The New War

I’ve been busy editing a collection of short stories I hope to put out in June or July 2017 – I’m making cuts, fine-tuning and rearranging some previously published pieces, and writing a few new ones – The working title is Cyberweird Stories.

For this post, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote the day after the twin towers were hit.

Towers of Light in Lower Manhattan

The New War

By D.C. Lozar

Shadows unseen attacked at first light.

We bled but knew not whom to fight.

The year was two thousand and one.

Our golden age of innocence was done.

Misled arrows directed by hate

Opened the door to our new fate.

Blazing flames engulfed twin towers,

Symbols of freedom’s united powers.

A third blameless missile deepened our pain.

What was all this death meant to gain?

America looked to the thorn in its side

And found a wound gaping wide.

Mothers and Fathers would come home no more,

Full family circles now made poor.

Eyes open wide, mouths drawn tight,

Even our children knew all was not right.

Evil has raised its cowardly head.

Tears fill our eyes as we bury the dead.

One is too many, two too much.

Loved ones never again to touch.

The fourth guiltless bullet dropped to the ground,

Disarmed by heroes newly found.

Our Nation’s strength is suddenly clear.

Men and Women bound together against their fear.

We are one people, one hand, one fist.

They went for our heart, and by God, they missed.

Stand with your brother, your neighbor, your friend.

This is the message we will send.

As a family rocked by sorrow,

We swear to make a new tomorrow

Where faceless promoters of worldly terror

Will know just how much we care.

A war we declare on a group unknown.

They will pay dearly as we set the tone.

We pledge to find and destroy all that is dark.

We will not forget this searing mark.

Those who would keep shadows hidden from sight

Will find us eager and ready to fight.

No longer will there be safety in hate.

Evil and terror we will eliminate.

We will look past color, culture, and prayer.

Each life we will examine with precious care.

But if terror is the basis of your belief,

You will feel the full fury of our grief.

Nations will unite at last,

Leaving behind their troubled past.

Call to your neighbors and hold their hand.

This world is everyone’s home, life, and land.

Shadows at first light were aimed at our hearts

Only to find that we are more than our parts

September 11, two thousand and one,

The New War has just begun.

Human Harvest – Immortal Race

What if we learned how to live forever by transferring our minds into new bodies? There are limited resources. Not everyone contributes to society in a meaningful way. How do you decide who deserves this new immortality?

You test your children.

Emma is determined be one of the first twenty of her fifty siblings to cross the finish line in a race designed to weed out the chaff so she can earn citizenship in Amaca. How much is she willing to sacrifice to get what she wants?

Where do the new bodies come from?

Excerpt: 

Violet’s bare feet slapped the snow-white metal floor, a rhythmic tap-tap-tapping sound, which rang shamefully down the long corridor. She had slept in, woken alone, and nearly vomited on seeing the time. Missing class was one thing; missing Chaff Day, well, that was a nightmare come to life.

This was her fault. Not two days ago, she had had a full-on conniption when Naomi woke her before morning bells. Everyone had seen it, had stood back as it happened, and so, as penance for being a total slice to wake up, they had let her sleep – thanks guys.

She tore off her clothes, wadded them into a ball, and tossed the mass into a wall pit as she veered to the right. The hallway narrowed and dipped. She heard the applause, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and felt her heartbeat double in her chest.

“Outfit 1910A,” she yelled.

A gear-and-piston wall panel opened, and Violet snatched up the folded race clothes of a novice. Changing mid-run, her legs and arms flailing ridiculously, she cursed as her shorts tore along one side. Fine. Perfect. Now, it would be a real show.

There was no way to put on her shoes, a pair of green mag-levs, while running, so she tucked them under an arm and poured on the speed.

The corridor snaked to the left, widened, and spat Violet out into the open air of the stadium. Blinding sunlight and the familiar oven-heat of the metal track slid like puzzle pieces into her mind, and her worries evaporated – This was Chaff Day!

The stands were filled with Amacan citizens and their robots. News cameras zipped like angry flies around the track, regurgitating their sticky images onto the floating projection vids above the arena.

On screen, Violet’s desperate run down the corridor – a bed-headed demon-blur of naked flesh – replayed in slow motion for all of Amaca to see.

They knew she was late!

Did they know she missed sessions?

A cold sweat formed on the back of Violet’s neck as she jogged to where her family, a pod of forty-nine, waited.

