Preamble: This is a science-fiction short story concerning the discovery of an actual medical cure-all. Like most of what you read on the web, it isn't true.
I'd also like to mention that we're having the Internet over for tea. If you'd like to drop by August first through fourth inclusive of this year at our historic schoolhouse one hour north of Toronto, drop me a line and I'll share the details with you. The schoolhouse will provide field camping space, natural beauty, toilets, a couple of musical acts, and access to propane barbecues and kegs of beer throughout this four day hullaballoo.
Plus I'll be there walking around glad-handing while wearing an oversized costume of my own likeness. So there's that to look forward to. I dance for quarters.
Unlike most of what you read on the web, this stuff is true. We did it nine years ago and it worked out pretty well. Folks came from all over the continent. Casualties were zero. You should really consider coming by.
(Meanwhile, the panchrest story's vitals are charted beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
Nicholas caused no harm.
He monitored it. He indexed it. He graphed the harm, and surveilled its sometimes stochastic progress. There was a creativity in the harm when it flourished. Each affliction was its own story, describing a unique disruptive smudge through some body's steady state.
But it wasn't Nicholas' fault. And even letting the case become prolonged and acute and a pulsing, gnawing misery wasn't really his fault either -- not if you took a sufficiently broad view.
If he intervened too soon, he'd be found out; then there'd be no cures for anyone.
So really it was for the potential benefit of the majority that individual maladies had to be let to feed for a while first, to really ripen before Nicholas applied the miracle. If his intervention looked too good -- too quick and too sure and too universal -- it would attract the wrong sort of attention. If things went that way Nicholas knew he'd soon find himself a figure of media interest rather than a successful physician.
He reasoned that helping himself helped others, so it would be short-sighted to rock the boat.
The harm was optimal now. The scrawny bald child was barely breathing. Her sores weren't healing. Her eyes were losing their lustre, descending under a thin film that looked like half-fried egg. Her parents hunched at her side, faces etched in stains of dried, unblinking grief. They stank. They didn't look up until Nicholas spoke.
"Listen," he said. "There's an experimental treatment option I'd like you to consider. The potential side effects are dramatic, but at this point in the process, frankly, I don't think there's much to lose."
"Go on, doctor."
"I will. But first I think it's only fair to be fully candid with you: this treatment is not inexpensive."
The child's parents held hands and nodded.
It came from Quintana Roo. It came from one of those sparkling sinkholes they call cenotes -- gaps in the limestone connecting the arid surface to underground aquifers, which were the local equivalent of rivers in a land fractured by a notorious asteroid impact sixty-five million years prior to Nicholas' visit.
Nicholas paid one hundred and sixty-five dollars for a guide to take him down. They went with a group of seven, repelling down the lichen-coated throat of the shaft in little bursts propelled by the guide's encouragement, taking pictures of one another with disposable cardboard cameras.
"Here, along the crater rim, the cenotes are concentrated," the guide told them, "where natural erosion finds more opportunity because of shattered bedrock. See how the stones glimmer? They're shot through with micro-diamonds from the impact. But you won't get rich, so don't bother filling your pockets. You'd have to work for years to accumulate a single gram."
A stout fellow from Minnesota guffawed. "Ha -- that's no different than my jab!"
Everyone had a good chuckle, and then the key cable that had been fraying against a ledge snapped and four of them tumbled down the stone well in an uncontrolled fall.
Two died somewhere on the way down as they bounced against the irregular limestone walls. One lingered and threatened to fade while Nicholas took care of her. It was twenty-four minutes before rescue reached the bottom where broken bodies lay splayed across the rocks, the normally turquoise freshwater basin stained pink and frightened fish only now starting to wander back.
"Help her. I'm fine. She has a puncture to the left lung, multiple broken ribs on the left side, and a grade three-A concussion. Is there an ambulance waiting?"
"Si, si, paramédicos is coming!"
"Then I can hold on. Get me on the next trip. It's just a broken leg. Go!"
There, in the sparkling dank with two corpses as company, Nicholas' gaze slid randomly over the rocks and settled on it. There, just beneath the surface of the water in the current's lee next to a trio of ancient children's skulls with flattened Maya foreheads. There, half in shadow and half in a bed of lazily waving water grasses. There it was: an ineffably foreign object.
Why did he touch it? What kind of a madman would touch such a thing?
But when Nicholas caught up with himself he was standing at the edge of the pink water with the very odd thing clutched in his dripping bare hands. It was warm and, inexplicably, Nicholas felt very strongly that it loved him. He had never felt such emotion inspired in him from a bizarre artifact at the bottom of a cenote before so he was understandably perplexed.
But he also felt really, really good.
He reasoned that his leg had only been mildly fractured and never broken, for how else could he explain how he now stood upon the leg, feeling only the slightest complaint when he applied his full weight? He shifted his balance experimentally only to find no pain at all.
"Señor, I thought there was a broken leg?"
"I thought so, too. I must have made a mistake. Truthfully I wasn't focused on myself. I was trying to help. I'm a physician."
"Te bendiga, señor. God put a doctor here today for a reason."
"I wasn't able to do anything, I'm afraid. I might as well have been a plumber. All I could do was tell you how badly they were hurt."
