Ten Million Robots, One Heart
by Tony Noland
The gas regulator's hiss seemed loud, too loud, even though it was the only noise left in the room. Every other device and monitor had been turned off. EKG, respirator, everything that had been beeping, chirping and buzzing around him for so long - all of it was silent.
She leaned in close, put her ear next to his mouth. If anything, the hiss grew louder. The tube that ran under his nose had two small nozzles, each giving a constant flow of oxygen, enhancing the composition of the air, giving him more to work with. Clear tape held the tube to the sides of his head. It puckered his grayish skin into odd, flat wrinkles, pinched and overly pink.
"Bach," he said in a papery whisper. His breath smelled of vinegar and acetone, the parched lips cracked and bleeding as he gasped out each word. "No machines. Anymore." He sucked at the air, the hospital sheet rising and falling with the effort of his breathing. "Too quiet. In here."
His hands were like ice, but she held them. "OK, Dad. Bach it is. How about the Brandenburgs?"
With the barest movement, he shook his head. "Too tired." His tongue pushed out over his lips. Swollen and covered with sores, it did nothing to wet them. She reached for the glass of ginger ale, now mostly melted ice. Again, he shook his head as she brought the bent straw to his lips. When she continued to hold it there, he took a tiny, tiny sip, barely enough to coat the tip of his tongue. "Besides," he said, "Concerto. Too long." Another gasping breath. "Final chords. Best part." Gasp. "Hate. To miss it."
She set the glass back on the tray by the bedside, and took the iPod from the speaker deck. Her fingertip moved across the glass face for a moment.
"The Well Tempered Clavier? Book 1, from the beginning?" she said. He nodded, more a movement of the eyelids than of the head. She replaced it and pressed the PLAY button. Glenn Gould's recording filled the room with the familiar first notes of Prelude No. 1 in C Major. Though it was playing softly, it was as perfectly balanced as the best electronics could render.
Next to the speaker deck was the box of a dozen jelly doughnuts, raspberry filled. Just as he'd asked, she'd bought them that morning, fresh and hot from Fleischmann's Bakery, still in business over in their old neighborhood. The warm, sweet aroma overcame the pine-and-lemon disinfectant smell of the room. He couldn't eat them, of course, but he could smell them, and he'd assured her that they were wonderful.
They sat, listening to the music.
He said, "Do you. Still play?"
"Sometimes," she said. "Not as well as Glenn Gould, though." He started to say something, but she said it for him. "I know, Dad. Nobody plays as well as Glenn Gould." They shared a smile, the kind that only comes when old jokes are told among friends.
The Prelude ended and the Fugue began, and they listened.
"I'm sorry the nanorobots didn't work, Dad," she said. She looked down at the bed, seeing it through fresh tears. "I know it was experimental, a crazy long shot, but I still hoped for... for..."
"A miracle?" He smiled. "Nothing. Works right. First time." He drew a labored breath, gathering strength. "Doctors will. Get my heart. After. Will figure out. Why injection. Didn't work." He gasped again, the exertion of his speech taking a toll. He licked his lips and smiled again. "Besides. Damn things were. Pink. Looked silly."
She laughed and wiped away the tears she couldn't stop. "They were pink because of the synthetic hemoglobin and you know it. It was supposed to help them bind to your heart and let them laser out the damage." With her free hand, she pulled a tissue from the box. "Your problem is that they didn't know you as well as I do. They were trying to match human blood. Instead, they should have made the little things green. It would have suited you better, you old Vulcan."
He smiled, his dry, flaky lips cracking. She felt his fingers spreading into the greeting that he had taught her so many, many years ago, the gesture that was an emblem of their shared kinship and fellowship through adolescence, adulthood and old age.
"Live long," he whispered, "and prosper." Again, he smiled, and she smiled back. His eyes fixed on hers and, his face turning sad, he waved at the gas regulator. "It's time," he said. "Time."
She held the tissue to her eyes, stemming the fresh flood. Unable to breathe, she nodded, rose and went over to the knob on the wall. With a shaking hand, she turned it until the hissing stopped. Bach's music seemed ten, a hundred times as loud as before. She sat again, letting the sobs come and the tears fall.
"That's better," he said. "Now. I can. Really smell. The doughnuts." He reached out and held her hand.
The music played. For the time they had left together, they sat and listened, surrounded by the warm aroma of happy memories.
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