On Call

Random day #2! Whoo hoo! Happy Thursday.

This is a story I actually submitted to… hrm. Many, many magazines, back in the late nineties. Most were simply uninterested. One, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, was interested — or so the rejection letter claimed — but they’d bought a story with almost the same premise less than three weeks before. (A story I now assume was written by Mike Resnick, as I’ve seen reference to a story of his from that era that sounds a lot like this one.)

I’ve thought about updating it (and correcting a few dumb medical errors) and resubmitting it places, but meh.

Technically, this would be a Justice Wing story, though it’s as much Superguy as anything else.

Enjoy “On Call.”

*** *** *** ***

On Call

I get in around quarter to eight – punctuality is important, no matter what people say about doctor’s offices. Especially with my specialty, though specialty is almost not the word. I’m a medical jack-of-all-trades out of sheer necessity. There just aren’t that many of me out there, and every day there are more and more of them.

My eight a.m. appointment was there where I got in – but then, he was hardly the sort to be late. By the time I walked in my door in the hospital he was already impatiently pacing from one side of the room to the other, back and forth, three times a second as regularly as a metronome.

“Been waiting long?” I asked cheerfully as I looked for a good break in the bluish wall-like blur to make it to the other side of my waiting room. Carol and Ann were sitting behind the counter – oh, that was right, Ann was starting today – trying to get the day started.

“Oh, hi Doctor Lance,” the Dash said, half-skidding to a stop and straining my wear resistant carpet far beyond the stress tests of conventional carpet engineering. I’d given up on shag carpets after eight months in practice. “Well, it’s been about eighteen minutes which I suppose isn’t all that long a time to wait but honestly it’s not quite that simple for me I mean I could have been doing things all over town and I promised Ambassador Danielson I’d meet him in Washington by noon and with traffic and all four hours is pushing it so I figured I’d see if you’d be in early today and how are you?”

Long experience with the Dash helped me resolve his frenetic speech without blinking or parsing. My referrals to speech therapists had helped him; when I first met him, one word would blur into another with hardly a by your leave and the result turned into an incomprehensible drone. “I’m fine. You’ll have to give me a few minutes to get ready. I’ve told you before – I start at eight on the dot, and not a minute before.” That might seem cruel, given how long a fifteen minute wait would be from the Dash’s frame of reference, but I had put my foot down. Global emergencies no longer registered very highly on my scale, much less impatient speedsters. I’m on call twenty-four hours a day as it is. If you give super heroes an inch they’ll wear you down faster than the Dash was threadbaring my latest carpet.

“Oh I know you do and I’d never expect you to bend on that I mean if it were me I’d grab every second of free time I possibly could of course that’s easier for me since seconds last a lot longer from where I sit you know heh heh ‘course you do all right take your time I’ll be right here.”

I nodded and walked past him, just in time for his pacing to begin again. I stepped through the door and around to the receptionist’s office. It had one large open window to the waiting room. Ann was staring at the Dash going back and forth, back and forth, trying to follow him with her eyes.

“How’s he been this time?” I asked Carol quietly. Carol’s my nurse and a top flight one. Any time she goes on vacation I have a horrible time. One of the reasons we got Ann as a Nursing Assistant would be so Carol could train some off-time help. As for me, I don’t go on many vacations.

“Same as always,” Carol half-sighed. “Just because he lives at triple speed doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t have work to do.”

“I’ll talk to him again.”

“He’s so… fast,” Ann murmured.

There wasn’t a lot I could say about that, so I didn’t. Ann was just out of school and came with good references. She was young, and blond, and looked like she played soccer in school – well muscled legs, not as developed arms. I watch musculature – it’s sort of a hobby. It comes from dealing every day with the most exaggerated anatomies known to paranormal science. I scooped up the files Carol had pulled for the day. Yellow manila folders with bright red, green and yellow tags along the side and three letters of the name my clients gave me – which was inevitably a code-name, or moniker, or nickname, or whatever they called their tags these days. It was all a little silly.

I headed back towards my office. “Have the Dash give a urine sample and check his vitals. Take Ann with you. If she’s impressed with his pacing she ought to love his blood pressure and pulse.”

“Blood tests?” Carol asked.

“Might as well. Try not to spray the wall this time.”

“Right.” Carol got up and scooped up her clipboard, walking towards the door. “Dash? If you could come this way….”

I made it into my office, shut the door, hung my windbreaker, slipped into my white lab coat, and sat down. Another full day ahead. It was a good thing I overcharged. Paranormal specialists could get away with murder. Super heroes had their own insurance program, started by a reclusive billionaire who lived in a stately mansion just outside Brooklyn City. I refused to speculate further. The program tended to be a lot more flexible and agreeable about my rates than any normal insurance company would be, and with good reason. Lots of doctors refuse to even see super heroes. Too much potential for malpractice claims, not to mention the chances of a world conqueror breaking into your office with an atom gun or some such thing.

I remember Medical School, when life was occasionally boring.

I finished going through the case files as much as I needed to, and double checking the holes in my schedule. They wouldn’t last – the Liberty Brigade had set up one of their networked teleporting stations near Broadview Medical Center specifically so affiliated heroes could ‘drop in’ from around the globe. There are days I reconsidered pediatrics.

Carol came in with Ann, both wearing the biohazard suits they put on before drawing blood from a superhuman. Too many factors most people are never exposed to there. I once had a cancer scare after handling blood whose iron gave off massive radiation.

“It was like putting a needle into a fire hose,” Ann said, half dazed. “I never thought blood could squirt like that.”

