Cross Purposes

 

CROSS PURPOSES

Dr. Robert Marshall gazed intently at the computer screen that drew its life from a Magnetic Resonance Imager centered in the hospital laboratory. As he worked, his attention alternated between the screen and three people, two who watched in anxious silence and a third who lay quietly in the great machine’s maw, oblivious of the whole exercise.  Marshall’s forehead wrinkled deeply as he studied the computer-generated image of a tiny, incomplete skull that rotated eerily in the screen’s center.  What to do?  Inspiration, at that moment, eluded him and he finally rocked back in his chair in frustration.

“I just don’t know,” he muttered as he pushed his fingers up under his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“Can’t you do anything?”  Craig Sanders pleaded as he clenched his wife’s hand.  “Anything at all to save her?”

Marshall dropped his hands heavily into his lap, took a deep breath and let it out slowly through his nose.  “I can’t say.  There is so much missing.”  He studied the two anxious faces then turned back to the screen and slowly chewed his bottom lip as he studied the horrible birth defect again with no further inspiration.  He finally gave up and pushed away from the console.  His chair rolled noiselessly back and stopped after a couple of feet.  After a long minute he stood and went over to the table where tiny and frail Rachelle Sanders lay, slowly dying.  He looked down at her as the weight of his profession bore down on him.  A tiny lock of soft brown hair lay across what there was of her small forehead.  He reached out and carefully tucked it back up into the fluff of hair that disguised the void that was leaching away her precious and new life.  Even with her misshapen head she was beautiful.  A lump formed in his throat and he fought back a tear.  He had been through heartache like this before with other families.  Why was this case hitting him so hard?  His stomach hurt as badly as his head.  I’m going to hang it up after this one, he thought.  Retire while I still have some insides left. 

Standing with his hands resting on the table’s shiny chrome rail Marshall drummed his fingers softly as he thought.  He knew from experience what had to be done or rather what had been done in the past.  He was sure it could not be done this time.  The defect was too massive.

The MRI’s low hum, coupled with a mildly pungent odor of warm electronics and disinfectant, did nothing to ease the gloomy tension that hung from every fixture as Marshall thought.  As he stood weighing the odds of success, he became aware that he was drumming his fingers in time with his own heart. It didn’t matter that he was only forty-five.  It was time to retire.  He shook his head imperceptibly, accepted his fate, and turned to present his conclusions.  “In the past,” he began carefully, “we’ve had some success repairing voids in patients’ skulls by using compatible bone material, usually from their own pelvis.”  He walked back to his chair as he spoke.  “Under less severe circumstances I’d consider the possibility. But Rachelle’s so tiny- so weak, and she doesn’t have nearly enough bone mass in her pelvis.”  He looked at Cheri.  She was weeping again.  The lump in his throat grew bigger.  “I don’t think her system could handle the strain.  I’m sorry.”  He glanced back over to the small incubator.  “Even if she lived she would almost certainly have some degree of brain damage- and difficulty walking.  I’m very reluctant to try.”

“But you’re the expert!”  Cheri blurted with tears streaming down her cheeks.  “You’ve performed such operations.”

“On older patients, Mrs. Sanders, patients with much, much less bone missing.  And Rachelle is only two weeks old.  I can’t risk….” He stopped in mid-sentence and looked down at his exquisitely trained hands.  The Sanders’ had sold virtually everything they owned to solicit his services.  He had never seen such desperate devotion. Even if he succeeded, which he seriously doubted, they would have nothing- nothing but their child.

Looking into their faces again, his resolve melted and his shoulders sagged.  “I can try,” he said softly. He sat in silence for a moment then added,  “I have seen patients pull through.  Seen bone grow when all the odds were against it.  Miracles, if there are such things, do happen from time to time.  Perhaps…” He ran out of words and ended by shrugging his shoulders.

“Then you’ll do it?”  Craig pressed.

“If that’s what you want.  The final decision is yours.”

Craig nodded slowly. “Could we… uh… be alone for a minute?  Is there someplace we can talk in private?”

