I robot to protect book.., p.20

I, Robot: To Protect Book 1, page 20


I, Robot: To Protect Book 1

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  Valerie gave him a withering look. “John, we’re not here to talk about your marital problems. We’re here to treat the princess’ headaches.”

  John gave Susan a look she understood. He had given his wife a story that would make her more cooperative with the procedure.

  Susan played along. “Your Highness, I’m Dr. Calvin. I’m here to administer the … headache treatment. It will require you to lie still and me to put a needle in your back. Can you handle that, or would you like me to call in some helpers?”

  Valerie’s expression demonstrated nothing but serious contemplation. “My butler, John, shall assist you. No one else is necessary. Commoners and servants should not see their princess compromised.”

  John gave Susan a secret thumbs-up, and she winked at him behind Valerie’s back. After tending to her delusion for three years, he had become adept at manipulating her into accepting situations that might have caused problems in the past. Had he not come up with the proper story, it would probably have taken multiple assistants and involved a lot of outraged screaming to get the “princess” to submit to a spinal tap.

  To Susan’s surprise, the third patient to receive an injection of diamondoid nanorobots turned out to be the simplest stick of all. Fifty-six-year-old Neal Fontaina had suffered from refractory catatonic schizophrenia for thirty-three years. Early on, he had gone into a stupor that left him utterly immobilized, and that had become his natural state. Medications released him for differing periods of time, but they always stopped working after a few weeks or months. For the last half year, nothing could bring him out of the cataleptic state, so he lay in the hospital, fed intravenously, on a bed that kept him in perpetual motion to prevent bed sores and muscle contractures.

  Neal’s regular doctor had signed the consent form; he had no one else to do it. Whatever family he might once have had had either died or abandoned him to the whims of the medical community. It seemed unlikely that even the information the nanorobots brought could help him. In his last lucid moments, Neal had signed a paper agreeing to any therapy that had a chance of helping him, stating anything was preferable to his current state, even death itself.

  Susan could not help marveling at the desperation that had brought these patients into the study. Medical science had advanced so far, it seemed no one should ever have to suffer again. She had never before stopped to consider the randomness of the universe and the study of it. Often the most deadly diseases found simple cures or controls, while things well understood and financially supported continued to defy the best minds any laboratory could gather. Pancreatic cancer, once a death sentence, was now cured with ablative therapy and autotransfusion of islet cells. Gene therapy had put an end to the complications of several hereditary conditions that had once uniformly slaughtered children. Yet mankind still suffered from the common cold, from heart attacks, from strokes.

  The human mind remained the next great frontier. Despite a multitude of new medications and procedures, mental illness lagged behind the other scourges of humanity. Addressing the obesity crisis had first taken a wholesale change in dietary habits and exercise before studies targeting the proper genes and hormones allowed the creation of breakthrough medications. Yet children with hypothalamic obesity, like Dallas Moore, still suffered from a wholly mind-based hunger current therapies could not begin to quell. In addition to addressing pancreatic cancer, islet cell transplants had put an end to most complications of diabetes, but depression continued to claim its many victims. People still debated the ethics of fetal diagnosis, but researchers had quit seeking cures and treatments for anencephaly, trisomies, ring chromosomes, and serious inborn errors of metabolism. Why bother to fix body-wide problems piecemeal when it was so easy to prevent them in the first place?

  It all seemed so random, so unfair. Doctors from a hundred years earlier would gape to discover tuberculosis now had a cure, while a simple strep throat, once always responsive to basic penicillin, could be a death sentence depending on the type and resistances.

  Neal Fontaina had come to Susan on a wheeled gurney, left in the treatment room by a bored orderly who stepped outside the room and waited for Susan to finish. Now she studied the patient without bothering to speak. He lay in a comfortable position, his legs straight, his arms at his sides, and his gaze fixed on the ceiling. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest, he could have passed for a mannequin.

  Sighing, Susan turned to the counter to prepare her materials.

  Someone knocked at the door.

  “Come on in,” Susan hollered.

