Ghost in a Chrome Cage
by G, Connor Salter
In an attempt to combat the side effects of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, researchers have developed a radical cure, but is it really worth it?
The nurse gave him a pained look as she let him in. Daft nodded at her and then shuffled into the small white room. The door closed softly behind him. Evening sunlight peered in from the giant windows on the right, creating a soft hazy glow which ended somewhere in the room’s center where it clashed with the cold, fluorescent lights. In the intersection of the two lights, a shriveled man lay on a hospital bed.
He wasn’t an old man. Daft figured he couldn’t be more than thirty years old. But the face was degraded, as if someone had gradually sucked all that was life out of it and left this sad, contradictory husk behind. The man had pulled his bed covers over his chest. This left just enough space for Daft to see the tint of polished chrome on the man’s collarbone and the rubber seal where the metal met the man’s skin.
Another one of these cases, Daft thought.
He cleared his throat. The man started, opened his eyes and looked at him suspiciously.
“You’re a cop?” the man’s voice rasped.
“I’m Officer Will Daft,” Daft replied, taking his badge from his pocket as he spoke. He held it up as he moved closer. “You’re James Edward Clennan, right?”
Clennan nodded vigorously. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Well, we investigate 911 calls of this sort all the time, Mr. Clennan,” Daft replied. “Now, you said over the phone that someone in this hospital is trying to kill you. Can you explain that to me?”
Clennan tilted his head sharply, motioning Daft to come closer. Daft walked to the bed’s side. At Clenna’s urging, Daft leaned down until Clennan’s mouth was right by his ear. Clennan pulled himself up and whispered, “They’re gonna turn me into a machine.”
Daft turned his head and stared at Clennan for a moment. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating, Mr. Clennan.”
“Dammit, you don’t understand!” Clennan declared. “They’re gonna kill me! They’re gonna shave my head off and put it in a death machine!”
“Look,” Clennan reached out a hand covered by a thin hospital glove and grabbed a pile of newspaper clippings off his bedside table. He picked one up at random and forced it into Daft’s face. “See these stories? It’s proof. They’re a bunch of psychopaths building death machines for the government!”
“I think I understand, Mr. Clennan,” Daft said as he stood and turned toward the door. “But if I’m going to do a complete investigation, I’ll have to talk with your doctors.”
“You don’t believe me,” Clennan whined. “I’m telling you, it’s true!”
* * *
“How much of his body is actually left?” Daft asked.
“Not much,” Dr. Smith replied, pouring a cup of coffee from the pot on his desk. “Just the head and everything needed to run it.”
He handed Daft the cup and Daft took a sip. Not bad. Daft didn’t particularly care for doctors, but he had to admit Smith seemed decent. The little hospital office with its cushioned furniture and mild turquoise walls seemed to be an extension of Smith himself: calm, focused, and very friendly.
Daft put the coffee cup on the desk and took out his notebook. “How long has Mr. Clennan actually had Lou Gehrig’s Disease?”
“About two years. Hospitalized about eight months ago, Bio-Mek’s attorneys came in with their offer less than a month after that.”
“They’re very aggressive.”
“Well, they have to be,” Smith replied, “It’s difficult to sell a new treatment and prove it works when so many people hate it. From what I’ve heard, Bio-Mek is giving treatments to anyone who will take them.”
“What’s his final operation date?”
“Three days. My staff can hardly wait,” Smith added with a rueful smile.
“I guess you’ve had a lot of patients react like this?”
Smith nodded. “We call it Late Body Snatchers’ Syndrome. Somehow even though they understand what the treatment entails and that they’ve legally signed for it, their minds won’t accept the fact they’re losing almost every part of their bodies. Perfectly natural I’m sure, but it doesn’t make the job any easier.”
“Those gloves he’s wearing, is that typical?”
“Oh, yes. He doesn’t mind the fact that he’s lost his legs or even his arms, but for some reason he can’t stand his robotic hands.”
“You think he’ll be all right on the big day?”
“I believe so. Sooner or later the mind accepts that this must happen. We have a licensed psychiatrist and attorney who speak with patients before surgery so we know they truly want to go through with it.”
“I’m guessing you won’t perform the operation yourself?”
“No, no, no,” Smith shook his head vigorously. “Far too delicate for that. Bio-Mek designed a special machine for the operation, the Encephalon. We just direct it as it does all the delicate stuff.”
Daft scratched his neck and turned to a new page in his notebook. “I know you get asked this a lot, but what does the Encephalon actually do during this operation?”
