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:
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
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
"Yeah," I said, "It's like..."
"Tiny poking and prodding, like something's digging
at you," The Doctor finished.
"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 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
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
"Why do you suppose this isn't making me feel any
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
"Malaise" won first
place for short fiction from the 2002 National League of
American Pen Women Soul-Making Writing Contest.