"So you can cure me?"
The doctor rubbed his forehead then rearranged his heavy plastic spectacles. They were supposed to compensate for his missing mask, but he found that all they really did was remind him of its absence.
"I'm sorry, perhaps I did not explain myself correctly. As I said before, I cannot cure you, of pain or of anything else."
The woman sitting on the other side of his desk was in a pitiful state. Her skin, which might have once been a healthy light brown, was now pale and sallow, hanging loosely over protruding bones. Her dark eyes were clouded with pain of many different varieties. She set slumped in the comfortable armchair the doctor reserved for his patients, as if trying to appear smaller than she really was. Despite its being a hot summer day, she wore a heavy, long-sleeved blouse. The doctor didn't need to roll up those sleeves to tell why.
"That does not mean I can't do anything to help you. I do require, however, that you understand the nature of the treatment you will receive."
They never understood when he first explained it to them. The doctor did not blame them, for he wasn't truly sure he understood himself.
"Pain… is chronic. Not just yours, but everyone's. It is a symptom of human existence, something all must endure simply because they are."
He could tell he wasn't getting through to her. Her eyes were darting around his small office, noticeably lingering on the high shelves containing his medical supplies. A glint of desire sparked in the woman's otherwise dead eyes. She was barely paying attention to him at all now. He sighed and pressed on regardless.
"Humanity exists in a constant state of conflict. Nation against nation, religion against religion, person against person. It has always been thus, and always will be. Not only that, we are at a constant struggle with ourselves. 'Am I good enough? 'Is this the way I should be?' 'Why does my body look this way?' 'Why must I always suffer?'. As long as we live, we can never be at peace. It is antithetical to our very nature."
"Uh huh… I think I get it, yeah."
"I'm telling you all of this because you must understand what my treatment entails. I will have no unwilling or uninformed patients. I have seen where that leads."
And he had. Stark images sparked to life in his mind, livid with shame. A brother, dissecting and making puppets of dead and living alike. A sister, delivering pain and calling it healing. Another who… no.
He will not be like them.
"I will not cure you. Do not for a second imagine that I will. What I can do, however, is put your pain to sleep."
For the first time, he had her full attention.
"You… you can do that?"
"It is about the only thing I can do for you. I can take your pain, and bury it within you. I will take every possible cause for it- past, present and future, and I will suffocate them. They will still be there, but you will no longer have any capacity to sense them."
"I won't feel anything?"
He could sense the hesitation in her voice. Good. Perhaps he could persuade her to forgo this yet.
"You will feel nothing, and I mean this in the very broadest of terms. The treatment must be most comprehensive if it is to be successful. To bury pain, I must also bury everything else that is… you. Permanently."
Something filled the woman's dark, empty eyes, and for a moment the doctor believed he had succeeded in turning her away. But then he realized that it wasn't fear he saw there. It was surrender.
"Are you quite certain? I am not sure you fully understan-"
"I understand. I said do it."
In face of such determination, what else could he do?
The woman laid strapped to the bed in his operating theater, the filthy rags she came into his office with replaced with clean medical scrubs. The chamber was bright and as clean as the scrubs, and empty but for the doctor and his patient.
"Are you sure the straps are necessary?" she asked.
"Quite certain, I am afraid. Even if you are willing, your body may attempt to reject what I am about to do to you. If it resists me, it may compromise the procedure. I must have no interruptions."
"Okay. Are you going to start then?"
"I shall. I need only my tools."
With that, the doctor left the woman's side and strode to the large cabinet at the other side of the room. From its top shelf he took a long plastic tray, which he began to fill. First came a series of delicate steel scalpels, arranged by decreasing size. After them were twice as many syringes, the smallest the size of the doctor's fingernail, the largest as long as his index finger. The liquids within them were of the doctor's own making, and precious beyond measure. Last came an electrical device, a small metal sphere connected to a number of electrodes. With the tray held in both hands, he returned to the woman.
"Are you prepared to begin then? It is not too late to change your mind."
"I told you before, I'm ready. This is what I want."
"Very well. Applying preliminary anesthetic agent… now."
Said agent was an ordinary one, meant only to numb the senses. The woman's breath grew shallow as she drifted into gentle unconsciousness. She almost seemed peaceful for a moment, until the doctor took a closer look at her lined face. There were far too many marks on it for a person so young. For a moment, he wished he had his brother to tell him what each of them meant. This was always the Diagnostician's specialization, not his. But his brother was long gone, vanished into parts unknown. His own knowledge would have to do.
Where to begin…
The doctor passed a gloved finger over the woman's forehead. The long line there seemed older than most of the others, and more pronounced. He closed his eyes for a moment. A memory line. Yes, those would be a reasonable place to begin. He will move chronologically. The doctor took one of his smaller syringes and gently used it to pierce the woman's skin near the line. Almost immediately it began to shimmer in a faint blueish hue.
"Application successful. Proceeding to erase," he said to no one.