Smith leaned back in his chair. His face suggested he was about to recite something he’d said many times. “We start by administering anesthesia – a bit more than normal, because of the situation. Then the Encephalon comes in and covers the head in a bio-fluid solution. That way the patient doesn’t lose any vital fluids. Then it removes the patient’s skull bit by bit. At the same time, it replaces the skull with a high-density plastic helmet that connects to the neck of the robotic body. It’s all done as safely as possible.”
Daft took a slow sip of coffee. “What about these tabloid clippings he has?”
“Probably mailed to him by an anti-robotics group,” Smith said. “I’ve been getting reports of the same thing happening at other hospitals. Some sort of statewide protest. Apparently, Bio-Mek has a federal defense contract, which makes every single project they do part of an evil conspiracy.”
“You’re in favor of the treatment, then.”
Smith shrugged. “I won’t say it’s not radical. But it’s also more successful than anything else we’ve tried. No drugs, no therapy that only slows things down, just replace things as they become obsolete.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Daft replied. He put away his notebook and picked up his empty coffee cup. “I thinks that’s all I need to know. Thanks for your cooperation, Dr. Smith.”
“Anytime,” Smith assured. “I am sorry about this fuss. I’m sure it must be irritating.”
“It’s alright,” Daft said, dropping the empty cup into a wastebasket by the door. “Until the state decides what’s illegal and what’s not about these treatments, we have to answer every phone call about them. He won’t be the last.”
* * *
Clennan awoke, but his eyes did not open. It was one of those moments where the body is resting but the mind is racing around, blindly searching. Something – he couldn’t identify what – but something was distinctly different. What had happened before he fell asleep?
Then he remembered. He’d been lying on a surgery table, his head cool and wet from being shaved. The doctors had been nice – they were always oddly nice around here – and the Bio-Mek representative had been sitting nearby, explaining how the procedure was going to change everything for him.
Well, had it? Clennan tried to open his eyes. They wouldn’t respond. His limbs felt like lead and wouldn’t move for anything either. Why wouldn’t his body move?
HELLO, MR. CLENNAN.
Clennan felt a cold spike of fear race through his head. Who was talking? That wasn’t him, who was it? What had happened to him?
PLEASE OPEN YOUR EYES.
Slowly Clennan’s eyelids became less heavy. Sharp pinpricks of light came in as his eyelids cracked open. Finally, they adjusted and he could see normally. He was looking up at a ceiling of fiberglass panels, the kind of panels common in office buildings. The ceiling looked vaguely familiar, the panels were an odd shade of grey that seemed… Oh, my.
Now Clennan understood. He was back in his hospital room, the place he had lived in for the last eight months. But his eyes had been changed. Maybe replaced. As he looked around the room, he could see many familiar objects. But none of them looked the way he remembered them. Everything had this odd, hyper-real quality that shifted colors a little. Thousands of details he’d never noticed before jumped out at him.
Clennan wasn’t entirely sure that he liked this.
SIT UP, IF YOU CAN.
No, don’t, a little voice said. But Clennan’s body moved. He pulled himself upward smoothly. He stopped moving exactly before his torso began to slouch.
GOOD. NOW TURN AND GET OUT OF THE BED, MR. CLENNAN.
Clennan’s arm rose to eye level. Someone had removed the hospital gloves and he could see every detail of his copper-wired, chrome-covered hand. It grabbed his sheets in a vice-like grip and pulled them off gracefully, like a showman whirling his cape. His legs and feet immediately moved back against his chest. His hands lowered and touched the mattress. The arms pushed, the legs unfolded, and there was a second of freefall before his feet thudded against the floor. His arms pushed a little more and his upper body rose off the bed.
GO TO THE SMALL TABLE BY THE DOOR.
Clennan turned until he could see the table. The little inner voice was screaming for him to stop now, but he began to walk. His armored feet took one step after another until he finally stopped in front of the table. Normally it held surgical instruments. Now the table just held a round object covering by a white towel.
REMOVE THE TOWEL.
The little voice protested as Clennan pulled away the towel. Then the little voice seemed to shriek when Clennan saw what was underneath it. There, sitting on a white plate like some odd delicacy, was his skull. Every piece had been carefully pasted together with glue, which had smeared in a dozen places across the dirty yellow surface.
NOW. BREAK THE SKULL, MR. CLENNAN.
Clennan stared at the skull. Then he slowly picked it up and held it at eye level. It was useless now. This thing was puny compared to the new plastic hull that protected his brain. Why not get rid of this thing?
The little voice broke through again. Don’t do it James! Don’t you do it, you’re a man for God’s sake! Don’t do it, don’t let them turn you into–
Clennan squeezed the skull with one hand. The skull resisted. Then it cracked and popped like an egg shell. The pieces fell and clattered on the floor like bits of ceramic.
Then Clennan turned to the door. His feet ground the pieces even smaller as he walked out.