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August 2022
 
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How Could They Do That?

by William Brently


I was looking at my cup of coffee in a back corner of the cafeteria, alone, occasionally raising my eyes to watch other medics hurrying around in their white suits, when Shauna found me.

"It wasnít your fault," she told me.

I studied my coffee and nodded. Of course it wasnít. I had told myself the same many times before, but it was just an excuse. Just words.

"You canít save everyone."

More words, and just as familiar. Nonetheless, I looked up. She was smiling that half-smile of sympathy that nurses give their patients so often. Of course, she was a nurse, but I was no patient. Neither did I want sympathy. Was she really concerned about me?

"Iím fine." I took a sip of the coffee, which was cold now. "Really. It just bothers me when I lose a patient."

That was true. But it bothered me much more that I had lost three in the last two months. It might have been acceptable, say, a century ago, when transplants were risky and artificial limbs -- fully-functional ones, not those awkward myoelectric or worse, cable-and-pulley plastic things -- were a dream. But not now. Not when almost anything could be replaced with synthetic equivalents, easily available and free of tissue rejection problems.

"It bothers everyone, but you canít let it get you down." She shrugged. "Youíre a good medic. Just do your best."

My best? What if my best wasnít to be a medic? Perhaps I should have followed my father into the avionics field. I had the intelligence for it. Or joined the Exploratory Corps, been an on-ship engineer. High risk factor, but great pay.

"My job is to save lives," I said, both to myself and to Shauna. "If I canít save lives, Iím failing my job. Failing those people."

She nodded slightly, in understanding, not agreement. "Youíll fail for certain if you stay there for another hour staring at that cup. Anyway, I was sent to find you. We have an emergency patient coming in."

I glanced at my contact unit on the table. Turned off. Should have known they would track me down anyway.

"Iím coming." I stood and retrieved the unit, clicking it on. Its red light began flashing rapidly -- missed calls.

"Oh, and Shauna?" She was turning away, but looked back. "Thanks."

She smiled at me, a genuine one without the sympathy, before walking briskly across the cafeteria, hospital-issue shoes not making a sound. My eyes followed her; she was quite attractive even in the plain white garment.

####

It was bad. He was bad, rather, one of the worst cases I had seen in years. The patient lay on the gurney, unmoving, heavily sedated. His body was almost completely covered by a dark brown robe, which matched his ragged, shoulder-length hair. The only ornament was a silver necklace and pendant. Chandian.

From his faceís appearance, he could have been sleeping, had it not been for the bloodied devastation of his left side. A gaping hole in the neck, arm and shoulder missing completely, a chunk out of the side and ribs laid bare, the white contrasting sharply with the dark red blood. Even through the polywater gel that had kept him from bleeding out, he smelled like a slaughterhouse. It was amazing that he was still alive, but I knew life wouldnít hang around for long.

"Take him to surgery, Room 2, at once," I told Shauna, who was washing away some of the blood. "Weíll need an arm, skin graft, artificial heart. And ten units of synblood -- maybe more."

There were other nurses, rushing about efficiently. I followed as the gurney was rolled down the hall, mentally preparing myself. This would be a difficult and very risky operation. I didnít want to lose another -- why did they always send me the tough jobs?

After passing through the sterilization chamber, I entered the low-lighted surgery room. The technician, Thaem, already had the parts ready. He was one of the good ones; I was glad Iíd be working with him today.

"Afternoon," he said, not turning his attention away from the operating table he was preparing. "Too bad about that one this morning. I heard."

"Yeah," I said. "Too bad."

They brought in, and Thaem gave a low whistle. "What got this guy?" Then he stared at the necklace. "A Chandian? Surprised they even brought him here."

"They didnít," said Shauna. "Heís from a militant sect. They attacked an aerotech plant, apparently he had an accident. Two were captured uninjured, the Enforcers brought this one."

I shook my head. The Chandi Brotherhood was usually peaceful, living in forest communes and occasionally holding anti-techno marches. It was the radicals, who believed that all technology was the essence of evil, who gave the group a bad name.

One nurse remained with Shauna; the others left. Two nurses, a technician, and a medic -- and we still might not be able to save him. I studied his face while they carefully removed his garments; he was young, just about the age I was when I had entered the Medical Academy. If I had ever married, I might have had a son close to him in age. But for what we were about to do, it would be better to forget his humanity and regard him as a specimen. Those were easier to work on.

First was the heart. Partially exposed, it was close to stopping on its own. Thaem and I replaced it with the artificial heart while the nurses minded the life support equipment. Shauna looked nervous, but then she always did, ever so slightly, during major operations. Of course she never admitted it; neither did it seem to affect her performance.

