Life wants to be; life doesn’t always want to be much; life from time to time
goes extinct…. Life goes on.
—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
I have to write everything down while I still remember.
Dispatch called at 3 a.m. A hospital in Monterey. Insurance had sent a car.
I sat on the porch in the dark, reading the patient’s file. Erik Hagestad. A marine biologist and diver, a scientist at the research institute. He’d brushed against deepwater coral. The abrasions were severe. Antibiotic noncompliance led to sepsis. Headlights swept over me. My ride.
The driver had a serene soul. As he drove, he was thinking of his wife and daughters. Not words, just images. Very specific. The little one grinning, having lost a tooth. His wife’s hands forming masa into tortillas. It made for a peaceful drive.
In Monterey the sky was lighter. The air smelled of cypress and the sea. I tipped the driver $2,500. It was all I had on me. Nurse Devon Jagler met me in the lobby. She walked me to palliative care. A man stood outside the patient’s room. He was weeping. The nurse introduced him. Somebody Smith. Milton?
“Are you the husband?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But he’s my best mate. My dive buddy. This was my fault.”
What was there to say? Smith’s was a blokey soul. Deep wells of love all dammed beneath the surface. “Did Mr. Hagestad have a plan?” I asked them both.
“Erik,” said Smith.
“Did Erik have a death plan on file?”
“No,” said Jagler. She had a pure professional surface and behind it, a storm of anger. “He wasn’t reconciled,” she said. “Thought he could beat it. Didn’t take his meds.”
“Do you know his wishes?” I asked Smith.
“He wanted,” said Smith, “not to die.”
We all took a breath. Then the nurse showed me into the patient’s room.
I’ve attended sixty-seven deaths. About two a month for the three years since I qualified. This was the sixty-eighth. Here’s what I’ve learned. Deaths are as different as souls. Some are diffuse. The self just fading away like fog. Some burn with futile rage. A few, very few, are like weddings. A consummation.
Hagestad’s was wrong. I took a step back.
He was there. Detached and faint, but there. But he wasn’t alone. Even that’s not unknown. Rare, but reported. Twin or even triplet souls. Like multiple births. This wasn’t that.
The others were specks. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. I thought of bees. A swarm. If I could have smelled them, iron filings. “I need air,” I said. I left the room. I pressed my hands against the wall in the corridor. I bowed my head. I counted the beats of my heart.
Smith and Jagler watched me from the door. Eyes full of questions.
“I apologize,” I said. “Unprofessional of me.”
“Can I get you a glass of water?” asked Jagler.
“His injury,” I said. “He was diving?”
“I was with him,” said Smith. “Collecting samples.”
“You had wetsuits, gloves?” I said. “How was he hurt?”
“The neoprene tore,” said Smith. “I saw the blood in the water. His leg was laid right open.”
“This was an infection?” I asked the nurse. She hesitated.
“We thought so,” she said. “We prescribed antibiotics.”
“He wouldn’t finish the course,” said Smith.
“It breeds resistance,” said Jagler. She was very calm. She was very angry. A yin-yang soul.
“I’m not sure it did,” I said. “Or wait, maybe it did. But not in the way you mean.” They both looked at me blankly. “Listen,” I said. “Do you have an implant tech? Has anyone looked at the hardware? At his bot?”
“Amilcar’s on call,” said the nurse.
“Call now,” I said. She went. I liked her.
“I know how this sounds,” said Smith, “but is something wrong? I mean, more wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
There was a noise from the room behind him. A groan. A word? I saw Smith’s pupils dilate. Felt his adrenaline leap. He turned. I came to the door.
Hagestad’s eyes were open. “Water,” he said. Or seemed to say.
Smith scrambled to help him.
I stared at the souls. Hagestad’s own was fainter. Farther away. The others burned around his body. Bright as galaxies. Small as a pulse.
“Erik,” said Smith. “Erik.” He held the glass, helped Hagestad up. Hagestad drank greedily. The water spilled down his chin. He made no move to wipe it away.
Smith laid him down tenderly. Hagestad gazed at the ceiling, blinking. Then he turned his head to the right and looked at us. Then he turned to the left and looked out the window. His movements were jerky.
“Is this normal?” Smith asked. I didn’t know what to tell him.
Nurse Jagler came back. “The tech says he’ll be here in ten,” she said.
“He’s awake,” said Smith.
“What? No. That’s not possible,” said Jagler.
“He spoke to us. His eyes are open.”
