Not a Cure
I came home from work rain-soaked and desperately needing medicine — the expensive, black market kind. Unless I made a connection, my fever and burning sore throat would continue to devour me. I couldn’t go to National Health Care because they might learn my secret.
I tried to take a deep breath, but the sickening smell of the deformed homeless huddled in the entrance almost made me gag. Stepping over them, I unlocked the lobby door.
The security guard, twitching in rhythm to the music in his earphones, waved hello with his stun-baton. “Still raining.”
As A child, I remember feathery snow floating on the chill, January breeze. These days, only warm, polluted drizzle fell in grey curtains – the humidity so thick people suffocated, and the cleanest object became sticky to the touch.
I climbed one step at a time clinging to the banister, wading through the perpetual stink of damp walls, too many residents, and disinfectant.
I passed the Waiting List family living in the beige hallway. Meager processions stacked against one wall marked their space, their young, brain-damaged daughter rocking back and forth. Eyes focused nowhere, saliva dribbling from her tiny lips, she joylessly clutched an old picture magazine I had given her.
No one would have anticipated the radiation from TVs and cellular phones would mutilate the DNA of an entire generation.
It didn’t happen to me – I’m an aberration — somehow resistant. DNA anomalies like me disappeared overnight, went on vacation to never return, or were snatched from playgrounds. Horrific conspiracy theories abounded, and I didn’t want to test any of them.
At my door, I keyed in my password and focused on the retina scanner. The green light blinked, the locks whirred, and I stepped inside.
I sensed I was not alone. I flicked on the light.
“Good evening, Mr. Eints.”
A woman with short black hair, in a business suit and trench coat sat at my kitchen table. A man dressed much the same, but exuding the air of a professional bodyguard, stood at her side.
“You the IRS?” I asked. I still hadn’t met my 65% tax quota, and expected the worst. They were above the law – warrants and due process were unnecessary.
She responded with a practiced half-smile. “We know about your tax problems. They’re fixed. We also know you’re a Team Leader at the Regional National Health Records Center.”
Unthinking, I nodded. Years ago, when I had first secured the position, I hunted down my damning medical records. Taking advantage of one of the numerous computer system crashes, I altered my history to reflect the same DNA damage as everybody else. With the same record access, I’ve aided others for assorted reasons…for money.
Her statement “They’re fixed”, finally filtered through my fever-induced fog. I trudged to my computer. Everything but the keyboard was insulated in a radiation-proof box, and after wending through the maze of passwords and inquiries, I studied the projected red white and blue screen image. My IRS account was up-to-date.
The full impact penetrated. “What do you want?”
She rose from the table, dusting invisible dirt from her sleeves. “Mr. Paul Melnuk wants to see you.”
Everybody recognized the name of the renowned civic leader. He had made several fortunes by dissolving local companies, putting people out of work, and selling the fragments to foreign investors.
“If not now, we could do it later,” she pressed.
“What would Paul Melnuk want with me?” Speaking felt like swallowing steel wool.
She carefully buttoned her trench coat, then feigning indifference, stuffed her fists into the pockets. “It’s an employment offer. That’s all I can say.”
My empty stomach ached, adding itself to my list of physical symptoms. The effort of dragging myself to my kitchenette, selecting and cooking a factory processed meal was too much.
“I’ll meet him. But you have to buy me dinner on the way. My choice.”
The world had shrunk to the limousine’s dim interior. The woman and bodyguard sat up front, barely visible, neither talking. I was alone in the wide, comfortable back seat, lulled into a daze by the hum of the tires and swish of the rain. About an hour outside the city, a white glow appeared on the horizon. I felt the turn off the highway, and the sound of the pavement changed. The light grew into a brilliantly illuminated community on a hilltop, its gleaming concrete wall reaching into the night.
I forced myself from the feverish haze. We slowed at the fortress entrance, pausing at the flashing red light. Guards with military rifles surveyed the car, checked us with their scanners, and waved us through.
A brilliantly lit thoroughfare filled my vision. Colorful boutiques lined the boulevard, trees and flowers edging the wide sidewalks. We turned onto a residential street of broad lawns and shining, ostentatious mansions.
We turned into the garage of a duplicate of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg.
The black-haired woman left the limousine, leaving us to follower her through the door. We entered a foyer, its ornate crystal chandelier reflecting a shadowless light over the pale marble walls and floor.
A tall, blond-haired woman with steel grey eyes and striking features rushed from another doorway, wrapping my escort in her arms. “Dad is ready to see him,” she said.
My full stomach made me somewhat pliable, so I obediently followed the bodyguard. He carried himself with the murderous poise of a military man, maybe a survivor of the disastrous Tanzania Campaign.
We passed through several rooms with thick carpets, lush foliage, real paintings and expensive holographs. His sense of direction impressed me. “You do this often?” I rasped. We halted at the first closed door. Opening it, he waved me in.
I squinted, and blinked my eyes. Warm, dry, artificial sunlight bathed an immense garden, the scent of greenery and flowers a pleasant shock from the stench of mildew and wet concrete. Somewhere water splashed, and I heard birds chirping. The bodyguard propelled me toward a small gazebo, with an occupied bench. I climbed up the steps slowly, to see the renowned Paul Melnuk — or what was left of him.
There was little flesh on the man’s bones, his eyes sunken and complexion a cadaverous hue. He wore an exo-skeleton, the delicate titanium spider web interrupted by the motor nubs.
He pointed to the bench, his gesture accompanied by the delicate whir of motors. “Sit, Mr. Einst.”
It was easy to match his face with the tall blond woman I had seen inside.
He imitated a friendly smile. “I know all about you, Mr. Einst. You violated security at the Health Records Center two years ago.”
