The fighter I worked for, or on as one would work on a race car, hit the mat with the full force of his six hundred and twenty pounds spread over the yard-wide girth of his shoulders. From the ringside med pit, I was close enough to stretch out my arm and touch the knobbed ridge of his bald head, an honor any one of the thousands of fans of “The Wall” would murder each other for — or at least try to, I corrected myself, since it was now so difficult to kill a person without access to some really serious equipment. But I derived no thrill from the visceral display of power. My work had always been my sole passion, and now The Wall was my work.
In the three heartbeats he was down, I made the mistake of looking across the still-vibrating octagon of the mat, past the triple row of fat steel bars bounding the opposite side of the ring, into the faces of those fans. Wide-eyed, lips peeled back in adrenal fury, they screamed at the fighters. Whether they screamed with enthusiasm or anger, cheered or booed no longer mattered; only their excitement did, and the fight was not their only source of stimulation. A gaunt man in the front row pawed at the iridescent stud of the autoinjector mech that hugged his arm and his eyes widened at the rush. Again and again I picked out from the churning movement all around him the glint of syringes, the white dust caking nostrils, the glowing tips of genered cigars, my mind involuntarily compiling a checklist of self-inflicted injuries. People had always traded on their health to get what they desired. Now they had virtually unlimited credit. For a small price, toxins would be neutralized, damage repaired, cancers reversed. But sickness was still with us. I’d taken to wearing nose filters to protect myself from the acrid fog of their collective exhalations. There was no filter for the disgust these people induced in me. There never had been, even when I could help them.
I was grateful when The Wall’s hulking body rose to block my view, bringing me back to the present, to where I could still make a difference. Calm returned when I focused on the engineered network of knotted muscles dimpling his back as he hauled himself to his feet just in time to deflect a second charge from his opponent, Tiger Evans, a smaller fighter famous for his ferocity. Mid-leap, the Tiger flashed a canine-enhanced snarl for the crowd, his face framed by spiked, orange sideburns — all cosmetic, I noted. He probably had the standard package of muscle and bone density boosters, maybe some metabolic enhancement, nothing like what I’d done for The Wall. This time The Wall took the two-footed kick directly in the ribs, but managed to connect with a powerful punch to the kidney that took some of the fury out of the Tiger. I was sure that some of The Wall’s ribs were broken, and judging from the blood he kept spitting out, one of them had punctured a lung. The hemostatics must have cut in, though, because it didn’t seem to bother him. Nothing to worry about, but I might up the elastins in the bones.
The Fight. I’d been in medical school when this new form of sportainment burst out of the underground and hit the mass media networks. I was shocked when it was legalized but soon realized it didn’t matter anymore. The old rules of extreme boxing and wrestling, the parents of the Fight, had been designed to protect the contestants. Now that any damage short of death could be repaired flawlessly, there was no reason not to let them rip pieces off each other. So they did.
The Tiger had gone back to the running double kicks that were his trademark move. Finally, The Wall tired of playing with the guy and on the next pass he grabbed him by the ankles. He yanked upward, pulling the man high into the air, then spun on his heels and slammed the now limp body to the mat, both legs twisted, the bones snapped, useless. The Tiger could not rise and the match was abruptly over.
The constant growling rumble from the banks of seats lining the parabolic walls of the arena rose to a crescendo at this, their voices transmuted by the vast stadium dome far above and cast back in baleful overtones.
The Wall was able to leave the ring on his feet tonight. As he made his way over the bars, I watched the spidery mechs rush into the ring to attend to the loser on the mat. Several wrapped themselves around his legs, becoming immobilizing braces; another injected a general anesthetic into the jugular vein. A larger model lifted him like a doll in four of its ten metallic legs and carried him into his med pit. I didn’t see any people on his med team. Apparently Mr. Evans couldn’t afford it. The crowd was still roaring as I backed away from the spectacle and followed The Wall down the ramp to our ready room below the arena.
The Wall barely fit through the doorway. He’d been a big guy to start with, but I’d added a couple hundred more pounds of muscle and bone, not to mention the vascular and neural infrastructures to support them. His glistening upper arm was nearly a foot thick. He climbed onto the body scanner and the screen showed that he’d sustained more damage than I’d thought. He had a ruptured spleen and one of the broken ribs had torn up the bottom of his left lung, spilling blood into the plural cavity. I got to work.
