Part III: The Sanctuary of Panacea
A corridor descended in a series of stepped levels to a door at its distance. All the way down both walls were lined with photographs. Hundreds of them, framed behind glass, some black and white, some in sepia, others in faded colour. The hallway was brushed stone tiles, white and clean, the walls washed white.
Martin walked down the length of the hallway, turning to the photographs as he passed. They were portraits. Men and women, young and the elderly, all smiling, beaming even. They sometimes stood alone, some with a family member equally delighted. But most were posed with another white-coated person, those strangers different each time but similar in their appearance and the way they held themselves. Tall, straight backed, with confident smiles, they shook the hands of their companion with a firm grasp.
Beneath each portrait was a legend. One read, ‘R. J. Taylor: Cured of epilepsy.’ Another read, ‘M. K. Kallorman: Cured of heart disease.’ Each legend proclaimed the triumph of the white-coated doctor over the weaknesses of that beaming companion by their side. Each legend cried out the hope of victory against the fears of the flesh, the fears of degradation and corruption, cells collapsing, bones withering, muscles slack and flapping uselessly, organs eaten from within by invaders, by blind attacking immune response, by time.
And the legends cried victory, the photos beamed hope, they smiled out at any who chose to look and read and enter down that hallway, down from the scattered plains and blasted moorlands above, down from that stinging wind that ate the mind, blinded the ears, silenced the joy in life with their constant withering roar of onrushing time, of that dark horizon rushing faster forward with every breath.
And the legends said ‘…cured of Meningitis…cured of Hepatitis E… cured of sleeping sickness…cured of rabies…cured of lung cancer…cured of AIDS …cured….cured…cured… cured of death…” And Martin fell against the door at the end of that long corridor, a drowning man clutching the raft offered to him and hugging it close, tight, never wanting to let go for fear of those icy depths below.
The door opened. Martin fell in, into the arms of a tall blond doctor, resplendent and confident in his spotless coat.
“Hey, hey, steady now my friend, plenty of time, plenty of time now.” He helped Martin up to his feet, his strong hands gripping Martin’s thin shoulders, the doctor’s deep blue eyes lighting up with welcome. He beamed.
“You’re here now my good friend. Here at the Sanctuary.” He took his hands from Martin’s shoulders and pumped Martin’s wrist with his engulfing palms.
“My name’s Randolph.” He proclaimed. And let me guess. “He pierced Martin face with a penetrating gaze. “Martin, right?”
“We’ve heard of you, your journey. When we heard you were staying in Ankhor we all thought you’d find your way here soon enough. Ankhor just doesn’t satisfy does it? We’ve had many from the valley come to us. They reach that place and just can’t ignore what’s so blatantly obvious.”
“Which is?” Martin asked, scared of the answer, suddenly feeling less safe in this tall beaming doctor’s grasp, his hands still engulfed in the doctor’s.
“Death.” Randolph answered. “That great horror, that foe we all face.” Martin’s knees weakened. He hadn’t fled here to hear this. But the Doctor was still smiling, his face still radiated confidence even speaking that word, that word that Ankhor and Hypnos never faced, this doctor spoke like it was a nuisance, a pesky irritant.
“You’re scared.” Randolph explained, “Of course you are, who isn’t. Some can ignore it, some pretend it doesn’t happen but that doesn’t solve anything now does it?”
Martin realised this was a question. He tried to speak but couldn’t manage a sound so shook his head helplessly instead.
“Of course not.” Randolph explained as though Martin’s answer was purely for show. “Of course not.” And to Martin’s horror the man actually laughed as though death was some big joke, something comical, hilarious even. He put his strong white-clad arm around Martin’s wasted shoulders and led him forward, the door swinging shut unseen behind them to fade into memory, other doors opening and shutting, corridor walls moving past as if in a dream.
“Come,” Randolph offered as though it was a choice. “I want to show you something.” His massive stride covered two of Martin’s who had to half-run to keep up. A door approached and Martin quailed in front of it but Randolph pushed it open to a room with a glass wall at the other end.
