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Through Stranger Eyes – Chapter 2

Copyright © 2019 Chris Sarantopoulos.

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Chapter 2


Rick stepped into his office and crashed into his chair. “Music, low.” The faintest idea of a headache pulsed behind his eyes.


“Schubert. Piano Trio number two. On repeat.”

The gentle and melodic strokes of the piano filled the room, and Rick closed his eyes. The cello in the second movement was his favourite part. Schubert’s expression of pain and anguish and love were almost tangible. Music. Stripped to its core, what one got was mathematical harmony, nature’s way of communicating with humans. And what did humans do instead? They discarded their nature for machine parts. There’s no room for harmony in machine men with machine hearts and machine lives.

He brought a hologram of his wife and kids out and set it on loop. Marta was trying to get rid off her back a grinning Sean, who already had a grip of his sister’s hair. Sherry, the most beautiful woman and loving wife in the world, was trying to break them apart. And now both his kids wanted to enhance their bodies. How long before they would no longer listen to him?

Rick pinched the bridge of his nose, sat back on his seat, and let himself float. The operation had been successful but wearing. He could hardly raise his arms above shoulder-height. It was as though the medspider stole ten years of his life.

Enter cello. Sadness. Melancholy. Lament.

Maybe he was getting too old after all. Maybe he was fighting against something destined to win. Maybe all the evolutionists had it right; inferior species lost an undeclared war and were eventually swept away by a current that grew stronger the more they resisted it.

Both piano and cello now. A crescendo of hope, an allegro, and the tune turned livelier. Franz—Rick was certain if he and Schubert lived at the same time instead of centuries apart, they would have been on a first name basis—was a genius, a mastermind.

A light blinked on the surface of his desk. The music faded to the background. “You have an appointment with the board of directors in ten minutes,” the computer chimed.

He forced himself up with a grunt. “We’ll advance our civilisation,” he mumbled. “We’ll build machines to do the hard work for us. We’ll be the masters, and they, our slaves.” He snorted. He couldn’t remember who said that quote, but someone made a mistake on who ruled whom. He swiped his hands in front of the display on his office to stop the offensive blinking. “Inform the board I’m on my way.”

He took his pocket watch out and flicked it open. The hand for the seconds ran on its perpetual circular path. Maybe things would get better once he sat on the board. Maybe he could make them see reason, and change some things. He’d have enough power to do that. Maybe they’d see they could benefit from an old-timer like him. He listened to the pop the watch’s cap made as he closed it. He was tired, almost exhausted.

His mind wandered to what was in his drawer. He opened it and there it was waiting for him; a vial of hexatholene, also known in the streets as Phoenix. A stimulant meant to multiply perception and stamina to ten times the original. Great for street thugs who wanted to come out of a turf battle alive, but with nasty side effects. Uncontrolled anger was one of them. Not that street thugs had a reputation of being able to control their anger or saw that side effect as a problem. Unfortunately, it was also a favourite among colleagues and other health-related professionals, which made things volatile during an operation. Too often newscasts mentioned a doctor assaulting a patient or a colleague after using it.

He took the vial and studied the cobalt blue fluid in it. He had used it twice in the past, no more than a drop each time, but it had been years since the last time. He had hated himself afterwards for weeks. He was better than that. He was a survivor. If he survived the wars, he could survive anything. He tossed it back in his drawer and slammed it shut.

*          *          *

“TRY TO UNDERSTAND, DOCTOR STENSLANDT, the hospital needs to be profitable to continue operating,” Mr Wulff, the chief accountant said. “If we implemented what you suggest, we’d go bankrupt in a matter of weeks.”

“I understand your concerns, but—”

“No, you do not. You have repeatedly attempted to dissuade patients from having an enhancement operation.”

Rick made a bitter little chuckle and scratched the side of his nose. “Patients?”


“You said patients, Mr Wulff? I’m sorry, but in my book, a patient is someone who suffers from something and needs medical assistance. Like those in the lowest levels. What we do here is distributing toys and gadgets. Those coming here are not—”

“Doctor Stenslandt,” Mr Alcorn said, chairman of the board and managing director of the Elevation Medical Centre, and fixed him with a cold and penetrating stare, “you’re not here to lecture us on semantics. You’re here to be given two options.”

“Oh, on the—”

Alcorn slammed his synthetic hand on the table. It left a small dent on the wooden surface.


Alcorn clenched his jaw and made a small muscle jump out. “Given the fact the Augmen Corp representative is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, the corporation which has been supplying us with their tech for decades, and who is responsible for you having a paycheque might I add, I suggest you refrain from interrupting me again, unless you want him to be present at this meeting.”