Marshall nodded solemnly and led the distraught couple to a small room that was set aside for just such gut-wrenching conversations. As he closed the door quietly he overheard Cheri Sanders burst into tears again.  His heart, though hardened by years of dealing with such things, ached like it never had. “Life can be so cruel,” he whispered.  “So very cruel.”

It was cruel.  Times like this made Marshall regret his chosen profession and wish that he had followed his brother into the Navy.  He plodded back to his chair and sat heavily.  “What have I committed to?” He mumbled to himself, angry that he had given into the futile procedure, that he let his emotions get the better of him.  “She will die in the attempt. Guaranteed,” he muttered.  “No.  This is silly.”  He stood abruptly to go and tell the Sanders’ that it was impossible, but stopped himself, sighed, and sat back down.  I am a surgeon, he thought crossly.  I must try.  But if I know from the beginning that she will die, am I, in a sense, committing murder?

As he sat drumming his fingers, tormented by the internal conflict between the Hippocratic Oath and his sure knowledge that Rachelle Sanders would die under his scalpel, he became aware of another hum apart from the familiar noise of the MRI- a low, growing murmur and a feeling of static electricity creeping into the room.  The metal fixtures began to glow with an iridescent violet hue.  He tried to move but found that he could not.  Some unseen force had invaded the lab and had bound his every muscle.

Suddenly the room ignited in a heat-less inferno of light and unfelt electrical bolts that coalesced into a blue-orange transparent hemisphere in which four beings formed along with several large green cubes.  The hemisphere expanded until it engulfed most of the MRI lab within its shell.  For a brief moment Marshall thought he was about to die.  A curious and fleeting thought passed through his mind that if he did die, he wouldn’t have to worry about killing the baby.  The absurdity of the notion caused it to evaporate almost as quickly as it formed.

The beings continued to gel until Marshall could see that they were human.  The tallest of them stepped forward as soon as he was able, wearing a concerned and surprised face.

“Ww… what’s h… happening?”  Marshall stammered with supreme effort.  “Who… who are you?”

“I am Dr. Allen Thomak. And you are…?” The tall human replied with a hint of a New England accent.

Marshall looked over his captor fearfully and gasped out, “I… I’m Doctor M… Marshall.  Wha’ d..do you… want?”

Thomak smiled tentatively.  “Yes, Doctor Thomas Marshall.” He bowed slightly and said, “you will breathe much easier and be more comfortable if you relax and don’t fight the restrainers.” He looked at Marshall with reverence and then turned around to the others in the sphere.  They looked at Marshall with the same looks of awe.

Their expressions perplexed Marshal as he forced himself to relax, eventually feeling better.  The restrainer field relaxed in direct proportion to Marshall’s efforts and seemed to cradle him when he was submissive, but became as tight as a Boa Constrictor when he fought it.  “What do you want?”

“Well, Dr. Marshall, you are a bit of a surprise,” Thomak said as soon as Marshall had settled down.  “We did not expect you to be in the room.  But here you are.  As for what we want?   I can tell you this much.  Ninety-five years from now a strain of the HIV virus will bond with a mercury ion and produce a hybrid more vicious than anything the world has ever known- MHIV.  It will ravage every living thing on the planet.  This baby will find the cure.”  He walked over to the MRI table and looked down and shook his head.  “Unfortunately, six months ago, your time, an infinitely small rift in the time fabric reared its head and caused this singular defect.  Our time technicians detected it and we came to rectify it.”

“What are you going to do?” Marshall asked carefully, trying not to activate the restrainers.

Thomak smiled again and touched a button on the top of the nearest cube.  It opened noiselessly and a tiny pure white dish-shaped object rose from it and hovered in the air.  He shoved his hands into two holes that appeared in the cube’s side and pulled them back covered with a thin antiseptic membrane.  He, then, reached out and pulled the dish from the suspensor field.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“What is it?” Marshall asked and then realized what it was.  “No! That’s…”

“The baby’s new skullcap.”

“New skullcap?  You cannot…” Marshall blurted only to be wrenched into silence by the restrainers.

Thomak turned to the surgery aide nearest him.  “Ready?”  The man nodded and began preparations.  Others of the surgical team moved forward and set to work.

