Monday, January 09, 2006

After years of ER shift work, Dr. John Moone had no problem sleeping anywhere, anytime. Having just fallen asleep after a string of night shifts, he was surprised when he woke up after only 1 hour of sleep. Then he heard it again. A noise in the living room. There was definitely someone in his apartment!

Wrapping his robe tightly around him, he crept to the door and carefully looked out. There, sitting on the couch, were two people, looking directly at him.

"John, come on out. There is no danger here," said the short, bald man.

"My associate is Peter. I am Sheila." The equally sort, somewhat pretty woman gestured to him to sit in the chair.

Tentatively, John came forward and settled lightly on the edge of the chair, like a cat ready to run at the first sign of trouble. "Who were these people and how did they get in?" he asked himself. Normally very security conscious, he had multiple locks on his door, which appeared undisturbed. No broken windows, either.

"We mean you no harm. We need your help. If you will give us a few moments, we will explain why we chose you and what we need." What was her name? Oh, right, Sheila.

"I want you two to leave. I'll call the police." His stern tone belied his fear and anxiety.

"Please, just a minute of your time." Laughing, Peter added, "Yes, Yes, just a minute."

Confused, but settling down, Peter inquired, "How did you get in?"

"All in due time," was Sheila's answer. Peter snickered, "Due time, how good. Due time."

"Peter, please. Let me explain to Dr. Moone." Turning slightly to face away from Peter, Sheila directed her comments to John. "We are going to tell you some things that will seem very fantastic. You may have trouble believing us. However, you were chosen as someone who would be more likely to accept the ideas we will share."

"Chosen? What do you mean chosen?"

"We have access to full information regarding everyone who has ever lived, anywhere on Earth. This information was screened and our, um, computer might be the best word, indicated that you had the best combination of qualities," answered Sheila, calmly.

"What information? What qualities?" The rising pitch of his voice betrayed his level of anxiety.

"Let me show you something and then answer your first question. Then you might be ready for more information. Come here with me." Sheila indicated the window across the room.

John walked with her to the window. Surprised that he could attend to such things, John noticed the pleasant smell of her perfume.

As he looked out the window, John suddenly felt lightheaded and reached for the window frame to steady himself. There was nothing recognizable out there! Where was the courtyard, the barbeque area or the lap pool that had convinced him to live here? All he could see was more apartments. He seemed much higher than his second story apartment should have been. He looked out on what must have been hundreds of apartment buildings. All the same, it had the appearance of the "projects" in which he had been raised. "What's going on here?" he cried, slipping to the floor.

"Some things have changed. Someone important has died who shouldn't have. Many years ago, actually," Peter added to the conversation.

"And this happened? How could today be so different from yesterday because someone died some time in the past?"

"You asked how we go into your apartment. Nobody has locks on their doors. It might interfere with 'official entry requirements' according to the current regime." Sheila rolled her eyes.

"Careful!" came Peter's voice from across the room. "We can't be 100% sure that the monitors are off."

"Sorry. You're right. I better get to the point. John, one of the reasons you bubbled to the top of the list is because of some books you bought on Amazon. You demonstrated an interest in 'alternative history' type stories." Sheila's voice was gentle, trying to lead him along.

"You mean those books by Turtledove? And how do you know what books I bought?"

"We told you," Peter sounded irritated, "We know everything about you."

"Yes, those books," replied Sheila, with a disapproving glance towards Peter. "You seemed likely to accept the concepts we are going to share with you."

"Oh, jeez. Just tell me what is going on."

"We are from the future. Or, rather, a future." Sheila's head rocked with the force of John's interruption.

"Oh, come on!" He screamed. "You guys are nuts. What drugs did you give me? What the hell is going on here? Who are you?"

"John, please..." Sheila began.

"I told you this wouldn't work," Peter interrupted. "We should have drugged him and taken him, like I said."

"Peter, let me explain. I think he will understand," Sheila answered.

"Somebody explain, or get the hell out!" shouted John.

"John, sit down. Promise me you will listen for 5 minutes without interruption. I'm sure you will understand." Sheila's soft tones had the desired effect, calming John.

"As I said, we are from the future. Actually, just like in the books you have read, the future is malleable. Something happened to alter the timeline with which you are familiar. Someone broke the rules and altered the past. We are here to ask you help fixing that."

"Help fix what? Why me?" questioned John.

"As I said, I will explain. Just follow along. You were chosen for several reasons. You have read a great deal of science fiction, fantasy, especially alternate history type books. Well, this is like one of those stories. We thought you might be more accepting, given your interest.

"Additionally, you are an experienced medical doctor. You have skills we need. You see, as the world became more peaceful, less time and energy was spent on war and crime, so our healers don't have any skills in trauma care. Advances in infectious disease management has wiped out what you would consider infections and resulted in additional lost skills. Imagine someone in your time asking you to perform a procedure that hasn't been taught for centuries. You wouldn't be able to do it.

"We are here to ask you to travel with us and help repair time, so to speak. The world you see outside your window is the result of a change in an event hundreds of years ago that has been amplified through the years.

"As you know, in the latter part of the 18th century, your country fought for independence from Great Britain. The leader of that fight was George Washington, who went on to become your first president. What do you think would have happened if he hadn't been in that role? Some things may have been drastically different, and some may have been very similar. Look at your money."