Rick straightened, sat back, and folded his arms across his chest. If the Old Man thought that this kind of threat would work on him, he didn’t know him well.

“As your colleague,” Alcorn continued, “I advise you against it. As your superior, I strongly advise you against it. You’re a great doctor and, I’d hate to have to let a member of my staff go the day the new owner took charge.” He let the threat linger for a moment.

Rick forced a dry swallow down and shifted where he sat. Let go, he thought? They must be terrified of their new owner to throw threats of this kind at him.

“As I was saying,” Alcorn continued, “you have two options. The first is to carry on acting the way you have been and wait for Augmen Corp to deal with your personal morality. They employ well over three hundred million people worldwide, excluding the asteroid belt mining facilities. I’m confident they’ll have a need for a doctor somewhere. I do remind you, however, that confidence is not a certainty.”

He paused, took a sip of water.

“The second option is the one I urge you to take. Stop trying to dissuade your patients, and do as you’re paid to do. I assure you, it will be better for you in the long run. Do I make myself clear?”

Rick chewed the inside of his lip. Why did it take him so long to say yes, why did it feel so hard? Sherry would have answered before the Old Man had finished his sentence; she and every other reasonable human being. But then again, the one thing that mattered the most in people were their morals.

Rick closed his eyes and gave a hint of a nod. He didn’t trust himself to speak. He probably would have lashed out at the Old Man.


Rick stood up, turned around, and headed for the door.

“You may think of me as the enemy, Stenslandt,” Alcorn said. Rick halted. When he turned, Alcorn had fixed his gaze on the desk before him, as if reliving something from his past. “A sell-out to the Matriarchs. A money-driven bastard.” He chuckled. “An old man clinging to life when I should be clinging to the underjaw of worms in my grave.”

Yes, Rick thought. Everyone on the board waited for him to die and take his place. If not die, then step down. The seat Rick was supposed to get belonged to Doctor Hicks. The late Doctor Hicks, who joined the hospital after the Old Man was already a senior member of staff.

“Just so you see I’m not the villain here,” he said and transferred some data from the desk in front of him to a flexisheet, which he waved impatiently for Rick to take, “I’m consciously putting unfortunate events like this behind us.”

Rick glimpsed the other board members. The few gazes he met caused a knot to form in the pits of his stomach. He crossed the room and took the flexisheet. Transcripts of conversations he had with patients while trying to change their mind about augmentation. His pulse thrummed. They were watching him this whole time. They knew he spoke out against them, and had chosen to keep him after all.

“There are many more records like these in the servers. But then, there’s also your involvement in a purist demonstration.” He swiped the desk in front of him, brought a hologram up, and transferred the feed to the flexisheet in Rick’s hands.

Rick drew a deep breath and steadied himself. “How did you get that? It was years ago. And I took part not only because I’m against transhumanism, but to help those who would need medical assistance.” Like that poor man the sentinel sprayed with the bio-agent.

Alcorn snatched the flexisheet away with a lifelike hand. “There will be no such record left when the Augmen Corp representative arrives later today. But I need to make sure we have an understanding of how we expect you to behave from now on, yes?” Alcorn’s eyes remained fixed on the wall ahead of him as though looking at Rick would somehow stain him.

Rick wanted to say yes but found no spit left in his mouth. He nodded a fraction.

“Good. Like me and everyone else here, you are now the property of Augmen Corp. I can’t force you to accept this, but then what’s the alternative? You’ve been around people from below, you feed them, you care for them, you know what it’s like.” He nodded. “Yes, we know. I don’t approve, but I’m not the one to tell you what to do. Augmen may do it, though. Try not to give them a reason. Don’t let your ideals blind you.” He waved a bored and tired finger for Rick’s dismissal.

Rick walked out of the door with the Old Man’s words ringing in his head. Property of Augmen Corp, he thought. He knew this merger was going to be a disaster. Everyone had jumped right in, despite being aware they might no longer be employed. Why? Why were they moving forward with it?

He scratched the edges of his mouth. The answer was simple: because basic human stupidity dictated that if something bad was to happen, it would always happen to others.

“So? How did it go?” Dan waited for Rick outside the meeting room and clapped him on the shoulder when he came out. He had a tight-lipped smile that made the muscles of his lower jaw stand out.

“Not good.”

