Sitting in his wheelchair, Martin rolled down the corridor, Randolph striding beside him. Doors rushed past, each a ward containing happy, healthy, recovering people. Doctors bustled past, chatting confidently to each other as they breezed through doors and disappeared down corridors, snatches of conversation reaching Martin.
“…gave her another ten years……thought she was a goner but old Nicholas whipped the heart out, did his thing and the next thing we knew……genius idea, kept her going for twelve more months without any further surgery……new patient, wept with joy when we told him what we could do……never looked happier…..fifty years younger……ecstatic…”
Have you ever lost anyone?” Martin asked hesitantly.
“Course not,” Randolph explained, “well, maybe in the beginning, when the clinic first opened. Not since Dr Nicholas signed up with us though. Genius. Dragged Panacea out of the dark ages. Used to be we just worked on sick people, people at death’s door, reacting to whatever went wrong. The doc decided we should fight back, build up the defences before the old grim reaper starts attacking, he practically invented genetic statistical analysis, wrote the book on full body replacement. Genius. Never lost a patient since he started.”
Martin smiled, relieved. “And you think, with me…”
“Not a problem my friend, not even a concern, textbook stuff. Build up a model in the labs, work you over in surgery, prep, replace, repeat, we’ll have you spick and span in a couple of years, you’ll never have felt better.”
Randolph laughed. “And then? And then we do it all over again, as often as it takes. And when your body can’t take any more we’ll give you a new one. It’s easy. Takes time of course, but what’s time when you’re going to live forever?”
Martin sighed. “Sounds good.”
“Course it does, course it does.” They reached a wide double doors that swung open at Randolph’s touch, masked doctors busied themselves around a huge humming machine that bristled with steel and plastic intricacies. Martin was lifted up onto the flat platform it surrounded.
“Now,” Randolph said. This may be a little uncomfortable but you’re going to need to stay absolutely still while this machine takes some readings. If you move we’ll have to do it again.” The machine started to whirr, Martin noticed a bank of needles poised over the platform as he was pushed into the machine, poised to pierce him all along his length. And there were more below.
“What…” Martin tried to struggle but straps were pulled tight across him.
“Don’t worry,” Randolph beamed happily, “the drugs we gave you should take most of the pain away. Now…” he turned to his colleagues, “shall we crack on.”
Exhausted, drifting in a sea of drugs, barely conscious, barely thinking. Doctors speaking over his bed as he lay, helpless, hurting.
“Just a few more days of this and we should have a model we can start to work with.”
“But he is quite young, do we need to give him the full service?”
“What kind of talk is that? What, should we wait until he’s breaking down before we start work? Wait until it’s too late for a full system break-up, a patch job that’ll fall apart every few years? That’s the kind of talk Nicholas is against.”
“Exactly,” another voice added, “that’s not the way we do things here, full breakup, full workable model, full service. Get things in tip-top shape, a blank canvas to start work on. Anything else just causes problems later on.”
“He’s not even ill,” the protestor was unconvinced. And his voice sounded familiar, and seemed to come from closer than the others.
“Doctor, I’m getting a little sick of your attitude, we’ve been hearing things like this too frequently recently and we’ve all let it go because of your reputation out east. But here in Panacea Nicholas runs things. And that kind of half-assed attitude to our work does not swing out here.”
“You know Nicholas wasn’t always in charge.”
“And people died, doctor, people died. That’s why Nicholas came, to tell us there’s another way.” Now that voice was closer, almost in Martin’s ear, almost deafening.
“But you’re making healthy people sick,” the protesting voice continued, but he was fading now, no one was listening.
“To prolong their life later on.” the confident voice declared, and there was no dissension form the rest of the team. The protesting voice was on its own here, weak and isolated. “We’re dealing with the big picture here or perhaps you’re too blind to see that. Maybe Panacea isn’t the place for you doctor. Your bad attitude is starting to affect the patients. Patient Harris the other day, broke down, had to be restrained. He tried to overdose on his Morphine, we had to flush his entire system. Your patient doctor, your patient.”
“He didn’t want any more surgery, he’d had enough, he wanted to die.”
“Ridiculous!” One declared.
“No one wants to die, that’s why we’re here,” they were all joining in now.
“And that kind of talk isn’t helping any one. Nicholas says…” talking over each other in opposition to the lone protest.
“Nicholas again. Always Nicholas. Can’t you think for yourselves anymore?”
“Nicholas isn’t even a real doctor!”
“Get Out! Get out or I’ll have you thrown out!”
White light fading to grey, blinking to focus on the cold sterile room, on the solidity of Randolph with his strident, clipped sentences and calm confident gaze.
“Awake I see.” Randolph greeted him expansively, “Good, good, time for a walk. Into the old chair, there’s a good chap.” He lifted Martin bodily from his bed and positioned him in that ever present chair.
“Onwards and upwards,” he beamed and manoeuvred Martin through the door, propelling him rapidly down the hallway.
“What…where are we goin…” Martin spoke through a mouth like cotton wool.
“To the gardens. You’ve been through a lot in a short space of time and we all thought it was time you had a bit of a rest, spot of variety. Can’t have you cooped up in that ward all your life now can we?” And he chuckled at his little joke, as though Martin had actually requested such an eternity.
The walls whizzed past, doctors busy, doors swinging, bright lights blazing harshly against the gleaming polished white walls.
