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“You can sleep after they zap you back to Israel.” Daniel had live specimens in front of Ambigo. “I haven’t slept since I got the phone call yesterday on the golf course.” He thought about the woman feigning sleep on the plane next to him. He should have grabbed an hour’s worth of sleep while he had the chance. Daniel was obviously in pain, but his passion was driving him. “Neither have I! Now tell me, which one is valerian.”
Ambigo pointed to the correct plant and Daniel exploded in a flurry of sound, “Wrong! You just killed someone! Maybe you just killed the last member of the film crew!” Ambigo crinkled his forehead and looked at the plants again, “I don’t think so. Look, this one with the small white buds is wolfs bane. I chose the right one. I know it.” Daniel rested on the metal stool. “Ok, you can sleep now, but only for a couple of hours. Good job. There are cots on the Medical Floor.”
He gladly left Daniel in the lab, even though he was sure the doctor was foregoing his own sleep to set up more lessons for him. He found his way to the elevator and guessed that the Medical Floor must be the third floor because it was the only place in the building that he hadn’t been shown. When the elevator doors opened, he was greeted by the sound of screaming.
He followed the sound of screaming to a room down the hall and burst through the doors. He saw Jaime strapped to a reclining dentist’s chair, holding Madi’s hand with two technicians surrounding him. “Jim! Are you ok?” Madi stood up and put herself between Jaime and Ambigo. Jaime screamed from his chair, “Don’t you ever fucking call me Jim again! Get the hell out of here, you pompous piece of shit!” Despite Madi’s stance, Ambigo could still see the technicians working on Jaime’s eyes without stopping a moment to notice the commotion. Madi pushed Ambigo out the door.
“What the hell is going on in there? Why haven’t they given him a local? I’m a doctor, Madi, I could help.” Madi kept pushing him to the cots in the back where the team had been sleeping for months. He was so tired that he became a mere puppet to her whim. She shoved him on the new cot that had been put up for him and placed haphazardly in the corner. “They can’t put us out during this phase of the adjustments, Dr. Thomas. You need to be conscious to tell them what you see and tell them if it hurts.” She was quiet and he looked at her steely eyes. “It hurts like hell and we just have to deal with it. This is why there weren’t very many volunteers.”
He could still hear Jaime screaming down the hall. “How do you stand it?” She lifted the sleeves of her shirt and showed him the scars on her arms. “These… are cigarette burns.” There were so many that they overlapped each other. The arm that she showed him was a red and ugly mass of scars. He looked at her shirt, buttoned up to her neck. Scars peeked out of the collar at him. “I have techniques to deal with pain, but he doesn’t. Don’t ever call him Jim again. He’ll punch you right in the gut. I’ve never seen him freak out like that before, but something tells me that it wasn’t the pain talking. When two people experience this much pain together… something happens.”
While she talked, she removed his shoes, lifted his legs onto the cot and covered him with a blanket. Ambigo closed his eyes, but he wanted to justify himself, “I was on the task force when the big one hit LA. I’ve faced a wall of burn victims and all of their screams sounded nothing like what I just heard.” She placed her hand on his head. “I told you, it hurts like hell.” He was asleep, dreaming of the victims of the LA earthquake with the soundtrack of Jaime’s screams.
Three hours and forty-eight minutes later, he awoke to Simon gently kicking his cot. Thump, thump, thump. “Wake up.” Ambigo played the familiar game of pretending to still be asleep. Thump, thump, thump. “Wake up or I’ll let Jaime kick your ass.” Ambigo opened his eyes and sat up quickly. “I’m up. Don’t let him hit me. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Jaime was at Simon’s side, squinting. His eyes were red and swollen. Ambigo spoke quickly, “Listen, man, I’m sorry. I just heard screaming. I’m a doctor. I’m trained to help when people are in pain.” Jaime held his gaze. “It’s okay. It… It hurts like hell.” Ambigo nodded and stood up.