“No!” Marshall barked.  “Help! Someone!” The second the words left his mouth the restrainers reacted again with such force that the air gushed from his lungs and he nearly fainted.  He looked at the door praying that someone had heard.  No one came.

“The transport cell repels all sound back inside,” Thomak explained as Marshall looked longingly at the closed door.  “It will do no good to call for help.  Please believe me.  We are here to heal Rachelle.”  He picked up a laser scalpel and examined the tool, then looked Marshall squarely in the eyes.  ”You must never talk about what you’ve seen here.  Never.  You could ruin everything if it has not already happened.”  With that he set to work.

While Marshall watched, Thomak balanced the skullcap on the tips of his agile fingers and carefully examined it.  “You’re absolutely sure about this material?”  He asked the aide closest to him in a low voice.  “We had to throw this whole thing together far too quickly.”

“Yes,” the man said abruptly.  Thomak shot him a testy look and he immediately dropped his voice to a harsh whisper.  “I told you the proto-bone was processed from material from a whale caught off the Siberian coastline.  There is no possible way it will ever come in contact with itself.  The time techs said she stayed in the south almost her entire life and never went to Siberia, Alaska or anyplace else up there.  She will never get close enough to generate an attraction. As she grows the proto-bone will blend into her natural bone structure and grow with her, shedding atoms one by one until they are all dissipated in the continuum.”

Thomak shuddered.  “I certainly hope so.  If this doesn’t work, we will be obliterat….”

“We won’t,” the man interrupted.  “The techs are sure.”

“Just like they were sure we would be alone here in the room?”  Thomak muttered as he glanced at Marshall.

The man bristled.  “There is no such thing as one hundred percent accuracy in time tracking.  You know that.”

“Marshall’s life is probably ruined already by just being here.”

“Perhaps,” the aide said.  “But there is nothing we can do about it now.”

Thomak shook his head sadly and then shifted his attention to the exquisitely formed, deadly piece of bone matter.  It was so small, so innocent looking yet if, by some wild and insane chance, any part of it, even a single atom met itself in the past the resulting cataclysm would be too horrifying to contemplate.  The entire future as he knew it would vanish and him with it.  His stomach turned.  “Well, we must have been successful or we wouldn’t be here right now, would we?”

The aide shrugged.  “Who knows?  But we need to hurry.”

Thomak nodded and the aide touched the top of another cube.  It unfolded into a small surgery table.  Thomak placed the skullcap back in the suspensor field and then carefully picked up Rachelle Sanders and set her on the cushioned top.  The moment her small body touched the surface she went completely limp and a pale yellow sterilizing field canopied her.  Other aides quickly secured her tiny head in a special harness to keep it absolutely still.

“P… please stop,” Marshall pleaded as he watched as Thomak opened Rachelle’s scalp in a quick and deft series of movements, exposing the delicate brain underneath.  He fought with all his might to free himself from his invisible bonds with no success.  “You can’t put whale bone in that baby’s head,” he groaned as he struggled against the restraint. “It will kill her.”

Thomak merely smiled and continued working.

Marshall tried to cry out again in a futile attempt to get the Sanders’ or anyone to come back into the room but couldn’t and was forced to sit in horror and watch.  After a few moments, however, it became clear that Thomak and his team were a surgical team unlike any Marshall had ever seen. The speed and precision at which they moved was boggling.  He looked on in fascination, suddenly longing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomak and observe. Thomak glanced over, saw Marshall’s yearning eyes and then leaned over and muttered something to one of the aides.  The aide gave him a curious look, shook her head and then went over and released Marshall from his chair.

“Doctor, if you would like to observe?” Thomak said as he gestured to a place near the table for Marshall to stand. Marshall stood tentatively and then moved up to the table where he could see everything.  As Thomak worked he spoke out loud, describing everything he did, ending with, “and it was you who pioneered these techniques.”  He looked up at the others.  “And now we all know where he got the information, don’t we?”

