by DAVID JACOBS
Have you heard about the lake in Tanzania that’s so alkaline it preserves the bodies of dead animals in a calcified state, fixing them in a lonely permanence? Or the rare autoimmune disease that turns soft tissue bony and immobile? These are the closest phenomena to the Freeze that I’ve heard of so far. Thoughts like this emerge constantly, little bits of trivia, parts of distant conversations, connections to obscure topics, and I’m glad for them, for any thought, really. Thinking is action. Thinking is movement.
Never think one thought if you can think two.
We sit in metal chairs. We were invited to a film screening, but the theater is a basement, a musty cave with a single wall-sized screen. A pop-up appears at the top of my vision asking whether I know that upgrading my smartglasses border to the new fireworks animation could increase my activity score by 10 points. I slow-wink my left eye to close the pop-up.
Someone says, “I’m just going to let it happen.”
I look for my cousin’s face in the lower corner of the lens, but she must be talking to someone else now. I don’t mind her talking to two people simultaneously. She’s simply following the guidance of experts, just like the rest of us. Never have one conversation if you can have two.
But when I realize that the voice is coming from Jane beside me, I give her my full attention. “No,” I say. “You are not just going to let it happen.” Panic gives my words a special intensity.
She looks surprised, as if she intended her words as a question or a suggestion or maybe only a thought. She nods at her left forearm, resting against the metal back of the chair in a rigid and unnatural position. “I meant,” she says, coughing, “I think I can feel it freezing already.”
I don’t want my activity score to drop too low while I pause to deal with her question, so I cue up some background music, something light but complex, to occupy part of my brain. I see that she’s wearing her ACTech bracelet and ask for her current activity score.
“High enough to keep you out of immediate danger.” If she were using VIM’s model, we’d be in trouble.
She continues to stare at her motionless arm.
“Could you . . . move your arm anyway, just in case?” I ask.
She wiggles her fingers, a weak imitation of the flexing and stretching I know she’s capable of, but it’s better than nothing. Never stay still if you can move.
“I’ll be fine,” she says, but I detect a shade of resignation in her voice.
Still, I smile at her and repeat, “You’ll be fine.” We can resolve so many problems this way, trading comforting statements, reinforcing a new harmony. And we don’t have to do it alone; we have friends, businesses, public officials to rely on. We have experts more knowledgeable than us to give weekly addresses on the state of the Freeze from behind oak podiums, to offer Five Ways to Relax While Keeping Your Activity Score High, to let us know that electronic muscle stimulation provides only 44 percent of the benefit of actual motion. We can’t become complacent, obviously, because the threat posed by Novel Petrifaction Syndrome is real. It’s a struggle to maintain such vigilance while being so reassuring, and sometimes we have to pull each other out of the spiral of fatigue, to help each other forget how much we are helping each other.
We were invited to the movie by Connor, one of Jane’s friends and also maybe our neighbor. He sits on Jane’s other side and, as usual, wears no smartglasses, no activity bracelet, no helpful technology of any kind. I look at him with the mix of pity and bewilderment that you give anyone needlessly risking their life. When I asked if this was a normal movie, he said, “Nope, old school,” and grinned like he enjoyed giving me bad news.
I understand if the movie doesn’t incorporate any special dramatic activity into the viewing experience, like holding a difficult stretch during a tense moment or moving your vision from the ground up to the ceiling to add grandeur to a majestic scene—only Oscar-winning directors like Cammarano manage to do that. But this so-called theater’s lack of even treadmills or seat-cycles is a problem.
The air smells as if a fire has just burned out. A solitary man stands by the entrance, arms folded across his chest in the posture of a security guard.
While the movie plays, I stare at my limbs until my eyes burn. Parts of me that sit immobile for too long seem to become negative space, outlines of shapes that have been torn from the world. Whenever a limb constricts like I’m wearing some misapplied blood pressure cuff, whenever I think I might look down and see skin rough and gray as weathered concrete, I move.
I saw one once, a victim of the Freeze. In the beginning, before everyone became more active and efficient and productive, you used to find them. It was lying in the crabgrass and cracked asphalt of an empty lot in the city. A school playground sat across from the lot, walled off behind a tall rusted chain link fence. I was driving through and caught the stiff limbs from the corner of my eye. Even though it was the bad part of town and you could probably expect to see dead bodies, I pulled over to investigate.
