by Nancy Owens
“Right in here,” the nurse said.
“Doctor Sorenson will be with you soon,” And she left.
Kyle would not usually have examined the small office as he entered it. Twelve doctors, thirty-seven surgeries, and sixty-three consultations had long ago convinced him that one professional’s abode was more or less like another’s.
When Kyle was four years old, doctors terrified him. He remembered the bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes of Dr. Rells, his first surgeon. When Dr. Rells delivered the anesthetic before the first operation, Kyle had felt like the victim of a mad scientist about to perform an experimental surgery. He was afraid he would wake up and find that his brain had been removed by accident,
By age nine Kyle had changed surgeons five times. Names and introductions slipped past him unnoticed, and his emotional response to surgery changed from trepidations to disinterest to annoyance. H is scars multiplied more quickly than the candles on his birthday cakes.
Kyle’s friends soon lost interest in the story behind each new bandage and suture. His enemies made fun of them. The school bully liked to knock him down and poke at the fleshy lumps growing on his back. Kyle’s private vision of hell looked like a middle school locker room.
Once he had been proud of his deformities, now he despised them. The malformed right hand that the most expensive surgeries could not repair, the ever-so-slight limp when he walked because bone surgery left one leg slightly shorter than the other, the fleshy purplish bag of flesh on his left side that the doctors had not yet removed—these were the devils that tormented him night after night. Sometimes the tumors on his nerves pinched so tightly he could not walk, but it was not the pain that kept him from sleeping on hot summer evenings. It was the specter he saw in the mirror.
The night before his twelfth birthday he got out of bed at 2 A.M. He stood in front of the full length mirror on his bedroom door for three hours, staring at the discolored landscape that should have been a human chest. Hundreds of spongy, cauliflower-shaped tumors poked from beneath his flesh. Most of the lumps were the size of a marble, but some were as large as golf balls. Scattered on the skin between the tumors were dark brown patches on his flesh. They were called “cafe au lait” spots: the trademark symptom of neurofibromatosis.
That night Kyle did not consider suicide. But he smashed the mirror and went to bed with his fists still bloody.
His condition grew worse with the passing years. The doctors burned off the tumors, but like warts, they grew back in greater numbers. Scoliosis set in, hunching Kyle’s back despite the body brace he wore for three years. The correction of bone deformities in his skull created permanently bald areas on his head—hair regrowth was barred by scar tissue. Surgery decreased the bulbous size of his right hand but left it twisted and only slightly usable.
When he was seventeen, he dug through his mother’s drawers until he found all of his baby pictures. He burned them.
Kyle wore corrective shoes for his limp and a hairpiece to cover the bald spots. Monthly visits to the dermatologist made his face look, if not beautiful, at least nearly normal. He carefully selected clothing to conceal the worst of his tumors, and he kept his hands in his pockets most of the time.
He plowed his way through college by sheer willpower and a sizable loan from his parents, landed a job in an accounting firm, and built up some semblance of a normal life. But he often caught clients watching him from the corners of their eyes, as though they were trying to figure out what was odd about his gait or the shape of his face. Or why he always seemed reluctant to shake hands.
No, on a usual day, for a usual consultation, Kyle would not have stopped to examine Dr. Sorenson’s office. But this was not his annual medical evaluation or even one of his frequent pre-surgery consultations. For the first time in his life, Kyle would meet a doctor who could talk to him, not about a treatment, but about a cure.
So he studied the tiny room intently.
The desk was small and completely bare. Kyle suspected its drawers had never been opened. Beside the desk was a small garbage can, empty except for a single gum wrapper. Apparently Dr, Sorenson used this office only for formal meetings.
Right then, a small, balding man trundled through the door. He carried a briefcase in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. Pens and pencils jabbed from all available pockets of his blue scrubs, and a pair of glasses dangled by a cord around his neck. He maneuvered his way around to the back of the desk, plopped the papers on it, and began shuffling through them.
“You must be Mr,Waterby,” the man said without looking at Kyle, “I’m Dr. Sorenson. Do sit down.” Kyle eased into the chair and winced as his right leg gave a stab of pain. He tried to shift the leg to a more comfortable position as the doctor arranged his papers.
“Well,” Dr, Sorenson said at last, “you are certainly the most dramatic case of neurofibromatosis I have ever seen.”
