It turned out to be serious. The doctors had meetings upon meetings about it; most were rote and uninspired affairs with rundowns of symptoms, punctured by sparse attempts to match those symtpoms to rare conditions; some were exciting and inventive external consults, with juniors hanging on every word uttered by the specialists at the end of the voicewire, eyes wide open in expectation of spotting some elusive puzzle piece that would let them crack the diagnosis wide open. Some days they couldn't bother, others felt like they were on the cusp of a breakthrough. Time passed and The Patient’s condition kept deteriorating. In the end they had no choice but to place him in a Healer. Relatives were appalled:
“It might not even work”
“There surely is another—“
He didn't mind, he needed something done, desperate for someone to try something, anything. He didn't have long anyway.
The local hospital operated 3 Healers, and there was quite a bit of a waiting list, but his particular case, being so exotic and advanced, merited prioritisation. Soon enough he was admitted to the Healer ward and wheeled down to one of the deep basement levels, one that was only reachable by a porter turning a key in the elevator.
Red and yellow signs hung everywhere: "Chemical Hazard, Proceed With Extreme Caution, DANGER". The young and sweet nurse who was accompanying his wheelchair read his mind and spoke reassuringly: "Don't mind the signs, it's all extremely safe, but in there you need to follow the rules exactly, or things can get tricky, alright?”
Language in hospitals could be tricky too. “Tricky” was code for “dead”, he had come to realise over the past few months. They walked through deep steel frames set into thick walls of naked reinforced concrete. Various pipes, wires, and junction boxes hung in places, ornate with an occasional timid blinking light here and there. The air buzzed with the hum of ventilation and what was possibly the whine of electric pumps, and a slightly mouldy odour combined with a faint but sharp ammonia-like tinge pervaded everything. He had once read how some of the junction boxes contained chemical masks and burn kits, in case any of the main pipes developed cracks or leaks. They carried extremely potent stuff to the nearby Healers, and anyone who was not in treatment would be badly burned or killed by the lightest exposure.
Soon they stood in front of the Healer entrance; a polygonal convolution of what looked like a cross between orange plastic and shiny aluminium shards, with a rounded airlock dead centre that looked very much like the top of a pressure cooker. It was made of the same orange material.
A burly but kind-faced man in a heavy-duty hazmat suit stood next to it.
"Here we are. Now, do you remember your prep and instructions?" the nurse asked.
"Yes" the patient croaked through his partly deteriorated throat.
"Great. This is Ahmed," she gestured at the man in the hazmat suit, "he is going to help you climb into the Healer." He nodded. "All the best now, we'll see you once you're done and feeling all better" she said, squeezed his shoulder, and briskly walked off.
He wished he could have brought a book, or something to watch, or just paper to write on, but they'd instantly disintegrate in the Healer. Also… something about how no electromagnetic signals worked inside the Healer, but he hadn’t been paying attention, he had been more concerned with dying while the staff had been explaining the tech.
Ahmed spoke: "Welcome sir, I'll be taking care of you during your stay in the Healer, it's a slightly boring stay I'm afraid, but as long as you follow the rules, well, I've seen people get much much better inside these. Remember that you can't really communicate with the outside world for the duration. If there is some serious emergency then the Healer airlock has a mechanical lever on the inside, which you can pull and it will raise a signal on the outside, and then I will try to suit up and come into the airlock to communicate with you via the inner viewport as best as I can. So, if anything goes wrong, don't shout or bang on walls or anything like that. Just stay calm, the Healer is suspended in a vacuum and any noise you make won't make it out, and furthermore you risk skin damage, which can kill you during the treatment. Remember the lever in that case, and I or someone from the night shift be with you very quickly. But please don't use it unless it is absolutely necessary."
He nodded. He knew this stuff, he had read about it again and again online, had read the literature they had given him, watched people inside fake Healers in movies. But this was getting very real now, and that airlock hatch looked smaller and smaller the closer he came to it.
