The Cuckoo's Progeny
19: The Navigator

Copyright© 2016 Vincent Berg. All rights reserved.

Al leaned over, keeping his voice low as he held back from the others. “Mui, I didn’t want to ask this yesterday. It’s a bit of a personal question, but I’m confused about your relationship with Lamar. Isn’t he... ?”

“Gay?” She giggled, slapping Al’s arm. “You can say it; we’re both aware of it. Yes, he’s definitely gay, but in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not like other humans. Somehow, with our bonding, one’s sexual preference doesn’t seem to matter as much. We still spend all our time together, and we rarely separate. But when he gets the urge, he’ll find another guy and disappear for a couple hours. Since he’s careful about exposing us to potential diseases, I’m not concerned. As everyone keeps saying, I’m sure he’s coming home to me rather than running off with some hot body. No human can offer the same connection we share, so I don’t worry about his satisfying his needs.”

“Wow! That’s more than I needed to know. But then, I guess if I didn’t, I should have kept my mouth shut. Pardon me if I get even more personal, but what about the two of you? Are you ... intimate with each other?”

“You can’t get any more intimate than a bonded partner. If you mean a sexual relationship, you can hardly prevent it when you feel this close to someone else. If I wasn’t here or we weren’t pair-bonded, he’d never give a woman a second glance. Yet with it, somehow, his natural preferences don’t matter much. It’s like someone who’s straight suddenly finding their soul mate in someone of the same sex. Sexuality is somewhat fluid. It flows, and in this case, the current pulls stronger towards me than his natural inclinations. He gets turned on by men, but when we’re together, we just mesh. It doesn’t take long for things to turn romantic. He doesn’t get as excited with me, but that works, since it makes everything last longer. So far, we haven’t had any issues.”

“That’s reassuring, but we should discuss this with Etta, our biologist, so we can better understand what we’re facing. This affects how we each interact with others in the future. It’s encouraging we seem immune to petty jealousies. It eliminates a lot of conflicts. It’s nice trusting those around us.”

“It certainly is,” she answered. “Now, if you don’t object, I don’t mind spending my time with my man.” She chuckled. “It’s fun. We comment on all the hot guys nearby. It gets us both in the mood for later.”

As she trotted off, Al shook his head. “It’s a whole new world,” he told himself.

“This time our search seems faster,” Al observed. “There are fewer false starts.”

“The signal is clearer,” Betty said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the others could follow it, though we haven’t tested that assumption. Since I have the ability, it’s easier for me to do it than wasting time guessing. I suspect this is the final one.”

“Do you think it’s the last of us, or is it possibly someone who could answer our questions?” Delilah asked from the back seat, leaning forward. Because Betty insisted on riding with her partner, they’d reassigned the other riders, who didn’t mind giving them a little leeway.

“I’m assuming it’s the last of our kind. After this, I’m unsure where we go.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Al said. “For now, we want us all together so we better understand who we are and can make united decisions. Hopefully, it will lead us to where we belong.”

“This is it up ahead,” Betty announced.

Delilah peered out the front window. “The hospital?”

“The sign says Etheridge Community Hospital,” Al said. “I suspect it’s affiliated with the nearby Etheridge University. If whoever we’re looking for is a patient, we may be too late.

“Okay, this is a large building. A search will take some time. Let’s spread out, communicating through Zita. Betty will direct us, but given how slow elevators full of patients can be, if someone else can jump ahead, it’ll help. Just don’t bunch up so it seems we’re ganging up. As far as anyone’s concerned, we’re all visiting sick relatives.”

“Theo and I will spearhead the alternate group,” Etta offered. “As a biologist, I can relate to the doctors better. If we encounter trouble, I can run interference.”

“I can bluff my way through, if necessary,” Eli said. “If you throw some Greek and a few medical terms, it catches them off guard and they’ll relax. It’s a shorthand way of saying ‘I’m not a patient and I won’t cause trouble’.”

