Once there was a dead man.
He had been waiting for two hundred years inside a coffin, suitably labeled, whose outer shell held liquid nitrogen. There were frozen clumps of cancer all through his frozen body. He had had it bad.
He was waiting for medical science to find him a cure.
He waited in vain. Most varieties of cancer could be cured now, but no cure existed for the billions of cell walls ruptured by expanding crystals of ice. He had known the risk. He had gambled anyway. Why not? He’d been dying.
The vaults held over a million of these frozen bodies. Why not? They’d been dying.
* * *
Later there came a young criminal. His name is forgotten and his crime is secret, but it must have been a terrible one. The State wiped his personality for it.
Afterward he was a dead man: still warm, still breathing, even reasonably healthy—but empty.
The State had use for an empty man.
Corbell woke on a hard table, aching as if he had slept too long in one position. He stared incuriously at a white ceiling. Memories floated up to him of a double-walled coffin, and sleep and pain.
The pain was gone.
He sat up at once.
And flapped his arms wildly for balance. Everything felt wrong. His arms would not swing right. His body was too light. His head bobbed strangely on a thin neck. He reached frantically for the nearest support, which turned out to be a blond young man in a white jumpsuit. Corbell missed his grip; his arms were shorter than he had expected. He toppled on his side, shook his head and sat up more carefully.
His arms. Scrawny, knobby—and not his.
The man in the jumpsuit said, “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” said Corbell. My God, what have they done to me? I thought I was ready for anything, but this—He fought rising panic. His throat was rusty, but that was all right. This was certainly somebody else’s body, but it didn’t seem to have cancer, either. “What’s the date? How long has it been?”
A quick recovery. The checker gave him a plus. “Twenty-one ninety, your dating. You won’t have to worry about our dating.”
That sounded ominous. Cautiously Corbell postponed the obvious next question: What’s happened to me? and asked instead, “Why not?”
“You won’t be joining our society.”
“No? What, then?”
“Several professions are open to you—a limited choice. If you don’t qualify for any of them we’ll try someone else.”
Corbell sat on the edge of the hard operating table. His body seemed younger, more limber, definitely thinner, not very clean. He was acutely aware that his abdomen did not hurt no matter how he moved.
He asked, “And what happens to me?”
“I’ve never learned how to answer that question. Call it a problem in metaphysics,” said the checker. “Let me detail what’s happened to you so far and then you can decide for yourself.”
There was an empty man. Still breathing and as healthy as most of society in the year 2190. But empty. The electrical patterns in the brain, the worn paths of nervous reflex, the memories, the person had all been wiped away as penalty for an unnamed crime.
And there was this frozen thing.
“Your newspapers called you people corpsicles,” said the blond man. “I never understood what the tapes meant by that.”
“It comes from popsicle. Frozen sherbet.” Corbell had used the word himself before he became one of them. One of the corpsicles, the frozen dead.
Frozen within a corpsicle’s frozen brain were electrical patterns that could be recorded. The process would warm the brain and destroy most of the patterns, but that hardly mattered, because other things must be done too.
Personality was not all in the brain. Memory RNA was concentrated in the brain, but it ran all through the nerves and the blood. In Corbell’s case the clumps of cancer had to be cut away. Then the RNA could be leached out of what was left. The operation would have left nothing like a human being, Corbell gathered. More like bloody mush.
“What’s been done to you is not the kind of thing that can be done twice,” the checker told him. “You get one chance and this is it. If you don’t work out we’ll terminate and try someone else. The vaults are full of corpsicles.”
“You mean you’d wipe my personality,” Corbell said unsteadily. “But I haven’t committed a crime. Don’t I have any rights?”
The checker looked stunned. Then he laughed. “I thought I’d explained. The man you think you are is dead. Corbell’s will was probated long ago. His widow—”
“Damn it, I left money to myself!”
“No good.” Though the man still smiled, his face was impersonal, remote, unreachable. A vet smiles reassuringly at a cat due to be fixed. “A dead man can’t own property. That was settled in the courts long ago. It wasn’t fair to the heirs.”