Ahmed gently helped him crawl in, head-first. For a second he paused in the middle of the narrow tube. He glanced through the grimy thick round viewport of the inner airlock door ahead of him, and could make out some of the features inside the Healer: A stool, a bed, a small counter, a toilet seat. Like someone had merged a tiny hotel room with a bathroom. Everything was the same colour as the airlock wall - an odd mix of plastic orange and aluminium. It looked slightly like fibreglass in a playground but felt sturdy and as hard as rock to the touch.
He tried to open the inside airlock door but a klaxon sounded and the screw wouldn’t budge; Ahmed called from behind: "Wait, I need to close my end first -- just finishing the safety checklist. Are you all set?" What a fucking question to ask at this very fucking moment. "Yeah, let's do this" nothing wrong with putting on a brave face.
The hatch closed behind him and there was darkness, broken by the dim light that came through the tiny viewport ahead. He heard the screw of the outer airlock squeak as it was tightened and secured, followed by a thud of what he presumed were safety bars locking in place. His ears popped as the air pressure changed. He felt an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia grip him. He twisted the screw of the inner airlock manically and pushed.
The inner hatch opened outward, and, flailing, he slumped out of a gently sloping cavity in a wall, completely the missing two vertical parallel bars on the side that, presumably, were there for him to hang onto while he pulled the rest of his body out of the airlock. The hatch behind him leisurely swung shut and locked.
It was dead quiet in there, so quiet that for a moment he could hear his breath as if he was wearing some sort of enclosing helmet. He took a step forward and could barely hear the footstep. He looked around in a bit of a haze, remembering the literature ("the process starts about one hour after onboarding") to give himself some time to adjust.
"It's not so bad. It's bigger than I expected."
He could now make out more features of the room; a sink and a cup presumably made of the same orange material as everything else. The mattress on the bed wasn't fabric, it was a very fine mesh of that orange substance, which seemed to bend in imitation of a mattress as he sat on it. "Well this isn't a hotel" he reminded himself, "I wasn't expecting luxury". The toilet had no water, it looked like an airplane's vacuum toilet. He thought of all the wires and pipes which they had encountered on the way down, all leading to this spot. He pictured more vacuum pipes from the Healer toilets and drains that led off to even lower levels of automated processing and disposal, far away from contact with any human flesh. Light came from some flat round patches on the ceiling that looked as if the orange material itself was glowing white, and they were bright enough to keep the room from looking or feeling gloomy.
A tablet, with writing carved on it: "Welcome. Your adjustment phase will begin approximately 60 minutes after ingress and will last about 48 hours. Treatment will commence shortly afterwards and will last for at least 4 or 5 days, but potentially could take longer. At the end of treatment you will be re-adjusted back for another 48 hours. Once this is done, your assigned carer will signal the all-clear to you, so you can open the inner airlock door and exit the Healer. Under no circumstances try to open the airlock at any other time. The door will automatically lock to prevent severe injury or death to you if opened by accident during active treatment. Any attempt to force the door open or to circumvent the locking system will result in the contents of the room jettisoned into the surrounding containment structure." It meant him, he was the contents. "Meals will be deposited at regular intervals on your counter, please make an effort to eat as much as you can. If the Healer detects you are in need of extra supplements to support your treatment, it will dispense them before your meal. Supplements must be consumed before further food can be dispensed. If there is any major concern or emergency please use the lever..." Yeah he knew the bit from this point on.
He looked around for a clock. Nothing. Surely there was a way to make a treatment-resistant mechanical clock, this is what you get from public hospitals and budget cuts. He bet private hospitals had some sort of way to track the time and date inside their Healers. It was going to be a bit of a wait. He'd have to learn to explore his thoughts a bit. Try to meditate, for once in his life, without feeling like he wanted to set his hair on fire. He supposed the Healer would be burning his hair off shortly anyway.