“I’ll accompany Eli,” Zita declared.

“If it’s all the same to you, Mui and I will sit this one out,” Lamar said. “We’ll attract more attention than we’ll help.”

“We’ll keep these two company,” Ivan said. “I’ve wanted to discuss equipment repairs with them.”

“Good, we’ve got a plan. Let’s see what we can find. The sooner we can wrap this up, the less likely we’ll encounter trouble,” Al said, climbing out of the car.

They entered the hospital lobby and were heading towards the elevators when Betty hesitated.

“Is there a problem?” Al asked.

“They’re moving,” she said. “Give them a second to get settled before we move any further. Otherwise, we may be going up an elevator while they’re coming down.”

“They? Is it one person or another couple?”

“I’m ... I’m not sure. There’s more of a draw to this one, so I’m not sure what it represents. There’s something ... unusual about it.”

“Okay, your plan makes sense. I won’t waste time guessing about what we don’t understand. Let’s grab a coffee and get the lay of the land so we don’t seem conspicuous.”

“No, they’ve stopped again. They should still be on the same floor. Let’s go.”

They were almost to the elevator when she held her hand out, stopping Al. “They’re moving again.”

“It’s not unusual for staff to stop in the hall during conversations while transferring patients,” Al said.

“Maybe. Let’s see where they go this time.” They waited a few moments and she raised her hand. “They’ve stopped again; they didn’t go far. I’m guessing they only moved a couple of rooms. This doesn’t feel right.”

“That’s why we brought two teams. If we send Theo and Etta up, can you tell when they’re on the correct floor?”

“I think so,” she guessed.

“That’s good enough for me,” he said, waving them forward. They boarded the elevator, and it started rising when Betty clutched his arm again. “They’re moving again.”

“You’re right. This is odd. They don’t usually move patients around so much.” When Al communicated the newest information to the others via Zita, Theo responded.

“This is a teaching hospital. I’m guessing we’re searching for a doctor rather than a patient. Tell us which floor they’re on and we’ll look for a group of doctors performing rounds. Come on up. We’ll keep you informed if anything changes.”

Al guided Betty into the elevator, which was crowded. The hospital was teeming with doctors, patients, staff and visitors. The person they sought kept moving every couple minutes, but only by short distances.

“We’ve found them,” Etta said. “It’s a group of eight medical interns and one instructor. The head physician asks for diagnoses, and awards brownie points for whoever gets the closest guess. They’re making their way towards us. When you get here, hold back. You won’t be able to interrupt without raising questions you can’t explain. Between us, we can track the group. We’ll wait until they finish and try to isolate the person we want.”

Al and Betty arrived on the floor and strolled down the hall, seemingly searching for a particular patient’s room. They paused outside the room where the doctors were grilling a patient before moving on.

“The person we want is an oriental physician. She’s got her hair pulled back in a bun.”

“She should be easy to find. There’s only one Asian in the group.”

“Don’t lose her,” Betty warned as they walking back, stopping at a lounge where they could observe passing traffic while keeping out of the staff’s way.

It took some time. The group had to review quite a few patients, some taking more time than the others. Even when they finished, most congregated together discussing what they’d learned, but their intended target was left to herself. Grasping her notes, she wandered down the corridor.

“Wait here,” Al suggested, holding Betty’s arm. “One person will be less inconspicuous than four. Gary, you hold back so you appear like a staff member.” Al followed the woman who went through a door marked “Hospital Employees Only”. Ignoring the warning, he discovered her among a row of lockers, filing her paperwork on a shelf. Glancing around, aware other nearby interns might overhear, Al approached.

“Excuse me, remain standing and whatever you do, don’t salute, but you might be interested in this,” he said, revealing the marks on his forehead.

The intern’s knees buckled and her arm flexed, the impulse to kneel and slap her chest was so ingrained, but she resisted. Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. “You’re...”

