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Denizens: 5 - The Doctor

Karen Purdy, a gynaecologist, an attractive woman in her 30s, is reduced to selling lingerie in a department store after being struck off the Medical Register for performing an illegal pregnancy termination. But she is about to face an extraordinary and unexpected challenge.

Brian William's Neal's great sci-fi novel continues to surprise. To read earlier chapters of this story click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Part 2

Meetings

Journeys end in lovers meeting…” Twelfth Night

London, England
February, 2033

Karen Purdy awoke feeling horny, a condition to which she had grown decidedly unaccustomed over the past two years. She stretched under the warm covers and listened to the wind outside. Thank God for marital aids, she thought. Mother’s little helper. The unfamiliar feelings soon passed, however, and she sat up and looked around the motel room. Once again, she reaffirmed to herself that she wouldn’t mind leaving. For her, the cliché held true: there really was nothing left for her here. Nothing but memories, most of them bad.

Reaching across to the bedside table, she fumbled for her pack of nicotine-free cigarettes, and flicked the self-igniter with a chipped red fingernail. Then she lay back, smoking, and considered getting out of bed. Nope, she thought, blowing a stream of atmosphere friendly smoke at the ceiling of the room, nothing here, nobody home, adieu and farewell.

The world is full of people who think they’ve been hard done by, people who think the world owes them a living. In Karen’s case, she believed it to be mostly true. Still, if she had to do what she did all over again, would she still take the same action, make the same decisions? She snorted, unladylike, blowing smoke out her finely chiseled nostrils. In a pig’s arse she would. No f*****g way. Let them have their rules, their little victories to keep people like me in line, she thought bitterly. She would accept anything, allow the powers-that-be any victory over her, so long as she could have her old life back again.

All she had ever done was try to relieve a little suffering. After all, wasn’t that what healing the sick was supposed to be about? Was it fair that, having made one mistake, broken one of their rules, she should have to spend the rest of her life paying for it?

Oh, to hell with it, she thought. The debate concerning the humanity, or otherwise, of the fetus would, in all likelihood, rage on forever, without final resolution. But were those who had come to her for help supposed to just bite the bullet, take their lumps and tough luck, sister? Karen hadn’t thought so, and she had taken a deliberate decision to do something about it. And just look where it had got her.

The laws she had violated were made, for the most part, by men who had no idea what it meant to be fifteen, homeless and pregnant. Not even the most well-meaning of them could possibly understand the anguish, the despair of such a hopeless situation.

Oh shit, thought Karen, here I go again. Throwing off the covers, she ground out her cigarette in the ashtray beside the bed and donned her dressing gown. To hell with it all, she thought. Thank God I’m getting out of this dump. Let all that be someone else’s worry. Who knows, maybe the whole thing will be a great success, and we’ll all come home heroes. Or maybe we won’t come home at all. Either way, she thought, wherever I am, at least it won’t be here.
With that pleasant thought starting her day, she headed for the shower.

*

Karen entered the small bathroom, took off her robe and turned on the shower taps. While she waited for the water to warm, she conducted her customary self-examination in front of the full-length mirror.

She was a tall woman in her early thirties, with long, reddish-auburn hair. Not so much because she liked it long, but because haircuts cost money which she had preferred to put towards other things; food, rent and other such basics of life. Anyway, long hair was coming back; at least, that’s what the girls in the store where she had worked used to tell her. Probably winding me up, she thought wryly.

A survivor of a failed marriage, she and Gordon, her ex, had never had children. She had been too busy with her practice, and had always thought she had plenty of time for starting a family. He, on the other hand, hadn’t wanted the responsibility; he’d said it would cramp his style. Bastard, she thought, surprised and a little dismayed to find herself still resentful after more than two years. They had gone their separate ways following the events that had led to the destruction of her career. It had been, to put it mildly, something of a blow to suddenly find herself childless, husbandless and jobless, all at the same time. Three for the price of one.

Not having had any children, she had stayed in pretty good shape without having had to work too hard at it. Her large breasts were still firm, and stood up more or less on their own, although she always wore a bra. And for what it was worth, Gordon and the two other lovers she had known in her life had all told her she had the most spectacular rear end they had ever seen.

Big deal, she thought. That and fifty new Eurocents would get you a cup of decaf, and that’s all it would get you. Unless you went on the game.