Corbell jerked an unexpectedly bony thumb at his bony chest. “But I’m alive now!”
“Not in law. You can earn your new life. The State will give you a new birth certificate and citizenship if you give the State good reason.”
Corbell sat for a moment, absorbing that. Then he got off the table. “Let’s get started then. What do you need to know about me?”
“Jerome Branch Corbell.”
“Call me Pierce.” The checker did not offer to shake hands. Neither did Corbell, perhaps because he sensed the man would not respond, perhaps because they were both noticeably overdue for a bath. “I’m your checker. Do you like people? I’m just asking. We’ll test you in detail later.”
“I get along with the people around me, but I like my privacy.”
The checker frowned. “That narrows it more than you might think. The isolationism you called privacy was—well, a passing fad. We don’t have the room for
it…or the inclination, either. We can’t send you to a colony world—”
“I might make a good colonist. I like travel.”
“You’d make terrible breeding stock. Remember, the genes aren’t yours. No. You get one choice, Corbell. Rammer.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“That’s the first strange word you’ve used since I woke up. In fact—hasn’t the language changed at all? You don’t even have an accent.”
“Part of my profession. I learned your speech through RNA training, many years ago. You’ll learn your trade the same way if you get that far. You’ll be amazed how fast you learn with RNA shots to help you along. But you’d better be right about liking your privacy, Corbell, and about liking to travel, too. Can you take orders?”
“I was in the army.”
“What does that mean?”
“Good. Do you like strange places and faraway people, or vice versa?”
“Both.” Corbell smiled hopefully. “I’ve raised buildings all over the world. Can the world use another architect?”
“No. Do you feel that the State owes you something?” There could be but one answer to that. “No.”
“But you had yourself frozen. You must have felt that the future owed you something.”
“Not at all. It was a good risk. I was dying.”
“Ah.” The checker looked him over thoughtfully. “If you had something to believe in, perhaps dying wouldn’t mean so much.”
Corbell said nothing.
* * *
They gave him a short word-association test in English. That test made Corbell suspect that a good many corpsicles must date from near his own death in 1970. They took a blood sample, then exercised him to exhaustion and took another blood sample. They tested his pain threshold by direct nerve stimulation—excruciatingly unpleasant—then took another blood sample. They gave him a Chinese puzzle and told him to take it apart.
Pierce then informed him that the testing was over. “After all, we already know the state of your health.”
“Then why the blood samples?”
The checker looked at him for a moment. “You tell me.”
Something about that look gave Corbell the creepy feeling that he was on trial for his life. The feeling might have been caused only by the checker’s rather narrow features, his icy blue gaze and abstracted smile. Still…Pierce had stayed with him all through the testing, watching him as if Corbell’s behavior was a reflection on Pierce’s judgment. Corbell thought carefully before he spoke.
“You have to know how far I’ll go before I quit. You can analyze the blood samples for adrenaline and fatigue poisons to find out just how much I was hurting, just how tired I really was.”
“That’s right,” said the checker.
Corbell had survived again.
He would have given up much earlier on the pain test. But at some point Pierce had mentioned that Corbell was the fourth corpsicle personality to be tested in that empty body.
* * *
He remembered going to sleep that last time, two hundred and twenty years ago.
His family and friends had been all around him, acting like mourners. He had chosen the coffin, paid for vault space, and made out his Last Will and Testament, but he had not thought of it as dying. He had been given a shot. The eternal pain had drifted away in a soft haze. He had gone to sleep.
He had drifted off wondering about the future, wondering what he would wake to. A vault into the unknown. World government? Interplanetary spacecraft? Clean fusion power? Strange clothing, body paints, nudism? New principles of architecture, floating houses,
Or crowding, poverty, all the fuels used up, power provided by cheap labor? He’d thought of those, but they didn’t worry him. The world could not afford to wake him if it was that poor. The world he dreamed of in those last moments was a rich world, able to support such luxuries as Jaybee Corbell.
It looked like he wasn’t going to see too damn much of it.
