A Blanket of Well and Woe
by R. R. Brooks
Some rules have to be broken.
If only Dr. Padeema Sarey had walked to work by his usual, unchanging route — two blocks east and seven south — he’d have been all right. But today he deviated, perhaps distracted by icy, heaving slate, pelting snow, and frozen rain. Maybe he lost track of where he was and by accident wound up in the decrepit neighborhood near the overpass. Or he wanted to see how the poor lived in an American city.
He found flat concrete sidewalks where buildings blocked the wind. Pigeons cooed as Padeema stepped into the rundown area near the bridge. An old tire, shattered glass, and fuscous lumps dogged his steps. He booted a plastic bag that split, spewing papers, food, and a diaper. A rat carcass draped over the curb, its beady eyes daring him to advance. I should go back. He plodded on, determined to see new parts of his adopted city. He rounded a corner and came upon a man in a windbreaker and ripped jeans sitting still as ice in an entryway.
“Hey, buddy, you shouldn’t sleep here,” Padeema babbled, knowing nobody slept with open eyes.
The cadaverous derelict with stringy hair and mottled skin sat mute. In the distance, cars rattled over the elevated roadway, and a diesel smell tinged the frosty air. Padeema touched the man’s shoulder, and the stiff body fell headfirst onto the pavement.
Padeema gasped and grabbed his phone. He called 911 to report the location but didn’t wait, nervous about getting involved in a place where he didn’t belong. His idea of getting to work early vanished, and he stepped toward the bridge, somehow compelled to see more of this strange urban world, so close, but so alien.
Under the overpass, the breeze abated. A dozen street dwellers, mostly men, were huddled under newspapers, ragged blankets, or cardboard boxes. They should be in shelters, he thought, wondering why the homeless shunned those places even on frigid nights.
Feeling as out of place as a leper in a spa, Padeema approached a grizzled old man with a bushy beard and red, veiny face. Who knows what other medical problems lurk beneath the tattered clothes? Padeema thought. “I’m Dr. Sarey.”
The man flinched as if the words were sleet, then found a gravelly voice: “Doctor, eh? I’m Sergeant Stan, U.S. Army, Retired. Always happy to see a medic.”
Padeema forced himself to shake the proffered hand. “Sergeant Stan, why don’t you go to a shelter?”
“Safer here. No theft, no bad stuff.”
Padeema considered the answer. “If I could give you one thing to make life better, what would it be?”
“Gimme some money, Doc.”
“Not that. What else?”
Padeema waited. Stan studied his hands and said, “A good blanket. But not good enough to steal.”
Padeema handed Stan a bill.
“God bless. I’ll get breakfast. But don’t forget that blanket.”
Padeema did not forget. He came back the next day to get size, weight, and color specs from Stan, who, for money, was happy to help. Padeema worked in the Medical School lab making prosthetics, pumps, sensors, replacement parts, and other biomechanical devices. He loved his job. Solving medical problems with engineering transformed lives, and he was bloody good at what he did. Making a blanket was no big deal.
Weeks later, Padeema finished his blanket, a gray, lightweight, water-shedding cover with a rechargeable plasma battery pack good for ten or more days and a resistance circuit for heat. A thermostat matched heating to the external temperature. The padded, oversized blanket even sported the hood Stan had suggested.
Padeema’s fix for the prevention of theft was ingenious. Nanodroids, molecular, self-replicating robots that migrated through the skin and sampled human DNA, wed the blanket to the original owner. Anyone else got tingling pain instead of heat.
Satisfied with the design, Padeema had to find a way to pay for two dozen blankets and handle distribution. Mary Bellam would help. He’d gotten to know Mary when he was adjusting prosthetics for indigent clients; the two had hit it off.
Like Padeema, Mary was in her early thirties and had a thing for the homeless. She worked for the city department that tended those without shelter and had identified Padeema’s frozen guy several weeks back. She was as much a bleeding heart as he and would jump at the chance to do something more than pester the street dwellers with unwanted services. There must be spare change in her budget for such a benign project.
Padeema found her in her downtown office.
“What brings Dr. Tinker into the heart of the bureaucracy?” Mary asked with a smile.
Mary looked different. Hairdo was the same, but the black-framed glasses were new. Made her look like a sexy dame in a Philip Marlowe movie; hair a bit too black, lips a bit too red. Padeema liked the image and had to force himself to focus. “Mary, I have a proposal.”
“I think we should try a date first.”
A few seconds passed before Padeema caught on. “Your willingness to share contact delights my soul, but this is more professional in nature.”
