The new Restorr machine had finally arrived at Dr December’s clinic. His was the first practice in London to have one and now it had been installed he was eager to try it himself. The receptionist had gone home for the day. As usual, she had forgotten to upload the patient files for tomorrow’s consultations. He would have to replace her soon; not only had she started criticising his methods, but she was also encouraging the patients to complain. No wonder his head was beginning to throb. Half the day had been spent in online consultations and the other half among the diseased and unclean at the local Euthanasia Centre; mockingly named the Euth. Centre by all who went there. The smell of the place repulsed him; a mixture of bleach and urine. Acutely aware of his own brilliance, he did not see why he had to risk his own, precious life in such unsanitary conditions. Now with the Restorr he would be able to avoid the Euth. Centre altogether and simply supervise his patients in the office. More importantly, he would be able to double his fees and he was anticipating a very healthy return.
As he went downstairs into the bowels of the clinic the lights brightened automatically. There it was: the Restorr, nesting like a giant egg on its platform by the window. It sensed his presence, woke up and hummed. In the shadows of the clinic its ancestors: the bulky Elixir and the tubular Caretaker now seemed primitive by comparison. The Caretaker shuddered into life, clumsily dispensing a cup of water. Dr December took a sip and ogled his new toy. It was going to transform his life. ‘Download Good Health in a Second,’ said the green fluorescent sticker on the side of the machine. This was no exaggeration; it could diagnose over one hundred thousand illnesses, run tests and administer cures, all in a matter of minutes.
The patients had been particularly irritating lately. He had made a few mistakes, perhaps more than a few, but then, like Hippocrates, he had always maintained that medicine was an art as well as a science. A man had died when he had refused him medication. Another patient had committed suicide after he had told her there was nothing wrong with her, when in fact she had had dementia, which would have been perfectly treatable if he had recognised it in time. Then there was that Julia woman from Chelsea who had accused him of sexual harassment. Obviously she was highly egocentric. When she had complained of malpractice to the WHT he had managed to convince them that she was suffering from an acute case of erotomania. Over the years, he had managed to get away with a great many things. Back in the 2020’s, when he was a junior doctor, he had taken immense pleasure from his experiments with patients; torturing the ones who couldn’t communicate, just to see what their eyes would do and mixing traditional medication with a few illegal substances here and there. He told himself it was boredom that made him do it; a brilliant mind needed constant entertainment. Nowadays of course, he had to be more careful and content himself with just the occasional indiscretion.
The clinic pulsed with the vibrations of the automatons. Dr December took a deep breath, undressed and approached the platform. There were no instructions; there didn’t need to be; the Restorr was an Intuit. ‘Please enter,’ it said. He put his foot on the air cushion and stepped inside. ‘Please put on the Gelhelmet,’ it said, and the doctor wrapped the sheath around his head. After all these years of living with robots the engineers still couldn’t make them sound human, he thought. Shame, but the Restorr was perfect in every other way. It was sleek and streamlined, like fast cars used to be, in the days when they had cars. He lay back and began to relax, feeling the gel seep gently through his pores. It was blissful; just like stepping into a warm bath.
After a few moments a body scan appeared on the Airscreen in front of him. Next to it flashed up a display of data giving blood pressure readings, brain speed and nerve current strength. He was pleased to see that most of it was normal. ‘Possible areas of concern,’ said the machine. A new list appeared, including high adrenaline, blisters and a stress headache. ‘Is treatment required?’ it asked. ‘Yes, and hurry up about it,’ said the doctor. A disclaimer flashed up in front of him so he reached out and poked the air where the tick box was. At once there was a buzzing sound and he felt a slight pressure against his skin. A surge of energy followed, seeming to enter his body via the gel. ‘Hormone levels corrected,’ declared the machine. Now he felt revitalised, the fatigue had vanished, replaced by a youthful thrill. The room seemed shinier, brighter; even the aspidistra in the corner looked healthier. He wanted to jump up and sprint across the room, and he would have done so, but his feet were still aching.
‘Blisters,’ said the machine, turning its attention to the patches of rough skin on his feet, tickling him as it exfoliated, then spraying Duploderm on the soles, which made him wriggle. Dr December chuckled to himself, wondering what else the machine could do for him at intervals between appointments. He looked down and saw that his feet were perfectly pink and glowing. A few seconds later his headache had also gone. It was as if he had just woken up from a deep and peaceful sleep. How invigorated he felt. All his expectations had been exceeded; the Restorr was a miracle worker.
