[Warning: Contains profanity, themes of death, and vivid but cartoonish gore.]
The café itself wasn’t disgusting. It had what cafés should have—charming brick walls, a heady dark-roast smell, soulful people slouched over laptops. And it was in Fallow, where I grew up, so it was a good place to clear my head on my way to my uncle’s funeral. But when I sat down with my coffee, I saw something I hadn’t counted on. A man who looked to be in his sixties was sitting flat-kneed against the wall in the corner with his chin dropped to his chest.
It would have been unsettling if I hadn’t heard about this kind of thing on NPR. This man—specifically, his skin, muscle, fat, tendons, and so on—was steadily being eaten away. To hear NPR tell it, malicious software had turned a common brand of medical nanobots into something “deleterious to human health.” It wasn’t a death sentence, though. You could download a free app that would ping the bots with code written to halt the injurious behavior and even reactivate healing mode.
But that was true only if you acted on it in time. For this man, washed up in the corner of a café, the bots had dismantled his body to a point where he could barely move. Broad areas of skin on his legs, arms, and face were as pink as raw hamburger.
He was bald and unshaven, and his clothes were loose on him—olive cargo shorts, sneakers without socks, and a threadbare two-tone shirt. Every so often, he’d lift his shirt off his pitted skin and raise his beachball head to look around. His eyes had the madcap asymmetry of somebody who’d once been a convivial person. He’d been a cannonballer, this guy. This guy was a high-pitched whistler at high school graduations. This was somebody who’d whoop and play cornhole while holding a koozied can of beer in his nondominant hand.
But all this was conjecture. He was now in a state of stoppable degradation. It was his business, I knew, but what if he got to a point where he wanted to talk but couldn’t? Shouldn’t I take advantage of the talking window now?
So I left my table and walked up to him.
“Is it nanobots?” I asked him.
He managed to tilt his unsteady head at me and squint in a way that said, “The fuck you talking about?”
“Can I get you something?” I said. This was an unfortunate choice of words. It made me sound like a passive-aggressive employee telling him to either buy something or drag his carcass (including the embarrassing fluid pooling around him) out to the sidewalk.
He weakly shook his head and let his gaze sink back to the floor.
I said, “Can I help? There’s an app. Somebody—”
A single syllable gurgled in his throat and then burst like a bubble: “Nnno.”
What do you say to that? Nothing, maybe. Maybe you just take that decisive no and preserve it as evidence that you’d done everything possible to help. It’d been his own doing, you’d testify at the trial in your head. That was on him, you’d say under oath.
But I said, “Are you okay?”
“No,” he gurgled.
“You’re not okay, then?”
“Do I look okay?”
“I’m in a great deal of pain.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Is there something—”
“Oh fucking Christ.” He writhed as well as a person could writhe without bumping against any hard surfaces.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Can I do something?”
“Don’t worry about me,” he muttered. “I’m fine.”
But he was the opposite of fine. He was losing big parts of himself. As he drew a breath to say something else, one of his sneakers rolled onto its side because it lacked a foot to keep it in place. His shin now terminated in a puckered stump just below the edge of his cargo shorts. His other shoe, becoming increasingly empty, slowly lowered itself onto an invisible gas pedal.
“We should get you to a hospital,” I said, crouching briefly to demonstrate that I could, if need be, carry him to the ER. I wouldn’t have done it, though; I didn’t want his bots. But the gesture mattered.
“Leave me alone,” he said.
“What are you going to do, though?”
“Nothing to do,” he said.
“But there is,” I said. I looked at my phone lying facedown on my table.
“I’ll be fine.”
He let out a moan that made a college-age woman glance up from her laptop and adjust one of her earbuds.
“It must hurt,” I said.
“Look,” he said. “I need you to get me something.”
“I said, ‘I need you to fucking get me something!’”
“I mean, what can I get you?”
I shouted, “What do you want?”
“It hurts, what’s wrong with you?”
“I know it hurts.”
“It fucking hurts.”
“I understand that. What—”
“What can I get?”
“Just outta here,” he said.
Fair enough, then. I’d done everything possible. I conspicuously shrugged, showing my palms helplessly to the ceiling, and then scuffed back to my table, glancing concernedly over my shoulder.
There was my cell, of course. It was still sleeping on the table. Maybe I didn’t need consent to ping the bots. It would likely come up at the trial in my head: “And did you, at any point, attempt to use the app—the free app, mind you—to halt the injurious behavior?” “No,” I’d say as a lead-in to unmanly blubbering.
So I picked up my phone and I searched the App Store. I hadn’t bothered to sign into the Wi-Fi, though, so the screen hung. I scanned the counter for the password, which was on a piece of carboard edged with Magic Marker flowers: OhMyRoastedBeans. The app, branded as NanoNots, took a minute to download. When I opened it, a mauve screen told me to set up a free account. I did this, but I had to go to my old Yahoo! account to get the verification code, double back to NanoNots, and enter it. In NanoNots, I tapped the Find the Suckers button. A turquoise oval bulged and swayed until it was replaced by this: “Shucks, nothing nearby! Wanna go on another bot hunt?” I tapped the Yuppers button and walked to the corner, holding my phone out like a Geiger counter.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey.” Then I looked up.
In the time I’d been away, things had gotten worse. The bots, maybe aware I’d been scanning for them, had picked up the pace.
The man’s wonky eyes gaped as the bots thrashed through him in angry waves. They visibly coursed up his legs and belly and hollowed out his arms, which deflated, dangled, and thinned out until they were gone.
They ate his flesh and ate the goo they’d made eating his flesh.
His body, now half its original mass, pulsed like a time-lapse video of a decomposing mouse. A pinkish mist rose up, and there was that sharp combustion smell you get from a root canal.
But the shoulders and head remained. As the final wave of bots reached what was left, they pushed a piston of air ahead of them that went up through the remains of the esophagus and produced a terse, girlish squeak. Then the shoulders and head crumbled into themselves and were gone. The man was now just a heap of clothes and a man-sized stain on the floor.
After a pause, a soft hum-buzz began, and the clothing vanished like burning newspaper. The sneakers melted away, and the stain evaporated.
And that was it. That was all. Where do bots go after they finish somebody? I thought of scanning for them again, but it didn’t matter. The coffee shop was a coffee shop again. The cappuccino machine hissed. Glasses clinked. A worker announced that an everything bagel was ready for Bruce. The college student from earlier was languidly winding an earbud cord around her phone.
I drifted back to my table and palmed my mug like it was still warm.
I’d done what I could. No reasonable person could refute that. At every turn, I’d made the best possible decision. There was, for example, the readiness to act, tempered by a deference for privacy. There was the arguably swift response in a room full of strangers who weren’t, frankly, lifting a finger to help. Would it not represent a grave miscarriage of justice to hold culpable a mere bystander for the actions of a man who had, for some unknowable reason, crawled here to die? I was not the asshole here.
Either way, though, I should deal with my coffee breath. Showing up to my uncle’s funeral with bad breath would be poor form. I scanned the counter for mints or gum or even those chocolate-dipped cinnamon sticks, anything to take the edge off. But I forgot about it altogether—forgot about everything, really—when the back of my left leg, just above the sockline, began to itch.