Revolution, Chapter One: The Shop On the Corner, Part Two

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This is chapter 1 of a serialized novel appearing on Ars Gratia Libertatis weekly.  Read from the beginning here.

At sunrise, when Sindamo was finishing the first batch of the day, George Hela arrived at the bakery.  The first and last thing most people noticed about Sindamo’s mid-twenties guard was his earnestness.  He was quiet and simple, possessed of an implacable dedication to his job and little else.  Sindamo had hired him because he needed someone to look after the store when he had to go get supplies or go to the kitchen to bake during the day.  Also, since the police and army were totally unreliable, Sindamo needed some muscle in the store to deal with any potential robbers.  With a simple “Good morning, boss,” George pulled up a stool and assumed his position behind the counter.

Sindamo greeted his guard and handed him the first batch of bread to put on the shelves.  George might be for security purposes, but he still had to help out around the shop.

The first customers of the day, workers on their way to the oil fields outside Lomboko, arrived a half-hour later.  By the middle of the morning, Sindamo had sold off the first couple batches of bread and decided it was time to make the treat of the day.  He told George to mind the store as he went back into the kitchen.  Ingredients for items more complicated than bread were often hard to come by and most residents of Lomboko were too poor to afford anything but bare necessities, but Sindamo always scrounged enough to make at least one batch of tasty treats every day.  Word would go around Lomboko that Sindamo was baking something good, and within two hours, all of the special batch would be gone.

One of his children had miraculously found a pound of chocolate in the Kwange marketplace yesterday, so the treat of the day was chocolate chip cookies.  He had just taken them out of the oven when the bell on the front door rung, indicating that someone had entered the store.  Carrying the cookie tray out of the kitchen and into the store, Sindamo saw the tall, smiling, broad-shouldered fortyish man waiting for him.

“John Tangwishon, how the hell do you always know when the treats come out?”

John laughed.  “I have my ways, Thomas.  I’ve got to make sure to get at them before the bastards on King Street.”  Almost all of the affluent bureaucrats who comprised Ko Hamilton’s governing machine — the ones who organized tax collection and foreign aid dispersement — worked on King Street.  Since they were well paid by Hamilton and more than a few of their number skimmed some payments off the top, they were always the best customers for the more expensive treats.

Sindamo sighed theatrically.  “You probably pay one of the kids to tell you.  You just want me to think it’s one of your super-secret mercenary tricks.”

With the smile still on his face, John replied, “Just because you bribe children to be the brains of your operation doesn’t mean I do.”  He didn’t respond to the jibe about being a mercenary.  He never did.

No one really knew what John did.  He certainly looked like a mercenary.  He had a commanding, well-built figure, a confident gait, and an attractively masculine face marked by a jagged scar on the left cheek.  His close-cropped hair and clean shirt marked him as someone who could afford to take care of his appearance.  Whatever Tangwishon’s business was, it provided him with enough disposable income to afford Sindamo’s treats.  Every day, Tangwishon somehow managed to arrive at Sindamo’s shop right when the batch of treats was coming out of the oven.  He would often linger in the shop and talk with Sindamo, and today was no exception.

“You’ve seen today’s Locketon Gazette, I assume.”  Sindamo nodded.  “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Sindamo shrugged.  “We don’t know that the hornets are coming here.  They just locked down the Kwange Marketplace today.  It’ll take them a while to sort through that mess.  After work today I’ll take everything I can out of the bakery and take a day or two off and see what happens.  If they come here, I’ll give them the scraps left over and then I’ll be alright for at least a couple months.”  Then a thought came to Sindamo.  “Why don’t they ever come after you?  Where do you live, anyway?”  Tangwishon had been coming into the store for years and though Sindamo liked him he still knew very little about the mysterious man.

A flicker of a grin flashed across Tangwishon’s face and disappeared instantly.  “They haven’t come after me because I don’t own a store.  They’ll never find what I own because they don’t know where I live.  And they don’t know where I live because I don’t tell people.  That’s the problem you’ve got, Thomas.  You’ve got more than most other people in Lomboko, but you’ve got it sitting out here in the open.  Sure, you’ve got George to stop a starving thief,” Tangwishon gestured to the burly young man, “but that’s not going to be enough when the hornets come.  And they’re going to come.”

Sindamo sighed.  “We’ve talked about this before.  I built this bakery.  If it wasn’t for me, this building would still be a hollowed out wreck.  It’s mine.  You might be safe, but you’ll never know what it’s like to actually own something you’re proud of and make something out of nothing.”

“You’re a good man, my friend.  But Oraanu isn’t a country for good men.  Someday, you’re going to find that out.”

A Second Opinion, Chapter Two: The Man From the Health Resources Allocation Board

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This is chapter 2 of a serialized novella appearing on Ars Gratia Libertatis every two weeks.  Read from the beginning here.

Chapter Two: The Man from the Health Resources Allocation Board

 

“Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies.”