Carol half-grinned ruefully. “You’re not going to like these numbers,” she said, dropping the chart on my desk.

“I didn’t expect I would,” I said. “I saw the lab results already.”

“Send him in?”

“I suppose. Could you grab me a cup of coffee?”

“Sure, Jen.” Carol could call me Jen. She was it, for now. Ann would have a chance for working her way up. Too many heroes felt first names meant I was going to fall head over heels in love with them, and I just didn’t have time for that.

I scanned the vitals before we began. Four-eighty over two ten. That was up pretty high, all right. Resting pulse – a misnomer if ever I’d heard it – three twenty. I couldn’t ever see why this guy wore a mask – he couldn’t possibly have a secret identity worth anything.

The Dash practically appeared in front of me, heralded by a gust of wind and scuffing as he braked. There’s a sign next to my office door that reads “no marking soles on shoes,” and this is why. My linoleum costs too much to replace every three months. “So how’s it look today Doctor I have a sneaking suspicion my blood pressure’s a little up because it’s been a really tense few weeks you see I’ve been fighting against a cartel of high tech bank robbers–”

“Sit down, Dash,” I said professionally, “and we’ll talk about the latest test results.”

The Dash gulped and sat down, looking nervous. Or at least I think he did – it’s hard to tell with someone so frenetic.

“Well,” I said, “your HDL Cholesterol’s down, your LDL’s up, and your blood pressure and pulse were both up. Have you been sticking to the diet we set down?”

“Well I think I have I mean it’s hard to be sure every single second of every single day but–”

“No buts. Your blood sugar was also up. Have you been sticking to the diet, or not? If not, we need to start screening for Diabetes.”

The Dash goggled, looked down, and acted sheepish. He took care to speak more slowly now. “Well… I’ve been hitting a lot of fast food. And candy bars during fights. They’re just quick burst energy, you know, and I really need that energy sometimes when I’ve got a lot of work to do and not very much time to do it in.”

I sighed slightly. “It’s your choice,” I said, “but the Nutritionist is certain you should get enough energy from your diet.”

“Vegetables,” the Dash said, a funereal tone to his voice.

“And fruits and proteins, yes. Look – right now you’re aiming for a heart attack. And I’m sorry to be blunt about this, but nine out of ten paramedics who respond won’t have an accelerated chest compressor for CPR. Do you think any normal human can perform manual CPR fast enough to keep your heart going after a heart attack?”

“No…”

“That’s right. So if your quick bursts of energy for the short term fight are more important than your heart, by all means continue. But you’re going to kill yourself.”

“Yes, Doctor.” He sounded like a little boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Which, of course, he was.

“All right. Set up another appointment for another screening next week, and I’ll give you another prescription.” I wrote it up. “This should help reduce your blood pressure. Two after each meal on your meal plan. How many times a day are you eating on the plan, again?”

“Sixteen,” the Dash said, looking away, clearly unhappy. Well, no one likes to take a doctor’s advice.

“All right – I’ll make it out for nine hundred and sixty. No refills on this medication, so we’ll have to make sure we check this again in a month.”

“Right. Okay.”

“And stay away from high fat foods and high sugar foods. I don’t want to have to tell you that again.”

“Okaaaaay Doctor.”

I said goodbye and he blurred out. One down. He’d probably follow his diet for a day, maybe a day and a half, and next week it would be the same story except the medication would help. Super heroes never accepted heart disease as real. Maybe it seemed too mundane to them.

On a typical day, I’ll see between six and twelve different people in regular appointments, plus drop ins, phone calls, and emergencies. I don’t do a true rotation in the emergency room because I’m permanently on twenty-four hour call, as I said before. My patients and their needs are consistent: lots of little problems and concerns that they can’t go to a regular doctor for, long term therapy and recovery from injuries, and the injuries themselves. Other than scratches, they don’t usually have injuries. No, they come see me for more pressing things.

“…don’t understand,” Greywolf said, pacing back and forth anxiously. “I’m a werewolf. In the light of the full moon, I transform into the spirit of the beast. I hear the call of nature and the wild, and I must obey. I just can’t–”

“Calm down, calm down. Here’s what we can do. We’ll run a few tests, check your testosterone levels, and start you on Minoxodil therapy. In a lot of cases, it really will stimulate follicle activity–”

“In a lot of cases? In a lot of cases? Doctor Lance, have you ever heard of a werewolf with male pattern baldness? I mean, it’s not like I can get a toupee!

“I know, Greywolf, but getting upset won’t do much to help your problem. There are things we can look into, and we’ll look into them. All right?”

There was a knock on the door, which cut off Greywolf’s flustered rant. “Yes?” I asked.

Ann stuck her head in, biting her lip. “Um, I’m sorry… but… Doctor Conundrum is here early and he looks… um… very bad.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Thanks, Ann. Greywolf – why don’t you go with Ann? She’ll take some blood, both in your normal form and your wolfman form, and set up an appointment for you to come in and leave a urine sample. There might be other things at work here, and we can check for them, all right?”

Greywolf glowered, but left. I took a deep breath. The vanity of Werewolves I could cope with, long before I could cope with Doctor Conundrum’s visits.

He strode in after a few moments. The same deep purple and gold tunic and black tights, with the flared red collar and the cloak that floated over his shoulders slightly. The same black hair with the single white blaze extending back into the pony tail he always wore. The same ruby runestone around his neck, large enough to pay for my house. Similarly to the last two times he came in, he was surrounded by an emerald glow, clutched a sparkling silver flower, and looked like utter Hell.