  The door eased open to reveal Remington Hawthorn. He wore his street clothes, a pair of black T’chana jeans, a triangle-sleeved T-shirt that advertised a local band, and the blocky sandals that passed for the latest style. “Just me. Finished rounds and figured I’d see what you’re up to with this study.” He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “Need any help?”

  Susan smiled. “Neal Fontaina, this is Dr. Remy Hawthorn. Remy, this is Neal Fontaina.”

  The patient gave no response. He did not move a muscle.

  Susan explained, “He’s catatonic.”

  That being self-evident, Remington only nodded. “So I see.” He looked closer. “In fact, I believe we’ve met. A bit of direct motor strip electrical stimulation.” He looked directly at Susan. “Didn’t work, obviously. What do you have that I don’t?”

  Susan grinned. “About ten million dollars’ worth of nanorobotics.” She walked over to her sterile bundle. “We inject them into the CSF, they float around for a couple of weeks, we take them back out, and they give us information about every neurotransmitter that might be circulating improperly, any connection that might be misfiring.”

  “In other words,” Remington said facetiously as he leaned casually against the gurney, “you’re trying to put me out of a job.”

  Susan did not see it. “Actually, just the opposite. If we isolate something direct and physical, we’ll give it to you skull-crackers to fix.”

  Remington worked the gurney controls and tugged the blankets to get Neal onto his side and positioned for a lumbar puncture. “Nanorobots, huh? Sounds like sci-fi. Do they really work?”

  Susan could not answer that question yet. “We’ll find out, won’t we?” She carefully unwrapped her bright orange parcel, keeping the contents sterile. “They come from the same company that made Nate, and I’m suitably impressed with him.” She appreciated Remington’s assistance. “Thanks for your help. I was wondering how to get a catatonic into the proper position.”

  Remington kept moving Neal. “I just assumed you’re going through the spine, since you’re alone. You’re not injecting straight into the ventricles or anything.”

  Susan gave Remington a withering look. “Don’t they always send a first-year psychiatry resident to drill a hole through the skull and access central brain areas?”

  “Lumbar puncture it is.” Remington continued to joke. “You have nanorobots. I thought maybe you had personal lasers or something.”

  “We’re not injecting tiny Nates. Something this small consists only of the most basic components. Think of them as the robot equivalent of a virus. You can only program in a single, easy function, like assessing the brain milieu.”

  “Milieu,” Remington repeated. “Meeeee-leeeee-uh. What a great word.” He lifted one of Neal’s arms, and it remained in position, floating a few inches above the body. “Hey, look at this. Classic waxy inflexibility. I’ve read about it but never actually seen it.”

  Susan could not help staring as well. Before the significant effectiveness of schizophrenic medications, such sights had probably seemed commonplace to psychiatry residents. “No playing with the patient’s disabilities,” Susan chided. “It’s undignified.”

  “For him? Or me?” Dutifully, Remington tucked in the arm. He wheeled the patient over to Susan, placing the gurney bed perfectly for the light and position of the tools.

  Susan suddenly realized how much that
small act enhanced her task. In the past, she had always adjusted the light to the patient, which required either a sterile handle or her ungloving and regloving. Also, she tended to carry the tools to the work site, which sometimes placed them in awkward positions around and on the patient. Naturally, such things would be second nature to a surgeon, but Susan appreciated Remington nonetheless. “Thanks. This is going to be the easiest one yet.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “Do you want to do it?”

  A light flashed in Remington’s eyes. Clearly, he enjoyed working with his hands. The medical students destined to become surgeons usually did volunteer for procedures first.

  Abruptly, Susan wished she had not asked. Remington got to perform such things all the time, while she rarely did. While he was, therefore, less likely to make a mistake, she needed the practice more than he did.

  Remington started toward her, then stopped himself. Apparently, he read her hesitation as easily as she had his eagerness. “Nah. I’d rather backseat drive.”

  I think I love him. Susan tried not to smile too broadly. “Seriously, don’t hesitate to make suggestions. You have a lot more experience.”