Kyle frowned. He’d heard that from at least eleven experts. They ought to put that in a medical textbook somewhere: Kyle Ameus Waterby, the most dramatic case of neurofibromatosis since the Elephant Man.
“Quite frankly, it’s amazing you’re still alive,” the doctor continued. “According to your file, you’ve had three neurofibromas removed from your cranial nerves, and there are two more growing on your spine. Your last tissue sample indicates that they have become malignant—“
“If you are trying to tell me I’m dying, I’ve known that since I was ten.”
“No, not at all. As I said in my letter, I think I have developed a method that can cure you—no more tumors, no more scoliosis, no more scars . . .”
Kyle leaned forward, “How?”
“What do you know about molecular replication?”
“Nothing specific—the scanner dissects an object molecule by molecule, and the replicator reproduces the item from the scanned data.”
“That’s right,” Dr. Sorenson said, nodding, “but did you also know that the scanned data can be altered—modified before the replication takes place? | can take an apple, for example, and remove the seeds. I can take a rat, infect it with cancer, then scan it and remove the cancer before replicating it. I’ve taken rodents with leukemia, heart disease, and broken bones and made healthy replicas from them, I’ve changed the color of their fur and performed optical surgery-all with replication.”
“Are you saying you can scan me, and then rebuild me without the disease?”
Dr, Sorenson nodded.
“Why haven’t I heard of this before?”
“Well, it’s extremely risky, My success rate with rats has been only twenty-two percent. And until now, replication has been a one-shot deal: The scanning process used to completely destroy the original subject. Plus, even a minute error could cause the replication to be unstable, even if no modifications were made to the scanned data.”
“You said ‘until now.’ What changed?”
“A new technique has just been developed: a way to scan the subject non-destructively. Do you see what this means? Now, if there is an error in the first scan, we can simply make a second, or a third-whatever is required.”
Kyle’s face remained expressionless, but his fingers tapped excitedly on hrs knee. “How much will it cost?”
“Well . . .” Dr. Sorenson started to reach for his notebook but changed his mind and scratched the bridge of his nose instead, “You should know that what I’m proposing is . . . well, it’s entirely illegal.”
“If it can cure diseases in rats, why couldn’t it be used on humans, too?”
“Replication frightens people, and because, well it can be messy. The failures were . . . drastically unpleasant. Missing neurons, chemical imbalances—a single mistake in the scanning process can be incapacitation or even fatal to the subject. The new non-destructive scanning minimizes the risks, but the ethics of the entire procedure are still debatable. And human replication has been illegal since the technology’s development.”
Kyle folded his arms across his chest, and cringed as they jostled a tender tumor, “I’ll risk what’s left of my body if I want to!”
“l assure you, I am quite willing to perform the procedure,” Dr, Sorenson said calmingly, “I have access to a research replicator in Connecticut, but it’s expensive to operate, and there’s no way to apply for a research grant under these circumstances. If you could pay the expenses, I would gladly donate my services in the interest of, ah, scientific research.”
Kyle thought of his parent’s summer home in California, the last remnant of his once substantial inheritance. He had sunk the rest of his parents’ money into operations and medication, but the summer home he had kept tucked away. He’d always meant to visit it . . .
“I can give you two hundred thousand dollars,” he said.
Dr. Sorenson spent almost a year preparing to perform the replication, The summer house had to be sold, and Dr. Sorenson had to find an expert on neurofibromatosis who was willing to work on the quasi-legal project. Together they pored over Kyle’s x-rays, MRIs, tissue samples, and other medical records. They plotted, graphed, planned, and ran data through computer simulations of the replication process. Dr. Sorenson grew more and more excited as the day of replication grew nearer.
Kyle, or the other hand, became increasingly withdrawn. He looked at his lumpy body in the mirror every morning and hated it. He stared at his hands folded in his lap, the nearly-normal digits of the left hand eclipsed by the overgrown distorted flesh of his right appendage, and he hated them. Like a convalescent loathes his wheel-chair or an athlete resents his leg brace, Kyle despised his body. He imagined it was a cast, a repulsive outer shell waiting to be shucked off at the earliest convenience.
