by Lea Daley
It was a desperate choice. Stay and die, or accept cryosleep and wake in the near future cured. Leslie Burke chose to sleep.
She awakens to the unthinkable—four thousand years and more have passed. Leslie and others like her are revived as scarcely tolerated refugees from the past.
Beset with loneliness and confusion, Leslie grapples with the enormity of the changes around her. Faxims live alongside humans, but she quickly realizes that the greed and duplicity of the human heart haven’t changed.
Concerned only with finding a place for herself in a new world, Leslie can’t fathom why she is singled out for scrutiny by the ruling Council. Who can she call friend? How can she trust her own heart, especially regarding the alluring—but not quite human—Aimée?
By the author of the luminous, romantic Waiting for Harper Lee.
Lambda Literary Awards
FutureDyke, Finalist, LGBT Speculative Fiction.
Terry's Lesfic Reviews
The one thing [Leslie Burke] discovers that hasn’t changed in her new world is the human penchant for avarice and hypocrisy... A real roller-coaster ride. Jashari and it’s people are so well described, I managed to immerse myself totally in the story and live alongside Leslie and Aimée.
More Praise for Lea Daley
Lea Daley: Alice B. Reader's Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
The Lesbian Review
Future Dyke is a book that really builds. Can you fall in love with a robot?? I did…please don’t tell my gf!
Even before I was fully awake, I knew I was in a hospital. The air had a pungent, artificial quality, and too-bright light assaulted my eyelids. Just beyond view, I sensed a bustle of activity. I was lying flat on my back, chilled to the bone, paralyzingly lethargic—tired beyond telling.
Then I remembered why I was there. Reaching for my head, I patted tentatively—no bandages, no swelling, no pain. Only my own hair, thick and springy to the touch. Longer than I liked it. I continued that tactile inventory, tracing all the familiar contours of my face. Everything was just as I’d left it.
But when exactly was that? And why had nothing changed? Fear gripped me—had I staked my life on an impossibility, only to wake to the same mortal sentence? Was I still doomed, but now isolated beyond all conception? Had I stripped myself of everything that could have made my final days matter, only to live them out devoid of meaning? I struggled to sit, but instead sank back into a strange and drifting darkness. Cold. So cold.
* * *
A face. Peering at me. Hazy and indistinct. I moaned slightly, and it—she?—jumped back in surprise. When I reached out, a smooth hand caught mine, returning it firmly to my side. My vision slowly cleared, revealing Asian eyes and warm-toned skin. She (definitely a she) spoke in soothing tones. The language was English, no doubt about that, but subtly different. God! How long had I slept?
I tried to rise, then shrieked with fright—there was nothing to push against! A startled giggle burst from my…nurse? observer? companion? Glancing down, I realized I was suspended three feet above the floor. Absurdly, the thought of that small drop was terrifying. Adrenaline rocketed through me.
A second voice then, a woman’s, smoky and imperious. “Try a sit-up.”
I turned till I found the source, headed toward me to take a closer look. She moved with a confidence all too rare in the females of my day. A dyke if I ever saw one. Enormous brown eyes, tawny hair. And that face! Pure sunshine! Could she be part of my cure?
“Do a sit-up, Leslie.” Under that pleasant huskiness, I heard impatience and a hint of command.
The little nurse softened the dyke’s directive: “Your hands lack sufficient mass to activate the field.”
Tightening my abs, I lunged upright and saw only iridescent floor tiles below. I patted the space around me, feeling oddly primitive. The sole support was directly beneath my ass and thighs. Too much! As I rolled backward into a faint, that inexplicable resilience unfurled, catching me just in time.
* * *
Alone. And grateful for the privacy. Launching myself into a seated position, I took inventory. The oppressive lethargy had lifted, replaced by a sense of wellbeing. I was healthy. I was whole. I knew it. My plan—so desperate, so dangerous—had worked! I might have awakened in a strange time and place but adaptation wasn’t even an issue. Because, if nothing else, my people were fabled for against-all-odds survival.
