Bewildering Stories

Change the color of the text to:

Change the color of the background to:

Southtown Turnabout

by S. F. Murphy

"It doesn't make any sense," Todd Preston said. "It seems like it is getting worse by the minute."

The name, Doc Shepard, was embroidered in red on the Doctor's starched lab coat. He wore heavy work boots, blue jeans and a denim shirt. There was a late twentieth century stethoscope around his neck and a modern medical data slate in his calloused hands. The preliminary exam results on the slate were filled with red fonted warning indicators superimposed over a human figure. He scribbled on the pad, which translated his illegible scrawl into Arial text.

Patient is a seventeen-year-old Caucasian, genetically modified male complaining of chronic acne, loss of strength and height. He appears mentally coherent, though agitated by physically related incidental stress. Patient also complains about the loss of coordination and muscular control.

Shepard called up the record from Todd's summer checkup for the South Missouri City High School varsity football team. He had a contract with the same high school that his son, Jared attended. Everyone called it Southtown for short. The wrestling coach sent Todd to Doc Shepard to find out what was wrong.

Todd's July record came up on the wall screen that filled the west end of the room. A two-dee photo of a six-foot tall teenager with clean blond hair and perfect skin was topped off with an arrogant grin and clear, ice blue eyes. Every diagnostic indicator was in the green.

In front of Doc Shepard was a boy that measured in at five foot eight. The neat blond hair was now a ragged mop of greasy brown hair rifled with cowlicks. His eyes were a muddy brown color surrounded by violent eruptions of acne. Some of the acne sores were weeping freely, despite Todd's constant efforts with a soaked napkin to staunch the flow.

His Southtown Hornet's letter jacket hung limp on his reduced frame. The tan leather sleeves were rolled up to the coat's elbows so he could get his hands clear of them. Three embroidered S patches were perforated by fifteen yellow or purple safety pins from his wrestling victories.

"Tell me, Todd. When did this trouble start?"

"I put on my shoes last Monday and noticed they were loose," Todd said, not making eye contact. He seemed to shrink in on himself.

Probably noticed when Rob Price evened the score for all of those beatings you dished out. Jared also told him that the Southtown grapevine was buzzing that the Captain of the Cheerleading team had dumped the once mighty Todd Preston. He had taken particular glee in repeating the Captain's words verbatim. "I don't date losers."

His son's sense of payback and satisfaction were infectious. Doc Shepard remembered the jock who liked to pass the time by slapping him in the back of the neck.

"Last Monday," Doc Shepard said, entering the day into slate, which converted it to the present day, 10-25-2085. "Your shoes are loose. Are those the same shoes you were wearing last week?"

Todd shook his head, holding the soiled napkin to one of the worst acne eruptions right next to his nose. "No, my parents bought those last Saturday. They fit snug then. They're loose now."

"Hmm, when did the acne appear? You've never had a problem with it before," Shepard asked.

"Tell me about it," Todd said. "Tuesday morning. Can I get another towel here?"

I don't think my acne was ever that bad, Shepard thought as he reached some rubber gloves. He resisted the urge to mention that Todd liked to call Jared such golden oldies as, "Pizza Face," and the more popular, "Zit Munch."

Shepard wondered if he shouldn't take a sample of the acne material, but decided he probably wouldn't find anything he didn't already suspect. He took the pus and blood soaked napkins from Todd in exchange for some extra absorbent biohazard cleaning towels.

Before he could dispose of the old towels, their replacements were well on their way to saturation.

Any pity Shepard might have felt was chased away by the memory of Jared crying after Todd had taped him to a locker room bench during their freshman year. He chased away the memory of a quarterback like Preston who had spent most of Freshman English shooting a water pistol into the back of his head.

"Interesting," Doc Shepard said, running a couple of slate projections based on what Todd told him. He replaced Todd's July exam record on the wall screen with a standard eye chart.

"Cover your left eye and read the third row for me," Shepard said.

"It's blurry," Todd said, squinting. "I can't read it."

Doc Shepard read the July exam on his slate, which confirmed that Todd's vision had been eagle eye perfect before football season.

Turnabout is fair play, ran through Shepard's mind.

Cut that out, he told himself.

After trying Todd out on the second line from the top, he entered the diagnosis of myopia. Shepard then brought up a multicolored, circular blotch.

