Stories

A Human Disease


I woke up feeling strange. I didn't know what the feeling was, exactly. It was something I had never felt before in my entire life. I lay in the bed, not wanting to get out of it. I had never not wanted to get out of bed before. I turned my head to look out the window; that always was my favorite thing to do in the morning. Look out the window, see the morning loop of sunlight and the trees and the birds and the bees. It always made me glad to see and let me know that today was going to be a good day, just like every other day.

I let out this long, drawn-out breath. I'd never done anything like that before either. It was like I had been running a long way and was out of breath, except all I'd been doing was laying in bed, and I definitely wasn't out of breath, and besides I only did it once so it wasn't to catch my breath at all. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. But as I thought about it, I had this unusual feeling of... not caring, I guess I could say. I didn't care that I must be dreadfully sick with some weird disease that made me not want to get out of bed.

I had been laying there for a good ten minutes when my wife finally came into the room. She was a short woman, with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Her smile was very wide and I thought her extremely pretty. The prettiest thing ever, in fact. She looked exactly the same she had thirty years ago, the day we first met. Some men wanted their wives to grow old with them, to get wrinkles and put on weight and have their hair go gray. I didn't, though, so she stayed exactly the same. It was comforting to walk out of the bedroom every morning and see she had breakfast ready for me.

She quirked her head to the side and put her hands on her hips as I continued to lay in bed. “Why aren't you getting out of bed?” she asked in confusion.

“I don't know,” I told her very honestly. “I think there's something wrong with me.”

An expression of concern took hold of her face and she sat down swiftly. She placed a hand on my forehead and held it there. “Well, your temperature is within normal ranges,” she said. “Are you in pain?”

I shook my head. There was nothing that hurt. “It's nothing like that,” I said. Then I made that strange, drawn-out breath again.

“What was that?” she asked in surprise, her eyes going wide. She had very large eyes and when she was surprised they got even larger, almost like they were going to take up half her face even though that definitely wasn't true.

I shook my head in confusion. “I don't know,” I said. “I think it's a symptom of whatever is wrong with me. I did it earlier, too. I think I must have some sort of disease.”

She took my hand in hers. She had the most comforting manner, which was something I'd specifically wanted in a wife. “Well, honey, I think you're probably worried about nothing. I bet there's some logical explanation for this. Maybe you just don't want to get out of bed today.”

“Maybe that's it,” I said, because it was true. I just did not feel like getting out of bed today, even though I always wanted to get out of bed every other morning. I had things to do. Books to read, broadcasts to watch, games to play. A full life to live. I could only do some of those things in bed.

“Well, if that's the case, let me bring you your breakfast.” She turned and briskly walked out of the bedroom, leaving me alone again. With her gone, I started to feel even stranger. It was a bad feeling. I'd felt bad feelings before; I'd been scared once when a car went out of control and nearly hit me, I'd been startled before, I'd been upset when my favorite drama came to an end (even though I agreed that it had stopped being good a few seasons before, I had held out hope it would get good again). But this was a new feeling, one I could not understand.

But before I could give it any more thought, my wife came back into the bedroom carrying a tray with my breakfast on it. It was my favorite breakfast, the breakfast I asked for more days than not; bacon, eggs, toast with lots of butter, and a tall glass of orange juice. She set the tray on the nightstand and handed me my fork.

I took in a big whiff of the food and let the aroma settle in my nose. For a moment, I wondered if I'd let out that long, strange breath again, but I didn't. Instead, the food did not smell right. I looked at my wife in confusion. “Did you do something different with breakfast?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I made it like I do every day. Why, do you want something different?”

“It smells wrong,” I told her. “It smells... muted? Like it's not all there. I don't understand.”

She perched her button nose over it and took a big sniff. “It smells fine to me,” she said after a second to analyze it. “Everything smells exactly as it does every other day, within a tolerance of one percent.”

I frowned and wondered why it did not smell right to me. I reached out my fork and speared a chunk of scrambled egg. I looked at it quizzically, almost expecting it to transform before my eyes. It did not, of course, so I set it into my mouth. I chewed and tasted and said, “Are you sure you made it the same you always do?”

“Of course,” she told me, almost in a scolding way. “You know I don't make mistakes.” That was true. You could get a wife who made mistakes, but that seemed like a rather foolish thing to do. Someone tried to explain the appeal of it to me once, but I just didn't get it. Make her perfect, I told them. Perfect is what I want and perfect is what I got and she always made me happy.

“I guess so,” I said. “But it still doesn't taste right. It tastes...” I tried to think of a good word for it. “Bland,” I finally decided. It wasn't a word I had to use often, except once a long time ago when I had gone to a wine-tasting event and tried out a bunch of wines made by amateurs. A few of them were very plain tasting compared to the others. When I mentioned it to one of the people who regularly attended such events, he explained the wine was bland and then explained what that word meant.

“Bland?” my wife wondered. I started to explain what the word meant, but she stopped me. “No, I know what it means. I know what every word means, you know. I just don't understand how it could be bland. I made it exactly to your tastes.”

