The brightness is the clue that something has changed. In the dark it is muffled and safe but more and more the brightness intrudes, and sometimes pain. Consciousness comes in flashes, it’s impossible for Connor to tell what is real and what is not. Hurtling through the air, being crushed between the seat and the airbag. Encased in a swaddle, awake in a white, sterile room attached to beeping machines, unable to move. Hospital? What the fuck happened after the game?
The beeping machines must have set off an alert somewhere. The nurse that comes for Connor is a giant. The Chief in Cuckoo’s Nest. Big and bald. Pulls back the sheets and just starts stripping off the pyjamas, lifting and turning Connor’s limp body with the ease of a mother changing a nappy. Connor tries to resist but his arms won’t do what he wants, his hands just flop about. The nurse bats them away easily. The only sounds Connor can make are grunts and screeches that shame him. Tears of frustration wet his cheeks. When the nurse picks him up – all 6’6″ of him – he sees the tears and dismisses them.
“Don’t pity yourself,” he says. His voice is tight, with hard edges that brook no debate. He carries Connor to a bath chair in the ensuite, pulling a strap tight around his chest to keep him upright. Connor shakes his head, one thing it seems he can do, and moans. Paralysed? Will I play again? Will I walk again?
The nurse pulls the shower hose from its bracket, turns on the shower and leans in close to hose Connor down.
“Do you think Stephen Hawking would be the genius he is if he’d had a healthy body? Bill Gates? If he’d looked like George Clooney do you think he’d have spent all that time in the computer lab? 10,000 hours. He’d have been out getting laid. Show me someone who’s beautiful physically and I’ll show you someone who’s never going to achieve great things.
“And, no, acting does not count as a great thing. Brangelina ? Fuck off.”
The guy, Connor realises, is a nutbag. He feels a flash of fear; he’s completely at the guy’s mercy. Chill out, he tells himself. Surely you’ll see a doctor soon. He didn’t know how long he lay awake before the nurse came, but there’d been no noise at all. When he’d had his tonsils out the hospital was chaos. Noise day and night. Maybe this was private. What happened? He remembered being happy in the car, singing along to AC/DC. Panic at headlights coming right at him. Paramedics’ orange jackets.
The water stops and the nurse starts soaping Connor’s damaged body, lifting and dropping and twisting Connor’s limbs while he talks. Connor watches the white suds bubble and burst, trying to stay calm. Once, in primary school, a coaching assistant rubbed him down at a swim meet, cupping his cold-shrivelled cock and balls through the thin lycra of his speedos, leaving him confused and upset. Connor tenses for it, but the nurse’s touch is practical, nothing more.
“Right now, you think this is the worst thing that ever happened to you. Your spine’s fucked. You’ll never play rugby again. You’ll never wipe your own arse again. This limp thing is a useless to you as your appendix. You still a virgin?”
Connor turns away from the question: the nurse smirks unseen.
“You can pay someone to suck it and rub her breasts in your face if you want but it’ll be hollow and empty. Sex is over for you. But it’s a blessing, Connor. Because you’ve still got your brain. And what a brain.”
He grabs Connor’s chin and forces his head around to look at him, but Connor closes his eyes. They called him Triple Threat at school. Star athlete, brainiac, ladies’ man. Maths especially came easily to him. He could hear the patterns of the numbers like music in his mind. But it was on the field he came alive. Never playing again? It was like his heart had been ripped out.
The nurse flips the water back on and scrubs Connor’s creamy brown flesh with a sponge as he washes the suds away.
“This is a fact: we’d all still be sitting in caves doing nothing more than eating and screwing, eating and screwing, if it weren’t for two things: scarcity of resources, and gimps. You don’t like that word? Embrace it, friend, and pay attention.”
Shower done, the nurse gets a towel and starts drying him. He flops Connor against him to dry his back: they’re shoulder to shoulder. On the field, in this position, Connor would have dropped low, let his elbow drive into his opponent’s gut as he thrust forward with his mighty thighs. Wouldn’t have made a mark on this monster but in the under-17s, it was a killer move. His hands twitched sending jolts of pain up his arms. At least he could feel something.
“Look at the Aboriginals. 40,000 years and they never even bothered with construction. It’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they had all they need. Sunshine, food, water. Plenty of space. They were perfectly happy going walkabout in the wide brown land, catching a few fish and having a corroboree now and then. Until White Boy came along and fucked it up for them with civilisation.”
The last word dripped with irony.
“But we don’t have that luxury anymore. There’s no space. Resources are scarce. We need to get smart. That’s where you come in.”
They’re back in the main room. Connor vaguely expects to be dressed and put back to bed but he’s only half right. Instead of the bed, the nurse puts him in a high-tech wheelchair he brings in from the hall. It looks like something out of a movie.
“Once the physical therapy has some effect, you’ll be able to control your world from this thing. State of the art.”
The nurse locks Connor’s dead legs into the footrest and adjusts pressure pads in the chair so he’s held upright. The chair is tight on his ribcage, he feels the pressure like an embrace. Who is paying for this? Not his parents, that’s for sure. The nurse guides his hands onto the hand rests, curling his fingers onto the controls. Connor squeezed his left hand with all his will. His fingers moved across the control pad and it lit up with an electronic burble. Cool. He grins in spite of everything. So does the nurse. A death’s head.
“See what the human mind is capable of? Fucking genius. But most humans are slave to their hormones. All they want is sex. Look at the Romans. Ever see that Python bit? What have the Romans done ever for us? Roads, sewage, art…then they fuck it all up getting greedy and corrupt acquiring power just so they can spend all their time in bacchanalian orgies. And America. Post World War 2 you think hell, yeah, now we’re making some progress. Free the blacks! Conquer space! But now it’s all about your right to be beautiful and stupid. Paris Hilton. Sarah Fucking Palin. They teach creationism in schools as science.”
The nurse pushes Connor out of the room into a wide hallway, like no hospital Connor’s ever seen, not even on TV. Opaque glass doors guard their secrets on both sides of the corridor and in between there are amazing artworks on the walls, brutally vivid scenes of death and destruction. It’s like a gallery or a museum. What the fuck’s going on?
“People are no better than fucking magpies. Worshipping the ability to acquire shiny trinkets. Puffing themselves up like pigeons to attract a mate. The world’s going to hell in a hand-basket. If we’re going to save it we need more people who are ugly. More people who are freaks, shunned by the masses. More people who aren’t enslaved to their genitals. And we need to put them in charge.”
They stop outside a door. The nurse drops himself to Connor’s eye level.
“I had myself castrated,” he says, and watches Connor’s reaction. He nods at the widening of his eyes, and opens the glass doors to reveal some sort of laboratory. Connor’s chest contracts with a growing dread of terrors far beyond his physical incapacity.
“The crash damaged your spine more than I intended, but we can fix that. Dr Arush will fit you with a speech synthesiser now, then we’ll get your hands working better, maybe even your left arm. Then we’ll start developing that brain. You’re going to be a star, Connor, a saviour.”
The big man’s words sink slowly into Connor’s disbelieving brain. A hunch-backed Indian man wearing a white lab coat approaches, smiling mildly. The bald giant, who Connor finally realises with horror is not a nurse at all, winks at the doctor and squeezes Connor on the shoulder.
Connor tries desperately to protest – to speak – but no words form, just agonised screeches from his ruined throat.
“I can see you’re excited to talk,” says the doctor, with a glance at the big man. “We must get to work.”
He takes control of the chair and starts wheeling Connor deeper into the lab.
“You’ll meet the others later, at dinner. The best and the brightest. The future of humanity.”
No one can hear Connor’s scream.