“You forgot how to knock?” I asked. I always asked that.

“Such things are irrelevant,” he said, his voice clogged with mucous. “I have come to tell you to cease your pointless efforts.”

“Oh really?” I asked, leaning back. “And why is that? You look even worse than the last time I saw you.”

“That is the precise point.” Conundrum drew himself more erect, a look of pathetic nobility crossing his face. “I have consulted the Oracles, and cast the Rites of Diagnosis. I have drunk deep of the Amber Stream of Anodyne and worked all my arts to rid myself of this plague. And I cannot begin to affect it. It is beyond my powers, which makes it utterly incomprehensible to your mundane devices.”

“I see,” I said, pulling his chart out.

“When I traveled beyond the Veil to the Darklands, to get the Silver Lily of Selene and drive forth the Chaosbeasts, I knew I had exposed myself to the Darkling Breath of the Dragonmage. That must have polluted me. Now… all that remains is to conserve my strength, guard the Silver Lily, and find my successor, that I might train him to become the Magistrate after this has taken me.”

“Mm-hm,” I nodded, scribbling. “Go on.”

“There is nothing more to say. All my arts, all my strength, and I wish I could lie down and die now. For despite my honors and majesty, I am all too human underneath, and that humanity is ebbing away into the night, as a glass of water would slowly evapo– are you listening to me?”

“Evaporating water, human insides, wish you were dead. Got it.” I said, tearing a piece of paper off my prescription pad.

“How dare you make light of my malaise? Has your corruptive science made you so cold that even in the flush of death you mock me? And you call yourself a healer. I should think you–”

“Silver Lily of Selene, huh?”

“Eh? That is what I said. Why do you ask?”

I offered the piece of paper to Doctor Conundrum. “Well, it seems pretty heavily related to ragweed. And I’ll bet it’s been within two feet of you since you got it.”

“Of course it has. I told you, it is needed to fight the power of the Chaosbeasts! And they would do anything to destroy it! I must guard it at all times!”

“Yeah yeah, I heard. Ragweed family, which is strange since it’s a lily but who knows how they do things in the Darklands. This is an antihistamine prescription. Take it with each meal and once before you go to bed. That and Tylenol for your headaches.”

“What… are you saying? My malaise–”

“That’s a strong word. You have hayfever, Doc. You’re allergic to the Silver Lily. It’ll pass when you get rid of it. That prescription will help the symptoms.”

“But… but my spells–”

I shrugged. “I guess they only work on disease. Score one for soulless science.”

Doctor Conundrum opened his mouth, closed it, whirled and stormed out of the room.

“Settle up with Carol on the way out,” I called after him. “And no alcohol!

He didn’t answer, which was fine with me. And gloriosky, I had a sudden break in the schedule. Time enough to make it down the hall and grab coffee and a doughnut. I got up and headed out, hearing Greywolf still kvetching to Ann in the examination room. Doctor Conundrum was bent over the counter, angrily conferring with Carol over his bill. The path looked clear–

Dynamo poked her head in, dark brown hair recently washed, the red cling mask recently put on. She obviously wasn’t coming in from the field. “Doctor Lance – do you have a minute?” she asked.

On call twenty-four hours a day, I tell you. “Just barely – I’m ahead of schedule. Is this just a talk?”

Dynamo nodded.

“All right. Let’s step back into the office.” I turned and she followed. Dynamo was one of my regulars – she had an accelerated biochemistry. It made her reactions superhumanly fast, gave her strength boosts when she needed it, and made her more durable, but she got a lot of scratches and pulled muscles and the like.

“Did you know there was a comic book heroine with the last name of Lance,” she asked as we got close. She was nervous. When she was nervous about something she threw out trivia bits she thought I’d be interested in.

“Yeah,” I said. “Dinah Lance. Black Canary. Called Dinah Drake in some stories. Wombat gave me about thirty of her comic books one day.” Wombat hadn’t gotten the ‘not-a-love-interest’ message very quickly.

“Oh. Sure. Right.” she said, as she walked in. “Um… this is kind of hard to discuss, I mean, I know I’m something of a feminist icon and all….”

“Mm-hm?” I asked. Sooner or later, almost all my female patients brought up feminism. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and they’re afraid I’ll judge them, or maybe they can tell me their fears because I’m a woman and will understand. I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think any career that requires a woman to wear spandex and heavily suggests padding their costumes to ridiculous levels counts as a feminist career choice, but then I’m opinionated.

“Well… my biochemistry’s accelerated, right? Four or five times the speed of a normal person’s?”

“As near as we’ve been able to tell,” I said. “At least, as far as I can remember. Let me pull your chart.”

“No, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s just… well… everything’s a little accelerated, you know? I eat six or seven times a day, and I take catnaps all day but don’t really sleep all night….”

“Yeeeeeees?” I asked. Dynamo could ramble on a bit.

“Well… it’s just… that’s true of… um… my cycle, you know?”

“Ah…hah. You menstruate several times a month?”

Dynamo nodded, her face flaming. “It’s no big deal, I mean I’m used to it and all, but….”

“But?”

“Well… I’m close to thirty. I’d like to have children some day… but… I’m worried that my biological clock might be running a few years fast.”

I blinked. “Ah… hah. Let me grab your chart.”

“Okay.”

Turboprop had strained ligaments from his Exosuit hyperextending his legs. The technical issues I left to his engineers. I checked his recovery, and discussed his ongoing physical therapy with him.

The Veiled Knight brought his son Reg in. The boy seemed to be manifesting the spirit armor and weapons of his father, and they seemed to be contributing to a serious acne problem. We discussed medications and I wrote a prescription.

