THe Apathy of Time
Back cover description:
Frozen in 1952, awoken in 2019. You'd think the momentum of newfound peace would carry humanity through to great heights. Turns out, we take our time when it comes to progress.
Original Prose prompt:
"You were cryogenically frozen in 1952 as a sacrifice for science. You are awakened summer of 2019, in the preserved state you were in, age 35. You’re walking down a busy city street for your first time. Write a story about your take on humanity."
The soundtrack going on in my head when I wrote it:
THE APATHY OF TIME
A gentle lattice of rain trickles down the carriage’s windows, a living, liquid curtain that distorts the stunning view of Scotland’s pastoral countryside. The West Coast Main Line is outstandingly beautiful, as is typical this time of year, yet my mood is marred by the nagging anxiety that I harbor in the back of my mind, a product of overwhelming uncertainty and the most ghastly fog to which I awoke in London this morning. The whole town reeked of rotted eggs, and something about the air made one feel as though one’s lungs were being crushed in. Not that anyone needs any help feeling that way, as of late. Talk about a year for the rubbish bin. It all started with the destruction of Cairo by fire, followed promptly by the passing of our beloved King George—God rest his soul. Take all that and add it to the Polio epidemic, that dreadful disease running rampant across the Empire—or what’s left of it—ravaging our children, no less. And if that weren’t enough to signal the end of the world, let’s cap it all off with the design and detonation of our first Atomic Bomb; why we’ve decided to follow the example of our wayward cousins across the Atlantic, I’ll never know.
And still, we carry on, as we always do. Be it into the jaws of hell or to the end of life as we know it, that remains to be seen.
“We’re coming up on Glasgow. You might want to start pulling your head out of the clouds,” says my traveling companion, Charles, from his seat beside me. He stands up and grabs the most grotesque-looking tweed briefcase from the storage overhead, something I’d never be caught dead carrying in public.
Charles is the Special Programs Advisor to the Secretary of State for War and, as such, the primary liaison in charge of financing my project. It also so happens we grew up in the East End together, a fact that certainly doesn’t hurt my chances of continued funding, though I’ve never been one to place all my eggs in one basket. This project must be able to stand on its own merit, independent of whatever personal history I may have.
“You look nervous,” he says, leaning on his seat with one arm.
I pull my attention from the window and grab my coat from the back of my own seat. “Perhaps I am,” I admit.
“What’s got you so upset, then?”
I sigh, letting my exhale carry the weight of my anxiety. “I’d be a fool not to know what this extended timeline is doing to you and your office. If we fail today, it may take years to seek out the bugs and rectify our formulas, and I’m guessing you can only divert funds for so long without people asking questions.”
There’s a pause where the only sound comes from the small number of other travelers in the carriage and the steady cachunk, cachunk of the wheels as they pass along the rails.
“Yes, well,” he says with a strained look, clearly concealing the fact that he, too, shares my concerns. “Let’s hope this is a smashing success, then.”
I give a weak smile in response and look back out the window. The stars are just beginning to peek out from behind the rainclouds, despite the fact that it’s barely four o’clock. It gets dreadfully dark up here in the winter—not that London is much better—though there’s something about the heavens at night that have always enchanted me. Most of the rest of the world seems to be perpetually focused on terrestrial matters—taxes, politics, moving borders a foot this way or that—truly something that baffles me to no end. Why would anyone be so engrossed in the matters of this war-torn, plague-ridden planet? Why would anyone be content to remain tethered to our small fleck of a home, our grain of sand in a sea of stars and galaxies? Personally, I find the most solace outside our thin blue atmosphere, up beyond the reach of the insignificant and inconsequential.
Well, in any case, the only ones who seem to agree with me are the Russians, albeit their intentions tend to lean on the viler side, a most unfortunate reality. Though, perhaps the American beast will be wakened at the threat of Russian dominance, as pride-driven as they are. But, the Empire cannot wait upon her prodigal son to stand as defender of the world, not again. We must take our future into our own hands, which is why it’s so crucial that my work succeeds, and that it succeeds quickly.
