Sunday 6 May 2012

Emergency Procedure

Emergency Procedure is a science-fiction short story, as told by me, your exploratory host, Cheeseburger Brown.

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And now, this week's brief tale:

The ambulance is yellow. This is so it stands out. Cities, by their varied nature, blend helplessly into a compromise grey. To further call attention to itself the ambulance also has flashing lights, red and white and deepest ultraviolet.

And it keens, too, echoing off the architecture.

The hospital is white. This is a show of purity, an advertisement against fear. The white walls are painted by sliding lights as the ambulance sweeps in to land. Robots with soft hands and soothing voices troop busted mammals through the automated double doors under the watchful optics of police drones.

The mammal on the stretcher groans. It is a social display, a signal for mammal sympathies. But I'm immune. I've worked here too long.

My gloves are green. Snap, snap.

We run him through the scanning drum, grotesque robot strength making it look easy. The tomography confirms what's evident: this mammal's on his way to a generalized system failure by way of cardiac arrest precipitated by the shock of being hit by a car and having some key viscera punctured by broken ribs. He dies in the drum, but the emergency room has good reflexes so before I can even make a note the patient's already jerked back into the here and now.

He groans again. "You are safe," the robots tell him, laying warmed palms upon him in patterns designed to relax. "Do not panic." He unclenches his jaw and they intubate him.

His blood is red, and urgent. Analgesics are administered. "Do you want unconsciousness?" I ask him, but his eyes are wide and horrified and he doesn't give me any sort of proper answer. I shrug and sort of semi-supervise as the machines prep him. I'm also messaging my boyfriend. The diagnosis box dings and I look over. It says we're going to need a surgeon.

I press the surgeon button.

I yawn. As the saying goes, lazy as a doctor. I also press the coffee button. I check my watch. But I don't really care what time it is, so I play a few games. Holographic figures sprint and flash in ghostly pantomime over my wrist. I can't really afford a newer watch but I want one anyway.

The ER shunts us out onto a rail. I kneel down to check that the gurney's wheels are locked in the groove, then give the nod to start the track. The patient is pulled along into the surgery. I stroll alongside in the adjoining corridor, watching his progress through the windows. The robots surrounding the patient sway as the assembly stops at the decontamination station. They get flashed until everything's clean. With a slight jerk the gurney moves on.

My coffee's ready just as I pass the coffee machine. Aces.

I lean against the window and sip as the patient and his retinue arrive in the surgery. The surgeon unfolds itself from the wall, its many appendages gleaming and immaculate, the base of its housing streaked with the grime of a hundred thousand interventions. I glance at the diagnostic manifest -- it's a line of green lights so I press the proceed with procedure button. In response the surgeon arranges itself over the patient, flesh and gown disappearing behind a writhing wall of knives, tweezers and drills, cutting lasers, cauterizing lasers and cotton swabs.

I blow through my coffee's steam and check my watch again. My boyfriend's sent me an unmentionable picture. I message him back, "Who ever led you to believe that's even remotely attractive?" He laughs.


I blink. In the startling silence I instinctively reach for my eyes, spilling hot coffee all over myself. Afterimages throb away. Behind them is a scintillating wool of nothingness.

I feel like something's happened to me but it hasn't. It's happened to the hospital. All power is lost. Black is now the colour of everything.

I yell out. My voice is dull in the stillness, bouncing off the glass in front of me. How is this even possible? In med school I did a dozen variations of power emergency drills -- falling back to secondary power, then tertiary -- but who could even fathom a situation with absolutely no power at all? Wouldn't the building pull directly from the city? And what about the robots -- why the hell had they gone dark?

It's at this point I remember about the patient.

The patient!

I press my panic button. There are supposed to be automatic glow strips in the event of an emergency but they're not glowing, so I have to work my way out of the supervision room by feel. The room seems bigger than it used to be, I think, and then I hit the wall. I find the doorjamb with my fingertips and ease around holding it for dear life, as if I were ten storeys up. I call out, "Hello?"

On my hands and knees I find the tracks for the gurney's wheels, then follow them through the fabric doorways into the surgery. My sounds echo off the tiles. Something is dripping onto them. Otherwise only silence.

I feel my way to the surgical table, straightening slowly. Is that breathing? Is it the patient? I reach forward but my fingers are blocked by the surgeon's inert tentacles. I whisper, "Hello?"

"Help me."

"I'm a doctor," I tell him. "I've called for help."

"Please," he wheezes. "You have to do something. I'm -- I'm open."

I press my panic button again. "Listen, some kind of situation has occurred. The hospital has lost all power. It's really irregular. I'm sure everything that can be done is being done. I know it's scary and I know it's dark, but I'm going to stay with you until the surgeon comes back online. Okay? I'm not going to leave you. And you can't leave me either. Got that?"