“You blew it,” snickered Steve. At seventeen, muscular and dim-witted, he was the class tough. “They’re going to disqualify you for skipping class.”

“I was there.” Violet pushed charcoal-black hair out of her face and stuck her tongue out at him. It was a childish move, but the fly-cameras loved it. “Check your band.”

Bell, her best friend, and sister, looked up from the digital visiband they all wore. Her soft gray eyes widened with amazement. “But, I didn’t see you there.”

“I was in the back,” said Violet, bending to pull on her shoes. She loved mag-levs. They made her feel like she was flying. “Just came in late.”

Steve’s narrow mouth tightened with confusion as he scrolled through the morning roster. His green eyes burned. “This is wrong.”

Violet shrugged and moved to tighten Bell’s shoes; the smaller girl never locked them properly. Looking up, she smiled reassuringly. “You’re going to do great.”

Blinking back nervous tears, Bell nodded. She was blond, tan, and wiry. “You to.”

“You hacked it,” said Steve, awestruck. “You hacked your band!”

Violet sprang at him, her fist descending. “Did not!”

Cont.

Herald of Chernobog

Viktor is a vagabond treasure hunter, a warrior, and a physician who lost his license for doing experiments on extra-terrestrial predators. Determined to win back his Earth citizenship, he follows clues that lead him to the Bermuda triangle of asteroid belts. The Cthulhu used a device called the Herald to control time, and Viktor hopes to use the ancient artifact to defeat death. The Herald is kept on Yuggoth which legend says is at the center of the Cernobog Asteroid Belt – right along with a black hole.

As a long time fan of the pulps, I wanted to create a story that blended my love of Robert E. Howard’s story “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” with H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness.” I set it in space, sprinkled it with forgotten European folklore, and hope I’ve spun these classics into something unique. Please enjoy.

Sythizens – Expulsion

 

Norbert’s life is perfect – He’s a fully employed reporter, married, and about to have a child. Unfortunately, the sick robot he followed ten years ago has decided to stage a robot revolution on the same day as Norbert’s baby is due to be born. Unwittingly cast as the spokesperson for the human race, Norbert struggles to protect his young family and the genetic integrity of his species. This novelette is the 3rd and final one in the “Sick Robot” series.

Circular Thinking

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Circular Thinking
by
D.C. Lozar

Humans are priceless.
When high heat is applied to dead flesh it becomes ash.
Ash is made up of carbon, which is essentially coal.
Coal compressed at high pressure becomes a diamond.
Diamonds are priceless.
Diamonds come from volcanoes.
Villagers dropped humans into volcanoes.
Hmm…
Maybe the natives knew more than we thought.
Knowledge is priceless.
New ideas are written down in books.
Books are made of paper, which comes from trees.
The carbon cycle needs trees.
Trees make oxygen.
We need oxygen to read books.
Did we learn anything?
Children learn faster than adults.
Adults have bigger brains.
Is that why we keep trying to make technology smaller?
Supercomputer use diamonds to think like us.
Hmm…

The Trial of the Three Billy Goats Gruff

By D.C. Lozar and Ellen Kristoff

Every eye in the courtroom turned as the Wolf, dressed in a navy-blue Bailiff’s uniform, padded down the aisle.

“This session is called to order. All rise,” growled the Wolf. “The honorable Brothers Grimm presiding.”

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Two Siamese cats dressed in flowing judge’s robes entered the court from their chambers. Their wet amber eyes scanned the fairy tale characters on the jury. The three little Pigs cowered, little Red Riding Hood stuck out her tongue, and Hansel and Gretel stopped throwing spitballs at the back of the old Witch’s head. There was a hushed silence as the two cats took their positions behind the bench.

“Please take your seats,” yapped the Wolf. The gilded buttons on his double-breasted vest shown with authority. “Case number: 317 – Mr. James A. Troll vs. The Gruff Family. Defense’s side was heard before recess. The prosecution may begin.”

Humpty Dumpty rolled out of his chair, adjusted his necktie, and pushed his client’s wheelchair to the witness stand. “If it pleases the court, I call Mr. Troll.”

Mr. Troll reeked of expired aftershave and cabbage. A filthy neck brace held his chin steady while a leg cast poked out from under his tattered overalls. His large brown eyes scanned the court and found the immaculately dressed Billy Goats sitting in the defense box. The sparse steely whiskers on his cheeks quivered.

