Authors: Alan Dean Foster
had happened to them.
This was not the first time his budding ability to project as well as receive emotions had touched those around him, but it was the first time he could remember having unconsciously and unintentionally affected so many uninvolved, utterly innocent bystanders. Assailed by the terrible pain in his head, he had apparently involuntarily emitted a blast of emotion reflective of his condition at that pivotal moment. The output had been restrained—none of those close to him had suffered any serious damage, been killed, or been moved to kill themselves.
This was appalling. Next time, an uncontrolled eruption of his maturing ability might cause permanent brain damage to blameless bystanders, perhaps even children. He had no idea what he was ultimately capable of, and there was no one who could tell him. Controlling his abilities while he was conscious and aware was difficult enough. How was he going to mitigate their consequences when he had no control?
He was losing it. How could he possibly help mysterious, unknown entities combat some monstrous extragalactic threat when he couldn’t even control himself?
Guessing at the internal struggle her patient was going through by reading his rapidly changing expressions, a compassionate Marinsky started toward him, only to halt when Pip extended herself several centimeters in the doctor’s direction. “Are you still feeling all right, Arthur?”
Flinx nodded. “I was just thinking of all those other poor people. What happened to us?” He kept his attention focused on Marinsky, avoiding the neurosurgeon’s intense stare.
“We really have no idea.”
If she was telling the truth, and he sensed that she was, it meant that no one had connected the mass blackout to him. They were curious about what they saw inside his head. That was all. No one had any idea he might be responsible for what had happened. Not knowing his true identity, they would have been unable, even if so inclined, to find him by searching the greater Commonwealth box. If he stayed here much longer someone might think to try and match his readings with those on file. But it didn’t matter because he had no intention of hanging around.
“We would like to run some tests. With your permission, of course,” Sherevoeu added hastily.
Flinx faked interest. “They wouldn’t hurt, would they?”
To his credit, the neurosurgeon looked shocked. “Oh, no, no! Absolutely not. They would involve nothing more invasive than what you have already experienced—more external scans, mostly, utilizing more specialized instrumentation capable of greater precision, to acquire information for analysis and evaluation.” He smiled. “It’s my profession, you know. Wouldn’t you like to know if you’re in danger from the condition we’ve already observed and learn if we can help you?”
“Of course. Who wouldn’t?” Flinx already knew that surgery for his condition was not an option. The physical changes his brain had undergone were too tightly integrated, too interwoven. Attempting to isolate or remove them would kill him as surely as a ceremonial AAnn skinning blade.
“You really think you can help me?”
The two physicians exchanged a look. It was Marinsky who finally replied. “Dr. Sherevoeu is the finest neurosurgeon on Goldin four. If anyone can do anything for you, he can.”
“But I don’t feel sick.” The game, he knew, had to be played to the end.
“As I said before, outwardly you are in excellent health.” Sherevoeu did not want to alarm this potentially fascinating patient. “It’s just that in looking inside your head, we’ve seen some things, some anomalies, that we feel would be beneficial to study in more detail.”
Apparently indifferent, Flinx shrugged. “Go ahead and look, then. How long are you going to need me to stay?”
Greatly relieved at the patient’s acquiescence, Sherevoeu consulted his pad. “Just a day or so. Can you do that?”
Flinx nodded. “I’m on break from work anyway. But not too much today, okay? I’m pretty tired.”
“Yes, of course.” Flinx could sense the two doctors were completely at ease now. Sherevoeu continued, “It will take time to authorize and prepare the necessary procedures anyway. If you are willing, we can run one or two simple preliminaries in a few hours.” He smiled afresh. “If it goes well, perhaps we can even have you out of here by tomorrow evening.”
Flinx flashed a carefully wary expression. “This isn’t going to
me anything, is it?”
Both doctors chuckled softly. “No, Arthur. Since we’re running these tests to satisfy
curiosity, any expense will be borne by the facility. You should consider yourself lucky. You’re going to get a very expensive full cerebral and neural checkup, courtesy of the good folks of Reides General.”
