I looked at him. He looked at me. I said, “I give up. How can that be possible?”
“Mr. Tanner,” he said, “have you ever heard of cryonics?”
Well, of course I had. Based on the notion that biological processes ground to a halt at a lower temperature, cryonics postulated that dead people might be frozen for years on end, then thawed when science had advanced to the point of finding a cure for whatever it was that had killed them. Today’s incurable illness might be a mere nuisance twenty or fifty or a hundred years from now, when a pill or a shot or a surgical procedure could make you fit as a fiddle again.
There had been rumors, I remembered, that various prominent persons had had themselves frozen after death. It seemed to me I’d heard it said about Walt Disney, though I couldn’t be sure whether he was ultimately going to be thawed or simply animated.
It sounded nice in theory. It was a new wrinkle in the hopeless war against mortality, and while it might not extend the normal life span, it might serve as a weapon against early death. If your heart failed, well, we’ll just freeze you until artificial hearts have been perfected. Same with the liver and lungs. Whatever’s wrong with you, sooner or later medical science will work out a way to fix it, and when that happens we’ll warm you up and set you straight.
The trouble was that it was still highly theoretical. While various cryonic facilities around the country had various deceased citizens as clients – “Many are cold and a few are frozen” was the phrase which leapt unbidden to mind – no one had as yet been thawed out to see if it was possible to restart his engine. (Some of the frozen ones were disembodied brains, the doctor told me. It seemed that it was considerably less expensive to have your brain frozen than to have them do your whole body. It struck me as a false economy. How could you go about reviving a frozen brain, and what on earth would you do with it? You needed a body for it, and where would you go for a volunteer? I suppose you could transplant it into the body of a horse, say, but would you really want to return to life as Mister Ed?)
And it was still as theoretical as ever, the fact notwithstanding that I had a pulse once again after a quarter-century in the deep freeze. All my pulse proved was that you could successfully freeze and thaw the living, something they’d long since established through experiments with fish, frogs, and the occasional mammal, including at least a few human volunteers. Such volunteers had never spent more than a day or two frozen stiff, but, if time essentially stopped for one when the body temperature got low enough, then a few days and a couple of dozen years were all one.
That was the theory, anyway, and I looked to be the living proof of it. Dramatic proof at that, if I said so myself. Twenty-five years at zero degrees – I’m guessing at that, nobody was ever able to tell me the precise temperature at which I was maintained – twenty-five years, by God, and I didn’t even need a shave.
How had this happened to me? That’s what I wanted to know, and Dr. Fischbinder wasn’t much help on that point. (That was his name, Warner Fischbinder, and he was an M.D. and a specialist in heroic procedures. At first I thought that meant he saved people trapped in burning buildings, but it turned out his specialty involved treating patients brought back from the very brink of death. His associate, the sallow blonde, was Laura Westerley, and she was a doctor as well, specializing in internal medicine, which, if you think about it, ought to take in just about everything but dermatology. I’d assumed she was a nurse, because most women in white had been nurses when I was frozen. That was just one of the things that were not the same anymore.)
“You were found,” Fischbinder told me, “in a frozen-food locker in the sub-basement of a house in Union City, New Jersey.”
“At 673 Parkside Avenue,” I said.
“You remember the address after all these years?”
“As if it were yesterday. As far as I’m concerned, it was yesterday.”
“Yes, of course. For years the house was owned and occupied by a family named Akesson.”
“Swedish Danes,” I said. “Or Danish Swedes.”
“You know them?”
I shook my head. “I knew a man named Harald Engstrom, and the last thing I remember was drinking a drink he poured for me. He was staying at a friend’s house, and Akesson must have been the friend. And I wound up in the family freezer, next to the cans of Birdseye frozen orange juice.”
“Not the family freezer.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly mean-”
“I doubt the family could have known about it,” he explained. “This was a special hi-tech unit, state-of-the-art in 1972 and still impressive all these years later. And it was installed in a sub-basement of the Akesson house, a small one-room affair reached through a trapdoor in the floor of the furnace room. Someone had run an electrical line to the chamber, and that supplied the power to keep the thing running and you well frozen. And there was also a backup system, a battery-operated generator that would kick in and power the chamber if the power lines were down in a storm. Whoever did this wasn’t taking any chances that you would thaw prematurely.”
“Then how come I’m not still there?”
“The family sold the house,” he said. “It changed hands a couple of times, as a matter of fact. The most recent tenant was doing some remodeling, and had reason to take up the tile floor in the basement instead of just laying new tile on top of it. And in the course of it they discovered the trapdoor, and went to see where it led.”
“They were probably expecting buried treasure,” I said, “and found me instead. But how did they know to call someone who would know what to do?”
“There was a notice posted,” he said. “Hand lettered in block capitals. I don’t recall the wording, but the point of it was that the unit contained a living human being in a frozen state, and that it should not be opened or the power shut off except under the supervision of qualified medical personnel.”
“And that’s where the two of you come in.”
“Not immediately, but soon enough.”