As promised, here’s the first short story based on our Book of the Month content. I look forward to heading your responses in the comments.
The Key to Dreams
I came here because there is nothing left to lose.
The callow, willow-thin doctor was very clear: your cancer’s inoperable, I’d give you probably a year at most, these monthly payments support basic treatment and palliative care. The mass in my lung, behind left shoulder blade itches within, prompting a wish I’d made better choices as a teenager. That’s not true: this life has been lived to the limit. It is ironic therefore the slide towards demise could be bitter and painful, if I decided to allow other people to dictate that course.
I’ve never stayed put long enough to suffer indignity, and that’s not about to change.
The medical study invitation is discovered on the back of the Hospital bathroom door. It is a sad state of affairs when you’re being sold to whilst throwing up, but on reflection the concept is sound. Already here because you’re sick, a miracle cure that costs nothing will undoubtedly appear more attractive. I fit the age range, am in good physical health regardless of the Stage Three tumour. What’s there to lose by phoning the number?
An overly cheerful operator asks where I saw their media, and maybe this is not the moment to state it was ruined with shock induced vomit, as that would admit a measure of sudden despair. Already the settlement being offered as incentive is enough for a beyond decent holiday, chance to spend last days in some far-flung resort, slowly drinking towards oblivion. They must be desperate too, an interview is organised in under fifteen minutes.
Perhaps these people know exactly where I grasped their lifeline, and appreciate there’s no time for delay.
The gentrified part of town’s intimidating for a man who’s spent a life living in various degrees of squalor, shanty towns and refugee camps. Everything is too clean, scrubbed magnolia bright, no litter to speak of and not a single sign of homelessness. When all you want is to survive, where to sleep rarely matters, just that you can. I had to buy a new overnight bag, replace disintegrating trainers to stay at the Clinic, aware my disregard for appearance could count as a hindrance. Presentation matters, the representative they sent to my low rent apartment complex home had reminded me, effort does not have to be expensive. She’d stared disdainfully around my recycled house, full of other people’s discarded furniture, refusing to sit or to accept any effort at hospitality.
My exemplary work ethic and record as a care worker, years spent with relief projects in War Zones, made me an excellent candidate for treatment, I was told in the Clinic’s boardroom as each legal waiver was exchanged and signed. After six hours of exhaustive tests the day before, this was undoubtedly the harder task. I understood exactly the risks involved in this treatment were not simply significant, but tangible, unavoidable and all the other terms they threw into the mix… and yet still there was disbelief at my almost cheerful willing to succumb as lab-rat.
I’m going to die in a year and can’t afford chemotherapy, which bit of I’m desperate and don’t care do you not understand?
The youngest of the lawyers stared, blonde hair almost translucent in early morning sun, expressing amazement at the lack of fear. When you’ve spent every day for thirty years living with death, watching the inhumanity of man to his brother, rationalising choice becomes surprisingly simple. She will have healthcare, a partner to look after her. If I pawned that diamond engagement ring she flaunts, it would buy food for the rest of my life with enough left over to cover funeral costs.
Everything, when you break it down, ends up a matter of perspective.
After a further week of poking and prodding, mental and physical tests seemingly without end, it is decided Max Jacobs is approved for treatment, and the black car arrives to take me away. An hour of driving in darkness brings us to the edge of the Combat Zone where it becomes apparent who my real benefactor is: fat, green military transport’s being loaded as I’m helped from my seat. Everybody else is on stretchers, making me wonder why all that time was spent addressing mental health.
It is a long, predictable flight north, across terrain inhospitable for many years, toxic forests full of beasts mutated by humanity’s stupidity. My parents had both fought in the last of the Ground Wars, scars all too obvious even as a child. They’d wanted a girl, because then she’d have avoided National Service, but instead I left them at sixteen as a conscientious deserter and never came back. Perhaps if we’d all loved each other more things could have been different. My mother died last year, lost in mental deterioration as had been the case for close to a decade.
When Dad passed in my 30’s, she’d not even asked me back for the Funeral. Instead there had come a letter, money spent in a year of excess and conspicuous consumption, before returning to work with this continent’s refugees. The faded remains of that letter shake in cold hands, words barely distinguishable. ‘Your life is what you make of it. The key to dreams is living them in every moment possible.’ My ambition, such as it was, remained simple and earnestly applied until the diagnosis: regardless of who you are, life is yours and not for others to dictate.
Grant everybody one fair chance.
It had been this ethos, the medical team stated, which sealed my participation in the project. Having spent a life allowing others opportunity to start theirs anew, it seemed only right and proper to afford that same courtesy to me. They would cure my cancer, and in exchange I would become a spokesman for this new treatment, granted to those who had worked hardest to deserve it. Except now sitting here in the belly of an aircraft, Sunday School lesson from childhood is remembered, as blood runs cold.
