I, Robot: To Protect Book 1, page 21
Monterey nodded and returned her gaze to the television. Apparently, the conversation was finished.
Susan wanted to draw it out, to ask a few questions and try to get Monterey talking but decided against it. Not only did she have Sharicka to handle, but she did not want to rush Monterey. If she pushed too hard too quickly, she might drive the girl back into silence. Susan knew she would have plenty of free time at the hospital while on call for the entire next day. She would have to deal with any new admissions or crises, but she would otherwise have open time to catch up on charting, work with the patients, and chat with the nurses. She touched Monterey’s shoulder to get her attention. “How does tomorrow sound?”
Monterey nodded, and Susan accepted that as reasonable communication. Turning, she headed toward Sharicka Anson’s room. After almost a week of observing the youngest patient on the PIPU, they would finally have their first significant conversation.
When Susan arrived at Sharicka’s room, she found the girl sitting on her neatly made bed. She wore her wavy hair in a thick ponytail, oiled and pulled back from her plump brown face. The dark eyes looked larger than Susan remembered, almost pleading, and the demonic sparkle had left them completely. For the first time, she truly looked like a little girl to Susan, a four-year-old with issues even most adults could not handle.
Susan stepped inside and closed the door behind her. “What can I do for you, Sharicka?”
The girl looked up suddenly. Her hands lay in her lap, worrying at each other. “Fix me,” she said without a hint of the childish lisp she had used the first time she had spoken to Susan. Her eyes developed a glaze Susan did not, at first, recognize as welling tears.
As the room had no chairs, Susan sat beside Sharicka on the bed. “I don’t know what you mean, Sharicka. Tell me.”
The words tumbled out; and, with them, the tears. “I miss my mommy and daddy. I miss Rylan. And Misty.” She sobbed. “I want to go home.”
Susan did not know what to say. For the first time since she had come on service, she believed Sharicka actually spoke the truth. The instinct to gather the child into her arms and hold her while she cried was strong, but Susan resisted it. “Sharicka, you tried to kill Misty.” She said nothing more, leaving the ball in the child’s court. The seriousness of Sharicka’s intentions would come through in how openly she spoke about the crime.
“I know,” Sharicka said, so softly Susan had to strain to hear. “I don’t know why I do things like that.”
Susan did not accept that explanation. “If you’re going to get better, you’re going to have to dig deeper than that. You do bad things, Sharicka. Horrible things.”
“Yes.” The girl continued to sob. “I did horrible things. I hurt Misty.”
“Why? What are you thinking when you do these things?”
Sharicka finally got specific. “I was wondering … what it’s like to drown. I wanted to see.” She shook her head, probably tapped out for descriptions given her young age.
Although it did not make sense from her worldview, Susan gave Sharicka credit for trying. “Didn’t you think that if you killed your sister, you would no longer have a sister?”
“No.” Sharicka gazed at Susan through the tears. “I just wanted to see … what would happen. I didn’t …” She clearly struggled to find the right words, and Susan had to remind herself the girl was not yet five years old. “I didn’t … think …” She changed her tack. “When I’m not on my meds, I don’t think that far ahead.”
Susan shook her head. “You’re on your meds here, Sharicka. Yet you put a piece of balloon in a peer’s cup. You hit people. You even attacked a member of the staff.”
Sharicka pursed her lips. For an instant, Susan thought the demon light would reappear in her eyes. Instead, she rose and gestured for Susan to do the same.
Susan stood up.
Sharicka grabbed a corner of her mattress, lifted it, then groped beneath it. She brought out a small jar that had once held fish food and handed it to Susan. She kept her head down as she did so.
Susan held the plastic jar up to the light to reveal white mush that probably represented wet pills and several bits and pieces of capsules. She stared at it, stunned. Psychiatric patients had been known to hide or spit out their meds for as long as these medications existed. She could scarcely believe this could still happen. “You haven’t been taking your pills?”
“Not always, no.” Sharicka raised her head. Her eyes still appeared normal, aside from the tears. “I’m showing you because I’m going to take them now. Always.”
Susan put the jar into her pocket. “Always?”
“Always,” Sharicka said firmly. “Always always.”
Susan realized Sharicka had a point. If she was lying, trying to manipulate Susan, she did not have to reveal such a secret. If Sharicka had not shown her the bottle, Susan and the nurses would never have known. “Why now? What’s changed?”
Sharicka grimaced; at least it appeared that way to Susan. A moment later, she recognized it as a smile. “When I heard you fixed Diesel and Starling, I thought you might help me, too.”
Susan remembered. “When the nurses prepared them for discharge, you asked me to ‘fix’ you. But you didn’t mean it then, did you?”
Sharicka hesitated. For an instant, Susan thought she saw something less than innocent cross her features. “I … did, but I wasn’t on my meds. Since then, I’ve swallowed them every day. Then, you got Monterey to talk.” She shook her head, her gaze distant. “Anyone who can get Monterey to talk is amazing. If you could fix her, you could fix anyone.” Now her lips clearly bowed upward. “Even me.”