The train pulls into the station, and a small herd of us are ushered unceremoniously out of the carriage. Pockets of families wish each other well and give their final loving goodbyes, an emotional rabble that peppers the platform with sentimental trifle. I feel a tinge of guilt for seeming so heartless in my thoughts, but held within the frame of what I know we mean to attempt, it all seems rather trivial. Not that I blame them. The people of Glasgow never truly felt the sting of the war like those of us in London did. They never had to rush to cover their windows when the dreaded siren sounded to herald in the Blitz, nor were they forced to watch in dreaded awe as rockets rained down upon helpless civilians faster than the speed of sound itself. So why on Earth would they feel the same level of urgency that’s been so deeply impressed upon me? Why should they feel that same fire to never again become subject to the dominance of fear or any of her allies.
Anyways, the war has passed, and now we’ve turned our swords into plowshares. We fight a war of the mind rather than one of might—a cold war, to quote George Orwell, if you will. Wernher von Braun, the German-American scientist who developed the V-2, now talks about using his tool to send humanity to Mars. It seems mad, right? Using those lethal weapons, the very embodiment of Vengeance itself, to blast something, someone, off this planet, all in the name of science. But a weapon capable of flattening a city in a single strike seemed like fiction, too, before it became fact. And now, our charge, and the charge of any freedom-loving scientist, is to prevent the Red Menace from attempting to reshape the proverbial plow back into a weapon of unimaginable consequence. We must always stay one step ahead, if not more.
Von Braun purposes to build a platform in our planet’s orbit, a space station that we might use to launch ourselves to the Moon and beyond. The Russians and the Americans may soon accomplish such a feat, but we must be prepared, as the British Nation, to dominate well beyond the influence of Ares. That is where my research comes into play. The journey to realms beyond our inner Solar System may take a considerable amount of time, time that our physiology and biology do not allow. Therefore, the use of cryogenics is key to success when suggesting an expedition farther than the Asteroid Belt.
Today, I will be taking a frozen nap, as it were, just for a month, long enough to chemically analyze my cellular response and measure the aging process while I’m under. I could indeed have someone else take my spot, but I wouldn’t dare trust anyone else. Not with how close we are. If my test is successful, we could be sending people to the outer reaches of our Solar System in a matter of years. And the possibilities from there are endless.
The journey to the research facility just beyond the outskirts of Glasgow is uneventful, if not comfortable, in the unmarked government vehicle. Charles and I exchange no more than a few small words about the passing weather, and by the time we’ve arrived, my mind is quite thoroughly focused on the upcoming test. We pass quickly through the security checkpoints and end up within the familiar walls of my laboratory, which I’ve been using for a host of research experiments these past several years.
My assistants have ensured that everything is waiting and ready ahead of our arrival, and after everyone has settled into the viewing area, I give a few brief words describing the demonstration, then settle into the cryogenic chamber. It’s all rather quick, compared to the seven hour journey here from London, but I prefer it that way. I’m sure I should be nervous as one of my assistants closes the top to the chamber, but honestly, I’m too tired and too mentally strained to be nervous.
There’s a hiss as nitrous fills the chamber, and within moments my vision goes dark.
“Doctor Martin, sir, can you hear me? Can you hear my voice?”
I groan and open my eyes, only to have them instantly overwhelmed by a flood of light. Has the test run its course? Has it already been a month? It feels like only a few seconds have passed, not anywhere near the planned twenty-nine days. Regardless of how long it’s been, I’m shivering uncontrollably, and I notice that my skin is an unrecognizable shade of purple.
It takes several minutes of blinking and rubbing before I can make out the blurred image of two figures standing in front of me. One of them is a rather tall woman with dark hair and a slender form, the other a sturdily built man with a cleanly shaved head and a thin layer of scruff on his face. Neither of them appear to be members of my research team, nor do they appear, well, for lack of a better word…normal. They have the strangest clothing on, though they do seem to be official looking—what with sidearms strapped to their chests and wearing what could technically pass as business attire.