–Honore de Balzac (1850)

That night John drove home through the gusting snow.  He arrived distracted and preoccupied.  His girlfriend, Shelly, hardly noticed during a short dinner as she went on about her day.  After dinner, while Shelly sat down to watch TV, he excused himself and went out to the garage.  He began pulling boxes down from their positions on the storage shelves in the back.  After a short while he found what he was looking for, a beat up plastic storage container, marked on the side with worn-out marker, “Personal.” He carefully lowered it to the ground and sat down on the cold concrete beside it.

Inside was a diverse collection of papers, pictures and trinkets: things that, at one point or another, had been significant enough to him to merit being set-aside and saved.  There were tickets from the play he had seen with Shelly on their first date (Les Miserables), a Mother’s Day card he had made when he was three, some school projects and papers he’d been unusually proud of, some certificates of achievement, a picture of him at graduation.  He paged through all of these, carefully setting them aside on the dusty garage floor, until he came to a single, battered blue folder.

He didn’t know why he felt compelled tonight to revisit this piece of his past.  The box hadn’t been opened since his mother’s death a few years ago.  He nevertheless peeled the aging cover back and sat, absorbed, reading the words of his 22 year old self.  Behind the blue folder cover was an essay, written towards the end of his pre-med undergraduate career at Harvard.  The essay was titled, “The Purpose of Medicine” and had been written in a philosophy class he’d had to take to fulfill a liberal arts requirement.  His professor, while disagreeing with the conclusion, had liked it so much she’d submitted the essay and it had been published in an obscure academic journal right after he’d graduated.

“The purpose of medicine” (it began) “is not solely to heal the body and soothe the mind.  Doctors are not robots, merely performing maintenance on biological machines.  They are guardians of health, and for this phrase to have any meaning a holistic interpretation of it is required.  That is, for a doctor to be more than just a biological repair expert, he must concern himself with more than simply the causes and treatments of human maladies.  For a doctor to truly be a doctor he must take a keen and special interest in the world around him; in the way his society is ordered, in how his health care system works and in the underlying philosophy that guides decisions made by politicians and patients alike.”  Morales read all 15 pages, not realizing how uncomfortable he was on the hard ground until he had finished.

He went to bed that night feeling bitter for a reason he couldn’t explain.

****************************************************************

It took Morales two hours the next morning to drive the 5 miles from his house on Arapaho Road to the hospital.  The roads were largely unplowed, city budgets having been cut again. By the time he arrived at the hospital the man from the Health Resources Allocation Board was already there.  He’d asked to be picked up by the hospital’s Flight For Life helicopter “only if it happened to be in the area of the State Capitol building around, say, 9:30am.”  Unsurprisingly, for this man signed off on every pill, needle and paperclip the hospital was allowed to have, the helicopter had been there.

He was a short man, shorter than John, and his balding hair was slicked back from his forehead with a liberally applied amount of gel.  He was a bit too plump, and he smiled a bit too much.  His suit was immaculate.

He was sitting in John’s chair, behind John’s desk, when Morales walked into his office.  He looked up from his work scrutinizing the forms John had filled out last night when the doctor, impatient, coughed quietly.  “John!” he smiled broadly, his eyes dull.  “Glad you made it in, I heard about the roads; god what a mess.  But I guess ‘essential personnel’ like us have to come in to work anyway, huh?”  He chuckled a little too quickly at his own joke.

Morales tried to smile back, it came out as a grimace, “Hi Thomas.”

“Don’t worry, because you were so late I’ve got through most of it.  I’ll only be another 45 minutes or so while I check the nurses’ records for the CAT scans and MRI uses.”

Thomas made no move to rise from John’s chair.  An errant voice popped into Morales’ head, “How much of your time is spent filling out paperwork for bureaucrats who’ve never once set foot in a medical classroom?” He shook his head to clear the thought and smile-grimaced again, “Sure, no problem Thomas.  I’ll do the rounds while you finish up.  Page me if you have any questions.”

Thomas didn’t respond except to focus again on the papers on the desk.  After a short pause, Morales turned and left his office.

His rounds were uneventful; he spoke briefly with haggard nurses who offered him anemic smiles.  As he passed the door to the security office a thought occurred to him and he stopped, did an about-face and knocked lightly on the frosted glass pane labeled “Hospital Security.”

“Yeah? Come in!” a gruff voice greeted him.  He pushed in the door and the mustached man behind the desk smiled up at him, “Hi Doc, what can I do you for?”

“Hey Gerry, think I may have filed a CAT scan under the wrong patient name, could I check your citizen database real quick?”  John adopted a concerned frown.

“Sure thing Doc, just don’t tell the big brass I let you poke around on government computers.”  Gerry winked.  He called every person in a white coat ‘Doc.’  One of his private jokes that only he seemed to find funny.

“No problem Gerry; mum’s the word.”

Gerry gestured to an empty desk with a computer and said, “The password’s ‘Aspen.’”

