Copyright © 2019 Chris Sarantopoulos.
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When a cell attacks another cell, there is nothing left of the loser. The forthcoming acquisition of the Elevation Medical Centre by Augmen Corp, the leader of the Matriarch Corporate Conglomerate and founding member of the Board of The Ten, had seemed like such a battle. What troubled Doctor Rick Stenslandt the most was the new work conditions this acquisition would bring. To him, there was little doubt that things would change after today. Undoubtedly for the worst. And one of the things the new management would ask him to do was to sell out his beliefs and ideals.
All Matriarchs cared about was pushing their bioengineered monstrosities to the public. For the betterment of our species, they said. For the improvement of our way of life, they argued.
Rick studied the pitiful outcasts the interlevel shuttle had dumped as they scuttled towards him and his alms. What about them, he wondered? What about these poor souls? Why couldn’t the Matriarchs, with all their power, provide for them too? Were the stacked megacities Matriarchs like Augmen created so packed with people that they missed some? How? These were people, not grains of sand to slip through someone’s hand.
Up here, on the seventh and topmost level of New Ringwood Eden stacked megacity, among the towering and twisting spires bathed in neon lights and holo-ads, particularly the streets around Elevation Medical Centre and the plaza before its main entrance, the rich and prosperous enjoyed the life the Matriarchs provided. They cared little for those in need. But Rick, unlike the rest of his kind, enjoyed helping the discarded, the wretched, and the less fortunate.
“Last year’s earnings for the Matriarchs from bio-enhancement implants increased by two hundred and fifty-four per cent,” the newscast hologram floating before Rick’s eye read. He switched it off and took the holo-link off his head. He had been right all along. Synthetic bio-enhancements became a fashion craze and, if unchecked, they would lead to a life with no real living tissue left.
Humanity should live according to its original design, no matter how long their time on earth may be, he thought. No amount of nanojuice injected into them, or how many organs and body parts they swapped, or how high up they lived should change that. People ought to know better.
The first outcast approached him with timid steps and then the rest. Soon, everything Rick bought for them vanished. As always, Barry stayed behind. He walked with a hobble and kept his eyes behind a pair of massive goggles masking most of the face his wiry beard didn’t cover. He never took alms from Rick and never approached him.
Barry inched towards him, stopped, scratched his head over the beanie he wore, and turned his attention away to argue with someone not there. He had one hand stuffed in the pocket of a long and heavy coat of unidentifiable colour from dirt, puke, and piss stains. He brought something out, examined it at length, then lifted his goggled eyes at Rick.
“I … I’m sorry,” Rick said and took a step towards the man, “there’s nothing left, but I can—”
Barry gasped. He stuffed whatever he held back into his pocket and hurried away. “I remember nothing, nothing,” he bellowed and ran away from Rick. He arrowed through a holo-ad and headed straight to the interlevel shuttles.
Inside the hospital, the scheduled arrival of Augmen Corp’s representatives had turned the place into a beehive in uproar. Every holo-ad displayed either the hospital’s breakthroughs and achievements on body alterations or an Augmen Corp product. The time of independence from the Matriarchs was over, Rick thought.
“Sign these, please.” Claire appeared out of nowhere and shoved a flexisheet and pad into Rick’s face. She was Dan Havariggs’ assistant, a fastidious woman who always asked about this and that, and had a keen eye for details. In another life, she might have been the finest lion tamer the world, if not the universe, had ever seen. All she was missing was the whip. She got what she wanted from whoever was her supervisor and didn’t know the meaning of the word no unless it came out of her own mouth. Maybe the new management would use her administrative skills. Big corporations loved people like her.
“Isn’t Dan in? That’s Doctor Havariggs’—”
“Not yet. I need them signed. Now.”
“I’m sorry, Claire. You’ll have to wait for him. I don’t underst—”
“The board can’t wait on Doctor Havariggs.”
Rick sighed. “Fine. I don’t even know what it is I’m signing here.” He placed his finger on the indicated slot on the pad and felt the tingling sensation of the bio-collector underneath. “Why do we need such a massive quantity of growth factor anyway? The synthetic tissue on the implants comes pre-made. We don’t grow the tissue ourselves.”
Claire snatched the pad and the flexisheet from him once it chimed that the signature had gone through. “You’ll have to ask Doctor Havariggs. As far as I understand, it’s the typical amount he always orders,” she said and walked away, her heels tapping on the floor.
“Yeah. Good morning to you too, Claire.” He brought his golden pocket watch out and flipped it open. Where the hell was Dan?
* * *
“I was on my way to you,” Dan said from the other end of the hallway. He caught up with Rick as he was getting into the elevator, and patted him on the back.
