Her Last Will – Karl El-Koura

Her Last Will – Karl El-Koura

September 2022

In the night, the silent robots took away his wife and left a note in her place.

Sensing from his heart rate that he was awake, Toqs’ arm band began vibrating with a series of pulses, one for each person wishing to send their condolences. He slapped the band’s face to mute the thread without looking at any of the messages.

The note had been printed on a long tent card, placed where his wife had been sleeping. Underneath an access code was the message the robots had printed for him:



“No, no, no!” Toqs yelled. He looked around the empty bedroom self-consciously. Serene had been catching him talking to himself with increasing frequency over the last few years. But, of course, no one had overheard—the suite was empty except for him.

They’d purchased it once they’d both retired. A place of their own on the outermost ring of the Adagio, the space station in orbit around Earth. Toqs loved it. He could sit on the bench of the bay window in their living room and get spectacular views day or night: the moon, the stars, or—his favorite—the spinning Earth, with its daytime blue and green and white, or its pinprick yellow lights of human nocturnal activity. Between that, his books, and his movies, Toqs didn’t need much else—except for Serene, who was ‘no longer alive’, in the gently euphemistic words of the folded piece of plastic paper.

But Serene had become concerned about his mental state.

“You need buddies,” she used to say whenever she came home from a power-walk around the ring with friends or a night out to the holos, and caught him talking to himself, or felt sorry for having left him alone.

“I have you,” he had always replied. He didn’t mind her leaving him for an afternoon or even a night or two; he didn’t mind being alone, as he told her repeatedly … because he knew she’d always come back.

“I’m not enough,” she’d said, again and again.

He’d never understood that; she had been enough, and she knew it. But had she also known that one day she might be gone, and he’d be left alone, without the expectation of her return to hang on to?

Of course she’d known; everyone dies.

The bed felt colder than normal. His hands dropped to where she’d been sleeping, and he smoothed out the sheet.

It was just after seven-thirty in the morning.

He wouldn’t be allowed to grieve his wife, however. Instead, he’d have to deal with what he knew would be a bureaucratic nightmare. That was his definition of a bureaucracy: a complex system where mistakes were easily made but corrected only with great difficulty.

Still clutching the problematic tent card, Toqs pushed his feet into his slippers and shuffled slowly to the galley kitchen, his old muscles needing time—more time every day, it seemed—to loosen up.

They’d set up their terminal on a table in a little nook opposite the fridge, so they could watch the news from Earth and the stations orbiting it while they cooked.

He pulled back the chair and sat down, then dialed the ring’s attendant service. “Hello, I received this card,” he said, waving it at the camera when the animated face instantly appeared on the screen.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The attendant’s head was human-shaped but metallic, so nobody was tricked even subconsciously into thinking they were speaking to a real person. “Would you like to make use of the complimentary services of our grief counselor?”

“I would like to correct an error you’ve made.” He forced himself to take a deep breath, like Serene had taught him, then continued, more calmly: “My wife did not want to be burned.”

“That is the default.”

“She sent different instructions. Space burial. She made a point of telling me. Please correct it.”

The smile on the animated gray face changed by a calculated percentage toward regret. “No such instructions were received—”

“She sent them. Anyway, you’re receiving them now. She made a point of telling me. Maybe because of the cost.” Cremation was complimentary, which meant included in the cost of living on the Adagio; placing your body into a titanium coffin and shooting you toward deep space was extra. “I don’t care about the cost. Can you please correct it?”

“Unfortunately not. Since your wife is no longer alive to provide authorization, I cannot change her funeral instructions.”

“You said you didn’t get any instructions!”

“Correct. The funeral instructions are the default ones, unless new instructions are received.”

He leaned back, staring at the metallic face with its eighty percent beatific, twenty percent regretful smile.

In many ways, Toqs felt, this world had been custom-built for him. Almost all of his interactions were automated or with automata, such as the wheeled robots who delivered their groceries or other shopping from the inner rings. When he’d retired after seventy-five years in home systems repair, Serene said that the mental mechanism that allowed him to endure interaction with other people, under so much strain for a century, had finally broken, and he’d sworn off the whole human project. People judged, robots didn’t. Neither did animals, like the German Shepherd who’d passed before Toqs had met Serene (a dog he could never bring himself to replace). Robots and dogs were safe, because they didn’t make him feel, as clients or acquaintances or even ‘friends’ did much of the time, as if their eyes were microscopes and he a specimen coming up short.