Cereboss went over his EEGs and CAT scans with me. We had been able to rule out cancer, but I didn’t like the buildup of neurotransmitters in his brain, whether it was three times the size of a normal brain or not. We checked certain irregularities and discussed other options, then scheduled some more tests.

Red Jaguar came in and we fitted him for the flea collar. He withstood the fitting with dignity, though he didn’t find the cat’s paw-shaped “Hello, My Name is Red Jaguar” cat tag the company sent as a free gift very funny. He did take it with him.

Osprey’s bruising and swelling had gone down, and his ribs were healing nicely. I mentioned the injuries didn’t look like he’d been attacked, and he rather sheepishly admitted falling down his basement stairs. I suggested he wear the flight harness while working around the house.

Timmy O’Larson came in and checked his test results. It took me a good forty five minutes to convince him his bleeding gums were gingivitis. He was not growing fangs. I referred him to a dentist, and tried once again to tell him he didn’t have any super powers and it didn’t look like he was going to be getting any. I really need to enforce that ‘no Hero’s Best Friends’ policy.

Carol stuck her head in as I was dictating Timmy’s visit. “Jen,” she said, “Ann’s beginning to look a little boggled. Tachyon came in and made an appointment, and he was showing off–”

“Like always. Right. I’ll take her down to the cafeteria. I could go for some lunch myself.”

Carol nodded with a grin. Some days, I didn’t know how she coped with the weirdness. I remember at least once she ordered Paragon – the greatest hero of our age – out of the room while we worked on the Cosmic Centurion. He had been in the way, and that’s all Carol cared about.

Ann was sitting, dazed, behind the counter in reception. “He was… so fast… and… the colors,” she said, staring straight ahead.

“Yes, the colors,” I agreed. “Come on. It’s time for you to meet cafeteria stew.”

Ann blinked, nodded and stood up. “I was beginning to wonder if you ever took a break,” she said. “It’s after two.”

“I’m getting out early today,” I said. “It’s often three or four. Carol sneaks a doughnut in every now and again and that keeps me going.”

We walked down to the cafeteria. “Three or four in the afternoon before you get lunch? That doesn’t seem right. I mean, why not just leave an hour early then?”

“You’re acting like I get out of here at five,” I said. “Try eight or nine. I haven’t even done rounds of my bed patients yet today, and I have five more appointments.”

“But… why?” she asked. “I mean… can’t some of… of them go to another doctor?”

“There are only four paranormal practitioners known today,” I said. “And two of them are strictly researchers. Doctor Olson works out of the Center for Disease Control. Doctor Paul works out of U.S.C. Doctor Dickson lives and works in Seattle, charges twice what I do, and only sees four patients a week.”

“But… that’s crazy. You make money hand over fist. Why aren’t more specializing in–”

“Oh, a bunch go into residency with each graduating class. They just never stick to it.” I picked up a bowl of the stew in the line, and walked with it back towards the cashier. “Grab me an apple and an orange juice, would you?”

“Sure,” she said, doing so. She elected to have a ham and cheese sandwich. I paid – hey, first day she should have her lunch bought – and we headed back towards the tables.

“So why don’t they stick with it?” she asked, sitting down.

I thought for a moment, while slurping stew. I left the plastic spoon in my mouth as I thought, like it were some kind of mutant pipe. “What kind of day have you had?” I asked.

“Me? It’s been fun! It’s been incredible! And kind of demanding – oh, you mean they burn out?”

“Mm. No. No they don’t.” I spooned up more stew and savored it. It tasted like it came out of a tin, but at least it was a good tin. “They weird out, more or less. The stakes get to them. I mean, strip away the stupid names and tight clothing and the bad dialogue, and what you get are legends. Heroes. It’s like all of Greek mythology being played out on our streets every day. These are people who strive over the fate of the entire world. We see that on the news every night. It’s in our magazines. Our books. It’s daunting – to see these… super humans every day is incredible. And then to see them as human too – hearing them at their worst all the time, their most whiny, sometimes their vainest…”

Ann nodded.

“So, some of them give in to the pressure. The incredible responsibility. And they can’t cope with that kind of life, so they go into something saner. Others decide – I hear this one a lot – ‘oh, they’re just another patient. They’re just like everyone else.’ But they’re not. They’re not a thing like other patients. They have problems and need solutions that are two parts jerry-rig and three parts luck at the best of times.”

“So… some people crack because they want to call them normal, and others crack because they can’t get over how incredible they are?”

“More or less.”

“But you’re different? It doesn’t bother you? Why not?”

“Well–”

My pager went off. It was a gift from the Liberty Protectorate, to replace my old one. Admittedly, it was a better model than I had before, but I still thought about destroying it every time I heard it. Carol swears there’s a way to change its alert from ‘heeeeeeeeeeere I come to save the day!’

“Trouble?” Ann asked.

“Always,” I said, pulling it out. I swore. My team of Paramedics – the ones I’d trained – were calling in en-route. I read the codes fast. “I have to get to receiving,” I said. “Paragon’s being brought in. Definite fracture, apparently pretty severe.”

“Paragon? The Mightiest Man on Earth? Coming here?”

“That’s what I said,” I said, throwing my napkin on the table and heading for the door.

