This week, Let’s Get Published is revealing the top finalists and the grand prize winner of our inaugural short story contest.
Today we are pleased to present The Perfect Patient, a science fiction story by Carolyn Hoffert.
The Perfect Patient by Carolyn Hoffert
The white, metallic dome curved high above Dan’s head. He arched his back to take in the full view. It was perfect. Every detail, from the hexagonal tiles that lined the walls to the eight-hundred cameras peering in from every angle stood as a testament to his wishes. If only he could have been here when the trials started. He had been away too long.
A door to his right slid open with a burst of cold air, and he hurried through. He had made so much progress, no backsliding now. He waltzed into the command room full of blinking lights and buzzing air. This was where the magic happened. Where he belonged. And where Sara and her winning smile sat waiting for him. What would he do without her?
She swiveled around in a black, low-backed chair and waved him in. “Are you ready to watch your first live round of animatron qualifications?”
“It’s not like I’m new to all this,” he said with a tinge of hurt. “I haven’t been gone that long. And the whole idea for the Emulation Dome was my idea, lest you forget.”
Sara chuckled. “I know, I know. Don’t get all twisted up. I’m well aware of how long you’ve been waiting for this. I live with you after all. Come, sit. I think you’ll enjoy this next one. I daresay he might be the perfect subject.”
“A widower in his early forties with little to no support network?”
Sara’s grin widened. “Alright Director, no need to show off. We all know you wrote the manual.”
The tension in Dan’s shoulders softened with the gentle chime of her laugh. “Shall we begin? I’m eager to bring someone back from the dead.”
Sara pressed several large buttons, turned a knob, and clattered over the glass with unceremonious oomph. Her hands darted quickly over the colored patterns in a flurry of color he could hardly fathom. The display was completely smooth. How did her fingers know where to go? Maybe he had been gone too long. He watched for a moment, enjoying the smooth flow of her movements, then voiced on all the screens.
Under normal circumstances, the computer displayed only the views that best captured the subject’s facial cues inside The Dome. But today, Dan wanted to see the full power of what he had created through all eight-hundred high-definition lenses.
Sara’s long fingers finished tapping. “Ready?
The door into the Dome wooshed open. A tall man with dark curls and a scraggly mustache entered. He wore faded blue jeans and a pair of boots. His feet tup, tup, tupped to the center of the circle.
Sara tilted the screen displaying the man’s stats toward Dan. “His name is Jackson Frau. From the U.S. Lost his wife, Emily, at the beginning of the year.”
Dan nodded. “Has he paid?”
“And his animatron?”
“Still in the warehouse. With Dome 2.0, we decided it’s best to make sure the applicants are a good fit before customizing their animatron.”
Dan hiked his eyebrow up a notch. “I thought you said he was the perfect subject. Why wouldn’t he be a good fit?”
“We’ve had a few anomalies in the past. A few misplacements. Only the data can tell for sure,” Sara said.
“Indeed. Well, let’s get to collecting some data then.” Dan leaned back in his chair and adjusted his headset. He spoke through the microphone hovering by his lips. “Mr. Frau, can you hear me?”
His voice sounded deeper through the electronic median and filled the empty space inside The Dome.
Jackson glanced upward. “I can.”
Despite the evenly spaced speakers throughout The Dome, Jackson chose to look up. Interesting, Dan thought. He looked to the data to confirm. The Dome agreed with his assessment, registering a possibility of religious beliefs.
Jackson tipped his head this way and that before settling his gaze on the biggest camera eye in the hexagon straight ahead.
Sara grinned, the left corner of her lip higher than the other. “Standard response. They’re told they’re being watched by hundreds of cameras and they don’t know which way to look.”
“Good,” Dan said through the microphone. “Please perform each task in the way described and be as genuine as possible.”
Jackson smirked. The system registered irony.
Dan smirked, too. Though for a different reason. Jackson had no idea what he was getting into.
“Let’s begin. Walk around the dome in a hurried state.”
