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By Joe Gold

I can't say, exactly, what's been bothering me. All I know for sure is that lately I haven't been feeling right. You know, sluggish, not quite with it, like the everyday just isn't worth the trouble and I'm just going in circles. Ever feel like that?

At first I didn't pay attention to the rashes. But they've swollen to painful sores, and new irritations seem to be popping up everywhere. I'm not breathing so well, either. I sort of wheeze along.

I put myself into the hands of the medics. They scanned me sixteen ways to Tuesday, in every direction, isolating my breathing, my circulation, my digestion, my I-don't-know-what-all, examining my every molecule, it seemed, encoded into data that's supposed to tell them what's ailing me.

Maybe. Usually what they want is more tests.

More tests it was. They smothered me to check out respiration and got all involved in movement of oxygen. Then they gouged me with some story about possible mineral deficiencies. Some sort of problem came up with their instruments, I think, measuring radiation. They don't tell me a thing, but I could hear them mumbling with what sounded like concern, then ran off to their computers to enter more data until they had generated a working model of my body that will tell them what they won't tell me for months.

And all this time I'm not feeling so hot. Waiting, spinning, going through the motions. Work doesn't matter any more. I've done it a billion times and it doesn't change. But I change. I feel like I've grown so much older all of a sudden, so tired and slow.

I waited. What else could I do? I looked at the stars, keeping their cruel distance, and the planets dancing to their endless tune, and wondered if my once proud body was just crumbling to stardust so I could join the ages.

How is it we feel so vitally important when none of us matters in the scheme of the cosmos? So I'm crumbling to dust before my time. Does it matter in a universe that goes on forever in every direction? I doubt it. Some of us die young. So what?

Maybe if I were used to this I could live with it. But oh, how they admired me once. The medics talked about me in their classes as a standard of biological excellence, the very picture of vitality and life.

Those rashes are itching. Itching hell, my skin is crawling. Breathing is definitely harder. I'm coughing, too.

Finally, a message comes:

Preliminary analysis indicates the presence of Factors that appear to warrant Further Inspection. All Secondary Examinations indicate positive for Specific Ailment.

The next fourteen paragraphs were legal disclaimers that absolve them of any responsibility, even if they're dead wrong. But down at the end, the line stood there by itself, short, simple, and without comment:

The Doctor will contact you in a year.

I read it three times. A shudder went straight through my body. The object of all this medical crap is to get to The Doctor, but most patients never do. Instead, they're siphoned out of the system, prescribed something useful and told to get in touch if the problem persists. Usually, that's the end of it. More serious problems are sent on their merry way to treatment. Only a few, perhaps one in a thousand, the cases where all the medical miracles weren't enough, when the therapies and remedies and specialties fell short—only they ever see The Doctor.

I didn't know whether to rejoice at beating the system, or dread this condition whose very name mocked me with vagueness. I spent that whole apparently endless year spreading the word: "Oh, it's all right, I have Specific Ailment." And feeling like hell, I might add. But the looks I got, the horror, the elation, the awe when I told them The Doctor was going to contact me. Other than that I itched and burned, felt nauseated, and dragged myself around. And decided any life decision, no matter how drastic, was better than this.

Today I saw The Doctor.

Actually, one doesn't exactly "see" The Doctor. He's too busy, too far away for that. But we talked. And I'll tell you, I liked his voice. I guess that's pretty important in the Doctor business. Just that deep, sure, sympathetic tone. Like he feels my pain with me, you know?

First he said I had a malaise. I asked if this was going to be any better than Specific Ailment.

"No," he said, "no better at all."

I was nervous and forgot my manners. "You're shitting me."

I could almost hear him smile, an easy smile that settled over me like an oversized coat. "I wouldn't 'shit' my patients. But as long as we're on the subject, are your bowels sore?"

"Yeah," I said, "It's like..."

"Tiny poking and prodding, like something's digging at you," The Doctor finished.

"Uh-huh."

"Something is," he said.

All the waiting, the months of preparing questions, sharpening my remarks, bemoaning my Specific Ailment—it was worthless.

I grabbed hold of his voice.

"We investigated blockages in your circulation and respiration. They are real. And they are related. Your skin problems are acute. The rashes are further symptoms of the same problem. Your oxygen level shows slight but definite signs of deterioration—so far. Your mineral deficiencies are in a little worse shape, but not critical by any means. We are more concerned with radiation far in excess of normal.

"But you see, these are only symptoms. While the symptoms are difficult enough, they are not so terribly dangerous. We discovered the true nature of your ailment."

He stopped, the worst thing he could have done, leaving me breathless holding on for the answer that could come only from The Doctor. These moments while he focused his thoughts were longer than the year I had waited. I had so many questions, but I managed to ask only one. "Is it going to kill me?"

He didn't answer right away. For a moment I thought he had vanished, that the appointment was over, that my rudeness had culminated in asking the wrong question.

His voice returned, and I heard the tension beneath the velvet tones. "Not deliberately it won't kill you. But it could."

"Deliberately? My malaise has a will?"

"Of sorts. You have a parasite."

That stopped me. All my exotic images of what might be tearing me apart had never included this. He waited for me to ask a question. I waited for him to tell me more.

"The year you waited, I directed the examination. The parasite is complex and aggressive. Much of your problem stems from your having been so vibrantly alive and healthy to begin with. Organisms found you a warm, wet, hospitable place, and indeed you are. They multiplied rapidly, often in great clusters, which are the rashes that plague your skin. It's perfectly normal, even desirable to have life within you. Your health was vigorous enough to sustain millions of species, and their growth contributes to you vitality. I've seen it time and again."

