Science Fiction artificial intelligence aging pregnancy death and dying

Tiny Voices

By James Van Pelt
Aug 2, 2020 · 6,557 words · 24 minutes

Pencil shavings on a notebook

Photo by Angelina Litvin via Unsplash.

From the author: In the not so far future, where every item you own is intelligent and self-aware, how valuable is sentience? How important is an individual where self consciousness is cheap? Cory the caregiver, Stella the dying woman, Harlow the suave lover, an unplanned pregnancy, and a pencil afraid of being sharpened collide in this story of hard choices.

More than the thirty feet and a wall separated the two women.  Stella sipped breaths, her sheet pulled under her chin, eyes closed tight, but she saw the room from a dozen vantage points: from the television’s self-focusing eye, the coffee pot’s proximity control, the light switch’s finger pad, the medical sensor’s finely tuned perception field that reached not just to her, tracing each labored heart beat and marking the sluggish progress of her blood through her body, but also picking up a fly’s tiny buzz near the ceiling fixture and a beetle crawling along the baseboard under the bed.  She saw herself lying beneath the covers, old, old, old, as old as crumbling epitaphs, as old as weathered wood, her face a shrunken fruit barely making a dent in the pillow.  I.V. lines dangled from her arm.  She pitied herself as if from afar, and it was all she could do to keep from weeping.  In fact, when she looked closely, she could tell she was weeping shiny glinting tear tracks from the corners of her eyes to her ears.  It didn’t seem fair, so close to death that she could sense so much.  With an electron’s nimbleness, she switched her attention from device to device.  I can’t be dying, she thought; I don’t want to.

Stella saw Corey too, sitting at her desk beyond the door in the receiving room, talking to her pencil.

“It’s just a memo,” Corey said.  “Thirty or forty words, no more.  I won’t even press hard.”  If Stella’s traveling senses could have reached Corey’s inner ear, she would have heard the pencil’s tinny voice in reply.  “I’m only good for five thousand words, and that’s if you write small ones, but you like ‘tremulous’ and ‘serendipity.’  Please, write with someone else.”

Corey put the pencil on her desk.  It was an ordinary yellow pencil with number two lead, but with the addition of a sentient chip.  Everything had a sentient chip.  Her chair reminded her occasionally that she was gaining weight, and her desk chatted amiably about waxy buildup and the loose paperclips in the bottom drawer, just as her car talked about traffic, and her blouse reported dirt and perspiration.  Everything talked, but her pencil was difficult.  It talked of death.

“My doctor needs to know what I want to do,” Corey said.  “If I don’t write it down, he won’t know.”  She placed a fingertip on the pencil’s pointed end and another on the pink eraser, holding it above the blank paper.  “You need to do your job.  This is important.  You’re just a pencil.” She thought about the tests she’d already taken, and how her doctor had blanched when he told her, “You’re pregnant.” 

“I haven’t ordered a baby,” she had said, her hands pressing the sides of the papery robe to the examination table.

“No,” the doctor said, “You are pregnant.  Your body is.”

He’d left the room after giving her a handful of brochures with fifty-year old copyright dates and illustrations of third-world women in front of mud huts.

She had to write him a note, but she didn’t know what to say.  Nothing on her small and tidy desk helped.  A clock.  A leather-edged desk pad.  A picture of her mom leaning against a tree the year before she’d fallen sick and died.  If Corey stretched her arms, she could wrap her hands around both of the desk’s edges lengthwise.  A hat rack stood near the door next to an uncomfortable chair.  The walls were a clean, smooth beige and had a wiped-down shininess to them that made her think of dentist offices.

The pencil moaned.  “My life is measured in words.”

In the other room, Stella cleared her throat, and Stella heard it in the telephone and the stereo and the sink and every other voice-activated device.  She was wired in everywhere, as fast as a thought, dexterous and lively in her mind, not old and declining.  With effort, she concentrated on her throat, swallowing hard, controlling the muscles and making sure that it was clear when she was done.  The nurse told her that she had to be careful with her swallowing.  A careless moment could mean choking to death, not that being careful would prevent the inevitable. 

“Corey,” she croaked, but it was too soft a sound.  She imagined it didn’t even reach the end of her bed.

In the other room, Corey said to her pencil, “I’m not talking to you anymore,” and she wrote a note furiously.

