It's down to us, James. We have to save our race."

He stared at her, dumbfounded. She was beautiful in a bizarre way, her pallid face from the long hibernation making her appear like a figure carved intricately from white clay. She was flawless, an angel. If this was normal life she wouldn't have given a plain guy like James a second glance, though normal was a defunct term now. He replayed her words in his mind and he felt a pang of regret ripple through him as his previous life revisited danced through his mind: his friends, family, experiences, problems. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined this - that he was supposed to be the Adam for a whole new race of man, with Susie by his side as Eve. The story of how they would save the human race from extinction could be written in the stars until the fall of eternity.

But his dream of divinity was a worthless masquerade.

He looked deeper into her eyes, sensing the burning desire that glowed like a perpetual candle there, a love so strong for what she was that she would clearly go to the ends of this wasted earth to save her race. She was the one who had volunteered, the one who had offered to spawn the new humanity, and the only one whose spirit had survived their journey into the future. His resolve was broken but she would have made the perfect mother of humankind, the first mortal angel. He wished to heaven her dream could become true.

As the candle glowed its fierce determination and Susie's heart beat its desperate intentions, James knew he could not lie to her. She had to be told as his secret was too monumental to suppress, and one day she would find out anyway. There was no way he could deny her the truth.

He took a deep breath. "Susie, I'm so sorry..."

She frowned, her eyes narrowing. "What is it?"

"I had an accident when I was a teenager. I fell off a bike during a race. I was damaged ... down there.” He looked at her, and if sorrow was water he would have drowned her then.

“It's no good, this won't work," he said.

Susie shook her head violently, silently begging him to stop speaking. But there was no point in delaying things any further.

James sighed, wondering what cruel gods chose him to be shanghaied, and then chose him and only him to survive through the centuries. "I'm so sorry, Susie," he said again. "I can never have children."

THE END


© 2008 Chris Ward

Bio: Chris Ward is a 29-year-old Brit currently living far, far from home in Japan, where he works as an English teacher. His stories have appeared in Midnight Street, AlienSkin, Afterburn SF, Niteblade, Not One of Us, and The Open Vein. His work will also be appearing in Weird Tales, Written Word, Ethereal Gazette, and Bewildering Stories.

E-mail: Chris Ward

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