To Be a Burden On My Children

(c) 2015 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.

I

The doctor’s grip on Benjamin Andrew’s arm was stronger than was polite. His eyes betrayed his anger at the younger man.
“Was there something else, Doctor?” Ben asked, annoyed. He was annoyed by the other’s grip, at the other’s anger, but more important, he was annoyed at the other’s judgment of him.
“You’re father’s a sick man.”
“Yeah, no kidding! He’s dying!”
“Don’t get him upset. No arguing! I won’t have you going in and…”.
“And what? Cause him to die today instead of tomorrow, or the day after? Look, Doc, there are some things we have to say to each other. If that shortens his life a little, well, that’s too bad. You just don’t understand. You don’t understand at all. It’s long past time the two of us mended a fence or two. I…I can’t explain any more than that. I love that old man more than anything in the world.”
“You have a funny way of showing it. You come back now after all these years and you actually expect me to believe you care what happens to him?”
“I…I couldn’t face him, that’s all.” Ben said in a whisper.
“Well that’s more than a patient of mine in that room. William Andrew is an old and dear friend, and so help me if you….”
“Hell, Doc, I don’t intend to strangle him, you know. Ease off a little, huh?”
“You might as well strangle him. He doesn’t want to see you. Told me so on several occasions! Seeing you again just might give him that final heart attack.”
Ben closed his eyes, and leaned his back against the wall.
“I understand how you feel”, he told the doctor.
“I doubt it,” the doctor replied. “In fact, I question whether you understand…or feel… anything at all! You’re so wrapped up in your own interests. There’s a world out there that doesn’t revolve around you, you know. It’s about time you started living in it. Well, go in and see him. You have five minutes, no longer. Do you understand me?”
“Yes”, Ben replied meekly. He kept his eyes down as he squeezed past the doctor and went into the room.

“You two were loud enough to wake the dead in here,” William Andrew wheezed as Ben entered the room. The old man had tubes and wires attached all over his body, and Ben had a sudden irreverent image of a modern-day Frankenstein lab.
“Which,” William continued, “if you’d only have the decency to wait a week, you’d get a chance see.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Terrific. Next silly-ass question.”
“Look, let’s not fight…”
“Why not? It’s the only relationship we’ve got left, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t want it to be that way.”
“Oh? Since when?”
“Can’t we go back to the way it used to be?”
“Back? Sure! How far back: potty training, perhaps? My bowels aren’t what they once were, you know. Sure, that would be a good way to start over. Literally.”
“Billy, please…”
“Don’t you dare call me that! I told you before.” The electronics above the old man’s head were beeping and flashing more rapidly than before. Ben said nothing for a moment. Slowly, the monitors slowed down to normal.
“I just came to ask you to reconsider,” Ben said softly. His eyes were moist, and his breathing ragged. “To beg you to reconsider.”
“Not for me,” the old man replied, and shook his head as well as he was able with the oxygen tube in his nose.
“Please.”
“Tell me something… Ben…” the name was like a slap in the face. “Is it me you’re thinking of? Or yourself? I heard what Mort said out there. He’s right. The only person that matters to you is you!”
“I can change.”
“Yeah, right,” the old man made a snorting sound. It wasn’t as clear as he would have liked, but that’s what happens when you have a plastic tube shoved up your nose.
“Please…”
“And how many lifetimes do you think it will take to convince me you can, eh? The answer is no. My…ah…final…answer, you might say.” The old man laughed as he said it, and the laugh became a wracking cough.
The doctor came in at the sound.
“That will be enough for now,” he said, guiding Ben out of the room. A nurse appeared from somewhere, and tended to the old man.
Ben was left standing alone in the corridor, the sounds and smells of the hospital unheard and unnoticed. His heart pounded in fear as he desperately searched for an answer. He had failed. The old man was going to die, and soon. What was he going to do?