Her stomach was still flat, despite an addiction to take-out pizzas, hips a shade broad for her liking – Gordon had called them child-bearing, without actually having had the bearing of children in mind – and her legs were long and slimly athletic.

She studied her face in the mirror, and saw a reasonably presentable woman, with a longish face that just escaped being horsy. Her eyes, which she thought her best feature, were large and hazel, and looked made-up even when they weren’t. Her mouth she thought too wide, but she knew, even from her limited experience, that most men found this attractive. In short, she was a knockout, and it was obvious to everyone except her. A male friend had once shown her a picture of a pop singer from back in the twentieth century called Carley Simon, and even Karen had been forced to admit there was a slight resemblance. Not that much, she had thought, but then none of us see ourselves the way others do.

After showering, she dressed quickly in jeans, boots, sweater and a heavy coat. There was plenty of time before her flight left Heathrow for the States, and her meager collection of luggage had already gone on ahead, but she didn’t want to hang around any more. She was eager to be on her way; away from England, and from the past.

Karen walked out of the flat carrying only a shoulder bag and, without a backward glance, headed for the rail terminal at the end of the street. The Northern Hemisphere winter of 2032-33 was proving to be at least as severe as any of its recent predecessors, and she hugged the coat tighter around her, thankful for its sheepskin lining. An icy draught beneath a granite sky blew a flurry of snow around her feet, and her booted heels clicked on the pavement as she hurried towards the station.

At the station, she deposited a one Eurodollar coin in the turnstile, collected her ticket and waited on the platform for the train.

With the advent of fusion power, electricity was dirt-cheap; consequently, most transportation systems had been converted, wherever possible, to run on electrical energy. Trains, ships, even some airplanes were being powered, as the slightly exaggerated advertising slogans went, on “just a cupful of water”. A fusion motor compact enough to fit into the average family car was said to be only a year or two away, and it was also said that, within ten years, air pollution would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that would probably be too late for most of the world. The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere and the overpopulation problem meant that people would soon be dying in the streets of London. Karen had even heard rumors of it happening now. The world needed a miracle.

Well, to hell with them, she thought as the train glided into the station. The world may be heading down the toilet, but it could do it without her, at least for a while. Karen stepped aboard the train and found a small, two-person compartment. She sat on the seat next to the large window and put her bag on the other seat opposite, then lit a cigarette to discourage company. Bloody awful things, she thought, as she inhaled the tasteless no-smoke. They were supposed to taste just like the real thing, but without the nicotine or the tar. Yeah, right. Next thing, they’ll be making alcohol-free scotch, and the distillers up north will brick up Hadrian’s Wall and secede from the U.K.

With a slight lurch, the train started its thirty-mile journey that ended, for her, at Feltham, from where she would catch a cab to the airport. Karen settled back into her seat and let her mind reflect on how events had conspired to bring her to this place and this time.

*

Until two and a half years before, in 2025, Doctor Karen Purdy had been a successful gynecologist, with a busy and flourishing practice in one of the better parts of London. In addition to the normal duties of her surgery, she also conducted a pre-natal clinic once a week at a hospital on the other side, in more ways than one, of the city. There she saw patients who normally would not have been able afford her services, people for whom the brave new world, the exciting new millennium, had long ago lost its glamour, if indeed it had ever had any at all. In this best of all possible worlds, the rich just kept on getting richer, and the poor got ignored or, at best, patronized. Jobs were scarce, and getting scarcer, and the dole queues got longer and longer. Medical insurance had replaced the National Health, and the only “charity” cases were those handled by Karen and handful of like-minded doctors. Consequently, the hospital authorities were delighted when her one-day-a-week clinic became two.

What they did not know was that Doctor Purdy was counseling young girls (in cases where she felt such action to be necessary to the patient’s health and well-being) to abort their pregnancies. Most particularly in cases where the girls were very young, or unmarried (usually both), and were physically and/or psychologically incapable of dealing with the realities of motherhood, of raising a child in the modern world. Not an uncommon trait among fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, as a rule. When it was discovered she was performing some of these illegal abortions personally, the full Victorian minded weight of the British Medical Association had descended on her head like the proverbial ton of bricks.

