“It just doesn’t make any sense…the patient’s cyclase enzymes are somehow not functioning properly, but the tests don’t show anything unusual…well, except for the fact that the electron micrograph images keep coming back with technical errors. Flipped images. Damn machine must be on the fritz.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. It has to be a technical error.”

“It’s funny you use that term…Clarke had an old sci-fi story by that name, about somebody who went through a CPT violation and had their body’s chirality–its ‘handedness’–reversed. They starved to death because their ‘left-handed’ body couldn’t accept ‘right-handed’ food proteins or enzymes.”

“Are you honestly suggesting that this person when though a COT violation, whatever science fiction onsense that is?”

“Of course not. But the chirality of their cyclase enzymes could be reversed somehow–it would explain everything except your bad attitude.”

“I served at Al-Qadmuto and Al-Babiels,” said Garlick. The lingering scars of tropical disease caused his voice to grow more strained and gravelly the longer he spoke.

“Were…were those on the Western Front?” Samuel said.

Garlick laughed until the bandages across his chest constricted the sound into a painful rattle. “What do they teach you children in school these days? Al-Qadmuto is in Transjordan and Al-Babiels is in Iraq.”

“I’m sorry,” Samuel said. He finished changing the bandages on Garlick’s left leg and moved onto his right. “I wasn’t alive during the war, and we only learned about the Western Front in school.”

“That’s because we won the war there,” Garlick said. “Everywhere else was more or less a miserable failure or sideshow. My unit probed against the Turks in Transjordan–with the way people talk these days, it’s a wonder anyone remembers that we ever fought the Turks alongside the Germans–and got our arses handed to us. Fell back to Al-Babiels and the rutting Turks blasted us with mustard gas until we surrendered. They’d gotten it parcel post from their friends in Berlin.”

“If you surrendered,” Samuel said, “how did you defeat the enemy?”

Garlick gave another dry rattling laugh. “Defeat? We were the ones defeated, lad. My boys and I spent the rest of the war in a prison camp, and our boys didn’t get so much as a spoonful of victory on that front until Allenby.”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably going to sound crazy.”

Dr. Teller smiled. “I hear things that ‘sound crazy’ for a living,” he said. “Most of the time they’re nothing of the sort; I make it a point never to judge.”

“I’m…I’m walking down a long hallway. An infinite hallway. It’s made of beautiful, cold crystal, faceted like a diamond and colored by the blue sky above. I’ve been walking for hours–days–before I notice something.”

“And what’s that?” said Dr. Teller.

“The walls are made out of little cells, smooth and transparent and unfaceted. And suspended in each one…is me.”

Scratching on the notepad. “You?”

“Not me as I am now–I recognize that even in the dream–but me as I was. This hallway has every moment of my entire life preserved like a bug in amber. As I walk I see what I wear and my age and my position all change, one crystal cell at a time. Eventually, I get to cells filled with me as I am in the dream: confused, disheveled, and in my pajamas.”

“How does that make you feel?” Dr. Teller asked.

“I’m…well, I’m terrified. What happens if I keep walking? What will I see? And does the crystal corridor have an end? The idea scares me more than a hundred psychos in the back seat of my car. It…it chills me to my core, as if the hallway has become ice. But I keep walking. I can’t stop.”

Now, I’d never been much of a believer in Freud, or lucid dreaming, or any of that stuff. New age hippie crap, I thought, like energy crystals or pet rocks or George McGovern.

But that was before I got sick.

It’s the stress that did it, most likely. I worry too much; plus unemployment and barely $6k of padding between me and destitution sure didn’t help. There wasn’t any money for the doctor, but then again the last time I’d gone they’d given me antibiotics for what was clearly the flu and told me to rest and drink fluids. I could do all that on my own and–as a bonus–not contribute to the creation of superbugs.

