Check out an excerpt from When We Wake by Karen Healey, out on March 5 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers:
Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027—she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.
But on what should have been the best day of Tegan’s life, she dies—and wakes up a hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.
Tegan is the first government guinea pig to be cryonically frozen and successfully revived, which makes her an instant celebrity—even though all she wants to do is try to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. But the future isn’t all she hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better future?
I Am the Walrus
One of the many things the twenty?second century has gotten right is painkillers.
I didn’t feel a thing as Marie picked all the tiny bits of grit out of my scrapes, washed them all down with something that smelled revolting, and sprayed on something else that turned into a thick layer of dark brown gunk.
“It’s artificial skin,” she explained. “You had something like it in your time, but this is better. It’ll prevent infection while the skin underneath heals. Not that there should be any infection; you’re on a lot of immunoboosters. We were worried about today’s diseases. Let me have a look at your shoulder.”
“What’s Operation New Beginning?” I asked as she gently rotated my upper arm. “Ow!”
“Sorry. Just a muscle strain and some bruising, I think. Operation New Beginning is a project researching and experimenting on the revival of the cryonically frozen. Like yourself.”
“So this is your job? You do this all the time?”
“No,” Marie said. “Well, it is my job, yes. But you’re the first successful human revival.”
I thought of the blank?faced man in his hospital bed. An unsuccessful revival?
“So there’s no one else,” I said. My voice felt tight and dry, but I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks. “Alex and Dalmar—were they okay? The sniper . . .”
“They were fine, Tegan. The sniper was aiming at the Prime Minister, but he was an amateur. He panicked after he shot you and didn’t try again. From the records we have—” She sat back on her heels and looked at me uncertainly. “I’m a body doctor, you know, not a psych specialist. You’ll need to talk to someone qualified.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want people poking in my brain.”
Marie’s face went even sadder. “Tegan,” she said, “you signed your dead body over to science. And you’re the first revival who can actually answer questions; maybe the only one for some time. I’m afraid you won’t be given much choice.”
I would have run again, maybe, if I hadn’t been so sore and shocked. As it was, I just sat in that chair, too numb to even think of escape.
That morning, I’d been in love and loved. I’d had family and friends, and an idea of my place in the world. That night, I’d lost everything.
It was kind of a lot to think about.
They put me in a room—a room with a real bed and an attached bathroom. They gave me real clothes to wear, and some books and a stereo. The stuff was all weirdly familiar and therefore looked suspiciously like things that had been hauled out of a museum and set up to make me feel more comfortable. The old stereo still worked, and they’d found some CDs, which, by the way, were an outdated medium well before my time. It was an odd mix—some Elvis Presley, some Dusty Springfield. A lot of European classical. Some disco rubbish I listened to only once, and a few Broadway musicals.
No Beatles. No guitar so that I could make music of my own.
No computer to give me that large dose of culture shock, the one I’d already had.
I spent most of the next three weeks grieving.
Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve spent the last two and a half months grieving. I reckon I’ll do it for the rest of my life—every time I see or hear or smell something that reminds me of the life and the people I used to have.
But for those first weeks, it took up a lot of my time. I was grieving for the people I’d lost and the experiences I’d never share with them. Alex and I weren’t going to spend a gap year volunteering in South America. Dalmar and I weren’t going to have sex. Owen wasn’t going to play at our wedding. And Mum would never, ever feed me again. On top of my own grief, I had to deal with theirs; I thought they must have felt something like this when I died, so fast and violently, and that was almost more than I could stand. It was bad when Dad died, but losing everyone at once was much, much worse.
For the first week, I cried. I also yelled a lot, threw books around, swore at Marie, and then apologized to her over and over for being so horrible.
“I’m not like this,” I kept saying. “I’m not really like this.”
“It’s all right,” Marie would tell me. “It’s all right.” Every now and then I’d catch her scrawling notes on something that looked like a shiny piece of paper, but she actually seemed to care. Colonel Dawson and the other doctors just asked their questions and took their notes openly.
Some of the questions were really dumb. Like Colonel Dawson asking me when I’d learned free running, sounding slightly offended that I’d managed to surprise him. He explained that it wasn’t in my file, and I nearly laughed in his face. Like I was going to tell my mother that I was practicing getting through gaps, throwing myself over rails, and jumping down steps at high speeds. Alex must have kept that secret, even after my death.
And that was good for another hour?long crying session, right there.
They were also doing a ton of tests, and a lot more of them when the yelling stage faded. They wheeled in various machines and got me to look into screens and said hmm a lot. I had to wear a silvery headband thing when I went to bed—it wasn’t uncomfortable; it was just sort of weird, especially on my scalp, which was all prickly with the new hair growth. (Dawson said that they could easily remove the hair if I liked. I didn’t like.)