Someone had dressed me in white, a weightless fabric that draped and shimmered around my body. But when I tried to smooth a pleat, I gasped. Though my eyes insisted I was clothed—and modestly—my fingers found only nude flesh. To look and touch at the same time was sheer madness. I raised my hands skyward, watching the nonexistent sleeves of my nonexistent gown slide down, obeying every command of gravity. I couldn’t explain the phenomenon, couldn’t change it. Taking a deep breath, I set the problem aside for later consideration.
The room seemed warmer now. No—I was in a different space. On one wall, a huge plane of glass. Not transparent enough to be a window. Not reflective enough to serve as a mirror. It gave back a murky image—my face, disturbingly ghostly. And in the dim sheen of the glass, a beckoning quality that drew me, hinting at depths to be plumbed.
After a moment of hesitation, I lifted both legs and felt the subtle pressure supporting them dissipate. Flexing my knees, I dropped to the floor, profoundly grateful for a smooth, organic solidity underfoot. But apparently I’d exhausted my very limited resources. Because I was staggering by the time I arrived at the glass. My palms, my forehead, met the slick surface. Slid jerkily downward. That stutter and drag of skin against glass the last thing I felt before oblivion.
* * *
Waking became predictable. Each time, I wrestled with the eerie feeling that I’d been home only moments before—and that eons had passed since then. More alert now, I scanned my environment. The proportions, textures and colors were innately soothing, owing much, I thought, to the elegant esthetic of Japanese tatami rooms. Every element composed of natural materials, appealing precisely because of irregularities and variations. The ugly perfection of plastic nowhere to be seen. And I knew only obsessive attention to detail could produce such seemingly artless beauty.
Still nothing could compete with the person lounging against the “windowsill,” looking bored as hell. That woman with the superior attitude who’d been present shortly after I first came to. The one I’d instinctively recognized as a dyke.
She jerked to attention when she heard my feet hit the floor. Stepping forward, she extended a steadying hand. The shock of her touch ran through me like sun-warmed honey. Noting my smile, she pulled away and snapped her fingers, arrogant as any queen.
My little nurse stepped into view, bowing deeply. “I will inform the High Council this one has awakened.” Something glinted at her wrist as she raised a hand. Then she walked through the wall and out of sight, her abrupt disappearance like a special effect in a cheap holoflik. The dyke followed, traces of some spicy perfume lingering behind.
For an instant, I could only gape. Then the deeper meaning hit me, and I spun around. Not a single door to this room—I was trapped! The surface where my visitors had vanished was smooth and unyielding. Still I searched frantically for a hidden catch or spring. Nada. Crazed, driven, on the verge of hysteria, I thudded both fists over every inch of the wall. Then I heard myself whimper.
Shouting, “I will not lose control! This will not happen to me!” I slapped a palm on the faux window. Which cleared instantly. To reveal a vast, rolling sandscape that was no part of Planet Earth. I flung up one arm against the brilliance of sister suns, recoiling from their glare.
Maybe fainting can be overdone, but I really had no choice.
* * *
You can adjust to almost anything, given enough time. I learned to stretch out wherever I chose, knowing that support would materialize beneath me. I became blasé about people walking through walls. I even got used to the idea that the “clothing” I wore was an illusion—one I controlled through mysterious mental gymnastics. What I couldn’t accept was my ignorance, my imprisonment.
I cornered Tahm’Hzu, that timid little nurse, and demanded a hearing with her superiors. As if I had a right. And maybe I did, because shortly thereafter, a trio of strangers appeared in my room. Unannounced. Sublimely self-contained. Important personages, Tahm’Hzu transmitted through reverent body language. Part of the “High Council,” which I understood to be a governing body. And they were known as “the Elders,” though their ages appeared to vary significantly. The three faced me, executing a perfectly synchronized nod. Almost, but not quite, a bow. “Mi’lana va’tir.”
“Good day,” I said, assuming that was a local salutation. Then I nodded back. Just as deeply, but no more. “Thank you for meeting with me.”
Not caring whether they found my direct gaze disconcerting, I studied my guests. They were strikingly similar in appearance, slender, with warm-toned skin and angled eyes. The youngest conveyed a powerful impression of deference toward the others. One of whom was called N’yal Di’loth—somehow both his name and title. Since there was no word in English to describe their actual function, I was encouraged to think of them as healers. They were at my disposal. N’yal Di’loth promised they’d answer every question.