Lysandra Fremont….No Records Found

Lisandra Freemont…No Records Found

Lisa Freemond……..No Records Found

John tried every possible permutation of Lysandra and Alyssa’s names and every time the government database responded that they did not exist.  He frowned.  Odd.

“Paging Doctor Morales.  Paging Doctor Morales.  Doctor Morales please report to surgical wing room 104.”

“Thanks Gerry, gotta go” said John as he hastily erased his search history and got up from the desk.

“No problem Doc, hey, quick question—”

“Sorry, could be urgent.” And Morales was gone, not bothering to close the door behind him, his brisk footsteps echoing like machinegun fire down the hallway.

When he arrived at 104, his office, Thomas was there waiting for him.  “Well John, looks like everything checks out but ah, there’s one thing…”

John knew what was coming next; he’d done this dance enough with the various bureaucrats and government personages that oversaw his practice to be able to read the signs.  The hesitant manner, the ‘oh-too-casual’ voice (belied by a conspiratorial lean-in of the head) and the raised, questioning eyebrows.

“Listen,” Thomas went on, “I have a friend” (it’s always a ‘friend’ or an aunt or a girlfriend or a big campaign donor) “who’s had some trouble getting an appointment to see a specialist.  I know you have some pull around here, so I was hoping you could look into it.  All of his papers are in order, so it would be nothing illegal,” the bureaucrat assured Morales, “but if you could just look into it, I’d really appreciate it.”

Thomas finished, waiting expectantly.  Next was to come Morales’ role in this little stage production.  He had his lines memorized perfectly, knew his cues and, at any other time, would have played his part like a master thespian.

But instead, he went off-book, upsetting the carefully orchestrated little drama.

“I uh—I’m not sure that’s a good idea Thomas.”

There was a slight pause as if Thomas was doing a mental double take.  “But John, you have my assurances it’s nothing illegal, I just want you to check up on my friend…”

“I’m just not comfortable with it, ok?  There’s a lot of rules about waiting lists and what doctors can and can’t do and I’d rather not risk it.”

Thomas looked like he’d bitten into something incredibly sour.  “I control this entire hospital’s finances John.”

Morales didn’t reply, letting the words hang in the air, looking directly into Thomas’ eyes until the peeved bureaucrat turned on his heels and left without so much as a goodbye.

He was slightly surprised at his own actions.  Normally he would have simply done as the government agent had asked.  After all, there were plenty of people in the country like Thomas.  Nothing Morales could do about it, it was just the way the world worked; people would always try to play the system to their own advantage.

That the system actively encouraged it was a thought that had not occurred to John Morales until today.  Or, more precisely, until last night.

The rest of the day proved (relatively) uneventful.  John had just finished scrubbing down after a surgery and was settled into his office to complete the additional paperwork that Thomas’ visit had made necessary when Gerry knocked on his open door.

“Oh, hey Gerry. ‘What can I do yah for?’” said Morales, adopting the security chief’s slow drawl with a slight grin.

“John, you were here after hours yesterday, did you notice anything fishy last night?” Gerry seemed preoccupied.

“No,” Morales lied, his heart caught slightly, “why?”

“Huh, something funny happened to all the cameras on your side of the building, they recorded nothing but static for about 20 minutes, starting around 7:30.”

Revolution, Chapter One: The Shop on the Corner, Part One

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This is chapter 1 of a serialized novel appearing on Ars Gratia Libertatis weekly.  Read from the beginning here.

Thomas Sindamo woke up from his sleep.  He had dreamed again of that night twenty one years earlier when he and Sister Schiller had listened to the Ode.  The occurrence of the dream was not particularly noteworthy for Sindamo.  As with most people, he dreamed of the events of his childhood about once a week.  Sometimes he would dream of the Ode.  Other nights he would dream that he was back in his math class at the missionary school or reading a book at night on the porch while the flies tried to get through the mosquito netting.

There never seemed to be any connection between what was happening in his life and which particular memory his subconscious chose for a dream, but in retrospect the Ode would seem an appropriate prelude for the events of the day.

Sindamo looked out through the window and saw that it was not yet light out.  He swung his legs out of bed and sprang up, thumping loudly on the floor below.  It was one of the little joys in life.  Living alone in a one room apartment above the bakery he owned, he knew he wouldn’t wake anyone up and had all the privacy he could ever want.  Many years had been spent in pursuit of this level of independence.

He had worked in the missionary kitchen throughout his time at school and had toiled many more years at another bakery in Lomboko.  All that time, he had been learning.

He had learned how to make delicious breads and pastries out of ingredients of inconsistent quality.  The farmers of Oraanu were perpetually struggling to produce the raw materials necessary for baking, and Sindamo had learned to depend on a variety of sources in case one of the farmers who supplied him had a bad year.  Sindamo’s ability to cultivate a stable supply network of farmers became one of the reasons he had been successful enough to go out on his own.  The residents of Lomboko knew that if they stopped by Sindamo’s bakery, there would always be bread, pies, and even treats like cookies no matter what crazy invasion, disease, or political turmoil was affecting the country.