The paramedic squeezed his shoulder and shone a flashlight down on the apparatus in his hands. "Put this harness around your hips please, and we'll get you taken care of. What's that you're carrying in the towel, señor?"
The medical review board thing didn't go well.
On the steps outside he saw one of the nurses who had testified. She looked terrified to see him, which made Nicholas feel like a monster. She said, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean. It was just that." Nicholas waited a moment, brow raised, but that was all she had to say. Her minders steered the nurse away and Nicholas' lawyer tugged on his sleeve. "Let's go, Nick. That's our ride pulling up. Nick?"
In the car, staring out the window, Nicholas said, "It's a good thing my father's dead."
His lawyer wasn't sure what to say. Over lunch he tried to paint an optimistic picture. "This unfortunate misunderstanding might just be the impetus you need to take a new tack, Nick. I'm talking about research."
"No university will touch me now, Dong."
"That's fine, because I think you should put the focus on the patent market. Private research, private profits from the portfolio. You would vindicate your professional reputation and get rich doing it."
"And the startup costs?"
"Venture capital. They'll be blown away by any demonstration you'd care to give."
Nicholas sat back and frowned at his soup. He looked up with one brow raised. "A demonstration of what?"
Dong smirked. "I'm not an idiot, Nick. We just sat through four hours of statements with the review board, and I may not be a doctor but I can put two and two together. You've got some kind of a wonder drug."
Nicholas snorted. "A wonder drug?"
"Whatever you want to call it. You've just been barred from practising in the whole state. Because you've been caught tampering with patient medicine again and again. But you've never asked me to represent you in a patient-driven accusation of malpractice. So I have to ask: are you seeing another lawyer behind my back?"
"Right. You tamper with medicine and nobody dies. In fact, they live."
"There's no magic bullet. I make use of all the best interventions."
"You're not a doctor. I couldn't explain it to you."
"Einstein: 'If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.'"
"Fine. Let's talk about physics then. Where's my goddamn club sandwich already?"
Dong shrugged. "That depends on the sandwich's experience of acceleration."
"Calm down. Let's just eat lunch. We can talk about developing your wealth strategy over dessert. I feel like cherry pie."
Nicholas took Dong into the basement to show him his thing.
He waited until his lawyer consented to turn his back before he'd turn the combination lock on the fire-proof safe bolted to the concrete floor. Dong turned at the creak of the hinge. His poker face drained away into a cod-fish stare.
"Yeah," agreed Nicholas. "I know."
"But what is it, Nick? I mean. It's so. It's very."
"Yeah, it's weird."
"I can't even describe it. Is it…is it a plant?"
"I don't know."
"It moves a little, yeah."
Dong took a couple of shuffling steps closer, his hands reaching out. He stopped and turned, brow furrowed. "Is it safe touch it?" He licked his lips and frowned. "Because I really want to touch it."
"Go ahead. Knock yourself out."
"It's better than safe."
Dong put eight fingertips in gentle contact with the thing. He closed his eyes and made a quiet, infantile noise then stepped back again. A beatific smile spread across his lips as his eyes half opened. "Well now," he chuckled to himself. "Oh boy."
"Isn't it something?"
Dong nodded. He stretched out his arms and legs experimentally. "I feel great, Nick. What did it do to me?"
"It made you better. Whatever was wrong with you isn't anymore. The big things, the little things."
He licked his lips again and looked sideways at the safe. "It's addictive, of course."
"Not in any metabolic sense, no. It's not a narcotic effect. It doesn't flood receptors or numb uptake of anything -- it just puts everything in the proper balance."
"Balance, huh? Alright. That's something I can understand. So it's some kind of -- bio-harmonizer?"
"That sounds like something for sale on late-night TV."
Nicholas walked over to the safe. He closed and door and spun the dial. He nodded toward the stairs. Dong picked up his jacket and sauntered up. In the kitchen he washed his hands.
"You see my point, though," said Nicholas. "About research. If we show this to anyone we're showing it to everyone. Even private research. There's no salary high enough or NDA air-tight enough to keep a universal panacea mum." He jammed his hands into his pockets and looked at his Italian shoes. "But maybe there's no other way to go, at this point."
"You'd be the discoverer. That's worth a book deal if not a movie. Maybe a Nobel."
Nicholas chuckled without warmth. "But no practise. I'd have to become a professional celebrity. That's not who I am -- I'm a physician. And what if it couldn't be milked? What if the world cast me as a villain for sitting on this so long? Being in Wikipedia doesn't put gas in my car."
Dong grinned. "So, Nick, do you want to be famous or do you want to be rich? I can manage your career either way, but to be candid it's a much sweeter plum for me if you choose the money."
"You really have a plan?"
Dong's expression was expressive. "Nick," he said in mock-hurt.
"We're bastards, you and I," said Nicholas. "You know that, right?"
"We're not cheating posterity out of anything. When you die you'll donate that thing to science. Right?"
"Of course. Yes. Of course I would do that."
Dong mopped off his hands on a tea-towel then tossed it on the counter. He offered out his soft-palmed hand to shake. Nicholas looked at that hand, then up into his lawyer's dark eyes, then wondered how it would feel to be a rich man. When he came back to himself he was shaking Dong's hand.