The medical arts of the day had been refined — some would say reduced — to the manipulation of specialized interfaces of the various incarnations of mechs. Much of the advancement was due to nanobots, billions of microscopic drones that flow over and infiltrate the patient, disassembling and reassembling cells and tissues, weaving artificial structures when necessary. They’d put most doctors out of business and made those that remained technicians skilled in guiding the machines. At the dawn of the nanotech age, it was said that everything would eventually be reduced to a programming job. I didn’t know if that was true of everything, but I knew it was true of medicine. I was a good med programmer.
With the serious internal injuries under control, I left the automatics to clean up the details. I turned and saw Mr. Wlozek, The Wall’s manager, come in through the back door and switch on the wall viewer to follow the events in the arena. He was a squat, fat man who always seemed to be leaning backward to balance his gut. The combination of the hanging jowls and waxy complexion reminded me of a cheap rubber mask.
“Hey, Tony”, he said in his thick, phlegmy voice and high-fived me. I raised a hand in acknowledgment and he turned to the fighter. “You’re on your way now, boy,” he told him, but The Wall was still groggy from the anesthesia.
The Wall was getting brazen after a series of wins. I could see that he wasn’t that good a fighter, he just pushed himself farther because he knew I was there to fix him up again. I was glad to get the work, though, so I kept my opinions to myself. Besides, it was obvious Wlozek knew it too.
Once I’d been Dr. Antonio Corillo, rising surgical program specialist. Now I was Tony, the meat mechanic. All I’d ever wanted to do was heal people. I’d always thought I had what they used to refer to as a calling for the job. It was in me. I’d been good too — graduated at the top of my class and got my first choice med center. Of course it was about then that the medical profession began to see its own demise. Most doctors thought the mechs were displacing them and rendering medicine itself meaningless. I saw it differently. If the mechs could handle the bulk of the work, that only freed doctors to conquer more difficult cases. I’d worked with the mechs and had been on my way to becoming one of the top medical programmers in the hospital. I’d been respected. But I wasn’t in the hospital any more. I missed it. Wlozek appreciated my abilities, but not in the way I wanted.
“You know there was a time he would have died of these injuries,” I said, lifting my eyes from the viewport on the body scanner.
The manager threw his hands up and grimaced, obviously tired of hearing it. “Yeah. Yeah. There was a time you couldn’t pick up a phone and call China and you’d have to listen to all your music live because there wasn’t none recorded. But not no more. When you gonna stop harping on the sacredness of the human body? That’s all gone now. I can chop my fuckin’ arm off and some dumb mech can stick it back on like new before dinner time, none the worse. When you gonna see that, Tony?”
Regretting that I’d pushed Wlozek’s button, I decided to keep silent. I studied the readout on the mech interface and sighed heavily.
But Wlozek didn’t let up. He had two passions, making sure no one thought they were any better than he was and making money off the fact. “Look, I know you’re good with the machines. Real good. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be paying you so well. But you can’t go back to what you used to do. You took care of that.”
“That’s enough!” I yelled. We’d played this game before and I knew that the quicker I let him get a rise out of me the quicker it was over.
“I thought it might be,” Wlozek muttered. As he turned away, he betrayed the slightest hint of a cruel, triumphant smile. He was not an educated man, at least not in the sense that I was, and he took every chance to put me in my place.
He was right, though. I had taken care of that. I’d been on call in the ER for a day and a night. There’d been almost nothing to do — most of the hospital’s customers got patched up by the general service mechs without ever seeing a physician. From time to time I glanced up from my research journals to check operations on the monitors. At one point I recognized a name, a man who’d been treated many times for lung damage caused by chronic abuse of cheap inhalants. But that time the frustration got to me and I punched the button that overrode the medibot’s diagnosis and sent the patient to me.
When the chair wheeled him into my exam room, the man was red-faced and gasping for air. He looked desperate, and for that moment I was glad to see it. That one pathetic individual represented all the losers that had squandered the gift of perfect health. The more we could repair, the more they were willing to destroy. I’d asked that man what he thought would happen if no one came to his rescue, and then I just sat there and watched him panic. I’d only let it go on for a minute, just to teach the man a lesson before letting the mechs fix him up. But he had filed a big, messy complaint. The hospital’s owners had sided with him — apparently they regarded the man as a good customer. They’d labeled me “psychologically unfit” and stripped me of my medical license as a warning to others. I could never work as a legitimate physician again.
On the screen, there was a brief hiatus in the entertainment. The relative quiet was shattered by a flash concussion that blew the doors off an oversized entry. An enormous man carrying a crescent axe stepped out of the smoke, a black hood covering his face. The emcee, now standing in a spotlight in the middle of the ring, pointed to him. “And now,” he proclaimed, pausing every few syllables for the echoes to die, “making a special appearance tonight…none other than…the Headsman!”
