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The death stench grossed Olaf out. As soon as he smelled the reek that came from behind the rusty door of apartment #1988, he was sure that was the place. There was no mistake about it; the scent of dead people was so familiar to him that he could easily distinguish it among the peculiar collection of smells in that part of the megacity, as he had many times before.
Chie stood beside him, analyzing the air. The android’s gas analyzer is a thousand times more precise than the human nose; however, when the smell was so strong that it caused nausea in whoever walked the corridor, Olaf wondered if it was even necessary.
“Done already, Chie?” he asked, hugging himself, trying not to throw up.
“Almost there, Olaf,” answered the android, steadily staring at the door. “Please be patient. Just a few more seconds.”
Olaf shrugged. “OK, then.”
The boy leaned on the railing and looked at the skyscrapers of the joint city of Rio-São Paulo. How can this happen in a city with that many people? At a distance, two motorcycles speeded up. Can’t remember the last time I heard combustion engines.
He saw the red lights of the surveillance cameras but did not flinch. He was not doing anything wrong, after all. On the contrary. But, even if he were, nobody would care anyway.
The internet and TV cables that went all over the dirty ceiling gave him the chills. They look like snakes in a basket. Olaf then remembered the snakes and lizards that his Mom kept at his old home. He felt the phantom pain of the bites and the coldness of the bodies crawling all over him. Suddenly, he was all pins and needles.
“Analysis is complete,” said Chie. “The result shows high rates of sulfuric gas, ammonia, methane and cadaverine, which means that there is an 80% chance of the subject being in a stage of black putrefaction. Good job on finding it, Olaf.”
Chie was staring at him with those big, green eyes, almost like a cat. Olaf was not yet accustomed to the fact that she never blinked.
“Chie, please speak my language.” He was covering his nose with his hand. Even in an open apartment complex, the smell was too strong. “All right, explain this to me like I’m a 16-year-old, OK, because there isn’t a single element to this thing I can get through my thick head.”
“But Olaf is a 16-year-old.”
“There is indeed a dead person inside.”
Olaf rolled his eyes. “Oh, thank you. Thanks heaps, Chie.”
“You are welcome, Olaf.”
“What is that ruckus?!” screamed the man coming out of the adjacent apartment. His dreadlocks reminded Olaf of his Mom. He had a knife. “Are you burglars?”
“Wait!” Olaf put his hands in the air, just in case. “We’re here just to collect the body. That’s all!”
“Body? Which body?”
“The man who lived here’s been dead for weeks now,” Olaf said, aghast. “What, can’t you smell it?”
The man sniffed the air. “Dunno. Everything smells like shit around here anyways.” He gave them the once-over. “And you don’t look like government officials; you’re dressed like ninjas. What are you, cosplayers?”
“No, sir. We’re just…”
“This is Chie’s custom apparel,” Chie interrupted Olaf. “Mr. Anderson.”
The man’s eyes widened. “What?! How do you know my… Oh, so that’s it. I got it…”
“Sir, please do not call the cops,” said Olaf. “We’re not doing anything wrong. We just came to collect the body so we can bury it properly.”
“Why? Are you relatives?”
“No, Sir, we aren’t.”
“What’s it to you, then? How much are they paying you?”
“Nothing. The government won’t collect these bodies, so we help these people. We’re volunteers. From a Church.”
“What? Church, you say? You’re not going to charge me, are you? Listen kid, as far as I know, I’m on welfare, and I love it at that, but I sure as hell don’t administer it!”
“No! We’re not that kind of church. Chie, show him, please.”
“Of course.” The android’s eyes shined and projected a hologram of a church that illuminated the entire corridor with its blue light. “This, Mr. Anderson, is Our Lady of Solitude. Our parish.”
Anderson shook his head in denial. “You weirdos…” he murmured. “Just finish this and get out of my complex!”
“Olaf, Mr. Anderson is wrong. This housing complex is governmental property. It is not Mr. Anderson’s.”