“Dr Havariggs. What a surprise.” Rick shook his head like a scolding father, then cracked a smile. “Some friend you are. You left me to deal with Claire. First thing in the morning, mind you. How do you cope with her as your personal assistant? She’s like a drill sergeant.”
Dan placed his hand on the panel and the system registered him. “She’s good at her job, buddy. Plus, she handles all the things I hate doing. If we had more like her, we wouldn’t have to show up for work at all.” Dan had an intelligent face and a gaze that seemed to keep track of everyone and everything. He yawned into his palm and wiped the edges of his eyes.
“Rough night? Let me guess: The Temptress? Again?”
Dan gave him a toothy grin. He squeezed Rick’s arm, wiggled his eyebrows, and leaned close like a conspirator. “You won’t believe the things Crystal did to me last night.”
“Crystal? You do realise you’re talking about a V-hook, right? She’s not real, just electric impulses through your brain—”
“Yeah, I know.”
“—the brain you are, apparently, trying your best to fry. Why do you go there anyway? You get some kind of special regular’s discount?”
“Something like that.” There was a hint of blush on his cheeks, either from the booze or the kick from last night’s stimulants still coursing through his body. “I was in the neighbourhood and figured I might combine business with pleasure. You should try it sometime.”
“Dan, you’re not supposed to visit V-hook brothels or ExperienSers more than once every few weeks. The shit they fill your body with could kill you. Not to mention they fry your brain.”
“How on Earth did you come out a Luddite?”
“Wait. Did you say business? A well-respected regular party animal of Naughty Town? What kind of business was that? Are you seeing someone?”
“Errands,” Dan said. He fidgeted with his collar, then shoved his hands in his pockets. “And no, I’m not seeing anyone. Not the way you mean it. So please don’t preach to me about wife and kids again. Not happening.” He snapped his attention to one of the holograms where a young Asian woman advertised the benefits of the latest Augmen Corp ceramialloy knee and whistled through his teeth. “Now that is a construct, I’d be willing to share more than one experience with.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“Fine,” Dan said. “Speaking of wives, did Sherry tell you I left a message? I’ve scheduled your next appointment.”
Not again, Rick wanted to say but stopped his words before they came out of his mouth. Had it been six months already? Dan meant good and wanted to help, but every time Rick had these exams, he felt like a different person. As if the nano they injected him with was rearranging him from the inside.
“I would have come to you,” Rick said. “Eventually.”
Dan paused and raised a finger. “Ricky, my boy, if I didn’t know better, I’d wager you are a lying sack of shit,” he said in a lame attempt to imitate Professor Pearl’s thick accent from their time at university. Then his face took on a serious expression. “This is for your own good.”
“I haven’t had a blackout since the last exam. Whatever it is you do, it’s working fine.”
Dan shrugged. “I haven’t done anything. Your brain seems to be in need of fine-tuning every few months, that’s all. But I’ll figure it out eventually.”
The lumipanel next to them blinked into existence and showed Augmen Corp’s sign.
“Do you think Augmen will cut back on benefits for the staff?” Rick asked. “Like my exams?”
“Don’t worry. It won’t affect you.”
“I have a feeling a lot of things are about to change after the acquisition.”
Dan waved the argument away. “You are important.”
“How can you be su—”
“Sherry told me the good news,” Dan interrupted. “Another go for board membership, huh? Good. Between you and me, at your age and with your skills, it should have happened a lot sooner. It would have happened if you weren’t so opinionated.”
“You’re forty-eight. You should and could have been on the board. You never give up, never quit. If you only had a little more sense, you’d see that one day, you’d make it to the Old Man’s seat.”
“The Old Man’s seat belongs to Augmen now and Augmen is massive. How many millions in their employment now? A hundred? Two hundred?”
“Three hundred and twelve million, eight hundred seventy-four thousand, two hundred twenty-five last time I checked.”
Rick blinked and tilted his head to the side.
Dan took a step back and gave him a thin smile. He scratched his chin and chuckled. “Well, I heard it somewhere. A newscast, probably.”
“I thought you hated the news. Anyway, my point is, they don’t even know who they employ. Why would they care for someone like me, or who runs this hospital?”
“Sure they will. You’re good and you’re special.” Dan patted him on the shoulder and grinned. “Just too stubborn.”
The elevator dinged on Dan’s floor. “Relax. They may fire me, but never you. Be more flexible in that meeting and you’ll be fine. And don’t be late for your exams.” He stepped out of the elevator and spoke through the slowly closing doors. “I’m in your corner. Nothing to worry about. Hey, maybe you should join me in one of my night outs. Sherry won’t mind. It’s all in the head. Nothing’s real.” He winked just before the doors closed.