Tim, from the support group:
"Try not to think about the science of what's going on too much. Just go with it. They say be careful not to cut yourself, exercise regularly, watch the breathing and all that, but in my time the biggest danger was boredom, to be honest. Because you start thinking of how you're basically like a boiled frog, heated up very slowly and breathing gas that makes your metabolism withstand the heat. Four hundred degrees man, it's like a fever on steroids, it kicks the disease right in the balls. Once you're past the three-ninety-eight degree mark, and the Healer starts firing those curing X-Rays or whatever they are, the diseased cells will turn to dust and you'll be clean as a whistle in no time. Go up to four hundred and two degrees however, and the rest of your cells ignite and you burn alive. And you can be in there for weeks thinking about that because you have nothing else to think about. What if the Healer has been badly tuned or broken. What if they didn't get your weight down perfectly and messed up the gas mixture and it gets hotter than it should? What if the gas stops coming in and suddenly you're no longer immune to the inferno? What if walking or moving ends up raising your body temperature too high, or sitting down lowers it below the disease-killing level? What if they forgot about you in there? You may laugh, but I assure you that if you go in there, you better have some reassuring happy places in your head, ready to escape to, when these thoughts come round. And they will, I guarantee you.”
He smelled the gas. A little like a tire shop smell, including the mechanic's cheap cologne. He couldn’t hear a hiss or see an obvious vent from where it may be coming from. Had it been an hour already? Couldn't they have a speaker or something to announce the, oh yeah, electrical stuff wouldn't work inside, or interfered with the way the orange material conducted electricity. Perhaps they kept watch on his vitals through the conductive surface of the orange floor, who knows. They DID keep a watch on those vitals, right? They had mentioned something, I think.
"I suppose I should start by taking a few deep breaths".
Big mistake. Deep breaths made him feel cold. Short breaths made him feel warm. Oh yes, the rule -- "try to breathe normally and regularly". Yes, easy, after all, this is all very normal and regular. Thanks for nothing. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes for a while. Not much he can do now except be bored for a long while.
Many hours must have passed. He actually slept well. Something smelled like ironed clothes. Shit, he had forgotten to take his hospital gown off; it would end up catching fire soon. Fucking instructions, read them and DO them, idiot. He stripped as quickly as his weak muscles allowed. He sat on the bed to catch his breath. His quick breathing made him feel chills and cold: Too much of the heat resistant gas at once.
"Slow down. Normal. Regular. How is this place ventilated? I wonder how much of what I'm breathing now is air and how much is the gas. I wonder how hot it actually is in here now."
His head was itchy. The sulphur in his hair was causing it to curl and harden as the temperature rose. He began to brush it off over the counter. Some patches still felt soft and some just crumpled off. His fingernails were beginning to turn black at the edges. "Like overcooked hardboiled eggs" he thought.
More hours passed.
"My eyes are still wet. I still have saliva. Wonderful thing, this gas. Maybe I have semen too, I could wank the days away. Why couldn't they include sedative in the gas. Wait, what if they do. Jesus, I'm not even a few hours in and already I'm getting nervous. Happy place, happy place. Fuck, deep breath. Oh wait, no deep breath, be normal, be normal."
From the corner of his eye he saw his discarded hospital gown begin to smoke and catch fire. Should he have handed it to Ahmed before going in? "I hope this place has good ventilation or I'll choke to death, where's that emergency signal lever?" He spotted it, at the top-right of the airlock. A round metal beam that protruded from the wall, bent into a triangle at the edge. "USE ONLY IN EXTREME EMERGENCY" was etched on it. "It's not extreme. Go easy, you're having a panic attack. You've seen this scene in fifty different movies where the patient freaks out. You always hated that you were a weirdo, now here's something that you're doing which is perfectly stereotypical." That thought cheered him up a bit but felt like small consolation: Weird about everything, even his illness, but regular when it came to freaking out. Depressing, a bit.
The panic attack was over, for now. The hospital gown had turned into a fine white powder. And so had his hair it seems. There was no mirror in there but he could feel his head smooth as an egg, the hair had completely burned off. "I must look weird, does this thing take selfies?". "Hey" he spoke at the ceiling, "do you take selfies?" He laughed a not very convincing chuckle to himself.