After a brief freeing-up of the laws governing abortions in the last years of the twentieth century, and into the first two decades of the twenty-first, the establishment had closed ranks. Egged on by the churches and other minority groups, the government of the day had tightened those laws again. Most doctors complied, either because they honestly believed in the humanity of the unborn child, or out of fear of the consequences of disobedience. Some, however, chose to act in what they saw as the best interests of their patients, as laid down by Hippocrates, and occasionally ignored those laws. Karen Purdy had been one such doctor.

Now, she wasn’t any kind of doctor.

The B.M.A. had decided to show no mercy in high profile cases like hers, and in the fall of 2025 Karen had been struck off the medical register. The enormity of such a thing cannot be conveyed in the mere telling; it must be experienced. It was not only the shame and the humiliation, and the scorn of most of her colleagues she found hard to bear. The worst of it, what she had not, could not have been prepared for, was the loneliness.

For all of her life, Karen Purdy had belonged somewhere. First at school, then at university, then at medical school. After gaining her M.D., she had interned at St. Mary’s Hospital in Chelsea, just a stone’s throw from where she had been brought up, and had lived her entire life. Then when her parents and brother had died, she had used the inheritance to set herself up in private practice. It took her some time to get over the loss of the only family she had, but her many friends and colleagues had rallied round, and after a while, everything began to look rosy. The young, beautiful and brilliant Doctor Purdy looked set for a long and distinguished career.

Then, through no fault of hers, complications had set in with one of the young girls she had counseled to abort her fetus. The girl’s parents had interfered and, mostly because of their actions, their daughter had nearly died. In fact, it was only through Karen’s skill that she had lived at all, but the girl’s mother had nevertheless informed the hospital authorities. With one stroke, Karen’s security was gone, and with bewildering speed she had found herself out in the cold, shunned by friends and colleagues alike. As the icing on the cake, Gordon had left her, citing the shame and disgrace as the reason for his departure. The reality, of which they were both aware, was that the loss of her as his meal ticket meant that he would be forced to get a job, and it was this that had lit the wick and sent him rocketing out of her life.

Karen lit another cigarette and watched the dreary, gray landscape, filled with the crime ridden housing estates that were Margaret Thatcher’s legacy from the previous century, roll by. Reflectively, she contemplated the glowing tip of the guaranteed non-addictive cylinder. Don’t know why I bother with these things, she thought for the thousandth time. Can’t be anything other than pure habit now, since I was weaned off the real ones three years ago. She smiled sardonically as she recalled the government-sponsored program she and most other smokers among her medical colleagues had taken part in when the politicians had, in a rare display of courage, banned all tobacco products as dangerous drugs.

Of course, she reflected, all that had done was create yet another controlled substance. Now, the forests of Devon and Cornwall were thick with illegal tobacco plantations, competing with marijuana for the illicit drug dollar. Prohibition breeds crime, she thought, and still they don’t learn.

And here I am, she reflected, three years on, still needing my crutch, my adult’s pacifier. Karen blew another cloud of odorless, tasteless smoke and remembered how difficult life had been during those first months after being struck off. The endless rounds of job interviews, even though, at the time, the economy was experiencing one of its short-lived upturns, because she couldn’t admit to being a disgraced professional. To do so would have barred her from all but the most menial work.

She had taken to inventing false employment histories, complete with fake references to present to prospective employers, and had become quite skillful at juggling her various “backgrounds”, so as not to get them mixed up. If an employer checked up on her, then she would of course be blown, but a lot of the time they didn’t bother. Most of the jobs she was applying for were not considered important enough to warrant a full reference check, and society had not quite reached the stage where every citizen was stamped and numbered, despite the best efforts of the bureaucrats.

After several short and unhappy stints, she had finally landed a position in the women’s wear department of a large store, and had buried herself there, wanting only to escape into a life of dull, safe obscurity. And so it had gone, until one day a former colleague had walked into the store to buy an anniversary present for his wife, and everything had changed.

*

It had been a Wednesday morning when obstetrician Nick Townsend had visited the ladies’ fashions section of Barker’s, Karen remembered. He had carried his purchase, a set of frilly French lingerie, to the counter, and Karen had turned from serving another customer. They had stared at each other for a few seconds; Karen couldn’t move, or make a sound.

“My God, Karen,” said the young O.B. “Is this the best you could do?”