“As a victim of workplace violence and inadequate health care myself,” began Humpty Dumpty. He dabbed at the perspiration on his brow, highlighting the poorly mended cracks in his shell. “I know far too well how slander and misinformation by the media can rob a victim of their just say in the public eye. Thus, we are asking the court for damages amounting to thirty-five gold shillings to cover the hospital bills, lost wages, and emotional distress incurred by my client.”

Pinocchio worked jerkily with a coal pencil to sketch the jury’s expressions of awe. The damages requested were twice what any reasonable jury had ever awarded.

Whispering, the three Billy Goats leaned into a huddle. The youngest chewed nervously on the edge of their table.

“Mr. Troll,” continued Humpty Dumpty. “Please tell the court what happened on June twelfth?”

Mr. Troll grimaced as he straightened in his rickety wheelchair. His voice was unruffled and polished “Certainly, Mr. Dumpty.”

Mrs. Spider’s forelegs fluttered over the court’s stenograph, recording every word.

“I was called to repair a particular bridge on the lower east side. My employer, Tinker, Inc., had informed my office that there was a dangerously loose floorboard that, if not timely repaired, could lead to public harm. Grabbing hammer and nails, I rushed to the location. Climbing under the bridge, I quickly discovered that three of the structure’s wooden slats had indeed come a part. The most efficient way to repair said damage was through the use of glue and nails. I was in a cramped position and so was unaware when I spilled some of my quick drying glue onto the nails as I prepared to do my work. It is my habit to place nails in my mouth for easy access and, in so doing, I subsequently sealed part of my mouth together.”

“That was when the first of those three hooligans came strutting up to the bridge.” Mr. Troll pointed forcefully with a sausage-sized finger at the Three Billy Goats. “I yelled that the bridge was unsafe and not to cross. But the first one ignored me and strutted on by as I held up the floorboards with my arthritic shoulders. I’ll admit my words may have come out a bit garbled due to the glue on my lips, but I’m sure I said I wanted to complete repairs.”

Humpty Dumpty took out a scroll and scanned it quickly. “The Billy Goats contended earlier that you said you would eat the youngest one’s hairs.”

Offended, Mr. Troll looked to the judges. “My point exactly. They’re twisting my words, making me look bad. Why would I eat just his hairs? That’s ridiculous.”

The Grimm Brothers nodded sagely, conceding the point.

“Well, no sooner did the first one cross, then did his larger brother appear. Again, I yelled a warning to stay off the bridge as it might collapse.”

“Here, the defendants claim you said that you would eat him in a snap,” read Humpty Dumpty.

“Ludicrous.” Mr. Troll spread his burly arms and rolled his eyes. “This time, I practically broke my back trying to hold up the slats as the middle thug tramped over my head. He even had the audacity to warn me that his older heftier brother was on the way.”

Gasps of compassion issued from the spellbound jury.

“Knowing that yet another careless pedestrian was about to cross, I shimmied out from under the bridge and positioned myself in front of it. My intention was to prevent a catastrophe.” Mr. Troll shifted awkwardly in his chair. “I am by no means a hero, but I felt I had a responsibility to warn the fellow.”

“Quite right,” agreed Humpty Dumpty. “We should all be so lucky to have someone warn us of unseen dangers.”

“The final Billy Goat was quite large,” continued Mr. Troll, “but he looked mature enough to understand the situation. I put out my hand, smiled as best I could, and said I’m pleased to meet you.”

“He said, ‘I’m going to eat you!’” bayed the largest Billy Goat.

“Order!” The Grim Brothers’ gavels slammed into the desk.

“Do you see his temper?” asked Mr. Troll. “He rushed me, horns down, and head-butted me into a nearby tree. I woke several hours later with the injuries you can all plainly see. My wounds left me unemployed and indigent. Evicted from my apartment, I now live under the same fateful bridge that I tried to repair.”

“Thank you, Mr. Troll,” purred one of the Brothers Grimm. “Does the defense have anything to add in cross-examination?”

Snow White, dressed in a snappy business suit, strode forward. Her eyes blazed with righteousness. “Yes, your Honors. Just one single request.”

Reaching into her silk pocket, she pulled out a small sharp nail and placed it on the banister in front of Mr. Troll. “I would like Mr. Troll to pick this nail up for the court.”

Mr. Troll’s face fell, and a layer of perspiration emerged on his craggy brow. He looked sheepishly to his council for help.

