Submitted Date 09/15/2022

Jack wasn't quite sure when he first noticed it, but the pain and stiffness in his hand had been there for at least a couple of days now and was getting worse. This morning when he woke, his hand was tingling and he could barely open and close it; as he sat in the doctor's waiting room at four in the afternoon, he noticed that there were red streaks starting to show on the back of his hand.

The room was largely empty; chairs lined the walls and there were several rows of chairs back to back in the middle of the room. Doors at the far end led to what Jack supposed were examination rooms; at the side nearest to where he was sitting was a window cut into the wall, at which he'd signed in when he arrived 45 minutes ago. He rubbed his left hand with his right, and checked his watch against the clock on the wall. The clock was slow, but it was at least 30 minutes past his appointment time.

"Mr. Larsen," he heard a voice from the far end of the room call. He stood up and stepped that way; the voice came from the one door that he could not see from where he'd been sitting. A woman in a set of purple surgical scrubs stood in the open doorway holding a clipboard, and when he rounded the corner, she caught his eye with hers. "Mr. Larsen?"

"Yeah, I'm Jack Larsen," he responded. The hand was aching now, actually throbbing, and the red streaks were visibly intensifying.

The woman stepped back and held the door for him. "Come on back, please." He stepped through the doorway and she indicated with her arm that he should stand on a raised platform to the right of the doorway. "Let's get your weight, shall we?"

Jack stepped up on the scale platform and stood still while the nurse—he supposed that's what she was—stuck her face close to the readout, which, for some reason, was absurdly small. "One hundred ninety one. Does that sound about right?"

"Yeah, I guess," he said, his right hand rubbing the left one again. "This hand is really starting to hurt."

"Let me see that," the nurse said. She took one look at the back of his left hand and her eyes widened. "Ooh, that's infected. Hold still." She turned, picked up a temperature sensor, pointed it at his forehead, clicked the trigger, and brought the display end to her own face. "Hmm. No fever, but that hand is definitely infected. Okay, we'll take care of that. Come with me." She stepped off down the long hallway and Jack followed, his right hand holding his left. The nurse turned left, then right, and then pushed open a door, revealing a small, square room with a high padded platform and an office chair. "Sit right up there, Mr. Larsen."

He sat on top of the platform with his legs dangling over the edge. The nurse reached back and pulled something out from behind, setting it on the platform behind him. "Now, lean back, lean all the way back." He leaned back, and his head came to rest on a raised padded sort of pillow—that was what she had placed behind him. Then she sat down in the office chair and pulled a little extension out from the side of the platform. The extension was in exactly the right place for his hand, palm up, to come to rest, and she guided his hand to it.

As the hand came to rest, Jack moaned. "Oh, man, that really hurts all of a sudden."

The nurse was studying the back of his hand intently, and then she turned it over gently and studied the palm. "Yes, I'd say you got here just in time." The nurse spun in the chair, opened a drawer, and pulled out a substantial-looking syringe and a small paper-wrapped object. She opened the paper wrapping to reveal a substantial-looking needle, which she placed on the syringe, then she loaded the needle with the contents from a small bottle that she picked up from the cabinet top. "This should take away some of the pain while I do an examination, okay?" Without waiting for a response, she deftly brought the needle around.

Jack jumped when she inserted the needle in the crook between his index and middle fingers, but she was holding his hand firmly and it did not move. "Ah, damn, that hurts."

"Only for a second," she said, staring intently at what she was doing. It was then that Jack realized that this woman must be the doctor. She completed the injection and removed the needle. "There, now that should start working right away. In the meantime, can you tell me what you've done to your hand?"

"I haven't done anything to it, Doctor," he said. "It started getting stiff and sore a couple of days ago, and then it was worse, and this morning it was much worse, so I made an appointment and here I am."

The doctor had picked up the clipboard and was writing something down as Jack had been speaking. "No injury? No exposure to toxins or poisons?"

"Not that I know of," Jack responded.

"What is your profession, Mr. Larsen?"

"I'm an analyst for an investigation agency," he said. That was what he had been trained to say; that was the noncommittal answer that all Institute agents were trained to give when an answer was needed by some legitimate authority figure.

"Mmm-hmm." The doctor seemed to understand, or if she did not, she did not feel she needed any clarification. "No farm work? No exposure to pesticides? Radiation?"

"No, no, nothing like that," he said.

"Well, what you're feeling and seeing on this hand is your body's attempt to overcome some organism or toxin that has gotten in there somehow," she said. "You've not been exposed to any exotic animals of any kind, have you? Been scratched by a raccoon? Or maybe a squirrel?"

Uh-oh, Jack thought, suddenly realizing what it must be. The cordorex. But he maintained his neutral expression and level gaze. "No, no way."

The doctor had turned his hand back over and was studying the back of it again, holding her head close. "Hmm. Is your hand getting a little numb yet?" she asked.

As a matter of fact, it did hurt less, Jack realized suddenly. He tried to open and close the fingers—no, that was still too painful, but at least it wasn't killing him as it was just laying there. "Yeah, I think so," he said.

"Okay. I'll be right back." She stood and was out of the room in a moment. Jack brought his hand up to his face and looked at the back of it, now understanding what it was he should be looking for. Then the door opened and the doctor held a small microscope in her hands. She placed it gently on the cabinet top, then wheeled the cabinet over so that she could get Jack's hand under the microscope lens. "Now, let me just take a look," she said, manipulating his hand gently and peering into the microscope.




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