I had my list ready. It had been circulating through my mind since day one, and I’d memorized it in order of priority. Because if this place had methods and materials for jotting notes, none had been offered to me. When I finally spoke, my heart was pounding, my mouth dry. “Where am I?”
“In what you might call a transitional home.”
“No—what’s the name of this place?”
“The name will have no meaning for you. We call it Jashari.”
I swallowed hard. “What year is it?”
They looked puzzled, then bemused. “Time is not marked here in the way you are accustomed to.”
Was that an evasion? Or were they patronizing me? “Surely you can do the math!”
They put their heads together—three wise ones in search of an idiom. “But what is the point?”
“What’s the point? I need to know!”
The trio gazed at me with infinite compassion. “Everyone from your era is long dead. Every place you visited, dust. Does it matter whether it’s 2310 Terratime, or 4258?”
How casually N’yal Di’loth tossed out those numbers, so impossible to conceptualize! Perhaps he meant that as a metaphor. Or a joke. And yet I felt it again—the sense I’d slept through endless passages of time. Goddamn! I’d waited so long for these answers, but each one left me more bewildered.
Maybe I needed another approach. My voice was shaky when I said, “Okay. Let me tell you what I remember, then you fill in the gaps. My name is Leslie Burke.”
They nodded confirmation.
“Back in my time, I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.”
That was acknowledged by a group bow.
“We—my culture—had just begun to use cryogenics to preserve the terminally ill, hoping they could be cured in the future. Since I was going to die, and pretty unpleasantly, it was worth trying.” Remembering, I shuddered. My oncologist hadn’t believed in shielding her patients from ugly realities.
“I wasn’t rich. Holographers rarely are—were. But the Supreme Court had ruled that life insurance benefits could be applied to cryosleep. Because once frozen, patients satisfied every definition of death. That decision made the procedure accessible to ordinary people.”
My audience appeared to concur. So far, so good. “I traveled extensively for work, so I already had a monster insurance policy—”
The Elders gasped.
“—that’s just slang for an unusually large policy. After I named Cryocorp my beneficiary, the company took care of all the details.”
Because I was going to leave everything behind anyway—and if the contract was a fraud, I’d never know it. Still, the terror that grips you when you select the date you’ll die! It felt surreal, outrageous. Almost as unimaginable as that terminal diagnosis. Every other type of cancer had been defeated, why not mine?
The appointed day dawned clear and warm, a heartbreak of a morning to say farewell to my life. I wanted to be absolutely lucid in my last moments with Meredith so I tossed the regulation trankpak aside. In the end, Mer took the meds—the only way she could endure our parting. Was that separation any less painful than death by cancer? Either way you looked at it though, we’d have lost one another.
And I was young! Not ready to die! If I had to become a memory for Meredith, I wanted it to be a powerful one. I kissed her deeply, made a stupid crack about frigidity, then held my head high as technicians led me away. Her period of mourning might be long over, but mine was just beginning…
When I shook off my reverie, the Elders were still there, patiently waiting. “So I suppose that’s how I came to…Jashari? And since I feel so good, I assume you were able to cure me?”
My youngest visitor couldn’t restrain herself. “That was simple! Your freckles were the real problem.”
Remembering that sense of something subtly different in my reflection, I shoved one sleeve to my elbow. How had I not registered the change? My skin was pale as paper. And flawless. I burst into tears. “Please don’t say you kept me on ice because I had freckles!”
All three patted me ineffectually and the young one spoke again. “There were other factors too…”
N’yal Di’loth silenced her with a glance. “Leslie-ahn, this is sufficient for today. We will meet again when you are stronger.” The Elders raised their arms, bracelets gleaming, then walked through my wall.
I was alone again—and as never before.
Shortly after my meeting with the Elders, my living space was enlarged. That day Tahm’Hzu simply fastened one of those ubiquitous bracelets around my wrist, then gestured for me to rise. If I thought I’d mastered invisible furniture, a smile behind cupped fingers said otherwise.