Jaime headed out the door. “They’re ready to put in your implant.” Simon followed him and indicated that Ambigo should follow. They lead him, sleepy and wiping his eyes, to the same room that he had seen Jaime in just a few hours earlier. Simon hesitated at the entrance of the door. “Isn’t Madi in there getting her final adjustment?” Jaime nodded. “I’m not going in there… that just… I don’t know creeps me out.” Jaime shrugged his shoulders while Simon hurried to the elevator.
Before they went in, Ambigo stopped him. “You know, the eyes have no nerves. Why does it hurt so much?” Jaime squinted at him, silent and pensive. Ambigo shrugged and tried to brush his question away, “Never mind. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.” Jaime shook his head. “No, it really should be your business. It bugs me that you don’t know anything about this. You’re supposed to be the doctor.” He was silent again, but he wasn’t taking Ambigo into the room. Ambigo tried to explain, “Implants aren’t my specialty. I… vaguely remember a paper… but I don’t even think I read it, just the title.”
“It doesn’t matter. Dr. Baker didn’t know anything about us either.” Jaime closed his swollen and red eyes. Ambigo had the vague feeling that he was holding back an impulse to rub them. “You know, when they asked me to do this, they fully explained the process. I knew about the pain. I knew that I would have to sacrifice my real eyes. I knew about the whole gory thing, but I still wanted to go. To see Jesus, even if it meant that I would never see him with my real eyes was enough for me.” Ambigo’s eyes widened at the level of faith this frail, young man had. It scared him to be around someone who was so devout.
Jaime continued, “The implants aren’t in my eyes. They are in my eyelids. My eyes were disconnected from my brain. They don’t hurt, but they don’t work either. I have a hard time describing what it’s like to see with the implants. The hardest part was learning not to blink. Blinking really screws things up.” Jaime was silent again and Ambigo had nothing to say in response to his faith or his situation. Jaime put his hand on the door and said one final thing, “You need to be silent when you’re in this room. It really distracts Madi if there is random noise around her when she is going through this.”
They opened the door. Two technicians surrounded Madi. She was silent. Her eyes were open and the technicians made adjustments to the tiny mechanisms hidden between her eyelashes. Tears rolled down her face, but she remained motionless and quiet. Ambigo shivered and realized that he preferred Jaime’s screams to the unearthly quiet of Madi’s suffering. Jaime pointed at Ambigo’s chair and walked over to Madi’s to hold her hand.
His chair looked just like Madi’s, but he was given a shot to numb the pain in his mouth while the nameless dentist ground out a molar and inserted his time travel implant. It was the precious piece of equipment that would bring him safely back to this lab tomorrow, or in five years, depending on where you stood. The entire process took less time than it would have to fill a cavity and he left the chair with a numb lip and cheek.
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and wrote the phrase, “I am the doctor on this mission. Is it okay if I observe?” He held it within the line of sight of the technician closest to him. The doctor nodded and Ambigo silently observed the process. Jaime avoided his eyes. He memorized the quiet questions they asked of Madi. He did his best to watch how they finely adjusted the tiny implants. “This is silly. Even if I had the expertise to do the adjustments, I wouldn’t have the tools,” he thought to himself.
Despite reservations, he stayed with them and listened intently to the directions of technicians. He didn’t know why he stayed, but he did his best to learn. Deep down, he knew that Jaime was right when he said it was his business. He was the only doctor on the mission. He should know something about the process, even if it was just cursory. More importantly, he was intrigued by Madi. She endured this pain with an eerie quiet. She answered their questions. She was cognizant of her surroundings, but she did not react to the pain.
When it was over, the technicians put away their small and delicate instruments. Jaime finally whispered, “Hold her other hand. She likes to have someone holding her hand when she comes out of it.” The streams of tears had left salty tracks down her face. Her eyelids were red and the swelling had already started. A final burst of tears came from her eyes and she stirred. She looked first to Jaime and then to Ambigo, gripping their hands with a strength that told him that she could feel the pain again. Jaime whispered something to her and she looked at Ambigo. Her steely gaze watched him, never blinking. The two of them looked like baby monkeys, separated from their mother and clinging to each other.