He had learned how to compete against the other bakeries of Lomboko.  He employed a legion of children to check around the city and see what prices his competitors were offering and whether there would likely be an increase or decrease in demand the next day.  His market analysts/children were paid in bread to take back to their families or to share amongst the orphans of the city.

He had learned that these children were more trustworthy than the adults.  They had not been infected with the lethargy of most of the other subjects of Oraanu.  The children worked because if they didn’t, they and their families might go hungry.  Most subjects of Oraanu worked just hard enough to keep from getting fired.  There was a saying in Oraanu that captured the essence of the economic situation: “As long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work.”

Ko Hamilton and the others in the government directly or indirectly controlled almost all the business in the country.  They doled out the foreign aid, decided which employment projects would receive funding and which private businesses would enjoy the protection of the police and army.  The people of Oraanu knew where their livelihood came from.  Ko Hamilton always worked to make sure that no business got too big or too successful and that almost everyone had some bare minimum of food.  This was enough to keep the country staggering from one influx of foreign aid to the next without ever really achieving anything.

Sindamo went downstairs and out the back door. He had to take care of the first thing every man had to do in the morning.  That done, he walked around the building to the front door.  Though he was clad only in boxers, he knew that no one else was likely to be up before dawn.  Besides, this was Oraanu, in the hot and humid heart of Africa.  People weren’t very self-conscious and didn’t bat an eye at a shirtless man.

A boy, no older than ten, was just arriving at the front of the bakery carrying today’s Locketon Gazette.  Sindamo paid one of his child employees to bring him the paper as early as possible in the day so it would be there when he woke up.  The boy was evidently running late today.  As he took the paper, Sindamo asked, “What kept you, Roger?”

Roger answered nonchalantly.  “Had to go around the hornets, Mr. Sindamo.  They’ve locked down the Kwange marketplace.”

Sindamo nodded.  One of his friends had warned him the day before that the police were going to raid the market.  Roger’s story was certainly plausible, and he was only a few minutes late.  “Good work remembering to bring the paper, Roger.  Sometimes it’s hard to predict what the hornets will do.”

Roger smiled.  “Just doin’ my job.”  Sindamo had to suppress a groan.  The kids had stumbled across some American comic books from the 50’s and were constantly repeating their favorite lines.  Sindamo had heard Roger use that one dozens of times in the past month.  “Keep it up, Roger.”

Roger’s smile vanished.  “Be sure to read the front page, Mr. Sindamo.  Trouble’s coming.”

Sindamo managed to keep a straight face at the boy’s innocently patronizing advice.  “Hard to miss the front page, Roger.  What’s up?”

Sindamo grinned inwardly as he noticed that the pages were slightly rumpled.  Roger had clearly peeked through it already.  Sindamo didn’t mind the children getting a free read of the paper as long as the pages weren’t too smudged.  Though he wouldn’t admit it to anyone, Sindamo was actually proud that his work allowed many children in Lomboko to read and stay current.  The children also got a chance to learn the importance of information.

In Oraanu, if you didn’t keep up with the news, you might be blindsided by some new or oncoming disaster.  Today was a good example.  Roger was right, the Gazette‘s headline could only mean trouble.  Sindamo read out loud: “Hamilton condemns ‘hoarders’, signals new round of seizures.”

Roger added with all the solemnity a ten year old could muster,  “And the hornets might come here this time, Mr. Sindamo.”

Sindamo grunted in acknowledgment as if he hadn’t considered that possibility.  “We’ve just got to stay ahead of the hornets then, don’t we?”  Roger nodded vigorously, as if Sindamo had unveiled a brilliant strategy for dealing with the ever-predatory Lomboko police.  Sindamo concluded, “Don’t worry about it, Roger, they haven’t gotten us yet.  Now get on back home and get some sleep, you’ve got to be back here in a couple hours.”

Roger waved goodbye and started running back home.  When Roger had gone, Sindamo laughed to himself.  Roger was a bright boy and constantly worried about the bakery.  When he wasn’t at work as part of Sindamo’s network of child informants, Roger pestered Sindamo with questions about how the bakery was run.  In a few years, Sindamo might let him actually work in the bakery. Might need an assistant someday, Sindamo thought to himself.

He turned his attention back to the paper and the headline about new seizures.  Sindamo rarely considered any of the proclamations of Ko Hamilton to be good news.  Sindamo had been barely a teenager on the night General Hamilton had seized power.  The nightmare of that night regularly interrupted Sindamo’s sleep.

Don’t think about that now.  It’s a brand new day. Sindamo shook his head as if physically escaping the memory and walked back in to start the ovens.

As he loaded up the first batch of the day’s bread, he thought about the news about the new seizures.  He would  have to talk to his friend in the police about it.  At the very least, he needed advance warning if the police were going to come around his shop looking to confiscate money or equipment.  Like any prudent Oraanu businessman, he had a hiding place where he could keep his valuables while a raid was in progress.  He’d have to keep enough out to appease the hornets, and the loss would hurt, but the hornets wouldn’t be able to destroy all he’d built.

