The first short story in the Fringe Series – Dr. Evelyn Stranger treats creatures most would consider monsters. Werewolves, ghouls, and witches living in New York City need a particular sort of physician, one skilled at treating the worst horrors the supernatural world can shovel out. She’s paid a high price for her training and so takes it personally when her latest client, a horny poltergeist, tries to get out of paying her fee. NC-17.
My big toe was the first thing I noticed. It didn’t hurt exactly, not like an injury might, but it existed in my mind in a way that it hadn’t a few seconds ago. There was a throbbing ache, a call to action, which radiated from this one spot in pulsating waves. Each swell of sensation moved a bit further, painting in my foot, knee, and groin before cascading down my left leg as rainwater might crest an invisible damn.
I waited patiently but not without a growing curiosity as my physical world expanded. I had an abdomen, a chest, and two arms. There was hair on my skin, I was breathing, and my heart, my miraculous heart, beat like a drum in my ears. My neck felt stiff and uncomfortable. There was an itch at the base of my skull, a sense of wrongness, which I felt needed to be corrected but for which I had no mental tools to address. I should have been afraid, terrified even, but I suspect fear depends on a singular awareness, a knowledge that there is a world outside of yourself, and this was a gift I had not yet opened.
Noises, reverberations of twisted air, found my eardrum and moved like buzzing flies around my developing consciousness. I tried to ignore them, to withdraw from their insistent drone but found it a vain effort. Each sound was an annoyance, an insult to the tranquil peace of my island of personal existence, inexcusable evidence that there might be a world outside myself. Why was this needed? Why did anything other than my personal reality exist? I turned my head, trying to push the noise away and felt the itch in my skull blossom into petals of insufferable pain.
Alarmed, I opened my eyes.
Light, blinding pain, color, and movement. It was too much, too beautifully overwhelming to describe. It was as if a door had opened, and an entire ocean had rushed through it. Drowning, panicked beyond measure, I screamed and heard only a feather-soft moan escape my lips. I tried to squint away the light, to push back the sea of images, but something had attached itself to my lids, and so it was impossible to close my eyes. I tried again to move. I was being held in place. I felt the metal straps, the bands across my arms and legs.
I was trapped, a prisoner in a world I did not wish to believe existed. I had been nothing more than a toe, a throbbing ache, and now I was a body of senses, of fears, and of pain. Anger, an orange magma of rage, replaced the calm lapping waves that had built my world. I did not ask for this, had done nothing to deserve it, and vowed revenge on whoever had created me to suffer.
There were others? My mind struggled with the concept, rejecting and then recapturing it, examining the thought as one might a delicate butterfly. If I existed, so might others. Were they like me? Were they being made to suffer? Or were they my cruel tormentors? Could they explain what was happening? Could they make it stop? Questions filled my mind, scratching and clawing at the tender flesh of my brain, demanding release.
Instinctively, I formed the words. “Where am I?”
“Hello and welcome, Karl,” said a voice. It was feminine, maternal and calm. Different from the jumbled noises, there was meaning buried in this sound. I was meant to understand it. “It is quite normal to feel disoriented and confused. The light is painful, and my words will take time to process. You feel afraid and angry. These are natural responses. Don’t try to understand everything immediately. Trust that the knowledge is there, waiting for you to access it, but that your mind is not ready to accept what it knows to be true.”
“What is true?” I licked my dry lips.
“You are alive. You exist. You are not alone.”
I focused on the light. The angular pieces of color and shape matched my thoughts but seemed out of synch. I stared and waited as my perception aligned itself, settling like a shimmering cloud over the objects in front of me before pulling them into focus.
I was in a curved white room, strapped to a molded plastic bed, surrounded by hundreds of identical beds with people, men and women, dressed in gossamer sheets of cloth. They looked at me, their eyelids held open by long metal wires. Our beds were vertical so that we were standing upright in them. I could see my questions reflected in their minds. Who was I? Why was I here? What was I expected to do?
My name was Karl. The voice in my ear, my Mother for lack of a better term, had told me as much, but I also knew it to be true. She was speaking to each of us, answering our questions, waiting for us to comprehend. The discourse we heard would differ depending our personalities and skill sets.
“How long?” The words stung my tongue, crawling urgently from my throat before my thoughts could restrain them. I did not want to know, not yet. It could wait. I needed more time to synchronize my body and mind.
“Two hundred and fifty years,” came the calm synthetic voice. “Five solar arrays were damaged during the trip and so it took longer than anticipated to manufacture a stable habitat. Human printing was not initiated until oxygen and food sources reached sustainable levels.”