“Corey,” Stella said, louder this time.  Her lungs wheezed shut like wet tissues.  Stella would have pushed the call button, but she couldn’t find it.  She couldn’t feel her fingers well, and it was possible that she was holding the button without knowing.  Disgusted at her faltering body, Stella slid into the television, upped the volume and boomed, “Corey, dear!”

Corey put the pencil down, read her note, then threw it in the trash can, a wadded ball.  “Thank you,” said the trash can’s voice in her ear.  “This is a type one recyclable.”

“Coming.”  Corey’s chair creaked without comment when she stood.  Then, as if on cue, the outer door opened and Harlow walked in, his jacket hanging on one arm, his thick blonde hair tousled across his forehead in a nonchalant fashion that said, “I’m carefree; can’t you be too?”

In a blink, Corey pictured him in a different light, his clothes carefully draped over the top of a chair under his neatly folded jacked, his face close to hers, breathing fast but delicious and warm as roast beef.  What she noticed most in the memory, though, was his hair with its deliberate indifference, the same as it looked now.

“How’s the old Stella-witch today?” he said, with a long, slow, polished smile as he walked by.

Corey started after him, then flinched.  Had she thrown away the note?  A glance assured her it was in the trash.

Stella saw the flinch from three angles.  A quick dip into the trash can’s sentience didn’t help.  No visuals.  Paper, the sensor told her.  Low rag content.

Reluctantly, Stella pulled herself back into her head.  Harlow’s hand rested on her arm.  He gave it a tiny squeeze, then said too loudly, “Hi, Stella.  It’s me, Harlow, your nephew.”

She tried to clear her throat again.  No luck.  Phlegm, solid as a hockey puck, clogged it.  “I know who you are,” she bellowed from the television.

“Jeeze!”  Harlow jumped.  “I hate it when you do that.”

Stella used the mental connection to turn the volume down.  “I’m old, not ignorant.”  She tried to focus on him, but her eyelids hurt to stay open, and she teared easily.  He was a tall, dark blur against the ceiling lights.  Switching to the television made him easier to see--of all the devices in the room, it had the best optics--but his back was to that point of view.  Corey stood on the other side of the bed, though, and her face was clear, not looking at Stella.  Her head was down, studying Harlow from beneath her long lashes.

“You’re not that old, Stella.  The doctor just yesterday told me how well you were doing.”  He winked at Corey.  “We’ll have you dancing again in a week.”

Corey smiled back, but Harlow had already looked away.  She watched his hand on Stella’s arm.  The night they’d been together had been so vivid.  His hand had toyed with the top button on her blouse for the longest time, not unbuttoning it, but not going away either.

Harlow sighed, somewhere between annoyed and bored.  Until two months ago, he’d always lingered longer at Corey’s desk then he did at Stella’s bedside.  But that was two months ago.  Corey could almost see him checking the time.  She searched for something to say.  “Stella’s improved her connections.  A tech was in here this morning.  He told me that’s he’s never hooked up so many devices into one interface, but Stella doesn’t move much, so there isn’t a problem with range and interference like there would be for you or me.”

“Really?”  Harlow crossed his arms.  “Expensive, I’ll bet.”

“I don’t know.  I suppose.”  The interface relay, a flat box an inch thick and six inches on each side, hung on the wall directly behind Stella’s head.

“I like to keep the seat of my consciousness movable,” Stella said from the small refrigerator on the counter.  “What’s really expensive is the internal gear.  Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  The whole shooting match.”

Harlow glanced around the room.  “What have you got in here with a sense of taste?”

“Not me.  That’s for sure.  Coffee maker.  Microwave.  I’ve got a stirring ladle at the house that could probably tell me a bunch.  Can’t access it from here, though.”  Stella laughed from the refrigerator’s speaker, which normally only said things like, “The milk has gone bad,” or “There’s a special on broccoli this week.”

Corey wanted to move to Harlow’s side of the bed.  Maybe if she got close enough to him, he would have to acknowledge her.  He’d been so distant lately, as if she was someone he’d never met before.  Only his hand on Stella’s arm seemed vulnerable, and even that gesture looked perfunctory.  His jacket hid his other hand, and he held his arms close to his side.  He was self-contained.  Locked in.

Harlow shrugged.  “Everybody has to have a hobby, I suppose.  Whatever makes you happy, Aunt Stella.  Don’t know if I could stand the extra information.  Bad enough that doorknobs and sidewalks talk.”