Occasionally, though, dealing with the rigidity of software could elicit a sense of frustration beyond anything in the power of even the most obtuse person.

Toqs took another deep breath to calm himself; unlike human beings, bots weren’t affected by the loss of one’s temper. Working himself up with anger would raise his already high blood pressure, and waste his time, and do nothing at all to the equanimous attendant, who was likely having several or maybe even hundreds of simultaneous conversations.

It was quarter to eight.

Toqs began to feel a knot in his stomach and a familiar constriction in his throat, as if his subconscious knew what he’d decided before he did. Because he knew enough about the way the software worked to understand that he didn’t have time to sort this out with a computer program.

With forced calmness he said, “Can you put me in touch with a human supervisor responsible for burials in this ring?”

He got up and shuffled to the fridge, ordering a glass of cold water for his suddenly very dry mouth.

The animated face blinked a few times, then informed him he was being transferred, and now a harried human face appeared on the screen, a man with drooping eyes and a grizzle of patchwork gray-black stubble along his neck and cheeks.

Always harried, always forcing Toqs to rush through what he needed to say. Which, inevitably, meant nothing came out quite right, and he ended up sounding like an idiot.

“Yes?” the man said without looking at him. The name at the bottom of the screen said ALBUR DRIGIT.

Toqs suddenly didn’t know what to do with the glass of water. He took another sip, then set it on the counter.

“Are you there?” Albur Drigit said. “Can you hear me?”

“Hi, yes. I can hear you.” He returned to his chair. “The thing is—my wife. She died this morning. Last night, I should say. They took her away. The card said she’s to be cremated, okay? But she didn’t want that. She wanted—”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He spoke perfunctorily, but Albur’s tired eyes flicked over to Toqs to emphasize his sympathy, then flicked away again to one of his other screens. “Name and ID?”

“Toquer Hingi, one-four-nine-eight-oh.”

Type, type, type, eyes flick back, half-shut with annoyance and long-suffering. “Not yours, sir—your wife’s.”

“Oh, sorry,” Toqs said, then swallowed again, half-smiled.

Albur stared at him, waiting.

Toqs gave Serene’s full name and number.

Type, type, type—pause, scanning, reading. But reading what? Then Albur turned completely away from his other screen and faced Toqs.

For a moment, the professional veneer seemed to have fallen away from Albur’s face. He stared at Toqs—but not impatiently like before. His cheeks drooped, as if sadness were weighing down his face. The borrowed confidence from carrying out his duty, the mask of a stressed and harried official, had hidden that sadness.

The moment passed as Albur tried to lift his face with a twitch of a smile. “I see the problem, Mr. Hingi.” He spoke hesitantly. “Your—uhm, your wife did provide new funeral instructions about seven months ago—”

“Yes, correct! Around then. Yes!” Toqs was too excited to contain himself. Would it be this easy?

“She didn’t complete the form, though. The instructions are still in draft.”

“So? It confirms her intentions.”

Albur’s lips turned up in a skeptical look that seemed much more natural to them than the attempt at a smile. “Maybe her intentions were to think about it more.”

“No, no, no.” It wasn’t going to be easy at all, was it? “She was very clear with me.”

“Strictly speaking,” Albur said, now fully returned to his efficient bureaucrat persona, “I’m not even supposed to tell you as much as I did.”

“I’m trying to make sure she has the burial she wanted. Please.”

“Maybe I can help, if you’ll speak to a grief counselor. You’d get priority—I could have someone at your place in half an hour.”


Albur rubbed his stubbled chin with his palm. “Grief does strange things to people. It makes them focus on minor things. Emphasize something that wasn’t that important to the deceased.” He took a long breath and let it out slowly. “I can override her instructions. Submit the form on her behalf. Change everything around. But before doing that, I want to make sure those were really her wishes. Not just your grief talking.”

“Yes—I understand. I’ll talk to them. But you said at my place. Why does it need to be in person?”

