Sting: A story from Infectious Futures

24 August 2018
Written by
Madeline Ashby

In 2015, we commissioned six stories about a future facing up to the challenge of antibiotic resistance called Infectious Futures: Stories of the post-antibiotic apocalypse as part of a much larger effort to publicise, educate, and enrich the conversation around the subject. These stories, originally in print form, will be uploaded as blogs into an online collection. Enjoy! 

Sting

“YOU’RE FAT,” his mother said. She was wearing her pink tweed suit today, with a giant set of Thatcher pearls. “You’re just as fat and sad as your dad was, at the end.”

“You should have told us, before you went on your trip,” his physician said. His physician had yet to meet his eye. Had she ever looked Gregor in the eye, though? Really, in all the years she’d been Gregor’s doctor, had that ever happened?

“Mosquitos, you know. We would have warned you.”

He’d felt it. The mosquito bite.

It wasn’t a bite so much as a sting, though, a needle sliding down past barriers of sweat and sunblock and dermis to get at the sweet nectar blushing up underneath. He felt it and it was like all stings, like getting picked last at a game, like showing up late for an interview, like watching his ex-wife announce her engagement to another man to her gaggle of online “friends”.

“How could you do this?” his mother asked. “How could you let this happen? No wonder she left.”

“How are you feeling?” the physician asked. “Any issues?”

Gregor didn’t know how to answer that. Of course he had issues.

The fever, of course. The pain. He had never really felt the implant before. Not until now. Now it felt like something nesting inside of him. It throbbed with life like a new heart, just an inch or two below his clavicle, and every time it pulsed he felt sweat roll free of his forehead like drops of rain streaking down the windows of a moving car.

“He has plenty of issues,” his mother said.

“Sometimes there are hallucinations,” the doctor reminded him.

“Are you experiencing anything like that?”

“It’s this job of yours,” his mother said. “I told you. I told you when they offered it to you, there weren’t enough sick days, you’d be forced to work while you were ill, and you’re always ill, because you’re so fat.”

The implant was supposed to help with that. Deep brain stimulation, they said. It worked for people with epilepsy, and there was evidence it worked on depression. And the depression was why he ate so much. They were certain of it.

“If we can change your mind, we can change your body,” they said.

“I’m not so sure,” Gregor said.

The doctor frowned, and now she met Gregor’s eyes. It was just for a moment, though. She jotted something down on his display and he said something nice and then she was gone. After that a nurse came and changed something in the sacs – Gregor felt like a hamster with a big bottle of saline hanging just outside the cage of his bed – and Gregor slept.

When he awoke, the room was full of robots. They were the big cuddly kind, made of special silicone, coated like condoms in anti-evo agent. They floated into the room like clouds of meringue, and like any dessert left out in the open air, they were surrounded by bees.

“We have a solution,” the robots said.

There were two of them. He couldn’t tell which one was doing the talking.

“Pun intended,” they added.

“You see?” his mother asked. She moved so quickly now. More quickly than she ever had when she was alive. Like a monster in a dream. You could run as fast as you could and she would always be there, just behind you.

“They won’t even touch you with their own hands. That’s how disgusting you are.”

“We’re going to insulate your implant with a nano-silver infusion,” the robots said. “It’s both a barrier and an anti-bacterial agent. The silver is so concentrated that nothing can grow there. And it’ll form a wall around the implant. The infection is spreading like a wildfire. We’ll seal the implant completely, and starve the local infection of any oxygen or nutrients. Then we’ll run the rest of your blood through a dialysis unit and hope for the best. Okay?”

“Oh, naturally.” The thing that was his mother rolled its eyes. “Of course that will work.”

“We just need you to sign this,” the robots said.

His hands wouldn’t move.

“You’re too swollen, of course,” the robots said. “Blink once for yes and twice for no.” He squeezed his eyes shut.

“Pathetic,” his mother whispered.

The bees hummed around him. They danced and spiralled, spinning down and down and down, ever closer to the thudding centre of pain under his skin. They landed on him and he screamed. Pain shivered through his nerves.

He was going to die here. He saw that now. It was why his mother was here. She was here to take him away.

The bees hummed. He smelled burning. And then something putrid filled the room. A sick, awful smell of sweet rot. His rot. His death. It rose in the air, thick and foul, so close he could taste it.

He wondered suddenly if the tiny drone bees could lay eggs inside him like flies did.

Why not? Biomimicry was hot now. Why not push it a little further? Why not just let him incubate little robot maggots, let them chew away at his dying flesh until there was nothing left?

“Quiet down,” one of the robots said. Its rubbery gripper closed over his hand. Its skin squeaked. Its face made a sad blue emoticon.

“We can’t help you if you keep thrashing around like that.”

The bees hissed. Icy froth spread across his wound. The pulsing died. Perhaps this was dying, too. It felt as merciful as death.

His mother looked at the cloud of vapour rising from his wound, sniffed, and shuffled away.

He blinked. She was gone. She had been gone two years, now.

He had picked out that terrible pink tweed for her at the funeral parlour because he knew she had hated it.

“I’m really sick, aren’t I?” he asked. “Yes,” one of the robots said.

Gregor recognised his physician’s voice. “But we’re doing our best. If you keep fighting, we will, too. Can you do that?”

Panting, he nodded.

And then, finally, there was rest.

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She has worked with organizations like Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Data & Society, and others. She is a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, and the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot Books. Her novel Company Town will be available next winter from Tor Books. You can find her here or on Twitter.

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