Corey said, “You have a business interface, don’t you?”

“Of course, business.  Phone calls.  That’s it.  I block the rest.”  He moved his jacket to his shoulder.  “Everybody who wants to stay sane does that.  Too much noise otherwise.  Silly ads and chatty appliances.”

“I suppose,” Corey said.  “I hadn’t thought about it that way before.”

He smiled at her again, like he had when he’d passed her desk, all teeth and glittering eyes like a light flicking on, then it was gone.  “Your message said there were more papers to sign.  I should get to them.”

“And more for tomorrow too.  Today’s are on my desk.”

“Don’t mind me.  I’m just dying here,” said Stella from the light switch.

Corey looked down at her guiltily.  Stella’s arms seemed no more substantial than flower stems, and dark mottles covered the parchment-thin skin.

“Are you comfortable, ma’am?  Can I get you some water?”  She moved the pillow under Stella’s head to give her a better angle.

The old woman’s eyes peeked from between the eyelids.  A tip of tongue moistened her lips.  Corey leaned close.  “Yes, dear.  That would be nice,” Stella whispered.  Corey smiled.  Stella always called her dear or deary, terms of endearment Corey had never heard from anyone else.  They were archaic, like Stella.

Water poured from the faucet before she reached it.  “Forty-two degrees and pure as a spring,” said the sink’s voice in Corey’s head.  Beside the sink sat the microwave, and beside that the coffee maker.  Four white cabinets containing medical supplies filled the rest of the space to the counter’s end.  She could smell the ointment she rubbed into Stella’s elbows and knees.  The jar’s lid was loose, so she tightened it.  When she returned to the bedside, Stella appeared to have gone asleep, her face tilted to the side, her breath raspy and dry.  Corey reached to touch Stella’s shoulder.

“I’m still with you,” said the microwave.  “Just wandering around the room.  I love the new interface, deary.”

Stella turned on the pillow, and when the straw touched her lips, she drank gingerly.  “Oh, that’s better,” she murmured. 

The old woman swallowed a couple more times as if it hurt.  “Your young man is gone,” she said.

“My young man?”  Corey’s fingers rested on the bed’s cool, aluminum side rail.  “Oh, Harlow!” 

The outer room was empty.  On her desk, the papers were signed.  In the trash can, next to her wadded note, lay a pen.  The trash can, with a hurt tone, said in her ear, “This is mixed-composition non-recyclable item.  It should be disposed of properly.”

Corey straightened the papers before bending down to retrieve the pen.

“Thank goodness,” the pen said when she picked it up.  “I’m properly functioning and three-quarters full.”

It glistened in her hand, an ordinary black and grey business-person’s pen.  “So, why’d he throw you away?”  The pen’s button depressed smoothly under her thumb, revealing the ball point with an authoritative click.

“I skip sometimes,” it said, sulkily.  “It’s a manufacturing flaw.  Not my fault.”

“Did you tell him?”  She clicked the pen closed and set it on the desk next to her pencil.

“He never ever listens.  He misspells all the time, you know.  Will he make a correction?  Nope.  I might as well be mute.”

“I’ll bet he’s hell on pencils too,” said the pencil.

“Oh, yes.  He chews them when he’s thinking.”

“The bastard.”

Corey said, “How old are you?”

“My battery expires in six months, but I wanted to go down writing.”

“Do you mind if I use you to compose a note?  My pencil is reluctant.”  She opened a desk drawer for a piece of paper.

The pencil barked, “Not reluctant!  I’m solar powered.  No expiration date, if she would just quit using me!”

“Not at all.  I’m here to serve.  Umm, I do skip occasionally.  Is this to be a final draft?”

“Just a note.”  Corey held the pen next to her ear, clicked it open then closed a few times.  The paper’s blankness seemed a mile wide.  What could she write on it?  What could she tell the doctor?  He’d seemed as confused as she was at first, and apologetic.  “Ovulation has been blocked for you.  Technically, I don’t know how it could happen.”  She had closed her eyes on the examination table, ticking off the symptoms that had brought her in: light headedness, tender breasts, constipation and fatigue.

“Are you sure it isn’t a vitamin deficiency?” she had said.