II

“When did it happen?” Ben asked, his face an emotionless mask.
“Last night”, the Head Nurse replied, glancing down at the clipboard in her hand. “He’s in a coma, not expected to come out of it.”
“How long does he have?”
“A few days, no longer….” She paused at the sound of footsteps behind her. It was the doctor.
“I’m having him Medevac’ed to the county hospital in Davisville,” the doctor commented.
“What the hell for? Ben demanded, suddenly angry.
“If we can stabilize him, we should be able to….”
“What, doctor? What will you be able to do? Save his life? For what… a day? A week?” Ben shook his head. “I won’t have it!”
“You don’t have a say in it, Mr. Andrew.”
Ben reached into the pocket of his suit-coat.
“I believe this says otherwise,” he said, and handed the doctor an envelope. The doctor withdrew the single sheet of letterhead from inside, and read it with a scowl.
“That’s a Power of Attorney”, Ben pointed out.
“I know what it is,” the doctor replied, nearly tossing the letter and envelope back in Ben’s face. “What do you intend to do?”
“I’ve paid for an ambulance to pick him up and take him home.”
“You can’t do that, damnit, he’ll die!”
“Yeah, well,” Ben said, gritting his teeth. “I think he’s going to do that anyway. He deserves some dignity, not have a bunch of bastards like yourself justify your high salaries.”
“You can’t deny him life. Every day…every second…is precious.”
“I don’t trust you, Doctor.”
“The way I hear it, you don’t trust doctors in general.”
“Too true. You’re all a bunch of blind hypocrites stumbling around in the dark. Too stuck-up to admit you don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Get out of here”, the doctor whispered in a cold voice. The muscles of his neck stood out like cords, and the color of his face was darkening.
“Gladly,” Ben replied with a smile, “but I’ll be back in about an hour to take your patient off your hands!”

The doctor watched Ben go, trying to reign in his fury. The kid was going to kill his father. There had to be something he could do to stop it. For one thing, how on earth did the brat get a Power of Attorney from William? It didn’t make any sense. For another, why was young Ben so interested all of a sudden in his father dying with dignity? None of it added up, but he owed it to his old friend to find an answer.

He didn’t find his answer in an hour. It took him until the following afternoon. By that time, with what he discovered, he was ready to give his fury full reign.

III

Ben was carrying an armload of groceries when he saw the flashing red and blue lights in front of his house. His heart began to pound, and a cold lump settled into the pit of his stomach.
“No”, he whispered to himself. Then, throwing the bag of food aside, he repeated the word in a hoarse roar.
He ran as fast as he could, only to be caught at his front door by several burly policemen, who held him none too gently. He groaned, and sagged between them like a rag doll, his eyes staring, unseeing, at the pavement.
“Noooo…!” he said in a voice filled with despair. Something moved at his front door, and he looked up to see the doctor.
“Ben,” the doctor said, more puzzlement in his voice now than anger, “What’s that in the basement?”
Ben let out another groan, but said nothing.
“Ben, it’s getting electricity, but it’s not plugged in. How do we get your father out of it? We’re afraid to touch anything.”
“Please,” Ben said in a low voice. A tear began to trace its way down the side of this face.
“Ben, I want to help. I want to help both of you. Tell me what’s going on, or we’re going to have to get your dad out of that thing the hard way.”
“No, don’t. You’ll kill him.”
“Why?”
“The Autodoc said it needed a couple of weeks to stabilize his heart before operating on the rest. He couldn’t be removed until he was stable.”
“The who?”
Ben looked up at the man he despised and distrusted, and knew he had no choice.
“Can we talk alone, please?” Ben asked, looking around at the policemen.
“Doctor,” one of the officers said, “this man isn’t who he claims to be. There are no records of his birth anywhere, and that Power of Attorney was a forgery – a damned good one, but still a fake. You can’t trust him!”
“ I know, officer,” the doctor replied, “but I have a close friend of mine trapped in some infernal machine. This fellow may be the only one who can get him out without killing him. Just give me a few moments alone.”
The policeman didn’t like it, but in the end, he agreed.
“Where do you want to talk, Ben?” the doctor asked.
“The basement.” Ben said, and led the doctor into the house.

One side of the basement was filled with a decades-old washer and dryer. Beside it, the oil furnace and hot water heater had both seen better days. The other side of the basement was filled with several large plastic jugs of water, and a white-and-chrome coffin.

At least, that’s what it looked like. The bottom was scratched and dented, as if someone had attacked it with a sledgehammer. However, the damage was so old, it was clear that none of the strangers to the house had caused it. Half of the top was covered in a heavily tinted material. It looked somewhat like plastic, except that it had its own share of scratches and dents. Beneath the cover, the old man’s body was visible as a vague outline. Something moved in there with him, but the cover was too dark to see detail.

The other half of the coffin’s top had a computer built into it.

“What did you call this?” the doctor asked.
“It calls itself an Autodoc”.
“Calls…itself?”
“The computer screen on the top there has a hefty instruction manual. In two languages, actually. In English, and something called ‘Esper’, whatever the hell that is. Actually, it refers to ‘American’, rather than ‘English’. Don’t know why.”
“What is it? Where did it come from?”
“That,” Ben said, waving his hand dramatically, “is a computerized physician. It can cure any disease, fix any injury, and generally maintain perfect health. As for where it came from….”
“I’m listening, Ben,” the doctor said. He didn’t know whether to believe the young man or not, but there was no denying the machine’s existence. If it was a fake, then it was an even better one than that Power of Attorney. The two men decided to continue their talk upstairs in the living room.