How kind of them, Flinx mused silently, as he let the gurney’s padded back support cuddle his spine. How utterly altruistic. “Sounds like a good deal to me.”
The pair of unsuspicious physicians departed, more than a little pleased with themselves. They were already discussing the nature of the first tests they were going to run before they were completely through the chamber’s sound-muting wave portal.
Alone, Flinx took a moment to study his surroundings. Multiple scanners continued to monitor his vitals. If he left the room and passed out of their range, alarms would sound at a central station. Then there was the matter of the hospital ident and tracking chip attached to his right wrist. The longer he waited and debated, the sooner a tech or two would show up to transfer him to another room deeper in the hospital complex, relieve him of Pip and his clothes, and prepare him for the first battery of tests. Tests he had no intention of undergoing. He had spent a good part of his adult life avoiding such tests. He had no intention of letting curious researchers, even on this minor colony world, start poking and probing him now.
Swinging his legs off the gurney, he settled Pip around his upper arm, stood, and walked out of the chamber. A medtech was heading away from him, moving down the corridor. Making no attempt to avoid contact or conceal his presence, he headed in the opposite direction. Within moments he had located the floor’s main monitoring station.
“Afternoon,” he said politely to the woman seated before the console.
“Hi.” She smiled at him. “You’re one of the people they brought in from midtown, aren’t you? How are you feeling?” She eyed Pip curiously, as did everyone who saw the flying snake.
“Not too bad.”
“Funny goings-on.” She fiddled with a report, the letters changing on the page as modulated electric charges guided by her fingertips flowed through the malleable writing surface. “We’ve already discharged more than half the people who were brought in, including the two thranx.”
He nodded knowingly, as if he had already been told everything she was saying. “Not me. A couple of the doctors want to run some more tests.”
She glanced at his wrist, then at a readout on the console. “You’re the one in four-twelve. Yes, I see that they’ve got you set up for a whole battery of scans. First one at four o’clock.” She looked back at him. “We have an excellent pet-holding facility here. While you’re being examined we’ll take good care of your— What did you call it?”
“Alaspinian minidrag. I’m thinking if I’m going to get any exercise before my tests I’d better get it in now.” Turning his head, he nodded up the corridor. “I’m going to take a short walk. Be right back. Is there a cafeteria?”
Her tone was professionally solicitous. “Down on the first floor. Just ask any employee for directions. You weren’t told to fast before the tests?”
“Nobody said anything.” The ident tab seemed to be burning against his wrist, but in reality only his mind.
She checked his status file. “Nothing in here says you can’t have something to eat and drink,” she informed him cheerily. “You don’t have to check back in here when you’re done. Just go back to your room and wait for them to come for you.”
He nodded. He had no intention of checking back in or waiting for anyone. “See you in a little while,” he assured her fallaciously.
Heading for the lift, he knew that in a few minutes she would have put the brief encounter with the tall patient completely out of her mind. Hospitals were like that. If queried later, she’d remember the conversation. And he had no doubt that she would be queried about it. But by that time he expected to have vanished into the depths of Goldin IV’s busy capital city.
As he exited the lift on the first floor, he headed not for the cafeteria but for the main hospital entrance, the sleeve of his tunic concealing his ident tag. At the front desk he asked for directions. Not to the cafeteria but to a bathroom. Once inside he pulled back his sleeve to expose the tag. Selecting a remarkably compact and expensive piece of equipment from the row of instrument pouches that lined his belt, he passed it efficiently over the tag. When it buzzed softly, he locked in the reading, transferred it to another device, and then touched the device to the tag. Like a newly metamorphosed butterfly unfolding its wings, it promptly popped free of his wrist.