“That’s the way they do it now.” Albur shrugged. “Maybe they realized they can’t hand you a tissue through a screen.”

“I don’t need to talk to anyone,” Toqs said, a little desperately, like a trapped rabbit that knows it’s not getting free. But he tried anyway: “I’m fine. I haven’t even grieved yet—you people haven’t let me. Right now I just want to make sure my wife’s wishes are honored.”

Albur took another long-suffering breath, then said, “I’m trying to help you, sir. It’s your choice. Give me a call back if you change your mind.”

“All right. But they can call me here. I won’t need tissues.”

Toqs spent the next twenty-five minutes pacing his kitchen, his glance bouncing onto and away from the screen, anticipating the call.

The grief counselor didn’t ring his terminal, however; she knocked on his door.

“Seriously?” he said out loud.

“We prefer in-person meetings,” a woman’s voice replied through the door. “I’m Doctor Glazer,” she added helpfully.

For a long few moments, he stood rooted to the floor. What kind of grief counselor ignored your wishes and increased your anxiety and already high blood pressure? Weren’t they supposed to help calm you?

“Everything okay?” she asked.

He already felt exhausted from his conversation with the unhelpful Albur Drigit. He would’ve liked to go back to bed for a rest, but the efficient system that processed the deceased as soon as possible—because no one liked to face death these days, or because someone somewhere had determined a quick funeral accelerated the grieving process—wouldn’t wait for him.

“Hello?” Dr. Glazer said, a note of concern entering her voice.

In his mind, he could hear Serene say, in that reproachful but kind, understanding, even loving tone: “You’re not going to let that poor woman stand out there, are you?”

No, he wouldn’t. And not because it was arguably less awkward to let the doctor in than to wait for her to go away. He wouldn’t let that poor woman stand out there because he couldn’t let Serene down—in this last service he could offer her—due to a temporary social discomfort.

He walked to the front of their home and opened the door. A woman half to a third his age (but, at this stage in his life, almost everyone he encountered was that much younger than him), Dr. Glazer’s hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and the gentle wrinkles around her lips and green eyes indicated a face, unlike Albur Drigit’s, accustomed to smiling.

The echo of Serene’s voice played in his mind: “Maybe invite her in?”

He moved out of the way. “Can I get you a drink or something?” When Serene hosted house parties, he had appointed himself on drinks duty—it gave him a chance to escape to the kitchen and recharge every time a new person arrived or when a guest finished their drink. Her friends used to comment to Serene about how helpful and considerate Toqs was, swooping in as soon as he spied an empty glass. She always agreed with them.

“Coffee would be very kind.” Dr. Glazer stood in the foyer. She looked around, then back at him, gently smiling.

“I just want my wife buried properly,” Toqs said.

“Let’s talk about it. Over here?” She indicated the couch in their living room.

“We can go in the kitchen,” he said.

“Wherever you’re most comfortable.”

He turned around to close the door. When she had been especially frustrated with his excuses to get out of socializing, Serene used to call him the human equivalent of a ‘wannabe neutrino’, trying to minimize his social interactions. She’d made it her project to ‘help’ him, after he’d retired and his need or desire for isolation had become more prominent. The more he’d resisted, the harder she’d pushed. She’d gone as far as tricking him into social situations, like when she’d convinced him to go to a fancy restaurant with her to celebrate his one-hundred-and-twentieth birthday (he’d long claimed birthday parties were for children only). Of course, once they’d arrived, he’d realized she’d invited everyone they’d ever met on the Adagio. (“I never said it would be just the two of us,” she’d whispered, smiling innocently, when he shot her a disapproving look at the doors to the restaurant.)

It had been hard to get mad at her; she’d done those things because she loved him. And she’d made him her mission because he’d refused her suggestion of seeking professional help—because he didn’t feel there was a problem for a professional to solve. Toqs had been lucky enough to be less neutrino-like when he’d met Serene, and Serene had provided all the social interaction he needed, even setting aside the times she’d forced him to go out and socialize, to have people over to their home, to engage in human interaction. And he did have friends, real friends, although it was true that most of them had by now died and been carried off, burned or buried.

“Mr. Hingi?” Dr. Glazer called.

He closed the door and went to the kitchen.