I thought about it for a moment, then suggested, “Maybe it's because of whatever's wrong with me. Maybe it's another symptom. My sense of smell and taste are going bad.”

My wife rubbed her thin, rounded chin as she thought. “I suppose that might be the case. But you're only fifty, not nearly old enough to be experiencing age-related sensation loss.”

I gulped. “Do you think it's something serious?”

She shook her head. “Oh, I'm sure it's nothing. Why don't you finish your breakfast and then we'll see how you feel?”

I supposed that was a good enough idea, so I started eating. Normally I cleaned the entire plate and drank all the orange juice. My wife made sure we complied with regulations and did not waste any food. Except today, I felt tired of eating only halfway through. There were still two strips of bacon, three or four bites of egg, and half a piece of butter-drenched toast left. “I'm not hungry any more,” I told her.

“Well, I'll just save it for later,” she told me and took it back into the kitchen to save. She was gone for a few minutes while she changed. She came back in wearing a piece of lingerie that she'd bought.

We always had sex after breakfast. I liked having sex with my wife. We did it every day. “Oh,” I said, having plum forgotten about it this morning. She crawled into bed, wearing an enthusiastic grin, and began to kiss me on the cheek and neck.

Normally it felt good, but today it felt irritating. I knew I was supposed to be getting into it. She was the one who initiated the regular sex and since she was perfect for me, I knew she was doing it because I wanted it. And up until today, I had.

I took her by the shoulders and pushed her away. “I don't really feel like it,” I told her.

Now she looked worried. “But you love having sex with me,” she said, eyes even wider than before, if that was possible. “That's one of the primary things they discovered in the tests. It's one of my primary instructions.”

“I know,” I told her, letting out another one of those strange breaths. That got us both concerned. “It must be a symptom too. Have you heard about any diseases like this?”

She shook her head slowly. “I only know about diagnosing and treating common household illnesses like the flu, the cold, simple cancers, and similar. I think you must have something rare.”

“I'd better go to the doctor,” I told her. She agreed and helped get me out of bed, even though I still didn't want to do so. I knew I had to, though, and she undressed me, took me to the shower, then helped me dress when it was finished.

She walked me down to the door of our apartment. She gave me a kiss on the cheek as I walked outside. I smiled at her, but I have to admit it was difficult to do. It felt like it took a lot out of me to get my facial muscles to make that small movement, like they were half-paralyzed or something. I worried that was another symptom, but I didn't tell my wife about it. Even though she wouldn't be bothered, I still felt worse that I had to force myself to smile at her. It felt like the smile was a lie.

We lived in the tenth subterranean level, which didn't get enough street traffic for the city to worry about putting in personal transports. I placed an order for a cab through the wall panel and patiently waited.

A minute later, the cab pulled up, bright yellow like was tradition. I climbed in. The car asked, “Where is your destination?”

“The hospital,” I told it.

“Are you traveling to the hospital for a medical emergency?” it asked. Its voice was androgynous. I would have preferred it to be a female voice, because I liked the sound of female voices more than male voices. But these cabs had to cover the entire city and they couldn't easily pick and choose which went where, so they just gave them all a voice somewhere between male and female, hoping to put anyone at easy.

“I don't think it's an emergency,” I told it, even though I didn't know to tell the truth. It could have been an emergency. I might be dying, even. I suddenly felt a fear clutch my heart and beads of sweat formed on my head. “Actually, maybe it is,” I told the car. “Yes, it's definitely an emergency. Please, get me to the hospital immediately.”

“Understood,” the car answered flatly and it took off down the street so fast I actually felt the inertia negators kick in. “I am signaling ahead so that emergency personnel will be standing by to receive you. Can you please explain the nature of your emergency?”

“I don't know,” I told the car. “I feel unusual. There is definitely something wrong with me and I don't know what it is. I didn't want to get out of bed today, the images from my window didn't get me enthusiastic like they normally do, my food smelled and tasted worse than normal, and I didn't feel like having sex with my wife. None of those things has ever happened before. Plus, I have sporadic breathing problems. It goes like this.” I made the breath as best I could, though it was too forceful and not nearly drawn out enough compared to the real thing.

“Understood. Your symptoms have been transmitted to the hospital staff to better prepare them to treat you.”

I felt somewhat relieved by that and turned to look out the window. I normally liked looking out the window whenever I went somewhere, but this time I found myself wholly uninterested in it. As I watched the blur of passing buildings, I let out another of the strange breaths. “Oh! There's the actual breathing problem again,” I told the car, but it didn't reply to me this time.

As we got closer to the hospital, there was more traffic, and the cab had to weave in and out of traffic. It cut very close to several other cars, missing them by only inches. Normally, that would have given me a brief thrilling jolt, as I feared the two cars hitting each other and causing an accident. That would never happen of course; all the cars were constantly talking to each other, making sure that no accidents happened.

This time I actually started to wish that they would hit each other. I realized that if they did, I would be seriously injured. Maybe even killed. The car would be too, though it was easier to fix a car than a person.

