Henry Philpot was a science fiction aficionado. Not an ordinary “liker” of science fiction, but a compulsive one. His obsession began with reading Heinlein, Azimov, and Clark when he was in his teens, graduated to hundreds of other books, both good and pulpy, and then spread to movies: older ones, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, right up to Star Wars and The Martian. He was always first in line at his local cinema for a new sci-fi movie. TV shows like Mork and Mindy and Star Trek were faithfully taped. Henry also collected all sorts of sci-fi memorabilia in addition to the books, tapes, and DVDs.
He married a lovely woman named Sheila, who shared his passion, if not his obsession, for science fiction. Early on in their marriage, she made it clear that their house would not be cluttered with all of his purchases, and she helped him organize one room to house his collection. When the room was filled, she helped him organize the basement for storage.
Henry was happy with his job. He was a talented commercial artist and was always ecstatic when he got a job that involved creating something futuristic. All in all, he had a perfect life. Until the day he first felt a gnawing pain in his abdomen. He tried treating it with antacids, thinking it was just gastric reflux, but when it became worse, he sought out his physician. Dr. Kirby was conscientious and did a physical, blood work, an x-ray and an MRI. When Henry returned for the results, Kirby looked grave.
“What is it, doc?”
“It’s serious, Henry. Pancreatic cancer.”
Henry fell back in his chair and grew dizzy and nauseous. The doctor, seeing his reaction, walked around the desk and had Henry put his head between his knees.
“That’s a death sentence, isn’t it?” Henry’s question could hardly be heard from between his legs.
“No, and that’s the good news. Do you feel like you can sit up now?”
Henry nodded, and Kirby walked back to his desk chair and sat down.
“So how is this good news?”
“Well, as a fan of science fiction, I’m sure you know quite a bit about nanobots.”
Henry nodded, leaning forward anxiously.
“Well, I happen to be part of a large clinical trial using nanobots to rid the body of cancer. It’s simple really – we program the nanobots to recognize the patient’s specific cancer, inject them into the blood stream and let them go to work destroying the cancer cells. Do you have any questions?”
Henry had a hundred, but the first thing that came to mind was: “Can you tell me what the results have been so far?”
“No, I can’t reveal specific data until after the trial is over, but I can say what we are finding is very encouraging.”
Typical doctor-speak, thought Henry. Then something else popped into his head and out of his mouth. “How long do these nanobots hang around?”
“We’re not sure if they do or how they are excreted, so testing for that is part of the trial.” Kirby looked a bit uncomfortable revealing that information. “But the animal testing showed that they persist only for a few days, and after that are inactive.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Yes, but don’t wait too long. Your cancer is progressing, and if you decide to go with either the trial or standard treatment, you need to begin soon.”
Henry and his physician talked over his other options at length, and went Henry left he was leaning toward the nanobot treatment. After a long and painful discussion with Sheila, sharing tears and hugs, they decided together to enroll Henry in the trial. He even felt excited about it – he was going to undergo a treatment only dreamed of in science fiction.
The day of Henry’s treatment came the early next week, but not until after signing what seemed like hundreds of waivers. Because it didn’t involve surgery, there were no preo-op instructions not to eat or drink for twelve hours before he arrived at the hospital, and except for the abdominal pain, which was kept to a minimum by prescribed opiates, Henry felt pretty darned good.
In the treatment room, gowned and with an IV already placed, Dr. Kirby asked, “Are you ready, Henry? We’re going to make history here.”
Henry, who was already relaxed from a small dose of Versed, gave him a big smile and said, “Fire away.”
He awoke in his hospital room, feeling nicely sleepy, with Sheila holding his hand. He could see she was anxious. “How do you feel?”
“Just fine, no pain, nothing.”
“Are you thirsty?”
Henry realized he had a raging thirst, drained the ginger ale in the cup that Sheila offered, and asked for more. A nice young man who had been sitting quietly in a corner came forward and noted the volume of Henry’s intake on his iPad. “Hi, I’m Justin. I’m going to be spending every day with you until you are released – except when you’re sleeping, of course.” He smiled. “I hope you don’t mind, but we have to make a record of everything you eat, drink or take by way of medicine. Dr. Kirby will be following the progress of your disease.”
“Okay, I guess.” Henry was too relaxed to object.
Over the next week, Justin seriously began to get on Henry’s nerves – he had no interest in science fiction, which left them with little in common. On the bright side, Kirby reported that Henry’s cancer was shrinking and by the second week, it had all but disappeared. The blood marker for his cancer had plummeted to almost nothing. Henry was ready to go home. Much to his dismay, though, Justin had to go with him.
Henry resumed his normal activities, with Justin at his elbow. “I can’t even take a piss or a crap without him in there collecting it,” Henry complained to Sheila after the first couple of days. One thing Sheila gradually became aware of was Henry’s general lack of interest in all of his sci-fi stuff. He rarely went into either the dedicated room or the garage, but seemed to spend a lot of time figuring out the basics of how the various appliances in the house worked. Justin made a note of this and reported it to Dr. Kirby, who asked Henry to come a day early for his checkup.
“Henry,” Kirby said in the examining room, “Justin noticed that you seemed to have acquired an interest in the mechanics of things.” Henry, who was simultaneously concentrating on the blood pressure cuff and the pulse oximeter, hardly heard him. “Henry, did you hear what I said?”
“What? Oh, I don’t know. I’m just finding mechanics interesting.”
“Is this something new? Or have you always wanted to know how things work?”
“I don’t know.” Henry stared at Kirby as if he didn’t quite recognize him.
“Well, everything is fine on this end. Your cancer is gone.”
“What about the nanobots? Are they still inside me?”
“As far as we can tell. But they are inactive by any measure we’ve used. You have nothing to worry about.”
“So does that mean Justin’s work is done?” Henry desperately wanted to be left alone.
Yes,” replied Kirby. “I think he can return to the program now. We can use him here since we have a number of new patients in the trial.”
Henry returned to work shortly thereafter. His boss noticed that his artwork had become more mechanical, almost like building plans, and lacked much of his previous artistic quality. Henry said nothing to Sheila, but she became anxious at his lack of interest in much of anything except taking appliances apart and putting them back together again. One night she found him outside, disassembling their A/C unit. When she asked him why, he looked up and then went back to what he was doing without answering.
In the morning, Sheila work to find him lying stiffly in bed, looking at the ceiling. “Henry! What’s wrong?”
He turned his head stiffly and regarded her with a blank expression.
“It’s time to get up for work, dear.” He continued looking at her with unseeing eyes. “Henry, you’re going to be late! Let me go make some coffee. You’ll be more awake with coffee.” Henry didn’t move.
Completely unnerved by this rapid change in Henry’s aspect, Sheila called Dr. Kirby’s office and told the answering service it was an emergency. The operator promised to have someone at their house within 30 minutes. With coffee brewing, bred in the toaster, and eggs ready to scramble, Sheila checked in on Henry and found him in the bathroom. She nearly fainted. Henry was cutting down his arm with his straight razor, unaffected by the pain or the blood pooling on the floor.
“Henry, what are you doing? Stop it!” She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his arm, taking the razor from his other hand. “Why are you doing this?”
“I need to know how I work.”
“What do you mean? You’re a human being, not a machine! You know how you work!”
Henry stared at her. “Who are you?” Are you a machine? I’ll need to find out how you work, too.”
At that point, Sheila did faint. When Justin arrived, he found Henry dissecting her on the bathroom floor.
Justin made a note that Henry’s trial treatment with the nanobots was a success.