A buzzing sound interrupted his reverie.  Sindamo looked up to see that a bee had wandered in through an open window. It’ll be a good day, Sindamo thought to himself.  Bees were a good omen in Oraanu.  They went about their business of making delicious honey and helping crops and didn’t bother anyone unless provoked.  In a country where just about nothing worked, bees were a welcome exception.

Hornets, by contrast, were a bad omen, which was why the merchants of Oraanu called Hamilton’s police “hornets”.   Hornets didn’t produce anything.  They just ate other animals that did — especially bees.

Sindamo did not have much hate within him, but he did loathe the hornets.  As the bread baked and he planned out the day’s work, he hoped that he wouldn’t see any hornets today to spoil the good luck of the bee.

Like most hopes in Oraanu, however, this one would not be realized.

The Westerner, a Poem by Badger Clark

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Badger Clark, sometimes known as “the cowboy poet,” was a resident of South Dakota from the 1880s to the 1950s and a “self confessed individualist, Badger…refused to become a slave to whistle, clock or bell, craving the freedom of the open skies.”  His poetry was admired by as diverse a collection of people as Calvin Coolidge and Ayn Rand (“Global Balkanization.” 1977).

His poems reflect his proud sense of the individual, of the enjoyment afforded by big skies and distant spaces, and of the possibilities open to a free man.  None do so quite as well as “The Westerner,” included in his 1922 book, “Sun and Saddle Leather” (which you can get at Amazon here).

The Westerner by Badger Clark

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,
But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine for the praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

They built high towns on their old log sills,
Where the great, slow rivers gleamed,
But with new, live rock from the savage hills
I’ll build as they only dreamed.
The smoke scarce dies where the trail camp lies,
Till rails glint down the pass;
The desert springs into fruit and wheat
And I lay the stones of a solid street
Over yesterday’s untrod grass.

I waste no thought on my neighbor’s birth
Or the way he makes his prayer.
I grant him a white man’s room on earth
If his game is only square.
While he plays it straight I’ll call him mate;
If he cheats I drop him flat.
Old class and rank are a worn-out lie,
For all clean men are as good as I,
And a king is only that.

I dream no dreams of a nursemaid State
That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
And the weak shall get their share.

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague “maybe”
Or a mournful “might have been,”
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

You can read more poems by Badger at the Cowboy Poetry site, and learn a little more about him at the Badger Clark Memorial Society.

A Second Opinion, Chapter One: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”

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This is chapter one of a serialized novella which will appear on Ars Gratia Libertatis bi-weekly.

Chapter One: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.

–Thomas Campion (1617)

The first few flakes of the coming storm drifted lazily past the window.  John Morales watched them fall.  They descended slowly, occasionally collecting in the window sill or meeting their doom against the warm glass. The streetlamps in the parking lot, like spotlights, caught them in a yellow-orange glare and lit them up as if on a stage. Their downward spiral became a spectacle of theatre.  But the lethargy of the flakes’ descent unsettled John.  Normally he loved watching the beauty of snowfall from a safe, warm shelter, but not tonight.  Tonight he suspected malice in the easy path the snow traced to the earth.  It lingered, as if to say “there’s no need to hurry, time is on our side.”  The snow knew it was only going to get colder, and it could be deliberate in its wintry conquest of the frozen ground.  Its reign was inevitable.

He glanced at his watch, only 5:30, and already it was dark outside.  It was going to be a cold December.  He allowed himself a wry smile to think the snow was right; the National Office of Weather Prediction had issued a “severe winter weather” alert for Denver and Jefferson Counties.  He’d have to leave soon to beat the storm or risk sleeping at the hospital, again.  He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, looked once more out the window and, pushing morose thoughts from his mind, focused again on the paper in front of him.

It was a requisition and compliance form and it had to be done by tomorrow when the agent from the health board came for his weekly inspection.  In bold black letters, next to the eagle and Rod of Asclepius seal of the National Office of Health Services, it read, “Form 111-3a for the Administration of Health Care Services Relating to Treatment of Central, Peripheral Nervous System and Spinal Column Diseases.”  He filled out his clinic’s identification number at the top, and his own personal physician number, next to his federal ID number and Social Security Number below it.  Next came the tedious process of checking off procedures, patients, uses of equipment, and requests for more supplies.

He was lucky his clinic enjoyed such a good reputation and that he was the only certified neurosurgeon on the whole Front Range.  Other clinics and hospitals routinely had to deal with shortages of equipment and medicine.  He had heard rumors (vehemently denied by the Health Department) of some doctors giving cancer patients sugar pills, because the necessary drugs couldn’t be obtained from the Health Services Distribution Office.  It was all only temporary, of course, until the Health Department was able to finish the reorganization of the health care industry.  Still, things were going to get worse before they got better, if the increasing volume of paperwork was any indication.

