Opened Cans

<< A Bygone Mineral Empire

“It’s not all of us alone, it’s each of us together.”

-Penelope Anton, CEO of Paper Metal

When she collided with wakefulness, Jeanine Chabot didn’t bolt upright with a gasp and a half-limp hand to her chest. She didn’t sigh and slowly come to standing with a luxuriating smile. She started coughing about a third of a second before her naked body bent like a coathook, and then vomited roughly half the Baltic Sea’s worth of fluid from her lungs and digestive tract.

Then the hefty dignity owed any barely-dressed flailing out-of-control person became a bit inconvenienced when she tried to scream, and began crying instead.

She hauled herself from the cell, collapsing on the floor, breathing heavy and steaming breaths as her environment’s heat exchanged energy prisoners with her body’s cold. The cell had warmed considerably as she received sedatives and preparatory steroids, bringing her to the precipice of reanimation. Now thawed and conscious, she found everything to her dissatisfaction except for the fact she lived.

Jeanine’s muscles seized as she tried to climb the base of her cell. They hadn’t atrophied, but the simple length of time she’d lain unmoving meant she had to reacclimate. No matter the treatment or preservation technologies involved in making sure her dormancy didn’t curdle into gentle expiration, time was time.

Several minutes of huddling in a puddle of glorified formaldehyde later, she found the grace to stand. Her gut trembled with something that wasn’t hunger, and also wasn’t NOT hunger. The proper firing of neurons and stabilization of motor impulses meant she could half limp over to the wall of the mass burial ground, where more MREs than a single person could eat in a hundred lifetimes sat pushed back into a warehousing room.

A console beside the doorway filled her with fear.

The console itself did not scare her. No, it was the thought that if she tried to push the button to wake it up, it might just sit inert. Their predictions – Paper Metal’s predictions, specifically – were that the systems in the arcology would most likely fail at either the energy storage part of the design or the mechanisms involved in… whatever nuclear generator thing the engineers had cooked up to power the facility.

Jeanine had gotten into this program because she had organizational skills as a secretary and hands-on experience in the basics of medicine. The explanations from the eggheads about “stateless energetic transfer” and “drive-chain mechanical cracking endurance” had made negative sense to her – she suspected Derek Poltier, that indefatigable womanizer, had literally made up the latter of those on the spot. All she knew was the company had done less architecture and more application of extremely granular physics principles in setting up their bunker.

After all, Paper Metal was trying to outlast the end of civilization.

When the console’s small screen clicked on, Jeanine knew they’d succeeded.

The fact the company had put their logo on so much of the arcology’s contents still amused her. All carefully done, true – no stamping or stickers or things that might invite unwanted chemical reactions, or provide one place where a plate was weaker than any other, but it wasn’t like they needed to advertise their success. If the seed of humanity in their little pantry managed to survive, the organization that let them continue the legacy of their species would become immortal.

Despite this, the little hexagonal shape, a solid black line separating a white ream of paper on one side from a gray steely cube on the other, made her smile and begin squeezing out viscous tears.

The console’s bootup screen gave way to a simple menu. The first was devoted to essential informatics. It showed a Gregorian date of approximately 5 April AD 71332, plus or minus about sixty years. It showed that of the four hundred souls in the Sustainment Chamber (trademarked for reasons known MAYBE to God), one was no longer in containment, fifteen exhibited slightly concerning health conditions, two had passed away, and if Jeanine didn’t manually begin waking them up the system had flagged six more candidates for defrosting over the course of the next year.

Despite the fact the screen told her the company had anticipated as many as ten deaths due to unpredictable long term chemical and biological issues over such a period, she felt a twist at those two icons with “DECEASED” stamped in their status column.

The next things she looked over were a short document explaining context; specifically, why the primary logic cortex had decided to keep them under as long as it had, and the factors that went into that decision. It also contained the run of the outside world’s broadcast news events that the arcology’s auditing managed to pick up before the place went dark for good.

9 September AD 3308, the logs said. Considerably more than sixty thousand years ago, and roughly a millennium after Jeanine Chabot et al had gone under long term anesthesia, a West Russian satellite had sent out a radio signal. It said that the Mars project, whatever that was, had reached a stable milestone, but they needed more doses of Zeus. Please, someone, anyone provide; the reward was an absurd number next to a malformed shnibble of data that might have been an unknown currency symbol.

Jeanine looked down the wall, toward what resembled a shuttered display case.

She presumed no help was to be had.

That was the next element on their inventory; fifty percent of the reason they’d hidden deep beneath the surface of the North American continent waited for a checkup, and if she’d been scared about the console, she was terrified about the pharmaceutical goods.

Two buttons, a menu shift, a completely pointless dissolve effect leading into another UI element. Six hundred doses of one of the many medicinal variants on the holy grail collectively called Zeus, all reporting stable and presumably unexpired.

Jeanine’s legs collapsed as she let out a sigh many many many years in the making.

The more-naked-than-naked clothing substitute she wore made her think about looking into the time capsule manifest and see where their duds were stored, but she was too relieved to do more than articulate the thought.

