At the Center for Medical Imagining
John A. Frochio
He gradually became aware he was in a white-walled room filled with growling machinery and bustling activity, feeling no pain and no cold. The last thing he remembered was the pain and the cold.
Stifling a growing panic, David Harker took careful inventory of his situation. He was standing at one end of the room watching several people bustle around a large piece of high tech machinery, a table, and some other equipment. A young man in casual clothing attended to the machine, which looked like a huge stack of doughnuts mounted onto a conveyor belt. Spinning circles of light passed back and forth over a half-dressed man within the doughnuts. An older, burly man with a gray beard, white coat, and dark pants, and a young, attractive woman with short brown hair, glasses, and head-to-toe blue attended to another man lying on a metal table.
He took a couple steps to get a better view of their activities. He was stunned when he realized both prone bodies were spitting images of himself. Three versions of him, all together in the same room. His head began to spin.
He must be asleep and dreaming in that freaky machine, imagining he was outside looking at himself inside the machine and on the table. That didn’t make sense, but dreams often didn’t. Either that or he was dead. He felt no pain, no cold. But that still didn’t explain why there were three of him. Since everyone in the room seemed to ignore him, perhaps he was invisible to them—a ghost, a spirit.
That theory was soon shattered when the nurse looked up and directly at him. She made a strange face—a soft smile that slid into a frown—before she returned to her work.
Nurse Sally—yes, that was her name. He remembered now. And the man with her was Dr. Megalos.
As he continued to watch the activities of the medical people, more memories returned in a rush. He pieced together the events leading up to his current surreal dilemma.
He had been having recurring abdominal pains over the past six months. Lately they were getting worse and more frequent. His primary care doctor referred him to a specialist, Dr. Alexei Megalos, a prominent gastroenterologist.
After a series of tests, however, even the specialist couldn’t find the problem. It wasn’t a hiatal hernia, ulcers, reflux, gastroparesis, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or any of the usual prognoses. That’s when he suggested a new kind of MRI test called VMRI (Virtual Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that generated complete and detailed 3D virtual images of a patient’s body, allowing for thorough micro inspections. Dr. Megalos cheerfully boasted he was among the few who knew how to use this state of the art technology.
David did not feel reassured about the doctor’s claim. He felt, instead, like a happy little guinea pig who could help the good doctor advance his career.
He sent David to the Center for Medical Imaging, where a brand new VMR Imager had recently been installed.
David arrived with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Lacey. He was surprised to see his co-workers, Gary and Sri.
He shook their hands. “You guys didn’t have to come.”
Gary shrugged. “Any excuse to get away from the boss for a while.”
“I hope the company that made this machine had a thorough QA process in place.”
“And a top notch QA Analyst like you, right, Dave?”
Sri said, “It’s medical equipment. I’m sure their tests are pretty rigorous to get government approval.”
“Yeah, it’s always great when the government gets involved.”
David said, “I feel a lot better, guys. Thanks. Oh, by the way, not really.”
He laughed. A nervous laugh.
Pastor Dennis arrived shortly afterwards and said, “Oh, good. They haven’t taken you in yet. Can I have a prayer for you?”
The prayer helped settle his nerves. He needed that.
Nurse Sally came in and led him to the VMR imager room. The machine looked scary and fascinating all at the same time, with a bloated body and gaping, hungry mouth. Dr. Megalos explained the process to David as the nurse tended to him and a technician prepared the machine.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’ll be put into a deep sleep before the machine draws you inside. Revolving magnetic and radiation scans will capture images at the micro level. A complete 3D replica will be projected outside the machine onto this metal table. I will then be able to study detailed cross-sectional slices drawn from your virtual image.”
Dr. Megalos was a big, genial Greek who spoke with a booming voice and loved to laugh. He laughed when David expressed his concerns.
“No, no. Your physical body is never touched. Only your virtual image. Hopefully, with this procedure, we’ll be able to track down the cause of your pains. Don’t worry. I’ll find it. I love a challenge.”
Again, more words of little comfort.
He didn’t remember much else. Everything went dark soon after that. Until he found himself looking onto the whole scene from a corner of the room. How long had he been standing there, he didn’t know.
For a while, he watched the doctor slide virtual slices from his body, study them a while, occasionally pop up a selected section into a larger view, then return the slice for another. Sometimes he would select thin slices, sometimes thicker slices. At first it made him ill to watch the wide flat blade slice down through his body and pull out a graphic, full color cross-section. Eventually he grew accustomed to the process, as though he was simply watching an instructional video.