Dr. Baker quietly opened the door, not knowing if Madi was finished with her final adjustment. He pointed at Ambigo, who tried to come to him, but was held tightly by Madi’s grip. Daniel walked up to Madi and whispered a question. She answered, her voice horse, “No. Just one more minute. Give… give me one more minute.” Daniel nodded and Ambigo stroked Madi’s hair, wet from tears and sweat. She finally let him go, taking Jaime’s other hand. “You can go. Dr. Baker needs you now.”
Ambigo left her reluctantly and met Daniel outside the door. “What the hell were you doing in there?!” Ambigo didn’t regret his decision for a moment. “I observed the adjustment. They are my patients on this mission. I might need to know this.” Daniel scoffed, “They have been taught to do each other’s adjustments. That’s why there are two of them. That’s part of the reason it was decided that they do this without locals. If they need to make an adjustment in the field, they aren’t going to have local anesthetic. They are redundant for a reason, Dr. Thomas. You don’t need to concern yourself with them.” Ambigo suddenly realized why Jaime called him a pompous jerk. He had been classified in the same category as Jaime had classified Dr. Baker, and Ambigo couldn’t agree more.
During the argument, Ambigo had followed Daniel outside the facility. Dr. Baker had set up a rudimentary lab. Rocks, handmade bowls and water flanked a fire. The weather was beautiful and he was reminded of his aborted golf game yesterday. The wind blew in such a strange direction that he could smell the ripeness of his clothing and filthy body. He vaguely remembered leaving his suitcase in the physics lab and wondered if it was still there. He ran his hand over his face. He wouldn’t be shaving for five years. He thought today was the perfect day to get used to the stubble.
Over the next two hours, Dr. Thomas learned how to make titrations, solutions and poultices without test tubes, Bunsen burners, mortar and pestle. During the lesson, he bristled at Daniel’s view of the filming crew. After seeing the two of them endure their adjustments, he considered them his patients far more than anyone else on the team. He had bonded with them in a way that Dr. Baker never had. He had bonded with them in a way that Dr. Baker wouldn’t allow. If Ambigo believed in fate or divine intervention, he would have thought that he was destined to be on this mission. Poultices and solutions and memorization of plants are trivial compared to empathy.
When they were finished, Ambigo helped Daniel clean up and put out the fire. Daniel spoke first, “I’m sorry.” Ambigo shrugged. “I didn’t know they were working in tandem. Jaime led me to believe that they were on their own.” He didn’t add his further thoughts, “And apparently, they would have been on their own if I hadn’t replaced you.” Daniel was quiet for a moment and then replied, “No, that’s not what I was talking about. I’m sorry about the whole herbal supplement thing. We both were pretty heated during those debates.”
Ambigo sucked in a lungful of air. Was he allowed to talk about this? He didn’t care about being polite. He had to know. “Why did you do it? Did they pay you off? Everything I heard was that you received nothing from them.” Daniel shook his head. “No, they didn’t pay me. I sincerely believe the FDA made the wrong decision. That debate was not about proof of efficacy. It was about freedom. The FDA was taking supplements off the market, ruining entire business markets and denying people their livelihood. It was about the freedom to sell herbs and homeopathic remedies, not about whether they work. I was fighting on the side of freedom.”
For a brief moment, Dr. Thomas could see Daniel’s side of the issue. He saw the FDA as a governmental entity removing items from the market that some people had considered their saving grace. He was fighting on the side of freedom and Ambigo was fighting on the side of oppression. As quickly as it hit him, however, the vision was replaced by the faces of the people who had lost loved ones to false claims and tainted products. He had met the families. He had seen the pictures. He had watched the home videos. He had defended those dead and their families with as much power as he could and he finally won.
“Daniel, for just a moment, try to remember what it was like before you got your degree. Try to remember what it was like before you were a doctor. If someone in a white lab coat tells you something will cure cancer, you believe them. It wasn’t about freedom. It was a question of faith. These people had put themselves in a position of authority. With authority, comes responsibility. You’re not a cancer specialist, Daniel. The only reason you’re going with chemo is because you’re a doctor and you know the odds. Some of those supplement companies were lying about their odds.”