  Remington studied her features, as if to determine whether she meant her words. Many a man had lost his beloved only by following her directions to the letter. I don’t need anything for my birthday this year, darling, so don’t waste your money. Or, Tell me the God’s honest truth; do I look fat in this? “Fine. But, remember. If you slap me, you’ll have to resterilize.”

  To Susan’s surprise, Remington did know a couple of tricks that made the process safer and more productive, logical things one could learn only from peers or experience. Though swifter than any of her previous procedures, this one also went more smoothly. She supposed having no family members looking over her shoulder helped, and the stillness of the patient added to the ease of it; but she liked to think having Remington around had something to do with it as well. Other than his one snap judgment prior to Orientation, he had displayed nothing but common sense. He demonstrated competence in his own field, without bragging, and could support her in hers without competing or worrying about who acquired more professionalism or success. Slow down, Susan, she reminded herself. We’ve only had one date.

  Susan bundled up the supplies. “Now, all I have to do is hand the patient back to his orderly, and I’m finished here.”

  It occurred to Susan they could make up for last night’s date immediately and not have to wait for Monday. Neither of them could stay out late, but they could at least grab a meal together before resting up for the next day’s call. Then, she remembered she still had Monterey to deal with, and the whole thing came crashing down. A neurosurgery resident courting a psychiatry resident who is also working on an important research project. She shook her head. We’re doomed.

  It was as if Remington had read her mind. “I’d walk you to your public transportation, but I still have a few postsurgicals to watch. How’s Monterey?”

  Susan wheeled Neal to the door, opened it, and pushed him out into the hallway. The orderly jumped to his feet. “Finished?”

  “He’s all yours.” Susan stepped back into the procedure room with Remington. “Still asleep when I came up here. I have to go back and check on her.”

  “I’m curious to know what happened. Text me when you know something, and I’ll try to run into you Sunday for the longer version.” Without allowing Susan to reply, he caught her into an embrace and kissed her fully on the mouth.

  Stunned for an instant, Susan quickly found herself kissing him back, eagerly. She wrapped her arms around him. He felt solid, muscular, safe. She liked the feel of him, the slight but distinct aroma of him, and the taste of his lips.

  As swiftly as he had started, Remington withdrew and headed for the door. Susan watched him leave in silence, enjoying the view of his slim body, even in scrubs.

  Susan hurried to Monterey’s room, only to find the bed empty. She hesitated, uncertain what to think. The girl rarely left her room, and then usually only at someone’s request. Susan turned around to look elsewhere and bumped into an older nurse, named Jasmine, at the door. “Where’s Monterey?”

  The nurse put an index finger to her lips in a plea for silence. She grabbed Susan’s arm and walked her quietly to the common room. Three boys played a spirited game of Sorry! at one of the tables. The remainder of the furniture held mostly female patients watching an animated movie on the well-protected screen. Monterey sprawled in a plush chair. Sharicka lounged on her lap, her gaze locked on the screen, a thumb in her mouth.

  Jasmine gestured Susan to the charting room, and the R-1 followed. A pair of nurses sat chatting at the farther end of the room, and Nevaeh worked on a palm-pross. Otherwise, no one occupied the room. “They’ve been like that for the last hour and a half,” Jasmine explained. “Monterey came out of her room all by herself to watch the film. Sharicka guided her to the chair, holding her hand and jabbering on about how wonderful it is to see her walking around. Sharicka told Monterey you’re the best doctor ever and they’re both lucky to have you. Then, she told Monterey to promise to work really hard to go home and she would do the same.”

  Susan wished she could share Jasmine’s excitement but managed only a wan smile. She could not help wondering what Sharicka was up to.

  Jasmine clearly noticed Susan’s hesitation. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

  “I believe you.” Susan tried to repair the rift. “I do. I’m just worried about Sharicka’s real intentions.”

  Jasmine sighed. “That little girl can’t do anything to please you, can she?”

  Susan had to admit, when it came to Sharicka, she always assumed the worst. “How does Monterey feel about the situation? How do we know she’s comfortable?”