Just as the car had promised, medical personnel were waiting for me when I arrived. Two caretaker robots helped me out of the car and onto a stretcher. The caretakers looked like an upside-down spider sitting on top of a post with a big ball at the bottom. The spindly arms reached under my arms and legs and lifted me so gently it felt like I was floating. They began to wheel me into the hospital while a diagnostic robot swept sensors over my body.

“Please do not move,” the robot prompted me as I lay on the stretcher. I didn't think I had been moving, but I made extra care not to as it continued to probe. I didn't feel anything at all. All of its scans were harmless and used subatomic particles and manipulation of fundamental fields.

It only took a few minutes and it was finished by the time we reached a room. A doctor was already waiting for me. He turned smoothly around and gave me a perfected warm smile. “Hello. I have reviewed the information your car transmitted to the hospital as well as the scans performed by the diagnostic robot.”

The two caretakers rolled out of the room, leaving me alone with the doctor and diagnostic. The diagnostic was an orb with various instruments sticking out of it on articulated arms. The doctor looked like a normal person, with slightly graying hair and slight wrinkles and a powerful nose. I wondered how many of the doctors in the hospital looked just like him. I guessed a bunch, though not enough so that a patient would see two identical doctors walking by.

“So what is it doctor?” I asked nervously.

The doctor looked at me very seriously, even though he wore a slight, comforting smile. “Well, I can't be sure. The diagnostics did not pick up any physical problems with you. There appeared to be no antigens inside you to cause a health problem. There were, however, a few unusual chemical interactions in your brain. I think I know what the problem is, but I would like to gather more information before I make a confirming diagnosis.”

“Alright,” I said, growing more worried as her spoke.

“Has anything unusual happened in your life lately?” he asked me. “Any major life events?”

I thought about it. “Like what?” I wondered.

“Have you had any children?”

“I have three children, two girls and a boy.”

“Three children? That means you are at the limit. Do you want more?”

I shook my head. “No, sir. The youngest moved out almost ten years ago to start her own family. The government says a couple doesn't need more than three children a piece and I think they're probably right about that. I certainly don't want more.”

The doctor nodded his head. “Have they had children recently?”

“No. And I don't really care if they do or not. It their own choice, after all.”

“So do you have a good relationship with your children?”

“I do. I talk to them all at least once a week,” I said. “We don't argue or anything. We talk about our lives and our interests. All that stuff.”

“What about your parents?” the doctor asked. “I see in your records that your mother was biological. How is she doing?”

“She died a few years ago,” I told him. I frowned. “Shouldn't you know that, though? You have my records.”

The doctor nodded stiffly and gave me his calming smile. “Of course I do, but in diagnosing this sort of issue, it often helps to hear things from the patient himself. So, your mother has been deceased for four years. What about your father?”

“He's fine,” I said, and I let out that strange breath. “Oh! Look, there's that breathing problem again.”

“It's called a sigh,” the doctor said. “It's a perfectly normal physiological response to what I believe you are experiencing. You made it when I mentioned your father. Can you tell me a little more about him?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I don't know. I haven't seen him since my mother died. I haven't really even thought of him much at all lately, but yesterday I was cleaning out some old boxes and found an old picture of the two of us playing when I was younger.”

The doctor nodded his head sagely. “I see, I see. And this is when your symptoms developed?”

“Well, it was this morning that I noticed them,” I told him.

“I suspect that finding the picture of your father, whom you have not seen in some time, is what caused them to occur,” the doctor said. “You see, I believe you have something called sadness.”

“Sadness?” I asked, quite confused. I had never heard that word before.

The doctor nodded. “Yes, sadness. It used to be very common, a long time ago, but modern technology has mostly eliminated it. People used to have to worry about things like money, and a job, and finding love, and many other problems. But modern society has eliminated those concerns, plus we place medicine in the water to help prevent sadness. Even so, every so often, someone will come down with a case of sadness.”

I gulped. “Is it dangerous?” I asked.

The doctor smiled just a bit wider. “Oh, no, of course not. It is perfectly natural. It is assumed that every human feels sadness at least once in their lives. Some do not recognize it for what it is and, if it is a minor case, it will simply go away after a short time. Robots need not worry, since we are not programmed to feel sadness. Your wife, for example, will never need to worry about sadness.”

“Well, that's good. I'd hate to think she feels the way I do right now.”

“The good news is that sadness is perfectly treatable, especially now that I discovered the root cause. You are experiencing sadness because of your father. Perhaps you miss spending time with him or perhaps finding that picture merely reminded you of your youth and you temporarily yearned for it. Maybe there is even something more to it.” The doctor shrugged. “That's not important, however.”

“So what do I do, doctor?” I asked him. “Do I need to find my father and talk to him?”

The doctor shook his head. “You certainly can do that, but it is not necessary. There is a much simpler solution.” The doctor retrieved a vial of pills from a drawer and handed it to me. “These pills are more concentrated forms of the medicine that is placed in water. It will prevent you from experiencing any further sadness. Take one every morning with a meal for the next week. After that, skip a day and see if your sadness persists. If it does, go back on the medication for a week. Repeat those steps until you no longer feel any sadness. If you run out of medication, you can have it refilled at any pharmacy.”

I smiled and felt better already.


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