The Death and Birth of the Space Ranger
Lesser Heroes: Original tales inspired by appalling characters from
the Silver Age of comics
The patient woke up in the middle of the night—yet again—from a nightmare that stalked his dreams like a monster in a horror story. The recurring nightmare always snapped him awake, leaving him sitting bolt upright in his hospital bed, his skin soaked in sweat, and his chest heaving for air like the survivor of a shipwreck who has just cheated Death.
The patient could not actually see how dark the night was because his eyes, face, throat, and hands were covered in soft, cool, hospital bandages. And yet, he knew it was the middle of the night because there was no sound of busy doctors, nurses, orderlies, and service robots going about their duties in his private ward, or in the hallway beyond the ward’s doors. A hospital is like that: it has a rhythm all its own, a rhythm like a song. The only sound the patient could hear was far away, in a distant ward, where some poor soul in pain or despair was moaning over their tribulation. The song playing in his private ward consisted of those faraway moans, the rare syncopated footsteps of the night staff passing by, the echo of silence in his otherwise empty wing, and the fading diminuendo of his own breathing as he got over his nightmare.
The darkness behind the patient’s bandages was absolute. And yet, the darkness in his nightmare was blacker still. He had had a bizarre dream: The figures of men, women, and robots were tumbling down from somewhere high above and falling down toward an endless depth below. The patient had dreamed he was falling amidst the falling, but his dream felt real. His stomach had churned from vertigo; his body had writhed with pain; his mind had burned bright with fear and confusion; and all the while he had felt himself helplessly falling, always falling.
Suddenly, as he fell, gentle hands had reached out and pulled him into a warm, safe gathering of the fallen. His pain remained, but it no longer mattered. His mind was still confused, but the owners of the helping hands implored him to not be afraid, and so he wasn’t. They were altogether, and altogether they continued to fall. They fell for what surely was an eternity, until insistent, stern voices argued and new, rough, violent hands grabbed him and threw him back into the void, falling once more. Falling until he tried to scream through a mouth swaddled in soft, cool, hospital bandages.
The patient heard the thump-thunk of boot heels on the hospital floor—not soft shoe-soles—approaching his bed. A hospital has a rhythm of its own, and this was the song of Sister Mary Margaret Nemesis, the nun—if that’s all she was—who was the principal nurse devoted to his care and recuperation. She was always there when he needed her.
“Ranger, did you have another one of your nightmares?” Mary Margaret asked, as she skinned the patient’s soaked pajama shirt from his scarred torso, and wiped him dry with a rough towel. Even the feeling of something as soft as a towel on his raw skin was uncomfortable, but it was evidence of his stoic nature that he did not wince or complain. “Here. I’ve put a speaking box next to your bed. Do you feel alright?” she asked, as she fitted her patient with a fresh shirt and gently, effortlessly, laid his heavy body back on his bed.
“Yes. I’m. All. Right. Sister,” said the speaking box. The device was useful when dealing with patients—such as those covered in soft, white, bandages—who could not speak for themselves. And the speaking box was perfect in its function. It read a patient’s thoughts and translated them into spoken words. The fragmented, stilted cadence in which it uttered those words was not a mechanical fault, but entirely reflective of the fragmented, stilted nature of the injured patient’s splintered thoughts and piecemeal memories. The cadence hinted at how much more healing he required.
“Do you want a sleeping drug?” asked Sr. Mary Margaret.
“No,” replied the patient. A long silence followed. He had no use for nepenthe tonight.
“Very well,” said the nun-cum-nurse, “try and get some rest. Dr. Cyril will see you tomorrow. You should know that you’re making good progress. You’re healing fast. I’m sure the doctor will confirm my faith in you then. Goodnight, Ranger. Sleep well.” The sound of the nun’s boot heels thump-thunked into the distance, and the hospital’s nighttime song resumed.
The patient stiffly adjusted his injured body to relieve a twinge. The hospital bed sensed his efforts and modified its support to make its injured cargo more comfortable. The patient had been told that he had died on the operating table and been revived many times. The pain that felt like knives thrust through his body at odd angles advised him that the newly resurrected should not jump up and dance.
Besides his awful physical injuries, the patient’s memories were torn to shreds. Although he tried to relax and sleep, questions kept nagging him: He knew he had been attacked. Why? He knew the attack caused his partial amnesia. What happened to him? Who was to pay for that crime? But most tormenting of all, when he tried to remember the simplest, most fundamental detail of his life—What’s my name? Who am I?—no answer came to his injured mind.
After awhile, the hospital’s song lulled the patient to the edge of sleep. Warily, he shook himself awake enough to see in the blackness behind his bandages, signs of a frustrated nightmare skulking back into the dark. Satisfied as much as he could be, that all was well, the patient gently exhaled and let sleep claim him once more.