He lets out a long, ragged breath. "It's not dark," he says.

I freeze. "What can you see?"

"What do you mean? I see the surgeon hanging over me, and his belly's covered in lights. I can barely open my eyes."

I swallow, then reach up and touch at my eyes. Through my once green gloves I can feel my eyelashes skim my fingertips. Black is the colour of everything. My breath catches in my throat.

The patient's breath catches in his throat, too. "Please, doctor. You have to do something for me. This is a nightmare."

My voice quavers like a kid. "Are you in pain?" I manage to ask.

"No," he says. "But my body is --"

"I know, I know. Okay. Let me think."

He starts to sob and say religious things.

My heart is hammering in my chest. Am I blind? How could I be blind?

He groans.

"Look," I tell him, "this is what's going to happen." I take a deep breath. "I'm going to get the surgeon out of you, instrument by instrument. You're going to help me. You've got to tell me what I'm not seeing. Okay? I've been blinded somehow. I'm blind. I don't know what's going on. But I'm going to try to help you, okay?"

"Like an old fashioned doctor," he gasps, and I can hear a desperate smile in it.

"Yeah," I agree. "Just like that."

He has freed one hand. His mask is off, his tube yanked out. With careful words he guides me according to what he sees, what his free but numb hand can explore. His sternum has been cut aside for cardiac access. His heart, I know, is exposed only inches from my fingers. He knows, too. He describes it to me, noting its irregular pulsation as the beat stumbles into flailing arrhythmia again.

With a dizzying lurch I recognize that I cannot perform chest compressions with a cut sternum and compromised ribcage. Nor can I stimulate the patient's heart electrically without power.

All I can do to is reach in and pump the heart manually.

I steel myself. I sweat. My bowels bubble. I swear to change careers as I reach my hands into the patient's chest cavity, fingertips extended to meet quivering muscle.

I close my hands around it.

The man's heart is hard and round. Rectilinear seams divide it radially in six sections. Insulated bundles of cabling extend from each metal-ringed aeortoid.

The unit is misaligned at the equator, and when my palms press into it the halves come together with a click. I feel a faint vibration through the heel of my hand. The hardware warms.

It's a micro-fusion pile.

The man stirs and mumbles, "...Doctor?"

"Take it easy -- everything's okay," I tell him, feeling like a nursing robot. "You're alright. Don't freak out."

"I can see my heart."

"Can you? Because that's weird. Because I can't. I mean with my hands I can't. It doesn't feel like what it looks like." Slowly I straighten, my mouth dry. "You're going to have to describe it to me again, you know. Your heart."

"It's...kind of yellow and red. It glistens. And I can see -- veins, or arteries I'm not sure. Like branches. It's beating. It sort of undulates."

I close my eyes. It doesn't change what I don't see but still I find it helps me to think. Why would a man hallucinate organic anatomy in place of -- what? upgrades? I've seen my share of artificial heart designs from the medical cultures of three different star systems, but I've never seen one that doubled as a portable nuclear reactor. This isn't human hardware at all -- it's robot parts, through and through.

"Listen, this is going to sound like a strange question," I say, and then ask him the question.

"Of course I'm not a robot!" he gasps hoarsely. "I'm a human being in a human hospital, and what's happening to me shouldn't ever happen to anyone! Oh my God."


"I'm starting to feel the pain. It's coming back. Oh my God, you can't leave me like this!"

I stumble backward away from the surgical table, coming up against the window with my back. "Why do you look like an organic thing to yourself if you're not?" I asked aloud. "Who the hell would programme a robot to conceal its own nature from itself?"

"Don't leave me!" he cries piteously.

I throw up.

"I don't have to save you anymore," I cough, wiping my lips on the back of my glove. "You're not alive. I feel really sorry for what you're experiencing, but it isn't real. I mean -- I guess it's real to you...but it's not medical."

How could it bleed? How could it return tomography of organic anatomy when scanned in the round? How could it have tricked the diagnosis box? Who could afford to build a robot so sophisticated?

He howls as the analgesics ebb, then he cries like a baby.

So do I.

They break down the wall, whoever they are. I cower in the corner in my private darkness while their footfalls sound all around me and the wind of their moving by pushes at my hair. I listen as they do their business. They cut away the surgeon with tools and pack the patient up. In efficient formation they retreat the way they came. None say a word.

I am alone.

I take a few careful breaths.

The fire alarm sounds. Cold water pours from the ceiling. I blink and sputter and when I knuckle my eyes I can blearily see the emergency glow strips defining the edges of the surgery and dotted around the surgeon's vestibule.