Humpty Dumpty having complete faith in his client’s innocence waited coolly for Mr. Troll to comply.

Fumbling with his freakishly large hands and sharp claws, Mr. Troll struggled to grasp the tiny nail. It skipped and skittered away from him with each attempt.

The jury gasped with horror. They had almost fallen for Mr. Troll’s story.

“I contend that Mr. Troll has never repaired a bridge in his life,” said Snow White primly. “As he cannot pick up a single nail, I demand that his unfounded claims be dismissed. I also propose that the court imprison Mr. Troll for making false accusations against three of our town’s most upstanding citizens.”

“Agreed,” snarled the first of the Brothers Grimm.

“Case dismissed,” hissed the second of the Brothers Grimm. “Security, please take Mr. Troll into custody.”

With tears of happiness streaming down their snowy beards, the three Billy Goats hugged each other and Snow White.

Mr. Troll bounded out of his wheelchair and made a mad dash for the door. Prince Charming, his sword already drawn, caught the fugitive easily and dragged him from the room.

Humpty Dumpty shook his head in bewildered regret at having lost yet another case while Hansel and Gretel resumed throwing spitballs at the back of the Witch’s head.

The Wolf drew a creased sheet of paper from his breast pocket and read. “Next on the docket: Case Number: 318 – Ms. Tabatha Goldilocks vs. The Bear Family.”

 

Death Benefits – Read the Small Print

Of the side effects listed on the sheet accompanying all prescriptions, one of the scariest is the admission that our pills could cause death. This is considered a bad thing. But, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

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Death Benefits

by D.C. Lozar

The certificate I handed to my doctor said I was dead.

What’s more, it recommended (in no uncertain terms) that he approve an immediate autopsy, as my demise was suspicious in light of my young age, lack of family history, and excellent health. Indeed, Dr. Finn commented last year that if I took care of myself, I could expect to live another eighty years. I shook my head as he squinted at the document. This was why we still had human doctors – apparently, medical scanners made mistakes.

“It says here that you’re dead.” Dr. Finn had been old when I was a child. Not that he looked it. He had a trim build, fair complexion, and only a touch of gray along his temples: Such were the benefits of modern medicine, of pills, to be precise. His ocean-blue eyes filled with concern as he looked up at me. “How do you feel?”

“Fine.” I did feel well. For the last two weeks, a sense of quiet calm, a resting balance of my mood and body, had washed over me so that I was never hungry, tired, or irritable. I flew through my work projects, completed routine home chores happily, and found I had a reserve of energy and time left over to spend with my wife. We spoke more than we had in years, went on dates, and took up hiking. “Never better.”

“How’s your appetite?”

“I’m not hungry.” Curiously, I hadn’t eaten anything for several weeks.

Dr. Finn listened to my heart and lungs, checked my pupils, and felt for a pulse. His hand trembled as he did the exam, and I remembered one of his pills gave him the shakes. Taking my middle finger, he pinched it hard between two of his own. “Does that hurt?”

“No.” It didn’t – not even a little.

Frustrated, his voice hinting at his growing apprehension, he ground his knuckle into my sternum so hard I felt he might break a the bone. “Painful?”

“No.” Alarms went off in my head. Until today, nothing I’d ever presented with had rattled Dr. Finn’s professionalism. “What’s wrong?”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“I haven’t needed to.” Not sleeping, I’d finished next year’s taxes, read three books, and written some op-ed columns. In fact, I was starting to think that whole thing about needing eight hours a night was a complete scam.

“Okay…You need to be completely honest with me, James.” Dr. Finn slumped back in his rolling exam chair and folded his hands on his lap. His expression was pained but forgiving – he wanted me to know he wouldn’t judge me. “Are you doing anything differently? Have you traveled out of the country? Has anything strange or unusual happened to you recently, anything at all? This is important.”

Perplexed, I shook my head.

He leaned forward. “Are you taking drugs?”

“Not drugs.” I hesitated, wondering if I should mention it, unsure if there were any connection. “Just some herbs I found on the Internet.”

“What kind?”

“They’re all natural, completely legal.” They were. I hadn’t even needed to pay customs to ship them from Costa Rica.

“What’s in them?” The corners of Dr. Finn’s eyes crinkled, a sure sign he was on the trail of a diagnosis.

