Escape Pod 313: Playing Doctor

Playing Doctor

By Robert T. Jeschonek

The problem with having a crush on your mad scientist boss is, every day she doesn’t see how wonderful you really are seems like the end of the world.

“This is all wrong!” says Dr. Hildegarde Medici, hurling the tray across her cavernous secret laboratory.  “You’re a complete imbecile, Glue!”

Her words sting, but at least she’s paying attention to me.  I’ll take what I can get from the woman I love.  “I’m sorry, Dr. M.  Please let me try again.”

“Everything is ruined.”  With one arm, Dr. Medici sweeps notebooks and glass beakers from the table in front of her.  “Now I’ll never finish the doomsday weapon today!”

As Dr. Medici throws her head down onto her folded arms on the table, I cross the lab and pick up the silver tray that she threw.  I see myself reflected in its surface–thick glasses, big nose, bald head, pure geek…not her type.  “I thought you liked the crinkle-cut ones,” I say as I pluck chicken fingers and french fries from the floor and drop them onto the tray.

Steak fries,” says Dr. Medici without raising her head.  “How many times do I have to tell you, Glue?”

She is such a drama queen, but what do you expect?  Her line of work attracts a certain type of personality–passionate, temperamental, creative, flamboyant.  To tell you the truth, it’s one of the things I love most about her.

“I could run to the store,” I say, dumping the chicken and fries into a waste basket.  “By the time you’re done building your doomsday weapon, I could have hot fries ready for you.”

Dr. Medici rolls her eyes like a disgusted teenager.  “I can’t concentrate on building a doomsday weapon on an empty stomach.”

I know the feeling…the not being able to concentrate part, that is.  Most days, I can barely focus on my work instead of Dr. Medici’s long black hair and bright green eyes.  Once, I was so distracted by Dr. M that I cross-wired the brain of a giant robot, which proceeded to rampage at a garbage dump instead of an army base.

If only I could tell her I love her.  If only I could close that final mile that has always stood between us.

If only I could finally set free the words that I’ve longed to speak, and she would turn to me and say the words I’ve longed to hear.

“Don’t just stand there, you putz!”  She spins away from me on her work-stool.  “Get me a TV dinner out of the freezer or something!”

I don’t take it personally.  I know it’s just the stress talking.  She’s been having a rough time lately, just like the rest of the mad scientist community.

Thanks a lot, terrorists.

In the good old days, mad scientists weren’t considered public enemies like they are now.  They were tolerated, in fact, because the government loved getting its hands on their way-out inventions after their crazy schemes were thwarted.

But not anymore.  Not since the terrorists.

What difference is there between a politically motivated insane genius and one who is motivated by greed?

How can the government go after one group of people threatening to blow things up and not the other?

It can’t.

As a result, business has dropped off considerably.  No one will negotiate in good faith with a mad scientist anymore.  Instead of musclebound private citizen thrill-seekers coming after us, we get black ops Special Forces and heat-seeking bunker-buster missiles courtesy of Homeland Security.

It’s a tough time to be a mad scientist.  Lots of them have quit already and become street people or college professors.

But not my Hildegarde.  She won’t give up that easily. Being a mad scientist has been her lifelong dream.

I know, because I grew up with her.

Hildegarde Medici always wanted to be the first female mad scientist in history.

“Call me Doctor Medici.”  When she started with that, she couldn’t have been older than seven.  She was three years younger than I was, and already she was giving me orders.

Not that I minded.  I think I was born to follow her.  She ruled my heart even then, when she was just the girl next door.

We played laboratory in her family’s garage, building contraptions from tin cans and coat hangers.  We pretended to build ray guns and bombs and robots and monsters, and she always got to be the evil genius and I was her helper.

“The townspeople have failed to meet our demands!” she would say, shaking her fist in the air.  “It is time to activate the framistat, Glugor!”  She always called me by my last name, Glugor, because it sounded so much like “Igor.”

“Immediately, Dr. Medici!” I always enhanced my performance by adopting a nasally voice and hunching over like Igor in the movies.  “Firing framistat!”

