The Shores of Night
George J. Condon
I was loading one of my gym bags with small brown medicine bottles when I heard Skip move up behind me.
"Security guard," she hissed into my ear.
Grabbing Skip's wrist, I pulled us both down onto the floor and we crawled behind the shelving unit that I had been looting. A second later, the pale blue beam of the roboguard's headlamp stabbed through the glass door behind us and swept the room. I could hear the robot jiggling the doorknob with one of its claws and I was glad that I had reset the lock after we picked it. Would the thing notice where I had disabled the alarm sensors? For what seemed an eternity, the machine peered into the room, then it rolled away to continue its rounds. We started to breathe again.
"That was too close," Skip said.
"Close only counts when you're playing horseshoes," I replied.
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know. It's just something that my grandfather always said when something nearly happened, but didn't."
"What were you taking when the guard came along?" Skip asked.
"Mephenytoin. An anticonvulsant drug. It was the last item on our shopping list. We've managed to get just about everything we need."
"I picked up something extra," Skip said.
"What was that?"
She held up a polyethylene bag filled with ampules of liquid.
"Morphine," she said with a grin.
"Always useful," I agreed. "Now, let's get out of here before that guard comes back."
Each of us hauled two bulging gym bags out of the drug storage room as we crept down the fire stairs to the rear exit of the NebuPharm warehouse. No guards appeared when we opened the fire door and moved our loot across the halogen lit parking lot. We expected some kind of pursuit at any moment, but everything was quiet. When we reached the spot where I had parked my red Mazda outside the company's chain link fence, the tension broke. Skip and I laughed and slapped palms like a pair of athletes who had just won the big game.
I opened the car trunk and we stowed the bags inside.
We must have looked like cartoons of criminals, dressed in black sweat suits and watch caps. Skip and I had only done this this break and entry stuff a couple of times before, but we were improving. When I served in the army reserves to help pay my way through medical school, my electronics instructors didn't foresee that I would use my training to defeat alarm systems. I learned my lock picking skills from material I found on the Internet. Compared to performing surgery, it's not so hard.
Skip pulled off her cap and shook her long dark hair loose. She smiled at me and her green eyes seemed to gleam in the moonlight. As I had been so many times before, I was stunned by how beautiful she looked. She must have read my thoughts because her smile vanished.
"Well, Greg, I guess we should go," she said.
We climbed into my Mazda and I was about to turn the ignition key when the blue and white patrol car turned the corner, stopping a few meters away from us. There were two cops inside and they were running no gum ball lights or sirens, so I knew they were on routine patrol and not answering an alarm. A stocky young constable got out of the cruiser and walked toward us. His older partner stood behind the patrol car's open door, gripping his pistol, ready to provide cover fire if necessary. People often tell me that I'm a smooth talker, but I doubted that I could explain to these cops why Skip and I were parked outside a warehouse late at night, dressed in black and with a cache of stolen drugs in our car. For one crazy moment, I wished I had a gun, but I pushed that thought away quickly.
"What are we going to do, Greg?" Skip asked. Her voice sounded frightened and I didn't blame her.
"Kiss me," I said.
"Just do it."
It must have been because of the edge in my voice, but Skip leaned toward me and pressed her mouth against mine. I wrapped my arms around her, wishing that the cop would take at least a year to reach our car. Unfortunately, it didn't take nearly that long. A minute later, he was knocking on the driver's window.
I rolled the window down and assumed my best choir boy manner.
"Is something wrong, Officer?"
"Can't you two afford a motel room?"
"Sorry," I said. "We didn't mean to cause any trouble. My girlfriend lives with her parents and.... Well, you know how it is."
The cop pulled a flashlight from his belt, switched it on and swept the beam around the interior of my Mazda. He held the light on Skip for a moment, then he turned his attention back to me.
"All right, take off," he said, then he grinned at me. "I admire your taste in women, Buddy."
The young patrolman went back to talk to his partner and I started the Mazda, letting the turbine whine up to speed before I shifted into drive. The two cops ignored us as we drove away.
"I'm going to be ten years older after tonight," Skip said when we were out of sight of the police.
I felt my hands trembling on the steering wheel as I drove.
"Personally, I'll be ready for a nursing home," I said.
For a while, we rode without talking. I could have switched the car onto computer control, but I'm old fashioned about wanting to do my own driving. As we turned onto Highway 401, I thought about how I met Skip, long before we became partners in crime. Her name is really Nancy, but she hates it. Her parents tagged her "Skip" when she was six years old because of her fondness for skipping rope and the nickname stuck. Everyone calls her that.
I've known Skip for three years now, but I fell in love with her about fifteen minutes after we met.