Jackson bent his knee, then paused. “What am I hurrying for?” he asked. “Work? Because I know I’d be dragging my feet. Or do you mean something like my wife’s deathbed? Because I ran through the middle of traffic and caused several accidents just to see her last breath.”
Well, that was blunt.
Sara’s fingers flurried over her interface as she ran a few simulations. Her fingernail clinked against the glass under the system’s proposed answer.
“Work,” Dan said.
Jackson shuffled around in a wide circle, following the curved walls. The balls of his feet remained on the floor while his heels tipped up and down, sliding over a section of tile then scuffing through carpet. Next cement, and at last, a patch of grass. He furrowed his brows and his arms swung like pendulums at his side.
The screens blinked and blipped as the Dome registered subtle cues in Jackson’s behavior. Tiny calculations and measurements smattered the subject’s face in faint white lines, analyzing, through algorithms, what the man felt. Determination from his brow. Rebellion in the sharp timber of his voice. Even a note of discomfort due to his penchant for walking on the outsides of his feet. Despite a few unique spikes of emotion while The Dome learned how Jackson’s face displayed particular cues, the system’s calculations ran right along the lines Dan expected them to. A good sign.
Dan coughed into his microphone and a screech reverberated around the room. Sara shot him a pursed-lip look.
He grinned apologetically. “That will do, Mr. Frau. Thank you.”
Sara activated the second trial. A square panel skated open in the center of the Dome and a black cube emerged, stopping at table height. A plate of bowtie pasta covered in deep red sauce waited on top.
Dan leaned forward. This segment had been the most fun to design. “Please, eat.”
Jackson cocked his brow and glanced upward. The green line charting his potential for religious beliefs rose five percent.
Jackson took the dull, silver fork in his hand and twisted the wet noodles into a swirl of amber and crimson. He gave the tangled mass a sniff and looked away.
“He’s remembering,” Sara said, pointing to shifting graph of data on her display. Several screens zoomed in on the angle of his eyes and the dip of his lips. Calculating. Measuring. “This part took some digging, but from various bits of footage Jackson sent in of his wife, we were able to parse together one of her staple recipes. Tomatoes, oregano, basil, and a touch of cinnamon. Of course, we added a hint of something else.”
“Eat,” Dan commanded.
Jackson closed his eyes and opened wide, stuffing the entire forkful into his mouth. He coughed and gagged, spluttering the unchewed tendrils back onto the plate. His mouth popped open and his eyes drowned in tears.
Dan grinned and switched off the microphone. “I see you chose to add one of the more unpleasant surprises.”
“The Dome thought it best to test for anger at this stage.” Sara pressed the button to finish the segment and confirm emotional responses.
Another pedestal arose, round this time, and offered Jackson a glass of milk. White droplets splashed across the table when he grabbed it. He guzzled it down, swishing the last gulp around in his mouth before swallowing.
“What gives?” he asked the air, his face cherry with heat.
The screens in the command room lit up with notifications. But Dan didn’t need The Dome to tell him what Jackson’s facial cues meant. Anger pulsed in his “V” shaped eyebrows and narrow eyes. Violence dripped from his vocal cords.
“Please describe your emotional state,” Dan said, working hard to keep his tone neutral. He didn’t need to ask, both he and the machine were sure. But he couldn’t help having a little fun.
Jackson knocked the plate of noodles off the pedestal, splattering chunky sauce halfway up one of the dome walls. Red spots coated several camera lenses, marring the glass with virus-like speckles. “You want my emotional state? Try angry.”
The screens buzzed with warnings of violence as several lenses zoomed in on his clenched fists and taut shoulders.
Sara captured the data and saved it to Jackson’s file. “That should do for this trial.”
“Almost,” Dan said, folding his arms across his chest and slouching into the back of his chair. He blipped the microphone back on. “On a scale of one to ten, please rate your anger.”
Jackson’s mustache twitched. “I’d say I’m at a pummel-you-blue.”