  Jasmine made a broad gesture. “Ask her yourself. See what happens.”

  Susan saw no reason not to take the challenge. She had specifically come to reassess Monterey. Without another word, she left the charting room and headed toward the girls.

  Both looked appropriately enraptured by the movie, one Susan did not immediately recognize but which had the timeless hallmarks of popular young girls’ shows: a young, beautiful princess, a friendly dragon, and a hyperactive squirrel. Susan had to step up directly beside them before either bothered to spare her a glance.

  Sharicka’s face opened in a smile that certainly looked sincere. “Dr. Susan! You fixed her.” She jumped out of Monterey’s lap to give Susan a hug. Her hands seemed so small and warm against Susan’s sides, and she smelled faintly of urine. “If you can fix Monterey, you can fix anyone. Even” — she turned her face up to Susan — “me?”

  Sharicka had never looked so innocent to Susan, like a small, lost child in a world where children never belong. She gave Sharicka a squeeze but did not lower her guard. Susan spoke softly. Only Monterey might overhear them, and she seemed focused on the movie. “Sharicka, I can’t fix people. I can only guide them to fix themselves.”

  “I want to fix myself.” Sharicka’s voice and eyes matched perfectly, all sincerity. “I don’t want to live in the hospital forever. Please, Dr. Susan, help me.”

  A doctor made of stone could not ignore that plea. Though she wanted more than anything to go home, Susan took Sharicka’s hand. “Let’s talk about this in your room.”

  Sharicka pursed her lips, glanced at the television screen, then nodded. She touched Monterey’s arm gently. “I have to go talk to Dr. Susan now. I’ll be back, okay?”

  Monterey looked at Sharicka and nodded. Then she turned her attention to Susan. “Nate,” she said.

  Susan stiffened. Had she really just heard Monterey speak spontaneously?

  Sharicka confirmed it. “She spoke!” Though she said it with emphasis, the four-year-old kept her voice appropriately low.

  Susan paused, needing to choose between breakthroughs. She put a gentle hand on top of Sharicka’s head. “Can you give me a couple of minutes, Sharicka? I’ll meet you in your room.”

/>   Susan anticipated a battle of some sort. Even regular children did not take well to losing a favored adult’s attention to another child. Children with mental illnesses often craved it with such ferocity that they went to bold extremes, even if it led to punishment or parental consternation. Susan shook aside her train of thought to concentrate on Monterey. “I’m sorry for the interruption, Monterey. What were you saying?”

  “Nate,” Monterey repeated in a hoarse, raspy voice.

  Susan’s mind raced. She could put the idea together without too much difficulty. Monterey wanted to assure herself that Nate was all right. Perhaps she wished to thank him, or berate him, or maybe just to see him again. She could suggest these possibilities one by one and allow Monterey to choose, but she went a different direction with it. “Nate. Okay. What about Nate?”

  “Nate,” Monterey said, with more emphasis. “Nate.”

  Susan shook her head, refusing to make it easy. Monterey would have to work for this one. “I don’t understand. I hear you saying ‘Nate.’ Of course, I know who Nate is, but you’re going to have to use a complete sentence for me to know what you want.”

  Monterey closed her mouth tightly.

  Susan did not allow herself to wince, to blink, to show any sign it mattered to her whether Monterey succeeded or not. Children had a tendency to turn deliberately oppositional when they felt they deserved something an adult refused to give them. The less something bothered the adult, the less likely the child would indulge in it.

  Monterey started again. “Can I visit him again?”

  Susan tried to remain neutral, but she could not keep her nostrils from flaring in surprise. She did not know what she had expected; perhaps for Monterey to speak like some sort of partially coherent movie monster. Want see Nate.. “Sure you can. Anytime you want, and I’m here, I’ll try to make time to take you to him. It can’t be in the middle of rounds or while I’m examining another patient, but I’ll do my best to open my schedule for you.” Susan hoped Nate’s duties would mesh as well. She felt certain he would make time to assist her with Monterey if at all possible.

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