by Jennifer Mason-Black
Illustrated by Galen Dara | Edited by Brian J. White
At least we assume they do. It’s been years, decades. Within their stainless steel eggs, we believe they rest, eyes closed, a thin film of frost binding top lip to bottom. No windows exist, though, through which to see their faces. An endless night monitored by sensors, wires, and bulbs, a complicated weather station always providing just one answer.
Left this way, they will be kept static as the decades span into centuries, as every hint of the world they once knew, the lives they once had, vanishes, replaced with a future none of us can predict.
Even now, the Sleepers have outslept much of what they once had. Sixty years is a long time. More life than any of them had before they entered the eggs, long enough for those they knew to grow gray hair, wrinkles, to have children and to see them reach adulthood. To die.
Sleep. We keep to this euphemism, and it protects us from the truth that sleep comes with the chance to awaken. That they linger only because we keep them there — frozen, timeless, and, increasingly, forgotten.
I do not want them forgotten. We do not. That is why we are here today — family, friends, lovers, children — to petition the Committee on the Care and Maintenance of the Sleepers. Others will speak to the science, to the ethics, to the questions that plague those who do not remember the laughter, the breath, the beauty banished to those icy shells. This story, mine, is offered in the hopes of reaching past theory and into life.
Jilly and I were born three months apart. Three months and four days in her favor, as she was always quick to point out, for such things are important to children. Her father and my parents both taught at the university, all in different fields, and her mother was an artist, and they met over baby blankets and play groups. Her parents lived one street over from us, and once we were old enough, Jilly and I made a path through the woods between our homes. At the lowest point, the trail took us over a brook spanned by a fallen tree. We measured the distance between our houses in footsteps, once on her birthday, once on mine, and kept the numbers in a little notebook. Each year those numbers shrank as our strides grew, right up until Jilly’s eleventh birthday.
As a child, so many things come to you instinctually, rather than through more formal tracks. You know when your mother is angry in the same way you sense rain coming on the breeze. The difference in Jilly that year haunted me, a whisper in my ear that I could never quite hear. At night I dreamed of running, both of us, as something came through the trees, running as hard as we could. I’d hear her feet falter, my name cried out in fear, and I’d wake, heart pounding, sheets flung off the bed. Dreams I wouldn’t speak aloud, for fear I might call something terrible into the world.
She’d always been taller than me, faster, always turned a darker shade of brown under the summer sun, could hold her breath longer underwater. That spring, I passed her by. “It happens,” my mother said, “kids grow at different speeds.”
But I could smell the worry on her when she looked at the bruises on Jilly’s thin legs, when she talked with Jilly’s mom in quiet voices under our old oak tree. Saturday mornings stretched longer and slower as I got used to waiting for Jilly to wake.
“Read a book,” my mom said at first. “Play with your brother.” Then she started making plans with me, taking me on hikes, shopping for odd things — dishcloths, or terrariums, or magnifying glasses. By the time we returned, Jilly would be up, and we’d meet halfway, on the old tree trunk over the stream.
Jilly’s birthday was in May. The fifteenth of May, and I will always smell lilacs and think of her, of straight dark hair and freckled shoulders. For a long time I couldn’t think of it that way. I could only remember counting with her — fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four — and watching her legs twist, almost like a corkscrew, as she fell to the ground. Of screaming for help, of running straight through the brook, not caring about the mud on my new sneakers, of my mother holding me like I was four, my legs around her waist, while Jilly’s dad carried her, her skin gone shadow-pale, her eyes only half opening as he put her in their car, and they all drove away.
Medical tests — those happen in the adult world. The pieces that break through into a child’s world, those are needles and pain and fear of hurt. They are the immediate discomforts, not the things that keep a parent awake all night, willing to trade anything for an answer other than the one that travels relentlessly toward them. Conversely, a child’s hurts exist in a world untouchable by adults. There is no vocabulary for things like the threat of losing a best friend when you are not quite eleven. There is only swinging on the old tire your father hung from the oak in the backyard, twirling round and round, while your little brother tries to push you without getting knocked over, tries to comfort you in the silent animal language you share.
It took two weeks for Jilly to come home. It took another two days before she was allowed out of the house. She could walk to the edge of her yard and no further. We lay together on a blanket on the grass and stared at the ants scuttling through the green.
“My mom’s scared.” She didn’t look at me as she talked. Our forearms pressed together, her skin cool against mine.
I said nothing. It seemed there was fear in everything — her parents, mine, the grass, the sky. We lived in a kaleidoscope, and I wanted to return to the original pattern, before things broke apart.
“Maybe we could have a party for both of us on my birthday.” I curled my pinky around hers.
An adult would try to open the doors closed between us. Would pry and encourage and force. A child lacks those tools.