“Two hundred and fifty years,” I repeated the words, trying to capture the meaning behind the sounds. The fifty made sense. Fifty years was what I agreed to when I signed up. The computer was mistaken. “Fifty years?”
“I will uncouple your flux cable now. It will sting.”
The pain at the back of my skull had cooled, dulling to an annoying itch. Now something new happened, some unlocking and retracting of an internal mechanism that was so deep it felt as if my brain were being sucked out through my spinal cord. The download link retracted like a slimy black snake from inside my head, the hole it left oozed blood that felt sticky on my neck. “Operational status?”
“On hundred percent,” answered Mother. “Earth would like to talk to you once you have your bearings.”
“Release me.” The words were coming easier now, responding to my desires like loyal soldiers.
The metal bands slid smoothly away from my body. The eyelid wires retracted invisibly fast. I blinked and took a step forward. The soft cushion of my printing bed clung to my newly formed flesh, and it took me a moment to break free. Around the room, I saw my companions struggling to do the same. We had been selected and trained for this.
The floor was warm, heated by electromagnetic coils. The air was crisp and smelled faintly of mint. I felt the room sway, my vision faltering momentarily. I waited, and my equilibrium returned. I took another step, turning my neck experimentally and stretching my shoulders. This was my body, my skin, and my bones; printed from cells I volunteered over two centuries ago. I licked my lips again, savoring the sensation, the simple pleasure of touch.
The woman next to me broke free of her table, took a hesitant first step, and then fainted as she tried to walk.
I reached for her, catching her in my arms before I realized how slow her fall had been. Gravity was different here, weaker. Even if I hadn’t reacted, she wouldn’t have been hurt.
Her hair was the dusty amber of honey, her skin a polished brown, and her face was hauntingly familiar. I knew her. I loved her. She was as much a part of me as my newly formed legs or heart. “Janine.”
Her bright dark eyes opened, seeing me, knowing me as I knew her, and her lips parted in a smile that released a melodic laugh. “Karl!”
She reached for me, pulling my lips against hers, her eyes filling with tears. I felt a hard knot in my chest develop and release. It was a relief, a worry that I had not known I had, dissolving like a soap bubble on the pavement. We had done this together, hoping against hope that the program would work, that this day would come. “It worked.”
“We did it.” She pulled away from me, her arms spread wide above her head, her face as radiant as any star. “We did it!”
Everyone in the room looked up. The joy in Janine’s voice was contagious. It fanned the ember of hope we each held in our hearts, feeding it, daring it to match her own.
But, had we done it? Had it worked?
I needed to know.
taking Janine’s hand, pressing my fingers into the delicate folds of her own, I led her toward the curved bleached wall of our room. A spiral staircase rose from the warm floor to an oval hatch in the ceiling. We climbed it together, our hearts bursting with anticipation, with hope for what lay beyond our plastic womb.
I looked down and saw my companions, my friends, looking up at me. They were smiling, joyfully sharing our enthusiasm.
I raised my hand to the code panel and hesitated.
Two hundred and fifty years.
It was too long.
Too many things could have gone wrong. The scientists could never have planned for this. What if I opened the door only to be flash frozen, our pocket of unnatural atmosphere sucked out in a silent hiccup that killed everyone in the room?
I felt Janine’s soft body press against me, hugging me. “It’ll be alright.”
I nodded, holding her with one arm as I pressed my free hand against the smooth panel.
Warm air smelling of fresh cut grass and overturned soil spilled over us. The air tasted of life. Tears clouded my sight as I climbed through the hatch.
We stood on a small hillock.
Emerald grass, swaying trees, and rows upon rows of corn, wheat, and vegetable stretched for miles in every direction.
Laughing, I bent to help Janine. “It’s amazing!”
She pushed me to the ground, and we rolled like children down the grassy hill, our faces pressed close, our breath mixing as if we were a single soul.
Others joined us on the surface. Some wept, others prayed, but everyone knelt and dug their hands in the rich fertile earth. This ground was our lifeblood, our future, and it spoke to us. It told us we were home.
“Look!” Janine pointed to the sky where a dove flew, pure white against the midnight black of outer space.
I laughed with joy and kissed her.
We lay there, looking up into the barren universe through a crystal clear dome.
Over 6 billion kilometers away, the light from our star lightly kissed our cheeks. Its rays were weaker here, its warmth less encompassing, but it was still the sun I was born under, and I loved it.
We were the newest brand of explorers; the next generation of adventurers and the pride I felt for our species made my heart want to burst.
Sitting up, watching the last of my friends climb out of the hatch, seeing the wonder and relief on their faces, I knew this was just the beginning. If we could send a colony to Pluto, print our bodies and successfully download our stored memories 250 years after our original bodies died, we could send explorers beyond our solar system, to places we had never imagined.
