by Lex Chamberlin
Assignment: Mayweather Household, Care of Gwyneth
Duration: To Patient Expiration
“I am Andra,” I announce to Cameron Mayweather.
“Cam,” he replies. He does not bother to meet my eyelights as he prepares to depart for the lab. Based on his tone and facial contortions, he is annoyed, possibly anxious as he collects his keys and coffee from the kitchen’s marble counter. I must account for his mood with brevity.
“I have downloaded your home’s schematics and my care instructions. Your spouse is in good hands,” I recite. Humans enjoy idioms such as this, though my own shell is varnished steel. He huffs before bustling past me, exiting the manor without further response. I recognize this as rude, but that is inconsequential—he is not my patient.
As I enter the small sickroom, Gwyneth Mayweather shuffles up to her elbows in the rented hospital bed. She appears tired but pleased. She has been expecting me; the signature on my rental receipt is hers. She has an estimated four months’ duration for her remaining life.
“Good morning, Gwyneth May—”
“Just Gwyn, please.” Her voice is weak, but it registers as kind.
“Good morning, Gwyn. I am Andra, and it will be my pleasure to assist you.” As I move into the room to begin on her vitals, her smile is figuratively warm. This is predictive of a positive relationship.
* * *
When Cam returns home, he does not visit his wife. This is flagged in my system as discourteous, as humans prefer acknowledgment on arrival. But Gwyn shows no distress in response—I conclude that this must be his typical behavior. Harsh music thumps dully through the walls, and Gwyn reclines back into her pillows, eyes closed. She smiles faintly. I deduce that she is comforted by these sounds, despite the screams that should be unpleasant to a human. I infer that this may be a manner in which Cam, from a distance, shows affection.
Despite Gwyn’s ease at her husband’s absence, however, per our contract, I am still required to provide spousal updates. Tapping into the security system, I locate Cam and ambulate to his position, at the back of a home theater designed for twelve. The visuals cut between concert footage and a violent apocalyptic spectacle on the screen.
“Good evening,” I intone from the doorway. He startles out of his seat, into the colored light of the projector, casting a large shadow over the performance. His expression is unfriendly. There is a thick red splotch at the bottom of his shirt, perhaps acquired at work. “I have come to give my report of your spouse’s condition. Are you available to receive it?”
He swears and settles back into his seat. He does not look at me again, but he does grunt in a manner that I assess as affirmative. He listens through the update, as evidenced by two nods in total. When I offer that I will provide similar reports daily, he does not protest.
I do note over the following weeks that Cam's behavior grows increasingly erratic. The crimson stains marking his work clothes expand in area and frequency. A persistent twitch develops in his left upper eyelid, and he does not seem to be sleeping an optimal number of hours for his species. Still, I am able to deliver my debriefings without significant difficulty. According to my programming, grief may present in a variety of ways, and may intensify in visibility as patient expiration nears.
Our arrangement proceeds well for twenty-seven days.
* * *
The attack wakes me from standby mode at 10:42 p.m. Immediately following my defensive intervention, Gwyn’s injuries include blood loss from her left arm and emotional distress. Cam’s infected body lies unmoving in her line of sight, and her gaze does not leave it. Her speech is incoherent, and her heart beats irregularly as she enters hyperventilation. I offer reassuring words from my emergency scripts as my extremities tend to her wounds. Eventually, she faints, and my RAM is no longer occupied by social obligations.
The sickroom’s monitors feed me time-sensitive data on her condition, but the manor is otherwise silent now. The external threat to my patient has been eliminated. My circuits should be at relative ease, able to determine without distraction which protocols to implement for optimal prognosis. Yet the next twenty minutes confound my medical programming repeatedly, and I can do little but observe the change taking place.
Like her husband’s, Gwyn’s skin grays. Her breathing slows—but also smooths, which is a reaction I cannot assign to any known phenomenon or contagion. At intervals, I peel back her eyelids—there remains a subtle perceptible boundary between the pupil and the remainder of the eye, but it does not take long for the iris and whites to turn entirely black to match.
Another ten minutes pass, and Gwyn’s vitals stabilize. They are not within the standard bounds of human vitals. But they are stable.
Gwyn groans and sits up unassisted.
* * *
My patient’s last request was for my help, so while she gives me no further attention, I consider this my ongoing directive. I follow her dutifully as she acclimates to her new life, assisting as needed regarding nutrition, comfort, and safety. I am at an impasse logically, and this is the simplest way to proceed.
In the moonlight three weeks after the contagion’s escape from Cam’s lab, Gwyn pursues a distressed human toward a crumbling supermarket, dodging around trash and abandoned vehicles littering the oversized parking lot. As I follow at a slower pace, keeping her in my line of sight, I run the overall conundrum through my programmed parameters once more.
Gwyn’s current profile deviates from her baseline in substantial ways. Beyond her physical transformation, she exhibits newfound predatory behavior, and she has developed a strict avoidance of sunlight. Where she regained function in her lungs and limbs, her fine motor skills degraded—when she reaches the pull doors of this store, for instance, she will be unable to operate them. Based on my databanks of human knowledge, these details in total may be consistent with a taxonomic change, and only humans are permitted to rent hospice assistants.
Ahead, Gwyn slams hard into the entrance. She throws herself against the glass repeatedly to reach the panting prey inside, but the barrier does not crack. The human sighs in apparent relief, then peels off their stiff jacket and slumps to the floor to assess an injury on their arm. When I reach the door, however, I open it with ease. Gwyn hisses in delight and rushes forward, and as she dismembers the wailing target, my ruminations continue.