Everything was proceeding as the doctor had previously explained. Except for him, standing there watching, the third wheel in this picture. What was he doing there? Maybe he was dead and they didn’t realize it yet.
He needed to get some air. He went to the doorway and tried to open it. Instead, his hand passed through it. Of course! Why not? He walked through the door.
At the end of the hallway to his left, he could see inside part of the waiting room. He saw his wife talking with Gary.
He wanted to go to them, but what would he say? Would he frighten them? What would he look like to them?
Nurse Sally came out of the room and stood next to him.
She said, “You want to go to them, don’t you?”
He nodded. “You can see me. I am real.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you. We thought you would fade away by now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were our first attempt at a virtual image. But there was a flaw, so Dr. Megalos ordered another scan. He didn’t expect the flawed image to remain.”
“So I’m just a flaw, a mistake.”
She looked down and said, “Sorry.”
“But why do I feel like . . . me? David Harking. With all my thoughts, feelings, and memories. My family and friends—can they see me?”
“Not from this distance. You’re basically unsubstantial photons. If you move closer to them, they would gradually see your image. At the same time, you would begin to fade the farther you got from the machine. At least that’s the theory. You’ve already proven one of our theories wrong.”
“Why am I conscious when I’m just an image?”
“Another thing we didn’t anticipate. The technology is still very new. Somehow your consciousness was projected from your sleeping body into your virtual image. Dr. Megalos says it’s like a ventriloquist projecting his voice. The first image, the flawed one, received it, but the second image remained inert as it was intended to.
“Imagine the Doctor’s surprise when you sat up and started speaking. You were very confused. He calmly asked you to go over to a corner of the room, assuring you everything would be all right. Of course, he expected you would fade away. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
“Maybe I should start walking until I completely fade away.”
Her sharp response surprised him.
“There’s too many unknowns. We don’t know what will happen to your consciousness when you fade away. Hopefully, it will simply return to your physical body. Perhaps it’s just a replica or instance of your consciousness. We don’t know. The Doctor wants to keep you close for observation.”
She didn’t use the word catatonic when describing the potential side effect, but her implication was clear to him.
She said, “We should go back inside. The Doctor sent me to bring you back.”
They went back into the room.
The Doctor was studying a magnified image with keen interest. When he saw them, he said, “Look, look. Something’s very odd here. Something very tiny is embedded in your intestinal wall with microscopic tendrils coming out of it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
David caught his breath. “Is it—is it cancer?”
Dr. Megalos looked directly at David. “No. It’s some kind of foreign object that’s been introduced into your body, an object of nano-sized proportions.”
His mind reeled. “My employer develops nano-engineered devices. Nothing for bio-injection, however—at least not now.” This couldn’t be a coincidence.
“Could one of these devices been accidentally introduced into your body?”
He shook his head. “I don’t see how.”
“That means it was intentional.”
David walked over to the machine and stared at his still body. “Can you get it out?”
“I can, but it will be a delicate operation since the object is so small and I don’t know how easily the tendrils can be extracted.”
He paced the room, agitated.
Nurse Sally approached him and said, “Do you have any idea who might have done this and why?”
“It’s illegal and unethical. I doubt I’d get anyone to confess. We’ve been considering nano—devices introduced into the human body through ingesting liquids, but this is still in the early discussion stage and is quite controversial. If this is how they did it, anyone could have put it in my drink.”
He considered his two co-workers in the waiting room. They didn’t have to come for his procedure unless they had a vested interest. Could one of them be the perpetrator?
But they were his friends. He’d known them and worked with them for years. He couldn’t imagine either of them doing something like this.
Did they receive an offer from some foreign interest to develop a new nano-injection technology—an offer they couldn’t refuse?
But these were his friends . . .
“Dr. Megalos, I have an idea. Go out and talk to my family and co-workers. Tell them you found a small foreign object in my body and you need to operate immediately to remove it.”
“That statement is truer than you think. I do want to schedule surgery as soon as possible.”
“Then come back and tell me the reactions of my co-workers. It’s hard for me to believe, but I suspect one of them did this.”
The Doctor went out. David stepped through the door to watch. After the Doctor finished his announcement and left the room, he watched Gary and Sri step outside and talk excitedly with one another.
Both of them? He was shocked. He felt hurt, betrayed.
The Doctor returned. As David turned to follow him inside, he noticed his co-workers start to head this way.
“I think you hit a nerve, Doctor. They’re on their way.”
“What do you mean?”
“My co-workers are coming here. I don’t know what they plan to do. Do you have a place you can hide?”