He shuffled through screens on his clipboard.  “No, you’re eight weeks along, give or take a couple days.  There’s a heartbeat.  I’d have to do field work in back-country Africa for an opportunity like this.  It’s fascinating.”

Then he talked to her about abortion.  “If we had caught it earlier,” he said, “we could consider a fetal extraction and a normal laboratory gestation.  But . . . eight weeks.”  He shrugged and told her to take a day or two to choose the best date to come in.

Corey twirled the pen from finger to finger.  Her other hand rested on her belly.  It was hard to imagine a second heartbeat inside her.  The idea was so . . . retro.  The only picture she could associate with it was of a frontier woman sitting on the seat of a covered wagon, her hands loose on the reins, a belly full of baby resting on her legs.  She thought about talking to Harlow.  “By the way,” she might say, “you know how sometimes the most unlikely things can happen?”

“Is this to be a business correspondence?” said the pen.  “I can suggest several good salutations if that is the case.”

“How about letters to distant boyfriends?”  The pen clicked open and closed again under her thumb.  “No, forget it.  I’m thinking.” 

She looked at the clock on her desk that she’d brought from home when she took the job caretaking for Stella.  It was an old clock.  Pre-sentient.  Practically an antique.  Thirty minutes until she could go home for the day, the glowing numbers told her.  It could talk, though, if she asked for the time.  So it could listen.  Corey wondered if Stella could access it from the other room.  Was it listening to her right now?  Could she hear the breathing?  The pen clicking?  The oddness of her thoughts?

Corey put the pen in the middle of the blank paper, pushed away from the desk.  Maybe Stella needed company.  Poor woman.  On death’s bed with no one to sit with her.  Harlow was her only relative, and he came by twice a week.  What must it be like to be in her place, tied by gravity and age to the bed?

Stella’s consciousness hovered in the middle of the room.  She upped the sound reception on the coffee pot, and it seemed she moved toward it.  When she zoomed in on the television, she moved there.  In the bed, she giggled, and the giggle echoed in the microwave and the sink and the telephone, her voice leaking from each.

She peeked at herself from the television.  Old woman, still beneath the sheets.  Could that bag of infirmity really be her?  Straining, she raised her hand off the blanket and wiggled her fingers in a weak imitation of a wave.  Her arm struggled to hold the hand even in inch in the air.  Her shoulder ached, and the muscles in her back were within an instant of cramping.  She dropped the hand back to the bed.

A brush of air touched her.  But it wasn’t her skin that felt it; it was the much more sensitive light switch.  She could feel more than pain again!  Stella turned the television on its gimbal so she could see the door.  Corey walked in, quietly, but her shoes scraped loud enough for the microphones in the room.  Stella listened mightily.  Yes, she could hear the young woman’s breathing, the rustle of her skirt against her legs.

Stella said from the microwave, “I’m awake, dear.”

“I was trying to be quiet.”

Corey stopped at the medical readouts displayed at the foot of the bed.  Stella felt around in her head until she found the readouts too, clear in her mind, pulse, temperature, blood pressure, chemical balances, respiration.  She held her breath to see the breathing stop.  Soon, the pulse accelerated.

“Ma’am?” Corey said, a touch of concern in her voice.

Stella released the pent-up air in a whoosh.  “Oh, this is fun.”


“I’m mobile again.”

“I don’t understand.”

Stella wished there was a camera on her bed so she could see Corey’s expression, but all the eyes in the room were behind her.

“I told you,” Stella said.  “The seat of my consciousness is on the move.”

Corey shook her head.

“The seat of your consciousness is where you picture yourself.  It’s where you feel the center of who you are emanates.  Where is the seat of your consciousness, dear?”

The young woman sat in a chair next to the bed.  Now the side of her face was clearly in view.  Fine, blonde hair that fell to just above her shoulders.  High cheekbones.  A mouth that turned down when she wasn’t smiling, so she often looked pensive.  Stella tried to remember when her own face was so unlined.

“In me?” said Corey.

“Yes, but where within you?  Try this.  Close your eyes and just listen.  Where are you, your essence, the seat of your consciousness?”

For a minute, neither woman made a sound.

Corey laughed.  “Between my ears, just behind my eyes.”

Stella sighed.  “Yes, that’s where it would be.  But what if you couldn’t hear or see?  What if your only sense was of touch?  Would the seat of your consciousness be in your hands then?”