A grinding bass chord thrummed ominously as clips from The Headsman’s now famous fight were holographically displayed four times actual size in the smoke-filled space above the ring.
The Wall had come to enough to hear the emcee and struggled up from the operating rig to see The Headsman, the surgical spiders whining in protest. “Shit! What I miss?” He smacked me aside with an open hand, propelling me backward against a metal locker. “Sorry,” he said distractedly, eyes fixed on the screen. He could crush an arm with that hand without noticing it.
I rubbed at the back of my head and said, “It’s okay, no harm done.” But The Wall didn’t hear me. He was enthralled by The Headsman.
A new trick had appeared in the arena. Some fighters were having the bones and tissue in their arms tailored so they would break away leaving sharp, serrated blades. The amputation was repaired after the contest. Because they were natural bone and the fighter had to lose a hand and much of the arm tissue before it could be used, the mod had skirted the rules against nonsomatic weaponry — so far. I’m all for innovation. It’s the use they put it to that bothered me. The champion of this technique had taken to killing his opponents by beheading them, a practice that had rocketed him to the top of the popularity charts and earned him his gruesome sobriquet. In its increasing remoteness, death had become a novelty.
The hologram showed a seemingly well-matched fight grow progressively bloodier. With his right hand already crushed and useless, The Headsman let out an animal scream, probably meant to trigger a massive endorphin release, and yanked back on the hand. The tissue over the arm split and pulled off the modified bone like a sheath from a glistening white sword. Enraged, he charged, swinging the blade. His opponent tried to block but instead lost the upheld hand at the wrist. He could have surrendered by dropping to the mat or by yelling a signal, but he charged right back. The next segment was shown in graphic stroboscopic stills of the actual decapitation.
The holo vanished revealing The Headsman in a display stance in the center of the ring.
“You’ve all seen it,” the emcee exclaimed, continuing the promo. “Now The Headsman is asking for a new challenger. Is there anyone who dares to meet him in the ring?”
The three of us had watched silently as these events unfolded. Finally it was The Wall that broke the spell. “I want to fight him,” he said, his deep bass voice rumbling in his cavernous chest.
Wlozek screwed up his rubbery face. “You don’t need that. Don’t you see that no serious fighters go up against him? They just throw him meat for the kill. You want to get torn up, just for some cheap publicity?”
“No. You don’t understand.” The Wall turned ponderously to face Wlozek. “I want to beat him. Someone’s got to take him down. I want it to be me.”
“The only way you’ll ever beat that guy is to survive having your head cut off. You think you can do that?” Wlozek said as though talking to a child.
In lieu of words, The Wall now looked at me, his small eyes dark under his reinforced brow.
“You’re crazy!” I told him. “The head can’t survive without the body. The brain would die in seconds of oxygen starvation. The drop in blood pressure alone would cause irreparable damage. It’s impossible! Unless…”
I left without saying another word. Yes, I was a meat mechanic. But at least there was still some room for innovation.
By morning, I’d convinced myself that it could be done and had the code to prove it on a wafer in my pocket. When I spilled the plan, Wlozek was delighted, and this raised a red flag in the back of my mind. He’d sell out The Wall, me, and his own soul for a good profit margin. What was I doing? I glowered at him and told him the decision was between The Wall and me. He just grinned like he already knew. He probably did.
As The Wall listened to me, I explained the implants I’d be installing in his body as best I could, emphasizing the fact that the procedures could not be tested, that he could die. As quick as they were in the ring, large fighters often came across as slow-witted, but I knew better. He said he didn’t care as long as he had a chance to beat The Headsman, and I believed him. He was right. I too wanted to stop the killing, and this was how to do it. Strange that it had taken The Wall to show me the way.
The realization that I’d be starting the procedure that night brought a spike of excitement that made me think again. I remembered Wlozek’s condescending grin and wondered, just for a moment, how much my own desire to work was driving my decision. The Wall caught my hesitation and told me he’d fight The Headsman without my help. So that was that. At least this way he’d have a chance. Wlozek logged the challenge and acceptance came back a minute later.
One of the advantages of modern medicine was the ability to disassemble bacteria — I could operate in a sewer if I wanted, which was good because the rented med pit wasn’t much cleaner. The read-out on the oversized support rig showed that The Wall was unconscious. I ran the program.