The man’s t-shirt and jeans were stained green and brown, as if he’d thrashed against the ground in his last moments of mobility. His skin had turned a hypothermic kind of blue-gray and had the hard, glittery look of a crystal. His limbs were shrunken and twisted, curled inward like those of sleeping children, hooked hands clawing out in a final effort to remain connected to our world.
The doors of the school flung open and a tide of children rushed out across the playground. They were drawn to the vacant lot as if sensing, in the way that children detect mischief, something forbidden beyond the fence. The fence clanged as the children crashed into it, tiny fingers poking through. I understood how they felt, in a strange way, because the sight of the petrified man reduced me to a child, glimpsing some mystifying part of the adult world that I lacked permission to see.
I start listening to a podcast on Roman history, low enough that I can hear the movie at the same time. A few months ago, the Surgeon General announced the discovery of a link between mental activity and resistance to petrifaction. Depending on the amount of cognitive activity, scientists saw reductions in petrifaction of 16 to 25 percent. No one else in the theater is even wearing smartglasses.
I push the memory of the frozen man out of my mind. It’s fine to think about the past, the mysteries of the Freeze, but never too frequently, or for too long. Your mind wheels around in dull, unproductive circles, trapped in loops of speculation, slowing down until your activity score drops and you risk petrifaction.
After the movie, we have dinner in the nearby mall’s food court. We eat standing up at one of the waist-high tables. Bright lights flash on the signs of the surrounding stores, and people swarm around us. After the stillness and minimalism of the theater, I am grateful for the additional stimulation. My activity score should have dropped over 200 points, but the number that blinks at the top of my vision is barely 10 points lower than at the start of the movie. It could be that my movements were more effective or that I was more agitated than I thought. It couldn’t be that my activity bracelet is broken. The thought of being unscored, of not knowing how close I might be to freezing, is almost too scary tocontemplate.
Anyway, there is another problem. Connor has tricked us, or tricked me, at least, into attending a movie hosted by one of the tranquility cults. People are really adaptable, but there are always those who fail to accept modernity. These are the cultists and extremists and traditionalists who spin conspiracy theories and cynically reject the advice of every expert and public official and business leader. Some of them even try to convert petrifaction into a religious experience. They speak of “going tranquil,” of “returning to the inert.” You have to remind yourself that they’re more misguided and scared than evil and dangerous. They fear change; they can’t accept the new ways of living.
Jane must know that I’ve realized this was no ordinary film-viewing experience because she’s been watching me throughout dinner, even when dipping her head to eat pizza.
I’m thinking about the strange eagerness that bulged in the eyes of the man guarding the door, about the way everyone in the audience seemed just fine with sitting still. “What the hell was that?” I ask. “Those were cult members, weren’t they? What do you call them, The Forever Threshold? The Eternal Beginning?” I struggle to remember the translation of the two Latin words, but the cult is a topic you can’t think about too much.
Connor is already waving his hands to calm me down. “Now, take it easy—”
I turn to Jane. “Did you know about this?”
She stops nibbling the edge of her pizza and winces. “I was curious.”
“Aren’t you curious?” Connor says, redirecting my attention. “Don’t you ever think about how much suffering is caused by all this?” He spreads his arms as if to encompass the world around us, loud and frantic and crowded, reeling from the exertion of acceleration. People scurry past in a blur of motion, eyes darting about as they balance the demands of movement with those of reading, listening, solving, shouting.
I wave him off with a motion aggressive enough to bump my activity score up a few points. I tell him what others tell me so often, that yes, there will be times when we doubt our ability to make it, when the demands of survival prove exhausting, when we long for the simpler time before the Freeze. “But what’s the alternative?”
Connor smiles, and I know we’ve arrived at the part of the conversation he’s been waiting for.
Jane speaks next. “Tranquility, passivity, idleness.” She speaks the cult’s language too easily for mere curiosity. I grimace, and the contortion of my face closes one eye, which my smartglasses misinterpret as a signal to end the conversation with my cousin. I struggle to make the right facial gestures to revive our conversation.
“In life, there is always motion, always activity,” Connor says. “But to achieve a true freeze and quiet the movement that occurs beyond the limits of human perception—chemical activity, cellular decay, the aging process—that is the stillness, the tranquility, we strive for.”
“So, do you ever get there?” Jane asks. “True tranquility?”