* * *
The engineer prepared Rick and made sure the emergency medbots and the medspider hanging over the patient worked to perfection. The nurse assigned to help Rick—not that doctors needed nurses anymore, not even to wipe the sweat off their brow—was watching a newscast coverage.
“… the victim, Neil Mayfield, 91, was an esteemed executive of Onitech NanoRobotics. Police officials have not linked this to Blaze of Insurrection or any other similar terrorist organisation, but it is related to the series of targeted deaths against the Matriarchs that have been going on for some time. The victim was found drowned at Cedar Park, on the seventh and topmost level of New Ringwood Eden in broad—”
Rick switched it off. “We have work to do.”
“I hope they catch whoever did it. It’s a shame all these brilliant and wonderful Matriarch employees getting killed.” Her nostrils widened. “Chances are whoever did it, will have it easy in the Production Placements. I’m telling you, scum like that deserve to be sent to the wastelands.”
“Carrie, we’re doctors, sworn to protect all life. If we didn’t have the programme, people would die. And yes, that goes for someone like the murderer. If it was murder. We can’t play God at our own volition. The programme helps deviants return to a productive life.”
Her brow creased a little but she kept silent.
Rick ran a last-minute scan on the patient in the operating room and on the new implants he needed. The state of the patient’s lungs and liver was worse than a crater-filled planet.
“Sedatives ready?” he asked Carrie.
Rick put the matrix over his eyes and blinked them into focus to the new software-created environment. He wore the sleeves linking him to the medspider and adjusted the thimbles at the tips of his fingers.
“You should get implants on the fingertips and the eyes, Doctor,” the engineer said. “They’d help with the operations.”
“No, thank you. I like me the way I am.”
The metallic spider hanging over the patient came to life, and the appendix with the cutting laser moved. The other limbs held the artificial lungs, the liver, another the tissue weld, the last the injections with the nanobots.
Five minutes into the operation, the alarm went off. Rick’s field of view filled with a red light. The patient’s readings flashed across his eyes. The medbots rushed in.
“One tube E.N.I. to the heart,” Rick ordered and moved his fingers accordingly.
The spider’s arm with the nano injection plunged it into the patient’s heart. Rick’s field of view narrowed and showed the depth and location the needle pierced.
“Not working,” the nurse said. “He’s rejecting the nano.”
The medbots punctured the patient’s toes, fingers, shoulders, head, and abdomen. The holo-display mapped the patient’s veins and arteries, as the nanobots went through them at ultrafast speeds.
The patient flatlined.
“It’s no use. Call it in, Doctor Stenslandt.”
Call it in? He hadn’t even started trying. “Initiating Boyarova method.”
“You can’t,” the engineer said. “It’s not designed for that.”
“Doctor,” the nurse said, “it’s no use. We lost him. If nano can’t save him—”
“There. That’s where he’s bleeding from. Full control to me. All systems to manual.”
“Now, and get the hell out of my O.R.”
The engineer fiddled with his instruments. The spider jittered momentarily as full motion control passed to Rick. The engineer and the nurse left the room.
A small crowd of nurses and a trainee doctor gathered outside and watched through the window. One hour and fifty minutes later, Rick stepped out of the control room, drenched in sweat, his face grim. The crowd broke up and parted, their murmurs and glances over their shoulders the only thing indicating something out of the ordinary took place. From the next door, the pair of medbots guided the sedated patient back to his room.
“The medspider’s not designed to operate under these conditions,” the engineer said.
“The next time you disregard my instructions will be the day I’ll kick you both out of this hospital. Are we clear?”
The nurse nodded, her face ashen.
“What you did, was not within operational parameters,” the engineer insisted.
“Really? And stuffing a human body with machines is?” Rick’s voice rang against the walls. The few patients and their families walking the nearby aisles stopped and looked in their direction. “He was full of an illegal batch of nano near his liver because as it seems, he thought it would help him to patch things up like that. Unregistered nano, therefore undetectable. Once their expiration date passed, they remained inside him, because his body couldn’t piss them away. And once our scanners kicked in, their self-destruct programming also kicked in, so we wouldn’t trace their manufacturer, and they ripped through every vessel they were in.”
“The Boyarova method is unorthodox,” the nurse said. “You could have killed him.”
He pointed a finger and loomed over her. “The Boyarova method was created specifically for such cases.”
Rick took them both by the shoulder and pointed at the patient. “And he was already dead. But not anymore. We’re here to save lives, not to fool around and make them look pretty.” He pushed them aside, walked down the hall alone. “I told you before, you cannot always rely on machines to do the work for you. I will not tolerate anything less than complete focus on the goal. And the goal is to save lives and make things right again for the patients. If you can’t do that, hand in your resignations.”