“Passengers” by David Webb

TWA 57 David-01He dreamed that he was flying, and after a while he paused on a cloud, looked around, and realized that he was somehow suspended in a simple pale grey room. He became aware of a patient, steady ping. He wondered where he was. He wondered why he was floating. He wondered about the ping, and the steady hiss and click that seemed to match his breathing. When he worked it out, the ping increased and the hiss and click increased, but he couldn’t thrash or kick and worst of all he couldn’t scream.

When they noticed he was awake, they brought a machine with a screen that could read eye movements and turn his blinks into words. It took a long time to make sentences, so there were big squares to look at for Yes and No.

“Do you remember the accident?” was the question everybody asked and the answer was always *blink* “no”. The last thing he remembered was getting into the car and spilling morning coffee on his shirt, adjusting the mirror and backing out of the garage. When the doctors and nurses, the policemen and his parents, had all asked the same question and told him he was lucky to be alive, they left him alone. Unable to breathe on his own, listening to the ping and beep and hiss of machines he found he could still cry unaided. A little victory.

Time passed, and he lay blinking at the nothing very much. There was no sensation and therefore no pain, but there was nothing much of anything at all. Fed through a tube, there weren’t even meals to break up the day. There were turnings, and cleanings, and rearrangements of his situation but the time elapsed could have been minutes, or hours, or months. It was as if the world were entombed in clear plastic: he could see it, but not touch nor smell it. The real world seemed very far away. Faces came and went – relatives, medical staff – until one morning they arranged him with what he’d come to think of as the Word Screen and a new face: Dr. Curtis.

Dr. Curtis was small, thin, with pianist’s hands and a warm smile that he was only too happy to share. He sat beside the bed, white coat over blue scrubs and holding a plastic wallet filled with paper. He sat in silence for a moment.

“Hello Shaun,” he said “I’d like to help you.” And just like that, a little part of the world came back. Dr. Curtis held Shaun’s gaze as he spoke and it occurred to Shaun that the intelligence burning behind those eyes might, in other circumstances, be worrying. It was just as well that the smile reached his eyes too.

“Has anyone spoken to you about your prognosis in any detail?”

Shaun blinked. “No” said the machine.

“Without going into needless detail, Shaun, the accident caused catastrophic damage to your spine, and serious damage to parts of your brain. You have other injuries, which are actually healing quite well, but these aren’t my concern. And I have to admit, Shaun, that I’ve been looking for someone like you for quite a while, so my presence here isn’t entirely altruistic. Would you like me to go on?”

Blink. “Yes” said the machine, and the warmth and delight of the smile came back.

“To cut a long story short,” said Dr. Curtis “I think I can give your body back to you.”

“Yes. No. Water. Please. Nurse. Window. Itchy” said the machine.

Dr. Curtis wiped at Shaun’s sudden sudden tears with a tissue and held up a hand.

“It’s OK, Shaun, take a moment. I’m not making promises, but let me explain what I want to do.”

So he did. The word “radical” made regular appearances. The word “experimental” was never far behind. In essence, Shaun understood he’d be a guinea pig for pioneering brain and spinal surgery featuring tiny implants that would help his brain route around the damaged areas and bridge the damage in his spine. Little electronic components, sitting inside him, for the rest of his life, like a really tiny internet all his own.

“Yes” said the machine.

“I like your decisiveness, Shaun,” said Dr. Curtis, “but there are serious risks with any surgery so I’ve asked a neurologist from this hospital to talk to you, and we’ll need to work out how you can give legal consent if you still want to go ahead with…”

“Yes. Yes. Yes” said the machine, and Dr. Curtis went away to find a neurologist and a lawyer.

In the end, a thumb print was enough to lower Shaun into a stretched and disconnected hell of drugs, tests and finally the black timelessness of a coma while surgeries happened. In the lucid moments he imagined himself a robotic Gulliver maintained by a crew of frantic Lilliputian mechanics. Occasionally someone would try to tell him about their progress, and Shaun tried hard to sound appreciative but the words they used were so much jargon. The bits he understood were distressingly medical and about parts of him that should never see daylight, much less a knife. It all seemed to take forever, bursts of light and clinical smells. Well meaning voices behind white masks. The whisper of scrubs moving and hands he couldn’t feel, repositioning him over and over. He welcomed the blackness.

Dr. Curtis was optimistic.

“You can’t expect results right away,” he said as Shaun glared at him. Shaun had seen himself in a mirror and thought he looked like one of Frankenstein’s trial runs. He blinked at the machine, which steadfastly refused to acknowledge his input.