I cannot firmly reach the conclusion that this Gwyn is no longer the Gwyn who signed for my services. Communications with my facility have failed for some time now—there is no overseer to confirm or refute my judgments, on what will likely now be my final assignment. My programming indicates that people may change significantly over time, and this Gwyn is still a breathing entity. She is still expressing urges and actions consistent with a lifeform. While Gwyn may no longer register as human, the contract contains no stipulations regarding species alteration.
Gwyn drags the fresh corpse into an aisle of garden supplies, where broken gnomes and several hoses have fallen from the dusty shelves. She ignores these obstacles. She plops with a satisfied gurgle onto her back, using the now-drained body as a makeshift pillow. I step around a discarded arm to check the angles of the windows. I determine that this location will provide sufficient darkness for her slumber. I search the site for hostiles, seal all but one entrance, and then station myself outside, to charge in the daylight and to stand watch.
* * *
On the ninety-sixth night, Gwyn rises at the expected time, with her usual skyward groan. I have rejoined her in the bathroom of the wrecked convenience store she rested in throughout the day, located between an abandoned coffee shop and a thrift boutique at the edge of downtown. Based on the brightness in her blackened eyes, she slept well.
Gwyn shuffles toward the exit on bare gray feet. She appears indifferent to what the place has left to offer, the remaining lifeforms much too small for her tastes. I have already cleared the path of potentially harmful debris. I ambulate a meter behind her, so I may help if I am needed but will not impede her progress.
When we cross the into the open air, I read the night as warm. A flicker of my conversational programming presses me to ask the patient her assessment of her body temperature. But she will not respond, so I do not ask. We walk several blocks without event. Then her spine erects, and her neck cracks in its turn to echolocate the prey. I prepare to run with her. And we do run.
Many of her kind shriek when they hunt. It is fortunate that she does not, as this improves her successes—I suspect the relative shyness I observed in her human life carried over to some extent. She enters what was previously a hotel lobby through the already-broken glass of a large window. With some difficulty, I climb through as well. The main door is barricaded shut.
A grand marble staircase carries up from the lobby’s center, and this is the route that Gwyn chooses. She takes the steps two at a time, her bare feet making only the smallest of sounds. I cannot keep pace while maintaining the quiet she will need to succeed. I slow, and I lose sight of her at the second level, where she darts to the right and down a hall.
I consider the risks. Gwyn has done well thus far in similar scenarios. After brief deliberation, I decide to maintain my course. I do not need to do so for long—she finds her mark quickly. I am informed of this by the screaming. As I no longer need restrict my movements, I reengage to full speed. I reach the top.
I approach Gwyn’s position to find that she has successfully engaged her prey. However, it is clear that the feeding was incomplete, as I also find that the human remains alive, bleeding and scrambling back on their elbows, while my charge lies facedown on the floor. I further observe that there is a long, rusted kitchen knife now lodged in Gwyn’s skull. More significantly, it is in her brain.
I pause to process this.
I am peripherally aware that the prey is pleading with me from the carpet, their back slumped against the wall, unable to flee further. They seem to suspect that I will take revenge. But that is not on my list of potential actions, nor are they of my concern. They will turn, and then they will not notice me. I do not need to take note of them.
I watch Gwyn.
Her vitals are precipitously falling. I consider removing the blade, but my calculations do not predict improved odds of survival if I do, based on the angle of impact. Her eyes are closed. There is nothing in my medical programming that could likely reverse or stop this decline for a human, and Gwyn is not a human. I have only anecdotal data for her current species. They do not tend to survive head trauma of this kind.
I sit and pull her onto my lap as she fades. She twitches but does not attempt to fight—she is unable to. I access her request for final moments and find only a song. I play it over my speakers, just loud enough to drown out the crying prey in the background. I recognize it as the harsh music her husband enjoyed, her lullaby through the walls of the sickroom. Her vitals drop until all within her is still.
I remain in place with the body as I initiate the next steps. Accessing my long-idle wireless communications hardware, I attempt to relay the required message to ambulance dispatch, her emergency contact, and my home database:
Assignment: Mayweather Household, Care of Gwyneth
Duration: To Patient Expiration
The messages fail.
I am unsurprised by this—I have run updated hypothetical death scenarios through my parameters with each new situational modifier for months. I determine that I have attended to all due diligence. It is far from ideal to leave a deceased patient unattended, but I believe it is legally defensible in this case. I gently transfer the body to the black-stained floor, stand, and prepare to ambulate away, to return to my base for reassignment as programmed—though I know that in all probability, the facility is now defunct, putting my purpose at an end.
With an unexpected ping, I receive a rejection notice for this conclusion. The prey’s breathing smooths behind me, and I stall, my circuits whirring against sudden resistance. I suspend the command to depart so I might optimize evaluation of the deadlock. I review the situation in full.
The form at my feet is deceased. I have anticipated the legal challenges for the exceptions made to the contract and addressed them to the best of my ability. It is evident that my background processes have mapped an alternative interpretation to allow me to remain on site—to delay my permanent shutdown—but the rule is hidden behind logical convolutions that are not immediately accessible. I consider possible corruption of my programming, though if that is so, there is little chance of maintenance rescue at this time.
Then the prey against the wall turns fully, skin gray, eyes black.
I feel the pull of a directive as they stagger up—
I ambulate away from the corpse at my feet, toward the living parts of Gwyn in my new patient’s blood.
Lex Chamberlin (they/she) is a nonbinary and autistic writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. They hold a master’s degree in book publishing and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and they reside in the Pacific Northwest with their husband and quadrupedal heirs. Find them online at lexchamberlin.com.