At the front desk again, he inquired the location of the cafeteria. There, he used his credcard to purchase a drink, a piece of cake, and a large sandwich. Finding an empty, isolated table, he sat down and ate half the sandwich while Pip enjoyed the salty snacks that came with it, stalking the animated bits of food as they bounced around their activating plate. Making sure no one was watching, Flinx then shoved the ident tag into the remainder of the sandwich, rose, and strode calmly through the dining area, past the front desk, and out the main hospital doors. In less than a minute he was on board public transport heading toward downtown Reides. Behind him and receding farther with every second, the ident tag continued to insist to every monitoring device in the hospital that the young male patient from chamber 412 was still in the cafeteria, enjoying a late lunch.
Marinsky did not panic when she arrived at his room later that afternoon to escort the intriguing young man to the first testing session she and Sherevoeu had arranged for him, only to find it empty. Nor was she especially concerned when a search turned up no sign of the patient on the fourth floor. She simply made her way to the central monitoring station and had the operative on duty run the necessary trace. It was hardly surprising that the patient had made his way to the hospital cafeteria, she thought. Since his vitals had been stable at all times and he had emerged cleanly from his coma, he had not been given intravenous nutrition. No doubt he was hungry.
Well, she could meet him there.
She was more puzzled than upset when a walk through the dining area failed to produce any sign of him. Tall as he was, she was certain she had not overlooked him. She checked again, then contacted the fourth floor monitoring station. Perhaps, in the time it had taken her to descend from the fourth floor to ground, he had moved on. She was certain she had not passed him in the corridors.
The tech insisted that the individual in question was in the cafeteria. Coordinating her work pad with the tracer, it led her to an empty table on which were the rapidly drying remains of a quick lunch. Only when she dug the mayonnaise-slathered ident tag out of the center of the sandwich did it strike her how much time had been wasted.
She notified hospital Security, then Sherevoeu. Grim-faced, they spent half an hour debating possible procedures with the head of hospital security before a lower-ranking officer of the city police finally responded to their frantic requests in person.
In the security chief’s small office, Sherevoeu insisted that the city constabulary immediately issue an all-points for the absent patient. The neurologist’s demand was not well received.
“Why am I here?” The officer’s displeasure was strong enough to overshadow her otherwise professional demeanor.
The two doctors exchanged a glance. The hospital’s chief of security looked as if he wished he was elsewhere. “We just told you,” Marinsky finally responded.
“You could have filed a standard missing person’s report via the city box. Why did you insist someone be present to take the details in person?” With her head cocked slightly to one side, work pad in hand, the impatient officer looked like an irritated spaniel.
“The matter is somewhat sensitive.” Sherevoeu attempted to regain control of the situation. “The patient in question is—a unique individual.”
“Unique how?” The officer was not impressed.
Sherevoeu made a mistake. He smiled condescendingly. “It is a question of physiological, specifically neurological, anomalies that demand immediate investigation.”
“Too much for a dumb constable to understand, hmm?” The officer straightened in her seat and glared at the neurologist. “What I meant was—see if you can keep up with me here—in what way involving the official constabulary of the city of Reides is this missing individual unique? What crime has he committed? What danger to the citizenry at large does he present? What illegal or antisocial activities has he been involved in? What threats to the hospital or the hospital staff has he made?” Pad at the ready, she sat waiting.
It was a moment before Marinsky finally replied. “Well—none, actually.”
The officer made a show of entering this into her pad. “None. I see.” She looked up. “Is the patient a danger to anyone, then? Or are you all just upset that someone waltzed out of your hospital without filling out the appropriate eighty pages of paperwork?”
Sherevoeu brightened. “The patient does indeed represent a real danger. To himself. Based on what little information we were able to obtain, we believe that without immediate medical supervision and follow-up treatment, he could very well die.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Doctor,” the officer mused aloud, “but to a certain degree couldn’t that diagnosis apply to a good portion of the city’s citizenry?” Before Sherevoeu could reply, she raised a hand. “That wasn’t a question requiring an answer. Is this patient’s condition in any way contagious?”
Marinsky hesitated before being compelled to answer. “We do not think so, no. He needs to be examined so that his unusual condition can be treated. That’s all. We just want to help him.” One hand rested within the other on her lap. “We have only his best interests at heart.”