Ambigo tried to explain his side of the issue, but Daniel bristled at his answer. “This is the United States of America. Last time I looked, we stood for Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness. We stand for freedom, not oppression. We stand for allowing options, not suppressing them.” Ambigo felt the debate wash over him all over again. He remembered watching his own angry face on CNN arguing with Daniel’s. He didn’t want to argue anymore.
“There are some things that don’t have one right answer. There are some things that are so unanswerable that there is no reason to argue about them.” He picked up the rudimentary elements and followed Daniel back to the laboratory. Daniel quizzed him orally on the uses for plants found in the Middle East while they put away the tools. Breathing heavily with pain, Dr. Baker followed him into the physics lab to retrieve his suitcase and even into the showers, quizzing him all the time. By the time Ambigo was dressed and clean, Dr. Baker was safe in the knowledge that his replacement would suffice. He left Ambigo for a well-deserved sleep on his cot on the Medical Floor.
Ambigo hadn’t eaten since the meal he and Daniel ate after his physical late last night. He crinkled his brow, trying to remember which floor they had eaten on. After some wandering, he came across Father Judean. “Father, do you know where the cafeteria is?” The young priest took him by the shoulders and turned him around. “Call me Tad. It’s best that you don’t call me Father. It will confuse people when we get to Israel. Names are so important, you know.” The young man laughed to himself. “I guess you would know that, eh?” Ambigo rolled his eyes, “Yeah, my mother was a comedian.”
The two of them headed toward the elevator while Tad spoke to him, “I’ve been thinking about what Madi said to you.” The vision of his last encounter with Madi flashed before Ambigo’s eyes. He saw the salty tracks of tears running past her temples. He relived the eerie quiet during her pain. She had said nothing to him. Then he remembered their conversation before his brief sleep and the scars layered on top of scars that covered her arms. He looked at Tad with questioning eyes and the priest responded, “Remember, she said that they were going to beam back our decomposing bodies or something horrible like that.”
Ambigo took in a quick breath. “Oh yeah, at the briefing. We’ll all be dead after tomorrow. Yeah, I remember.” It was quiet while they waited for the elevator. The lack of sleep was weighing heavily on Ambigo. He had wondered for a moment whether Father Judean had been in the room when she showed him the scars on her arms. He needed to get some sleep. The priest broke the silence as they got into the elevator. “I don’t believe it. I think we’re all going to make it through this. We might be a little damaged, but we’ll all come back in one piece.”
Ambigo was quiet, thinking about the priest’s words. Tad spoke again, “I think they wanted to be sure you knew the risk, but I really believe that we are all going to survive this mission. Of course, there’s still time for you to chicken out…” Tad’s voice didn’t have time to trail off before Ambigo interrupted him, “I’m not going to chicken out. If I say I’m going to do something. I do it. This isn’t the first mission I’ve been called on and certainly not the most dangerous.” Ambigo let his mind wander over the missions of his past and the silence in the elevator continued after it reached the floor.
Tad led him down the hall, “I didn’t mean to imply that you would go against your word. I just thought that you might have some reservations…I guess I just wanted to tell you that I don’t think we’re going to lose anyone on the team, especially now that we have you with us.” They entered the cafeteria to find Simon already there. The staff of the cafeteria was setting up for a formal meal. “Simon, always early, I see.” Tad sat right next to him and Ambigo sat on his other side.
Simon didn’t even look up from his book. “If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late.” Tad wrestled away his book like an older brother. “What are you reading? We leave tomorrow morning. What more can you learn before we go?” The title flashed by Ambigo’s face, but it was far too long for him to read it. Tad did the honors, “Egypt and the Levant: Interrelations from the 4th Through the Early 3rd Millenium BCE New Aproaches to Anthropological Archaeology! Phew! Did you write this, Simon?” Simon shook his head and yanked the book away from him. The huge volume clunked loudly on the table, making the silverware jump and the water vibrate in the glasses.