Leading me to a wall, the nurse raised my arm and gave me a firm shove. Almost before I sensed millions of molecules sliding past billions of atoms, I was in a different room. Tahm’Hzu hadn’t joined me and it was just as well. Because after one glance, I fell to my knees, sobbing. I was surrounded by stacks of permaplastic crates. Like every “cryo baby,” I’d been provided with two dozen of those containers. We could cram whatever we liked into them—except flora, fauna, food, chemicals or weaponry. Our contracts guaranteed the cartons would be held for us, no matter how long we slept. “Plastic is forever,” the cryocounselor had assured me.
I’d completely forgotten these boxes. Perhaps because looting seemed inevitable. Or possibly because I doubted the commitment would be honored through time. Or maybe I’d never actually expected to be revived. Yet here they were, still labeled with my name and computer code, an inventory attached to each lid.
My final days at home were so fraught I scarcely remembered what was in the damned things. I’d tried to take the task seriously. But how can you know what you’ll need upon waking in the future? Finally, I’d chosen only items with true significance—belongings that would keep me connected to a life I’d leave with such reluctance.
Of course, Meredith was involved too. She made a brave game of winnowing my worldly goods. Culling every closet and drawer. Calling me “FutureDyke” all the while the cartons jammed our sunporch, slowly filling. Now I didn’t care about inventories. I wanted real objects in my hands.
The sealed crates, coded to my fingerprint, opened at the slightest touch. When I lifted that first lid, waves of memory washed through me like flashbacks from a drug trip. It was a million years since I packed these boxes—and yesterday. This one held my most cherished possessions: old books with genuine printed pages. Aged texts on photography. Lesbian novels and essays. But my pocket reader was there too, freighted with a lifetime of digitized literature. I slipped that tiny rectangle from its sleeve. Unfolded it. Snapped it into rigidity. The screen was light as a leaf of paper in my hands—and almost certainly useless.
At the bottom of the crate, I found the unbearable: my photo albums. I couldn’t open them yet. Mer’s face would be shining from every page. And our garden, our kitchen, our cats, our friends. All long gone. One day I’d be able to confront those images. This was not that day.
Brushing away tears, I unsealed another box. Clumsy fingers found a lumpy bundle. I unrolled padding until an ancient analog camera tumbled into my hands. It wasn’t my last instrument, or my best. Instead, it was my first antique. A weighty SLR—the seductive friend that had led me into an archaic world of two-dimensional photography.
I lifted the camera to my eye, cool metal against dampening flesh. Pressed the shutter button, smiling at those faint metallic clicks and whirs. I knew without asking there’d never again be film for this machine. I set it down gently, with incredible regret. If nothing else, it would make an excellent paperweight—if only I had paper!
The rest of the carton was filled with artwork and the tools of my trade. Stacks of silver-based photographs, for which I’d developed an unexpected audience. Hundreds of holograms, each preserved in every possible medium. A set of portable lasers, without which the holograms were nothing but fuzzy, indecipherable patterns. I’d need to spend a great deal of time with this crate, figuring out what was salvageable.
Next up: a box dense with sweaters, jeans, shirts, shorts. Of all the things that might have become obsolete while I slept, clothing had never crossed my mind. I looked down at my body—clad to the eye, nude to the touch—and laughed. As I lifted the garments, they seemed impossibly coarse and heavy. Here was the lesbian “uniform” of my ancestors’ day. Lavender T-shirt. White painters pants. Rainbow-striped suspenders. I’d bought that outfit in a retro shop for the costume party where Mer and I were destined to meet. Longing to recapture that vanished time, I buried my face in ancient cotton.
After a long while, I folded the shirt tenderly and turned my attention to a fourth crate. Which took my breath away. It was a surprise from Meredith, full to bursting with the kind of toys she collected for her kindergartners. In the classroom, they were playful introductions to science, math and art. Here they were delightful amusements that would forever bring Mer to mind.