Corey’s brow furrowed.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.”  She stood.  “The night nurse and your dinner will be here soon.  Is there anything I can do for you before I go?”

“No, dear.  I’m enjoying my independence,” she said from the medical sensor. 

A voice Corey didn’t hear often said inside her ear, “This is the mattress speaking.  The sheets are soiled and need attention.”

After the night nurse came and they changed the sheets–the old woman seemed almost weightless as they transferred her to and from the bed--Corey put on her coat.  Her hands smelled of antiseptic.  The nurse, a solid-looking woman with sturdy calves, stood in the doorway into Stella’s room, her arms crossed.  “I don’t give her a week at this rate,” she said.  “Nutrients aren’t being absorbed.  She dehydrates easily.  Next coma will be her last.”

Corey felt a sudden itchiness in her eyes, but she resisted the impulse to rub them.  “I know.”

“I’ve got another patient signed up in her spot at the end of the month.  It’ll be a scheduling problem if this one hangs on that long.”

It wasn’t until Corey reached the park across the street from the building that she let herself cry.  The park bench said, “You are upset.  Can I contact a counseling service for you?”

Corey blew her nose.  The air smelled of elm and warm streets, and the afternoon sun cast long shadows of buildings and trees across the lawn.  Traffic hummed quietly on all sides.  A few feet in front of her, four small grey birds pecked at the sidewalk.  They moved in little hops from one spot to the next, tapping for a moment, then straightening to look for threats.  Corey leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees, a tissue hanging from one hand. 

One of the birds hopped toward her, its black eyes like pencil tips glistening in its feather-smooth head.  The bird cocked its head to one side, then the other, looking at her.  It pecked at a seed on the cement, then looked at her again.  Corey half expected the bird’s voice to erupt in her ear.  “What are you staring at?” it might ask, or “Any bread crumbs?”  But the bird was mute.  The tiny intelligence functioned on its own.  Corey pressed her palm on her belly.  Still flat.  The doctor had said there was a heartbeat, but she couldn’t feel it.  The doctor had said, “We’ll throw it away.  Just a handful of cells.  An annoyance, no more.”  How big was it growing inside her now?  Was it as big as a wren?  Where was its voice?

When Corey went to bed, she stayed awake for hours watching the shadows from the tree outside her window play across her ceiling.  As she finally grew drowsy, the shadows took the shape of small grey birds, hopping from tile to tile.

Stella didn’t feel tired in the least.  If she concentrated, she realized she could identify a sound’s location.  All she needed was to triangulate from the microphones.  A minuscule scritching sound behind the closed doors under the counter told her a mouse was hard at work.  The night nurse’s steady tapping of the pencil on the table while she contemplated a crossword puzzle seemed as distinct as a bell.  She heard the pencil’s beat echo from the walls, and without accessing video, she could see the room like a bat, each tap clarifying the dimensions. 

Stella chuckled.  Maybe what she could do would be to order a remote control sensing device.  Something she could direct through the interface.  She could walk the streets again, or at least her senses could go.

The medical sensor clicked.  A valve opened inside to release a dose of something from Stella’s I.V. line.  She moved her consciousness into the sensitive machine.  Of all the devices in the room, the medical sensor provided the most information.  Her own pulse was a sound, a feeling and a color, throbbing like a dull red sun.  Her breathing rasped in rainbow hues, dazzling in the medical sensor’s perception.  Her body’s temperature registered in numbers and grid lines, the coolness of her fingers and feet, the warmth of her chest and stomach. 

She watched herself on the bed, probed her organs, listened to the crackle of air through her nose, the snap of her lips as they separated for another breath, the gurgle of her intestines. 

After a couple hundred steady beats of her tired heart, Stella realized the sound of her breathing had changed.  The snore vibrated in the room, stopped for a moment, resumed.

The mouse paused in its investigations in the cabinet.  The night nurse kept tapping.

I’m sleeping, Stella thought.  I’m wide awake and sleeping.  How interesting.