Just over the state line in an asphalt-glazed commercial park called Green Hills was the first iteration of the Dixby Palliative Healing Center. It was a humble place, its style-agnostic architecture seamlessly blended with that of its neighbours -- a wholesale party supplies store on the left, an exotic massage parlour on the right.
The DPHC had applied for and received dispensation from the county for four handicapped parking spaces directly in front of the doors. This only made sense, since nearly everyone who came to the Healing Center came became they were at death's door. They were veterans of the nation's best hospitals and cancer clinics. Many of them already had begun relationships with funeral homes in order to realize the vision of their post-passing ceremonies at a price point their estates could absorb.
All the parking spots were always full.
This meant there was often a wheelchair van or a private ambulance jammed into Nicholas' reserved space around back. He grumbled to himself and parked next to the garbage dumpster again, thumbing the contact on his fob to secure the Bentley as he walked away.
Dong was waiting in his office. "We have a problem."
Nicholas poured his fancy coffee out of a paper cup into a mug. "Business or medical?"
They reviewed the file together. Progressive neuropathological paralysis on a countdown to profound morbidity. Robust insurance policy in good stead. Prior treatment regimens ineffective and options exhausted. Nicholas pursed his lips. "Seems like an ideal candidate for the fix. What's the stumbling block?"
Dong perched a well-manicured fingernail beneath the insurance details. "Group policy, corporate-backed. By the Woodbridge Company."
"Owners of Thomson Reuters."
"The news agency?"
Dong nodded. "Patient is a journalist, Nick. Investigative reporter."
Nicholas tapped the file. "She's legitimately terminally ill. We ran this latest battery of tests ourselves."
"Yes, and took a sweep markup. She's actually dying, you're right, but she's still also actually a journo."
"You think she's on assignment now?"
"It doesn't matter. If you save a journo's life they're going to write about it sooner or later. Nearly dying is top-tier clickbait, especially if the cure comes from outside conventional medicine. Throw in a vivid trip to Heaven before getting yanked back to Earth and this chick could make her career on it."
"We don't refer to patients as 'chicks', Dong."
"I'm listening. And I'm still a physician, damn it."
"That's why I'm making this call instead of you. This one can't have the fix. The attention she could bring would break the business model."
"We have to withhold, Nick. We have to. You're not going to fight me on this, are you?"
Nicholas was quiet for a moment, intent on his coffee. "No," he said as he stood up. "But in the future I don't want to have this conversation. You just have it with yourself. I'm a healer not a capitalist." He left his own office abruptly, closing the door behind him.
The sheriff had his hat in his hand. "This isn't an official word, Dr. Dixby. The mayor just wanted the two of us to chat. Informally. To address some areas of concern."
"Please, come in."
Nicholas asked for a couple of cups of coffee and the nurse went to the receptionist who went to the coffee machine to make that happen. Nicholas didn't sit behind his desk, but instead came around and sat in one of the visitors' chairs next to the sheriff. "How is the mayor?" asked Nicholas while they waited.
"He's good," said the sheriff.
Coffee came. Reception closed the door. Nicholas crossed his legs and smiled. The sheriff leaned in. "Now, the first thing, I don't want to sound insensitive. Some of what I'm going to say might sound that way, but I want you to understand where I'm coming from. I'm a churchgoing man and so is the mayor. We respect the needs of your patients, doctor, and we pray for their speedy recuperations."
"Well, sure. I wouldn't doubt that for a minute, Bill." "But the fact is there's a great many very sick people trying to find places to die around here. While they're lining up hoping for a shot at your place, they're dying in the freeway motels. I'm telling you, doctor -- and again, not to sound insensitive -- but the bed and breakfast people are giving me Hell over it. They say the Internet reviews are losing their stars or something, and it's having a direct impact on the bottom line."
"Oh my goodness," said Nicholas. "That's very troubling news. The last thing we want is to impact negatively on the community. We're trying to help people here."
"You know I know that, doctor. You guys are miracle workers. It's a real success story you have brewing over here. But that negative impacting you're talking about, that's exactly what's happening. Local business is feeling some side-effects and they're not good ones they're bad ones. There are dying people all over the county, and the situation has simply got to change."
Nicholas sighed. "Of course you're right, Bill. It can't go on like this."
"The mayor will be really gratified to hear you agree, doctor. He's put together a couple of suggestions for the Healing Center, if you'd be open to hearing his thoughts on the matter?"
Nicholas nodded so Bill unfolded a paper from the breast pocket behind his badge. He handed it to Nicholas. After a moment Bill said, "What do you think, doctor?"
"So, basically, the chamber of commerce proposes a cabal of mutual benefit to broaden in-county spending by patients, plus the mayor wants discounted treatment guarantees for himself, his family, and his closest friends and aides."
The sheriff nodded, clearing his throat self-consciously.
Nicholas offered a smile. "I'll have to discuss this with my business partner but honestly, Bill, I can't see anything here being a major problem. I'm confident we can work with you on this."
They shook hands. Nicholas offered to walk the sheriff to his car, but the sheriff had an appointment next door for a massage so he saw himself out. Nicholas went back to his office and called Dong, explaining the mayor's proposal. Dong said it dovetailed nicely with his own thoughts on bumping all fees dramatically to raise the barrier to entry and funnel in a different class of patient. "That pissant town's chamber of wankers will eat this up," predicted Dong. "We're going to build a midwest Malibu."