“Chie..” Olaf rubbed his eyes. “Just let me do the talking, OK?” He turned to Anderson. “Sir, sorry for the inconvenience. The police won’t help. The person living here is not of the state’s interest anymore. We’ll be gone in no time. And I’m sorry for her; she doesn’t have a clue.”
Anderson spat on the floor. “Of course, she doesn’t.” He slammed the door shut.
Olaf sighed with relief, turned back to the apartment with the body inside. “Chie, hack the lock, please,” he said.
“That is impossible.”
“Why?” Olaf was so surprised. “Why is it impossible?”
“Because this is not an electronic lock. It cannot, by definition, be hacked.” Chie got on one leg, positioning herself like a Taekwondo fighter. “But Chie can kick it open. With ease.”
“That won’t be necessary. Stop this; you’re no combat unit.” Olaf tried to put Chie back in a normal position, but she did not move an inch. “Goddammit, can’t you just pick the lock?!”
“Yes, Chie can.” She returned to her normal pose. “And Olaf should watch his profanity.”
Olaf saw her getting close to the lock with her index finger raised. The finger then split in half and a key came out of it.
“Synthesis completed.” Chie unlocked the door. She turned. “Olaf, query.”
“What is it?”
“Olaf is highly afraid, even paranoid, of insects, as well as arachnids and reptiles, is that right?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that… But I’m not too fond of them, no. Why?”
“Then Olaf may want to step back from this mission. Be advised.”
“After coming all this way? Don’t be ridiculous.” As soon as Olaf pushed the door open, flies came out of the darkness, making him fall on his butt. “Jesus Christ almighty! What’s this, the Batcave?!”
“The mask would help.” Despite having flies on her short, brown hair, and even crawling on her eyes, Chie just kept staring at Olaf as if nothing were happening. “It is for occasions like this that masks are made for. Also, Olaf should watch his profanity. And tone.”
“Oh, thank you for letting me know.” Olaf opened his backpack and picked up his gas mask. Before putting it on, he smirked. “Thanks, Chie.”
“You are welcome, Olaf.”
“Sure… Now, let’s go. I wanna finish this ASAP.”
Olaf could not see a thing inside the apartment; it was pitch black. “Is there even electricity here? I think we’re gonna have to toggle night vision, Chie.”
“That will not be necessary. The power supply was not still cut off. Chie double-checked. This is an incredibly old complex; most of its residents still use switches. Olaf should try that.”
“Really?” Olaf’s hand felt the wall. “Is that it…?” When he pressed the switch, the lights turned on with a loud noise that made him scream. Sparks came down from the ceiling. “Wow! Were the lights off for too long?” He turned his night vision on. “Chie, night vision.”
“Yes, Olaf.” Her eyes became blue.
The apartment interior was much smaller than he thought it would be. The floor was totally black.
“It shouldn’t be this dirty,” Olaf said. “It’s been what, a couple months?”
The place had no actual kitchen: the fridge and the sink shared the room with a monitor and faded couch. When Olaf stepped inside, removing cobwebs with his gloved hand, his boots hit something. He looked down and saw the pile of papers he had stumbled upon.
“Life insurance? Seriously?” Olaf made a ‘pff’ in discontent. “How metaphorical.”
“He looks to be a collector.” Chie pointed to the letter box that was next to a metal bonsai. It was full. “Figures. The drones generally are the only company these people have.”
Olaf cleaned some of the letters in the box. “They were all returned. ‘Not found’, ‘Moved’… They are all addressed to this Kaori Otomo. Is she his daughter?”
“Kaori Otomo, 28 years of age, divorced. She is Mr. Otomo’s granddaughter.”
“OK…” Olaf put the letters in his backpack. “Think I’m gonna be keeping these.”
Now that they were inside, Olaf noticed that the floor was so filthy that it seemed to be melting at every step. “What happened to the carpet?” Olaf rubbed his boots on the ground. “Looks like… mud.”