Touched to tears, I sorted through the bin. Where I found spinning tops. Changeable wire mandalas, their graceful silver loops punctuated with tiny crystal beads. Half-a-dozen noisemakers. Jewel-toned glitter wands. Thunder tubes, from small to large. A quartet of nesting dolls. Old-fashioned jacks in a soft leather pouch—along with a petrified pink rubber ball. A lacy sandalwood fan. Candy swirl marbles so luscious they did look edible. Folding puzzle cubes with miniature images by Monet, Cassatt, Klimt, Frankenthaler, Michaelson, each appearing and disappearing at the turn of a wrist. And much, much more. I plucked out a Whee-lo, set it in motion. Watched the little disk blur as it raced the rails. Felt a familiar whirring in my bones. But Mer’s most precious gift was nestled between neatly folded sweats in the sixth container I opened. A small box, sheltering a MoVaDod earpiece. Meaning “Mobile Voice-Activated Data-on-Demand.” The once-upon-a-time universal portal for Cloud-based digital retrieval. And beneath that box, a costly paper envelope. Which contained a message typed in Mer’s iconic font: “Darling, if the future permits, request the compilation called ‘Mothball Magic.’”
A low moan roared through me. Meredith was—had been—a singer, a musician. And her message could only mean one thing. For years I begged her to record my favorite songs so I could access them whenever work separated us. She’d never taken me seriously—or maybe she hadn’t taken herself seriously. “Mothball Magic” was clearly intended to rectify that oversight, a farewell gesture that would rip me apart.
Could the technology of this brave new world extract sound from a twenty-first century Cloud? On Planet Earth? At that moment, I was glad I didn’t know. I couldn’t have borne to release Meredith’s enthralling voice into this alien air. Suddenly I was very tired. I pushed myself upright. Clasping the little box to my heart, I raised my bracelet, walked through the wall and fell into what passed for bed on Jashari.
But I was way too wired for sleep. After much tossing and turning, I gave up, got up, slipped back into my new room. Which was dark. Impenetrably dark, as only a sealed environment can be. Like being inside one of my own packing crates. And I didn’t want it any other way. I crept across resilient tiles until outstretched fingertips struck a stack of cartons. Wrapping both arms around a cool, impersonal container, I embraced my past. Mourning loss beyond comprehension, wrenched by irony. Because what good was escape from early death when all I loved had ceased to be?
* * *
I must have slept. And someone had put me to bed in the storage room. Now I was suspended in midair, curled on one side. Light glowed around me, soft as dawn. Maybe it was pure imagination, but my forehead seemed to tingle from gentle stroking, and a spicy scent teased at my memory.
I shook off those fantasies and rose, eager to explore more containers. Within moments though, wry laughter rippled through me. Because everything I’d packed was dear to my heart—and nearly all of it useless. Yet I yearned for many possessions I hadn’t thought to include. Little things, foolish things, impossible to explain.
I missed the hard toffee candies that were scattered through every briefcase, every knapsack back home. Prohibited, I suppose, by the restriction on perishables. I called up their sweet, crisp shatter with heightened appreciation. Here, food materialized three times daily in a compartment in my lodgings. It was plentiful and satisfying. Beautifully presented. Unrelievedly bland. Wholly lacking in contrast, surprise and the dangerous lure of cholesterol. A single piece of fresh fruit would taste like paradise.
I missed my family’s recipes—all our traditional dishes—though I couldn’t imagine how I’d prepare them in my present circumstances. I missed candlelight. Wicker baskets. My sketchbook. I longed for my favorite bath oil. And even though my rooms were warm enough—always, in fact, the ideal temperature—I ached for the worn flannel robe Meredith gave me on our first Christmas together.
I wished for ordinary playing cards—the kind my great-grandmother used for canasta. Their appearance on starched linen always presaged fresh flowers, the finest china, special snacks and frail old voices raised in fierce competition. I’d left Nana’s cards in my desk, never guessing what significance they held for me.
And I had an illogical desire to rummage through my wallet. To handle pliant lab-leather, to thumb through its contents. I wanted to examine my long-expired pilot’s license, with its confirmation that I was Leslie A. Burke; Female; DOB: 12-06-42; Hair: Aub.; Eyes: Grn.; 70 ins; 130 lbs; Perm. Res.: 322 Wisteria Court; Webster Groves, MO 63119-2461-57; UCA. I wanted to flip my lucky penny. To flash my transacode, to purchase something. Anything.
Whatever financial assets I had on Jashari would derive from a small percentage of my insurance policy. By legal mandate those funds were invested on my behalf at the time of cryodeath. To ensure I’d have some resources in the future. Which meant I might be sitting on a decent nest egg by now—assuming those arrangements had endured. The alternative? This little apartment could be a space-age debtor’s prison.