The Doctor pointed. “The back room.”
“Go. And call security. I’ll stall them.”
As the Doctor and Nurse hurried through the back door, David stretched out on the table with his doppelganger, superimposing himself through his image. Seconds later Gary and Sri burst into the room.
They froze. As their eyes panned the room, David waited a moment, then spoke in a calm voice: “Gary, Sri, why did you do this to me? I thought you were my friends.”
He sat up slowly, leaving his other virtual image behind on the table.
Caught off guard, neither responded. Gary’s eyes glazed over. Intense fear crossed Sri’s face, and he trembled.
“Your implant is killing me. Why did you do it?”
Sri spoke rapidly. “It—it wasn’t supposed to kill you. Gary and I developed a nano-implant for monitoring bodily systems. We could never get approval, so we did the work on our own time. We needed a test subject. It seemed harmless enough. We never expected it would hurt you.”
Gary said, “You’re no ghost. What is this, some kind of spooky 3D projection to scare us?” He looked around the room. “Where are you?”
David stood up from the table and walked over to the machine. “Look inside the machine. See my dying body? What you two have done is illegal and unethical. I don’t think they can save me now. It’s too late. You’ll be charged with murder.”
Gary said, “No, we’re going to get you out of here, get our implant back.” He went to the machine and reached inside. “Sri, come grab his legs.”
Sri didn’t move.
“Sri! Snap out of it!”
Sri spoke as though in a trance. “He’s a ghost. We killed him.”
“No, idiot, he’s just a projection.”
David said, “Am I, Gary? He walked over to Gary and put his face inches away from his. He stared into Gary’s widening eyes with his high resolution 3D blue eyes. He watched him squirm.
“You were my friend.”
Gary tried to push him away, but his hands passed through him. He stumbled to his knees.
Sri backed against a wall. “You see? It’s an evil spirit. We have to confess.”
Gary staggered to his feet. “They wouldn’t let us do our independent research. We had to break the rules. None of this needed to happen if they only would’ve listened to reason.”
He reached again for David’s physical body.
“Help me, Sri. We have to get him out of here.”
“We can’t, Gary. We’ve gone too far. I’m sorry, David. Forgive me.”
Two security guards burst into the room, brandishing guns. David stepped back, inadvertently passing into the machine and effectively disappearing from sight.
Doctor Megalos and Sally came back into the room. The Doctor said, “Have these men arrested. They tried to harm my patient.”
Gary held up a remote and pressed several buttons. In the machine, David’s body began to twitch and thrash about. David felt his virtual body twitch.
Gary said, “See! He’s ours. He belongs to us.”
One guard grabbed Gary, knocking the remote from his hand. The other guard took hold of a motionless Sri. As the guards hauled them away, Gary struggled and screamed, “Our research will benefit all mankind. We’ll be rich and famous.” Sri went without resistance, his head lowered.
After they were gone, David stepped out of the machine shaking. The Doctor picked up the remote and studied it a moment. He pressed a button and both physical and virtual Davids stopped shaking.
David shook his head. “I thought they were my friends.”
The Doctor said, “I think it’s time to turn off the machine and see what happens.”
David sighed. “That’s what I was thinking, too. I can’t go on like this.”
Nurse Sally offered a comforting smile and said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Afterwards I’ll tell your family what really happened. And I’ll schedule your surgery. The sooner we get that thing out of you the better.”
“Doctor, I meant to ask. What was the flaw that you found in this image? I didn’t notice anything different. Was it the fact that I was conscious?”
“Certainly that anomaly was unexpected and will require further investigation. However, you were clearly flawed before you began to speak. You see, a few pieces were missing from your virtual body, including your neck. With your head floating above your body like that, you must have appeared pretty frightening to your co-workers.”
David tried to look down at his body, but didn’t have a clear view of his flaws.
Doctor Megalos went over to the control panel.
“Are you ready?”
David nodded and held his breath. Everything went dark.
And the darkness dissolved into whiteness and blurred images. Heaven or Earth? He wasn’t sure. Soon he felt the soft cushioning of a bed. He felt cold and pain. No, this couldn’t be Heaven.
He realized he was going to miss being pain free, even if it was in a flawed version of himself. But he would get over it.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. He is semi-retired, working part-time supporting computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times, Aurora Wolf, SciFan Magazine, Helios Quarterly, Time Travel Tales, Visions VII: Universe, and 2047: Short Stories From Our Common Future, The Chronos Chronicles, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years. His author’s webpage is https://johnafrochio.wordpress.com/about/.