“It’s more of an aspirational thing,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t come close, can’t become a bit more peaceful. That’s how it is for me, anyway, but there are masters who have achieved it. They’re so tranquil we have to keep them in a special room with no stimuli, suspended by forces I don’t understand. They float there, in the blank room, arms spread like wings, each of them like Jesus crucified on the cross.”
“Hey,” I say, “that’s because they’re frozen. Don’t you get it?” I turn to Jane for support, but she gives me a look of concern that might even be pity.
“They move how they please. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” He speaks rapidly, without time to swallow, pizza wadded up in his cheek. For someone who values inertness, he’s become suddenly animated.
With Connor’s appeal to personal revelation instead of rationality, I see we’ve run out of common ground. No one knows exactly what happens to cult members who go tranquil, but Reed Jefferson followed the prescriptions of the cult for his new documentary and wound up dead, leaving a corpse as petrified as any nonbeliever.
“Reed Jefferson’s dead,” I say.
Connor stumbles over his words before saying, “Yes.” I’m surprised his devotion doesn’t yet extend to denying basic facts. “But he never made the spiritual transformation. A spiritual disease requires a spiritual cure.”
“Has it worked for you?” Jane asks. Sincerity is something I love about her, but it troubles me now.
“Not quite yet.” He stares down at the table, eyes moving over the smudge of grease left on his paper plate. The ease with which Jane’s question causes him to lapse into something like self-awareness makes me wonder how many times he’s doubted the cult. I say nothing, feeling like my point has been made.
“But that doesn’t disprove our movement,” he says, recovering quickly, “just like the existence of sin doesn’t disprove religion.” Turning with the same wide eyes from before, he says, “My turn to ask questions. Ever wonder why spending money increases your activity score?”
I remember that I heard this exact point rebutted a few weeks ago by a spokesperson for the Pace Corporation. “Spending money typically involves 30 percent more mental andphysical activity than similar non-spendingactivities.”
He screws up his face, as if stunned. For a moment I think he might be surprised by my command of the facts. But then he dismisses the answer as if he’s never considered it. “Oh, no.” He snorts in contempt or maybe just to clear his throat. “That’s what they want you to think. You’re smarter than that.”
“Who are they?” I gesture toward the shopping mall around us—the random people, the mannequins, the signage advertising new cell phones, glasses, tracking devices—as if the ordinariness of our surroundings refutes his point.
He flicks his eyes upward, as if looking toward the boss checking his productivity, the surveillance camera watching for misconduct, the devil hovering over his shoulder. Then his eyes turn back to mine. We look at each other for a moment, both nodding slowly. He seems cautiously satisfied, like he might actually believe he’s beginning to convert us.
“Well, maybe you’re not wrong,” Jane says. Her words come whispered with the intimacy of a confession.
One of the best societal responses to the Freeze was to expand airplane seating so you finally have room to stretch during a flight.
Instead of goodbye, Connor says, “Be still.”
A few nights later, we wake at the midnight alarm and trudge into the living room. The city illuminates the clouds from below so that the sky glows a dirty yellow. Cars rumble past on the road outside. We sit on the couch-bikes and begin pedaling, watching our activity scores tick upwards with each pump of our legs. I show Jane reviews of the newest ACTech sensor that lodges at the base of your skull. It’s especially good at measuring mental exertion, and it’s compatible with all the major scoring models. Jane interrupts me and says, “Tell me about the time you saw a petrified body.”
That question again. A few months after we started dating, we asked each other that question. Once we each admitted to having seen a body, we changed the subject. Certainly, you can talk about the Freeze in general, but it’s best to stay at a superficial level, to speak in hints and allusions. Her question pushes us deeper into the topic than is advisable. Connor must have prompted it somehow, a specter of forbidden thought that lingers even after he’s gone. At least Jane’s activity level has benefited from the effort needed to suppress the question for this long. “Why?” I ask.
“Okay.” I try to bring myself back to that original encounter. I tell her about seeing him—I mean, it—in the empty lot and pulling over. I feel like I’m reading from a script, speaking words with no idea of the events they describe. “I was transfixed by it,” I say. “It was how you’d expect, blue-gray and rigid, like a stone. And it had little twisted hands like hooks, like it had died trying—”
“Trying to claw its way back into our world,” she says, finishing my sentence.
“Yeah.” I feel irritated for unknown reasons.
“There was a school across from the lot,” she says. “Wasn’t there?”
“That’s weird. That’s identical to my sighting.”
