The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.
Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.
It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.
“Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”
“Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.
“When did it start?”
“This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”
She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”
“You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”
“You do that,” I said.
Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.
I wouldn’t be seeing them again.
“You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.
“Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.
“Waiting room’s almost full.”
I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”
“Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.
“I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.
We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.
I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.
“Did you get that recently?” I asked.
“Couple of days ago.”
I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?
“You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”
I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.
Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.
I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.
What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.
“Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”
I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.
There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.
“Yes?” I snapped.
“I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”
“I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.
The patient looked nervously between us.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.
The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.
“I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”
“Must have missed it.”
“Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”
“Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.
“You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”
* * *
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