The medical convention consisted of eating, drinking and listening to speaker after speaker prattle on. My name tag for this lecture had been printed backward, Gerald Ivan instead of Ivan Gerald. A minor annoyance I suppose. One person has teased me for having two first names. I hadn’t let myself think her name in years. There’s a cruel banter that fills my mind with the sounds of her laugh and the memories of the young and happy man I used to be when I was with her. I allowed myself to think a future with Cal was possible. That was a foolish mistake.
Shifting my focus back to the present; I noticed the speaker at the podium was winding down his presentation. It’s important to stay abreast of new technologies, but my mind was more interested in counting the number of pleats on the lemon yellow curtains that lined the walls of the banquet hall. I was mentally spent from months of preparation for this lecture and physically tired of listening to the sound of other people trying to sound impressive.
My colleague is a prominent figure in the field of neurobiology. His name lends credibility to our project, but his work ethic leaves something to be desired. We’ve developed a new implement for microsurgical repairs. It’s an augmentation for an existing surgical procedure. The modality focuses on restoring the connection to lost sets of neurons for patients with limited function as a result of a traumatic injury. It’s an area that I feel needs more research and results.
My phone began to vibrate just as I pierced another fat, tomato sauce covered ravioli with my fork. I could see it was my intern Hess, and I distinctly remembered telling him I was not to be disturbed.
“Is this doctor Ivan Gerald?” The caller’s voice was garbled, but I could tell it was Hess.
“Yes, Hess it’s me. What do you need?”
“I wanted to confirm it was you, Sir. A priority message was sent to you. A person named Caylnn Mcnair was hospitalized, and the V15 protocols are active. I’m not sure exactly what that means. The message reads a V15 protocol is active click here for details.”
My mouth dried and the pit of my stomach began to tighten. I had only thought of Cal briefly, surely that wasn’t enough to conjure her back into my life. “Click it damn it, read me the details.”
“I did click it. I’m not sure it was something I should see. There’s a series of medical reports. The woman has been taken to a civilian hospital and is being treated for blunt force trauma injuries. It states she was a subject from a project named Virtue. I click on that link, and the one attachment is a heavily redacted pdf file. That’s not a project name I’m familiar with.” Hess sounded confused. I could hear his passive question, but I chose to ignore it.
“Hess, are you entirely sure of the name you are reading?” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. Caylnn lived in a small town in upstate New York. Nothing terrible happens in small towns.
“The information was confirmed. It looks legitimate. Four 911 calls were received, several reports of injuries, employees, and a few patrons were roughed up by three men. It sounds like an invasion style restaurant robbery. An adult male was brought in with her. There are only minor injuries listed for him. As of the last report, she will be admitted. They expect to treat her locally.”
“Damn it. Was any head trauma noted?”
“The transcript mentions moderate blood loss. I’m not seeing much else. Her vital signs were erratic from the first contact to admitting. Wait here’s something. Multiple contusions to the base of the skull, a GSW, and two lacerations on the abdomen consistent with knife punctures. They listed a gunshot injury at the ass end of the report. What is wrong with these people?”
“Send all the information to Carol. She's stationed at the colony until the end of this month. Tell her to prepare the tank. The magnetized nanites, I’ll get a chance to take them for a spin.” I felt weak. The mention of her name took all the joy and energy out of my usually focused mind. I could feel the coffee and sauce covered ravioli from lunch start to churn in my stomach.
“I’m sorry Sir, did you say the colony?”
“The Great Lakes colony. Send Carol what we have over the secure system. She can make the necessary arrangements.”
“You’re not sending the subject to the private hospital in Boston? Do you even still have privileges at the colony?” Hess didn’t know what he was suggesting. One misstep and everything about the project would vanish, Caylnn included.
“She will need to be contained. Can’t have her in a densely populated area. Colonel Wolfe needs to retrieve her personally. He is one of the few left that can touch her.”
“I am sending a team to collect you. Your travel plans are updating to the new destination. I’ll contact you again in fifteen minutes. I’m sorry Sir I just assumed you would use the Boston site.” Hess knew what to do, and as expected he was already making the right moves.
“Not a problem we will adapt. I can’t stress how important it is that she… Virtue was one of my early projects. Honestly, I can’t estimate the level of threat she poses today.”
“Of course. I understand. Expect an update shortly.” The phone line went silent.
I had all but folded myself in half and crawled under the banquet table for privacy when my phone vibrated. Seeing it was Hess calling I suspected something was wrong but not a something of this magnitude. I sat upright and tried to casually fix my hair and straighten my suit as the feeling in my legs slowly returned.