The sarcasm in Simon’s voice dripped all over the textbook. “Yeah, I wrote it. I’m just checking it for typographical errors. You lost my place, Tad.” The two men sounded like old school chums and Ambigo realized how difficult joining the team so late in the game was going to be. “I just think I better brush up on etiquette from earlier than our time just in case what we know about Christ’s time is incorrect. Maybe it’s something I can fall back on in an emergency.” Tad shook his head, “Man, that book is about 400 pages. How are you going to finish it before we leave?” Simon found his page and held up the book. He placed the book about an inch from Tad’s face, invading his personal space. “I started reading this two hours ago. I think I’ll be done before we leave if you stop bugging me.”
Tad looked at the book, thumbed just past the middle and was briefly surprised. He recovered quickly, “Listen, if you haven’t learned it by now, you won’t learn it. This is our celebration dinner. You should relax. You should enjoy yourself. Take your nose out of the book.” Simon had returned to reading. “I’m going to be separated from books soon enough. What we are doing is important enough for me to study until the end, don’t you think, Father?” The lecture had been given and Tad wrinkled his brow, looking at Ambigo. “Come on, let’s leave him alone. The others should be here soon.”
Ambigo watched as the cafeteria workers transformed the minimal room into a banquet. There was a buffet table lined with silver steamer trays, kept warm by Sterno burners. In a tired haze, Ambigo stared at the blue flames, oblivious to the food inside the trays. He remembered camping as a Boy Scout with Sterno. He was about to go on a camping trip that he had never expected and he tried to remember all the things he learned to earn that Eagle Scout. None of them would come to his mind. All he could think about was medicinal plants.
“Ambigo! You have to sit next to Jaime and me.” Madi was at the door to the cafeteria. Jaime signaled for Ambigo to come to them. What had seemed like normal clothing before, looked like a purposeful attempt to hide something now. None of Madi’s scars showed. Her turtleneck shirt with its long sleeves hid everything perfectly and no one would be able to tell what was underneath them. Ambigo shivered at the thought and headed toward them. “I guess we’re having some big dinner here?” Tad, Jaime and Madi chuckled to themselves while Simon read his book, ignoring them and turning pages far too quickly.
Jaime spoke, “Didn’t Dr. Baker,” his voice cracked a little on the word doctor, “tell you about this?” Ambigo shook his head and Jaime’s eyes lifted underneath his eyelids. “This is our final briefing and a kind of going away party. That guy is something else.” Ambigo watched as Simon just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Tad spoke first, “Like I said, now that you’re on the team, I truly believe that we are going to make it.” Madi nodded. Ambigo tried to defend Daniel, “He hasn’t slept for days and he’s been really busy training me. I think that’s a little more important than a dinner.” Madi folded her arms. “No, that’s not it. He just doesn’t want you to get to know us. He never really fit in and now that he’s off the team, he doesn’t want you to fit in either.” Jaime nodded and Tad looked at the both of them and shrugged.
“It doesn’t really matter because I made it here anyway…” Jaime interrupted, “No, Ambigo, from day one, he has thought about no one but himself. He’s a pompous jerk!” “Jaime?” Father Garcia’s voice was filled with reproach, “Are you talking about Dr. Baker behind his back again?” Madi turned quickly and looked like a child who was caught lying. Jaime responded firmly, “Yes I am, and I’ll say it to his face when he finally shows up.” Father Garcia smiled quietly to himself and responded, “I talked to Daniel. He would rather sleep right now. He was up all night with Dr. Thomas and the pain is getting worse. He said he would be with us when we leave.” Madi sniffed loudly.
“Jaime, could you go get Dr. Tate? If he isn’t reminded, he will spend the entire dinner in the laboratory and wonder why he’s hungry.” Jaime nodded and left the cafeteria quickly. Father Garcia walked over to Simon, gently taking the volume from him, “Simon, you can finish this book tonight, but right now, you need to be with the group. Please make sure you get enough sleep tonight. We will need your skills to be sharp when we arrive tomorrow morning.” Simon looked up at Father Garcia and relinquished his book without protest. Tad gave Simon a snide snicker and punched him in the arm before he sat next to him again. Father Garcia placed a gentle hand on Madi’s arm and whispered so quietly to her that only she and Ambigo could hear, “Remember that the things that bother you the most about other people are the things you fear within yourself.”