Dr. Glazer had set herself up at their table, having placed a small tablet in the middle beside their terminal. She asked for permission to transcribe their conversation.

He nodded, then instructed the refrigerator to brew two coffees.

“Tell me about her.”

So, slowly and hesitantly at first, he did. Over coffee with a stranger, sitting at the kitchen table where every morning for the last quarter-century he and his wife had had breakfast together, and lunch most days, if she wasn’t out, and almost always dinner.

Dr. Glazer was a good listener. Too good. She had a way of nodding and saying “hmm, mhmm” and a warm, Rogerian smile that elicited more words, more stories, more self-revelation.

When he stopped for a moment and realized everything he’d said about the woman he loved and the life they’d shared, he felt stripped naked in front of this stranger. More than naked. He’d once told Serene that he’d only go see a therapist who revealed something about themselves for everything you revealed about yourself. She’d said, “That’s not a therapist, Toqs. That’s called a friend.”

He sat up straighter. “Is that enough, Doctor? Do you have what you need? I’m not beside myself with grief—I’m beside myself with frustration. My wife gave very specific instructions for her burial, but made a mistake and forgot to submit a form. And I just need you to call this guy in charge—this Albur Drigit—and allow me to honor her wishes before it’s too late.”

He checked his band. 08:58.

After a few moments of staring at him, Dr. Glazer leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs. “I’ll send the message,” she said. “I’ll do it right now, while we finish up. I would like you to answer one last question, Mr. Hingi. What will you do now that your wife has passed?”

He opened his mouth to give a glib response, but closed it again quickly; in that moment, he realized he didn’t trust himself to answer. He felt that saying anything would cause him to burst into tears in front of this stranger. Because he knew exactly what the rest of his life would be like: here, in this apartment, his world consisting of the four rooms of the suite, spending morning to night sitting on the bench by the window, endlessly watching or waiting for the spinning day-night of the planet where he’d made so many memories with Serene.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Right now I’m focused on burying my wife.”

Dr. Glazer nodded, closed her tablet. She stood.

Toqs cleared the empty cups from the table, breathing more freely. That was it; it was done. Serene would be launched into deep space, like she wanted.

He walked Dr. Glazer to the door. She told him about a support group she ran for people who’d lost their spouse, but he nodded without taking in any of the details. As soon as she was gone, he returned to the bedroom and sat on the bed gently, then let himself fall back onto the mattress. He could’ve slept for hours, but Serene’s ceremony was in fifteen minutes.

He pushed his exhausted body out of the bed and into the kitchen. He hesitated at the refrigerator—he was tempted to order a long island iced tea, Serene’s favorite drink. But alcohol, especially on an empty stomach, messed up his digestion. He settled on a second cup of coffee instead.

Toqs looked at the tent card’s code and wished Dr. Glazer had offered to stay, so he wouldn’t have to watch by himself as his wife was buried.

Grabbing the cup of brewed coffee, he lowered himself into the chair and showed the tent card to the screen. The view changed to a black background with white lettering:




—with a timer counting down from thirteen minutes.

Toqs stabbed his finger into the attendant call button. “It’s not supposed to be a cremation,” he said to the animated face. But there was no time to waste. “Put me in touch with Albur Drigit, please.”

The animated eyes rolled in their sockets for a few moments, then their gaze resettled on Toqs. “Albur Drigit’s terminal is not responding,” the bot said. “Would you like me to try again in five minutes and notify you?” There was a shift in the bot’s voice, as if reading a new set of instructions. “Alternatively, Albur Drigit is available for in-person meetings while his terminal is malfunctioning.”

“Where is he?”

The address was on the other side of the ring … thirty minutes away if Toqs ran at his top speed from fifty or sixty years ago. He had only one viable option: the supersonic carriages that spun around the ring. Normally he would’ve done anything to avoid being trapped in a small sphere with a dozen or more strangers. Today was abnormal, however. He was already out of his apartment and shuffling toward the stop, where a carriage was boarding. He only just made it inside as it spun up and took off, full with morning commuters.