The new presenter at the podium was enthusiastically espousing the benefit of his improved micro-laser treatment for the repair of tears and deformities in the mitral and tricuspid valves. The room was hanging on his every word. It's a significant area of concern but I was there to present my work; a task that I would need to abandon in light of current events.
My business partner and friend of many years, Jeffrey Nelms, occupied a seat across the table from me. He was staring and shaking his head with that look he gets like I just shit in the punch bowl. The men seated between us appeared agitated by my phone call and the nonverbal conversation going on across the table.
I didn’t have the benefit of a trust fund degree. The ones that did seemed to smell the lack of social status on me. Dirt and livestock paid for my doctorates. The Navy provided me with enough practical experience for two lifetimes. Caly provided me a millennium.
I needed to speak to Jeff privately and didn’t have the time for pleasantries. I tilted my head in the direction of the open lobby behind us. Jeff begrudgingly abandoned his pasta piled fork and nodded apologetically to the man seated next to him before following me out of the room.
“Dear God Ivan, what is it now?” Jeff bellowed.
“I’m sorry to do this to you, but I have to leave. I won’t be able to give our presentation.” I stated my facts firmly and braced myself for the theatrics.
“Oh come on. We have an opportunity to gather real support; you can’t be serious. Are we going to skulk out of the room? Can’t you wait thirty minutes?” Jeff sounded like he had faith his logical plea would change my mind.
“The presentation all but gives itself. Advance the slides and read the comments,” I explained calmly knowing Jeff would react badly.
“No, absolutely not there is no way in hell. You told me all that was needed from me was to sit in the audience and applaud when appropriate. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed you to be such a bold-faced liar.”
“Don’t be so damn dramatic. You could speak for hours about our work without repeating yourself once. I would think you could handle fifteen minutes of show and tell.”
“I am not the attention whore, you are. I don’t speak in public.” I could see the beads of sweat start to form on Jeff’s brow. The thought of standing in front of a crowd has terrified him for as long as I have known him. “You are going to leave me here regardless of my opposition, aren’t you?” I handed my outline and cue cards to Jeff. He snatched them away quickly.
“It’s not a big deal. You are standing in front of a room of our peers. Use your knowledge, narrate the slides, answer the one question you may be asked, smile, thank them for their time and then take your seat. It’s that simple.”
“Simple for you but I will probably have a God damn heart attack.” Jeff slumped down into a chair and began reading. “Tell me why I am being made to endure this. And I want a truthful answer, not one the fork-tongued tales you tell your ridiculous clowder of women.”
“For fuck sake Jeff they aren’t cats.”
“Bored housewives or bored house cats, there is little difference in my opinion. Now tell me why I am being forced to do this.”
“I have a good and completely classified reason for leaving.” I folded my arms across my chest. My reasons weren’t up for discussion.
“Bah, my clearance was just as high as yours at one time.” Jeff stood up and paced the room; he looked to be passing from disbelief to anger in a slow but steady fashion. “It’s only because I no longer follow from camp to camp that you can use this deceptive tactic with me.”
“Project Virtue, there has been a development. They are sending someone to get me. I don’t know when I will be able to return. I’ll have to put our work on hold.”
“By your tone, it is a woman. The woman by the way you fidget with your hands and lower your voice. The one you modified? I thought you set her back to rights and shuffled her on home. She has a real life now, doesn’t she? Why not leave her be.”
“Modified? A perfect mutation was turned into a monstrous deformity. Once it became evident how well the process worked, I took away the memory of her gift and how badly I bastardized it. Then I sent her home, partly because she begged me to, and partly so I didn’t have to see what I had done to her.” The guilt stuck in my throat so hot and fat that I could barely swallow it back to the pit of my stomach where it belonged.
“You never mentioned that you fiddled with her memory. You do remember we operate under the do no harm principle?” Jeff looked at me with the disgust I deserved, ignorant of the full weight of my crimes, but that look was enough to turn my self-hate outward.
“Of course, what kind of bull shit question is that?” I had done so much good in my career. Much of it I could never tell another soul about.
“She left about the same time we had the trials for my micro inhibitor? You reported that it was used on a test animal. Some breed of pig, if my memory serves. It was not designed for humans.” Jeff looked disgusted. He would understand if he knew all the variables I had to consider.
“Then you see why I have to leave and attend to this matter on such an important day?” Jeff plopped back into a chair and dropped the presentation packet on the floor.