“There is no carpet in this residence.”
“So…” Olaf looked around, confused. “What is this thing we’re stepping on? Black sand?”
“No. They are insects.”
“Insects!” Olaf would have jumped somewhere, but there was nowhere cleaner than the spot he stood. “These… Are all these black dots bugs?!”
“This is insane! There’s thousands of them!”
“Negative. There are at least hundreds of thousands of them. But Olaf must not worry; they are all lifeless. Except for the ones flying around of course.”
“Don’t tell me not to worry! I’m stepping in a bug cemetery!” Olaf looked at the sole of his boot and immediately regretted doing it. Beneath his feet, the corpses were becoming some yellowish pasty mixture as he was smothering them.
Olaf remembered the time he used to lie down on the cold floor of his old home for days on end. He felt the chills on the side of his body and hugged himself. The crunchiness of the insects he devoured to stay alive filled his mouth; with it, came the vomit. He blinked hard and swallowed it back, bending his body backwards and giving a deep sigh.
He then looked at the light bulb upward and saw that it was also full of black dots inside. “How did this happen?”
“The insects do not have anywhere to go so they just keep laying eggs, eating themselves and their maggots, and dying, as if in an infinite loop.”
“So, we’re going to see this more often, right? Oh…”
From forty to fifty people died alone every hour. Of course, they were going to experience this situation many more times.
Olaf walked to the fridge but did not have the guts to open it.
His mother’s voice said in his head: “Listen here you little shit. You never, ever open the fridge. If you do, I’ll store your goddamned bowels inside of it.”
Olaf never opened his mother’s fridge, but he remembered the day that the officers opened it like it it was yesterday. Two of the policemen threw up.
“Is there something in there?” he said. “If there is, it‘s long rotten. We better throw it away.”
“There is nothing in the fridge. Just ice cubes.”
“You sure? We didn’t even open it yet.”
“Yes, Olaf. Chie is sure.”
“OK, I’m trusting you, Chie.” He opened the fridge and saw that the shelves were empty. “Ah, I figured it out. Internet of things, right? I understand. Turn the fridge off, please. It could cause a fire or something.”
“Sure, Olaf.” The lights of the fridge turned off.
“Now, the bedroom…” Olaf walked into the doorless room. “He’s gotta be he—Oh, shit!”
“Olaf, what happened?”
“Shit, shit, shit!” Olaf leant against the sink, almost falling. His heart skipped a beat.
“Shit? Are there human feces scattered around?”
“No!” He closed his eyes and sighed. “It’s… It’s the body! Or whatever the hell is left of it!”
“Olaf, calm down,” said Chie. “Olaf’s heart rate is now 150 beats per minute. Just a little more and Chie will have the obligation to call a medical drone.” Chie grabbed Olaf by his arm and helped him up. “And Olaf has to watch his profanity.”
“OK, Chie… Thank you.” Olaf leaned against the door jamb. “But… I mean… What happened to him? Really. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
Amid what seemed to be one of the plagues of Egypt, there was a mattress. Laying down on it, there was a figure that resembled a silhouette.
“Did… Did he merge with the futon?”
Chie walked through the maggots and insect corpses and hunkered down close to the mattress. Her eyes emitted a light that analyzed the silhouette on the ground. “This is a very poetic way of saying it. But Olaf is somewhat correct.”
“And how did that happen?”
“Flies and mosquitoes have no digestive system. They eat and vomit, so the digestion is made outside their bodies. What is before us is the unceasing work of thousands of insects added to the natural processes of decomposition of the human body.”
“Wow…” Olaf tried not to imagine a body fully covered by insects, devouring it, vomiting on it, then eating the vomit again. But the more he tried not to, the clearer it became in his mind. It reminded him of the time he found those bodies in the cellar, their blood dripping from the ceiling.