“They will rue the day they crossed me!”  Even as a child, Hildegarde had mastered every nuance of mad scientist behavior.  She was a true prodigy and wanted nothing less than to achieve the complete perfection of the consummate evil genius.

It didn’t matter to her that all the mad scientists we heard about were men. If anything, it made her want to be one all the more.

And that made me want to be her assistant all the more, too.

Not that it’s exactly been easy.

These days, Dr. Medici is always being hounded by feds and fanboys, so it’s almost impossible for her to get any work done.  My job’s about a hundred times tougher, too, what with the increased vigilance and paranoia on the street.

Dr. M’s temperamental nature can be a stumbling block, and then there’s my one-sided love for her.  It’s what keeps me around, but there have been plenty of times when the heartbreak’s been almost too much for me to stand.

You’d think I’d have gotten the idea by now.  If she really had feelings for me, she probably wouldn’t have gone through five marriages to other men. She probably wouldn’t keep using me as a guinea pig in dangerous experiments, either.

Once, Dr. Medici transformed me into a bloodthirsty arachnoid creature and turned me loose in a shopping mall.  Another time, she used a mutation ray to bring out my inner dinosaur.

On purpose or by accident, I’ve been shrunk, enlarged, divided, multiplied, irradiated, roboticized, made invisible, and turned every color in the rainbow.  She’s managed to reverse every change, but only after plenty of drama and destruction.

Out of all these experiments, I enjoyed only one:  when she sent me back in time to when we were kids.  Even as a grown-up outsider, I loved being back when we were just starting out and there was still a chance for us to share a happy lifetime together.

I even said something to my little boy self to make him think about taking more chances…but he didn’t take the hint.  When I returned to the future, to the era where I belonged, nothing had improved between me and Dr. Medici.

If anything, she was a little more distant.

The day after the crinkle-cut french fries incident, Dr. Medici is all business again.  She is somewhere between the manic and depressive phases of her personality cycle…in other words, on a rare even keel.

“I’ve finished the doomsday device,” she says matter-of-factly, strolling into the lab in a white lab coat and black slacks.  She holds an oversized coffee mug with both hands and blows the steam off its contents.  “Let’s talk about deploying it.”

For the next two hours, she tells me her plan to hold America hostage with the doomsday device.  I listen intently and take tons of notes, but my mind isn’t really on Dr. Medici’s plan.

Partly, I’m thinking about how beautiful she is, and how I would love to reach over and touch her face.  I’m envisioning a perfect daydream world of whispered confessions and unleashed passion, blazing with the intensity of her mad scientist ways.

And partly, I’m thinking about a mad science plan other than Dr. Medici’s, a secret plan of which she has not even the slightest inkling.

I’m thinking about a plan of my own.

That night, long after Dr. Medici has gone to her private quarters, I sneak off to the secret lab I set up in the old dungeon below the main level.

It is here that I do my best work.  It is here that I pull together everything I’ve ever learned and apply it to a project the likes of which humanity has never known.

I am making the impossible real, and I am doing it all for her.  For us.

I don the surgical gown and gloves, the cap and mask.  I check the readings on the computerized monitors, gauging the condition of my handiwork.

As I reach for the scalpel, I remember the last time I saw Dr. Medici cry. It was three months ago, right after her fifth husband left her.

I found her in the lab, crying on the floor beside a broken alchemy generator.  The generator hadn’t been broken two hours before, when I’d last walked past it.  Pieces of it were strewn all over the lab.

“Sometimes…I wish I wasn’t…a mad scientist,” she said between sobs. “It’s so…lonely.”

Not so lonely, I wanted to say.  You have me, don’t you?

But as usual, I didn’t say what was on my mind.  As usual, I couldn’t close that final mile between us.  It was better to watch her from a distance than not to see her at all.

“No one understands,” said Dr. Medici, rubbing her bloodshot eyes.  “Once the thrill wears off…they can’t handle it.  The danger…the commitment. At least…that’s their excuse.”

“I understand,” I told her, but it didn’t come out the way I’d wanted, like, ‘I understand.’