“Who are you? Why did the test stop?” I grumble, shocked by the trembling roughness of my own voice. A slew of physicians appear at my side and begin fussing around my body, but I beat them off, and they retreat behind the man with the scruff.
“Doctor Martin, I’m Agent Ford and this is Agent Knight. We’re with Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, and we’re here to debrief you and make sure that you’re doing okay,” the woman says carefully, as if speaking to a young child that’s just been injured. Her tone is laced with a hint of, what is it…pity?
“Debrief me? Are you with Charles? Did he send you? I need to start running analysis right away—”
I make a move to stand up, but Agent Knight holds out his hand authoritatively, and I pause.
“Sir, I think you should take it slow,” Agent Ford says with an intentional dose of serenity in her voice. “There are a few things we need to tell you that might come as quite a shock.”
I take notice of the laboratory for the first time since waking up, and my blood instantly chills about ten degrees. The whole room is a wreck—bottles and beakers smashed everywhere, bullet holes riddling the walls, light fixtures hanging precariously from the ceiling, and skeletons, everywhere. Bodies upon bodies, obviously left abandoned for decades, if not more. And among them, over in the viewing area, is Charles’ trademark tweed briefcase, popped open and hanging by one hinge next to one of the bodies. My chest clenches as panic threatens to overcome me.
“What happened? What’s going on?”
Agent Ford furrows her brow in sympathy and takes a step forward, offering out her hand.
“You’ve been asleep for more than sixty-five years, sir. It’s the year twenty-nineteen.”
I look around at the bustling morning crowds mulling about Buchanan Street, all headed into unfamiliar shops or dining in any number of foreign-inspired restaurants. Much of what I see is a strange conglomerate of futuristic architecture, a city I’d hardly recognize if it weren’t for the familiar icons such as St Mary’s, Central Station, or the City Chambers. In spite of the madness happening in my life right now, though, I have to admit the smells pull my mind away from it all, tantalizing my appetite, and I realize that I’m insufferably hungry. I mean, why shouldn’t I be? I haven’t eaten in over half a century.
“You wouldn’t mind if we popped into one of those little caffs, do you?” I ask, taking every effort to keep the drool in my mouth.
Agent Ford smiles and nods. “Don’t worry, sir. That’s why we’re here.”
I put my hands in my jacket, temporarily consoled, and look across the way at an old-style church tucked between two towering residential blocks. It’s almost comically out of place, but admittedly soothing for some reason, as if it were placed there just for me, reminding me that even things wizened by time still have their place in this unfamiliar modern era.
“What happened?” I ask Agent Ford earnestly. “With the lab, that is. What went wrong?”
Agent Ford seems reluctant to answer, but eventually she caves in—despite a warning look from Agent Knight. “Your program was quite the black operation, Doctor Martin. As it happens, your friend Charles Baker was the only one in the government who knew about it. The day of your demonstration, there were several undercover Soviet agents present that took advantage of his secretive trip to witness your project, and they assassinated him, along with everyone else present. With no record of where he went or what his undisclosed plans were, his disappearance remained a mystery until just recently.”
“How did you find out, then? How did you find me?” I ask, still struggling to process everything she’s saying.
“The Russians recently declassified a batch of documents from the fifties—from your time, I mean. One of them was a set of hypothetical simulations that involved the assasination of high-level targets on British soil. Turns out, one of the simulations was based on an actual event, the one I’ve been describing to you. We ran it by the Russian Consulate, and while they didn’t explicitly acknowledge their involvement, it was clear we were on the right track with our speculations.”
“Russian Consulate? Are the Soviets friends, then?”
“Friends? Oh, no. Not exactly,” she chuckles. “But let’s say we’re in-between tensions at the moment.”
I nod, confused, but unwilling to press it further.
My mind quickly drifts to the flood of distractions vying for my attention, and I turn my head from side to side in an effort to soak everything in.
“So, tell me, Agent Ford, what did I miss? What’s the world been up to while I’ve been frozen away in the middle of Scotland?”