So that’s how I found myself on the couch, feverish, and too sensitive to light and sound to so much as turn on the TV. Things started kind of subtle; I’d been talking to an old girlfriend from high school for twenty minutes before I realized that she wasn’t there. After that, I decided I’d go for a swim, and turned off the gravity to float about the apartment.

Travis picked at his bandages. “I’m not afraid of dying.” He was squeezing the nurse’s call button, hoping Fiona couldn’t see.

Fiona stepped closer, pressing the muzzle of her pistol to Travis’s chest. “Good. That’ll make this easier.”

“I’m afraid of not knowing why. I’m nobody special, yet you already threw me out a window.”

“Is that all?” Fiona leaned in, whispered in Travis’s ear.

Comprehension dawned on his face. “Thank you,” he grinned. “You can hit her now.”

“Wha-” Fiona was cut off as a fire extinguisher, in the hands of a night shift nurse, clipped her from behind.

Perry tugged nervously at his collar as the ad ran on the screen. “Pifvip: for when you want to get the most out of your life.”

“Wonderful, just wonderful,” the Old Woman said after the cartoon cloud floated away on a bed of octagonal violet pills and the gentle new age music stopped. “First-rate ad copy as always, Bernard.”

Bernard flashed his expensive caps and bridgework, unnaturally white and–scuttlebutt had it–impregnated with trace amounts of uranium for that natural glow. “You’re too kind.”

“Perry! You look like you’ve swallowed a scorpion over there,” the Old Woman said. “Isn’t it about time you told us about the results of the test?”

“W-well, as we reported last month, there were no side effects detected in the initial double-blind study…”

“Excellent! Let’s call the lobbyists and get FDA approval before everything starts getting sanctimonious in an election year.”

“But,” Perry continued, “there were some…irregularities…later on.”

“What sort of irregularities?” the Old Woman asked icily.

“Well, it turns out that Pifvip has a tendency to build up in fatty tissues and…uh…interact with some other medications to form unwanted compounds,” Perry said, feeling his shirt begin to ride up as he became slick with sweat. “Hallucinogenic compounds, actually, when combined with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, and a number of other common over-the-counters.”

The Old Woman raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

“Many extended study participants reported being harassed by an entity they called the Cigar Goblin, which urged them to burn things,” Perry said. “Others reported that elemental creatures in their milkshakes were trying to suck them into a dimension of ‘lactose doom.’ One in particular was troubled by a persistent fear that the overhead lights were uncoiled ‘Elder Snails’ that would invade her brain while she slept and force her to attend night classes.”

“We call it the Cabinet of Horrors, you know,” the nurse said.

Jeremy’s eyes widened. “You’re making that up.”

“Oh no. It was donated to the hospital by Dr. Julius Rhinehart, a notorious rogue and quack who owned what they used to call a ‘cabinet of curiosities,’ a collection of wierd and deformed plants, animals, and even…body parts.”

“For real?” Jeremy was still and attentive for the first time since he’d been admitted.

“Some say that the ‘curiosities’ in Dr. Rhinehart’s cabinet were stitched together from failed experiments or patients that his vile, poisonous patent medicines killed.”

“They wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Jeremy said confidently, though there was a hint of quaver in his voice.

“Maybe not today, but back in the old days, well…anything went! Dr. Rhinehart was on the hospital’s board of directors even though he didn’t have a proper degree, after all, and people were happy to look the other way if it kept the money coming.”

“How’d the hospital get it, then?” Jeremy asked. “Is all that…stuff…still inside it?”

“Rhinehart eventually died after taking some of his own medicine, and he left the cabinet to the hospital. As for what’s inside of it…well, I’ve never seen it open!”

Jeremy had more questions–and barely even noticed his IV change–but no answers were forthcoming, and the nurse sauntered out with a knowing look on her face.

“Janice, that was mean,” one of her fellows said. “Scaring the poor kid like that.”

“If it means he’s quiet and still, I’ll tell him Dracula himself is buried under the west parking lot.”

