Empalme by Dylan James Harper

Empalme by Dylan James Harper

“The process is extremely painful,” Dr. Lampone said calmly, barely turning away from his computer.

          “How long will it take?” Ivan asked, his hands, usually firm and stoic, now quivering slightly together in his lap. His white button up shirt and black dress pants, paired with the fact that he wasn’t sitting on the examination table but on a small stool in the corner of the room, made him look like the doctor’s assistant.

          “Well, it’s never a set amount of time. Several factors contribute, including age, weight, species, and just how the body reacts. Everyone’s body is different, you know?” Dr. Lampone replied, as if he was talking to a very young child who had asked a foolish question.

          Ivan continued to sit there. He had endured a lot throughout his life. The death of his wife Elizabeth had been the most painful by far. Their two daughters had been young, and he had done his best to be there for them first. He remembered the day his youngest daughter Gloria had moved out. He waited eight years to cry for Elizabeth, but when he did it felt right. He wanted to cry again now, but it didn’t feel right.

          “And remind me what species we were thinking of again?” Dr. Lampone inquired, interrupting Ivan’s thoughts.

          “Uh?” Ivan hadn’t heard the question.

          “Oh, let’s see, it’s probably listed here somewhere,” Lampone went on, clicking through his computer.

          “Okay, here it is, Canis latrans. Gonna work out on the plains huh?” Dr. Lampone asked, knowingly.

          “Uh, yes, at the, um,” Ivan stumbled over his words.

          “The Rat Plant?” Dr. Lampone chuckled.


          The Rat Plant, as many called it, was an old poultry processing and packing plant that had been converted to process rodents after most of the birds had been wiped out. The problem with using rodents as a meat source, besides the taste, was that they were the unfortunate combination of small and hard to find. They also had short life spans, and so the hunt for females to breed was always on.

          “Well, that explains why a hardy fella like you would want to endure this process. They pay a pretty good bonus for a Canis splice to sniff out those breeders.” Dr. Lampone continued.

          “Yes, it’s for my daughters. I want them to emigrate to Mars.”         

          Mentioning his daughters gave Ivan some of his resolve back. He sat up a little straighter and continued.

          “They will not go to Mars in debt and be indentured servants for the rest of their lives.”

          Dr. Lampone finally stopped typing and looked over at Ivan. His smug demeanor seemed to dampen a bit.

          “That’s, uh, pretty remarkable,” Dr. Lampone said, leaning back in his chair.

          Ivan, now not only sitting up but puffing out his chest a little with pride, took his wallet out of his pocket. He handed a folded up picture to Dr. Lampone.

          “These are my daughters. Gloria is on the left, and Andrea, my oldest, is on the right,” Ivan explained as he beamed.

          “Very nice,” Dr. Lampone said quickly. “And is this your wife?”

          “Yes, Elizabeth, we lost her a long time ago,” Ivan replied, sagging a bit.

          “I’m very sorry,” Dr. Lampone replied weakly.

          There was a long pause between the two. Lampone handed the picture back, and slowly turned back to his computer.

          “Well, let’s get you scheduled here. When do you start at the Rat Plant?”

          “They need me there and trained before the cold season so November first at the latest, but if I get in by October they’re going to front me my first two months pay on top of the bonus so my daughters will have some money to start when they go up.”

          “Alright, well, you’re gonna want at least four weeks to heal, so why don’t we get you in mid-August and give you six. Canis usually is pretty easy though, so I would expect to be back on your feet by mid-September at the latest.”

          Dr. Lampone stood up, and Ivan followed his lead and moved towards the door.

          “Dad, please don’t do this,” Gloria protested, as she sat on her childhood bed looking at an open, empty suitcase.

          Ivan stood in the doorway, looking at his daughter. Even as an adult, she still pouted the same way she had as a toddler. It made him smile.

          “I know you’ll miss me, but I can’t bare to see you and your sister stay on this planet any longer.”

          “Then come with us! We don’t mind working,” said Andrea, slipping past her dad to sit next to her sister on the bed.

          “I know, you get that from your mother,” Ivan said, smiling brightly.

          “What? You’re the one who worked, sometimes through the night, to feed us,” replied Gloria.    

          Andrea frowned at this. Gloria hadn’t known her mom as well as Andrea had, despite looking almost exactly like her.

          “Trust me sweetie, raising you two was way more work than I’ve ever done.”

          They all laughed at that.

          There was a long pause they all let hang in the air. It might have been the last truly joyful moment the three of them shared.

          “When do you have the procedure?” Andrea asked, in an attempt at a nonchalant tone that wasn’t quite convincing to anyone.

          “Let’s not talk about that right now,” Ivan replied, smiling.

          He didn’t want curiosity to become fear. He was afraid, but not in a way that made him uncomfortable with his decision. He had never been academically inclined, but he was very far from foolish. The Earth was dying. It wasn’t going to improve. Discomfort, even pain, would be far more temporary for him than for his young daughters who had their entire lives ahead of them. He wanted them to have kids, to fall in love, or at least to have the chance.

          No, there were no second thoughts rustling around in Ivan’s head, even at the pleadings of his daughters.

          Later that day they went to get ice cream together. It was fake of course, but the girls didn’t know the difference. Andrea had tasted real ice cream as a very young child at a wealthy friend’s house. She was far too young to really remember it, but would always commiserate with her father, lamenting the loss of real ice cream. This was as much to lovingly torment Gloria as anything else, and usually left the three of them in mock debate over which synthetic foods were the best and worst.