Within a blink of an eye, Ambigo imagined Madi lying awake at nights, worrying that she didn’t fit in with the team. He saw her fear as vividly as if she had confessed it to him in confidence. Father Garcia took a plate from the buffet line and started peeking in the covered serving trays. Ambigo took Madi’s hand and lead her to the table between Simon and himself, “Come here. Sit next to me and Simon. We’ll be such a happy group.” He knew it didn’t matter what he said. All that mattered is that he made her feel like she was one of the group.
By the time Father Garcia came to the table with a heaping plate of food, Jaime returned with Dr. Tate and his assistant. The arrival of the final attendees signaled permission to eat. Ambigo lined up with the others and filled his plate with pork ribs, mashed potatoes and dinner rolls. The dessert tray waited for them, piled high with chocolate, custards and whipped cream. It had been so long since Ambigo had eaten, he returned to his seat with more food than he could eat in a full day.
When everyone was seated, Father Garcia held up his goblet of ice water, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we eat kosher, if we eat at all.” The team cheered and Ambigo clinked his glass with Madi and Jaime. Dr. Tate raised his glass for a toast, “May this mission be successful and many more successful missions follow!” Glasses were brought together. For an instant, Ambigo was worried that they all were supposed to make toasts and he desperately tried to think of what he would say when his turn came, but the toasts ended with Dr. Tate.
The table buzzed with talk. Simon discretely asked Madi how her final adjustment went. Madi replied with the stock answer, “It hurt like hell.” Jaime tried to make small talk with Jeff, Dr. Tate’s assistant, but their conversation was stilted for one of them was obsessed with physics and the other was obsessed with theology. Neither one was well versed in anything else. They both tried to talk about movies, but Jaime knew them from an insider’s point of view and Jeffery hadn’t been to one since he started working with Dr. Tate. Ambigo cringed at the awkwardness of their conversation.
He listened to the conversations around him and his mind worked on the toast that he wouldn’t be asked to make. It was as if his mind knew it had been given a task and didn’t respond to the command to cancel. “To Jesus! No, that sucks and will probably piss off the priests, not to mention Jaime. To Knowledge! Yeah, that’s why we’re going there. We’re leaving to find out the truth once and for all. We’re going to witness the miracles, or lack of them. Hmph!”
Ambigo looked to his right and watched Jaime awkwardly trying to talk to Jeff. He imagined the look on his friend’s face when he realized that it all was for nothing. The sacrifice of his eyes, the pain of those adjustments, the risk of traveling: all of it was for nothing. What if Jesus was just some sort of trickster? How would Jaime take it? Would he believe his eyes if he saw right through Jesus’ act? He looked at his hands, holding the silverware and wondered what would happen to a man who encountered his idol if his idol was a fake.
He looked across the table and watched Father Garcia eat heartily. He had started before the rest of them and was almost finished with his heaping plate of food. Father Garcia started to speak, and the buzz of the table died down, “So, Ambigo, Dr. Baker says that you will do. How do you feel about your abilities?” Everyone at the table continued eating but their eyes were directed at him. All that Ambigo could think was, “To Adventure! May we be the first in a new branch of Archaeology!” The toast that he so desperately groped for thirty minutes ago was clean and vividly in his mind now that he didn’t need it.
His mouth spoke for him without thought, “I don’t think any of us can predict what we are going to encounter out there, so I really feel like I’ll never be ready to go on this trip. There are too many unknowns to really feel confident, but I’m excited to go anyway.” Everyone nodded and Ambigo raised his glass, “To Adventure! May we be the first in a new branch of Archaeology!” The table erupted in cheers again and Ambigo was surprised at their excitement. While he clinked his glass with Jaime’s, he saw Father Garcia raise his glass to him. He raised his glass back to the priest and for a moment their eyes locked.