“Shaun, the brain is an amazing thing and given the right impetus, and some time, it will rewire itself to recover lost function. What we’ve done for you is give your brain some shortcuts, but it still needs to learn that those shortcuts exist. That’s what the therapy is for. You’re mapping new neural pathways and reactivating old ones. It takes time.”

Blink blink blink, but the machine sat there not swearing or doing anything very much. Shaun, pale as a cave fish, wrapped in a diaper and criss-crossed with sutures, wanted very much to punch something. Or someone. He allowed himself to imagine raising his right hand and slapping the screen of the still mute machine across the room, almost hearing the expensive clatter and crack of technology being abused.

“Hmmm” said Dr. Curtis. Shaun noticed that Dr. Curtis was staring at the bed. He hoped something disgusting hadn’t happened. Dr. Curtis smiled, then looked into Shaun’s eyes.

“Did you know that you’d just clenched your fist?”

—–

Slow as glaciers, Shaun made progress. Movements of his hand were followed by breathing on his own and swallowing. Sensation returned quickly, control came much later. The overseer of his rebuilding wore a badge that gave her name as “Moira” and she tortured him with exercises and stretches daily, always just a little more than he thought he could stand.

For a time, talking was hard. His voice was as disused as the rest of him and seemed reluctant to return so she filled in the silence with gentle and encouraging chatter.

“Moira’s a Scottish name,” she told him as he struggled to stand “and a family name. We’re Scottish-ish. I’m glad I was born first and got saddled with the old fashioned name. If I’d been born two years later it’d have been right in the middle of my mum’s Anime phase. I’ve got a younger sister called Akira.”

Shaun managed a wheezy laugh and Moira shot him a scowl. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun and gave her expressive eyebrows plenty of room to arch and convey every scintilla of reproach.

“And just for that, young man, we’ll have another set out of you. Up with you!”

Moira rebuilt him with the care of someone restoring a classic vehicle. She was attentive, careful, observant. Shaun began to feel as though perhaps she had a more than professional interest in his slow improvement.

“Do you remember the accident, at all?” she asked one afternoon as he lay in a therapeutic pool, kicking his legs and thrashing up chlorinated foam but going nowhere. He paused, letting the water calm.

“Not a thing,” he said. He’d been told there might be fragments of memory waiting to be reconnected but so far, nothing.

“That’s probably just as well,” said Moira “it’s not something you want to remember. Trust me, I’ve seen the pictures they took of you in the emergency room.”

“They took pictures of that?”

“The cops did. Not pretty. The reason I ask is that sometimes, during physical therapy, movement or exercise can jog memories. Some folks think we don’t just store memories in the brain.”

Shaun shrugged, and like all movement he was able to make it gave him a small thrill.

“Not so far. I’ll let you know if that changes.”

There weren’t memories. There were dreams. Odd little flashes, images like pictures hung behind frosted glass, and moments where – padding slowly down some clinical corridor – he would suddenly catch himself approaching a doorway that had nothing to do with his destination but which he was sure he knew, had been through. He knew a lot about the care facility, having been wheeled around it and then shuffling through it assisted by a walker, and now toddling unsteadily as he relearned walking. There were still plenty of doors that remained closed to him, and yet he couldn’t shake the idea he knew what lay beyond them.

Shaun asked Moira.

“No,” said Moira “I don’t think your implants are picking up the CCTV.”

“That’s a relief” said Shaun. It was lunch time, and Moira had arrived at the same time as the food. The food irked Shaun.
“It’s better than some of the hospitals I’ve been in,” he said “where they’d take the bedpans directly to the kitchens. It’s just that I don’t understand why they persist in serving jello. Jelly. Whatever it’s called.”

“You don’t like it?” asked Moira. Shaun chewed, swallowed.

“Not since I was a kid. I went to a birthday party. The kid loved jello. His mom made a big bowl of the stuff, turned her back for a minute and a couple of insects got in the liquid jello. She didn’t notice, puts the bowl in the fridge to set, turns it out later and there they are – big, scary looking wasps suspended in orange jello.” Shaun shuddered. “Before that, I loved the stuff. After it, couldn’t touch it.” He paused for another mouthful of food, swallowed and sipped some water.

“I’ve always had this deep visceral fear of biting into something soft and feeling the scrape of chitin on my gums.”

“Interesting,” said Moira. “Done with lunch?”

“Sure,” said Shaun and lay back, awaiting the inevitable tests. Moira cleared his meal tray away before starting on Shaun’s reflexes.

