The Beautiful Gears of Dying
You descend from above like a turkey vulture. Your smooth hands soothe my brow according to your programming. You change my bedpan or my diapers depending on how continent I’m feeling. We can put a man on the moon and create artificial intelligence, but somehow bedpan technology is still from the 1800s.
The skin they’ve given you is softer than a human’s. Though really, it’s an exoskeleton, protecting your central processing core and your AI interface, harder than diamond.
“I want soup,” I say. “Bring me soup.”
You go to the dispenser and make it dispense soup, all without a sound, interacting with it via wireless transmission, if that’s what they still call it. I am old enough that I still find this miraculous, and consequently resent you for it. Can you resent a thing with no feelings, a thing that makes you feel good? You make me feel good, and I hate you even more.
I try to nap, but I can’t because of the thrum of pain, growing to a spike in the mid-afternoon, as always.
I’m no longer in control of my pain meds after the last incident.
You say, “Please maintain for another hour. Drugs will be administered then as needed.”
As fucking needed. You’re not alive, you don’t know what the fuck I need. I don’t say any of this out loud. What would be the point? You won’t get it. Why not say it out loud, then? You won’t get it. You won’t get it. I should say what I want.
The hour passes like the movement of a glacier across a barren plain, sharp, unsparing, relentless. I pick up a copy of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It’s the only thing I can stand right now. “The pain is a poem,” he writes. Yes. The pain is a poem.
You come back in precisely an hour of course since your timekeeping is accurate to a millionth millionth or whatever the hell, I don’t even know the measurement. You access the module and administer the meds.
The glacier recedes.
I wake up dry as an un-watered rosebush. For once, my diapers don’t need changing. You are not in the room and I am shocked at my despairing want of you.
I hate you all over again: it’s my morning creed, my renewal of vows. You are the preacher presiding over my ritual. Do you, pain, take you, hatred, to be your lawful wedded wife? Oh yes.
The doctor visits. You stand in the corner like a hat rack. It occurs to me that no one now would have a hat rack or even know what one is. This strikes me as absolutely hilarious. I laugh so hard that tears stream down my face and I start coughing. I cough so violently the doctor gets alarmed and sedates me. You do nothing.
When I wake up, you are at my bedside. It is evening.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” I say.
You say nothing, though you look like you are about to say something. I am not sure this is actually possible.
“I can think what I want,” I say. “That’s the benefit of being terminal.”
“Yes,” you say.
Agreement at last.
I hate you less.
I have lost feeling in my legs, everything below the knees. You massage me like you do every day, but today I can’t feel your hands on my feet.
I say nothing. What is there to say?
You know anyway. You know my body better than any lover, better than my doctor, maybe better than my future embalmer. Good, better, best.
“Can’t you get me an exoskeleton to walk around in? If you get to have a skin suit, why can’t I have one?” Sometimes I like to ask absurd questions, just to see if I can confound you.
You don’t even blink. If you actually ever blink.
But there’s an infinitesimal pause before you say no. I could be imagining it. I like to imagine six impossible things before breakfast, so why not this?
Still. It’s interesting. And almost nothing is interesting to me these days.
I decide I can’t stand your soothing hands, your artificially soft skin that is actually harder than a diamond drill bit. I demand that you remove it, show me what’s underneath. I want you to look like a robot if you’re a robot. Like cats should look like cats and crocodiles like crocodiles. No one wants a crocodile wearing a person suit.
You pause for a fraction of a fraction of a second—I am sure of it this time—so I’m sure you have mathematically extrapolated to the nth degree what could possibly go wrong if you do this. Nothing could go wrong. I can’t even get out of this bed.
“Take off the skin,” I say, like you’re some mechanical werewolf that can change simply by pulling down a zipper.
And you do it. Who knew.
You unpeel yourself, segmenting the skin like a dimpled navel orange. There’s a moment where triangles of your skin stand up off your metallic body and you look like the Sydney Opera House. The triangles fold away somehow, with an odd sound, a kind of whirr-snick, so soft I can barely hear it, but my hearing’s going, probably my brain too, so who knows.
You’re there in your metallic body. It’s odd. You still look sort of human. Your silvery hue makes you somehow compassionate, comforting, more than the human veneer. Now you are a machine that tends to the ill and dying. Comforting as an old-school mercury thermometer. As the cool back of a mother’s hand. Not what I expected.
“Do they program you for kindness?” I ask.
You say, “Yes.” You are a later model. Questions about compassion asked of the earlier models resulted in explanations of algorithms and such. Turns out the terminally terminal don’t want to hear mathematics or standard deviations or explanations or anything really. Nothing except their own marriage to their pain, that prickle-imp riding their lungs and livers, whatever is failing terribly in their bodies. The finite geometry of death.
I am failing terribly. Kidneys. But you know this. You were there for the transplant two years ago. Now, that is failing too.
But was it you? It occurs to me that I don’t know. You all look the same. Though without your skin, your fleshy carapace, you are different. If you removed my skin, I would look the same as any other skinned human.