A little later his fingernails and toenails flaked off like the ashes of burnt paper.
At some point he heard a sound like a very distant jet engine starting, that was probably the treatment ray projector around the room spinning up.
Time passed. He had no idea when the actual treatment had begun, the rays that the Healer focused inside the room, in order to burn his super-heated disease cells out, were totally undetectable and invisible. The water from the tap was a yellow fluid that had a strong antiseptic-like smell but quenched his thirst. The food was mostly oily parcels of what looked like variations on chicken nuggets. Couldn't have been real chicken of course, it would have burned to charcoal in the Healer.
Time is a weird thing. Regular time only makes sense around other people. Inside a Healer things aren't the same. There was little difference between weeks days and hours. Initially The Patient would sleep a lot but eventually he became fed up with it.
Time. He was dying, and here he was wasting what may be the last months, weeks, or days of his life in a room that was empty and had nothing to offer him besides his own thoughts, in this last ditch heroic, or foolish, attempt at a cure.
He had once prided himself on his imagination and creativity, but being alone with himself for so long in the Healer had begun to make him uncomfortable. There had always been a meanness to his thoughts and imaginings. There was a sadistic edge that he usually reserved for characters in his stories, and now with little to think about but himself he found himself subjected to that same meanness. "Am I getting better?" He saw himself across the room: "Fitter. Healthier. Like a cat on Antibiotics." his imaginary reflection teased back at him with a Radiohead lyric.
The reflection just moved out of his field of vision, into another corner. He refused to follow it with his eyes.
"Did I have a good life? Did I help make other lives better? Will my family suffer a lot when I'm gone. Will friends miss me. Will colleagues. What was it all about anyway"
The reflection wasn't quiet about this.
"It's ok, you were a little man. Small, of no consequence to the world at large. It's ok to be small like that. You will be missed but they’ll get over it"
"Bit sad, smallness"
"I did find true love"
"It's what matters in the end, I suppose"
"You being sarcastic?"
"Nah, not really"
"I had hoped I'd achieve something, make a tiny dent in the universe. Create something"
"You could have created children"
"You don't create children, you grow children. A gross mixture of gardening and sociology: People farming. I wanted to create…something"
"But you did find love"
"It's all that matters in the end. She must be going crazy"
"You worry about yourself right now, we have to trust she'll hold it together while we're in here"
"Easier said than done"
He fell back to sleep as his reflection watched.
The panic hit before he was even conscious. A flash of white in his vision and a feeling as if someone had shocked his head with high voltage. "I DON'T WANT TO DIE IN HERE AM I GETTING BETTER WHEN IS THE TREATMENT ENDING" he bolted upright on the bed "I'M DYING MY GOD THE GAS IS BROKEN I'LL BURN IN THIS OVEN" his hyperventilating caused him to breathe too much gas and he began to feel very cold, almost frozen. That cut through his panic. He held his breath for a short while. Had he set the treatment back with that panic attack and his gasping? What happened? He was just falling asleep, how long had he slept? They didn't dim the lights at night in the Healers. He had read up on it, it was to discourage patients from obsessing and counting days. A lot of times the treatment lasted longer than a few days and they didn't want the patients to begin to worry or panic. Had it been a few days or a few weeks? No way to tell. They did say four or five days, but probably longer. Or was it "possibly". It was on the tablet. He'll have to get out of bed and check. Oh shit, he had forgotten about the exercising bit. He tried to get out of bed and staggered. It felt like he weighed a ton.
He looked down, his legs were emaciated. His arms looked like the claws of some insect, with his flesh clinging onto the bone like loose wrapping. Was he grey or was the room's orange colour distorting his own skin colour? He couldn't stand for long without beginning to pant and breathe the gas quickly, which in turn made him feel frozen. He decided he needed to work on his fitness a bit during the periods when he was awake.