Susan met Sharicka’s gaze. She could feel her gut recoiling as she anticipated the demonic sparkle, the evil expression. This time, it did not come. Susan saw only a little girl with an advanced vocabulary and real insight. For the first time, she could see Sharicka the way the nurses saw her: a little girl with massive problems who needed her help.
Susan sighed. She knew better than to get drawn in by a manipulative patient. “Sharicka, I didn’t fix anyone. Those others … wanted to get better. They just didn’t know how. All I did was guide them in the right direction.”
“Guide me,” Sharicka said.
“The hard work is yours,” Susan continued. “Staying on your meds is a great start, but it doesn’t end there. You have to want to change. You have to think before you act, to consider the effect of your actions on other people before you gratify your own curiosity. You have to consider other people’s safety, other people’s feelings, and truly understand them.” Susan shook her head, wondering why she took the time to explain things a psychopath could never really comprehend. She switched to something she knew they could. “You have to know right from wrong. And choose right.”
“I do.” Sharicka sat back on the bed. “I know I did bad things, and they were wrong. I wanted to do things, and I just did them. By the time I realized they were bad, they were already done.” Sharicka gestured feebly, as if having trouble putting her point into words. “The meds give me time to think. I still want to do stuff, but I have a chance to think about it before I do it. Like, right now, I want to kick you in the leg. Without meds, I’d kick you. Now, I can think it would hurt you, so I don’t kick you.”
Susan appreciated that. “You wouldn’t want me to kick you.”
“No,” Sharicka said with great sincerity. “And I won’t kick you, either. It would hurt.”
“Yes.” The conversation seemed to have come to a natural conclusion.
“Can you watch me?” Sharicka said. “I won’t do any bad things. I’ll take all my meds.” Childish desperation touched her tone. “I want to go home.”
After the conversation Susan had had with the Ansons, she wondered whether they would ever take Sharicka home again. What’s different this time? What can I tell them has truly changed? What guarantees do I have? Susan had no answers to her questions, but one thing seemed clear. This
Susan marched resolutely down the sidewalk to the hospital entry, ignoring the signs and shouted slogans of the protestors. The summer sun beamed down upon them, striking brilliant glimmers from some of the metallic lettering. Susan wondered idly if they purposely chose reflective material to catch the eye of hospital workers and passersby. If so, it worked only if the intent was to cause temporary blindness.
Susan had once asked Stony Lipshitz why the staff did not have pass-protected, private doors. Stony had reminded her that all of the many entrances and exits from the hospital were monitored; and, as long as the protestors remained peaceful and did not block the sidewalks, they had a right to make their voices heard. Preventing protestors from clotting smaller, more enclosed staff entries required enormous amounts of security, maintenance and repair of the scanners had become prohibitively expensive, and hospital clientele had complained that, when the staff “sneaked” into the building, the protestors turned their venom on the patients and their already overstressed families instead.
Susan had nearly reached the entrance when a hand seized the sleeve of her dress polo and a voice hissed into her ear, “Dr. Calvin?”
Susan glanced sideways at a man in his thirties with spiky light brown hair, the style a throwback to his parents’ youth. He had a narrow face, a prominent Adam’s apple, and an odd, predatory look in his pale eyes. “Yes?” Assuming him a patient’s relative, Susan spared him a moment.
“Get out while you can.”
His words seemed nonsensical. “What?”
“The cyborg experiment, Dr. Calvin. Get out while you can.”
Susan tried to disengage politely. “I have no clue what you’re talking about.” She attempted to walk around him.
But the man stepped directly into her path. “Goldman and Peters and USR. They’re tricking you. They’re creating cyborgs from mental patients.”
Susan had no idea how this man knew about the nanorobot experiment, but she remembered the first-day admonitions about talking to protestors and revealing details of experiments, as well as her father’s overstated but understandable concerns about the Society for Humanity. Worried this could spark into something violent, Susan moved forcefully leftward. “You’re way off base. Our only goal as doctors is to help the sick and injured become healthy again. Nothing else.”
The man moved with Susan, but she managed a quick spin that opened the way, then ran into the sanctity of the building.
Just what I need this morning. Morons leaping to horrific conclusions from bits of misinformation. Susan already battled a tough mood. The excitement of her first week had waned, and she desperately wanted some time to herself. She had returned to Manhattan to spend time with her father; yet she had barely managed a significant conversation. She had the best boyfriend of her life, and she had already broken their second date. She drew some solace from realizing Remington understood and shared the rigors of her schedule. I love my chosen life; I just need some time off. Susan knew she would get her wish tomorrow, but only after she had dedicated another full day and night to Manhattan Hasbro.
Rounds went swiftly, as even Dr. Bainbridge had Sunday plans. Susan finished out the morning with the little tasks that would keep the patients on par until the new week started. Things coasted on the weekends. No new treatments or approaches were considered; no procedures or meetings that could wait until Monday were conducted. Once the morning frivolities ended, the unit worked on autopilot and the nurses would not bother Susan with details unless they affected her own patients.