“I’m a…career woman,” said Dr. Medici.  “I love…my career.  I just wish…I didn’t have to be…so lonely…because of it.”

You don’t, I had wanted to say.  I’m right here for you!  I’ve always been here!  And I love you!

But I didn’t say a single word of that.  Instead, I listened, and I filed it all away, and I made my secret plan.

And now, with my scalpel, in the silent dungeon in the middle of the night, I am bringing that plan to life.

In the weeks to come, I realize I’ll need to finish the plan sooner than expected.  She’ll need it.

For a while, she seems to be doing really well, plowing ahead with the doomsday device scheme and mapping out what she’ll do when it’s over.  In exchange for not blowing up the world, she’ll demand that she be made queen of it…and that really has her pumped.  She loves talking about being the first mad scientist queen of the world and all the changes that she’s going to make when she takes over.

Then, she has a run of bad luck.  Make that terrible luck.

A guy she meets on the Internet turns out to be a stalker, following us on secret missions and breaking into the lair to steal stuff and leave threatening notes.  We finally have to dispose of him (restraining orders and police protection really aren’t options for people like us), which gets kind of messy.

Then, Dr. Medici gets audited by the Internal Revenue Service, which just started going after the earnings of mad scientists and other public enemies. The estimated back taxes on Dr. M’s criminal activities are astronomical, and Dr. M hasn’t exactly kept receipts to justify deductions.

The IRS audit is major trouble, the kind of trouble you can’t dispose of like a stalker boyfriend…and it isn’t the last of her bad breaks.

Dr. M’s five former husbands write a tell-all book about their marriages to her.  It becomes a bestseller that makes her a household name, but not in a good way.

In the heat of the book brouhaha, when Dr. Medici tries to phone in her threat to launch the doomsday device unless she’s made queen of the world, the United Nations Security Council won’t take her call.

The worst break of all, though, comes with Dr. Medici’s visit to the doctor–a medical doctor, not a mad scientist.  That’s the one that almost wrecks her.

And it happens on Christmas Eve.

“All those years,” says Dr. Medici, pouring herself another glass of whiskey.  “Instead of working on doomsday devices and killer robots, I should have been studying medicine.”

“Why?  What’s going on?”  I’m a little nervous, because I found Dr. M hiding out with her bottle of whiskey in the dungeon…I mean my secret lab.  She is leaning against the metal table on which my personal secret project lies hidden under a bedsheet.

Dr. Medici raises her glass, but I have no glass of my own with which to toast.  “That’s irony for you.  I’m smart enough that I probably could have found a cure for cancer if I’d put my mind to it.”

As she downs her drink, I take a step closer.  “Cancer?”  My head spins as the word dribbles from my lips.

Dr. Medici nods and refills her glass.  “Star cell carcinoma,” she says glibly.  “A mind is a terrible thing to turn to paste.”

I stumble another step toward her in the shadowy chamber.  “Inoperable?” I’m having trouble talking to her, but not for the usual reasons.

Dr. M raises her glass.  “Merry Christmas.”  She gulps her drink.  “What really pisses me off, though,” she says, “is that I didn’t get to be queen of the world first.”

This time, I stumble back away from her.  I come up short against the cold wall of the cave and let it hold me up while the world melts out from under me.

Dr. Medici laughs bitterly.  “I should’ve been a medical doctor,” she says. “What the hell was I thinking?”

Twenty-five years ago, the first time I saw Dr. Medici, she was pounding the hell out of a teddy bear in her family’s back yard.  She was six years old, and dressed all in black.

Lots of cars were parked in front of her house, and I had come over to see what all the excitement was about.  Hildegarde scowled at me and kept pounding the bear as I approached.

“Who’s all the people?” I said, gesturing in the general direction of the cars parked out front.

“Funeral people.”  Hildegarde held the bear by its stubby legs and swung it hard at a rock as big as she was.

“Why are they here?”  I remember looking around for something like the stuffed bear to swing and pound, as if it were the polite thing to do.

“My mother,” said Hildegarde, sweeping the bear way back and really slamming it against the rock with all her might.