Karen, unable to reply, had turned and ran to the ladies’ room, locked herself in a stall, and sat on the seat, sobbing. All the hurt and injustice of the previous two years had come back again, and the despair had so taken hold of her, she cried as though she might never be able to stop.

In fact, it had been almost twenty minutes before she felt able to return to the counter. Nick, of course, had gone by then, but not before he had obtained her number from one of the other girls. He called her at home that night, and suggested they meet for lunch the next day, but Karen was reluctant at first. Apart from the embarrassment, she really didn’t want to rake over old coals she had thought to be, if not quite cold, then at least dampening down.
Besides, Nick had had a thing for her a few years ago when they had interned together, and the last thing she wanted or needed was an affair with a married man. Nick, however, quickly scotched anything in that direction. He told her he had been married just one year, and very happily; he also said he had a proposition for her, all quite above board, something she might be interested in. He was very mysterious about it, and would say no more on the ’phone.

Karen chewed it over for a few moments. Oh, what the hell, she thought. Anything would be better than selling underwear for the rest of her life. She agreed to meet with Nick, and at one o’clock the next afternoon she sat down opposite him in a small but elegant café on Oxford Street not far from the store. Nick came straight to the point.

“Karen, I’ve got a friend, sort of a friend of a friend, who works for the government. I met him at a function the other night, and he asked me a rather curious question.” Nick paused, then went on. “He wanted to know if I knew of anyone with medical training who might be interested in a certain project he was involved in, something very hush-hush, I believe.”

Nick smiled apologetically, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “He was rather short on details, I’m afraid.” The young doctor took a sip from his water glass and continued. “The person would have to meet certain, ah, criteria.”

Karen watched him closely. “Such as?”

Nick began to look uncomfortable. “Well, they need a certain type of person, if you see what I mean. That is, er…” He began to flounder, and Karen had a flash of insight.

“Someone with nothing to lose, you mean?” she asked.

Nick flushed. “Well, sort of, I suppose, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Karen was merciless, cutting him no slack at all. “Like what?”

“Well, I believe he would prefer to tell you the rest himself. Would you be interested in meeting him, and taking this further?”

Karen hesitated, and Nick went on. “Look, Karen,” he said, reaching across the table and touching her hand, “I want you to know I was never one of those who passed any kind of moral judgment on you for what you did. I happen to think you got a damn raw deal. There but for fortune, and all that. Anyway, if truth be told, it’s probably what a lot of us would have done, given the same circumstances. You were just unlucky, that’s all.”

“That’s all,” echoed Karen sardonically, lighting a cigarette as Nick continued.

“I suppose all that sounds patronizing and holier-than-thou; if so, I apologize. It isn’t meant that way, but this is a bit awkward, you know?”

“Tell me about it,” said Karen. She studied the young man across the table. Sure, she thought. Where were you when the B.M.A. was nailing my arse to the wall? I don’t recall too many voices being raised in protest then. She blew smoke, then thought, Oh, hell, it wasn’t his fault, and I suppose he means well.

Aloud, she said, “All right, Nick. I’ll meet with your mysterious friend from the Ministry of Certain Things. After all, as you so delicately put it, what have I got to lose?”

*

The next day was a Friday; Karen, arriving at the café for her meeting, found Nick sitting in the same booth. There was another man with him, and they both stood as she approached. Nick introduced the man as David Friar, then excused himself, explaining that he was on duty at the hospital. He held out his hand and, on an impulse, Karen hugged him briefly, and the young man left. Karen sat down opposite the other man and lit a cigarette.

“Friar, as in Tuck?” she inquired bitchily.

The man smiled. “Yes, that’s right.” He was a pleasant looking, rather nondescript man in his late thirties or early forties, Karen guessed, with a round face and thinning sandy hair. The only memorable thing about him was the way he looked at you, she thought. Those bright blue eyes wouldn’t miss very much at all. She made a mental note to watch her p’s and q’s.

Friar wore a light beige topcoat over a gray suit and a plain white shirt with what appeared to be some sort of military tie. Later, he would tell her it was the Special Air Squadron, the famous British SAS. This was a man who could handle himself, despite his apparent soft exterior.

They both asked the waiter for salads, and the man ordered an expensive bottle of wine. When it arrived, he poured for them both. Then their orders were served, and they gave their attention to the food. After fifteen minutes or so, Friar poured more wine for Karen, taking none for himself, and looked across the table at her.