They entered and Martin gasped in shock as he noticed what was happening on the other side of that glass partition. A body lay there, still, not breathing, ancient and withered yet white coated men and women flocked around like ants, attaching machines, tubes, fluids flowing, electricity beeping and pipping.
The body twitched and sat up, a champagne cork popped, laughter and shouts of congratulations and the body smiled and took the glass it was offered.
“Laura.” Randolph said and Martin almost collapsed in his arms.
“What,” he almost cried.
“Laura.” Randolph said again. “That’s the woman’s name in there. Brilliant lady, been with us for seventy years. Those in Hypnos would have given up decades ago, dragged her off into the bushes and pretended she never existed. Ankhor wouldn’t have noticed, just propped her up and told everyone she was a bit under the weather while she rotted on the stick.”
His face twisted for the first time in contempt at such barbarism. Then he lightened to his usual beaming healthiness. “But here at the Sanctuary we do not view death as something to be feared and fled from. It is a foe to be faced.” He turned and fixed Martin’s open-eyed face with his own steely confidence. “It is a foe to be defeated.” Martin quailed under the man’s certitude, his beaming garrulous energy. He was helpless to resist.
“First,” the blond woman said as Martin was gently pressed down onto the doctor’s examining bed, “a full checkup, a rigorous series of tests. We need to find out exactly where you are.”
“Where I am?” Martin asked.
“Of course. Your biological age, the state of your organs, your cellular degradation, your relative toxicity, your neurological rundown, your general health quotient. A whole series of measurements and statistics to base your treatment on.”
“My treatment? There’s nothing wrong with me”
The blond doctor almost laughed. She was beautiful but distant, like she belonged to a different species, untouchable. She had said her name was Stephanie. She had shaken his hand professionally and ordered him to strip and sit on the cold plastic bed in his pants. They had taken his clothes and destroyed them. He would wear blue smocks while he was here, like all the other patients.
He felt lost in this massive hospital. Randolph had disappeared after delivering him to this tall, confident female. Martin felt small in this place, under the stares of all these strong confident doctors, a bug under a microscope to be prodded and tested and fixed.
“They all say that at first” Stephanie chuckled. “But they all come round soon enough. How old are you?”
Martin stammered. “Thirty…thirty five.”
“You look ten years older. You’re eyes are sunken, your skin is rough, you haven’t been looking after yourself at all. I hate to think what your liver looks like. Your heart is an old machine running down with every beat. Your cells can only divide so many times before they start to collapse, your lungs are weakening with every breath, your brain is slower to respond and make new connections than when you were a newborn. In functionary terms, your brain is less intelligent than a two year old.
“But don’t worry, we’re going to sort you out, “Stephanie was smiling down at him still with her pink lips, gleaming white teeth, and unmarked skin. “We’re going to turn the clock back, we’re going to tighten the skin, fire up those neurones, replace each and every cell with a brand new set, transplant every organ, refill those veins with shiny new blood and a brand new immune system.”
“Do I need that?” Martin gulped. “It all seems a bit much. I’m only thirty five. I feel fine apart from my old injuries.”
Stephanie almost spluttered with incredulity. “You feel what? Fine! What’s ‘fine’? You’re dying.” She stared into his startled face. “Don’t you understand that, you’re dying, we all are.” Martin felt the tears running down his cheeks, memories of the rushing wind, the driving rain against the slick black road, the sirens in the darkness. He felt sick, helpless, scared. He started to cry, alone on the moor. Stephanie calmed and her eyes softened from their steely blue. She bent at the waist, and took him into her arms and he wept against her, the clinical starched white coat real against his tear-bruised cheeks. She seemed broader than he had first thought she was, soft and comforting as her round arms surrounded him like a mother, and her starched coat seemed like velvet.
“I don’t want to die,” he wept.
