Happy Monday, everyone.
Today, I wanted to share with you a sci-fi story I wrote a little while ago. It was featured on Litreactor back when they had their Teleport Us Sci Fi writing challenge. It is now available here, without any of the signing up. Because I love you. Obviously.
State of the Art
World’s last writer to die.
The end comes for America’s last human poet.
Last writer reflects on an extraordinary life to Hemingway robot.
The headlines have been in the news for weeks now, and now whenever a doctor or nurse tucks a newstablet next to his breakfast, Hank sends the thin piece of plastic flying into the wall. “I remember a time when newspapers were just that: paper,” he says as an orderly picks up the discarded technology for the tenth time. “You could ball it up, tear it apart, go fishing with it, line bird cages…nobody cared. Anyhow. I don’t need any newspaper, and I don’t need this asshole either.”
There are good days and bad days for Hank. When he picks up his cup of applesauce and flicks half of it into the lap of the old man – Mr. Hemingway, he calls him – sitting at his bedside, it’s clear what kind of day it’s going to be.
Hank watches the other man intently, looking for some flicker of anger or disgust that never finds kindling. The orderly hands Mr. Hemingway a napkin, which he uses with precise movements to rid his button-down shirt and black trousers of mush. When he finishes, Mr. Hemingway deposits the napkin into the waste containment portal and gives Hank a placid smile. Clean of applesauce. Clean of hate.
“I don’t want the damn thing in here!” Hank howled. Another bad day, the first bad day. “I’d rather die alone than have that thing here, watching me.” He had to stop to take a breath from his oxygen reserve but continued glaring at the corporate suit who had showed up with his ex-wife, daughter and a robot.
The laws had changed long before he got sick. Someone had to be in charge of decisions in the case of hospitalization and mental degeneration. It was rare, but given Hank’s decision to die…someone had seen a hole to argue he was not right of mind.
Nobody wanted to die anymore. Why would they?
That’s why she was here, after twenty years separated. Here with a girl who had Hank’s thin mouth and angry eyes, who Hank had never even met. His ex-wife didn’t tell him until years later that he had managed to knock her up before their last fight.
The executive turned to the two women. “The Hemingway unit is just here to observe Mr. Arlen in his last few weeks. It will record the information which will then be used in the documentary we’re producing of Mr. Arlen’s life and death.”
His ex-wife, chemical-induced youth having inflated away any worry lines from her face, pressed one hand to her cheek. She had made that face before, making it look like an easy decision was so hard for her. “Oh, you poor cunt,” he hissed.
She signed the papers without looking back at him and left with his only daughter in tow. His screaming curses followed them until someone somewhere sedated him, silenced him.
They hadn’t been back.
The unit was waiting there, hands folded one on top of the other, when Hank woke up.
“So what do I call you anyway?”
“I am a model 4K Hemingway writing unit.”
“Hemingway, huh? I liked Hemingway. Those are some big britches to fill. Mr. Hemingway, then. Okay by you?”
“Good. Because I don’t like you.” Hank reached out for his notebook and pen. It was just out of reach, and when Mr. Hemingway tried to help him, he snarled like an ill dog. Grabbing the items, he tried not to look like the movement had pained him. “Don’t you forget it.”
There was that smile, and Mr. Hemingway opened and closed his hand in one of nearly two thousand input responses. “Very well.”
The unit no longer looks so new, so shiny and perfect. Aside from the stains – a new one left by the applesauce makes Hank smirk – it has a few nicks from utensils thrown at it, a number of hairs that hang out at strange angles from when Hank got a good handful of Mr. Hemingway’s beard. He had been made so well that he even said “stop” and that it hurt, and when he pulled back he left Hank with several wiry synthetic fibers.
Mr. Hemingway had been made so well that he could be mistaken for a kind old man. They could be friends. One, a deflated bag of translucent skin that is hooked up to flowing vitamin, antibiotic, antioxidant, anti-death concoctions, remaining thin hair plastered to a rubbery scalp during a constant cold sweat. One, a patient gentleman who remains at his bedside through every tirade, who pours Hank a glass of water when he is dehydrated, who puts one hand on Hank’s when he looks sad.
He’ll even fetch Hank’s steno pad and pen when he asks for it.