He brooded over the approaching replication date. Each morning meant nothing to him except that there was one less night separating him from his liberation. He grew inefficient at work. His supervisor threatened to fire him, so he quit. He had already made plans to move anyway. He would rent a condo in Florida or in New Mexico, somewhere far away from everyone who ever knew him, ever knew he was disfigured. His friends would never know how he had changed; the government would never know. He would shuck off his name as he would shuck off his skin, and he would emerge as . . . someone else.
And there it was—the heart of Kyle’s anxiety. Without his shell, without the bags and the tumors and the scars criss-crossing him like some perverted rendition of Frankenstein, who was he? He did not like to think about it. So he brooded and listened as the wall clock ticked off the seconds, the hours, the days.
And then, the day arrived. As he stared at the replicator’s scanning machine, Kyle thought it looked like nothing more than a blank wall with a person-sized hole in it. He climbed onto the sliding bed and looked sideways at the wall’s maw. Kyle tried to tell himself that this was nothing new, that it was like taking a CAT scan . . . except that he would stay there for at least three days. Kyle’s heart began to pound as Dr. Sorenson hooked him up to several machines. He flinched as the IV poked into his arm, even though he had grown used to such accoutrements long ago.
“Everything feel alright?” Dr. Sorenson asked, “Ok then, lie down.”
Kyle did, and the doctor released a clamp on the IV. “Remember,” he said, “the medication will inhibit your motor control. Don’t let it worry you—you’ll only be conscious for a few seconds after your full body functions stop. Just relax, feel the medicine seep in, and let it go . . .”
Dr, Sorenson was still talking, but Kyle stopped paying attention. He felt the fluid from the IV running up his arm, half-tickling and half-burning as it passed. A few moments later he felt detached from his body. He could still feel, could still hear and see, but he had no control of his muscles. Like those lucid moments halfway between sleep and waking, he could sense the waking world but could not interact with it.
The feeling of disembodiment was frightening. Kyle began to panic, but forced himself to remember Dr. Sorenson’s patient explanation that the medicine was necessary, that his body must remain absolutely still during the scanning process. Only his brain would remain active, trapped in a state of semi-sleep that had no memory of time, so the machine could scan his brain patterns and replicate them along with the rest of his body.
He felt his breathing stop, and heard a slight buzz as a nearby machine took over the task of oxygenating his blood. Another machine began to pump his blood through his body as his heartbeat slowed to a stop. He felt himself drop into darkness.
Kyle could not say how long he drifted like a man on the edge of sleep, sometimes floating to the top of his dream world but never quite escaping it. Eventually, the blank gray of the replicator’s scanning chamber was replaced by the white walls of a recovery room, Kyle’s eyes were half open, and he could just see the door from the corner of his eye. Sometimes Dr. Sorenson would enter through the door, and check the status of the machines humming all around him. When that happened, Kyle tried to move. Most of the time he could not make his body obey, but occasionally he found he could twitch his fingers, of swallow, or track Dr. Sorenson’s blue-clad form with his eyes.
But one of these times, Dr. Sorenson entered the room followed by another person.
“. . . not sure this is a good idea,” Dr. Sorenson was saying, his voice ringing clear in Kyle’s ears. Into the room came-Kyle, Kyle stared at the tall figure as if he were watching his reflection in some divine mirror. The hair was full, the face fully shaped, the right hand was small with the fingers separated. The man-who-was-not-him strutted into the room like a god, and stared in revulsion at Kyle, misshapen and motionless on the bed.
The stranger with Kyle’s face looked at Kyle for a long time. Kyle tried to speak, but he could not make his lungs and vocal chord work. He felt his lips open and close limply. The man-who-was-not-Kyle swallowed and turned pale.
“Get rid of it,” he whispered. His voice sounded strangled.
“Wait-are you sure?” Dr, Sorenson asked. “l want to keep it for at least a few more days, until we’re sure you won’t develop unexpected complications. Besides, the research value—”
“Just get rid of it,” the stranger interrupted as he left the room.
Furious, Kyle tried to speak, to move, to ask what that impostor was doing parading around in the perfect body meant for him. His eyes squinted. His fingers twitched, but Dr. Sorenson either did not see or did not wish to see.The doctor looked at the door and gave a sigh. Then, he reached over and shut down the life support machines and disconnected the IV. As he left the room, he turned off the light.