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December 08, 2004

Chapter Seventeen

Carl opened his door and squinted out at us. "This had better be good," he said.

It was not quite four am.

"It is," I assured him.

Carl tightened his bathrobe and turned away from the door. "Fine. Stop hanging around on my doorstep, then. The cops around here arrest anyone who's not in a house or in a car."

Joshua, Miranda and I walked into the house. Carl had lumbered off towards his kitchen. When we caught up to him, he was stuffing coffee into a filter.

"All I can say is that you're lucky Elise is in Sacramento," he said. "She would have pepper sprayed first, asked questions later." He shoved the filter into the coffee maker and flipped the switch to start brewing. He turned around, and finally got a good look at me.

"God, Tom," he said. "Who did that to you?"

"I did," Miranda said.

"That was quick," Carl said. "Most couples don't get to the hitting stage until after the wedding."

"Carl," I said.

"All right," he said. "What is it?"

"We need some moral guidance," I said.

Carl laughed. "Tom, I'm an agent," he said. He stopped laughing when he realized that no one else was. "Go on," he said, grumpily.

I explained the events of the evening; discovering Michelle's condition, my body-switching suggestion, Joshua's refusal. Joshua and I had argued about it for another hour after that point, stopping just long enough to be booted out of the room by the nurse, who gave me a lecture for bringing a dog into the ICU. Joshua and I continued the argument in the parking lot, neither of us giving any ground to the other, before Miranda suggested that we bring Carl into the discussion. Miranda had meant for us to bring it up in the morning, but Joshua and I decided it need to be dealt with at that moment. We drove to Carl's place, Joshua riding with Miranda to keep us from killing each other.

By the end of the recount, the coffee was ready. Carl got down three cups, poured and gave me and Miranda both a cup. After a moment's reflection, he pulled down a bowl, filled it with coffee, and set it down in front of Joshua.

"This is an interesting philosophical debate," Carl said. "But I'm still not sure what you want out of me."

"Easy," Joshua said. "We want you to pick a side. I'd prefer you pick mine."

"Joshua, this isn't a bar bet," Carl said, irritably. "It's not a matter of choosing sides. And if I sided with Tom, I doubt you'd do what he's asking of you, anyway."

"You're right," Joshua said. "I guess we woke you up for nothing. We should be leaving. Thanks for the coffee."

"Sit, Joshua," Carl said.

"Hey," Joshua said. "That's not funny."

"Tom," he said, turning to me. "You realize if Joshua is right about how Michelle died, he's also right in his position of not bringing her back."

"Why?" I said. "Carl, Michelle is gone. She doesn't need the body any more. And we can use it. You know this makes sense."

Beside me, Miranda gave a shudder and set her coffee down on the countertop.

"Something wrong?" Carl said.

"I'm sorry," Miranda said. "I understand where Tom's coming from, but the thought of having Joshua inside Michelle's body gives me the creeps. All I can see in my head is Michelle as a zombie. It just feels wrong in my gut." She glanced at me, then glanced away. "I'm sorry, Tom. But that's the way I feel."

"Go with that feeling," Joshua said.

"Oh, shut up," I said, to Joshua.

"Christ," Carl said. "You two are worse than kids in a back seat. Tom, if Michelle wanted to die, then let her die. All of her. Michelle's body is Michelle. Unlike Joshua's people, our souls, if we have them, appear permanently attached to our body. Michelle has her right to die, not to be shuffled around like a puppet."

"Yes. Right. Thank you," Joshua said.

"You're welcome," Carl said, and then slurped at his coffee. "But I'm not on your side, either."

"What do you mean?" Joshua said.

"Joshua, let me ask you a question," Carl said. "What would you do if you discovered that Michelle had actually wanted to live?"

"She didn't," Joshua said. "I saw the memory of her pulling the tubes out myself. It was a conscious, active act. It couldn't have happened by accident."

"That may be," Carl said. "But that's not relevant to the question I'm asking."

"Sure it is," Joshua said. "Because that's what happened."

"Fine," Carl said. "Hypothetically, then. If you were to come across a situation that was a near duplicate of our Michelle's situation, with the only variation being that the person in the coma had wanted to live, would you inhabit her body, if asked by someone in Tom's situation?"

"No," Joshua said, "because that hypothetical person would still have severe brain damage, which would mean I could never control that body."

"Let's take as a given that some way could be found around that."