The tram from Corey’s apartment to work was only half full.  Across the aisle, a man, a woman and a five-year old girl hunched over a coloring book.  The girl said, “I’m making the sky purple because purple is mommy’s favorite.”  The woman smiled.  She wore a yellow blouse and pants that left most of her midriff bare.  No lines on her slender belly.  She’s never been pregnant, Corey thought.  Pregnant.  The word itself felt alien in Corey’s head.  No queasiness for the yellow-blouse lady.  Of course not.  Corey couldn’t picture what it would be like to sit on the tram, her belly gravid and alive with motion.  She’d read that a pregnant mother could feel the baby kicking inside.  What was that like?  Little fleshy earthquakes.  People would stare.  She shuddered.

“I like purple too,” said the child.

The man tousled the girl’s hair.  He was Harlow’s age.  How had the man and woman got together?  Had his wife said I love you first?  Did she know then that she loved him? 

Corey closed her eyes and rested the side of her head against the window until she reached her stop.

The family exited first.  Corey gripped the handrail near the door, waiting for them to leave.  The little girl turned and held up a broken crayon to her dad.  He took it, shrugged, and dropped it in a waste bin on the sidewalk.

Was it alive? Corey thought.  Did it have a voice, and what was it thinking now, laying in the dark among thrown away paper and empty soft drink containers?  Did they talk among themselves, the tiny voices, the thrown away, knowing the recycler would pick them up soon?

“Good day, ma’am,” the waste bin announced in her inner ear when Corey touched it.

She snatched her hand back.

A voice mail awaited her in the office.  “I’ve had a cancellation, so we can schedule your procedure for tomorrow if that would be convenient,” said her doctor.  “If you don’t mind, a couple of interns have expressed interest in observing.  You’re condition really is quite fascinating.”

The night nurse came in from Stella’s room.  “She’s gone under for the last time.  Another coma,” she declared as she put on her coat.  “I’d give her twenty-four hours, tops.”

Corey felt her shoulders drop, a physical unleashing, as if the muscles had died.  “No.”

The nurse buttoned her coat, her face a closed door.  “We knew it was on the way.  She was used up.”

When the nurse left, Cory sat in her chair, her hands resting limply on her legs.  She realized she’d been staring at them for some time, when a thin keening voice echoed in her ear.  Not words, just a long howl of grief and loss, but so quiet she thought at first it might be a subconscious sound, a part of her imagination.

She found the pencil in the bottom drawer, but instead of the length she’d left it the day before, it had been sharpened down to its last inch.  There was almost more eraser than pencil.  From end to end, it didn’t reach to both sides of her palm.

“What happened?” she said.

The sobbing continued.  It would be so easy for her to block it out.  A simple adjustment and the pencil would no longer be able to talk to her.  Harlow could do it.  He walked through a world of tiny voices screened to silence.  But she didn’t.  She waited until the cries settled down.

Finally the pencil gasped, “Cross-word puzzles.”


“All night, cross-word puzzles.  The nurse writes and writes and writes, then resharpens.  Always, always resharpening.  I’m a splinter away from annihilation.”

“Toss him in here,” said the trashcan.

“No, don’t,” said the pen from the desk top.  “The pencil’s a good egg.  Do you know there’s a couple thousand jokes stored on his chip?  And he makes up new ones all the time.”

“My pencil makes up jokes?”  Corey rolled the wood between her palms.

“I have skills,” said the pencil.  “I have other interests.”

“Well, let’s hear one.”

The pencil hesitated.  “Okay.  How about this?  Did you hear the joke about the pencil?”

Corey shook her head and then said, “No.”

“Never mind.  It’s pointless.”

The pen snickered.

Corey looked at the pencil incredulously.  “That’s terrible.  I can’t believe I listened to that.”  She put it on the desk and stood.

“Maybe this one will be better,” said the pencil.  “Where state do pencil vampires come from?”

Corey picked up the pen and put in her blouse pocket, then moved to the doorway between her office and Stella’s room.

“Pencil-vania,” the pencil said across the distance.

If anything, Stella appeared even smaller than she had yesterday.  Her mouth hung open; her chest was still.  Corey stepped toward her, then Stella gasped and sucked in a raspy breath.

Red lights flashed on the medical sensor.  Electrolytes dangerously low, read one display.  Blood oxygen dangerously low, read another.  Brain patterns indicate serious distress, reported a third.  Corey tapped the communication interface.  Hospital contacted and no heroic measure order confirmed said the note.  Stella’s heartbeat pinged forlornly from the medical sensor.

Corey’s hand quivered when she touched Stella’s forehead.  “Where are you, Stella?  Where’s the seat of your consciousness now?”