“Did you hear about the rich guy who just donated one thousand activity sensors to charity?” asks a voice that I think comes from Jane, but she hasn’t moved her lips, and I realize it’s coming from my cousin. “The sensors will be given to paraplegics. The disabled face the highest risk of petrifaction. Have you heard about it?” my cousin asks from the lower corner of my vision. I enlarge her image just long enough to respond, “Yes.”
With wide eyes, Jane says, “You see it too. What does it mean?”
I slow-wink away the conversation with my cousin. “Sorry, I meant to say that it’s not identical.” I speak so weakly that my voice reveals the lie before I’ve even finished speaking.
“It is. You even described the man the same way I would.”
“Strange coincidence, I guess?” The conversation has distracted me from pedaling, and my left foot has started to stiffen. I stretch my leg out, roll the foot in a circle.
“Why are our stories the same?” Jane asks. Before I can answer, our phones beep a reminder that we’re 100 points away from our target activity scores, and I move my feet back to the pedals. Jane frowns at me, but after I promise to continue the conversation later, I’m able to coax her into resuming activity. The memory of my first encounter with the Freeze fades away with the exertion of pedaling, the tensing of muscles in my legs. I feel my head clear. You can’t think about certain things for too long.
The next day, I finally admit that the sensor in my ACTech bracelet is broken. Jane and I opened the day with a three-mile run around the pier. Then, still sweating in the dawn air, we pushed into a vigorous kinetic painting session, our ten o’clock activity. But my score still hovers around 1130, not far from where it started.
I call the customer service line without dropping my paintbrush. Even when I’m connected to a service representative, only the “A” of the company logo appears in my vision, lines running from all three corners of the letter to suggest movement. I explain the situation to the service representative, who pauses to look up some account information before saying, in the quavering voice of an adolescent, that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with my device. “Sir,” he reminds me, “any change in an activity score is the product of innumerable factors, such as geographic location, time of day, temperature, or individual metabolism. We’re constantly refining the model to—”
“I know, I know,” I say. I’m frustrated enough that I don’t even end the conversation with facial gestures but instead punch the “end call” button manually.
Broken technology aside, I estimate that we’ve boosted our activity scores by 170 to 230 points, so I think we’re having a good day. But when we return home, Jane says, “Something’s wrong.”
Jane’s concern for the state of the world is something I love about her. We’ve all become so much more generous after the onset of the Freeze, willing to give more, to help strangers. We’re told this constantly, on the news, in magazines, at State of the Union addresses, how fundamentally charitable a people we are. But I can never hope to match her sensitivity.
We sit together on the couch. She’s right about something being wrong, but we’ve already devoted so much time to the problem, and I don’t want to risk the progress we’ve made on our activity scores. Also, like many problems in the world, this is more likely the result of our failings, our imperfect memories, than the sinister and conspiratorial alternative that we’re both beginning to sense. “Yeah,” I say. “Something is wrong.”
She grips my arm. “Yes,” she says. “You feel it too!” Her eyes twitch with a vitality you almost never see anymore. I am temporarily unaware of the fireworks bursting along the edge of my vision, the news report droning on in my ear.
“It’s our memories,” I say.
She collapses into me. She murmurs, “No,” again and again, her words registering as little tremors in my chest. I pull her tight and run my hand down the length of her back in long, slow strokes. My admission of a problem had given her hope. I hate to wipe it all away. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but it’s true.”
She nuzzles her brow into my chest. I think I feel a bit of wetness where she rubs into my shirt. “My memory’s fine.”
“We’re only human. Sometimes we remember things wrong.”
“You don’t forget a thing like that,” she says, soft enough to go unheard if she weren’t pressed against me.
We cling to each other in inactivity for a few more unsafe minutes. Finally, I say, “Could you move your leg?”
She pushes off me and blinks twice, head cocked to the side. “What?”
“Your leg has been sitting there motionless all this time, and I’m worried about it freezing. Could you kick it or walk around, please?”
“Let it freeze. I don’t care.” She spits the words out as if I were somehow responsible for imposing these activity requirements on her.
“Come on,” I say. “You don’t want this.”
She shrugs. “Who knows, maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the Forever Threshold is right. There’s only one way to find out.”