John Morales was 32 years old, but already he had national acclaim as one of the best neurosurgeons in the country.  He’d graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School and moved back to Denver, Colorado, where his father was mayor and could pull some strings with the Health Department Physician Allocation Board, to do his internship and residency.  He had become somewhat famous when he removed a potentially fatal blood clot from the brain of the governor’s son, who had been brought in after a skiing accident.  In gratitude the governor had overridden the decision of the Health Department and allowed Morales to open his own neurosurgery practice at the Sky Ridge Medical Center in south Denver.

John’s thin frame made him appear taller than his five foot ten, and his jet black hair accentuated his dark, unnerving eyes.  Visitors to his office often noticed that his movements were slow, they would seem almost lazy but for their quiet efficiency.  All this lassitude disappeared when he was performing surgery.  In the operating room he moved with an energy even he couldn’t explain, barking orders and focusing with an intensity that seemed like it could melt through steel.  These days though, that was the only time he seemed to have any energy.  He didn’t know why he felt constantly drained when he returned every night to the small house he shared with his girlfriend.  It had become a chore, waking up in the morning to a career that had, at one time in his life, been the only thing that could excite him.  He didn’t know why the thought of saving lives no longer provided the inspiration it had before.

The next time John glanced up from his desk it was 7:30, and a few inches of snow had accumulated on the asphalt beyond his window.  He re-read the form one more time, signed his name on the last page, and stood up with a sigh.  Reaching for his jacket he took a last look out the window at the snow in the parking lot.  He paused and looked closer: what had before been an unsullied blanket of white was now marked with two sets of footprints, both leading to his door.

He heard the knock and tensed; surely no one out this late, in this storm, could be up to any good.  Moving slowly to the front of the office, past the receptionist desk, he strained to see his guests out the windows.  He glimpsed two slight figures, one shorter than the other, taking cover against the wall as they waited for their knock to be answered.  He reached the door and opened it cautiously.  “Hello?  Can I help you?”

“Are you Dr. John Morales?” The voice came from the taller of the two figures, both still in the shadow of the doorjamb.  Despite the voice’s obvious femininity, it carried a hint of command.

“Yes, why?”

“Dr. Morales, my daughter and I need your help.” The woman moved into the light as she spoke, guiding her daughter forward as well.  The woman’s face was grim, angular, with short, ash blonde hair and cold, grey eyes.  These now looked at John beseechingly, her eyebrows drawn together in concern.  Her daughter, about 11 or 12 years old, peered up at him placidly, her green eyes seeming to calmly register everything, a few bright blonde strands of hair were visible from the hood of her parka and her slightly crooked nose glowed red with the cold.  “May we come in?” her mother asked.

“You know being here this late is against the Patient Care Laws, right?”  Morales reminded her.

“Yes, I know.”

There was every reason to turn her away.  He needed to leave soon before the falling snow made the highway impassable, and the Patient Care Laws forbade meeting with a specialist outside the approved appointment process, punishable by fines and jail time.  There was, of course, good reason for such laws and Morales had had many experiences with desperate or cunning patients trying to game the system and bypass the waiting times illegally.  Such laws merely made sure everyone got equal treatment and access to an increasingly shrinking pool of specialist doctors and surgeons.  Morales knew they were necessary, despite how bad he always felt when turning away a frantic mother or pleading husband.  But the quiet intensity of the woman’s gaze, the fact that she had asked for him by name, her honest admission of her guilt in coming to see him after hours and, though he wouldn’t admit it, his own simple curiosity, made John Morales relent.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Come in, come out of the cold.”  He opened the door wide and motioned the pair inside with his arm.

The woman ushered her daughter through the door and spoke as she removed her scarf, “Thank you doctor.  I apologize; we wouldn’t have come here except it’s absolutely urgent.  I know our being here is illegal, but we have no one else to turn to and Alyssa’s situation is…unique.”  John Morales raised an eyebrow in curiosity and she continued, “My name is Lysandra Fremont, and this is Alyssa, my daughter.  Alyssa has started to get seizures, vision loss and numbness in her feet, among other symptoms.  We went to a primary care doctor, but he couldn’t even make a diagnosis.  Her symptoms match no known illness, neurological or otherwise.  He said we’d have to talk with a neurological expert to find out what she has.  Unfortunately, Alyssa’s symptoms are getting worse.  Even under normal circumstances the wait to see a neurologist is 8 months, which I don’t think she has, and ours are hardly normal circumstances.”

“See, Dr. Morales, because of a clerical error in the Department of Health’s Patient Database, Alyssa and I aren’t allowed to receive specialist care.  We’re trying to get it resolved but it’s already been two years, and you know how fast bureaucracies are at fixing their mistakes.”  She smiled wearily.  “We tried everything we could to get Alyssa an appointment with someone who could help her, but nobody would let us.  Coming to you like this is an act of desperation.  Aly’s not getting any better and I—we—have no-one else to turn to.  You’re the only one who can help us.”  The last sentence was spoken softly, but her eyes looked steadily into John’s face.