But Stella couldn’t process the question.  She heard the words without sorting them into meaning.  Colors pressed in on her, and sounds, and the shape of smells, all confused and muddled.  This is death, she thought.  I can fight it, if I can just find myself.  So she moved as best she could through the forms and notes and blustery textures that batted against her.  I’m dying!  My mind is collapsing upon itself.  She could see an abyss around her.  A sucking blackness just beyond the chaos on every side.  Maybe I’m already dead!  She tried moving her hands, but she couldn’t feel them.  She felt nothing at all.  A tumbling.  A falling down.  An endless repetition of glassy ringing like crystal wind chimes behind cotton walls.

Stella would have wept if she could, but she fought instead.  If I can grab something.  If I can center myself, all will not be lost.  And the ringing continued.  Was it a voice echoed and transformed?  Was it the sluggish firing of her last brain cells like a Fourth of July sparkler nearly gone dead?

Corey sat beside the old woman’s bed for an hour.  Each life sign’s graph slid slowly down.  The pulse barely twitched every couple of seconds, sounding its tiny tone.  The pause between them was excruciating.  Even Stella’s smell seemed stale, as if she’d already passed on and had gone bad.

Finally, after Stella’s dying sounds became a background noise, the door to the outer office opened, startling Corey out of her chair, but Stella didn’t move when Harlow came into the room, his hands jammed into his pockets, and his always careless hair waving across his forehead.

“Last call, isn’t it?” he said.  “I’d better get those papers signed or we’ll be postmortem, and what a mess that would be.”

“I have to talk to you,” Corey said.  “It’s important.”

He smiled.  “I know you liked Stella, but she’s gone now.  You’ll get a severance package and a good recommendation.  Don’t worry.”

Corey blinked.  For a second what he said didn’t make sense to her.  The blood rose to her face, and for an instant it was if he was breathing on her again, warm and tense, a half beat from the end.

“No, it’s not that.  I’m pregnant.”

Harlow moved to the other side of the bed.  “I suppose we’ll have to return all this equipment.  Do you know if it’s rented, or did Stella buy it?”

Corey’s hands rested on the back of the chair by the bed.  She could feel the sweat on her neck.  Harlow was looking at Stella’s interface box on the wall behind her head.

“I’m pregnant,” she said again.

“Bad timing, that,” said Harlow.  “But you’ll come up with another job in no time.  You could delay delivery if you want.  All the better companies give you a few months either way.  A buddy of mine and his wife didn’t take delivery for sixteen months because he got cold feet.”

“No, Harlow, you don’t understand.  I’m pregnant.  Me.  I’m physically with child.”  She pressed her hand against her stomach.  “There’s a baby in here.  Your baby.”

He blinked back at her, then his brow furrowed.  “I didn’t order a baby.  I haven’t even deposited anywhere.”

“In me, you did, the old-fashioned way.  It’s not supposed to happen, but we’re going to be parents.”

Harlow didn’t speak.

“I thought you should know,” said Corey.

“You’re pregnant?”

The pen piped up in Corey’s ear.  “I told you he was an idiot.”

“And he chews pencils,” said the pencil from the other room.

“It’s in you?  Like a parasite?”  Harlow’s nose wrinkled as if he’d smelled something distasteful.  “What a bother.”

“My doctor wants me to make an appointment.”  Corey’s hands covered her stomach that still felt flat and familiar.  “Soon.”  She felt as if she were playacting.  A real pregnant woman wouldn’t feel so . . . so normal.  Maybe she could just shake her head to wake up.  Stella wouldn’t be dying.  Harlow would wait for her at her desk for long talks, his lovely eyes locked on her own.  She’d still know the long anticipation of his fingers on her top blouse button, toying, toying, toying, and always a second away from committing.

“It’s just a toss-away,” said Harlow.  “Get a reset at the doctor’s office and start from scratch.  Plus, you probably have a good malpractice lawsuit.  Nobody gets pregnant nowadays.”  He pushed away from Stella’s bed.  “How about our lease?  Are we committed to paying for the room until the end of the month, or do they prorate it?”

A muscle in the corner of Corey’s mouth twitched.  Suddenly, she wanted to take a handful of his wavy hair and jerk it out by the roots.  “I don’t know.”  She moved next to the medical sensor.  The device’s cool, smooth surface slid beneath her fingers.  Stella’s heart beat quietly in the background.