"That's a mighty big given," Joshua said.

"That's the magic of hypotheticals, Joshua," Carl said. "You can make the givens as big as you need them. Now stop stalling and answer the question."

"I don't know what I'd do," Joshua said. "Even if the situation fulfilled all the conditions you described, there's still this huge grayness to it. There's no way I could make the decision and feel absolutely sure I was morally in the right. If I was wrong, I'd be branded a murderer by the Yherajk."

"Even if we had urged you to do it?" Carl said.

"Carl, with all due respect, you're not a Yherajk," Joshua said. "You don't fully understand the implications of what you'd be asking. It's just not in your frame of reference."

"But you have my thoughts and memories in you," Carl said. "They're human thoughts. You should be able to know whether or not I, at least, understand the implications."

"Yes, but I'm not human," Joshua said. "There's a chance I could misread what's there, just as much as you could misread us."

"You'll admit to the potential for error?" Carl said.

"Well, shucks, Carl," Joshua said. "Nobody's perfect."

"So, theoretically, if there was some way that you could know that it was morally kosher, that you could somehow control the body and that Michelle had actually wanted to live, you could inhabit the body."

"Yes," Joshua said. "Throw me a sparkler and a kazoo, and I'd sing 'Yankee Doodle' while I was doing it, too."

"Well, then," Carl said. "Your problems are solved."

Joshua turned to me. "Tom, did you just follow that last turn of logic?"

"Not at all," I said. "You've managed to lose both me and Joshua, Carl."

"I got it," Miranda said.

"Ah," Carl said. "The smart one finally speaks. Would you please enlighten our little boys, Miranda?"

"Joshua, you just said what you needed in order to feel comfortable with what Tom is asking you to do," Miranda said. "Now all you have to do is do it."

"I said nothing of the sort," Joshua said.

"Yes you did," Miranda said. "You have three conditions: that you know it's moral, that you know it's technically possible, and that you know Michelle wanted to live."

"But we were dealing in hypotheticals," Joshua said. "I don't know why I have to keep bringing this up, but Michelle killed herself. She wanted to die."

"We don't know that," Carl said.

"Carl," Joshua said. "I saw the playback."

"But you said yourself a few moments ago there was a potential for error," Carl said. "You said that there was a chance you could misinterpret emotions and motivations."

"Pulling out your air supply is pretty straightforward action, Carl," Joshua said.

"The action is. What I'm interested in here is the emotion behind the action," Carl said. "Joshua, people act like they're killing themselves all the time around here. But a lot of them don't really want to die. They just like the attention they get afterwards. Or they don't truly comprehend that dying means death. Teenagers try to kill themselves all the time, because they want to see how people will react once they're gone. They don't make the connection they won't be there to see the reaction."

"Michelle wasn't a teenager," Joshua said.

"No, but she was a movie star, which on the maturity scale is pretty close," Carl said. "She was 25, worth millions, and people never told her no."

He pointed over to me. "Tom couldn't say no to her. He just tried to get her a part she had no business trying for, because he didn't want to say no to her."

I took that moment to pay especially close attention to my coffee cup. I could see where Carl was going, but it didn't make that last statement any less painful.

"When someone finally did say no to her, she got depressed and moody, and decided to make a statement. But that doesn't mean she really wanted to die," Carl said. He set his coffee cup down. "Now, if Michelle wanted to die, then we should let her die. Simple. But if she wanted to live, then, in a way, we can make that happen. Point is, we don't know what she wanted. We only have your version of the event."

"Then we have a stalemate," Joshua said. "Because I'm the only one that can get into her brain."

"No, you're not," Carl said. "You're just the only one on this planet."

Joshua and I exchanged looks again. Carl being inscrutable was really beginning to annoy me.

"What are you saying?" I said to Carl.

"We need a second opinion," Carl said. "Fortunately, we have a whole spaceship full of them."

"I don't want to take Joshua's side in this," I said, "But if we can't trust Joshua's take on Michelle's suicide, I don't see how getting another Yherajk's opinion is going to help anything."

"We don't need a Yherajk for the opinion," Carl said. "We need one to act as a conduit. Yherajk can connect into our nervous systems; that much is obvious, since Joshua looked at Michelle's, and my memories were downloaded to the entire ship's community. Now we just need it to go the other way, to let a human look at the memory. And I have just the Yherajk to do it."

The light suddenly went on in my head. "Gwedif," I said.