Because I was distracted, I forgot that our route took us close to Pearson International Spaceport. Abruptly, a reentry shuttle passed low overhead, coming in for a landing after bringing a load of passengers down from Earth Station One. The huge craft was bathed in a pale green glow from the force field of its antigravity motors and its powerful landing lights sliced through the darkness.
After the rest of the night's stress, I guess the sight of the shuttle was too much for Skip. She began to tremble and started to cry. I pulled the Mazda over onto the shoulder of the highway, braked to a stop and touched her hand.
"It's going to be all right," I said.
She looked at me with wounded eyes, managing to be beautiful even in her grief. With an effort, she composed herself and gave me a wan smile.
"You must think I'm terribly weak, Greg."
"Don't be silly. It's my fault for coming back this way. I know seeing the shuttle made you think about Steve, but we can't give up hope. We're not beaten yet."
"I know. Thanks."
When we reached Alliance Memorial Hospital, I showed my photo badge to the android working the main gate and it pushed the control button that lifted the entrance barrier. I drove my Mazda around to the back of the north wing and parked it near the loading docks used to bring in hospital supplies and for waste collection. This late at night, the loading area was deserted, so nobody saw us carry our bags of stolen medicines into the building.
Skip and I stowed the gym bags inside a wall locker in one of the hospital's drug supply rooms. Later, we would gradually mix the stolen materials in with legal supplies and alter the inventory files on the computer system to cover our additions.
I saw that Skip looked solemn and guessed that she was troubled by tonight's theft.
"If you don't want to come with me next time, it's all right."
"I'm not sure we're doing the right thing, Greg."
"What else can we do?" I asked wearily. "We have more than three hundred patients here from space crews, young men and women who should be in the prime of their lives. Instead, they've got cancer, osteoporosis, dementia and a dozen other things that should be illnesses of the very old. Some of them die every day because we don't have the right medicines to give them."
Skip made a face. "I know what prolonged exposure to zero gravity and to cosmic radiation can do," she said. I knew she meant Steve. "I just wish we had some other way to get what our patients need."
"So do I, Skip. We keep pleading with the government for more money and we get only promises. The hospital has taken out so many loans that our debt payments barely leave us enough to meet staff payrolls. No, we've tried begging and borrowing. All we have left is stealing. I don't know whether anyone else here suspects what we're doing, but everybody is so glad to get the medicines that they don't ask questions. Besides, it's not as though the big pharmaceutical companies can't afford it."
Skip nodded reluctantly.
"We'll probably be caught and sent to prison," she said. "But I'll keep going out on sweeps with you. I'm doing this for Steve."
We stepped out into the corridor and I saw my head nurse Maria Marcos walking quickly toward us. I knew from her facial expression that she was about to deliver bad news.
"Doctor Bernstein," she said to me in her Filipino accent. "Thank God you are here! We have big trouble."
"What's wrong, Maria?"
"It is Captain Matthews. He is delusional again. Nurse Wallace was trying to take his temperature, but he grabbed her and shoved her down. She is all right, but Captain Matthews managed to undo his restraints. He is in one of the examination rooms and everybody is afraid to go in there after him."
I looked at Skip and saw that the news had hit her hard.
"Show me where he is, Maria," I said. "I'll talk to him."
Maria bit her lip and frowned.
"There is something else, Doctor. One of the orderlies was taking some surgical instruments down to be sterilized. Captain Matthews saw them and he took a scalpel."
I felt a cold lump form in the pit of my stomach. Now, I was going to be facing a deranged man who was wielding a razor sharp knife. What a great way to finish the night!
"Skip, you'd better stay here," I said.
"Not a chance in Hell."
"All right, but let's be careful."
Maria went with us to the elevator and we rode up to the floor where the hospital kept most of the patients with psychological disorders. She led us down the right hand corridor and pointed to a room that had its door ajar. From inside, we heard someone shouting curses and the sound of things being smashed. Gesturing for Skip to stay behind me, I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The room was a shambles. An examination table and two chairs lay overturned in the middle of the floor. The drawers of a filing cabinet hung open, with paper files and charts flung everywhere. In one corner of the room, a bearded man clad in pale blue hospital pajamas was howling and banging on the wall with his fist. It was hard for me to associate this emaciated scarecrow figure with the handsome young space pilot I had met once.
"Hello, Steve," I said.
Steve stopped his howling and turned to glare at me with wild eyes. "Get out," he shouted.
"Steve, it's me. Greg Bernstein."
I took a step toward him. He backed away and I saw the blade of the scalpel gleam in the light as he brought his right hand up in front of his body.
"You're not Bernstein," Steve said. He lowered his voice as though telling me a secret. "I know what you are. You're an alien thing that looks like him. Well, I'm not fooled. Stay away from me."
"Steve, you're sick and you need help. Just put the scalpel down."
I took another step toward him. That was a mistake. He lunged at me and I jumped back, but not fast enough. I felt a sting in my left forearm where the steel scalpel blade caught me. The wound wasn't much more than a scratch, but some blood oozed into my sleeve.