“Lend me your pen,” he said.  “I’ll sign these papers now.”  He took it, then wrote on the documents, awkwardly across his knee.  “There, she’s still alive, and I’ve taken care of this.”  The pen clicked open and closed twice under his thumb.  “The pen skips,” he said, flicking it into the trashcan as he left, where it clattered loudly.

The peace in the room after the door snapped shut lasted for only a second before the trashcan said to the pen, “Ahh, I knew you’d come back.  They always come back.”

“The bastard,” said the pencil.

“Save me!” cried the pen.

Corey covered her face with her hands, “Oh, just shut up, all of you.”  She leaned her backside against the medical sensor to keep from collapsing to the floor.

Several long sobs later, she shook her head as if she were trying to wake up, then wiped her hands hard on her pants legs.  “I knew that would happen,” she said.  “I knew he wouldn’t care, Stella.”

Stella, or course, didn’t answer.  Her lips were parted, her head, turned to one side; her eyelids, thin as parchment, didn’t move.  She looked like the photograph of a woman rather than the woman herself.  Corey sat in the chair next to the bed and touched the old woman’s fingers that dangled over the guard rail.  No response, but Corey didn’t expect any.  A few minutes later she realized Stella’s heart beat wasn’t pinging from the medical sensor.

Silence consumed the room.

“Where’d you go?” said Corey, feeling so much like a ten-year old that her adult voice surprised her.

Somewhere else, in a clattering chaos of shapes and sounds and rough currents, the question echoed.  Stella heard it from a dozen directions, repeating and looping on itself until it became a refrain boiled down to “Go, go, go.”  She reached out as best she could, but she had no hands to grab with.  She could only follow, so she did.  Drifting after the strongest sound, driving her forward, urging, “Go, go, go.”  Stella didn’t know: was she lost or found?  Was she still herself, or was she fragmenting, breaking into pieces in the sloppy overload of textures and odors?  Still, she moved, because there was nothing else to do, and as she did, she thought she saw a place she recognized.  Is this the afterlife? she thought.  Is that my angel?

She tried so hard to see.

Corey let Stella’s cold fingers rest against her own.  The room looked surreal to her in its stillness.  The white cabinets.  The refrigerator.  The clean walls exactly the same as they’d been yesterday and the day before, but now as different as sleep from waking.  She hesitated to move.  It would break the spell.  Stella would become just a dead and fading memory.  For now, though, Stella’s touch was real.  Corey stayed motionless, almost afraid to breathe, not really thinking.  Then, she saw a tiny speck creeping along the baseboard beneath the bed, a beetle making its way across the room, and, soon, she heard a gentle scratching within the wall behind the cabinets, and she realized there must be a mouse there, fending for itself.  She almost smiled at the thought when another movement caught her eye: the television mounted in the room’s corner had rotated slightly toward her.

Corey froze.

The television turned another half inch.

“Stella?” Corey said, almost choking on the sound.  “Stella?”

The television’s speaker hissed.

Without willing herself to rise, Corey found herself under the television, straining to make out the breathy whisper.  A voice murmured behind it.  Corey said, “I can’t understand you, Stella.”  Finally, a ghost of speech resolved itself into something almost audible.  What it sounded like was, “I’m here, deary.”  Then the hiss faded away.

“I’m still here,” said a louder voice.

Corey jumped.  It was the pen.

“Leave him,” said the trashcan.  “Mixed recyclable or not, when you’re done, you’re done.”

“No,” Corey said.  She retrieved the pen from the trashcan’s bottom.  “I need it to write a note.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” said the pencil.  “I don’t have another word in me, I’m afraid.”

Corey took a sheet of paper out of the desk and clicked the pen open.  “Do you know a fancier phrase than ‘I am sorry’?”

The pen said, “I regret.”

“Or, ‘with regrets’,” suggested the pencil.

Corey wrote her note, thinking about frontier women riding west, their bellies full of babies, of little flesh quakes shaking within her.  She thought of the pencil’s pathetic quest to stay alive.  One, tiny, sentient voice among a million voices, like Stella’s voice somehow preserved in all the connections.  The seat of her consciousness cut loose and free.

She thought of the tiny voice she hadn’t heard yet, like the speechless grey bird on the sidewalk, hopping from seed to seed.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."