"Bingo," Carl said. "He's done it before, and, as it happens, is the only Yherajk around that wasn't one of Joshua's parents. As far as these things go, he's the most objective party."

"I'm not following any of this anymore," Miranda said.

"I'll explain it later," I said. "Promise."

"I'm waiting to hear how you're going to get an alien through security at Pomona Valley Hospital," Joshua said. "We're fresh out of dog bodies."

"If Mohammed can't go to the mountain, the mountain will go to Mohammed," Carl said. "We can't bring Gwedif to Michelle. So we'll take Michelle to Gwedif."

"Go to the spaceship?" I asked.

"Of course," Joshua smirked. "That's so much easier."

"Joshua, it's the only way," Carl said. "Think about it. Suppose we find that you were in error. That solves one of our problems. But then we have two other issues to deal with: trying to find a way you can successfully inhabit Michelle's body, and making sure it's morally right to do it. We need to confer with the other Yherajk on each of these. She has to go to the Ionar."

"How do you suggest we get Michelle there?" Joshua asked. "We won't even be able to get her out of Pomona Valley. They've got tabloid reporters covering all the exits, Carl. They're going to know if we try to move Michelle."

"Let me worry about getting Michelle out of the hospital," Carl said. "You worry about arranging the rest of the trip."

Joshua sat there for a minute, considering. "All right," he said, finally. "I still have problems with this, but I'll get in touch with the Ionar. We'll see what they have to say up there." He padded off towards Carl's study.

"Where is he going?" Miranda asked.

"To the computer," Carl said. "I set up an America Online account for him and the Ionar. It's a non-conspicuous way for them to communicate."

"How does the Ionar sign on?" I asked.

"Well, it's a hell of a long-distance call," Carl said.


The e-mail response from the Ionar was brief. You idiots, it said. You were supposed to solve problems, not make them. Haul her up here.


Here's how you get one of the most popular actress in the United States out of a hospital without anyone noticing.

First, you let it leak that your actress is going to be moved. This is a simple matter of having the appropriate doctor causally mention the fact to one of the nursing staff. From there it spreads like an airborne virus. From the staff, it logically goes to the press; despite Mike Mizuhara's best efforts, some of his staff was in the pocket of the tabloids. It's not just the custodial staff, either -- you'd be surprised at what a cardiac surgeon pulling down $300,000 a year will do for an extra thousand bucks. It was time to let this blatant self-interest work for us.

At 9 pm, an ambulance pulls up to the emergency entrance of Pomona Valley. Nearly as soon as it pulls up, someone is hustled into it on a stretcher. The stretcher is effectively blocked from view by a clutch of burly orderlies and doctors -- Only the briefest of flashes show the blonde hair that give those watching (and taping) a clue as to who it might be. The ambulance pulls away, with much slamming of doors, flashing of lights, and wailing of sirens, followed by a caravan of hastily-gotten-into cars. Two of these cars are in a slight fender bender as they rush out of the parking lot; neither driver bothers to stop as they speed after the receding ambulance.

That's the decoy ambulance.

Roughly twenty minutes later, a medical helicopter screams overhead, dropping dramatically into the Pomona Valley parking lot, as Pomona Valley has no helipad. The doors to the emergency entrance burst open, and a stretcher races to the helicopter, orderlies and doctors in a full sprint. On the way, a woman's arm slips off the stretcher and dangles, her IV tube fluttering with the speed of the stretcher's journey. As the stretcher approaches the helicopter, the side doors launch open; in one unbelievably smooth motion the stretcher is lifted into the helicopter and the doors slammed shut.

The helicopter is lifting off even as the ducking orderlies scurry away, its final destination telegrammed, perhaps, by the lettering on the tail of the copter: Cedars Sinai Medical Center. This time, a smaller contingent of cars flies out of the parking lot, their drivers fiddling with their scanners in an attempt to grab the frequency the helicopter is on, or yammering on cellular phones, trying to contact the editor at the home office whose job it is to listen to the scanners.

That's the decoy medical helicopter.

The next ambulance ambles in 10 minutes later. This time around, there's no mad rush; the press has been rousted out of the blinds, so now Michelle can be taken to her destination safely, securely, and at sane speeds. Only two orderlies and one doctor accompany the stretcher to the ambulance. In a few minutes she's in; the doctor confers briefly with the paramedics, then walks away as they step back into their rig and drive away, no lights, no sirens, and proceed normally toward the 10 freeway. Only one car, bearing one smart, experienced reporter, follows. Patience is a virtue -- it shall be rewarded.