The larger instrument arms of the medibots danced over the fighter’s head and neck like a gang of giant, chrome-footed spiders, while the surging mass of microbots infiltrated the incisions that ringed his thick neck and dissociated into nanobots. I watched through the night as the elaborate safeguards were installed in the subtly expanded cranium, from time to time intervening to tweak the process. For the first time since leaving the med center, I felt the satisfaction that came from applying my talents fully.
Two days later I set up the extra equipment in the med pit and took my place next to the ring to watch the inevitable unfold.
The Headsman’s challenge match had packed the arena to capacity. Once the usual theatrics were played out, the fighters took their places and waited for the truck-horn blare of the starting signal.
Right from the beginning, The Wall was the aggressor, charging The Headsman and knocking him to the mat in the first seconds of the bout. He held nothing back. The Headsman threw him off and attacked with nearly equal ferocity, but I could see that he was caught off guard by the initial intensity of the attack. There was no testing of the opponent, no gradual building of conflict. If nothing else it was poor showmanship.
The Headsman quickly adjusted to the pace, though, and the two exchanged brutal blows for longer than I thought either of them could take it. The heavy bars vibrated audibly as the bodies of the fighters rebounded from the sides of the ring. Both grew bloodier, but The Wall alone did not seem to tire or flinch from his injuries.
The Headsman, now betraying a limp, gauged the crowd for the right moment and precisely smashed his own arm against a corner pillar to start the main break. The Wall saw him do this and stood back, pretending to rest but really giving him a chance to complete the maneuver. The Headsman grabbed his limp and useless hand with the other, bent it back against the forearm, and bit through the skin and muscle to sever it. I noticed with professional admiration that whoever had worked on him had the foresight to provide scissoring canines for the job. At the sight of the glistening blade, finally free, a calm born of deep resolve came over The Wall. He leapt directly at The Headsman, seemingly to deliver a full body slam to his already gory opponent, in reality running into the arms of death, if only temporarily.
The Headsman caught him and spun him away. In a practiced move he thrust the serrated bone edge deeply into The Wall’s throat, continuing the cut circumferentially. The Headsman pulled with all the gargantuan strength in his intact arm. I wondered if anyone would notice that there wasn’t nearly enough blood spurting from the wound. With an audible pop, the modified vertebrae and tissue separated as designed, I hoped not too easily. He let the head roll free into the middle of the ring and began his victory parade around it, holding his crimson stub high.
Wlozek pulled the referee aside to speak to him and the startled man stretched his hands over his head and waved the crowd to relative quiet. He announced that The Wall’s team had not admitted defeat, but had called a medical time-out. A rumble of disbelief washed up from the stands. The Headsman laughed and retreated to his own med pit.
Being severed from the body had triggered a series of protective processes in the head. All blood vessels had sealed over immediately and constricted to maintain blood pressure. Valves had closed to retain spinal fluid. Throughout the brain, tiny chemical scrubbers started absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen while embedded heat pumps cooled the head to near freezing, an expedient that thankfully removed any chance of The Wall remaining conscious.
The blood-gas scrubbers were only good for about three minutes, so I scooped up the head as quickly as I could and got it to the support table below. The artificial blood lines snaked out and socketed themselves into the ports I’d installed on the major veins and arteries, and within ninety seconds the readout showed the applicable vitals near normal. The body had been brought in and hooked to its own support unit. Mechs swarmed over both gaping wounds like silver army ants.
Up top, forty-five minutes had passed and the referee was asking for an admission of defeat. Wlozek asked for another five and was told that was all we’d get. It was enough. The brain temperature was rising toward normal. When The Wall’s eyes blinked open, there was no fear, no relief at cheating death, not even gratitude for his doctor, just the triumph of what he knew had just happened. He stood, unsteady for only a moment, then walked forward in determined, firmly planted strides.
The Headsman was still in his pit, the arm not finished yet — no one had thought he would need it again that night. When he heard the ref call to him, asking if each team was ready for another round, he shook the mechs and attendants off of his arm and emerged, only to find The Wall glowering at him from the center of the ring, a pink seam of patched flesh girdling his neck. The Headsman stared dumbfounded and staggered backward into his med pit. The ref conferred briefly with the Headsman’s manager and announced The Wall the winner. The crowd was frenzied.
Back in our rooms, Wlozek was ecstatic, pounding me on the back in congratulations for what I had done. The Wall would be the new star now. He’d come back from the dead — right in front of their eyes. But then the manager asked, “So how long before he can do it again?”