“You don’t have to. No one does. You don’t have to try and ignore it any more, you can beat it back.” She pushed him away, what little human comfort she gave withdrawn as she raised a needle, sterilised and sharp. She was tall and thin, sharp-edged and pristine. “You can face it with this,” she said with steely blue eyes. “You can beat it with this. And with the tireless work of Panacea. You can avoid death, everyone can.”
Stephanie slipped the needle into Martin’s tired arm and the wash of drugs slipped him into calm as she started the procedures. And as he lay there, a child in the cold plastic arms of Panacea, he accepted this relief, this confidence, this hope. And he felt safe again, safe from that harrowing moor, safe from those endless plains without sanctuary or comfort, safe from that wind and the memories, those hateful, horrible memories that fluttered and screeched and tormented his soul.
A square room, bare clean white walls gleaming on four beds. Martin sat up in one by the corner opposite the door, two others occupied, screens pulled back during the day, stands holding drips running constant cocktails into the veins of the recipients. Sensors beeping, numbers soundlessly changing over on black and green screens, the hiss and hum of oxygen forced into the weakened lungs of Olivia on the bed beside Martin.
Olivia was old yet her skin was pulled back, attached to a metal gathering device at the back of her head that could be adjusted to pull the skin taut when it got slack. It was already losing its opacity. Her chest rose and fell by the action of the pump beside her.
“You see,” Olivia said, “they say I have to stay in bed for a few years until I’ve recovered from the full bone, blood and organ transplant. After I’ve got stronger they can replace my skin and muscle. I’ve been in this bed for five years already.”
“Why, why did they do this?” Martin asked
Olivia laughed, a dry sound. “I’m a hundred and seven years old,” she explained. “It takes a lot of time and effort at my age. Its not bad though, they keep me on a strong diet of painkillers and neurone suppressants to stop my brain reacting too much.” The machine at the back of her head whirred and turned a notch, tautening the weakened skin again.
“Whoops.” She giggled, “the doctors say I shouldn’t talk so much, the old face can’t take much action these days.”
“Exactly,” Randolph boomed as the door swung open. Not until we’ve finished you off Olivia dear. Don’t make us put you in a coma for the rest of the decade.” They smiled at each other across the room, a private joke. Time meaningless when faced with an eternity of this surgery, replacement, resurrection.
“How are you two youngsters getting along,” Randolph grinned. He turned fully to Martin. “We’ve got the initial gene stats back,” he explained. “Looks bad, my friend, looks bad. Your genes seem to give you a health-span of only fifty years. After that…well, cellular degradation speeds up, cancer becomes more likely, cardio problems, stroke probabilities get dangerously close to the red zone.” He grinned happily.
“But you’re in the right place here Martin. We’ve got hold of you in time. Once the rest of the tests are back we can build up a full treatment for you. Decades of work of course but once you’re finished we’ll have you up and living happily in the convalescent home, under close monitoring of course, until you’re seventy, eighty, even ninety with a good wind and calm seas. And then, well, look at Olivia.” He flashed his brilliant eyes on the bedridden pensioner and smiled happily at the sight. “Never say die, that’s our motto.”
Martin smiled back weakly, the drugs made him feel tired, Randolph explained this was to keep him calm so the surgeries would go easier. His brain was fuzzy but the words seemed to make sense. He’d never heard of gene stats before but Randolph knew what he was talking about, why upset everyone with questions. And he wouldn’t be able to understand the answers anyway. Best leave it up to the doctors. The proof was right here anyway. Olivia was alive at a hundred and seven. Alive, sitting up and talking about her future without a care in the world.
There were patients who’d died and been cured, there were patients who’d come in after accidents, mangled and unrecognisable. Decades later they walked around, eating and drinking. Death existed, he couldn’t hide from that. But he didn’t need to be scared any more, he could face it, he could beat it. He could bargain with it. A week of surgery for a year of life, a blood transfusion for two, even a month pumping poisons through his veins so he could live for three months more. What did it matter if that stalking horror could be held back by a single day? Surely any price they asked was worth that.