On my twentieth day underground, I asked Marie how she’d brought me back to life.
She put her shiny paper down and told me.
It got really complicated, really fast. I’m not trying to protect the project or keep your grandma on ice or anything when I say that I can’t give you the full details of how a successful revival works. It’s just that between protein chains and gene therapy and cloned replacement organs, I completely lost track about ten minutes in.
One thing I do remember, because it’s just so freaking weird, is that when I died, they pumped me full of something derived from tardigrades. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But they’re also known as water bears and moss piglets. They look like really tiny fat caterpillars with little feet. You can probably find them in your sink. In fact, you can find them everywhere, because these little guys are amazing survivors.
They’re fine under meters of solid ice, or on top of the Himalayas, or in boiling water. Despite being, you know, water bears, they can survive drought and dehydration for up to ten years.
They can even survive in outer space, which is about as hostile as it gets. If you were blown unprotected out of an air lock into the void, you’d survive for about two minutes, tops. You’d have mild injuries after ten seconds: solar?radiation burn, swelling skin and tissues. Then you’d get the bends as bubbles of inert gases started to form in your bloodstream. After about twenty to thirty seconds, you’d black out. Your saliva would boil off your tongue. You’d have nothing to breathe, but your lungs might try anyway, which is when you’d get lung damage from the vacuum. All this time, you’re burning or freezing; your body can do a pretty good job of regulating internal temperature, but it can’t hold out long against direct sunlight or its lack, when there’s no atmosphere to smooth things out.
Two minutes unprotected in space and you’re absolutely dead.
Tardigrades hung out in space for ten days. Then a bunch of them came back from their trip, thawed out, and had perfectly healthy little tardigrade babies.
Marie explained how they do it, and it has something to do with a special kind of sugar and anhydro?something, and seriously, I wasn’t taking it in. But essentially, tardigrades can suspend their metabolisms. When they encounter something that’s just too much to deal with, they curl up, shut down, and wait for things to get better.
And it turns out that’s the kind of thing you should reproduce in humans if you want to be able to freeze them before their brains die and thaw them out later at a point when you can repair their injuries.
So I partially owe my second life to unbelievably hard?core bugs.
But I also owe it to a lot of people and a lot of coincidences. Traffic had been cleared for the Prime Minister’s visit, and the nearest hospital was right up the road, so the emergency workers got me there fast. On the way, they called Dr. Tessa Kalin.
Dr. Kalin was the head of an experimental cryonics unit working with a tardigrade solution. She and her team were there, and three days earlier they’d been granted ethics approval to use human subjects. I wasn’t the ideal specimen for their first go, but I was on hand, and I’d consented. They didn’t know how to reverse the freezing process, or even if what they’d done would one day result in me breathing again.
But I sure wasn’t going to start breathing again without the treatment, so they tried anyway.
And, eventually—thanks to Marie and her team and a lot of tireless work and so much money poured into army medical research that it makes me really uncomfortable to think about it—I did.
You don’t have to believe in miracles to think that all those people in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge add up to something amazing.
Marie and her team fixed the many, many things that would have killed me, got me breathing again, and registered brain function. Then I was put in an induced coma for a while, so that my immune system could be boosted and my muscle regrowth stimulated, while the media became increasingly interested in demanding results from the program.
It was no wonder why Marie called me Tegan when I woke up. I’d been her patient for months, and the first one in a long time who was capable of responding to her own name.
“But why?” I asked Marie. “Why is the army even doing this?”
It was a good sign, I suppose, that I’d stopped being too miserable to be curious.
Marie lit up all over. “There are so many applications for cryorevival. Widespread civilian use is sadly a long way off—both the cryostasis and revival process are prohibitively expensive, for one thing, and revival is almost exclusively experimental at this point. But the army is very interested in the potential use for trauma victims, people who experience massive wounds and bleed out quickly without brain or spine injuries. You see—”
“Soldiers,” I said. “You’re going to bring soldiers killed in action back to life?”
“I hope so. Eventually. Yes.”
She had to stop then. I was crying too hard to listen, but, this time, I was smiling, too.
My dad was a soldier, you see. I don’t remember him very well, because I was only seven when he was shot in East Timor, but Owen did. We had his picture in the kitchen, and his ashes in the jar, and his medals. We had him watching over us from heaven. But we didn’t have him.
It was the one thing Alex and I couldn’t agree on. I didn’t like war, but I thought it was sometimes necessary, and of course I supported our soldiers. Alex was very antiwar, and sometimes, when she forgot how I felt about it, she was antisoldier, right in front of me. I got up every Anzac Day for the dawn remembrance ceremony, while Alex, who was normally an early riser, stayed pointedly in bed until noon. Dalmar’s mum and dad had fled several wars before they arrived in Australia, so he wasn’t that keen, either. But they weren’t going to stop being friends with Owen and me for loving and missing our dad.
