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The Good Doctor

by Harry Lang

“Chebma!” The voice screeched like a scalded cat in the sultry night. “Did you remember to replace the dosimeters?”

Chebma Lorink sighed as he did every night at about this time, sitting in the oven baked shadows of his little white room. Would she never go to bed?

“Yes mother. And the power packs.”

“And the water! Did you test the water?”

“Don’t worry,” he called into the gloom of the narrow hallway. Pale yellow lights flickered like candles in a draft. Another faulty relay at the substation, no doubt. “The water is fine!”

“Did you test it?”

Exasperation surged, threatening to erupt. Every night the senseless ritual was repeated, transforming him into the eight year old boy who had forgotten to test the water supply for particles of radioactive fallout. There was no fallout. There had been no fallout for over six hundred years but superstition dies hard.

“Yes mother,” he answered softly, suddenly contrite. After all, he had to admit, he did bring his own fuel to the fire and she was easily hurt. “It tested negative.”

There was silence for a long time, broken only by the sparkling music of crickets and the soulless echo of bats patrolling the night sky. Maybe she has finally drifted off, he hoped as he picked up the light stylus with his natural hand and held it delicately over the thin golden sheet. Thoughts scurried darkly like mice behind walls. Where to begin?

“Chebma! What are you doing? Are you going to sleep?”

“Yes mother!” Hot tears of anger and frustration welled up as he dropped the stylus and crumpled the sheet with his prosthetic left hand. It was a shameful thing to lie.

“Are you writing more of those stories?”

“Yes mother.”

The light across the hall winked out and he knew he would not be disturbed for the rest of the night.

He had cleared one obstacle only to find himself up against looming barriers of fatigue and agitation. But he was determined to press on. Leafing through some notes to sharpen his concentration he took up the stylus and began to write.

* * *

Deep beneath the fields of a place called Ioway, in a bunker built for a different kind of war Captain R.F. Merrimack stared into the glow of the tracking screen. (Note: further research re: 21st century Union State military tech.) The invading fleet was moving in rapidly, anxious to claim the spoils of the war they had won so effortlessly.

Or thought they had won. The radiation barrages had left most of the underground silos intact and the surface forces, though hopelessly outclassed, had bought enough time for the engineers to reprogram the flight computers and install tracking devices, turning the ballistic weapons into interceptors capable of striking the enemy formation.

Doubts clamored for attention as he continued to watch the bright symbols swarm across the screen. Maybe the untested guidance systems wouldn’t lock on to their targets. Maybe the fleet would evade the lumbering leviathans or shoot them down. Maybe the enemy ships could withstand a fusion blast.

Maybe, maybe, maybe...

Red letters flashed at the bottom of the screen. “Acquisition Positive.”

Maybe be damned. “Fire!” he ordered.

* * *

Chebma dropped the stylus as he was overcome by a wave of pain accompanied by a shrill hum. It happened every time he began to write. The cybernetic interface clamped to the back of his head was momentarily overloaded by the shifts in brain wave activity associated with creativity. Installed at birth, its purpose was to augment brain functions impeded by mutation. Chebma sometimes wondered if its true function was to thwart independent thought.

He breathed deeply, evenly, waiting for his pulse to slow and the snow to clear from his eyes. The impulses emanating from the interface were powerful but the device could be defeated if he concentrated carefully, gently resisting the pull back into the shallows of mundane consciousness.

Beyond his open window lay the changeless little town where miners and farmer hands slept among desolate dreams and mothers tossed and turned in perpetual anxiety, brooding over imagined threats. His tiny reading lamp was the only light for miles, one spark upon the hungry and fearful world languishing in the grip of a dark age initiated by the ancient conflict which was the subject of his research.

Chebma had cursed that darkness bitterly ever since his father had taught him what humans and their world were meant to be. Harn Lorink had shown his son books filled with pictures from centuries past, pictures crowded with healthy, vital people of distinctive races and cultures, fantastic machines which flew through the air, vast cities of buildings tall as mountains. How often had Harn embraced his precious, damaged son, suppressing tears of despair mingled with hope as he told his boy that this was a world to fight for, a destiny to be reclaimed at any cost?

Jupiter ascended placidly in its distant golden splendor as Chebma watched, recalling similar cricket strewn nights when he and his father would consult the antique star charts and put the old names to the constellations whirling overhead. It had been two years since Harn had died in the blast on the fortieth level of the iron mine. Two years since Chebma had begun to draw inspiration from memories, writing thoughts instead of speaking them, withdrawing into a cocoon of study, meditation and work.

The pain subsided, the noise faded and he returned to the story, laying out pieces of well researched history embellished by his own imagination and literary sensibilities. The editor at the publishing house had been enthusiastic about the outline but insisted the story be presented as a work of fiction.