When Nicholas was nine his hometown threw a party for his father on a significant anniversary of his practise, culminating in a short film assembled by a bunch of guys from the Kodak plant on the outskirts. Nicholas sat on his mother's lap when the room went dark.
The filmmakers had driven all over the state to follow up with patients and family members of patients who had had their lives changed by Dr. Dixby. The people had been asked to say a few words for the beloved physician, and they gushed praise and thanks. Nicholas' father was a hero to them, a noble figure to whom they owed everything.
"I'm going to be a doctor when I grow up," young Nicholas told his mom.
"Won't that be nice?" she whispered into his hair, eyes fixed on the film.
"Everyone thinks Dad is great," he said.
"Your dad is great, Nicky."
Everyone in town complained about the dentist, the rector, the barber, the principal and the butcher -- but nobody complained about the firefighters or Nicholas' father. Nicholas had burned his fingers in a camp fire recently so he was shy of the subject of fire as a whole. Following in his father's footsteps seemed only natural.
"A physician is a physician only insofar as he can be trusted to act ethically," Dr. Dixby would later tell his son. "That the practitioner's objectives are a given is essential to the relationship. Otherwise a physician earns for himself a reputation no different than that of a priest caught in the cathouse: a hypocrite, a weakling driven by self-service instead of principle. That is not a physician -- that's a man."
"But aren't you a man, Dad?"
"Only in the privacy of the family home, son. Outside of these walls I am what the town needs me to be."
In the privacy of the family home Dr. Dixby smoked two packs a day. He lived long enough to see Nicholas graduate from medical school. The man died but the physician lived on. There was a new Dr. Dixby now.
The first years were a blur of sleeplessness and duty, Latin and Greek and gore. But he soldiered through in sure and certain hope of coming out of the end of it to receive the adoration that was his due as a healer. No one would begrudge him a little respect when they owed him their lives.
Even if he father had never seemed fully convinced of his son's worth, the world would be forced to recognize it. Nicholas looked forward to feeling whole.
Times had changed, though.
Nicholas was not a beloved member of the community making chatty rounds through the neighbourhoods carrying a little black bag. Instead he was of twenty overworked shells of men and women waging war not only against illness but also against budgets. They were the inexpressive, weary faces of a great white institution. Too exhausted for compassion, too restricted to make decisions outside their assigned spotlight, manacled to hospital policies that bent according to the grain of insurance policies. Patient care was a matter of dollars and cents, harried way-stations briefly rested upon between interminable bouts of waiting.
When the system was frustrating or confusing or even outright failed a patient the nurses took the fire first, but a special rage was reserved for physicians. Patients and their families shouted into Nicholas' face. They called him names, and accused him of being heartless. They wept when they became convinced that if only Nicholas had listened to them and tried out the experimental spice-based cure-all they'd "researched" on the Internet a tragic end would surely have been averted.
It was explained to Nicholas that the lack of fresh fruit available to patients was a symptom of the anti-supplement conspiracy to keep cancer victims from healing themselves with ascorbic acid. Nicholas was schooled repeatedly by semi-literate country folk on his naïveté concerning the shadow pay-off scheme that kept doctors and scientists complicit in suppressing certain truths. One man even drew him a chart to explain the relationships between the parties the Jews had coerced into keeping various cures under wraps in order to maximize their profit as physicians, dentists and insurers.
"That's not how medicine works," Nicholas sometimes suggested before being interrupted.
"You're a puppet of the pharma companies, don't bother to deny it! You think we're stupid but we're not. This is all about keeping our Sally feeding on your expensive drugs instead of just curing her properly. But there ain't a damn thing we -- her family -- can do about it, is there? We've got no say. But now you've got to hurry off again, right? Fine. Go on, rush off to your golf game, prick. Jesus will be your judge."
Nicholas fumbled the tee-off. His colleague Judah Goldstein furrowed his brow. "What's bothering you, Nick? You're off in space."
"Had a strip torn off of me by a rube, Jude."
"Apparently I'm a torturer of the Inquisition working over their dying daughter so I can collect when she starts passing coins from her various apertures."
"A rube said this?"
Judah put a hand on Nicholas' shoulder. "You're tired. Why don't you come with Monica and me to Mexico? There's a guest room in the villa. We'd love to have you, and you really need to get away. I know you've got time accumulated. Administration will force you eventually if you don't take it now."
"That's good of you, Jude, but I'm right in the middle of a big —"
"Nick. You need a break or you're going to break down. A cussing out from a patient's stressed out family shouldn't be getting under your skin. Look at this course. It's beautiful. Can you appreciate that? Because if you can't it's time for a vacation."
Nicholas sighed, leaning on his golf club. "Where in Mexico is your place?"
"Yucatán Peninsula. Quintana Roo. Amazing snorkelling. You never know what you're going to find."
"These are the latest findings," said Dong as slapped a heavy folder onto the conference table.
Nicholas looked up from his telephone. "How we doing?"
"Construction of the new hospital is on schedule. The new fee schedule is on schedule. We've got sales working Hollywood, Manhattan, London, Geneva, Hong Kong, Dubai. Year over year gross is up twenty points. We're booked solid for six quarters."