Janine pulled me close, knowing my unspoken thoughts. Together, we dug our toes into the dirt and grinned like fools.
We had done it!
My grandfather was a cowboy, a salt-of-the-earth man of action, who told heart-warming stories of the old west. One of his favorites involved him getting kicked in the face by a horse and then upsetting my grandmother by blowing cigarette smoke out of the hole in his cheek. He competed in rodeos on bucking broncos, drove cattle across Colorado, and rode the rails as a hobo during the depression. He was a tough old cowpoke, and I thought nothing could stop him.
His cancer proved me wrong.
Charlie Lozar didn’t go softly into that good night, but he did go, and I think part of the reason I became a doctor was to pay homage to him. This was a man who brought newspaper clippings and a story to every office visit, someone who wanted eye contact and honest answers, and who paid for the time it took to listen with the only currency a cowboy values – stories.
So, I shudder inwardly as an “expert” loads yet another program onto my computer, knowing that the extra clicks I’ll be forced to make are stealing seconds of time away from my patients. Individually these moments are meaningless, but cumulatively they consume the time physicians have to listen to non-clinical information. Worse, the problem is growing with doctors spending 40% of their day with computers and 12% with their patients as documented in The Journal of General Internal Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23595927
“Promise me, you’ll always make enough time for your patients,” said my Grandmother, a stout strong-willed woman who made hasenpfeffer with jackrabbits. The practice of medicine is about people, about hands-on-experience, and about service to the community. It is built on a vow to “do no harm” and ends with a commitment to ameliorate suffering. It is not the practice of turning your back on a patient as you log in their data. It is not about making sure every box is checked off so some analyst’s pie chart is statistically significant. It is not about telling a patient they can’t be seen because the computers are off-line. We are aping Joe Friday on Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts,” and our patients don’t like it as published in JAMA. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2473628
To make money as a cowpoke, my Grandfather and his friends trapped skunks for their fur. They kept them alive in a shed until they had enough “critters” to make it worth skinning them. Each night, after sharing stories over the campfire, they drew straws to see who would go feed and water their little zoo. Each man had been sprayed once or twice and had learned how to use a burlap sack as a shield. Over time, the skunks started to get used to the men so that they were almost domesticated. Until one day when a greenhorn the boss hired only a week earlier drew the short straw. Not recognizing the new hand, fifty skunks let loose at once. The smell was so bad my Grandfather freed all the skunks and burned the shed. The moral of this bedtime story: just because something seems to be working doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Technology does save lives. It has improved the human condition. It just doesn’t save time. Each click is like a small grain of sand, an insignificant unit of measurement by itself, and yet people die in the desert all the time. In The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, physicians spent 44% of their time logging data instead of doing direct patient care – that’s almost half their day. No wonder the lines are so long. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735675713004051
A glut of drop-down menus, templates, check boxes, and protocols has made us think practicing medicine is as easy as domesticating skunks. We’ve started to think that every disease and person fits into a box, that the tap-tap of a keyboard is more important than the lub-dub of a heartbeat, and that we can use Facetime rather than face-to-face time to treat our patients when they live four blocks away. Maybe I’m just an old-fashion sawbone, but this kind of medicine stinks as bad as that shed.
Technology is to physicians as fire was to the first people: an excellent tool as long as it’s controlled. So, if you’re a medical administrator, please reconsider collecting data that won’t add real value to the office visit. If you’re the government, realize much of what a doctor does is not quantifiable so stop making us count the number of brush strokes it takes to make a painting. If you’re a patient, please understand that we are drowning in granules of sand and some of us don’t even know it. If you’re a physician in the trenches, remember to listen and try not to turn on the computer until you patient is done telling you their story.
Because a good story is the strongest medicine I know.
Free audiobook for a fair and honest review on Amazon, Goodreads, or Audible.
The Shadow King is now available as an audiobook, and I’m handing out free downloads codes to the first five people who E-mail me – David@screenwritermd.com with The Shadow King in the subject line. If you enjoy the story and narration, please leave your favorable thoughts on Goodreads.com, Amazon.com, or Audible.com.
Thank you all for your support.
Sal is a sawbone, a robot surgeon, designed to replace human organs and tissues in a drive-by-clinic sort of way. He’s good at his job, underappreciated, and completely unprepared to be taken hostage by a young girl with pink hair and ties to the robot resistance. Soon Sal finds himself operating on robots that have become humans – only better, and must decide if he will join their fight for robot rights. This novelette is the 2nd in the “Sick Robot” series- I hope you enjoy SAWBONES.