"Tell me what number you see in the display?" he asked.

Todd's face screwed up into a dark, pasty scab of a scowl. "Is this one of those ink tests they show crazy people? It is not like I am making this up in some sick effort to get attention like most losers my age."

Read. The Damned. Display. Smartass, was what Shepard wanted to say.

"No," Shepard said instead. "What number do you see?"

"I don't see a number," Todd replied.

They ran through a few more, each earning the same, exasperated, angry response from Todd.

"I don't see a God Damned number, are you deaf?"Todd shouted. "Is the screen broken?"

He released a slow exhale, trying to slow his racing heart as he switched the screen to display a red block and a green block.

"Calm down, Todd," he said, as much for his benefit as for Todd's. Yeah, Doc, remain calm, Shepard told himself. "Tell me what color you see on the screen."

"Grey, black and white. They don't have any color at all. Am I right this time?"

No, Shepard didn't say, noting the results onto the growing list of problems.

Shepard set the slate aside and retrieved a nanosampler syringe. "I'm going to need a blood sample, along with some other fluids."

"Fine," Todd jerked his letter jacket off.

God damn, Shepard sucked in a sharp breath.

He saw a thin, cadaverous being. There was none of the muscle mass that Todd had during his July check up. His arm was thin, pale and a hard stick even with the nanosampler.

"Come on Doc," Todd said. "I'm not a damned pin cushion."

"Take it easy," Shepard replied. "There has got to be a vein in there." He rubbed the tender, pasty skin over the right elbow joint. "Damn it," he added, losing his nerve to stick the needle in.

"What do you mean, damn it..." Todd started, but stopped when Shepard fixed him with a cold, hard glare that chilled him to the bone.

Once he had a blood sample, he handed Todd the rest of the sample kit and directed him to the bathroom.

"I don't do that thing," Todd said, handing over the cup labeled, Seminal Fluid.

I have dealt with mules that are more cooperative than this punk, Shepard thought. "Todd, this is serious business. I need to examine all of your genetic material, including this one," Shepard said, handing back the Seminal Fluid cup.

Besides, the star quarterback should have no trouble providing a sample, Shepard told himself.

Todd left the exam room, while Shepard went to his office for a moment to gather his notes and call his wife.

Doc Shepard's office was across the hall from Exam Room One. As much as possible, everything in his clinic was made of wood, covered in wood, or looked like wood. His office had unfinished pressure treated pine walls. He wanted a log cabin look, but his wife and business partner, Sally, had overridden that one.

She did let him purchase the Remington and Rockwell prints which covered the North wall above his bookshelves. In between the prints was a cased display of his father's medals and mementos from the Second Balkans' War of 2040. His two-dee picture, standing near a sandbagged bunker, was the last image taken of his father.

His father's favorite McClellan saddle, a reproduction piece for Civil War reenactors, set off in the northwest corner. The west wall picture window showed Shepard a cloudy, grey, wet day that was evolving into a November night.

On his bookshelves, late twentieth century western writers such as Baxter Black and Louis L'Amour mingled with his JAMA printed journal collection along with several Michael Crichton works.

The only contemporary equipment was the East wall screen and the Omninet displays woven into the 19th century, deep polished, wood work of his desk. He put the slate into the Inbox which transcribed the information into the medical database. While the Net examined the preliminary results, he contacted his wife, who came in on a voice only channel.

"Hey hon," Shepard put as much apologetic tone into his voice as he could. "I'm going to be late tonight. Things have come up at work."

She sighed through the crystal clear connection. He could hear her driving through heavy traffic.

"John, we moved to the Midwest to get away from the late tonight' problem. I think you are just trying to dodge the Missouri City Symphony."

Well, Todd is finally good for something, John thought. He'd much rather be out in the countryside working fences or at home cooking dinner for her than fighting the traffic into the Missouri City urban core. If he had only been able to convince her to move to the sleepy near-nothing town of Kansas City, instead of a metropolis of twenty-five million. A far sight smaller than the one-hundred million of New York City at least, where they had languished for five, long, miserable years.

"Sally, I've got serious troubles with the Todd Preston boy."

"Really? Who doesn't?"

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to drive out the cold chunk of steel that was threatening to split his head in two.

"It's a medical problem, Sally. His parents aren't going to take this well."