Time passed and he would exercise a little each time between naps and his long meditative trains of thought. But the thoughts clung onto him, they didn't want to let him go. They kept wanting him tied down on the bed, wandering inside his own mind, and pretending the outside world didn't exist. As time went on he began to exercise less and less.
Instead he came up with silly mockeries of Shakespearian phrases and passages. He wrote stories in his head whose completed paragraphs would fade out of memory as soon as he had moved onto a new paragraph.
He'd cry at times, and his tears would boil off the side of his eyes and evaporate. Large drops would sometimes make it all the way to the floor and sizzle there for a split second.
He tried to fantasise and masturbate a few times but eventually the sight of frying semen on his skin was such a comedown from any pleasure he may have experienced, that it wasn't worth it.
He talked to his reflection a lot. Or his reflection talked to him, it was hard to tell which was which and it got more confusing as time went on -- especially as the reflection became more life-like, less of a mental image and more of a literal image of someone present in the room with him.
"I wonder what time it is out there"
"It's six fifty-five"
"Whenever I think about the time you always say six fifty-five"
"I can't lie"
"And I can't life"
"Har har. You don't know, maybe you'll be cured after this"
"What do you know, you're not even real"
"So stop talking to me"
"Fine. Do you want to hear about my childhood"
"Want a drink? If you like Piña Coladas..."
"Now that's mean, seriously, I'm thirsty"
"I'd get you a drink but I'm, wait, which one of us--"
"Yeah who is actually the real one"
"I don't know mate, I'm tired, it's not important."
"When are they letting us out man"
"Seriously it MUST have been weeks by now"
"Maybe it's more serious than they expected"
"Wouldn't they give us an update or something?"
"Do you really think that Ahmed guy is paid enough to crawl into a tiny airlock that's 400 degrees hot on one end and whose smallest gas seal leak would rot his face off, look through a porthole that barely filters out the treatment beams which would otherwise burn his skin to the point of needing grafts, just to let you know of some small delay?"
"Feels a bit empowering to be in here when you put it like that. I feel like Superman being attacked by fire and lasers and just standing there like 'whuut'"
"And the disease"
"Oh thanks how could I forget that one"
"I wonder if I’m diseased. Probably not"
"Are you sure? What if you're the real one and I'm the disease-free reflection"
"I don't want to know, seriously, stop with the identity politics already, I told you I'm tired"
"Let's give them another few days and then, I swear, we'll pull the lever and find a way to ask Ahmed via the viewport. How do you say 'How long as it been' with gestures anyway. Or 'how munch longer will it be'"
"A puzzle. Let's put our minds together and figure it out"
Eventually they slept side by side on the bed as the treatment continued. More time passed.
At one point one of the chicken nugget things got stuck in his throat. The other couldn't help, they couldn't touch each other, one of them was imaginary after all. By the time he managed to cough it out he had skipped so many breaths that his skin ended up getting what looked like a heavy sunburn in various places from the heat. He had let his guard down. He had forgotten this was a very high-risk treatment machine that he was inhabiting, not some postmodern monastic cell — Perfectly safe as long as you follow the rules and precautions. How many times had he heard that line. Perhaps if they hadn't said that to him 30 times each day before he went into the Healer it would have carried a bit more weight instead of devolving into a meaningless catch phrase.
Days could pass without conversation. Or at least it felt like days. Then it would resume right in the middle of where it left off.
"Surely they must need this Healer for other patients eventually"
"If they keep everyone in here this long it's amazing that those giant waiting queues aren’t even longer"
"Are we the only ones kept in here for so long, are other people coming and going in the Healers next to this one? I can hear things you know"
"You can't hear shit, this place is suspended in a vacuum isolation bubble"
"No I swear I can hear airlocks opening and closing"
"First time I've witnessed an imaginary person imagining things"
"I'm the real one, look, I can pick up nuggets to eat"
"I can do that too, see"
"Wait, then some of these nuggets must be imaginary"
"Only the ones that you will end up picking up"
Time passed. Once he dreamt that this was all a dream and that he woke up in his home with a sense of relief, then woke up inside the Healer and screamed in despair, then finally, he actually woke up, but didn't scream.