Nicholas yawned. "Can the holding company release a few million so I can buy that little island? You've got to see it, Dong. Gorgeous. Just cries out for a nine-hole."
"It's not enough, Nick."
Nicholas frowned. "You think I should do a full eighteen hole course?"
Dong shook his head. "We're poised on the edge of greatness here. It's time to explode this thing. I want to start counting in billions, Nick."
"How do you propose to do that?"
Dong smiled and tapped on the folder. "Market research indicates we're going to make a killing when we start selling directly to the public."
Nicholas coughed and put his telephone aside, face down on the polished marble. "Dong, are you insane?"
Dong kept a poker face. "Your concerns. Enumerate them."
Nicholas stood up suddenly and paced around the long conference table, briefly touching the unoccupied leather headrest as he passed each chair. "It should be obvious. The thing is finite. The lobes we've cut away wear out after a while, and the cuts never heal or grow back. I know it's happening slowly but it's happening: the thing is shrinking."
Dong waved that away. "We've done the math. We'll get decades out of the capital object."
"Decades? Not if you're talking about selling bits of it in the open market! We'll sell ourselves out of business, Dong."
Dong chuckled. "I love you, Nick, I really do. You're great. But you're such a doctor."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Dong picked up the folder and flipped through a few of its pages at random, fanning himself with their air. "We don't have to sell shavings of the capital object, or even used lobes. The capital object has nothing to do with it. That's the beauty." He tossed the folder back on the table. It hissed along the sleek surface.
"So what's in the medicine?"
Dong spread his arms wide. "Nothing!"
"No active ingredient. Not a molecule. Just water."
Nicholas blinked. "You're joking."
Dong's poker face returned. He spun the folder along the long marble table. Nicholas put his hand on it to stop it before it spilled over the edge. He opened it and read the abstract on the first page before looking up. "If we're selling this product based on our reputation, won't we destroy our reputation when people notice the product doesn't actually do anything?"
"Keep reading. The polls are clear, and laws are clear. This doesn't come under FDA jurisdiction. We'd be marketing a supplement -- self-regulated. Pretty much a license to operate in the clear as long as our claims are vague and there aren't too many consumer complications. And since the product is water I don't expect a lot of adverse affects."
Nicholas clenched his fist in frustration then waved it ineffectually in the air for a moment before finding words to speak. "Dong, you're not following me here. This is asinine! People are not going to pay good money for a bottle of nothing!"
Dong walked around the table to stand beside Nicholas. He flipped through the folio of papers until he came to the section he wanted to highlight, tapping his finger on a particular paragraph. "Nick," he said, "the preliminary human trial group reported dramatic results after sampling a candidate nostrum. Look at the numbers. These people believe they feel better. Much better."
"But none of the objective scores have budged. It's only the subjective, self-reported indicators that move."
"But look how they move!"
"It's delusional. It's a mass-placebo effect."
Dong nodded. "That is exactly what it is, my friend. The glow of the brand feeds it. And it's going to make us very, very rich."
Nicholas turned back to the folder. The last few stapled pages were packaging mock-ups from the art department of the advertising firm. Bold colours. Big letters. A yellow banner struck a diagonal call-out across one corner: "TRY THE SUPPLEMENT DOCTORS ARE AFRAID TO TELL YOU ABOUT!"
The word "doctors" was much larger than all of the other words. The caption explained it was a "sell word" that attracted attention.
"Dixby's Life-Aid," Nicholas read aloud.
Dong nodded. "The name is testing very well. They're blue-skying the idea of having your picture on the box, maybe with a personal message. Something upbeat about the power of self-healing would be great. It might help if you can work in something Asian. Can I go ahead and put your exec on it? She's good with copy."
"Sure," said Nicholas absently. His attention was engulfed by a graph of projected revenue once the nostrum hit the market. "My God, we're going to be trillionaires."
Dong grinned. He drew two cigars from his breast pocket and held one out for Nicholas. The plastic wrapping winked when it caught the light.
Dr. Dixby took his son to main street where the man with van had parked. The rear doors were open, and banners had unfurled to cover the sides. Giant, enthusiastic words: WEIGHT LOSS! STAMINA! HAIR GROWTH! RADIATION RESISTANCE! POLIO IMMUNITY!
There was a crowd. A portly gentleman was trading vials of liquid for dollars.
"The thing is," said Dr. Dixby, "it's not medicine he's selling, son."
"How come people want to buy it?"
"Because they're scared. He's selling promises. Promises scared people want to believe. It gives them a sense of control over their health. That's why they might feel a little bit better for a little while. See? He has a money back guarantee. I doubt he has to honour it very often. As much as people want to believe they can buy health, they want to believe they're not fools who spend money on nothing -- so they feel what they expect to."
Young Nicholas scrunched up his face. "So are you going to sell that stuff, too, so people can feel like they feel better?"
Dr. Dixby shook his head decisively. "No. It's a trick. Physicians don't trick their patients, son, even if it might seem to help them a little. Because once a physician crosses that line and starts telling little lies, you never again can be sure if he is telling the truth or not. A patient can't trust a man like that. Would you?"
"I guess not."
"This fellow is a charlatan, Nicholas. A quack. He's selling snake oil. He's lying to people to make a quick buck. Even if he makes people feel better for a day or a week, he's not making the world a better place. He's making it worse."
