(Given the slim chances of getting a novel published by a mainstream publisher these days, I thought I’d update Jed Berman’s status here (he of Berman’s Lament and The Manhattan Project). Having created him, I just can’t let him go 🙂 Herewith, the opening of Mind Absent. In this day of crowdsourcing everything, I welcome comments and reactions.)
Chapter One: October 20, 2024
At precisely 6:30 A.M., Operating Room 100’s inner airlock hissed open and the surgeon known around United Maine Medical Center as Dr. Bob glided in. The last few drops of sterile insta-glove solution he’d applied to his hands on his way in dripped onto the glistening, white tile floor with a soft plop. Dr. Bob looked neither left nor right as he passed from the shadows inside the doorway to the brilliantly lit operating table in the center of the room. He stopped at the edge of the table, where Nurse Gladys, his customary assistant in O.R. 100, was prepping the patient.
Dr. Bob’s head pivoted to the right as Nurse Gladys reached up and pulled the anesthesia mask down to the patient’s face. The 34 year old mother of two lay motionless, eyes closed, arms by her sides, as she inhaled the anesthesia. In ten seconds, her heart rate dropped from 72 to 60; her respiration was slow and steady. Dr. Bob stood silently; Nurse Gladys worked without speaking. They never conversed during surgery. The only sound in the room was a faint whirring as Nurse Gladys raised and lowered her slender arms to deploy the equipment.
On the dark, far side of the room, two other surgeons sat side-by-side behind surgical consoles. Dr. Harold Brown the Third and Dr. Tina May Richwine noted Dr. Bob’s arrival, precisely on time as usual, but said nothing. They were both focused on getting this routine case over with so they could gear up for what came next. The woman on the table now was just an ordinary National Health Service patient, whose bill would be paid by the government, minus an insignificant co-pay from her.
Brown and Richwine, like many of the docs, nursed a certain resentment toward the NHS for forcing them to perform these mundane procedures in exchange for experimental research funding. The two surgeons, both in their mid-forties, remembered the good old days when doctors dictated their own fees for expert services. Now, the system set surgical rates, much to the chagrin of Doctors Richwine and Brown. The AMA and their Republican friends had fought hard against creation of the single-payer NHS, even more strenuously than they had Obama’s Affordable Care Act back in 2010, but Brown and Richwine thought they’d caved in too soon and agreed to surgical rates that were too low. Even though the deal included the research money, the two surgeons felt ripped off every time they did one of these boring operations.
Less than an hour from now, they’d be in far better spirits. They’d be spending that hard-won research money as they took another whack at a dramatic new procedure that, if they succeeded, would catapult them into the top ranks of surgeons in Maine and the world. They’d already made the journals for their partial procedures on the first twenty subjects. With each trial, they had refined the process and felt ready to go for the gold on TRANS 21. They’d come close, but no cigar. With a little tweaking of the program, they fervently believed today would be different.
Richwine and Brown had both grown up fascinated by what surgeons could do. By chance they entered med school the same year, and quickly realized their common interest in advancing the frontiers of surgical procedures. Endless, exhausting hours assisting each other in the O.R. had melded them into surgical soul mates. They were so compatible that it came as no surprise to them that their intense professional labors had engendered a sexual affinity, despite the fact that they both had spouses. They thoroughly enjoyed sitting together at the computer consoles, making good things happen, and occasionally celebrated research triumphs with cheap champagne and a post-op romp in an unoccupied room on the X-ward.
Thinking about their past play times aroused them this morning, as they sat, shoulders rubbing, in the glow of their computer screens. They made no effort to suppress their desires. They had discovered that their surgical insights, as well as their sexual trysts, were enhanced if they turned each other on with a bit of discreet digital foreplay as the cutters sliced away across the room. Not that it would have made any difference to them if Dr. Bob or Nurse Gladys saw them getting it on right here.
At 6:35, as Dr. Brown sent Dr. Richwine an online ad for sex toys, Dr. Bob chirped repeatedly, the sound reminiscent of a home smoke detector. At the same time, a small red light started blinking on his cylindrical, silver back.
“Oh, shit,” the two surgeons uttered in unison, as the noise roused them from their libidinous preoccupations. The signals meant Dr. Bob had completed his scan of the surgical field, where Nurse Gladys had swabbed iodine on a walnut-sized lump protruding under the skin, and was ready to begin. Dr. Brown had overseen the biopsy identifying the growth as malignant, but Dr. Richwine had programmed Dr. Bob for the excision. Protocol dictated that only the programmer could give the robot the command to proceed.
Dr. Richwine quickly split her screen and pulled up the surgical information alongside the nude selfie she’d taken last night, intending to titillate Dr. Brown this morning. She tapped the activate button. Dr. Bob’s red light turned green and he slowly raised his pencil-thin, carbon-fiber left arm. Dr. Richwine watched closely as Nurse Gladys deftly inserted a scalpel into the socket at the end of the robot’s stainless steel index finger. No high-tech laser surgery for this kind of patient, just the old-fashioned slice-and-dice. As the knife clicked into place, light from above the table bounced off its polished surface and danced on the wall behind the researchers. Tool in hand, Dr. Bob rotated his round torso to the right and lowered the scalpel toward the young mother’s neck.
At 6:40, two orderlies, one roughly six feet tall and young, the other just barely five feet tall and considerably older, both wearing gray scrubs with X-Ward embroidered on their shirt pockets, plodded down the dimly lit Experimental Ward corridor, pushing a gurney. They stopped outside Room X50, halfway down the 100-room-long hallway. They double-checked the ID on the gurney’s monitor against the smaller screen outside Room X50. Both read: Room X50-J. Berman-TRANS-22. Additional data on the gurney screen explained why these men had been sent to this room this morning: Op. Date: 10-20-2024 (7:30 a.m. EST).