Ann blinked and scrambled up, following. “But – if it’s a fracture, why are they calling in an emergency? Is he badly hurt? Is he–”

“Look,” I said, half turning. “I don’t know how he is yet. But if you’ve got the strength to move the Chrysler building, and you have a broken bone being moved by those muscles, you can be bloody sure it’s not getting any better. Especially since they can’t exactly use a splint on it. And it heals so fast it could start knitting in the wrong position, and then it’s nigh impossible to rebreak it to heal it the right way. I need you to prep for me. Call Carol and have her meet you in Obstetrics.”

Ann blinked again. “Obstetrics? Paragon’s male!

“Always with the labels.” I dashed down the hall. Ann was right – a broken bone, at least one that wasn’t a compound fracture – wasn’t all that serious in most cases. But when you’re dealing with the paranormal, you couldn’t very well make assumptions. And Paragon was the worst of the bunch for a Doctor – so nearly invulnerable it was nigh impossible to operate, to medicate, to treat….

The paramedics were taking him out of the ambulance as I strode into O.R. He looked like Hell. The only times I ever saw Paragon he looked like Hell. This time he had blood coming out of one mouth, blood on his arms and a bruise on his face that seemed to be three quarters healed. “What have we got,” I asked.

“Apparent fracture of the humerus,” Todd said, pulling on the stretcher. “Clean break, not compound.”

“I hope you won,” I said to Paragon, moving alongside him. “Get him up to four, Obstetrics lab three.”

“Same as always,” Todd said.

“Haven’t won yet,” Paragon said, clearly in pain and clearly trying to look like he didn’t care. “I need to get back out.”

“Maybe,” I said. “We’ll see.” I rode the elevator up with the team, checking what else I could on the Mightiest Man on Earth. His pulse was strong. We couldn’t take a blood pressure because we couldn’t compress a cuff powerfully enough to interfere with his blood flow – I had the right equipment for it, but it was in the basement next to the air compressor. I checked his eyes and patted his chest down. “Where else does it hurt,” I asked.

“Nothing… mmmmr… major,” he said. “Ribs are sore but don’t think they’re cracked.”

“There’s no movement of them,” I said, “so if they were cracked they were just cracked and they’re healed again by now. We’ll check that part on the followup.” I slipped out my ‘invulnerable penlight’ and flashed a laser light into his pupils. They responded quickly so I could rule out most head trauma for the moment, despite the bruise. “What’s the square root of eight thousand, two hundred and ninety seven point five?”

“Ninety-one point ought nine ought six one–,” Paragon murmured through his pain.

“That’ll do. I’m going to assume whatever passes for a super hero’s brain hasn’t had much shock, though I’m not ruling out concussion. Any nausea?”

“Never… rrrr… felt it before so I don’t know.”

The elevator doors opened and they wheeled Paragon out, past the startled mothers in wheelchairs who certainly weren’t expecting men in spandex to be sent past. We got the hero into the prepped lab. There were a couple sitting back out of the way, the woman apparently in her second trimester. They looked amazed. Their doctor, Doctor Walsh, looked annoyed. She knew I had right of way but that didn’t make her any happier about it. And by the table the women would lie on, Carol and Ann were clearing things off. “–don’t understand,” Ann was saying. “Why are we doing this?”

“I’ll show you,” I said. I smiled weakly to the couple. “Hi,” I said. “Medical emergency. Would you mind waiting outside?”

“We have an appointment–” the husband said, unsure of what was going on.

“Bob, shut up,” his wife said. “No problem. Take your time!” She leaned (rather heavily) over the stretcher. “You’re the greatest hero of all time,” she said to Paragon. “Were you fighting the Centurion and he–”

I cleared my throat, and glanced at Doctor Walsh. “Come on,” she said to the couple. “They need privacy.”

Paragon himself looked mildly pained until the couple and Doctor Walsh left. As the doors shut, his face lapsed into a mask of pure pain. “Can we hurry this a bit,” he asked.

I nodded to the Paramedics. Todd took one side, along with his partner. Carol and I took the other. Ann blinked and moved to help as well, and we transferred him to the table. “All right,” I said. “Let’s cut away the uniform on the arm. Grab the gel, Carol.”

“Gel?” Ann asked.

“Conducting gel,” I said, cutting the spandex with the scissors I had up here for that purpose. The arm was definitely broken – the long shaft of the upper arm oddly bent one third of the way down, and only held in place by the exceptionally well defined muscles. “Mister diamond-hard skin here shrugs off radiation like a duck shrugs off water.”

“Have I… Gods of Xenon this hurts – ever told you what I think of your bedside manner?”

“In seven different languages. Anyway, Ann, no radiation penetration means no x-rays. But what that rock-hard musculature does do is conduct sound very well.”

“Bones, organs, muscles and skin all have different densities,” Carol said, carrying the ultrasound paddles over. “We’ve gotten quite good at adjusting the resolution to see different things.”

“Right,” I said. “Todd, take the paddles. Carol, order the H.P.T.I. for up here, I think, and have an orderly stop in and tell my next appointment I’m on an emergency call.” Todd took the paddles and started moving them over the now-slick arm. I watched the display as its greyscale patterns began forming, and took several shots, murmuring instructions and adjusting the ultrasound device. Turning, I picked the output up and looked. There was the bone all right. A clean break. “Well then,” I said to him, “whoever did this to you really doesn’t like you.”

“It was the Spirit of Death,” he said. “Caught me just right, snapping my arm over his knee. A half-second slower and it could have been my back.”

“You might take that as a good reason to find another line of work,” I said. “It’s clean, but we’re going to have to pull it out and set it properly. It hasn’t healed wrong yet, so we caught it in time. We’ll use a reinforced concrete cast, and with your recuperation I expect it’ll be all right for everyday use in two or three days, but avoid heavy lifting – relatively speaking – for five weeks.”