They might have thought differently about cryonics being used to revive dead soldiers.
But I was proud to be a part of it.
I can’t believe I was such an idiot.
“So when do I get to leave?” I asked Colonel Dawson the next morning. Dawson didn’t look like much of a military man, being sort of skinny with a zillion wrinkles in his olive skin, but he was clearly in charge. The other military doctors were all captains or lieutenants, and then there was Marie, who was Doctor Carmen, thank you very much, and only military by association.
“We can talk about that later,” he said, and his eyes flicked up and away from me.
I blinked at him. I didn’t actually want to leave right away, but something about his evasion made me nervous. “What if I said I wanted to leave now?”
“Well, Tegan, I’m afraid that legally you don’t necessarily get to make that decision.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I signed my dead body over to science. That doesn’t mean I signed over the rest of my life.”
Dawson cocked his head, like a bird eyeing a worm it was thinking about eating. “Tegan, you make it sound as if we’re monsters. Are you unhappy with the care you’ve received?”
“No, it’s okay. I just . . . I don’t want to stay here much longer. I never see anyone my age.”
“You’re under a lot of stress,” he said. “It will get easier.” He sounded as though he meant it.
“When are you going to let me out?” I groped for something stupidly far away, just so that he could reassure me. “Like, in a year?”
He should have laughed at my ludicrous suggestion. Instead, he looked very serious. “There will probably be a fairly lengthy transition period—for your own health and safety as much as anything.”
Ice settled in my stomach. “I don’t want that. I want to leave now.”
“Tegan, where will you go?”
“That’s up to me,” I told him.
“Don’t be so childish.”
I didn’t like him, but I didn’t think Dawson was evil. Patronizing, and with no idea how to talk to teenagers, but not really a bad man. After all, he was in charge of a project trying to save soldiers’ lives.
But you could have asked anyone in the progressive movements of my time and they’d tell you that there were plenty of mostly okay people doing bad things, thinking they were right. People like Alex and Dalmar came up with all sorts of ways to deal with those people, to force them to change what they did.
I hadn’t been as into it as they were, but I’d paid attention all the same.
What I needed was leverage. And I was the only leverage I had.
“I’m on a hunger strike,” I said. “Effective immediately.”
He stared. “Tegan, what—”
“And I’m going on a talking strike, too,” I interrupted. “As soon as I’m done with this explanation. When you want me to stop, you’ll come and ask me what I want, and when I tell you, you’ll do it.” I smiled at him, as wide as I could. “That’s all.”
“If you would just explain your wishes, I’d be happy to consider them,” he said patiently.
I said nothing.
“Communication is essential to negotiation,” he tried. “Surely you can’t expect me to proceed without more data.”
I picked up the book I was halfway through—a really good supernatural romance that was published only fourteen years after I died—and started turning the yellowed pages.
After a while, there was the soft click of the door closing behind him.
I didn’t eat lunch. I didn’t eat dinner. I didn’t say a word to anyone for the rest of the day.
The hollow in my stomach ached and would get worse, but I knew two things. One: They needed me. They wanted me healthy, if possible, but talking, for sure.
And two: They hated surprises. Dawson had been thrown into a complete tizzy when I’d jumped off the building because it wasn’t in his plans. It was time to give him a lesson in just how surprising Tegan Oglietti could be.
Marie came in with my breakfast the next day, and I knew that was no coincidence.
“Please eat, Tegan,” she said. “I want you to be well.”
I shook my head.
People came and went all day. So did food. I was getting dizzy, and it was harder to read, even though I was getting to the bit where the banshee was going to have to decide between saving her boyfriend and obeying her queen. So I started singing the Red and Blue Albums in my head, in the correct song order. I got stuck on whether “Lady Madonna” came before “Hey Jude” or after, and then decided it didn’t really matter. I drank a lot of water, sipping it slowly; death was no part of my plan.
It was pretty peaceful, really, though I could hear my mother’s voice complaining about all the food I was wasting by turning it away.
But I knew she’d approve if she knew all the details. No way she wanted me helpless in this bunker for a “lengthy transition period.”
On the fourth day of the hunger strike, Dawson came back in. “The Department of Defence does not bow to the whims of teenagers. You either start cooperating, young lady, or you’ll be made to cooperate.”
He stared at me for a while.
I stared back. I wasn’t reading or singing inside my head. I was mostly napping, now that the gnawing in my stomach had given way to a floating emptiness.
“You’re seriously retarding our progress. Do you want to be the one who tells children that their mother or father won’t come back from the war, because Tegan Oglietti won’t talk to us?”
“Dr. Carmen will not return until you eat,” he said. “She’s very disappointed in you.”
I started crying big, fat tears that dripped out of the corners of my eyes and down my face onto the pillow, pooling around my neck.