She slides her other leg away so that the immobile leg is isolated, free of anything that could accidentally nudge it or obstruct our view. We stare at her skin together. Her shorts are cut high enough to expose the length of her leg, skin tan from our morning runs around the pier. Our only hope is that arguing has been mentally stimulating enough to slow down the freezing process. The Surgeon General says the largest reduction in petrifaction risk comes from “employment- related cognitive stimulation.” Jane isn’t working, but we can still hope for the protection of mental activity. An hour has passed since she last moved her leg. Now it’s impossible to avoid seeing her leg turn gray and colorless, a faint crystalline structure appearing just below the skin.
“God damn it!”
She jumps a little at my voice, but her leg remains still. She stares at it, eyes widening in perverse fascination. I know she doesn’t really want to freeze. She’s just curious, moved by the same kind of morbid thrill that grips some people when they discover they’re only a few hours of immobility away from death.
Disoriented by the emergency unfolding before me, I try to remember the four steps to follow in case of petrifaction. Freezing justifies calling 911, but if I make the call, Jane could be held for a psychological evaluation that she might not pass. In a panic, I choose another option that may be almost as bad. “I’ll go with you,” I shout finally. “The Forever Threshold, the Eternal Beginning, whatever the hell their name is. I’ll go to one of their tranquility sessionswith you.”
She swings her head up. “This isn’t how I want this.”
“Just stand up and start moving!”
She stands and gives a wounded hop as she puts weight on her frozen leg. When she looks at me, she tucks her chin to hide the relief on her face. Even though I feel like I’ve just been blackmailed, it’s nice to see something like happiness in her.
“Still believe your friend that the Freeze is one giant hoax?”
“I feel great,” she says, but she limps as she walks away from me.
The next tranquility session happens in the downtown ruins of the city. This time the cult has rented a room in an old convention center that is structured like an amphitheater, with rows of seating radiating outward from a raised semicircular stage. The amphitheater is stale in a way that makes me picture it housing the bingo night of an elderly church group or the gathering of an addiction support group. In the middle of the stage, a man in a tight red turtleneck mingles with the guests in the first rows. Behind him, two assistants stand half-veiled in shadow.
Naturally, Connor accompanies us. We sit a few rows away from the stage, behind people who I hope will shield us from the leader’s attention. A voice murmurs the name of the cult that I couldn’t remember earlier: Aeternum Limen.
The session turns almost immediately to tranquility exercises. From the stage, the leader tells us to rise. He instructs us on the quieting of the body, the cessation of all movement. We spread our arms slightly, as if to join hands with the people next to us.
I try to stay perfectly still, closing my eyes because they twitch slightly when open. I focus on my breathing—inhale, hold, exhale—feeling my heartbeat slow, ignoring the tingling in my limbs. Never stay still if you can move, but I remain immobile. Never use one electronic device if you can use two, but I can’t see the display of my smartglasses, and I don’t activate any music. Never think one thought if you can think two, but I’m thinking nothing now. I guess I can understand the appeal of the cult because after a few minutes, something changes. I don’t want to look at Jane to see whether she feels it too. I can’t say whether I change or the world changes around me, but the effect is like an optical illusion beginning to resolve itself, the revealing of something foundational.
Right before this revelation arrives, the room explodes in a series of concussions. We stumble as the floor shakes, and we lunge for stability from the seats in front of us. The lights go out with an electric pop, and the world throbs in light and dark from the flashes around us. Glass shatters, and people scream with an intensity saved for life-threatening situations. Beneath the roar of the scrambling and panicked crowd comes a foreign and unnatural sound: booming voices, warped through some technological process, speaking with an authority that sets them apart from the surrounding chaos. Their noises of command register in some obedient, childish part of my brain. A few of us tilt our heads as if awaiting instruction, but we can make out nothing understandable. I shout that we aren’t part of the cult, but my voice is drowned out by the violent sounds around us.
Someone tugs at my sleeve. I see Jane and grab her arm. Fastened to parts of each other’s clothing, we trudge forward. Smoke hisses in around our feet, and the air begins to smell like spent fireworks. We pull our shirt collars over our mouths and continue moving. Fierce cracks sound in the distance, loud enough to leave a piercing whine in my ears. I squint through smoke and tears until my vision narrows to a wobbly slit. We follow the rust-colored figure of the cult’s tranquility leader. The wave of a concussion clears the smoke in front of me and leaves the cult leader exposed. He cowers before a wall of smoke, hands over his eyes and mouth, sputtering coughs. Suddenly, black-gloved hands shoot out from the smoke and seize his arms. He’s hoisted off his feet, elevating as if in religious ascendance. He dangles for an instant in the grip of the disembodied hands, struggling like an insect before being wrenched backward into the smoke.