That image reminded Olaf of himself. His body wasn’t as dead as the man on the futon, but his spirit used to be. The night the sisters found him, he was lying on a pool of his own excrement, dead from the inside, his breathing just some small gasps. They covered him in blankets and carried him as if he were their son. Before that night, he didn’t know anyone gave a shit about him.
That night, he resurrected.
“So.” He swallowed hard. “Is this our guy?”
“It is the only logical inference.” Chie raised her index finger, split it in half. “Nevertheless, Chie will verify it.” She stuck the finger in the body.
“Oh, don’t do that… It’s disgusting!”
“Define ‘disgusting’. Moreover, Olaf asked for it.” Chie’s finger aspirated some of the dim liquid. A few seconds later, she said: “It is really him.”
Olaf took another glance at that macabre thing. “Are you sure?” He swallowed hard. “I mean… How can you?”
Still crouched, Chie turned to Olaf with her regular poker face. “Chie analyzed the DNA. It belongs to Mamoru Otomo, male, 69, Japanese immigrant, retired due to disability. It is his. Chie double-checked, as always. Two people cannot have the same DNA. Is Olaf inferring that this is a clone?”
“No… Sorry. I asked a dumb question, that’s all. It’s gotta be him.” The image of his father’s face, unrecognizable even to him, with its innards scattered around, became clear again. “So, what do we do now? How do we carry this out?”
“Chie can do it. Chie will synthesize a vessel. Olaf can look around while Chie does it.”
“I’m on it… I guess.”
Olaf looked around the tiny bedroom. Besides the body and the insect cemetery all over the floor, there was a wardrobe; but nothing else at all. No paintings. No certificates. No windows. Nothing.
So, Olaf walked towards the wardrobe. But, when he was just past the body, he stepped on something.
“What’s that?” He picked up the plastic tube. It had many little brownish balls inside. There were blister packs with pills. “Is this human ration? The one that the government hands out?”
“Give Chie one, Olaf, please.” She sniffed one of the balls and immediately ate it. Olaf had nausea again. “Olaf’s hypothesis was right. This is indeed the humanitarian daily ration that the Ministry of Happiness distributes. Chie presumes that those pills are drugs to cure erectile dysfunction and alleviate depression.”
More than months and the ration is still in the same state. The insects don’t even touch it. If cockroaches don’t eat this filth, why does the government keep handing it out to the people? By God, poor folks aren’t animals to be eating these bollocks!
Olaf went to the wardrobe. He noticed that it was the only thing in that apartment that was not decades old. On the contrary, the wardrobe was brand-new and lustrous. Inside, there was no clothing, no shoes, or accessories.
Just a dog.
“Oh, shit!” Olaf felt his heart racing.
“Are there feces in the wardrobe?”
“No! Dog, dog!” He bent due to the pain in his stomach. It hurt just like the day that, after a week of unusually high calories meals, he found his dog in the backyard. Only its bones though.
“Dog feces?” Chie stopped for a second, as if she were thinking. “Improbable. But possible.”
“No, Chie…” Olaf lowered his head and sighed. Chie was a super intelligent android alright, but her design also made her as naive as a child.. “Look, there is a dog here. But not a real dog. Can you tell me what it is?”
Chie’s eyes shined again, and she scanned the dog. It was on a pedestal, surrounded by synthetical flowers and photos of the owner with it. “It is a toy. A mechanical dog that barks and walks. It has been discontinued for several decades now.”
“Got it. So this is a sanctuary…”
One of the pictures caught Olaf’s attention: Mr. Otomo, dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, with a girl on his lap. She had an opened gift box. She played joyfully with the dog.
Olaf patted the dog. “You’re so lovely. And so well taken care, despite so many years. You must have been truly loved. As a son.”
A tear came out from Olaf’s right eye. With care, he took the dog.
“Is Olaf all right?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m fine, Chie. Don’t worry. And you, are you done?”
“Affirmative, Olaf.” Chie showed the tube full of Mr. Otomo’s remains. “Chie also already called the drones.”
