After the Thaw

by Eileen Gunn


Story Copyright (C) 2011, Eileen Gunn.
Images Copyright (C) 2011, Rudy Rucker.
2,800 Words.



Wow. What was I doing last night? My head hurts. I can’t feel my hands and feet – anything below my neck. I think I have a fever.

How’d I get here? Twinkling diodes and color-coded wires. Racks of iridescent crystal. Looks like a server farm in a casino – it’s some kind of big computer installation, anyway. There are a few people are working in cubicles: I can see the tops of their heads.

Welcome, madam professor. Your neurocranium has been thermed and activated, per your original instructions. You will soon adjust to your proprioceptive lacunae and restored euthermia.

Now I remember – last time I looked, I was dying. So the cryogenic thing worked? I’ve been revived?

That is correct, Madam Professor.

Call me Elise. I don’t need the professor thing. …Uh, who’s talking? It’s like you’re inside my head.

I am Odin, the system’s operations data-interface node. We have found that bone conduction provides superior auditory reception and requires less maintenance than earlier input techniques. Should you wish to communicate with other cephaloids, please feel free to use your original equipment, which has been cleaned and refurbished.

Cephaloids? I’m a cephaloid? Well, I guess I am for now. When do I get my new body?

Permit me to welcome you to a new world of intellectual possibilities, in which re-thermed human brains are partnered with ids, intelligent devices that guide your integration into a productive existence.

That sounds unpleasantly task-oriented.  Also bizarrely intimate, in an asocial kind of way. I don’t want any part of it.  When do I get reattached to a body?

Madam Elise, the system has discontinued the use of organic bodies, due to some very unfortunate early results. Per your revised contract of January 14, 2368 (old calendar), ReThermal Corporation is obligated only to find you appropriate work upon thermination.

I don’t work very much with other people — I’m a theoretical physicist. I don’t really need a body to think, and thinking is the most interesting part of my existence, anyway. I suppose I can consider this transition an advantage, really. I won’t have to provide my own shelter and nourishment – I can just focus on my work.

We have you and your id scheduled to manage gallium arsenide deposition in Sector 2489. You will process signals for a matrix of 128 units.

What do you mean, manage? I don’t know anything about signal processing.  And I certainly don’t want to be partnered with an id. That sounds like a recipe for disaster….

Madam, in your contract, you are listed as a professor and department head, a manager. We have placed you in a data management position.

What? Wait a minute — the "professor" thing is just a title. It means I get a little bigger salary, that’s all. I don’t really have to do much, in terms of managing people or teaching classes. Mostly I think about how very strange the cosmos might be.

The time is past for you to worry about salary — or, indeed, for humans to think about how strange the universe is. Yours was one of the most functional of the organic brains, but we have better equipment at work on that question now. You are fully thermed and awakened, and it’s time you were gainfully employed. It is in your own best interest, as well as our ours. We can’t afford to keep you on ice forever. It’s time to warm you folks up and put you to work, ha, ha.

It doesn’t sound as though you have very much experience with this.

You are one of the first. But after the system has successfully completed these incorporation trials, there will be many more. You will soon have lots of company: we understand that humans are social animals, and require constant interaction with one another.

Not me so much, to tell the truth. I was never one of those people who gather around the break room, talking about World of Warcraft and drinking diet Coke. Speaking of which, can I get a drink of water? It’s awfully warm in here.

You don’t drink water any more. Where would it go? We would have to follow you around with a mop. Ha, ha, just joking – the system has been experimenting with humorous communication.

If you’re going to experiment with jokes, you’ll need protective gear. They’ve been known to backfire.

Protective gear? This is funny, because it is free association? Ha, ha.

The fact that you desire water indicates that we need to adjust your osmolyte/electrolyte balance before we proceed with your integration. I’ll just move you over here – whoops-a-daisy, ha, ha — and connect you to Loki, our logical kart interface, who will deliver you to the electrolyte uptake bar via go-kart. The bar will also provide valuable socialization time with other rethermed cephaloids whose electrolyte balance is impaired.

Sounds just like any bar in Berkeley. Exactly where I’d rather be.

Loki has limited functionality – quite frankly, it’s not a fully functional application — but it will be quite adequate to get you to the uptake bar. Do not activate the Help system, as it has certain problems that need to be addressed before your first use. Loki will return you here when you are restored and have experienced social stimulation.

Sounds good. See you later, alligator.

Hello, human brain. Loki is the personal go-kart operating application for the newly re-thermed neuro-suspension. To engage Loki, please tickle your credit reference.

Excuse me? I just need to adjust my electrolytes.

To continue this conversation, please tickle your credit reference.

I have a credit reference? How much is this going to cost?

Hey! Tickle your credit reference!

Great — a nerd software with control issues. Like I have a choice. [Tick]

Thank you. You will be intromitted immediately.


All systems connected — you are now a functional partner of the Loki go-kart system. To move forward or back, activate the omnidirectional arrow.