Dan chuckled, and Sara swatted his arm. It didn’t hurt, of course, it was meant to serve as a warning for his childish behavior. “Alright, alright. We can move to the next trial.”
“Good,” Sara said, activating the next sequence.
Dan bounced the microphone by his mouth, enjoying the vibrations that tickled his face. “Your next task will involve interaction.”
“Interaction?” Jackson asked. He gave his coarse mustache a twist, and his gaze wandered somewhere far away.
“He’s remembering again,” Dan said as he read the data with the microphone off. “And the computers are registering misery. Why does he keep sifting through memories if it hurts?”
Sara circled the set of data Dan had purposefully ignored. “He feels love, too. That’s why.”
The trial started, and the same door he walked in through slid open with a burst of air. Lissom fingers held the door open. Jackson straightened his back and let go of his mustache. He cleared his throat and pulled at his collar.
The woman’s other hand appeared, this time holding a brown, leather leash. Jackson’s eyes followed the cord down to a curly, red poodle. The supple hands unclipped the dog before disappearing. The door shut. The fluffy ball pranced, its feet padding around. The sound of its little paws reverberated in the microphone like a hail storm.
Jackson’s eyes shot upward and his lips wrinkled into a frown.
The system’s screens flashed purple. Religious affiliation confirmed.
The puppy wiggled its way closer to Jackson and scratched at his jeans.
“Scat,” he said. The poodle barked back. “Shoo. Go,” he commanded to no avail.
Little jaws grabbed at the hem of his pants and pulled, unraveling white threads. Jackson bent down and picked up the squirming ball of fluff.
“I’m interacting,” he said to The Dome. “Happy now?”
The system’s sliding scale of sarcasm shot to the right.
Jackson patted the dogs head and scratched its soft chin. The dog’s speckled tongue lapped at the webs of his fingers. His mustache twitched, and he set the wriggling canine on the floor.
Dan activated the speaker. “Please describe your emotional state.”
“Confused,” Jackson said. He looked down as the dog peed on his shoe. His lips curled down in opposition to his mustache. “And annoyed. What is all this? I was told I just had to come in for a few minutes of speaking and perfunctory actions so y’all could get a reading of my mannerisms. That, plus ten grand on my part and months of sending in recordings of my wife was the deal. I want to see Emily.”
In response, the door opened. With a whistle the dog ran from the room, leaving Jackson alone. He walked over to the patch of grass and sat. He plucked a blade, lay down, and closed his eyes.
Yes, get comfortable. Dan rocked in his chair. You’ll want to lie down for this next one.
A schwiff of wind blew, ruffling Jackson’s dark curls as the door opened. His head fell sideways, and he opened his eyes. A few feet away stood toned legs in azure heels. His gaze eased upwards and his face flushed.
System analysis: excitement, desire. Dan grinned. Thataboy.
Jackson’s eyes stopped at the woman’s waist and the computer’s numbers plummeted.
Disappointment. Dan tapped the screen to see if the data would change. What was there to be disappointed about?
“Did he realize the woman was an animatron? Is that why he’s bothered?”
Sara registered his consternation. “No. Look at data set three. He was hoping she was his wife, Emily, but his wife is a bit more portly, so when he got to the waist, he knew it wasn’t her.”
Dan nodded. He understood what she was saying, even if the feelings behind it made no sense.
“What’s next?” Jackson asked the woman, cracking his eyes open just enough to see. “Want me to jump through more hoops? Or is that why you have the dog?”
The animatronic woman spoke, her voice fresh and bright, “I know this whole thing seems unmethodical, but I assure you there’s purpose in it all. A greater purpose than what you think you seek.”
Jackson’s eyes shot open. He sat up. “What are you talking about? This better not be about Emily. I paid the money. I sent in her clips. I flew across the world. All so I could see her again. So I could bring her home with me.”
Dan focused on the screen displaying a direct view of Jackson’s face. The Dome’s system flushed with perceived emotions; more than Dan thought anyone could feel. Some he expected: anger and confusion, for instance. But others like fear and relief were puzzling. Was the system working properly?