That was the most difficult part, taking close to an hour. An hour of playing Deity, quite literally holding a manís life in my hand, watching it pump feebly. In comparison, the skin graft was nothing and the fitting of the mechanical arm fairly easy. It was a fragile setup, though; one bump to the gurney could easily dislocate our intricate handiwork.

"Keep him asleep," I said unnecessarily. He would be fed intravenously for days while flesh fused with machine, strapped tightly in place to prevent inadvertent movements.

"Nice work," said Thaem, nodding to me. I thanked him for his help and he left the room. The technicianís job was finished, from here on out the patient would be taken care of by nurses under my supervision. I found myself craving another cup of coffee.

"Another job well done," I told the two nurses, who were too busy preparing to move the gurney to respond with more than a nod. The manís robe was discarded and the pendant placed in an airtight bag; no doubt he would ask for it as soon as he awoke.

I washed my hands and forearms thoroughly in hot, stinging water before passing through the sterilization chamber and back to the cafeteria. With a quick detour to the menís room.

####

I wasnít particularly thinking about the young Chandian when Shauna approached again, sitting across from me at the little table. I halfway wanted to be irritated at her for following me around, but couldnít. Maybe if she wasnít so prettyÖ

"That was no easy operation you just did," she informed me. Well of course it wasnít.

"It wasnít just me."

"Mostly just you. The rest of us -- weíre just helpers. Youíre the medic."

"Maybe," I said. What did she want me to do, boast?

She looked around the cafeteria. It was almost empty except for a worker cleaning tables; most of the employees were on their way home by now, while the night shift came in. I had started on nights, years ago. It was a highly disagreeable schedule.

"Any plans for tonight?"

I shook my head. "No. Nothing special." Maybe a beer or two.

She seemed unsure. Hesitant. Why would she be unsure? "Maybe we could have dinner. Relax."

It was a statement, but she ended it as a question. I smiled. So thatís why she looked unsure -- asking her superior out to dinner!

"Sure," I said, feeling only a bit defensive. Was she reaching out to me? Why? She was awfully attractive. I found myself wondering what her idea of relaxation might be. "Good. You need to get away from your work," she said. "Thereís a life outside the hospital."

Perhaps I did focus too much on my professional life. When was the last time Iíd had a date? I couldnít quite remember, which had to be a bad sign. I began looking forward to going out with Shauna, and smiled.

"I know. Lately Iíve forgotten that," I admitted.

"Maybe I can help you remember."

I raised an eyebrow. So much for being subtle. "YesÖmaybe you can."

####

"Good morning, Medic," Shauna said cheerfully as we passed in the hall. As though she hadnít woken up in my apartment and said the same words an hour earlier. It had been two weeks ago that we had first gone out to dinner, and one since she moved in. A very pleasing turn of events, and I had found myself enjoying work more than usual. Which was good -- a man ought to find pleasure in helping people. Wasnít that why I had become a medic in the first place?

I returned the greeting and looked sharply at a passing aide who seemed to be holding in a chuckle. It was bound to be talked about when a nurse started living with her superior medic. Not that I cared -- they could talk all they liked.

I entered Room 172 with a quick glance at the tiny monitor by the door. Joel deGaia. Joel of the Earth? The Chandian. "How are we doing today, Mr. deGaia?"

He was sitting up now, the bed inclined. A worried expression was on his face, but that had been there since we had stopped the sedation a week ago. He was wearing the silver pendant, which looked odd with the white hospital gown. I had become a bit attached to him since the surgery; perhaps it was his age. Or perhaps the way he was always respectful and friendly to anyone who spoke to him. It had been a pleasant surprise, for some reason we had expected a militant Chandian to be sullen, at best. The Enforcers had surprised us as well, directing that he be released upon his recovery. That was unheard of, but I was certainly in no position to question them.

"I am doing well, Doctor. A slight itching sensation in my shoulder"-- he nodded his head towards the mechanical arm, and flexed it experimentally -- "but nothing worth a complaint. You people have provided me with good care."

"Thatís our job," I said, inspecting his side. It had looked complete four days ago, but I had wanted to keep watching it. After all, the Enforcers would be paying his bill.

"Yes, all humans should help one another. But it is not always so." He looked mournful. I wondered if he considered attacking an aerotech plant with explosives to be helpful to the human race. Probably did.

"Not always," I agreed. "Do you feel strong?"

He nodded vigorously. "Aside from the itch, I am whole and eager to return to my brothers."