“I don’t know. They’re supposed to make you happy.” I was defensive and worried that we might be getting off track. The website said the herbs were of an ancient and rare variety, blended using a secret family recipe, and only available for a short time. They guaranteed users one hundred percent satisfaction, or they would refund our money. Indeed, the reviews were all five stars and overflowing with glowing testimonials. In retrospect, I will admit, I neglected to check if the customers were verified purchasers but, at the time, their endorsements convinced me to give the stuff a try. “Besides, I ran out two weeks ago.”

“How long did you take them for?”

“I don’t know, about a month.”

“Why didn’t you order more?”

It was a valid question. I had tried, but the website, an amateurish endeavor with a hand-drawn smiling skull as a logo (an element I initially took to be a creative, albeit ironic, marketing tool) said supplies had run low. Potential patrons were advised to check back regularly for updates. Additionally, individuals, like myself, who had finished their course of supplements, would not need to reorder as they had taken enough to guarantee eternal happiness. So, I answered truthfully. “They ran out.”

Dr. Finn adjusted his wire-rim glasses and harrumphed. The disregard he entertained for alternative medicine was well known to both his staff and patients. Here now, was proof. I could practically hear the gears locking into place as he prepared his monolog about the dangers of self-medication. Rather than listening to the rant, I decided to mollify him before he started. “I should have asked you.”

“Well, yes,” he admitted nonplus.

We waited another moment for his prepared speech to re-arrange itself into something that might be a better fit for my particular circumstances. “Be that as it may, the real problem is simply that you have no heartbeat, respirations, or vitals. Your body temperature is that of room air; you feel no pain, and, by your own admission, you are not sleeping or eating, and these hard facts leave me with no alternative but to conclude that you are, as much as it pains me to say it, clinically dead.”

“That sucks.” It wasn’t the most profound thing to say, but I challenge anyone, given the same circumstances, to come up with something better.

“Of course, there will be no fee for today’s visit.” Dr. Finn walked me to the door and shook my hand. “I don’t have a license to treat the dead.”

“What next?”

“I’ll say you died due to natural causes – in particular, an overdose of imported herbs – and sign the death certificate this afternoon. The medical examiner is a friend of mine, so I think I can get him to sidestep the autopsy.” There were soft tears in Dr. Finn’s eyes. He wiped them away with a trembling finger. “I’ll miss you, James. You were one of my favorite patients.”

“Goodbye.” I felt awkward. It was like he was waiting for me to hug him or pat him on the back. Maybe he was looking for forgiveness for having let me die, for failing me, or maybe it was hard for someone who spent their career preventing death to see it smile back at them. I gave him a fist-bump. “I feel okay.”

“I’m glad,” he sniffed. “I’ll call your wife and let her know the bad news.”

I thought about how that might go. “You don’t need to, Doc. I’ll tell her myself. First thing. I think she’ll take it better coming from me.”

He cocked his head to one side, unsure but relieved. “You were very young. Your death will come as a shock. Tell her to call if she needs any pills to help with the grief.”

I moved toward the exit. “I’ll let her know. Thanks.”

Dr. Finn gave me an apologetic nod, and I left.

Now, here’s where it gets weird.

Being dead in the modern hi-tech world does not “suck.”

Au contraire (I’m learning French), it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I can break any law I want, and no one can arrest me. I fly for free, watch movies without a ticket, and never worry about dying in a car accident or natural catastrophe. My debt is annulled, and my wife cashed in my life insurance policy for an exorbitant sum – owing to my prior statistically low probability of death. Needless to say, whatever preliminary qualms she held about the diagnosis (we considered getting a second opinion but then thought better of it) have since evaporated.

When we married, we vowed to stay together “until death did us part,” but neither of us feels like we need to take this literally. We’ve always felt a deeper than mortal connection, and now, with no financial concerns, we’ve been able to quit our jobs, travel, learn new languages, and enjoy our lives together with a freedom that would never have been possible if I were alive.

So, when the smiling-skull website procured a new but limited supply of herbs and offered them to the public, I wrote a glowing testimonial, taking care to document that I was a verified and exceptionally happy customer.

I did leave out the part about dying.

They’ll find out soon enough. Besides, it’s like what Dr. Finn explained when I asked him why he still took his pills when they gave him the shakes. “Everything has side effects, James. You just have to learn how to live with them.”

Dr. Stranger – When Ghosts Get Stuck

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.

Printed People – How to Colonize the Galaxy

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.

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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.

Whoever?

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!

Cowboy Medicine

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.

Learning the Ropes

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.