“What about her?” I said.

“Cancer!”  Hildegarde went wild then, pounding the bear on the rock so hard that the bear’s seams split and stuffing flew out of it.  “Cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer!”

I stood and watched as she pounded the bear, then dug her nails into the split seams and tore it apart.  Grunting like an animal, she shredded the skin and hurled the stuffing into the yard.

When she finally ran out of bear to pound and rip, she threw down the last remaining hunk of brown fur and glared at me.

“Someday,” she said, “I’ll be queen of the world, and I’ll make it so nothin’ happens without my say-so.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Wanna play doctor?”

I watch her get drunk in the old dungeon for a long time, and I hardly say a word.  When she finally starts to nod off, I help her upstairs to her quarters so she can sleep in her own bed.

And I don’t leave right away like I should.

I stand in the doorway and watch her as she sleeps, the peaceful look on her face belying the turmoil in her life.

I would do anything for her.  If I could cure her cancer by giving up my own life, I would do it.  If I could take all of her troubles on myself, I would do that, too.

But there is one thing that I can do.  It’s the one thing that both of our lives have been leading up to since we first started playing mad scientist in the back yards of our childhood homes.

The next morning, I have a pot of coffee waiting for her in the lab.  That much, at least, is like every other morning…though it’s really the third pot I’ve made since midnight the night before.  I drank the first two on my own; it was the only way I could stay up all night and make the final preparations for the grand unveiling.

When I see how bad she looks when she walks in, I’m extra glad I decided to carry out my secret plan today.  Her eyes are bloodshot, her face haggard, her hair tangled.  She shuffles around like she’s still half-asleep, like she was the one up all night and not me.

I fill her mug with coffee and stir in a teaspoonful of sugar, the way she likes it.  She doesn’t take it at first, and when she does, she only sips once and puts the mug back down on the table.

Half-heartedly, she walks over to the big whiteboard on the wall and stares at the equations scrawled there in red, green, and black dry-erase marker. “Did the U.N. return my call yet?”  She says it without looking back at me.

“No, Doctor.”  I cross the lab and stand alongside her.

She sighs and shakes her head.  “I give up.”

“I know the feeling,” I say.

“No,” says Dr. Medici.  “I mean I really give up.  No more mad science. It’s just not working for me anymore.”

I never thought I’d hear her say that, but I understand where it’s coming from.  “You’ve been having a rough time lately,” I say.  “Things’ll get better.”

“If by ‘better,’ you mean death, then yeah.”  She’s finally showing some spark.  Too bad it’s in the form of sarcasm.  “Much better, coming right up.”

I take a deep breath.  My big moment has arrived.  “Things will get better.”  I feel a chill as all the blood seems to rush right out of my body
at once.  “Things will get better right now, in fact.”

She isn’t taking me seriously.  She doesn’t even look at me as she ladles on more sarcasm.  “Oh, good.  You’ve come up with that cure for cancer you’ve been working on.  I’ll have some right now, please.”

“Follow me.”  I turn and march to the far corner, where the big surprise awaits, laid out on a gurney under a white sheet.

Dr. Medici follows slowly, her face etched in a scowl.  “I’m not in the mood for jokes, Glue.”

My hand shakes as I pat the shape beneath the sheet.  I feel the heat of it, the rise and fall of it, and I know I’ve done well.  “Trust me,” I tell her.
“Give me a chance.”

“What is it?” she says as she draws up beside me.

“Science project,” I say, and then I whisk the sheet from the gurney.

Dr. Medici stares silently at the naked man who is lying there.

He is lean and muscular, the type who could be a model or an all-around athlete.  His complexion is fair, his thick hair glossy and blond.  He has a movie star face with chiseled features…and his eyes, when they finally flutter open, sparkle like twin sapphires.

He looks young, in his twenties or thirties, but nowhere near his true age, for he is a newborn.  Today is the first day of his life.

“Who?”  For a change, Dr. Medici is the one reduced to one-word sentences.

“That’s up to you.”  I pat the new man’s shoulder, and he smiles up at us. “He’s all yours.”