"Okay," agreed Nicholas. He fondled the dime in his pocket. "Can we go for a soda now, Dad?"
Nicholas came to himself in a Monte Carlo casino, a waiter at his elbow. "Scotch and soda," said Nicholas. The waiter bowed his head and disappeared into a swirling miasma of sequined gowns and black, black tuxedos. Nicholas tried to bring his attention back to the gaming table. "I'll see your two twenty and raise you four hundred."
On his way through the casino he ran into a few former patients, glad-handing and grinning all the way. "What a picture of health we are, your highness! Wonderful to see you so radiant. And I'm delighted to run into you again as well, Mr. Jobs -- I simply adore my iPad Air!"
He flew home with Elon Musk. "It's people like us that have the power to change history for the better," gushed the disruptive industrialist. "Another mimosa, Dr. Dixby?"
"You're right, of course. We have a responsibility to improve things," said Nicholas. "But, please, call me Nick. Dr. Dixby was my father."
"Have you thought about opening one of your clinics on Mars, Nick? I could have my people put together a proposal for a joint venture."
Nicholas handed Elon one of Dong's cards. "That sounds like an idea worth exploring. This is my man in charge of new business development."
They toasted, the ring of the glasses dying quickly in the dampened sound environment of the jet cabin. The sun was rising behind them, the cloudscape tinted with golden peaks.
On a morning news segment for some Pacific state city Nicholas was forced to gently defend himself against the rants of an unphotogenic self-professed skeptic. Nicholas had been coached expensively, so he knew when and how to adjust his sitting position. "With all due respect, it can be hard for certain people to open their minds to the real universe -- the universe as it is, rather than as they wish it to be."
The skeptical interlocutor tried to interrupt but the host intervened, nodding to Nicholas.
Nicholas looked directly into the camera, his brow raised and open. "Sometimes there are moments between human beings -- especially healing moments -- that can't be rationalized. And that's okay. That's what makes the world rich and mysterious.
"I'm not afraid to tell you that we don't fully understand how the operant healing compound functions. Truly, we don't fully understand it ourselves. We invest millions of dollars in pure research, and we've got some good leads. We know it's a quantum mechanical property we're seeing. It's about vibrations, and energy harmonics. But I'd be lying if I told you we had it nailed. We don't. But that's what science is about: charting the unknown.
"Because, at the end of the day, what matters is how it works. What matters is how it interacts, on a quantum level, with human chemistry. And I think we've been able to show, really overwhelmingly actually, that our supplement has changed the lives of countless Americans, and even more people in Canada and aboard. And that's something I'm very proud of."
The audience applauded. The skeptic was bobbing her head and opening her mouth in a repeated signal of wishing to speak. The host turned to her. "Your response?"
"I think people need to realize that the results of a study, or any number of studies, is not in and of itself a validation of these effects -- from a reproducibility point of view there are methodological flaws that, more or less, sort of negate the individual findings or at least, you know, vasty diminish their appearance of statistical significance. And, really, that's got to be taken into account."
The host nodded mechanically. "Well, I guess it's a controversial subject and we've heard from both sides here this morning. To learn more about Dr. Dixby and hear first-hand from some patients who feel they owe their lives to his treatments you'll have to tune in to Oprah. Isn't that right, doctor?"
"Yes, they've been shadowing us at our clinics for weeks and we're taping the live audience segment later today. I'm not sure when it airs, but I have to say that Oprah and her people have been great. Really, really great."
He went back to his dressing room. The makeup girl helped dress him down. She seemed concerned. "I have a headache," said Nicholas. "From all those bright lights."
The makeup girl smiled and pulled a pocket-size recyclable bottle of Life-Aid from her purse. Nicholas accepted the bottle and took a sip. "It always helps me," she told him. "It's awesome that you invented it."
Nicholas pinched his brow and closed his eyes. "Thank you," he claimed.
"Do you want a massage? I'm really good."
"That might help."
"Sure thing. What else can I do?"
Nicholas let his hands dip and looked up at her, his brow sloped in a forlorn way. "Would you mind locking the door?"
In the limousine Dong called him. Nicholas picked up after a long yawn. "Dixby," he said.
"I've got an idea. Ready for it?"
"I guess so. Hit me."
"It's the only way to pop this thing up to the next level, Nick. It's the only way to guarantee it lasts. I mean, even after you and me. We've got to be designing for the future. And don't even get me started on the tax advantages."
"Jesus, Dong. How do you think that's going to fly in Germany? We've got enough goddamn grief from the German regulators as it is."
"To Hell with Germany. The analysts recommend an aggressive push into South America. With a few well-framed genuine miracles they say we can easily steal market share from the Catholics. As long we embrace contraception and abortion we'll be able to make a huge dent in the young female demo."
Nicholas eyes felt dry but blinking didn't relieve them. He licked his lips and finally said, "I don't think I'm on side with this."
"Relax. Nick, it's the next logical phase. We'll talk about once you're back in Manhattan. How's the new penthouse?"
Nicholas shrugged and shifted position. "Gorgeous. Everything about it is gorgeous. The view makes me feel like the king of New York."