 

The operation lasted just under four hours, but thanks to time compression only five minutes passed outside the cell.  Thomak finally leaned forward and watched closely as the incisions rapidly knit back together until they disappeared.  The suture cement had done its job well and in a matter of seconds all traces of the operation were gone.  It was as if it had never happened.  Satisfied, he stood erect, rubbed his stiff neck and turned to Marshall.  “She is fine now.”  He smiled one last time and then placed Rachelle back on the MRI table.  That done, he turned back to Marshall. “You must tell no one what just happened.  It could destroy us all.”

“But what about what I just learned?” Marshall blurted.

Thomak smiled as the transport cell reformed around his team and him. “Use it well,” he replied and vanished in a crackly hiss.

Marshall stood in complete shock next to the MRI table. He bent over and cautiously felt the tiny head, finally rushing back to the MRI to rescan her.  Everything was normal.  He sat slack-jawed as he stared at the screen.  Unwilling to believe his eyes, he went back over and examined her again.  Finally he sat and dropped his hands helplessly into his lap while muttering over and over, “miracles do happen.  Miracles do happen.”

Little Rachelle rolled her head to one side and let out a lusty howl.  The outcry brought the Sanders’ bolting back into the lab.  Finding Marshall seated at the console with a bewildered look, they feared the worst.  Thirty seconds later, however, they stood staring down at the infant, completely bewildered.  “What happened?” Craig asked, not knowing what else to say.

Marshall looked up at the confused father and said simply, “a miracle.  Take your baby home, Mr. Sanders.  She has been healed.”

 

News of the miracle spread through the hospital and the world like a wildfire. Marshall never revealed what really happened, which only fed the stories and brought the desperate clamoring to him for their own miracles.  And although he was able to do great things using what he had learned from Thomak, in the end the fame destroyed him and he left mortality a lonely and bitter man with only young Doctor Rachelle Sanders by his side as he breathed his last.  In a final effort he told her about Thomak.  She sat gently stroking his forehead as she dismissed his last words as the mindless prattling of a delirious man.

Seventy years later she joined him in death, but unlike his meager funeral, hers was huge- almost a tasteless media event.  People from all corners of the globe walked by her open casket, each giving thanks to the greatest biochemist the world had ever known.  A large statue of Marshall, wearing a benevolent smile, even stood behind the casket with open arms that gaudily gestured down as if to say ‘come see what I did’.

As people stood in line to pay their last respects they would glance up at Marshall’s twelve-foot tall statue and talk reverently of the Sanders Miracle, as it came to be known. Somewhere in the middle of the throng a short Eskimo woman stepped forward and placed a small bone medallion beside the casket.

“What’s that?”  One of the casket attendants asked suspiciously.

The woman backed away.  “I mean no harm,” she said in broken English.  “Is from my children.  She saved them.”

The attendant softened.  “Where are you from?”

            “Siberia,” the woman said anxiously then pushed her way back into the crowd.  The attendant watched her disappear and then reached out and picked up the tiny white whale-shaped item.  Her honesty touched him.  He had children of his own who would all be dead now if it wasn’t for the woman he stood watch over.  His throat tightened as he contemplated the sacrifice the obviously compromised woman must have made to deliver her children’s token of appreciation.  In a way, the medallion represented all children.   The thought came to him that the medallion was, indeed, the ultimate token of appreciation, and in an action unforeseen by the time techs the attendant gently placed it inside the casket- exactly three inches above Rachelle’s head, nestled in the casket liner’s deep burgundy cloth.

Rachelle Sanders was laid to rest a few days later.  Over time, the rotting liner allowed the medallion to slide down until it came in contact with Rachelle’s skull.  A single atom, the last remaining particle of the Miracle, suddenly danced wildly and then shot out at light speed and found itself in the medallion, creating a cataclysmic paradox. In the resulting violent and irreversible implosion, time aborted and reverted back, taking with it the last ninety-eight years and Thomak.

 

*  *  *

Marshall nodded solemnly and led the distraught couple to a small room that was set aside for just such gut-wrenching conversations. As he closed the door quietly he overheard Cheri Sanders burst into tears again.  His heart, though hardened by years of dealing with such things, ached like it never had. “Life can be so cruel,” he whispered.  “So very cruel.”

END