The Debt

By Jared Vaillancourt [creative writing bureau chief]

“Grandfather?” the distant voices asked. “Are you awake?” Jotun stirred at the sound, his eyes opening to reveal the smiling, tear-stained face of the woman sitting next to him. He took in a staggered breath of purified air and did his best to smile back at her.

“Sing,” he greeted her, his strength failing as his hand inched for her. She gasped and grabbed his hand, pulling it into her warm ones. Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Grandfather, save your strength,” Sing urged him, her voice catching as she swallowed a sob. “You are very weak. Time has not been kind to you.” Jotun smiled and shook his head.

“How?” he asked. “I have such wonderful grandchildren. That is most kind of Mr. Time, wouldn’t you agree?” he asked, coughing as he struggled for another breath. Sing closed her eyes and looked over at a monitor in the corner of the room. “Sing, please, do not cry,” he said hoarsely. Sing’s lovely brown eyes hovered back to him, still swimming in tears.

“Grandfather,” Sing said, sharply, as though she needed to speak quickly, “I have spoken to the doctors. Mr. Sam… Sampson does not believe you have much more time.” She took in a deep breath to stifle the sob he knew she didn’t want him to see. He squeezed her hand, not wincing as she did the same.

“You are still brave, Sing,” Jotun whispered, closing his mouth as he worked to take in another breath from the tube across his nostrils. “My youngest grandchild; her heart the size of a planet.” Sing brought their hands up to her lips as she allowed the tears she had been stalling to flow freely.

“Everyone’s here,” Sing whispered, her voice having cracked too much to speak. “Your three sons and my mother, Grandfather. My sisters and cousins are here.” She looked past him to people he couldn’t see with his head leaned towards her. She swallowed and looked down upon his face, her eyes working as if to memorize the old features. She smiled. “Everyone’s here.”

“Even Anna?” Jotun asked, forgetting his wife was long dead. Sing closed her eyes and squeezed their hands tightly, her back heaving as she swallowed her sorrow.

“Yes, Grandfather,” she chocked. Kimiko, Sing’s older sister, appeared by her side, her hands patting the young woman’s back. She looked at Jotun and smiled.

“Anna’s here, Grandfather,” Kimiko offered, her eyes beginning to glisten. Jotun could hear other stifled sobs to his left. He angled his head to see his entire family, including Dr. Sampson and his nurse, smiling down upon him with restrained sorrow and resignation. He smiled at them.

“So…” he coughed. Dr. Sampson hesitated as he drew a forced breath. “So nice… of you all to come,” Jotun finally forced out. He allowed his smile to widen. “You all look so sad. Why is there no music? Is this not my farewell party?” he asked. Sing let go of his hand, burying her face in hers as Kimiko engulfed her in a hug, tears now flowing down her cheeks as well. Jotun’s sons, Wong, Eric and Sam-Zhu were crouched down next to his bed, their wives behind them, and their hands to his sons’ shoulders.

“Anything, father,” Eric offered meekly, his wife chocking back her tears. “We’ll get a violinist up here at once. She’ll play the most beautiful music for you.”

“Oh, how lovely…” Jotun began, but then he stopped. The nurse had acquired a violin, perhaps from behind her back, and had started to play. Jotun closed his eyes. “Yes. How lovely indeed.” He took in a deep breath, and then paused.

“Grandfather?” Sing asked, her eyes on his face. Everyone fell quiet.

The breath left Jotun’s lungs. For a moment, no one spoke. Dr. Sampson approached and held a finger to the old man’s neck, checking for a pulse. He sighed.

“He’s… gone,” Sampson took a step back. He shook his head. The nurse lowered her violin, allowing the holographic image to dissolve between her fingers.

“Are we done?” the nurse asked. Sampson looked across the body at Kimiko and Sing, the former still cradling the latter as that worthy silently wept. He turned to the nurse and nodded.

“We’re done,” he replied simply. Everyone but Kimiko and Sing stood up and lifted their chins, closing their eyes as they concentrated. Slowly, clothing and flesh flickered out of existence as their holographic matrices, so tangible and real to human sensation, simply dissolved away. Beneath the illusion lay metal and wire, alloy and energy, the humanoid shapes reassembling themselves into something taller, thinner and with more appendages. Artificial eyes opened to regard the eroded hospital room in terms synthetic brains could understand. Holograms masking the room itself, and indeed all across the planet, faded away as the faithful billions stopped what they were doing and allowed the truth to shine out.

“Sing?” Kimiko asked meekly, her holographic mask fading away as buildings became ruins and cities, oceans and empires were erased from the surface of the Earth. “We’ve honored our debt. There is nothing left for us here.” Sing nodded, her eyes still on the body of Jotun.

“Goodbye, Grandfather,” she whispered as she kissed his forehead. She looked up as the machine that had been Anna walked through what had once been a wall, its scanners regarding the man with sorrow.

“It was just an accident,” it said to the body. “Great Maker, Jotun, we never meant to destroy your world. We never meant to kill your people.” It leaned down as Sing allowed her hologram to dissolve.

“We gave him what we took,” Sing sobbed, lubricant staining her scaffolding. “The only survivor led a full, rich life. We honored our debt.” She looked up at Anna and unfolded herself. The two machines shared a hug, their fellows already ascending back into the sky.

“We honored our debt.” Alone, Anna and Sing buried the last of the human race.

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