He reached into the breast pocket of his lab coat and pulled out a large pen. He uncapped it, and then stroked it deftly across Borland's belly, leaving a thick horizontal line of black ink above the protruding navel.

'The surgeon will cut here,' the doctor said, gesturing at the line before turning away. 'He's not going to like the fact that you're obese.'

Borland stared down at his swollen navel and sighed.


He felt a sudden urge to hit the bottles tucked away in his bags. Call an end to the whole drama.

The hell with this!

But from Borland's point of view the doctor's black line appeared to curve down to either side beneath the plum-sized hernia like a frown.

He had to get this done.

'That's all there is to it,' the doctor said, saving the information on his e-board and copying it to Borland's file.

Wincing at the painful throb in his abdomen, Borland pulled his clothing back into place, loosely fastening his belt.

The doctor held out his file-the flash card on it flickering as the data saved. He set it on Borland's palm. 'Take this down to accounting. They'll tell you were to go from there.'


Borland had read the background on the website.

The Shomberg Clinic sold unique soft tissue dissection and repair that had an almost zero failure rate, so sufferers came from all over the world to receive the famous treatment. They used industrial production techniques in their war on hernias because the injuries were so common.

Dr. Shomberg had developed his innovative surgical repair techniques during World War Two to help young men who were unable to enlist because of their hernias. His repair soon fixed these recruits for service, and before long all branches of the military wanted his aid. His methods soon became the favorite of construction workers and anyone in a strenuous line of work.

And the repair was so solid his patients could get back to work or service in record time with little chance of re-injuring themselves.

Shomberg founded the clinic and the clinic grew into a hernia-repair factory.

Day surgery at most hospitals, the repair as Dr. Shomberg saw it required an extended stay for lasting results. So he developed an assembly-line method that involved constant waves of injured patients arriving and entering the clinic to match the waves of recuperating patients leaving after the three- or four-day repair cycle.

The various stages of overlap that occurred were responsible for the strange population Borland found wandering the clinic halls.

There were check-in and orientation day patients, operation day patients, healing day patients and final day- get me out of here -patients. The result was a motley crew of anxious, wounded and relieved individuals-all of them wishing they were anywhere else on the planet, but all of them thrown into a weird brotherhood of embarrassing injury, violation and release.

Everybody had a limp or soon would.

Check-in day caused a lot of stress as new patients inserted themselves into the clinic's production line and bore witness to patients a day or days ahead of them in the process.

Operation day patients were the worst. They could strike terror into any heart-tumbling out of their beds and shuffling through the ebb and flow of arrivals and departures smelling of disinfectant and body odors, and sporting grime and fear and various fright-wig hairstyles.

Each of them moving gingerly; fearing that any jarring motion might damage their recent repairs of flesh and steel thread, or worse, according to rumor, start a gory cascade of abdominal wall and intestines.

Borland hated it all and decided to do his best to avoid identification with any group. He wanted to go in like a Sneak Squad. Keep his head low, have the treatment and get out of there without experiencing any but the absolute bare minimum of human contact.

As he stumped along the carpeted hallway after the nurse, careful not to jingle his hidden cranking materials, he mused over his ill luck and growing thirst.

Soon. He thought of the dark brown bottles of whiskey so near. Soon.

The halls and rooms were designed and built in the 50s, all Arborite and chrome, with 70s upgrades like faux stained glass lamps and dark wood paneling and room dividers decorated with super-graphics.

Time had stopped at an ugly time.

Borland wondered if that happened in efficient places. They were too busy doing their jobs in its deepest and darkest rooms-the OR and labs-unable to give more than a passing thought to decor.

Borland was aware of the ever-present hum and rattle of air conditioning units-the buzz and click of old light fixtures and the starched rustle of the scrubs worn by the nurses and orderlies.

He realized that the more he tried to shut them out, the more he noticed the sounds. And then he understood an important underlying factor.

He needed a drink.

Borland had been cranked for most of the last couple decades so sobriety was close to an alien concept. And that's what was pushing in on him, causing his ears to ring, allowing him to feel his pulse in his fingertips.

He needed a drink.

So he tried to distract himself with the nurses. They went by all manner of kind: fat, thin, broad, awkward or dippy; dressed in ill-fitting floral patterned pants and jackets.

And they made annoying rustling sounds when they moved.

As he glanced at their pastel forms he realized that the majority were approaching retirement. These ones either had their men or were moving into a new phase of life.

Join the crowd…

As he moved past a recreation room with a pool table, loungers and couches, Borland ignored the mincing nods of the new boys that needed friends, the salty glances of the seasoned who had stories to tell, and the normalizing, shifting gaze of those who desperately wanted to leave their hernias and all Shomberg associations behind them.

Borland had been through too much to fear a surgical procedure-even one he had to be awake for-but he knew enough about people and Variant to keep an eye out for the wrong kind of look.

There was a look, and he knew it.

The Effect was coming back and it could be, in fact was, lurking everywhere he looked in everyone he saw. Even in the doctors and nurses.

Everywhere, so then…

Then they wanted him to take powerful painkillers, lie down and have his abdomen cut open. He was supposed to trust a stranger to take him apart and stitch him back together.

They better have some world-class painkillers.

His hernias were 98 percent discomfort, two percent pain-he was used to them. He didn't care about his looks, so he could have put the procedures off pretty simply.

Until your liver falls out?

The nurse led him down the corridor, her voice a raspy horn of menopausal know-how, telling him about what he couldn't do and what he had to do.

'Don't remove your wristband. Don't remove your nametag. Wear it at all times,' she ordered and glanced at his tag as he followed her into the room. 'Your number is 328-2. The '2' stands for you.' She walked to the head of a very narrow single bed by the window. 'This bed is number '2', so you use it. Same as the closet.' She pointed at a pair of closets marked '1' and '2.' 'Anything with a '2' on it is yours.' She smiled through a mass of tanned

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