“Too bad, the date is a time-sensitive offer.”
He described his blanket and asked if she could find money to create a couple of dozen. Mary loved the idea. The notion of the homeless returning every couple of weeks for a battery recharge gave her another chance to help them. She checked various spreadsheets in search of money, smiled, and told Padeema to submit a written proposal.
Mary took care of distribution, following Padeema’s insistent directions that only the user should come in contact with the blanket when it was activated for the first time. He claimed the blanket would look for that skin pattern as a way of preventing theft. Mary wasn’t sure how that worked, but she followed instructions. Padeema himself delivered Stan’s blanket. Two dozen homeless accepted the gift and agreed to show up at the Medical Center Laboratory for recharge. A dozen women and half as many men returned a week or so later.
“That’s a better response than usual,” Mary said. “These people don’t like to be pinned down. More will come when word gets around that they just have to stop by, get warm, have coffee and a donut, and leave.”
“One fellow seemed to like getting his blanket recharged,” Padeema said. “He ate two donuts. Even wanted his blanket sanitized.”
“Really. Did he give a name?”
“Stan. He’s the one who gave me the blanket idea.”
“We know Stan. Suffers from PTSD. Homeless are possessive, but Stan takes it to an extreme. Never leaves anything behind when he moves.”
“Well, he’s been here for two recharges, both less than ten days apart. I suspect he’s used the blanket in the daytime. His clothes look thin.”
“I wonder where the rest of the blankets are,” Mary said.
“I can pinpoint them exactly.” Padeema’s fingers danced over computer keys.
“You can track the blankets?”
“Exactly. There’s a GPS locator in each.”
“Whoa. I don’t suppose you got signed consent forms.”
“The blankets all consented.”
When Stan got Padeema’s money, he bought a burger and a bottle of cheap wine. He was happy to talk about blankets when the do-gooder returned the next day. Then he came back a couple of weeks later with the big gift. Seemed strange to wear gloves just to show how to turn on an electric blanket, just the kind of crap you expect from a bureaucrat. At least the damn thing worked.
With the blanket, Stan had a defense against the bone-chilling cold, worse this winter than ever before. He wore the blanket whenever he wasn’t moving around. Keeping warm made life better. Recharging was a pain, but he could get warm and still be left alone. He’d find a spot on the wall in the waiting area and feel protected. No one could sneak up on him.
By the second time he recharged the blanket, his knee no longer ached, his vision had cleared, and his headache had vanished. After a couple of weeks, blood no longer pounded in his ears, the pain in his feet disappeared, and he had more energy. He always knew where he was and that someone was following him. His thoughts grew dark:
Has to be the demon dishing out punishment for what happened in Afghanistan. Not my fault, but maybe the universe demands balance. Have to be on guard, I’m not going down without a fight. Too bad I don’t know what the bastard looks like. Could be anyone. Doesn’t really matter. Whoever it is will bleed.
He bought a knife.
Mary showed up at the lab with a folder and a frown. “Those blankets are more than just heating pads.”
“What do you mean?”
“Blanket users are... changed. They eat better, grub less in dumpsters, frequent soup kitchens. Things around them are neater. What’s going on?”
Padeema shrugged. “How would I know?”
“Don’t give me that. You know.”
Padeema took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll tell you. Remember how I said that each blanket is personalized to prevent theft? You didn’t ask me how. The trick is nanobots that enter the user’s body through the skin and grab a snapshot of the first user’s unique DNA. Only that person can use the blanket.”
Mary’s hand went to her throat. “You’re putting stuff into people.”
Days later, Mary barged in, bubbling righteousness. “Blanket recipients are healthier. They look better, feel better, and use less alcohol and drugs. They take care of themselves, use clinics. And when they get a drug prescription, they fill it. It’s not just because they’re warm.”
Padeema didn’t want to admit his blankets were responsible, but Mary looked as if she might choke him. “All right, I collect more than location data,” he said. “The nanobots send back an assessment of health: just general stuff on blood chemistry, lung and kidney function, cardiovascular output.”
“Whoa. You can’t do that without consent. But how does that fix anything?” Mary drummed her fingers on a desk and then poked his forearm with a nail. “What are you thinking? I can see it on your face.”
“Maybe, just maybe, the nanobots are doing more than recording health data. The bots know what normal values are and perhaps have somehow become capable of, I don’t know, fixing stuff. Like lowering blood lipids, correcting liver function, normalizing hormones, clearing an artery. Stuff like that.”