The victim was splayed out in the short grass next to the cornfield, just short of a grove of trees. The scene buzzed with activity as half a dozen people swarmed around the body, taking photographs, making notes, occasionally looking away as the view became too graphic.

Dr. Theodore Danna was onsite, moving slowly through the tumult and dispensing observations and advice. The group was raw, no doubt about that, but they went about their work with a wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm that brought a thin smile to Danna’s face.

Rusty brakes squealed behind him as an official-looking vehicle move up the farm’s long, winding drive. Danna quickly pulled one of his crew aside, wanting to look busy. Whenever the higher-ups could bring themselves to visit (it did take a strong stomach), it was always best to be talking to someone, using plenty of scientific terms, so the interloper would be quite sure Dr. Danna was on the job instead of kicking back to watch corpses decompose with a tall drink at his elbow. After all, somebody who worked with them had to enjoy the gore on some level, right? Nevermind that TNT showed worse on its movie-of-the-night.

“So, Paula,” Danna said to a young woman hovering near the head of the victim. “What’ve you observed so far?”

Paula was always uncomfortable in the field; she’d come in with visions of sexy adventure right out of TV’s CSI, and the mundane yet alien quality of corpses seemed to shake her. “Well, I’ve noted quite a few Sarcophagidae, a few Staphylinidae, and Calliphoridae on the clothing. Flesh flies, rover beetles, and blowflies, if you want layman’s terms.”

“Always better to keep the two together,” Danna said. “It helps you sound smart without losing people. What would you estimate for the post-mortem interval? How long since the little guy bit it?”

Pamela squirmed, and Danna saw an approaching figure in a uniform from the corner of his eye. “I’d give a PDI of sixteen to eighteen hours.”

Danna was about to reply when he heard someone clear their throat behind him. Turning, he saw a thin, pasty-looking man in a Department of Natural Resources uniform a few paces away.

“Dr. Danna?”

“That’s me. And you are…?”

“Shapiro, Nate Shapiro, Tecumseh County DNR. I’m…not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No, no, of course not. Just letting the kids have a go at a murder victim.”

Shapiro glanced at the figure on the ground. “It’s a monkey in a track suit.”

We’ve been good friends for years, he and I. I would’ve followed him anywhere. To Hell and back, as it were.

Well, he hasn’t been the same since the accident. I really can’t blame him, but…

When I he came here, I followed him. “Here” is out in the middle of nowhere. Hardly anything for me or he to do.

He doesn’t mind.

It’s what he asked for.

For all our talking, I don’t even think my old friend knows I’m here. His mind’s elsewhere.

I’m not unhappy here…it’s quiet, relaxing. But I can’t help feeling that I’m needed elsewhere. I’m a healer of men, and I don’t play golf. Always hit the sod farther than the ball. And somewhere out there, there must be people in pain.

Injured, suffering, or worse.

If I weren’t out here, could I be helping them? I don’t really have much of a chance to help people anymore. Healing is God’s work, and it’s just not needed much here.

Are my gifts going to waste?

I wonder, should I leave? Abandon my friends here, my old friend, and go? Try to seek out those of greater need, and help them? See my family, my children more often, perhaps? I don’t hate it here, and occasionally my skills are needed. A lot of people depend on me–psychologically. I don’t have the training, but I know how to listen. I know how to coax out a smile with a little joke. And I have enough years under my belt to have advice to spare.

So should I leave, and try to use my God-given gifts to help as many as I can?

Perhaps I should, but not right now, not yet.

When he awoke, the doctor was nowhere in sight. But clearly someone had been by, since there was a folded piece of notebook paper in his lap.

“…a poem?”

Let me tell you the story of one Etaoin Shrdlu
Not a normal man like me or a normal man like you.
He was only present as a mistake some people made
Until it happened once too much and Etaoin up and stayed.
The printer was astonished and dropped his coffee cup
When Etaoin walked right in and asked him what was up.

It was signed, or perhaps titled, simply Shardborn.