We stumble over fallen plaster and lumpy objects that have the shape and feel of human bodies. More screaming is silenced by another round of sharp cracks that couldn’t be gunshots.
Without the full use of our senses, we fight our way to the doors of the convention center. Hulking shapes rise up and close in around us. “We’re not with them,” I try to say, but mucus clogs my throat, and I can only choke the words out. Given our situation, maybe it’s an unbelievable thing to claim. We’re passed among the dark shapes effortlessly and groped with indifference, as if our compliant, nonthreatening nature could be revealed through a few swipes of a gloved hand. We shuttle into the open night, where the cold air cuts through the acrid odor of the smoke and dries the tears from our eyes. Under a white tent in the parking lot, two medics shine light in our eyes, take our vitals, give us water.
We walk across the street toward our car, still huddled together and trembling from the shock of the raid. The ringing in my ears makes the world sound submerged and tiny, reverberations from miniature events happening inside my head.
We stop at the car. “Where is everyone?” Jane asks.
“What do you mean?” She’s looking back toward the theater, where there should be smoke and fire, sirens and police, shivering cult members. Instead, there are only empty streets, the dark husk of the old convention center. We wait for others to stumble out after us, shaken and confused. A can rattles as the wind rolls it down the street. The street lamp fizzles out overhead. No sirens wail in the distance. I start to mutter an explanation, but my mouth hangs open and no words come. All I can think to say is that at least our activity scores are probably higher than they’ve ever been.
In the coming days, I look for any mention of the events at the theater, for any stories about smoke and explosions, half-frozen people, or mechanized warriors who move like shadows. There is a story about a family that froze while meditating and a blurry image that looks like a tank with police lights, but nothing I recognize. My cousin tells me about the high school student who became an online hero for bringing attention to the broken pedals and stuttering treads on the activity desks at the SAT testing centers.
The raid seems to vanish from memory as well. I run little experiments on my malfunctioning ACTech bracelet where I listen to the same song, make the same arm motion, have the same conversation, and note the change in activity score. Jane and I find ourselves saying things like, “Do you remember…” or, “Wasn’t there something…” and then we trail off, our minds going blank when they venture too far into the forbidden.
At least, this is how things are until one day Jane says, “I don’t understand why they had to kill all those people.”
She lowers her phone, but I nudge it back up, so I won’t be the only thing occupying her. I ask what she’s talking about.
“They killed all those people at the theater. All the Forever Threshold.”
I remember hearing small explosions, feeling my eyes water with smoke. The memory reaches forward in time and makes everything hazy now, so that Jane blurs before my eyes and a faint whine rings in my ears. You can’t think about the past for too long. The past isn’t novel or active. “Honey,” I say, “we really don’t know what happened to those people.”
She throws her phone on the coffee table where it scatters some outdated activity sensors. I don’t remember her getting angry this easily before. “Of course we know. They lined them up and shot them. Don’t you remember?”
There are sensory fragments in my head, but I’m not sure how they got there. I don’t think I glimpsed the cult members lined up like prisoners, twisting to look at the armored figures looming in the smoke behind them. I don’t think I heard the burst of sharp cracking sounds or saw their bodies shudder and fall.
I didn’t experience these events, so why are they in my mind? “I don’t remember,” I say.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” She hunches over, rubs her face in her hands. “I feel like I’m alone in this.”
I slide past the pedals of the couch-bike and move closer to her. More than ever, in this new era, you have to support each other. I think about encouraging her to stand up, to move around, but instead I put my hand on her back and run my fingers over her spine. “I believe you,” I say. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I just don’t remember it.”
She makes a sniffling noise that almost sounds like a cough. Something flashes at the corner of my vision, a news update that the fraction of overweight Americans has declined to 51 percent since the start of the Freeze. I feel my stomach and remind myself that it wasn’t always this flat, that I couldn’t always feel the small ridges of my abs. Jane has benefited, too. She doesn’t admit it, but she’s been buying nicer clothes recently, tight jeans, sheer underwear, clothes designed to show off her body. I once mentioned her new clothes as a benefit of increased activity, and she just shrugged like she’d never made the connection.