Morales hated this part, “I’ll talk to someone, see what I can do to fix your situation, but I can’t treat your daughter until I have all the right permissions.”

“We’ve already tried working within the system Doctor, talking with someone won’t work.  You must believe me, this is the only way Alyssa will get treated.”

“The health agents wouldn’t just deny a request like that, there’s got to be something you’re not telling me—“

“There isn’t.”

“But there’s got to be some reason—“

“Reason has nothing to do with it Doctor.  Procedure does.  The secretaries, and bureaucrats that all denied Aly treatment were merely following the guidelines they were given.”

“Look, even if I wanted to help you I couldn’t, not without getting caught.  I have to account for every nickel I spend and report all expenditures on equipment and medicine” sighed the surgeon.

Lysandra smiled, “That’s an easy enough problem to solve. I’ll simply pay you out of pocket for all the expenses you incur, that way you don’t have to report any of it to the Health Department.”

“I don’t think you understand how expensive this can get Ms. Fremont.  These procedures can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; that’s why only the government can afford to pay for them.”

“I’ll admit I can’t pay you with government credit Dr. Morales; truth be told the Revenue Department rejected our application for access to my husband’s bank account after he died.  But I’m no beggar; my family had several physical assets left after Mark’s death, and I can pay you, in these.”  She pulled a small gold coin, no bigger than a dime, from her pocket and pressed it into Morales’ hand.  He held it up wonderingly, turning it over in the light to study its detail.  On one side were two letters, a capital U and a capital S, one overlaid on the other, and the phrase “Life, Liberty, Property” above the number 10.  The opposite side bore a painstaking rendition of a distinguished man in a periwig, with the name “Patrick Henry” inscribed beneath it. “It’s real.” Lysandra said.

“Where did you get this?” John asked.

“You wouldn’t understand.  But I can assure you I have enough of them to pay you for whatever treatment Alyssa needs.”

John lowered the coin slowly, and held it out for her, “Mrs. Fremont, as much as I want to help you I can’t, this is illegal and—“

“But is it wrong?” the little girl interrupted him.

“What?”

“Is it wrong, or right?” Alyssa repeated, her green eyes looking directly at him.

There was a moment of silence as Morales considered the simple question.  Finally he replied, “It’s not a question of wrong and right, when you get older you’ll realize there are other things you need to take into account, like the effect on other people and on society.  What would happen if we let just anyone come in off the street without an appointment and ask for care?  Hospitals would be swamped and overworked and then no one would get medicine.  See, not everything’s as black and white as it seems to be when you’re young.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Lysandra replied with an amused smile.  “And we wouldn’t want you to treat Alyssa over the objections of your conscience.  May I ask you a question, Doctor?”

“Sure…” was John’s cautious reply.

“Why did you decide to enter medicine?  It’s a very difficult profession, isn’t it?  Especially the field of neurology.”

Again Morales paused.  Why was he even entertaining the idea of not turning these people over to the authorities?  And why did he feel compelled to be honest with the pair?  Both mother and daughter seemed to have an air of frank sincerity; he would almost have called it naiveté but for the steel he saw in Lysandra’s eyes and the silent perspicacity he saw behind her daughter’s.  Their directness and openness unsettled him.  He wasn’t used to people speaking so candidly about their position or their needs.  Neither had mentioned any high ranking political connections (fictitious or otherwise) to pressure him into aiding them, and neither had presented forged Health Claims documents.

At a loss, he gave her the rote answer, “Because I wanted to help people.”

“But that’s not all, is it?  If it were you could have joined a government soup kitchen and endured far less.  Instead you chose 12 grueling years of medical school, internships and residency.  Did you really just want to help people?”

“I wanted to save lives.”

“And is that what you’re doing?”  Lysandra didn’t glance at her daughter to make her point but Morales looked at the little girl nonetheless.  “How much of your time is spent filling out paperwork for bureaucrats who’ve never once set foot in a medical classroom and how much is devoted to actually saving lives doctor?”

“I-”

“And whose lives are you saving?” she interjected rapidly.  “48 of the last 50 patients you treated were either friends or relatives of people with political power.  I know, I checked.”

“That’s enough!” he yelled, and caught himself, surprised by his own outburst.  He went on, more quietly, “The system works; yes it has flaws, but without it even fewer people would have access to the small amount of medical specialists out there.”

Lysandra smiled, opened her mouth to ask a question, seemed to think better of it and instead looked at her daughter.  Her next words were spoken softly, “And if the system has flaws, John Morales, shouldn’t you at least try to correct them?  Whatever risk to your professional career that entails?”

The Fremont woman turned her grey eyes once more on Morales, “We won’t ask you to make this decision right now Doctor. I don’t want you to feel pressured and we’d prefer you have some time to think it over.  I’ll bring Alyssa back in a week, and you can decide then.”

