Miracle wasn't a word Hainsley used lightly, but it was his professional opinion that the world had seen one that day. He didn't watch the terrible purple beams, or the alien ships in the sky — his own shaking hands were etched into his memory, snapping off hypodermics on impenetrable grey skin. The emergency room must have been bedlam around him; he didn't notice, he tuned out the panicked voices. He counted off minutes without vital signs, over and over until time lost its meaning and numbers did, too. No treatment, no cure, his mind chanted, and he drew another needle that would help — if only he could administer it to someone, one out of the silent-screaming hundreds, a lifetime of medicine and he was shaking, panicking, useless.
That was when the music crept in. It was a fluke at first — footsteps falling in time, stretcher wheels rumbling a baseline — and then it grew, rhythm and energy rushing warm-vivid through Hainsley's limbs. The needle fell from his hands and he wasn't watching life slip away any more — no, there was plenty of life, all of it stomping and clapping, dancing and crying a joyful chorus. There was no telling how long the spell lasted — Hainsley awoke to a room full of patients returned from cold, hard graves. His palms blazed. His throat was raw even though he knew he hadn't cried out. A miracle — the news footage of black-suited men only made him more sure.
A week had passed since that day. With any luck, the young man in his office would be the last rhombulosis sufferer Hainsley would ever treat.
"It's certainly been a while." The slim medical file was no help — Hainsley looked over his glasses at Mr. Stewart Julian Lowe, and couldn't place why the air felt strange between them.
Stewart grinned, and offered, "I've been busy, what can I say? Not so busy since that invasion thing, though." He kicked sneaker heels against side of the examination table, thumping a beat — music was everywhere lately.
Hainsley nodded once and read the secretary's notes. Fatigue, muscle spasms, joint stiffness — standard rhombulosis, he could call it textbook as soon as researchers had written that particular tome.
"In most cases, the severity of rhombulosis depends on how long metabolic paralysis lasted."
Stewart's face was blank; Hainsley gave him a shadow of a smile.
"Turned to stone, you might say."
"Oh, yeah." Stewart's smile returned. God, he was still a boy in Hainsley's memory — this strong-featured Stewart jarred against the wiry child but they both had their father's blond mop. "I dunno how long I was out, s'hard to say."
Most people didn't know; there was no faulting that.
"As near as we can tell,” Hainsley said, “It'll clear up on its own. You should avoid strenuous activity, rest if you can, take some time off."
"I can't do that," Stewart replied, gunshot-quick, "My job's important."
A work ethic — that was a trait growing ever more rare in young people. Hainsley bit back his urge to say good, and instead tried, "Rest when you can, at least, take ibuprofin. And apply heat, that’ll help loosen your muscles and joints and alleviate some of the pain.”
“Awright, that’s what I thought. Nothin’ to worry about, huh?” Stewart slid off the examination table and stood — stiff through the hips and lower back, a trace of that day weighting his movements. “Maybe listen to music?”
That jerked a chuckle out of Hainsley. “Yes, music helps. Medical science can’t say why yet, but it helps. Put on some of whatever you kids are listening to.”
The grin grew brighter, lighting into Stewart’s eyes. “Noise it is, Doc!” He snapped off a wave. “Thanks. Seeya around.”
Stewart’s footfalls echoed away down the hall, thumping the same beat he had kicked against the table, and the child-Stewart blurred away into Hainsley’s memory. That had to be what was niggling at him — the clashing images, that ghost of the past. Nothing was strange about a person with glowing confidence; nothing was strange about a man with a rhythm because everyone had one of those, didn’t they? There was always more to learn about the world. Hainsley forced his gaze to the patient’s file, and stared for a moment, and began making his notes.
He was Agent J again before he was out of the building, or had he stopped being J at all? Hard to tell anymore. He raked a hand through his hair — which didn’t have nearly enough gel in it — and wished for sunglasses, summertime was blinding without them. The sidewalks stretched away empty, the smothering heat soothed knots out of his back, and what the heck was he going to do with the rest of his never-ending day?
He nearly didn’t notice Chieftain — to be fair, the guy was the approximate size and shape of a city skyscraper. J paused, and turned to the alleyway.
“I know what yer gonna say. Wait, no, let me guess.” He unhooked his thumbs from his jeans pockets, and began counting off fingers. “I shoulda gone to med bay if it's that bad. An’ I know what Kahn says about civilian contact. An’ I know the treatment anyway, why bug busy people?”
Chieftain stood there in the shadows, arms folded, one brow arched — yes J, go on.
“Well….” The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t really know himself. “It’s not bad, I’ll tell ya that. Kinda annoying, that’s all, I’m bored outta my skull!”
He scratched the back of his neck; Chieftain kept staring.
“Better be a mission for me when I get back to HQ. I’ve been takin' it easy, just figured I’d visit somebody from the good ol’ days, while I've got some time to kill, y’know. Always liked Doc Hainsley. You shoulda seen it Chief, he had this look, he knew something was up but he couldn’t place it for the life of 'im! Perfectly successful stealth operation. Mission complete, top rank, kept every beat!”
Anyone who didn’t know Chieftain would have missed his flicker of a smile. “You have too much fun.”
J kept grinning. “No such thing.”