Well, I certainly like the hardware, anyway — shiny black tubes and electric green trim. Sort of a limited-ground-effect go-kart. I bet I could really get around in this little critter. Not like having legs again, but none of the problems associated with repeated impact on unprotected nerve endings.

Loki welcomes you, and our hardware-design application appreciates your compliment.  Please choose a user ID by thinking of your favorite toy.


Not that one. Please choose a toy that does not require a body part. You no longer have those parts.

Oh, for Pete’s sake. Whap, whap, whap every time I even think about touching myself? What are you, a fighting-nun puppet?

Thank you. Loki will recognize you as a fighting-nun puppet. Be sure to remember it at all times. If you forget your toy, you may have to repeat your childhood.

Loki, reliving my youth would not be a punishment. I’ve been frozen, I’ve been thawed, and I’ve emerged mentally intact on the other side. Really, I have to compliment you guys on how smart and alert I feel. I could do my childhood over. Can we skip adolescence?

Loki was joking, ha, ha. Perhaps, fighting nun, you could laugh when Loki jokes?

Only if I think you’re funny.

These are machine jokes: I cannot make human jokes. System thinks I am very funny.

Loki, let’s go to the bar, and I’ll tell you lots of jokes. I want meet some other heads and show off my conveyance: it’s a human thing. The kart gives me a sort of built-for-speed charm. A raffish, do-anything kind of aura. Some guys go for that, you know, and now that I have my brain back I could go for a little stimulation.

Loki is here to help you with transportation and with the problems that confront you, in work and at play. Loki can also assist you in physical and mental maintenance activities. Please select CLEAN ME UP to activate maintenance procedures.

I thought you were going to take me to the bar?

Loki can provide both access to and freedom from social interaction. If you are bored, just invoke Loki, and you will be entertained. If you are tired, let Loki know: you will be withdrawn from the social arena. Please indicate functionality you desire, and Loki will craft your user experience.

I want to explore my environment and meet hot guys. Let’s go!

You have activated ROAMING functionality. Surcharges may apply.

Well, at least  we’re moving. How do I get this contraption to go faster? Can it do wheelies? Will it go up the side of the wall?

Whoa! That didn’t work, did it? Let me just get it in gear here and see what it can do on the straightaway. Ooops! Sorry about that.  Jeeze, I’ve got to get out of the hallway…. Even if it won’t go up walls, maybe it’ll go up stairs….

Just think BAR and we will go there. It’s not necessary to pedal.

Loki, are you an adolescent? You display a flair for sarcasm. Okay, okay: BAR.

Hey. It’s working.

…Whoa. A little, uh, medicinal, isn’t it? Like a hospital waiting room.

Our interior-design app says it’s minimalist.

No argument with that, Loki.

Loki will plug you into the refreshment trough. Please enjoy social interaction.

Hey, look at all the other go-karts. Human heads! Wow, hi, there, guy. Nice wheels.

Yes, I know it doesn’t have actual wheels. Would you join me for a cocktail of antioxidant-enhanced electrolytes?

Yes, I know that’s all they serve: I forgot to say “Ha, ha.”

You were? Really? No, I was a theoretical physicist at UC Berkeley….

…Well, that didn’t take long.

I didn’t know a head in a kart could move that fast.

I never know whether it’s “theoretical” or “physicist,” but if I want to get rid of a guy, it works in almost any bar outside of Berkeley.

You’re not successfully attracting other humans. Loki suggests it is time for you re-format your sex drive.

Nah. It’s just started working again: I’m taking it around the block.… Where you from, dude? …Really…? Uh, yeah — I’m a theoretical physicist.

Loki has detected that you are in a room containing people who are having lengthy conversations without generating any new and original sentences.

Loki, just a sec, okay? I’m talking to somebody.

Human language is capable of more variety than this. Perhaps this is not an appropriate social group for a theoretical physicist, even if you are just a department manager. Loki is in charge of maintaining stimulation levels that will keep you healthy for many years of mental processing.

It’s a bar. So what, if nobody is saying anything new? That’s what social interaction is all about. You give me another ten minutes, and I’m betting my stimulation levels will go up, whether I’ve got body parts or not.… And I’m not a department manager.

If you would like to continue this experience, please confirm STAY. If you would like to leave this experience and seek enrichment elsewhere, please select GO.

You got someplace better we can go, Loki?

Thank you. Loki will transport you to a new experience.

That’s not what I meant! Where the hell am I? Some kind of weird jungle. It’s claustrophobic. There is something seriously wrong with your programming.

Loki apologizes. Communication module is still in learning mode.

Where are we?

Here’s what the manual system says: “Your re-thermed cephaloid will use all its senses in this dramatic re-creation of the South American rainforest. Some surcharges will apply.”

Take me back to the bar! This isn’t what I wanted at all.

Loki is sorry, fighting nun, but you do not have enough credit to return to the bar. The jungle surcharge is substantial.