On her way out, Moira stopped by the nurses station.

“When the patients make menu selections,” she said “do they fill in a card or make a verbal order?”

The nurse shrugged. “They fill in a card.”

“How many times has Shaun Marling ordered jello?”

“Every day this week, every time it’s available. Why?”

“Oh, nothing. Just…interesting.” Moira went on her way.

—–

The next morning, Shaun woke up to the sound of gently trickling water and found that he was outside, in the Sensory Garden, next to a small fountain.

He explained the situation to Moira.

“Sleepwalking” said Moira.

“I’ve never sleepwalked before” said Shaun. “Not as a kid, not as an adult, not even after taking Ambien. The worst of it is, I dreamed of getting up and out of the bed, leaving my room and making my way out of the building.”

Moira was silent, which Shaun was used to. She often stopped talking as he exercised, but on this occasion she seemed preoccupied.

“Well,” she said at last “we’ve only got a couple more sessions before you’re being sent home. Your progress has been remarkable, Shaun, so perhaps a few odd side effects are the price for that.”

She patted him on the shoulder and he nodded, smiling at the reassurance. Moira had reassured him his physique was rebuilding itself nicely.

—–

Shaun got off the resistance machine and walked a little unsteadily to the water cooler near the door. He drank one cup of cool water in a single swallow, filled it again and sipped more slowly. Moira walked past.

“Good,” she said “staying hydrated is important. So, looking forward to the big move?”

Shaun hadn’t thought about it. His own flat was long gone. His parents had put his belongings in storage but had put some of them in his old bedroom. He’d be going back to the family home for a while.

“Yeah” he said “hadn’t really thought about it, but yeah. Not that being here is bad, it’ll just be nice to go home.”

“Going to let your mother take care of you for a while?” Moira liked to tease him. Shaun shrugged.

“She insisted” he said, walking back to the exercise machine, “and I’m still her little boy, at least in her eyes, so who am I to say no?”

Moira fell into step with him for a moment.

“Good lad,” she said “it’ll do her good to have you where she can see you, just for a while. Mothers are like that.”

“Are you a mother?” Shaun had never asked before, never really considered Moira as having a life outside her work.

“No,” said Moira. “I’m interviewing suitable candidates for father material, but I’ve yet to reach a short list. Now,” she turned to face him and then her eyes went wide for a moment. Shock turned to anger, which Shaun watched her control carefully. He wondered what had upset her.

“Remove your hand, Mr. Marling.” said Moira. Shaun thought this was an odd thing to say, and looked for his right hand, which he was horrified to discover was grasping Moira’s breast. He snatched his hand away as if scalded. He babbled frantic fragmented apologies. Moira took a step back, composed, professional, but not quite able to hide the hurt around her eyes. She put her hands behind her back.

“Well, Mr. Marling, you stay there while I find another member of staff to supervise the rest of your session.”

He opened his mouth and she stared at him as if he were something in a bed pan. The words died unsaid.

“I don’t recommend you exercise unsupervised, Mr. Marling” she said, then she turned and walked unhurriedly to the door. Ten minutes later a tall, broad and very male physio called Justin arrived and spoke to Shaun with cool disinterest.

He left three days later, packed into the back of his mother’s car like a boy home from boarding school.

—–

Home slid from a pleasant, if dull, interlude into a slow nightmare. He woke up standing stark naked in the kitchen, a half eaten raw steak in his hand. A day later, walking once familiar childhood paths he experienced a flash of memory about shoplifting from the local store, something he had never done as a child. On entering the store to buy a newspaper, the store owner chased him out and down the street yelling threats.

Shaun stayed inside more often and spent time using the Internet to research his condition. Words bubbled up from strange sites – Monarch, MK Ultra, Montauk, the Illuminati – that hinted at technologies so dark and outlandish that Shaun felt they couldn’t be real. He abandoned this research, tried to put it out of his mind, sank himself into the home routine. One night, with his mother out playing Bridge with “the girls”, he sat in comfortable silence as his father flicked from channel to channel, muttering about how there never seemed to be anything on. At last, he settled on a history show fronted by a serious academic who also happened to be a telegenic woman. There were lingering shots of her walking around an island in the Mediterranean.

“Professors were never like that in my day” said Shaun’s father. Shaun grunted. His dad turned to him, grinning, and then looked away abruptly.

“Son, perhaps you’d like to be in your room if you need privacy?”