My heart sank. He knew about…No, I had altered my own records almost eight years ago.
“I’ve never violated security.”
“Two years ago you took money to find a genetic match for a child dying of cancer. You found the match and sold the information.”
So. He didn’t know my “life or death” secret, only my indiscretions. I chose not to respond, saving my voice.
“You will do the same for me. I want you to find a male with undamaged DNA.”
I digested the implications of his demand — condemning a man to be ripped from his life, his loves, his friends…to face castration, and God only knows what hellish experiments. All because his DNA was normal — a curse disguised as a blessing. “What’s going to happen to him?” Each word scraped my throat raw.
Miniature motors humming, Paul Melnuck rose from the bench. He thoughtfully clasped his hands behind his back and gazed into the garden.
“I want my daughter to be happy, and I don’t have a lot of time. I expended far too much finding a woman willing to part with healthy eggs. Now, we just need healthy sperm.”
“Private doctors do black market DNA modification—“
“They take too long. I want to see my grandchild. Find the sperm donor. I’ll get you into the lowest tax rate, 35 per cent. Permanently.”
A man of his position could easily deliver the promised reward. Taxes reduced to thirty-five percent!
I imagined the liberty to air-condition my rooms all summer, to buy a new raincoat, maybe even buy real vegetables on special occasions.
I shivered, but I felt hot. I struggled to phrase the question forming in the back of my mind. “What will happen to him? There are stories of experiments…and other things.”
Paul Melnuck turned, accompanied by the electric whisper of his exo-skeleton. “A woman is born with a pre-determined number of eggs. When they are gone… But, a healthy male produces sperm for his lifetime. We would want him to have a long, healthy life.”
So, Melnuck’s victim would spend his life as a sperm factory. My eyes began to itch and water. I slipped a threadbare handkerchief from my pocket and dabbed at them.
“You didn’t tell me what will happen to him.”
“A tropical island. Pristine beaches, volcanic peaks covered in snow. Clean air. He’d be kept happy and healthy for obvious reasons.”
“And he can never leave?” I ventured.
Paul Melnuck nodded. “He can never leave.”
“You’ll reduce my tax rate to thirty-five percent, and nobody will ever ask why? Will you protect me if National Health finds out?”
Paul Melnuck’s tone was indignant. “I am not without influence.”
I wanted to believe him, and rationalized the victim’s idyllic life would be worth his permanent exile. Maybe the poor guy would even be content trading his life for… I vaguely was disappointed at how easily I convinced myself.
I rose from the bench. The gazebo swirled, and I steadied myself on the railing. The feverish haze crept over me again. My first words were a feeble croak, and I tried again. “Agreed. I’ll do it.”
Paul Melnuk smiled, and we shook hands in agreement.
I turned to leave.
“Mr. Einst. Let my do something about that sickness of yours. I have a personal medical staff. Let the doctor look at you.”
The mention of ‘medical staff’ sent a chill down my spine. I debated with myself — It was his personal staff, and he needed me to do something for him. I would be safe. As if for emphasis, a wave of nausea and sweating hit me. I buried my suspicions beneath it. “OK. Let’s do that.”
The bodyguard appeared and escorted me from the garden. The abrupt shift from soft museum lighting caught me off guard, and my eyes adjusted too slowly to accommodate the reflective maze of corridors.
I could feel the could settling in my chest as we stopped at an open door. A young man waited, wearing a baggy lab-coat and the aura of efficiency.
“Good to meet you, Mr. Einst.” His handshake and voice were warm and professional. “I understand you have a virus. We’ll see what we can do.”
The room was furnished like a study with warm bookshelves, comfortable desk and plush leather chairs. The cold white medical computers, refrigerators, and research machines seemed out of place. “Sore throat? Fever? I’ll take a throat swab. I’ll use the sample to determine the strain of virus. The computer does the analysis, and if you’re lucky, we have a cure in an hour.”
He went to a cabinet, returning with tiny jar and a fiber swab on a plastic stick.
“Put your head back and open wide.”
His gloved hand filled my mouth, and the swab scrapped the inside of my throat like a knife. I gagged.
He pressed the sputum smeared fiber into the jar, and turned to his medical machines.
I selected a plush chair, and collapsed in it. Time dragged slowly between dozing off and trying to read the names of books on the polished mahogany shelves. My illness had progressed to the point of making my skull feel it was contracting, the dull ache complementing the increasingly blurred vision.
I heard distant voices arguing in remote rooms as I dozed off.
The doctor roused me from my nap. My host, clad in his titanium spider’s web, stood at his side. My eyes focused with effort, to see the white-coated man holding a small syringe. “This is it,” was all he said. Paul Melnuck smiled and his sunken eyes sparkled.
I began to float from the chair. I wasn’t sitting any more, rather, my body was, but my mind drifted to the ceiling like a balloon. I tried to move, and found the chair clung to me, holding me down.
“I don’t feel good,” I mouthed, the words garbled.
“My daughter will be happy, and you’ll be fine.”
Suddenly it was so clear — If Paul Melnuk knew about my transgression with the cancer child, he could have just as easily found out my secret.
“The throat swab…” I stumbled for words “You f-ckin’…”
He leaned over me, accompanied by the soft whir of his assisting exo-skeleton. “You weren’t hesitant to sacrifice somebody else, were you?”
Lights began to dim, and I could barely hear him as I sank into drugged oblivion. “It’s all true, you know,” said Paul Muelnuk. “The beautiful island, the sunshine, the snow on the peaks…”
Like his favorite author, Chris Bauer started writing midlife as an unemployed oil company executive. In the last two years, he has had thirteen pieces published in quality markets like Twilight Times. Chris also discovered he's really a fantasy writer half his age.
Published by permission of the author.