I leaned over and smelled her hair. “You’ve been using different shampoo.”
I didn’t listen to the news back then. If I had, I would have heard the debates now included in the Sleeper archive. The program began with a simple idea, one that had been bandied about in science fiction and medicine for years: find a way to put those with incurable illness into suspended animation. Keep them there until a cure could be found. But the trick was always that there was no way of knowing if a cure would be found, and so one would be trading a definite life, however short, for the chance of a longer one and the risk of never waking.
When I was ten years old, two things happened. One, Rilodyne perfected the art of cold storage of mammals that allowed them to be reanimated, utilizing extensive research into the biological processes of wood frogs. Two, Drs. Barkley and Caufman published the first in a series of papers on the “Universal Cure,” a gene therapy they claimed would destroy cancerous cells while preserving healthy ones, and virtually eradicate cancer as we knew it.
Their research paved the way for an international license to be granted to Rilodyne to begin the Sleeper program, officially known as the Biological Stasis Project. Patients diagnosed as terminally ill by three separate oncologists could purchase an “egg,” a resting place for their frozen bodies to be stored and maintained until all the kinks in the Universal Cure had been eradicated. That description, of course, ignores the procedures necessary, the addition of chemicals into the bloodstream, the cessation of vital signs. Death, in other words, rebranded as hope.
There were rules, of course. Chief among them, only adults would be accepted. Only those with clear minds, those who could understand the maze of choices and possibilities involved.
Those who knew what they were giving up, and why.
“They can’t be serious.” Something brittle laced my mother’s voice. I’d come back down for a drink of water after I’d fallen asleep, pausing on the stairs when I heard them.
“I’m sure they’re not. Laura, were we in the same place, we might very well consider it, even if only for a moment.”
“No. Not even for a moment. They’ve proven nothing beyond their ability to revive someone. I don’t think there’s been enough testing to confirm that those revived return to one hundred percent functioning. And the rest… Nothing. There’s nothing to say that cures to anything will ever be found.”
“That’s also not true. The studies on the Universal Cure are very promising. A matter of a few years, maybe.”
“Because science is infallible. Because there are never data errors, or unrepeatable results, or people pushing things through for the sake of their own egos. Not just pushing things through — falsifying. You know it happens. The Sleeper program is run by a for-profit company, selling hope based on research that isn’t close to complete. Never. It should never have been approved.”
After that, they stopped talking, or spoke so quietly I could not hear them. I returned to my bed and sat awake, the breeze blowing across my face, bringing with it the smell of summer. I didn’t know what a Sleeper was, but I knew it had to do with Jilly, and I knew it wasn’t good.
The next morning I woke with a plan. A childhood spent playing at castles and wizards and dragons had given me the tools I needed. The answer was in finding the right spell. It had to be. For children, stories are guidebooks to the world. I pulled out every novel I had involving magic, asked my mother to bring me to the library to find more.
I carried most of them in a backpack over to Jilly’s that afternoon. “This is what we need to do,” I said. “There are always spells to make things better. One will work on you.”
I believed we would find something to fix her, believed it as completely as I believed my parents would provide dinner for me every night, or that my little brother would always be little. I would find what we needed, and Jilly would be ready to count the steps with me on my birthday, the ones we left unfinished on hers.
I don’t know what she believed. She humored me, if nothing else. What I didn’t know then, what I wouldn’t know until years later, was the death sentence that already lay upon her head. With treatment, without, her parents already knew that her life could be measured in weeks, months at most. That even then death was steadily winding her lifeline in to bring her to its door.
So she lay on the blanket and I read out bits from stories we knew and searched for an answer. We didn’t find a spell, at least not a whole one, about making someone better. By the time I needed to go home to dinner, I’d filled with frustration.
Her parents were taking her for more tests at the beginning of the week. That left Sunday for magic. It wasn’t until that night, as I listened to the peepers calling from the woods, that an idea began to form. A terrible one, something I never would have considered for any other reason than to save Jilly from whatever hunted her in my dreams. That was magic, right? Sometimes beautiful, and sometimes terrible, and wasn’t it the call of the magician to be brave enough to do what must be done?
It took me an hour to find a frog in the morning. Most days they were everywhere near the stream. This day they must have sensed my desperation as I ran along the bank. By the time I caught one, small and moss-green and equally desperate, I’d begun to cry.
I put him in a plastic box I’d taken from home, holes punched in the top by screwdriver, and put the box in my backpack. He scrabbled about as I followed the path to Jilly’s house. “Don’t be scared, it’s okay,” I told him. The lie wriggled in my stomach like a tangle of worms.
Jilly and I lay on the blanket again, only this time I took the box out and we watched the frog. It climbed the plastic walls on long sticky toes, the skin of its abdomen making slight movements. Jilly stared, the dark circles under her eyes making them look even larger.