“Aha, not much, probably,” she says with an infectious smile. “You missed the Vietnam War, the Troubles in Ireland, the War in Iraq, Afghanistan, the dissolution of almost every British colony and territory, the rise of international terrorism, the destruction of our environment, Brexit.”
“Brexit?” I ask, confused.
“Nevermind. Don’t worry about that.”
“And of course,” Agent Knight cuts in, speaking for the first time, “England hasn’t medalled in the World Cup since hosting it in 1966.”
“Excuse me,” Agent Ford says, her face awash with disapproval, “but the women took bronze in 2015.”
“Ah, there’s a women’s World Cup, then?” I say, surprised.
Agent Ford nods and nudges Agent Knight in the side. “Sure is, and I have to say, our girls are playing much better than the guys right now.”
I concede a small chuckle, but internally, my stomach rejects the thought of laughing at anything Agent Ford has just said. Discouragement runs rampant inside my heart, and I scramble to recover the pieces of my spirit that are crumbling before my eyes. What kind of world did I wake up to? Perhaps it was naive of me, but I would have expected there to be huge strides forward in democracy, in unity, the end of war, the birth of human exploration on a cosmic scale. What I see now is frankly rather apathetic, superficial even, a demonstration of humanity at its most basal form. I give credit to the inhabitants of Earth for not annihilating themselves with atomic weapons, but it seems they’ve done everything short of it.
We turn into a cafe, and Agent Ford tells us to find a seat while she gets breakfast for us, something that dramatically halts my downward emotional spiral. There’s a mix of all sorts of smells in the air, and I can almost taste the sausage, the eggs and beans, a side of tomatoes, toast, and—most importantly—tea. A few minutes later, Agent Ford returns to our table and plops what looks like a glazed turd down in front of me.
“What in the hell is this?” I say, affronted by the gingham paper-wrapped ‘breakfast’ before me.
“It’s a donut,” she explains, oblivious to my offense as she takes a bite of her own turd.
“A donut? Where’s the sausage? Where’s the tea?”
Agent Ford looks up from her donut and wipes her mouth with a paper napkin. “Oh, I could get some tea if you want.”
She begins to stand but I wave her off and grab the pastry with sad disappointment. “No, no, it’s too late. What has happened to your generation? What happened to the sanctity of a proper British meal? This makes me feel like I’m back in Ethiopia getting my tinned rations, except instead of the Italians, I’m battling indigestion.”
Agent Knight actually chuckles a little, and Agent Ford gives an apologetic shrug. “It’s an American thing, I think.”
I scoff. “Makes sense. Leave it to the Americans to find a way to ruin even a good meal.” As we eat, my curiosity begins to get the better of me, and I gain the confidence to ask more questions, despite my initial discouragement. “What about space travel? Have we made it to Mars? Farther?”
“Well, we made it to the Moon,” Agent Ford says. “The Americans, that is. We haven’t quite made it there ourselves. Though I heard there might be some cooperation for a possible return, and we might even get to Mars within the next decade or two.”
With that, I fall silent and keep to myself for the remainder of the meal.
My work was supposed to enable the human race to break the bonds keeping us on Earth. The whole reason I went under in the first place was to advance science in the hope that future generations might use it to better themselves. To know, now, that it was all in vain, that humanity chose a path completely foreign to my reasoning, well, it puts me in a very bad place, indeed.
After World War II, humanity swore to unify, to never again let any issue come between us. Sure, it wasn’t long before that vision of utopia faded, but there was at least the hope of globalized harmony. From what I see, though, that hope has shifted, or become lost in the noise of everyday life. We could have probably gone further in science and in exploration, but we’ve watered down our dreams with things like ICBMs, politics, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and something called kale chips, I believe.
Still, I guess the world didn’t end, as I might have predicted before going under. No matter how bad things seem to get, Earth keeps spinning. We overcome. We adapt. We thrive. Because that’s what we do. Because we far prefer evolution, however small, to its alternative.