“I think I understand as much as I would like. I have always suspected you to be capable of unspeakable acts in the name of progress. That chip dissolves into the surrounding tissues by design. In a human, over time, that would cause any number of neurological issues. It sickens me to think of my work being....”
“Sickens you? Fine, it should. A solution was needed. I grabbed one that worked best at the moment. You’re upset my moral compass doesn’t point true north. I never claimed that it did. You made that assumption on your own.
“You didn’t ask where that chip was going. Your hands are clean. Mine are not. I have to leave, and you have a room full of people to entertain. I suggest we both get to it.” My composure was gone. I had been overly blunt. Jeff grabbed the notes off the floor, stood up tall, and stared at me as if he was contemplating violence.
“Do not speak to me of this ugliness again. The presentation will be given to the best of my ability.” Jeff stomped out of the room just as my cell phone began to ring.
“This is Gerald.”
“Hess here Sir, we have men in the area to collect you. Can you make your way to the side lobby by the car rental kiosk?”
“Yes, I will head that way now. What about the protocol? Is it being followed? Is Colonel Wolfe leading the operation?”
“I’m sorry to report Colonel Wolfe had not been located at the time of our last update. Operations are sending a man to find him.”
“The only day I need that Neanderthal to do his God damned job, and he’s nowhere to be found!”
“I can’t imagine a man in his position could be out of contact for any length of time; someone will bring him up to speed. I suppose I should be addressing you as Admiral. I take it they have recalled you.”
“Please don’t call me that. I should have resigned my commission, but I doubt that would keep them from pulling me back as it suits them.” A noisy cart of coffee and thin yellow cake slices pushed its way into the banquet room providing me a clear view of the lobby windows. “I can see a car pulling up to the side door. I estimate two hours travel time from here.”
“Yes, I believe that’s accurate. Your team is preparing the bio tanks. The process should take four hours. All should be ready before the subject arrives. Sir, I wasn’t supposed to see the message they sent you. If I hadn’t been shadowing your cloud drive... How much trouble am I in?”
“I’ll take care of it. There may be questions, but I can handle them. This goes without saying, but you can’t mention this to anyone. Don’t print anything out and don’t talk about it. You know nothing.”
“Of course Sir, I know the drill, better yet I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
As I reached the edge of the long banquet room, I heard my name called to the podium. I didn’t look back. Jeff’s voice rang out over the speakers as I reached the lobby doors.
“Hello, I am Doctor Jeffrey Nelms. My colleague the esteemed doctor Ivan Gerald has been called away on an urgent matter. I’m afraid you are all stuck with me for the next fifteen minutes.” The crowd let loose a quiet murmuring laughter.
The door to the street opened, and I sprinted towards the car. With little conversation, my escorts and I made our way to the airport. Bound for the only artist colony in the country that has its own zip code. Rendition sites, I hate the very concept of such a place. That they exist is not my doing. The colony was there before me, and it will be there long after I’m gone.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. My hands were stiff from days of working nonstop to complete the presentation. I rubbed my hands together trying to stretch my fingers. The driver held up his extra pair of leather gloves.
“You are the surgeon, right? Here I was told by your assistant to bring you gloves.” The young man passed the gloves between the seats and plopped them on my knee.
“Thank you.” I slid the gloves over my hands and felt the full weight of my task. They are expecting me to open her back up and reverse what I had done 17 years earlier.
Surgical skills are perishable. I endeavored to keep mine sharp by continuing to practice part time. But in the face of what I needed to do, I began to doubt that I had done enough. Old scans appeared on my tablet while we navigated downtown traffic. Carol forever anticipating my needs sent what data she could find. I had no idea how her brain looked today. I needed fresh scans.
The last day I had with Caly was difficult. She wanted to die and begged me repeatedly to kill her. There was no way I could kill her; I would have let her kill me if it came to it. Finally, I convinced her that my option was better than death and that I could send her home free of her turmoil. We spent the night together. I know it meant nothing to her. She was desperate to feel human after killing so many. I happened to be there at the right time. I know that’s all it was, but it meant more to me.
In the morning, she agreed to the procedure and let me sedate her. I could have done anything with Caly once I wiped her memory. She would never have known the difference, but I had made promises, and she trusted that I would keep my word. So, I blocked her gift and sent her home.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” I muttered aloud. The man closest to me looked confused. “No good deed ever goes unpunished,” I repeated at full volume.
Both young men smiled and looked at me with the same bewildered expression I gave the old men I once served under. My escorts had no idea what I was talking about. They looked far too inexperienced to understand what real consequences could truly be.