Toqs hardly noticed the ride, he was so focused on getting to Albur Drigit and fixing the instructions before it was too late. If it wasn’t already. At one point, though, he became aware that a small child, maybe six or seven, was staring at him from across the carriage. Toqs stuck out his tongue and she giggled; then she returned the favor, sticking out her little tongue and making him smile. Like robots and German Shepherds, children were all right.

A few stops later, Toqs unclipped himself and stepped off, eyes scanning the directions on the walls. He walked quickly, pushing his aching legs, unused to this kind of activity, until he reached Albur Drigit’s door. One more minute until the ceremony. Too late?

Albur answered his furious knocking.

“You’ve made a huge—” Toqs began breathlessly.

“It’s all right,” Albur said, then hesitantly reached out a hand and placed it on Toqs’ shoulder. Even hunched over, he towered over Toqs. “Come in.”

Inside, a projection wall faced a couch, a small plastic table between them. Toqs stared at the couch; one side, which Albur clearly preferred, had a deep impression. The original black of the fabric, evident in the rest of the couch, had turned almost gray in that favored spot.

Albur asked him to sit down, then instructed the screen to turn on.

On the wall, a view of Serene appeared. She lay in a titanium casket, her head resting on a white pillow, while a soft sound—the chanting of many people in low voices—seemed to reach out and envelop her and Toqs in their separate rooms.

He glanced over at Albur, upset that circumstances had led him to experience such an intimate event in the presence of a stranger. Immediately he remembered that, less than thirty minutes earlier, he’d wished he wouldn’t have to be alone as his wife was buried—so which one was it?

Albur’s eyes were fixed on the screen.

Toqs turned his attention back to the ceremony. The soft sound of the harmonious chanters filled his heart with a strange mixture of hope and sadness. He stared at his wife’s resting face—her closed eyes—as if this were a morning like any other and he could lean over and wake her with a kiss.

When the chant was finished, a metallic hand closed the top of the casket and sealed it; her name, number, birth date and today’s date were marked in gold lettering on the silver lid. The robot picked up the casket as if it weighed nothing and walked it across the white-walled circular room to an open port in the wall. The port accepted the casket, then accelerated it down the airlock tube, faster and faster, and fired it out the external side. The view followed as the casket sailed through the blackness of space, then the same information—her name and number and dates—appeared at the bottom of the screen as the titanium coffin receded from view.

Toqs swallowed hard. Turning to look at Albur, he said, “Thank you for arranging that. But why didn’t you update the description? I wouldn’t have come barging over here.”

“You’re not bothering me,” Albur said, rubbing the stubble on his cheek nervously as he met Toqs’ gaze. “Would you like something to drink? I’ve taken the rest of the day off.”

“It’s nine-thirty in the morning.”

“I thought maybe you could use a drink.” And suddenly, in the other’s sad, lonely eyes, Toqs saw that this man half his age wanted him to stay. For his own or for Albur’s benefit, Toqs didn’t know.

With effort he pushed himself to his throbbing legs. A drink didn’t sound so bad, actually; keeping off his feet for a little longer sounded even better. But best to go home. The last thing he needed, on this day more than any other, was to involve himself with another person’s problems.

Albur kept sitting. “I think your wife didn’t submit the form on purpose.”

The tall man’s tone was quiet, conspiratorial. Was he accusing Serene of something? “What?” Toqs snapped.

“She left a note in the form.” Albur spoke calmly. “There’s prompts, you know—any other instructions, any concerns, words you want said at the ceremony. But she wrote, ‘My only concern is that my husband will bury himself instead of me when I die. If you can find a way to get him out of our apartment, on this day at least, I’d sure appreciate it and think kindly of you.’”

Toqs was shaking his head. How could she? Saying that—about him—to strangers!

“That upsets you?” Albur said, watching him as if studying a fascinating specimen.

“You didn’t know her,” Toqs said defensively.

“I wish I had,” Albur said, rising to his feet. “Let me get you a drink and you can tell me about her.”

“She wanted to fix me. She couldn’t just leave it alone.”

“Leave what alone? You?”

“Not me.” Toqs shook his head in impatience, frustrated by his inability to convey to this stranger the complex relationship he and Serene had shared. “I just want to be left alone!” he blurted out.

The man towering over him said in a quiet voice, “Maybe she understood you enough to know that you don’t want that? Not really.”

