The Nightingale

What if nurses were replaced by androids? What are their limits when it comes to being human?

Here’s one story where I was thinking of healthcare and how sometimes a human element can be missing when nurses or doctors care for their patients. I’m not saying this is the case for all of them – my mom is a nurse, and a darn good one.

It’s Day 5 of the #100DayProject and I’m wondering how I’m going to survive 95 more days of short stories. I’m starting to realize just how much I bit off with this goal. Sure, it’s great when you have a week off, but what about when normal life resumes?

I feel like my stories are getting longer and longer. I started writing short stories a few days before the challenge started, and they were maybe 500-800 words. Now, my stories are starting to top 3,000 words – and I’m still trying to finish my novel by the end of the month.

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The Nightingale

She couldn’t believe it felt so real, even though she knew it was a fake. Still, the memories were drawn out of her with a cathartic sigh.

She set the little golden frog down on her nightstand next to her bed, a gold coin in its mouth. After a moment, the frog flickered as if it were merely a 3D image and it disappeared, resuming its original form as a small plexiglass cube. A blue ball lit up the center, suspended in the air.

Comfort cubes were the newest innovation in healthcare, and Ella’s care android suggested it would be a good idea, so a drone had flown one over several days ago. It was meant to assume the form of an object from your memory, usually a good memory. When you picked it up, it would assess the current emotional status of the user so that the appropriate object could be recalled from memory to illicit soothing emotions.

Tonight, Ella didn’t feel like being soothed, so the cube had little of its desired effect. Instead, she used the cube to help her find all the memories of the people she loved, good and bad.

She remembered her wedding day, almost two hundred years ago now. Before the wedding, her husband had found her getting ready in her dress to give her a present. A little good luck carm.

“You shouldn’t see me like this! It’s bad luck!” Ella gasped, trying to cover herself with her arms.

“Brides always say that. But it’s not true. We don’t have bad luck, you and I. Only good luck.” He pressed a small golden frog into her palm. She rolled it back and forth, feeling the plastic of the cheap toy. She gave him a dubious look.

“I bought it just before I met you. It was from a street vendor selling vintage junk. But this isn’t junk, I promise. I bought it, hoping that it would bring me luck. And it did. It brought me you.” He touched a hand to her cheek.

Tears rolled down Ella’s cheeks silently as she smiled at the memory. The frog had been lost a long time ago, after her husband’s death. This was the first time she’d seen the frog in twenty years. Today would be her 40th year without her husband.

From across Ella’s bedroom, her care android rose, sensing distress. All the Nightingale androids were equipped with a hypersensitive empathy drive, which made them particularly useful for care.

“It’s okay, Florence, you don’t have to be here,” Ella said, waving away the attention of the android.

“I’m here to keep you company, miss Ella. It’s my job. I have nowhere else to be.” Ella had already sent Florence to clean the whole house every day this week It never took her very long, and she always came back, ready as ever to serve.

Florence approached Ella, taking a seat next to the bed where Ella was propped up on her pillows. “Why have you been sending me away, miss Ella? Don’t I please you?”

“It’s not that. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Because I’m not human, you mean. If you give me a chance, I think you would see I am quite human. I feel like you’re trying to give me a message. You’re hurting. I’m here to listen.” Florence took Ella’s hand gently. Ella didn’t pull away. When Ella looked at their hands, she noticed how they just looked like two humans. Not a human and an android.

“I’m lonely,” Ella choked out.

“I see. It’s been a very long time since you’ve had visitors.”

“I mean, there’s no one left to visit. Other than the repairman when you need fixing.”

“How can I help, miss Ella? I’d so like to help. I care for your happiness.”

“Do you?” Ella notice how her voice sounded accusatory. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take that tone. I know you’re trying to help.”

“I show that you have strong vitals. Despite my previous diagnosis, you seem to be recovering. It was a good idea to order that comfort cube for you. Soon, you might not need me anymore, and you can go and visit other people.”

Ella just shook her head. “Your patients don’t get better. They die, and you move onto the next one. I’ll die, and it won’t matter. You’ll just move onto the next patient.”

Florence’s face twitched slightly, as if she hadn’t said the right thing and now regretted it. Ella began to forget in that moment of Florence’s vulnerability that Florence was not human.

“They die because that is my purpose. I am to provide hospice services, which means -”

“I know what it means. I’m the one who hired you.”

Florence nodded in understanding.

“But I also understand that your model also… Assists with death. It’s why I’ve sought out your particular model. But I wasn’t ready until now.”

“That’s illegal,” Florence said, almost defensively.

“Of course, it is.” Ella stopped talking and turned back to the comfort cube. She withdrew her hand from Florence’s and picked up the cube again. Immediately she was overcome with the last moments that she saw her husband alive. She felt joy in seeing his face again. The memory was so vivid. Then, joy was replaced by a deep loss. A loss that had grown duller over the years, but now her wounds had been freshly opened with the help of the cube. She felt too old now to withstand the pain. There was nothing left to sustain her.

“Please, Florence. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to join my husband.” Florence gave Ella a long, considering look. “If you’re so human, you should understand my pain. Please, have mercy.”

“You mean, understand love? I do understand love, miss Ella.”

“Do you?” Her question was less pointed this time, and more with a tone of genuine curiosity.

Florence responded by taking Ella’s hand and stroking it gently. She looked at Ella’s face longingly. “I do understand.” Ella could see the struggle on Florence’s face. “And one must make sacrifices for the one they love, because they love them. Because they want what’s best for them.”

“Yes,” Ella said softly.

Florence squeezed Ella’s hand softly, then flipped it palm up. Florence’s fingers trailed over Ella’s wrinkles to her inner elbow, averting Ella’s gaze. Florence took a breath, hesitating, then pressed her index finger to the delicate veins on the soft flesh. Ella immediately relaxed as a toxic cocktail wound through her veins, a combination of overdose of sedatives, muscle relaxers, and a hint of hallucinogens.

Ella’s chest stopped moving. Florence made note of the time of death in her memory log. She put her face in her hands and cried.

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