Sally cursed and hollered something unintelligible due to the volume of competing vehicle horns. "John, have you ever met Todd's parents? His father is, well, a bit weird."

"Well, I talked to Mr. Preston over a voice link earlier today," Shepard said. "I haven't actually had a chance to talk to them in person. Lord knows there are enough non-medical things I'd like to talk to them about."

"I've never met his mother," Sally said. "From what I have heard, the parents don't look anything like their son."

"Well, that is because he is a G-mod," Shepard said. "We talked about doing that for Jared, remember?"

"I've got to get off this line, hon. Traffic is awful on the 291 loop. For what it is worth, I do remember and I am glad we didn't do it. Especially if Todd is the result."

He shook his head. "Actually, instances of the original genetic code reasserting itself are almost unheard of. I don't think Jared would..."

"John, I'm not talking about Todd's problem today. I'm talking about what a first rate jackass he is," Sally said. "You owe me for welching out big time, mister. Especially for this creep."

Shepard tried to control his shock. "I'm a doctor. He's my patient."

"After what creatures like Todd Preston have done to our son, I suggest you take a vacation from your oath," Sally said. "Bye. See you tonight."

The connection was closed before he could reply. Sally never, ever talked about her High School experience, but she had commented long, hard and often with regard to, "creatures like Todd Preston."

"Well, like the little bastard or not, I am still a doctor," he said, looking at a picture of his children.

His son, Jared, was the same age as Todd and went to Southtown High. There the similarity ended. Where Todd had been tall, strong and handsome, Jared had been slight, gawky, and somewhat out of proportion. Where Todd had clear skin, Jared had treatment resistant acne.

Only nanocleansing had shown any moderate promise for his son's condition. Shepard rested back in his wooden office chair. He knew Jared would fill out physically and grow into a man. His body would find muscular strength similar to Todd's, and the acne would eventually become less of a scourge, though it would never abate. Doc Shepard still had trouble with it himself.

With a tweak of the code, he and Sally could have changed all of that for Jared.

His desktop Omninet chimed, informing him that the preliminary projections were complete along with the concurrent projections from the John Hopkins and Bethesda Medical Masternets A.I.'s.

Shepard skimmed over the results and the attached bibliography of current research on the condition known as source genetic code reassertion syndrome. Todd Preston was suffering from an advanced but not a terminal case of the condition, according to the A.I. projections.

"Good to see there is a local specialist," Shepard said. The bibliography noted several research papers from a Dr. T. Preston of Missouri University Medical Center. Out of idle curiosity, he called up Dr. Preston's university bio and contact information. He put two and two together when the Missouri University file came up.

"Todd's mother? Why isn't there a picture?" Shepard asked himself. Better yet, why isn't she here, he wondered. He looked at the titles.

Aggressive Resequencing Techniques on Human Embryos was dated twenty years ago, but still current from what he could see of it. Another paper was an editorial position at a prominent medical Omninet node entitled Genetic Modification: A Duty to Our Future

In fact, most of the American research had been conducted by a national team under the direction of Todd's mom, apparently by Omninet.

"Definitely a shut in," Shepard shook his head. He tried to contact her, tapping the comms icon.

"Be nice to have someone else to consult with on this one," he said, waiting for the Omninet to summon Todd's mother.

"Doctor Preston is not available at this time. Please leave a message," the sweet, artificial feminine voice offered.

"I hate answering machines," Shepard said under his breath, then typed a rapid, proper text message.

Finished with the machine savant, Shepard reviewed the medical projections again. What bothered him most was the final prognosis.

On the gloss black, desktop Omninet screen, the prognosis read, "Treatment options: none at this time."

"Crap. It must be Monday."

Doc Shepard felt empty, cold and depressed.

Todd stepped into the office.

"Doc," Todd blushed through his pasty, scabbed, acne weeping face. "I couldn't get this sample," he crossed the office and held out the cup labeled Seminal Fluid.

"Couldn't, or wouldn't?" Doc Shepard said, not looking up from the display.

Todd threw the plastic sample cup at Shepard. It fell in a short, underpowered arc to a resting place five feet in front of Shepard's desk.

"Couldn't," Todd shouted. "I couldn't." Todd fell back against the door frame and slid to the floor, his shoulders quivering.