“Don’t speak to me like you know me.”

Albur’s face remained calm, still.

“And you went along with her plan?” Toqs went on, speaking more coldly. All morning he’d been holding at bay a deep anger toward his wife. Not because she’d forced him out into the world—she’d been doing that ever since they’d met—but for leaving him once and for all. And now, being able to redirect it at Albur allowed him to set that anger loose. “You manipulated me, too? You lied to me? How do you think your supervisors are going to feel about that?”

A dark cloud had formed on Albur’s broad face. But when he spoke, his voice was still calm and soft. “How do you think people feel about the guy responsible for burying their loved ones? How do you feel about me? You want me to do my job, then you want to forget about me as quickly as possible, right? Hold up your band. I’ll send you my supervisor’s identification number so you can report me.”

Toqs didn’t move.

“Your wife seems like a very sweet person,” Albur said, dropping his arm. “I was happy to do something nice for her.” He continued to stare down at Toqs. “You can take what she did in a bad way if you want. Probably being angry is easier than being sad. But I’ll tell you this: I wish I had someone in my life who cares about me the way your wife cared about you.”

Toqs returned the stare but refused to speak. He wouldn’t validate anything this stranger, who knew nothing about Serene or the relationship they’d shared for almost ninety years, had to say about her. After a few moments of silence, he turned and left the sad, lonely man in his sad, lonely apartment.

It would be a long walk back. Briefly he considered taking the carriage. It hadn’t been too bad earlier, and the little girl had put a smile on his face. But maybe not today.

He leaned against the wall to gather his strength, then remembered that he’d muted the thread related to Serene. He brought up his arm and glanced through the many messages that had come in that morning, as well as newer ones that continued to pop up, telling him how beautiful her ceremony had been. Serene was gone—and her body receding further away by the minute—but even the quick glance through the things her friends had written made her feel present again.

He allowed his arm to drop. He would read the messages more carefully later. He’d also have to write everyone back. Some people he hadn’t spoken to in a long, long while. He wondered how they were doing.

Slowly he made his way down the hallway, toward his own part of the ring. Albur Drigit was a sad man, wasn’t he? What kind of person took the day off of work to … what? Listen to an old man’s stories about his deceased wife?

And Albur really had no idea, did he? Serene had been a complex person, with good and great and bad and terrible qualities and quirks, with her own issues that Toqs had tried to help her work through. And maybe Serene had been able to see past Toqs’ fears and worries; maybe she had understood that he needed a push out into the world. But on this day? As her last act? Selfless, Albur would probably say; but Toqs could equally say: stubborn and determined to accomplish her mission. Toqs knew his wife and Albur didn’t.

He stopped walking. His breathing had become shallower as he’d worked himself up with these thoughts. He wanted to march back to Albur’s door and tell him all of it, explain why it wasn’t as simple as Albur had it figured in his head.

But it wasn’t worth the effort. Albur wouldn’t understand. He couldn’t.

Toqs pushed his feet forward.

Maybe Dr. Glazer’s group of widows and widowers could understand. If only Toqs had bothered to listen to any of the details.

Someone like Albur could never understand. Even if the sad, lonely man had seen something in Serene’s last wish that had inspired him to play along. And if he thought that had been selfless, Albur should hear about all the other things Serene had done for Toqs and many others throughout her life.

Albur wouldn’t hear those stories, though. Because Toqs wanted to go home to his own apartment. An empty apartment that wasn’t going anywhere.

In his mind, he heard Serene’s voice again: “You’re not going to let that poor man think you’re mad at him, are you? Or, even worse”—her voice rose an octave when she pretended to be offended—”that you’re mad at me!”

He stopped, let out a long sigh.

No, he wouldn’t let that poor man think those things—especially not that Toqs was anything but still madly in love with his wife. Not because of a temporary social discomfort.

He turned around, shuffled back to Albur’s door.

When the tall man answered, Toqs said, “I’ll have that drink now. Long island iced tea.” Before Albur could respond, Toqs added quickly, “If the offer still stands—I can tell you about that wonderful woman you just buried.”

The heavy, stubbled cheeks lifted. “I’d like that very much,” Albur said, stepping out of the doorway to let Toqs in.

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