That's the second decoy ambulance.

The real ambulance rolls in, lights flashing but no siren, as the other ambulance exits. The orderlies and the doctor, heading back into the hospital, turn around. Inside this ambulance is a man who appears to be having a stroke; the doctor does a quick assessment as the paramedics unload the patient, and rushes him through the emergency door. As the door opens on one side, it opens on the other, and another stretcher pops out and into the back of the ambulance, just like that. There's only two orderlies this time -- me and Miranda. We go in the ambulance with the stretcher. The paramedics close the doors behind us.

Mike Mizuhara and Dr. Adams were, of course, adamantly against moving Michelle. By now they knew she was never coming out of the coma, and were pressing us to let them do what they could to make her comfortable, to see out the process that began at their hospital. Dr. Adams in particular was bitter about my decision to move Michelle; he relented only after I had promised that he would be able to actively consult with the doctors that were continuing her care. It was a lie, of course, since the doctors continuing her care were 50,000 miles in orbit and not doctors in any conventional sense of the word. But that's not really something I could discuss without a long explanation, or without being committed to psychiatric observation by Dr. Adams.

The ambulance pulled away and got on the 10 heading east. Two miles later it exited, drove behind an Albertson's supermarket and stopped. That was where the paramedics got out. Their cars were stashed there. They weren't paramedics; they were out-of-work actors with emergency medical training. Where Carl found two actors with that combination of talents in less than a day, I have no earthly idea. That's why he's the boss.

As it was, one of them was hesitant to leave Michelle. She took the time to check her respirator's function and to make sure we knew what to do if it malfunctioned. I assured her that we would be fine.

"Ted and I talked up front on the way here," she said. "Both of us would be happy to take her all the way to where she's going. We won't tell a soul. We just want to make sure she gets there in one piece."

"I believe you, and thanks," I said. "But that's really not possible."

She sighed and looked at Michelle. "Look at her," she said. "You know, a week ago, I would have done just about anything to be where she was. Now, I'd bet she'd do anything to be where I am. It's kind of funny, isn't it? Funny ironic, not funny ha-ha."

"It is," I said. "What's your name?"

"Shelia Thompson," she said.

"Shelia, if you don't mind me asking, what are you and Ted getting out this?"

"I don't know what Ted is getting," she said. "I never met him before, actually. I'm getting a part on a pilot. I don't have to audition -- do not pass go, do not collect $200, just go straight to acting. I've actually read the pilot. It's a medical drama, of all things. It's not bad. It might even have a chance to get on TV somewhere. It seemed like a smart move."

"You're not sure now?"

She shrugged. "It feels like I'm walking over Michelle Beck to do it. It's not what I expected. I hope that doesn't sound ungrateful."

"It doesn't," I said. "Listen, I never do this. But do you have an agent?"


"In a week, give me a call at Lupo Associates. My name is Tom Stein."

"I will give you a call, but not about acting," Shelia said. "I want to know to what happens to Michelle. It's going to be hanging over me until I find out. And if I find out she died, I'm going to feel partly responsible. So you'll tell me. Fair enough?"

"Fair enough," I said, and shook her hand. "Try not to worry, Shelia. Michelle's going to be all right. Really."

She smiled a little smile and walked away to her car.

Miranda stayed in the back with Michelle. I got in the front and got behind the wheel. Joshua was already in the front with me, having driven over with the actor-paramedics.

"You would think these things would be roomier in the front," Joshua said. "But they're not. I spent the last hour squashed down in the footwell. The woman paramedic had to keep her feet under her."

"I just met her," I said. "She seemed nice."

"She was," Joshua said. "The other guy, on the other hand, was a real jerk. Talked about his acting all the way over, and kept hitting on the woman. I nearly ripped out his throat with my teeth. Only the fact that he was driving kept me from doing it."

"It's good that you think these things out," I said, starting the ambulance.

"Thanks," Joshua said. "One of us has to."

"What is that supposed to mean?" I said.

"Tom," Joshua said. "If we can't bring Michelle back, what are you going to do? You can't just take her back to Pomona Valley, you know. And you can't drop her off anywhere else. And if she dies, people are going to want to know the circumstances. What are you going to do? You don't have a backup plan."