Dan sucked air through his teeth. A frown replaced the smile and his jaw muscles relaxed. “Really? I’m sorry, Ricky. Did you give them the anti-synth lecture again?”

What Rick did was right and had little qualms over it. Why couldn’t others see it too? “Maybe.”

Dan tut-tutted. “You’ll never learn. Always bent on getting things your way. All you had to do was keep your personal feelings away from the hospital. Keep them to yourself.”

“We’re doctors,” Rick said. “We’re supposed to care for those who come here. Instead, we urge them to jack up on stimulants, neurachems, artificial limbs, synthetic organs. We infuse their bodies with a ton of nanobots, and for what? Money?”

Dan allowed a stray glance make its way to the meeting room. “Yes, it’s about money. And in your case, it’s money spent on Marta and Sean. Money used to keep Sherry’s shop afloat. Think about it.”

“Sometimes you sound just like them.” Was Rick the only who could see that what they did was wrong? The only sane person in this world?

“Hey, look. He’s here.”

Rick followed Dan’s gaze. From the corridor on the other side, a crowd followed a strutting man. The followers were talking amongst themselves, pointing at things for the leading man to see in their flexisheets or the display-on-wheels following them around. They were headed Rick’s way. The leader was a man—no, not a man; he had equal parts of real and synthetic flesh—somewhere between the age of forty and fifty, though given the amount of synthetics in him, perhaps much older. He pointed at something with his artificial fingers; a beam touched the wall. He said something to a woman studying the hologram of the building from a handheld projector. She zoomed in to the wall section and nodded.

“Yes, I got the specs for that too and I’ve marked it for demolition.”

Augmen Corp’s representative, Rick thought. And he came with plans for their new toy.

The representative halted a few paces away from Rick, as if he heard his thoughts, then he approached and studied Rick. The retina in his eyes parted and a scan beam landed on Rick’s face. The executive smiled and made a minute bow to him. “Doctor Stenslandt.” He extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” The man’s entourage and the trail of doctors took a couple of steps back to allow them privacy.

The man’s voice was soft and melodic, calm and soothing at the same time. The tension inside Rick ebbed just by hearing him. Modulated voice, Rick thought. Artificial vocal chords, the latest fashion for the business-oriented, that produced harmonics in frequencies known to yield the best results for a tough audience. Guaranteed to change the outcome of a deal.

Rick took the man’s synthetic hand. Normal temperature, lifelike skin texture, delicate and smooth to the touch. The handshake was firm but not crushing.

“I’m afraid I’m at a disadvantage, mister …”

“Campbell. Harry Campbell.” His face radiated with an awestruck smile. Rick wondered if Augmen Corp figured out a way to fake emotions too. The executive let go. The retina parted and the scan beam came out again. This time it ran Rick’s body up and down. “Quite an impressive resume. Climbed the social ladder without any previous support from family, mainly because of lack of—”

Rick took a step back. “Hey. That’s enough. My life and my past are of no concern to you.”

Campbell clumped his mouth shut and blinked as if at a loss for words. The retinal scanner withdrew and the executive lowered his head. “My apologies. I did not mean to offend. I simply accessed the Public Archives. I’m … intrigued.” He rubbed his fingers together; nanocircuitry flashed. “Pure,” he muttered almost astonished.

“Are you checking my DNA?” Rick pointed at Campbell’s fingers. “Are you accessing police records as we speak? Stop it.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve heard of you. The rebel doctor who sells our enhancements while trying to persuade patients not to buy them. The synthetic-free, implant-free doctor. A purist. With such perfect physiology, I can’t blame you. They’ve done great work with you.” He paused, then smiled. “I meant nature,” he added as if talking to a primate that’s yet to understand the use of opposable thumbs. And he still managed to make that smile appear genuine. “I know you’re against modern technology, even though you are a product of it, like all of us.”

“A product?”

The executive blinked, cleared his throat. His eyes shifted to Dan, stayed there for a moment, then back to Rick. He nodded, spread his hands, and took in their surroundings. “This hospital has been using our products for ages. It wouldn’t exist without us. Likewise, you wouldn’t have been shaped this way, if not for this hospital, therefore, us. So you see, you are the product, the sum, of what we’re doing here. Under this prism, we’ve done great work with you.” His gaze drifted to Dan once more. Campbell adjusted his cuff, raised his chin in a somewhat challenging and defiant way, then turned to Rick and smiled once more.

“So, Augmen Corp is interested in me because I openly speak against them? Are you saying the leader of all Matriarchs is afraid of me and my beliefs?”