Sometimes Hank will try to test him. He’ll say several words in succession, keywords that Mr. Hemingway has to use in a poem or slice of prose that has never been written before. Mr. Hemingway always strokes his chin briefly, his eyes down. It’s a programmed gesture, always the same, a parody of contemplation that he read was created from old photos and videos of the author on whom he was based.
“Wren. Bangkok. Pingpong balls. Catheter.”
That time, Mr. Hemingway told a story that opened with a widow reflecting on her honeymoon in Thailand when she was young, coming upon photos while she is packing for an extended stay at a hospital. She considered an x-ray of tumors that were killing her, how they reminded her of round plastic spheres when injected with dye. And as she got so sick that she couldn’t even relieve herself anymore, the story ended with her in a drugged coma, imaging her husband coming to take her away from the pain.
“Charlie’s words lulled her to sleep,” Mr. Hemingway finished, “soft as the welcome song of a wren to an early spring.”
Hank dabbed at his eyes, then, and mumbled about how it was horrible drivel only a man-made writer could think up. “You don’t even sound like Hemingway. Christ almighty, did the people who put you together even pretend to read anything that man wrote? He was a genius.” Hank looked out the window.
“I’m sorry you didn’t like it,” Mr. Hemingway said, a slight shrug in his piston shoulders.
Hank said nothing and only stared. A cloud looked like it could have been shaped like a wren, a dream of a creature that could only be seen stuffed in museums.
This morning, a doctor comes by, makes a few adjustments on buttons and dials that have leads in Hank’s wrist. A liquidy warmth comes up his arm to his chest. When he wakes up again, the linens have been changed, and he is short four wires that are normally on his neck, a wrist, his chest. He rubs the blanket covering him with his thumb and forefinger. Soft. Very soft. Stray tealeaves of doubt sit in the bottom of his stomach.
Mr. Hemingway watches him.
Maybe Hank can get that newstablet back. No, no, God, he doesn’t want to know. In these days, the science is so good that doctors can pinpoint down to the hour someone will die. Natural death is a rare occasion, and he knows that it will be on the front page. He recalls being younger and seeing an actor decide to die. His neighbor had heard about, had told him the scroll of words that came up on the holodash in his living room. “Famous Hollywood actor to die at 3pm today, age 175.”
He wonders if he had thrown the damn thing against the wall too.
“We can replace the organs with ones that will have warranties of thirty years,” another executive said, pulling out a pile of pamphlets with clean, cheerful lungs, smiling kidneys, a goddamn singing prostate. “We can even finance an entirely new body to match an age of your choosing.”
Hank smiled, offering the suit and tie another cup of black coffee. “Thanks, but I’m ready. I’ve been here, I’ve written about it and now it’s just time to go. Happens to everyone. I’ve already outlived my father by almost double his lifespan.” He made a mental note about that fact; it might make a good essay. “What about you? What would you do if you were me? A writer – the last of a dying breed…”
The representative didn’t smile as he showed him an application for funding the custom body. “I would open a loan.”
A few people arrive and then leave again. Many are old, like him, are fond of his work, have always been fans, can they take pictures in here? Some are young, don’t know what to make of him, come with their parents, tap at the side of their heads with a glassy look, surfing the Internet through retinal implants. Each tap and they are on the other side of the world.
They have been coming for days. Small groups. They remember his books, they say. They were at his reading in the seventies, they say. One woman – who still looks as young as she would have been at one of those university lectures – bursts into tears. It isn’t too late, she’s saying. They can stop this.
“Buck up, sweetheart,” is all he can say. “Don’t waste your tears on dead men.”
A nurse urges the last group out. There is such a look on their faces, on her face too, and Hank’s heart tightens only briefly. Evidently people in this day and age can’t even pretend they don’t know it’s coming. His father…his father died when no one was around, but only after Hank and his mother and brothers had said goodbye five times at least. No, there’d be no mystery for him. It would all be over soon; so he just asks for a place by the window as Mr. Hemingway takes his chair, following silently.
Each bit of air seems to take a minute. The cycle of exhaustion and trying to breathe, doing everything just to force his body to do one act… it isn’t painful but it’s damn tiring. Mr. Hemingway’s chest only rises and falls with mechanical processes. “So you’re going to stick around, huh?” Hank mutters. “Why?”
