It was a grueling job -- one with great importance, and even greater prestige. For nearly two months Wendy interned, and today was the day she was finally going to get the opportunity to get into operating room with a real human patient.
Wendy was a very lucky intern. This doctor was one of the best harvesters in the ethereal world, and a good teacher as well. A wispy grey hand poked through the door. It was the doctor. He did not waste time with pleasantries.
"There’s a brain surgery scheduled for today," he said. "Please find out where and when it will take place."
"Yes, Doctor," she said.
The doctor ignored her and kept speaking. "This will be a good opportunity for you to see an extraction. Cancers make for an excellent harvest." With that, the doctor disappeared back though the door.
A brain surgery? Wendy couldn't have asked for more. This would be so much better than scraping up road kill or hanging out at salt licks. This was a real human soul. Human souls were the glamorous part of being a soul surgeon. Human souls were the best tasting of any soul--and brought the best price; especially if extracted whole. This doctor, her mentor, was one of the best at extracting them whole. And she was about to witness that firsthand.
Wendy darted through the door in search of the operating room schedule. Harvesting in the human hospital was going to be more difficult than at the veterinary clinic. There were several operating rooms and a plethora of physical surgeons. The procedures were planned so far in advance that the Wendy was constantly digging through hospital records to find suitable procedures. But for the price a human soul fetched, the extra effort was worthwhile.
She savored the thought of her first human soul extraction as she scurried off to the nurse's station. In a few months, she would be a certified harvester and have her own hospital. The nurse's station was just ahead. She searched for a moment before finding the schedule.
There it was: Mr. Johnson, malignant brain tumor, operating room 2, ten o'clock today. She checked the nurse's watch, it was already nine o'clock. She needed to find the doctor.
She found him in his office, which in the physical world was a dark, rarely used janitor's closet. In the ethereal world, the rare use made it the perfect office for the doctor, and a place where he could store his soul-keeper. Wendy pushed open the door. Normally, she didn't like barging in on him, but with the surgery so soon, she decided that she couldn't afford to wait.
"Doctor," she said, "barely an hour before the surgery. OR2."
The doctor wasn't angry at all. "Good," he said. "Why don't you prepare the instruments and I'll meet you there in a few minutes. I'd prefer to start before the physicals arrive." He licked his chops, then added, "Pre-surgical anxiety loosens the soul, making extraction that much easier."
>From above, Wendy saw the Doctor emerging through the ceiling.
"Is this the tumor patient?" he asked.
"Yes, Doctor." She turned her attention back to the ethereal instrument tray. She was still setting it up.
The doctor looked over the patient. "Hmm. This is a very large brain tumor, but operable. It'll be a struggle trying to extract this one before the physicals can remove the tumor."
Wendy floated the instrument tray over the patient's legs, then looked the patient over herself. "It may not be his time yet," she said, regretting it a bit after she said it. The doctor did not take well to criticism, and she still needed his guidance.
But the doctor did not react to her comment. Instead, he reflected a bit. "It was so much easier before they started to intervene. Cancers used to be our best crop, but physical medicine is getting to the point where we'll soon have to resign ourselves to getting only the very old or the severely damaged."
"Shouldn't we get started?" Wendy asked, extending a pair of ethereal clamps for the doctor.
"If we hurry," the doctor said as he took the clamps and began pinning the soul along the edges, "we might be able to get the soul extracted before the physicals are too far underway." He stretched out a grey wisp of arm. "It will save everyone time that way." He looked toward Wendy. "Scalpel."
"You're starting the extraction at the tumor?" Wendy asked.
"Of course," the doctor said without looking up from his work. "See how the soul is already loose in this region? The soul is always loosest near any damage, and particularly near a tumor. That's why I started the extraction here.
The surgical team -- the flesh and blood team -- came into the room. "The physicals are ready to begin," the doctor said. "Remember, don't make any contact with a physical. It could dissipate you."
The operating table became crowded with physical surgeons as brain surgeries always did. The physicals were cutting the skull open to get to the tumor. The doctor placed the last ethereal clamp before floating above the bed. Wendy joined him up there.
"The physicals use too many people for surgery," the doctor said. "You must be very cautious. It's difficult to avoid them, and that's another reason why I wanted to set the clamps early. If I could detach the soul early, I'd do that, too."
Wendy knew about that part. The soul could only be removed during great physical stress, otherwise the bonds were too difficult to break. Still, she was antsy. "How long until the soul can be extracted?" she asked.
The doctor answered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. "Shouldn't be more than about twenty minutes if all goes well. The physicals can't get much accomplished in that time." He paused as he looked over the patient's body one more time. "I like our chances with this one."
With the scalpel in hand, the doctor dove into the action. His ghost-like form sliced the gray tendrils of the man's soul apart from the flesh in the controlled yet swift flurry of motion that was necessary to avoid contact with the hands of the physicals. "This man's soul is not as tangled with flesh as many that I've successfully extracted."
Automobile accidents were a good soul farm, but the sheer terror of a few seconds hardly made for good fermentation of the soul. This doctor preferred long-term debilitating illnesses like cancer. The drawn-out torture of expecting to die slow-cooked souls to perfection.
The doctor hovered over the man's body and cut several large sections with ease while some of the physicals took a brief break to rest their hands. Wendy eased herself away along with them.
"Stay with me, child. These long surgeries can be grueling, but we can make the most progress while the physicals rest." The doctor's hands quickly made use of the opening, cutting tendrils with quick and sure movements. "They always fight your efforts," he continued. "They reconnect anything you sever if you aren't fast enough." He continued his work with the scalpel.