“Rick,” Dan said and chuckled, “I don’t think Augmen—”

“Of course not,” Campbell said and threw an almost angry look at Dan, probably for interrupting him, and turned to Rick. “We are merely interested in our property, as well as everything and everyone that comes with it. Anyone with enough senses would be. I’m afraid that’s all the time I can spare at the moment. Have a good day, Doctor Stenslandt.” He left and the entourage followed, their humming, audible once more.

“I don’t like him,” Rick said.

“Hmm? Right there with you, buddy,” Dan said.

“He accessed police records. He scanned me, like some kind of—”


Rick nodded. He always thought working for this hospital would ensure his independence from the Matriarch way of doing things. That he could influence things and minds easier. Campbell had just stepped into the meeting room but he was already instructing them and pointing at things. The Old Man had a stone-cold expression on him, and for a moment the Old Man’s gaze and Rick’s met. The Old Man lowered his eyes and he vanished behind the closing door. Even from this exchange, it was clear the Old Man was biting down on his anger.

“Anyway, back at our discussion, I think you’re overreacting,” Dan said. “You see demons and danger where there’s none. You’re blinded by—hey, look at me when I’m talking. You’re blinded by your irritation at those who have a different perspective and view of life than yours. Not everyone has to conform to purism.”

True enough, Rick thought. Even his kids wanted to alter their bodies.

“You’ll get another chance at the board,” Dan said at length. “I heard you saved a patient’s life today. That makes Augmen’s reputation shine even more, and all thanks to you.”

Rick hung his head. He ran his hand through his hair, stopped halfway through and hastily readjusted his parting.

A rush of weariness swept him. There was a moment where up and down lost their meaning, but he steadied himself on Dan’s shoulder.

“Whoa, there. Dizziness? Have you been blacking out again?” Dan brought his face close to Rick’s, held his face in his hands. “Come on, buddy. Let’s go get those exams, huh?”

The tests, Rick thought. He had forgotten about them. The board meeting had been in his mind for days. All he wanted was to go home and get some rest. Nuzzle in Sherry’s embrace. And to stay away from those machines.

“Maybe we should reschedule. I’d rather get some rest at home.”

“Oh, and leave me to deal with your wife alone? I’d rather face five Claires than one Sherry. Come on. You’ll have plenty of rest in here for the next couple of days. You’ll be like a new Rick.”

*          *          *

THE CAPSULE STOOD BEFORE RICK, open like the mouth of the lair of the most terrifying beast. One of Dan’s team was calibrating it, the monitoring devices, and the nano.

Rick’s heart beat a fearful cadence. The air around him had somehow lessened. All he had to do was step inside. Dan and his assistants would deal with the rest. Two days in stasis and the scans would be over for six months.

Dan put his hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be right here monitoring the whole thing, as always. Come, come. Let’s get this over with.” He injected Rick with the nanojuice and helped him inside. “Don’t worry. Your body will piss them out before you wake up.”

Rick’s eyes followed the closing seal separating him from the world. His pulse drummed in his ears and his breathing became too loud, too fast. A weight settled over his chest, as if the walls of the capsule were alive and cognisant, with the intent to squeeze him, crush him to the point only the nanites in his bloodstream remained.

“Relax, my boy,” Dan said through the com with professor Pearl’s thick accent. “Remember, all this is horse shit. Ever seen a real horse? It shits a lot, lemme tell ya.”

Rick huffed a little breath. The capsule filled with a blue light. A pair of semicircular sensors came out of the sides of the capsule’s ceiling and glided down over his body. He stifled a gasp and swallowed.

“Calm down, Ricky. Your readings are off the charts. The new instruments will help us map your brain far better. And in two days time, when you’re out, I’ll buy you your first V-hook. On me. Yes? Yes, indeedio. Professor Pearl approves, yes.”

The scanning bars reached his feet and made their way up, this time slower. His heart pounded like a caged animal desperate to escape. A heaviness settled over his eyes. His body weighed a ton. The stasis fluid touched the sole of his feet, crawled up his legs, and slowly rose. A breathing muzzle descended over Rick’s face.

A dreamy haze swept over him. He struggled to keep his eyes open, and for a moment he thought he floated outside the capsule. He saw technicians bringing another capsule into the room. A man full of synthetics—was that Campbell?—cast a watchful eye over them. Inside it, Rick almost made out a man, another patient, with a parting in his hair, who looked like him. The sedative Dan gave him must have been stronger than ever before. Seeing that patient was like looking in the mirror.

The weight in his eyes clasped them shut.

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