"What are you talking about," I said, turning out of the Albertson's parking lot and towards the 10. "Of course I have a backup plan."

"Really," Joshua said. "Why don't you share your backup plan with your studio audience, Tom."

"Sure," I said. "If this doesn't work, I'll be fresh out of ideas. We'll have failed. The Yherajk will have to go back. By way of compensation, you can take us back with you."

"I like it," Joshua said. "It's desperate and half-baked, but with a certain pathetic charm."

"Thanks," I said. "I just thought it up."

"I'm wondering what Miranda might think of it," Joshua said.

"Shhhh," I said. "I'm saving it for a surprise."

We got on the 10 and headed east to the 15, towards Baker.


"I can't see a damned thing," I said.

"That's the point, Tom," Joshua said. "if you can't see anything, no one else is going to see anything, either. Now shut up and turn left......now."

I swerved left onto an unpaved road that I would have missed if Joshua hadn't have pointed it out. The ambulance bounced as it slipped into the ruts left behind by years of rancher's trucks.

"Could you try to drive a little more carefully?" Miranda yelled, from the back. "I don't want to think what this is trip is doing to Michelle."

"It's not exactly paved road, Miranda," I shouted back. "We left that world behind about a half-hour ago. I'm going as carefully as I can."

The ambulance descended as I hit a ditch that wasn't there two seconds before.

"I think I just trashed the shocks," I said to Joshua.

"Tom! Carefully!" Miranda yelled.

"Sorry!" I yelled back. "Are we there yet?" I asked Joshua.

"No," Joshua said.

"Are we there yet?" I said.


"Are we there yet?"


"Are we there yet?"

"Yes," Joshua said. "Stop the car."

I stopped the ambulance.

"Thank God," Miranda said, from the back.

"I can't see anything," I said.

"You've said that before," Joshua said.

"Well, it's still true," I said.

"There's nothing to see," Joshua said. "They're not here yet."

"When are they getting here?" I asked.

"What time is it?" Joshua asked.

I looked at my watch.

There was a very large whump. The ground rattled. A wave of dust pelted the ambulance.

"Just after midnight," I said.

"Well, then, they should be here," Joshua said. "And there they are."

The cube was exactly as Carl had described it -- black, featureless, nondescript in every way except that it had just dropped out of space into the middle of nowhere.

Miranda stopped her hovering over Michelle long enough to peer out from the back. "That's our ride?" she said.

"It doesn't look like much, I know," Joshua said. "But it gets incredible mileage."

"Do we just drive into it?" I asked.

"Yep." Joshua said.

I started the ambulance and inched it forward, cutting the 50 yards separating it from the cube. Then we were inside.

"When do we leave?" I said.

"In just a minute, I'd expect," Joshua said. "Here, let me out. I've got to go help pilot this thing."

I opened my door and got out, followed by Joshua. Joshua went over to the overhanging ledge on the other side of the cube, where the pilots were; a portion of the ledge descended and allowed him to get on. I went to the back of the ambulance and opened the doors. Miranda peered out at me.

I nodded at Michelle. "How is she doing?"

"Fine, I suppose," Miranda said. "She hasn't moved or done anything since we got in the ambulance, so all things considered, I guess that's good."

"How are you doing?"

"I'm all right," Miranda said. "Actually, I think this cube is helping. If it looked like an actual spaceship, I think I might be freaking out a lot more. How long are we going to be gone?"

"I don't know," I said. "Carl was gone less than a day when he went."

"We should have packed a lunch," Miranda said. "I'm hungry already."

"I've got gum," I said.

"Hey," Miranda said. "Do you hear that?"

I stopped and listened. Not far away, and getting closer, was the sound of a car.

"Joshua!" I yelled, moving away from the ambulance. "We need to leave! Now!"

The side of the cube tore open. A dirty white Escort shot through the hole, swerving. It was heading directly towards me. I froze, which was probably not the smartest thing I could have done.

The driver of the Escort hit its brakes just in time to keep from squashing me like a bug. Then he turned off his engine, undid his seatbelt, and got out of the car. There was a small grinding sound as the automatic shoulder belt moved forward.

"Sorry about that," the driver said. "I didn't expect anyone would be standing right in front of my car."

"What in fuck's name are you doing here," I said.

"Getting my story," he said. "What's your excuse?"

It was Van Doren, of course.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:47 PM