“Yes,” he paused, glancing over his shoulder. “Damn! Come with me, there’s something I need your help with. We’ll talk on the way.” When Al turned and walked out, the intern followed. When they exited the room, Al waved Gary back. “My name is Al Collins. You’re the last of a small group of us. We all share a similar background. As you’ll see, spending so much time in a hospital is tough on me. I’m drawn to saving lives.”

“I’m Xi North. It’s an unusual name, a bit hard for most American’s to pronounce.”

“Pleased to meet you, Xi,” Al said, getting the pronunciation close. “While we’ve been here, I could’ve prevented two malpractice cases which might kill someone. In one, the doctor left a pad in a patient. In the other, another misdiagnosed someone. However, I can’t walk up and correct a hospital physician without raising questions. Ah, here we are,” he said, entering a patient’s room, glancing at the name tag for the room. “In this case, you can help cover for me.”

An older patient watched, but didn’t say anything since they were still talking.

“Pardon me, Mr. Schweitzer, this will only take a second.” Al turned back to Xi to explain what they were doing there. “It’s about to get busy, so we’ll wait in the cafeteria. When you get a spare moment, meet us there. We’ll pick an isolated table. In the meantime, Zita will fill you in on the basics. Don’t freak out when she does.” Al glanced at his watch. “It should happen any second now...”

The patient clutched his chest, his eyes rolling back in his head as he collapsed on his pillow.

“Damn!” Xi rushed to his aid. “We need a crash cart in here!” she shouted into the hall.

When no one responded, Al left her performing chest compressions and entered the hallway. There were several nurses at their station, but none were responding.

“Hey, we’ve got someone having a heart attack here!”

“They’ll be fine,” a nurse yelled back. “The monitors will alert us if anything is wrong.”

“He’s not on a monitor.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get to him,” she said, not responding to Xi’s request for assistance.

Al stormed towards them, causing the one nurse to glance up, expecting a confrontation. However, guided by information Zita got from Xi, he walked behind the counter and grabbed a rolling cart, taking it with him.

“Hey! You can’t take that.”

“If you can’t be bothered saving someone’s life, I’ll do it myself!”

The nurse started screaming for others, and soon several people began chasing him. By then Al reached the room. He moved the crash cart beside Xi and backed away. “Sorry, but this is where I make my exit. I’ll see you in a while.”

Ducking back into the hall, two nurses and an orderly converged on him. “It’s in there,” he said, pointing. When they entered, he left. Several others glared at him, but no one tried to restrain him. Gary, shaking his head, tagged along, trailing his captain.

Xi North joined the group a short time later.

Al stood, offering her a chair. “How’d things work out?”

She clenched her fists as she sat down. “As you’d expect; I’m treated like a warm bag of burning excrement. No one gives me any credit, they don’t offer assistance, and ignore me in an emergency. The whole thing blew up. The nurses who didn’t respond got reamed, but at the same time I was asked to leave. According to them, I’m disrupting a ‘healthy work environment’.”

Etta reached across the table to hold her hand, which unfurled under her touch. “Can they even do that?”

“They said no one else was willing to work with me. I could either quit the program, receiving glowing recommendations, or they’ll make my life a living hell and bad mouth me to anyone who asks. They aren’t specifically breaking any laws, but I don’t have much of a choice.”

“If you can get anyone to testify, you can definitely sue,” Eli said.

“No, he knew enough to take me aside when he said it. Let’s get out of here.” She stood, motioning the others to follow. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve had it here. I’ve never fit in. I’ve never gotten along with others, though I couldn’t tell whether it was my missing social cues or others’ perception of me. Getting this internship was a fluke. I’d planned a career in a research lab where I could function on my own. Instead they needed more minorities. By offering me the position, they got both a woman and a Chinese-American, but they made the offer understanding they’d never allow me to finish.”