          That night, after both his daughters had gone to sleep, Ivan went into their rooms as he had done when they were children and he was returning late home from work. He peered in, smiled, and softly closed the door.

          “When a caterpillar is in a cocoon, its entire cellular makeup is changing in a big melted mess. What’s remarkable is that, after those cells re-form into a butterfly, it keeps the memories it had as a caterpillar. Whatever brief instances of life that caterpillar recalls, it holds on to them through the transformation process,” Dr. Lampone waxed.

          Ivan was flat on his back, in a very loose fitting hospital gown. He was strapped down to the steel table he was on, which was very slowly backing into a large machine. When he was young, Ivan had once seen a picture of some of the first computers invented, the type so big they would take up an entire wall. This looked like someone had built one of those around an MRI machine.

          “Essentially, what we’re going to do is use focused light to generate enough heat to melt down parts of your genes. Once they’re in a fluid state, I’ll rebuild them with the added Canis genes, and then we’ll flood this entire chamber with freezing cold air to resolidify them,” Dr. Lampone continued.

          “Okay,” Ivan replied, not really sure what else to say.

          “What we recommend is that you think of a specific positive memory or even fantasy and focus on that. There will be some extreme pain, so try your best to stay focused.”

          “Okay,” Ivan repeated.

          At this point he was all the way into the machine. A large cylindrical door slid shut, sealing him in. The machine was already warm, and Ivan could tell it was heating up.

          “Alright,” came Dr. Lampone’s voice over the radio. “If you can hear me please acknowledge.”

          “Okay,” Ivan said, once more. He immediately felt silly, but he truly was at a loss for words.

          “I won’t always be able to hear you. We usually mute the patients so we don’t have to listen, uh, because it can be distracting,” Dr. Lampone corrected quickly. Ivan guessed it was screaming from the patients that the doctors found distracting.

          “We will be monitoring your vitals however, so don’t worry, no matter how painful it gets, if you’re still in there it means we don’t have a good reason to pull you out.”

          This was significantly less comforting to Ivan than Dr. Lampone’s tone seemed to want to convey.

          After what felt like an eternity, some arms on the inside of the machine began to move into place. One brought a rubber mouthguard down. Ivan took the hint and opened his mouth, biting down once it was secure inside. 

          The arm retracted, and a new arm with what looked like a large silver drill came down and positioned itself by Ivan’s throat. He felt a sharp heat just near his Adam’s apple. The pain was intense, but localized enough that it was bearable, like a shot or, more accurately, a burn.

          This went on for a few minutes and then the arm moved. The burning sensation on a needle’s eye sized part of his skin now expanded. It was bigger now, and cutting, the same burning sensation, but far more intense than anything he had experienced. He clenched his teeth, and shut his eyes.

          Like a wave crashing on someone trying to reach the water’s surface to get air, each new rush of pain was simultaneously familiar to the last but bringing new and unique excruciation. Already biting down on his mouth guard, Ivan tried clenching his fists; he tried screaming; he tried reaching his restrained hands just over to his leg and using his nails to pinch his thigh. Nothing could come close to erasing the onslaught.

          The rest of his body was starting to catch on. It felt like every nerve, every blood cell, every atom in his body was screaming at him, at someone, at anyone to please end this. Kill him if they must, but end this.

          Even with his eyes closed, looking at nothing but black, a new deeper blackness began to creep in. Was his body taking over? Was it deciding to end this rather than continue to allow itself to endure it?

          Just as Ivan began to panic that he wouldn’t be able to finish, that he would have to do this again and start over, a voice came over the radio.

          “Think of Elizabeth.”

          Elizabeth flooded into Ivan’s mind. When they were young, and would sneak into a nearby vineyard just to walk up and down holding hands. When they were older and would park his truck someplace private and spend hours learning everything about each other. When Andrea was born, and Ivan would read to both of them while they rocked together on a rocking chair his father had made for them. Any random night throughout their entire time together, when he got to crawl into bed next to her after a long day, just to know she was there. When her mother died, and she told him that he made her feel like she could endure anything because she would never be alone. She could endure anything. She did. He could too.

          After burrowing a long tunnel, a small brown vole pocked its head up into the fresh air of a dry desert. Its nose worked quickly, hoping to detect a plant or even a carcass to nibble on. It strained in every direction, the night sky up above providing cover. Just as it was about to dive back down and keep digging, a pair of firm, callused hands snatched it up. It wriggled, but to little avail, eventually playing dead out of desperation.

          The figure holding the vole had its own working nose that blended surprisingly well with its human-like face. With no moon out, it was impossible to comprehend anything other than its shape and outline.

          Looking up into the sky, the figure seemed frozen. The stars were stark against the black and deep purple, blinking down their comfort from high above the barren land. A red planet blinked too, maybe more of a wave.

          The figure knelt down, and put the vole back down on the ground, its firm hands becoming soft and gentle. Once released, it gave the vole a light pat, which started it out of its defense tactic, and encouraged it to dive back into its burrow. It went on, having to endure at least another day of existence.            

In the distance, a coyote howled, and another responded. The figure stood back up. It took another look up at the sky, and then turned and walked in the opposite direction.


Copyright Dylan James Harper 2020

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