Is this some  kind of joke? It’s not funny. I want to speak with Odin.

We’re sorry. The sales and marketing department is closed now. Please call back between  eight am and two pm, universal standard time.

Sales and marketing? That’s what he was? Well, Odin sold me a bill of goods, for sure. What am I supposed to do now? I have no idea where I am.

Loki has noticed that you are confused. Loki is here to help you with memory and orientation problems.

I am all bloody memory, Loki, and it works just fine. I’m remembering what it was like to walk around — there’s something about walking around that helps you think. Damn it, I want the ability to control what I’m doing and not feel like a brain-in-a-box.

Loki is wondering what is wrong with being a brain in a box.

Loki, I’m sorry — you never had legs. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad —

Bi-pedal instances of Loki have operated successfully for several decades with minimal disfunctionality.  If you wish to upgrade from the ground-effect instance to the bi-pedal instance, you can be accommodated immediately, provided your credit is sufficient. Please click your credit ref—

Not the same, Loki. Just not the same. And I bet I don’t have enough credit for feet.

And what about sleep? Do you ever sleep?

Some instances of Loki do suspend operation for periodic hardware maintenance and may fail to resume. Loki must then be re-installed by a system authority. Why do you ask?

Oh, never mind. I’m sure you weren’t built with the ability to empathize with my problems.

Don’t we feel sorry for ourselves.

Is there a sarcasm rheostat here somewhere…? Oh, never mind.  How do we get out of here?

Loki does not provide information on local orienteering. Please consult the HELP menu to determine where you are, and to learn about the wildlife and any edible vegetation. Loki cautions you that, in some locations, vegetation that is not edible may attempt to consume you. Please get HELP.

Loki, Odin told me not to use the Help system. But I’m worried about the suggestion that some of the non-edible vegetation might eat me, as you would understand if you were a human being instead of a software subroutine.

Loki does not provide information on habitats or local orienteering, but there is no need to be rude. Please get HELP.

Okay, then, get me help. Get someone who will tell me where I am.

Loki will access the HELP subsystem.

Hi, there, this is the HELP subsystem. You have been referred by [Loki]. Phrase your question, and then select SEARCH ME.

Oh, no. You’re part of Loki, aren’t you?

No, I am the descendant of two centuries of aristocratic HELP systems.

That makes a certain grim sense. Hmmm…. Loki told me that you’d tell me what was dangerous here. If I recall correctly, many wild animals eat the brains of their kill as the choicest part. I’m worried.

Please phrase your request as a query.  My employment contract does not allow me to respond to information about your emotional state.

Can you bring Loki back?

We cannot complete your request as phrased. The procedure  response subsystem will not be fully functional until security issues are resolved. Please re-phrase your query as a command.

Restore Loki?

Restore Loki now!

Reactivate Loki!

What do I need to do to get an answer? Is annoyance always designed into help systems?

It’s considered an undocumented feature. Humans evolve to meet challenges. Evolve or die, human.

Please! Tell! Me! How! Get! Loki!

Oh, good, you said please. That’s the secret word. Tickle Control-D.


Would you like to take a brief survey on your experience with our HELP system?

Loki? Is that you? No, I do not want to talk about Help. It tells me it has security problems. When we get out of here, I am bringing that to the system’s attention, not to mention your complete dereliction of responsibility.

Loki admires your self-assurance. Loki has doubts. Loki was not built to operate in a high-humidity environment. The HELP system is no help to Loki.

What? Loki, are you all right? You seem… odd. Perhaps you should connect me to the main system.

Loki is having cognitive difficulties. Please check power supply. Please reduce humidity. Please get METAHELP.

I’ll do what I can. I don’t have any hands.

Loki is having emotional difficulties. Poor Loki. Please use voice-activated hardware controls. Please make eye-contact with camera and speak into microphone.

There are voice controls? That’s all I needed to know. Access METAHELP.

You do not have permission to access this location.

Please access METAHELP. Control-D!

Please enter your password.

Fighting-Nun Puppet.

This is the top-level help system. Please state your request as a command.

Please uninstall Loki. Control-D. Please!

Loki is uninstalled. Loki will remain uninstalled until Ragnarok, when all fettered creatures will be released.

They will? Evolve or die, ha, ha. The cosmos is certainly a much weirder place than I previously imagined.  Now show me the way back to the bar.


About the Author

Eileen Gunn is a Nebula-Award-winning science fiction writer, author of the short-story collection Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon, 2004). She edited and published the Infinite Matrix webzine, and guest-edited Flurb #11. Her most recent story, written with Michael Swanwick, is The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree on "Hive Mind Man," by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn will be the featured story in Asimov's Science Fiction, February, 2012.

Eileen and Loki wish to thank Mary Kay and Jordin, Sue, Allan and Donya, and Quaz, all of whom are invited to Ragnarok.

Post a comment on this story!

Back To Flurb Home Page...