“I’m sorry about what happened at the hospital, Doc. I was desperate, and he wasn’t going to help. I called in a few favors to get that letter forged, but there wasn’t time to get all the records faked, too. I guess that’s how you caught me?” The doctor nodded in response.
“As to how I came to be in possession of that medical marvel, I was doing a little prospecting in the California wilderness about…well…let’s just say a long time ago. I wasn’t having any luck, and was thinking of chucking the whole deal, when I saw this shooting star. Middle of the day, it was, and bright as hell. It came down not far – a few miles on the other side of the hills I was working. I was thinking at the time that there might be something valuable. I mean, you never know, right? But, when I got there, it was some sort of vehicle. Naturally, I’d never heard of airplanes or spaceships, or such. But I knew this was some sort of craft.
“Were there bodies?”
“Yes. Five of them – each packaged in one of those Autodocs. I think they were supposed to be ejected before crashing – I found parachutes in their base. But the mechanism failed and they came down too hard. The machines themselves were ok, but the people inside were mush. I spent a lot of time trying to get one of those machines to work.”
“What did you do?”
“I hauled the machine away, and buried the rest of the stuff. I was afraid if anyone found it, they’d come after me, and take my prize away.”
“And that was it?”
“Oh, I lived by myself for a while. Found out that the machine just needs water to run.”
“Water?”
“Yep. Dirty, clean, it didn’t matter. I have no idea how it works, but you only need a little bit. For normal uses, that is. The harder it has to work fixing you, the more water it uses.”
Fusion power? the doctor speculated.
“Well,” Ben continued. He was staring into space, watching history play itself out before his mind’s eye, “Eventually, I married this wonderful girl, and we decided to move to Chicago. After the fire, of course. It took me a lot of convincing to get her to believe the city was safe.”
“Fire?” the doctor asked numbly. He didn’t like where this conversation was going. There might be a very good reason why nobody could find Ben’s birth certificate.
“Anyway, we took turns using the Autodoc, even when Joyce became pregnant.” Ben smiled. “She would tell me that women had babies all the time. She refused to live the next nine months in a box.”
“What happened to her?” the doctor asked quietly.
“The boy was about three or four years old. She….” Ben bit his lip to stop it from trembling, drawing blood. He inhaled one long trembling breath, and continued.
“She tripped one day while I was at work. Her nose hit the end of a chair, and she died instantly. My son…spent the rest of the day trying to wake up Mommy. When I came home…” Ben fought back a sob, and closed his eyes tight. “When I came home, he had put his favorite blanket over her, and tucked a pillow under her head. He said to me ‘Shhh…Mommy’s trying to sleep’”.

Ben’s head was in his hands now, and he was weeping openly. The doctor wasn’t sure what to do. Not only didn’t he know the young man very well, but he still didn’t like him very much.

“Even if I’d been there, and got her into the ‘doc, there wasn’t a chance to save her. He never blamed me for his mother’s death, but….”
“But…?” the other prompted.
“He wanted me to give the machine to the world. To help mankind. To honor her memory, or something, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because of the instruction manual.”
“Huh?”
“The manual was copyrighted 2149. Don’t you see? That spaceship I found was from the future. Somehow, someway, it came back nearly three hundred years for me to find it. I couldn’t tell anyone. If I did…how many people would never be born? I couldn’t live with that!”
“A sort of retro-active abortion.”
“Doc, that’s not funny!”
“I’m sorry. But where’s your father fit into all this?”
“I can’t let him die. He’s all I’ve got left, Doc.
“And he refused treatment.”
“Yes. I was desperate.”
“And you called me a hypocrite!” the doctor said with a touch of venom.
“Huh?”
“Treating someone against their will. Something about dying with dignity, wasn’t it?”
“You don’t understand,” Ben said, miserably.
“Oh, but I do. You’re being selfish, Ben. Just like always. You’re only really thinking about yourself, and not your father….”
“Damnit, you stupid clown,” Ben said, shouting. He was on his feet now, tears still in his eyes. “Haven’t you been listening to me? That old man in the basement isn’t my father; he’s my son!”
Author’s Note: This is one of the early stories in the Version Universe. I’ve since reduced the medical potency of the Autodoc to something a little more reasonable. The device no longer conveys virtual immortality, but I decided to leave the story as-is. If you’re unfamiliar with the six books in The Version Sequence, over a hundred Deep Space Probes were launched in the 2150’s to explore the galaxy. Unfortunately, they all had flaws in their Faster Than Light drives that caused them to travel backwards in time. While most were intercepted and the crews rescued before they could reach Earth, a few weren’t as fortunate. One of the more unfortunate vessels crashed in California during the 1800’s, where it was found by a young prospector.

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