‘What’s he suffering from today?’ I asked my ex-pupil.
‘Herniated disc – although it’s bad for him.’
It was my first time in an operating theatre since I’d retired.
Perhaps I could have mastered the new technology but I wasn’t prepared to go back to school.
‘A microdiscectomy?’ I asked.
‘Same procedure,’ he said, ‘same aim. Slice off the disc where it protrudes into the sciatic nerve.’
‘How did he do it?’
‘Walked off a kerb.’
A familiar story.
‘You said it’s his second operation.’
‘We’re going up a disc.’
‘How many Microbes?’
‘Five hundred. There’s a programme for each group – Cutters, Collectors, Repairers. No more individual coding, I type in the parameters and Bob’s your Uncle.’
‘The surgeon’s redundant?’ I suggested.
‘Glorified computer programmer. And now they’ve developed Rescue-Microbes, I don’t even have to cut him open if something goes wrong,’
The Microbes looked smaller than on the telly, just a couple of millimetres. They moved constantly in their sterile tank.
‘£50 a-piece,’ he commented. ‘No scarring, no infection but no way to turn them off.’
‘How many operations can each one do?’
‘We don’t know. They’re out of date before we replace them.’
But cost wasn’t my primary concern. An old colleague had twisted my arm to join the Surgical Ethics Committee. Safe behind my pension I could satisfy my curiosity without doing much.
Stay neutral, I told myself, as the surgeon grinned in the way the young always grin at the old.
‘Pretty much ready,’ he announced.
There was just one anesthetist and one nurse.
The nurse placed a transparent plastic thread on the patient’s skin and a Driller-Microbe made an incision before pulling a sheath of Microbes in behind him.
‘Hardly any damage and you can go in twice.’
‘Are there any downsides?’
‘We lose a few, but they’re sterile, so it doesn’t matter.’
A small camera showed the operation’s progress.
‘You don’t have to watch every second. There’ll be a warning if anything goes wrong.’
‘How many have you done?’
‘Not many. Still quite expensive. You lose a hundred Microbes and it costs £5,000. But in ten years they’ll be everywhere. The Third World will get most benefit. No infection control issues.’
‘Could you lose less?’
A beeper told us the Microbe army had reached its destination. The drill turned outwards.
First the Routers emerged, with long extending poles, pushed aside veins, then Cutters sliced away tissue and passed it to Collectors with blow-up sacks. Repairers stitched up tiny cuts. Circling Torch Microbes lit up carapaces against the vast structure of the spine.
Shielders formed a funnel so detritus could be sucked up the tube to Disposal Microbes in the glass tank. Everything would be sterilized when the last ones retreated.
‘What about anesthetic?’
‘There’s a little referred pain. We’re not quite sure why. We could use Anaesthetizing Microbes, but it’s cheaper to knock the patient out.’
And now the phalanx had reached the blob of compressed cartilage that formed the damaged disc. Routers pushed the nerves and disc apart. The Cutters could begin to work.
‘Ten minutes to the final stitch.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
A flicker to the right of the screen.
‘Don’t know,’ he replied.
‘There it is again. The other side. Like something moving fast.’
‘Could be a fault in the Camera chip?’
‘Are there faults?’
‘The Monitor should beep.’’
‘Again,’ I said pointing.
The anesthetist joined us and the nurse.
‘Put the Rescuers on alert, as a precaution.’
And that’s when we saw them, a cluster of giant Microbes, their carapaces matt black, their faces engorged with blood. An emergency light flashed. One of the newcomers lurched at the Cutters but, before we could see any more, a metal claw stretched across the Camera’s eye. The screen went blank.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Fetch me a scalpel,’ the Surgeon called urgently.
‘Old fashioned way,’ I smiled, glad to be back in a situation I understood.
This’ll sort out your smugness, I thought.
But now thick black Microbes were squeezing out of the bulging tube in the man’s back. The glass case exploded outwards.
The nurse screamed.
The anaesthetized man curled upwards. Let out a long exhalation of breath. His lungs emptied.
From his mouth, nostrils, ears, thousands of black ant-like machines streamed out.
The surgeon stood still. I backed away.
The patient flopped back onto the table.
The nurse pulled down her mask.
‘No!’ the anesthetist called as an electronic mass filled his mouth.
I fled through the swing doors. The others ran too. Behind came a million razor sharp arrows, eyes flashing as they entered their bright new world.
Gerald Kells is a poet and writer based in Walsall in the English Midlands. He reads poetry across the Midlands and the Internet. He has won several slams, most recently the Shrewsbury Festival, and featured at the Freeverse Festival in Brownhills. He has had a number of poems and stories published in anthologies and magazines, most recently haikus in several editions of Seashores and stories and poems in Geography is Irrelevant, a lockdown collection. He has self-published a short collection: LI – 51 Poems. In 2018 he helped organise an Arts Poetry Reading at the internationally-renowned Walsall Art Gallery, and was involved in 2019 in the PoArtry Project in Stourbridge which led to publishing an Ekphrastic collection, Nine Etchings with artist Fran Wilde. His story, “Something to his Left,” was published in Twisted Little Sister and “Stone Walls” in Coffin Bell. His young adult novel, The Net Mender’s Son, is available as an e-book, and his novel, The Floating Child, was long-listed for Cornerstones Wowfactor award. His short plays have been performed around England. His full-length play, “The e-mail history of Josef K,” was long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. He was also awarded Green Leader Status by Sustainability West Midlands for his work as a champion of environmental protection.