by Douglas McKinstry
The four months he’d gone without a bowel movement was no record. He’d looked it up in MedStat. A guy in Little China went six months before dying. When Nick downloaded the VirtScan, the guy’s intestines looked like a logjam at the mouth of the muddy Mississippi, before she’d been diverted to the Southwest sector. Nick was determined to get regular again.
“I’d like to do a Virtual,” his doctor said, slowly removing the holoscope. “It’s more accurate. Safer too.” He smiled, standing up.
“What’s the success rate?” Nick asked, hitching his pants, stealing a glance at two nurses repacking the holoscope. Nick wondered if they were human.
“At this stage about sixty percent,” said the doctor, apologetically. He was a new-issue medroid shipped from Antarctica before the thaw. Nick wanted to like him, despite all he’d heard. New issues were programmed to stammer, clear their throats, even blush, though they looked less human than older models. It was the bold trend in robotics: compassion, not complexion. The doctor’s skin was a malleable porcelain stuff the color of the bygone smiley face. Now that he was here, Nick wished he had come much sooner.
“And without the Virtual?” Nick wondered aloud.
“Twenty-two percent,” said the doctor. “Sorry—make that twenty-one,” he said, blinking, accessing updated banks.
“How much time do I have if—what if I do nothing?”
“Your heart and liver will fail,” said the medroid, wincing a little, his hands clasped idly, professionally, in front. “In two or three weeks.”
Nick sat dazed, thinking thoughts inapropos of the occasion: had he overtipped the home security technician, were the Juggernauts on ZoomView tonight. When his head cleared he remembered, all too vividly, the most important matter—his beautiful wife.
“Why me?” Nick said, more to himself than the doctor. “Why must I be an irregular?” He shook his head slowly, bitterly.
“The rays affect people differently. We believe it’s something to do with personality types.”
“Are there side effects, if the Virtual works?”
“A tickling in the pit of the stomach.”
“For how long?”
“Probably until you die,” said the doctor, his grimace a mirror image of Nick’s.
* * * * *
“Screw alien rays,” Nick said, looking up when he got outside. Everybody did it on reflex. People hadn’t stopped studying the sky since the wee hours of the new year, when police and partiers alike saw the heavens and the earth ignited by cloudbeams that hadn’t flashed or flickered once in two hundred days.
Nick compulsively counted the rays. He counted them once a day at least. Word was anywhere you stood on the planet there were seven, milky like the full moon, but discrete shafts intersecting at varying altitudes and visually traceable to seven white cumulus masses hovering at greater and still varying heights. Beams and billows alike were permeable—mere air and vapor—to all manner of air traffic: private, commercial, military.
“Six and fucking seven,” Nick said, indifferent to fellow pedestrians. Pilots and passengers talked of an etheric sheen, the same auras visible from every sidewalk down below. Government tests found nothing strange about the vapors but overabundant ions; meteorologists made nothing of that, charting no greater storm activity than normal. Still, Global Preparedness had determined the clouds and their rays to be threats. Everybody admitted they were pretty, but only little children liked them anymore. No earthling past primary school, Nick included, thought them friendly.
“Screw aliens too,” Nick said, looking down, striding purposefully back to his office on Sycamore, almost colliding with an amulet vendor parked as unobtrusively as possible on the sidewalk separating the insurance shops and the frenzied motorway.
“How’s your future, old man?” asked the vendor, grinning, perched high on a stool. He held a thin gold chain in one hand, a turquoise heart hung fetchingly over the back of the other. The vendor was twice Nick’s age, but jovial and rose-complected.
“I’m not old,” Nick said, a foot from the elder man’s face, moving away as suddenly as he’d stopped, glimpsing the man’s eyes in passing. “Crow’s feet,” Nick muttered, dodging an insurance barker advertising out front. “Hope to have my own some day.”
Nick tracked the faint luminescence of the insurance man to the nearest cloud, reportedly three miles high. He stopped to watch a jumbo jet skirt a tumescent tuft of the billow, sinking her long upper body in the underbelly of the stationary mass.
The jet reminded Nick of Jennifer’s conference two days hence. He decided to go home for a few minutes. At the outdoor market he bought some fresh bulk for himself—a yellow apple from Northern Calimerica—and two bunches of petunias for Jennifer. He walked diagonally through Shaquille O’Neal Park, munching as he went, past the time-battered statue of the late great American athlete and President, to Poplar Avenue, to the midsized condo Nick shared with the only woman he’d ever loved.
It was ten after twelve. She would be in aromatherapy with Mrs. Waxworth till twelve fifteen. For ten minutes afterwards, Mrs. Waxworth would ask Jennifer metaphysical questions about the olfactory realm.
“How does honeysuckle know herself?” was one Nick remembered.
“In deep meditation,” his wife had answered.
Nick placed the petunias in a red-stemmed vase at the center of the kitchen table. He finished his apple while leafing through Life Smells, one of two dozen subscriptions fanned across the table for Jennifer’s clients to peruse. He heard Jennifer close the front door behind Mrs. Waxworth. He leaned forward in his chair. His stomach was killing him.