Mary stiffened. “Ohmigod! Damn! You’re not only collecting medical data without consent, you’re treating patients without a protocol by a method not approved for anything. The FDA will have our asses. I have to report this.”
“Don’t do it, Mary. You have no proof that nanobots are doing anything. Even if they are, it’s helping. Right?”
“Not everyone. Some seem to have screwed-up thinking. And what about long-term consequences?”
“In the long term, the homeless are dead.”
Mary left shaking her head.
Stan found a job at a fast food joint. He sensed the stalker was closing in. Maybe my boss. The muscled giant with an ugly face and a mean disposition doesn’t like me, seems ready to can my ass. It’s good to have a weapon.
Padeema was finishing adjustments on an artificial hand when Mary arrived. “Show me what you know about your friend Stan.”
Padeema displayed Stan’s profile on his computer screen. “He’s hypertensive and a drinker. Otherwise his health is not bad.”
“Like I said, he has PTSD. A recluse. Now with a blanket, he’s found a job. I’ve followed this guy for years and I can see his thinking is changed. How do you explain that?”
Padeema shook his head. “Nanobots aren’t supposed to get into the brain.”
“You need to remove your little toys from the blankets. This is the equivalent of using blacks for syphilis research.”
Padeema was pissed. He didn’t want to remove the nanobots. They were doing good, dammit. Mary was exaggerating. Thinking wasn’t changing. The blankets made people feel better. Mary blew everything out of proportion. He would check for himself.
The predicted snow began to fall as Padeema walked to the underpass. He ignored the cold and wind as he interviewed men and women wrapped in blankets. They all seemed healthier and more social. Even cleaner. He found Stan huddled in his blanket apart from the group, eating what looked like a hamburger bun.
“Good day, Stan,” Padeema said, moving closer.
Stan stood up, shedding the blanket. “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not. Just wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“You’re checkin’ on me. I don’t like it.” Stan took a step in Padeema’s direction. He seemed bigger, his shoulders broader.
Padeema retreated, his hands palms up. “Just wanted to know if you needed anything.”
“Not from you. Quit following me. I don’t have to put up with that no more.” What looked like a hunting knife with a six-inch blade appeared in Sam’s hand.
Padeema returned to the medical center mulling over what he’d seen. The blanketed homeless did seem in better health, what remained of them. Only about half still called the viaduct home. But Stan was a problem. Before, when Padeema had stopped to offer food, coffee, and money, Stan acted meek and friendly. Now he was an armed threat.
Stan got his blanket recharged the morning of payday. He put the blanket in his locker at work, dressed, and went to flip burgers. Trouble set in when he found his boss opening his locker.
“What the hell are you doing?” Stan yelled.
“Cleaning lockers. This is a food joint. It’s in your contract.” The boss pulled out Stan’s blanket.
Stan pulled out his knife.
Mary whirled into Padeema’s lab like a Kansas tornado. “Stan stabbed his boss yesterday. From what I hear, they got into a fight over keeping the blanket in a locker. Stan’s in jail and the boss is in the hospital.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Yes, thank God. But that’s the problem. The boss has money and connections. There will be an investigation. You and your nanobots will be exposed. The FDA will be on your ass. The mayor will bite mine. We’re screwed!”
Padeema saw the whole picture. He could deny the nanobots, but would Mary? The FBI would seize all his lab notes, his computer files. No way he could hide.
“What are you going to do?” Mary asked.
“Get a lawyer.”
Padeema didn’t bother with a lawyer. First, he spent an hour fighting a rising sense of panic. Then he formulated a plan and acted. He scoured his lab, destroying paperwork, saving key computer files to a thumb drive, and reformatting the hard drive on his local computer. He doubted it was enough, but it might buy time. Surely he had put something on the University mainframe that would mainframe him.
He withdrew cash from several bank accounts, found his passports, and checked airline and bus schedules. With a carry-on bag, he headed to the Greyhound station in a hoodie. There he paid cash for a ticket to north of the border.
Before he boarded a text arrived. Mary claimed Stan had talked about how much better his new blanket made him feel. That made the police want to know about the blanket program. Mary admitted she’d blabbed about the nanobots.
Padeema made sure he was alone. He took the battery from his cell phone and dumped both in a trashcan.
Interpol opened a file on Padeema Sarey. Authorities could find no evidence where he went after Vancouver and were not convinced he had fled from North America. That opinion changed when a semi-credible report surfaced. A person wearing Gandhi garb and matching Padeema’s description was seen handing out handkerchiefs to homeless in Mumbai.
Copyright © 2020 by R. R. Brooks