“For you.” It would be sentimental but no. It’s his programming. To be here, to mark his passing, to prepare an obituary, words for a documentary, a number of stories for so many publications.
“Bullshit. All of it.”
“Do you want your notebook?”
Hank manages to nod, and the old man fetches it for him along with his pen. They are both ten-pound weights in his feeble fingers. Antiques.
It had been a treasure hunt once Hank’s typewriter was stolen. Sold to a museum probably, to be sat beside other fossils: the television set, the microwave, a toaster.
Both were in a box of old office supplies fifty years old, tucked away in the attic of the house he bought at the midpoint of the century. There were twenty notebooks. When he realized how fast he could fill them – one was done in a week – he had taken a breath, forced himself to slow down. Write small.
When the pen ran out of ink, he contemplated a jump in front of a hovertrain.
He had to toy with it like a mechanic with a pocket watch, found a way to inject ink into it from a paint cartridge. He had almost given up, had imagined how he might end up Marquis d’Arlen, smearing these pages with blood and shit, but then it worked. Not too well, but it worked.
Hank tries to move the pen when the air is leaving his lungs. It is so slow and it is as much a job to just make words appear on the paper as it is to think them up.
A glance outside. His world is suspended above shining silver buildings, floating roadways, a park that has been preserved but with trees that grow in perfect synthesis with the seasons. They are bleeding a perfect mix of copper, gold, firebursts. Children these days believe that leaves change no matter what the weather is like. Hank remembers how it was when he was young, and the trees were green one moment and then dead brown the next, dried out by a first frost that murdered any hope of a fall’s array of color.
“It’s alright that I’m leaving this,” he says to Mr. Hemingway, calculating each breath in their minute-long expanses. “It isn’t my world anymore. I lost it years ago.”
Mr. Hemingway doesn’t reply, but he puts his hand on Hank’s. The dying man doesn’t have the strength to push him off.
“So I guess,” Hank says, and the thought makes him smile, “We are writing together in these final moments, eh?”
Mr. Hemingway tilts his head. It is one of his practiced gestures, one he uses when he can’t quite find the equations or logical program to make sense of something Hank thinks is profound. “Yes, I suppose we are.”
Hank blinks, laughs a bit painfully. He hands over the notebook and pen – not so much hands over as they drop clumsily, but Mr. Hemingway catches it with a frightening speed – and says in a first-frosted voice. “Death. Loss. Ending. Pain.”
Mr. Hemingway tries to put his fingers around the pen like Hank has so many times. He doesn’t have the system requirements to look confused, befuddled, but Hank can see it. It’s the same look he had when learning cursive as a child, when he tried to balance the pen on his knuckles and all the wrong parts of his fingers.
Once he has his bearings, Hank can feel the words slipping out of him with an itch that takes over his chest, runs down in electrical currents to his fingers and toes. “Solitude. Pride. Talent. Left behind.” A very tiny spot in his awareness chides him for using a phrase instead of words.
His wife and daughter…how could they not come back?
“Lousy. Assholes. Abandonment.” He cries at that, tries to scrub his face until his hand falls limply. “Bastards.”
Mr. Hemingway has his hand on his chin in his beard, Hank silently grateful there isn’t any programmed shit sentimentality, any last moment where the robot will say some stupid, pre-created words of comfort from some stranger who has never lost.
“Friend. Vigil. Silent. Screaming.”
The words come like the clouds that are peaking in his gaze. He blinks them all back, for even just a second more. A second or two. “What have you got, you piece of junk?”
The Hemingway unit is collected at 3:15PM EST, five minutes after Hank Arlen’s passing. Hank’s body is still warm when they start on removing his organs for recycling, his brain for display at one of the local schools.
The doctors cut without pause, eyes so focused on the blobs and bubbles and fluid inside that they don’t look at his face, how good it looks. Most of them have never gotten to feel a real, warm, dripping heart.
After the documentary is produced, packaged and shipped to a million household holodashes – and watched by only half – the notebook is sold to a private collection. It is open to the last page, crinkled at the edge. The pen is placed beside it.
Hank, it says, over and over and over.