* * * * *
“That droid is full of sh—” said his wife, sniffing the petunias, catching herself too late.
“Yeah,” Nick said, “like me.”
“You know what I mean.” Her fingers unconsciously stroked the thinning forest of chestnut hair on her head. Nick had noticed the problem about the time his own malady had set in. He’d mentioned it once, then never again. She was losing her hair all right, whether she admitted it or not. Hair loss itself wasn’t fatal, exactly. Nick would have swapped with her in a virtpulse but that he didn’t wish his affliction on anyone, especially the one he loved.
“These new issues don’t miss anything,” Nick said. “They haven’t called one wrong yet.”
“How do we know that?” His wife sat beside him, imploring him with blue eyes big as seagrapes.
“They’re different from the old droids. They were designed specifically—”
“I know—to treat the effects of the rays. I think that’s a lie.”
“Why?” Nick said, trying not to smile. “Because they smell funny?”
“They didn’t help me any. And they won’t help you either.” She burst into tears, then buried her face against his chest. Nick encircled her with his arms, stroking the back of her head. He peered soberly at her scalp, barely hidden under a sparse chestnut canopy.
* * * * *
Lovemaking was the only thing that hadn’t suffered. Jennifer seemed to enjoy the intimacy more than ever, and it was the only time Nick could lose the pain in his belly, even if for only a few moments.
He stood naked in a dim-lit mirror beside the bedroom closet. In front of him—behind him, actually—Jennifer lay sleeping in their bed. Nick flexed his arms and shoulders, curling his fists he-man style, feeling most of the brawny force he’d felt ten years earlier at his physical peak, fresh out of the Academy. The bowel problem hadn’t killed his workouts either, but they were getting harder. He still did five hundred push-ups a day, with increasing pain. The sit-ups had dropped by half.
Hands on hips, at full height, chest expanded, he still cut a formidable shape despite the loss of fifteen pounds. He glanced over his right shoulder at Jennifer. One thing he knew for sure was he would go down fighting. Fighting, after all, was his nature. If it wasn’t what his wife loved most about him, it was damn sure the thing that had first caught her eye. He smiled, remembering it.
He dropped to his hands and toes and commenced a set of one hundred push-ups, academy-style: back rigidly straight, chest faintly kissing the rug, arms slowly unbending, elbows locking at every full extension. And down again. The exquisitely calculated fire and fury of ligament and muscle pushed inexorably, luxuriously, to volcanic perturbation. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. A little perspiration.
He grinned at the Chinese weave, vertiginously rising and receding, and saw Jennifer McEvoy in all-white server’s duds behind the carb bar at the academy mess. Furtive, downcast eyes. All duty, that one. Work and study, study and work. Despite later protests, he was sure she’d never noticed him. Until the day—a Thursday, in May—she’d walked the mess floor behind the carb car, stooping low for leverage, her toned derriere more than some cadets could resist. Two had been especially helpless, and Nick had checked their impulses with a curt warning, then something more. Eighty-eight. Eighty-nine. He chuckled, dipping his nose in a pondlet of sweat. He’d never visited those boys at the infirmary; he was forty-eight hours in his own bed with Ms. McEvoy, who’d deigned to look at him, finally, on a Thursday, and deigned to marry him, Thursday next, in the chapel behind the mess. She had loved the fight in him. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. And the smell of his sweat. One hundred.
* * * * *
The inscription on the statue in O’Neal Park had been the lifelong credo of the giant statesman, the first chief executive to have played in the Western Conference of the long defunct National Basketball Association. It read: “Just Do It”—borrowed, Nick knew, from a commercial entity also long defunct. Nick had never tried basketball or politics, but he liked the message. It described his own approach to living, years before he’d seen it set in stone.
He would do it, of course, for his wife. What he would do afterwards would depend.
“How do I whiff a robot?” he had asked.
“Like this,” she’d said, crinkling her nose and snorting air four inches from his chest. “And it’s not a robot.”
“What do I look—er, smell for?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed, exasperated. “It’s like a very mellow cheese in blackberries and ammonia. I can’t explain.”
He stroked her cheek with the second joint of his index finger. “And if I smell all that—what then?”
“I don’t know,” she said, sniffling. “Just don’t let him do that procedure.”
He hadn’t been the smartest at the Academy, just the toughest. Jennifer had helped him with Physics and Chinese. She knew about things he didn’t. She’d been right about the Siberian annex and right about the bees. He knew that. He’d heard the rumors about Antarctica and the medroids, but he’d rejected them. He still didn’t believe them, despite his wife’s misgivings. But he loved his wife and respected her. Often, lately, he pitied her. At any rate he didn’t want to leave her any sooner than necessary. A decision was impending. He thought about it all the way up the airtube to the top of Alpha Tower.
* * * * *
“Do you see the red dot?”
“No,” Nick said, trying to sniff his doctor while eyeing perfectly black space. He’d had a holoscopy read once before: a knee he’d blown out in skiball. Reads made him nervous. Claustrophobic.