“It’s the kind of magic that sometimes you have to do,” I said, even though every minute made me more certain it wasn’t something I could do. “Deep magic, the kind that saves lives, it costs something. That’s what it says in the books.”
At the bottom of the bag lay a jackknife. Bone-handled, or so I thought, though the reality was closer to plastic. A single blade that I’d sharpened carefully on the stone in the kitchen drawer, round and round like my mother’d taught me. I could do it, had to do it, to keep the monsters at bay.
But what if it didn’t work?
Moments fade, always. We remember so little of our lives, a kind of hazy blur of bricks constructed into a wall of sorts. But here and there, the wall holds windows, flowerboxes, bits of graffiti. The few brilliant moments that stay. Jilly’s face as she tapped the box, saw the frog leap from her in fear.
“Not that kind of magic,” she said. She sat up, opened the box. The frog drew a quick breath and leaped free, vanishing across the grass in wide loops. “We’re not those kind of magicians. Not ones that need something dead to do our magic.”
This is what we did instead. I ran home and collected the odds and ends of seed packets from my father’s garden. I returned to Jilly and we held them tight, my hands over hers, and said the words of life, of the magic of being young and believing that what you do will make a difference. That night, I threw them into the breeze when the moon shone in my window.
The financial cost of the Sleeper program? Well beyond the net worth of most families. But if you had just one child, if you knew that child would die and you believed that by giving up everything you owned, you might be able to bring her back in just a few years, would you be willing to do it? Give up everything?
The answer was yes, for at least a few families who circumvented the laws with bribery and pleas, who sold all their possessions to buy an egg for their child. We do not know how many of the three hundred and seventy six eggs contain children. No windows, you see, and no way to open without awakening, and proof that at least some records are incorrect. The families know, of course, and some have come forward, and some are gone.
I know the story of Sleeper 107. Her life ended on a sunny first of July, fifty-nine years ago. Her mother’s ended two years later, when it was proven that Drs. Barkley and Caufman had falsified key data in an effort to maintain funding. The Universal Cure was highly effective against just two forms of cancer. Of the three hundred and seventy six humans sealed into Rilodyne eggs, only three were ever hatched for a cure. The rest wait beneath the ice.
Every grief is one which cannot be imagined. Every heartbreak comes to someone on its own frequency of pain. I cannot speak to what Jilly’s parents felt. They didn’t tell my parents of their decision until after that final morning. That moment, the days and months after, I carry that pain always, that loss woven deep into my life.
That is not the piece I want to talk about though. Grief comes to all of us. I have no reason to explain it to you.
No, this is what I want you to remember. Two girls, one just eleven, one not quite, lying on a blanket in the shade. Two girls watching out a rainy bedroom window, trying to spot where seeds might have blown, sprouted, where hope itself now grew amid the clover and the sorrel.
“It should be clear tomorrow,” says one. “We can go out then and look.”
“I won’t be here tomorrow. I have to go for more tests.”
“For how long?”
“Not sure. My parents won’t say.”
“Okay. I’ll check while you’re away.”
No cure exists for Jilly. No likelihood of a cure exists, and with each passing year she drifts further and further from everything she once had — a family, a home, a world she might recognize and understand. Rilodyne is closed, the Sleepers’ eggs kept functional by a government coalition while we discuss their fate, and while those of us who knew them die off, more and more with each passing year.
Awakened, Jilly will be an eleven-year-old girl with a terminal illness. She will find her parents dead, her best friend now a seventy-year-old woman with granddaughters her age. She will likely die within weeks, provided she survives the reanimation process.
There has been talk of leaving the Sleepers indefinitely. Talk that sleep is a better fate than waking into what remains for them.
This is what I ask of you. Look beyond the magic for a moment. Science flows through human hands, and is therefore subject to human folly. It is a lesson we’re reluctant to grasp.
By allowing those of us with claims of connection to the Sleepers to awaken them, you recognize two things. First, that those who wake will do so into love. I can care for Jilly, I can remember with her. I’m still well enough to outlive her so she is not left alone among strangers. Give her those moments of life taken from her so long ago.
Second, that it is time for us to confront our great failing. We are surrounded by the ghosts of those we’ve used in the name of science, the invisible people, the ones society is blind to, does not choose to protect. Time and again, we’ve acted as if intellect and compassion are inextricably linked, the results always proving it is not so. If we do not wake the Sleepers, who’s to say what will become of them in another fifty years? One hundred? Ill, without family, without anyone to speak for them… who will protect them then? Can you guarantee that no one will step forward with plans to test them, to use them for research, these people with no ties, no voices?
No. I think not.
Wake them. Show me that finally we are not that kind of magician, that we do not do that kind of magic.