Dawson looked vaguely satisfied. “Now, be a good girl, and have something to eat, and she’ll come back,” he said.
I closed my wet eyes and drifted back to sleep.
On the fifth day, Dawson tried to bribe me with a guitar.
My fingers ached for it, but I locked my mouth shut before I let anything out.
Hail Mary, full of grace, I began, and went through a decade of the rosary before he left the room.
Pray for us sinners now and at the time of our death.
On the sixth day, I tried to get up and go to the bathroom. I passed out instead.
I woke up in bed, with something that I recognized as an IV poked into my arm. Light brown fluid was flowing through it, and I felt much stronger.
Dawson and Marie were standing at the foot of my bed. Dawson looked grim. Marie looked nervous and hopeful.
“All right,” Dawson said tightly. “What do you want?”
Ringo is my favorite Beatle. He wasn’t the best drummer in the world, and he definitely wasn’t the best singer or songwriter. He was the last one to join, when they kicked out their original drummer, and he was sure they were going to replace him, too. And he was left?handed, playing a right?hand drum set. The other Beatles laughed at most of his compositions because they sounded like other popular tunes. But he stuck with it, with all of it. He invented lots of incredible fills to get around his hands, and he wrote “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden,” and he sang “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which is one of my top?ten favorites.
At his funeral, everyone talked about what a great musician Ringo was. And he really was. Not because he was particularly gifted, but because he never gave up.
I’d learned to be good at the guitar without any of the natural musicality that Owen had, and I’d gotten decent marks at school without being supersmart like Dalmar, and I’d kept going with free running, even though I wasn’t naturally athletic like Alex.
Talent is great, but persistence is totally underrated.
“I want to live outside the compound,” I said. “I want to go to school.” My voice was cracked and scraggly from disuse. I sounded at least seventy years old. Or a hundred and seventeen, ha?ha.
A muscle in Dawson’s jaw jumped. “Your demands are unacceptable.”
“I’m going back on my hunger and talking strike, effective—”
“I need to talk to some people,” he said furiously, and marched out. He sure looked like a military guy then, back straight, jaw set.
Marie lingered, under cover of checking the IV. She bent over me and fluffed my pillow. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she whispered.
I gave her the faintest ghost of a wink.
She carried a tiny smile out with her.
I lay there and contemplated my toes. There was a limit to how far I could push this. I didn’t want to make them so angry with me that they gave me up as a dead loss and tossed me out into this strange new world. And I really didn’t want to sabotage or delay Operation New Beginning. Bringing back soldiers was good work, and helping out was the right thing to do, even if I didn’t want to do it at the expense of my freedom.
It was so nice to have energy and a clear head. If I was honest with myself, I wasn’t positive I could go without food again.
Dawson came back after a couple of hours, Marie beside him.
“I have a counterproposal,” he said. “You will continue your participation in Operation New Beginning as an outpatient, undergoing daily interviews and testing. You will give us your full and complete cooperation. You will go to a school that we select. You will take part in carefully selected media opportunities, which we will supervise. And until you become a legal adult, you will live with Dr. Carmen.”
I sat up in bed and looked at Marie. She nodded, that tiny smile hovering at the edge of her lips.
“Dr. Carmen has generously offered to take this role as your guardian, and you will be under her supervision and authority, which you will respect,” Dawson continued. “I want you to understand just what sacrifices taking you into her home will entail on her behalf.” His expression said, quite clearly, that he would never let me within five hundred meters of his home.
“I don’t want to get tested every day,” I said.
“Twice weekly,” Marie said before Dawson could open his mouth. “We do need that data, Tegan. I know you don’t want to imperil the project.”
“No, I don’t. Twice weekly is okay. And I want to be able to talk to the media by myself.”
“No unsupervised media,” Dawson said. Not like he was an adult telling an unruly kid what to do. Like someone explaining something to—well, not an equal, but a not entirely stupid subordinate. “Sections of this project are highly classified. If you don’t agree to this condition, I can’t let you out.”
I paused, thinking of the blank man in his hospital bed, but for only a moment. After a month underground, I needed to get out. I needed to see sun and breathe unrecycled air, or I wasn’t sure what would happen inside my head.
I needed to see what this new life had in store for me.
“Agreed,” I said, and held out my hand.
Dawson shook it with no hesitation. “I’ll get the lawyers to draw up the contract,” he said. “And you will not pull any stunts like this again, however justified you think your actions are.”
“Hey, that wasn’t part of the deal,” I said, and smiled at him.
Wonder of wonders, he smiled back.
And that’s how I strong?armed the Department of Defence into letting a girl with no legal existence have a life.
I’m pretty sure they’re regretting that now.
When they find us, I imagine they’ll make me pay for it.
When We Wake © Karen Healey 2013