“Why now, what’s happening..?” Martin found himself nervous, missing the comforting routine of the ward, everything brought to him, everything taken care of, confident voices telling him not to worry, not to think, just to let them do their procedures.
“Ah, well, the boys in the labs, thoroughly decent chaps the lot of them you know, they’ve gone and whipped up a basic treatment model for you already. A few days left to their own devices and they’ll have a complete treatment worked out for you. A few more days of preparation and we’ll have you through surgery quick as you like. You’ll come out fresh as a daisy with an eternity in front of you.”
“But…but its not as easy as that is it?”
“Oh yes. Of course, the surgery may take some time but we’ll keep you unconscious for most of it,” Randolph assured him. “And you’ll need plenty of recovery,” he admitted, “A full system breakup doesn’t settle overnight you know. But it’ll be over before you know it.”
Randolph ignored the question. “Of course most of your recovery will be in the convalescent home. Where we’re headed. Gardens, music, entertainments. Better than home. Of course for most of the patients it is their home. No need to leave the Sanctuary, positively a bad idea in fact. Observation, that’s the key, oil the gears, keep the watch ticking over, rapid response to the possibility of problems, catch them early, years before they happen. That’s the watchword here at Panacea. That’s the ticket, that’s why we have such a high success rate. Why it works.”
Randolph jerked the chair to a halt. “You heard what?”
“Last night, over my bed, doctors. I couldn’t see them, voices. Arguing. Were…were you there?”
“Course I was, course I was, like to keep an eye on my patients, 24/7 that’s us, that’s all of us, we’re a team, a damn fine team. Brought a few colleagues in for a consult, standard practice, perfectly standard.” He had started up the chair again, slowly, his words cautious.
“One…one doctor disagreed. You…you got angry?”
“Bad egg, that’s all, rotten apple, ruins the bunch. We’re only human, some can’t cut the pace here, all the training only gets you so far. Commitment, that’s the key. Commitment.”
“Who was he?”
“Just another doctor. Transfer, here on placement if you must know. A bit of a bigshot over in the East. But they’re not like us over there, couldn’t hack it, too soft. We let him in on the consult, we’d heard good things. Should have known better. Nicholas had him sent back home this morning. Needed a rest, overworked.”
“What was his name.”
“What’s with all the questions? I’m your doctor, I’m taking care of you. I’m keeping you alive. Doctor Charon hasn’t the commitment.”
Mark jerked upright at the name. “Charon?”
“Yes, that’s the fellow’s name. Why, have you heard of him?”
“I don’t know, it…it rings a bell.”
“Yes, well you may have heard the name bandied around. He has quite a reputation in some circles, some aristocrat from the Eastern city. Amateur doctor though if you ask me. His patients keep dying on him. Wouldn’t have let him in the place if we’d known his attitude. Actually thinks that’s something to be admitted to, actually allowed. As I said, no commitment. Ah we’re here.”
The floor sloped down, the walls suddenly painted a bright sun yellow, the floor of bright green. The doors, big blue doors swung open and Randolph wheeled Martin through into the Gardens.
The Gardens; a place of promises yet unfulfilled, a place of hope in abeyance, a waiting point saturated with the yearning hearts and sweating palms of the faithful. Meat cut and stitched and pierced and broken down and mended and transplanted and fused with dead minerals and strong materials and cloying cloth and taut cord and fluids and solids and gases hissing into the artificial chests of the waitful, of the patients.
The Gardens; a place of granite and marble, of stone and concrete, of plastic flowers in hanging wicker and stone. A labyrinth of courtyards, each regular and connected by the open arches in each side, a gridwork of space open to the dead stone sky ten metres above, fresh with the recycled air pumped in from the heavy fans in the ceiling joists.
A net of tranquillity dragged tight around the heads of the stationaries within, as they sat on the stone and the wooden benches and stared at the colonnades, at the terraces, at the balconied walkways along the sides of each wall, as they mused on the scrubbed down frescoes and the dripping fountains and the sterile shrubs, on the flowers frozen in full bloom night and day. As they sat at the tables and played chess and checkers and dice and bridge again and again until they didn’t and just sat motionless, wound down, patient.
A place of security, of controlled intakes and excretions, of monitored statistics, of regular checkups, of healthy regimes, of sanitation, of sterility, of peace beyond all else where rest was prescribed and exertion oppressed. A safe place to wait out the years until the body failed and was removed for repair and returned to wait again. Convalescence eternal, fear was the chains that bound the occupants to immobility, fear of disease, of germs, of illness. Of death, mortality, fear of themselves, fear of their own weak, deteriorating flesh, fear that if they moved it would collapse beneath them, like a fragile sculpture of dust and ash.
And succumbing to this inertia they waited and convalesced until the time came in its own slow pace for them to be removed again to the wards and the surgery and the scalpels and machines and needles and skilled, skilled hands of their benefactors, of their owners.
And it was here that Martin was brought and it was here he waited and Randolph left him to the care of the flocks of nurses that brought clipboards and dry foods and water and syringes and stethoscopes and tests and tests and tests. But Martin was safe, protected, and once more he felt content, as he had done before in the place of the sleeping and again in the valley of the eternal.
Now he sat happy in the world of the everlasting, his mind satisfied with this protection against the horrors of the plains above, those ragged, broken moors. For here he was safe, and he didn’t have to face those thoughts that had tortured him, he didn’t have to think, that was done by others, responsibility surrendered to them, care and its attendant concern given gratefully away by him. Thought removed, evermore.
And he waited.