“I have to get… rrrrr… back out there,” he said. “The Spirit–”

I rolled my eyes. “Someone else can handle the Spirit of Death,” I said. “Even with our pressure heater, concrete needs time to set and cure.”

Paragon set his jaw. I rolled my eyes again. I knew what would happen. He’d leave in his cast, some other hero would get hammered down, and despite my warnings he’d stride back into the fray. It got so tiring working in constant cliches. “You don’t pay me enough to claim you’ll be all right with a band-aid and some xenite laced asprin, Paragon. You need time to heal too, you know.”

Paragon sort of grunted. I ignored it as Carol came in with the H.P.T.I. The Hydraulic Pressure Traction Inducer had been developed in response to the occasional need of extremely high pressure radial and lateral motion in my practice. It was ridiculously single purpose, but its development had led to any number of sold patents and spinoff technology in the steel processing and construction industries. “Relax your muscles as much as you humanly – or whatever you are – can,” I told him.

“Xenitonian,” Paragon gasped as I shifted his arm slightly to start getting the cuffs into place. The H.P.T.I. fitted a series of titanium metal cuffs over different parts of the area that required traction, with a series of hydraulic pumps in between them. It took a few minutes to put all of them in place, see that the hoses and wires were all hooked up, and check the pressure of the machine.

“All right then,” I said. “Don’t fight the machine. We need to do this before the bone sets.” I nodded to Carol, and she turned the machine on. “This is going to hurt amazingly badly,” I said, and watched as the hydraulic unit began to painstakingly stretch the arm out, moving the two halves of the bone separate from one another and into the direction they belonged.

Paragon had a reputation of being a boy scout. Of being so straight laced he’d never even dream of using his Beacon Vision at the beach to screen out bathing suits. Well, the Scout Motto is ‘Be Prepared,’ and he’d certainly spent time and effort preparing the veritable stream of profanity he started howling as the bones ground off of one another and pulled separate, before being aligned. He made references to my parentage, to my species (at least, I don’t think I have any dog ancestry), to my competence, and to my sexual proclivities. I didn’t blame him, though it wasn’t my fault painkillers wouldn’t work on him.

“Alllll right,” I said, checking another ultrasound reading and making adjustments. Whatever Paragon was screaming, he was making herculean efforts not to tense his muscles away from the source of pain. That was good – if he fought, he’d tear my equipment apart in about four seconds. At least I wasn’t worried about bone fragments or the like. I couldn’t see any on the ultrasound, but if there were some, his supercharged physiology would more than deal with them. Just get the bone straight and put on the cast.

“Ease it forward,” I said, watching the reading. “Let’s get a matching fit here, all right boys?”

“He’s trembling,” Todd said. “It’s hard to hold.”

“I’m increasing the tension on the brace,” Carol said. “I think we can compensate.”

“Slow… slow… theeeeere – hold it! Turn clockwise, less than a millimeter… tuuuuurn…”

Paragon howled, tears running down his eyes. I silently slipped foam ear protection into my ear canals and kept going. Paragon had to have been a bloody loud baby. “All right, secure it,” I said. “Paragon – I know it hurts, but listen right now. Just listen. Okay? Good. We’re splinting as much as we can right now, but it’s important not to move until we get the cast on you. All right?”

Paragon, eyes watering, nodded, and fought to keep his arm still. I called in the specialty gear, and began fitting it over the hydraulic splinted arm. Fortunately, the two machines were designed to work with one another. The molding system would allow me to remotely release the H.P.T.I. and pull out its components, while keeping the arm steady. I wished it had an ultrasound unit in it too, but you don’t always get what you want. After a few moments, I had Paragon’s arm fully sheathed in the metal tubing, up to the shoulder, and had extracted the H.P.T.I. “All right,” I said. “It’s going to take about forty-five minutes for the steel to get bent into place, and for the concrete to be poured and to set. We’ll have you moved to a room after that, and you and I can check the bone and make certain everything’s all set.”

Paragon probably wanted to protest – another ‘I have to return, before it’s too late’ type speech – but frankly I didn’t have the time. “I’ll get called when you’re done,” I said, and strode out. Carol stayed with him. After a moment, Ann followed me.

“How you doing?” I asked her, heading for the elevator.

“I… I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, he was sobbing. It was like… like watching Lou Pinella cry or something.”

“You’re a baseball fan? Neat. I was always an Astros fan but I lost int–”

“How can you be so blase about this,” Ann demanded. “The greatest hero of our age was sobbing on the table, and he was in hideous pain, and we helped him. We helped him! How can you just let that roll off your back? Huh? How?

I stopped, and looked at her. Young, and idealistic, and she’d just seen her idol at his worst. It was like I’d told her at lunch – either the pressure of the icons you were dealing with got to you, or the desperate need to make them normal patients got to you. And here I was, unaffected. She wanted to know why.

I took a deep breath. “Because I don’t fall into either trap,” I told her. “I don’t think they’re normal patients, and the idea of working on mythological beings doesn’t get to me.”

“Why not? What approach can eliminate both of those?”

I looked at the wall for a moment. “I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” I said finally.

Ann blinked. “What?

“It’s a crock, Ann. Dressing up in spandex, charging up their power rods, doing battle in the skies – it’s like they’re all playing cops and robbers and they never got the memo the rest of us did. The one that says ‘it’s time to grow up and do something productive with your life.’ We have police, you know. And armies. And secret service. And the CIA. And firefighters. And paramedics. And any number of other normal services where normal people are protected by other normal people.

