AFTER THE LAST REFUSAL—THE East European Minister of Health sent Teo his personal explanation and regrets—it became a matter of patience and readiness and rather careful timing.
A uniformed policeman had been posted beside her door for reasons, apparently, of protocol. At eight thirty, when he went down the corridor to the public lavatory, she was dressed and waiting, and simply walked out past the nurses’ station. It stood empty. The robo-nurse was still making the eight o’clock rounds of the wing’s seventy or eighty rooms. The organic nurse, just come on duty, was leaning over the vid display in the alcove behind the station, familiarizing herself with the day’s new admissions.
Because it was the nearest point of escape, Teo used the staircase. But the complex skill of descending stairs had lately deserted her, so she stepped down like a child, one leg at a time, grimly clutching the metal banister with uncooperative hands. After a couple of floors she went in again to find a
public data terminal in a ward that was too busy to notice her.
They had not told her even the donor’s name, and a straightforward voice request met a built-in resistance: DATA RESTRICTED***KEY IN PHYSICIAN IDENT CODE. So she asked the machine for the names of organ donors on contract with the regional Ministry of Health, then a list of the hospital’s terminal neurological patients, the causes and projected times of their deaths, and the postmortem neurosurgeries scheduled for the next morning. And, finally, the names of patients about whom information was media-restricted. Teo’s own name appeared on the last list. She should have been ready for this but found she was not, and she sat staring until the letters grew unfamiliar, assumed strange juxtapositions, became detached and meaningless—the name of a stranger.
The computer scanned and compared the lists for her, extrapolated from the known data, and delivered only one name. She did not ask for hard copy. She looked at the vid display a moment, and then punched it off and sat staring at the blank screen.
Perhaps not consciously, she had expected a woman. The name, a man’s name, threw her off balance a little. She would have liked a little time to get used to the sound of it, the sound it made in her head and on her lips. She would have liked to know the name before she knew the man. But he would be dead in the morning. So she spoke it once, only once, aloud, with exactness and with care. “Dhavir Stahl,” she said. And then went to a pneumo-tube and rode up.
In the tube there were at first several others, finally only one. Not European, perhaps North African, a man with eyebrows in a thick straight line across a beetled brow. He watched
her sidelong—clearly recognized her—and he wore a physician’s ID badge. In a workplace as large as this one the rumor apparatus would be well established. He would know of her admission, maybe even the surgery that had been scheduled. Would, at the very least, see the incongruity of a VIP patient, street-dressed and unaccompanied, riding up in the public pneumo-tube. So Teo stood imperiously beside him with disobedient hands clasped together behind her back and eyes focused on the smooth center seam of the door while she waited for him to speak, or not. When the tube opened at the seventy-eighth floor he started out, then half turned toward her, made a stiff little bow, and said, “Good health, Madame Minister,” and finally exited. If he reported straightaway to security, she might have five minutes, or ten, before they reasoned out where she had gone. And standing alone now in the pneumo-tube, she began to feel the first sour leaking of despair—what could be said, learned, shared in such little time?
There was a vid map beside the portal on the ninety-first floor. She searched it until she found the room and the straightest route, then went quickly, gripping the handrail for support, along the endless corridors, past the little tableaux of sickness framed where a door here or there stood open, and finally to the designated room, a closed door.
She would have waited. She wanted to wait, to gather up a few dangling threads, reweave a place or two that had lately worn through. But the physician in the pneumo-tube had stolen that possibility. So she took in a thin new breath and touched one wobbly thumb to the admit disk. The door opened, waited for her, closed behind her. She stood just inside, stood very straight, with her hands hanging open beside her thighs.
The man whose name was Dhavir Stahl was fitting together the pieces of a masters-level holoplex, sitting on his bed, cross-legged under a light sheet, with the scaffolding of the puzzle in front of him on the bed table and its thousands of tiny elements jumbled around him on the sheets. He glanced at Teo from under the ledge of his eyebrows while he worked. He had that vaguely anxious quality all East Europeans seemed to carry about their eyes. But his mouth was good, a wide mouth with creases lapping around its corners—creases where his smile would fit. And he worked silently, patiently.
“I would speak with you,” Teo said.
He was tolerant, even faintly apologetic. “Did you look at the file, or just the door code? I’ve already turned down offers from a priest and a psychiatrist and, this morning, somebody from narcotics. I just don’t seem to need any deathbed comforting.”
“I am Teo.”
“What is that? One of the research divisions?”
His mouth made nearly a smile, perhaps embarrassment, or puzzlement.
“They hadn’t told you my name, then,” she said.
And finally he took it in. His face seemed to tighten, all of it pulling back toward his scalp as the skin shrinks from the skull of a corpse, so that his mouth was too wide and there was no space left for smiling.
“They seem to have a good many arbitrary rules,” Teo said. “They refused me this meeting, your name even. And you, mine, it appears. I could not—I had a need to know.”
She waited raggedly through a very long silence. Her palms were faintly damp, but she continued to hold them open beside
her legs. Finally Dhavir Stahl moved, straightened a little, perhaps took a breath. But his eyes stayed with Teo.
“You look healthy,” he said. It seemed a question.
She made a slight gesture with one shoulder, a sort of shrugging off. “I have lost motor skills.” And in a moment, because he continued to wait, she added, “I am losing ability to walk. To use my hands. The cerebellum is evidently quite diseased. They first told me I would die. Then they said no, maybe not, and they sent me here.”
He had not moved his eyes from her. One of his hands lightly touched the framework of the puzzle as a blind man would touch a new face, but he never took his eyes from Teo. Finally she could not bear that, and her own eyes skipped out to the window to the dark sheets of rain flapping beneath the overcast.