Someone led him away after the testing. The guard walked with a meaty hand wrapped around Corbell’s thin upper arm. Leg irons would have been no more effective had Corbell thought of escaping. The guard took him up a narrow staircase to the roof.
The noon sun blazed in a blue sky that shaded to yellow, then brown at the horizon. Green plants grew in close-packed rows on parts of the roof. Elsewhere many sheets of something glassy were exposed to the sunlight.
Corbell caught one glimpse of the world from a bridge between two roofs. It was a cityscape of close-packed buildings, all of the same cold cubistic design.
And Corbell was impossibly high on a narrow strip of concrete with no guardrails at all. He froze. He stopped breathing.
The guard did not speak. He tugged at Corbell’s arm, not hard, and watched to see what he would do. Corbell pulled himself together and went on.
* * *
The room was all bunks: two walls of bunks with a gap between. The light was cool and artificial, but outside it was nearly noon. Could they be expecting him to sleep? But jet lag had never bothered Corbell.
The room was big, a thousand bunks big. Most of the bunks were full. A few occupants watched incuriously as the guard showed Corbell which bunk was his. It was the bottommost in a stack of six. Corbell had to drop to his knees and roll to get into it. The bedclothes were strange: silky and very smooth, even slippery—the only touch of luxury about the place. But there was no top sheet, nothing to cover him. He lay on his side, looking out at the dormitory from near floor level.
Now, finally, he could let himself think:
Earlier it might have been a fatal distraction. He’d been holding it back:
I made it!
And young! That wasn’t even in the contract.
But, he thought reluctantly, because it would not stay buried, who is it that’s alive? Some kind of composite? A criminal rehabilitated with the aid of some spare chemicals and an electric brainwashing device…? No. Jaybee Corbell is alive and well, if a trifle confused.
Once he had had that rare ability: He could go to sleep anywhere, anytime. But sleep was very far from him now. He watched and tried to learn.
* * *
Three things were shocking about that place.
One was the smell. Apparently perfumes and deodorants had been another passing fad. Pierce had been overdue for a bath. So was the new, improved Corbell. Here the smell was rich.
The second was the loving bunks, four of them in a vertical stack, twice as wide as the singles and with thicker mattresses. The doubles were for loving, not sleeping. What shocked Corbell was that they were right out in the open, not hidden by so much as a gauze curtain.
The same was true of the toilets.
How can they live like this?
Corbell rubbed his nose and jumped—and cursed at himself for jumping. His own nose had been big and fleshy and somewhat shapeless. But the nose he now rubbed automatically when trying to think was small and narrow with a straight, sharp edge. He might very well get used to the smell and everything else before he got used to his own nose.
Eventually he slept.
Some time after dusk a man came for him. A broad, brawny type wearing a gray jumper and a broad expressionless face, the guard was not one to waste words. He found Corbell’s bunk, pulled Corbell out by one arm and led him stumbling away. Corbell was facing Pierce before he was fully awake.
In annoyance he asked, “Doesn’t anyone else speak English?”
“No,” said the checker.
Pierce and the guard guided Corbell to a comfortable armchair facing a wide curved screen. They put padded earphones on him. They set a plastic bottle of clear fluid on a shelf over his head. Corbell noticed a clear plastic tube tipped with a hypodermic needle.
Pierce missed the sarcasm. “You’ll have one meal each day—after learning period and exercise.” He inserted the needle into a vein in Corbell’s arm. He covered the wound with a blob of what might have been Silly Putty.
Corbell watched it all without emotion. If he had ever been afraid of needles the months of pain and cancer had worked it out of him. A needle was surcease, freedom from pain for a while.
“Learn now,” said Pierce. “This knob controls speed. The volume is set for your hearing. You may replay any section once. Don’t worry about your arm; you can’t pull the tube loose.”
“There’s something I wanted to ask you, only I couldn’t remember the word. What’s a rammer?”
Corbell studied the checker’s face, without profit. “You’re kidding.”
“No. Learn now.” The checker turned on Corbell’s screen and went away.
Copyright © 1991 by Larry Niven