“I need some answers!” I yelled into the ether.
“Please be more specific.”
The voice was low, melodious, androgynous. It seemed to emanate from the rear of the cluttered room. My heart pounded as I scanned the walls, the ceiling. No visible speakers anywhere.
Hastily, with trembling hands, I unstacked a dozen cartons. Found myself face-to-face with a life-sized paper doll—or a rough equivalent. Its “body” only a few inches thick and tinted a pale, unmodulated flesh tone. Features minimally suggested. “Hair” a single, sculpted mass. Gender unspecified.
“What the fuck?”
“Earth-based English, archaic,” the mannequin responded, with only a faint movement of “lips.”
“Tell me something I don’t know!”
There was the slightest hesitation. Then: “Jashari is an artificial asteroid in the Centauri system. By your reckoning, the year is 6195 C.E. Your assets currently total four-hundred-sixty-three billion Standard Units, with interest accruing hourly.”
Ooo-kay! That was something I didn’t know—several somethings! I’d have to frame further questions very precisely—and be careful what I wished for.
“What are you?”
“I am A.I.∞, Mark 2:17.”
I laughed, perhaps hysterically. “I get the first part. I’d need to look up the rest in the New Testament.”
“The last copies were archived at the Huntington Library, LACAL, United Continent of America, Planet Earth. However all were destroyed during the defeat of the Christian Resistance Movement in 2233 C.E.”
My mouth dropped open. “Even the Cloud-based files?”
The mannequin spoke again, as if eager to explain: “Practitioners of other religions vastly outnumbered followers of the mythical Nazarene. Total eradication of the Bible, in all its forms, was an inevitable outcome of world unification.”
Those words thundered through me. All of Christian doctrine undone? Rendered as quaint and irrelevant as Greek mythology? I’d never been religious, but Christianity had wielded outsized influence on my culture. Its obliteration was more astonishing than anything yet revealed on Jashari. The news shattered a thousand subconscious structures. Legions of paradigms slipped and shifted, leaving me speechless.
“Are you all right?”
“I will be in a minute…It’s just hard to imagine Christianity—”
“Not that. Your left hand. Which twitches. Every twenty seconds.”
Just then my palm turned up. “It’s my light meter!”
Again, that brief pause. “Light meters were outmoded by your time.”
“True. But I was obsessed with antique photography—I collected mechanical cameras and equipment. A terribly extravagant hobby, of course. Anyway, I came across an old light meter in a retro shop. It worked perfectly, and I seemed to get better shots when I used it. So I always carried the thing—and I guess I checked it frequently.”
“Every twenty seconds.”
“Maybe. I think I used it like a worry stone.”
There was that telltale silence again. “Let me save you the trouble. A worry stone was an object some Earthlings used to soothe themselves.”
I grinned. “Was that a real ‘hmmm,’ or are your cylinders just firing?”
“A reflective reverberation. Denoting cognitive interfacing and cross-referencing of unfamiliar data.”
It felt terrific to have an actual conversation! Somehow I wasn’t self-conscious with her. “This is weird! I just realized I’ve begun to think of you as female.”
“I am here to serve. I can be whatever you wish me to be.”
“Oh, no! You could never be what I wish you to be!”
“Are you attempting to melt my matrices? I am required to meet your needs—or self-destruct in the attempt.”
“I see it all now! Leslie Burke and her Electronic Dyke!”
“Atomic-era, Earth-based English. Slang for female homosexual. Originally derogatory—”
“Stop! What I don’t need is for you to keep defining my own world.”
I could have sworn she looked sheepish. “Understood. And for your information, I am a VTO—a Variable Techno-Organism. I can become a female-identified model, if you like.”
Too ridiculous! I was laughing and crying, admitting for the first time how very lonely I was. “Wait here,” I ordered. As if she could follow me. After fumbling through a crate, I grabbed the lavender T-shirt and painters pants, then dashed back to her. “This will help the illusion.”
I dropped the top over the VTO’s flat shoulders. Wadded up other clothing to add bulk. Draped the pants on a storage carton to suggest she was seated there. Crooked a leg to give her a more natural look. Finally I added the bright suspenders. “You have to keep your pants on, woman—we hardly know one another!”
Then I blew her a kiss and went to bed.