I look over at Jane, hoping her moment has passed. Her eyes are inflamed, and she’s drawn back in the defensive crouch of a frightened animal.
Like all of us, Jane is anxious about the Freeze. Whether we admit it or not, we’re all asking whether we’ll find ourselves petrified one day. I know the two of us will never freeze, though. We’re among the lucky ones who will be participatory, innovative, efficient for the rest of our lives. Who will maintain the best e-aquarium, be the first to review the nacho cheese flavored soda, vote for the winning Super Bowl halftime performance, and have only fleeting thoughts of stillness, of petrifaction. But we have to stick together, have to avoid passivity. I just need a way to pull Jane back into active reality.
We keep an orange foam activity ball by the coffee table that’s designed to be tossed with minimum concentration and boost your activity score by at least 20 points. Jane and I are so good at using it, so attuned to each other’s rhythms, that we can do almost anything while throwing it back and forth. I pick up the ball, feel its familiar shape sink into my palm. I turnto Jane expectantly. When I see she’s only grown more severe, I drop the ball, let it bounce once on the carpet.
“Do you know how you can repeat a word until it loses all meaning?” she asks. “Everything is like that. Everything loses meaning through repetition.”
“Everything?” I’m thinking of all the moments we’ve shared together.
She continues talking without answering me directly. “Tomorrow I will wake up for what, the millionth time? With nothing to look forward to except a repeat of today.”
“Are you talking to someone else?” I ask, checking to see whether she’s focusing on the lower corners of her smartglasses. She shakes her head, so I continue. “After the Freeze, there’s never been more activity—more to see, more to do, more packed into each day, and as you know, the best activity scores, the safest courses of action, come from variety in motion.” I stop because she’s looking straight ahead, immune to the sound of my voice, to the images dancing around the edge of her glasses, to the activity ball rolling at her feet, to anything. She’s not moving. She’s not talking to more than one person. She’s not using more than one electronic device at the same time. Color bursts in the corner of my eye and scrambles my thought process. I hear the crack of a stun grenade and wrinkle my nose against the waft of spent fireworks. We are silent for a few moments. I begin to shuffle my feet in restlessness.
“That just makes it worse,” she says finally. “The faster I move, the faster life becomes meaningless. The more I do, the more things become meaningless.”
In bed, I reach over to Jane. “I’m going to set a third alarm.” We used to set only one nocturnal alarm, but they say the pace of the Freeze is increasing. At another press conference, a man with no flag lapel pin and a suit too fancy for government announced that the safe intervals of inactivity were growing shorter and shorter. A series of recommendations followed: set an extra alarm at night; keep your activity score above 1250, depending on the model; identify one or more “activity buddies” who would keep you honest, active, motivated, and do the same for them; consider finally investing in the Tracfloor or those smartglasses you’ve been meaning to buy.
“Let’s not. I’m too tired.” She doesn’t ask who says the Freeze is getting worse or why they say it.
They say that the Freeze performs a balancing function by removing the weak and the infirm from the population, that it evolved to align humanity better with nature.
I try to exhale for maybe the first time all day, but there’s something caught deep in my lungs that I can’t breathe out. I look at Jane. I’ve always thought that there’s such optimism in the way she holds her lips slightly apart, as if the world might deliver something worth commenting on at any time, and in the way she keeps her round eyes open wide, as if always expecting to see something interesting. Has she witnessed something evil behind our lifestyles of activity? Has she accessed something the rest of us are busy suppressing, a troubling undercurrent running through our lives? Back at the convention center, if I reached out through the veil of smoke, would I feel the kind of violence that works behind shiny objects and misdirection, behind signs that read “Do Not Enter” and “Restricted Area,” behind suggestions about how to keep your activity score up?
There is nothing wrong with checking your activity score after sex.
Reassuring thoughts emerge in my mind, and I say, “We’ve got each other.”
I reach over and turn off the lamp on the bedside table, signaling the time for sleep. On the phone, the ACTech service representative asked if I’ve heard of the faint ceiling strobe light that guides the sleeping mind through a series of stimulating mental activities. “Never use one electronic device if you can use two,” he said.
When I close my eyes, I imagine row after row of motionless people, as peaceful and majestic as tall trees. I put the image out of my mind, winking as if to end a conversation even though I’m not wearing smartglasses. You can’t think about certain things.
David Jacobs is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Originally from Wisconsin, he now lives near Washington D.C., with his family.