Shaun became aware, with awful slowness, that his hand had slipped under the waistband of his jeans. Nausea accompanied the clarity of what he’d been doing. He fled to his room, found the phone his mother had insisted on buying him, and called Dr. Curtis. Then he called a cab, and went back to the hospital where he’d been taken after the accident.

The staff found him a room to wait in, and Shaun wasn’t surprised to discover it was where they sometimes did psychiatric evaluations. Two chairs and a table, and vending machine coffee.

Shaun sat in the hard plastic chair and sipped coffee from a small plastic cup. It was bitter, gritty and watery. He hated it. The door opened and Dr. Curtis stepped in. He looked rumpled, like he’d been called from his bed.

“Shaun?”

“Help me?”

“Of course, Shaun. What’s wrong?”

Shaun told him. In detail. At length. Dr. Curtis stopped him after a few minutes and left the room, returning with water, notepad and pen. He asked Shaun to start again, from the beginning and this time let him speak uninterrupted until he was done, shaking and bewildered. Shaun drank some water, tepid but wonderfully clean on his tongue, and then the questions began. Dr. Curtis pushed him for details about everything. About his dreams, his episodes of deja vu, the sleep walks.

“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake” said Dr. Curtis, and dropped his pen, which rolled across the table. He sounded hollow, defeated. Shaun gripped the edges of the chair.

“What do you mean?”

Dr. Curtis slid his glasses off and took a handkerchief from a pocket, soaking it in a little water from the jug before running it over his face.

“So…what? I’m being hacked?” Shaun, impatient, drummed his fingers on the table.

Dr. Curtis took Shaun’s hand, gripped it between both of his own.

“We made the implants hacker proof. And they are. That isn’t what’s happening here.”

“You aren’t helping!”

“We were so concerned about security,” said Dr. Curtis, staring into nothing, “I insisted that we make the implants as secure as possible. You can’t alter them or amend them without physical access to them. At the moment, I’m the only surgeon in the world who can perform the procedures without killing the patient.” He shrugged, open palmed, “You. Without killing you. Later, I would have trained others. If you were successful.”

“Then what is it?” Shaun was half out the chair, his voice rising. “Am I going crazy? Is it hypnosis? Microwaves? What!?”

“Shaun, have you ever done something without thinking about it?”

“Sure. Lots of times. Caught things that were falling, answered a question without really thinking about the answer. I drove to work once without remembering any of the journey.”

“Some of those things, some of them, happen because the brain isn’t a single organ,” said Dr. Curtis. He began to drawn on his notepad, scribbling rapidly. He laid the pad flat.

“A crude map of the brain,” said Dr. Curtis “here’s the frontal lobes, this is the brainstem, this is…well, it hardly matters at this point. The thing is, the part of you that you think of as being ‘you’ lives here, in the frontal lobes. This is where we keep some of our access to language, and where we keep morality and maybe conscience. Consciousness itself, perhaps. But it’s not the whole brain. One theory has it that as we evolved we added more to our brain and kept the old bits to do old jobs.”

Shaun pushed his chair back.

“I don’t see it” he said.

Dr. Curtis looked up at him, pleading. “Shaun, you aren’t one brain and one person. You’re a committee. Usually, the frontal lobes get the casting vote and the old parts of the brain do as they’re told. But sometimes they get to act without supervision, and that’s when you do things without ‘thinking’ – without ‘you’ being involved. I think what I’ve done is give the quieter parts of your brain an opportunity to bypass the committee stage more often.”

“What?”

“A lot of what you’ve done has been instinctive. You ordered jelly from the hospital lunch and dinner menus. You ate it when you weren’t thinking about it, but when you had to pay attention, you discarded it. And there was the incident with Moira McHenry. She told me all about that, and a few other things, after you’d left. But it’s not an outside influence that’s causing you to behave like this. It’s you. It’s been you all along. You wanted to know who was controlling your mind? Your brain is.”

Shaun shook his head.

“No”

“And I can’t allow it to continue,” said Dr. Curtis “it would be like giving a child a loaded gun, the car keys, and some alcohol. Without the frontal lobes, your behavior would be significantly changed. You might be a danger to yourself, and others. But we can fix this.”

“Can we?”

“I know we can,” said Dr.Curtis. “Here’s the plan. I’m going to get a sedative to keep you from doing anything you can’t control. As soon as we’re sure we can do so safely, I’m going to turn off some of the implants. It’ll likely mean paralysis, in the short term, but I think I can give you enough function to keep you off life support until we can work out what’s going on and find a long term solution.”

Shaun shook his head.

“No. There has to be something else we can do.”