“Let me adjust the eyepiece,” said the doctor, gently pressing the viewer closer to Nick’s corneas. A faint musty odor, from the hands, but nothing particularly cheesy, Nick thought.
“Now do you see it?”
“Yes,” he said, heart racing.
“Okay. Here goes.”
He stood in a tunnel lit faintly, inflamed perhaps, on its perforated ceiling. Around him he discerned a myriad of pitch black shapes silhouetted against others of lighter hue.
“Follow the red dot,” said the medroid.
“Okay,” Nick said, his mouth dry and hot.
“Do you see it?”
“Yes.” Nick tried to swallow, but couldn’t. He smelled sulfur, but no cheese.
“Do you see it still?”
“Good. That’s where we’ll blast.”
* * * * *
Nick sat in the same sanitized room as the day before, his legs dangling off the examination table. Beside wall cabinets hung a thin oak slab with white block lettering. “YOU’RE ONLY HUMAN,” Nick read aloud. If he had to he would get the doctor in a headlock and fasten his nose to the neck, face, scalp, whatever it took. If he had to.
He waited ten minutes, breathing deeply and working his fingers into a succession of fleeting fists. The doctor knocked lightly, then entered with a thick folder wedged in an armpit. He stood against the rim of a sink, taking the folder in hand without opening it. He was three feet from Nick, smiling tenderly, his yellow face shiny as a new lemon.
“I’d like to do the Virtual,” he said in low musical tones. “It’s your best chance.”
Nick smelled ammonia, or thought he did. He leaned forward, sliding off the table to his feet.
“Who made you?” he asked, stepping nose to nose with the medroid and crinkling his own for a series of reconnoitering inhalations.
The medroid’s gray eyes blinked once, slowly, the lids pastel yellow like faded cloth.
“Mr. Lomax, you’re not supposed to stand this close to me. Would you step backward, please?”
Somewhere on the doctor’s breath Nick caught the evanescent essences of blackberry and overripe cheese. They vanished before he could examine them, so he did all he knew to do, swiftly hooking his left arm around the doctor’s neck and tightly securing the big block head beneath its black wire top.
“Who made you?” Nick asked, hunkered over the imprisoned head, sniffing it. The doctor did not resist.
“I was manufactured in Antarctica,” the doctor said pleasantly, as if upright and casually engaged.
“This is your last chance,” Nick said, aware of the direst pain yet in his lower abdomen but trying to forget it. Holding the prisoner fast between biceps and forearm, he put his right hand to the back of the doctor’s bristled coiffure and dug his fingers in deep.
“I don’t advise this course of action, Mr. Lomax. Destroying a new issue will cost you a pretty penny.” Nick wondered later if he might have preferred open hostility—anything but a reproach, and a sympathetic one at that.
“I don’t give a damn about money.” He pulled at the stubborn mass of wire and gelatinous underfiber that smelled unmistakably of the ammoniac foods his wife had named. Still no physical resistance was offered.
“Consider the futility of destroying me,” his doctor said at last, with the same musical solicitude as ever. “Will doing so determine my ultimate origin, if that’s your concern?”
Nick knew the doctor had a point, but he was too pissed to stop. To make matters worse, when he’d torn the doctor’s cranium entirely away and gazed within at a labyrinth of unmarked circuitry, he felt such a blow to his gut as never before, not even in military games. He toppled the rest of the way to the floor, unconscious, his right hand still clutching the scalp of his attending physician and his diseased stomach coming to rest atop the doctor’s inanimate remains.
* * * * *
“Are you—?” he said, stunned a little, sitting up on the same exam table as before. In another moment he saw the eyes were brown and the face a shade darker too.
“I’m his replacement,” said the medroid, smiling, leaning where the first one had leaned.
“Sorry about—what’s-his-face,” Nick said, swiveling toward the new physician. His belly ached a little, but nothing like before.
“Well,” said the doctor, his red lips knitting in sympathy, “there are plenty more of him available. But there’s a policeman waiting outside. I’m afraid he’ll be giving you a citation at least.”
“Maybe I’ll have the Virtual after all,” Nick said, dropping his head, watching his hands make and unmake fists. He felt his gut tightening again, and he was wondering what he would say to his wife, and what she would say to him. “Maybe I’ll call tomorrow,” he said, glancing up.
“That’s a good idea,” the medroid said, grinning so warmly Nick stifled an urge to check his circuitry too.
* * * * *
The next morning Nick got the Virtual. It was painless. Afterwards he patted the medroid gently on the back. He was beginning to like smiley faces.
That night he did number two for the first time in one hundred twenty-six days. Not a medical record, and he was glad it wasn’t. Now he would have to do something about his wife’s vanishing hair.
Before making love to her, he slipped the turquoise heart around Jennifer’s neck.
“What’s going on, Nick?” she asked, smiling. “Are you getting religion?”
He looped the second amulet over his own head and lay down beside his wife.
“I have new faith in medicine,” he said, squeezing tight against her. “That’s a start, isn’t it?”