“Don't we get to rest?" Wendy asked.
"No," the doctor replied. "We cannot take a break for fear that either the patient recovers and all the severed connections reattach, or the patient dies and the soul escapes into the afterlife while you aren't looking."
The intern was watching the doctor work, taking notes on how to proceed. "His soul looks so good," she said. "Can't we have a taste right now?"
"It is tempting, but I never like to do that. An incomplete soul for a patient we lose is doomed to a life of handicap."
The physicals brief rest was finished, and they returned to the patient, causing the doctor to work more gingerly. "If we try to harvest the soul again later," he continued, "the taste becomes spoiled. Never ruin your second chance by losing self-control." The doctor looked Wendy in the eye. "Better to capture it whole or lose it completely."
The intern looked disappointed, but she didn't have time to express it. The doctor reached for another large connection, one of the last remaining. "Always save this connection for the end of the extraction. Things get tense after you cut it." He brought the scalpel near the connection. "Be ready," he said, then he cut it.
Strange sounds filled the room as the instruments of the physicals alarmed. They injected something into the man, then used something electrical on his nervous system. It was now a race between the ethereal and the physical. An ethereal clamp came loose . . . then another . . . and another. The doctor tried to reattach the clamps but they popped off faster than he could put them on.
Wendy started to assist, but it made little difference. Tendrils of flesh began to wrap around the tendrils of the soul, intertwining with each other. Tighter and tighter they wound, until the doctor finally set his scalpel on the surgical tray and retreated from the body.
"Have you given up?" Wendy asked. She had never seen the doctor defeated.
He shook his head. "We may get another chance at this fellow someday, but the physicals win this round, and life goes on."
"A hunt with no catch," Wendy said. All that work for naught.
The doctor put a wispy tendril on Wendy's shoulder, leading her up to through the ceiling. "I hear there's a heart transplant surgery scheduled for late this afternoon," he said. "Let's go get some coffee while we wait. Maybe we'll have better luck with that one."
Wendy had the operating room ready even before the patient arrived. When the physicals wheeled in the patient, who was a middle-aged woman, the doctor began placing ethereal clamps. "Take some clamps," he said. "You need to start some time. Why not now?"
Wendy grabbed a handful of clamps and began placing them on the tendrils in imitation of the form used by the doctor.
"You have a good feel and a quick and steady hand," the doctor said. "They will serve you well in this profession."
Wendy smiled inside, but did not have time to dwell on the compliment, for the physicals filed into the operating room.
"Wait until they make the incision," the doctor said. "We'll begin near the heart. The soul is loosest near the greatest damage."
Once the physicals had cut open the woman's chest and pried the sternum apart, the doctor dove right in. "Let me get this area detached, then I'll let you do some cutting," he said. "Pay close attention, now."
Wendy focused on the doctor's technique as he severed the tendrils while dodging the physicals. When the physicals began working on the extraction of the heart, the doctor invited Wendy to cut. "Do it just as I showed you," the doctor said as he backed away. "Remember, don't let a physical touch you."
Wendy reached in to begin cutting tendrils with the doctor looking over her shoulder. "Very nice technique," he said. "You are a natural."
She grunted an acknowledgement, but remained focused on her work, cutting tendrils and dodging the occasional physical.
"You're doing fine," the doctor said. She kept cutting and cutting, focused entirely on her work. Suddenly, the doctor shouted, "Dive!"
Wendy felt the doctor push her away from the patient. Her shoulder burned as it brushed against something. She skidded to a stop near the wall, and turned back in time to see the doctor with a physical arm thrust through his body. His screams penetrated the room as he dissipated into the ether. She looked at her shoulder and saw some discoloration, and she realized the doctor took physical contact meant for her. The doctor was gone, and all Wendy had to remind her was the scar where her shoulder brushed against the physical.
For a moment, Wendy did not know what to do. Without the doctor to guide her, how would she finish the job? The soul was almost free. She steeled her resolve to finish the operation alone.
Back to the patient she flew, scalpel in hand. After a few more snips, all that remained was the large tendril the doctor said should always be cut last. She braced herself to cut and run if the physical activity became too much for her, then she placed the scalpel on the tendril and severed it.
Alarms screamed on the equipment used by the physicals, igniting a flurry of activity. The doctor never told her what to do next, he didn't have the chance. She watched one tendril slowly reattach itself. Others were growing. There would be only one chance at this.
Wendy severed the reattached tendril before grabbing the soul with her bare hand, then she few up and through the ceiling with the soul.
The doctor kept a special box in the janitor's closet that he called his soul-keeper. That was where the harvested souls were kept fresh for delivery. She wrapped the soul around a hanger and then placed the hanger in the soul-keeper next to the others the doctor had harvested over the past few weeks.
Her first soul extraction; why did it not feel a victory? Was it the way the doctor sacrificed himself to save her? What should she do next? What would the doctor want her to do?
Wendy floated down to the place she thought would give the best chance of grabbing another soul -- the emergency room. She arrived just in time to see a badly wounded police officer wheeled into the hospital.
The doctor would have wanted Wendy to carry on. The souls of trauma victims didn't have much time to ferment, but it didn't matter.
Wendy just wanted the practice.
x x x
Mr. Novy has been published in Orson Scott Card’s ezine and now graces anotherealm. Welcome aboard, Rick. Here’s hoping this is the first of many visits here. Make him feel welcome, ‘realmers, with comment on our BBS. -GM