John walked to his hall table and picked up his wallet. In it he found a red and white piece of paper with a very unfamiliar picture on it.

"What is this? Who is this? What happened to my money?"

"Someone has changed what you thought was history. George Washington died during the winter at Valley Forge. He never became your president. As a matter of fact, the colonies lost the war and remained under the rule of Great Britain."

"But if, as you suggest, those things changed, how can I remember the previous history?"

"I better let Peter address that," answered Sheila.

"John, that is a great question, and very perceptive. We don't understand everything that happens with time shifts," explained Peter. "That's one of the reasons we have tried so hard to prevent these things from happening.

"The best we can come up with is that some people are unaffected. For some reason, people like you awaken in what seems like a new world, but with memories of the previous history. Some people are able to adjust and fit in, others have been locked up in mental hospitals. As we have recognized what we call 'alternative history syndrome,' we have created 'neighborhoods' for these people. Sometimes hundreds of people remember the same history.

"Interestingly, at times, some people will simply live on in their new life as if nothing had changed. They appear to live in total denial of what they had done or said previously and proceed as if their new life was what had always existed. For example, in your day, there was blogger who supported your President Bush and the Iraq war. Suddenly, his writing shifted 180 degrees, without any explanation, and he was adamantly against those same issues.

"OK, OK, so what do you want?" asked John.

"We need you to go with us to Valley Forge, January 1778. We don't know why General Washington died or how to fix it," Sheila replied.

"Why change it?" John queried. "What's wrong with the alternate history? Do you try to go back and fix other shifts?"

"Peter..." said Sheila.

"Right. Another good question. This change was not accidental, nor was it the result of a natural temporal shift. Sheila and I work for a company that runs, well, what you would call a time tourism business. Someone broke the rules and caused this shift." He glanced nervously at Sheila. "Instead of, at most, a few hundred people not following the shift, this has pretty much split down the middle. Half the world is living in one history, half in the other. You can imagine the problems that are resulting. The results are mixed. Someone like you remembers one history but is living in a community caused by another history. That is why the view out your window is so odd."

"But what can I do?" asked John.

"We need your medical skills. We need you to travel to Valley Forge and examine General Washington, diagnose him and treat him."

"But how do I travel? What if I can't figure out what is going on? What equipment/supplies can I take with me?" So many questions filled his brain that only a few could slip out.

Peter answered, "We cannot venture outside this apartment. You can bring anything you have here that you think will help. We may be able to get a few things, but the world out there is very different from what you remember, and, frankly, very dangerous."

Jane added, "Get what you can and come back here. Time is short."

"Ha, ha." Peter snorted, "Time is short."

Dr. Moone grabbed his lab coat that contained his stethescope and penlight. He had a suture kit in the other room, along with the Augmentin he had picked up to take to his mother later that day.

As he walked back into the living room, he saw Peter fiddling with a small handheld device. "Ready?" Peter asked.

"Ye...."

Looking around, John saw Peter and Sheila standing in front of him. They were wearing different clothes, things he recognized from history books. Glancing at a nearby window, he realized that he, too, was wearing period clothing. In his pockets, he felt his stethescope and the bottle of antibiotics. He saw Peter holding an attache with his suture kit in it.

The building next to him had a sign in the window that said, "Long Live the King of Prussia." He realized that he was only about 2 miles away from Valley Forge, in what he new as King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. This must be the King of Prussia Inn, where George Washington wintered Valley Forge.

He followed Sheila and Peter into the small inn. A man was waiting for them and brought them to a small first floor room where a man was lieing on the bed. The aide gestured for John to come forward.

The man on the bed was slightly diaphoretic and tachypneic. Reaching down, John could feel a strong pulse at General Washington's wrist, with a heart rate about 120. Good color and the fingernails pinked up quickly after being compressed.

"Has he been eating?" John asked the aide.

"Yes, Doctor. But poorly. He says he has no appetite and thinks he should try to eat light, anyway, to spare food for the troops."

Listening with his stethescope, he heard clear breath sounds and a regular heart beat. "Has he been injured?"

"Four days ago he stepped on a sharp bone in the field. It pierced his boot and his right foot."

Pulling the blanket aside, John recognized the smell of pus. As he examined the right foot, he saw that it was diffusely swollen and red. The foot was swollen and the patient winced when John moved it.

"Sir, can you help me? I need to get back to my men?" General Washington had awakened.

"I believe I can," John answered. He thought to himself, "Wow, this is really him. Should I ask for an autograph?"

"Will you have to amputate?" the aide asked.

"No. Sir, you have an infection of your foot. I need to examine the wound more closely to see if there is any foreign body in there. This will be unpleasant." He opened the suture set and began to probe the wound. He removed two small slivers of bone and washed the wound carefully, as he said, "Dilution is the solution to pollution.

"Here, take these pills. One pill twice a day. That is the best I can do."

After years of ER shift work, Dr. John Moone had no problem sleeping anywhere, anytime. Having slept after a string of night shifts, he awoke as the alarm sounded. He hopped quickly out of bed and ran to the window. There was his familiar view of the lap pool.

"I guess it was just a dream," he thought as he searched for the Augmentin he had picked up for his mother.