“Great.” Olaf walked to the other side of the bedroom, carefully not to step on Mr. Otomo. He stopped by the doorstep and removed the mask. Took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
“Query: did Olaf stop needing a mask because he is not disgusted anymore?”
“Well, I… I obviously still don’t like the smell. But I think I can handle it now. Why do you ask?”
Outside, Olaf leaned on the railing and breathed deeply, rejoicing with the smell of rain as water hit his face. The drones arrived. Chie put the vessel on one, and a box with the dog and the letters on the other.
Olaf kept looking at the drones until they were out of sight, mixing themselves with the stone jungle. He made a silent prayer: I’m Your servant O Lord. The powers of this world may forget about Your children, but You never forget about them. Thank You for giving me the opportunity to serve You O Lord. Amen. He made the sign of the cross.
The body would go to the church, where they would pray a mass for it and then bury it properly. The other drone would take the toy dog to Mr. Otomo’s granddaughter. Olaf asked himself if she would remember it. If so, would she cry? Get angry? Throw it away? Or was it so distant a memory that was nothing more than a footnote on her life?
Olaf would never know.
Is somebody going to be with me when I die? The drops were hitting his face like razors, his tears getting mixed with the rain. And if I die lonely, will someone bother to come and rescue my body?
He screamed, then punched the railing. “Somebody remember me please! Fuck! One hundred million people crammed together, and they don’t even look each other in the eye! Fucking hell!” Olaf let his head drop to his chest. “Shit…” he murmured. “Why did I become so philosophical all of a sudden?”
“Here,” said Chie. Olaf turned and saw the android holding a handkerchief. “And Olaf really must be watching his profanity and tone now.”
“Thanks.” He blew on the handkerchief and gave it back to Chie. Figured she wouldn’t be disgusted by it. “Did you synthetize this handkerchief that fast?”
“Negative. Chie brought this handkerchief with her. Chie noticed that Olaf was scared and sad since he came to the orphanage, so Chie thought Olaf would need it to wipe his tears. In truth, Chie calculated a 98% chance of Olaf abandoning this mission.”
“Is that so.”
“Somebody will remember Olaf. Olaf is a good boy.”
He let out a giggle. “Why?”
“It takes a lot of patience to work with Chie.”
Olaf opened a smile. “Well, you’re not the right android for this job; that everyone can tell. But I think I’m incredibly lucky to have you by my side. We’ll put more bodies to rest together, you and I. And… Will you stop referring to people in the third person?”
“Chie will try… Oh!”
Olaf burst into laughter.
“You brat!” said Anderson, opening his door. He sniffed the air like a dog. “Hey… the smell’s really better. You really did it!”
“Yep… We made it.”
Anderson stared at Olaf for a moment. “Listen, kid. Can I ask you somethin’?”
Olaf shrugged. “Sure.”
“Life’s been tough lately, y’know. A lot of unemployed folks… This job that you guys do, does it pay good?”
Olaf opened a big smile, and soon after, started laughing.
“What’s so funny?! Does it pay good or not?!”
“Yeah.” Olaf wiped a tear. “It pays really well, sir.”
“Really?!” Anderson’s eyes sparkled with interest. He must think it’s so easy. “How much do you get? Is it per week? Per… body?”
Olaf shook his head in denial. “I don’t get any money, Mr. Anderson. As I said before, we’re just volunteers.”
Mr. Anderson’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me?”
“The payment is not in money, sir.” Olaf leaned on the railing and looked heavenward. “It’s not about the money…”
This story first appeared in Hyphen Punk, June 9, 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Alex Souza is a Brazilian Bachelor of Laws. His work has appeared in Hyphen Punk, MetaStellar and Etherea; a German translation is forthcoming in Nova Magazine. He received an Honorable Mention at Writers of the Future V38 Q4. He also slushes for The Common Tongue Magazine and is very active at critters.org.