The old man was dying. There was no doubt about it. After forty years of staying one step ahead of The Reaper with the help of medical science, his body, or what was left of it was breaking down into basic compounds faster than the nanomeds could repair. Thin, spiderweb-like filaments draped the soon to be corpse from head to, well, where prosthetics were once attached. The med-web joined its gossamer tendrils into the sides of the life-support bed, itself alight with flickering ephemeral holo-displays.
Family members, two of the once three surviving offspring, their spouses and three of the adult grandchildren were hovering over the slowly decaying senior like specters picking their way around a macabre buffet table. The weeping was in low tender tones, broken only by the occasional sniffle. A duty nurse crept into the room to check on the progress of the deathwatch, noting the levitating, flickering vital sign displays he brought up on a wrist-pad control. Softly he stepped to the woman with the salt and pepper curly hair, barely touching her arm, asking if he could get her and the others something to drink or eat. Everyone shook their collective “no”, while one of the grandchildren turned away, choking back sobs. Then like a silent wraith of the night, the nurse took his leave.
“Damn, where the hell am I ?”, thought the semi-corpse. He felt strangely disconnected from anything that used to be real, or solid. The realm he had entered was strangely devoid of any sensation at all, like a dream where one had the feeling of slowly falling through clouds. The only input he was receiving were like murmurings of a distant brook, getting louder by the second. Closer and closer they came, until ….
“Voices!” “I can hear people talking!”, thought the man. Of course he was listening to the voices of his relatives keeping the death vigil. But he could not recognize any of them, the stroke he suffered damaged areas of his brain where memories reside. It was like drowning in a lightly frozen pond, the faces that belonged to the familiar noises were just on the other side of the ice, unreachable.
Suddenly, the ghostly haze that was slowly engulfing his thoughts lifted, the voices were becoming more understandable…growing cognition returning…
“…I know baby, but your father explicitly sited it in his will and the arrangements are already made…”, one of the men was pleading to the woman with the curly salt and pepper hair. “It’s an evil thing it is”, she sobbed, “I can’t believe he set this up, and now, now…”. She couldn’t even get the words out between the hiccups, upset as she was. Another woman, shorter than the other, but with long, straight blond hair that had darkening, pre-gray roots, put her arms around her sister, guiding her to a chair next to the closer wall and sat down.
“Well Sis”, the blond soothed, “We always knew Dad was agnostic and wasn’t a practicing Christian. He loved science and we all knew he wrote those articles and stories about aliens, spaceships, conspiracy theories and stuff like that. He told us he might do this if he got enough insurance and apparently he did. So ‘we were warned’ as he used to say. And he never lied to us kids, not once about anything. Especially when Mom got sick. Remember, she got mad at him for telling us, even when her hair started falling out!” The older woman looked up at her sister, and nodded her head, a small smirking grin crawling up her gleaming wet face. “Yeah, I remember. Mom always thought she was protecting us kids by keeping things to herself. I think she was still a little mad at Dad at the end.” Glancing at the wizened figure on the med-bed, looking all the world like a desiccated fly caught in a spider-web covered with sun-lit morning dew, the woman breathed a heavy sigh. Then with resignation softly spoken, “No, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he fixed it so we couldn’t do anything against his wishes, Dad always planned for the long run. This isn’t any different, is it?” The woman continued sitting in the chair, emotionally drained and tired, staring at the figure on the bed. The sister and the husband brought chairs over in the meantime, setting themselves along the wall in the small room, like niched icons in a small chapel.
The dying man heard this exchange of course. He knew when the senses die, hearing is the last to go. He desperately wanted to console the grieving woman, to hold her gentlely, kissing her forehead while rocking her like he did when she was a small child. He grieved for these people because of the pain he was causing them by dying. “Hell, dying isn’t hard for the one doing it”, he thought, ” It’s harder on the living!” Sweet irony!