With that, he drew the second largest of his scalpels and carefully began to cut a line surrounding the line. As he did so, he could sense the residue of the memory which made this mark. Loud screaming, smashing glass, the sound of a child weeping, a terribly pronounced sting of pain followed by a longer, duller ache that never seemed to go away. The doctor felt no remorse at all as he buried the woman's parents forever, sentencing her memories of them to the deepest, darkest refuse pile her mind possessed.
The twin lines at the sides of her mouth were a more ambiguous prospect. Two people were hidden in them, similar and not at the same time. One was tall, fair, charming. He moved with the confident grace of a fencer and his eyes were the steel of his weapon. There was love of sorts there, somewhere, but as his scalpel did its work the doctor could sense its corruption. It was a fleeting thing, and terribly one-sided. Its mark was erased.
The line on the other side of the mouth belonged to a man as well. Or rather, to the prospect of a man. For a moment the doctor could almost imagine he saw the woman's belly swell, could hear the heartbeats of a child within. But no. It never did happen. The man's last memento died before it was born, and with it died something in the woman too. She had buried it, alone, telling no one. So too did the doctor bury it now.
The hours passed, and so did the memories. One by one the doctor buried them away, erasing the marks of a lifetime from the woman's face, if not from her soul. Her haggard visage seemed almost peaceful now. Almost young. The doctor was momentarily temped to leave things at that. She had a chance at a new life now, free from the scars of a past she did not deserve. He could leave things at that.
But not with a clean conscience. Cleansed of her past she might be, but she was still human. All the future held for her were more scars, more of the same. He had to go further. All the way.
With a sigh, the doctor drew the second largest of his syringes. He had worked hard and sacrificed much to obtain the gently bubbling liquid it held. While it was still in its syringe it was clear as water, but when the doctor injected it into the back of the woman's neck, the skin surrounding it turned as black as tar. This stain began to rapidly spread, to prepare her for what the doctor knew had to be done.
Scalpels in hand, he began removing her identity.
He began with what he deemed simplest, or at least, with what the woman had the least of. Ideology and faith went first. With some of his patients, the process of removing such things could be an arduous and time consuming affair, but it appeared the sort of life the woman had led left her very little time to worry about them. To banish them was a trifling victory. With those also went what passed for an education, her malnourished sense of curiosity, and the long-desiccated corpse of her aspirations.
The doctor couldn't help but note the lack of resistance on the woman's part. This was not unheard of, but it was a rarity. Her life must truly have been… no. He would consider this no further. If anything, this was confirmation he was doing the right thing.
He persevered, moving more difficult things. He could not remove her intellect entirely, for she would need some to continue to function, but he removed as much as he would dare. He knew its burden too well not to. Hers was a sharp thing, even as abused as it was, and the doctor had to be very careful in his cutting. Following that came other parts of her identity- her taste in food and fashion, the scents she enjoyed and those she despised, her secret love of classical music, her odd patriotism and her unexplained hatred of the color green. As the cuts went deeper, so did the things he removed. Her gender identity, her sexual preferences, her perception of morality. More hours of labor and a dozen empty syringes later, and nothing was left from what was once the woman's inner world. She was a blank slate now, only as human as her body made her.
That too needed fixing. At one point, the doctor deemed what came before sufficient to the prevention of all future pain. He had learned differently, however. People did not need to know anything about a person's inner world to hate them. To hurt them. For her to be truly free, the last step of the procedure had to be completed. The doctor removed the small electrical device from the plastic tray and connected its electrodes to the woman's thin arms.
He then began erasing her body.
The device hummed as he drew away the color in her skin, in her hair, in her eyes. The humming intensified as he drew out the shape of her nose, of her legs, of her hair. Bones crunched and twisted as he standardized her height and weight and shape to what he deemed least intrusive (he had yet to perfect this part of the procedure), and finally he rearranged her insides as well, removing those organs that might mark her as belonging to one sex or the other. The machine hummed and buzzed as he took away everything she once was and any potential she might have had. As he removed her humanity, bit by bit by bit.
When he was done, he woke it up. The creature which now rose from the surgical bed was of a height with the doctor. Its skin was a vaguely shiny grey, its eyes the same. Its body was all straight lines and right angles, as precise as if measured by a ruler. Its mouth was a thin line, which opened as the creature quizzically viewed its surrounding, then the doctor.
"How do you feel?"
The doctor resisted the urge to pull his hair. "You. The entity you perceive yourself to be."
"Yes, you. You are you." They often needed this explanation following the process. An unfortunate side-effect.
"I… feel nothing. I… am nothing."
"I… feel no pain."
"I… am cured."
Damnation. Damnation! Not this again!
"You are not cured! I have simply buried your pain, don't you understand?"
"I am cured. You have cured me."
"No, you imbecile creature, no! I did nothing, nothing!"
"You have cured me. You are the cure. You are the cure."
The same litany. After every single procedure they always said the same thing. It was intolerable, it was inexcusable.
"You are the cure, doctor."
"NO!" screamed the Anesthesiologist, as the creature who was once a woman tried to embrace him. "NO!"
A scream died in his throat. Suddenly powerless, he allowed the creature to wrap its arm around him. They were cold.
"I am not the cure. There is no cure. I am but a humble physician."