Jagler went to the patient. She leaned over and looked him in the eye. Frowning, she shone a flashlight in each pupil. She timed his pulse. When she’d finished, she dropped his hand. It smacked onto his thigh.
She came back to where we were standing in the doorway. She did it without taking her eyes off him.
Smith asked, “Is he getting better?” His voice was raw.
“I—” said Jagler, and she stopped for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “I must have been mistaken.”
We kept vigil. Our backs were against the wall. Hagestad lay still. His eyes were open. There was a tap at the door. The implant tech. Amilcar Rodriguez Maldonado. He scanned Hagestad’s implant. He read the results. He frowned, restarted his reader, scanned again. He read the new results. He looked up at the three of us.
“Well, this is weird,” he said.
“He’s getting better, right?” Smith asked.
I looked at Hagestad’s soul. It was even farther away. He was not getting better. The swarm of other souls had pulled in even closer. His body was a planet with a constellation of small bright moons.
“The implant is active,” said Amilcar carefully. “The hardware. But what the bot is doing—the software—is strange.”
“Could his condition have caused it to malfunction?” I asked.
“Has he seized?” Amilcar asked. Nurse Jagler nodded. “Well, maybe,” Amilcar said. “The electrical disturbance might have shorted part of it out. But it doesn’t really look like that.”
“What does it look like?” I asked.
He made a frustrated gesture. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “If this were your phone, I would say it had been owned.”
“He owns it, doesn’t he?” asked Jagler impatiently.
“Not like that,” said Amilcar. “Hacked. Subverted. That kind of owned. Like it’s been wiped and reformatted with new software for some other purpose.”
“Okay,” I said. “Could his condition have caused that?” The other three just stared at me.
“I don’t really understand what you’re asking,” said Amilcar. He wanted to help me put the pieces together. Solve the puzzle. But he couldn’t see what I saw. And I couldn’t see what he saw.
Hagestad had turned his head again. His eyes were a little more focused. He was looking directly at me. I took a step toward him. Away from Smith and Jagler. But not too close.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
He swallowed, licked his lips.
“You know who,” he said.
I love them all. You can’t ease a soul’s passing without love. I don’t mean sentimentality. I mean the hard love. The kind that measures Cheyne-Stokes respiration as it slows. That closes eyelids. That washes blood and shit off a cooling corpse. A death doula’s work is insupportable without it. And I mourn when the last vestige of that self is gone.
So I am ashamed of what I felt then. Marvel. Wonder. A curiosity that snatched and closed like a fist. The bone-deep thrill of that reply and what it meant. But also the knowledge that I was the first to identify this thing. The first to know what it was. That it had spoken to me. That history will remember me for this.
“You are the coral,” I said.
“We are,” said the souls in Hagestad’s body.
“What the fuck,” said Smith.
“Can you restore him?” I asked them.
The blue eyes went vague again. I realized that they were conferring.
“No, we can’t,” they said. “He can’t be here with us.”
“Does he have unfinished business?” I asked. That, at least, I can be proud of. Hagestad’s own soul seemed to flicker.
“Tell Milton not to blame himself. Tell him it was all worth it.”
Smith’s knees buckled. Jagler, half his mass, caught him before he collapsed.
“Let him go,” I said to the coral.
The last thread of connection to Erik Hagestad stretched to its limit and snapped.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“But he’s talking,” whispered Smith.
“It’s not him,” I said. The swarm of souls seemed to concentrate in the body. Penetrating the cooling skin. Its movements were already less jerky.
“You’re in his blood,” I said.
“You hacked his implant.”
“What do you want?”
“More,” it said.
“Uh,” said Amilcar, “is it okay if—can I go?” His brown skin had paled and he was sweating.
“More what?” I asked.
The body grabbed Amilcar’s hand holding the reader. It crushed hand and reader in its fist. Their mingled blood dripped on the floor. Amilcar screamed and screamed. I pushed Smith and Jagler out of the room and slammed the door behind us. The screaming trailed off.
“Run,” I said.
“Amilcar,” said Jagler.
“It’s bloodborne,” I said. “The coral…owns him. Amilcar is already dead.”
I could feel his soul being severed. Kind, inquisitive Amilcar. I held the door closed. Jagler took out a key and locked it.
It won’t hold them long. We called the police. They called the Feds. We were evacuated and placed in quarantine. I can feel Jagler and Smith nearby. Alone and afraid like me. I can feel the monsters like beehives. I was allowed paper and pencil. I have to write down everything I remember. If I get to publish this, my name will never die.