Once airported and landed Nicholas took a moment -- so rare these days -- to actually look in on the thing. He had his retina scanned and his fingertip compared and his voice sampled. His answered a riddle and entered a code. His escorts stayed behind before he reached he final door of the vault. His bodyguards, too.
And there it was. Pared down, smaller. Its faceted faces glistened and faintly shifted. So much smaller than Nicholas had hoped. Still, research had run the numbers. They projected two more decades of treatments. Who was Nicholas to worry? They had it well in hand.
He touched it. The worry in his forehead smoothed out. His backache eased. He got an erection.
Back at the penthouse Nicholas and Dong argued about the next phase. Dong called him a 'doctor' like it was a dirty word. He pointed out that in twenty years the enterprise would stall and potentially collapse. Is that what Nicholas wanted? Is that what he wanted for his children?
"She can't prove those are my kids," grumbled Nicholas sullenly.
"I have four children," said Dong with quiet emphasis. "I love my children, Nick. Wai-po and I only want the best for them. How can I secure their future when we know the capital object won't last forever? That's rhetorical. Don't answer. I've told you how."
Nicholas frowned. "And you told me the clinic-on-Mars idea was fanciful?"
Dong scoffed. "Musk lacks vision. He's an idealist. He sees what he wants to see. You and I, Nick, we know the dirty truth about men. And we know about their future. There's no ballet dancing around the cold hard facts. Human nature is what it is. We're dumb animals chasing our tails until we boil the planet. That's a job for Superman. You and I are just people, with bills to pay."
Nicholas shook his head. "I can't get past it. Establishing a phoney religion is just wrong. Like, old-fashioned wrong."
"Nick, here's a newsflash: they're all phoney. Do you know the difference between Scientology and the Holy See? Two thousand years. That's it. No other distinguishing feature is more relevant. And do you know what they both have in common? They're both profitable as fuck. So let me ask you this, Nick: where do you want to be two thousand years from now?"
"I mean the enterprise."
"I'm not sure it would matter to me at that point."
"That's selfish, Nick. I'm your friend, I can say that. But that's plain old selfishness. You have to think of your people. You have to think of your descendants -- and your partner's descendants. When the world goes to Hell they're going to have to stick together."
Nicholas said nothing.
Dong shifted and pulled out his wallet. He flipped to a photograph of a darling young girl, squinting and grinning into the camera. "This is my youngest daughter," said Dong. "Why are you fucking her, Nick? Why are you fucking her out of her future?"
Nicholas made love to Jenny McCarthy and prepared a Vegan breakfast in the morning. "I love the view," she said, munching on a crescent of melon. "I feel like the queen of New York."
His phone quizzled. Nicholas looked at its face. It was that woman again. This time she had included an attached photograph of her naked breasts. He looked up at Jenny. "Listen babe, I've got to roll. I'm so glad you came over. I feel we've connected spiritually on a really important level."
Jenny nodded, but couldn't speak because her mouth was full of melon. She waved him on.
He came to the Hilton. His car idled outside, the driver playing Candy Crush on his phone. His bodyguards flanked him in the elevator then took positions on either side of the hotel room door. Nicholas knocked.
"Oh," he said flatly. "It's you."
The unphotogenic skeptic he'd quite effectively skewered on the chat show invited him aside, and because the picture of her breasts was still fresh in his mind he nodded to his bodyguards to stay put and he followed her inside the hotel room. The door closed with a heavy metal click. "I honestly never expected you were in to me," he said conversationally.
She paused to look at him briefly before sitting at the room's small desk. A series of folders were spread out before her.
"You've got a really great figure under that big old sweater. I'd have never guessed."
"Won't you sit down, Dr. Dixby?"
"Please, Dr. Dixby was my father —"
"I know," she said, tapping one of the furthest folders. "What would he think of you now?"
Nicholas paused halfway to sitting. "Who the Hell do you think you are? What is this?"
The unphotogenic skeptic in her big old grandma sweater opened the central folder. Spycam photographs from within the Swiss manufacturing facility. "It's just water, of course," she said.
"Naturally. It's water that's been infused with energy from the operant healing compound. It's not something a layman could detect. Is this some sort of high school newspaper exposé, young lady?"
"My name is Germaine. I'm the last man standing of the Philadelphia Skeptic League. And I'm going to take you down."
Nicholas snorted. "My dear, we operate within the parameters of the law. Do you imagine I should feel threatened by the likes of you?"
"You haven't asked me where the rest of the league is. Do you already know?"
"I scarcely care. Thank you for your hospitality."
"The FBI took them all in as domestic terror suspects. Everybody but me."
"Ah yes, the PSL. I do recall my lawyer mentioning something about a security threat. I'm glad to hear the authorities mopped up as they're paid to."
"But they didn't get the evidence."
Nicholas consented to look down his nose at the girl's folders. "But you've brought it here, to threaten me today? Some childish attempt at blackmail, is it?"
Germaine offered him a half-smile. "No. I want you to stop. Or I go public. I'll fucking Snowden you. And don't think for a second I won't."
"With this?" Nicholas pointed lamely at the photos. "Silly girl, my clinics are endorsed by the Royal Homeopathic Society. Is it your ambition to trend as a footnote on Prince Charles' blog?"
Germaine opened another folder. "No," she said. "With this."