As the others cleaned up their trays, Xi paced in place until Al, Betty, Etta and Delilah walked her out of the cafeteria.

“Actually, this works out perfectly. I’d rather spend time with you anyway.” She glanced at the group, grinning. “I can’t believe there are others like me. All these years, I’ve been an outcast. Never fitting in, never relating to other people, being watched suspiciously and never trusting anyone. I can understand why now, but damn, if each of you has a partner, why the hell didn’t I? It would have made life so much easier.”

“I’m not sure,” Al said. “Everyone we’ve met so far has been paired up with someone from their childhood.”

“I’ve never fit in!” Xi shoved the twin cafeteria doors open. “My two Chinese foster families never felt I was Chinese enough. The Americans attributed it to my being Chinese, despite being raised an American.”

“We suspect they specifically chose couples when they selected us,” Al explained.

“Her mate may have died,” Etta suggested. “With such a tightly knit group, there wouldn’t be any replacements.”

“Or, as the last person found, she might be an extra to pair with anyone without a partner.” Betty put her arm around her as she clutched Al’s hand. “That makes more sense. I’ve confirmed she is the last one. I can’t detect anyone else.”

“That argument isn’t logical,” Eli argued, having caught up. “She’d only prove useful if we were missing another woman. She’d be worthless if we lost a man, though I’ll admit, it might have been by design. If we’re expected to continue, fertile women are more vital than spare men.”

Al considered that. “The most logical explanation is her partner didn’t survive. Orphans often have rough lives, or he may even have died in childbirth.”

“If he didn’t, then what role did he serve?” Delilah asked. “Are we missing some vital function?”

“The basic functions which required multiple hands had partners, like repair, technical expertise and Delilah and I,” Gary said. “I can’t picture needing multiple doctors if we’re operating with a minimal crew of only thirteen, though I can’t picture what role we’re missing, or which would naturally pair with a physician.”

“I was never close to anyone at my orphanage,” Xi said. “I’m guessing he died before reaching the orphanage. No one ever mentioned me being close to anyone when I was younger.”

“They may not have thought it pertinent,” Al said. “Why remind someone of a trauma they have no memory of. Besides, if you were each in a separate facility, or separated by sexes, you may just not have met yet.”

“If he died before reaching the orphanage, wouldn’t they just pick someone else?” Eli pressed. “These people were so careful selecting everyone, frequenting multiple homes, I doubt they were waiting for a single individual to show up. It’s more likely they selected those with temperaments most aligned with their jobs. I’m guessing you didn’t become the Alpha completely by accident. You must have possessed some tendency which allowed you to perceive things which are about to happen. If that’s the case, then why wouldn’t they just select someone else?”

Betty cocked her head. “What are you suggesting?”

“We’ve been thinking since the start that we’re not completely human, that we have different DNA than those around us. Over time, we’ve suspected we’re the subject of genetic engineering, yet that’s not a complete story either. Instead, I’m proposing I was already a potential clairvoyant, though it’s doubtful I’d ever activate the talent on my own. In short, it’s partially genetic, partially manipulation.”

“The obvious answer to why they wouldn’t treat someone else is that they treated someone, and he perished before Xi met him, but too late in the process to reverse course,” Theo said. “We don’t know how long it takes to develop these skills, or how young the recipients need to be.”

“I think it’s enough to assume he didn’t make it,” Al said, cutting off the discussion, which was likely to attract attention. “I’d assume if he was vital, they’d have curtailed the entire operation, starting over. My guess is we’ll survive without him, whatever he did, though it may be more difficult. When we identify what we’re supposed to be doing, we may figure out all the missing pieces.”

“Which brings up another point,” Betty said, still holding her arm. “Besides medicine, what skill does she bring to the table?”

Not knowing how much Zita had covered, Al expanded. “We were each given particular ... skills, which others don’t possess. I ... anticipate things, Be can track us, Zita is telepathic. We each bring something unique to the table.”

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