John Morales nodded quietly.  Lysandra and Alyssa put their coats on and left the office without another word, just a shy wave from the little girl as the door swung shut.  The doctor stood looking at the closed door with eyes narrowed in thought, a small gold coin clenched in his hand.

Revolution, Prologue

Featured, Original Works

This is the first post of Revolution, a serialized novel.  A new chapter will appear (at least) once a week on Ars Gratia Libertatis.

Thomas Sindamo stopped dead in his tracks and stood up straight. He had been hunched over to one side, lugging his burden across the infirmary. Though he was strong for a ten year old, the bucket he carried was almost more than he could bear. He had been dreaming up bitter recriminations against Sister Schiller as he carried the heavy bucket full of some foul smelling semi-solid mixture when he heard a song faintly emanating from Sister Schiller’s tiny office. The music, barely audible, grabbed Sindamo’s attention, so much so that he forgot his anger at the punishment he was receiving for failing his afternoon math test.

He walked past the stairway entrance that would have taken him out of the mission’s infirmary and into the cool African night (and the latrine where he was supposed to take the bucket).  The night’s chore was forgotten as he followed the music.  It was louder now, and he could recognize it as some kind of classical music.  He continued on to the office at the end of the long infirmary hall.

After absent mindedly placing the bucket off to the side, he opened the door to the office without knocking. Normally, Sindamo would have knocked. Not only was it against the rules to enter a sister’s office unannounced, but Thomas Sindamo was a polite, shy boy who would never knowingly annoy his teachers.

He found Sister Schiller sitting behind her desk, looking at the radio. She was illuminated by the rays of the setting sun coming in through the office window, and Sindamo could see the glint of a tear in the corner of her eye.

Sister Schiller was a demanding taskmaster, quick to mete out punishments to children who failed to live up to her exacting academic and behavioral standards. Under normal circumstances, Sindamo would have been highly surprised by the soft, flushed expression on Sister Schiller’s pale, worn face, but he too was absorbed in the music coming from the radio.

The melody was simple in the same way that a direction from God would be simple. It constituted a final, definitive, irreducible statement. The tune built itself up slowly out of contemplative, hopeful string sections, like a scientist who senses that he is closing in on a tremendous discovery.  Different sections of the orchestra grasped the tune for flickering moments only to dissolve away from it.  Sindamo silently urged the musicians on the radio to hold onto that melody.  Finally, the full theme, the revelation, burst forth, manifesting itself in triumphant bursts from blaring brass instruments. It was the most beautiful thing Sindamo had ever heard.

Ode an Die Freude. The Ode to Joy.” Sister Schiller seemed to be talking to herself, but Sindamo knew she had translated the song’s title from her native German to the English spoken by everyone at the mission.

Then the melody was lost in frantic brass and doubtful, questioning strings. However, that doubt was wiped away by a single clear voice, singing a few sentences in incomprehensible German. Then, as the melody came back, the voice cried one word that was echoed by what seemed like a thousand voices and transmitted over the radio: “FREIHEIT.” And suddenly the melody was back, this time sung by the lone singer, and then the thundering chorus.

The word visibly impacted Sister Schiller, whose tears no longer sparkled in the corner of her eye, but streamed down across her face. Sindamo, not knowing any German, had no idea what the word meant.  Whatever the meaning, Sindamo could hear a crowd erupt in furious applause and shouts of happiness as if they had been waiting years to hear that word.

Sindamo wanted to ask what was going on, but saw that Sister Schiller was totally absorbed by the music. Even a ten year old could tell that Sister Schiller’s life, or, for that matter, any life, had contained few if any moments such as this. Interrupting it would be a sin more unspeakable than the ones Sister Schiller claimed would invite damnation.

The singers thoroughly explored the melody, disassembling it and building it back up over the next fifteen minutes. After the crashing, culminating finale, Sister Schiller reached over and turned the radio off. She sat quietly for a moment and then turned to Sindamo.

“Thomas, remember to thank God you were able to hear that.” Sindamo thought it would be better to thank whoever made the music and suggested as much. Sister Schiller laughed. “Herr Beethoven is long dead, child. Besides, I imagine the reason for the concert makes him pleased enough with his work as it is.”

“What is that reason, Sister?”

Sister Schiller explained about the wall that had separated her country and family for most of her life. She said that the wall had fallen, and now people in both parts of the country could do and say the things the government of one part had forbidden. “That’s why they changed the words tonight. What happened wasn’t about ”freude‘, joy. Of course, we all felt that, but this is more specific. Someone put in the right word.”

“Was it ‘freiheit‘?” Sindamo asked, remembering the word that had triggered the cacauphonous applause and the rebuilding of the melody.

Sister Schiller nodded. “Freiheit. Maybe you’ll understand what it means someday.”

Sindamo wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and curiosity overcame his politeness. “Well, what does it mean?”

“Freedom, Thomas.  Today, we heard the Ode to Freedom.  And now that the world has heard it, everything will change.  It might take longer in some parts than others, but as long as there are people to hear that music, no one who claims arbitrary power over another is safe.”