“Well, first of all,” he said, taking a large manila folder from his briefcase, “I want to thank you for coming. I don’t have much more time than I believe you do, so I suggest we get right to it.” He smiled to remove any hint of condescension from his words. “I’m sure neither of us wishes to take up any more of our time than is absolutely necessary.”

“Whatever you like,” said Karen, still quite mystified. She took a large mouthful of her very fine Sauvignon Blanc as Friar lay the folder on the table before him, and began to read aloud.

“Purdy, Karen Eleanor, nee Stark. Born Hammersmith, London, September 11th, 1996. Educated West Hammersmith School for Girls, L.S.E., and graduated London School of Medicine, 2021.

“After internship, you married Gordon Michael Purdy, an artist, and set up your own private practice using an inheritance you received when both of your parents and an only sibling, brother Robert James, two years your junior, were killed in the Gatwick air disaster of 2023.

“Indicted for performing illegal pregnancy terminations in 2025. No formal criminal charges were laid, but in October of 2025 you were subsequently struck off the Medical Register. For the past seventeen months you have been…”

Karen reached across the table and slapped her hand down on the file from which Friar was reading. “What the hell are you trying to prove?” she asked heatedly. “That information is public knowledge. If you really want to show me how clever you are, you should also mention that my husband left me after I was struck off.” She began to gather up her coat and handbag. “Or didn’t you know that?”

Friar smiled slightly. “Oh, we know that, Mrs. Purdy. In fact, if it weren’t for that little detail, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.”

Karen sank slowly back into her seat, her anger replaced by curiosity. “What do you mean by that? What does my divorce have to do with why we’re here? Come to think of it, why are we here?”

Friar regarded her sympathetically. “I know you must have many questions,” he said, “and I promise you they will be answered, but for the moment, please bear with me.” He leaned towards her. “Did Nick tell you anything at all about why I wanted to see you?”

Karen shook her head. “Not really.”

Friar nodded. “All right, then, let me explain. At least some of it, anyway.” He regarded her for a moment. “What do you know about the recent developments in the use of fusion power, particularly in the area of space travel?”

The question, totally unexpected, threw Karen off for a moment. She poured more wine for herself, and when Friar refused a top-up of his own glass, she shrugged and gathered her thoughts.

“Not much, really. Only what I read in the papers, see on the vid. I read a few articles on the subject a couple of years ago.” She shrugged again. “I am – was – a physician, not a scientist, but I was, and still am, interested in any new scientific discovery. Although lately,” she added sardonically, “my scientific curiosity has been a little under-utilized.”

Friar smiled empathetically. “Quite. Well, we – my employers, that is - are in the process of putting together a team to conduct an experiment involving fusion power. The details of the experiment cannot be made public just yet. They’re a tad – ah – sensitive.”

Karen stared at him across the table, her interest piqued. Outside, the City’s lunchtime crowd bustled its usual way along Oxford Street, but the café was an island of quiet and calm.

“Sensitive in what way?”

Friar gave the little smile she would come to know in the months ahead. “Before I told you that,” he said, “you would be required to sign a copy of the Official Secrets Act.” Then he grew more serious, and added, “I would therefore suggest you be absolutely sure you want to know.”

Karen sat back, sipped her wine, and regarded the man. “What are you,” she said with a little half-smile, “some kind of spy, or something?”

Friar smiled again. “Hardly, Mrs. Purdy. Just a civil servant.”

Karen raised her eyebrows. “Oh, yes? Isn’t that how a certain fictional spy used to describe himself? ‘Something in the Ministry of Defense’, I think it used to go.”

Friar looked at her levelly. “Regardless of who or what you might think I am, Mrs. Purdy, I would still require that signature.”

Karen hesitated, but in fact her mind was already made up. Anything that would get her away from the store had to be, at the very least, a listenable proposition. If she subsequently turned it down, then all she had to do was keep her mouth shut; as a trained physician, confidentiality was something in which she had had plenty of experience.

She drained her glass, and sat forward again. “All right, Mr. Friar,” she said, “I’ll play your silly games. What’s the deal?”

And so in a small café in the center of London City, with traffic going by outside and the streets full of lunchtime shoppers, he had told her.

And she had listened.

***

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