The Doctor seemed off on a tangent. "But in my case?" I begged.

I heard the smile come back into his voice, I heard my own pain coming back to me. "In your case there is one aggressive, virulent parasite species among the others. They gouge the minerals from your skin, reshape it more to their liking, and dump their waste into your circulatory system. The radiation problem is the newest phenomenon. This, too, is not so troublesome by itself. But it is a warning that the situation is deteriorating and could get much worse."

I think I felt them, really felt them, these tiny and prolific parasites that did what they pleased with my body, without so much as a kiss or a thank you, disfiguring me, plundering my vital organs.

The Doctor had more bad news. "They're hell to get rid of."

"Why do you suppose this isn't making me feel any better?"

He's a smart Doctor. He ignored my anxious impertinence.

"You see, usually the competition for survival is enough to keep any one parasite from subduing the rest, and at the same time overcome natural obstacles to existence. Your host body establishes limits. But these parasites blast through limits. Whatever treatment the medics could provide you, the parasites are able to discern and defeat."

His voice looked me straight in the eye. I caught my breath as best I could and damned the bugs that had done this to me.

"You have humans."

Except for what he had told me, I had no concept of the word. But there was a tragedy in his voice when he said it, enough to send a shudder all through my body. I cried, dropping a sudden storm into my South Pacific that raged on for days.

He had more bad news.

"They are spreading. What they have done to your skin is build massive colonies, where they conduct their microscopic business, and scratched all up and down your land masses with roads and plumbing. They use radioactive materials to power these cities—and to fight one another.

"If we can't defeat them, it's possible that the best treatment is to let the disease defeat itself with its own belligerence. You would be battered with radiation, and if you think you're uncomfortable now, you'll find it sheer misery for the brief time the battle should last. But..."

For all the long wait, for the horrors I could imagine, none of it compared to how I loathed these filthy microorganisms that drained me, beat me, choked me and trashed my hide, so aggressive they could be destroyed only by themselves. I felt unclean.

"But there is no guarantee that they will completely obliterate each other. Many of them could lurk about after the battle." There was an urgent tone under that placid voice, something that suggested this was more important than any individual patient who was, in the end, expendable. I heard his eyes. They sounded afraid. "We have to stop them. Now." Once more I trembled, sending mountain ranges quaking in my northern hemisphere.

"We have evidence that their infestation has touched your moon. This, too, is not yet a problem. But the fact that they have the capability to spread themselves beyond your body is serious. There are six billion of them. Once they spread, these humans could infect your moon and eventually the planets beyond."

His voice carried a message beneath the words: the cure would be uncomfortable. "Their extraordinary adaptability is a problem. But they are more fragile creatures than even they suspect. They absolutely depend on your climate being reasonably steady, on the air you give them and the solar energy you absorb. If you keep up your tremors you'll make them uncomfortable, and maybe even get rid of a few million. Standard treatments for reducing your oxygen level take a few thousand years just to set up, and that's enough time for them to find a way to stymie us."

I was growing dizzy, feeling the abrasions, knowing the affliction was tearing me to pieces, this parasite that called me home. "Is there nothing we can do?"

"You might," The Doctor ventured slowly, "take a vacation."

I giggled. A vacation felt better already. But a cure?

"We would have to act quickly. But I can get you out of this orbit, shift you to a much more eccentric ellipse. You'd start by diving in toward the sun, perhaps to about Mercury's orbit. This should burn off the surface infestation in a few months, along with most everything else on your skin. Then you swing a billion miles out past Saturn and freeze anything that might have survived the heat. Three orbits like that and you'll be ready for a nice comfortable circle again."

I could feel it already, that warmth from Sol growing as I dive, the sluggishness from the growing heat, with no relief as I come screaming in to searing nuclear fire that would incinerate the damned bugs, sear every living thing on me, boiling away much of my precious oceans, leaving me a scorched hunk of rock like my poor naked moon.

And I knew it would be far worse than anything my imagination could conjure.

The best part was that it would be over in a few months. Then all I could look forward to was a long, achingly cold winter with little to do but slow down as I got farther from Sol and listen to Saturn prattle about her fancy rings.

"I guess that would kill off just about everything," I said.

The Doctor's voice returned slowly. "Yes. You'd be as lifeless as some of your brother planets. But you'd keep some of your atmosphere. Some life could return in just a few thousand years, but it would take you millions more years to regenerate complex life and return you to healthy vitality.

"But I must warn you that once your condition is the same as it was a billion years ago, that eventually something similar could start the process all over again."

I thought of the work I had done in the past billion years, of the place I made for these lives that I spawned, these incredible parasites that had the wherewithal to rape me as they pleased. And I thought of these astonishing creatures, born of my water, soil and air, who had dared to venture even beyond that.

"These humans, I take it, have intelligence?"

The Doctor grunted. "In a manner of speaking."

"Then why don't we just ask them to leave?"

I heard The Doctor chuckle, with the same warm tone that made it so easy for me to trust him. I felt his smile.

"Why not?" he said. "But they have nowhere to go. It is you who sustains them."

"And they who show such undying gratitude." I sobbed. A tidal wave crashed into my Asian shores. "Do you suppose we could make a deal with them?"

It was The Doctor's turn to sigh. "It may be our only hope."



"Malaise" won first place for short fiction from the 2002 National League of American Pen Women Soul-Making Writing Contest. To the Top