“You are not what I expected,” he said. When her eyes came round to him again, he made that near smile and forced air from his mouth—not a laugh, a hard sound of bleak amusement. “Don’t ask! God, I don’t know what I expected.” He let go the puzzle and looked away finally, looked down at his hands, then out to the blank vid screen on the wall, the aseptic toilet in the corner. When he lifted his face to her again, his eyes were very dark, very bright, she thought he might weep. But he said only, “You are Asian.” He was not quite asking it.
He nodded without surprise or interest. “Do you climb?”
She lifted her shoulders again, shrugging. “We are not all Sherpa bearers,” she said with a prickly edge of impatience.
There was no change at his mouth, but he fell silent and looked away from her. Belatedly she felt she might have shown more tolerance. Her head began to ache a little from a point at the base of the skull. She would have liked to knead the muscles along her shoulders. But she waited, standing erect and stiff and dismal, with her hands hanging, while the time they had together went away quickly and ill used.
Dhavir Stahl raised his arms, made a loose, meaningless gesture in the air, then combed back his hair with the fingers of both hands. His hair and his hands seemed very fine. “Why did you come?” he said, and his eyelashes drew closed, shielding him as he spoke.
There were answers that would have hurt him again. She sorted through for one that would not. “To befriend you,” she said, and saw his eyes open slowly. In a moment he sighed. It was a small sound, dry and sliding, the sound a bare foot makes in sand. He looked at the puzzle, touched an element lying loose on the bed, turned it round with a fingertip. And round.
Without looking toward her, he said, “Their computer has me dead at four-oh-seven-fourteen. They’ve told you that, I guess. There’s a two percent chance of miscalculation. Two or three, I forget. So anyway, by four thirty.” His mouth was drawn out thin.
She thought, You will not have time to finish your puzzle.
She said, “They would have given you another artificial heart.”
He lifted his face, nearly smiled again. “They told you that? Yes. Another one. I wore out my own and one of theirs.” He did not explain or justify. He simply raised his shoulders, perhaps shrugging, and said, “That’s enough.” He was looking toward
her, but his eyes saw only inward. She waited for him. Finally he stirred, turned his palms up, studied them.
“Did they—I wasn’t expecting a woman. Men and women move differently. I didn’t think they’d give a man’s cerebellum to a woman.” He glanced at Teo, taking her in, all of her. “And you’re small. I’m, what, twenty kilos heavier, half a meter taller? I’d think you’d have some trouble getting used to the way I move. Or anyway the way my brain tells my body to move.” He was already looking at his hands again, rubbing them against each other with a slight papery sound.
“They told me I would adapt to it,” Teo said. “Or the new cerebellum could be retaught.”
His eyes skipped up to her as if she had startled or frightened him. His mouth moved too, sliding out wide to show the sharp edge of his teeth. “They didn’t tell me that,” he said from a rigid grin.
It was a moment before she was able to find a reason for his agitation. “It won’t they said it wouldn’t reduce the donor’s sense of self.”
After a while, after quite a while, he said, “What word did they use? They wouldn’t have said ‘reduce.’ Maybe ‘correct’ or ‘edit out.’?” His eyes slid sideways, away from her, then back again. His mouth was still tight, grimacing, shaping a smile that wasn’t there. “They were at least frank about it. They said the cerebellum only runs the automatic motor functions, the skilled body movements. They said they would have expected—no, they said they would have liked—a transplanted cerebellum to be mechanical. A part, like a lung or a kidney. The ‘mind’ ought to be all in the forebrain. They told me there wouldn’t be any donor consciousness, none at all, if they could figure out how to stop it.”
In a moment he was able to drop his eyes from Teo. He sat with his long, narrow hands cupped on his knees and stared at the scaffolding of his puzzle. She could hear his breath sliding in and out, a contained and careful sound. Finally he selected an element from among the thousands around him on the bed, turned it solemnly in his hands, turned it again, then reached to fit it into the puzzle, deftly finding a place for it among the multitude of interlocking pieces. He did not look at Teo, but in a moment he said, “You don’t look scared. I’d be scared if they were putting bits of somebody else inside my head.” He slurred the words a little, and just at the end and jumped his eyes to her and away.
She made a motion to open her hands, but then, irresistibly, turned her palms in, chafing harshly against her pants legs.
She chose a word from among several possible. “Yes,” she said.
Dhavir’s eyes came up to her again with something like surprise. And then something like tenderness. The door behind Teo opened and three security people stepped inside, diminishing the size of the room with their small crowd, their turbulence. One of them extended her hand but did not quite touch Teo’s arm. “Minister Teo,” she said. Formal. Irritated.
Dhavir seemed not to register the formal address. Maybe he would remember it later, maybe not, and Teo thought probably it wouldn’t matter. They watched each other silently, Teo standing carefully erect with her hands, the hands that no longer brushed teeth nor wrote cursive script, the hands she had learned to distrust, hanging open beside her thighs, and Dhavir sitting cross-legged amid his puzzle, with his forearms resting across his knees. Teo waited. The security person touched her
elbow, beginning to draw her firmly toward the door. Her legs, her entire body, resisted this movement, whether from disability or from stubborn opposition she could not have said. Dhavir spoke her name. “Teo,” he said. She pulled her arm free and stiffened her spine to turn, to face him.
“I run lopsided,” he said. “Like a duck, I guess. “I throw my toes out or something. I’m sorry.” His slight smile was wry, apologizing for something else.
In a moment, she said, “I scuff my feet on the ground when I walk. I haven’t run in years. You and I, perhaps we will learn new ways, together.” And with infinite, excruciating care, she lifted her palms to him as if holding out a gift.