A movement was finally starting, the editor explained, toward the separation of fact from the mazes of myth, legend and outright lies which passed for history and Chebma’s account of the war with the aliens would serve to give that movement energy and direction. But he had to be careful. Contemporary academia was too comfortably entrenched to tolerate direct challenges to historic and scientific orthodoxy and heresy was punishable by death.

* * *

Captain Merrimack and his ragged band of subordinates sat before their screens following the missiles through a haze of dusty cerulean, through frigid indigo and into black. If this final act of desperation failed humanity would be lost. If it succeeded...

None looked ahead to the future being made before their eyes. The bombs would certainly rain lethal fallout across a world already saturated with radiation and there were precious few scientists left to guess how long the surface would remain uninhabitable. But it didn’t matter.

“Go!” they chanted, shaking their fists as humanity’s last ounce of strength rose in resistance to the invaders. “Go, go, go!”

* * *

It was nearly dawn when Chebma finished his work for the night. Enough time to catch a little sleep before rushing off to his job at the county agriculture office. The mines paid better but his father had made him promise not to apply.

He stacked the sheets of the manuscript neatly, looking them over with satisfaction. A few more nights should finish this draft and hopefully the final version would be completed before the end of the year.

The sky was shifting from velvet to iron as he dropped into the coolness of his bed, not bothering to undress. Harn had taught him never to go to sleep without saying his prayers but exhaustion won out over piety and his last coherent thought was of his father, joyful and whole, walking across the fields of heaven on two strong legs.

Darba Lorink found her only son early that morning, still in yesterday’s work clothes, snoring peacefully. “Look at that!” she shrilled, vacant blue eyes wide and hard. “What did I tell you? He doesn’ t test the water! The dosimeters are old! Do something with him!”

Dr. Randol Kledge regarded the sleeping young man thoughtfully. Mrs Lorink had been after him for months to “do something” with her Chebma and this morning she had caught him passing by on his way to the office.

He couldn’t help noticing the new dosimeters stacked neatly in their racks and the up to date water toxicity reports. “Really, Mrs. Lorink” he protested, “I don’t see... Say, what is all this?”

“Stories!” exploded Mrs. Lorink, the meager color draining from her face. “Stories, stories, stories! His father, my husband Mr. Lorink used to encourage him, the old... Well not me, no! I used to beat him until he got too big. Look at him! Strong and healthy. He could’ve had a lot of good years in the mine, but not my Chebma. He’s squandered his whole life on those fairy tales! He’s... he’s...”

“He is only twenty-two years old,” reassured the kindly old doctor as he picked up a few pages of the manuscript, “and people are living well into their fifties these days.” The thin golden sheets crowded with neat blue writing had awakened his curiosity. “Why don’t you leave me alone with the boy and I’ll see what I can do?”

Mrs. Lorink turned to leave then hesitated. Motioning frantically for Kledge to bend down so he could hear she whispered loudly, “He’s ghost-filled!”

“Is that so?” said Kledge gravely. Even if he believed in such rubbish, Darba Lorink’s judgment in such matters could hardly be regarded as infallible.

The old woman nodded with sad wisdom. “His father, my husband Mr. Lorink filled him. He was a saviorite.”

“I’ll be careful,” promised Kledge as he guided her toward the door.

“I tried everything,” she went on to herself as she wandered from the room. “Even tried retuning the interface with a kitchen knife like old Mrs. Byfel did with her son. That just made him lazier.”

Kledge scanned the pages with little appreciation for Chebma’s literary facility but a keen interest in the details of the plot and setting. The young man had published several short stories about life in their little town but this piece of work was vast and ambitious and somehow familiar.

Flipping back toward the beginning of the story he found a page devoted to a single sentence. “This book is dedicated to the memory of Harn Lorink and the hope that someday we will be human again.”

So that was it thought Kledge sadly. Old Harn and his fanciful heresies continued to live through his son. It was all there. The green paradise of Earth, humans living without prosthetic aids, diverse races flourishing in an impossibly rich past. There were cures for diseases, power tapped from the mythical “atom” and countless other wonders of a long-lost science.

A fabulous vision of the past, to be sure. A great story which Harn Lorink repeated tirelessly and with great passion until his own workers, sick of hearing it, broke his good leg with an iron bar and tossed him down a shaft.

Kledge read on, growing more excited as he was swept into the world created by the young heretic. There was a detailed account of “neurosurgery” saving the life of a world leader, an infection cured by drugs prescribed by a humble family physician, epidemics eradicated by “vaccines”. Science making a difference, triumphant over human suffering and infirmity.