The overhead lights flicker on, making me wince. The robots reboot, standing stiffly with eyes front and hands at their sides. By squinting and using my hand as a visor I can see the neat doorway cut into the wall by the ones that took the patient, and the precise and knowing slices they made to cut apart the surgeon's primary cluster. Finally I look down at the remains of my lunch splashed out on the tiles, gathering with the indoor rain and swirling down the red-stained surgical drain.

I say, "I quit."

And I do. You can't reasonably expect someone in a doctor job to put up with trauma like that, especially not if it means actually touching someone else's insides. It's barbarian. It's against union rules. It's not sanitary. And it's upsetting. The list goes on and on.

I'm still relatively young and I'm still moderately hot. My doctor credentials might afford me a lateral move into waitressing.

The thing that bothers me is this: somebody built that man, and it's a secret even from him. I think they were so worried his being in a hospital would spoil their secret they handicapped the hospital and took him out of it. I don't know what they did to lock out security and block all power, but for seven and a half minutes every machine in the whole complex went blind except for him.

You know, which has got to make me wonder.

I mean, it's stupid. But, still -- I have to wonder a little.

I couldn't be one. I'm not one. I eat and sleep. I date. I menstruate. I defecate. I grew up, and I threw up. I bleed if you prick me.

But, still.

When all the hospital robots went blind, why did I?



John said...

creepy... And did your wife model for the story picture?

SaintPeter said...

I see a nod to the Old Oak situation here. The helpless are protected by inhuman forces which are programmed to save. Makes me wonder why they bother to have a human there at all if they don't make decisions other than "next".

"lazy as a doctor" - I laughed out loud. One thing that always bugs me about quasi-future sci-fi is the re-purposing of current sayings where they change out one word and it no longer rolls off the tongue. This saying actually feel real in this context. It feels like something a person would say, or a common joke, considering the timing.

Interesting story ideas - amusingly held in common with Terminator: Salvation (although much better told here). Why would a robot be programmed to think it was a man? Or could it be a man who has robot parts? If so, why wouldn't the man know?

I'm so used to looking for clues in the larger Secret Math/Burgerverse context and am intrigued that I don't find any obvious resonances. Yes, some nods to prior cannon ("You are safe, do not panic"), but nothing to tie it to time or place. Certainly fun for a one-off, though.

As always, pleased that such a short story can be so engaging. Fun!

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Everything the first two guys already said.

Of course if the robots had only gone blind I might agree with her wondering, but since she still functioned -- it must mean that most of her is actually human...? Of course if we have Math hitting the fan, who knows? Maybe the robo-dude could see UV or IR or something else.

Either way, that was a crazy hiatus. Well done, sir.

gl. said...

suspenseful! intriguing! neatly contained!

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Wow...I really don't understand how the new Blogger comment moderation system works. I think I accidentally deleted all your comments at least once before getting them successfully posted.

Dear John,

Yes. However, she didn't care for the picture as its based on a sketch from when she was heavily pregnant, and she is chagrined to be represented thirty pounds heavier. I've apologized.

Dear SaintPeter,

I've not seen Terminal: Salvation due to the fact I seldom make it out to movies, especially if the popular buzz is that they substantially suck. Is it available for rental yet? I just got a TV (yes, it's true, I got an actual TV!), and apparently these things can used to screen movies on. I'll have to re-read the instructions.

"Lazy as a doctor" -- my intent here was to juxtapose the image of doctors we hold today (tireless, exhausted, their heads crammed full of encyclopaedic volumes of data) with the image of doctors in a society where expertise is almost entirely robot-sourced (just as lazy and disenfranchised as any other kind of worker).

Truthfully, this little tidbit does fit into a larger storyline, but it isn't one I've teased yet. We'll come to it, by and bye, and you'll see the connection then I'll wager.

Dear Sheik,

I wanted to write something in a single evening. This is my third attempt. The other two attempts spiralled out of control into 10,000 word behemoths and had to be put down for my sanity.

Dear gl.,

Thank you!

P.S. To keep you abreast of events in real life, I've just put in my resignation from my day job. Does this mean I'm making enough money from writing to life off of it? Nope. It just means I'm dead sick of being an employee, and I will never be one ever again. Now all I have to figure out is how to make a living.

SaintPeter said...

Waiting for the HuSi entry with the dirty details.

gl. said...

wow! good luck to you, mr. cheeseburger!

Joshua Hemming said...

Nice, I enjoyed this.

I recall that, in the past, we have met a human executive who was under the impression that he was human.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Yep; that little guy was my first thought here. I wonder what his off-screen reaction was when he was told the truth.

Can't wait to hear what's going on in the real-life story...