Toward the end for my time in Champions Online, I found myself wanting to play someone my own age and horrified at the tropey character I was using as my main. It was time for something else and the emotionally scarred, deceptive Dr. Nightsky seemed to fit the bill. I updated his introduction recently to see if I could spark new role-play.
I wait for the moment to pass. I watch the rise and fall of my dog’s chest. I put my legs on the ottoman. I count my fingers. Ten. I have ten fingers.
I wasn’t always like this. There was time that minutes flowed without the tick of the clock; When I lived free of the moments that bind me to worry and anxiety. I think back at those times and I am filled with fear.
Then I go back to watching the rise and fall of Guido’s chest. Relish the feel of my ankles laying across multilayered fabric. Then count my fingers. I have ten fingers.
For some reason. This comforts me.
I check my feet for swelling. My mother’s feet swelled. Diabetes led to a double amputation.
Content with my feet today, I wait for my next patient.
I served with Médecins Sans Frontières straight out of residency. My French got better throughout those years. My idealism faded almost as soon as I landed in Rwanda, February, 1994. Most of 1994 remains a blur to me. A blot, perhaps, inked out by the saner parts of my mind. At 29 I thought I had seen it all. I believed a healthy diet of TV violence and the casual mayhem of big cities streets had prepared me for anything. Rape gangs, machete wounds, grisly murders, all dissuaded me of that conviction.
I had not even seen the tip of the iceberg. Even now my memories crawl back from that time. MSF lost over 100 local staff members in the killings. I lost many friends, saw many futures extinguished. I nearly lost my own life with the foolish daze of immortality that accompanies youth. I moved south with Opération Turquoise and thousands of refugees. There never seemed enough hands, blood, or drugs. I ran “midnight” clinics, sneaking back into Rwanda to provide care for those unable to reach the Zone. It was the first time I heard the phrase “Doctor Nightsky,” a pseudonym for those with the courage to evade the Hutus and serve those in need under the cover of a million sparkling stars.
I stayed in Africa for years, treating of cases of cholera, starvation, and mass murder in Zaire and Tanzania, eventually moving to Sierra Leone to care for the innumerable amputees that civil war disgorged. Unknowing, the end of my adventures in Africa grew near.
In movies, the hero reaches a point where they believe that if just one person stood up for the community, the block, town, tribe, what have you, would be freed from wicked tyranny. They revolt against the villain, maybe failing once, but somehow uniting people behind them to triumph over evil. That’s how it works in the movies.
In real life, it leads to the destruction of a village: its men shot to death by 12 year-olds carrying Kalashnikovs; the legs of its women and girls hacked off by machete so they cannot run away when the rape gangs come; its boys hopped up on khat, given a weapon, and trained as the next generation of “citizen soldiers.”
The hero? He’s protected by his American passport. No one really wants the Marines back here again. Bad for business. He’s beaten, threatened, his name is written down. When he finally escapes, he spends months in the bush before he can reach the US Embassy in Djibouti, praying… praying that he can find a way out of there. He finds his way out. He finds his way to Geneva, the International Office of the MSF. There, he meets Dr. Christian Tipler.
Chris Tipler is one of those people you find in life, then wonder how it’s taken so long for you to finally meet. We grew up in the same area, developing a nice cross-town sports rivalry. We went to similar schools, were residents at hospitals of similar size and in the same general location. We looked enough a like that people thought we were brothers. We both shared some darkness in our past that we never discussed. We became fast friends.
When we were ready for reassignment, we headed to Thailand together. The MSF operates in many roles throughout Thailand. Everything from beginning the first anti-retroviral treatment program for people living with HIV/AIDS to ensuring adequate medical care, water supply and sanitation in the Lao Hmong refugee camps on the borders with Laos and Myanmar. We traveled together all over that country, treating TB, providing counseling; whatever the country needed.
You would think that I had learned my lesson in Africa, that for just once I would be able to turn the other way and let things be. I didn’t. Like Africa, I would face great loss, great change, and once again find myself running through the jungle with my mind focused solely on survival.
Thailand supports a thriving black-market trade in pharmaceuticals and other drugs. Baxter, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, all protest this lost income by maintaining high prices in the targeted countries. An ART treatment that sells in an African nation for $150US cost four to five times that much in Bangkok. The MSF press releases decry these actions, publicly denouncing these megacorps for these crimes against the ill and disenfranchised. Their doctors keep doing what they can with what they have. I wanted to have a little more.
I started with a box of antibiotics that had literally fallen off a truck. Worth more than an equal weight of cocaine or heroin, I quietly gave the medicines away to other doctors on my wide-ranging rounds of the countryside. We saved a lot of lives. I organized a small group of like-minded Thai’s. The screams of Africa still echoing in my ears, we took great care as we stealthily liberated drugs and other medical supplies from any number of criminal organizations.
Chris found out by accident, a careless lapse on my part. He tried to talk me out of it. He reminded me about Somalia, that more was at stake than just my life. When a local operative warned me of strangers in the area on one of backcountry house calls, I decided to end my career as a medical Robin Hood. I made plans to flee through the jungle then lose myself in the crowds and tight streets of Bangkok before making my way home.
To his credit, Christian wouldn’t let me go alone. We climbed into that jeep, knowing that our time in Thailand had ended. We headed into the bush together. There, in that dark, overgrown land, I would die. Only Christian Tipler, Doctor Nightsky, would survive. I thought that I was ready to reflect on that moment, describe in detail what happened. I’m not. The pieces have just not come together in my mind.
At some point we were running, sprinting through the undergrowth. I remember Chris calling out to me, to wait. I remember falling, ruins or wreckage, then pain. A waking nightmare where I pitifully prayed for the release of sleep. I awoke outside the massive blocks of unearthly materials. I lifted my hand to the sky, marveling at the thin traces of circuitry spreading from my fingers down my wrist, my arm, my chest.
I remember finding the dead, Chris and my picture among them. The soldiers were not Thai. The multiethnic team carried the equipment of an organized, international cadre of mercenaries. I had upset more than a local warlord. Looking at Chris’ broken body, I realized it better that I should die in his place.
Let GSK, AZ, or whatever mega-corporation I had offended believe me dead. Let them believe this mission to murder me successful. I gathered the parts of my new life, a passport, money, bits of jewelry. We looked enough alike that no one would question my identification. In that daze, I believed I knew enough about my history. The cross at my neck came from my deceased mother, that ring from my university. I had become Christian Tipler. I would become Doctor Nightsky, soon.
I put the memories away, tucking them deeply into a mental box. I count my fingers again as I stand, then open the door for the next mind I can save.