In fact, he felt so comfortable he could have stayed there all night. He was just considering it when a long, loud bleep brought him back from the brink of slumber. He groaned and opened his eyes. Where was the Airscreen? The image of his face, flushed and bright with health had disappeared, along with the clinical readings. He glanced around the semi-darkened room. Nothing was out of place but the surgery seemed cold; the aspidistra on its trolley in the corner had acquired a yellow tint and for the first time he noticed that the couch next to it was covered with a thin layer of dust. The Restorr no longer hummed. Complete silence was unfamiliar to him and there was something about it he didn’t like. Then he remembered that the machine was connected to the Glactonet, as it had to be, for the purposes of government audits and routine maintenance. It was probably a fault with the server, he reasoned; it was always unreliable, particularly in the evening. He tutted and made a mental note to have it disconnected, at least temporarily.
It was unfortunate, however, that although Dr December knew a great deal about medicine he knew very little about computers because, as was often the problem with the Glactonet, a group of flashjackers had malfriended the machine, downloading a virus quite randomly and just for fun. They had fed the Restorr with a new code, which had caused its character to change quite dramatically; as well as its mission. Suddenly it spoke, cutting through the silence with a startling clarity: ‘Headache’, it said, and Dr December immediately felt a sharp pain above his eyes which shocked him into action. ‘Not supposed to go backwards…’ he muttered, striking the buttons on the arm rest. The arm rest lowered but that did not stop the machine. The doctor felt pressure building up at his temples, squeezing his skull, but the pain was increasing at double or triple the normal rate. The Airscreen flickered into life again and through his blurred vision he could see a scrolling list of all the ailments known to mankind; indexed alphabetically, from Achilles Tendon to Zinc Deficiency. Page one of one hundred and three thousand, it read.
Where was the stop button? He searched frantically for it but there was none; no button, no switch, no plug to pull out. The Restorr operated remotely. It was supremely independent and exceptionally advanced. The doctor’s pulse had quickened so the Airscreen dutifully displayed his escalating blood pressure. He tried to get up but the machine would not let him go. It was like being encased in quicksand; the harder he tried to move, the more the gel seemed to close in around him. ‘Please remain seated,’ said the machine. It had got as far as the letter ‘M’. ‘M is for Measles’, it said. Now there was a new sensation as the reluctant patient started to burn with fever. Every muscle ached. Where there had been comfort, there was now only pain. His throat was turning dry and rough like sandpaper and he was beginning to cough and wheeze uncontrollably. Small pustules appeared all over his chest and spread rapidly, followed by itching which only intensified the more he scratched. The Airscreen showed the rash to him, as if holding up a mirror to his suffering. He shouted into the empty clinic for help, but the Caretaker was old and worn and not sophisticated enough to understand.
More illnesses appeared before the doctor’s streaming eyes. Everything he had studied in his medical career was up on the screen and he was feeling it all, from Dermatitis to Rheumatism. It was as if all the afflictions his patients had ever complained of were being visited on him. Worse still, the program was speeding up. But if he couldn’t stop it, perhaps he could reverse it somehow. ‘Go back, go back,’ he screamed, kicking at the machine wildly. It responded by making angry noises. ‘Refrain from movement,’ it said. Dr December tried to answer back but his throat was too sore to produce any more sound. He punched at the Airscreen in a rage, causing the text to stop scrolling. The screen flickered and a new ailment appeared before him. Quite by accident, he had gone back to the beginning of the alphabet and “selected” Ebola. ‘E is for Ebola’, said the machine in an upbeat voice, as if announcing the name of a travel destination on a mystery tour. All at once an excruciating spasm tore through his back. He knew that Ebola could kill within three days but at the Restorr’s current rate he would be dead in minutes. Surely there was some sort of safety mechanism; surely it must disconnect itself from the Glactonet automatically. He started to retch. His eyeballs froze in their sockets, making him almost blind. Terror overcame agony and he flailed around for a few moments, hitting out at the machine, in a last effort to save himself. But the gel merely rebounded at every punch. It was too late and he knew it. His brain was shutting down; and so he was only dimly aware that he was throwing up black vomit. He looked at his legs and saw blood running down them and knew it was his own. The room started to spin and he felt as if he were falling; falling through space without end. ‘Risk detected,’ said the Restorr, ‘No virus barrier. Your status is: Quarantine. Please renew anti-vandal shield. Subscribe to update now. Enable cookies for payment. Download cookies now.’ There was no reply from Dr December. What remained of his body lay in the Restorr, stiff and red. But the Caretaker, in the shadows of the room, obediently buzzed into action, lifted up its metal arms and dispensed a chocolate flapjack.