Monterey’s current nurse, Saranne, caught Susan daydreaming at a palm-pross. “Monterey is asking for you.”
Susan sat up. “Asking? As in … asking?”
Saranne smiled. “As in speaking your name with a question mark at the end.”
Susan nodded. “Well, I can hardly pass that up, can I?”
“You cannot,” Saranne agreed, gesturing toward the staffing room exit. “She’s at the door to her room.”
Susan found the girl exactly where Saranne had said, surprised to find Sharicka standing beside her. “Dr. Susan,” the younger girl said, “Monterey wants to see Nate again. Can I go with you?”
Susan forestalled Sharicka with a raised hand. “If Monterey wants something, she will have to ask me herself.” She turned her gaze directly on Monterey, her brows rising in slow increments.
Monterey was up to the challenge. “I want to see Nate again.”
Susan noted with satisfaction she had used a full sentence, and it surprised and pleased her when Monterey continued.
“You promised you would take me today.”
“I did.” Susan could barely contain her joy. Monterey is talking. The realization of another success filled her with more warm pride than she expected. She tried to remain professional but could not help remembering how long Monterey had suffered, how little hope anyone had had for her until Susan had come on service. The idea she might save Sharicka as well overwhelmed her. Pride goeth before a fall, Susan reminded herself, but she could not shake the feeling of satisfaction that assailed her. I’m great at this. I really am. “And I will. Can you walk this time?”
Monterey nodded vigorously.
Sharicka looked longingly at Susan. She seemed afraid to open her mouth again.
Susan had already set things up with Nate the previous evening, and he had promised to make himself available in the charting room. She felt certain he would not mind adding another child. “Of course you may come with us. As long as your nurse gives us permission.”
“He will! He will!” Sharicka said excitedly.
Susan knew she was right. Shaden had already proven himself the young girl’s staunchest supporter. “All right, then. You two get ready. I’ll let the nurses know where we’re going, get Shaden’s permission, and meet you here at” — Susan looked at her Vox — “exactly eleven oh eight hours.”
Sharicka got into the game, examining her bare arm with the same intensity Susan had her Vox. “Should we sinkonize?”
Impressed a four-year-old could come so close to correctly pronouncing “synchronize,” Susan rewarded her efforts by joining in. She consulted her Vox again. “It’s exactly eleven oh five and forty seconds.”
“Check.” Sharicka pretended to fine-tune a Vox, though such was unnecessary as they all self-adjusted to the world clock. She must have gotten the whole synchronicity routine from an old show or movie.
Monterey giggled at the interaction.
Susan turned and marched off, trying to appear as competent as an old-time spy whose very life might depend on how well she “sinkonized” with her partners.
When they came back together, Saranne keyed the three through the massive, confining doors of the PIPU and out into the main portion of the hospital. The girls remained silent as they walked with Susan, focused on anything and everything. Sharicka paid so much attention to the key locks that old fears resurfaced and Susan worried the little girl might attempt escape. She made a vow to keep a close eye on the child, to never once let Sharicka out of her sight or beyond a few steps. She felt certain she could outrun the chunky preschooler, so long as she did not give Sharicka too large a head start.
Both girls studied the walls of the regular part of the hospital, nudging each other and pointing to some of the more colorful or unusual paintings. People flowed through the corridors singly or in small groups, discussing everything from family members to duties, from hopes to sadness, from lunch to vomit. Gurneys rumbled past with clipped IV lines and personal charting screens that appeared blank to anyone who might glance at them from the hallway and required passwords to read. At last, the three arrived at the charting room. Susan had discussed bringing Monterey back sometime this late morning or early afternoon, and Nate had promised to do his best to be there when they arrived.
When Susan opened the door, N8-C was sitting in one of t
Nate rose to meet them. “Good morning, Susan. Good morning, Monterey.” He gave Sharicka a quizzical look. “Hello, little girl I’ve never met.”
Sharicka dashed forward, took his hand, and shook it. “I’m Sharicka. Nice to meet you, Nate.”
Monterey waited until Sharicka had finished before sliding in and capturing Nate in an embrace.
Nate hugged Monterey back, but his gaze found Susan.
Susan just smiled and waited.
Monterey held on longer than would be considered appropriate in most situations, and Sharicka nudged the other girl’s arm with an elbow. “Let go, now. You don’t want to break him.”
Nate’s closeness muffled Monterey’s response. “Can’t break him. He’s a robot; he can’t die.”
Susan felt a smidgen of guilt for her deceit, but she had no intention of correcting the misconception she had started. If believing Nate indestructible spurred Monterey to talk, Susan would not disabuse her of the notion.
Monterey finally pulled away. “Thank you,” she said.
Nate merely smiled. “For the hug? I give those away to anyone who wants them.”
Sharicka cut in. “She means for fixing her. For helping her start talking again.”
Susan realized Sharicka might become a problem for Monterey. Like a well-meaning older sister who did all the talking for a toddler, she might delay Monterey’s verbal development.
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