I chuckled. "Tired of this place, eh?"

"Yes," he said, sounding apologetic. "I thank you for saving my life, and for taking care of me these two long weeks. But the forest calls to me. The Mission must go forward."

The Mission. Destroying advanced technology whenever and wherever possible and attempting to return Earth to the Stone Age. Why would anyone do that? Looking at the young man, looking at his frank, honest face, I felt pity. Technology had saved him from death -- could he still believe it to be evil? Was he a sinner now?

"My mission is to save lives," I said. "Yours is saved, and though I would caution you against extreme activity" -- like blowing up a rocket or setting robot factories on fire -- "you are free to go."

He brightened at that, then motioned at the light hospital gown. "Is there something more appropriate for me to wear? I suppose my tunic has been destroyed."

We had anticipated that, and purchased a brown robe when it appeared that he would make a full recovery. "You may find this to be appropriate," I said, handing it to him, still in its airtight bag.

"It is," he said, and made a little bow to me. "Again, I thank you for what you have done. I shall always remember it, and hope that one day I may return your good deeds."

I wished him the best and left the room, on to a busy day of other patients, as he dressed and left the hospital.

####

I was tired as I went home for the night, not in the limbs, but in the mind. They had teas for that, didnít they? But I was also looking forward to being with Shauna again, no fellow employees nearby making snide remarks.

I reached the apartment before her, and turned on the lights, then started a load of laundry. Having a woman around did nothing to eliminate household chores; we both did our share of the work, though she was a much better cook than I.

"How was work?" she asked as I came back into the kitchen, a pile of shirts in my arms.

I chuckled. "Do you have to pretend that we werenít together all day?"

"Yes, I do. Itís fun. But I donít have to ask to know how busy it was. Hectic."

"Yeah, hectic."

Later we readied for bed. I was in the bathroom airbrushing my teeth and worriedly studying a hint of gray in my sideburns, while the sound of the tele came from the bedroom, where Shauna undressed. The announcer was going on about something.

"Hey," she called. "Come see this!"

I took one last look at those sideburns, decided the gray actually made me look distinguished, and went into the room. "What?"

She pointed to the 3-D projection of the tele. "Itís the Chandian."

...shocked today when a religious group known as the Chandi Brotherhood brutally slaughtered one of their own. Enforcement Officers were returning the victim to his home "commune", after his recent recovery in Southwest Regional Medical Center from extensive injuries sustained during a religious raid. The group has a history of violence, but only rarely turns on its fellow members. Enforcement Officers say the alleged killers are in custody and will be chargedÖ

I couldnít believe it. "Why would they do that?" I asked angrily, of no one, of myself. Another lost patient. Two weeks of work to save his life, for nothing. A bloody picture was flashed on the projection; it was Joel, for certain.

"JoelÖ" Shauna said slowly. "He was so kind, so friendly. He deserved better than that." She was upset as well. It was bad enough losing a patient when you did all you could and they just didnít survive, but to practically bring a man back from the dead, to rebuild his body with prosthetics and then have him murdered...

"By his own brothers," I muttered. But I knew why they did it, at least I guessed. "They wouldnít accept him?"

Shauna was turning the tele off. "What do you mean? Theyíre violent people. Itís not right, but it happens."

"No. They wouldnít accept him." I saw his arm in my mindís eye, the new one, skin-toned, accepted by his body to be a part of itself. Mechanical. Inhuman. A factory-made heart, pumping his lifeblood through his veins. "They saw him as a traitor -- anÖ" I searched for the word. "An abomination."

"But we saved his life. You saved his life."

"We marked him, to their minds. We tainted him."

"Still... how could they do that?"

I had no answer, and even after the lights were dimmed and Shaunaís soft body lay on my chest, breathing deeply in sleep, I continued to ponder the question.

The only answer that "made sense" was an ugly one. The Chandians who had murdered Joel were extremists. They were blind to everything except Joel's violation of their creed -- his courage and humanity meant nothing to them once they knew that of his synthetic limbs and organs. But Joel had been human, as capable of kindness and joy as anyone, and surely most Chandians were the same. It never occurred to Joel that his brothers in the cause would turn on him.

I had to wonder if I had anything in my life that could overshadow everything else. If I did, could I recognize it as such, or would unthinkable acts seem right to me, too, under the right circumstances?

It took a long time to get to sleep that night, and Joel's smiling face stayed with me in my dreams.

THE END


© 2008 William Brently

Bio: William Brently is aspiring writer of speculative fiction who currently does occasional opinion columns for a state newspaper.

E-mail: William Brently

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