Now and then the Healer would drop some pills for him to take. They tasted like attics and bitter chalk.
"Time to pull the lever and see?"
"No, let's give it some more time, it's not like they can forget about us here"
"What. How do you know what day it is?"
"I don't. Happy birthday anyway."
"Thank you. You too."
"Make a wish"
"That's mean, you know what we both wish for"
"So make it"
"I need cake in order to do that"
"Come on, do some exercises, or you won't be able to get out of bed anymore"
"Look who's talking"
"Yeah I should too. We've got to stay fit so we can reach the lever soon and ask Ahmed when we'll be done"
Neither of them could get out of bed though in any meaningful way. Their bodies had atrophied. They could barely reach the sink's tap or those bland nuggets that always seemed to be present on the counter. Even the toilet bowl, rarely used, had become an adventure in slow crawling.
"I'm pulling the lever now"
The other's voice woke him.
"What? Fine. But if you're not the real one you'll end up pulling an imaginary lever, ever thought of that."
"Ok, I guess we both do it then"
Hard to argue with that.
He crawled out of bed. The effort involved in crawling to the wall with the airlock made it hard to keep his breathing regular, so that he could avoid the freezing and trembling that those breaths inevitably brought. He didn't know if he was the real one, but if he was the imaginary one, then by gosh, it all certainly felt very real. He stretched out an atrophic arm towards the lever. He couldn't reach it. He put his back against the right wall, pushed with his legs and pulled down on the airlock’s support bar. He rose up slowly, a few centimetres at a time. The other one was doing the same he noticed. They overlapped for a short while. He could see two right hands, two left hands, four legs, and two torsos intertwined, one inside the other. They both reached the lever almost simultaneously, and pulled with all their strength.
It didn't budge. The lever was clearly designed for dire emergencies and not easy to move accidentally. However neither of them were strong enough to tug on it with any force that came close to what was required to move it.
"What, not even the imaginary lever shifts?"
"You'd think the imaginary one wouldn't be as stiff, what sort of imaginary lever is inoperable, I mean, when have you ever imagined a lever that you couldn't move"
"One that you actually don't want to move?"
"Spare me the psychobabble. It must be stuck"
"Fuck, we're never leaving this place"
Defeated and exhausted, they sat down with their backs to the airlock.
"Not until the treatment ends in any case"
"Any day now"
"They must do a visual check once a while, we could keep an eye out"
"Don't bet on it, I told you, these things are so toxic to anyone outside they'd need hazard pay, or specialists, or something, to get close"
"Won’t find either in this part of the country, sunshine"
"Sunshine what’s that, I remember there was something called sunshine long ago"
"Some margarine brand I think"
"Heh, you know, you’re not as annoying as I thought you were, you’ve grown on me"
"Yeah I’ve come to like you a bit more too, surprising, what with being locked up in here with you all this time"
"I thought we’d kill each other"
"Yeah, whatever, why not"
There was a faint smile on both their faces, even if neither had the energy to turn and look at the other to see it. They just sat there for a while.
"Who is that on the bed"
"There’s someone on the bed"
"Why not. The more the merrier"
"I can't see his face. Is he real? Can YOU see him?"
"He's barely breathing, if at all"
"Settles it then, he'd be burning if he was real and not breathing the gas"
"He's definitely not burning either"
"He's not real then, relax. Must be an imagined corpse or something"
"Bit mean of us to conjure a corpse in our own bed"
"I told you we’ve been too mean with our imagination"
"Turns out we're not exactly doing our best to fix that, are we"
"Admittedly, he does look rather peaceful there"
"He looks so old; so worn out"
"Must be the treatment"
"Yeah, it's been going on for a while hasn't it"
"How I wish we could lie as peacefully as that"
"Yes, and rest"
The room was quiet and still for a while. Eventually the body on the bed began to smoke and catch fire.