Dr. M’s frown softens just a little.  “You made him?”  She hangs back from the gurney, but she can’t take her eyes off the man.  “But how?”

“With snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”  I can’t believe I’m making a joke, but I feel incredible.  “And cloned, hypertrophic super stem cells
resequenced by viral nanodrives seated mitochondrially.”

“Huh.”  Dr. Medici shoots me a sideways look.  “Are you sure you don’t have the cure for cancer?”

“Go ahead and sit up,” I tell the man on the gurney, and he does.  “Say something.”

“Hello.”  When he says it, his voice is deep and rich, and he looks right in her eyes.  “I love you.”

Dr. Medici blushes.  “This is crazy,” she says.  “This is nuts.”  But she doesn’t break eye contact with him the whole time.

I feel better than I can remember ever feeling before.  “He understands you,” I say.  “The thrill will never be gone for him.  And he will never
leave you.”

“But you can’t know that,” says Dr. M, “can you?”

Grinning, I give the homemade man a wink.  “Tell her.”

“I understand you.”  The homemade man gazes into her eyes and speaks with intense feeling that leaves no room for doubt or apprehension.  “The thrill will never be gone.  And I will never leave you, Hildegarde.”

I brainwashed him well.  Every word, inflection, and expression are perfect.

Dr. Medici flashes me a confused frown.  “But why?” she says.  “Why did you do this?”

“I didn’t want you to be alone anymore.”  It’s only now that I lie to her. “Since you couldn’t meet the right man, I made one for you.”

Dr. Medici turns back to the homemade man, her confusion dissolving into wonderment.  “I can’t believe it,” she says.  “No one’s ever done anything
like this for me before.”

Each word is like a caress to me.  As she reaches out to touch his cheek, I feel like she’s reaching out to touch mine.  As she gazes tenderly into his
eyes, I feel like she is gazing into mine.

Which makes sense, really.  There’s one part of the secret plan that I haven’t told her about yet…one part that I will never tell her about.

That part is me.  I am part of him.

I grew his heart from a piece of my own.  The heart in his chest, the one that beats faster as she takes his hand in her own, is the twin of my heart.

And as he embarks on the life I always wanted, takes the love I always longed for in his new, strong hands, I’ll share it, in a way.  As I go about my work and see them happy, I’ll know that I made it possible, and part of me will always be part of them.

This is the real reason I made him, the one I lied to her about.  I made him because it’s the only way I could ever have her, the only way I could ever
close that final mile between us.

Though, if I’m honest, I have to say that not everything I’m feeling right now is happiness.

“Wendell.”  For the first time that I can remember, Dr. Medici calls me by my first name.  “Wendell, thank you.”

“Be happy.”  My heart is pounding like the pistons of a giant robot. “That’ll be thanks enough.”

She reaches over and brushes my hand with her fingertips.  Not for the first time and not for the last, I long to fold her into my arms and press my lips to hers in a kiss for the ages.

“This is mad, you know.”  A single tear rolls down her face as she turns back to her newborn lover.  She can’t take her eyes off him.

“Mad is good,” I say, wiping away a tear of my own.

About the Author

Robert T. Jeschonek

Robert T. Jeschonek’s novels include the military scifi epic Battlenaut Crucible, the urban fantasy Earthshaker, the cozy mystery Death by Polka, and the young adult thriller UnbulliedYou can find his envelope-pushing short stories in Galaxy’s Edge, Pulphouse, Fiction River, Pulp Literature, StarShipSofa, and many other publications. He has also written official Doctor Who and Star Trek fiction and Batman and Justice Society comics for DC Comics.

An Amazon bestseller and member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Robert has won an International Book Award, a Scribe Award from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and the grand prize in Pocket Books’ Strange New Worlds contest. His young adult novel, My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, won the Forward National Literature Award and was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Youth. Hugo and Nebula Award winner Mike Resnick (Santiago, Kirinyaga, and the Starship series) calls him “a towering talent.”

Find more by Robert T. Jeschonek


About the Narrator

Marguerite Kenner

Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.

She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.

Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.

You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.

Find more by Marguerite Kenner