“Shaun, eventually you’re going to hurt someone. Do you want that on your conscience?”

Shaun was back in the chair, staring resolutely at the floor.

“I don’t want to believe you,” he said “but I can’t ignore what you’re saying. Get the sedative. Get the consent form. Do it now.”

Dr. Curtis stepped back into the room to find Shaun sitting where he’d been left and apparently quite calm. He sat, and slid the consent form over the table with a pen sitting on top of it.

“There you go, Shaun. You’re doing the right thing.”

“I know” said Shaun “it’s just hard to go back, you know?”

“I know” said Dr. Curtis, and then he watched as Shaun picked up the pen and threw it as hard as he could across the room.

“Shaun?”

Shaun methodically tore up the consent form.

“Sedate me” hissed Shaun, and for the first time Dr. Curtis noticed the tension in his face muscles. “I’m trying to stop me,” Shaun grunted from between clenched teeth. Dr. Curtis stood, pulled the pre-loaded syringe from his pocket, flicked the cap off and fished a sterilizing wipe from the same pocket. He stepped around the table, but Shaun rose to meet him with the water jug in his hand. The doctor tried to step out of the way, but was a fraction too slow. The jug bounced off his temple, sending him to his knees. As the man tried to regain his feet, Shaun’s hands wrapped themselves around his throat, and squeezed.

Dr. Curtis looked into Shaun’s terrified eyes.

“I’m sorry” said Shaun, forcing each word out through lips that didn’t want to co-operate.

After a while, Shaun’s hands released the dead weight they were holding. Shaun stepped over the corpse and walked out of the room without a backward glance.

 

 

 

 


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Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.” He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who. He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it.

 

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4 Comments

  1. I liked this story quite a bit, though in the end I think it left me wanting something more. The beginning is incredible and really gets us into Shaun’s head, making us feel the terror of being locked into a motionless body, and then the spike of hope when the doctor offers a way out. Once the surgery was done, the little bits of mystery that followed were similarly compelling, and I liked the way they set up the reveal.

    It was only the ending itself that felt slightly lacking. I suspect some of that may have been due to word-count constraints, but even so, I couldn’t help but want more out of the conclusion. Still, a solid outing in the Arena from Mr. Webb.

  2. This was really damned solid. My only complaints are with the logistics of some of the story (if that’s the right word?). Like I can’t imagine that this doctor who pioneered this revolutionary technique and finally found a patient to use it on, a technique which seemed to take weeks to apply…I find it hard to believe that he would then leave and let a personal trainer handle the rest of the work. I’m pretty sure that doctor would be running test and follow-up exams and interviews and so on.

    That being said…damn. The creepiness was in full effect in this story. From the paralysis of the accident to the fugue of the surgery to the pain of the recovery…this story just kept landing blows. And they were all different and interspersed with thoughtful commentary (or prose that made me start thinking anyway) and vividly real moments (the response via the “talking table” after the procedure was proposed containing the word “itchy” made me laugh out loud).
    If anything though, all of this solid writing made me start salivating for one hell of a juicy ending. The therapist is the wife of someone he killed in the crash! His brain is being controlled by the mad doctor! It’s all a hallucination taking place on the operating table! He was dead the whole time! Something, anyway, with a bit more bite than the ending that unfolded.

    It’s not a bad ending, I need to stress that, but it’s not an ending that packed as much punch as the preceding story for me.

    All around, though, a damned good entry.

  3. I loved reading this – well done David

  4. This story hits a lot of the right notes for me. I find Shaun’s struggle for normalcy very compelling. I didn’t figure out where the extra impulses where coming from until it was revealed in the story. I had thought he was picking up random thoughts from strangers, like a dental filling picking up random radio stations. I enjoy being misdirected in such a way.

    I agree with what Joseph and Al have said, that the ending doesn’t quite seem to live up to the superlative set-up. A couple thoughts have crossed my mind as possible points for improvement if Dave wanted to develop the story further:

    First, I’m not entirely sure that the first few paragraphs are strictly necessary. Why not cut to Doctor Curtis from the start? That way we learn what has happened to Shaun at the same time as Shaun learns about the accident. This would free up some space for a more developed ending.

    The second thought is a more radical change: Combine Dr. Curtis and the physical therapist Moira into a single character. I don’t think this would strain reader credulity, as the treatment is so new that the inventor would want to keep the circle of those in the know very small at first. I think combining the two characters might give the death at the end a stronger impact.

    But neither of these two suggestions takes away from the fundamental solidity of the story. A very good job. I really like not having figured it out.

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