“I’m good at what I do and I make an obscene amount of money doing it, because I never get personally involved. I think they’re all several cards short of a deck. But hey – it’s their lives. Who am I to tell them not to do it? So I don’t feel idealistic about them and I don’t try to make them something they’re not. My cynicism makes me invaluable to them, because I just don’t care about any of it. My number one recommended advice is ‘take up accounting before you get yourself killed.’”

Ann stared at me. “That’s it? That’s the whole thing? And Carol–”

“Same opinion. I mean, come on, Ann. Why do you think the Police don’t wear leotards and capes? They’d get laughed out of the profession!”

Ann stared a moment longer, than shook her head, walking for the elevator. I watched her go. Poor kid. She’d either learn to cope with the silliness as silliness, or she’d end up switching to something else. Well, it took me some time too. I checked the time – no chance to go finish lunch. I had an appointment with Flambeaux in twenty three minutes to discuss her hemorrhoids, and then Simian Sam needed his tick bath.

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  • MasonK

    I love this as much as the first time I read it. :)

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    This is awesome.

  • Fade Manley

    Hmm. I’ve read this twice now, and I don’t know how much feedback you actually want on it. But here’s my take:

    The concept is great. Not entirely original, as you noted, but that hardly matters. I haven’t read the other short story on the topic, but I’ve quite enjoyed moments of Dr. Blink, Superhero Shrink, which is the same concept in another direction.

    I like a lot of the little throwaway comments and the details. It’s entertaining to think through the ramifications of the superpowers. A very Wild Cards sort of approach; the actual science of the fantastic, as it were.

    Where the story falls down, for me, is that there’s no actual conflict. Not that I can see. It reads like a day in the life of this doctor, and while it has plenty of entertaining incidents, there’s no central conflict or question to make it feel like a story with a good reason to start in one place or end in another. The main question raised seems to be why this doctor doesn’t burn out like all the others do; but there doesn’t appear to be any danger of him burning out, and he has to explain to someone else why other people do, so it’s sort of academic. The main medical emergency doesn’t show up until late in the story, and when it does, it doesn’t feel like there’s serious danger; it’s just one of many crises to be dealt with, and one that the protagonist has dealt with before.

    I suppose there could be a question of whether or not the new hire will last, but there’s not a very good reason to care; she’s a fairly generic “cute dippy blond chick” type, or at least viewed as such by the protagonist, and appears entirely replaceable if she doesn’t cope.

    All of which is not to say that I didn’t like the story, because I did. But it felt more like the first chapter to a novel where the main plot hadn’t kicked in yet than it did a complete story in its own right. Interesting things happened, but there was never a real conflict to worry about the outcome of.

    In any case, I quite like the writing and the premise, but it feels like it needs an actual plot to be a proper story. (And I can’t believe I’m the one saying it, because I’m dreadful at plots, and usually view them as something for characters to do while I’m reading or writing about them.) This may be that I’ve missed what the central conflict was supposed to be, but miss it I did.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    That’s pretty apropos. It does lack real conflict — other than Doctor Lance vs. her day. Looking at it today, it’s kind of got a Mike Resnick humor piece feel, but if I were to revise it, it would get some kind of plot.

    As it is, I hope it amused. ;)

  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    Oh, it amused. Also, in my current sleep madness state (I’ve been working on an alternate where Sherman became Prince of Bulgaria in 1878*, which should give you an idea of my headspace right now) it occurs to me that this could easily be ported over to a comic book format.

    Or something like that.

    Moe Lane

    *No, really. They were thinking about offering him the job. At least, if you believe George MacDonald Fraser, and why would you not?

  • Michael Weaver

    Very amusing. It reads like the script for a first issue of a different sort of comic. Some parts, especially with Paragon, reminded me of Rising Stars, but that’s just my reading background showing.

    I, for one, would like to see this turn into a longer story. Jennifer Lance, Paranormal M.D., could go far as a character, though perhaps it would be better to follow Ann’s perspective for a while too. Will the new hire grow from the experience and become part of the team, or will all this weirdness get to her?

  • Thomas Blight

    Throughout the story I kept picturing Dr. House giving Superman or another hero a checkup. It would be quite a surreal situation. It would also be awesome. Dr. Lance had the same sort of blasé attitude.

    I agree with others – It lacks a conflict. There’s no struggling to figure out what’s wrong or experimenting going on here.

  • http://sealgair.livejournal.com Sealgair

    While I agree with the others about the lack of conflict, to me it simply seems like exposition for a longer story. It sets up the world and makes me interested in the characters. I’d certainly be interested in seeing more, whether or not there are other stories like it out there.

  • RHJunior

    The only problem with this story is the ending… when the Doctor reveals how she sustains her attitude….
    “It’s a crock, Ann…. it’s like they’re all playing cops and robbers and they never got the memo the rest of us did… We have police, you know. And armies. And secret service. And the CIA. And firefighters. And paramedics. And any number of other normal services where normal people are protected by other normal people.”

    And if she’d been paying attention in her own universe, she would have noticed how often those police, and armies, and firefighters, etc. proved utterly ineffective against the threats that superheroes routinely face. It’s easy to laugh at UberDude…. till a million-ton asteroid is hurtling towards the planet and your entire civilization has nothing more than a broken down fleet of space shuttles built in the 1980s to deal with it. Or a thirty-story firebreathing monster is tearing up the city. Or some person with the same powers as UberDude but a hell of a lot less philanthropy is pounding the crap out of the local Army, one main battle tank at a time.