Enough medicine. If all went well they wouldn’t need it; if all went poorly they’d not only need it but also need to alter it and maybe even give it to the women as well as the men. She hoped for something in the middle; a single dose for the hundred and fifty susceptibles in their enclave, and then keep the rest under lock and key. Maybe they’d find other survivors. Maybe they’d need inoculation.

She thankfully began to key in the command to defrost her colleagues, happy to have other people who could share the heavy weight of responsibility.

Her next surprise came when she ordered the rest of the cells opened. The console refused her initially. She had to sign off on some additional mission status verifications, and they unfolded to show yet more things requiring her acceptance.

“Provide confirmation of annexed objectives’ completion,” she read, puzzled.

The annexed objectives were evidently thus: first, secure an intermediate or permanent housing site or equivalent lodging for mission participants; second, create and evaluate an action plan for long term sustainment of mission participants and descendents with acceptable odds of success; third, verify either that the societal matrix of the area permits the mission participants to pursue their ends or that no local societal matrix exists; fourth, compile general intelligence reports on any identifiable political bodies of the world which might help or harm the mission participants in their goals; fifth, if all preceding objectives are met, survive for one hundred calendar days in the proposed conditions. If two calendar years elapsed before completing her tasks, the next person in the hierarchy of defrost candidates would be awoken, and she’d help that person fulfill the same goals.

In the ultimate extreme of need, a box informed her in big friendly letters, she could peel back the side cover of the console and unplug a single cord to initiate a Hail Mary. It would return everything in the facility to a “safe” state after releasing the sleepers, then cause a total shutdown. She was informed in no uncertain terms that doing so would flag the operation as a failure to the system’s black box internals; unless the human subjects managed to survive through their own merits and someday repair it, the bunker would become completely useless except to act as a warehouse.

PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT DO THIS, the end of the console’s printout implored.

Her lips pulled down at the corners.

Finally, she came to material assets, highly distracted. Partly it came from thinking about how to undertake her unexpected expectations. Partly it came from getting psychologically concussed, going from an average thought speed of ten instructions per millennium to… well, even someone like her was probably capable of ten instructions per millisecond.

That dissociation was a driving force in the fact she ran her eyes over the inventory three times before “convection drill harness” registered, and she reread yet again.

The majority of equipment in stock split into equal parts construction hardware, military hardware, and farming hardware. Some of it clearly blurred the boundaries, like a sower that apparently had a dispensing rate in the same league as the average chaingun. The magnitude of the equipment also surprised her. Whoever had decided to include a brace of mortars with multiple-round-simultaneous-impact capability expected the team to be conducting open warfare operations.

Above all of the unassigned line items, a flashing listing got her attention: a medical servitor capable of everything from basic boo-boo bettering to installing extremely sophisticated cybernetics and prostheses.

“Consultation needed at sculpting station,” the console told her.

“Oh. Well, alright then.”

Her only stop between the console and the dark depths of the inventory room was to pick up a sleeve computer. By the time the lights flickered on ahead of her to show an especially asymmetrical apparatus, she’d fastened the sleeve to her forearm and gotten it formatted. She winced as the leads bit.

She’d never seen anything precisely like the hunched minibus-sized machine revealed before her. An autoclave might have given birth to it, had there been a love affair with a pneumatic hoist. Boxy bits ran the length of girders on a flat scaffold, pins and ampoules and drums scattered like icons on a transparent map. At the middle was a chair, made of hinged angular plastic strips. It all looked mean and competent and restless.

A big red button sat on a pedestal to one side. It had a smiley face and a speech bubble that read Press Me on top.

Rather than turning around and going back under cryo, she pushed the button.

“Please sit down and comply with instructions for the best results in fitting your multipurpose kit,” a voice said. Generic accent, generic diction.

She sat.

The seat immediately shifted. Its hinges began tightening and loosening to fit her body’s silhouette as best as it could. Stiff but forgiving material uncoiled beneath either arm, bonds holding them in place. She tried not to struggle.

“Indicate which arm would be best suited for extensible installation of multipurpose kit tools,” the voice added.

A monitor slid out to one side, describing the extent of her upcoming upgrades. She gulped, and realized this would prove useful as well as matchlessly invasive as arm surgery could get.

Little plates at the end of the new armrests flipped up. On either appeared the message “press and hold to choose installation site” – she neither wanted to nor could accept the left arm for the honor, thanks to her chirality and the sleeve already attached.

After three seconds of holding her right hand against its sensor, the message “WAIT PLEASE” appeared and a skeleton of metal straws descended on her from all directions.

She had all of a second to worry over whether the station’s anesthesia had gone bad. Then a frankly astounding amount and variety of drugs got shoved into her arm.

A pretty floating light-bloom took up residence behind her eyes. Her brain still processed as normal, still picking up sensations of lateral movement, still aware when an iris of metal closed on her arm and held it fully extended. It twisted just enough to bare the underside, soft flesh flattened by the oblong profile of the beartrap clamp.

Fortunately, the cocktail left her dazed, whether by design or synergetic fallout from wantonly mixing medication species. It let her watch the blurry gory work with detachment.

As she compared the cuts and operations of the scalpels and probes and needles and sensors to the deboning of a fish, she had just enough lucidity to wonder how her old life’s trajectory would get pulled open and peeled apart, just like her arm-fish’s flesh. Then she blacked out.

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