“I’m sorry,” the woman’s voice floated across The Dome to Jackson. “You have not been selected to participate in the program.”
Jackson’s fist punched the soft grass he sat on, cushioning a blow the system indicated would have broken his hand. Sara pressed a button on the simulator and one of the hexagon panels on the wall popped open behind him. He turned. The panel shifted upward, revealing a plasma screen. With a bwip, black flashed into a face. The face. Of Jackson’s Emily.
Dan’s jaunty smile twisted downward at the corners. The simulations had been as much fun as he had hoped, but he hadn’t anticipated this ending. He was supposed to bring Jackson’s wife back, not watch him suffer. Where had the numbers gone wrong?
Jackson jolted up and surged toward the wall. He grabbed the edges of the screen, leaving pudgy fingerprints on one of the cameras nearby. “Hey baby, I’m here. I’m here,” he said to the electronic Emily.
Love, lust, anger, and doubt swung the scale of positivity back and forth in the running analysis.
“Jackson, is that you?” Emily asked.
Jackson laughed. “It’s me. It’s me. I’ve come to bring you home.”
Emily’s face tilted to the side. She bit her bottom lip. And everything felt all too real. Dan glanced at Sara, who shrugged.
“It’s her signature look, I can’t help it if it looks like mine.”
Dan coughed sheepishly in relief. “Sure, of course.”
It was not real, this fake Emily and her lop-sided smile. He was glad Sara was there with him, providing support, explaining away the pain of others. He turned his gaze back to the Dome.
Jackson stroked the image of Emily’s cheeks. “I know you’re confused, baby. I know. But don’t worry. You’ll be back with me, soon.”
“But I’ve moved on,” Emily said matter-of-factly.
The simplicity of her statement cut through Jackson’s hopeful eyes. His cheek muscles sunk a centimeter. The scales monitoring confusion and misery spiked, while hope took a nosedive. The system registered a tightening of Jackson’s chest and an ever-increasing heart rate.
“No, baby. No, you haven’t. You belong here, with me. Don’t worry. I’m bringing you home,” his voice stretched into pleas.
Dan looked away from the screens and over to Sara. Jackson’s pain was pulling his heart sideways. Sara remained unmoved, clicking buttons and swiping screens with cool indifference.
“I have moved on, Jackson,” Emily said through the screens.
Jackson shook the hexagon that displayed his wife, knocking several camera angles askew. “Emily,” his voice quivered, “it’s time to come home.”
“This is it,” Sara murmured to Dan in the control room. “Closure. The final goodbye.”
Dan watched from eight-hundred viewpoints as Emily smiled and Jackson’s knees trembled. As a tear splashed on his mustache and clear snot streamed from his nose.
Emily reached up and touched the screen. “I am home, sweetie. And so are you. It’s time for you to go live.”
“But how?” he begged. He covered his face with his hands. But only for a second. “How can I go on without you? Your chair is empty. Your flowers—” his voice choked, “they’re dying. I don’t know how to tend to them like you. You left our laundry at the dry cleaners and I haven’t picked it up yet. I’m waiting for you to do it because you hate how the cashier flirts with me.” He attempted a chuckle. “See? I need you.”
Dan clenched the sides of his chair. This was no fun at all. This was inhumane. Torture.
Emily leaned forward and kissed the screen. “You will be alright. You will find love again.”
Jackson’s fingers gripped white before he let go. “No. I won’t. I need you. Your smell, the mixture of sweetpea and you, is fading from my pillow. I’ve forgotten the sound of your laugh. Please,” he begged.
The screens ran through a torrent of registered mannerisms, but those rife with grief soared high above them all. The man was completely consumed with mourning.
Emily gave Jackson one last smile. “Goodbye,” she said, and the screen faded into darkness.
Jackson crumpled to the floor.
The Dome registered pain. Just pain. Nothing else.