Then something occurred to him, why was he able to think at all? He was dying, that was for sure. But aren’t dying people supposed to hallucinate, or be comatose at least? Doesn’t the dying brain look back upon itself, like looking through a window when it’s night outside, reflections of the interior shining back at you? This indeed was a mystery. Maybe the old religions were right, consciousness is independent of the body!
“No, not quite”, a disembodied voice announced, “But we have achieved something close to it Mr. Jenks.” The almost corpse Jenks froze, or his thoughts did. “This is it”, he mused, “My brain’s finally running out of oxygen and I’m hallucinating voices now.” Well, might as well play along to the end and have a little fun before the black curtain falls. “Okay, I’ll bite. What have you achieved exactly sir, ma’am, whatever?” “Why, you of course”, replied the voice. As if on cue, a figure resolved itself from the haze surrounding his mind. All at once his thoughts became even more coherent, even his hearing got a little sharper. He could hear his family around him more clearly now, softly speaking to each other, reminiscing about times past. But he still could not move, smell, speak or touch. The only vision he had was of the figure that coalesced in his mind. There was a sharp metallic tang in the back of his throat.
“Is this better?” the vision asked, “I find it’s easier on prospective recruits when they see who they’re dealing with.” Recruits? Huh? “What the hell kind of snake-oil meme is this guy trying to peddle me?” Jenks wondered. The man, or whatever it was cut quite the sharp image. Tall, with long platinum white hair, complete with modern self cleaning business suit. The shoes were classic corporate black, but with a shine that was preternatural. In fact, the whole being had a preternatural shine, no, a sheen.
Jenks had spent his whole adult life trying to live a life that was decent, but without the superstition of religion. He strived to achieve his goals by using logic and science. But as the Universe would have it, on his very death-bed he was privvy to a simulacrum of the Devil. Satan. Lucifer. The Light-Bringer. Sworn enemy of God.
Just his luck.
Lucifer grinned a perfect set of pearly whites. “No, I’m not ‘Lucifer’ in the classical sense. I am the interpretation your damaged mind conjured up so it could understand the communication you’re receiving.” Oh, well is that all? Jenks was sceptical, but it made sense. At least more sense than the supernatural explanation it could have made. “Alright Lucifer ol’ pal, how come I can even perceive you at all? Or perceive anything? The last I checked, I was well into the dying process. For all I know, you’re the last visions of a rotting brain!”, Jenks offered. The faux Lucifer materialized a luxurious chair out of thin air, then sat in it with a genteel flair. “Your brain is currently being kept alive by advanced medical nano-bots of latest design. They can’t rebuild the damaged parts, but they’re able to build new pathways around them to unused, undamaged brain tissues. The nano is then able to ‘re-educate’ your brain into using the undamaged tissues. It is also building new blood vessels to supply these new activated areas. It’s kind of like a rehabilitated epileptic brain that had a hemisphere removed. That is why you aren’t dead, yet.” Again, the perfect teeth flashed.
Jenks gulped mentally. He was plainly over his head here. He had written several stories over the years about the possibility of uber-beings. It didn’t matter if this creature was some kind of super AI, or ‘The Bringer of Light’ himself. The being clearly had him in its thrall. There wasn’t much Jenks could do about it. But it was obvious the creature went out of its way to stop his death long enough for some kind of visit.
He was pretty certain it wasn’t out of altruism.
It wanted something.
And the damn thing could read his thoughts.
“Yes, quite correct Mr. Jenks, your powers of deduction remain intact. That can be of great service to us. And what I am prepared to offer you on my client’s behalf is infinitely better than the cryogenic preservation of your head your family was so upset about. The offer, if you accept, is a certainty.”
Now the creature had Jenks’ undivided attention. Hell, ‘Lucifer’ had his attention when he said “us”. “Alright Luke ol’ buddy, y’know you have my attention. What are you offering me this night to cheat The Reaper of his prize? What are you offering me in exchange for my ‘soul’?’
The beautiful being leaned forward in his simulated exalted seat, a sardonic crooked smile crossed his visage that suddenly sent chills through what was left of Jenks’ natural meat brain.
“A job Mr. Jenks. We’re offering you a job.”