"Oh Christ," Shepard said, getting up from his desk. "Get up off the floor and come over here." He walked over and picked Todd up off the floor. With some assistance from Todd, he got him over to a chair and closed the door.

"What am I going to do?" Todd sniveled, tears mingled freely with the oily scabs and weeping pus. "I'm a freak. Help me."

Shepard handed Todd more of the biohazard towels he had from his lab coat and took the seat next to his.

"Todd, does your mom know about this?"

Todd nodded, wiping in futility at his face.

"Why come to me if she already knows about this? What am I supposed to do?" Shepard asked.

Todd looked up, "Well, find a cure, damn it."

"I'm sure your mom has already told you that there isn't one," Shepard said. "She is one of the top genetics experts in the Inner System. If she doesn't know of a cure, then what makes you think I do?"

"She has a cure," Todd screamed. "She is punishing me. She is all the time lecturing me about not abusing my gift, how she is tired of getting voice and e-mail calls about picking on the losers..."

"Losers like my son," Shepard interrupted.

"Yeah," Todd continued. "And how people like me used to pick on her and Dad when they were in school, and blah, blah, blah, blah. She did this to me."

"Todd, listen to me," Shepard said. "Your mom didn't do this to you. If she had a cure, why would she deprive you or others who have source code reassertion syndrome?"

"I know there's a cure," Todd said. "Fix it!"

"Get a grip," Shepard said. "There is nothing anyone can do that won't kill you or make the condition worse. There are things we can try for the acne problem, but the loss of bone and muscle mass are beyond my ability to treat. If my projections are correct you..."

"I'll always be around five foot eight and these changes will finish around my eighteenth birthday," Todd said. "That is exactly what my mom said. She said that living was the only cure."

"That and some nanocleansers for the acne," Shepard said. "Does she know you are here?"

Todd shook his head. "Coach Potts sent me over after practice. He said he might have to cut me from the wrestling team."

"Better take up weight lifting," Shepard said. He remembered the first time he tried to curl the bench press bar. Only forty-five pounds and he couldn't even budge it.

"Won't do any good," Todd said.

"With an attitude like that," Shepard said, "it probably won't. You are mighty fond of calling people loser and pointing out their flaws. Well, if you don't get some intestinal fortitude, you are going to become the very thing you loathe."

"I already know I'm a loser," Todd said.

"Then you have already lost. You see, Todd. The difference between someone like you and someone like my son is that he deals with his limitations," Shepard said. He reached for the photograph and held it in front of Todd.

"Jared doesn't really have any choice in the matter," Shepard said. "You don't either.

The only choice you have is whether or not you are going to learn to live within your limitations. Maybe even expand past them."

"Your son is a loser," Todd said. "Just like his dad, the Doctor with no cure."

Shepard saw the Red Fog flowing around his eyes, narrowing into a crimson tunnel with a needle tight focus on Todd. He clenched his fist so tight that his knuckles popped like snapping timbers.

"You've got a lot of gumption to come into my office, ask for help, insult me and my son," Shepard took a deep breath. "Exam concluded. Get out of my office."

"You can't turn me..."

"Mr. Preston, I can and I will turn you out of my office," Doc Shepard said. "Chances are you are here without your parent's knowledge. Do you want me to tell them you were here?"

"They don't understand," Todd said. "They have always lived like this."

"So have the rest of us natural, unmodified mortals," Shepard said, opening the door to his office. "Good Evening, Mr. Preston."

Todd Preston collected his now too large, letter jacket and skittered past Shepard. The Doc followed him until he was out of the clinic. Best not to give him an opportunity to cause mischief in the rest of the clinic.

Once Preston was gone, Shepard gathered the fluid samples Preston was able to produce.

It was just a little after seven in the evening.

"Well, it wouldn't hurt to run the fluids through the lab," he said, taking each of the containers to the Omninet Lab Interface.

He had the Lab results by time he returned to his office.

The prognosis hadn't changed.

If I had a cure or treatment, he wondered, would I provide it?

Shepard took off his lab coat and replaced it with his Carhart work coat from his office and shut everything down for the night.

"Well, I don't have a cure or treatment, so it doesn't matter. God have mercy on you, you miserable bastard," Shepard said, as he locked up for the night. "Lord knows nobody else will."

Copyright © 2003 by S.F.Murphy