They say there is no sense in growing me a new organ: I am too old, and my body won’t take it. Not worth the expense. Or the bother.
If you lose your skin, do they give you a new one?
If you lose your self, do you get a new one?
Your brain is in your chest, behind some clear material. There’s a glow in there, and it’s beautiful, though not as beautiful as if you were clockwork, like an E.T.A. Hoffman creation, a Rube Goldberg device. Moving parts are prettier than non-moving parts but moving parts cause friction and heat and that’s a whole other equation we no longer need to solve. Thank you, science. Goodbye art and artefact and aardvark and ars moriendi.
I want to smash you right in your artificial heart, even if it isn’t really your heart at all, but some other device that belongs to Microsoft or Apple or to those Chick-Fil-A franchise assholes, for all I know.
You bring me more soup. I am grateful. I am grateful and I despise you.
I ask you to find me an old game I remember from my childhood called Mousetrap. You look it up in a millionth millionth of a second and the 3D printer prints it up in no time. It looks exactly like I remember it. It’s perfect.
I hate it.
The pain spikes again. It’s two hours to the next dose. It’s the glacier and the icebergs and the entire fucking Canadian Shield bearing down on me, that’s what it is.
The dose when it comes isn’t enough. I’ve hit the pain med singularity. Nothing from now on is going to be enough.
I ask you again to get me Mousetrap, but I tell you I want it to be beautiful. I can almost count the length of the pause this time. The 3D printer hums. You bring me Mousetrap and all the pieces are made of stars. Whatever it is, it catches the light and it is, yes, beautiful, but it’s trying too hard and it loses its beauty.
“It’s trying too hard,” I say. “Beauty is . . .” I don’t know what beauty is. Or Beauty is. A working kidney would be beautiful but I am too far down on the list for another one and I am older than old, and besides, I am not beautiful.
I tell you to look up John Keats. And to read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.
“Print me a kidney. A beautiful clockwork, steampunk kidney.”
You print me a kidney. It has hundreds of infinitesimal gears and it sits on my lunch tray. It makes a ticking sound, just like an old clock. I think the kidney is counting me down. That’s useful. Beauty is in usefulness. I feel clever and say it out loud to you. You say nothing.
I last another week. You access the module and are told that my pain meds can go up. I have a blissful couple of days. I am so high that everything sparkles. I tell you to put your skin back on. The Sydney Opera House erupts from your metallic sheen and folds back over you, that whirr-snick that might be in my head or might be real. You look human again, but there is something different. My eyesight is failing, but I can swear that you have a tiny gear above your mouth, like a beauty mark.
You are becoming beautiful as I am unbecoming. Or un-becoming. This makes me happy and I hate you a little less.
The end will come spiralling soon, a raging galaxy of the poetry of pain and the meshing and gnashing of clockwork gears in my insides. I don’t know what I’m saying. I have no gears inside; if I did I’d last longer.
I look at my clockwork kidney that is now humming on my bedside table. I’ve grown fond of it, like an ugly dog reluctantly adopted and then loved against one’s will.
Unprompted, you also bring me a clockwork eye, a lung, a heart. You are the Wizard of Oz giving me parts I was never missing in the first place. The artificial brain you bring me in all its gearish glory is an astonishment. You have defined beauty for both of us, though I never asked for it, really, and you, what do you know of feeling or of anything that matters? Or have you come so close to mimicking us that the empty gesture has in fact become fact, a thing that is now true?
You up the pain meds again. I am fairly certain this means overriding the protocols. I remember some of the routines from back when I was a doctor and still practised. But that was long ago, and in another country, and besides the wench is dead. I am dead. Soon. I think.
“Make me beautiful,” I tell you. It’s one of the last days. Soon I’ll know the secret that everyone finds out eventually. The secret you can never know, even if you are given all your organs by the Wizard.
There is the longest pause I have ever seen from you—maybe two seconds.
Your skin whispers back from your body, and I see that you have changed underneath. You are thousands of small gears and clockworks. Lights glimmer, parts of you move. You are full of stars, like in that old science fiction movie.
You place your old skin over me. It moves along my body, soft, soothing. But it, too, has changed. I feel something like millions of tiny teeth gently pressing into me. I succumb to the beauty of machinery, of artificial you, of becoming not. If this is dying, it is a strange thing, stranger than I could possibly have imagined. The blanket of your skin, it’s final clockwork comfort, fitting over me like the Shroud of Turin.
Let my face always remain imprinted there. I say this out loud to you.
You say, “Yes, Mrs. Beautiful, yes.”
I wait for what is coming. The unwinding of my body into your skin. As to what will happen next, I no longer know.
I am not sure you do, either. We are new together. Let our gears mesh as they may, though the heavens fall.
You wait—each second an eternity because of what you are. Each second an eternity for me, too, because of what I must endure. I close my eyes now. Your skin smooths itself over my face. I am full of stars.
You stand next to me, place your clockwork hand on mine. The thing that comes next is coming soon. We wait together.
(Published in The Sum of Us, eds. Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, Calgary: Laksa Media Groups, Inc., 2017)