He put the story down. Old Harn wasn’t the first to believe in legends. The short, quick years had all but erased the memory of his own juvenile explorations of the ancient books and his childlike faith in their veracity. He too had been gripped by the vision of humanity’ s wondrous past and hope for a greater future. Like young Chebma he had longed for change and had studied the sciences in order to help bring that change about.

What rubbish! What a cynical betrayal of youth and innocence! One by one the delusions of ancient “science” and history vanished into thin air, dismantled beneath the cool analytical eye of critical examination.

Aircraft, swift and beautiful crashed to the ground under the weight of Froom’s Law which prohibited heavier than air flight. Tiny creatures inhabiting human bodies, causing sickness and death had always been a suspect proposition The Breeve Assumptions had laid that one to rest. Dilge had put the lie to ancient atomic theory and Req, perhaps the most daring theorist of all had conclusively postulated the uniformity of the ether throughout the Earth-centered universe.

It had been a harsh awakening for young Kledge and his heart nearly broke as he contemplated Chebma’s own painful journey of enlightenment. There would be years of loyalty divided between the fantasy of the mythical past and the undeniable truths of sound science, years too precious to waste and impossible to recapture. Kledge himself had never married, having been scorned by all sensible people as he fought his own philosophical battles.

He looked at his young patient again. Chebma was strong and bright and the iron mine was short handed. In a few years he could move up, maybe even manage a blast gang like his father.

Opening his black bag he produced an odd looking tool and inserted it into a slot in the cybernetic interface. He twisted and Chebma groaned The permissible range of brainwave activity was already limited by a feedback alarm set to a standard default. A simple adjustment would narrow the range, tripping the alarm at the first sign of a brain activity shift into patterns associated with inquisition and creativity...

* * *

“So that’s it. We lose.”

A number of engineers and technicians, military and civilian had drifted into the situation room which was no longer off limits to anyone. All had watched as the missiles had streaked past the approaching ships and out into space.

Captain Merrimack ran a cold, sweaty hand across a week’s growth. “We know what comes next,” he said with the calm resignation of the defeated warrior, “thanks to some very costly intelligence. They’ ll land, occupy the planet long enough to take whatever they like and smash whatever they don’t. Maybe get in a little hunting and a few science experiments. Then it’s off to the next inhabited world to do it all over again.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, captain.”

Dr. Clyde Randolph, a civilian software consultant to the military stepped out from the knot of engineers huddled in a corner of the room. “That’s where you’re dead wrong.”

“How so doctor?”

Randolph scanned the desperate faces nervously, clutching his black tool bag to his chest. His mouth was dry and he felt faint. He was not a brave man. “You’ve been listening to disinformation,” he said, “propaganda. The aliens have come for our benefit, not our harm.”

“I hope you will excuse my skepticism,” drawled Merrimack. “How will these monsters benefit us?”

“Oh, they’re not monsters captain,” replied Randolph smiling weakly and swallowing hard. “They can’ t be. Think about it. Think about what they have been able to do, all they must have accomplished. Think of how advanced they must be!”

Merrimack was no philosopher but it wasn’t hard to see where this was going. “What is your point?” he asked wearily.

“They are more highly evolved than we are,” stated Randolph. “They are our future.”

“Well tell me doctor,” said Merrimack, eyeing the bag which Randolph held in a white knuckled death grip. “Did you decide to ‘help’ our future a little?”

“They will remember that we made the peace!” shouted Randolph, turning to preach to the intellectually and morally superior civilians. “When those missiles flew past without exploding, when we surrendered our last weapons, surely they must have realized...”

Merrimack drew his .45 but had the presence of mind to wait while the innocent scrambled for cover.

“Captain! I have a positive track on the missiles. They’re coming back!”

“What do you mean ‘back’?” demanded Merrimack, eyes and weapon trained hungrily upon their unfinished business. “Back here?”

“Yes sir! Impact in four minutes!”

* * *

In burst Mrs. Lorink. “Still sleeping. I might have known. And you!” She turned toward the doctor who was putting away his instruments. “What have you been doing? Did you fix my Chebma?”

“He’ll be fine now,” promised Kledge. “And listen. Next week I want him to apply for a job at the mine. He can use my name for a reference. All right, Mrs. Lorink? Mrs. Lorink, what are you doing?”

Chebma’s mother had picked up a sheet of the manuscript and begun to read: “...‘Such raw treachery and by this single act the doctor had plunged mankind into such darkness as might never yield to the light of day’. What treachery? What does it mean? Why does he write these things?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Lorink,” confessed Kledge with a sigh as he closed his bag. “I really don’t know.”

Copyright © 2006 by Harry Lang

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