Dan turned away. His stomach twisted in eight-hundred knots. He cleared his throat and looked to Sara. “Are you sure the system made the right call, here?”
“The data sets are never wrong, Dan, you know that,” she said. Her lips twitched upward in that quirky smile she made. It was never quite what he was looking for, but his heart squeezed just the same. “All calculations were based on the information sent in by the hospital staff and psychologists who monitored him during his wife’s passing, as well as the emotions displayed today in The Emulation Dome. He is capable of moving on from his grief. An animatron is not right for him.”
Dan snuck a glance at the wall of screens.
Jackson’s pain tore at him. Pain so palpable, a ball formed in Dan’s chest and challenged his lungs to breathe.
“The Dome only ran ten percent of the trials, how can it be sure?”
Sara stood up and tapped the viewpoint screen that faced Jackson head-on. Her grey fingernails circled the tear-stained eyes and the creases in his cheeks, then finished by tracing the parted and anguished lips. “The analysis is always correct. Thousands of hours watching myriads of subjects. The system can identify both subtle and obvious cues.”
“But his sorrow,” Dan said. He paused the screens displaying Jackson’s tormented features. If the eyes are windows into the soul, Jackson’s looked upon a churning ocean shadowed by ragged cliffs. “He’s hurting.”
“And that’s okay,” Sara stood up and held his hand. Her fingers felt warm, just as they should. “It’s okay to experience grief. He is still living. He gets angry at small things, he cracks a joke. His pupils dilate in the presence of a woman. He even held the puppy. He will be okay, with time. The system even indicated a belief in a higher power. That’s an excellent tool for overcoming grief.”
Dan jabbed at the stats blinking on a screen in the middle of the wall. “He may believe in a higher being, but he doesn’t seem very happy about it. How will that help?”
Sara’s brows knit together in a look of empathy. “The belief alone is enough. Whether he is on good terms or not with his god, the window is open for him to take hope in an afterlife. The hope that he can see his wife again, after he has let go, will propel him into healing. An animatron will only get in the way.”
Dan shifted from one foot to the other. Of course. He knew all these things. He helped build The Dome and establish perimeters for acceptance in the early stages of conception. But this was the first time the implications weighed on his mind, the first time he had been present in the observation room during a subject’s trial, and the first time the Dome’s numbers had not coincided with his expectations.
“It seems cruel, making him say goodbye to a compiled image of his wife.”
Sara shook her head. “It’s what he needs, you know that. To him, it’s anything but snippets of movies our system put together. To him, it’s her. His Emily. She is helping him let go.”
Dan rubbed his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“You’re showing signs of uncertainty.” Sara moved closer, stroked his hand. “Trust the machine. An animatron of his wife will only hinder his progress.”
Dan nodded, but the desolation in the eight-hundred sets of Jackson’s eyes haunted him. They pierced the blackness in his heart; a ray of light in the cavern where he drowned.
“Did I look like that?” he asked, his fingertips converging on the screen closest to him.
Sara grabbed his outstretched hand, now holding both, and lay her head on his chest.
“No,” came her simple reply. “Your eyes were dead and you could not feel.”
“But now?” He took her head in his hands, locked his eyes on hers.
A circling moved within their black centers. “That remains to be seen.”
There was a glimmer in her pupil from the lights overhead suggesting a spark of life. But he knew it for what it was. His forehead wrinkled as he gazed deeper into her glass-green irises. Who knew what he hoped to see, but he was sure wouldn’t find it.
He pulled her close in a grip that should have crushed her. Kissed her forehead. She didn’t move as his hand inched up her back. Nor when he reached behind the nape of her neck.
“I love you,” his said in a trembling whisper.
He stabbed the button at the base of her hairline and she collapsed into his arms. Quivering, he set her reverently on the floor and stared at what he had done.
For minutes he stood there next to her body. Or it could have been hours; he didn’t care to know. He ripped his gaze away from her and to the depth in Jackson’s eyes.
He was ready to feel again.