From behind me, I heard Skip gasp when she saw that I was bleeding.
Before I could stop her, she moved forward, toward Steve.
"Darling, please don't do this," she pleaded with him.
Seeing her seemed to shock Steve back to reality. The scalpel fell from his hand and clattered to the tile floor. "Help me," he gasped.
Steve's body began to tremble and his eyes rolled up in his head as he crumpled like a rag doll and fell forward, writhing at our feet. Skip reached for him, but I caught her arm.
"He's going into convulsions," I said. "I need a syringe of mephenytoin. Quickly."
Skip ran out of the room and I grabbed Steve's head in my hands, trying to keep him from choking on his own tongue as he thrashed around. When Skip came back with the hypodermic needle, she jabbed it into Steve's right triceps, giving him an intramuscular injection. We didn't have time to hunt for a vein.
For a few long seconds, nothing happened, then Steve's spasms gradually stopped, and his body relaxed and lay still.
"So tired," he mumbled as he drifted off into sleep.
Skip sat on the floor with him, cradling his head in her lap.
She wasn't my nurse any more. She was Nancy Matthews, devoted wife.
Watching them together, I would have changed places with Steve, if it meant that Skip would love me that much.
With help from a pair of orderlies, we put Steve onto a gurney and wheeled him back into the ward. After we got him into bed, Skip sat with him, holding his hand while he slept. I decided to give them some time alone. Maria bandaged my arm, then I took the elevator down to the ground floor and I walked outside.
When I looked up at the night sky, I could see only a few of the brightest stars because of the light pollution from the city. I knew there were uncounted trillions more of them out there, beyond the shores of night, more than mankind would ever reach before the end of time.
The gods were having their little joke, allowing us to discover the Vorster drive that gave us at least the nearest stars, but neglecting to warn us of the terrible price. The drive made the exploitation of space -- mining, even tourism for those rich enough -- practical. But over 'shorter' distances, ships still traveled at speeds barely faster than the first manned missions to Mars, exposing crews to long periods in microgravity with no planetary magnetic fields or gravity to block or deflect all the crap flying around out there. And eventually -- eventually, cases like Steve Matthews started to occur. A few. Then dozens. Then hundreds ... There were half-assed attempts to provide better shielding, centrifuges to provide pseudogravity, and finally artificial gravity, so the rate at which new cases were emerging was slowing down, but it would never reach zero. And there was too much money and prestige at stake to stay out of space until it was really 'safe'.
I was one of their jokes too, a doctor whose duty it was to keep alive the man preventing me from having the only woman I wanted. A doctor and a thief, I reminded myself. Well, until they caught me, I would do whatever it took to keep my patients alive.
A gust of night wind made me shiver and I walked back into the warmth of the hospital. I decided to do one set of rounds on the wards, just to be sure everything was under control, before going home.
My wrist phone beeped and I lifted it close to my face, wincing at a twinge of pain from the cut on my left arm.
"Doctor Bernstein here," I said.
"Greg? It's Bob Vorster. Long time no see, Old Buddy. I'm just calling to tell you that we're going to announce a new release of my drive engine tomorrow. This one's even faster, so we can punch out farther into space. I wanted you to be the first to know because of what I owe you."
"You don't owe me anything, Bob."
"Sure I do. Back when we were in college, you told me that crazy idea you had about energy fields and superconductors. The physics was mostly wrong, but I couldn't get the concept out of my mind. After I finished my engineering degree, it took me eight years to perfect a prototype. My sweat and talent built the Vorster drive. But without your idea, none of this would have happened."
I thought about Steve and the other human wreckage lying in their sick rooms on the floors above me.
"None of this would have happened," I agreed.
"Well, good night, Buddy. We've got to get together real soon."
Vorster hung up and I switched off my wrist phone. The gratitude he had expressed hadn't come as a surprise; he'd actually mentioned my name in more than one interview, and that had earned me some nasty looks from the staff in the spacers' wards. I'd had to pretend that Vorster was talking about some other Greg Bernstein until the fuss died down -- fortunately, there were plenty of candidates in the phone directories, even some who'd gone to college with Bob and me.
Now nobody at the hospital knows my little secret -- especially not Skip. I'll keep putting in long hours on the wards, selfless, dedicated, heroic Dr. Bernstein. But no matter how hard I work, it will never be atonement enough.
Bio: George Condon has knocked around in a number of career fields, including military service, electronics and computer software development. He now lives in Toronto where he works as a computer security specialist for The Bank of Nova Scotia. While suffering through the frigid rigors of January in Canada, George dreams of retirement in Tahiti or somewhere else where it is warm. He has published stories previously in Planet Magazine and in Aphelion Science Fiction.
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