“Again?” I asked incredulously, looking up at the man as if he were mad.
“Of course,” he said and laughed at my naivete. “Look, what you did was great, and it’ll hold the public for a while, but the challengers will come. They’ll have to. And we want them to. That’s how we make it big, ya see. When the take starts to drop, that’s when we let someone try to kill him again. Besides, others will try the same trick now that they’ve seen it. You’ll have to come up with something better.”
“Better than surviving decapitation?” But I saw in his eyes that it was useless to argue. This was nothing but a trick to him. My work here was finished.
An hour into the victory celebration, Wlozek dodged through the throng of well-wishers and handed me a slip of paper. He frowned at the look on my face, pointed to the paper, winked, and returned to the party. It was a printout of my cut of the receipts; the money had already been credited to my account.
I glanced at the figure, turned over the slip, and wrote my resignation on the back. On my way out I stuffed it into Wlozek’s front jacket pocket.
I wandered up and down the west coast of the North American Alliance. The money was enough to live on for over a year and I extended it by finding work where I could. I tried my hand at various non-medical jobs, mostly programming industrial mechs, but nothing had worked out. My skills were more than adequate, but my apathy always won out in the end and I either left or was fired.
I couldn’t go back to the Fight world; my touch had poisoned it. Right after I was booted out of legit medicine it looked like a godsend: a way to keep working and an opportunity to make a dangerous sport safer. Looking back now, I saw that everything I’d done had just engendered more of the self-destructiveness that had repelled me to begin with. And yet I still felt the calling. I couldn’t rule out medical work. Maybe someday I’d find a way to heal people again.
I’d read that there used to be a vow physicians took. The first principle was to do no harm. I could see why it had been dropped. We sought to ease pain. But without pain, what is there to keep us from harming ourselves?
I drove south and soon found myself heading into Baja California. The beaches that rimmed the undulating coast gradually gave way to mountains and coves, dotted with resort towns. The road wound through a pass, emerging close by the sparkling ocean. A Latino boy was frantically waving down every car that passed. I pulled over and he grabbed at my window as it lowered, shouting something about taking someone to the hospital in town.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“He’s hurt! Miguel, he hurt his neck! There!” he shouted breathlessly, pointing to a group of boys huddled near the crashing waves at the base of a rocky hillside.
I parked and got out, instinctively grabbing my back-pack. The boy pulled me by the arm, yelling, “Come quick. He does not breath.” I started to run across the hot sand, my shoes weighing me down so I moved as if in a dream.
When I got there I saw that most of them were older than the child who’d stopped me. Then I realized that they were cliff divers. I told them I was a doctor and they all stepped back from a young man lying in the sand. It was immediately obvious that his neck was broken, badly. It happens if you hit the water wrong.
All they had was a standard first-aid mech, inadequate for this type of injury. It had unfurled itself and was bent over the prone man, weaving an immobilizing armature between his head and shoulders, but that would do no good if the spinal cord was crushed. Only a single probe had been inserted into his neck. I had to break the packing seal on the interface panel — they’d never even used it before. The readout verified my diagnosis and showed that the unit was struggling to stabilize him, and losing. I hurriedly got a data wafer out of my pack, jacked it into the memory port on the unit, and downloaded my routine library.
Rather than wait for the unit to decide what to do, I entered commands manually. New probes plunged into the awkward lump in the man’s neck. He went into cardiac arrest, and I set up a temporary pacemaker. While the injected nanobots rebuilt bone and spliced thousands of broken nerves, the reprogrammed armature maneuvered the displaced cervical vertebrae back into place. I relaxed as I saw he would make it. There wouldn’t even be any paralysis. As I breathed in the fishy tang from the crashing surf, I purposefully did not think of what would have happened if I’d just driven on.
They all cheered when Miguel sat up, and I welcomed an old rush of satisfaction. They said they could use a doc but couldn’t pay much. I told them about the license problem; they just shrugged it off. As they stood there waiting, hopefully, needfully, I both feared and longed to practice my art again.
Without committing, I told them I didn’t have a place to stay. They offered a small cabana right on the beach; nothing to do but be there, just in case. I was tired of being on the move. And the money was getting low. These were the rational reasons that covered the real one: I needed to do this. But still no conscious decision would come.
A long breath later, the answer just came out. I took the offer, but as I unlocked the door to the cabana, I looked up at the glistening brown bodies that waited their turn on the diving platform built high on the rock wall and saw how much higher the cliff rose above them. The word that there was a real doctor here again would already be spreading, untying the bonds of caution.