The Devil will tempt you with promises he cannot keep.
This mountaintop hospital is home, has been for nearly three months. Every day is the same: breakfast, exercise and thirty minutes in the Halo; bright light that surrounds, attacking disease at a molecular level. After that I am allowed to do as I wish: climbing, cycling plus countless other distractions. Anything I want is available, yet I dare not ask for a thing. Stage Three inoperable cancer was, as of this morning, downgraded to Stage Two. The facility doctors expect me to be cancer-free by the end of the year.
I knew I was cured even before the man opened his mouth.
Unseen by anyone, my mind’s transformation in the Halo spreads tentative shoots of new, unexpected awareness. Disquiet is held within: I’m beyond adept at hiding the disparity each day makes more glaring. The fatality rate here is worryingly high: the body bags in the black van leave daily, sometimes twice. I’m kept away from anyone else, distracted by an unending stream of scientists and nurses, who are clearly grateful there is no sexual desire or need to form attachments harboured within.
Being a loner was exactly what was required: I hear their thoughts, confirm belief I’m becoming insular, when nothing could be further from the truth. His body chemistry is the key my doctors whisper with glee, this unexpected set of conditions which will allow resistance to everything. The lies continue to deepen, each person living their part on cue. For a while it was body language that gave them away, a manner in speaking but today for a moment, I was able to force a doctor to utter the truth. I am being altered, cell by cell, to become Patient Zero.
Continued life expectancy, suddenly, is a hindrance.
Two weeks later, I wake to whispers: Jacobs is no longer required to remain either conscious or free, and it is time for rebellion. Testing my now quite practised skills on the nurse sent to prepare me for transfer to the Isolation Unit results in far better than expected results. Ridiculously easy to mentally manipulate, the injection meant to render me unconscious drops to the floor. If I am to escape, it will require assistance, but that is already anticipated: I send Nurse Carter away to fetch Naomi Fisher, woman in part responsible for my extraordinary recovery, who now wants this body as an experiment.
Fisher faces away, frozen solid at my bedside as I dress, mind totally blank. It takes but a moment to rearrange neurones, eliminating all ability to recall what is now being seen and heard. I’ve undergone a complete mental transformation since arrival yet crucially nobody had bothered to monitor my brain: all they cared about was resistance to cancer, which would now have been robustly tested with a range of genetically enhanced strains.
I don’t want to play God but know these people already have: control, subjugation and dominance under the flimsiest of pretexts. I’ve seen the worst the military can and have wrought, casualties of war and thoughtless arrogance. I refuse to die as so many others have been sacrificed. A real dream of peace and happiness for all could be possible with what this woman has created, but not here.
Carter has retrieved the box full of my blood samples and vaccines already crafted from a remarkable body. As each mind within the facility becomes aware of the escape in progress I shut them down, quietly calming fear in every one. My strength has always been reassurance, untroubled care: three decades of training serves me well. A hundred staff are finally silenced, happy to just stand inert as I walk out of the facility with Fisher into lengthening twilight.
She’ll return to her Military Base believing without doubt that I died in the fire.
As I instruct her to drive us away there is but brief glance back to the building, flames now consuming upper floors. There will be no fatalities: everyone lies unconscious outside, happily dreaming in the car park. When they wake it will be with no memory of what happened, or that anything was wrong. A sudden embolism ruined the project, utterly unexpected: records electronically returned to the Base Naomi calls home. I’ve been very careful not to leave a fingerprint on anything or a hair out of place. There’s still the chance they’ll come looking, but by then it will be too late.
I wonder briefly at the morality of rearranging people’s memories, controlling as I have. The engine runs as sleep instantly consumes Fisher’s consciousness, car stopped in a clearing as I make an escape. Her mind is hollow: selfish and single-minded – will remain so when she wakes. The guilt I’ve given at my death at her hands is strong enough to consume if there is a refusal to change: it will become a measure of her ability to cope. The key in her dreams has been provided, to unlock redemption in thoughts and actions. A willing mind can set a path away from evil, necessary if and when that revelation is acted upon.
I offer the possibility to be better. Grant everybody one fair chance. That was what was signed up for, and now, that is the future I will ensure takes place.
The unconscious truck driver stirs in blissful sleep as we approach the edge of the Refugee Zone, unaware he’s done a several hundred mile detour, but he’ll thank me soon enough. The undetected cancer in his pancreas is already shrinking, and when I let him go it will be to a future illness-free. He’s become Patient Zero, first recipient of the vaccine, and this isn’t a military operation any more. With me in charge, it is time to find the right people to rearrange nearly a century of civil war into something far better.
I came here, because they have nothing left to lose.