    Oh yes, Doctor, let us ring up the constables. They’ll be around momentarily to deal with this little dustup.

    She may regard the heroes as overgrown children “playing at cops and robbers—” but she seems to have overlooked the fact that the villains are dead serious.

    In a world of superpowers, monsters, mad scientists, and megalomaniacs, the Fanfare for the Common Man is a bit tinny to toot as a battle charge.

    A cliche is more often than not a practical truth that gets repeated so often noone remembers how it started. The cliches of the superhero genre fall in that category. The whole concept of a superhero is this: that there are some things a government or bureaucracy cannot do– should not do– and that a private individual gifted above common men would be morally OBLIGATED to do. And if you’re going to do them, you’d better preserve your anonymity and your autonomy, if for no other reason than to have a moment’s peace from time to time…. and to avoid certain words. Words like “Government laboratory” and “test subject” and “super-weapon” and “alien autopsy” and “dissection.” Opening sentences like “As you know, we have your loved ones in our clutches….”

    At the same time you’d better be danged sure that Officer Donut Break can recognize you BEFORE he pulls his service pistol and starts firing. Yes, I think I shall wear the bright red and blue tights with my initials in a big shiny symbol on my chest, rather than the street clothes and ski mask.

    And yes, spandex. The stuff was normally used as garb for athletes and acrobats, after all (they reportedly have better materials out now, breathes better, etc.) Cops may not wear spandex but neither do cops attempt to wall-crawl, perform acrobatic leaps and tumbles, or do karate high kicks…. And in a fight, loose, baggy clothes are something of a bad idea.

    And finally, in a superhero universe OR in our own, she would have had to occasionally notice that “the proper authorities” aren’t always there. They are, in fact, almost NEVER there till some considerable time has passed and a great deal of damage has been done. (call a cop, call a fireman, call an ambulance, call dominos— and place a bet on who gets there first. Loser has to buy the pie.)
    That is why private citizens learn First Aid, and carry firearms, and keep fire extinguishers in handy locations. That is also why some goof who got bit by a radioactive spider or irradiated with alien cosmic rays or spontaneously developed a mysterious mutant ability would keep a mask in his hip pocket and a skintight costume under his business suit. You’re there, you’ve got the tools and the gift, and you’d better darn well use ‘em if you want to look yourself in the mirror tomorrow morning.
    And if they make you a cartoon hero for it, well hells, a little fame and gratitude ain’t much to ask for putting your metahuman butt on the line.

  • RHJunior

    coincidentally, the conflict was there– just very very subtle. It was the conflict between the two issues described by the Doctor,and the Doctor herself; the urge to regard the heroes as “just another patient” and the urge to regard them with open-mouthed awe. Despite her protestations there were vaporous hints that she was constantly teetering between one and the other….

  • RHJunior

    …And I’m given to wonder just how many doctors regard all of their patients as idiots. Or at the least, as irresponsible children for participating in whatever lifestyle or hobby or career landed them in the hospital. “You idiot, give up being a professional athlete/police officer/firefighter/astronaut and take up accounting, you’ll live longer!”

  • RHJunior

    Further thoughts— I’m full of ‘em— or full of IT, one of the two….

    Gotta wonder how her patients appreciate her condescending attitude. Oh, she may not show it or let it slip past her lips, but come on, she’s constantly surrounded by individuals who are super-detectives, have insane IQs, who can read minds, monitor her respiration and pulse with their hearing… they’d have to know that she regards them as ridiculous idiots. Heck, some of them can probably smell the condescension on her.

    Must do wonders for her doctor-client relationship. They go out, face incredible danger on a daily basis, then the one person on earth who they can go to for medical aid is someone who regards them as retarded children.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    You see a bit of that in her interaction with Doctor Conundrum, actually. I expect plenty of them don’t care for her much.

    But, it’s hobson’s choice for them.

    This is actually something of a trope (or cliche) in fiction — the brilliant doctor who at best is annoying as Hell and at worst considers him or herself superior to their patients (or has a God complex).

    She also is clearly selfish — or at least self-centered. When Paragon says he needs to return to the fight, it’s probably safe to accept his word on it. He’s the Superman pastiche of the world for a reason. Doctor Lance’s advice makes perfect sense if this were a game, but given the likely stakes it sounds more like she’s either intentionally blinding herself to the reality of the situation or she’s arrogant enough to think that her insistence he stay out of fights until his bone heals trumps whatever situation is out there (and whoever Paragon is going to save).

    Put another way — I don’t disagree with you. :) OTOH, her thesis is a lot of men and women study paranormal medicine — for the boatloads of cash or to help the greatest heroes of their day — and end up being unable to hack it. It’s certainly well established that certain professions need emotional distance or they won’t work out. If her method of sarcastic disdain gives her both the capacity not to shut down and the willpower to work what is after all an insanely difficult schedule, who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

  • http://ronin-kakuhito.livejournal.com roninkakuhito

    I have recently reread the Mike Resnick story, and it sucks of them that they got his first. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore most of what I’ve read by him, and Return of Santiago is one of my favorite stories of all time, but I think this is a stronger super hero doctor story. Especially the ending.

  • http://ronin-kakuhito.livejournal.com roninkakuhito

    er, that was supposed to be “sucks for them”

  • WestRider

    I really like random slice of life type vignettes, just little fragments of a world that don’t need to have a plot attached. That’s one of the reasons I love Transmetropolitan so much. I don’t really care that much for the overall plot of the series, but the issues where it’s just Spider or whoever interacting with the world, giving us a look at a life we’re never going to live, those I love.