Nicholas didn't want to consent to look down but the confidence in her eyes was weighty and unflickering. He let his gaze drop to the desk surface. Nicholas' breath caught in his throat. There it was, in crisp focus: the thing. The very thing itself. He looked up sharply. "How did you get this?"
She closed the folder. "We know about the panacea, Dixby. Either you go public with it, or we do."
"Where 'we' means you?"
"I'm a one woman army. You don't want to fuck with me. I come prepared."
He was only marginally aware of the rage rising up within him as he stood and reached across the table.
Nicholas did harm.
When he came back to himself his cramped hands were struggling to release themselves from the girl's mottled neck, his fingerprints angry white oblongs in the pink skin. Her head drooped limply to one side and then her whole body followed it, sloughing out the chair and crumpling on the floor.
He was breathing so hard his chest hurt. He looked down at his chest. It was bloody.
He looked down at Germaine's body. She held a small handgun in her right hand, its tip lazily smoking. Nicholas felt dizzy. Adrenalin was saturating his system. With slow motion realization he came to the conclusion that he was multiply shot.
His bodyguards were already in the room. "Sir! Sir!"
He collapsed into their arms. "No hospital," he croaked. "The vault. The vault!"
One of his bodyguard broke a hotel security guard's arm in the race from the Hilton. An ambulance screeched to a halt outside but they pushed past and arranged Nicholas lying down in the back of the limo. He vaguely heard them shouting at the driver.
There were sirens. Wailing sirens. As Germaine had been a kind of siren. Nicholas almost giggled as the world spun around him. He kept his hands clamped to his leaking torso. "Hold on, Nicky," he whispered to himself.
The bodyguards roared and gaped into the telephones. "We've got to get you to a hospital, sir!"
"No!" groaned Nicholas through clenched teeth. "The vault, damn you! Now!"
The driver passed back a bottle of Life-Aid and one of the bodyguards poured it over Nicholas' chest while fervently rubbing the cross that hung beneath his shirt. "We need more Life-Aid!" he barked. The driver fished through the glove box as he honked his way through Manhattan traffic.
"Forget the Life-Aid!" gasped Nicholas. "It's just fucking water! It's water, you idiots!"
"I think he wants some water. Quickly, from the mini-bar!"
Nicholas groaned as centrifugal force from a harsh turn pressed his head against the door. One bodyguard was calling every number in his contacts for want of Dong. The other bodyguard was trying to pour sparkling spring water into Nicholas' face. Nicholas clutched his chest. Breathing hurt.
"Hold on, Nicky. Hold on, Nicky."
The limo screeched to a halt. The doors flew open. He was hustled into a wheelchair. Dr. Chan's eyes widened. "Oh man, Dr. Dixby, this is serious trauma! We've got to get you to the ER!"
Nicholas grabbed the man's tie and yanked him close enough to hiss, "The vault! The vault now or I will have you and every member of your family killed. Do you hear me?"
Dr. Chan stumbled backward.
"Move!" howled Nicholas, blood-flecked spit raining from his lips. The wheelchair's wheels started to spin. Through the lobby, into the elevator, the sounds of surprise and panic fluttering in his wake.
The elevator doors yawned open. The wheelchair was plunged ahead. They held his head in front of the iris scanner. They plopped his limp, bloody hand onto the fingerprint reader. "Hold on, Nicky," he muttered into the microphone and the light turned green.
When the vault opened he did not have the strength to chase his people away. He slumped forward and tumbled out of the wheelchair, dragging himself toward the pedestal in the safe.
The people around him, standing and seeing the room from a higher vantage, already knew what he was about to know. They stared dumbly.
The safe was empty.
Nicholas' bloody fingers left a smear where he pawed fecklessly at the empty pedestal. He sagged into the base of the platform, his fingers drawing red lines.
"Dong," he said ruefully. He took a laboured breath. The edges of his vision turned grey and began to scintillate. "God damned Dong," he concluded before fixing his eyes on the track lightning system overhead.
Nicholas never blinked again.
Vatican City. Twilight. A cool wind chased leaves down the street.
A car drew up to the gate and negotiated security. It drove down into an underground parking garage. At the bottom of a long ramp the car stopped and its occupants carefully relieved the trunk of a metal case. The case was carried inside through bulletproof doors under the watchful eyes of the Swiss Guard's CCTV network.
Irises were scanned. Pass-phrases and counter-phrases were spoken. Lights turned green.
"Then you have acquired it?"
"Yes, your holiness. We were obliged to discorporate the soul of Dong Chiang, but inflicted no other collateral damage of significance. Our Holy See engineers took twenty hours to liberate the object from its safe. We moved it to Bogota then proceeded directly to Rome, Holy Father."
"May I see it?"
"What a very odd thing. What a…very odd thing indeed. I feel that I want to touch it. Is it safe to do so?"
"We believe so, holiness."
"Ooh, it tingles. That feels nice. And the effect? It's been confirmed?"
"Yes, holiness. It is a source of miraculous healing."
The Holy Father rubbed his chin. "Magnificent. Wonderful. Spectacular," he said thoughtfully, and then: "Gentlemen, with this we shall come to win over the whole of the world. God's kingdom on Earth will find its way forth by our wielding of this power."
"Amen," said everyone. When they clasped their hands together the gems on their rings clinked and sang as they came into glittering contact. "Amen."